Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, 2011) **

I should warn you. This is not a history book. It is a pamphlet. A 500-page pamphlet. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, professor of History at Jerusalem University has a point to make. And he makes it over a lengthy volume. He may have a point. He may be right. Only, he never gives any evidence for it. And that's a pity.

It starts well, with the facts about our origins on this globe. No real new insights are produced, but it's a nice overview of how humans created communities, dispersed, made myths, and procreated. Then, somehow, historical facts start to disappear for the bigger narrative that Harari has in mind. My first question mark appears on page 122 when he starts discussing the lack of equality of all humans, in my opinion making an error of logic by comparing biological differences with social hierarchy. Question marks start filling the margins as of Part Three - The Unification of Humankind. Harari just makes one claim after the other. For instance, he writes "Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality". Says who? What are the facts underlying this claim? It's not mentioned. It's never mentioned.

Or : "We should note that belief in gods persists within many modern ideologies, and that some of them, most notably liberalism, make little sense without this belief". Hu? Why? Where is the evidence? .... but then at the end of the next page he comes with what might be a possible reason : "The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the tradition Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls". It is hard to find where this claim comes from and what the basis is of thoughts like this one.

I think he's also wrong when he compares the way the rich spend their money now and in the Middle Ages, without understanding that in those times "power" was generated by having vasals in geographic regions that were under submission. Today, "power", is no longer determined by conquering land, but by having influence in political circles. Because the underlying power-generation is different, so does the spending of wealth. And in a very bizarre way, he sees the evolution from absolute power of monarchs as a better alternative than the current capitalist version of investing in projects that offer a return on the capital invested. It's never made clear why that should be worse. In my opinion, it's a form of emancipation from archaic powers. It's not too difficult to turn the argument around in the other direction.

Gradually, it becomes clear where his sentiments are lying. Capitalism, liberalism, social humanism, communism, consumerism ... all 'isms' are being attacked, often with bizarre statements such as "Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a good thing". What does that sentence even mean? Is there a "Consumerism manifesto" which makes this statement? Or is it a definition? Unfortunately, the more the book evolves, the more such empty statements are made, and the more the pamphlet nature of the "history of humankind" drives the fact-based history away.

He gives the following example of an advertising text for a snack called Health Treats :
"Health Treats offer lots of grains, fruits and nuts for an experience that combines taste, pleasure and health. For an enjoyable treat in the middle of the day, suitable for a healthy life style. A real treat with the wonderful taste of more" ... and then Harari reacts to it : "Throughout most of history, people were likely to have been repelled rather than attracted by such a text. They would have branded it as selfish, decadent and morally corrupt". Really? My first reaction is to wonder what he gets so excited about, but then you wonder what his evidence is, and why? Why does he need to articulate his personal opinion by forcing "people throughout most of history" to accept it, like any populist politician would do.

His ranting against the consumerist-capitalist ideology keeps getting stronger and stronger, and evidence and facts completely disappear. It's no longer termed an ideology even (if that ever was the case in the first place) and it now becomes a religion. "The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions - and buy more and more". If you thought you were reading a "brief history of humankind", you'll be disappointed.

"All of the upheavals (of history) are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market". Again, says who? Where is the evidence? Is this happening all over the world? Last time I checked, there are still families, and most people still think their families and friends are the most important things in life, much more than the state (not trusted according to most opinion polls) and the market. What makes him make claims like this?

In short, the title is misleading. It starts with history, and it ends as moralistic personal view on society. In creating his view, Harari works from extremes, as if the value of a democratic society with liberal ideas and state-governed services does not work. His attacks are against ideologies, not against realities. You can agree with some of Harari's viewpoints, as do I. That's not the problem at all. The problem is that his book is as cleverly sold as the Health Treats that he so rejects on grounds of moral corruption. And that is not good. It gives the surface intellectual a quick snack to satisfy the demand for something meaningful, but like the Health Treats, it is quickly digested with little nutritional value.

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