Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah

Israeli Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author Quotes

Why are you willing to flip hamburgers, sell health insurance or babysit three obnoxious brats when all you get for your exertions is a few pieces of colored paper? People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.

You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren?t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating? But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That?s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

We members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question:

When Cort‚s and his men landed on the sunny beaches of today?s Vera Cruz, it was the first time the Aztecs encountered a completely unknown people. The Aztecs did not know how to react. They had trouble deciding what these strangers were. Unlike all known humans, the aliens had white skins. They also had lots of facial hair. Some had hair the color of the sun. They stank horribly. (Native hygiene was far better than Spanish hygiene. When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honor. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers? smell unbearable.)

Why did the military?industrial?scientific complex blossom in Europe rather than India? When Britain leaped forward, why were France, Germany and the United States quick to follow, whereas China lagged behind? When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations became an obvious economic and political factor, why did Russia, Italy and Austria succeed in closing it, whereas Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire failed? After all, the technology of the first industrial wave was relatively simple. Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?

You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life?s necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise. The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ?niches for imbeciles? were opened up.

We moderns have an arsenal of tranquilizers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.

When humans began cultivating the land, they thought that the extra work this required will pay off. 'Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won't have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.' It made sense.

Why would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply the number of copies of the Homo sapiens genome? Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap.

We never convince a monkey to give us a banana with the promise that after death will have an unlimited number of bananas available in the sky monkeys.

When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty-first-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine. Truganini is no less important than Homer Simpson.

With time, the ?wheat bargain? became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ?improvements?, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.

Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis ? they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.

Not that everything is possible.

Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust.

People easily understand that ?primitives? cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.

Rats and cockroaches, for example, are in their heyday.

See time and again how a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering.

Some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data. The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ?writing?.

The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service.

The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.

The first wave of Sapiens colonization was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom.

The Industrial Revolution opened up new ways to convert energy and to produce goods, largely liberating humankind from its dependence on the surrounding ecosystem. Humans cut down forests, drained swamps, dammed rivers, flooded plains, laid down hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad tracks, and built skyscraping metropolises. As the world was molded to fit the needs of Homo sapiens, habitats were destroyed and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping center.

The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavadgita: ?Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation ? whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe ? is rooted in common myths that exist only in people?s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths.

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Yuval Noah
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Israeli Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind