A Problem With Harari’s Sapiens

On Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

These days I pick up book recommendations from a few different sources. The most common inspiration comes from reading–if I enjoy a book and the author alludes to or explicitly mentions another book, I’ll check it out. The other source is my Feedly blog updates, which is a mixture of academic and quasi-academic material. The final source is podcasts. Strangely enough, the one I’ve pulled a few from recently is the Tim Ferriss Show. He comes off as a self-help guru (I’ll post some more about Ferriss in the future), but he interviews some fascinating characters; and many of them offer book suggestions that stand out to me because I don’t hear about them elsewhere. In a recent podcast, when Reid Hoffman recently praised Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind for its consistent evolutionary method, I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that Mark Zuckerberg selected this for his 2015 book club.

If you have even a vague acquaintance with world history, the middle portion of this book will disappoint. I’m not sure what purpose it actually serves other than to complete the story. However, the first and last third of Sapiens are worth chewing on. These bookend the “brief history of humankind” with a clear narrative arc: the goal of Sapiens is to show how the messy, more “natural” diversity of our human genetic history has been usurped by modernity’s penchant for channeling biology according to artificial selection. Harari’s historico-biological expertise pays off here. He succinctly lays out the evidence for the haphazard path from the multi-pronged lineages of Homo neanderthalensis, Homo rudolfensis, and Homo erectus to their violent usurpation by Homo sapiens. Then, with the final section of the book, it becomes clear that selecting for uniformity is what Homo sapiens does best, artificially selecting in a prescriptive manner. As Harari suggests, intelligent design apologists might actually turn out to be right–but only in reference to the future of human history.

For this narrative to work, however, Harari relies on a key assumption that is worth picking apart. Harari suggests that a “good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids’”. Culture seems to be his stand-in for the philosophical concept of “human negativity”. Pre-ancient human history is more biological, while modern human history is more cultural (more negative). This might seem like common sense, but it’s vaguely Freudian. It seems ironic to offer a thoroughly empirical account of human civilization that actually relies on twentieth-century psychoanalytic trope. I’m sure Harari has good reasons for relying on this dichotomy (there is indeed a political payoff, e.g., with regard to the rules governing sexuality), but those don’t appear in the book.

What if, instead of adopting a “biology enables, culture forbids” rule of thumb, Harari turned to Deleuze & Guattari’s distinction in Thousand Plateaus between life processes of hierarchical stratification (like a tree) and rigorous multiplicity (like a rhizome). Deleuze and Guattari pride themselves on thoroughgoing empiricism, which is why they locate the tension between identity (Harari’s “culture”) and difference (Harari’s “nature”) within nature. That is, Deleuze & Guattari have the virtue of not reserving seemingly negative attributes like hierarchical selection to the human species. Life is always already both driving towards diversity and assimilation. Rhizomes and Trees have “cultural” counterparts in nomadic communities vs. ancient cities.

Phrases like “artificial selection” beg a rather important question in this book. If Harari adjusted the language of Sapiens according to a more thoroughgoing empiricism, would that alter the story being told?

It might. I can see why Silicon Valley embraces Sapiens. It paints a problematic but ultimately crafty view of the human species. We come off as the Promethean hacker of natural history.

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