A Brief History of Humankind

[Amazon Link]

I had high hopes for this book, based on … I'm not sure what, exactly. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a history prof at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The subtitle, "A Brief History of Humankind", led me to think it might be a… well, a history book, hopefully full of "big ideas", a genre I'm kind of a sucker for. In addition, it's glitzy, with many color illustrations.

But as it turns out the subtitle is misleading. Yes, there's some history here. But …

The book is organized around four "revolutions". The first, the "Cognitive Revolution", occurred around 70K years back, when Homo Sapiens developed "imagination". This caused our ancestors to develop language, culture, and migrate out of East Africa to (eventually) the four corners of the earth.

Second revolution was "Agricultural", the transformation from hunter/gatherer societies to farming, about 10K years ago. Harari notes that this was, in many ways, a downgrade in terms of diet, life expectancy, and freedom. (Agricultural societies arguably needed "protection", and agricultural products were easy sources of protection money, often euphemized as "taxes".)

Third revolution: unification. Various far-flung empires sprang up, absorbing previously-independent cultures into their overweening grasp. Harari refrains (mostly) from moral judgmentalism here, noting that this revolution, as the others he details, was more or less inevitable.

Finally: the scientific revolution, only a few hundred years old, in which we live today, and for the foreseeable future.

All that's fine, I suppose. But I was expecting more facts and stories from a self-described "history" book. Instead, I got a lot of pontificating about the Meaning Of It All. I found Harari's "big ideas" to be simplistic, delivered with smugness. For example, he takes apart the most famous sentence in the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The first paragraph of Harari's "translation into biological terms":

According to the science of biology, people were not 'created'. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

And so on. We are more or less invited to chuckle at the efforts of Jefferson et al. Har, them guys back then sure were stupid.

Harari's reductionism tears down a lot of the "myths" surrounding us. He's not shy about dragging in his own myths, however. (Don't get him started about poor treatment of farm animals!)

It's not all bad. Harari is on-target when he notes the silliness of arguments about "cultural appropriation": when Culture A steals things from Culture B, it's almost always something Culture B had previously grabbed from Cultures C, D, E, … And his discussion of possible futures for Homo Sapiens is pretty interesting.

All in all, I'm in agreement with the WSJ review by Charles C. Mann:

There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor.

I previously had put Harari's second book, Homo Deus on my to-be-read list. After reading Sapiens, I took it off. Your mileage may vary, of course.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Yesterday's Proverb was insanely great, but today we're back to the same old "being nice pays off" shtick in Proverbs 11:23:

    23 The desire of the righteous ends only in good,
        but the hope of the wicked only in wrath.

    As said before: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

  • So how about that Bret Kavanaugh pick, eh? I liked Jonah Goldberg's spontaneous take on the announcement of the website:

  • But Jonah had some useful pre-pick commentary too, and made a surefire prediction: It’s All Going to Get Dumber.

    I read this essay by an LSU law professor in The Hill, and I think it sets a new standard for dumb legal commentary. Ken Levy — again, a law professor — argues that the “McConnell Rule” should be treated as the law of the land, and that the Senate Democrats should then sue Mitch McConnell for not upholding it. Then, when a court (“preferably the Supreme Court,” he writes with admirable humility) agrees with Levy’s analysis, the judge (or justices) will not only prevent the Senate from considering Trump’s next SCOTUS nomination, it will actually force the Senate to “retract” Neil Gorsuch. Or something like that.

    As near as I can tell, the sole reaction to Levy's argument has been from conservatives (drawing attention to|making fun of) it. Stony, probably embarrassed, silence from the other side.

  • At the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin makes an immigration argument I've not noticed before: The Hereditary Aristocracy of Citizenship.

    Citizens of modern Western nations like to think that we have abolished the hereditary privileges once associated with aristocracy. No longer does a person born a noble enjoy a vast array of rights denied to commoners. Nor do we any longer have a class of serfs tied to the land, condemned to poverty and oppression for life. But, as conservative columnist Rachel Lu points out in an insightful recent article, we have a system of hereditary privilege that in many ways is just as pernicious as the aristocracy of old. We call it citizenship[.]

    That's an interesting take, and shakes my belief in traditional borders and immigration somewhat. I think nearly all of the talk about "white privilege" is tendentious and bogus, but it's hard to refute a concept of "American privilege": you and I are as lucky as hell to have been born here, and—quite obviously—we did nothing to deserve that good fortune. So?

    Still, as Ilya points out, all nations are like this. You are blessed/cursed with citizenship based an accident of birth.

  • At the Federalist, Robert Tracinski reports the least-surprising proof ever: Donald Trump’s Trade War Is Proving The Free Traders Right.

    It seems almost embarrassing to have to rehearse the case for free markets and free trade, a case thoroughly established centuries ago by the likes of Adam Smith and especially Frederic Bastiat. But Donald Trump is determined to make us learn that case all over again, the hard way.

    The key argument for free trade is that a tariff on imports may benefit one particular industry or group of producers, but it raises prices for everyone else, including other manufacturers who import the taxed material. You think the country is getting ahead because you see the increased profits for, say, domestic steel producers. The problem, as Bastiat famously pointed out, is what you don’t see—or at least, what Trump refuses to see—namely, all of the costs that tariffs impose on other companies and individuals.

    The link goes to an 1850 essay to which we've linked ourselves in the past: "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen". Which is excellent, but more relevant might be Sophisms of the Protectionists, available as our Amazon Product du Jour. The Kindle edition is $0.00, and Pun Salad gets a cut of that.

  • Arnold Kling (one of my favorite authors) reviews Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg (another of my favorite authors). Arnold suggests an alternate title for Jonah's book: Get the Story Straight.

    In Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg offers an ambitious intellectual defense of modern conservatism. His argument is grounded in a theory of cultural anthropology in which the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves play a crucial role in political economy.  If we tell the right story, we can maintain political order and continue to make economic progress.  But instead the wrong story, told by people he labels Romantics, threatens to undo what he calls “the Miracle,” the progress that took off as a consequence of the Age of Reason.

    There's a good suggestion that the book could have been more concrete in distinguishing between "innovations" that bolster the Miracle, and those that threaten it.

  • Alex Isenstadt sees possible trouble off Trump's starboard bow from Nebraska's junior Senator: Sasse tempts Trump’s wrath by refusing to bow.
    [Amazon Link]

    Ben Sasse has so far been spared the public floggings that Donald Trump inflicted on two since-vanquished GOP critics in the Senate, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.

    But that could soon change.

     As the “never Trump” faction of the Republican Party dwindles to a lonely few, the Nebraska senator has shown little interest in backing down – leaving him vulnerable to a Trump-fueled primary challenge in 2020, when he’s up for reelection.

    How Sasse responds — he has a book coming out three weeks before the midterm elections and has quietly launched a new political non-profit group, fueling speculation that he might launch a Hail Mary bid for president rather than seek another term in the Senate — promises to be the next intra-GOP drama.

    If the 2020 New Hampshire Primary ballot had Sasse on it, I'd probably vote for him. If it just had Trump and Kasich,… I might stay home and knit.

  • Philip Greenspun is watching the Thai cave rescue operation, and has an aside that got my attention more than his main point:

    Separately, when this is over will we Americans tighten up our (currently rather generous) standards for “hero”, “courage”, and “brave”? The rescuers are volunteering for a dive that requires multiple tanks of oxygen and swimming for miles underground. They’re doing this knowing that already one expert diver, a former Thai Navy SEAL, has already died.

    Example of how Americans use “courage”? See “West Hollywood to Honor Stormy Daniels as ‘Profile in Courage’”[…]

    Not for the first time, I'm reminded of… (via GIPHY)

Last Modified 2019-01-06 6:28 AM EDT