A few observations on Sapiens

Probably, the world doesn’t need my opinions on Sapiens. But here they are anyway — more for me than for you.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a little like a secret cult. Sometimes you see people reading it and you know. I had friends mention it to me many times, “Have you read Sapiens?” And I would say no and they would just go silent, like maybe they shouldn’t have mentioned it.

So, eventually, I thought I should read it. I was actually a little nervous, honestly. Because sometimes you do something or read something that you think might change your life and you’re not sure who you’ll be on the other side of it.

Sapiens is good and has some pretty interesting and innovative ideas in it. I read some critiques, which call him a “pop historian” and too casual in sourcing and understanding the science. But, the first half of the book, on early human history and the cognitive transformation, agricultural revolution is really mind-blowing and helps frame our poor human existence in a way nothing has ever really done before. Many pieces of his argument are familiar, but I’ve never had it presented in such a coherent way. I really recommend it. He’s a good and accessible writer even if he seems a bit pedantic at times.

The second half of the book — as he tackles some of the “social fictions” — religion, empire, commerce— gets a little sloggier. He makes strong points, but it definitely feels like an argument rather than explanatory insight. Still there’s a lot of really valuable stuff in it.

I really like and appreciate his critique of the agricultural revolution and he makes a pretty good case about the downsides and failings for human health, happiness and environmental quality. But agriculture did help human DNA proliferate and produce bigger populations of people in smaller land areas.

Harari makes a case for animal welfare that I found pretty moving, really — arguing the fact that human can dominate and manipulate other species for our own ends (food) doesn’t make it ethical. And the immiseration of other living beings is pretty horrific and probably unnecessary. “for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe.” Notwithstanding there are hugely more of these animals under human cultivation, they are treated awfully.

He also gives Hitler and eugenicists ample space to make their case before puncturing them — mostly on technical issues rather than ethics. Their notion of racial difference and Aryan superiority were in accurate, he argues, but doesn’t necessarily defeat the general direction of their movement. He’s problematic. If not an advocate for it, he’s obviously open to and expecting human genetic modification and thinks it’s silly to fight it or create artificial ethical boundaries around it. He debunks Nazi notions of purity as a motive for genetic selection, but certainly doesn’t rule out genetic modification or selection as an enterprise. In other contexts, I doubt he would argue against human rights, but his argument doesn’t really support anything like human rights or sanctity of humans as received. Which is fine… if there weren’t plenty of malevolent actors who would love to take up this opportunity to pursue horrific policies and campaigns. “There is no evidence the people became more intelligent with time,” he says comparing foragers with agriculturalists. But with new technologies, he seems to embrace the idea that humans can and should become more intelligent in the future.

Interestingly, he handles patriarchy awkwardly — refusing to attribute it to biological difference, but unable to explain why patriarchy is so universal culturally. He runs through several theories for patriarchy, but debunks them all (men are stronger, men are more aggressive, reproductive strategies are different). He confesses to being bewildered by it and celebrates the incursions against patriarchy that have occurred rapidly in recent history.

I didn’t find him overbearing on the point, but one of the strongest themes is the how comprehensively the growth and dominance of humans has transfigured the Earth and decimated ex ante nature and other species. One factoid that he develops really sticks with me: that the total body mass of human is in the order of 300 million tons. With the massive growth of domesticated animal species, they would weigh 700 million tons. by comparison, all large wildlife — bears, giraffes — would only be 100 million tons. Nature, if it exists today, is in a small minority. And sapiens, for now, create their own reality.




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I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.