A few months back, a friend recommended watching the videos from a Coursera course, A Brief History of Humankind. I recently finished, and I second the recommendation. The lectures are engaging and encompassing without being overly shallow, and I like Yuval Harari’s approach of describing theories while continuously pointing out their contradictions and uncertain nature.
To make the course go even faster, I have two suggestions. First, watch the videos on at least 1.5x speed. Dr. Harari speaks painfully slowly, and I was often up to 2.5x speed. Second, I have compiled a list of the segments I got the most out of. Watching only these on 2x speed, you should get through the course in just four or five hours. As I said, I do recommend the whole thing, but here were the highlights for me:
- Lesson 2: The Cognitive Revolution, Segment 1: An easy to understand overview of what the cognitive revolution was, when it happened, and what the consequences were. If this piques your interest, watch the four subsequent sections of this lesson.
- Lesson 4: The Human Flood, Segment 2: The impact of the cognitive revolution on earth ecosystems.
- Lesson 5: History’s Biggest Fraud, Segment 1: The agricultural revolution and its downsides. The three subsequent sections in this lesson are also quite good.
- Lesson 6: Building Pyramids, Segment 3: The rise of mathematical thinking, and the invention of math to help us handle it. I’ll recommend any segment that covers Sumer.
- Lesson 7: There is No Justice in History, Segment 2 & Segment 4: Talks about how hierarchies formed, focusing on race/caste (segment 2) and patriarchy (segment 4). The value of these segments probably depends on the extent to which you’ve previously thought and learned about race and gender.
- Lesson 8: The Direction of History, Segment 3: The history of trust. Possibly my favorite segment of the whole course – I found myself thinking about the characterization of money as a form of quantified trust long after the segment was over.
- Lesson 10: The Law of Religion, Segment 2: An overview of theistic religions, with a focus on how polytheism and dualism influenced monotheism.
- Lesson 11: The Discovery of Ignorance, Segment 1: How science and imperialism grew with each other. Can be summed up with this line: “The real aim of modern science is not truth, it is power.”
- Lesson 13: The Capitalist Creed, Segment 2 & Segment 4: Segment 2 is as good an introduction to capitalism as I’ve found anywhere. Segment 4 is short and very much worth watching. It talks about unregulated capitalism, monopolies, and indifference, using the Atlantic slave trade as an example.
- Lesson 14: The Industrial Revolution, Segment 3: This one is actually an anti-recommendation. An introduction to consumerism, it has a shallow and frankly offensive take on obesity. I found it a useful reminder that all histories are narratives and all narrators are fallible. (Another reminder: a not too tactful reference to transgender experiences in Lecture 17 Segment 1.)
- Lesson 15: A Permanent Revolution, Segment 1 & Segment 4: Segment 1 covers our changing approaches to time. If you like this segment, I recommend reading A Geography of Time by Robert Levine. Segment 4 talks about the surprising peacefulness of our time.
I will leave you with the last few sentences from the course:
So I hope that you leave this course with more questions than you had when you entered it, and that you leave this course with a desire, with a wish to study and to learn more about our history. In addition, I hope that you leave this course feeling a bit more uneasy than when you started it. Uneasy about the many questions to which we humans have no clear answer yet. Uneasy about the many problematic events that happened in the past, and uneasy about the direction history may be taking us in the future.