Yuval Noah Harari, UNSTOPPABLE US, Vol. 2

Subtitled: “Why the World Isn’t Fair.” (Bright Matter Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House; March 2024. xv + 189pp. With copious illustrations by Ricard Zaplana Ruiz.)

This is the second volume in what might be called SAPIENS-FOR-KIDS, short and heavily-illustrated books that run through the themes of Harari’s SAPIENS (which I reviewed here) but for middle-grade readers. I heard once that one of the all-time Jeopardy champions honed his general knowledge of all things by reading books for kids, and indeed, a book like this helps anyone to see the crucial themes that stand out from among all the details, at a 30,000 feet level, so speak. In this book, it’s about the unfortunate consequences of the agricultural revolution, and how complex society lives by stories.

I reviewed the first book just over a year ago, here. That one covered human history from some 6 million years ago, “Last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees,” to 15,000 years ago, “Sapiens spread across the Americas. Extinction of the big American animals.” This one, slightly overlapping, goes from 25,000 years ago, “Wild wolves becomes domesticated dogs,” to 3,300 years ago, “First recorded epidemic”. (Each book has a ‘timeline of history’ chart at the front.)

Here are key points from the book’s four sections.

1: Everything’s Under Control

What happened, the author asks his juvenile reader, 10,000 years ago that allowed a few ambitious people to rule over others?

  • This chapter is about the agricultural revolution. The transition from the lives of hunter-gatherers to permanent villages. Harari gives a nice scenario about how, as people gathered local plants, they learned to plant it, and the crops grew up around them, in stages. Which led to the invention of tools, to hoe the ground. Yet this transition brought about problems: crops were subject to pests, and to droughts. Local spirit experts, the priests, explained how sacrifices were needed to appease the spirit gods, and if they didn’t work, then you must have done something wrong.
  • This was about the control by one species, humans, of others, which had never happened before. Humans became control freaks; they learned how to control goats, pigs, cows, and many others. With details about how miserable such animals were, and still are. The domestication of dogs and cats.
  • Some people rejected the control by chiefs and priests that came with agricultural settlements, but the farmers could feed more people, so their settlements grew and overwhelmed the others.

2: Oops, We Didn’t See That Coming

  • This chapter is about the unintended consequences of the agricultural revolution. Living as a farmer or herder involves a lot more work than being a hunter/gatherer.
  • Skeletons tell the story: farmers suffered more famine and disease; they had a limited diet; they were subject to disaster from locusts or disease or flood. Diseases spread easily; childhood mortality was high, so families had lots of kids, and the villages grew.
  • As people in villages acquired more possession, there were more reasons to fight with neighboring villages. The peaceful become violent in order to survive. Parable of an ant and a grasshopper, and how farmers constantly worry about the future. Thus farmers and gatherers learned to think differently…
  • How has this worked out? Most people today don’t work like ancient farmers, they’re more like chiefs, who don’t do the work. As villages grew into cities, people found new things to worry about.

3, Things that Scare Adults

  • This chapter is about the problems of living in larger and larger communities. Harari begins, in his appeal to young readers, to explain why parent worry, for example, about taxes.
  • As communities grew, priests and chiefs were needed, to make decisions in a context where not every member of a community could be allowed to speak. Examples of Uruk, and pharaohs, Crocodile City. The need for taxes, and for assessing what people owned in order to assess taxes, and punishments for those who didn’t pay. Slavery.
  • Yet this led to writing – at first, in order to keep track of who owed what. Symbols for numbers, people, animals, became abstract, enabling some to write poetry.
  • Then came the need to *find* the documents that held such records. Now we have Google; the ancient solution was: bureaucracy. Clerks who knew where all the scrolls were. This led to schools and exams, because everything, even in modern society, is controlled by bureaucrats.

4, The Dreams of Dead People

  • This chapter is about bureaucrats and rules and how you get people to follow the rules. And the answer is a hallmark Harari theme: you invent stories.
  • Simple rewards or punishments don’t work. What works are stories: told by priests about the gods who created the world and made all its rules, eventually written down in books. It’s happened all over the world. Follow the rules: heaven; disobey them: you get eaten by a crocodile. Truth didn’t matter; as long as people believe the stories, they followed the rules, and society became possible.
  • Such stories justified different roles in society; how a ‘magic stink’ applied to certain peoples (blacks, women). These stories weren’t ‘true’; adults tell them to children, over and over, to avoid admitting that they don’t know something. Thus emerged rituals, which hold societies together.
  • There are three kinds of things in the world: things we can see, hear, or touch; things only you can feel, like pain, or dreams; and things that are shared dreams: gods, countries, money.
  • Yet these dreams are harmful when they justify wars. But stories can change, when we realize some people suffer because of those stories. E.g., it’s taken only a few decades for most people to realize that the story about gays was harmful, as were stories about women.
  • So be aware: stories are the greatest human invention. But part of growing up is learning which stories to keep, which to change, and which to abandon.
  • This is why the world isn’t fair. How is it that people from different cultures, with different stories, manage to agree on anything? Now, many of the rules around the world are the same? How did this happen? That’s another story – [[ for the next book ]].


Two quick reactions.

Harari maintains his theme that certain conceptions of the modern world, including money, government, and religion, are just “stories” that people agree upon because they enable our modern society. Have religious fundamentalists not noticed his books? If they do, I’d figure they’d ban them.

The idea about changing stories dovetails with several other books I’ve been reading. That is, morality is not fixed, it’s circumstantial. The morality of ancient human tribes on the savanna survives, alas, among today’s conservatives, even as it’s counter-productive in today’s global society. This is one of themes of the Pinker and Wilson books just read, and the one I’m reading now, Joshua Greene’ Moral Tribes. Much more to say on this theme later.


This is a quick draft, will reread and refine tomorrow….

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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