Review: Sapiens

Yuval Harari (יובל נח הררי) has written a scholarly, thought-provoking and crisply written survey of “big history” that he uses to preach his starkly different views of philosophy and economics. Dr. Harari teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he wrote Sapiens in Hebrew and accomplished the very idiomatic translation himself. Provocative and broad, he argues for a different perspective on history with confidence and swagger that he has it all figured out. Certainly, his very use of “Sapiens” for the title is in itself provocative. It reminds us that, long ago, the world held half a dozen species of human, of which only Homo sapiens survives. By highlighting the remarkably unpredictable path of history, he continually emphasizes that our present state is merely one of many possible — and he applies this both to the nature of our species and our beliefs (what he calls “shared myths”). This contrasts with my worldview which is the Christian narrative that we were uniquely created in God’s likeness and image and uniquely entrusted with a creation mandate.

Despite my differences, I appreciate any book that unleashes my imagination and challenges my worldview. Sapiens delivers with surveys of the impact of language, agriculture, economics, and science and technology against the unique backdrop of our species. The final conclusion is that we have won. While we are no longer competing for dominance on the planet, our greatest danger is our own inability to govern ourselves and anticipate the impact of our technology. Thus, for all our advances, our victory may be Pyrrhic: we have specularly failed to use our powers to increase our well-being and happiness. Because of this, Dr Harari predicts that we will vanish within a few centuries, either because we’ve gained such godlike powers as to become unrecognizable or because we’ve destroyed ourselves through environmental mismanagement.

From all this, I found Sapiens contains several new and powerful ideas: that Sapiens’ takeover of the planet is complete, that our greatest power is the ability to collectively create, believe and share ideas, that technology often enslaves us and can’t be resisted, and that the scientific revolution is the result of a willingness to admit ignorance.

We win! Sapiens now dominate the Planet

While the image below is not from Sapiens (it is from xkcd), it makes the point well that our species has dominated the planet. If you consider humans and our domesticated animals, our takeover is complete and the remaining wildlife is simply there to amuse us and give meaning to the pictures in our children’s books.

I wish he would have calculated the date Sapiens “won”, or the date where our species could basically do whatever we wanted with nature. While the industrial revolution might be seen by many as the period we conquered the world, I suspect the rise of the agrarian economy is where we took a different route and established a dominant position over nature. For most of its history, Homo sapiens lived a nomadic lifestyle. The vast majority of our ancestors spent their lives hunting prey and gathering vegetation. Rather than settling in one area, they travelled to wherever food was plentiful. Around 12,000 years ago, however, that all changed and that is when our population started to explode. On a small patch of land, farmers could grow a mass of edible plants. The consequent increase in the food supply meant that human societies could sustain much higher populations, but that required the systems we use today: money, government, war and politics.

However, the systems that provide us this dominance may provide the means for our downfall. Sapiens reminds us that we may be collectively acting in a way that is harmful to our future as a species by establishing such a dominant position on our planet without a matching increase in our wisdom or ability to govern. I often worry that we have developed several generations of technology, but are morally equivalent to our ancestors dating back 1000s of years. What politician today has the gravitas or ethics of Cicero? Clearly, our iPads don’t make us better people.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except the interdependent economic systems and the explosion of the money supply (i.e. leverage) makes our society dependent on high expectations about the future and how bank interdependencies have increased systemic risk to a level unprecedented in history.

Sapiens’ power is our ability to shared and jointly believe in ideas

Sapiens have accomplished this domination because we can uniquely cooperate in very large numbers across vast distances. This is Harari’s most strident theme: the physical un-reality of all our ideas. He claims that all large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, which he highlights are fiction. He describes shared concepts like the nation, money, and human rights as fabrications that have no relation to our biological reality as they don’t exist objectively. He claims that the fact that we share and ascribe such a lofty status to fictions is our most unique characteristic as a species.

While he remarks that we tend to over-value the reality of all our ideas, he reserves his sharpest criticism for Religion and its role in forming a shared human story. He covers Zoroastrian sacred texts, the Book of Genesis, the Popul Vuh. To him, gossip forms the most fundamental bond between local groups, but larger groups require religion which can sweep past trifling details and unite nations. In his narrative, religion was the necessary glue for human society until the 19th century, when scientific knowledge was able to create a standardized set of world beliefs. However, he notes that, without religion, there is no basis for many of the values we hold dear such as human rights.

This denigration of reality of our ideas and institutions is one where Harari overplays his hand. I believe our ideas and institutions, what Harari calls myths, have a complex ontological status. While Nationhood, the Pythagorean Theorem and the fundamental equality of human beings before the law are all non-physical notions formed in human brains, to label them all as fictions as Harari does, without distinguishing more carefully, diminishes the entire book.

Technology and Progress are a Mixed Blessing

When he talks technology and the Scientific revolution, Harari is now talking an area I’m much more familiar with. He makes clear that our obsession with technology is a modern phenomenon. To him, the relationship between science and technology itself is a recent development and when Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it was a revolutionary idea.

While our current society looks at the blessings of technology as an absolute win, Harari highlights the darker shadow behind technical advances. Namely, despite appearances consumers don’t have a choice to adopt new technology. Someone can decide to forgo email and credit cards, but they will not be able to participate in the modern economy. New technology thus creates addictions and what he calls a “luxury trap”.

For example, examine the rise of farming. Agriculture increased the amount of available food, yet the result of prosperity was not happiness but “population explosions and pampered elites.” Farmers worked harder than foragers and had a worse diet and poorer health, but the foragers had to adopt to the new economy. The surplus went to the privileged few, who used it to oppress. “The Agricultural Revolution,” Harari says, “was history’s biggest fraud.”

At the end of the book, Harari expresses an ambivalence about what we consider today to be a species-wide increase in well-being. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of.” While I’m personally in awe of quantum electrodynamics, the modern financial system and anatheisa, Harari is arguing that living better has not made us more content. Citing recent research in psychology, he states that happiness “depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” He cites that one may win the lottery and another become disabled. While one will most likely experience a short-term happiness and the other depression, research has shown that will be equally happy in a year, even though their circumstances remain different.

More worrying, our current dependence on technology may be our downfall. Not only are we interconnected to an unprecedented degree, but we also are addicted to growth and near-impossible expectations for technology to increase productivity and make scarce resources abundant. While this has historically avoided our malthusian collapse as population has grown, Harari persuasively argues that history is notoriously difficult to predict.

We might be at the beginning of the end of our species

At DARPA, we are starting to understand and experiment with human-machine symbiosis. Recently, we have not only wired a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, but have also figured out how to connect the brain to sensors that feel natural. Sapiens highlights the transplantation of ears onto mice and some of the fascinating and terrifying implications of stem cell manipulation.

Harari notes that for the first time in history, “we will see real changes in humans themselves – in their biology, in their physical and cognitive abilities”. History reveals that while we have enough imagination to invent new technologies, we are unable to foresee their consequences. Harari states:

It was the same with the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. Nobody sat down and had a vision: ‘This is what agriculture is going to be for humankind and for the rest of the planet.’ It was an incremental process, step by step, taking centuries, even thousands of years, which nobody really understood and nobody could foresee the consequences.

The Scientific Revolution is the result of an Admission of Ignorance

Harari takes a stab at what caused the scientific revolution: a willingness to admit ignorance. Before the modern scientific era, the State (the King) and the Church were the source of all truth. There was no excuse to be ignorant. With pith and awe, Harari describes the Scientific Revolution as the point in history when “humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power.”

It is worth quoting him here. He writes:

“But modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:

a) The willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.

b) The centrality of observation and mathematics. Having admitted ignorance, modern science aims to obtain new knowledge. It does so by gathering observations and then using mathematical reels to connect these observations into comprehensive theories.

c)The acquisition of new powers. Modern science is not content with creating theories. It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that hunched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.”

Also, this scientific progress, he asserts, was fueled by the twin forces of imperialism and capitalism.

He writes:

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”

While I find his views fascinating here, they still don’t match with my worldview. I consider the grand vision of using the scientific method to gain mastery over the physical world arose from the long-standing Christian vision—dating back at least to St. Augustine in the fourth century. My view is that nature as the second book through which God made himself known to humanity (the first being the Bible). Galileo justified science as an attempt to know the mind of God through his handiwork.

To miss this connection is only possible by forcing to remove the lens of current accepted groupthink. This is where Harari disappoints. He defers too much to current orthodoxies often resisting the logic of his own arguments for fear of affronting feminists or avoids conclusions that criticize his gay lifestyle, vegan sensibilities or postmodern worldview. There seems to be an inner conflict between the author’s freethinking scientific mind and a fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness.

In any case, I find Sapiens breathtaking in its scope and fascinating in its perspective.

There are some great quotes from the book here.

3 thoughts on “Review: Sapiens

  1. Thank you for the well-written review, Tim! Mr. Harari’s humanist worldview and fearful outlook certainly provides a stark contrast to one shaped by a Biblical framework. While he sees human dominance somewhat negatively, we can see fulfillment of the Creation mandate; while he harbors fears of our self-destruction, we have confidence in a covenant-keeping God who promised to preserve both man and nature — see the covenant bearing the author’s middle name — until a time in which God Himself will end human history, not us. A humble acknowledgement of Divine sovereignty over the course of history and the affairs of men provides a surer foundation for a hopeful life than one centered on man and fearful of where history might take us.

  2. Excellent review! Do the rules state we are only permitted one review? I will write mine shortly….but with so much territory to cover, and the complete “Brief History of Humankind” now in the rear-view mirror, there is so much food for thought, the conversation can take countless directions. However, to your single point, about offending/or not offending feminists, in my mind Harari took great measure to keep from offending as many “tribes” as he could. His decision to choose “humankind” over “mankind” in his title is more about the correctness of his subject, humans verses goats, than it is about avoiding an affront to womenkind. Much more discussion to follow, particularly and preferably as it relates to our technologically enabled perch at DARPA and our role in changing the history of our species…

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