Book Summaries History

Chapter 18: A Permanent Revolution (Sapiens)

There are tens of thousands of wild animals, including giraffes and wolves, but there are hundreds of millions of domesticated animals, and billions of humans today. We have taken over the world.

In 1800 there were 950 million of us. By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers to 1.6 billion. And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion. Today there are just shy of 7 billion Sapiens.

While humans have managed to overcome the environment and its dangers, we have become increasingly susceptible to the dictates of governments and industry.

One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry.

We no longer care about the time of season the way people did in the past. A shoemaker today is a cog in a machine, if he shows up late for work, the entire system fails. In the past, a shoemaker did not have to worry about systems, but only the quality of his own craft.

The Industrial Revolution did not only get factories to work around the clock – since workers followed a precise schedule, so did schools, pubs, government offices and hospitals.

Public transportation also had to be exact. In England, one problem was that time was recorded differently in each area, which made train schedules unreliable. This was finally corrected by the government that required everyone to adhere to Greenwich time.  

The biggest consequence of the industrial revolution was the collapse of the family. Historically, the family provided everything. If a person needed a loan, an education, food, or to get out of trouble, the family was there to help, and as a final recourse, the community, but today, the market has taken over those roles. As a result, individuals have more freedom, especially women (who were subject to ownership by her family in the past). The market gives you a salary, bank loans, educational institutions, insurance, and a pension.

But after the industrial Revolution, the world has become a much more peaceful place. Even in the Arab world, which most consider to be violent, only one full-scale war has broken out (the Gulf War) since Arab nations were somewhat arbitrarily given independence by the French and British.

Today, things are changing so rapidly that even a 30-year-old can honestly say that they grew up in a very different world. The world before the internet is very different from the world of 2014 (the year the book was written).

The political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is often told as a series of deadly wars, holocausts and revolutions. Like a child in new boots leaping from puddle to puddle, this view sees history as leapfrogging from one bloodbath to the next, from World War One to World War Two to the Cold War, from the Armenian genocide to the Jewish genocide to the Rwandan genocide, from Robespierre to Lenin to Hitler.

But while this is true, this list of calamities is misleading. We forget the dry land separating the puddles. While the late modern era has seen much violence, it has also seen a lot of peace and tranquillity.

The figures for 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.5 It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.

People don’t appreciate how peaceful our world is today relative to the past. Barring the few odd wars taking place in the world, most people live in peace. There are a few theories that explain this.

One is the atomic bomb – war is too dangerous.

The second is a negative economic consideration– war is too expensive, and there is little profit to be gained from it. The value in Silicon Valley is the minds of its engineers, not Silicon or any other natural resource.

The third is a positive economic consideration – peace is extremely prosperous.

The fourth and final reason is that the leaders of the world, politicians, business people, intellectuals, and artists are pacifists.

While the picture looks rosy for the most part, had the book been written a few decades ago, it would have a very different tone. For this reason, Harari can only be cautious in his optimism.

We may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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