Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sapiens: a very short review

Yuval Noah Harari is the writer of the moment, having taken the world by storm with his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and having now finished his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

I've now read Sapiens, which is both readable and thought-provoking, no easy accomplishment.

Harari is certainly ambitious. As I read Sapiens, I amused myself by pretending to be a library cataloger, faced with the task of trying to assign appropriate subject categories under which Sapiens should be listed.

The list would surely have to include: history; biology; archaeology; anthropology; economics; cosmology; evolutionary biology; linguistics; political science; ecology; globalism; religious studies; cognitive science; philosophy.

And surely more.

But that's not adequate either, for you'd want to be more precise that just saying "history", rather: world history; cultural history; ancient history; history of language; military history; world exploration; religious history; history of science; literary history; etc.

Oh, you could go on for hours and hours.

So, Sapiens is very much a book written by an intellectual omnivore, which will most likely appeal to omnivorous readers, by which I mean those who don't want to spend their time reading history books that get trapped for many pages on the individual details of precisely what happened on such-and-such a day, but instead feel like it's reasonable to try to cover the 100,000 year history of mankind on earth in, say, 400 pages or so.

It actually works out better than the previous sentence makes it sound, for Harari is a fine writer and he moves things along briskly.

I think that the strongest and most interesting argument that Sapiens makes is a linguistic one, rooted in the power of the concept of abstraction.

Discussing the evolution of language itself, Harari observes that many species of animal have languages and can communicate, typically using their language abilities to communicate information about food, danger, reproduction, and other universal topics. However:

the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, 'Careful! A lion!' Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Although, superficially, this seems to be a discussion about telling entertaining stories around the campfire, or fabricating super-natural explanations as the basis for the founding of religions, Harari quickly re-orients this discussion in a much more practical direction:

fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.


Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers [...] with countless numbers of strangers.

It's that "with ... strangers" part that is so important, as Harari proceeds to demonstrate how this ability to discuss hypothetical scenarios with people who aren't part of your immediate circle of family and friends is what gives rise to things like corporate finance, systems of justice, the scientific method, etc. All of these things are built on the ability to have abstractions:

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company's official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear.


Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a 'legal fiction.' It can't be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Ostensibly, Sapiens is a history; that is, it is a book about the past, helping us understand what came before, and how it led us to what is now.

But, as is perhaps universally true, Harari is not actually that terribly interested in what happened in the past, often breezily sweeping whole questions aside with a sort of "it's gone; it's forgotten; we have no accurate evidence; we cannot know for sure" superficiality that is startling.

Rather, as Harari reveals near the end of his book, he is principally interested in the future, and it's here where Sapiens takes a rather unexpected turn.

I must admit, I was wholly unprepared when, just pages before the end of Sapiens, Harari suddenly introduces the topic of "Intelligent Design".

However, it turns out that Harari doesn't mean the term in the sense in which it is typically used; he is firmly in the Darwin/Russell camp.

Rather, Harari is fascinated by the idea that scientific methods may have arrived at the point where humans will soon be capable of intelligent design in the future:

After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design.


Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings who combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of in-organic life.

If Harari painted with a broad brush when discussing the past, his descriptions of our near-term future are equally vague and loosely-grounded, and those final 25 pages of Sapiens are a rather bewildering peek into "what might be."

But, as Yogi Berra pointed out, "predictions are hard, especially about the future," so I can't fault Harari too much for wanting to have a go at what might come next.

I imagine that, eventually, I will read more of Harari's work, as it's clear he has a lot of interesting things to say.

And if you haven't read Sapiens yet, you probably won't regret it, it's quite good.

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