‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari (Harvill Secker 2014) Reviewed by Robert M Ellis
This is a big book – not in terms of the number of pages (around 400), but in terms of scope. It is a history of humans (referred to throughout as ‘sapiens’) from our earliest development to our speculative futures. Not only that, but it is in many ways an inter-disciplinary survey, incorporating biology, anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, and economics. It does not offer a simple linear narrative, but rather has a series of overlapping themes that gradually move forward through time. It is categorised by its publishers, oddly, not as history but as ‘popular science’, although the author is a lecturer in world history. It is a thoughtful work of synthesis, and in that respect alone gains my immediate sympathy, as challenging the academic trend of over-specialisation and having the courage to pull many threads together.
One value of this survey in relation to the Middle Way to me seems to be the way it challenges various dogmatic assumptions that arise from neglecting the big picture. For example, it challenges the distinction between religion and political or economic ideology, seeing all ideologies as human constructions. It also challenges all assumptions about the ‘specialness’ of humans, always striving to place us in a wider context of conditions. In particular here Harari makes us aware of the constant impact of biological conditions.
Some parts of this narrative I found familiar, even obvious, but others unfamiliar and intriguing. For example, I knew little about how homo sapiens had defeated the Neanderthals, or about the effect of the Mississippi Bubble in creating the revolution in France (and helping Britain and the US) by bankrupting the French treasury in the late eighteenth century. It’s likely that, whatever your background, this book can help to address gaps in your knowledge.
Another major value of this book is the way in which it charts the way humans have often undermined their own health, welfare and happiness through new schemes and manipulations to change their environment for their own ends. Time after time, we have had big new ideas. Very often, on balance, those big new ideas have resulted in ‘progress’ in the end, but progress has not been a straightforward or inevitable process. Perhaps the first of these advances was the Agricultural Revolution, in which homo sapiens turned from hunter-gathering to farming. Some of the side effects of this were toil, tyranny, disease, fragility of food supply, unbalanced diet, and vulnerability to invasion and theft – none of which were particular problems for hunter-gatherers (even though we should avoid idealising hunter-gatherers). In the end, farming enabled all the other positive achievements of humankind – but at a price that we are still paying now. The pros and cons of other human advances, such as religion, empire, science, capitalism and industry, are examined in a similarly unsentimental and informative way.
So on the whole I highly recommend this book. It’s a great read, and will help to rebalance the perspectives of any of us that are a bit too specialised. However, I do also have a couple of complaints about it: these are, firstly, its tendency to biological reductionism, and secondly, the limitations of its discussion of happiness. These are not reasons for not reading the book, but things I would suggest maintaining a critical sense about.
First, the biological reductionism. Harari sets out to tell us about the effects of biological conditions on human history, all of which I think is useful. However, this does also occasionally become philosophically crude, turning into an implicit assumption that biology can explain everything and neglecting to take into account the fact that biological knowledge is itself a human construction, based on assumptions that are not final. For example, Harari writes that ‘Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens‘ (p.39). We really don’t know this, and don’t need to assume it to appreciate the power of biological conditions – the jury is still out, and indeed, will probably stay out indefinitely, on questions about, say, consciousness or freewill. That’s not to say that biology can’t help us to understand these things, but it does not provide a sufficient and final explanation independent of the assumptions of limited explanatory models. Perhaps Harari is confusing biological conditions themselves with our limited scientific knowledge of them.
Another instance of this philosophical crudity is in Harari’s talk of the importance in human life of ‘fictions’ and ‘things that don’t exist’. He is right to point out the ways in which human belief in our representations helps to bind together groups of more than about 150 (where we can no longer know everyone), and his reflections on this can aid our understanding of how metaphysical beliefs (i.e. absolutised representations of how things are) can create an over-rigid group identification with associated cognitive biases. However, this is not due to our belief in things that don’t exist, but rather to our belief in things that may or may not exist. Such a distinction is not a mere philosophical quibble, but a crucial distinction between scientistic reductionism on the one hand, and a balanced and critical perspective informed by science on the other. A balanced and critical approach to science involves the recognition that it does not tell us about ‘what exists’, and we cannot thus contrast this with ‘what does not exist’. Rather it tells us what we can be justified in assuming for now, given certain assumptions that may well be overthrown or refined in the future.
Secondly, Harari’s discussion of happiness, though in many ways helpful in raising the very possibility of a history of happiness, is rather conventionally limited, and just does not consider the Middle Way or integration (or anything similar to them) as an option. He points out, justifiably, that our happiness has changed very little with changes in outward conditions, and there is little reason to assume that we today are on average happier than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Rather, happiness depends on brain states that tend to revert to a normal (and relatively efficient) level of functioning for each individual. Once the dopamine surge is over, it’s back to the laundry. He thus recognises the limitations in the classic human quest for happiness from external conditions. He also discusses the Buddhist alternative, recognising that this is not just ‘happiness comes from within’ (otherwise we could just take drugs). However, he interprets the Buddhist recommendation as ‘to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings’ (p.396). This does not differentiate the Buddha’s Middle Way from mere resigned quietism.
There is an alternative (and I have to keep saying this, because it just seems to fall off everyone’s menu of intellectual options). Integration of the desires and representations we have does not involve denying them or even ignoring them, but rather combining them. That’s not a recipe for some kind of idealised happiness beyond our current experience, but it is the way to engage with that experience in a way that increases the probability of maximising the degree of happiness we could experience in the circumstances – happiness that is not just about pleasant experience in the short term, but about bringing together the degrees of it we experience in different circumstances and thus creating a gradually more meaningful life. Given the breadth of Harari’s researches, why does this option just not appear on his agenda? I assume just because it’s on hardly anyone else’s agenda.
So, overall, this is a book that is well worth reading. However, in other ways I find it an opportunity missed. If it was not shaped quite so much by the crude philosophical and psychological assumptions of scientific naturalism, the breadth, learning and synthetic intellectual power on display here could be put to even better use. We need more ‘big’ books like this from academics prepared to think synthetically, but they need to be still bigger than this one.