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...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.
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.
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.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:
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.
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."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.
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."
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...