the plan for the future

A Brief History of Humankind

11 August 2014 - 8 September 2014

Lecturer: Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Foreword of Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Welcome to the course A Brief History of Humankind. As its name indicates, this course attempts to offer a complete overview of the whole of human history from the appearance of humankind in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago, up to the technological and political revolutions on the 21st century which may well lead to the disappearance of humankind. At the end of the course, I hope that you will have not only clearer general picture of human history, but also some clear answers to basic questions of history such as, what is religion, what is an empire, what is money, how does the capitalist economy function, why are men superior to women in almost known human societies, did people become happier as history unfolded, and what is the likely future of humankind in the 21st century and beyond.

This sounds very ambitious and I promise that it will be very superficial and controversial. It will be superficial because history is very complex, and any attempt to give a complete account on the whole history, especially in just 20 lessons, is bound to ignore many of the subtleties and many of the details. My aim is that you will nevertheless leave this course after twenty lessons with a complete picture of history in mind, even if that picture is somewhat like a caricature. If you wish, you could later fill out the details by attending other courses or reading more books.

This story I will tell here is not only a superficial, but also controversial. It represents the way that I personally understand history, and not the way that all historians understand history, for there is simply no objective story that all historians in the whole world accept as the truth. If you ask ten different historians to give this course, you will get 10 very very different histories of the world and of humanity. So I hope that as you listen to these lectures, you don't think that they are simply the truth about humankind and its past, but more an invitation to think about history and to explore it for yourself.

Before we begin the story of humankind, I would like to cover a few technical details about this course. Each lecture is broken into several segments. It is best if you watch the entire lecture in one go, but if you find the lecture too long, you are always free to stop after a segment and continue listening to the next segment later. Even if you watch the entire lecture at once, it might still be a good idea to stop for a few minutes after each segment and think about what you have heard.

Since this is an introductory course to history, I don't assume any prior knowledge on your part of history. Even if you've never studied history in college or even in school, it should be very easy to Join this course, to follow the lectures, and to understand almost everything I speak about. Also you don't need to read any books while taking this course in order to follow the lectures Now a book has been made to accompany this particular course. It is named Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is also available in other languages than English.

The book covers basically the same issues as this course, but in greater depth. However, I want to emphasize that is absolutely not essential to read this book during the course after the course. You can follow the course and understand everything, and gain a very good understanding of the course of human history without reading the book. Likewise, you don't need to do any assignments in order to follow the course. The only assignment that you have, is to think about what you hear as much of what I'm going to say is controversial.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, 2014


Foreword of Dr. Yuval Noah Harari




Part I: The Cognitive Revolution
1. The Human Family
1.1. The beginning
1.2. The characteristics of humans
1.3. The domestication of fire
1.4. The rise of Homo Sapiens
2. The Cognitive Revolution
2.1. A sudden change
2.2. The unique language of sapiens
2.3. Fictive language
2.4. Stories that create reality
2.5. Changing stories
3. Daily Life in the Stone Age
3.1. The human way of life
3.2. Common characteristics
3.3. Spiritual beliefs
3.4. Politics and warfare
4. The Human Flood
4.1. The first significant feat
4.2. Waves of extinction

Part II: The Agricultural Revolution
5. History's Biggest Fraud
5.1. The domestication of humans
5.2. The rotten deal
5.3. The cause of the Agricultural Revolution
5.4. The fate of domesticated animals
6. Building Pyramids
6.1. Imagined reality
6.2. Imagined order
6.3. The language of numbers
7. There Is No Justice in History
7.1. The human way of life
7.2. Historical accidents determine social structures
7.3. Differences between men and women
7.4. Reasons for male dominance

Part III: The Unification of Humankind
8. The Direction of History
8.1. The long march towards unity
8.2. Money for complex economies
8.3. How money works
9. Imperial Visions
9.1. What is an empire?
9.2. The role of empires in unification
9.3. Global empire and culture
10. The Law of Religion
10.1. What is religion?
10.2. Polytheism, dualism and monotheism
10.3. Godless religions
10.4. Humanist religions

Part IV: The Scientific Revolution I
11. The Discovery of Ignorance
11.1. Admitting ignorance
11.2. Empirical observations and mathematics
11.3. The revolution of progress
11.4. Economics of science
12. The Marriage of Science and Empire
12.1. An insignificant corner of the world
12.2. Why did it happen in Europe?
12.3. Discovery and conquest
12.4. Modern science and European empires
13. The Capitalist Creed
13.1. Trust in the future
13.2. The capitalist religion
13.3. Capitalism and the modern European empires
13.4. Criticism of capitalism

Part V: The Scientific Revolution II
14. The Wheels of Industry
14.1. An explosion in human productivity
14.2. The Second Agricultural Revolution
14.3. Consumerism
15. A Permanent Revolution
15.1. Changes caused by the Industrial Revolution
15.2. The collapse of the family and the community and the rise of the state and the market
15.3. The revolution of human politics
15.4. The New Peace
16. And They Lived Happily Ever After
16.1. Theories about the history of happiness
16.2. Theories about what makes people happy
16.3. Other approaches and criticisms
17. The End of Homo Sapiens
17.1. Biological engineering
17.2. Cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic life
17.3. Social, political and ethical implications

Some Final Words



A Brief History of Humankind: Introduction

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari teaches history at the Hebrew University in the ancient city of Jerusalem, a place suffering perhaps from too much history. Over the last 10 years he has been teaching an introductory course for the history of the world, beginning with the evolution of humankind in the stone age, reaching up to the technological and political revolutions of the 21st century which may lead to the disappearance of humankind. He is used to teaching to a mixed crowd of students, and he would be delighted if you too would join the course into a common but troubled past.

Comparing weights of humans, domesticated animals and wild animals
Comparing weights of humans, domesticated
animals and large animals in the wild
At present we humans basically own this planet. There are about seven billion humans on the planet. If you put them on a large scale, they would weigh about 300 million tonnes. If you then took all the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, that humans have domesticated and enslaved for their own needs, and put them too on a large scale, they would weigh together 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large creatures of planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes. So this is why we can say that humans own this planet.

This was not always so. If you travel back in time about 70,000 years, you would discover that there were less than 1 million humans, and their impact on the fellow animals and the eco-system in general was minimal, less than that of, for example jellyfish or bumble bees. So how did humans come from there to here? This will be the basic question of this course. How did an insignificant African ape turn itself into the master of the entire planet?

When people try to answer this question, they often look for some unique quality of individual humans which is different from all other animals, as if there is some essential difference between a human body and brain, and the body and brain of a chimpanzee or an elephant that that makes humans so special. But the truth is the secret of human success is not found at the level of the individual human. It is located at the level of the collective. Humans control the world because humans are the only species on the planet that knows how to cooperate flexibly and in large numbers.

Ants, bees and other social animals can cooperate in very large numbers, but only in very rigid ways. They can't invent and change these ways every now and then. Other species of social animals, such as chimpanzees and wolves, can cooperate flexibly, but they can't cooperate in large numbers. A chimpanzee can cooperate effectively, only with a small number of intimately known friends and family members. Humans are the only ones that can cooperate flexibly with millions upon millions of strangers, and this is why humans control the world, while ants eat their leftovers and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

This film is a perfect example of this flexible mass cooperation. Mr. Harari doesn't know the person standing behind the camera and he certainly doesn't know the people who produced manufactured the camera or the microphone. He doesn't know his students who may be watching the film from Delhi, New York, Nijverdal or Tokyo. Nevertheless, even though these people don't know each other, they cooperate to create a course about the history of the world. Not all mass cooperation of humans is agreeable. Prisons, slaughterhouses and concentration camps, are also an example of mass cooperation between humans.

How do humans cooperate effectively and flexibly in large numbers? Want is the secret behind this trick? The secret behind this trick is, in one word, imagination. The secret is the stories which we tell each other, and even though we don't know each other, and that we all come to believe. And because we all believe in the same story, we can cooperate. If you examine any mass cooperation network, a state, a church, a tribe, or a business corporation, you will find that in its basis, there are stories which people invent and tell each other about things that don't really exist, for example gods, nations, money, or human rights.

There is no such thing in the world as gods, money, or human rights, except in the common imagination of human beings. This green piece of paper is worth something because you and me agree that it's worth something. This is the basis of our economy. This course is trying to give you an understanding how humans, over thousands of years, have woven together an extremely complicated network of stories about gods, nations, money, justice, human rights, and all these things that gave them dominion over the world, and eventually people came to believe particular stories, and not others.