Sapiens: Storytellers

While not usually my cup of tea, Amazon Prime offered Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari, and I thought I’d give it a try. I’d never heard of the author, and don’t usually read anthropology or sociology books, but the blurb made it sound interesting (don’t they always).

I did enjoy the first third. The author discusses two aspects of our ancient past that really grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, he went on to lose it. In a big way. For me, the latter two thirds of the book added little and missed what seemed some key connections.

So, three posts (at least): one each for the two attention grabbers; one more for the book overall. This first one is about our special ability as storytellers.

The dark side is that it’s also about our susceptibility to stories. Underneath it all is that our entire experience of reality is a story our minds create.

The historic story of Us begins about 70,000 years ago, but to understand its significance we must look back roughly 2.3 million years to when recognizable humans — homo habilis — first appeared in Africa.

[Note that I take the term “human” to apply to the genus homo, under which there are a number of species — from habilis to sapiens — all of which are members of the actual human race. What we refer to as “race” is largely a social construct based on ethnic and geographic variation. Yet another social fiction.]

Humble habilis never left Africa, but homo erectus did. They showed up about two million years ago and spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia. Another human species, the Neandertals (homo neanderthalensis), spread throughout Europe and into the Middle East.

These humans all lived in small hunter/gatherer bands. There was limited trade, all barter, so it only happened when both parties had something the other wanted. There was no unification of cultures among bands, each evolved their own customs. It’s not unfair to compare human tribes at this point to animal tribes, especially primate tribes. Humans lived off the land and were mobile.

Then, about 300,000 years ago, homo sapiens — modern humans — showed up. They, too, were hunter/gatherers until (according to Harari) about 70,000 years ago when we lucked into a new idea, perhaps enabled by a genetic mutation, that changed everything. We learned to create and respond to fictions — an ability that let us take over the world.

Human Spread

Humans, especially sapiens, spread across the world.

Harari calls it the Cognitive Revolution (one of many crucial game changers in our deep history; see next post). Our ability to create fictions is the foundation of culture, government, finance, and religion. It’s why we can have large cities and countries. Politics, laws, and legal justice are fictions we make up in hopes of a stable (very large) society.

In ancient homo sapiens, it allowed large groups to cohere under a shared fiction of “greater good for the group” — a fiction often called patriotism. The rallying cry, “For God and Country!” involves two evocative fictions.

Which brings up an important point: Fictions aren’t bad (or good) just because they’re fictions. Some fictions (for instance: society, country, God, extended family, money) are necessary. Some are even beneficial (for instance: community, charity, and religion). A company is a fiction, but how could we manage without them? Money is another fiction, but we’d be reduced to barter without it.

It’s the content and intent of fiction that makes it either good or bad. Fraudulent emails are a good example of bad fictions. In many cases, it’s a subjective value judgement. Capitalism and socialism are fictions on which opinions vary considerably. For that matter, consider the fictions we call the (political) Left and Right.

§ §

I think we all know, in the back of our minds, that many aspects of life as we live it are based on ideas that aren’t factual. Which isn’t to say they aren’t true.

It can be tempting to divide the world into facts (true) and lies (not true). Most approaches to logic do exactly that. This pushes valid literature (and art in general) into what libraries label “non-fiction” — anything else would be a lie, a counterfeit of some kind. But most libraries have a much larger category: fiction. A category we might describe as a surface of lies overlying deeper truths.

So, rather than two categories, three: facts, lies, and fiction. Animals are mostly factual, things are what they are, but some animals can lie in various small ways (birds and squirrels pretend to bury food to deceive potential thieves that might be watching). Storytelling, however, is uniquely human. It drives human cultures unimaginably far beyond animal ones.

Harari’s contention is that social fiction is why homo sapiens exploded to every corner of the globe, expanding much further than any human species before them, and wiping out other human species they encountered. The entirety of the Americas was devoid of humans until sapiens arrived.


Yet, while Harari attributes our success in expanding to our facility with fiction, I think he misses the importance of storytelling itself in human culture. The fictions he writes about tend to be fictions people take as social truths (such as government, money, or justice). But I think there is a strong link to fictions we take as fictions, our stories.

The link is important because it expresses what I think is the empowering and central aspect of our fiction ability: imagination. Harari refers often to our collective imagination where our social fictions live yet doesn’t seem to quite recognize the power of the human imagination.

We improve the things we do and make because we wonder: “What if?” We are able to imagine changes that improve things. We can visualize a fictitious future and set about making it into a factual one.

Not just a uniquely human ability, but unique to homo sapiens.

And very possibly why no Neandertals or other homo cousins remain. They couldn’t stand up to our ability to imagine a huge group working together.


This Cognitive Revolution marks the first occurrence of what ought to be called Sapiens Spread. Remember that homo sapiens appeared on the scene about 300,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until about 70,000 years ago that we set out to conquer the world. Something switched on that hasn’t switched off since.

In the rest of the book Harari describes the onslaught of wave after wave of Sapiens Spread through history. Yet he never seems to connect it back to this first wave, to fully understand or appreciate the basic phenomenon of Sapiens Spread. (“It’s what we do!”)

§ §

As an aside, Immanuel Kant pointed out how the only reality we know is the model of reality (a fiction!) built by our brains based on neural inputs it receives from our eyes, ears, and other senses. Reality, as we each know it, is a story in our mind.

That said, I believe it to be a reasonably accurate one, as far as it goes. We cannot see ultraviolet light, for instance, and being able to do so would add information, but would not make the information we already have more accurate. It’s fashionable in some circles to see our internal model of reality as inaccurate because of how much our senses cannot perceive. Not just as inaccurate but as deceiving or illusionary.

I can’t agree. We evolved to operate in the physical world, and our senses (and brain) are tuned for success in that regard. Granted there is much we don’t perceive, be it ultraviolet or ultrasound, but I’d say our success indicates that what we do perceive we perceive pretty darn accurately.

So, I’d suggest, rather than seeing the reality as deceptive, illusionary, or vastly distorted, see it as a wireframe model. A sufficiently accurate model but missing a lot of detail and color.

Anyway, interesting that a key to our massive global success as a species operates at so many levels, from global finance and countries all the way down to the very basis of our (fictional) (wireframe) mental model of reality.

§ §

My love of fiction goes back to my earliest memories of mom reading sister and I bedtime stories. My parents read to us a lot but didn’t make any effort to teach us to read. That way, when we got to school, we were thirsty to learn this great skill that unlocked infinite new worlds. (Both sister and I are life-long voracious readers.)

So, it was pretty cool to read that the key to our success as a species lies in our ability to create fictions. And, no doubt, along with the ability to create them comes the ability to appreciate them. Even need them. We love stories because we can tell stories.

[Storytelling may have driven spoken and written languages to the richness they have. Bees can communicate where good flowers are to other bees, a simple language suffices to communicate basic world facts. But it requires a rich language to tell (and hear!) beautiful, dramatic, funny, or poignant stories. (How much of language is based on the need to tell a really good joke or tall tale?)]

This aspect of our past is near the beginning of our history, so it’s equally early in the book. At this point, I was thumbs up and really digging the book.

§ §

Which is a good place to leave it until the next post. The rest of this is my highlighted bits and notes that I wrote while reading.

It may say something (though I’m not sure what) that I didn’t highlight much in Part One: The Cognitive Revolution. Only four bits:

There was just one exception to this general rule: the dog. The dog was the first animal domesticated by Homo sapiens, and this occurred before the Agricultural Revolution. Experts disagree about the exact date, but we have incontrovertible evidence of domesticated dogs from about 15,000 years ago. They may have joined the human pack thousands of years earlier.

This bit is about events rather after the Cognitive Revolution, but I love dogs, so I highlighted it (more as a thumbs up than as a note for future reference). Truly, dogs and humans have an ancient history.

When dogs dream, do they recall things they’ve experienced, or do they imagine things? If they chase imaginary rabbits, perhaps they have their own small fictions.

We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understanding of human history.

An important point. So much of early human history is guesswork.

The wandering bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive force the animal kingdom had ever produced.

A point the author reiterates in various forms. He seems to not think much of homo sapiens (and perhaps for good reason). That said, he does tend to take a good news/bad news approach in most cases. History is often neutral and value judgements come from the winners (and losers).

One example:

At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.

Australia had never seen any species of human until sapiens, and a variety of megafauna had evolved (including a 650-pound kangaroo). Within a thousand years of homo sapiens showing up, they were gone.

We’ve been doing what we do for a long time.


From my notes:

Cognitive Revolution = freedom from biology!

Indeed, our ability to imagine a future we can make real may underpin free will.

Stories allow large groups to function. Without fictions only small groups work. Which is why animals (and non-sapiens humans) only exist in tribes.

And even us sapiens prior to the Cognitive Revolution!

Fiction allows rapid social change. DNA does not. Animal behavior tends to be fixed. Neanderthals had bigger brains and were stronger but Sapiens won because fiction allowed unity in large groups.

Freedom from biology!

Things! Nomads only have what they can carry. Hunter gatherers (like animals) have (and need) few tools. Modern civilization has lots of ownership! Land, vehicles, kitchen, bedroom, living room, yard. We need moving companies with large vans now!

One of the many costs of modern life.

Ancient humans each needed broad knowledge of their surroundings and selves. Modern humans specialize in niche fields including low intelligence tasks. Imbeciles can survive and pass on their genes now!

Freedom from biology again.

§ §

Next time: Fiction was a powerful force, but fiction grounded in reality was unstoppable. It led to global revolutions…

Stay fictitious, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

19 responses to “Sapiens: Storytellers

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I didn’t have room to get much into the darker side of this but suffice to say that our love of stories makes us prone to falling for a good one. Something in us wants to believe in appealing fictions. (What varies considerably among us is what we find appealing!)

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    I have not read this work. And, as you will see by my remarks, I’m unlikely to do so. I do notice that Mike Smith at his blog “selfawarepatterns” reviewed Harari’s book in July 2020 to very few comments. The book is what some historians call universal history or history viewed as one single large (and as such understandable) unit. However, I would expect Harari’s history will be forgotten over time and dropped by the wayside as a limited and distorted account of human history like past big narratives—e.g., Toynbee, Spengler and Marx. And that is because universal history tends to include more conjecture than real history. As one who studied a fair amount of the history of ideas, I take universal histories with a very large grain of salt.

    Moreover, I’ve read a few reviews which demonstrate the limitations of Harari’s approach to the human condition. For one, as the title suggests, he claims a scientific approach to human history—a big red flag. And I understand from the reviews I’ve read he tends to reduce much history to physical/biological explanations—including ethics. Right away, I’m out.

    I do think you are on to something extremely important, however, with your emphasis on the power of fiction noted by Harari. I.e., the power of language. I would suggest a more limited and, I believe, much more worthwhile work by John Searle entitled “Making The Social World, the structure of human civilization.”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And I wouldn’t recommend you (or most anyone) do read it. To give away the punchline of the third post, I give the book a Nah! rating and don’t recommend it except maybe for people who’ve never read any history at all. It might suffice as a whirlwind introductory overview, but I imagine there are other authors who do it better. I really think Harari missed some obvious connections. (For example, he seems almost puzzled by the success of Europeans starting around 1500 and doesn’t connect it with how that culture began to ground their social fictions in physical reality. Most other cultures, because of religion or bureaucracy, clung to their less effective traditions.)

      I take Harari to be writing “pop history” with a spin and don’t see the book as serious history. I’m sure you’re right, it’s the fluff of today’s fast food for the mind. Not enduring. I can tell from bits of snark in my notes that he was losing me already in section two about the Agricultural Revolution (subject of next post). After that section, my notes are almost entirely snark, so he lost me by the one-third mark or so. I did enjoy the thinking he invoked with those two ideas, though, the difference social fiction made for us, and the changes wrought by the Agricultural Revolution. The former was a new idea, and there were aspects of the latter I’d never thought about before. New thoughts; always a win!

      Once I bogged down with the book, I looked at the Wiki pages for the book and the author and took note of some of the criticisms mentioned for both. What you and those pages indicate matches my experience.

      I’ve read some of Searle’s papers and saw a YouTube video of him speaking. I was impressed by his intelligence and clarity. From what I’ve read, he makes a lot of sense. (FWIW: I’ve posted about some of his papers.) The library doesn’t have Making the Social World but I’ll keep my eyes open for it.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Thanks for posting. I’m looking forward to your next installments. Yeah, it was always a ‘nah’ for me. Seems like some crooked thinking.

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    I am indeed looking forward to the next installments my friend! This is where I hoped you’d be going. I agree on your take that Harari is writing “pop history” and likewise I don’t see the book as serious history. As one who spent a great deal of effort grappling with history (or historiography) myself I see a great danger lurking in these giant history popularizations and grand theory philosophies. In the latter category my current vexation is the insane ethical work of Toby Ord. Such popular works tend towards the dangers demonstrated in recent history by Karl Marx’s grand theory or history. And when those who are educated in the STEM areas of academia rather than the liberal arts/humanities read such crap they may take it as gospel and that may affect the path history itself. That’s my big fear with Ord’s crazy ideas. Just ponder the evil perpetuated under he theory of social Darwinism.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      There are parallels to this in theoretical physics — science popularizers more noted for their BS than for any insight. One can’t help but wonder about the damage they do to naive minds.

      There’s an old argument among science popularizers about whether bad pop science has any positive effect on at least stimulating virgin minds to know more. Does an explanation so simplified that it’s basically wrong cause people to walk away with wrong ideas (and if so, is that really a problem), or does it create a thirst to know more? I suspect it depends on the individual. Some are born thirsty, so the real question is how bad is it for naive minds to have wrong ideas about science? Is, for instance, having a totally wrong picture of Hawking radiation significant? Hard to argue why it would be.

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        I would argue that bad science and bad history are both to be avoided even if they inspire one to read more of the serious stuff. But I also agree that we can debate that point. I do recommend Searle’s work in social ontology, the most recent being the book I noted. He’s developed the linguistic turn in philosophy into something amazing. I think many political theorists and ethicists will build on Searle’s work in the future. If you can’t get the book now, I can give you a short cut to his ideas on the construction of human civilization via a couple of YouTube videos. And you are right, he makes difficult philosophy accessible.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I cut out part of my reply that, upon re-reading, I should have left in. Your careful reply clued me in that I may have given the wrong impression. I quite agree bad information is bad. There’s a rabbit hole here, serious versus pop texts, and non-fiction versus fictional (but “accurate”) accounts. The line can be a little subjective. But to be clear, I’ve never been a fan of Santa Claus lies.

        Thanks for the links! I’ll check them out when I can. (Gotta work on the next two posts!)

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    His argument makes little sense. We (humans) dominate the planet because of our ability to kill from a distance. We were always tribal, still are. We function best in small groups/bands/tribes, whatever you want to call them.

    Robin Dunbar came up with the ideal number of 150. Seems about right. And those into factions of about 50. Related. Those related tribes controlled territory and would travel and raid others’ territories for whatever, not the least important was young, fertile women.

    The ability to communicate [non-verbally, too. So important to be effective. Think rock concert. Or Trump rally. 🙂 ] with a large population is a pretty recent thing.

    And we are proving to be pretty bad at it. Competing stories if you will. We didn’t evolve to communicate with anyone not within speaking/striking distance – really in the same room/camp(fire).

    Yeah we do like our stories, for sure. Our fairy tales. Fables.

    I made up an origin story. It’s the first chapter of my book ELECTION 2016. It’s been called “a thrilling discourse on power”. I just need some more/many readers. 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      That’s funny, his point about homo sapiens and fiction was the part I liked best. I thought it made perfect sense. We dominate because of our imagination and inventiveness — which is where the ability to kill at a distance came from. At root I think we dominate because we’re clever and greedy apex predators.

      You’re absolutely right about our tribal natures. That’s what makes things as big as the USA such a wonder — that it works at all. That’s Harari’s point — it’s the social fiction we all embrace — “freedom and justice for all” — that’s why it works at all. (It’s unraveling now in part due to the deconstruction that began in the 1960s. People stopped believing in the fiction of America As Seen On TV and as taught in school.)

      Charismatic individuals have been moving large crowds since ancient times, but yeah, in modern times technology allows for much larger crowds. The benefit of microphones and speakers! Radio and TV made the reach even broader. And now the internet! But don’t overlook that, rock band or political leader, what’s being sold is, to one degree or another, a fiction, a made-up reality. And what’s being embraced by the crowd is that fiction. We love a good story, especially if it speaks to us somehow. Advertising is all about selling fictions, images.

      I quite agree about competing stories. I don’t see a way back to tribal ways, that ship sailed a long time ago, so we’re stuck with a world that’s become more global. The question then becomes how to play the hand. In the next posts I’ll talk about a point I think Harari missed, that what made human stories unstoppable was grounding them in physical reality. One way, a good way, to deal with competing stories is to look to facts, evidence, logic — in fact, things that make one’s story less fictional. I think history shows that life works best when the stories providing the social framework are reasonably grounded in facts.

      Fairy tales and fables, sure (Star Wars and Top Gun), but also dramas and comedies — those two famous theatre masks. If storytelling was what drove language development, then it goes way back in our history. Think how moved people can be by a sports or a tear-jerker movie.

      Dude, sorry, but you’re on your own with your book. I was born in NYC and, while we left when I was five, I have always retained a connection to events and people there. I’m afraid Trump has been on my “nope” list since at least the late 1980s.

  • Sapiens: Revolutionaries | Logos con carne

    […] The previous post focused on a single, to me key, aspect of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari. This post focuses on the other aspect of the book I found compelling. The last one was about the power fiction gave homo sapiens. This one is about the Agricultural Revolution (the AR). […]

  • diotimasladder

    As I recall, I had a ‘Meh’ rating for the book too, but I read it such a long time ago that I can’t remember why. I remember getting excited about the part where he talks about money, but again, I can’t remember what I thought of what he said.

    Mainly, I recall him talking about free time, and how we had much more of it as hunter-gatherers.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You’re right, the money part was kind of interesting. I was a bit struck by his discussion of how those in Islamic lands gladly accepted gold coins stamped with European kings they’d never heard of and with proclamations about Jesus Christ. Likewise, Europeans gladly accepted coins from Islamic and other Asian lands with equally foreign — even opposing — inscriptions. Because gold is gold!

      But I thought he misses that gold does have intrinsic value on several levels. It’s found in relatively pure chunks, and it’s malleable (important for early civilizations). It’s pretty, substantial in feel, and doesn’t tarnish, all of which would be considerations for early people. Modern civilization knows all sorts of great technological uses for it. (Silver has similar intrinsic value.) Harari paints the Aztecs as seeing it as largely valueless but even they knew it was pretty and good for jewelry. And they knew it too some amount of work to mine and refine it.

      Yeah, the abundance of free time when the world is much, much smaller. This bigass world has so many distractions!

  • Sapiens: The Book | Logos con carne

    […] previous two posts (this one and this one) each discussed an aspect of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval […]

  • Anonymole

    Another author you might check out – similar thread – Dr. Lewis Dartnell.

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