The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced. s

Cognitive revolution -> Agricultural Revolution -> Scientific Revolution

Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.

Brain consumes most energy

In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.

From muscles to brain

Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defense to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah.

Pre-mature birth

Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed.

The underdogs of the savannah

In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

Cooking revolution

But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms –such as wheat, rice and potatoes –became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked.

Just another animal

Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it.

Inventions before 30,000 years

The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man in this chapter), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.

Importance of fiction

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.

Companies are just legal entities - a segment of our imagination

This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally independent of the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them. Over the last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination.

Getting people to believe a common goal

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.

Biology vs reality

The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes. Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.

Hallmarks of cooperation

Neighbouring bands probably competed for resources and even fought one another, but they also had friendly contacts. They exchanged members, hunted together, traded rare luxuries, cemented political alliances and celebrated religious festivals. Such cooperation was one of the important trademarks of Homo sapiens, and gave it a crucial edge over other human species.

Human migration across the planet

If a forager band split once every forty years and its splinter group migrated to a new territory sixty miles to the east, the distance from East Africa to China would have been covered in about 10,000 years.

Forager life was not all ideal

The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies’. It would be a mistake, however, to idealise the lives of these ancients. Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving.

Cruelty in today’s world

Most people probably enjoyed the close intimacy of the roaming band, but those unfortunates who incurred the hostility or mockery of their fellow band members probably suffered terribly. Modern foragers occasionally abandon and even kill old or disabled people who cannot keep up with the band. Unwanted babies and children may be slain, and there are even cases of religiously inspired human sacrifice.

not everything can be classified as good or evil

The truth is that Aché society, like every human society, was very complex. We should beware of demonising or idealising it on the basis of a superficial acquaintance. The Aché were neither angels nor fiends –they were humans. So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers.


Arrival of Homo Sapiens and the subsequent destruction

Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years. Was it all the fault of Homo sapiens?

Ecological disasters

the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. Hardest hit were the large furry creatures. At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds.

Today’s food is not much different

Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 percent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC –wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.

No better diet or leisure

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.

Measure of evolutionary success

The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.

Luxuries to necessities

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.

Domestication of animals

The most aggressive and unruly lambs were first to the slaughter. The most submissive, most appealing lambs were allowed to live longer and procreate. The result was a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep.

No turning point towards hunter gatherings

This was the turning point, they say, where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation. Whichever direction the road led, there was no going back. Farming enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting and gathering.

Attachment and belonging

The typical peasant developed a very strong attachment to this structure. This was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural. Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centred creature.

Stress of farming

The stress of farming had far-reaching consequences. It was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.

Peasants and culture

These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 percent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows.

Imagined orders are a way of cooperation

This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.

Wars and violence is difficult to organise

Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

Indoctrination from young

You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.

Maths and Language

Birth of maths

When the amount of people and property in a particular society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process large amounts of mathematical data. Since the human brain could not do it, the system collapsed. For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, human social networks remained relatively small and simple.

Sounds like modern computing

What set apart Sumer, as well as pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, is that these cultures developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records.

Make believe groups for hierarchy

Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.

the strongest not necessarily wins

In fact, human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. In most societies, it’s the lower classes who do the manual labour. This may reflect Homo sapiens’ position in the food chain. If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Sapiens would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder.

How did patriarchy arrive?

How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer. Maybe the common assumptions are just wrong.

Freedom and Equality

Another example is the modern political order. Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality.

Ability to hold contradictory beliefs

Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

Universal orders

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.


Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets. Without money, commercial networks and markets would have been doomed to remain very limited in their size, complexity and dynamism.

Money is not a material reality

In other words, money isn’t a material reality –it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. But why does it succeed?

breakthrough in monetary systems

The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport.

Different background, but shared belief in money

People continued to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in gold and silver coins. Without this shared belief, global trading networks would have been virtually impossible.

Value is transferrable

Within a short time the value of gold in India and the Mediterranean would be quite similar. The mere fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Indians to start believing in it as well. Even if Indians still had no real use for gold, the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the Indians value it.

Money = 2 universal principles

Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility b. Universal trust


Empires, too, ultimately fall, but they tend to leave behind rich and enduring legacies. Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another.

We are a product of many other cultures and empires

They were so successful that billions of people gradually adopted significant parts of that culture. Indians, Africans, Arabs, Chinese and Maoris learned French, English and Spanish. They began to believe in human rights and the principle of self-determination, and they adopted Western ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, Communism, feminism and nationalism.


It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money. Standardisation was a boon to emperors.

Moral justification for domination

Many Americans nowadays maintain that their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered by cruise missiles and F-16s.

The Internet companies?

States are obliged to conform to global standards of financial behaviour, environmental policy and justice. Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states.

Global or local?

Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.


Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria: 1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements. 2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.

Insight to polytheism

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’.

Who killed more?

Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

How Christianity became evangelical

This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah. However, one of the sect’s first leaders, Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something everyone should hear about, not just Jews. It was thus necessary to spread the good word –the gospel –about Jesus throughout the world.

How are monotheists more fundamentalists?

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.

polytheism in monotheism

The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise. For example, the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid. When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptised. She became St Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland.

Jihads or Crusades to help the God

Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so far as to imagine that the good God even needs our help in its struggle against the Devil, which inspired among other things the call for jihads and crusades.


The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’

Other ideologies

The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies.

Religions vs ideologies

We can divide creeds into god-centred religions and godless ideologies that claim to be based on natural laws. But then, to be consistent, we would need to catalogue at least some Buddhist, Daoist and Stoic sects as ideologies rather than religions.

Liberal humanist

Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct. According to liberals, the sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo sapiens. The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority.

Liberal vs Socialist humanism

Another important sect is socialist humanism. Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole. Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans.


We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

No proof of a better culture

There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear. There is no proof that Christianity was a better choice than Manichaeism, or that the Arab Empire was more beneficial than that of the Sassanid Persians.


A modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare. Any large bank today holds more money than all the world’s premodern kingdoms put together.

Tiny creatures

Each of us bears billions of one-celled creatures within us, and not just as free-riders. They are our best friends, and deadliest enemies. Some of them digest our food and clean our guts, while others cause illnesses and epidemics. Yet it was only in 1674 that a human eye first saw a microorganism, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek took a peek through his home-made microscope and was startled to see an entire world of tiny creatures milling about in a drop of water.

Atomic Bomb

and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05: 29: 45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

Scientific revolution

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith –it was repeatedly proven empirically.

Different from the past

Our ancestors put a great deal of time and effort into trying to discover the rules that govern the natural world. But modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:

Past cultures

The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known.

Religious belief in scientific research

Modern culture has nevertheless been willing to embrace ignorance to a much greater degree than has any previous culture. One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.

Does not know the answers

People throughout history collected empirical observations, but the importance of these observations was usually limited. Why waste precious resources obtaining new observations when we already have all the answers we need? But as modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.

Go beyond the past knowledge

They start by studying what the wise people of the past have said and written. But from their first year in college, aspiring physicists, archaeologists and political scientists are taught that it is their mission to go beyond what Einstein, Heinrich Schliemann and Max Weber ever knew.