Book Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

In the never ending quest for more information, greater perspective, increased empathy and vicarious experiential learning, I try to read a book every 2-3 weeks on average.

My most recent read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was a book that I will remember forever, as it had a huge impression on me and my world outlook. The book covers the history of the Homo sapiens species (I won’t say ‘humans’, because Homo sapiens aren’t the only human species, we are just the only one left!)

There are several components of the book that I found fascinating; facts, figures and insights that instantaneously altered my perspective and opinions on certain topics. While I could spend time dissecting the whole book and cover the entire history of our species, I thought I’d share the aspects of the book that relate to my mission here at Paleo is Possible.

Understanding our Genetics

“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.”

Unfortunately, it is all too easy today to have quick access to heavily processed, high-calorie foods. Back in the hunter-gatherer days, it was incredibly difficult to consume as many calories as we do today, as foods were unprocessed, raw and had to be broken down via our teeth, jaws, and saliva to extract the nutritional content.

Today, we are rarely in a life or death situation where the need to consume copious amount of nutrients is vital for survival. It is important to remember this when feeling hunger, and ask yourself:

Am I really hungry? Or am I bored, tired or stressed? What sensations in my body are causing this feeling to arise?

The answer to these questions might help you rise above your natural instincts and lower your overall calorie consumption, specifically of the high-calorie content variety.

Fitness in the Primal Age

“They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t’ai chi.”

Think about someone you know in each decade of their life. What do their bodies look like as they get into their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond? Do their bodies start to break down, hunch over, tighten up and induce pain?

We think this is just the natural aging process, but I would argue that, while we cannot defeat aging (although we can slow it down considerably), we can maintain a lifestyle that is as flexible, mobile and enjoyable as we experience in the prime years of our lives (20-30s) well into the golden years.

Fulfillment and Work

“The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do. Today, a Chinese factory hand leaves home around seven in the morning, makes her way through polluted streets to a sweatshop, and there operates the same machine, in the same way, day in, day out, for ten long and mind-numbing hours, returning home around seven in the evening in order to wash dishes and do the laundry. Thirty thousand years ago, a Chinese forager might leave camp with her companions at, say, eight in the morning. They’d roam the nearby forests and meadows, gathering mushrooms, digging up edible roots, catching frogs and occasionally running away from tigers. By early afternoon, they were back at the camp to make lunch. That left them plenty of time to gossip, tell stories, play with the children and just hang out. Of course the tigers sometimes caught them, or a snake bit them, but on the other hand they didn’t have to deal with automobile accidents and industrial pollution.”

Which lifestyle would you prefer in the above quotation? While this example is extreme, think about how different your daily job is from a sweatshop in terms of monotonous routine and time commitment.

We typically think that we, as a species, are making progress and that new technologies and inventions are going to make our lives better and easier. I would argue that, while technology has made our lives easier, I cannot say a relationship with better or happier lives is so clear.

“Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.

This quote reminds me of another book I just read, called “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday.

Our perception of the challenges we face are huge, as we can either succumb to them and give up, or accept the obstacles and demolish them.

Varying Your Diet

“The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet. Especially in premodern times, most of the calories feeding an agricultural population came from a single crop –such as wheat, potatoes or rice –that lacks some of the vitamins, minerals and other nutritional materials humans need. The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she were lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs. The peasant’s ancient ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Tomorrow’s menu might have been completely different. This variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.”

Now think about the Standard American Diet, focused on processed foods like pizza, pasta, hot dogs, hamburgers (with the bun), etc.

How much of the American diet is rooted in the cereal grains that proliferate into all areas of our diet? How often do we stick to the same sources of protein or same vegetables? What nutrients are found in these foods? What nutrients are missing from these foods? Is it any wonder that the markets for nutrition supplements, probiotics, prebiotics, health smoothies, etc. have been so successful?

Our bodies crave the nutrients it requires to survive and thrive, and when we deprive ourselves, we suffer mentally, physically, and emotionally.

The True Impact of the Agricultural Revolution

“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. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

“The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks [agriculture]. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.”

This was one of the most interesting parts of the book.

I obviously knew the nutritional implications of the Agricultural Revolution, but the author did a great job explaining the lifestyle components that came with the revolution and their implications on our lives. I’m not saying we all need to go back to primitive times and not reap the benefits of the Agricultural (and subsequent Industrial and Information) Revolution, but it is important to understand the implications of our lifestyle changes and think about ways to counteract the negative side effects.

Happiness <> Expectations

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.”

This is so true. I think the #1 problem with the Information Age and social media is the ridiculous, false expectations that we believe will bring us happiness.

We need to remember that everyone is fighting a battle and everyone posts their best self online. We will never reach the top of the hill of expectations, as there is always someone with more of whatever you are after.

“If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society –mass media and the advertising industry –may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.”

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Happiness & Our Genes

“We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.”

“Buying cars and writing novels do not change our biochemistry. They can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point.”

“Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great-grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.”

This is something that I always intuitively knew, but could not put into words. It was liberating to read these words and make the connection between fulfillment and happiness.

Whatever we obtain in life, we grow accustomed to shortly thereafter. In addition, the weight of these things causes additional stress and takes up space in our limited mental capacity. The documentary, Minimalism, covers this topic quite well.

This is why you can see people smiling as they walk through an urban slum to their small tent, or see a multi-millionaire sports athlete miserable with a lucrative contract and brand endorsements but beyond ecstatic when they win their respective championship.

Chasing Feelings

“The root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.”

Wow, this one hit home. I can definitively say that I am a victim to the feeling that pleasure might soon disappear. When I stare into a sunset, I sometimes feel sorrow for the inevitable end of the short lived experience.

I am now making a concerted effort to overcome this feeling, as it distracts from being present and enjoying the moment. Easily said, but very difficult in practice.

I read another book recently called "Waking Up" by Sam Harris, which nicely dovetailed with this concept and provided some practical advice on mindfulness, spirituality, and happiness. I highly recommend that book as well.

“People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.”

Final Thoughts It should be apparent by now that how we live our lives and what inputs our genes expect and thrive on are incredibly important. I believe that the lifestyle component of the Primal Blueprint, which is the basis of Paleo Is Possible, is equally as important as the nutritional or fitness pillars. A holistic approach to our health requires all three, otherwise we are destined to fail.

Sapiens allows us to see the long view of our evolution, appreciate where we came from, and understand where we are going. It reminds us of how different our modern world is from the world our ancestors lived in, and leaves hints on how we can reclaim our primal way of life.

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