Sapiens - a Brief History of Humankind

Published on July 12, 2017

I never liked history in school, but this is the best history book I have ever read.

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is a best seller recommended by many. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama – they all have read it.

Our species started around 100,000 years ago. Yet only in the last 5,000 years did we begin farming, building kingdoms and forming religions. And only in the last 500 years, human embark on our science quest and the use of technology.

We are no doubt changing and progressing at an exponential rate.

Seeing how our history unveil, I am both excited and fearful for our future.

Here’s what I learnt.

Brief Timeline of History

        NOW (Year 2017)     Nuclear, genome, cyborg
          200 years ago     Industrial revolution, state and market
          500 years ago     Science, America discovered
        2,000 years ago     Han, Roman, Christianity
        5,000 years ago     First kingdom, concept of money
       12,000 years ago     Agriculture revolution, domesticate plants & animals
       13,000 years ago     Homo Sapiens is the only surviving human species
       70,000 years ago     Cognitive revolution, beginning of history
      300,000 years ago     Fire
    2,500,000 years ago     Evolution of Homo
3,800,000,000 years ago     Emergence of organisms

We are Sapiens

Species evolving from a common ancestor are grouped under the heading “genus”.

Homo, is a genus, which means man, aka human.
Sapiens, is a species, which means wise.

There used to be 6 species of human, but we are the only one left.

Cognitive Revolution

Sapiens somehow developed excellent cognitive ability.

Sapiens are able to transmit large amount of information about the physical world, and also about other sapiens (gossip!).

Most perculiar, sapiens can use words to create imagined reality - such as myths, culture, tribal spirits - and this makes cooperation between large group of people possible.

When we can cooperate effectively, we are the strongest. Together, we can take down mighty mammoth.

Argiculture Revolution

Sapiens learnt to settle down instead of moving constantly. Learning to farm and domesticate animals provide more food.

This is also when we began cruelty to animals.

If you put all animals on a weighing scale, you will find that domesticated animals outweigh wild animals.

Imagined Order

We believe in many “imagined order”. Eg. Tribal myths, Christianity, nationalism, democracy.

They might not be objectively true, but believing them will make us cooperate effectively and forge a better society.


Money is more open-minded than culture, religion, and social habits. It is the only trust system that can bridge between anything.

Thanks to money, people who don’t know each other can nonetheless cooperate, based on this “trust system”.

Science – Discovery of Ignorance

Science only began when Sapiens admit they are ignorant to many things.

The last 500 years were amazing. Crazy progress. Because we seek answers.

In 1459, the world map is pretty empty, with most of America not yet explored. In mere 500 years, we even explored the moon.


Credit is a big invention that accelerates our progress. $1 in the bank can be loan out as $10 to borrowers. This investment is possible only because we believe in the future.

Economy is a “win-win” game, not a zero sum game. If I run a business, my profit is your profit. Making money is moral, because the more money I make, the more I can expand my business, and the more people I can give a job to.

People live up to consumerism ethics much easier than ethics from Christianity or Buddhism.

Why? They can see the promised paradise on TV.

Weakening of Family & Community

State and market has weaken the traditional bonds of family and community.

State and market encourage us to “become individuals”. Marry whoever you want. You are independent from your family. We (the state and the market) will take care of you – education, welfare, education, insurance.

Given freedom, we have no need to make commitments to anyone or anything.

We have turned from community members to alientated individuals.

The Improvements

We have much less violence. We live longer.

We have no major wars in last 50 years, partly because war is not profitable. If a country invades silicon valley, there is no physical resources to take over. The brains are the assets of silicon valley, and they would be on the first plane out of there.

Counting Happiness

Being satisfied with what you have is far more important than getting more of what you want – this has been proven true by statistics.

Taking care of children is hardwork. Yet parents always indicate that children are they greatest source of happiness.

Could it be that we don’t know what is good for us?

Perhaps happiness = meaningful and worthwhile in the entirety of your life. Not just instant pleasures.

Religion provides collective delusions about afterlife. If nobody puncture that fantasy, you have found a meaning in life! Perhaps then, happiness requires self-delusion.

Scientifically, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are merely byproduct of blind evolution process, without goal or purpose. Uh.

Buddhism: The real root of suffering is never ending pursuit of ephemeral feelings.

The Future

All of us are in a way bionics already – if you wear glasses or carry a mobile phone because they enhance your functions!

There will be much more advanced bionics, and robots. Our inheritors will be godlike.

We will soon be able to engineer our desire too. The question becomes “what do we want to want?”

We are self-made god, and we are accountable to no one.

There is nothing more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want.

Why study history

We didn’t study history to make accurate prediction for the future.

We study history so that we widen our horizons, understand that a situation is neither natural or inevitable, and that there are always more possibilities to a situation.