A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Why is it that only men write books like this?
It’s never a great idea to deal in generalizations, and I’m sure that there are exceptions, but women usually don’t (to their credit, I think), write books like this one, making global, grandiose claims about the human condition. A woman might write a book examining, say, the thickness of weft threads of linens woven under the late Egyptian Pharaohs; down the hall, her male colleague will write a book about why humans strive, or some such garbage.
I have just read one of those male-authored garbage books.
It’s my own fault, really: I had plenty of warning that it was going to be. I was informed about what sort of book it was not only by the author, Dr. Harari, himself (the subtitle is, after all, ‘A Brief History of Humankind‘), but by its many adoring readers: ‘Sapiens‘ (and Harari’s next book, the nauseatingly titled ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow‘) have become the latest favorite texts of exactly the sort of male, Silicon Valley hardos who eat up these kinds of superficial, explain-all Theories of Everything.
OK, but, let’s at least try to be fair: a book should never be discounted simply because it has terrible fans. There are nice things to be said about ‘Sapiens‘, including:
- Harari is not a bad writer. He does tend to the overly-colloquial at times, which makes him sound a little like your dorky history teacher trying to connect with you (‘Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs. The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first…Voila! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go‘ (p. 92). It makes you cringe). But this is a venal sin, and, in general, his arguments are lucid and succinct.
- He covers an astonishing amount of material, even if he does it, by necessity, cursorily. And he is excellent at choosing supporting examples; he draws from an enormous range of historical anecdote, and deploys his anecdotes interestingly and well.
- A few of his many, many arguments are thought-provoking and unusual in today’s academic atmosphere. For example, he makes a pretty spirited case for the idea that bigger, more consolidated governments (i.e. more Federal), and empires in general, are better at promoting peace and prosperity for more people over historical time. In a time of increasing Balkanization and more focus on local self-determination, it is worth reading an intelligent, measured defense of this idea.
However, these good points do not add up to a successful venture. The trouble with any project of this kind is that, since the scope is so wide, the conclusions must be glib. In fact, even when Harari makes perfect sense, you are left with the disconcerting sense that he is making too much sense, that he has dispensed with something complicated and important too quickly and out of hand. It makes him seem tricky, like he’s rushing through his argument so you don’t notice its holes. Like he’s selling snake oil, and not waiting around for you to discover that it doesn’t work.
Here is an example:
“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.” (p. 147)
At first read, that paragraph makes perfect sense; more, it seems like rather a good point, doesn’t it?
It isn’t; it’s shallow and pat. His argument hinges on a deliberately obtuse reading of the word ‘unnatural’. Harari is insisting that ‘unnatural’ means ‘impossible in nature’, when clearly it means no such thing. In fact, humans now do things all the time which are ‘impossible in nature’ (to see how disingenuous he is on this point, just substitute ‘faster than the speed of light’ above with ‘faster than the speed of sound’, another ‘impossible’ thing which we now do regularly). Some formerly ‘impossible’ things have become taboo (genetically engineering children which glow in the dark: totally possible, taboo); some have not (supersonic travel).
More than that, when people indict a behavior as ‘unnatural’, they clearly do not mean that it is impossible – they mean that it isn’t in accordance with the goals of biology (usually stable sexual reproduction) as they understand them. That may be a stupid standard (I think it is), but deliberately misunderstanding ‘unnatural’ to mean ‘not possible’ so that nothing that can be done can be ‘unnatural’ is equally stupid. This is a complicated problem of morals and language; it should not be done away with in one paragraph.
There are many problems like this, places where something thorny and nuanced is dispatched too quickly. And, to be fair to him, Harari might well answer that that was intentional, that he simply could not cover what he needed to cover and do everything justice. He would probably be right. If you’re trying to get from Homo erectus to cyborgs, you can’t stop and smell every rose.
But I question the very project: did we need this book? I came away with the impression that Dr. Harari is a good thinker; did we really need him to survey human history for us? Is human history the sort of topic best understood in survey form? Might his mind have been better tasked with answering one of the many interesting questions that he poses in more depth and, frankly, with more integrity? Isn’t it almost always better to acknowledge complexity than to gloss over it? I think so.
Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I do not regret reading ‘Sapiens‘, and I might even recommend it to other readers of certain tastes. But you’re going to have to put a gun to my head to get me to read ‘Homo Deus‘.