🐒What We Can Learn From Our Past: Sapiens By Yuval Noah Harari

🐒What We Can Learn From Our Past: Sapiens By Yuval Noah Harari
Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik / Unsplash

Why study history?

I study history because it gives insight into how we can live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives in the present. Through my research, I have found two ironclad laws of history:

  1. A need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for reproduction and survival.
  2. Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations.

By understanding how these laws have shaped history, we can gain insight into how to live better today. To help find these insights, I will be giving a book summary interpretation of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It provides a mesmerizing recount of the broad strokes of human history.

According to Harari, the course of humans have come to where we are today over three main "revolutions": The Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Let’s go through each.

🧠The Cognitive Revolution

From about 2 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, the world was home to several human species. The only one existing today, however, is us, Homo sapiens. How did humans rise to become top of the dominant animal so fast?

📃The Four Reasons We Succeeded

We succeeded for four main reasons:

  1. Changes in brain matter
  2. Innovations in fire and cooking
  3. Our babies are born underdeveloped
  4. Information dense language

Let's explore each more in depth.

Changes in brain matter

Most scholars don't know why or how, but around 70,000-30,000 years ago—in the cognitive revolution—there was an incredible shift in the human brain's capabilities among Homo sapiens. According to Harari, Homo sapiens brains began to account for about "2-3% of their total body weight, but it consumes 25% of the body's energy at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8% of the rest time energy."

This gave us the intellectual capabilities to create complex tools. Tools allowed us to improve in the areas we lacked against other animals. For example, a human by itself is unremarkable physically, but a human in a tank is a whole other matter. Another example is clothing which helps keep us warm (and fashionable) during colder months.

Innovations in fire and cooking

Our intelligence led to innovations in cooking and fire. This allowed us to eat more kinds of food, devote less time to eating, and make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. No other human species had come up with these innovations.

Our babies are born underdeveloped

This is the predominant reason human babies can be educated and socialized to a far greater extent than any other animal. This gives us tremendous adaptability as babies can be raised in to prosper in almost any environment on Earth if done early enough. Except for Antarctica. I'm good not freezing my toes off.

Information dense language

Finally, our intellectual capabilities allowed us to make our language more information dense than any other animal. If an ape saw a lion, they would only be capable of saying, "look out! There's a lion!" A human, however, could say something as complex as "pas op! Er is een leeuwenroedel op de westelijke oever, 3 mijl ten noorden van ons kamp." Sorry, I couldn’t help but say the sentence in Dutch. Guess you will have to use google translate. But this only further reflects how many ways we have to say the same thing.

These adaptations combined led to homo sapiens' rise to the top of the food chain in around 100,000 years.

💡What Can We Learn From The Cognitive Revolution?

This rapid rise had many ramifications on our ability to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Remember the first iron law of history: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for reproduction and survival.

Our rapid rise to the top of the food chain continues to affect us negatively even today. This is because we still feel many subjective needs from our hunter gatherer pasts. Let's go through the two main ones.

We compulsively consume and act on information we don't need to

In our old world, we needed to forage not only for food and materials but also for knowledge—a capability given to use by our increased intelligence. Our ancestors needed detailed maps of territories and the organisms inhabiting them to survive.

In the modern digital age, however, we no longer have to forage for vast amounts of information. Yet, most people feel an insatiable need to constantly consume and act on information regardless.

This leaves many unable to relax and be present in nature. Even I still struggle to sit down and do nothing despite years of meditation.

We are addicted to fat and sugar

Our ancestry could also explain why we face an obesity epidemic in contemporary society. According to Gorging Gene theory, the instinct to gorge on sugary and fatty foods is hard wired into our genes. Our ancestors rarely had a chance to eat such high calorie foods.

Our past eating schedules were quite flexible. There could be days with relatively little food and then suddenly days where the men got a big kill, and the tribe could feast. Any chance to consume fat and sugar was a blessing that had to be taken advantage of.

How can we use this to live happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives?

Firstly, stop feeling a compulsive need to consume and act on information. Question if a piece of information truly makes you happy or if you are consuming it out of habit.

Don't consume "shoulds" but rather consume information that resonates with you and sparks joy. Treat information like food. Your brain needs good quality information to function optimally like your body craves a healthy mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and all of the different micronutrients and macronutrients.

Stop feeling a constant need to do things. Sometimes the best action is not acting. Incessant action is a recipe for burnout.

Secondly, eat more like our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Allow yourself the occasional indulgence of fat and sugar but avoid the combination at all other times. There are tons of diet tips and books out there but I stick to how we ate as hunter gatherers. The diet can be summed up with this mantra created by Michael Pollan: "eat food, mostly plants, not too much." It's that simple.

Let's move on to the Agricultural Revolution to see what else we can learn.

🌽The Agricultural Revolution

Contrary to popular belief, agriculture humans didn't adopt agriculture in one massive sweep. Instead, agriculture slowly developed first in the Indus River Valley and spread over thousands of years.

In one of the most enlightening passages of the book, Harari says, "foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than foragers."

The average farmer's life is worse than hunting and gathering in four main ways:

  1. Farmer's diets are less diverse
  2. Farmers are more prone to animal diseases
  3. Farmers are more beholden to one area
  4. Farmers often work longer hours

So why did we adopt agriculture?

The one significant benefit of agriculture is it offers people safety in bad times because of excess food storage. Wheat, potatoes, and other plants can be grown in bulk and kept for years at a time in case of a disaster.

But why would this one reason dominate over the drawbacks of an agricultural lifestyle? The reason stems from the second iron law of history: "luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations."

This is the essence of the agricultural revolution.

Extra calories from small scale farming allowed for more children to be born. These additional children needed more food which couldn't be found off of a solely hunting and gathering lifestyle.

Over thousands and thousands of years, hunter gathers became more and more tied to farming to sustain the extra mouths to feed. These children didn't remember what life was like before agriculture, and slowly but surely, farming became a way of life.

Villages turned into towns. Towns turned into cities. Cities turned into civilizations.

💡What Can We Learn From The Agricultural Revolution?

Like the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution sheds three main insights on how we can live more meaningful and happy lives today:

  1. Lower your social circle
  2. The power of the hedonic treadmill
  3. We should work less

Let's dive into each.

Lower your social circle

You would think civilization makes people less lonely because we can be with so many others. But hunter gatherer groups were rarely larger than 150 people. This is Dunbar's number. It's theorized to be the most meaningful connections we can have in our social sphere.

But nowadays, with the internet, most people have way more connections than this. I know some people with thousands of "friends" on Instagram. This is entirely discordant with our lives as hunter gatherers.

Trying to connect with this many people inhibits the formation of more meaningful connections in one's circle of 150. I suggest you subtract from the number of "friends" you have on social media. Foster more meaningful relationships with the people already close to you.

The power of the hedonic treadmill

Secondly, the agricultural revolution emphasizes an essential concept from psychology: the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) is a theory that people repeatedly return to their baseline levels of happiness regardless of what happens to them.

Hedonic adaptation is the dark horse of the agricultural revolution. Farming gave humans the luxury of having extra food. Soon, this luxury spawned new obligations, and we grew even more food.

We don't have to make the same mistake as our ancestors. Ask yourself what goals or material goods you are chasing. Then ask if these things will truly make your life better.

We should work less

Our hunting gathering ancestors rarely worked for more than 35-45 hours a week. We can guess this because modern day hunter gatherers isolated from society work for around 35-45 hours a week.

But many people in affluent societies today work on the higher end. The standard working hours for countries worldwide are between 40 and 44 hours a week. In some countries like North Korea it's instead a staggering 105 hours per week. And this doesn't even factor in commuting time or people who work on the weekends.

Is there a reason we have to work this frequently? Why not spend the weekend with your family or friends. As we know from hedonic adaptation, career growth rarely leads to sustainable happiness. It certainly wasn't a large focus of our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Let's move on to the Scientific Revolution to see what else we can learn.

🔬The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution was a revolution of mindset. Sometime around the 16th century, our mindsets changed from contingency and speculation to fact, reasoning, and improvement. Harari states, above all, the "scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been a revolution of ignorance."

Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three ways:

  1. Our willingness to admit ignorance.
  2. The centrality of observation and mathematics.
  3. Our hunger to use theories to acquire new power and in particular develop new technologies.

These three shifts were encapsulated in arguably the greatest invention in human history: the scientific method—a beautiful system for using observation and mathematics to expand on past knowledge. With a new willingness to accept ignorance, a hunger for knowledge, and the scientific method invented by Francis Bacon, technology began to improve rapidly.

Up until the 16th century, the vast majority of revolutions were the product of organizational rather than technological changes. However, during the scientific revolution, humans came out with inventions like the printing press, steam engines, peanut butter (I’m addicted), and the internet.

If all of this sounds too good to be true, it's because it is. Like the other two major revolutions of history, the scientific revolution has its dark side.

Most scientific studies are founded not for the good of humanity but because someone believes it will help them attain political, economic, or religious advantages. Of course, some scientists act from pure intellectual curiosity but rarely do they dictate the scientific agenda. This unfortunate fact has led to many of history's evils.

Europe was largely irrelevant in the scope of history before the scientific revolution. But technological advancement fueled European countries' ruthless colonization, slave trading, and environmental exploitation. By the late 18th century, Europe had many of the dominant world superpowers.

💡What Can We Learn From The Scientific Revolution?

The scientific revolution has made us addicted to progress. Many cultures today pride themselves on innovation and improvement. The United States, for example, is a culture prizing individual achievement and innovation. With cultures like these, it's easy to assume technological progress is inherently good.

Of course we should adopt more technologies into our lives! Innovation and scientific inquiry is always good! No.

We need to ask ourselves a question many seem to be neglecting: is technology genuinely making our lives better or is it simple making luxuries that become necessities?

I know many people who would struggle to live without their phones for a day. I myself find having a phone incredibly useful for texting and getting kindle books sent with the click of a finger. But as a result, know it would be hard for me to go without my phone for an extended period.

It's not only digital technology. I can store a Twinkie for years in my cupboard before it goes bad; that's not food. Technological innovation has made commercial ocean fishing so efficient we could one day run out of fish.

Clearly, technology doesn't always make the world better.

But what's the point of technological progress and human achievement if not to make living happier and more meaningful lives easier?

Rather than adopt a technology automatically into our lives, we should take a more careful approach. We should ask ourselves if the technology will help us with what we value most in life.

For me, I value three things above all else:

  • My health
  • My relationships
  • My teaching

If a technology doesn't help me with one of these three things, I will rarely use it.

History has taught us many things humans have biologically evolved to strive for don't make us happy today. The two iron laws of history are so important they should be repeated.

  1. A need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for reproduction and survival.
  2. Luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations.

Humans' drive to act—even when action leads to worse lives—will continue to shape history into the future. We need not only to understand this fact but to ingrain it into our minds.

This century could be the most important in human history. The economy is expanding more than ever before, and the internet is facilitating technological innovation in society to a whole new degree. Will we learn from the mistakes of our past revolutions?

Thanks to Astrid Helfant and Murray Helfant for the conversations which helped form this post.