Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah
Harari
1976

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

Author Quotes

Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true. Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighboring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics. Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

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 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 of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of these scourges.

New genes cause the pigs to turn bad omega 6 fatty acid into its healthy cousin, omega 3.

One of history?s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can?t live without it. Let?s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed ? washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I?ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life? Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. 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.

Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ?heretics? and ?infidels?.

Author Picture
First Name
Yuval Noah
Last Name
Harari
Birth Date
1976
Bio

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