reading notes

The human dies, but the idea spreads: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is the book I wished existed, when I was a kid. A book that would attempt to explain all of human history, and give you a framework in which to place the happenings in the textbooks (movements, wars), without which just memorizing the happenings is totally meaningless. In other words this book, introductory as it is, has been more valuable to me than 15 years of history class.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. …

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.

Labelling things “natural” vs. “unnatural” == a form of violence.

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, 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.

If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.

This seems like a really helpful way to test how deeply you understand any system. Being able to explain the things that are uncontroversial to it isn’t enough. If you can also explain the spots where things break down, the contradictions, the sources of cognitive dissonance, the things people need to ignore to continue functioning in the system, that demonstrates a deeper understanding.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

Money == a trust system. Nothing more.

In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea–such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth–can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.


An understanding of the Old Persian section gave him the key he needed to unlock the secrets of the Elamite and Babylonian sections. The great door swung open, and out came a rush of ancient but lively voices–the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats. Without the efforts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern empires.

For all the crappy things wrought by imperialists, Harari argues that they were often more curious about the past of the places they were visiting than the people who had been living there.

As humans use their power to counter the forces of nature and subjugate the ecosystem to their needs and whims, they might cause more and more unanticipated and dangerous side effects. These are likely to be controllable only by even more drastic manipulations of the ecosystem, which would result in even worse chaos.

Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed.

This circles back to the first thing I quoted here. “Nature” is bigger than we usually picture it, and, for all we know, nature seems perfectly fine with having some entities destroy other entities and/or themselves en masse (see: supernovas). If you define nature as “life on Earth,” then yeah, it’s technically possible for us to cause all life on Earth to end. If you define nature as “the universe”.. it’s not so easy for humans to cause the universe to cease to exist. At least, at the moment we have no idea how we would be able to do that.

It’s certainly sad if our species destroys the source of all the gifts given to us and to future generations of our species and all the other species we know of. But it may be presumptuous to claim that that would be offensive to nature, when it could be (for example) just a routine thing that happens every few billion years. In other words, it’s possible that what we’re doing to the earth sucks for us way more than it sucks for the universe.