Sunday, August 11, 2019

What I'm Reading Now: UPDATED

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Non-fiction, but very readable. Harari starts from the big bang and moves forward. His overarching theme is that fiction -- myths, religion, laws, corporations, nations -- made it possible for humankind to become the dominant animal on the planet, by allowing us to move past the small band stage of organization. An example is religion. When we can all identify as Catholics, then we all know what rules we order our world by, and we can thus cooperate with total strangers, in a way we can't without those rules. Same for, say, governments. When we identify as US Citizens, we have a set of rules we all agree on, and then we can cooperate with total strangers.

This ability to make up rules about the world, and then believe that those rules are real (instead of just made up by us), Harari argues, is our great power. His argument is compelling.

Of course you see the problem. We identify as US Citizens, but do we agree on the set of rules? Right now we are vehemently disagreeing, because the set of rules is changing. Harari notes this is also something humans can do -- change their rules radically and abruptly. (Cf the French Revolution, when we went from the Divine Right of Kings to the Sovereign Rule of the People.)

Very much a must-read, just for this insight alone.

ETA: Boy, did this book go downhill fast after that chapter.

I'd read about 60% of it at that point. After that, I hit the chapters on religion and science, in which Harari argues that science functions as religion, or at least serves the same purpose as religion. I might have gone along with him, since his basic point is that science, like religion, allows people to cooperate and work together. But his argument in these chapters shows that he fundamentally misunderstands how science works, and what science is. For instance, he argues that evolution -- and evolutionary science -- is about evolving into superior creatures; or devolving into inferior beings.

Now it is true that Social Darwinists act as though this is what evolution means -- that evolution has a teleology, and that this is that teleology, the creation of some Better Human (that's why many people in the USA today want a "certain" sort of person to reproduce, and other sorts not to do so).

But that is not what actual evolutionary science is about. Evolution has no aim. There is no "superior" or "better" creature in evolution. There's a creature that is fit for the environment that exists right now, which is the one that survives. No moral element to that fitness. And there is certainly no "devolving" in evolution. The very notion is an oxymoron.

So at that point, I'm afraid, I lost all confidence in Harari as a scholar, and when I looked around to see what other reviewers said, it seems he has made similar errors in basic facts in other places.

Although I still like what he said in the first half of the book, I can no longer trust him, and no longer recommend this book.


Athena Andreadis said...

I stopped much earlier. Harari is clearly unclear on basic concepts in the fashion of Gladwell. Not that it has stopped either of them from bloviating

delagar said...

Really good call on your part.