Sapiens

By: Yuval Noah Harari

The subtitle “A Brief History of Humankind” describes the subject of this book quite well. However, it doesn't convey the fascination, philosophy, and impact contained in this bird’s eye view of human history. Rather than focus on what happened, Sapiens is about how and why our history unfolded the way it did. Armed with ingenious metaphors, wit, and an eye for the big picture, Yuval Noah Harari delivers what I’m tempted to call a ‘masterpiece’ with unparalleled clarity.

Sapiens was intellectual lighter fluid for me. It stoked my interest in myth and minimalism, exposed the influences underlying my desire for novel experiences, and caused me to examine my future with our future in mind.

Of most importance: Sapiens was the straw to break the camel's back convincing me to sign-up for a ten-day Vipassana meditation course. This was a very good decision.

Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? … When it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
— Yuval Noah Harari
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point they can’t live without it.
— Yuval Noah Harari
While agricultural space shrank, agricultural time expanded. Foragers usually didn’t waste much time thinking about next month or next summer. Farmers sailed in their imagination years and decades into the future.
— Yuval Noah Harari
For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalistic, capitalist and human myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, “Follow your heart.” But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to “Follow your heart” was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths.
— Yuval Noah Harari
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be insured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
— Yuval Noah Harari
In short, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries. Hence in order to comprehend how humankind has reach Alamogordo and the moon—rather than an number of alternative destinations—is not enough to survey the achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists. We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.
— Yuval Noah Harari
Today the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need. The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
— Yuval Noah Harari
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.
— Yuval Noah Harari
People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing—joy, anger, boredom, lust—but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been.

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and tying to prevent them from disintegrating while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!
— Yuval Noah Harari
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontent as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
— Yuval Noah Harari

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