Sapiens: The Book

The previous two posts (this one and this one) each discussed an aspect of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), by Yuval Noah Harari. While those aspects grabbed my attention and got me thinking, I took very little from the rest of the book.

In fact, reading the latter two-thirds got to be something of a chore. It had many examples from comparatively modern history (given the full breadth of our existence) but they didn’t seem to amount to a unified whole. The author seems not to connect dots his own text presents.

Final score: two bits I liked and took away (and posted about) but the rest of the book I left behind. I give it a Meh! rating and a thumbs down.

Despite the two good bits. That fiction (imagination) was and is a key strength (and weakness!) unique to homo sapiens was new to me. I think the idea makes a lot of sense. I see it at play in many aspects of modern life. It explains the conundrum of how we tribal beasts manage to have a huge civilization. This bit is my primary takeaway from the book, the new entry in my personal library of interesting stuff.

The importance of the Agricultural Revolution wasn’t new to me, but Harari did mention aspects I’d never considered or didn’t know. It was worth a post and some thought but didn’t earn as many points as the first one. It would have earned more had Harari recognized the unifying motif his text suggests.

The rest of the book was such a slog that two good bits don’t tip the scale to a positive view. After a decent start charting our beginnings, he meanders off into various case studies of humanity that never seem to connect meaningfully. Perhaps because the author seems to miss key underlying themes of humanity.

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The first two sections of the book focus on the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions, 72 and 84 pages respectively. The previous two posts covered the topics of these sections. The last thing I’ll say about them is that Harari lost me about halfway through the second section.

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The third section (84 pages), “The Unification of Humankind”, focuses on other waves of expansion, albeit more of ideas than peoples. These waves, Harari suggests, had the effect of unifying people under particularly effective and workable fictions. Harari focuses on three Unifying Fictions: empire, capitalism, and religion.

The last chapter ponders the success of these fictions. Harari asks why things turned out as they did, why some memes (like English and Christianity) persisted across the ages while others perished. But then he digresses into how history is forged by people making best possible choices with what they know at the time. And some of those end up having profound consequences.

Okay, sure (and duh), but what does that have to do with the success of homo sapiens, especially in the context of empire, capitalism, and religion? Worse, the chapter had some jarring potholes that interrupted my reading. For instance:

Chaotic systems come in two shapes.

Um, no they don’t. I searched and the only references were to Harari saying it in this book. He seeks to differentiate chaotic systems that react to predictions versus those that don’t. His example is the stock market versus the weather. Both chaotic systems, but the stock market reacts to our inputs (which are predictions about how it will perform).

What Harari misses is that we do the same thing with weather, but our ability to make significant input is limited. With advanced technology we could in principle influence the weather as we do the stock market. (Note that the stock market is designed for inputs — they’re crucial to how it operates.) Indeed, climate change is an example of our unintended inputs to the system. So, there’s no difference. A chaotic system is a chaotic system. It’s just that some are easier to influence than others.

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The secret to our success is implicit in his text. Humans are imaginative, a skill possessed by no other creature. It’s not just our fictions, it’s the imagination behind them. It’s the reason we’re apex predators despite our lack of fangs, claws, wings, speed, strength, night vision, or tough hides.

[The big cats were so surprised to see a puny ape species turn into the Real Threat. They considered us easy (if perhaps annoying) prey but now we keep housecats with futile feral memories and their bigger cousins in zoos. The dogs were smart — they decided they wanted in. A food dish and warm bed were worth a little loss of dignity.]

Harari never really examines the question of how inevitable much of our progress was. That the Agricultural Revolution occurred separately nearly simultaneously worldwide shows how it was an idea whose time had come. Humanity was bound to enter into a relationship with plants and animals sooner or later.

Were there other legitimate choices we might have made that would result in a vastly different future? How many viable significantly different modes are there for eight billion homo sapiens?

Mathematics has the notion of an attractor in a mathematical space. The basic idea is that points moving in that space are drawn to the attractor. Given some random starting point, motion tends towards the attractor. One example of such a space is the space of all possible futures given the first humans. We currently live in one of those futures. We can only guess about other possibilities.

So, the question is how much our reality might be an attractor rather than a random outcome. The AR, for instance, is obviously an attractor. Intelligent creative beings will eventually harness the plants and animals in their sphere.

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“The Scientific Revolution” is the fourth and final chapter. And the longest at 169 pages. Yet also the weakest I thought.

Firstly, it’s fairly recent history (beginning in the 1500s). It certainly shapes culture but doesn’t do much in shaping homo sapiens themselves. In fact, by this point in history, we’re shaping events as much or more than being shaped by them. I thought a book titled Sapiens would be more about how we were shaped. Perhaps that my mistake.

Secondly, Harari’s grasp of science seems weak. There were many potholes that jarred me. For example, listing the mathematical versions of Newton’s Three Laws and sticking the summation sign in front of the first two:

\displaystyle\sum\,\overrightarrow{F}=0

\displaystyle\sum\,\overrightarrow{F}={m}\overrightarrow{a}

\displaystyle\overrightarrow{F}_{1,2}=-\overrightarrow{F}_{2,1}

What is being summed there? As with two levels of chaos, Harari seems to be making things up. (And I’m not sure the first law is right.)

The biggest bone I have to pick here is the way he frames science:

Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions.

True, if maybe a bit overstated, but a funny way to look at it. Yet bases his view of science on it. Later he says:

The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.

Again, true but a strange way to look at it. To me Science as Ignorance is like talking about a tree by talking about the space around the tree. It’s not wrong, and maybe it’s very Zen but seems to focus on anti-tree. Or it’s like talking about the soil when it’s the crops that provide the harvest.

I would put it: The power of science is the presumption we can study and understand the world — that it is a mechanism that makes sense.

Harari points out how religions and kings offer human-created fictions containing all knowledge worth knowing. Questions are typically discouraged. Often fatally or by loss of freedom. In contrast, science is all about asking questions (which is why some religious and political factions oppose it).

What he misses throughout is that, while science has its own share of fictions, those are grounded in physical reality. At root, that’s what makes a scientific view so potent. It’s based on reality. And it’s able to evolve as we learn more about reality. In science, the ultimate arbiter of truth is experimental results.

I riddled this section with highlighted bits tagged with disgruntled snark.

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Harari has a notion of an existing unified global empire based on shared culture and, in particular, how capitalism and religion have unified humankind. This seems debatable on more levels than not.

Even accepting it, I find the notion metaphorical, at best. The “empire” has no emperor and no hierarchy. Granted, we manage to do business globally (because M.O.N.E.Y.), and the major religions have spread worldwide, but we’re more fractured and fractious than unified.

It’s like calling the sea an empire. There is more to being an empire than being global (as Harari’s own examples demonstrate).

But because of this notion he needs to deny the age-old adage: All Empires Fall! As Yeats so famously put it: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” The widening gyre always gets you in the end. Every example of empire Harari cites fell. Yet he apparently believes in his global empire of culture.

When it comes to empires, he seems as confused by their origin as by their inevitable fall. It’s pretty simple. The first rule for any organization, from grocery stores to empires is this: Ensure continued existence. Survive! Grow! Acquire! Everything else comes next.

Much of human expansion consists of some group determined to survive following this basic rule. Empires because someone else’s empire may absorb you and yours.

Religions are organizations, so the above applies. Capitalism is just financial empire building (plus greed), so the above applies. It all boils down to what it takes to feel secure in the world. And that’s often by destroying or taking over perceived threats.

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I mentioned in the first post that books like this aren’t my cup of tea. I tend to find social science texts reductive and abstract. I too often find what they assert disagreeing with my experience. On the other hand, I’ve been a big fan of fiction all my life. In part, I just like stories, but I do think fiction often gets at the realities of people better than academic works do.

Extremely complex things with lots of variables are very hard to define by a set of properties. Often the best we can do is definition by example. Provide enough examples, and the class being referred to emerges. Tables, trees, and humans are all best defined by example.

A story is a case study. Social sciences try to explain all the stories. But that’s really hard to do. Their properties are too diverse.

The irony of the so-called “soft” sciences is that they are actually unimaginably difficult and complicated. They involve vast configuration spaces with nearly infinite parameters and often chaotic mathematics. In a sense, these are too big for mathematics. Which makes them prone to BS or, at the least, hand-waving.

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I mentioned I amused myself by highlighting bits that made me shake my head and adding snarky annotations. I could fill two more posts with those, but I won’t. They were fun at the time, but amount to little more than heckling.

I’ll share just one I find illustrative. He was talking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

Huxley’s world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why.

Not at all. Utopia is boring and static and safe. Utopia conflicts with free will and creative thought.

Science fiction has visited this theme time and again. So have some fables. It’s not only not hard, it’s kind of obvious. (“Super easy; barely an inconvenience.”)

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As I said, I give the book a Meh! rating and don’t recommend it. I found it generally trivial and shallow (albeit not entirely without a few points of interest).

Stay sapient, 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

3 responses to “Sapiens: The Book

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And that does it for now. I’m going to resist any temptation to post the snark or a play-by-play deconstruction.

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    Well done! You’ve given me some perspectives on the book that I didn’t get from the reviews I’ve read. Thanks. You made two points in your reaction to Sapiens that struck me as insightful and worthy of underscoring. First, that science is based on the simple presumption that our physical world is understandable—so, that presumption is why we keep pushing out to make more of it understandable. Yes, indeed. I think you are spot on there. And, second, the irony of the so-called soft sciences. They are actually unimaginably difficult and complicated. Again, quite right in my opinion.

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