sapiens book summary

Actionable Book Summary: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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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 the curse for every other living creature wandering the planet Earth. The book shows 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.

Key Lessons:

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, they began to form groups, which allowed them 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.

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 of 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.

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

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.

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. This combined belief, help them form larger groups so they can fight for more lands. 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 only one God is the main reason we’re working together as a species. Thinking about it that way, a man’s faith can be shaken.

Did we really make all this up? Did 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?

We’ll probably never know the right answer. To be honest, we probably never should. Because if it’s all fake, anarchy will take over.

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.

Lesson #3: Farming Enslaved Humanity

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 a 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

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?

Money is considered the root of all evil for decades. Even now, if you’re clearly 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.

Lesson #5: What The Future Holds?

After the author explains what Homo sapiens did in the different ages, it is normal to ask ourselves: “is there a moral lesson?” 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 that it will be kept forever 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. 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.

Actionable Notes:

  • Care more about the surroundings: We’ve increased our food supplies, build cities and created an international network of communication. But what happened with the fellow animals and plants? Understand: The more we consume and don’t care about what happens around us the more other creatures will perish.
  • 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’ll work to make this channel better. You’ll spend a lot of your precious time updating your online presence. The next logical question is this: Is it really worth it?
  • “What do you want to become?”: Most people prefer not to think about such an existential question. It sounds too philosophical and pompous for people who are more focused towards 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 become?” 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 give reasoning for 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.

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.”

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.”

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