Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Thanks to Bhavani R for presenting me the book Sapiens – written by Yuval Noah Harari. This is also one of the recommended books by Bill Gates. This book is about the history of mankind. This is not a business book, however talks about the history of how humans evolved. However reading this book gave a lot of insights to the correlation between imperialism, science and capitalism. 

Here are some of my notes and learnings from the book.

Myths: This was an important learning for me reading Sapiens. Yuval argues that the entire creation of countries or religions is a myth. (example: As long as millions of germans believe in the existence of german nation, get excited at german symbol, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world).  When the agricultural revolution grew, creation of crowded cities happened, people invented stories about Gods to create myths to follow rules. American Declaration of Independence in 1776 is also a myth which people have been following for over 200 years. The judicial system, religions and ensuring people follow procedures and practices is a human created myth. The hindu caste system is also a myth created 3000 years ago.  Patriarchal system is also an unfounded myth. What accounts for the stability of this system? Women tend to me more knowledgeable and smart compared to men. In this scenario, because of their smartness , they should be the ones making the decisions. Women should have excelled in politics as they have superior social skills. Bonobo and elephant societies – are controlled by strong networks of females. A big political change or movement is also created by a myth and a set of beliefs. This would mean one would need to break the existing myth for a new myth to be successful. You also need to have a large number of followers (a majority) who believe in your myth. Change of magnitude and myth creation for shared beliefs can happen only with a complex organization like a political party, ideological movement or a religious cult. 

Make strangers cooperate with one another. This will happen only if there is a shared belief. 

To dismantle myth you need something even more powerful.  Money is the most successful story invented by humans. Believing in a myth enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. These are some great leadership lessons. 

Money: The barter system existing in the world. The sum of the total money in the world is $60 trillion. More than 90% of money exists only in bank servers. Money can be transported from one place to another. However with Real Estate you can’t transport. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.  Sumerian barley money was the first official currency in history (3000 BC). The lydian coins were in use (640 BC)- King Alyattes (used Silver in money). Roman coins (Denarri) were universally accepted. Money helps with the unification of humans. According to Yuval, the greatest conqueror in history for a unified world is money. 

Businesses, Science & Countries: Indian subcontinent was not conquered by the British government, however was first conquered by the British East India Company. When britishers conquered India, they had a lot of scientific curiosity and this led to the discovery of Mohenjo Daro (an Ancient Indian civilization, now in Pakistan). Yuval argues that the investments of Brisishers in Science ensured that they were able to rule 300 million people in India with a few hundred thousand britishers. This clearly outlays why countries should be investing in Science and Technology. Yuval says that without imperial support, it is doubtful if science would have spread this far. Neil Armstrong landing in the moon was a result of the investment in Science by the United States of America. 

Science & Emperors

The European imperialism contributed a lot to modern science. Science and emperors go together. Europeans invested a lot in science between 1500 and 1950. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1978 he took 165 scholars with him. Ignorance created a need for emperors to discover new things. Gilgamesh (supposedly, a Sumerian king who wished to become immortal). However death is inevitable. Life expectancy has been increasing with the investments in Science. What a country invests on depends on the rulers and the times we live in.  For example with the CoronaVirus (COVID19), none of the countries have invested in preparing for the epidemic though Bill Gates talked about it in his Ted Talk in 2015. Economic,political,ideological forces shape physics, biology or where we invest in. In this process sometimes we tend to neglect important needs. Ecological turmoil may endanger the survival of homosapiens. This is so relevant to what is happening today with COVID19 (CoronaVirus). With the current scheme of things, all the countries are investing in the cure of CoronaVirus and preparing for the epidemic. 


Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1520) was a German cartographer who first used the word America in his map named after Italian merchant and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. James Cook was a British explorer associated with the history of Australia.  The dutch stock exchange (one of the first stock exchanges) was set up in 1602. 

India: In 1775, Asia accounted for 80% of the world economy. Combined economies of india and china represented two thirds of global production. India was ruled by the Mughal empire. 

Sumerian invented writing. They used it for record keeping (especially with taxes). A person who wishes to influence governments must speak in numbers. Numbers were invented by the hindus in India. Arabs invaded India and found the usefulness of this and they got the credit. (Arabic numerals).

Metals: Aluminium was discovered in the 1820s. For decades aluminum was more expensive than gold. End of the 19th century chemists discovered new ways to extract cheap aluminium. 

Greenwich Mean Time: On Sep 15, 1830. first commercial railway line connecting liverpool and Manchester was established. Each city in Britain had its own time. This became very difficult for trains to manage schedules. An artificial clock was set. 1880 British government took the Unprecedented step of legislating all time tables in Britain to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  

The story of banking: It was fascinating to read how banking works. It was very well explained. For example let us assume a new bank is opened. The money in the bank is 0 (Zero).

Cycle 1:

Depositor A deposits  $1 million

Money in the bank –    $1 million

B wants to build a hotel and borrows $ One million from the bank

Money in the bank – 0 (Zero)

Cycle 2:

B gives $1m to A to help him build the hotel

A deposits $1m again in the bank

Money in the bank is $1m, however according to A, he has $2m worth of deposits

B needs more money and borrows $1m again

Money in the bank is 0

Cycle 3:

B gives the extra $1m to A to continue to build the hotel.

A deposits $1m in the bank 

Money in the bank is $1m, however according to A, he has $3m worth of deposits in the bank

This can repeat upto ten times (with current banking laws). The banking system works on trust and credit. 

Wealth: In the olden days, it was the old fashioned material wealth. Today the wealth is the humans. Example. There was a Gold Rush in California and now the real wealth is the Silicon Valley Engineers and they can be transported anywhere.

Why do we study history? Not to predict the future but to widen our horizons. To tell there are many more possibilities than we could imagine. Today scientists are engineering living beings.  What’s in store in the coming years and centuries ? We do not know. Reading Sapiens, it also gives me a feeling that there will be no need for religions. It also depends on what kind of myth is created, (or) How the human beings are transformed? Can Neanderthals (extinct species of humans) be re-engineered? Professor George Church of Harvard University thinks we could do the same for a paltry $30 million dollars. We can imagine the different possibilities. This is what this book intends to do.

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