Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens, has been recommended by almost everyone whose opinion I respect. I didn’t get around to reading it until a few weeks ago, when my neighbor literally pushed it into my chest. So I decided it was time.
It was a fun read, but I came out with a number of questions for the author. Here are my questions, organized by theme.
Your theory of what distinguishes human language from all of the languages
On pages 22–25, you describe two theories for what distinguishes human language from other languages.
The first theory is what you describe as the “there is a lion near the river” theory. This theory is basically about the subtle use of language to describe critical elements of the environment required for our survival.
The second theory is what you describe as the “gossip theory”. You say that there are numerous studies to support this theory, but you do not provide any references on this. In this theory, you describe the importance of using language to speak about other humans in order to develop more sophisticated forms of cooperation. You say that scientists, during informal discussions, are more likely to gossip than to discuss science. You end the section by declaring that “gossip” is the reason why Sapiens rule the world.
How come you omit other strong theories of what distinguishes human language from other languages? One strong (currently unrefuted) theory is the fact that humans use language to explain things about the world, to explain why things are the way they are, and to criticize each other’s explanations. This is what science does using language, and this is what you are trying to do when you wrote this book.
Comparing the “gossip” theory with the “explanation” theory, which theory is more fundamental to what distinguishes human language with other animal languages?
To answer this, consider the following questions:
On page 26, you describe how chimpanzees are able to get together into groups of about 50. This suggests rudimentary ability to cooperate. As you clearly show, using language to cooperate is not unique to humans. But, can you come up with any examples where other animals are able to create explanations about the world using language?
What value is “gossip” without the ability to use language to create and criticize new explanations of the world?
Your theory about what allowed humans to thrive
On page 27, you write how “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” I guess you would agree that the myths that are currently held by large groups of people are not the only myths that have been created throughout human history. What is your theory for what makes certain myths more successful than other myths?
On page 28, you suggest that there is fundamentally no difference between the myths invented by modern businessmen and lawyers, and those told by tribal shamans from primitive times, because functions of both are the same: getting large groups of people to cooperate.
What about the fact that with modern myths, we are all invited to criticize and improve on the myths, while with the primitive myths, any criticism is likely to be met with bad consequences for the person doing the criticizing? How does our modern culture of critiquing each other’s ideas affect the explanatory power of our “modern myths” versus “primitive myths”?
On page 28–30, you call Peugeot (the car company) a figment of our collective imagination, or a “legal fiction”. Yes, this may be true about the marketing brand name and the legal corporate entity, but is this true about the market/operational/technical knowledge that allows the company to operate, build cars, and be successful?
You attribute to the creation of the Peugeot company to some sort of “hocus pocus”, performed by a specific set of rites and rituals, spells and oaths, that has somehow given it the power to convince millions of people to “believe” the story that it tells. But why did people choose to believe the story that Peugeot tells as opposed to other stories told by other long defunct companies? Might it have something to do with the market/operational/technical knowledge that people in the company have created and evolved over a period of many decades?
Yes, millions of “upright French citizens” behave as if this company really existed, but why did millions of “upright French citizens” decide to buy these vehicles as opposed to other vehicles? This is the part that you seem to omit from your telling of the Peugeot story, and which is the main thing that perpetuated this company’s existence.
You suggested that it is a “mystery” why some stories succeed, and some stories fail. Can you think of any other reason for why a story should succeed, other than it being a story that people “like”? Why do people like a certain story and not another story? Might it have something to do with the explanation about the world told through the story? Are all explanations about the world equal, or are some explanations about the world objectively better than others?
On page 32, you write that sapiens live in a “dual reality”. The first reality being the objective reality of “rivers, trees and lions”. The second reality being the reality of “Gods, Nations and corporations”. You describe a struggle between these two realities.
Do you see any relation at all between how closely a story (i.e. second reality) relates to objective reality (i.e. first reality), and the success of that story among the population?
At the start of your section “Bypassing the Genome”, you give an example of how myths can change somewhat arbitrarily. The example you give to support this is the French Revolution of 1789, where it appeared that people “switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.” You focus on the fact that people seem to change their “political myth” on a whim, but make no mention of what explanations of the world each respective myth represents. What explanation of the world does each of the above-described myths represent, and why might the latter myth (i.e. sovereignty of the people) represent objective progress over the first myth (i.e. divine right of kings), given the discoveries at that time about the natural world?
On page 33, you suggest once again that the key differentiator between humans and other species, which allowed humans to rise to the top of the food chain, is humans’ ability to cooperate. But what about ants? Ants cooperate far better than humans do, and their colonies reach thousands of individuals. Are humans just larger forms of ants? Why didn’t ants cooperate their way to the top of the food chain? Why did humans do so instead? Might it be related to the fact that only humans are capable of creating new explanatory knowledge? If so, what does this say about your theory that humans rose to the top of the food chain because of their ability to cooperate via their ability to use language to gossip?
You claim that what distinguishes humans from other animals (e.g. invent new technologies and other new knowledge) is related to genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than cultural initiatives. What is your evidence to support this claim? What reason do I have to believe your “story” for why and how humans evolved culturally? I ask this question because there are simpler competing theories for how and why humans evolved culturally, which don’t require an event such as a specific genetic mutation or specific external environmental pressure.
Also, if on one hand, it is true (as you say) that many humans contain Neanderthal DNA, and on the other hand, the genetic mutation for the “cognitive revolution” happened later on the evolution of humans, it would be be highly unlikely that the genetic mutation you speak of would have reached every single human. Are you suggesting that some humans do not have the genetic mutation required to be cognitively innovative?
Your interpretation of the agricultural revolution
On page 50–51, the “good life” picture you paint of the primitive hunter gatherer societies, with their 35–40 hour work week, no bills to pay, and lifespans to 60–80 years (if you exclude infant mortality) suggests that modern humans are doing a lot more “running” to remain in the same place.
But this is true of most species. For example, consider trees. Why do they consume energy to become so tall? The reason is because they compete with one another for sunlight, and the taller trees are the ones that survive to the extent that they can reproduce. A great amount of a tree’s energy is used to build its trunk, which has no other purpose other than to “beat” its neighbors to the sunlight. So trees also appear to be doing a lot more “running” to remain in the same place.
Do you truly believe that the extra “running” that modern humans are doing is useless? If so, are you suggesting that it would have been better had humans stayed hunter gatherers, and not developed from there? If so, would you stop at humans, or would you apply that same logic to all of life? If the latter, then there probably would have been very little evolution of life at all. Is this an outcome you would have preferred?
On pages 64–69, you seem to frame the transformation of the Australian ecosystem in terms of human destructiveness, even going so far as to label humans an “ecological serial killer”. I assume you’re using judgement-laden language, such as “human blitzkrieg” and “we are the culprits” for entertainment value only. If not, and you truly believe that the human species is “guilty as charged”, have you considered what problems humans on the Australian continent faced that caused them to change the ecosystem in the way they did? Given that over 99% of all species that existed on Earth no longer exist, and that therefore the odds for the survival of any species is always extremely small, do we have any evidence to suggest that the human species would have survived (let alone, flourished) on the Australian continent had it not affected the ecosystem in such a profound way?
On page 78, you debunk a narrative told by scholars of the past that evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. You say that that tale is a fantasy, and that there is no evidence that people became intelligent with time. You support this claim with examples of all the clever things that hunter-gatherers needed to do in order to survive.
There is no doubt that there were intelligent people all throughout history. But we can say with pretty good confidence that as far as we know, we have more explanatory knowledge today than we did in the past. So what’s more important for understanding the story of “Sapiens”, the intelligence of single individuals, or the explanatory knowledge of a society?
You say that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”, because you claim that it caused a less satisfying life for humans. You claimed that with the Agricultural Revolution, humans exchanged “The Good Life” for “a miserable existence”. Are you claiming that the Agricultural Revolution did not cause significant growth in knowledge, or are you saying that the growth of knowledge caused by the Agricultural Revolution is something to be lamented?
On page 86, you suggest that agriculture caused some sort of cycle of more food, leading to higher birth rates, leading to food shortages, leading to expansion, leading to even more food, leading to even more population growth, and so forth. You characterize this as an unfortunate turn of events, calling the fact that humans decided to plant more seeds as a “fateful miscalculation”. You call agriculture the “luxury trap”, and you seem to praise human societies that “escape the luxury trap”.
Can you provide one single example of a species of life that flourished, which did not at some point reach a stage where its numbers were too high to sustain its population in its current environment, and thus required expansion into other environments (or further adaptation)? It appears this “luxury trap” dynamic is near universal to all species that flourish. Would you prefer this dynamic not exist in nature? If so, would you then be okay with life having not evolved beyond microorganisms?
On page 89, you suggest that the “miscalculation” of agriculture was somehow due to religious ideas rather than out of economic or material necessity. Are you suggesting that it would have been better if we only decided to do things out of economic or material necessity? If so, would it have been better if we just focused on economic and material necessity, and not spent any time or energy on “non economically necessary” things like art and music?
Your theory of the role of myths
On page 103, you describe the myths that allow large groups of people to coexist. You show how some myths sanctioned exploitation and brutality in ancient times, just as some do today. You give examples of severe brutality within the Babylonians’ Code of Hammurabi.
It is true that by today’s standards, the Babylonians were unnecessarily brutal, just future generations may look back at today’s world in the same way. It seems sensible to me that Code of Hammurabi was the Babylonians’ best guess for what was required for large groups of people to cooperate, given the knowledge they had at the time when they built their society.
Are you saying that it would have been better had humans not been as successful as they were so as to not necessitate such things are the Code of Hammurabi, or are you suggesting that it would have been better if the organizational structure had operated in a different way?
If the former, are you then okay with no evolution of any species at all, given that the success of any species would lead to higher numbers of that species and thus organizational problems?
If the latter, where do you expect the knowledge to come from on how to develop a better organizational structure?
On pages 108–110, you suggest that the American Declaration of Independence is essentially equal to the Code of Hammurabi in its level of untruth. With regards to the American Declaration of Independence’s reference to “liberty”, you say that from a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free. Are you saying there’s no such thing as freedom? Are you saying that humans have no individual agency, that we are completely programmed by our biology? If so, why do you spend more than fifty pages full of judgment-laden terms to describe humans foray into agriculture, if humans were not even free to make the choice anyway?
You say that from a biological viewpoint, “liberty” doesn’t exist. Are you saying that the biological level is the only level that exists? It appears that by writing this book, you are trying to communicate with your reader on the level of ideas, which is a higher level than that of biology. If the level of biology is the only level that exists, why was it important to you to try to persuade people through your ideas?
You equate the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence as two different, but equally untrue, narratives.
There is no doubt that both documents are flawed, but are you sure that there is no objective way to judge the two documents, and determine which might be closer or further from the truth?
Consider the explanations about the world that each respective document is based on.
What explanation about the world is the Code of Hammurabi based on? In other words, the code of Hammurabi was developed based on a certain level of knowledge about how the world works. In this world there are certain people with divine powers and rights. The Babylonians wrote the Code of Hammurabi based on their best guess of what would create a flourishing society. That “best guess” was itself based on the best knowledge they had at the time.
What explanation about the world is the American Declaration of Independence based on? In other words, the Declaration of Independence was developed based on a different level of knowledge about how the world works. This knowledge is based on discoveries in natural science, and Earth’s position in the solar system and universe. The founders of the United States created the Declaration of Independence based on their best guess for what would create a flourishing society. Just like the Babylonians, the Americans’ “best guess” was based on the best knowledge they had at the time.
Are you suggesting that there is no connection between the level of knowledge that a society has, and civic laws that they make to organize their society? Or, are you suggesting that the knowledge that the Babylonians had is equal to the knowledge that the Americans had 3000 years later? Or, are you saying that there is no such thing as “better knowledge” at all?
On pages 111-113, you claim that things like human rights, Christianity, democracy, and capitalism are “pure myths” with no connection to the objective world. To propagate these myths, you describe a regiment of constant education, political propaganda, fairy tales, and so forth. But nowhere do you mention the possibility that such myths might have something to do with the level of objective knowledge that might have existed at that time.
For example, what knowledge about the world is the idea of universal human rights based on? Is there any connection between the knowledge about the natural world discovered through the second millennium, and the idea of universal human rights? Or, is “human rights” simply just a story that could have been told at any time in history? If the latter, what is your explanation for why this myth only became popular over the last few hundred years, and not during the time of the Babylonians? Is it just because the storytellers arbitrarily decided to tell one story and not another, or does it have something to do with the fact that certain knowledge about how the world works (e.g. how humans evolved) exists now that didn’t exist back then?
You spend chapter 8 discussing the injustice of social hierarchies and social norms in different cultures, from ancient history up to our own. For example, you show that in biblical times, the husband had full control over the wife’s sexuality. You show that even today, 53 countries still exist where a husband cannot be prosecuted for raping his wife. You show many examples throughout history where women were subjugated. You attribute these societal injustices to “imagined myths”. In your theory of “myths” and societal injustice, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for why we’ve progressed in many of these areas. Indeed, on page 159, you express some bewilderment at the fact that so much progress was made in the 20th century with regards to race and gender.
Today in the developed world, we have a different moral code. No doubt, we don’t always get it right, and there is much social injustice in our society as well. But what distinguishes our society from societies of the past, is that in our society, we at least aspire to a society where different genders, sexes, and races are treated equally. Aspirations are important. Consider the fact many of the aspirations held by progressive people 50 years ago are things we now take for granted.
Is there something more “true” about our society’s “imagined myths”, or are our myths equally as arbitrary as those of societies in the past? Again, might our current “imagined myths”, and our actions (flawed as they are), reflect more accurate objective knowledge of how the world works?
If this is so, might it be better to tell the story of Sapiens in terms of growth of objective knowledge, and the continual adapting and improving of our societies to the new objective knowledge we have gained?
In your chapter 12 on religion, you claim that humanism, including liberal humanism, is also a form of religion because it sanctifies humans. This is why we have “commandments” such as “human rights”. You then go on to discuss Nazi race theory, which at the time, was based on available facts that at the time were considered not “beyond the pale”. You then show how Nazism was debunked with the discovery of genetic evidence, which showed that the differences between races was much smaller than previously thought. This new genetic evidence might have explained why racist theories have receded in favor of liberal humanism, however you seem to minimize the effect of the new scientific evidence in favor of more “sociological and political developments”, which you claim are “far more powerful engines of change”. However, you do not draw any connection between the new scientific evidence, and the sociological and political developments. Are you suggesting that the fact that they coincided is mere coincidence? Is it at all possible that the new scientific evidence might have influenced sociological and political developments in some way?
Your interpretation of the impact of writing
Throughout chapter 7, you tell the story of how writing was “born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master”. There is no doubt that as we began to use writing for convenience, writing soon became more necessary. As you also show, writing also allowed us to create new knowledge, by allowing us to store information outside of our brains.
It seems sensible to me to consider that since no knowledge is “final knowledge”, and that all new knowledge leads to new question and problems to solve, more writing would then be required to solve those new problems. In this view, the fact that writing became more necessary is a good thing, because it reflects the fact that society had more knowledge. Are you actually suggesting that it would have been better if we had not used writing to create new knowledge?
Your interpretation of globalization
In chapter 11 on your description of empires, you conclude the chapter with the suggestion that we might be heading towards a “global empire” ruled by the “rich and powerful”.
On one hand, you acknowledge that what appears to be a “global empire” might actually be the effect of more common interests between different nations that live in different places around the world. On the other hand, you caution people about whether they should “join the empire”, considering that the global empire is ruled, much like the late Roman Empire, by a “multi-ethnic elite”.
When you caution entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawmakers, and managers about whether they should “choose empire or not”, are you referring to whether or not they should be choosing to take part in and influence the decisions of global institutions? If you are suggesting (as you seem to be on page 208) that these people should not “choose empire”, what do you suggest they should be doing instead if they would like to help solve problems of global nature?
Your theory of human culture
In chapter 13, you describe the propagation of cultural ideas in terms of a “mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host”. You call this way of seeing cultural growth, “memetics”, which you describe as follows: “just as organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’”.
There are definitely some similarities between “genes” and “memes”, for example, the fact that both entities compete to survive in the host, and propagate to many hosts across the population. But there are also some important differences. For example, “genes” are copied from human-to-human via a biological process. With “memes”, no such copy function exists. For memes to propagate, each human has to actually learn the meme and integrate the meme. This fact is important, because each person also has the capacity to criticize the meme and choose whether or not to adopt it. In addition, humans have the ability to create new memes, or consciously modify existing memes based on any set of criteria. In other words, the propagation of genes is a passive process, while the propagation of memes is an active process.
Calling the propagation of culture a “virus” is appropriate as long as you make the critical distinction that culture is a virus humans CHOOSE to contract. So how do humans decide which cultural viruses to contract, and which to discard? For example, why did a large number of humans choose to “contract” the “virus” of believing in universal human rights at a specific point in time? Might it have something to do with the fact that the belief in universal human rights is based on an explanation of the world that better stands up to criticism?
Your interpretation of economics
In your chapter 16 on the capitalist “creed”, you describe correctly what were the challenges and problems faced by society, which necessitated a system that allowed us to use capital today on the optimistic expectation of future returns. You also correctly describe some of the many ways capitalism was used to serve the wants of a greedy few individuals, at the expense of the well-being of many people. You end the chapter with a word of caution from what you call the “prophets of doom”. You conclude the chapter as follows: “Yet can the economic pie grow indefinitely? Every pie requires raw materials and energy. Prophets of doom warn that sooner or later Homo sapiens will exhaust the raw materials and energy of planet Earth. And what will happen then?”
As you clearly show in your following chapter, humans have repeatedly broken through limitations by creating new knowledge. Yet you are still concerned by a sense of “limitation”. Have humans just gotten lucky in the past to have overcome some limitations, or is there something fundamentally flawed with the idea of “limitations”?
Consider two common fallacies around the idea of “limited resources”.
The first fallacy is that our economic growth is constrained by the materials we have. This is objectively false, and confuses what is a material, and what is a resource. A raw material is not a resource. A raw material can be turned into a resource with knowledge. Without knowledge, a raw material is worthless. Therefore, our economic growth is not constrained by the materials we have, but rather by the knowledge we have on how to convert raw materials into actual resources.
The second fallacy is that energy is limited. This is also objectively false. There is a virtually infinite amount of energy available from the Sun, from water, and from a myriad of other sources. What is limited is the knowledge of how to convert raw energy into usable energy. Our economic growth is not constrained by any type of limitation of energy, but rather by the knowledge we have to turn raw energy into usable energy.