Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
From a renowned historian comes a groundbreaking narrative of humanity's creation and evolution - a number one international best seller - that explores the ways in which biology and history have defined us and enhanced our understanding of what it means to be "human".
One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth. Yet today there is only one - Homo sapiens. What happened to the others? And what may happen to us?
Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago, with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.
Dr. Harari also compels us to look ahead, because, over the last few decades, humans have begun to bend laws of natural selection that have governed life for the past four billion years. We are acquiring the ability to design not only the world around us but also ourselves. Where is this leading us, and what do we want to become?
This provocative and insightful work is sure to spark debate and is essential for aficionados of Jared Diamond, James Gleick, Matt Ridley, Robert Wright, and Sharon Moalem.
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|Listening Length||15 hours and 18 minutes|
|Author||Yuval Noah Harari|
|Audible.com Release Date||August 15, 2017|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #86 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#1 in Evolution (Audible Books & Originals)
#1 in Evolution (Books)
#1 in History of Civilization
Reviewed in the United States on November 19, 2018
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Warning: I made over 300 notes, as Hariri is an elegant and perceptive thinker and writer. Below, I group my comments or quote Hariri by the book's parts.
Although many points are presented as fact, I think of them as informed opinion. In most cases, I agree with Harari's logic, but that agreement dropped as his narrative approached our contemporary times (skip to the bottom). I think that's less due to the presence of more data than the ever-deepening diversity and complexity of our institutions -- trends that Hariri also acknowledges.
Part 1: The cognitive revolution
Humans are born underdeveloped, so they need help growing up. Thus we have strong social potential that can be shaped (language, taste, religion) in many ways.
Our jump to the top of the food chain (due to the advantages of social organization) was sudden. Thus, we lack natural predators or instincts that might limit our exploitation of resources, a problem that's especially acute in the "new world"
Humans are "afraid" in the sense that they do not understand their power. Thus, we might over-react against perceived threats or destroy through ignorance: "The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced" [p 62].
Language probably (?) allowed sapiens to dominate and eliminate Neanderthals (and other human species) even though any given Neanderthal individual was stronger and smarter. Language and social organization made it easier for groups of sapiens to dominate Neanderthals via collective action. Aside: Read this fascinating paper on how groups facing extinction (i.e., competition from other groups) will cooperate at much higher levels than groups not facing existential threats. And here's a great description of why sapiens are tribal and how to overcome tribalism in the name of nation, tolerance, etc.
Language allowed abstract thought, planning, story telling and deeper social relations, all of which drove forward the cognitive revolution and dominance of our species.
Gossip made it easier to control bad behavior. The value of a "maximum anthropological unit" is based on the fact that "most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings" [p 26].
Religion grew out of story telling. Religion, fiction and other communal myths help larger groups cooperate by supporting laws, money, and other institutions.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
Story-telling allows cultural evolution to run 1,000x faster than genetic evolution.
Our diverse stories led to "culture" and the events changing culture became "history."
These stories make it possible for sapiens to cooperate in far larger groups than our chimpanzee cousins that are limited to groups of 150.
Part 2: The agricultural revolution
The majority of individuals were far worse off living with domesticated animals and crops. They had worse nutrition, worked harder, suffered from more disease (a key element in Guns Germs and Steel), and lost autonomy to elites who could control property: "This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution" [p. 97].
The agricultural revolution led to larger populations that needed high-density food production systems to survive. Thus, we lost the "exit option" to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. (It's also true that agricultural societies could seize land and territory from hunter-gathers, so all groups were trapped in that equilibrium.) The same "no-return" problem (cf. Logic of Collective Action) makes it hard to reverse an arm-race, educational inflation, imported-water-dependent cities and farms. Likewise, the "luxury trap" has turned email into an incessant job, our "smart" phones into pestering devices.
The agricultural revolution led to required planning, which introduced stress about potential futures that hunter-gathers had never needed to experience. Planning led to bureaucracy, elites and rulers, who have taxed peasant workers (us!) ever since. Those elites funded art, temples, palaces and forts, but those "cultural institutions" were not often available to peasants.
Page 101: "History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets..." for rulers who often started wars fueled by peasant blood.
Page 111: "If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’."
Page 112: "To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money... How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature."
These beliefs underpin individualism, romantic vacations, consumerism, pick-up basketball, etc.
Page 118: "These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult."
Social orders work on a small scale due to evolved social skills (gossip). On a larger scale, they depend on writing and numbers -- abstractions that are harder for sapiens to grasp and use. Both can be helpful in communicating information across time to many people, but both are abused. Writing can be abused via dubious logic (Marx's labor theory of value). Numbers are abused in their abstraction. Many scams depend on "trustworthy people" selling us crap at prices that do not result in value. Think multi-level marketing, Brexit's “£350 million a week,” or Trump's steel policy ("create 33,000 metal-making jobs and destroy 179,000 metal-dependent ones")
Page 136-8: "Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others. Hierarchies serve an important function... In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it."
Page 142-3: "The stigma that labelled blacks as, by nature, unreliable, lazy and less intelligent conspired against him. You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior...Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again."
Page 145: "Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. This being the case, the legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s property."
Page 147: "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’."
Page 155: "It is only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force. It is therefore hard to believe that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women...the greater the number of wars, the greater men’s control of society. This feedback loop explains both the ubiquity of war and the ubiquity of patriarchy."
Men are in power mostly because they are pushier, not because they are better at ruling.
Page 160: "During the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. More and more societies today not only give men and women equal legal status, political rights and economic opportunities, but also completely rethink their most basic conceptions of gender and sexuality" ... and the results can be seen in many cultures and countries: not just better lives for women but better lives for men.
Part 3: The unification of humankind
Page 163-4: "Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’... every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change."
Page 166&172: "Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations...the first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind."
Page 177: "Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently."
Page 183: "Counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king. The legal term is lese-majesty (violating majesty), and was typically punished by torture and death. As long as people trusted the power and integrity of the king, they trusted his coins."
Good news! "For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively" [p 186].
Bad news! "When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand. Human communities and families have always been based on belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold for money. Even if the market offers a good price, certain things just aren’t done. Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord; and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners. Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water seeping through cracks in a dam" [p 186].
Page 187: "As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace. Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet with the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces. It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naïve."
Page 190: "Cultural diversity and territorial flexibility give empires not only their unique character, but also their central role in history. It’s thanks to these two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of planet Earth."
Page 195-6: "Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare. The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’ ... [in contrast] imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world."
Page 197: "Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms. One reason was to make life easier for themselves. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money. Standardisation was a boon to emperors" -- but not always to individuals.
Page 204: "Many Indians adopted, with the zest of converts, Western ideas such as self-determination and human rights, and were dismayed when the British refused to live up to their own declared values by granting native Indians either equal rights as British subjects or independence. Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire," which is a problem when it comes to its centralizing tendency -- a tendency present in many post-colonial countries -- to deny local autonomy and ignore local solutions.
Page 210: "Religion must... espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere [and] insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary... People tend to believe that all religions are like them. In fact, the majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive... As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money."
Page 214: "Most Hindus... are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman [the supreme being] is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness."
Page 215-18: "The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to do... polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion... Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition."
That said, "The monotheist religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window. Christianity, for example, developed its own pantheon of saints, whose cults differed little from those of the polytheistic gods" [p 219].
Page 227: "Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering."
Page 232-4: "The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even exterminated... Hitler dug not just his own grave but that of racism in general. When he launched World War Two, he compelled his enemies to make clear distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Afterwards, precisely because Nazi ideology was so racist, racism became discredited in the West. But the change took time. White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s."
Page 241-3: "So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine...There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage."
Part 4: The scientific revolution
Page 251-3: "The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known...The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies. But it presents us with a serious problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with. Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?"
Good news! "The notion that humankind could [end wars, famine or death] by discovering new knowledge and inventing new tools was worse than ludicrous – it was hubris. The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to disappointment and disaster" [p 264].
Bad news! Scientific advancement was not going to "overcome any and every problem by acquiring and applying new knowledge... because it would be funded and directed for the benefit of rulers and empire, not humanity.
Page 282: "What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it [rather than the Asian empires generating 80 percent of the world's wealth] to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages."
Superior knowledge made it possible for a ridiculously small number of Britons to control India.
Page 303: "the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’... Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of France’s Front National party go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny."
Page 308-11: "You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger. That’s why many cultures concluded that making bundles of money was sinful...If the pie is static, and I have a big part of it, then I must have taken somebody else’s slice... Whoever believes in progress believes that geographical discoveries, technological inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth... Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective."
Harari claims [p 215] that the human economy has been able to grow continuously "thanks only" to scientific discoveries but forgets how fossil fuels have allowed us to consume "millions of years of solar energy" in only a few centuries.
Page 318: "The secret of Dutch success was credit. The Dutch burghers, who had little taste for combat on land, hired mercenary armies to fight the Spanish for them. The Dutch themselves meanwhile took to the sea in ever-larger fleets. Mercenary armies and cannon-brandishing fleets cost a fortune, but the Dutch were able to finance their military expeditions more easily than the mighty Spanish Empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly eroding its trust in him. Financiers extended the Dutch enough credit to set up armies and fleets, and these armies and fleets gave the Dutch control of world trade routes, which in turn yielded handsome profits. The profits allowed the Dutch to repay the loans, which strengthened the trust of the financiers."
From around here (1800) forward, Harari's narrative is (more) vulnerable to critique, probably due to a combination of his over-reliance on a given trend that might ignore other trends or an over-simplified version of a concept (capitalism, for example).
He says [p 329] "there simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias," but that's obvious when you remember that political institutions (e.g., property rights or regulation) determine the form and regulate the operation of the market.
The sad thing is that he -- by underestimating the importance of institutions -- lays too much credit/blame on the economy, i.e., "much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud. The human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want." This claim might be justified by looking at the number of people living below the "$1.90 per day line" (11 percent, or 800 million), but "hunger" is often the outcome of failed political structures (politicians favoring themselves over their citizens [pdf]), and "want" should be blamed on our desires (see Buddha, above) rather than the "new ethic of consumerism" that "appears" as a means of rescuing capitalists from their overproduction [p 347].
This claim -- besides appearing in the passive tense, as if handed down by god -- is naive.
I see many of these market developments as good and many of the problems of inequality as the result of political decisions, but perhaps he's upset at "the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market" [p 355] because he prefers the pre-market world where "the community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market" [p 356]. That nostalgia in the present day might echo his ancestor's nostalgia for the the life of a hunter gatherer after the agricultural revolution, but I do not agree on the parallel.
First, it's unlikely that a community-oriented society will be invaded and colonized by a capitalist-oriented society in the same way that hunter-gathers were displaced by farmers.
Second, it's much easier for anyone to "go back" to a community lifestyle and spend less time in the market economy. We have the technology and productivity to make it possible for someone to work less and enjoy a decent standard of living. (After-tax wages in the Netherlands are probably half the level of those in the US, but the quality of life is better here for most people -- due to communal and market reasons.)
Third, Harari assumes that people are hapless victims -- "many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives" [p 360] -- assertions of dependency that I would not make for most people in middle and upper-income countries. (Neither would Mr Money Mustache.) Are the poor people in the world with limited agency? Absolutely. But many other people are more trapped by their decisions (college debt, opioids, pregnancies) than "the impersonal state and market." (That said, I'll allow for the power of marketing propaganda.)
Fourth, Harari seems to have a nostalgia for an imagined paradise: "The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum" [p 362]. In my experience of the recent history of ex-communisst countries, there was indeed a loss of community when people gained the freedom to earn more and buy goods and services they had previously traded with friends, but v
Harari invests this work in speculations about how ideas shape the course of human history. If you enjoy the imagination of the novelist, if you enjoy a romp in the sandbox of ideas, if you seek the speculations of the philosopher, you may enjoy this pretend review of the history of humankind. Harari borrows the timeline of the universe at 13.5 billion years, humans having been around for 2 million years, ____________________________________________________________________________________
Harari, Yuval Noah Sapiens: A brief history of humankind 2015, HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY, x + 445 pages
and spends over half his pages reviewing the most recent 3,000 years, one quarter of one millionth of the universe’s life. Thomas Jefferson, in helping author the US Declaration of Independence, says the Creator gave the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all human beings. Harari sees happiness as controlled by expectations with an individual’s expectations changing constantly based on the individual’s successes and failures. Harari sees humans as living in a world of ideas which have no substance, no physical reality, and therefore no real existence. Harari characterizes Nazism, communism, liberalism, socialism, feminism, and capitalism as religions alongside Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Manichaeanism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Stoicism. Harari’s “history” is a grand ride through idea-land.
History shares something with science and something with story-telling. History says “Show me the evidence, then I’ll find a way to make the evidence hang together, the credibility of the ‘hanging together’ with learned audiences being the only criterion needing satisfaction.” Science says “Show me the evidence, then I’ll search for an explanation which works in multiple situations, perhaps everywhere, and can be reproduced by any observer following the original methods.” Harari takes his history of the universe from the knowledge base developed by the sciences and hangs upon that sequence “ideas” which seem to him to have been key in guiding events. Harari’s history is all about the shaping and reshaping of ideas.
Harari’s timeline reads … 13.5 billion years ago matter and energy are created (in the Big Bang), 6 million years ago chimpanzees and humans shared their last common grandmother, 2 million years ago humans spread from Africa to Eurasia, 200,000 thousand years ago homo sapiens (distinguished by a large brain) evolved in East Africa, 30,000 years ago the Neanderthals went extinct (perhaps because they were
out-competed by their cousins, homo sapiens), 16,000 years ago homo sapiens found its way to the Americas, 12,000 years ago homo sapiens converted from being a hunter-gatherer to being an agriculturist, 5,000 years ago kingdoms and money had been invented, 2,500 years ago coinage was invented, 2,000 years ago Christianity came into being, 1,400 years ago Islam came into being, 500 years ago the industrial revolution began affecting what humans produce, 200 years ago the scientific revolution began affecting what humans produce.
Scientists, in their own way, share Harari’s approach. Scientists trace facts and try to explain them. For example, Pinker describes The better angels of our nature (2011). Pinker shows that today’s human tendency to kill each other – the killing-rate per 100,000 people per year, one aspect of human behavior – is lower than at any previous time in history. That statement is evidence-based. Pinker, using methods like those of Harari, then searches for the steps humans made in arriving at today’s low rate of killing. Piketty in Capital in the twenty-first century (2014) and Milanovic in Global inequality (2016) explore what drives and what impedes the spread between the wealth of the least-wealthy fifty percent and the wealth of the most-wealthy one percent. They describe the evidence. Then they search for explanations. Piketty has one explanation. Milanovic has several. Pinker, Piketty, and Milanovic, each are science-like in reporting data and historian-like in searching for explanations. Much science is even more rigorous than Pinker, Piketty, and Milanovic, forming an explanation based on having examined data, then testing whether that explanation holds up in a new batch of data. Harari, historian, writes Sapiens (2015) with a much looser approach to explaining the direction of history than scientists.
Thinking as a scientist thinks, this reader sees Harari’s primary “findings” as rubbish. Harari’s explanations for the new directions in history merit the evaluation “rubbish” for five reasons …
… (1) Science forms an hypothesis and then tests it by gathering data. It uses two methods. It forms an hypothesis, then gathers data to see if the hypothesis holds up when the data are examined. Or science gathers data, does analysis, forms an hypothesis, then gathers a second sample of data to see if the hypothesis holds up in the second sample. Repeated, similar observations reinforce scientists’ confidence in the observed relationships. History also gathers data, but it has no requirement that the data gathered can be justified as “representative” of experience for a designated population of people. History then forms an explanation for why the data are as they are. The test for the correctness of that explanation is that fellow humans accept the explanation. In science, many hypotheses fail the scientist’s test. Surely “taking thought” by historians, thus forming explanations, is just as vulnerable to forming false explanations as is the hypothesis-formation of scientists. Harari’s history may entertain, but is as subject to being wrong as is framing hypotheses in science. Science discovers its errors by a test. History has no such test.
… (2) Science asks scientists to cite the sources of their data and their ideas. If the hypothesis being tested today was formulated by someone other than the author, the scientist is expected to cite its source. Harari turns to recently published work by scientists – anthropologists, archaeologists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and the like – and, using their data, presents ideas explaining the data without naming the author of the explanation. An unsophisticated reader will assume that all the explanations are Harari’s ideas. This reader doubts that Harari is the originator of all the explanations he presents. Harari seems to violate the “due credit to others” which is a value guiding scientific work and also, I suspect, guiding the work of historians.
… (3) The behavioral sciences recognize “culture” as a mélange of knowledge and practices passed from generation to generation by way of education. The behavioral sciences develop ways to measure aspects of culture and individuality. A behavioral scientist acknowledges “consideration” as an aspect of behavior guiding social interaction that varies from individual to individual, culture to culture. The behavioral scientist develops questionnaires to win self-reports or observer-reports about consideration. The same can be said for many aspects of culture and individuality … egalitarianism, initiative, risk taking, happiness, sadism, religiosity, conscientiousness, populism, and so on. Harari understands how happiness is measured using a questionnaire but shows no indication that he understands measurements of many other aspects of personality and culture can be captured by these methods, understands their reproducibility, understands the waxing and waning of the measured characteristics. Harari almost seems to believe that if an idea has no weight (in grams), cannot be seen with a microscope or telescope, cannot be judged for its age by the decay of the C14 isotope, the idea has no meaning. Ignorance of the behavioral sciences and their measurements at this level cannot be tolerated in someone who seeks to lead thought.
… (4) Harari sees animals’ fear of humans as an instinct developed through evolution. He seems not to understand that ideas can be developed by sapiens and passed to their offspring by education. The same seems to be likely for more than a few animal species … chimpanzees, elephants, … Harari seems to allow a change in genetics as the only means for changing an organism’s behavior. Ignorance of the importance of education in modifying behavior – the capability for an individual to learn – cannot be tolerated in someone who seeks to lead thought. Harari needs to have taken an introductory course in psychology and learned that Pavlov’s dogs, after a while, salivated when they heard a bell. There was nothing genetic, nothing evolutionary, in that response to a bell by Pavlov’s dogs. People, too, change behavior based on experience. Psychologists and educators call it learning. People even pass along what they have learned to the next generation. The process is called education.
… (5) Harari seems to revel in the ill that a transition in the human story introduces. The change from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist brought increased food supplies, population growth, formation of villages and cities, a place to live called home, the opportunity to accumulate property. Harari seems to focus on the increased liability of crops to disease and crop failure, the increased work in weeding a crop-producing field, the decline in variety in diet from many foods to a few, the increased burden of channeling water to the field, the increased risk of communicable disease and its devastation in villages and cities, the development of families with wealth and power, the development of government and accompanying loss of individual freedom. By contrast, Pinker (2011) sees the same transition, from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist, as one in which a cooperating populace was understood to have gained collective wealth and power, that killing each other reduces that wealth and power, and that killing each other needs to be suppressed as a practice through the influence of government. Pinker documented his hypothesis with statistics about death from severe trauma gathered from gravesites … hunter-gatherers’ gravesites and agriculturists’ gravesites. We do not need to accept Harari’s downbeat view of human social development as the major social direction. This reader prefers that his scientist-historian have clear glasses, neither dark-tinged nor rose-colored.
Publishers cover a book’s dust cover’s backside with testimonials from well-known people who find value in the author’s and publisher’s product. HarperCollins quotes pre-publication reviews of Harari’s book. On the front of the dust cover, above the author’s name and book’s title, HarperCollins quotes Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, germs, and steel (1997) in which Diamond sought to understand how societies emerge and disappear. Diamond says “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.” Harari tackles questions like when and why did governance begin and when and why did people begin to cooperate in waging war? The quote from Diamond omits saying whether Diamond thinks Harari makes any useful progress in answering these questions! This reader thinks that omission is a telling, damning omission.
Harari’s method for deciphering why cultures advance, and science’s method for gaining insight into why cultures advance, are brought into sharp contrast by a story from science. Having followed history’s timeline to about 1600 CE, Harari then asks “What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world?” Harari answers his own question by adding “There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism (p 282).” Harari contrasts the small population and equally small Gross Domestic Product of Europe in 1600 CE with the large populations and large GDPs of China and India of that time. Then Harari tells stories of advances in science and exploration initiated in Europe (Chapter 15) and triumphs of the capitalist creed in Europe (Chapter 16). Working cheek by jowl, according to Harari, science and capitalism powered Europe and America to world leadership in ideas and productivity by 2000 CE.
But Harari is wrong. It is not an advance in knowledge yoked with the motivation to pursue profits that produce changes in organizational behavior and improvement in productivity. Organizations (governments, peoples) adopt innovative new practices only when new ideas flow into the organization and when, at the same time, the organization finds the means (push, courage, supporters of experimentation) to support trials of the new methods (Ross, 1974). “Initiating” and “sustaining” mechanisms have nothing to do with effort spent at R&D (science) nor are they yoked to capitalism’s search for profits or market dominance. In the late 1960s, Ross (that’s me) and his colleagues at Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were asked by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to investigate how school districts could be encouraged to adopt new methods, becoming more effective in their educational missions. We began by studying the experts’ views of that time. The experts said it was necessary to have a “change agent” in the organization, someone who saw the opportunity and built interest in the new practice. We selected for study an innovation holding attention in education at that time … team teaching. We located a few school districts across the nation that had just adopted team teaching. We asked the school superintendents if we could visit those districts and interview teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members about their use of team teaching and how the district came to adopt the new practice. We gained permission. We made our first visit to a school district in South Carolina. We did our interviews and made our notes over the course of two or three days, then returned to our offices. It was blatantly clear that the widely popular “change agent” theory for how change occurs did not explain what happened in this district. I sat at my desk in puzzlement, then – stimulated by what we had learned in South Carolina – generated a new theory. My theory said “The new idea has to come from somewhere, typically from outside the organization, and find its way into the school district.” That could happen several different ways. I called those processes for importing new ideas “initiating mechanisms.” My theory also said “There must be support within the district for trying the new idea.” Support, too, could materialize in several different ways. I called those processes “sustaining mechanisms.” My theory said “The new practice will remain in place, or be abandoned, depending on the results that it produces.” I called the processes for measuring results and sharing that information “feedback mechanisms.” My theory said that nothing happens unless both initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms are present. Weakness in either mechanism means no innovation, no change in practice, occurs. Notice that there’s not a word in this theory about “having science present,” “investing in R&D,” “earning profits,” “earning fame,” “winning a competition.” I clearly was not using Harari’s notion that when “science” and “capitalism” are side by side, organizations adopt new practices. I developed questionnaires asking the interviewers who had traveled to South Carolina about the “initiating mechanisms” and the “sustaining mechanisms” that they may have learned about in their interviews. I prepared a questionnaire which asked the interviewer to describe the degree to which the “team teaching” we had observed in that district conformed to the best practices for a teaching team leading a classroom. The interviewers who had gone to South Carolina completed my questionnaires. Then we identified teams of interviewers who went on to six or eight other school districts across the nation … one district in Tennessee, Illinois, California, and so on. The interviewers in South Carolina did some of the other site visits. Additional interviewers were trained and did interviews in still other school districts. We completed visits and questionnaire answering. We assembled the scores for each district with respect to “initiating mechanisms (I),” “sustaining mechanisms (S),” and “accomplishments in following best practices in doing team teaching (A).” I wrote an equation describing my theory. The measure of “I” (developed from the questionnaires of several interviewers) multiplied by the measure of “S” (also developed from questionnaires answered by several interviewers) produced a predictor of accomplishment in team teaching. Measures for each district were developed by combining the results from questionnaires from all interviewers in the district. We correlated the “I x S” score for each district with the “A” score for the district. The correlation was r ~ 0.9 … statistically different from zero even with our tiny sample of school districts … and surprisingly large. Our theory, not the theory that a “change agent” is key, was supported by our findings. Funds for our study did not provide follow up with the school districts to see how long the new team teaching practices remained in place and whether other parts of the school district, or other school districts, adopted the new practices, so we learned nothing about the third leg of the theory … whether feedback mechanisms determined how long the new practice remains in place and/or is adopted elsewhere.
Even with our small study, science had given its answer to the question “What leads organizations to adopt new practices?” Organizations adopt new practices (a) when a relevant idea arrives from somewhere (the idea for most innovations originates off site) and (b) when there is support from somewhere within or outside the organization (teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, state education leaders, incentives offered by the federal government, etc.) that approves (lobbies for) adoption of the new practice.
Science had answered Harari’s 2015 question in 1974 (see Ross, 1974). Science’s answer was very different from Harari’s answer. Science having made its pronouncement forty years ago, have organizations, influenced by that new knowledge, increased the rate at which they adopt new practices? Do organizations look for ways to increase initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms so their performance in adapting to new challenges improves? The answer to both questions is “No.” The Ross theory (1974) of innovation adoption by organizations has not been seen by scientists or by organization leaders. Science’s answer to Harari’s question is buried in the scientific literature and remains undiscovered. Presidents and CEOs today don’t ask “How can we increase initiating mechanisms? How can we increase sustaining mechanisms?” They say “Damnit, I want to see this happen. Make it happen.” They believe in the “change agent” model for innovation adoption by organizations, the CEO being the chief change agent, even though science has “known” for four decades that the change agent model does not work. Not incidentally, science produces more new knowledge each year than even scientists can follow and absorb. It is common enough that scientific knowledge is little utilized in the first century of its existence. Note, for example, that the statistical procedure called factor analysis was invented in 1903, had been vastly improved by 1970 aided by the arrival of digital computers, but is little used in any science today when, in fact, its use would significantly improve the rate at which scientific knowledge grows. Factor analysis handles the task of assessing the influence of each one of many variables on outcomes of interest, a task with which every scientist is faced. Despite factor analysis having been in hand for 100 years, and very usable for 45 years, today’s “gold standard” in scientific study remains having an experimental group and a control group for study, manipulating one variable for the experimental group and not manipulating that variable for the control group, then observing the differences in the outcome of interest in the two groups. Having not learned factor analysis, science advances more slowly and more expensively than need be. Having not learned the importance of initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms for promoting innovation, the pace of innovation today surely continues to fit the trend lines available from innovation-tracking data covering centuries of human history. While ideas are important, as Harari insists, humans are remarkably slow to recognize and adopt many new, worthwhile ideas.
Taking thought is important when examining a problem and making decisions … and taking thought always needs to be done. Sometimes taking thought is the only method available for deciding what is true, most advantageous, best by many standards. Thinking carefully (thinking “slow”) needs to be exercised with diligence (Kahneman, 2011). When you have data – as Harari does in forming this history of humankind thanks to his acquaintance with data from science – this reader strongly prefers the methods and standards of science for deciding what is true and how to estimate likely outcomes that will follow from particular action choices. Harari’s work in Sapiens does not meet those scientific standards.
Harari is sensitive to injustice, to lack of consideration for those affected by our choices. It is a strength of his work.
If you like a no-holds-barred approach in searching for the “laws” that guide human behavior and our future, if you enjoy watching the tools of the philosopher being used (taking thought, moving words and ideas about), if you’re reading for entertainment, you may find Harari’s work in Sapiens of interest. If you’re looking for a believable advance in knowledge, you’ll find this work bitterly disappointing.
4 January 2018
Copyright © 2017 by Paul F. Ross All rights reserved.
Diamond, Jared Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies 1997, W. W. Norton, New York NY
Harari, Yuval Noah Sapiens: A brief history of humankind 2015, HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY
Kahneman, Daniel Thinking, fast and slow 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York NY
Milanovic, Branko Global inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization 2016, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
Piketty, Thomas Capital in the twenty-first century 2014, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
Pinker, Steven The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined 2011, Viking, New York NY
Ross, Paul F. Innovation adoption by organizations 1974, Personnel Psychology, 27, 21-47
Top reviews from other countries
Reviewed in India 🇮🇳 on September 6, 2018
Unfortunately, this enormous task is the book's own undoing. There is no room for any indepth discussions about the various complex issues, and no room to discuss the evidence. The book is filled with assertion after assertion, and virtually nothing to back them up. I looked in the reference section and I was shocked to see how few citations there were. Such a massive subject derserves ten times more citations. If you think you're getting a good scientific description of the facts, don't buy this book. This book is essentially his opinions, and not much else.
Any person who has strong knowledge within any of the subjects in the book will quickly realise that Harari is not an expert on much of what he writes about. He does not just make many claims. He makes many wrong claims. And many, many more misleading ones. It's one of those books that are popular with the layman, but not so much with the expert.
When he leaves the topic of evolutionary biology, premodern history, and starts talking about modern history the book gets slighter better. Or is that just because I'm not as well-versed in those topics? Do I just not see his errors there, just like a layperson would not see his errors in his account of evolutionary biology, intelligence research, and more? I won't know. The problem is I can't put much trust in him, because there are so many things wrong or misleading stuff elsewhere. And he doesn't provide sufficient evidence.
Even in the better parts of the book, it is ultimately somewhat dull. Not much new to learn for me, unfortunately. There are so many books about humans, many of them much better than this.
I wouldn't claim that this is the worst book ever, obviously. But to say that it is overhyped is to put it mildly. If you want to read a story, then perhaps you might find it interesting. If you want a factual account that is supported by an honest look at the available evidence, then go somewhere else.
Unfortunately, I also have to agree with many of the one star reviewers, that the books downfall is the almost constant speculation he engages in, without providing further evidence.
As an example, he states 'the creators of the cave paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux and Altmira almost certainly intended them to last for generations.'
This kind of statement is endemic of the sloppy thinking he engages in, where he will assume something for the sake of the narrative.
This wouldn't be a problem if it were in isolation, but it is a pattern repeated throughout the book, where he will base a conclusion off an assumption, then proceed to build a whole story off it. This relegates the book to a speculation rather than a historical account.
I would also advice Christians that he is rather condescending about religion in general and Christianity in particular. He describes Christianity as a 'myth' to be put in the same category as belief in Odin or in Wood Spirits. AS a Non-Christian I was annoyed over his presumptive anti-theism so I have no doubt that many believers will find him infuriating.
To sum up, this is an interesting and infuriating speculation of the humankind. Take it all with a shaker of salt.
I mean, you wrote a book about it, so I think people have a pretty good idea on where you stand, but the author smacks it in your face, and that ruined the book, which is a shame because it had the potential to be a great book, don't get me wrong, this was a good book, but not a great one.