January 13, 2020
I first heard about the book from Naval’s tweet and to be honest, I first picked it up mainly due to how majestic the title sounded. After completing the book, I’d say it was definitely a stroke of luck to find this.
Sapiens is a branch book1 that discusses the collective history of our species homo sapiens — hence the title. It’s a summary of pretty much everything that’s happened to us, jam-packed with information yet very entertaining to read. Since there are already many great summaries of the book out there, I'll just discuss my favourite subjects from the book.
This has always been an interesting topic to me. Although I'm not really a religious person myself, I have some extremely religious friends whose beliefs I could never grasp. The discussion in Sapiens of how religions first began really helped to improve my understanding of their perspectives and beliefs.
Religion is one of the great unifiers of humankind, alongside money and empires. The book defines religion as a combination of two beliefs
This definition leads to some surprising classifications, such as capitalism, liberalism and Nazism as religions.
Religion first came to be when we were hunter-gatherers. It started with animism, the belief that plants and animals were equal to humans and that they had their own interests and perspectives. Religions then were localised, since humans then didn't really travel far in their lifetimes.
When the Agricultural Revolution2 took place, humans stopped believing that plants and animals were independent since they literally farmed them. To make up for this, gods were created, each representing different areas of life like rain and fertility. This was the start of polytheistic religions, which would carry on for a long time. I'm sure we've all heard stories of the Greek and Roman gods.
Polytheism allowed religions to co-exist harmoniously. However as time went by, small groups started to believe in monotheistic religions, in which there was only one all-powerful God. Since these religions can't co-exist with others by definition, they began to swallow up polytheistic religions, resulting in huge growth. Today, Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions in the world.
Unfortunately, monotheism succumbs to the Problem of Evil, which asks: If God is good and all-powerful, then why is there suffering in the world? Dualism finds no challenge in this, since dualists believe in the existence of good and evil as two opposing powers. It does suffer from the Problem of Order though, which asks: Who or what governs the battle between good and evil?3
Not all religions are based upon superhuman being(s), there are others based on laws of nature. Buddhism is built upon the law that "all suffering comes from craving and desire". Modern religions like communism can also be considered natural law religions.
Unlike theist religions which worship God, humanist religions worship humanity. There is liberal humanism, which believes in the liberty of individuals, socialist humanism, which believes in the equality of all humans, and evolutionary humanism, which holds that belief that mankind can evolve and degenerate over time.
The most interesting insight from this discussion is that the average Christian today practices syncretism, by believing in multiple religions at the same time. These religions often contradict each other, and yet we have the beautiful ability to hold these contradicting ideas in our heads without it exploding. I've found that these contradictions in syncretism that confuse me the most when speaking with my friends.
Perhaps in my next conversation with them about their religions, I'll be able to ask better questions, to find out how exactly the combination of monotheism, polytheism, dualism and humanism plays out in their heads.
Happiness is another topic I've always found tough to wrap my head around. What is happiness? How do we achieve happiness in our lives? We all should have our own definition of happiness, so I found it really helpful that Sapiens comprehensively summaries several of the most common definitions we use today.
The chapter starts off with a big question: are humans today happier than the humans of the past? The answer might seem obvious at first — we're living in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity today. But that's already implying that happiness is derived from peace and prosperity. Humans of the past lived in a very different world, so we can't just use our perspectives and expectations to predict how they felt.
Social scientists generally define happiness as subjective well-being. This means that measuring how happy someone is is done through simply asking questions. Interesting discoveries have been made, such as how having more money indeed makes people happier but only up to a certain point, or how having a great family and community really does matter more than wealth.
Biologists take a different perspective. They believe happiness comes from nothing more than chemical reactions in our bodies. Since our biology hasn't changed much since we first came to be, our level of happiness hasn't changed much at all. Another interesting discovery is that of the "happiness meter", which posits that we're all born with a different capacity for feeling happy. Some people just feel happier — it's in their nature. Things could change soon though, as with advancing technology it might soon be possible to manipulate our biochemistry to make us feel happier.
The ideas above are all based an underlying assumption — that happiness is derived from pleasure. There are other ideas that don't agree with this assumption, one of which argues that happiness isn't about experiencing more pleasure than pain, but rather being able to find meaning in all experiences, pleasurable or not. The book quotes Nietzsche: if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. This is why religious or spiritual people tend to experience this kind of happiness; they find meaning in working for a higher purpose.
From a purely scientific standpoint however, our lives have absolutely no meaning. This means that assigning any meaning to our lives is just self-delusion. Maybe happiness in our society today is just a collective delusion, and being happy is subscribing to those delusions. It's chilling to think that looking at happiness objectively, this is all there is.
Thankfully there is hope. The above definitions stem from a liberal point of view. Happiness through these lens is subjective and is based on how each individual feels. On the contrary, most religions and ideologies throughout history define happiness objectively.
In Buddhism, as mentioned earlier, happiness is achieved when a person realises the temporality of their feelings and stops craving them. Since our feelings are always changing, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is pointless. Being able to live purely in the present moment is what Buddhism defines as true happiness.
Personally, I think happiness is simply about balancing my expectations. When reality plays out according to my expectations, I feel happy. Therefore to consistently feel happy, I should simply lower my expectations4. It's unfortunate how social media has only served to inflate our expectations, making us more unhappy as a result.
Yes. I'd recommend this book to everyone5 — it's an entertaining read while at the same time covering so many important topics that we often take for granted today. It’s also kind of surreal to learn where we come from and to read the author’s thoughts on where we’re headed.
Sapiens really shifted my perspective on the world and granted me many insights, like how most of what we experience today aren't completely real — they're just part of our shared imagination. I also felt that it was really apt for the book to end with a discussion on happiness. After all, that's what many of us spend our lives searching for.
A branch + narrative book, to follow Cedric’s classification more closely.↩
The period of time during which hunter-gathering gave way to farming.↩
The only logical solution that solves both problems is that there exists a single all-powerful God who's evil.↩
Of course, this is about balancing expectations, not making them unreasonably low. There needs to be a baseline somewhere.↩
If somehow, you've already read the book and still made is this far into this review, I'd also recommend checking out Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world, i guess, which is a hilarious and meaningful video.↩