Friday, 8 February 2019


Just finished this on Audible. Really enjoyed it. 

Like The Silk Roads, I came away feeling as though I had learned a lot. 

Some of the most pertinent facts that sunk in were: Around ten million slaves were taken from Africa to America, which is around the same number of Africans slaughtered in Belgian Congo by Leopold II. Of the 60 trillion dollars of money in the world, only around 6 trillion of that is in hard currency. Around 90% of all money exists only as numbers or data. Almost all of the most famous national dishes in the world don't originate from the countries they're associated with:

In an Italian restaurant we expect to find spaghetti in tomato sauce; in Polish and Irish restaurants lots of potatoes; in an Argentinian restaurant we can choose between dozens of kinds of beefsteaks; in an Indian restaurant hot chillies are incorporated into just about everything; and the highlight at any Swiss café is thick hot chocolate under an alp of whipped cream. But none of these foods is native to those nations.

And the world today appears to be far less violent than it once was. Of 400 ancient skeletons examined in the Danube Valley, eighteen died violent deaths most likely at the hands of other humans. That's 4.5% for the Danube Valley alone. Whereas, today, the global average is only 1.5%. An average of nine murders per 100,000 people annually, and mostly in conflict areas. It drops to 1 per 100,000 in Central European countries.

In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence... In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is more dangerous than gunpowder.

I do love these kind of books. Dry facts delivered in an engaging, conversational manner. And, although I really enjoyed reading The Silk Roads, I think I enjoyed having Sapiens read to me just a little bit more. It seems to be a trend that people enjoy reading fiction but use their Audible subscriptions for non-fiction. I do this with Wiki, too. When I have a large bulk of factual information to sift through, I line it up in Word and get text-to-speech to read it to me. 

The beginning of this book really sucked me in. As a writer, I loved Yuval Noah Harari's take on stories and imagination, and why humans need them so very badly. I've been finding the quotes online as I didn't have the text in front of me, so the paragraphs are a little out of order:

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting, and fornicating? 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. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.


Fiction isn't bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can't play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can't enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But stories are just tools. They shouldn't become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars `to make a lot of money for the cooperation' or 'to protect the national interest'. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our life in their service?


Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

I also love the parts about culture and how cultures develop and change. It's a hot topic in many of the African forums and dialogues I've followed in recent years, also in the work I've done editing courses on changing attitudes to prevent gender-based violence and support LGBT rights. The constant struggle between what is considered immutable culture - something that always has and will be - and a recognition, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, that: "Culture does not make people. People make culture." Harari devoted chapters to the effects of empire and colonialism, but also to the way in which cultures organically change internally, even when left to their own devices.

Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics.Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.


Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.


We would do better to adopt instead the viewpoint of a cosmic spy satellite, which scans millennia rather than centuries. From such a vantage point it becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity. The sectioning of Christianity and the collapse of the Mongol Empire are just speed bumps on history’s highway.

The mantra to take away from the book is: biology enables, culture forbids. Meaning that our bodies are made to enable all sorts of pleasures, thoughts and pastimes, it is only our imagined beliefs that make unnatural what is purely, biologically, natural. As humans, we appear to be caught in a constant battle between what we are and what we thing we should be.

I really did enjoy this book, though, as with The Silk Roads, I find ancient history far more enticing. So much more known history has been packed into the modern era, but I do find us a little bit dull nowadays. Everything we could become, and yet we bog ourselves down in petty warfare and silly systems. I prefer the world when it held a little more wonder.

I'd only reached chapter two of Sapiens when my friend Harris texted from Luxembourg with a picture of the cover of Harari's new book Homo Deus, asking: Have you read this? It's fucking brilliant!

So, Homo Deus is on my TBR pile and Sapiens is on his. Many an interesting discussion to be had over a pint of Mutzig when he returns to Kigali.

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