Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

“The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.”
“The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.”
“This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.”
“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”
“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.”
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”
“Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways. First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy. Harry Potter is a good example. Removed from his distinguished wizard family and brought up by ignorant muggles, he arrives at Hogwarts without any experience in magic. It takes him seven books to gain a firm command of his powers and knowledge of his unique abilities.”
“Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.”
“For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”
“Mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories. Modern science uses mathematics.”
“Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things, such as pain. As long as the pain continues, we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify. People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it. Some become anxious that their partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could have found someone better. And we all know people who manage to do both.”
“Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.”
“The industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. Shortly after factories imposed their time frames on human behavior, schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices and grocery stories. Even in places devoid of assembly lines and machines, the timetable became king. If the shift at the factory ends at 5 P.M., the local pub had better be open for business by 5:02.”
“This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.”
“The biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occuring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world.”
“Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysees. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mad huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysees don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great-great grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.”
“The scientific Revolution might prove itself far greater than a mere historical revolution. It may turn out to be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth. After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design. If this happens, the whole of human history up to that point might, with hindsight, be reinterpreted as a process of experimentation and apprenticeship that revolutionised the game of life. Such a process should be understood from a cosmic perspective of billions of years, rather than from a human perspective of millennia.”