About the Book
He’s done it again!
For me, Sapiens is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Having just smashed through Homo Deus, this is certainly up there too.
Yuval Noah Harari is such a terrific writer! He glides effortlessly between all the sciences and does so in such a way that makes you feel like you’re the one making all the breakthroughs.
From biology to philosophy – economics to politics – his work will leave you both chuckling in delight and squirming in anguish.
Here are some of my favourite takeaways.
- “Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade.” Chapter 1 – The New Human Agenda
- “When Epicurus defined happiness as the supreme good, he warned his disciples that it is hard work to be happy.” Chapter 1 – The New Human Agenda
- “Alas, the exciting sensations of the race are as transient as the blissful sensations of victory… Like the rats pressing the pedal again and again, the Don Juans, business tycoons and gamers need a new kick every day. Worse still, here too expectations adapt to conditions, and yesterday’s challenges all too quickly become today’s tedium. Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquility; but most of us tend to jump all the way from stress to boredom and back…” Chapter 1 – The New Human Agenda
- “What’s true of grand social revolutions is equally true at the micro level of everyday life. A young couple building a new house for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so?…// Stone age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves… The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages…// Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of hard work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing… The neat turf at the entrance to the chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty…// This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.” Chapter 1 – The New Human Agenda
- “Finally. some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfils no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward… Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.” Chapter 3 – The Human Spark
- “Starting with the assumption that we can believe humans when they report that they are conscious, we can identify the signatures of human consciousness, and then use these signatures to ‘prove’ that humans are indeed conscious (through the use of fMRI scanners). But if an artificial intelligence self-reports that it is conscious, should we just believe it?// So far, we have no good answer to this problem. Already thousands of years ago philosophers realised that there is no way to prove conclusively that anyone other than oneself has a mind. Indeed, even in the case of other humans, we just assume they have consciousness – we cannot know that for certain. Perhaps all other humans and animals are just mindless robots? Perhaps I am dreaming, and everyone I meet is just a character in my dream? Perhaps I am trapped in a virtual world, and all the beings I see are merely simulations?” Chapter 3 – The Human Spark
- “In order to mount a revolution, numbers are never enough. Revolutions are usually made by small networks of agitators rather than by the masses. If you want to launch a revolution, don’t ask yourself, ‘How many people support my ideas?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘How many of my supporters are capable of effective collaboration?’ Chapter 3 – The Human Spark
- “The Portuguese government – which had little desire to accept any of these refugees – sent agents to escort the disobedient consul back home, and dismissed him from the foreign office. Yet officials who cared little for the plight of human beings nevertheless had a deep reverence for documents, and the visas Sousa Mendes issued against orders were respected by French, Spanish and Portuguese bureaucrats alike, spiriting up to 30,000 people out of the Nazi death trap. Sousa Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the Holocaust.” Chapter 4 – The Storytellers
- “Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.// Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’// Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I?… Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied.” Chapter 5 – The Odd Couple
- We can use an arsenal of scientific methods to determine who composed the Bible, and when. Scientists have been doing exactly that for more than a century… To cut a long story short, most peer-reviewed scientific studies agree that the Bible is a collection of numerous different texts composed by different human authors centuries after the events they purport to describe, and these texts were not assembled into a single holy book until long after biblical times…// Hence according to our best scientific knowledge, the Leviticus injunctions against homosexuality reflect nothing grander than the biases of a few priests and scholars in ancient Jerusalem.” Chapter 5 – The Odd Couple
- “… ethical judgements often hide within them factual statements that proponents don’t bother to mention because they think they have been proven beyond doubt. Thus the ethical judgement ‘human life is sacred’ (which science cannot test) may shroud the factual statement ‘every human has an eternal soul (which is open to scientific debate). Chapter 5 – The Odd Couple
- “This lesson (of why capitalism will never stop) is hammered home even to children and teenagers through ubiquitous capitalist games. Premodern games such as chess assumed a stagnant economy. You begin a game of chess with sixteen pieces, and you may never finish a game with more. In rare cases a pawn may be transformed into a queen, but you cannot produce new pawns nor upgrade your knights into tanks. So chess players never have to consider investment. In contrast, many modern board games and computer games focus on investment and growth.” Chapter 6 – The Modern Covenant
- “If I believe in God at all, it is my choice to believe. If my inner self tells me to believe in God – then I believe. I believe because I feel God’s presence, and if my heart suddenly tells me that there is no God – I will cease believing. Either way, the real source of authority is my own feelings. So even while saying that I believe in God, the truth is that I have a much stronger belief in my own inner voice.” Chapter 7 – The Humanist Revolution
- “If a liberal had fallen asleep in June 1914 and awakened in June 2014, he or she would have felt very much at home. Once again people believe that if you just give individuals more freedom, the world will enjoy peace and prosperity. The entire twentieth century looks like a big mistake. Back in the summer of 1914 humankind was speeding on the liberal highway, when it took a wrong turn and entered a cul-de-sac. It then required eight decades and three horrendous global wars to find its way back to the highway. Of course, these decades were not a total waste; they did give us antibiotics, nuclear energy and computers, as well as feminism, de-colonialism and free sex. In addition, liberalism itself smarted from the experience and is less conceited than it was a century ago. It has adopted various ideas and institutions from its socialist and fascist rivals, in particular a commitment to provide the general public with education, health and welfare services. Yet the core liberal package has changed surprisingly little.” Chapter 7 – The Humanist Revolution
- “So what do the patients prefer: to have a short and sharp colonoscopy, or a long and careful one? There isn’t a single answer to this question, because the patient has at least two different selves and they have different interests. If you ask the experiencing self, it would probably choose a short colonoscopy. But if you ask the narrating self it would prefer a long colonoscopy because it remembers only the average between the worst moment and the last moment. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the narrating self, the doctor should add a few completely superfluous minutes of dull aches at the very end of the test, because it would make the entire memory far less traumatic.// Paediatricians know this trick well.” Chapter 8 – The Time Bomb in the Laboratory
- “It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.// Priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago. It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient… if I sacrificed a child to the glory of the Italian nation or my legs to the communist revolution, that’s usually enough to turn me into a zealous Italian nationalist or an enthusiastic communist.” Chapter 8 – The Time Bomb in the Laboratory
What Others Are Saying
As you can see, there were a lot!
This, combined with the fact I’ve told everyone about Homo Deus since reading it, means it earns a coveted 5/5!