Book Summary: Sapiens (Part 3)

This is Part 3 (The Unification of Humankind) in the four-part series of book summary of Sapiens by Yuval. If you haven’t read Part 1 (The Cognitive Revolution), Part 2 (The Agricultural Revolution) please read them before reading this.

The Unification of Humankind

9) The Arrow of History

  • Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux.
  • Freedom and equality are seen as fundamental values in Western cultures. But they contradict each other. Equality can be ensured 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.
  • Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to fund programs.
  • Republicans want to maximize individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap between rich and poor will grow wider.
  • Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Contradictions are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

The Spy Satellite

  • Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations.
  • Over the last few centuries, all cultures were changed almost beyond recognition by a flood of global influences.
  • History is moving relentlessly toward unity. The whole planet is moving toward one world culture.

The Global Vision

  • Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind.
  • Money is the greatest global conqueror of all.

10) The Scent of Money

  • Hunter-gatherers had no money. They shared their goods and services through an economy of favors and obligations.
  • The rise of cities and kingdoms and the improvement in transport infrastructure brought about new opportunities for specialization.
  • Complex societies gave rise to the need for money.
  • Soviet Union’s attempt to create a central barter system failed miserably. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.

Shells and Cigarettes

  • Money was not a technological breakthrough. It was a purely mental revolution. It doesn’t exist except in our minds.
  • Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.
  • Cowry shells were used as money for about 4,000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. Taxes could still be paid in cowry shells in British Uganda in the early twentieth century.
  • In modern prisons and POW camps, cigarettes have often served as money.
  • Coins and banknotes are a rare form of money today. The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. More than 90% of all money exists only on computer servers.

How Does Money Work?

Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

  • Dollars have value only in our common imagination. In other words, money isn’t a material reality—it’s a psychological construct.
  • Barley was the first type of money because people could trust in its inherent biological value—you could eat it. But it was difficult to transport.
  • The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport.
  • Everyone always wants money precisely because everyone else always wants money.
  • The first coins were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia.

The Gospel of Gold

  • The invisible forces of supply and demand made it such that different cultures all around the world came to value gold in the same way.

The Price of Money

  • Money can corrode local traditions, intimate relations, and human values.
  • Although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and the impersonal systems that back it.
  • Money alone did not unify humankind. We cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel.

11) Imperial Visions

  • All empires eventually fall, but they tend to leave behind rich and enduring legacies. Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another.

What is an Empire?

  • Empires rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory.
  • Empires have flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite to conquer more nations and territories.
  • Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity.

Evil Empires?

  • Empires have been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years. It’s also a very stable form of government.
  • Building and maintaining an empire usually requires the vicious slaughter of large populations and the brutal oppression of everyone who was left.
  • This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in their wake. A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.
  • Today most of us speak, think and dream in imperial languages that were forced upon our ancestors by the sword.
  • Despite the obvious negatives of empires taking over a culture, there are many benefits too. Art, music, governance, and more are the result of empires forming. Often, they blended together with the conquered people to create a new culture.

Good Guys and Bad Guys in History

  • Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in the hope of reconstructing and safeguarding the “authentic”cultures that preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the legacy of an older, a no less brutal empire.
  • If an extreme Hindu nationalist were to destroy all the buildings left by the British conquerors, such as Mumbai’s main train station, what about the structures left by India’s Muslim conquerors, such as the Taj Mahal?
  • The thorny question of cultural inheritance is complex. Simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.

The New Global Empire

  • Today’s states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare war as they please, or even run its own internal affairs as it sees fits.
  • The global empire is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. It is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests.
  • Global markets, global warming, and commonly accepted concepts like human rights make it clear we all need one collective entity, not man-made states and countries.

12) The Law of Religion

  • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.
  • The Agricultural Revolution was accompanied by a Religious Revolution.
  • Religion can be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.
  • The majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive. Universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC.

Silencing the Lambs

  • The first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.
  • Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals—the first chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example.

The Benefits of Idolatry

  • The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.
  • Polytheism is inherently open-minded and tolerant, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’.
  • Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. When the Christians vehemently refused to do so, and went on to reject all attempts at compromise, the Romans reacted by persecuting what they understood to be a politically subversive faction.
  • Yet, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

The Battle of Good and Evil

  • The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts.
  • Zoroastrians saw the world as a cosmic battle between the good god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Angra Mainyu.
  • The central tension with monotheism is how to deal with the fact that there is evil in the world while the omnipoten God is believed to be good and caring. If God is good why would he allow evil things to happen?

The Law of Nature

  • During the first millennium BC, new religions spread that were characterized by their disregard of gods. Examples are Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin.
  • The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism.
  • If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.
    • The central figure is a human being, Siddhartha Gautama.
    • Siddhartha saw that people suffered not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent.
    • When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless.
    • The only way to end the vicious cycle is to simply understand things as they are. Then there will be no suffering.
    • To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain, Siddhartha developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, “What am I experiencing now?” rather than on “What would I rather be experiencing?”

“Suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.” – Buddha

The Worship of Man

  • The last 300 years has seen the rise of secularism.
  • People believe in ideologies like Capitalism, Communism, Nationalism, or Liberalism with as much zeal as they believe in theist religions.
  • Ideologies and religions are essentially the same thing.
  • Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens and believe that we have a unique and sacred nature fundamentally different from all other animals and phenomena.
  • Liberal humanismbelieves that “humanity” is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. “Human rights” are their commandments.
  • Socialist humanismbelieves that “humanity” is collective rather than individualistic. Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans.
  • Evolutionary humanismbelieves that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Nazis are the most famous representatives of this way of thinking.

13) The Secret of Success

  • Saying that a global society was inevitable is not the same as saying that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now have.

The Hindsight Fallacy

  • The better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
  • It is an inevitable rule of history that what seems obvious in hindsight is impossible to predict beforehand.
  • Possibilities which seem very unlikely to contemporaries often get realized. When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you’d have been laughed at.
  • History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.

Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

Blind Clio

  • History is not made for the benefits of humans.
  • There is no proof that human wellbeing inevitably improves as history rolls along. It’s good for the victors, but is it good for us all?

Continued in Book Summary: Sapiens (Part 4)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.