Review of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Part I of IV
The biological title Sapiens is intended to give the impression of a work of hard-nosed science in the Darwinian tradition. Human history is presented as ‘the next stage in the continuum of physics to chemistry to biology’, and our ultimate destiny, and not so very ultimate either, is to be replaced by intelligent machines. It is a summary of human cultural and social evolution from stone age foraging bands through the agricultural revolution, writing and the rise of the state and large-scale societies, through the gradual process of global unification through empires, money, and the world religions, to the scientific revolution that began the modern world and its consequences.
As an anthropologist who has trodden roughly the same path as Harari in a number of books (Hallpike 1979, 1986, 2008, 2016) I was naturally curious to see what he has to say, but it soon became clear that its claim to be a work of science is questionable, beginning with his notion of culture. Language is obviously the basis of human culture, but one of the central themes of the book is the idea that not just language but what he calls ‘fiction’ has been crucial in the ascent of Man:
…the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled…But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. (p. 27)
The claim that culture is fiction is not an important insight, but is simply a perverse way of stating the obvious fact that culture is a set of shared ideas, and ideas by their very nature can’t be material objects. Language has been revolutionary because it has allowed human beings to be linked together by shared ideas into roles and institutions. One cannot see or touch the Prime Minister, for example, but only a human being, and someone who does not know what ‘Prime Minister’ means has to be told. This can only be done properly by explaining how this role fits into the British Constitution, which in turn involves explaining parliament, cabinet government, the rule of law, democracy, and so on. This world of roles, institutions, beliefs, norms, and values forms what we call culture, but just because the components of culture are immaterial and cannot be seen, touched or smelled does not make them fiction, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, or the myths of Genesis or the Australian Aborigines. We can’t see, touch, or smell truth because truth is not a material object, but that does not make it unreal or fictitious either.
If Harari’s test of reality is only what we can see, touch, or smell then mathematics, like truth, should also be a prime example of fiction. Maybe simple integers might just pass his reality test, since we can see groups of different numbers of things, but how ‘real’ in his sense are zero, negative numbers, irrational numbers like π or imaginary numbers like the square root of -1? And if mathematics is fiction, then so is the whole of science including the theory of relativity and Darwinian evolution, which Harari would find very embarrassing indeed because he loves science. He is just in a philosophical muddle that confuses what is material with what is real, and what is immaterial with fiction. But the opposite of fiction is not what is material but what is true, and what is fictional and what is true can both only exist in the immaterial world of thought.
When it comes to the task of explaining social institutions, the idea of culture as fiction is about as useful as a rubber nail:
People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together round the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. (p. 31)
Really? He takes the Peugeot motor company, with its image of a lion, and tries to argue that the company itself is no more real than an ancient tribal totem, but nevertheless can form the basis on which large numbers of people could co-operate:
How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history…It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them…In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus – a new company was formed. (p. 34)
Harari seems unable to distinguish a belief from a convention, presumably because neither is a material object. Beliefs in ghosts and spirits may be shared by members of particular cultures, but derive from the nature of people’s experience and their modes of thought: they did not sit down and deliberately agree to believe in them. Conventions, however, are precisely the result of a collective decision, consciously taken to achieve a certain purpose, and as such are completely different from myths in almost every respect. Peugeot SA rests on the legal convention of a limited-liability company, which performs a very useful social function, and another very useful social convention is the rule of the road by which in Britain we all drive on the left. Neither beliefs in spirits nor social conventions are material objects, but they are still quite different sorts of thing, as are legal documents and magical rituals, and Harari achieves nothing by confusing them.
More unsustainable claims do not take long to appear. It may well be true that by about 400,000 years ago Man became able to hunt large game on a regular basis, and that in the last 100,000 years we jumped to the top of the food chain. There also seems little doubt that after humans migrated out of Africa in the last 70,000 years or so they exterminated large mammals in Australia, the Americas, and other parts of the world. But part of his explanation for this is that:
Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump (pp. 12-13).
No, we’re not full of fears and anxieties about our position in the food chain, and never have been, because a species is not a person who can remember things like having been the underdog of the savannah tens of millennia in the past. Knowledge of our life on the savannah has only been vaguely reconstructed by archaeologists and anthropologists in modern times.
He then describes us as ’embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees’ and claims that:
Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks – sensations, emotions, family ties – the less difference we find between us and other apes. (42)
In fact, however, if we study the research on the differences between human infants and chimpanzees, such as Tomasello’s Why We Co-operate (2009), the greater we find the differences between us and other apes. Tomasello’s studies of pre-linguistic human infants between 12-24 months and chimpanzees showed marked differences in behaviour related to co-operation, for example. Human infants start co-operating at about 12 months, and when 14 – 18 month infants were put in situations where adult strangers needed help with problems, the infants, unlike chimpanzees, spontaneously provided it. Even before speech develops human infants will try to provide information to adult strangers who need it by pointing, whereas apes do not understand informative pointing at all. Infants also have an innate grasp of rules, in the sense of understanding that certain sorts of activities, like games, should be done in a certain way, whereas apes do not. 14 – 24 month old infants also collaborate easily in social games, whereas chimpanzees simply refuse to take part in them, and infants can also change and reverse roles in games. Human collaborative activity is achieved through generalised roles that can potentially be filled by anyone, including the self. This is the basis of the unique feature of human culture, the institution, which is a set of practices governed by rules and norms. ‘No animal species other than humans has been observed to have anything even vaguely resembling [social institutions]’ (Tomasello 2009: xi – xii).
For Harari the great innovation that separated us from the apes was what he calls the Cognitive Revolution, around 70,000 years ago when we started migrating out of Africa, which he thinks gave us the same sort of modern minds that we have now. ‘At the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history…Survival in that area required superb mental abilities from everyone’ (p. 55), and ‘The people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30,000 years ago had the same physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities we have’ (p. 44).
Not surprisingly, then, ‘We’d be able to explain to them everything we know – from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics – and they could teach us how their people view the world’ (23).
It’s a sweet idea, and something like this imagined meeting actually took place a few years ago between the linguist Daniel Everett and the Piraha foragers of the Amazon in Peru (Everett 2008). But far from being able to discuss quantum theory with them, he found that the Piraha couldn’t even count, and had no numbers of any kind, They could teach Everett how they saw the world, which was entirely confined to the immediate experience of the here-and-now, with no interest in past or future, or really in anything that could not be seen or touched. They had no myths or stories, so Alice in Wonderland would have fallen rather flat as well.
Part II of Dr. Hallpike’s review will be posted tomorrow.