Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

A Book Review of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

16 min read

Sapiens Book Summary

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?

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.”

Sapiens came out in 2015, it’s about 400 pages.

It’s one of my favorite books, I want to say it’s my number one pick of the past year, and I’m not alone in that, Barack Obama recommended too. He said it was one of his favorite books of last year, and so did Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of smart people, as well as friends of mine, have been recommending this book. 

Coming into it, I knew that Sapiens was a history of humankind, that’s what it says on the front of the book, “a brief history of humankind.” Sapiens answers the question: How is it that humans (homo sapiens) came to be the most dominant species on the planet? What is it about the Homo sapiens that is so special?

Sapiens is A Sweeping History of Humanity 

One of the recurring themes of Sapiens, is that perhaps it’s our ability to tell stories to each other! Our ability to share imagined truths. For example, stories about religion, nations, money, and other things that don’t exist physically with inherent value, right? 

If any of these sounds a little confusing, I’m going to go into some examples of these so that I can really show you what some readings from the book.

That’s Yuval Noah Harari’s underlying, his view of humanity: that it’s our ability to gather people into groups, based on collective, share stories, and that this is what makes Sapiens so powerful.

There’s a story of humanity that goes back 200,000 years and we are just one small part of that story.

I’m curious how long 200,000 years sounds to you? Sometimes if you hear the 1950s, you may think, “Well that’s a really long time ago,” or you hear of the year 1776 and you think, “Oh my god, that is, it’s a million years ago!” After reading Sapiens, I have a much better perspective on how time feels. Now the 1950s feel closer, and even the 1700s feels really close. I feel like I was lifted in a jet or an air balloon high above the sky of humanity. Sapiens is a sweeping history, a 100,000 foot view of our species.

Sapiens Book Notes

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Sapiens Book Summary

Sapiens Summary

Sapiens Podcast Transcript

Chris: I grew up in the 1980s. Anything that I was born into, I just assume has always been here. Right? That’s the way we live our lives. We just assume that any technology that was here when we were born, say TV, that it’s probably always been here. I mean, of course we know that it wasn’t, but it feels like it’s always been here. Just as my nephew now who’s using an iPad may not question how long we’ve had iPads. Right?

Chris: It’s this ability of Sapiens to pass down ideas from one generation to the next. I mean, forgetfulness is in some ways it’s definitely part of our biology and in some ways it helps us live by forgetting awful things and in other ways is a hindrance because we forget where we came from. Sapiens really lifted me above my wing span of time, which is in some ways maybe thinking about the span of my life and maybe one generation forward and backwards. But saying, humanity as we know it, homo sapiens has been alive for 200,000 years. Just in case you’re wondering the earth, the big bang, if anyone even higher, the book starts with that number. 13.5 billion years ago. 

Chris: It starts on page one. It says,

About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time, and space came into being in what was known as the big bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

Sapiens starts there with the big bang and then moves forward through time. Harari just kind of speeds through millions of years, he says, that there was atoms and molecules and there was chemistry, and then the planet earth came into being. Forward, forward, forward, and fast forward to about 200,000 years ago from today, 200,000 years back, that’s when there was noticeable signs of early humans were not, where we came from Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals all this kind of stuff was going on.

Chris: Sapiens is broken down into three really important revolutions and this is all on the first page. Harari is outlining three important revolutions from that period of time that really cemented the dominance of homo sapiens, of us. I want you to imagine that you were reading a book about the history of humans and that of course is what sapiens is, but just imagine this kind of fictional book where every single page of this book is a hundred years, it marks 100 years. If we were telling the story, right? In this book it would have to be about 2000 pages and each page would be a century. That the weight of that book is the weight of the history of our species, of humans on the planet. This 2000 page book a century for each one. In this story, you get about how much? I mean, at most maybe a page or maybe a page in this whole story.

Chris: If we look at this 2000 page (hypothetical) book (or humanity), the past 200,000 years, 2000 page book, really about pages zero through 1900, the first 1900 of them, pretty much nothing is happening. We’re living on the grassland, we’re chewing roots maybe, we’re hunting, hunter gatherers. It’s about page 1000 that you would see beads are getting made the first trade of beads. At some point somebody speaks, this is what’s going on. It’s here on page 1,300 over book where, now we have the first revolution that really it Harari says, really kind of defines homo sapiens to have this dominance over the planet. 

Chris: This is the first example of this, and this is our ability, the cognitive revolution. This! Our ability to share information with each other, to form groups with strangers, make inventions like boats, oil lamps, and have fictional characters that are being created. There’re artifacts being shown of half man, half lion, things that don’t actually exist in reality for the first time are being depicted. These kinds of fictions are kind of shared stories coming into the play.

What danger or what advantage does this have for homo sapiens? Well, at the time we weren’t the only human like form on the planet. There was, you may have heard of it of course. The Neanderthals, you’ve heard that term, of course. Right? I didn’t know what that was, it sounded like some idiot person I was like, “A Neanderthal?” It’s like the way that we use it now you’re like, “That person is a Neanderthal or something.”

Chris: This was an entire species of people that were on the planet mostly around in the book he shows a map, and it was mostly around the area where Europe is now. Most of the Homo Sapiens were down in Africa around the Eastern part specifically. It was our ability of forming bands, telling stories, making inventions, all this kind of stuff that he believes or history believes there’s a few different theories in here that that was the dominance of the Homo Sapiens to defeat or to really kill out the neanderthals, that’s one of the things.

Chris: Actually, recently I did 23andme. You can spit in a cup or something and it tells you your biology, your genes, where you come from. I found out that I am 88% Italian and then it kind of breaks down from there and different percentages, but it’s interesting. Some people have been finding that there’s a certain percentage of Neanderthal in their DNA. 

Chris: Back the book: Harari starts here, like I said, we have this 200,000 years that we’re going back, we have this 2000 page book around page 1,300 is this first cognitive revolution and our ability as homo sapiens to show dominance over the planet. Then he just fast forward to about page 1900 of our book here where the next one will be the agricultural revolution and then fast forward to about five pages from the end of the book. The end of the book is where we are today, which is where he’s talking about the scientific revolution.

Chris: We have these three revolutions, just to recap, we have the cognitive revolution, which I told you a little bit about our ability to form ideas. We have the agricultural revolution, which is about 100 pages ago, so about 10,000 years ago and we have just about 500 years ago the scientific revolution. This book takes us through the three revolutions and shows our ability really to tell stories, to tell myths, to form people together, and form connections as being the really super dominant trait that humans have.

Chris: I’m going to read it from a book about Peugeot, the company, the car company which you’ve probably heard of or seen anything with an Italian company and they have that lion kind of doing a bear dance on the front of the car as the icon. This chapter is about our ability to tell stories, which is if you look at any modern business in a way a business is just an organized story. The company that you work at, the ability for basically like thousands of people that work for Google or tens of thousands of people all wake up at 9:00 AM and collect around certain parts of the world and little hubs and connect ideas together is really sorcery according to Harari. I think, that’s a fascinating way to think about how we organize ourselves.

Chris: Harari writes here,

Modern business people and lawyers are in fact powerful sorcerers. The principle difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. the legend of Peugeot affords us a good example.

So here we go. A quote from Sapiens where Yuval Noah Harari says,

An icon that somewhat resembles, ‘Oh, here you go.’ State old lion man appearing today on cars, trucks, and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney. It’s the hood ornament that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest European car makers. Peugeot began as a small family business in blah, blah, blah just 200 miles from blah, blah, blah. Today the company employs about 200,000 people. ‘God, damn. That’s a lot of people worldwide.’ Most of them who are complete strangers to each other.

Chris: Isn’t that fascinating? If you think about it, all these people working together, but even the boss, there’s no one boss that knows all those people. It’s probably worse than your boss, right? These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produce more than 1.5 million automobiles. Damn, who drives all of those? Earning revenues of about 55 billion Euros? Goddamn.

In what sense can we say that Peugeot the company exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world we’re simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot the company would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report.

Chris: The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms and employees, mechanics, accountants, secretaries, but all of these do not comprise Peugeot. Where is it? Is Peugeot the people, he’s basically saying, is it the cars? Where is this idea? Well, that’s what he’s getting at. It’s an idea. A disaster might kill one of their employees and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines, and even then the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories, and build new machinery. Peugeot has managers and stakeholders but neither do they constitute the company.

Chris: The point Harari is driving out here is that, well, he’s asking the question, does Peugeot exist? How do you prove that a company exists? Where does it exist? The point he’s trying to make is that Peugeot in this example is a figment of our collective imaginations. There’s actually a term for it that lawyers use they call it a legal fiction, more or less. It can’t be pointed at it’s not a physical object, but it’s a legal entity. Right?

Chris: If we think back to the story of the Neanderthals, and our first ability to gather and tell stories and work for imagine fictions. Even thinking about just something as simple as imagining a football game and the victory you’re thinking, I want my team to win.

Until it happens, we could say, it’s just this idea in our head that we have this common drive of what we can picture and imagine winning, looking like, right? We can imagine the future. That is, I mean it’s really humbling to think about how much we take that for granted. Our ability as humans to wake up every morning and imagine our day, that wasn’t maybe necessarily the way that we always existed or maybe our ability to communicate that with other people and convince them, “Hey, I’m going to go out and win this game today. Do you want to come and help me?”

Chris: That’s the questions that they were asking when they defeated Neanderthals and that we’ve been working on now for 70,000 years in building human civilizations. He asked the question, he says,

How exactly did the man, behind Peugeot create the company?

Well, he says,

In the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history.

He says,

It all evolved around telling stories and convincing people to believe them. Much of human history revolves around this question. How does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods or nations or limited liability companies?

Right? I love it. I love this idea.

Chris: This idea of telling stories is so powerful and that’s the frame that Harari is asking you or visualizing for you to look at our history, our shared history as humans through. This our ability to tell story and he breaks it down, like I said, and each of the chapters in the rest of this book are about the different stories we tell. You may not think of these stories, but I’m not going to listen for you right now. In the agricultural revolution only 10,000 years ago, if you live to be 100, that’s about 100 of your lives. 10,000 years ago it was about 100 of your lives.

Chris: I mean, think about it, that’s somewhat imaginable. It’s not a crazy long distance ago. Do you know what happened during that period of time, only 100 of you ago? Freaking everything. Everything in the agricultural revolution, it was the first time that we began to plant seeds in the ground and establish farming around them. That’s why it’s called the agricultural revolution. It was this idea of, before that we were nomadic for most of that time, for most of the time, right? Have the story of humanity where tribes are roaming around. This is a monumental because in the agricultural revolution, we decide to stay still.

Chris: If you think about it, we gave up our nomadic life and we put down land. We said, “This area here is mine, and this area over here to the right of it, is yours.” This is a really crucial time. There’s actually, there’s another book, just a side note, there’s a book called Ishmael. It’s a fictional book that I really love and it does a beautiful job telling the story of the agricultural revolution through the lens of an ape, a talking ape. The last remaining ape who learns to speak English. It’s beautiful. Ownership comes about, when we stopped not being nomadic, we start making houses, we start having deeds of land. This is where cities and towns and modern civilization as we know it starts to sprout up, right?

Chris: It’s also, if you think about it logically, it’s also where war begins to come from because as we have these nations and these groups of people that identify together with this common idea, right? This is another idea, Harari talks about nationalism is a huge idea. This idea that we are all bonded together because we are geographically, together in a location, then naturally gives way to the binary, which is I, this is mine, I am good and you are trying to take it from me. You are a bad. It begins wars, right? It begins colonialism.

Chris: Each one of the chapters after this, really goes and sprouts from this moment the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, it’s really important time to looking at these shared stories. Empires, there’s a chapter on empires and nationalism. There’s a chapter on religion, religion is a shared story that we share. He writes a religion, he says,

Well, since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined.

Talking about empires and dominance over certain people, caste systems, all this, these are just imagined. These are things that we made up. He goes on to extrapolate on that and say that,

Well, they are fragile to a certain degree in society.

Religion gives this extra layer of human social order, beyond how high or low you can rise. Rise or fall as a human from the poorest to the richest king, the Horatio Alger, the rags to riches.

Chris: The ability to create this idea or even understand this idea that there’s a super human level that could be attained is the story. I mean, whether you believe and that’s fine, if it’s true or it’s not true, your critic and atheist, christian, whoever you are. I mean, this is just something, a story. Even the bible is a book. These are stories that we tell to give ourselves identity, to give ourselves meaning and to give ourselves order and the stories we tell ourselves, established norms and values. Other stories that we can consider, that he considers in this book are everything from liberalism, feminism to ideas about marriage to consumerism. He writes,

Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy, we must consume as many products and services as possible.

Chris: I do believe personally that consumerism is likely the number one religion or idol that we worship, every day. If you think about it, if you think what metric, what thing do you wake up every day looking to accomplish? For most people it’s going to work is a big portion of your time and for most people going to work is in order to make money. Money is a driving factor. This ability to accumulate wealth and then have this wealth often so that you can buy something. It’s usually why we have it, we store it and we keep it and we use it in our daily lives. Even a lot of us who, if you work, maybe you work for a marketing company, if you work for a company that’s making your product or a service, you have large teams, people who are just trying to sell that. There’s this perpetuation of consumerism. These are some of the ways to think about consumerism as a story.

Chris: Harari writes,

If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product, a car, clothing, organic food or a service. Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better.

These are all stories. Before I close out, I want to bring you a little more in depth. I’m going to read to you about one of the stories in this book, the story of money and how that really has opened my mind and thinking about, specifically allow our own society at this moment and this had a big impacts on how I saw the future of Blockchain technology and the future of Bitcoin. 

Chris: I’m going to read to you hear about the story of money, the fiction of money and then just give a few thoughts on that because what I didn’t really think about or realize until I got this big breadth of history of humanity is that, I mean, of course like hunter gatherers didn’t have money.

What is money? Harari takes us on this journey in this chapter, which chapter is this? Chapter 10. It’s called The Scent of Money, where he looks at the origins of where money came from, some of the original signs of a stored value such as a trading cowrie shells. Basically, shells you could find on the beach or trading beads, things like this. He goes through history of that. Harari looks at, even just symbols of money.

Chris: I’m going to read here on page 178, Harari says,

In modern prisons and POW camps, cigarettes have often served as money, even nonsmoking prisoners have been willing to accept cigarettes in payment and to calculate the value of all of their goods and services in cigarettes.

One Auschwitz survivor described the cigarette currency used in the camp, “We had our own currency whose value no one questioned the cigarette.” As he’s going through all these examples of money, one of the things that he’s drilling on or trying to put into your head is that money is a fiction. Harari says that a bunch of times.

Chris: Money is a fiction and the only real value in money is our ability to all agree that it is worth something. Whether it is a bead, in certain societies, if I’m saying this bead is worth something and I hold onto it, or it was a tulip back in, which is like the cutest way, right? The most adorable way to have money as the store informs of tulips, right? Because, you could say the tulip bore, I believe throughout the season because they save and re bloom or cigarettes in this example here.

Chris: If you think about our own money right now and what’s happening with Bitcoin and digital currency, we’re at this time now where there’s a few people who can see and agree. I think it’s early, it’s early stages and this innovation that there might be a possibility, right? Nobody knows for sure, but there might be this possibility that a global digital currency like Bitcoin could take over as being the super dominant way that we exchange money in 50 years from now, perhaps right? The asset to a few people they see that, can believe that to a handful of people are probably the majority. Most people, we are still locked into what we call fiat currencies. F-I-A-T, Fiat currencies.

Chris: A Fiat currency is like the American Dollar, the Rupee in India. It’s any currency that is backed by, I guess more or less a nation state. It’s basically backed by an idea that in this country or nation, this paper has value. That’s all it is, right? A lot of people think that the U.S. Dollar is backed by gold and it used to be for a little while, but until the ’70s, it’s no longer so since the ’70s it’s no longer backed by gold. It’s really just this idea, it’s just really the story that we tell ourselves and if one day, if tomorrow we all woke up and I just didn’t want to take. If I said I no longer accept dollar bills, right? Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt the national currency too much, but maybe if a hundred people or a thousand people or an entire state stopped accepting dollar bills. Well all of a sudden we can start to devalue the currency by not accepting it or not believing it has worth anymore. That’s probably the even more important part, it’s when people stop believing the value of it.

Chris: I’m going to continue reading from page 178. Harari writes,

In fact, even today, coins and bank notes are a rare form of money. The sum total of money in the world.

And, this is really interesting. 

All the money in the world adds up to $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than 6 trillion.

Let me say those numbers again, all the money in the world, if you took all the money in the world not assets, a house or a car but actual stored value of money. What people believe is money, dollars, gold, whatever, whatever, whatever we have in the bank, mutual funds, all this stuff. If you liquidate it at all there’s about $60 trillion, but only 10% of that, only 6 trillion is in coins and banknotes. Is that surprising to you? If it’s not, do you know where the 90% of our money is? Can you guess?

Chris: Well, it’s actually all digital, our money is already all digital, 90% of our money! It’s just on ledgers. Money is numbers in the bank. Basically, if everybody went to the Bank of America in downtown New York right now and tried to take out their money at the same time, Bank of America wouldn’t have enough to give you. They don’t keep it all in the bank. Your bank account may say you have “$10,000” in your bank account, but you can’t go grab all that all at once. Harari writes,

More than 90% of all money exists only on computer servers. Accordingly, most business transactions are executed by moving electronic data from one computer file to another without any exchange of physical cash. Everyone always wants money because everyone else always wants money.

Chris: I really love this chapter and if you pick up the book and you only read this chapter, I think this is so fascinating because it’s just so relevant to the way we live our lives and the stories we tell right now. Thinking about money as just this made up paper that we all agree on and being this system of trust that we created, and really one of the few systems of trust that I could think about, that doesn’t discriminate on religion or gender or race or age. People exchange money every day, it’s a fuel, it’s who we are. Really what it is and the principal it’s based on is trust. It’s a stored value of trust that we can exchange with anyone in the world.

Chris: Reading this history of money and seeing how, as it was adopted as a new story, in history, there have been struggles to tell these stories and yet some currency gets adopted and the story gets stronger and trust builds.

We had little tribes back in the day of certain groups of people that are exchanged beads, certain groups that had shell, certain groups that kind of sweeping over this history of money. Now, we have a place where we have exchanges, we have national fiat currencies that we exchange, we have a broader, wider globalization of trust.

Chris: If you look at that history, you can see that we’re connecting all the dots all over the planet to make this really bigger system of trust. That was the awakening, I feel like if I were to be able to write the next page in this book, on the future of money, that is where we are going because that is the thread being sown here. The story of how to connect and build trust, across more people in the world. I think that’s really beautiful, it’s so important to know the history of where we came from, to imagine what tomorrow is going to look like.

Chris: All right. Well, I hope you enjoyed this episode where we talked about Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, a brief history of humankind. I would highly recommend you check this out and read it. It’s the kind of book, I think it’s going to become one of my most gifted books to friends, to share with people because I want to have more conversations about it. It’s just absolutely phenomenal. Yeah, it’s beautiful. 



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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.