Sapiens – Notes

This is going to be quite different to anything I’ve posted before. I’m in the process of writing a couple of blogs that are more in-line with my usual, but they’re not ready yet. So, in the meantime, I thought I’d try something new…

I enjoy reading books. Whilst I don’t think I could ever claim to be a voracious reader, I assign a lot of value to it, and I think I’ve gained a huge amount from things that I’ve read. Unfortunately, I’ve often had difficulty retaining all the information that books offer. I’ve tried a number of methods to remedy this in the past, including using coloured sticky notes and recording voice notes on my phone. However, I’ve either found it to be too laborious to organise, impossible to refer back to, or completely futile altogether.

A couple of days ago, I finished reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I’d heard it recommended by numerous sources and when I noticed a copy on my parents’ bookshelf prior to leaving London, I decided to pinch it. Whilst reading it, I thought I’d try a new approach to not forgetting everything as soon as I finish the book.

First, I took pictures of key pages and paragraphs as I went. Then, when I finished it, I went back over those key or particularly impactful sections and wrote up my thoughts on them for later referral (I’m using an app called Notion for this).

This is a fairly time-consuming process (especially since I’m not that fast at reading or writing), but I already feel like I’ve taken something more permanent from this approach when compared to other books that I’ve read.

Anyway, since I found myself yesterday having spent a few hours at my laptop and the other blog posts not yet finished, I thought it could be interesting to post these musings on here.

First, a few things worth noting:

  • A lot of what follows is just me writing out sections of the book that I found particularly interesting so that I can refer back to them easily. I don’t know if I’m infringing copyright law by doing this. This blog is obviously not monetised, so I hope I’m good.
  • Since I haven’t written up the whole book, I should stress that all of these excerpts are therefore taken out of context. If you disagree with something, read the book before attacking me or the author.
  • I am absolutely not going for an A-level English literature analysis here. I wrote these notes for myself and no-one else… I’ve edited them so that they read slightly better for an audience but I’m still not sure if me posting this is worthwhile.
  • I’m very aware that there are other blogs that cover this sort of thing better than I will. I’m not attempting to copy anyone, I just figured it would be fun to share what I’ve written down anyway.
  • In case the format isn’t clear: italicised paragraphs are not my own, and those within speech marks have been directly copied from the book (italicised without speech marks is basically me paraphrasing longer sections to reduce the amount I had to type).
  • If I end up doing this again for other books in the future, consider the above a disclaimer that will apply to those posts as well.

Sapiens, subtitled A Brief History of Humankind covers everything from evolution to the genesis of our current social structures and behaviours, to the future of our species. The whole book is interesting and worth reading. As stated, I wrote this for myself – different sections of the book will impact different people and will probably impact me at different stages of my life.

I’ve added a few random pictures from the last couple of weeks. They have nothing to do with the content of the post but I thought they’d be nice to look at.

So, without further ado, here are 10 (rather long) points from Sapiens that stood out to me at 25-years-old.

Number 1

The agricultural revolution was essentially plants/crops enslaving humans, not the other way around. The crops ‘won’ their evolutionary reproductive goal and humans had to work harder in order to farm them. Constantly working for later freedom led to an increase in food supply, which led to an increase in human population, which led to a necessity to work harder still.

Pg. 98: “If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from 100 to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.”

“The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, the have large mortgages, […], and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”

Luxuries become necessities and spawn new obligations.”

…More stuff does not equal more happiness or an easier life.

Number 2

Pg. 151: “Ask white supremacists about the racial hierarchy and […] you are likely to be told that there is something in Caucasian blood or genes that makes whites naturally more intelligent, moral and hard-working. Ask a diehard capitalist about the hierarchy of wealth, and you are likely to hear that it is the inevitable outcome of objective differences in abilities. The rich have more money, in this view, because they are more capable and diligent. No one should be bothered, then, if the wealthy get better health care, better education and better nutrition. The rich richly deserve every perk they enjoy.”

Pg. 154: “most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. […] usually depends on their place in their society’s imagined hierarchy. Second, if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules.”

Basically, I’m really lucky. I know that, but I need to make sure I don’t forget it, nor waste the opportunity.

Number 3

Pg. 160: “Racism spread to more and more cultural arenas. American aesthetic culture was built around white standards of beauty. The physical attributes of the white race – for example light skin, fair and straight hair, a small upturned nose – came to be identified as beautiful. Typical black features – dark skin, dark and bushy hair, a flattened nose – were deemed ugly. These preconceptions ingrained the imagined hierarchy at an even deeper level of human consciousness.

This point hit me more than any other. The fact that something as instinctual as ‘who I am attracted to’ has been manipulated was mind-blowing. Essentially, whenever I’ve thought that white, blonde girls are ‘my type’, I’ve been wrong. Although what I feel is very real, these feelings come from indoctrination and not biology. These feelings are the consequence of 25 years of exposure to arbitrary ideals of beauty that are the consequence of previously deliberate racist action.

Number 4

Sexism, and the inequality that is still present today is completely baseless. Homophobia is also bullshit and any argument for it can be completely disproved. Pg. 161 – 178.

I’m not going to expand on this one. If someone disagrees, then me posting a paraphrased version of the logic, biology, and history is not going to help the situation. Read the book.

Number 5

Pg. 207: “The mere fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Indians to start believing in it as well. Even if Indians had no real use for gold, the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the Indians value it.”

“[…] Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on monetary belief, because 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 more open-minded than language, state laws, […], and social habits. Money is the only trust system that can bridge almost any cultural gap. […] Thanks to money, people that do not know each other and don’t trust each other can cooperate effectively.

I just really liked this. Money is an imaginary but necessary construct. If you want to look at it deeper, it can also represent a reassuring level of trust between humans.

Number 6

Pg. 234: “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 society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.

This point, perhaps more than any of the others, requires more context than I have given it here. So once again, I recommend reading the book.

A key theme throughout the book that this passage refers to is how social orders and hierarchies are imagined. There is no biological function or law of physics that states humans should be treated equally. Nothing that says any individual has any right to freedom (and likewise, nothing that suggests the opposite). The concept of being kind to other human beings is essentially an untenable concept imagined by human beings. Every law is made up. Religion therefore provides (or at least it used to) a basis to give these laws and rules a higher authority.

As an atheist, I have always struggled to see the benefits of religion given the many wars and disputes it supposedly causes (I’m well aware that it’s a minority of extremists responsible, this isn’t an accusation or condemnation). But this passage opened my eyes to the fact that there is other meaning and purpose to religion, even for someone who does not share the beliefs.

Number 7

The key behind the scientific revolution was the realisation and acceptance that we [homo sapiens] didn’t know everything.

Life lesson to be had: accepting that you’re ignorant in something is the first step to learning it.

Number 8

Pg. 337: 1764 Bengal – The British conquered the richest province of India whilst focused on little more than enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that led to a four-year famine and the death of 10 million Bengalis – a third of the province’s population.

“In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of ‘the White Man’s Burden’ [a previously mentioned poem suggesting the British had a duty to rule over India] completely matches the facts. 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 encyclopaedia 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 encyclopaedia with their achievements [What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?]. 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 labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them.

The education system that I was brought up in heavily commended the efforts of the British Empire. It was a long time before I was ever introduced to the idea that British Imperialists were anything other than heroic. Lately, especially following the George Floyd protests, I’ve seen a lot of talk about what schools teach and how better education surrounding racism and imperialism is required. I completely agree. However, I do think it is also important to recognise the role that these empires played in forming our current society and standards, and therefore important not to go totally the other way in all-out condemnation of them. I suppose history is always about trying to look at things impartially, but doing so as humans is very difficult.

Number 9

Pg. 337-340: Science was also used by imperialists to more sinister ends. Findings were presented suggesting ‘scientific proof’ that Europeans were superior to all other races, and consequently had the right (and perhaps the duty) to rule over them. These results suggested they were physically superior, more hard-working, and more rational. These findings were used to suggest why Europeans managed to conquer the world, and why they were fit to rule it – provided they took precautions not to mix with inferior races.

“Such theories, prominent and respectable for many decades, have become anathema [and also completely disproven as is later stated] among scientists and politicians alike. People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it’s about time we coined it. Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s part of their culture’.”

Current right-wing political parties would no longer dare to say ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation’, but they will happily claim that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to enter the country lest they corrode European democracy and liberalism. Biologists today have an easy time disavowing and disproving the racist claims of the past, but it is harder for historians and anthropologists to do the same for culturism.

“After all, if the differences between human cultures are trivial, why should we pay historians and anthropologists to study them?”

Culturism is arguably quite different from racism, but not necessarily any less prejudiced. I don’t really know what the conclusion of this point is. Like anything political, it’s not a black and white, right and wrong, there’s a sliding scale. Moving forward I just want to be more aware of what I’m consuming and not be blinded to racist undertones hidden in culturist remarks and beliefs.

Semi-relevant quote that made me laugh (pg. 221): “Many Americans nowadays maintain that their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered by cruise missiles and F-16s.”

Number 10

Pg. 428: “But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.

This is essentially rephrasing and explaining the equation: Happiness = Expectations – Reality. I’m not sure how commonly known that expression is, but I’ve heard it a number of times. In the past, I’ve always thought it overly simplistic, but it’s broken down in this book and shown to be rooted in scientific evidence.

This is within a whole large chapter discussing happiness, the causes for it and whether we as a species are happier now than in the past. I should stress again that I’ve cut out a lot and this is merely a paragraph that resonated with me and is not necessarily the most important. A key thing I will highlight is that (as the author later states), people living in poverty now will have higher expectations than those in the same situation 200 years ago since they are so much more exposed to the lives that present-day middle-class westerners live.

Among other aspects of happiness that are discussed, values and self-worth play a key part. As a real-life example, my interpretation of this links to what I mentioned in my previous post: New Scene.


Closing thoughts:

A key point I would like to reiterate is that these were short messages that stood out to me, and ones that I was able to digest. An entire chapter is dedicated to the birth of capitalism and this is then built upon in the subsequent final quarter of the book. This part of the book is no less interesting or important, but I don’t yet think I’m able to condense it in such a way that fits succinctly into my brain – possibly because there was so much new information.

The book is worth reading. Yuval Noah Harari explains complex ideas and concepts simply and concisely. It’s incredibly well written, especially when considering the points that are conveyed. I hope this has been interesting and/or useful in some way, it was fun for me. Normal practice will resume next time.

Tom

3 Replies to “Sapiens – Notes”

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