Modern society is shaped by capitalism and consumerism. Expensive fashion, travel and social media dictate our lives without us betting an eye. How have we got to this point though? And more importantly, why have we got to this point? These questions and many more are answered in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
In Sapiens Harari divides the history of human kind into three distinctive important eras. Our history began with the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 BCE). Cognitive revolution happened when we developed imagination. Imagination allowed us to dominate the world through the ability to believe in imaginary things such as gods, money, nations, laws, and more. All large-scale cooperative human systems found their foundation in the cognitive capacity for fiction. Be it trade networks, religions or political systems. All these systems are purely abstract yet enabled us to cooperate on unprecedented scale, thus overpowering all other living species. For example money, the powerhorse of economies and trade, is a system of mutual trust. Money have their value simply because we (collectively) believe in their value. The time when value of money was backend by the actual precious metals is long gone, and even then what allowed money to exist is that we trusted that we will be able to exchange money for goods because others have the same believes and will be willing to accept money as a form of a payment.
With the money we are getting a little ahead of ourselves though. It was only in 3000 BC in Mesopotamia when the first commodity money - shekel - was introduced. The first result of the abstract thinking was the ability to build larger groups. The large scale human cooperation in the form of archaic tribes, medieval kingdoms or modern states is rooted in common myths, existing purely in our collective imagination. None of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell each other.
The second era began with the Agricultural Revolution in 10,000 BCE when first Sapiens settled and learned to co-evolve species like cows and wheat. With agricultural revolution also came large population growth. Large plains that were once able to feed single wondering tribe were now thanks to agriculture able to feed many times more. The key claim regarding the agricultural revolution though is that it made the lives of most individuals and animals alike worse. Daily lives became less varied, our diet shrunk to a few crops and meat of domesticated animals, and the permanent settlements brought diseases and other problems that we were able to avoid thus far. All of this also required us to work more and harder. Why did the agricultural revolution happen even at this cost? Frankly, we are not sure. What we know is, that it wasn’t possible to go back to our hunter-gatherer style of live once the revolution began.
The Scientific Revolution began the last era. Scientific revolution was founded on change in European though, whereby elites first time in the history became willing to admit ignorance and try to remedy. With our newly gained power of saying “we don’t know” and “we were wrong” we started to discover more of the world and making first scientific breakthroughs. Seeing the advancements that we are able to achieve gained science more trust which in turn brought more money, which in turn brought more scientific advancements that allowed us to enrich ourselves. This started the self-stimulating cycle of power, resources, and research. More research brings more power, more power means more resources, and the more resources are available the more we can invest back into research.
The idea of progress also funded the modern economy. Whoever believes in progress believes that our technological inventions and organisational development can increase the total sum of human wealth, production and trade. Progress broke our belief that economy is zero-sum game where gains of one are losses of others. Once this dogma has been broken and people started to believe in better future new doors opened. People agreed to represent imaginary goods - things that don’t yet exist - with what is called credit. Credit enabled us to build the present at the expense of future. All this is funded on the assumption that our future resources are more abundant than our present resources. Baker could come to a bank to borrow money to open new bakery. Bank would be willing to lend the money believing that the baker will be able to generate income in foreseeable future to pay his dept. All of this was and is possible only thanks to our collective believe in better future and growth of overall wealth.
Many more ideas and phenomenas are presented in the book, too many of them to list them all. I hope that the previous paragraphs are enough to give you an overall idea of what to except. Overall, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a fantastic book that puts so many things that we take for granted into their true perspective. The book also made me realize that the history ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. Mistakes were and still are made. Because of our greed many species are extinct or live miserable lives to end up on our plates. And are we even happier and better of than we were 70,000 years ago? In the essence of scientific revolution it is ok to say that we don’t know. Let’s just hope that we are building better future not only for us but also for other species.
Title: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari