Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Rating: 9/10

Sapiens is a comprehensive anthropological exploration of the socioeconomic history of Homo sapiens, explaining in entertaining detail how we as a species came to be and how we ended up where we are today.

Structured around four key revolutionsβ€”the Cognitive, Agricultural, Societal, and Scientific Revolutionsβ€”the book delves into pivotal moments in human history that have shaped our societies and ways of life.

By examining these different revolutions, we gain a better understanding of the development of language, the transition to agriculture, the formation of cultural norms, and the advancements of science. My notes below are structured around these revolutions, with a brief introduction to each, by me.

The Cognitive Revolution
Approximately 70-30,000 years ago, Homo sapiens underwent a significant evolutionary leap in cognitive abilities: the development of complex language, abstract thought, and social cooperation, transforming us into highly social and culturally adaptive beings. The creation of abstract concepts, the sharing of stories, and the coordination of actions laid the foundations for culture, religion and social norms. This is where sapiens ‘won out’ over other hominid species (through adaptation, and war).

  • Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.
  • Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring.
  • 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 apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.
  • Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied.
  • Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed.
  • Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.
  • since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal.
  • Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.
  • humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust.
  • Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
  • A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.
  • 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.
  • Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.
  • The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.
  • our language is amazingly supple. 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.
  • A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.
  • Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. 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.
  • Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or fight together. However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split.
  • the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
  • a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering.
  • Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.
  • The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.
  • while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two.
  • The Catholic alpha male abstains from sexual intercourse and childcare, even though there is no genetic or ecological reason for him to do so.
  • Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations.
  • Sapiens believing in such fictions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network
  • The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.
  • The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’.
  • The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes.
  • The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.
  • A reliance on artefacts will thus bias an account of ancient hunter-gatherer life.
  • A ‘horizon of possibilities’ means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological and cultural limitations. Each society and each individual usually explore only a tiny fraction of their horizon of possibilities.
  • 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.

The Agricultural Revolution
Approximately 12,000 years ago, Homo sapiens shifted from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled agricultural communities, domesticating plants and animals and cultivating crops. This led to permanent settlements, more complex social hierarchies and governance structures, the division and specialisation of labour, and the concept of private property. This is where Homo sapiens also started to impact the environment and to migrate and trade not just in goods, but culture, too.

  • There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging.
  • The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet.
  • ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs. The peasant’s ancient ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Tomorrows menu might have been completely different. This variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.
  • Furthermore, by not being dependent on any single kind of food, they were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed.
  • The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon.
  • These animals had to evolve a fear of humankind, but before they could do so they were gone.
  • the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom.
  • Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, the large sea animals suffered relatively little from the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. But many of them are on the brink of extinction now as a result of industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic resources.
  • our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.
  • No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.
  • more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley.
  • The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.
  • agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently.
  • most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question.
  • Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding.
  • the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.
  • 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.
  • wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.
  • In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times the size of Britain.
  • simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15 per cent of deaths,
  • the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.
  • The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realised what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done.
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.
  • 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.
  • The Faustian bargain between humans and grains was not the only deal our species made. Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.
  • The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.
  • A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively.
  • Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:
    • a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.
    • b. The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other.
    • c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people.
  • An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.
  • The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual.
  • The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.
  • Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
  • 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.
  • They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than from Europe or East Asia due to three circumstantial factors.
    • Firstly, Africa was closer, so it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam.
    • Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade (exporting slaves mainly to the Middle East), whereas in Europe slavery was very rare. It was obviously far easier to buy slaves in an existing market than to create a new one from scratch.
    • Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations in places such as Virginia, Haiti and Brazil were plagued by malaria and yellow fever, which had originated in Africa. Africans had acquired over the generations a partial genetic immunity to these diseases, whereas Europeans were totally defenceless and died in droves.
  • people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it’s economically expedient.
  • Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division.
  • ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.
  • even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing.

The Unification of Humankind
I call this the ‘societal revolution’ section, covering the set of processes and developments that led to greater integration and interconnectedness of societies, culminating in a globalised world: from the development of more complex trade and exchange (goods, ideas and cultures), the creation of economic markets, the formation (and fall) of empires, the development and spread of world religions, and technological innovations. Together, these fostered connections between distant regions and diverse cultures, contributing to the further cultural, political, and economic integration of human communities.

  • Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture’.
  • Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
  • Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
  • break-ups are temporary reversals in an inexorable trend towards unity.
  • A real ‘clash of civilisations’ is like the proverbial dialogue of the deaf. Nobody can grasp what the other is saying. Today when Iran and the United States rattle swords at one another, they both speak the language of nation states, capitalist economies, international rights and nuclear physics.
  • The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
  • Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind.
  • ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.
  • Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination.
  • Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
  • The crucial role of trust explains why our financial systems are so tightly bound up with our political, social and ideological systems, why financial crises are often triggered by political developments, and why the stock market can rise or fall depending on the way traders feel on a particular morning.
  • whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
  • For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance.
  • Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust: with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.
  • For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it.
  • We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbour – we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.
  • In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel.
  • an empire is defined solely by its cultural diversity and flexible borders, rather than by its origins, its form of government, its territorial extent, or the size of its population.
  • A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.
  • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.
  • Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is.
  • The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.
  • monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.
  • If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.
  • Another important sect is socialist humanism. Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole.
  • Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. According to liberals, the sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo sapiens.
  • evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate.
  • one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
  • Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised.
  • Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken.
  • Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history.
  • History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.
  • Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system.
  • History is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system.
  • Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
  • Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host.
  • The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. This approach is sometimes called memetics.
  • Most scholars in the humanities disdain memetics, seeing it as an amateurish attempt to explain cultural processes with crude biological analogies.
  • Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture. Yet they too see cultures as propagating themselves with little regard for the benefit of humankind.

The Scientific Revolution
From the Renaissance to the modern era, the impact of scientific inquiry and discovery on human society cannot be understated. Moving from religious authority and traditional beliefs to empirical inquiry and experimentation, scientists made enormous advancements in mathematics and astronomy, and explorers conquered the world largely in order to make new discoveries (and more money). World-views, authorities and structures were challenged. A spirit of inquiry, curiosity, exploration and scepticism ruled, leading to the Enlightenment ideals of reason, freedom and progress that we experience today.

  • The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power:
    • In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.
    • The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars.
    • Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.
    • In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day.
    • (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)
  • until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers.
  • The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.
  • modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:
    • a. The willingness to admit ignorance.
    • b. The centrality of observation and mathematics theories.
    • c. The acquisition of new powers.
  • Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together?
  • All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
    • a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth.
    • b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth.
  • The connection forged between science and technology is so strong that today people tend to confuse the two. We often think that it is impossible to develop new technologies without scientific research, and that there is little point in research if it does not result in new technologies. In fact, the relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields. When Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it was a revolutionary idea.
  • Here and there people did develop new technologies, but these were usually created by uneducated craftsmen using trial and error, not by scholars pursuing systematic scientific research.
  • today’s wars are scientific productions. The world’s military forces initiate, fund and steer a large part of humanity’s scientific research and technological development.
  • Throughout history, societies have suffered from two kinds of poverty: social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others; and biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.
  • scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.
  • Not long before Cook’s expedition, the British Isles and western Europe in general were but distant backwaters of the Mediterranean world. Little of importance ever happened there.
  • Europeans managed to conquer America and gain supremacy at sea mainly because the Asiatic powers showed little interest in them.
  • In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production. In comparison, Europe was an economic dwarf.
  • The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia.
  • By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the worlds economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas Chinas portion had been reduced to 5 per cent.
  • All successful late modern empires cultivated scientific research in the hope of harvesting technological innovations, and many scientists spent most of their time working on arms, medicines and machines for their imperial masters.
  • 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.
  • Many cultures drew world maps long before the modern age. Obviously, none of them really knew the whole of the world. No Afro-Asian culture knew about America, and no American culture knew about Afro-Asia. But unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or filled with imaginary monsters and wonders. These maps had no empty spaces. They gave the impression of a familiarity with the entire world.
  • During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces – one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough,
  • the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of discovery. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.
  • Yet there was a crucial difference. Zheng He explored the oceans, and assisted pro-Chinese rulers, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the countries he visited. Moreover, the expeditions of Zheng He were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. When the ruling faction in Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated the operation. The great fleet was dismantled, crucial technical and geographical knowledge was lost, and no explorer of such stature and means ever set out again from a Chinese port.
  • When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honour. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers’ smell unbearable.)
  • The European empires believed that in order to govern effectively they must know the languages and cultures of their subjects.
  • British officers arriving in India were supposed to spend up to three years in a Calcutta college, where they studied Hindu and Muslim law alongside English law; Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian alongside Greek and Latin; and Tamil, Bengali and Hindustani culture alongside mathematics, economics and geography.
  • The great empires of Asia – the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese – very quickly heard that the Europeans had discovered something big. Yet they displayed little interest in these discoveries. They continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even puny European kingdoms such as Scotland and Denmark sent a few explore-and-conquer expeditions to America, but not one expedition of either exploration or conquest was ever sent to America from the Islamic world, India or China.
  • Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices. There was nothing peculiar about that. The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’
  • These European explore-and-conquer expeditions are so familiar to us that we tend to overlook just how extraordinary they were. Nothing like them had ever happened before. Long-distance campaigns of conquest are not a natural undertaking. Throughout history most human societies were so busy with local conflicts and neighbourhood quarrels that they never considered exploring and conquering distant lands. Most great empires extended their control only over their immediate neighbourhood – they reached far-flung lands simply because their neighbourhood kept expanding.
  • The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets, and promptly started filling them in.
  • European geographers, but European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge began to
  • not only European geographers, but European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge began to draw maps with spaces left to fill in. They began to admit that their theories were not perfect and that there were important things that they did not know.
  • Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries.
  • For most of history the economy stayed much the same size. Yes, global production increased, but this was due mostly to demographic expansion and the settlement of new lands. Per capita production remained static. But all that changed in the modern age.
  • In 1500, global production of goods and services was equal to about $250 billion; today it hovers around $60 trillion. More importantly, in 1500, annual per capita production averaged $550, while today every man, woman and child produces, on the average, $8,800 a year.
  • The modern economy grows thanks to our trust in the future and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in production.
  • provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory. Counter-intuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also completely new types of energy and materials.
  • people didn’t know how to convert one type of energy into another. They could harness the movement of wind and water to sail ships and push millstones, but not to heat water or smelt iron. Conversely, they could not use the heat energy produced by burning wood to make a millstone move. Humans had only one machine capable of performing such energy conversion tricks: the body.
  • Everyone was fuelled by solar energy – captured and packaged in wheat, rice and potatoes.
  • the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs. The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuel on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun dispenses every day,
  • Learning how to harness and convert energy effectively solved the other problem that slows economic growth – the scarcity of raw materials.
  • The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials. The result was an explosion in human productivity.
  • the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
  • The conclusion was inescapable: monkeys must have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material requirements, and if these are not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly.
  • The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust.
  • Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.
  • Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity.
  • In European medieval cities there was usually a single clock – a giant machine mounted on top of a high tower in the town square. These tower clocks were notoriously inaccurate, but since there were no other clocks in town to contradict them, it hardly made any difference.
  • Today, a single affluent family generally has more timepieces at home than an entire medieval country.
  • During World War Two, BBC News was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe. Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour – the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock.
  • in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
  • The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.
  • Village life involved many transactions but few payments.
  • Kingdoms, empires and churches functioned for millennia as imagined communities. In ancient China, tens of millions of people saw themselves as members of a single family, with the emperor as its father. In the Middle Ages, millions of devout Muslims imagined that they were all brothers and sisters in the great community of Islam. Yet throughout history, such imagined communities played second fiddle to intimate communities of several dozen people who knew each other well. The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum.
  • national communities have been increasingly eclipsed by tribes of customers who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe
  • real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world.
  • the price of war has gone up dramatically. The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.
  • while the price of war soared, its profits declined. For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital, technical know-how and complex socio-economic structures
  • While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.
  • 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.
  • If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
  • Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set point. Some air-conditioning systems are set at twenty-five degrees Celsius. Others are set at twenty degrees. Human happiness conditioning systems also differ from person to person.
  • happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
  • As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.
  • If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively.
  • People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.
  • According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.
  • Paradoxically, while psychological studies of subjective well-being rely on people’s ability to diagnose their happiness correctly, the basic raison d’Γͺtre of psychotherapy is that people don’t really know themselves and that they sometimes need professional help to free themselves of self-destructive behaviours.

The End of Homo Sapiens

  • Devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people.
  • perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’