Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

Chapter 5: History's Biggest Fraud

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

Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.


Chapter 2: The Tree of Knowledge

Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology…From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens.

How is it that we now have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30,000 years ago we had only sticks with flint spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter-gatherer. However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically.


Chapter 3: A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.


Chapter 8: There is No Justice in History

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesis, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other…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’.


Chapter 9: The Arrow of History

Another example is the modern political order. Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.


Chapter 12: The Law of Religion

At the same time, a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences, a gulf we cannot ignore much longer. Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?


Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance

On 20 July 1969 humans landed on the moon. This was not merely a historical achievement, but an evolutionary and even cosmic feat. During the previous 4 billion years of evolution, no organism managed even to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle print on the moon.

In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.1 The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars.2 Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.3 In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day.4 (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)


Chapter 15: The Marriage of Science and Empire

The insights of Muslim economists were studied by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, treatments pioneered by Native American doctors found their way into English medical texts and data extracted from Polynesian informants revolutionised Western anthropology. But until the mid-twentieth century, the people who collated these myriad scientific discoveries, creating scientific disciplines in the process, were the ruling and intellectual elites of the global European empires. The Far East and the Islamic world produced minds as intelligent and curious as those of Europe. However, between 1500 and 1950 they did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology. This does not mean that Europeans have a unique gene for science, or that they will forever dominate the study of physics and biology. Just as Islam began as an Arab monopoly but was subsequently taken over by Turks and Persians, so modern science began as a European speciality, but is today becoming a multi-ethnic enterprise.

The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them. You think that these empires were evil monstrosities that spread death, oppression and injustice around the world? You could easily fill an encyclopedia with their crimes. You want to argue that they in fact improved the conditions of their subjects with new medicines, better economic conditions and greater security? You could fill another encyclopedia with their achievements. Due to their close cooperation with science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.


Chapter 16: The Capitalist Creed

In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time…Smith denied the traditional contradiction between wealth and morality, and threw open the gates of heaven for the rich. Being rich meant being moral. In Smiths story, people become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie. And when the pie grows, everyone benefits. The rich are accordingly the most useful and benevolent people in society, because they turn the wheels of growth for everyone’s advantage.

Capitalisms belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep would keep on growing indefinitely. The human economy has nevertheless managed to grow exponentially throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years – such as the continent of America, the internal combustion engine, or genetically engineered sheep. Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.

This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way. When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe.


Chapter 19: And They Lived Happily Ever After

Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority. What is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels. Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right. Liberal art declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.