Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review of “Sapiens : A Brief History of Mankind”

Though the book “Sapiens”, by Yuval Noah Harari, came out a few years ago, it became such a bestseller that it could be worth reviewing it briefly.

First of all, it must be mentioned that "Sapiens" is a popular book, and therefore necessarily simplifies and omits. Such a book cannot therefore go into details and explanations that academic books could. Many people tend to forget this fact just because the author is an academic. This shall not therefore be the gist of the critique of this work.

The author set himself out to tell the whole story of the human race in a single book, however thick.
This is obviously far too ambitious an endeavor for any man, unless one is willing to compromise deeply. The only reason he and his publisher did this is probably because they wanted to emulate other authors, such as Jared Diamond, who have written such works with quite some success. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is not a very deep or original work, in comparison with more detailed studies in the many fields that the author touches upon. Moreover, many of the ideas and theses in this book are well known, and have been known for a long time, to those who are interested in these issues.

As for a more in-depth criticism, there is much to say, and a good source are the comments on Amazon that give one or two stars to this work. But there are important aspects that must be mentioned here.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book are the first 100 pages; after that one gets the impression that one is reading things that one has already heard and read about before. There is a surprising confusion, though, in the beginning of the work, about the definition of the term "Homo Sapiens". Harari does not seem to have decided such a fundamental point in the book as to whether Homo Sapiens is a species of its own or not (see for instance pages 5 and 6). Throughout the book he then presents ideas and views as if they were new and original related to the human being, when most of them have been around since the early twentieth century or earlier. In fact, it is a bit annoying, actually, how pedantic and self-satisfied he seems to be, often without bringing much new.

Perhaps the most original (or peculiar) part of his thinking is this theory that everything seems to be a "myth" and that nothing really exists; not even business or money! (it begins at pages 121 to 126) This is a radical opinion to say the least, and, truth be told, this is also a crazy opinion that one can also very easily refute. Money, business, laws, and much more, have consequences for individuals, often raw physical ones, but also more sophisticated consequences (financial, legal or political) that often can feel as real as a blow to the face. So calling them non-real things (part of an "imagined order") that exists just because we accept them in our brains, is not only wrong but outrageous.

It is a very strange, solipsistic, view of the world. It seems that he got an idea that he thought was original as it pertained to certain genetic-biological aspects, which he then insisted on applying to all aspects of life, including social sciences. This is a very serious mistake and it makes one wonder if one should read on at all: for what can such a man really understand of the modern world if he really believes such a cloud cuckoo land theory? In addition, there are some well-known inspirations from Hegel and other thinkers in all this, which he does not at all admit to heavily leaning on (that which he calls "intra-subjective", for example, is correct but borrowed.)

He then shows in the later part of the book a serious lack of understanding and learning for everything that is monetary policy, economics, political philosophy, etc. Maybe this is why he is so keen in calling a lot of it "myths"? For example, he does not address the concept of money as being either fiat money or commodity money, which is inevitable and elementary if one writes about monetary history.

When he discusses politics and liberalism later in the book, he does not mention the State's development during the last two centuries. Whether one regards such a development as positive or negative, it has had enormous consequences on society. In truth, a large part of the History of the last two centuries cannot be properly understood without seeing it through the changes of the State's role and size in society, expressed early as laissez-faire, then as dictatorship and the War State, and today as the Welfare State. 

Similar shortcomings exist with regard to other closely related subjects such as freedom and capitalism. It seems that he has not at all thought about what these important words really mean, or thought of the concepts or understands the complex issues and debates underlying these words. He uses these terms as the layman does, as most people have been taught in secondary school, without having ever had anything more to do with those concepts. He thus seems completely out of his depth in this area.

It is thus difficult to be particularly impressed with this book. There are other books that I think deal with contemporary history (of the last two centuries) in a much more accurate and profound way, for instance, Eric Hobschwam's books about the 19th century, or Carroll Quigley's masterpiece "Tragedy of Hope", to name just a couple.

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