A book that will change your worldview and thought process.
“What is reality?”
This is one of those books you want to buy in hardcover because every chapter provides unique insight that you can read over and over. For me, it’s also a reminder every time I look at my bookshelf the importance of evaluating “what is reality?” for myself.
I’m writing this article to distill the main insights from the book, so it’s a good refresher for those of you who’ve already read it (I highly recommend you make time for it if you haven’t yet, I promise it’s worth it!). Or, send this article to your friend who refuses to read the whole book.
Harari has a unique ability to synthesize incredibly complex topics over thousands of years of history into a single page through his depth of understanding. His thinking is big-picture and has done a lot of work to reveal what’s true.
“If you know the full truth about you and the world, nothing can make you miserable.”
The book is split into four main chapters:
- The Cognitive Revolution
- The Agricultural Revolution
- The Unification of Humankind
- The Scientific Revolution
Disclaimer: these ideas are Yuval Noah Harari’s, not my own.
The Cognitive Revolution
“There were humans long before there was history.”
Currently, there are approximately 8.7 million species on this planet. But why is there only one species of humans (referring to beings with the genus Homo)?
2.5 million years ago, humans first evolved in East Africa. But Homo sapiens were not alone. There were Homo neanderthalensis (commonly known as ‘Neanderthals’), Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus, and many more.
So…why are we the only species left today?
The moment the first human stepped foot on Australia, Homo sapiens sprung to the top of the food chain and became the deadliest species to ever live on Earth. This is because they didn’t just adapt — instead, they could transform their entire environment.
During the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens gained the special ability to transmit information about things that don’t exist. We live in a dual reality: one in survival, another in gaining money, land, status, etc. (imagined).
Usually, animals cannot live in groups larger than 50–100. However, humans today can live in cities of millions. This is due to our ability to believe in common myths such as religion, nations, laws, etc. From 30,000 years ago, Sapiens could invent complex sociopolitical codes, unlike any other human or animal species.
Neanderthals, on the other hand, could not cooperate in large groups. Even though they could have beat Sapiens during a physical brawl, they could not stand a chance against a group of witty Sapiens.
Although there’s no way to know for sure, perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was due to genocide. This wouldn’t be too hard to imagine — I mean, look at the way we’ve treated each other (when we’re the same species) over religious beliefs or skin color! Harari brings up a harrowing idea that perhaps Neanderthals “were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”
The Cognitive Revolution was the point when history declared independence from biology. From this moment on, human history became defined by more than just genetics — through our dynamic cultures, myths, and beliefs.
The Agricultural Revolution
“The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
It was 10,000 years ago when humans began to manipulate the lives of select animal and plant species. We began to grow wheat, rice, and potatoes and domesticate horses, chickens, and cattle.
Little did I know, this was all a fraud.
The average farmer worked harder than the average forager and got a worse diet in return. Turns out the wheat, rice, and potatoes domesticated humans, not the other way around.
The essence of this revolution was to keep more people alive under worse conditions. This is because the currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA. But this definition of “evolutional success” is meaningless because this does not account for individual happiness. Domesticated cattle may well be the most miserable creatures on earth.
So people in pursuit of an easier life ended up in more hardship (and not for the last time).
At this point, farmers began to build homes that they became very attached to. This idea of “my house” and distance from neighbors also spawned a totally new culture of self-centeredness and possession, whether it was plants, animals, or objects.
Agricultural space shrank as agricultural time expanded. Foragers’ “home” spanned many square miles whereas farmers occupied a structure and perhaps a field. However, farmers thought way into the future whereas foragers had limited long-term planning ability. This was a virtue in some sense since foragers were unable to be anxious about a future they could not influence.
The social hierarchy birthed elites, who exploited peasants’ food. This caused the creation of politics, wars, art, and philosophy. “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was plowing fields and carrying water buckets.”
Myths that hold up society
Human imagination began to outpace human evolution. People believed in myths such as the Code of Hammurabi (1776 B.C) or the American Declaration of Independence (1776), not because they were objectively true, but because they hold society together.
In contrast to natural order, which is stable (ie. gravity will not disappear if you stop believing in it), imagined order is unstable and will collapse if people stop believing in the myths holding it up.
Here are some other traits of the imagined order:
- It is embedded in the material world. ie. Individualism manifests itself in architecture. Today, kids have their own rooms and private space. In medieval Europe, castles rarely had individual rooms, even for sons of nobles.
- It shapes our desires. These become an imagined order’s most important defenses. ie. People today spend loads of money on vacations due to the myths of romantic consumerism. A wealthy ancient Egyptian would never try to mend his relationship with his wife by taking a trip to Babylon. Rather, he may build her the grand tomb she always wanted.
- It is inter-subjective (something that exists within a network of subjective consciousness). If one person changes their mind, it doesn’t make a difference. It takes the whole crowd to change their mind to make the inter-subjective phenomenon vanish. ie. Laws, money, gods, nations.
“There is no way out of an 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.”
Even human rights is an imagined order. Today, people believe in equality — so rich people wear jeans fashionably. In medieval Europe, people believed in class division — so young nobles would never wear a peasant’s smock.
As population size grew, numbers became crucial to the functioning of society (for tax collection, census, etc.). The Sumerians in Mesopotamia invented a novel data processing system called “writing.” The first texts in history were economic documents containing taxes, debts, and property information.
Today, numbers are still foundational to our understanding of the world. Experts translate ideas such as “poverty,” “happiness,” and “honesty” into numbers such as “poverty line,” “subjective well-being levels,” and “credit rating.” We are now dominated by strings of 0’s and 1’s.
Harari explains why racism is so deeply ingrained in us today:
Slaves were originally taken from Africa due to their established slave trade and their ability to withstand disease. This chance historical event due to their superior immune systems cascaded into social inferiority in the US.
As this graph taken from the book shows, this is a vicious cycle that has manifested itself into a rigid social structure today — revealing how consequential these cycles can be. And often, these cycles get worse, not better, with time. It will take an overwhelming majority of people to actively disrupt this cycle (which is why we need to start now!).
This one is an incredibly peculiar case…
Many hierarchies have existed in various forms throughout history — societies that embraced all ethnicities, societies that embraced homosexuality, etc. But one hierarchy has remained constant throughout all human societies: one of gender.
So… is this division a product of the imagination like the caste system in India, or is it a product of biological roots? How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths?
We don’t understand why this is, but Harari describes three possible theories, all of which have counter-theories:
- Men are stronger than women, therefore they control food production which turns into political clout. (counter-evidence: women are more resistant to hunger, disease, and fatigue. If social power was divided by physical strength, women would have gotten more of it.)
- Masculine dominance is due to their aggression. Greater # wars = stronger male dominance. (counter-evidence: war is a lot more than mere aggression. Why couldn’t an all-female party control an all-male soldiery and lead strategy and cooperation?)
- Men and women evolved different survival & reproduction strategies. Women need to be submissive to male partners for the survival of their children. (counter-evidence: this is under the assumption that women depend on external help from men, not other women.)
But over the last century, gender roles have undergone a dramatic revolution. Women can now vote and hold office. The roles of gender and sexuality have been redefined.
“This is what makes gender history so bewildering — if our patriarchal system really was based on unfounded myths rather than biological fact, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?”
The Unification of Humankind
Culture. What is culture, really?
It is a network of artificial instincts. Every culture has a set of typical beliefs, norms, and values. But these are ever-changing and overflowing with internal contradictions.
Change. What is change, really?
It is when culture attempts to reconcile these contradictions. This is the root cause of our creativity and dynamism of our species.
For example, the values in modern political order are contradicting: social equality vs. individual freedom. The entire political history since 1789 can be described as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
Today, the entire globe is pretty much a part of the same culture (even though it definitely doesn’t feel like it). But think about it: we all argue and fight using the same language of nation-states, capitalist economies, international rights, and nuclear physics.
And over the past thousands of years, history has been moving towards global unity. This chapter is all about how this has happened, due to three universal orders:
- Monetary order
- Imperial order
- Religious order
“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
Money allowed people to trade commodities or store wealth much more easily.
The invention of money required no technological innovation whatsoever. Instead, its innovation was a purely mental revolution since money is a psychological construct.
That’s why our financial systems are so dependent on political, social, and ideological systems — which explains why the stock market spikes based on how traders feel that particular day.
For many years, people said, “money is the root of all evil.” But money is actually the most open-minded language — it bridges people together across language, religion, and culture. It works because its value is based on the fact that everyone else always wants money!
“No empire was truly universal, even when the promised to build universal political order for the benefit of all humans. Every one of them failed. Will a future empire do better?”
Empires played a primary role in human history due to their ability to encompass mass cultural diversity. For example, the Aztec empire rules 371 different tribes and peoples!
The human species used to live in much smaller populations and occupied less territory than those today. Empires are mainly responsible for the drastic reduction in human diversity today.
Whether empires were good or bad for us is a thorny question indeed — colonization and assimilation can be a traumatic and painful process for conquered populations as they are exploited for profit. But on the other hand, it is unlikely that we would be able to combat climate change, invent AI or bioengineering, and much more without global cooperation made possible through empires.
“Cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.”
Soccer is not a religion. That’s because the system of norms and values that characterize a religion must claim to be based on superhuman laws rather than human decisions.
The Agricultural Revolution was accompanied by a religious revolution — farmers began to see plants and animals as merely property as opposed to their hunter-gatherer ancestors who saw plants and animals as equals.
Much of ancient mythology includes devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery of nature. But religion doesn’t always have to include gods. Take Buddhism, for example, which arises from the universal law that suffering arises from craving.
The modern age has facilitated the rise of new natural-law religions such as liberalism, communism, capitalism, and nationalism.
One of the few iron rules of history is that “every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.”
- Aristotle said slaves had a “slavish nature.”
- White supremacists justified racial hierarchies through pseudoscientific theories.
- Diehard capitalists may believe that the wealthy are more intelligent, moral, and hardworking.
The Scientific Revolution
Over the last 500 years: The human population has increased 14x, production has increased 240x, and energy consumption has increased 115x.
A person today is more likely to die from obesity than starvation.
The bond between science, politics, and economics is unbreakable because science is expensive! Most studies are funded by those who can make political, economic, or religious gains from results. Scientists rarely dictate the scientific agenda.
Everything is now a technical problem — poverty, terrorism, and even death. The leading project of this era is the give humankind eternal life.
Modern science is due to three critical innovations:
- The willingness to admit ignorance
- The centrality of observation and mathematics
- The acquisition of new powers
Above all, the Scientific Revolution was not about gaining new knowledge — it was about admitting ignorance.
In 1775, Asia accounted for 80% of the global economy. By 1900, Europeans controlled most of the world’s territory and economy. Today, all humans are influenced by Europeans to a certain extent (in dress, taste, thought, etc).
This is because of Europe’s scientists.
Other empires didn’t lack technological capability. They lacked the values, myths, and social structures of the West that facilitated scientific and capitalist thinking.
Europeans had the courage to say “I don’t know what’s out there,” compelling them to explore the world with a growth mindset. This is shown by their 16th-century maps that were incomplete rather than full — opposite to other empires’ “we know everything” mentality.
However, Western colonization has been justified by racist theories, which have certainly not disappeared today. Racism has evolved into culturalism: we don’t say “it’s in their blood,” we say “it’s in their culture.”
The Capitalist Creed
For most of human history, the economy has stayed relatively the same size. The economy’s “pie” was just cut in different ways.
In the modern age, we have developed something incredible: the ability to have trust in the future. This is the most important economic resource.
We believe in goods that don’t exist right now in the form of “credit” = tomorrow’s pie - today’s pie.
In the past, people didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present. Today, growth is a constant over the long run. The entire global pie can keep growing — I can be wealthy without you being poor.
But can this pie grow forever? A pie requires raw materials and energy. What happens when we’ve exhausted all these resources?
Here’s the thing… during the industrial revolution, we increased the amount of raw material available for our exploitation! We did this by figuring out how to convert one type of energy into another (steam engine, electricity, etc).
During this time, we figured out that exploitation in human productivity = cheap and abundant energy + cheap and abundant raw materials. This led to the Second Agricultural Revolution, which allowed us to make massive amounts of food with machines through industrial farming. In ancient societies, peasants made up 90% of the population, whereas today, only 2% of people make a living from agriculture!
For the first time, supply outnumbered demand, leading to a new ethic: consumerism. That the more products and services we indulge in, the better.
Capitalism and consumerism are two sides of the same coin. The rich say “invest!” as everyone else says “buy!”
“The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.”
Most people underestimate just how peaceful a time we live in. This is very surprising given that these decades have also seen some of the most political, economic, and social changes in history.
The decrease in violence is most likely due to the rise in state and the fact that the price of war outstrips its profits. It is also the first time in history that the world is controlled by peace-loving elite.
Today, we have formed a global empire. And a World Empire effectively enforces world peace.
What’s the Point?
The most important question that is not asked enough: are we happier? Did the mass accumulation of wealth over the past couple centuries translate into newfound contentment?
Well, we’ve exploited the environment and animals. So does the measurement of global happiness include that of non-human beings?
Are we really happier than a peasant from 500 years ago? Probably not. Another one of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations.
“Happiness depends on the correlation between objective condition and subjective expectation. It is not the surplus of pleasant moments over unpleasant moments. It’s seeing one’s life as meaningful and worthwhile as a whole.”
Mass media and marketing have depleted global happiness and self-esteem. A teen boy from a village 5,000 years ago probably thought we was very handsome since the other men he was compared to were wrinkled and old or still children. But today, we have a lot more competition! We compare ourselves to the select movie stars, athletes, and supermodels.
The dominant religion of our age is liberalism. This is the belief that individual subjective feelings should be the supreme source of authority. Liberal politics = voters know best. Liberal economics = customers are always right. Liberal art = beauty in the eye of the beholder. Liberal schooling: think for yourself. Liberal marketing = “just do it.”
Assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves first, the scientific revolution may also be a biological revolution. In the 21st-century, perhaps humans will no longer be bound by the rules of natural selection since we will soon be able to intelligently design ourselves through genetic engineering. How long will it be before we are no longer Homo Sapiens?
Perhaps the next stage in history will not be a technical or organizational revolution, but rather a complete redefinition of human consciousness and identity.
I’ll leave you with the last line of the book:
“The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.”