Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari Summary

Yuval Noah Harari on history, myth, money, empires, and religion.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari Summary

Key Takeaways

  1. Language (the ability to tell stories) is what made Homo sapiens different from other animals.
  2. Therapy can help you if you need basic life advice. But most people use therapy like a religious confessional—someone to confide in about the bad things they’ve done or had done to them. Consumerism tells people that they need to buy something (therapy) to feel better.
  3. If a person did not believe in the common myths of their time, they would be taken to a mental institution. Ex) If the CEO of Tesla no longer believed that the LLC Tesla existed. Or if someone stopped believing in the dollar, human rights, laws, or the USA.
  4. America and Britain were the first to willingly abolish slavery in history.
  5. Equality and freedom cannot occur at the same time. To have equality, you must limit the freedom of those who are above average. Communism creates tyranny where people are not allowed to be better than others. And eventually, those in power use their power to get more money or goods or services than the rest.
  6. Time and beauty are forms of wealth that cannot be stored. All people inherit time (barring being born with a life-threatening disease). Some people inherit beauty.
  7. Money is a system of mutual trust. Trust in the system that propagates the currency. USD requires trust in America’s financial standing (the production and income of the USA) and that others want it. The nation propagates this by requiring taxes to be paid in USD and others in the system (businesses, individuals) also want you to pay in USD. Bitcoin requires trust in code, the internet, and that others want it.
  8. Something can gain value simply because others value it. The Mediterraneans valued gold because they saw it as a status symbol. This increased its value. In India, gold was not seen as a status symbol so it did not have a very high price. Traders noticed this and arbitraged between the two States. Over time, India began to value gold, simply because the Mediterranean valued gold.
  9. Money builds universal trust between strangers. But we do not trust the stranger themself, we trust the money they hold. If they run out of money, we run out of trust.
  10. Christianity in Europe used to be similar to polytheism. They had different saints that you would pray to for certain things.
  11. Technological innovation was frowned upon before the 1500s. Stories like Icarus told people to not fly too close to the sun. Don’t try to be a god. This stifled technological innovation even for military purposes.
  12. The goal of technology is to achieve eternal human life.
  13. Anesthetics weren’t used until the mid-19th century.
  14. You can judge the morality of a business by what % of their net profits are re-invested into R&D and if they are either paying employees more or hiring more employees.
  15. Is there a limit to how big the economy can get? Possibly not, because of digital goods and services.
  16. Consumerism came after the industrial revolution because, for the first time in history, supply was outpacing demand. In order to get people to buy all this extra stuff, we needed a new myth—consumerism. Frugality is seen as self-oppression.
  17. The government and the markets have replaced family and community: "Don’t rely on other people, rely on the State."

Summary

Large groups of people can be organized by believing in a common myth:

  • Nationalism is a myth that brings people together within their country.
  • Religion is a myth that creates churches and connections between people.
  • Two lawyers can come together and work on a case because they both believe in the myth of laws.
  • Corporations are not real. There is no physical entity you can point to. They are like a made up person in a legal sense. This is why bitcoin cannot be taken down—there is no bitcoin corporation or a bitcoin CEO. The only real part of bitcoin is the digital coins, and those cannot easily be confiscated.

Language is what made Homo sapiens different from other animals. They could tell stories about the lion at the river whereas other animals can only communicate in the present moment—no ability to tell stories.

Trade can’t exist without fiction. Only humans trade because it requires reputation. Today, we have trust in the dollar and banks, which facilitates trade and trust.

Wheat crops changed people from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Wheat domesticated humans.

Women had to take turns having children in hunter-gatherer times. Having too many children would slow the group down. The agricultural revolution changed that.

Babylonian morality vs American morality:  

Babylonian morality: if you kill someone else’s daughter, your daughter is killed. If you injure someone, you have to pay their parent or owner money.

V.S.

American morality: all men are equal and it is the perpetrator who should be punished. Human rights.

  • Both of these moralities are made up—they are myths. Neither one is “right” or “wrong” they are just the moralities of their time and they are based on a collective understanding.

Consumerism pushes the idea of buying goods to make your life better—any problem can be fixed by buying something. Don’t feel good? Buy a new car and get therapy. Marriage not working? Get marriage counseling.

Therapy can help you if you need basic life advice. But most people use therapy like a religious confessional—someone to confide in about the bad things they’ve done or had done to them. Consumerism tells people that they need to buy something (therapy) to feel better. Many of these great clinical psychologists have written books on how to solve the most common psychological problems and even Carl Jung himself said that people can do self-therapy if they have the temperament to do so (self-awareness).

It would never occur to someone in history to take their wife to Paris to try to fix their relationship. But this romantic consumerism is common in modern times.

If a person did not believe in the common myths of their time, they would be taken to a mental institution. Ex) If the CEO of Tesla no longer believed that the LLC Tesla existed. Or if someone stopped believing in the dollar, human rights, laws, or the USA.

To play basketball requires that everyone knows the rules of the game—that they understand the myth of basketball. Nation-states are like this too but they are different in that they have WAY more rules and systems—too much for an individual to store in their brain.

The word outcast comes from the caste system—people outside of the caste aka untouchables.

Slave owners wanted a moral justification for their economic benefit of slavery. So they created myths to justify why they were superior to the races they enslaved, like being more intelligent.

America and Britain then abolished slavery—the first time in history that slavery had been willingly abolished. But the myth of racial superiority stayed. Rather than the myth going away over time, the myth became more accepted because blacks (even equally qualified blacks) were much less likely to get respectable work than their white counterparts. This led people to think that blacks weren’t able to get these jobs because of a lack of intelligence and work ethic. This led to Jim Crow legislation to separate blacks and whites because the blacks were seen as vicious. Interracial marriage became a big taboo and it could be punishable by death—the KKK would lynch you. White physical features and skin tone were deemed attractive and black features were deemed unattractive.

Groups that have been discriminated against in history are more likely to be discriminated against in the future. Groups that have been privileged in the past are more likely to have privilege in the future.

Women have been treated worse than men for much of history—at least since the agricultural revolution. Yuval then notes that Germany did not have spousal rape as a crime until 1997.

Equality and freedom cannot occur at the same time. To have equality, you must limit the freedom of those who are above average. Communism creates tyranny where people are not allowed to be better than others. And eventually, those in power use their power to get more money or goods or services than the rest.

Globalization has made it so everyone has the same systems—nation-states, economics, international human rights (to an extent), and the same scientific systems (physics and its understanding are the same everywhere).

The next 3 chapters cover the 3 largest myths, Money, Empire, and Religion, and how they spread. Money outlived them all.

Money

Everyone always wants money and that is why everyone always wants money—you can always exchange it for what you need.

Time and beauty are forms of wealth that cannot be stored. All people inherit time (barring being born with a life-threatening disease). Some people inherit beauty.

Money is a system of mutual trust. Trust in the system that propagates the currency. USD requires trust in America’s financial standing (the production and income of the USA) and that others want it. The nation propagates this by requiring taxes to be paid in USD and others in the system (businesses, individuals) also want you to pay in USD. Bitcoin requires trust in code, the internet, and that others want it.

People did not trust early forms of money, so it was important to make the money out of something people had an actual use for. In history, many different commodities have been used as money. Barley, cigarettes, silver, gold, etc. Barley was an early form of money that got people to understand why it had value because it had inherent value—people could eat it. Over time, commodities with less direct usefulness but better storage (silver doesn’t rot like barley) and transactional (a silver coin is easier to transact with than a bowl of barley) attributes became more popular (silver, gold).

Marked coins were developed to make transactions easier. You could now trust the seal of the coin maker rather than having to test and weigh the metal bars to ensure authenticity. The mark is guaranteed by the political figure/system on the coin—this made people trust the metal coins. Anyone who was counterfeiting coins was to be punished by the political figure (king) or system because you are tarnishing the reputation of the coin. That is why counterfeiting money is such an offensive crime.

Coins were essential for large empires. Imagine if Rome had to collect taxes in barley from their citizens in the east and then send some barley off to pay the British their share of the taxes.

The Mediterraneans valued gold because they saw it as a status symbol. This increased its value. In India, gold was not seen as a status symbol so it did not have a very high price. Traders noticed this and arbitraged between the two States. Over time, India began to value gold, simply because the Mediterranean valued gold. Something can gain value simply because others value it.

Money outlived religion because it only requires us to believe that other people believe in something—easy to do and can be objective.

Religion, on the other hand, requires the individual to believe in a religion themselves. This is harder to do.

Money makes things less about Culture: Honor, loyalty, morality, and love and more about supply and demand. These things shouldn’t be offered for money. Parents must not sell their kids into slavery. Christians must not sin for money. Knights should be loyal to their king. But parents have sold their children. Christians have sinned for money and then used that money to buy forgiveness in the church. And Knights have offered their services to the highest bidder.

Money builds universal trust between strangers. But we do not trust the stranger themself, we trust the money they hold. If they run out of money, we run out of trust.

Empire

We could have a single global government—an world empire. This allows people to have the same rights and not be discriminated against. This global government could unify people and is now possible with the internet. People are inherently xenophobic. They put people into two groups: we and they. “We” are people who speak and look and act like us. “They” are anyone else.

Religion

Religion is the 3rd great unifier of people—alongside money and empires.

A big reason for religion was for people to talk to animals and plants through god/gods. Sacrifices were given to gods to try to ensure good harvests or animals.

Spirits, rocks, demons, fairies, holy springs, and holy trees were still useful even when gods came into play. The former was for smaller groups and individuals whereas gods were used to get help for an entire empire. ie. An emperor may have 12 goats sacrificed to the war god to ensure that his troops return safely after a victory. And an individual may light a candle for the tree spirit.

Christianity in Europe used to be similar to polytheism. They had different saints that you would pray to for certain things. You would pray to one saint if you had a headache and another if you had a toothache.

Monotheists must explain why an all knowing god would let there be so much suffering in the world.

Yuval makes the argument that communism is like a religion. Marx and Engels are the holy figures. Das Kapital and the Communist manifesto are the holy books. Buddhism is more of an ideology than communism.

3 beliefs that humans are better than all else:

  1. Liberal individualism comes from the Christian belief of free and eternal individual souls.
  2. Liberal equalism comes from the Christian belief that all people are created by God and therefore are equal.
  3. Evolutionist individualism was what the Nazis believed. They believed that evolution created the fittest race and the one that wins is the fittest. This is what happens when you take humanism and remove religious morality.

The first two dogmatically claim they are correct.

There is a new religion-like ideology that thinks that science and technology are the all-knowing gods. This can be seen especially in theoretical physics. They are basically just philosophers who are mildly attached to science.

Scholars and scientists came up with the new weapons used in WWI.

Technological innovation was frowned upon before the 1500s. Stories like Icarus told people to not fly too close to the sun. Don’t try to be a god. This stifled technological innovation even for military purposes.

The goal of technology is to achieve eternal human life.

Anesthetics weren’t used until the mid-19th century.

In 1814, after the battle of Waterloo, there were a bunch of amputated appendages because that was their level of medical sophistication. The people who cut off the limbs were people who could cut well—not medical professionals.

The 20th century racist language about ethnicity has been replaced in the 21st century by talks about culture. That group is barbarous—not because of their race—but because of their culture.

The neo-racist political right argues that the West is civilized and cares about humans but the Muslim Middle East is uncivilized and misogynistic. The left then feels they need to oppose the right—so they are pro-Muslim even though the Muslims are inherently misogynistic and anti-feminist. This is how you get this blatant hypocrisy. They are focused on the xenophobic battle with the right and not the actual issues of terrorism and misogyny in the Middle East.

Economic Growth

Economic growth means the pie (total amount of money) grows. This means that making a business and making more money makes the pie larger. Making more money is beneficial for everyone because it means everyone can either make more money and/or buy goods for a lower price.  In short, businessmen make life better for everyone—they are not greedy money hoarders of a fixed supply currency. It is not a zero-sum game (others don’t have to lose for you to win). Your winning can help others win.

Greed is god in a capitalist society. Business owners want customers to be wealthy because then they have money to buy their goods. Customers want businesses to be wealthy so that they can keep providing the goods and services they love and so that they can hire more workers and pay them more. But this requires that businesses use their profits and invest them into more workers and better products. If a company, say, does stock buybacks instead, they are only enriching themselves and their shareholders—a greedy move that is zero-sum (others are losing because they get inferior products/services and there are fewer jobs).

You can judge the morality of a business by what % of their net profits are re-invested into R&D and if they are either paying employees more or hiring more employees.

Is there a limit to how big the economy can get? Possibly not, because of digital goods and services. Also, robots could unlock huge markets.

Consumerism came after the industrial revolution because, for the first time in history, supply was outpacing demand. In order to get people to buy all this extra stuff, we needed a new myth—consumerism. Frugality is seen as self-oppression.

The government and the markets have replaced family and community. "Don’t rely on other people, rely on the State."

Instead of the community helping a person in need, we now have the State—get any job you want even if others frown upon it, move far away from your family and community, and the government and the market will give you food, shelter, education, health, welfare, and employment. There are also pensions, insurance, and protection.

Consumer tribes are the new communities—people who buy similar things to yourself. We also have larger general political tribes and market tribes (consumer tribes are smaller units of market tribes ie. Ariana Grande fans are a consumer tribe). Smartphone buyers are a market tribe.

  • This changes preferences for relationships. A French vegetarian may choose an intimate partner or friend who is German and vegetarian over one who is French and an omnivore.

The development of nuclear weapons actually may have created peace because States with nuclear bombs cannot enter into a physical war because it would lead to the end of humankind. Also, war used to be more profitable, but not as much anymore. Fields, capital, slaves, and gold could easily be taken after historic wars. Today, the money is made by production—silicon and Hollywood in California, for example. This money goes to the people who work at those companies and those people would be long gone by the time another country could invade California. Many modern wars take place around wealth that cannot move—oil wells in the Middle East. The trade between the US and China incentives peace. If they go to war, the Chinese can’t make money selling to the US and the US loses out on all the cheap goods China sells. International trade is the largest barrier to war.

Happiness is based on being content with what you have. People in good marriages are happy but people in bad marriages are miserable. Bad marriages are on the rise. First-world standards make people unhappy. You compare yourself and your life to everyone else’s. Compare yourself to your previous self or to average people in history—this will make you happy and grateful.

There are studies that say that married people are happier. But how do we know that’s causal? It could be that happier people get married—not that marriage makes people happier. It may also be that non-naturally happy people trying to become happy through marriage are the people who make up a large percentage of bad marriages.

Buddhism: happiness is not influenced by the external or internal—all feelings will come and go.

Modern spiritualism: Happiness is not influenced by the external—you know what will make you happy. If it makes you feel good, it makes you happy.

The End of Homo Sapiens

There may be an intelligent creator of the future: Bioengineering, cyborg engineering, and inorganic engineering (robots).

Bio: DNA cloning, gene editing.

Cyborgs: DARPA remote insect—can fly and has a camera/mic on it.

Inorganic: computer programs and viruses that can learn on their own. Computer viruses are like real viruses—they go on the computer and mutate and spread.