A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari



Originally published





Feb 9, 2021


Apr 24, 2021

Humans evolved in Africa ~2.5 million years ago
"prehistoric humans...were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish." (4)
300,000 years ago humans started using fire (12)
"A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game." (12)
Early environment engineering
"Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms — such as wheat, rice and potatoes — became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food's chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food." (12)
"The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines." (12)
Specialization and leverage
"the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body" (13)
Power of humans starts to go beyond evolved traits
Fictive language emerged 70,000 years ago
13,000 years ago, Homo sapiens became the only remaining human species
"It's a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us...The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man." (8)
"1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA...up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA." (16)
"Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers — thanks to better technology and superior social skills..." (17)
"In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species?" (18)
"Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom...Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate." (18)
We spent 10's of thousands of years as hunter gatherers. Our modern "environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured." (40)
Certain traits we suffer from today were useful to prior generations, for example the impulse to gorge on high-calorie food when given the opportunity (such opportunities used to be quite rare and short-lived) (41)
"the average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants." Today "you need to know a lot about your tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life's necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts." (49)
"There is some evidence that the size of the average Spiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging...You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes tto eh next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker." (49)
The base state is easier to live in with minimal effort
"Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today's Cairo." (47)
"the trap latched shut" once we reached a certain scale...
500 years ago "Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism."
200 years ago "The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market...organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection."
Think dogs, agriculture, tools and devices we use every day
The sciences, briefly (3)
"The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics";
"The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry"
"The story of organisms is called biology"
"The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history"
On evolution
"Mutations in donkey DNA can therefore never cross over to horses, or vice versa. The two types of animals are consequently considered two distinct species, moving along separate evolutionary paths." (4)
"Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan who has no family, no cousins and — most importantly — no parents." (5)
"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. By comparison, the brains of other pares require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy." (9)
"A chimpanzee can't win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll." (9)
"we walk upright on two legs...arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes...brought about an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in the palms and fingers." (9)
"The skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head" (10)
"compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed...It takes a tribe to raise a human, evolution thus favoured those capable of forming string social ties." (10)
"humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures." (11)
"Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances." (11)
"In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust." (11-12)
On language
We are able to learn more and more quickly today because of compression; ancient cave painters could very well learn our language today, and us theirs (21)
Evolving to have this trait (versus some other species) is ~ pure chance.
"We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world." (22)
"All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively" (23). Ability to gossip → scale and leverage: "small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation." (24)
"As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled." (24)
"Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language." (24)
"myths gave Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers." (25)
Myths can scale an order of magnitude beyond gossip
This is the basis for trade
Gossip can only scale to ~ 150 individuals (27)
Sure we are more sophisticated and technological today than in the past, but its still myths. These are not scientific fixtures. "The principal difference between [modern business people and lawyers] and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales." (28)
Like in Elf, the hard part is convincing people to believe the myths. This makes it such that "an imagined reality is not a lie." (31); "Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world." (32)

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