this is an important book that must be read

#51 – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

dear kafka,

stunning, thought-provoking and educational.

this is an important book that must be read.

bill gates (“in the weeks since we’ve been back from our holiday, we still talk about Sapiens”), obama (“It’s a sweeping history of the human race, from 40,000 feet. It talks about some core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization, that we take for granted”) and mark zuckerberg think the same.

it can change our view of the world and help us understand why humanity can be so beautiful and frustrating at the same time.

i will be taking my time with it – i have just covered part 1 out of 4.


“Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.”

Even with our large brains, prehistoric humans were not a dominant species. In fact, they remained “weak and marginal creatures”.

When animals belong to the same species, it means they mate with each other and give birth to fertile offspring.

“Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.”“for the last 10,000 years, our species (Homo Sapiens) has indeed been the only human species around. ”

“Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape”

2 million years ago, some humans left East Africa for North Africa, Europe and Asia. To survive under the different conditions in these places, humans evolved differently to many new species, with significant physical differences. For example, the Neanderthals were bulkier and more muscular than Sapiens to adapt to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia.

“The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.”

A hundred millennia ago, there were at least six different species of men.

good question – If brains are so good, why didn’t other animals evolve to have powerful ones like human beings?

Large brains mean more time spent searching for food and atrophied muscles – “humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons.”

Traits peculiar to human – large brains and walking upright on two legs.

Walking upright with two legs mean we can lookout for enemies while our arms are free to hold weapons / tools or signal to others.

Waling upright has a price – backaches and stiff necks. interesting – does other animals have them?

With bigger heads, childbirth became dangerous so women who gave birth earlier lived to have more children. “Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed.”

With humans born prematurely, social bonds became very important for the raising of children – “It takes a tribe to raise a human.”

“since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal.”

“despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, (humans) dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.”

“the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones”, which we eat after the hyenas and jackals are done.

“It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.”

“Some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. ”

cooking was the best thing about fire. it allowed us to eat wheat, rice and potatoes which we cannot digest in their natural forms. it killed germs and parasites. chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food,  humans spend one hour on cooked food.

cooking allow us to eat more kinds of food, spend less time eating, have smaller teeth and shorter intestines.

“Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.”

Our over-hasty jump to the top of the food chain means the ecosystem did not have time to adjust to our destructive ways.

the other human species died out, leaving only homo sapiens.

there are two theories on what happened to the other human species. the Interbreeding Theory – we bred with them and hence we are not pure sapiens. the Replacement Theory – we were sexually incompatible with them and replaced them when they died out or killed off (maybe by us).

in recent decades the Replacement Theory was thought to be more accurate. but in 2010, it was discovered that 1-4% of human DNA of people in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal. and it was found that “6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.” possible explanation – some sapiens mated with neanderthals and denisovans and produced offspring.

good questions – “What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?”

“Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.”

The Cognitive Revolution – new ways of thinking and communicating emerged between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. “What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language.”

animals communicate in languages too but human language is unique. “A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they ought to approach the river in order to chase away the lion and hunt the bison.”

gossiping is key for humanity – “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”

“Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”

the most unique feature about human language – “Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution.”

human language allow us to cooperate in large groups – “But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. ”

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in peoples collective imagination. ” E.g. “human rights”, “gods”, “money”, “‘limited liability companies”.

“The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’, or ‘imagined realities’.”

these fictions are different from lies – “Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.”

“Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. ”

other animals found it hard to escape the influence of their genes, but humanity changed quickly after language was invented.  “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.”

“The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.”

“our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.”

“If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with figs, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare. The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes. ”

“The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this archaeological bias. The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.”

“The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.” language and particularly “fictions” allowed humans to live different lives from one another.

“Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded throughout their lives by friends and relatives. Loneliness and privacy were rare… The average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human from outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no more than a few hundred humans.”

“Most Sapiens bands lived on the road, roaming from place to place in search of food. Their movements were influenced by the changing seasons, the annual migrations of animals and the growth cycles of plants. They usually travelled back and forth across the same home territory, an area of between several dozen and many hundreds of square kilometres.”

“alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood and waterfowl, humans set up permanent fishing villages – the first permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural Revolution. Fishing villages might have appeared on the coasts of Indonesian islands as early as 45,000 years ago. ”

sapiens were more of a gatherer than a hunter – “Sapiens bands fed themselves in an elastic and opportunistic fashion. They scrounged for termites, picked berries, dug for roots, stalked rabbits and hunted bison and mammoth.”

“Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably. Most of us lack expert knowledge of the flaking properties of flint and basalt and the fine motor skills needed to work them precisely.

In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants.”

surprising – “There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone.”

in some ways, the lives of the foragers were better than modern sapiens – “(they) work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. They hunt only one day out of three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily”; much less housework, no bills to pay,  more time to socialise and hang out.

“In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. That is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it. Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty to forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality.”

“The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet. Especially in premodern times, most of the calories feeding an agricultural population came from a single crop – such as wheat, potatoes or rice – that lacks some of the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional materials humans need. ”

“Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of these scourges. Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements – ideal hotbeds for disease. Foragers roamed the land in small bands that could not sustain epidemics.”

“The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system – indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia. Of even greater importance was what the human pioneers did in this new world. The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”

before humans landed, australia was “a strange universe of unknown creatures that included a 200-kilogram, two-metre kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent’s largest predator. Koalas far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees and flightless birds twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains. Dragon-like lizards and snakes five metres long slithered through the undergrowth. The giant diprotodon, a two-and-a-half-ton wombat, roamed the forests. ”

“Within a few thousand years (of the arrivals of humans in Australia), virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing fifty kilograms or more, twenty-three became extinct.2 A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years. Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens?”

“The Maoris, New Zealand’s first Sapiens colonisers, reached the islands about 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species.”

“Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.”

“Large animals – the primary victims of the Australian extinction – breed slowly. Pregnancy is long, offspring per pregnancy are few, and there are long breaks between pregnancies. Consequently, if humans cut down even one diprotodon every few months, it would be enough to cause diprotodon deaths to outnumber births. Within a few thousand years the last, lonesome diprotodon would pass away, and with her the entire species.”

“American fauna 14,000 years ago was far richer than it is today. When the first Americans marched south from Alaska into the plains of Canada and the western United States, they encountered mammoths and mastodons, rodents the size of bears, herds of horses and camels, oversized lions and dozens of large species the likes of which are completely unknown today, among them fearsome sabre-tooth cats and giant ground sloths that weighed up to eight tons and reached a height of six metres. South America hosted an even more exotic menagerie of large mammals, reptiles and birds. The Americas were a great laboratory of evolutionary experimentation, a place where animals and plants unknown in Africa and Asia had evolved and thrived.”

“Within 2,000 years of the Sapiens arrival, most of these unique species were gone. According to current estimates, within that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of its forty-seven genera of large mammals. South America lost fifty out of sixty. The sabre-tooth cats, after flourishing for more than 30 million years, disappeared, and so did the giant ground sloths, the oversized lions, native American horses, native American camels, the giant rodents and the mammoths. Thousands of species of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and even insects and parasites also became extinct (when the mammoths died out, all species of mammoth ticks followed them to oblivion).”

“Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.”

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.”

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