Thursday, July 04, 2019

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: A (Very) Brief Review

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is wildly popular by the standards of nonfiction books. Probably because it fully reinforces the ideologies of ruthless competition and "might makes right" at the core of modern capitalism, giving readers a comfortable sense of erudition in thinking about weighty matters, but without actually challenging them at all.

Harari is so entrenched in a domination mindset that I couldn't make it past 20 pages, especially since it's mostly a broad overview of stuff with which I'm already familiar. Not worth the frustration. During those 20 pages (17 pages worth of actual text), I had probably 3 dozen moments of "wait, what?" in response to captions like "Map 1. Homo sapiens conquers the globe." and epitomized by this passage:

Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It's hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can't win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll. Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling.

Ugh.

The book is suffused with this attitude, and I don't believe Harari is even aware that he has this set of assumptions which affect how he interprets and synthesizes everything. He's not making a case for pure competition and domination as the driver of evolution vs some combination of competition & cooperation; he just takes it for granted and presents these beliefs as a given.

As I was giving up on the book and flipping through it, the book fell open to "Afterword: The Animal that Became a God." I'm guessing he doesn't mean bacteria or plants or fungi or earthworms or the others fundamental to creation, who make life possible for countless other species.

For those who do read this, I recommend balancing it with Derrick Jensen's The Myth of Human Supremacy for a much-needed perspective on the role of cooperation in the grand scheme of human and non-human life.

4 comments:

Beth said...

I agree Sapiens is infused with human supremacy; and I still think it's worth reading if you keep your mind alert to that messaging. I think it's a pretty decent reflection on many (not all by far) of the ways we've become human supremacist (whether the author realized that's what he was doing is unknown) and also how we've managed to f things up.

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