HARARI'S DISSENT: At times, Harari's assessments are dark!

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019

How accurate are those assessments?
Professor Harari's best-selling book is a major best-seller.

We refer to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which currently sits at number 1 on the relevant New York Times list.

It's been a best-seller round the world since it first appeared in 2011. Beyond that, its current American paperback edition carries a blurb by Barack Obama. Even more dispositively, a complimentary blurb by Bill Gates sits atop the front cover!

As part of a much longer assessment,
Obama is quoted saying the book is "interesting and provocative." That assessment is intriguing, because Obama is known for his upbeat outlook, and Harari's portrait of our species is, at least at times, provocatively dark.

How did our species, Homo sapiens, emerge as potentate of the planet? Why did our species survive and thrive, even as a half dozen other human species disappeared from the earth? (See yesterday's report.)

To Harari, it wasn't our massively rational nature which gave us dominion over the planet. He describes our ascent in a gloomier way right in his opening chapter:
HARARI (page 17): But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction...

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.
In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
Oof! We're simplifying the possibilities that Harari imagines in that full passage. But he keeps suggesting that our prehistorical ancestors drove other human groups into extinction—colloquially, into the sea.

In the passage above, he even floats the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe what our ancestors may have done—and yet, Obama loves the book! Leave it to a Democrat to "blame Homo sapiens first!"

At any rate, Harari keeps suggesting that our species' advantage over The Others was built upon a couple of chance mutations. According to Harari, these mutations gave us two unique abilities—the ability to "gossip," plus the ability to invent and promulgate sweeping group "fictions."

We'll grant you—those are the very activities which characterize the work of our upper-end journalists. But just as Dorothy found herself a long way from Kansas at one point, Harari's portrait takes us a long way from Aristotle's more stately assessment, in which our first great logician is said to have said that we humans are "the rational animal," full and complete total stop.

By way of contrast:

In the first two chapters of his book, Harari paints a slightly unsettling portrait of the emergence of our famously self-impressed species. The rational animal emerges as a beast—an intolerant beast which may have driven The Others into the sea.

These assessments may be "interesting and provocative," but is there any reason to believe that these claims are accurate? For our ongoing purpose this year, that question doesn't matter a lot. We'll explain that slip-slide in more depth tomorrow.

We don't enormously care if those assessments are accurate. But just for the record, we decided to check with the leading authority on Harari's book to see what the registered experts have said—and uh-oh!

As the leading authority starts, the note of sadness comes in:
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a book by Yuval Noah Harari first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011, and in English in 2014. The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens. The account is situated within a framework provided by the natural sciences, particularly evolutionary biology.

The reception of the book has been mixed. Scholars with relevant subject matter expertise have generally been very skeptical of the book. Public reaction to the book has been positive.
Public reaction has been positive; according to the leading authority, "the scholars" are less sure. Later on, the leading authority puts a bit of meat on those bones. In the interest of full disclosure, we now present some of what's said:
Anthropologist Christopher Robert Hallpike reviewed the book and did not find any "serious contribution to knowledge." Hallpike suggested that "...whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously." He considered it an infotainment publishing event offering a "wild intellectual ride across the landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny."

Science journalist Charles C. Mann concluded in The Wall Street Journal, "There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions."

Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman points out problems stemming from the contradiction between Harari's "freethinking scientific mind" and his "fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness", but nonetheless wrote that "Harari’s book is important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens."
Can't anyone here play this game? There's more negativity in the report, but those excerpts give you a taste of what some scholars have said.

In fairness, the single statement attributed to Mann may have given a false impression concerning his overall view. This was the closing paragraph of his Wall Street Journal review:
MANN (2/6/15): 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. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.
To Mann, Harari is "a learned academic" whose book is full of "verve and pop" but carries a roster of fleas. No letter grade was assigned.

Nothing here tells us if Harari is right in his claims about the rise of our species. Other reviews don't go there either, in part because Harari's book covers the whole of human history, not just the limited story of Homo sapiens' rise.

That said, does Harari know what he's talking about? Did our species end up ruling the roost because our ancestors developed the ability to gossip, along with the ability to invent and promulgate sweeping acts of fiction?

Granted, those are the fuels which drive our own modern pseudo-journalism. But are those the fuels which drove our species' rise? And do "gossip" and "fiction," as Mann defines them, perhaps explain Who We Are?

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is constantly said to have said. As it's generally understood, this upbeat portrait tends to reinforce the tradition in which we humans see ourselves as "the epitome of creation," to quote Harari again.

We're a long way from Stagira, Greece when Harari floats his gossip-and-fiction dissent. But does he know what he's talking about on this particular matter?

Tomorrow, we'll pay a visit to our oldest friend, the rabbit-duck, as we explain why we don't hugely care.

Tomorrow: The culture needs a new pair of shoes...

32 comments:

  1. Great. No more jokes in front of the PC crybabies about knuckle dragger Neanderthals killed off by the pre-White-Man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "PC crybabies"

      That reminds me. God is a figment of dim-witted imaginations.

      Delete
    2. My state’s GOP-run legislature just passed a bill prohibiting anyone who contracts with the state from criticizing the state of Israel.

      And the Republicans claim the left is PC.

      Delete
    3. "And the Republicans claim the left is PC."

      Every Right-wing accusation is a confession.

      Delete
    4. AnonymousFebruary 14, 2019 at 2:51 PM - I think you're misstating or exaggerating the terms of the bill. What state do you live in?

      Delete
    5. @davidincal

      It is “Act 710 of 2017, also known as Arkansas Code Annotated 25-1-501 and "prohibits public entities from contracting with and investing in companies that boycott Israel."

      (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/arkansas/articles/2018-06-25/new-arkansas-legislation-takes-aim-at-boycotting-israel)

      Other states have passed similar shit.

      Delete
    6. Thank you @5:31. These is a big difference between a criticism and a boycott.

      Delete
    7. Homo sapiens wasn't any kind of pre WHITE man. The entire modern species is thought to have emerged from black men in Africa:


      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recent_African_origin_of_modern_humans

      "In paleoanthropology, the recent African origin of modern humans, also called the "Out of Africa" theory (OOA), recent single-origin hypothesis (RSOH), replacement hypothesis, or recent African origin model (RAO), is the dominant model of the geographic origin and early migration of anatomically modern humans."

      Delete
    8. @2:51 PM
      Dear dembot.
      1. This has nothing whatsoever to do with PC, and
      2. Unfortunately there is not an iota of difference between the R and D fake 'parties' in this respect. If you mistakenly believe that there is, then you're setting yourself up for a great disappointment.

      You can find more detail here: https://palestinelegal.org/righttoboycott

      Click on the map. This, for example:
      https://palestinelegal.org/newyork

      Excerpt: "S.2492 would create a state-sponsored blacklist of individuals, organizations, and companies that support boycotts for Palestinian rights, and would unconstitutionally deny them state benefits. When a previous iteration of S.2492 failed to pass the New York State legislature in 2016, Governor Cuomo side-stepped the democratic process, signing a widely criticized Executive Order similar to the failed bill (the Executive Order does not blacklist individuals). New York State Assembly considered a slightly different bill A3239 that would also have created a blacklist and required divestment from companies that boycott Israel."

      Delete
    9. ...yeah, here, dembot: "Act 710 makes Arkansas the 19th state to enact a binding anti-BDS law. At the end of last year, Michigan and Ohio passed similar legislation, following measures in Pennsylvania in November, California in September, New Jersey in August, and Rhode Island in June. Maryland and Texas are currently debating anti-BDS laws in their respective legislatures."

      https://brandeiscenter.com/arkansas-passes-anti-bds-law/

      Delete
    10. A newly elected Muslim dem criticized AIPAC's influence and has been almost universally condemned as an anti-Semite. Under a tidal wave of criticism, she apologized. Trump the magnifico called for her resignation

      Delete
    11. "criticized AIPAC" is just talking the talk. Not a capital offense.

      Rand Paul (R) actually tried to stop the "aid" last year. It remains to be seen if he can manage to survive it...

      Delete
  2. "We don't enormously care if those assessments are accurate."

    Because they suit Somerby’s temperament or frame of mind.

    They are a "new pair of shoes."

    This is a rather startling admission for someone who started his blogging career seemingly passionate about accuracy and the truth.

    This new approach is a validation of every crackpot book, news story, or op-Ed that comes along. Because those who like the content of a given book don’t need to care about its accuracy anymore, if they follow Somerby down this path. He has completely undermined his legitimacy or justification for ever criticizing the media again.

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  3. Anthropologist Christopher Robert Hallpike suggested that "...whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new..." Not new to whom? Hallpike and other experts may have been aware of all these facts, but I sure wasn't. There's a lot of value to a book that brings expert knowledge to ordinary people in so well-written a way.

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    Replies
    1. @dinc
      Since the book consists of facts and, uh, non-facts, how do you know which is which?

      Of course, Somerby declares it doesn’t matter, so it’s all good.

      Delete
    2. There is lots of speculation in the book, which is specifically labeled as speculation. E.g., Harari examines the question of why men became dominant over women independently in so many different cultures around the world. He offers three theories, but explains the weaknesses in each one, and concludes that we just don't know the answer.

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    3. He also needs to explain why they didn't become dominant in those other cultures. It is helpful if he also discusses cultural transmission in the process. I suspect he didn't include feminist theories in his discussion. Israel isn't noted for its fair treatment of female academics. See the film Footnote: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Footnote_(film)

      Delete
  4. It’s not gossip that made Sapiens dominant, it seems clear that Neanderthals had such an ability, considering the sophisticated art work that, so far, has been attributed to them.

    It’s more the fact that Sapiens are wedded to group fictions, from the local corner through the Church right up to the various murderous governments. They absorb
    gossip and treat it as fact. And many, many people seem to have received their info from the MSM, and somehow unquestioningly, accept the gossip as fact. (I won’t even get in to religion).

    Which as everybody knows, is a near perfect realization of Bernay’s ideas about keeping the masses silent, and keeping the “wise” in power: Through media (information) manipulation. But what are those group fictions?

    What if the most dominant, and accepted, memes are violent ones – against which the supposed Ten Commandments were meant to play a role? (ha ha)

    What if the most “successful” amongst us are flaming assholes, following their own memes? I’m referring mainly to the rich and powerful, of course. We got plenty other well-established assholes, but they only echo the memes of the powerful.

    Maybe Sapiens had a role in the demise of Neanderthals because they were just complete assholes, with more power and bad “gossip.” What if Neanderthal possessed more peaceful memes, and less power? Buh-bye!

    So it goes with evolution. I think E.O Wilson said it best: “So, does free will exist? Yes, then if not in ultimate reality, than at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the species.”

    Sanity. Not rationality.

    Hm. Maybe

    Leroy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think Neanderthals didn't have the capacity to vocalize so they didn't develop spoken language, which was a handicap to their ability to gossip. The other primates similarly cannot use their voices to speak so they are confined to sign language to communicate. They can make sounds that constitute signals but signals are not language.

      Delete
    2. Leroy, you clearly have the hang of ungrounded speculation.

      E.O. Wilson didn't read psychology either.

      Delete
    3. That's an interesting idea, that perhaps Neanderthals had a less developed language, so that their ideas may not have been as concisely communicated as were Sapiens'. But as 8:12 wisely noted, it's all speculation. We can't know.

      So Harari's theory is as good as any I suppose. I misquoted Wilson, it should have read “So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, than at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the species.”

      8:12, I recommend you read Wilson's "Consilience" before passing any judgement whatsoever. As if "reading psychology" makes you some kind of expert.

      Leroy

      Delete
  5. You can tell who a book like this is intended for by the quotes and blurbs on the cover:

    "It's been a best-seller round the world since it first appeared in 2011. Beyond that, its current American paperback edition carries a blurb by Barack Obama. Even more dispositively, a complimentary blurb by Bill Gates sits atop the front cover!"

    Neither Obama nor Gates is an anthropologist or a historian or has any other expertise relevant to the subject matter of the book. When a history book has blurbs by historians on the cover, it is much more likely to be reliable. Doesn't Somerby know this? Why not? It is part of critical thinking.

    ReplyDelete
  6. *** Public Service Announcement ***

    David in Cal is a moral and intellectual idiot. He is, in fact, this commentariat's village idiot, and you may safely ignore anything he has to say.

    Boycotts are protected by the 1st Amendment. So says the Supreme Court of the United States thusly, "The right of the States to regulate economic activity could not justify a complete prohibition against a nonviolent, politically motivated boycott designed to force governmental and economic change...." (NAACP v Claiborne Hardware).

    The decision was unanimous.

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  7. deadrat -- thanks for the quote. From the phrase "complete prohibition", I gather that some boycotts are protected by the 1st Amendment and some are not. Also, note that that Arkansas law doesn't precisely prohibit boycotts against Israel; rather it chooses not to do government business with firms who participate in those boycotts. It will be interesting to see how the Courts rule on the Arkansas law.

    BTW boycotts against Israel are antisemitic acts IMHO. Consider a hypothetical analogy involving racism instead of antisemitism. Suppose a state law prohibited doing government business with companies that boycott black African countries. That would be despicable and should be illegal. In fact, it probably is illegal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This makes sense. I totally remember your humble opinion that any criticism of President Obama being anti-American.
      The fact that you're not a hypocritical hack, who changes opinions on everything depending on whether the person proposing it has a D or an R after their names is why we love you. LOL.

      Delete
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