Sapiens: a brief history of humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

I finished this book a few days ago and have puzzled over what to write because I am excited about the topic here and appreciate the direction of his effort, but here is my review.  Happy New Year.

Before I set off on my diatribe, let me say clearly that I am not unhappy I read this book and I would almost recommend it to you. I appreciated some parts of it but found a good bit of it deplorable. In reading some real reviews I gather that I am not alone. Harari is most perceptive when discussing the origins of agriculture (though no footnotes and some of this was not original) and the religious transitions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Also how myths, money, and empire create unity and bind a culture. When he talks about prehistoric peoples, evolution and neuroscience, he shows either great command of the obvious or worse as he spouts academic BS about such matters, either unfounded supposition and counter to evidence or lack thereof or just plain wrong.

One major and interesting point is that the agricultural revolution around 9000 BCE was a ‘fraud’. Most agriculturalists had to work harder for poorer food than hunter-gatherers, plus with agriculture came cities, elitism, and more diseases and epidemics, some from domesticated animals. Monotheism also followed the development of agriculture and monotheists were more fanatical and less tolerant, so more wars for god. Harari gives a reasonable scenario for the domestication of plants and animals, though in talking with my wife, she found his lack of consideration of gender roles and child rearing a major lacuna in his exposition. He calls the domestication and treatment of domesticated animals humanity’s biggest crime but then cites the genetic manipulation of a rabbit to glow in the dark as a harbinger of a greater day for us all. As Uncle Joe says, “Gimme a break.” His statement that plants domesticated us so that their numbers increased even as their genetic pool became more monolithic was made with more depth and wider perspective by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire.

He speculates (though not clearly labeled as such) that Neanderthals did not have what he calls the Tree of Knowledge mutation and so lacked the ability to create narratives about a spiritual world or make intellectual progress while even a cursory reading of the past 20 years would show how we share a genetic heritage and how Neanderthals were not ignorant brutes but made music, controlled fire, painted pictures and buried their dead ritually. He also says that the most difficult human behavior to organize is violence but marshals little evidence to support this supposition and ignores organized violence in other mammals such as wolves and chimps and clear evidence about human violence from prehistory on. I guess he wants to emphasize that empires were a unifying force based upon cultural myths and not upon violence. Hard to separate the two if you ask me. It is like when some Southern fanatics say that flying the Confederate flag is heritage, not hate, but the heritage of a slaver’s flag necessarily entails hate, or at least, degradation of another human being. Harari here wants to take his pound of flesh without taking any skin or blood or nerves as in Shakespeare. No juice without the skin and pulp.

I appreciate his discussion of science as the discovery of our ignorance along with the notion of progress in technology and how happiness is not really included in this progress, but again he becomes so simplistic as to get it wrong. He sets up the dichotomy of happiness being determined by serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin as opposed to experience. I have read a lot of ignorant dichotomies about brain and mind since 1970, but to find this in 2016 is a bit dumfounding. Furthermore he discusses evolutionary science and intelligent design (meaning genetic engineering but with this phrase used by religious evolution deniers) without addressing consistently and rigorously the idea of teleonomy.

One more quibble is his shallow discussion of economics over our history. Maybe I am more of Marxist than I give myself credit for, but after recognizing Hariri’s point that money is a great unifier because it is a) a convertible mechanism for exchange and b) based upon trust, I wish he would have tempered his enthusiasm with a deeper presentation on class, elitism, and historical dialectic. He gives only lip service to the notion of elites as he does to other topics such as biological ethics. Oh well, let me console myself with a little review of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and some of Christopher Hitchens’ essays on these topics.

Those are my most serious quibbles with this book but the list goes on for awhile. I appreciate his effort to place humans in a longer historical context and when his discussion is based on history, it seems most valid. When he begins to discuss prehistory and evolution, I would suggest putting this book down and reading E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature or Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene or any of Frans der Waals’ books or the many books that address the mind-body problem with biological accuracy. My favorite continues to be Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience.

I understand that this book is a best seller and is being translated into many other languages. Someone said he must simplify for those without the background to understand the finer points. I reply that he should have spent the time educating himself about the finer points before enthusing over unsupported generalizations, some of which are at best misleading. Read Sapiens and see what you think, or try these other books if you have not already done so. Travel on.

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