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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

02 Nov 2016

I thoroughly enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel as it presented a narrative that was based on the entirety of human history. This long time frame approach is appealing when I approach the subject of history because most other time slices seem to be artifical. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind similarly takes this very long view in an attempt to cover the entire history of the human race starting with early homonids and progressing to an undestanding of how homo sapiens specifically has taken over the world.

The basic premise of the book is that there were a few inflection points in our history where human society, and thus the world, was fundamentally altered. These were changes that progressed society forward in some way and were also irreversible. Examples being the invention of agriculture and the invention of money and credit. The book is also very much a philosophy book, questioning whether these changes are good or bad, and what good or bad even means. For instance, some changes seem to be fundamentally positive for the survival of our species but not necessarily positive for the day to day life of most individuals.

The discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.

 

how a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering.

 

Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.

The first part of the book is concerned mostly with how homonids differ from animals in how we think, i.e.

It's relatively easy to agree that only Homo Sapiens can speak about things that don't really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

As well as how we cooperate and form social structures, i.e.

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.

There are some very interesting ways of looking at certain parts of life that one might otherwise take for granted.

It is easy to accept that Hammurabi's Code was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth.

The deconstruction and analysis of what it means to be happy is also what I would call a central theme of the book with quite a bit of focus on questioning traditional ideas of success and norms.

One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

 

It does not take much to provide the objective biological needs of Homo sapiens. After those needs are met, more money can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world, financing election campaigns, funding your favorite terrorist organization, or investing in the stock market and making yet more money -- all of which are activities that a true cynic would find utterly meaningless.

 

There is not 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.

The invention of money was one of the big turning points for society.

How did money succeed where gods and kings failed?

 

Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.

One of the things I found particularly enjoyable about this book was the way the author decided not to placate what might best be described as politically correct ways of speaking about certain topics. They cut to the heart of certain ideas without a lot of qualification.

Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity. A significant proportion of humanity's cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.

As I said before, there is quite a bit of discussion about happiness, what it really is and how to get it. Most of the end of the book is spent philosophizing and takes a different tact that one would expect from a history book. Nonetheless there are some interesting points to be found.

the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.

 

So perhaps happiness is synchronising one's personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personaly narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction. This is quite a depressing conclusion. Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?

Overall this was quite a good book with some similar ideas to other books I have read about the history of all of humanity. It has some unique ideas that make it worthwhile reading and it is definitely not the tome that Guns, Germs, and Steel feels like.


Category: book