Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Personal Rating: 5/5
Here are my book highlights and key takeaways. Most of these are direct quotes from the book.
Timeline of History
(Billions of years ago)
13.8 Billions — Matter and energy appear. Beginning of chemistry
4.5 Billion — Formation of planet Earth
3.8 Billion — Emergence of organisms
6 Million — Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees
2.5 Million — Humans evolve in Africa. First stone tools.
2 Million — Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia
500,000 — Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East
300,000 — Daily usage of fire
200,000 — Homo sapiens evolved in East Africa
70,000 — The Cognitive Revolution. The emergence of fictive language. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
45,000 — Sapiens settle in Australia. Extinction of Australian Megafauna.
30,000 — Extinction of Neanderthal
16,000 — Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American Megafauna.
13,000 — Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo Sapiens is the only surviving human species.
12,000 — Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent Settlements
5,000 — First kingdoms, script, and money. Polytheistic religions
4,250 — First empire - the Akkadian Empire of Sargon
2,500 — Invention of coinage. The Persian Empire. Buddhism in India.
2,000 — Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
1,400 — Islam
500 — The Scientific Revolution. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The rise of capitalism.
200 — The Industrial Revolution. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
The Present — Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
Why do we overeat?
If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with figs, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare.
The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes. Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. That’s what makes some of us spoon down an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo coke.
Ancient Forager vs Modern Men
The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants.
The human collective knows far more today than the ancient bands. But at an individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.
The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry.
The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as “the original affluent societies”.
Homo Sapiens Are Ecological Serial Killers
Homo Sapiens look like ecological serial killers.
The extinction of the Australian megafauna was probably the first significant mark Homo Sapiens left on our planet. It was followed by an even larger ecological disaster, this time in America.
The Galapagos Islands remained uninhabited by humans until the 19th century, thus preserving their unique menagerie, including their giant tortoises, which, like the ancient diprotodons, show no fear of humans.
Homo Sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinction.
Start of Agriculture
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 culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo Sapiens, rather than vice versa.
The transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias.
We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo Sapiens to multiply exponentially. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product (car, clothes, organic food) or a service (housekeeping, relationship therapy, yoga).
Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better.
What Do Democrats & Republicans Do?
Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to fund programs to help the poor, elderly and infirm.
But that infringes on the freedom of individuals to spend their money as they wish. Why should the government force me to buy health insurance if I prefer using the money to put my kids through college?
Republicans, on the other hand, want to maximize individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap between rich and poor will grow wider and that many Americans will not be able to afford health care.
A human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values.
It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: Cognitive Dissonance.
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.
How is Research Funded?
Why did billions start flowing from government and business coffers into labs and universities?
In academic circles, many are naive enough to believe in pure science. They believe that government and businesses altruistically give them money to pursue whatever research projects strike their fancy. But this hardly describes the realities of science funding.
Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic, or religious goal.
Scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the cost of the research.
Two forces, in particular, deserve our attention: imperialism and capitalism.
How Did Global Powerhouse Change From Asia to Europe?
In 1775 Asia accounted for 80% of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production. In comparison, Europe was an economic dwarf.
The global center of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850 when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia.
By 1900, Europeans firmly controlled the world’s economy and most of its territory. In 1950 Western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production.
Why did the military-industrial-scientific complex blossom in Europe rather than Asia?
The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines. They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus, and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.
France and the Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organized their societies differently.
What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism.
Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages. When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else. So it is hardly coincidental that science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world of the 21st century.
The Romans, Mongols, and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth — not knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
Who Discovered The New World?
The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps.
Using them, Columbus calculated that Japan should have been located about 4,375 miles west of Spain. In fact, more than 12,500 miles and an entire unknown continent separated East Asia from Spain.
On 12 October 1492, at about 2 AM, Columbus’s expedition collided with an unknown continent.
Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted LAND LAND!
How Did Colonies Form?
The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were magnets and promptly started filling them in. During the 15th and 16th centuries, European expeditions circumnavigated Africa, explored America, crossed the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and created a network of bases and colonies all over the world.
They established the first truly global empires and knitted together the first global trade network.
The Zhen He expeditions prove that Europe did not enjoy an outstanding technological edge. What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer.
Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa.
The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on their beaches, and immediately declare, “I claim all these territories for my king!”
The great empires of Asia — the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal, and the Chinese — very quickly heard that the Europeans had discovered something big. Yet they displayed little interest in these discoveries.
They continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Why Did The Natives Listen to the Colonists?
The Colonists’ superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing, and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries.
Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-European races.
Often the facts often belied this myth.
The British conquered Bengal, the richest province of India, in 1764. The new rulers were interested in little except enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that a few years later led to the outbreak of the Great Bengal Famine.
It began in 1769, reached catastrophic levels in 1770, and lasted until 1773. About 10 million Bengalis, a third of the province’s population, died in the calamity.
In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of “The White Man’s Burden” completely matches the facts. Like always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.
The important word is growth.
For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused teenager. It eats up everything it can find and puts on inches faster than you can count.
For most of history, the economy stayed much the same size. Yes, global production increased, but this was due mostly to demographic expansion and the settlement of new lands. Per capita production remained static.
But all that changed in the modern age.
In 1500, global production of goods and services was equal to about $250 billion; today it hovers around $60 trillion.
Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means that 90% of all money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes. If all of the account holders at Barclays Bank suddenly demand their money, Barclays will promptly collapse (unless the government steps in to save it).
What enables banks — and the entire economy — to survive and flourish is our trust in the future. This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.
Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources.
Why did credit systems not work before? Because credit was limited, people had trouble financing new businesses. Because there were few new businesses, the economy did not grow. Because it did not grow, people assumed it never would, and those who had capital were wary of extending credit. The expectation of stagnation fulfilled itself.
Over the last 500 years, the idea of progress convinced people to put more and more trust in the future. This trust created credit; credit bought real economic growth, and growth strengthened the trust in the future and opened the way for even more credit.
The more profits a CEO has, the more employees she can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.
A very common mentality of capitalism:
Greed is good. By becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
A crucial part of the modern capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethic, according to which profits ought to be reinvested into production. This brings about more profits, which are again reinvested in production, which brings more profits.
In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is:
The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.
A pharaoh who pours resources into a non-productive pyramid is not a capitalist. A pirate who loots a Spanish treasure fleet and buries a chest full of glittering coins on the beach of some Caribbean island is not a capitalist. But a hard-working factory hand who reinvests part of his income in the stock market is.
With this system in place, the human economy has managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years.
Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.
Over the last few years, banks and governments have been frenziedly printing money. Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that the scientists, technicians, and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts.
Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics, but politics should not be allowed to influence capital. They argue that when governments interfere in the markets, political interests cause them to make unwise investments that result in slower growth.
In this view, the wisest economic policy is to keep politics out of the economy, reduce taxation and government regulation to a minimum, and allow market forces free rein to take their course.
When kings fail to do their jobs and regulate the markets properly, it leads to a loss of trust, dwindling credit, and economic depression. That was the lesson taught by the Mississippi Buble of 1719, and anyone who forgot it was reminded by the US housing bubble of 2007, and the ensuing credit crunch and recession.
The Dark Side of Capitalism
During the early modern period, the rise of European capitalism went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. About 70% of them worked on sugar plantations.
The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.
Private slave-trading companies sold shares on the Amsterdam, London, and Paris stock exchanges. Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment bought these shares. Relying on this money, the companies bought ships, hired sailors and soldiers, purchased slaves in Africa, and transported them to America. There they sold the slaves to the plantation owners, using the proceeds to purchase plantation products such as sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and rum.
They returned to Europe, sold the sugar and cotton for a good price, and then sailed to Africa to begin another round. The shareholders were very pleased with this arrangement.
Throughout the 18th century, the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6% — they were extremely profitable.
This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way.
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate.
Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go busy. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff the industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.
Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption.
Frugality is a disease to be cured.
Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products — contributing to economic growth twice over.
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!”
One interesting conclusion is that money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyond that point, it has little significance.
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible Gods who don’t know what they want?
On Being Busy
Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead, we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
On Rat Race
People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age, and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race.