Book Summary: Sapiens (Part 2)

This is Part 2 (The Agricultural Revolution) in the four-part series of book summary of Sapiens by Yuval. If you haven’t read Part 1 (The Cognitive Revolution), please read it before reading this.

The Agricultural Revolution

5) History’s Biggest Fraud

  • Sapiens ceased being foragers 10,000 years ago when they began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species.
  • No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.
  • Incredibly, the Agricultural Revolution sprang up independently in many different parts of the world.
  • Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.
  • The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes that were responsible for domesticating Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.
  • New agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
  • Wheat did not offer a better diet. It did not give people economic security. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence.
  • Wheat offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enable Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially
  • Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.
  • This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
  • The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.

The Luxury Trap

  • Wheat began to thrive as temperatures warmed at the end of the Ice Age.
  • When humans burned down forests and thickets, this also helped wheat.
  • Where wheat became abundant, the game and other food sources were also plentiful. Nomadic bands could gradually give up their foraging lifestyle and settle down into permanent camps.
  • They quickly learned more advanced cultivation techniques until they became farmers.
  • With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow.
  • But disease riddled settlements combined with malnourishment led to soaring child mortality. In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty.
  • Population growth burned humanities boats. There was no going back to foraging.
  • One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
  • We invent countless time saving devices that promise to make our lives more relaxed, yet do just the opposite. Email is a great example.

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? but by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

Victims of the Revolution

  • The evolutionary success of the Agricultural Revolution (greater population) was actually cause for much suffering on the individual level. Not just for humans, but for domesticated animals like cows, sheep, and chickens as well.
  • Domesticated animals—sheep, chickens, donkeys, and others—supplied food, raw materials, and muscle power.
  • Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens.
  • Despite massive growth in population around the world, most domesticated animals live short and cruel lives. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.

6) Building Pyramids

  • Ancient farmers might seem dirt poor to us, but a typical family possessed more artifacts than an entire forager tribe.
  • Until the late modern era, more than 90 percent of humans were peasants who by the sweat of their brows fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

The Coming to the Future

  • Foragers discounted the future because they lived hand to mouth. This saved them a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about thing that they could not influence.
  • But farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service.
  • From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theatre of the human mind. E.g. the weather, the crop yield this year, etc.
  • The stress of farming was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems.

An Imagined Order

  • We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.
  • The myths that surround us and make up our lives dictate so much of what we believe and what we do.

Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective reality.

Prison Walls

  • How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You insist that it’s an objective reality created by the gods or laws of nature.
  • You also educate people thoroughly by constantly reminding them of the principles of the imagined order.
  • Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experience as we can.
  • Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible.
  • Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences.

Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. But few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.

7) Memory Overload

  • The human brain is not well adapted to storing and processing numbers.
  • Between 3500 and 3000 BC, the Sumerians were in southern Mesopotamia invented the first written language—cuneiform.
  • Writing has actually changed the way humans think. We can use writing and record keeping to think far more categorically than ever before.

Signed, Kushim

  • The first texts of history contain no philosophical insight, poetry, legends, or laws. They are economic documents, recording the payment of taxes, accumulation of debt, and the ownership of property.
  • Quipus by Incas were colorful cords made of wool or cotton with knots tied in different places. By combining different knots on different cords with different colors, it was possible to record large amounts of mathematical data.
Quipus were knotted tally cords used by the Inca Civilization of South America

The Wonders of Bureaucracy

  • Written records require a good cataloging and retrieval system. Pharaonic Egypt, ancient China, and the Inca Empire all created special schools in which professional scribes, clerks, librarians and accountants were rigorously trained in the secrets of data-processing.

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalization and bureaucracy.

The Language of Numbers

  • Numbers are the world’s most prevalent language.
  • Arabic numerals were first invented by the Hindus, but the Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, refined it, and spread it through the Middle East and then to Europe.
  • Anyone who wishes to influence the decisions of governments, organizations, and companies must learn to speak in numbers.
  • Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers.

8) There is No Justice in History

  • Humans organized themselves in mass-cooperation networks by creating imagined orders and devising scripts.
  • Scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether.
  • Social hierarchies, inequality, and so on are human inventions.
  • Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.
  • Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy.

The Vicious Circle

  • Those once victimized by history are likely to be victimized yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
  • Most rich people are rich because they were born into rich families. Most poor people are poor because they were born into poor families.
  • Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time.
  • Example: blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their intellectual inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.

He and She

  • When it comes to gender inequality: biology enables, culture forbids.
  • Culture tends to argue that it forbid only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.
  • A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.
  • Your sex (male or female) are biological categories with objective qualities that have remained constant throughout history. Meanwhile, gender (man or woman) is a cultural category with qualities that are inter-subjective and undergo constant changes.
  • The idea of “unnatural” behaviors is actually a result of Christian theology, not biology.

What’s So Good About Men?

  • Not their physical strength. Human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. (example: women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men)
  • Not their natural aggression. Empire-builders are cooperative. They know how to appease, manipulate and see things from different perspectives.
  • Not their competitive drive to reproduce. The theory that women needed men to protect them while they were pregnant ignores that they could have easily relied on other women.

How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.

Continued in Book Summary: Sapiens (Part 3)

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