As an avid reader, my understanding of the world has greatly expanded through novels. I'm accustomed to looking at people through the emotional and psychological lens of relationships and community, always exploring how different social factors and personal histories make us so unique.
And while I've mostly preferred learning through fictional stories and characters, the non-fiction bestseller "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" not only amplified my understanding of the human condition but also deepened my understanding of humans. The book, a biological, intellectual, and economic account of humankind, explained the biological "why" behind everything I've ever known about people, including myself.
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, an internationally recognized historian and philosopher, introduced me to concepts that explore the very foundation of how humans evolved from nomadic apes to philosophical beings who ponder the meaning of life. I've been spouting quotes and information from this book ever since I finished reading it, so here are the three most fascinating concepts I learned from "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind."
The early developments of Homo sapiens were entirely biological, centered around sustaining and creating life. Yet some of our evolution's disadvantages heavily outweighed the advantages.
For instance, in the development of the agricultural revolution, humans found that wheat was incredibly difficult to farm, not economically secure, and not even that nutritious. So why did we invest time and energy into farming anyway? According to Harari, farming fulfilled our biological needs by helping communities settle down, give birth to more babies in a shorter amount of time, and feed a larger number of people on a smaller space of land.
To put it into today's terms, the pursuit of an easier life often generates greater hardships. It's called the luxury trap: As Harari puts it, "luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations." For example, we used to mails letter when we had something to say. Now, we send and receive dozens of emails every day, many of us considering it a necessity to have email access on our phones for even quicker responses. Immediate email correspondence was a luxury that has become a 21st-century necessity, spawning new obligations to be attached to our phones.
It's nearly impossible to break the luxury trap cycle: It's spawned by our biological desire to make life easier so we can conserve time, energy, or money. But humankind's instinct to cater to ourselves also has some positives. It's helped us evolve from farming wheat to generating significant technological advances and boosting our cognitive capacity for empathy, to name a few things.
When humans began to trade nomadic life for settlements, we created values to help govern societies. Our societal agreements are based on inter-subjective beliefs — the foundations of society are agreed-upon concepts of law, money, religion, and nations that link billions of humans to an imagined order that does not exist outside of our consciousness. Even the idea of "rights" is not something that exists in biology: It's an imagined order that controls the population because enough people believe in it.
The idea that we fabricated the social concepts that tie us to our political views and institutions might spur an existential crisis, but learning this was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. While fully abandoning the greatest societal contracts would create planet-wide chaos, it can be helpful to remember individual (and often invisible) pressures that we feel to be constantly achieving or fitting into a particular mold don't have as much control over us as we think. If we question some of these imagined constructs, we might find ourselves closer to intellectual freedom.
As Harari points out, happiness is an incalculable abstraction. The closest measurable figure is pleasure, a chemical sensation that keeps humans alive by rewarding us when we eat or reproduce — not exactly what most of us think when we imagine self-fulfillment.
Yet, as the cognitive revolution carried humankind through advances that would shape all of planet Earth, the importance of happiness emerged. Happiness is subjective, the scale of which has dramatically changed from the Middle Ages to now. But it is also the unit many of us use to determine if our lives feel worthwhile.
In much of the history of humankind, we ignored the idea that happiness drove any kind of evolution. But as we grew through rapid technological evolutions, our motivation has focused more on our subjective well-being. Humankind's search for a meaningful life is how we've managed to survive a history's worth of hardships, such as defending a country's values in a war or exploring new hobbies during a pandemic.
The biological rules that dictated the survival of Homo sapiens for hundreds of thousands of years have changed in only the past few decades. With our advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology, humans have been able to shift our focus from survival and reproduction to happiness and meaning. With this realization that humanity's sole purpose is no longer to survive but thrive, we can prioritize self-actualization.
I learned so many profound theories from this book, and it broadened my understanding of humanity. While we evolved through our survivalist need for self-preservation, the cognitive revolution spawned societies founded on rules and values, some of which now create new barriers to our happiness and wellbeing.
More importantly, learning about our evolutionary history deepened my empathy for humankind and even towards myself. Thanks to this book, my view of my place in the world has shifted, as I remember that I wouldn't be here, typing this, if not for the billions of decisions my ancestors made. It's a borderline magical (and ok, a little overwhelming) realization. It makes me want to pursue a more meaningful life, and extend grace towards others and myself whenever I can. Gaining this perspective is one of the best takeaways a book could possibly give.