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Review: Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari proposes that intelligent design might one day become the baseline of all life, and that perhaps “superhumans” will replace us. That is, unless we take the time to understand our origins as a species.

A cautionary tale for our species that everyone should read.


  • Want to understand the origins of our species
  • Are worried that humanity is progressing too quickly
  • Care about the future and our place in it


Physics tells us the story of the universe through the Big Bang, a cosmic event that occurred approximately 13.5 billion years ago. Only within the last 70,000 years of that unfathomable timespan did Homo sapiens first appear.

Since then, humanity has undergone three major revolutions: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. The latter began only about five centuries ago, and we’re still living in it now, progressing so rapidly that its outcomes are still a mystery.

Review: Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind

The Cognitive Revolution

Scientifically speaking, we aren’t the only humans to have walked the earth. Our earliest humanoid ancestors all belonged to the genus Homo, but the appearance of an offshoot known as Homo sapiens disrupted the natural order with its distinct advances in language, cognition, and technology — or so we’ve always been told. And here we are now, standing on the cusp of another evolutionary sea change, where our own existence is threatened by the possibility of artificially intelligent beings surpassing us in every way imaginable.

What we see as advantages — namely, our large brains, capacity for learning, technological advancements, and social networks — weren’t always so special. For 2 million years we lived with these abilities without ever having much of an advantage. Until only very recently, Homo sapiens were in the middle of the food chain. Our rise to the top, however, came with a price.

For many thousands of years, Neanderthals were stronger than Sapiens. In fact, when bands of Sapiens first encountered Neanderthals in what is now the Middle East, they were overpowered and fled back to Africa. Then, about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens left Africa once more, eradicating Neanderthals in their paths into Asia and Europe, and even across the oceans into Australia. Over the next 40,000 years, the archaeological record confirms subsequent appearances of boats, sewing needles, oil lamps, and even art. This explosion of activity constitutes what has come to be known as the Cognitive Revolution. Yet many speculate that the most significant development in all of this wasn’t strength or intelligence, but language. Developments in language were vital not only for communicating the presence of danger (even primates can alter their alarm calls to indicate specific predators), but also for storing information in the brain. A monkey can warn of an approaching lion, but only a human can alert the entire tribe that a lion was spotted tracking a herd of gazelle earlier that morning where the river bends.

More than that, our newfound linguistic skills allowed us to develop concepts that didn’t even exist in the material world, such as spirituality, religion, and the supernatural. An agreement on fiction allowed us to strive for things at the collective level. The Cognitive Revolution therefore enabled Homo sapiens to increase the sizes of their bands. Along with this, however, came hierarchies, politics, and wars. Then, as now, any large collective like a city depends on belief in a common mythology.

Understanding our hunter–gatherer ancestors lends insight into who we are today. Those who look at evolution might wonder, for example, why we’re so prone to binging on unhealthy foods. Our ancestors rarely came across high-calorie sweets. If they found a fruit tree while out foraging, they were likely to eat as much of it as they could in order to maximize the find. But now that we’ve made such indulgences regularly available, we eat them with far greater frequency. All of this started once we began cultivating food for ourselves.

The Agricultural Revolution

The Agricultural Revolution forever changed the landscape of Sapiens. Where once we had to forage for food, bowing to the whim of every change in terrain and weather, we suddenly had methods by which to grow our own food in designated areas. The fact that over the last 2,000 years no plant or animal of any real significance has been domesticated is a testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors, who dedicated their lives to growing and shaping what we eat today.

Where once we believed that agriculture spread from the Middle East, we now know that it developed independently in various pockets around the world. The earliest farmers had no deeper knowledge of the land than their foraging predecessors, for whom intimate understandings of nature were necessary for survival. You might say plants domesticated us, not the other way around, because without us, certain plant species might never have survived without us working so hard to cultivate them.

Indeed, ancient skeletons show a range of new ailments, including hernias and arthritis, that came about as a result of the intense labor required to grow crops. Yet despite this challenge, in addition to the many conflicts arising over territories and resources, we persisted. The influence of a sustainable food source was too alluring to ignore. Its abundance allowed us to procreate and feed more offspring, thus nourishing our most valuable evolutionary currency: DNA. Whereas babies were an encumbrance for nomadic foragers, for stationary tribes they were a blessing.

Whereas foragers were concerned with the here and now, their agriculturally minded successors had more time to forecast the future, leading to the construction of villages, towns, and cities — none of which would exist without the confidence of people and resources to sustain them. It also meant larger groups and collaborations between strangers, and stronger allegiances to moral virtues, human rights, and even such self-interested notions as “happiness.” We know all of these things to be socially constructed, yet we subscribe to their fictions for fear of the chaos that would erupt without them.

The Agricultural Revolution was perhaps most unique for advancing our reliance on numbers. A forager was never required to know the number of fruits on a tree, but to the new agriculturalists, such information was the very basis of one’s livelihood and social position. Hence the invention of writing by the ancient Sumerians, who were able to calculate unheard-of sums and keep records on a scale no human brain could process.

From this came the advanced writing systems we currently enjoy, and which are responsible for entire systems of law, religious thought, and learning. Writing further allowed us to codify all the necessary fictions and scripts by which to order our lives in ways we were never biologically created for. From the Hindu caste system to racial segregation in America, social orders have been “justified” based on an agreed-upon sense of natural order.

Most anthropologists, for example, continue to insist on an overwhelming instance of patriarchy in cultures throughout the world. Common theories, however, fail to support this idea. Patriarchy isn’t about brute strength, a quality traditionally associated with the lower, working class. Neither can it be about aggression, which leads only to violence and death while the manipulators behind the scenes enjoy the spoils. Neither is there any genetic proof of male superiority. Patriarchy, then, is just another self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated on a large scale.

The Unification of Humankind

Cultures and their worldviews are as malleable as the citizens that comprise them. That said, human history does follow a discernible pattern and direction. The pattern is overwhelming growth followed by intense splintering, as happened with the Mongol Empire or the Latin language. Yet there has also been an overarching trend toward unity, despite what current politics would have us believe. No culture as we know it today can be said to have grown independently. Everything is intertwined to some degree.

Because we’re so prone to looking at history with a critical eye, we might not see merchants or conquerors as unifiers, but throughout history both have been intent on bringing together interactions under the umbrella of whatever fiction happens to be guiding them at the time. All of this revolves around the greatest unifying force of them all: money.

Money is the ultimate imagined order. It has no value in and of itself, only what we ascribe to it in a particular economic system (and even that is subject to change at any given time). Whether counted in cowry shells or dollars, money is only as good as our psychological acceptance of it as such. Without mutual trust and therefore a unity of purpose and function, it has no value.

Modern liberalism tells us that empires aren’t sustainable, because it’s impossible to rule over that many conquered people for too long. And anyway, they’re fundamentally evil, right? But empires have been the dominant political mode of rule for the last 2,500 years. One benefit of empires is conglomerating smaller areas under the umbrella of a larger one, while standardizing laws, currency, and weights and measures in the process. If such efforts go wrong, it’s not by fault of the idea but its implementation.

Many places conquered by Europe enjoy benefits and an equality on the world stage they might not ever have had otherwise. We might look askew at the contentious British takeover of India, for example, but forget that modern India wouldn’t be what it is without that history, and that the scale on which brought together factions were killing each other far outweighs any violence implemented to unify them. This doesn’t condone such violence, but simply throws a wrench into arguments of moral equivalence. Would any self-respecting Indian citizen want to ban the English language, legal system, railway network, democracy, tea, and cricket just because these are considered imperial baggage? Would all Americans of European origin be willing to move back to the continent so that Native Americans can regain control of the land that was rightfully theirs to begin with? Such questions are difficult, because they point to the fact that we want it both ways: condemning the past while enjoying its benefits in the present.

Religion, too, has been criticized as being more divisive and discriminatory than unifying, yet religion is almost as responsible as money and empires for bringing people together. Religions are important because they activate our love for superhuman order and social values. This is why early religions involved animal sacrifice: It was the only way to assert control over biological processes that were beyond the reach of human influence. Above all, religion placed Homo sapiens at the center of the universe as pinnacles of reason and moral consideration, especially as polytheistic, animist religions gave way to their monotheistic counterparts.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution relies on our willingness to recognize our ignorance as a species, using observation and mathematics to create provable theories, and to acquire new powers by harnessing those theories into material action. In other words, it’s only because we admit our ignorance that science flourishes. We are always looking to understand the universe by controlling it, one atom at a time.

Yet science and technology weren’t always intertwined. Science used to be more concerned with understanding the universe than controlling it. Once science was married to empire, however, it became a socially profitable enterprise. Royal Societies and government-funded laboratories have since given science a political edge it never had before. And of course, once technology became blatantly connected to warfare, so, too, did science, culminating in such horrors as Agent Orange and the atomic bomb.

The spark that lit the fire of the Scientific Revolution is arguably Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. This event forced Europeans to gather all sorts of data about the new continent in order to subjugate it. Their existing knowledge base wasn’t enough. This insatiable desire for knowledge drove Europe to learn new languages, geographies, flora and fauna, and, yes, technologies. Without this conquering mentality, we would never have walked on the moon.

We must remember, however, that any inferences we have made about the world and our place in it have come about only in hindsight, and that history — and evolution, for that matter — might have gone in an infinite number of other directions. Accepting things as they are gives them an air of inevitability — yet another fiction on which we must agree.

But science has gotten to the point where its creations might very well become creators. As artificial intelligence gains sway in the public imagination, both on our movie screens and in our laboratories, we are being groomed to accept the dire possibility of an A.I. takeover. If that happens, we will no longer be top dog. Our days as a species will be numbered. History does indeed repeat itself, but so does evolution, and if we aren’t careful, we might just be the next Neanderthals on the brink of a final invasion.


If all the fatalists out there are to be believed, we will one day exhaust our resources and economies. We must therefore look to the likelihood that one day we will have reached our limit.

We are finite creatures living in finite systems. This is why biological engineering threatens to destroy us. The more we try to create something out of our imaginations, the closer we get to the reality of eradicating ourselves. It’s not about discovering a new species, but creating one. We move closer toward that bionic, cyborgian reality, one built upon principles of artificial intelligence, but we have yet to grapple with the full ethical implications of all this.

If we are frightened by the possibility of becoming something other than what we currently are, then we haven’t thought about it deeply enough.

About the author

Yuval Noah Harari holds a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford and currently serves as lecturer in world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is known for addressing some of the largest questions facing humanity in a thoughtful and accessible manner, as proven by the international success of his other books, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.