Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
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Read between September 23 - October 30, 2019
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Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
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In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest.
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Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births.
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Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.
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Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.
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The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication – whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns – is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose.
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Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.
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This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
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Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
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The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition.
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The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
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There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
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In the US, the technical term for a limited liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) – the one thing these corporations lack. Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings.
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It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them.
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Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
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The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.
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We hardly notice how ubiquitous our stuff is until we have to move it to a new house. Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs.
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Dogs that were most attentive to the needs and feelings of their human companions got extra care and food, and were more likely to survive. Simultaneously, dogs learned to manipulate people for their own needs.
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Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today’s Cairo.
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In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants.
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There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging.5 Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.
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The things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-quality friendships.
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The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced.
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The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain and became the deadliest species ever in the four-billion-year history of life on Earth.
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The human blitzkrieg across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.6
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The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
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Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth.
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Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.
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This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
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Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases.
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One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
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The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.
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It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock.
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In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.
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This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
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Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows.
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History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
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Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings.
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Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.
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Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can.
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Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product
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There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
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The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’.
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Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.
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Raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a crime at all, just as picking up a lost coin on a busy street is not considered theft.
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To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between ‘sex’, which is a biological category, and ‘gender’, a cultural category.
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Males must prove their masculinity constantly, throughout their lives, from cradle to grave, in an endless series of rites and performances. And a woman’s work is never done – she must continually convince herself and others that she is feminine enough.
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We would do better to adopt instead the viewpoint of a cosmic spy satellite, which scans millennia rather than centuries. From such a vantage point it becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity.
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In 1492 there were no horses in America.
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Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.
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