Sapiens – Summary, Insights, and Discussion Guide

The questions below are meant to be used in a guided discussion on the book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. If you are interested in my detailed notes from this book, please email me.

"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

Synopsis:

A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity’s creation and evolution—a #1 international bestseller—that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be “human.”

One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one—homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?

Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, _Sapiens_ integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.

Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because over the last few decades humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. We are acquiring the ability to design not only the world around us, but also ourselves. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?”

Discussion Questions:

 

  • Dr. Harari describes several circumstances where we can see the impact of evolution in current day behaviors. Were any of them particularly surprising, highlighting a connection you hadn’t considered before? Were there any that you disagree with?
    • The author notes how human babies are born much more undeveloped compared to other mammals. The nurturing required at an early age has a large impact on the development of the baby and society in general.
    • Humans jumped to the top of the food chain very quickly, yet we are still fearful and anxious we may be replaced, resulting in wars and ecological destruction.
    • The absence of other species makes us think we are the epitome of creation and vastly different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
    • Evolutionary pressures adapted the brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological, topological, and social information. They did not adapt to storing and processing numbers.

 

  • The author points out that shared fiction and the ability to tell stories enabled humans to adapt to the environment much faster than the genetic evolution process. People created imagined orders and began documenting information in scripts to organize into mass cooperation networks. What about the negative impacts of this ability to modify behavior at scale based on stories? How important is an education system to transmit these shared beliefs to future generations? How will genetic modification impact our ability to adapt and overcome future challenges? Are computers required to achieve even higher levels of order and organization?
    • The internet was intended to give everyone a voice and reduce the barriers to publishing and accessing information. This also resulted in the creation of information bubbles. With so much information, it’s easy to find communication channels that don’t present competing opinions and only reinforce a person’s current beliefs. With the ability of Machine Learning models such as GANs, it will be even harder to distinguish fact from fiction.
    • We are beginning to develop the technology to modify our genetic makeup. This will give us even more fundamental control over our physiology and behavior.
    • Computers store lots of information, execute complex processing, communicate instantly. Computers are moving beyond storing and organizing massive amounts of data to identifying insights and generating predictions based on data. These predictions could be faster and more accurate than human predictions and could influence human behavior without the person noticing the impact (advertising, for example).

 

  • How do you define success for a species? How will future developments of the species increase suffering? Is there a virtuous cycle where the rich can self improve at a rate that makes them superior to common people?
    • The perspective of success from an evolutionary perspective is just the total number and growth of a species. However, this takes a purely macro view and ignores the suffering of individual animals.
    • The Agricultural Revolution can be viewed as an evolutionary success since the number of humans increased, but they were also more miserable. Same for the animals that were domesticated.
    • Others have defined success as the increasing control of the environment by life. Interesting to think about the role of robotics in augmenting human’s ability to control the environment.

 

  • Is inequality and discrimination a requirement or a necessary evil in a complex society? Why do some look down on wealth creation?
    • The imagined orders sustaining those networks were neither neutral or fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression.
    • Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.
    • Others have hypothesized that ability is naturally concentrated in a minority, resulting in minority rule and wealth concentration.
    • Belief in equality (liberalism) results in an aversion to wealth creation since it creates inequality. The author notes that this is a legacy from the past where business was viewed as zero-sum. Therefore, we wealthy must have taken wealth from others, not created it.

 

  • The author spends a chapter documenting the history of happiness. What definition or framework of happiness was most interesting? How do you measure happiness in your own life? After reading about some competing definitions, are there aspects of your life that contribute to your happiness that you hadn’t considered before?
    • Recurring mention of meaningful relationships driving a sense of happiness.
    • Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health.
    • Happiness is driven by being happy with what you have rather than getting more of what you want. “Prophets, poets and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important than getting more of what you want.”
    • Happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. “If medieval people believed the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife, they may well have viewed their lives as far more meaningful and worthwhile than modern secular people who in the long term can expect nothing but complete and meaningless oblivion.”
    • According to Buddhism, people are liberated from suffering when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been.

 

  • The author goes into great detail describing the evolution of religion and the role it has played in shaping society. What do you think is the purpose of religion in society? What did you find interesting in the evolution of religions over time? How do you think the government interacts with religion to control society in different cultures? If inequality and discrimination are unavoidable, how does religion support the lives of less privileged people?
    • Religions assert that our laws are ordained by an absolute and superhuman authority, pushing some laws beyond challenge and ensuring social stability.
    • There is no significant example in history of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. The government uses religion to maintain social order.
    • For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. The church is the vendor of comfort and hope. “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”
    • Evolution of religion:
      • Hunter gathers started as animism. Restricted to the local environment and viewed plants and animals as equals.
      • Agricultural Revolution lead to the “control” of plants and animals, no longer equals. They needed to create gods that could communicate with the plants and animals and also cover large areas that empires now covered.
      • Polytheist religions were more tolerant of other religions since they had multiple gods.
      • Eventually, people began to prefer a single god, resulting in monotheism.
      • Monotheists believe they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only god and are thus compelled to discredit all other religions.