sapiens book summary

Actionable Book Summary: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari explains how our hunger for more is our biggest advantage and at the same time our biggest curse. The book illustrates how we evolved from hunter-gatherers – who have used only stone and fire – to modern citizens of the world who settle for social media browsing and a 9 to 5 job. How the agricultural revolution enslaved us? Why the creation of the church was kind of necessary? And what religion is bigger than Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam combined. Spoiler alert: it’s money.

The Core Idea:

After successfully climbing on top of the food chain, we, humans, are now responsible for maintaining the order and the balance on our planet. Unfortunately, history shows us that our actions are often damaging to our surrounding environment and might lead to bigger consequences that won’t be pleasant for anybody. The point the author is trying to make is that we should wake up and instead of hurting and destroying, we should nurture and grow together with the other inhabitants of our world.

5 Key Lessons from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

Lesson #1: What We Have We Owe It To Our Language

Our language is supple. Theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world around us. Prehistoric people used the language to alert others for possible threats ahead.

With each passing year, this simple, at that point, feature humans had, gave them unique superiority amongst other species. Thanks to the ability to clearly communicate with each other, we began to form groups, which allowed us to hunt much bigger and much stronger animals.

Even though every other animal uses some kind of language that allows them to communicate – even insects know how to communicate in a sophisticated way. Ours is different, better. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.

Or in short, communication important. Communication is key in every organization and relationship.

How many times your wife has mumbled you because “you don’t talk anymore to each other?” A lot, right? Ask any business owner and he will tell you that not his competitors are the reason they’re losing market share. The reason is much more basic: it’s internal communication. With each new employee, a company will suffer. The bigger the organization the harder to communicate. That’s why smaller teams are formed inside. The smaller the unite, the faster the action.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing nowadays is quite sad. People born after the year 2000, lack this very basic skill. They’ve grown in an era of nonverbal communication. Text, tweets and online messages are taking over. These youngsters feel much more comfortable texting someone than actually speaking to him. Something quite disturbing. They grow up unable to clearly communicate, express their feelings, shy, and doubtful in their own actions.

So if you’re someone who lacks a vocabulary and confidence to speak with others, I will suggest to go out and speak as much as possible with the other people around you. Do it as often as possible till you’re comfortable doing it. This skill is something you must master.

Lesson #2: How Mankind Managed To Remain United When Population Increased

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”

According to the author’s research, data shows that the maximum “natural” size of a group bounded by a particular leader and purpose is about 150 individuals. Once that threshold is crossed, it causes a glitch. The communication inside the group becomes harder. So, how we were able to create the world as we know it now?

What kept us together as a species, allowed us to build towns, kingdoms, where thousands of people live together, is called fiction. Only by believing in a common myth, people can live together and cooperate.

People started believing in gods, symbols, phenomena, and other extraterrestrial things a long time ago. At some point, someone decided to consolidate the small factions and create something bigger. This combined belief, helped our ancestors unite and work together as a team.

Nowadays, we are united by three major religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. Even though in the past we fought wars in the name of Christianity, for example. Currently, this religion and the common belief in the almighty, in one and only God is the main reason we’re working together as a species. But, is it true? Or didn’t we make this up?

Probably our ancestors – a bit more than 2000 years ago – figure out that if different tribes continue to believe in different divinity’s, and if we continue to fight for different causes, this won’t do us any good as a species. That’s why they came up with this master plan. Or at least that’s my representation after reading the book.

Though we’ll probably never know the right answer. And to be honest, we probably never should know the right answer. The important thing is that religion really did help. Even if you don’t quite believe in Christ, it’s still something that helped us work together, as a group towards making the world a better place.

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

Lesson #3: Farming Enslaved Humanity

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”

Farming solved an important problem for humanity: hunger. Humans back in the days had to constantly move around in order to hunt for food. This, as you can imagine, was a daunting task. People needed a better solution to feed their bellies.

Agriculture allowed Homo sapiens to settle down and build permanent villages. This increase in food supply enforced tremendous population growth. The extra mouths, however, quickly wiped out food supplies. So, even more fields had to be planted in order for humans to keep the growing population well fed.

With each passing year, growing wheat became more and more burdensome. People had to work harder in order to keep enough surpluses. Since humans were no longer hunting for food, they became dependant on this single source of food.

On paper, their life looked easier: no more running around hunting deer, rabbits, wild boars. Since they settled down, they now had walls that kept them safe from wild animals. The future seemed brighter. However, that’s far from the truth. With the fast increment of the human population, new fields had to be planned, constantly. There was no turning back. Simply because they were already massively dependent on sowing.

The same applies to us today. We graduate and we start working a corporate job. Even though today is easier to make a living doing what you love, with each passing year in the firm we slowly become dependent on our salary and the risk-free position. A car, a house, new clothes every month, children in school, expensive holidays. We get used to all luxuries and we give up on our dream of becoming a writer or a musician, for example.

Success is no longer about climbing the corporate ladder. We now seek opportunities for doing what we love, not what our boss tells us. Unfortunately, if more – more money, fame, clothes – is what we seek, we will never be truly satisfied because we’ll never feel good about what we do.

Lesson #4: Money Unite Us All

Though thousands of languages are currently being used from different cultures, there is only one language understood by all humans: the language of money. If you are in a foreign country and you don’t speak the local language, and nobody understands you, you can still manage if you have money. People may obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but we all believe in gold and the value of the dollar.

With money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project. That’s why all of us are obsessed with gaining more money. Money means power, it opens doors for new opportunities, allows us to be more independent, and live the life we want.

Before money was invented, people exchanged goods. Barter was the common way to gain the resources you need but don’t have. If you grow apples, and you want to eat meat, you had to visit the local butcher and exchange apples for meat. However, in time, it was becoming harder for people to determine how many apples should someone give for a piece of meat. And what if the butcher didn’t want apples but something else?

That’s how money was born.

Money is considered the root of all evil for decades. Even now, if you’re only pursuing the all mighty dollar, you will be socially rejected. Still, money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. It’s the one thing that can bridge people of different nationalities and believes. In a way, it’s much more influential than religion. Of course, like everything else in life, we should strive to maintain a balance and avoid blindly pursuing more money at all costs. That’s the only way you can stay sane.

Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”

Lesson #5: What The Future Holds?

After the author explains what Homo sapiens did in the different ages, he asks a really important question: “Is there a moral lesson?”

And the short answer is, “Yes, there is!”

The mistakes of our ancestors should help us improve and become better inhabitants of planet Earth. That should be our main aim as a species. Also, there is no point in studying history unless we learn from it, right?

The future is uncertain. We don’t know what will happen next. Even though the current mood is peaceful, we can’t be certain if it can stay like that. For most of our time, we were warriors. Fighting for more land. The current leaders of the world aren’t much different. They still want more power, more money, more followers. In general, we are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Even worse, it seems that we’re more irresponsible than ever. Wrecking, hunting our fellow animals and destroying our ecosystem. We are the current gods of this place but we’re never satisfied. That craving for more will either destroy us or help us conquer other worlds.

Towards the end of the book, Harari leaves us with one very difficult question. Question, which the answer to, will help us self-determine the direction we want to take: “What do we want to want?”

Since nowadays everything is virtually possible, we should really think about what we want.

Love taking notes? Download the worksheet:

Actionable Notes:

  • Care more about the surroundings: We’ve increased our food supplies, build cities and created an international network of communication. But what will happen with the fellow animals and plants? Understand: The more we consume and the more we don’t care about what will happen around us the more other creatures will perish – including us t some point.
  • Don’t let modern agriculture consume your life: Like agriculture, the more efforts you put on a specific thing or task, the more it will occupy your life, thus consume it. An easy way to understand this is by looking at your social media account. The more friends and followers you obtain, the more stuff you publish, the more you basically work to make this channel better. So, the question you need to ask yourself is this: “Is what you’re doing really worth it?”
  • Hone your talent: If you’re born with talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. So, if you want to continue the natural evolution of mankind, what you need to do is to find your talent and hone it.
  • The truth about yourself: The key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself. To understand who, or what, you really are. As the author says in the book, “Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside.” Stop pursuing external achievements and focus on understanding your inner feelings.
  • “What do you want to want?”: Most people prefer not to think about such an existential question. It sounds too philosophical and pompous for people who are more focused on obtaining more likes, money, social influence, followers in general. Yet, it’s an important question to consider in your daily life. Since you can have it all – according to all online gurus – answering the question “what do you want to want?” is really important.

Commentary And My Personal Takeaway

I’m not a big fan of historical books, simply because most of them are full of facts which you don’t necessarily need to know. But the way Harari presents his research for our species is admirable. In under 500 pages, he presents a well-written summary of the human evolution. The author explains how humans evolved from hunters to modern citizens. How did we manage to survive through all these years and how we did become the rulers of the planet Earth. It’s one of those books you can’t simply put away. The historical facts inside will help you understand a lot of our actions in our current lives.

The main idea that was stuck in my head after reading the books is this: people have to learn to live cohesively. Together to seek ways through which they can achieve progress. Harari’s book says something that’s not a secret anymore: we’re slowly destroying our planet and we’re also the only ones capable of regenerating what was demolished. The sooner we realize the latter the better.

Notable Quotes:

We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.”

The romantic contrast between modern industry that “destroys nature” and our ancestors who “lived in harmony with nature” is groundless. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of life.”

Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”

Actionable Book Summary: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
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