Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah

Israeli History Professor, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author Quotes

We begin with the story of the greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples. This conqueror is money. People who do not believe in the same god or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money.

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.

When the Europeans conquered America, they opened gold and silver mines and established sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. These mines and plantations became the mainstay of American production and export. The sugar plantations were particularly important. In the Middle Ages, sugar was a rare luxury in Europe. It was imported from the Middle East at prohibitive prices and used sparingly as a secret ingredient in delicacies and snake-oil medicines. After large sugar plantations were established in America, ever-increasing amounts of sugar began to reach Europe. The price of sugar dropped and Europe developed an insatiable sweet tooth. Entrepreneurs met this need by producing huge quantities of sweets: cakes, cookies, chocolate, candy, and sweetened beverages such as cocoa, coffee and tea. The annual sugar intake of the average Englishman rose from near zero in the early seventeenth century to around eighteen pounds in the early nineteenth century.

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.

You can do many things with bayonets, but it is rather uncomfortable to sit on them.

The remains of the wall built by WIC to defend its colony against Indians and British are today paved over by the world?s most famous street ? Wall Street.

The transition first to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings.

There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe ? and He?s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind?s extraordinary social abilities and to its unique social problems. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln ? any attempt at remoulding 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. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving. We assume that a large brain, the use of

to plunder, slaughter and robbery they give the lying name of empire;

Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.

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.

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.

When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man?s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.

with this line of reasoning. If it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion. It makes no difference. We can divide creeds into god-centred religions and godless ideologies that claim to be based on natural laws. But then, to be consistent, we would need to catalogue at least some Buddhist, Daoist and Stoic sects as ideologies rather than religions. Conversely, we should note that belief in gods persists within many modern ideologies, and that some of them, most notably liberalism, make little sense without this belief. It would be impossible to survey here the history of all the new modern creeds, especially because there are no clear boundaries between them. They are no less syncretic than monotheism and popular Buddhism. Just as a Buddhist could worship Hindu deities, and just as a monotheist could believe in the existence of Satan, so the typical American nowadays is simultaneously a nationalist (she believes in the existence of an American nation with a special role to play in history), a free-market capitalist (she believes that open competition and the pursuit of self-interest are the best ways to create a prosperous society), and a liberal humanist (she believes that humans have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights). Nationalism will be discussed in Chapter 18. Capitalism ? the most successful of the modern religions ? gets a whole chapter, Chapter 16, which expounds its principal beliefs and rituals. In the remaining pages of this chapter I will address the humanist religions. Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species. All humanists worship humanity, but they do not agree on its definition. Humanism has split into three rival sects that fight over the exact definition of ?humanity?, just as rival Christian sects fought over the exact definition of God. Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ?humanity? is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. According to liberals, the sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo sapiens. The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority. If we encounter an ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner voice ? the voice of humanity. The chief commandments of liberal humanism are meant to protect the liberty of this inner voice against intrusion or harm. These commandments are collectively known as ?human rights?. This, for example, is why liberals object to torture and the death penalty. In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilise the cosmic order. To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the order re-established. Attending gruesome executions was a favourite pastime for Londoners and Parisians in the era of Shakespeare and MoliŠre. In today?s Europe, murder is seen as a violation of the sacred nature of humanity. In order to restore order, present-day Europeans do not torture and execute criminals. Instead, they punish a murderer in what they see as the most ?humane

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.

The romantic contrast between modern industry that destroys nature and our ancestors who lived in harmony with nature is groundless. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of life.

The trust in Rome?s coins was so strong that even outside the empire?s borders, people were happy to receive payment in denarii. In the first century AD, Roman coins were an accepted medium of exchange in the markets of India, even though the closest Roman legion was thousands of miles away. The Indians had such a strong confidence in the denarius and the image of the emperor that when local rulers struck coins of their own they closely imitated the denarius, down to the portrait of the Roman emperor!

There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ?We don?t know.

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 humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year. What could lead to war between Germany and France next year? Or between China and Japan? Or between Brazil and Argentina? Some minor border clash might occur, but only a truly apocalyptic scenario could result in an old-fashioned full-scale war between Brazil and Argentina in 2014, with Argentinian armoured divisions sweeping to the gates of Rio, and Brazilian carpet-bombers pulverising the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. Such wars might still erupt between several pairs of states, e.g. between Israel and Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the USA and Iran, but these are only the exceptions that prove the rule.

Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world?

We can now implant reconstructed Neanderthal DNA into a Sapiens ovum,

Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive prayers to celebrate

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Yuval Noah
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Israeli History Professor, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind