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

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. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.

The Bible decrees that ?If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife? (Deuteronomy 22:28?9). The ancient Hebrews considered this a reasonable arrangement.

The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history?s chief engine for the past 500 years. The following chapters analyze its workings. First we?ll look at how the twin turbines of science and empire were latched to one another, and then learn how both were hitched up to the money pump of capitalism.

The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to.

The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.

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.

The Sumerian writing system did so by combining two types of signs, which were pressed in clay tablets. One type of signs represented numbers. There were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. (The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.) The other type of signs represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth. By combining both types of signs the Sumerians were able to preserve far more data than any human brain could remember or any DNA chain could encode.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo?s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years ? with the rise of Homo sapiens ? that man jumped to the top of the food chain. That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. 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. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to be found innocent in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial.

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.

Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln ? any attempt at remolding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.

Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between different bands.

One green fluorescent rabbit for le monsieur. Kac named the rabbit Alba.

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, euros and yen 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. Everything depends on the people in the labs.

Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system. Many people criticize Sovietologists for failing to predict the 1989 revolutions and castigate Middle East experts for not anticipating the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. This is unfair. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.

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.

So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn?t they?

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the 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. The word ?domesticate? comes from the Latin domus, which means ?house?. Who?s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It?s the Sapiens.

The first English settlements in North America were established in the early seventeenth century by joint-stock companies such as the London Company, the Plymouth Company, the Dorchester Company and the Massachusetts Company. The Indian subcontinent too was conquered not by the British state, but by the mercenary army of the British East India Company. This company outperformed even the VOC. From its headquarters in Leadenhall Street, London, it ruled a mighty Indian empire for about a century, maintaining a huge military force of up to 350,000 soldiers, considerably outnumbering the armed forces of the British monarchy. Only in 1858 did the British crown nationalize India along with the company?s private army. Napoleon made fun of the British, calling them a nation of shopkeepers. Yet these shopkeepers defeated Napoleon himself, and their empire was the largest the world has ever seen.

The Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain.

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 real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.

The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.

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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