I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a 40+ hour drive across the country then by listening to Sapiens on Audible. As I drove through the country, I enjoyed pondering the human existence and our history as a species. Sapiens is not a deep dive into any one aspect of our species, rather, it’s brief–as alluded to in the title–and provides a basic level of knowledge about the history of humans. It provides a framework for us to think more about ourselves, as individuals, brief blips on the radar that is human existence. This is the ideal road trip book. You have no where to go and nothing to do other than to drive. You can pause the book when your interest is peaked, or alternatively, zone out and ponder as the author reads on. It’s the kind of book where the details are not so important. Rather, the overall themes and history are what is gripping.
Most of the topics in this book feel familiar, we have learned about them before in elementary, middle, and high school. But as time goes on we forget the things we learned about as children. One of my favorite chapters focused on the agricultural revolution, which Harari argues was “history’s biggest fraud”. Before the agricultural revolution, homos sapiens were hunter gatherers. They migrated around Africa, Europe, and Asia eating the animals they were able to hunt and the plants they were able to forage. All of this changed with the agricultural revolution, at some point around 10,000 years ago, humans began to domesticate plants and animals. Humans began to plant wheat, rice, and corn. They domesticated goats and horses. They were able to increase their food supply and not live a dangerous life tracking down big game, having to sustain themselves with it for days or weeks, complimented only by seeds and berries. It sounds like great progress, so where does the fraud come in? Let me ask some questions to help investigate.
Did we domesticate animals? Or did animals and plants domesticate us? If the latter is true, what does this mean for humans? Harari makes the argument that animals domesticated us. Once sapiens stoped foraging for plants and hunting animals around the continents, they settled down in various areas and began domesticating them on land that they had to cultivate. This was a massive effort, clearing land and preparing it to grow certain crops was grueling work that took its toll on ancient human bodies. The average human male height at the end of the Ice Age was 5’9″. After the agricultural revolution changed the habits of humans, the average male height decreased to 5’3″. Because of the shift to settling on one plot of land, humans ate a smaller variety of foods than they did when they were more mobile. This reduction in diet diversity was bad for their health. Those who grew their food relied on a small number of crops, because not everything could grow successfully where they settled. A bad harvest meant going hungry and often the conditions that led to a bad harvest were out of their control. Some factors, like keeping wild animals away from the crops could be controlled, but with great effort. With the settling of humans, disease also spread more rapidly between different settlements. One could make the argument that the allure of settlements was fools gold. It looked incredible on the surface, as the crop yield from a farm was much greater than one could find foraging. But upon further investigation, the cons of settlements outweighed the pros. Humans made a trade off for a worse life, we were domesticated by the temptation of more food for less work and what we got instead was a worse life with harder work, more disease, and more insecurity.
The chapter on the agricultural revolution was one of many that reexamine monumental shifts in our history. I would recommend listening to this book to anyone with an interest in our would who has a desire to add context to how we got to where we are today and where we might go next.