Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and a professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Harari is the author of the popular science bestsellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). His writings examine free will, consciousness, intelligence and happiness.
Sapiens, the 2014 book by Yuval Noah Harari, was widely praised and achieved huge popularity. It is written in a very readable way. The book provides a very well thought out survey of the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the 21st c.
The book situates its account of human history within a framework provided by the natural sciences, particularly evolutionary biology. In essence it sees biology as setting the limits of possibility for human activity, and sees culture as shaping what happens within those bounds.
The academic discipline of history is the account of cultural change.
The Book’s Key Argument
Harari’s main argument is that Sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He argues that prehistoric Sapiens were a key cause of the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals, along with numerous other megafauna. He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money, and human rights.
Harari goes on to contend that these beliefs give rise to discrimination – whether that be racial, sexual or political and it is potentially impossible to have a completely unbiased society. Harari further claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to Sapiens’ distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Accordingly, Harari regards money as a system of mutual trust and sees political and economic systems as more or less identical with religions.
This is how the book begins:
About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. — The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. — The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.
About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. — The story of organisms is called biology.
About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. — The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.
Harari surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the 21st c., focusing on Homo sapiens. The book divides the history of humankind into four major parts:
The Cognitive Revolution — c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination.
The Agricultural Revolution — c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture.
The unification of humankind — The gradual consolidation of human political organisations towards one global empire.
The Scientific Revolution — c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science.
13.5 billion years ago
— Matter and energy appear.
— Beginning of physics.
— Atoms and molecules appear.
— Beginning of chemistry.
4.5 billion years ago
Formation of planet Earth.
3.8 billion years ago
Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
6 million years ago
Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
2.5 million years ago
— Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa.
— First stone tools.
2 million years ago
— Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.
— Evolution of different human species.
500,000 years ago
Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
300,000 years ago
Daily usage of fire.
200,000 years ago
Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
70,000 years ago
— The Cognitive Revolution.
— Emergence of fictive language.
— Beginning of history.
— Sapiens spread out of Africa.
45,000 years ago
— Sapiens settle Australia.
— Extinction of Australian megafauna.
30,000 years ago
Extinction of Neanderthals.
16,000 years ago
— Sapiens settle America.
— Extinction of American megafauna.
13,000 years ago
Extinction of Homo floresiensis; Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
12,000 years ago
The Agricultural Revolution: Domestication of plants and animals & Permanent settlements.
5,000 years ago
— First kingdoms, script and money.
— Polytheistic religions.
4,250 years ago
First empire: the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
2,500 years ago
— Invention of coinage: a universal money.
— The Persian Empire: a universal political order “for the benefit of all humans.”
— Buddhism in India: a universal truth “to liberate all beings from suffering.”
2,000 years ago
Han Empire in China / Roman Empire in the Mediterranean / Christianity.
500 years ago
— The Scientific Revolution.
— Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power.
— 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.
— Massive extinction of plants and animals.
— Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth.
— Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind.
— Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
— Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life?
— Homo sapiens is replaced by superhumans?