This is a comprehensive summary of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Worksheet: Download the interactive sheet for taking notes.
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 – savages 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 harmful to our environment (and not only). This carelessness can lead to greater consequences. This book aims to be a wake-up call. Instead of hurting animals and destroying the already fragile ecosystem, we should fix what was broken and do our best to live together, along, with the other inhabitants of our world.
- While farming has helped us prosper, it also enslaved us.
- It might sound bizarre, and distasteful, but money is the thing that united us all.
- Figuring what do we want to want is vital for the future of the planet.
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 words 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.
And although every 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 is 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 the communication gets. That’s why smaller teams are formed inside a big corporation. The smaller the unit, 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. Youngsters feel much more comfortable texting someone than actually speaking to this person. And this is something quite disturbing. Teens grow up unable to clearly communicate. Incapable of expressing their own feelings. That’s why most kids today are shy and doubtful in their actions.
So, if you’re someone who lacks a vocabulary and confidence to speak with others, go out and talk. A lot. Talk with friends, with strangers on the street, with everyone around you. Do it as often as possible till you’re comfortable doing it. This skill is something you must master.
Lesson 2: Religion Helped Humanity Stay United as The 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.” Yuval Noah Harari
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 then?
What kept us together as a species, and allowed us to build towns, kingdoms, and shelters 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, and Buddhism. Even though in the past we fought wars in the name of Christianity, for example. Currently, this
Probably our ancestors – a bit more than 2000 years ago – figured 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.
Although we’ll probably never know the right answer. And to be honest, we probably should never know the right answer. The important thing is that religion 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.” Yuval Noah Harari
Lesson #3: Farming Enslaved Humanity
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.” Yuval Noah Harari
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 put food in their bellies.
And there was agriculture.
Agriculture allowed Homo sapiens to settle down and build permanent villages. Once we had an address, a place we can finally call home, something else happened.
Population exploded. Fewer people were dying and we had food to spare. But not for long. The extra mouths quickly wiped out the 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 dependent on this single supply.
On paper, their lives seemed easier: no more running around hunting deer, rabbits, wild boars, etc. Once settled, they now had walls to protect them from wild animals. The future looked brighter. However, the difficulties were far from over. With the rapid growth of the human population, new fields had to be planned – constantly. There was no going back. Simply because we were already heavily 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. A car, a house, new clothes every month, kids in school, expensive holidays. We get used to all of these luxuries and we give up on our dream of becoming a writer, a musician, or whatever.
But fewer people nowadays define success with climbing the corporate ladder. We now seek opportunities for doing what we love, not what our bosses tell 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 United Us All
While currently thousands of languages are being used from different cultures, there is only one language exploited 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.
And since money is the goal we all pursue, any two people can cooperate on any project. That’s why all of us are obsessed with gaining more. Money means power. It opens doors for new opportunities. Money allows us to be more independent and potentially 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 almighty dollar, you will be socially rejected.
Still, money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits, Yuval Noah Harari states in the book. 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.” Yuval Noah Harari
Lesson #5: We Need To Decide What Type of Future We Want
After the author explains in the book 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 the planet Earth. That should be our main aim as a species. After all, there is no point in studying history unless we learn from it, right?
The future is uncertain, though. We don’t know what will happen next. And while the current mood in the world is peaceful, we can’t be certain that it will remain as it currently is.
For most of our time, we were warriors. Fighting for more land. The present leaders of the world aren’t much different. They still want more influence, more money, more followers.
Or in other words, we are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea of 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. The unsettling 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. A 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 to want.
- 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 at some point.
- Don’t let modern agriculture consume your life: Like agriculture, the more you focus on doing something specific, a thing or a 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. Also, you become more addicted to this platform and escaping it becomes harder – because you already invested a lot of time. So, the question you need to ask yourself if you’re spending a lot of time doing something is: “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?”
- 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 figure out 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, this is an important question which you need to consider answering. 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, to say the least. In under 500 pages, he presents a well-written summary of human evolution.
Moreover, in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the author explains how humans evolved from hunters to modern citizens. How we manage to survive throughout 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. A book, you must read. The historical facts inside will help you understand a lot of our actions in our current lives.
The main idea that stuck in my head after reading the books is this: People have to learn to live cohesively. To seek ways through which they can achieve progress, together.
Harari’s book sends an important message: 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.
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.” Yuval Noah Harari
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.” Yuval Noah Harari
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.” Yuval Noah Harari
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