Tag Archives: History

Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind”

Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.

On his website, Harari summarizes:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).

Other tidbits:

  • Settlement of Australia (“The Flood”), America, New Zealand: 45’000, 16’000, 800 years ago. Each settlement was associated with mass extinction of species.
  • “[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively” (p. 27). “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (p. 36).
  • “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. … These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa” (p. 90). The revolution bred worries about the future. Food surpluses brought rulers and elites, palaces and temples, politics, wars, art and philosophy (p. 114). One `imagined order’ with three classes and two genders—the Code of Hammurabi—dates from 1’776 B.C. (p. 117). Writing, archiving, cataloguing (invented by Sumerians around 3’500 B.C.) preserves information about imagined social order; this is critical because the information is not preserved in DNA. Script undermined holistic thought. Hindus invented `Arab’ numerals around 800 AD (pp. 137–146).
  • Cognitive dissonance, contradictory beliefs are necessary to maintain any human culture (p. 184). Over the last 10’000 years, thousands of `human worlds’ have collapsed to a single one (p. 186). Three universal (imagined) orders: Money, empire, religion (p. 191). “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 201). Empires are stable, inclusive, not that bad (p. 219). Religious norms are founded on a belief in a superhuman order (p. 234). “Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals” (p. 236). Polytheist and animist religions recognize a supreme power in the background, devoid of biases and interests (p. 238). Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens. Liberal humanism believes in the humanity of the individual. Socialist humanism believes in the humanity of the collective. (Both build on Christian tradition). Evolutionary humanism (e.g., Nazism) believes that humankind can evolve or degenerate  (pp. 256–263).
  • Science started from the admission of ignorance; observation and math; and the acquisition of new powers (p. 279). Social stability requires that certain `scientific results’ are a dogma or that basic truths are non-scientific (p. 282). With the capitalist system and the industrial revolution, science, industry and military technology intertwined (p. 294). “[S]cientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (p. 305). Science and empire supported each other (ch. 15, 16). The scientific revolution and the idea of progress fostered credit; this reinforced each other (p. 346). The industrial revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion (p. 379) and it was a second agricultural revolution (p. 382). Animal suffering, consumerism (ch. 17). The national time (p. 396). State and market replace family and local community (p. 398). “The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual” (p. 402). “The nation is the imagined community of the state” (p. 406). The world is safer than ever, and war does not pay any more. Have humans become happier? Answer 1: “Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin” (p. 436). Answer 2: Meaning. But “[p]erhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” (p. 438). Answer 3: Feelings are not to be trusted; of key import is whether people know the truth about themselves (p. 443). Intelligent design and extreme inequality (ch. 20).

Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.

The Reformation, Education, and Secularization

In a paper, Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman argue that the Protestant reformation after the year 1517 triggered major reallocation, due to religious competition and political economy.

[T]he Reformation produced rapid economic secularization. … shift in investments in human and fixed capital away from the religious sector. Large numbers of monasteries were expropriated … particularly in Protestant regions. This transfer of resources shifted the demand for labor between religious and secular sectors: graduates from Protestant universities increasingly entered secular occupations. … students at Protestant universities shifted from the study of theology toward secular degrees. The appropriation of resources by secular rulers is also reflected in construction: … religious construction declined, particularly in Protestant regions, while secular construction increased, especially for administrative purposes. Reallocation was not driven by pre-existing economic or cultural differences.

The Black Death and Atmospheric Lead Concentration

During the black death epidemic (1349–1353), atmospheric lead concentration collapsed as mining ceased. This is the result of a study by Alexander More, Nicole Spaulding, Pascal Bohleber, Michael Handley, Helene Hoffman, Elena Korotkikh, Andrei Kurbatov, Christopher Loveluck, Sharon Sneed, Michael McCormick, and Paul A. Mayevski on lead levels in an Alpine glacier. They write that

[c]ontrary to widespread assumptions, … resolution analyses of an Alpine glacier reveal that true historical minimum natural levels of lead in the atmosphere occurred only once in the last ~2000 years. During the Black Death pandemic, demographic and economic collapse interrupted metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels.


Stability vs. Equality?

In The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel argues that over thousands of years, only mass violence and catastrophes have triggered significant reductions in inequality.

From the book’s introduction:

For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. … stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. … Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics.

… there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.

Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael”

In Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael,” a gorilla offers his perspective on human civilization and the narratives surrounding it.

Ishmael—the gorilla—characterizes the early agricultural revolution as the takeoff of the nowadays-dominant “Takers’” culture, a culture that does not only reject the hunter-gatherer and herder life of “Leaver” tribes but also finds it acceptable to eradicate the latter. The Takers reject the notion that man is part of a balanced, competitive and evolving natural system; but this rejection places humanity on a trajectory ultimately leading to self-destruction.

The gods realized that “of all the trees in the garden, only the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could destroy Adam.” (9, 6) And so they forbid Adam to taste the fruit of that tree. (He tasted anyway.) The ban constitutes a mystery for Takers. For they think of themselves as destined to rule the world, and “knowledge of good and evil is fundamentally the knowledge the rulers of the world must exercise, because every single thing they do is good for some but evil for others.” (9, 7)

According to Ishmael, the mystery is solved by noting that Genesis reflects a narrative of the Semites, a Leaver people, who experienced the expansion of the Taker culture as Cain slaughtering his brother Abel. The Hebrew later adopted the tale but could no longer make sense of it because they had adopted the Taker culture.

Ishmael makes some other points: “The Takers accumulate knowledge about what works well for things. The Leavers accumulate knowledge about what works well for people.” (10, 8) “The Takers are those who know good and evil, and the Leavers are … those who live in the hands of the gods.” (11, 6) The Leavers are in a position to evolve; they are part of the general community of life, while Takers believe that creation came to an end with man. (12, 3) “The Takers’ story is, ‘The gods made the world for man, but they botched the job, so we had to take matters into our own, more competent hand.’ The Leavers’ story is, ‘The gods made man for the world …; this seems to have worked pretty well so far, so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods.’” (12, 6)

Terrorism in the Middle East

The Economist and Tom Segev in the New York Times reviewed “Anonymous Soldiers,” Bruce Hoffmann’s book on Israel’s origins.

The Economist largely accepts the notion that Irgun terrorism and America’s support for Zionism pushed Britain out of Palestine. It concludes:

On the Haganah’s broader influence, Mr Hoffman notes that al-Qaeda’s Afghan library had a copy of Begin’s “The Revolt”, but does not ask why so many Palestinian prisoners take Israeli university courses on how Jews established their state. Much of what they do, including building terror tunnels, bombing transport nodes, lobbing mortars at residential neighbourhoods and burying arms dumps in places of worship, has antecedents in Jewish militancy. Israel knows Palestinian methods and it has an array of anti-terror legislation which, had Britain responded similarly, might have aborted the future state.

According to Segev, in contrast, Hoffmann over estimates the impact of terrorist acts against colonial Britain committed by Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Statehood for Israel would have come anyway.


A few miles east of today’s Belgrade lies a Vinča settlement that dates back to 5000 BC. The Vinča civilization relied on fishing, farming and mining (copper); the Vinča people built houses along streets; and they exchanged goods. They also used an early form of proto-writing (sources: Belgrade tourism site, Wikipedia).

Alex Whitaker writes on his site Ancient Wisdom:

In 1908, the largest prehistoric Neolithic settlement in Europe was discovered in the village of Vinca, just a few miles from the Serbian capital Belgrade, on the shores of the Danube. Vinca was excavated between 1918 and 1934 and was revealed as a civilisation in its own right. Indeed, as early as the 6th millennium BC, three millennia before Dynastic Egypt, the Vinca culture was already a fully fledged civilisation. A typical town consisted of houses with complex architectural layouts and several rooms, built of wood that was covered in mud. The houses sat along streets, thus making Vinca the first urban settlement in Europe, but being far older than the cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt. And the town of Vinca itself was just one of several metropolises, with others at Divostin, Potporanj, Selevac, Plocnik and Predionica.

Polish History

Frequent territorial change characterizes the eventful and troublesome history of Poland (video). This history is evident all over the place when walking the streets of Warsaw, for example in the historic city that was destroyed in 1944 and rebuilt afterwards, the memorials in its vicinity, or Stalin’s unloved gift to the Polish nation. The Poles value their new found freedom and are acutely aware of threats to it.

Dietrich Schwanitz’ “Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).