Five Things I Learned from Reading Sapiens

A book review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

As a part of my book reading system, I list five key concepts I want to remember from every book I read. This article lists my top five nuggets of wisdom from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

5. The power of shared fictions

The success of homo sapiens relies on the ability to create “shared fictions.” Shared fictions are commonly held beliefs in fictional entities. For example, belief in the power of money is a “shared fiction”: dollar bills themselves are meaningless pieces of paper without the financial institution’s promise. In early history, these shared fictions were centered around polytheistic gods, but in modern day society they include companies, morals, and political systems. These systems allow our species to operate more efficiently and collaboratively.

4. Luxuries become necessities

Throughout Sapiens, there’s a persistent theme about how humans continue to allow their luxuries to become necessities.

Wheat domesticated humans as humans domesticated wheat.

Wheat farming was beneficial for sedentary lifestyles — but after humans established sedentary lifestyles, they had no choice but to continue farming, else return to their nomad days. In this manner, wheat farming, which was meant to be an advantage, became a necessity for homo sapiens, since they no longer wanted to return to their older lifestyle.

Similarly, writing allowed humans to store ideas and thoughts outside of their brains. This is greatly helpful to pass information from generation to generation, and to record financial transactions. However, as writing’s popularity grew, it not only became a necessity for all transactions and information storage, but it also has actually changed the way homo sapiens think. A similar effect occurs today in the Google Era, where we no longer remember information snippets, instead remembering where to obtain the information.

3. Everything is “natural”

Harari breaks down what it means for something to be “natural” (for instance, with respect to homosexuality).

“In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature… To use [our body] differently than God intends is ‘unnatural.’ But evolution has no purpose.”

Instead, he argues, everything we do is technically “natural” — nothing we do as a species can be biologically unnatural, since everything is derived from nature.

2. Spreadability and favorability are distinct

“The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes.”

Very often, we mistake the spreadability of an idea with whether or not it’s beneficial. This comes up in several instances throughout history.

Farming was spreadable because it allowed families to feed more children, thereby increasing reproductive rates. However, the average farmer worked harder for more hours than the average forager, and ate a less nutritious diet. As Harari mentions, “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” It’s success was more due to the ease with which it replicated more homo sapiens, thereby allowing it spread more, despite detracting from humans’ quality of life.

Monotheism is more spreadable than polytheism. When two humans of opposing polytheistic views encounter one another, it’s still possible to allow their gods to coexist. However, monotheism often includes “spreading the word” as a key doctrine. When a monotheist meets a polytheist, there isn’t any room for compromise, and the monotheist is incentivized to convert the polytheist, thereby spreading the religion more.

1. Happiness’s relationship to meaningfulness

Harari covers several theories of happiness. One such tenable theory is that happiness is closely tied to meaningfulness.

“The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.”

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