human history, sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

What makes us human? I don’t mean our actual physical parts. I wonder…

  • What are unique human facts?
  • What’s the history of humanity?
  • What drives us?

I began looking for answers in the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I realized I write, research and teach about human behavior — it would be interesting to know how human history fits into our current actions.

Boy oh boy, was I surprised what I learned! The book is filled with incredible gems of information, but I decided to pull out 5 fascinating facts from Sapiens that explain more about who we are today as humans.

Why Humans Are Cruel

Why do humans torture each other? Have vicious wars? Steal and plunder gratuitously? Harari has an interesting answer:

We are cruel because we are underdogs.

Here’s the story:

For millions of years, humans were solidly in the middle of the food chain. They hunted small predators like rabbits and birds. Then about 100,000 years ago, man suddenly made a huge leap. They figured out weapons and fire and hunting strategies to kill animals at the top of the food chain like lions, tigers and bears…oh my. All of the sudden, humans were at the top of the food chain. Sounds good right? Well…not entirely.

Here’s the problem:

Humans leaped up the food chain too quickly. No one could adjust…especially humans! Think about it this way. Lions have spent hundreds of thousands of years at the top of the food chain. They have self-confidence and deep understanding of the top. Heck, they are kings of the jungle! Humans got to the top so quickly and so violently that they never gained confidence there. Harari likens humans to little dictators.

“Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the Savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”

-Harari, Full story on page 12 of Sapiens

We attack neighboring countries. Create nuclear warheads. Spend billions of dollars on armies and weapons because we are afraid we will lose our position at the top of the food chain.

How does this shape our modern day life?

Impostor syndrome. Social anxiety. Low self-esteem. We are unsure of our position and our strengths because they are new! But being an underdog isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I truly believe the benefit of being an underdog is this:

As underdogs, we fight harder.

Take-away: Remember our underdog-ness. Remember how fast we have climbed. We should be grateful for this and harness it as fuel for more grit and hard work. However, we have to curb our tendency to lash out in violence because of fear.

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Why Humans Are Entrepreneurial

If you ask a fifth grader: What was the greatest discovery for cavemen? They would likely shout: “Fire!” And they would be right. Fire fundamentally changed human history. It made it easier to eat and stay warm. However, fire also was the spark (get it, the spark) for some of our most entrepreneurial spirit.

Harari shares that human species made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. But by about 300,000 years ago, humans were using fire on a daily basis–for cooking, to scare lions and for light.

Fire also enabled some of the first Stone Age Entrepreneurs.

Savvy humans figured out that they could do controlled burns.

“A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teaming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.”

-Harari, Full story on page 13 of Sapiens

Boom! Grasslands for grazing. A BBQ feast. Easy clearing. And of course, terrible for the wildlife and environment (a concern we seem not to ever have had much of).

How does this shape our modern day life?

Humans are incredibly resourceful. Sometimes all we need is a little spark. A new tool — like a computer. A new problem — like a patch of thickets and we turn to our brains for help. However, this often comes at the expense of other life — wildlife, animals and the environment. Today, as it was in human history, it is a dangerous line to walk.

Take-Away: Find your spark. Get resourceful. We are built to solve even the most tedious problems. Remember your legacy is one of cleverness and entrepreneurial spirit.

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Why Humans Speak

Ok, this fact totally blew me away. If you were to ask me:

“Why did humans develop language?”

I would have said–to share ideas, communicate logistics, share love.

Well, Harari says…not really. Chimps have gotten along just fine sharing, communicating and loving without spoken language. Why did humans develop words?

The answer:

Gossip.

The Gossip Theory of human history argues that we developed spoken language in order to talk specifically about relationships. Here’s why:

“The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to keep track of the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. In a band of 50 individuals there are 1225 one-on-one relationships and countless more complex social combinations. All apes show a keen interest in such social information but they have trouble gossiping effectively. Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each others backs – a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern sapiens required about 70 millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. 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.”

-Harari, Full story on page 26 of Sapiens

How does this shape our modern day life?

We tend to think gossip is bad. And it is if it’s malicious. But gossip is actually an essential part of what makes us human. It allows us to have and maintain complex social networks that sustain us.

Take-Away: Can we reframe gossip? Talking about and deepening our understanding of the relationships in our lives is good and should be cultivated and encouraged. Talking bad about people in our lives, disparaging relationships and creating drama is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Not all gossip is created equal.

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Why We Shape Our Worlds

There was a story in the book that made me sad and amazed all at the same time. It had to do with sheep.

What do you think of when you think of sheep?

Docile? Followers? Simple?

I hate to break it to you: They weren’t always that way.

We did it. We made sheep into followers.

Here’s the story…it’s kinda sad. Sorry, it’s history.

Once upon a time there were nomads who hunted sheep for food and wool. These bands of nomads followed herds through the grasslands. After many years, the nomads began to selectively hunt–not just killing any sheep nearby. They targeted sick sheep and adult rams, while they spared fertile females and young lambs. In this way they could hunt the sheep, but the herd kept growing.

Then the nomads thought, “Why do we have to keep chasing these herds!? Maybe we should corral them into a narrow gorge or secluded area. Then we can keep them for ourselves anytime we want!” And so began the job of sheep herding.

Harari finishes the story for us:

“Finally people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs. The most aggressive rams, those that show the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first. So were the skinniest and most inquisitive females. (Shepherds are not fond of sheep whose curiosity takes them far from the herd.) With each passing generation, the sheep became fatter, more submissive and less curious. Voilà! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.”

-Harari, Full story on page 102 of Sapiens

My friends, we created docile sheep. We changed the nature of an animal to better suit our needs.

How does this shape our modern day life?

We need to know how powerful we are and how that can have unintended consequences. You have an impact on everyone you meet, everywhere you go, with everything you say. We shape our world just as much as it shapes us.

Take-Away: Shape better. Decide that you are going to be a force for good. That you are going to use your power for good and not evil. We can make this world better even if we haven’t always.

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Why Future-Thinking is New

This one really surprised me. Sapiens busted a big idea that I had. I used to think that human beings were naturally future-minded. Thinking about goals, the future, legacies and more. But Harari argues that future thinking is new. Specifically:

We are only future thinkers because of … farming.

Yup, farming! Unlike nomads, farmers were forced to begin thinking about the future. Seasons, long months of cultivation, dry spells, bad winters and saving food.

Here’s how it all went down:

“Although there was enough food for today, next week and even next month, they had to worry about next year and even the year after that. Concern about the future was rooted not only in seasonal cycles of production, but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture…Peasants were obliged to produce more than they consumed so that they could build up reserves.”

-Harari, Full story on page 112 of Sapiens

While the agricultural revolution brought advancement, it also made us slaves to the seasons, the weather and our location.

Maybe we didn’t tame agriculture, maybe it tamed us.

No longer could we roam the plains, we had to farm from dawn until dusk.

No longer could we enjoy the day, we had to build up surplus food for the winter.

No longer was our time flexible, we had to adhere to strict seasons of planting and harvesting.

How does this shape our modern day life?

It is in our nature to be present. In our modern age EVERYONE is future minded — future salaries, future plans, future vacations, saving money, building wealth. I used to think this was our natural tendency, but maybe not. Being present, being flexible, being nomadic–that is actually much more prominent in our history.

This chapter made me wonder if our fight for mindfulness and the current obsession with meditation is simply trying to get back to our roots.

Take-away: Don’t get obsessed with planning and future goals. They are great — but so is right now!

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Bonus: My Favorite Story in Sapiens

There are so many great stories in Sapiens but my favorite has to be about when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. According to Harari, native hygiene was far superior that Spanish hygiene. So…

“When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honour. We know from native sources that they found the newcomer’s smell unbearable.”

-Harari, Full story on page 327 of Sapiens

Oh those smelly conquerors.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

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