Sapiens

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.