Sapiens — the Book That Will Redefine Your Understanding of the World

Sapiens is arguably in a category of its own. Packed with an incredible amount of knowledge, it’s surprising how fast the pages keep turning. It’s not fiction, but it reads like one. In an age that throws so much information around, Sapiens offers a brief history of humankind.

Wow. That’s a lot for one book to live up to. Now here comes the good part: Yuval Harari’s work is adored by millions, including people like President Barack Obama and Bill Gates. So, read on for some of my favourite takeaways from Sapiens.

“You’ll have a hard time putting it down.” -Bill Gates

By Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Homo Sapiens took over the world. Was it luck?

In part, yes.

More specifically, luck was responsible for the random evolutionary quirk that soon separated Homo sapiens from the rest of the homo genus species. Language.

Let me explain. Our unique storytelling abilities allowed for larger numbers of Homo sapiens to effectively cooperate, an ability to gossip that is still in effect today. Think of text messages, phone calls, social media, or newspaper columns (if people still even read those…) — they’re all forms of gossip. Ultimately, through language and storytelling, stable groups of up to 150 Homo sapiens formed and killed off all other human species. Homo soloensis disappeared 50,000 years ago while homo rudolfensis, homo denisova and homo neanderthalensis all but vanished about 12,000 years ago.

More importantly, Homo sapiens’ ability to believe in imagined realities (think: money, government, religion) allowed for thousands — and now possibly billions —of strangers to work together. Can you think of another species that can speak about things that don’t actually exist?

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. (Harari 27)

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

We live in a world where fiction > reality

Our modern world is full of stories that we have created to uphold the larger and more complex human societies that grew out of the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers some 10,000 years ago. In order for the world to become more interconnected, the fictions that held it all together had to become more elaborate.

One of humanity’s greatest stories is that of money. It fueled trade and connected the world. However, money also created a host of problems.

Around five thousand years ago, barley money first appeared as a universal measure for evaluating and exchanging all other goods and services in what is now modern Iraq. Barley has an intrinsic value since you can eat it and was easily adopted as a trusted currency. Nonetheless, barley was difficult to store — given that foremen at the time earned up to 5,000 litres of barley a month! The first form of money without inherent value was the silver shekel that appeared several hundred years later. People could not do anything useful like eating or making tools with the 8.33 grams of silver; it served a purely cultural value as currency. Coins first appeared about 2600 years ago and from there bills and — more recently — credit cards evolved.

With each iteration of currency, money grows more detached from reality as do the people who are attached to it.

Every day, the news is filled with updates on the economy, the stock market, and trade sanctions. All of these things matter, sure, but they’re all constructs in our collective imaginations. What about the tangible reality of our climate crisis or lack of clean drinking water for 1 in 10 people? These problems remain because we have become so fixated on the economy that — without economic incentive — little to no progress is made.

Money is what you make of it. Do you see it as a measure of social power, the key to happiness, or the path to self-fulfilment?

Let me tell you something: money isn’t real.

Photo by Emilio Takas on Unsplash

All too often, people chase money because they think that with a ton of money they will be happy. If this was the case, why aren’t the richest people the happiest? It’s because a fictional currency simply doesn’t matter beyond putting food on the table and a roof over your head.

What does matter then? Things that can’t be bought with money: authentic relationships, true passion, and self-compassion. Knowing that other people genuinely care about you is perhaps at the essence of happiness. Who are you going to talk to about something exciting that happened? Most of the best memories we have are in the company of people that we love. Additionally, developing a passion isn’t like buying one of many loaves of bread from the grocery store. For one, it can’t be bought or chosen at random and two, it has to be developed. Without a passion, your life will feel meaningless and empty — not what we would consider a recipe for happiness. Ultimately though, you have to care for your own self and value time alone because you’re the one that has to get up in the morning. If you don’t appreciate yourself, how are you planning to work on your passion and cultivate authentic relationships?

Reading Sapiens gave me perspective on my life. I’ve gotten back in touch with old friends that I missed, being intentional about having genuinely good people in my life — people that both make me feel good and push me to do better while knowing that I can count on them for support. I felt a renewed sense to pursue my passions and enjoy time alone by myself like on a run or practicing piano. With that, my life is feeling more fulfilling every day. The fact that I am still assimilating priceless information from this book, reflecting, and applying it to my life months after reading it is simply incredible.

Today, our world is plagued with problems (quite literally). Growing up in a first-world country, there’s a lot that I take for granted. I have been pretty blind to billions of others around the world whose reality is much different than mine. With the current pandemic, I was home from school and missed seeing my friends, playing sports, and all the other things that teenagers do in developed countries. The news talked about case numbers, lockdowns, and occasionally politics.

No one talked about the reality of a child labourer forced by extreme poverty to work in the dangerous cobalt mines of the DRC instead of being able to even attend school, not to mention thinking about social distancing when they do not even have gloves or a mask to protect them from lung disease-causing cobalt dust and chronic rashes. I didn’t think of these people, not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know. Beyond my local community, I got most of my information on the rest of the world through the news. No one talks about the billions of people who lack access to education, enough food, and clean drinking water.

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Insulated in my North American bubble, it’s easy to think that there are so many problems here. Let’s be real, affordable housing and unemployment are huge issues but they pale in comparison to the millions of severely malnourished children in Yemen. Sapiens led me to realize unfathomable amounts of other people have real problems to do with their basic living essentials. While things have gotten better on the whole, we still have a ways to go.

The agricultural revolution was a scam but we couldn’t live without it—what’s next?

Something that I found absolutely riveting from Sapiens is how Harari tells not the story of the agricultural revolution but that of a simple grass: wheat. Over the course of several thousand years humans transformed wheat from an insignificant grass to a staple in much of the modern world’s diets, covering an area that is four times the size of France. How we live today is because of this agricultural revolution but the fact is that farmers were actually worse off than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. Why?

The seemingly inconsequential move to farming wheat and other crops led to a poorer diet and a reliance on those crops — we actually reduced our economic security. Fields had to be cleared, weeds had to be pulled, and the plants watered. These tasks required so much time that Homo sapiens was forced to settle permanently next to their fields. Our once limber bodies designed to climb fruit trees and run after deer paid the price.

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin ‘domus’, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. (91)

Until very recently, many societies have relied mainly on a single staple such as rice, potatoes, or wheat. If the harvest was poor, either due to lack or rain or a blight of some sort, peasants died by the thousands and millions. Take for example the Irish Potato Famine that occurred between 1845–1849 and led to the deaths of 1 million people with another million emigrating, shrinking Ireland’s population by as much as 25%. This devastating loss of life was due primarily to a potato blight and has happened on a similar scale countless times since the agricultural revolution.

Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

From our position of affluence and security today, it can be hard to appreciate just how much of an impact our enormous shift to agriculture had for the thousands of years where the average person lived a lower standard of living simply to support an exponential number of humans. Even now, with the world’s population continuing to grow, hundreds of millions of people don’t have the luxury of good food that — living in North America — I am extremely lucky to have.

I’ve learned how humans aren’t built for exponential change even though it surrounds us today

By now, we can all agree that us Homo sapiens are an ingenious and resourceful species — for millennia, we burned wood to heat houses, harnessed wind to sail over the water, and built watermills to grind our precious grain. Even so, we didn’t know how to convert one type of energy into another; say, heat into movement and accordingly, human or animal muscle power was central to nearly all human activities (think: farming, building tools or making clothes, transportation).

All this changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Around 1700, a strange noise began reverberating around British mineshafts. That noise […] was subtle at first, but it grew louder and louder with each passing decade until it enveloped the entire world in a deafening cacophony. It emanated from a steam engine. (377)

But guess what — for thousands of years that idea (unarguably the most important invention in the history of energy production) stared people in the eye and still we failed to notice it. Every time a servant heated up water in a kettle, the minute it boiled, the lid jumped. Nobody saw what was really happening and how this heat-movement conversion along with the inventions that followed would completely transform the entire world in the space of only a few decades.

Our ability to grasp exponential change has accelerated dramatically over the last several hundred years and resulted proportionally in technological advancements that previously couldn’t even be dreamt of. Sapiens prompted me to consciously shift my mindset to thinking big — not what could result in 10% amelioration to a problem such as adverse drug reactions but a 10x improvement through the emerging area of personalized medicine.

Take for example that mapping the first human genome took 15 years and $3 billion for what today is a few weeks and at the cost of only a few hundred dollars! What’s more, personalized medicine is one of the tens of areas today where there is the possibility for exponential change. With more people learning and working in these emerging fields with the mindset of thinking 10x, we can tackle our toughest problems and together, change the world.

Photo by laura adai on Unsplash

Equally, Sapiens helped me develop an insatiable curiosity; what other ideas like the boiling kettle are right under our noses?

Nonetheless, when it comes to predicting the future, history “teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass” (462). When the space race landed men on the moon, everyone forecasted that by the end of the century there would be colonies on Mars and Pluto. On the other hand, no one predicted the Internet.

So where is science taking us?

A little more than fifty years ago, the internet didn’t exist. Less than ten years ago, CRISPR-Cas9 was invented (a tool for researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify genetic function to whose inventors a Nobel Prize was awarded). In 2016, AlphaGo — a computer program developed by Google DeepMind using machine learning — beat Lee Sedol, one of the world’s strongest players and a 18-time world champion in the game of Go, something that was said to take at least another decade at the time. In short, science is advancing faster than ever before.

What awaits? No one can tell you what scientific progress we will make by 2030, nevermind fifty years from now.

Our studies of the human genome and development of artificial intelligence are all inextricably meshed together with an answer common to almost all innovation today: so that we (humans) can live a better life. Moreover, despite the incredible things us Homo sapiens are capable of doing, we remain undecided with our goals and we appear to be just as dissatisfied as ever.

We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we’re going. (465)

In an age that is increasingly materialistic and consumer-driven, one of the takeaways that really resonated with me from this book is that happiness and pleasure are two different things. The latter is a biological process while true happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. In other words — doing what you love with the people that you love and being able to make an impact at the same time.

We still have a long way to go

Even though nowadays obesity is more common than malnutrition, Sapiens opened my eyes to the state of the world that we live in today. From our humble beginnings as unique storytellers, fiction and imagined realities (money, government, religion) remain king, allowing millions of us to effectively cooperate on a daily basis.

Technological progress, in the meantime, has catapulted our world in the past few hundred years at an exponential pace that is fundamentally difficult for us to grasp. Advancements such as the internet, the airplane, and electricity — to name a few — have all revolutionized life around the globe. At the same time, we are at arguably the most perilous point in our history with the threat of nuclear bombs and perhaps more importantly, climate change.

Millions of people still don’t have access to clean drinking water and rarely, if ever, is it talked about on the news. That’s crazy — we seem to care more about the stock market than the health of our fellow humans.

If I want to help, I have to learn. In the meantime, I’ve joined the board of the youth-led non-profit Global Spotlight Foundation — a organization that empowers youth to take action across the world through sharing impactful stories — and contributed to the World Food Programme’s efforts (they also won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize) through the ShareTheMeal app, where you can donate a meal to someone who really needs it for only 80 cents. I strongly encourage you to check out these organizations and seek ways that you can help too.

I want to be part of the innovations that benefit humankind and allow us to overcome our greatest challenges. This book provoked thought and encouraged me to think big. What will Sapiens spark for you?

By now, you should’ve added this must-read to your shopping cart on Amazon (if not I’m thoroughly shocked: click here). Want to know where we’re headed? Read Homo Deus (or sit tight for a few weeks until my next article on takeaways from the sequel 😉).

Learning new things and writing about them. Passionate about how AI can be applied to some of the world’s biggest problems. Developer Intern @ IBM.

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