Book Review: "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari

I've recently read the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; this was highly recommended to me 7 years ago by a friend in graduate school with whom I had enthusiastic discussions about the material in the book, but I hadn't gotten a chance to read the book until now. This book is supposed to be a history of humans, going from an evolutionary perspective for the first 2 million years since the genus Homo became distinct and then getting into the developments of language, collective myths, agriculture, urbanization, and industry. Even my summary of the flow of the book contains my opinion about its progression (though I should note that the "parts" that I speak of overlap with but aren't identical to the 4 parts that formally divide the book): the beginning part of the book seems to be a serious discussion of evolution, language, and the advent of agriculture, the middle part tries to be serious but has more inconsistencies that I find problematic, and the last part seems more clearly to be more like a "pop-history" type of book with less rigorous speculation (so I read it with a lighter heart even if the author didn't intend it that way and I therefore heavily discounted it in my overall opinion of the book); furthermore, the parts about scientific development since 1500 can be understood more clearly in other books.

There were several things that I learned from the book and several ways in which the book forced me to consider a different perspective. These are as follows, in no particular order. First, I learned that the further development of language to be able to convey detailed information, gossip, abstract ideas, and fictions happened 70,000 years ago and coincided with humans becoming dominant in the food chain and in their spread across the world. Second, I had always uncritically believed in the advent of agriculture and later urbanization as a good thing, to the extent that I've recently sometimes wondered (without being particularly informed about history & sociology) whether clashes between the Mongol invaders & Hindu natives (in contrast to earlier arrivals in India of urban Muslim traders from Mesopotamia) as well as between the expectations of Western government & the reality of the House of Saud represent clashes between urbanized cultures that have developed to a great degree versus nomadic cultures that have endured much harsher conditions and only wish to plunder the cities for wealth without care for more refined aspects of urban cultures; this book forced me to consider that individuals within nomadic tribes had much more varied diets & activities within each day, that the first few millennia of the transition to agriculture may have led to a lot of suffering compared to what came immediately before, and that the domestication of wheat can be reinterpreted as a mutalistic domestication of wheat & humans. Third, I learned that empires might be defined only by the number of culturally distinct tribes under their yokes and the flexibility of their borders in expansion, not by population or area per se. Fourth, while I had some familiarity with how capitalism & European imperialism fueled each other and with the use of scientifically-inspired racism as a justification for European colonization, I didn't have a good sense for how these all tied together until I read this book, especially in the context of scientific voyages only being funded if the scientists could tag along with naval officers ordered to colonize the lands they would reach. Fifth, I appreciated the distinction between ancient & medieval empires which grew in predictable ways by absorbing naval territories versus early modern European empires which grew unpredictably across the world with long-distance seafaring. Sixth, I appreciated the explicit call to attention about how liberal humanistic political philosophies, which profess to be atheistic in themselves & multireligious in the sense of tolerance, cast freedom & political empowerment in terms of a special nature of individuals that is drawn directly from Christian notions of creation & individual souls (though the concepts of creation & individual souls aren't unique to Christianity among traditional religions); this is something that I've pondered before but have typically glossed over, so I appreciated being challenged in this way.

There were a few points that I was happy to see in the sense of agreeing with those worldviews. These include the ideas of collective myths (not only in traditional religions but in the systems of trust that underlie monetary systems & democracies), historical predictions leading to self-fulfilling or self-negating prophecies, the existence of hierarchies of some form in almost all societies larger than about 150 people (as I've wondered, for example, if a solution to the problem of inflation coming from an immediate cash payout to everyone in a universal basic income plan would be to sprinkle it randomly upon different people at different times to ensure that the economic system doesn't stray too far from its previous state and can better respond to bigger numbers of people getting such payouts later even if that creates an effective hierarchy between those who get such payouts at a given time and those who don't), and the ways that even cultures free of external pressures can develop internal contradictions that in turn can lead to continued development of the culture as a unified entity or a split of the culture into multiple descendants. On a lighter note, I also enjoyed seeing the author, in the otherwise problematic speculation about science, point out that science fiction can only rarely, if ever, attempt to describe what would truly be alien experiences to humans, and that most science fiction stories ultimately revolve around myths & social conflicts that in one form or another have been recognizable for millennia, which leads me to the conclusion that there is no reason beyond snobbery to claim that Star Trek is science fiction while Star Wars supposedly is not (because if science fiction is defined as only portraying truly alien experiences in encounters with new technology or new intelligent species that aren't just thinly-veiled allegories for known interactions among human groups, there may only be a few books, movies, and TV series that may be called "science fiction", perhaps including Black Mirror or 2001: A Space Odyssey, and those works are rare probably exactly because readers or viewers would find them less relatable).

There were a few specific stories that I liked reading. One was of the Chinese seafarer Zheng He, as it shows that Chinese seafaring technology was as advanced as European seafaring technology around 1500 but China simply didn't have the same ambition to conquer faraway lands through seafaring. The other was of how the accompaniment of Hernán Cortés by Aztec people carrying burning incense sticks near him convinced him that the "primitive" Aztecs were treating him as a deity but was actually because he had terrible body odor due to bad hygiene, as it is a funny story, it shows that the Aztecs, immediately upon encountering Europeans, figured out what other contemporary peoples of Asia & Africa had known for many centuries (leading those peoples to set up quarantine areas for European visitors at ports), namely that Europeans had bad hygiene at that time, and it shows how the self-delusion of European winners of such conflicts (in this case Cortés believing that he was being treated as a deity so the Aztecs must have been "primitive") could persist in "official" historical narratives for many centuries.

Beyond the problematic historiography (especially ignoring the way that so many consequential scientific discoveries were made in Europe individually by people who were independently wealthy while also not clearly explaining which technological discoveries were systematically funded & used by governments, though those parts could be fixed with better writing) and excessively serious-sounding speculation about science in the last few chapters & sprinkled elsewhere in the book, there were three major points of disagreement that I had with the author, in the sense that I believe that these points strike at the fundamental arguments of the book. These are as follows.

First, the author makes a big deal throughout the book about how the global unity in understanding of political, economic, and other norms that has emerged in the last 500 years is unprecedented in all prior years of human existence. My counterargument is that this argument depends too much on the specific way that previous interactions between cultures went or on the fact that certain cultures happened to not interact. It will be based primarily on [Native] American and European cultures before and around the time of their first contact in the middle of the second millennium, as the author makes a big deal about how American tribes were among the groups that were totally isolated from the continuum of groups across Africa, Asia, and Europe (with Australian tribes being among the others). As the author argues, the lack of contact before may well have been because of a combination of technological limitations along with limitations in cultural ambition. However, in a counterfactual situation where, for example, English people looking to start local democratic governments met on a truly equal footing with Iroquois people who embodied the spirit of democracy in their local confederated governments, there is no specific reason to believe that they would have been talking past each other; the author's conception of "global unity" as a phenomenon that developed in the last 500 years with no precedent seems to depend too strongly on peoples having met or being aware of each other's existence and not enough on actual similarities between each other's cultures. Additionally, the example of Hernán Cortés and the incense sticks, along with the example (not in the book) of the origin of the ethnic slur "Indian giver" from a deliberate misunderstanding of Native Americans' attempts to barter with Europeans as gifts that were then demanded to be returned, shows that the author's view of the establishment of "global unity" depended strongly on the actual course of history (in this case Europeans deliberately ignoring what Native Americans were telling them) and not on the broader cultural similarities already present. This dependence on the actual course of history makes this a hindsight-based account that the author supposedly disclaims, making the author rather hypocritical.

Second, in later parts of the book, when the author discusses the reasons for European armies so easily conquering peoples in faraway lands, the author puts a lot of stock in the idea that success was due to the European drive for exploration of the unknown, even before that commitment to exploration started bearing systematic fruit in the forms of scientific discovery or technological advancement; conversely, the author briefly mentions and otherwise glosses over the role of more effective forms of social organization & discipline in those armies. This seems to completely undermine previous chapters in the book that so clearly emphasized the ways that communication of collective myths could lead to new forms of social organization. Perhaps this seeming contradiction can be resolved by interpreting the "drive to explore the unknown" as extending to European armies systematically developing new ways, including new forms of organization of their own armies, of dealing with unknown peoples whom they wish to conquer. However, this seems like a stupid semantic difference and again seems like the author is engaging excessively in analysis from narrow hindsight, contrary to the author's own stated claims. (UPDATE: A related point is about how the author implies that the drive for European colonists to learn about unknown cultures & explore how to systematically conquer unknown peoples led them to use what they learned about these cultures to systematically deepen existing divisions or create new divisions. I could agree that Europeans were the first to do this so systematically or so tightly coupled to the seemingly more noble goal of learning things that weren't known to them. However, I cannot agree with the idea that Europeans were the first to exploit & inflame divisions or engage in proxy wars. as ancient Egyptian kingdoms were known to have done this to the Assyrian Empire. Perhaps this can be forgiven if it turns out that this book was published before we knew about how the ancient Egyptians fomented rebellions, civil wars, and proxy wars in the Assyrian Empire, but in any case, the author's seeming unwillingness to directly assert or refute the idea that European colonists' "drive to explore" specifically included exploration of how to organize themselves better & exploit other people's weaknesses more effectively to conquer those other peoples is a much bigger problem with this book.) Moreover, the author does not attempt to explain why peoples were so consistently conquered at all by Europeans from the perspective of those conquered peoples other than simply stating the claim that those peoples couldn't imagine that their knowledge could be incomplete. I think I could do a better job than the author by imagining a counterfactual situation, using the example of Hernán Cortés encountering the Aztecs: even if the Aztecs were similarly driven as the Spanish by exploration of the unknown and had expanded their empire that way before the Spanish landed in America as historically happened, the only way from the perspective of social dynamics that I can see the Aztecs successfully repelling the invasion is by using their knowledge of dealing with unknown peoples to see through Cortés's lies into his true intentions and organize accordingly, yet there is no guarantee that knowing what to do when attempting to conquer unknown peoples would lead an empire to develop knowledge of what to do at the receiving end of a conquest attempt. Finally, in the specific cases of Europeans interacting with Native Americans, the author in a few places briefly acknowledges the role of infectious disease (used by Europeans sometimes accidentally and other times, as in the case of pox blankets in the 1763 Native American siege of the British-occupied Fort Pitt, intentionally) but otherwise glosses over this in favor of explanations based on exploration of the unknown. Yet, as the examples of Cortés as well as the slur "Indian giver" point out, it is quite plausible that Europeans, seeing how easily Native Americans were wiped out by disease, used this as propaganda to better organize themselves and portray Native Americans as weak (independent of specific technology or ideals about exploring the unknown), and I think it is irresponsible for the author to ignore this obvious possibility.

Third, there is a whole chapter about the history of traditional religions, including animistic, polytheistic, monotheistic, and atheistic religions. My problem is that the author makes too broad claims about religious trends even though there are so few surviving or [relatively] recently extinguished major traditional religions; the sample sizes are so small as to make the claims unconvincing. The author acknowledges similar problems in other contexts elsewhere but not in that chapter.

Beyond these issues, I noted several more minor issues at various points in the book. Although some of these issues personally offended me, I still categorize them as minor because I think that deleting the offending passages from the book would not significantly reduce support for or otherwise qualitatively change the main arguments of the book. These are as follows, in no particular order. Even if some of these points raise questions that have no clear answer, I think the author was irresponsible in not addressing the existence of these questions and clearly stating the lack of a clear answer.

First, the author claims that when big social orders are sustained through collective myths, those collective myths require genuine belief from members of the elite too. Recent news about how Fox News executives & star hosts privately disbelieved claims that the 2020 US presidential election was rigged but knowingly pushed such claims in public just to boost TV ratings & stock prices. On the one hand, perhaps it isn't fair to pin this on the author as this news is much more recent than the publication of the book. On the other hand, I would be curious to see how the author would react to this news now; if the author reacts by claiming to be correct because the degree of true belief among the elite was "always destined to wane at some point" or for some similar reason purely in hindsight, then that tells me that the author's approach is worthless because it would be unfalsifiable.

Second, the author does such a consistently bad job with the history of India that I have to wonder if the author's research about that specific topic consisted exclusively of books written by British colonizers to portray India to their own benefit. Problems include claims that Indo-Aryans "invaded" (as that word is usually used to imply a systematic movement of an army to bring forth a violent clash, yet there is no historical evidence for such singular violent clashes between ancient Central Asian migrants and South Asian natives), the treatment of caste in the Vedas (as even people who aren't apologists for Brahmins or deniers of the history of caste will recognize a lot of subtlety in the way the Vedas used terms associated now with caste, especially as those castes didn't exist in Indian society until after Vedic times), the treatment of caste in general (conflating jati & varna to claim that the "original" 4 varnas over time split into thousands of jatis, when the reality is much more complicated & less clear), the claim that Brahmins could have "learned" from the KKK how to enforce caste divisions (as Brahmins, especially in South India, were already brutally effective in enforcing caste divisions long before the KKK existed), and the claim that India had no national consciousness before the British Empire (which undermines the author's own prior acknowledgment of the Gupta & Maurya Empires as empires by the author's own definition). Another problematic statement by the author that I am willing to forgive given when the book was published (before the political rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism in India in the last 10 years) is the rhetorical question about whether right-wing Hindu nationalists would do away with all symbols of the Mughal Empire, include those of beauty like the Taj Mahal; the author clearly implied that they wouldn't dare to do so, but that view now seems laughably quaint. Finally, a statement by the author about religion in a broader context yields problems in the context of India. In particular, the author claims that polytheistic kings didn't try to convert conquered peoples or make them destroy temples to their own deities, but historical conflicts between Saiva & Vaisnava kingdoms in South India over religion suggest otherwise; perhaps this point can also be forgiven as a rare exception to the rule.

Third, the author's definition of an empire in terms of flexibly expanding borders still leads contemporary readers to imagine borders that strictly control the flow of people across them, which I think is historically misleading given the ease with which people could pass across. Even now, people from Mexico & countries in Central America freely pass through the international border between California & Baja California as seasonal migrant workers although the US border is otherwise very strictly controlled.

Fourth, the author makes claims about the positive cultural developments by empires, but those claims seem incomplete. Additionally, the author tries to distinguish Cyrus of Persia's claim that the empire would benefit all people from the more limited ambitions of Assyrian emperors, but this distinction is not clear at all.

Fifth, the author claims that interest (in the sense of a guaranteed geometric return on an investment) requires the existence of a currency that is not useful for any other reason. I disagree in principle because livestock and crops, which have historically been used as currencies or items of barter, have the potential to multiply over time. That said, this may be a moot point if there is no evidence for societies having charged interest directly on livestock or crops as forms of currency.

Sixth, the explanations of why some peoples did not develop agriculture until much later contact by faraway urbanized peoples seems incomplete. I agree with the idea that some peoples settled in areas where plants & animals simply could not be domesticated; the capability to be domesticated by humans is rare among species. However, this does not explain why many native peoples of America and Australia never developed agriculture even though they lived on grasslands that later turned out to support agriculture very easily; in the case of Australia, the author's omission is especially troubling given that the author explains how humans who moved to Australia 45,000 years ago had no problem with destroying the forests that were already there & replacing them with grasslands.

Seventh, near the end of the book, the author distinguishes ecological destruction from resource scarcity as the more likely cause of future human suffering or extinction. This seems to undermine an earlier chapter in which the author acknowledges that problems with allocating resources to maintain a certain standard of living under certain norms, even if the resources themselves are technically abundant, are more likely to lead to conflict. I wish the author had dealt with this more carefully.

Eighth, the author writes about the seemingly inexorable trend toward globalization and the way that world war has come to seem implausible since World War II. The failure to predict both the retreat from globalization especially since 2014 as well as the Russian military invasion of Ukraine in 2022 are forgivable given when the book was published. However, I'm more troubled that the author's claims about the implausibility of world war are phrased in ways that are unfalsifiable, as the author can always claim either a different definition of "world war" or a finite time period of validity (since the last world war) that the author would not have previously clearly stated.

Overall, I think this is still an interesting book, though I wasn't incredibly impressed by it (unlike, for example, my friend from graduate school). I'd recommend it with the caveats discussed above. In any case, as this was among the first books to go on the reading list (for books unrelated to my work) that I made for myself in graduate school, I'm glad to have finally read it.