I’ve never read any of Yuval Harari’s wildly popular books (Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons fo the 21st Century), so I can’t judge those. Surely many readers have read one or more, however, so I’ll call your attention to this critique of his work in Current Affairs, and if you’ve read his work, do weigh in below.
The critical reviewer is Darshana Narayanan, who describes herself as a neuroscientist and journalist, adding “evolutionary biologist” in the piece below. Her beef with Harari is that his books aren’t fact-checked, and so they’re full of howlers and misinformation. Since important people take Harari seriously, she sees this as a significant problem, especially when he tries to predict where humanity is going.
I’m pretty sure that his books, like nearly all popular-science books, are not fact checked. None of mine were, but when you sign the contract with the publisher you accept responsibility for any errors. Thus it’s up to the author’s sense of responsibility to ensure that a book is factually accurate. Many publishers, however, do get “trade” (i.e. “popular”) science books reviewed by outside experts. I do this regularly. That ensures that at least one set of expert eyes have vetted the manuscript, but we do this for free and there’s not much impetus to do fact-checking or line editing unless something sticks out as an egregious error. The job of such a reviewer is to give a broad take on the book, and point out places that need changing.
My take on Narayanan’s critique—and again, I haven’t read Harari’s books—is that it’s a mixed bag. Some of the false statements she highlights are trivial, while others are more serious. Yet she herself, despite being a biologist, makes some scientific mistakes, which I’ll highlight below. This, then, is a review of a review. Click the screenshot below to read Narayanan’s piece:
Narayanan begins by noting both Harari’s popularity and his influence.
. . . consider: among Harari’s flock are some of the most powerful people in the world, and they come to him much like the ancient kings to their oracles. Mark Zuckerberg asked Harari if humanity is becoming more unified or fragmented by technology. The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund asked him if doctors will depend on Universal Basic Income in the future. The CEO of Axel Springer, one of the largest publishing houses in Europe, asked Harari what publishers should do to succeed in the digital world. An interviewer with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asked him what effect COVID would have on international scientific cooperation. In favor of Harari’s half-formed edicts, each subverted their own authority. And they did it not for an expert in any one of their fields, but for a historian who, in many ways, is a fraud—most of all, about science.
That’s a strong claim, and rather than saying he’s a “fraud” (based on what Narayanan says), I would say he’s “careless”. But he’s sold a lot of books, and if he gets $1 in royalties per copy, Harari’s a rich man:
It scares me that, to many, this question appears to be irrelevant. Harari’s blockbuster, Sapiens, is a sweeping saga of the human species—from our humble beginnings as apes to a future where we will sire the algorithms that will dethrone and dominate us. Sapiens was published in English in 2014, and by 2019, it had been translated into more than 50 languages, selling over 13 million copies. Recommending the book on CNN in 2016, president Barack Obama said that Sapiens, like the Pyramids of Giza, gave him “a sense of perspective” on our extraordinary civilization. Harari has published two subsequent bestsellers—Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). All told, his books have sold over 23 million copies worldwide. He might have a claim to be the most sought-after intellectual in the world, gracing stages far and wide, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per speaking appearance.
She coins a term to describe Harari: a “science populist”, which is pejorative:
Yuval Harari is what I call a “science populist.” (Canadian clinical psychologist and YouTube guru Jordan Peterson is another example.) Science populists are gifted storytellers who weave sensationalist yarns around scientific “facts” in simple, emotionally persuasive language. Their narratives are largely scrubbed clean of nuance or doubt, giving them a false air of authority—and making their message even more convincing. Like their political counterparts, science populists are sources of misinformation. They promote false crises, while presenting themselves as having the answers. They understand the seduction of a story well told—relentlessly seeking to expand their audience—never mind that the underlying science is warped in the pursuit of fame and influence.
Note the psychologizing and the reasons for his sloppiness: his desire to present a simplified but appealing narrative. I generally stay away from psychologizing, but it’s hard to imagine that Harari doesn’t enjoy his sudden fame. Whether that’s the reason for his two subsequent books, his lectures, or his discussions with Notables I cannot say.
Narayanan decided to fact-check Sapiens, Harari’s first book, and, to put it mildly, gives it a low grade. Yes, she finds errors, but they range from trivial to serious. Errors are errors, but were I Narayanan, I’d concentrate on the serious ones: ones that make a difference in what people think. I’ve classified the errors she highlights as being “serious,” “middling”, or “trivial”. I’ll take them in reverse order
Here’s a statement about top predators that, Narayanan says accurately, is not exactly correct and is confusing to boot. Her writing is indented:
Consider “Part 1: The Cognitive Revolution,” where Harari writes about our species’ jump to the top of the food chain, vaulting over, for example, lions.
“Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. 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.”
Harari concludes that, “many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”
As an evolutionary biologist, I have to say: this passage sets my teeth on edge. What exactly makes for a self-confident lion? A loud roar? A bevy of lionesses? A firm pawshake? Is Harari’s conclusion based on field observations or experiments in a laboratory? (The text contains no clue about his sources.) Does anxiety really make humans cruel? Is he implying that, had we taken our time getting to the top of the food chain, this planet would not have war or man-made climate change?
Yes, Harari speculates here beyond what we know, but this is a purple passage of little import, or so I think.
Here’s another error that a biologist shouldn’t have made, because it’s careless and false. But it’s also not a major error:
My scientific colleagues take issue with Harari as well. Biologist Hjalmar Turesson points out that Harari’s assertion that chimpanzees “hunt together and fight shoulder to shoulder against baboons, cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees” cannot be true because cheetahs and chimpanzees don’t live in the same parts of Africa. “Harari is possibly confusing cheetahs with leopards,” Turesson says.
This is wrong but doesn’t affect Harari’s point.
But [Harari’s] errors unfortunately extend to our species as well. In the Sapiens chapter titled “Peace in our Time,” Harari uses the example of the Waorani people of Ecuador to argue that historically, “the decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state.” He tells us the Waorani are violent because they “live in the depths of the Amazon forest, without army, police or prisons.” It is true that the Waorani once had some of the highest homicide rates in the world, but they have lived in relative peace since the early 1970s. I spoke to Anders Smolka, a plant geneticist, who happens to have spent time with the Waorani in 2015. Smolka reported that Ecuadorian law is not enforced out in the forest, and the Waorani have no police or prisons of their own. “If spearings had still been of concern, I’m absolutely sure I would have heard about it,” he says. “I was there volunteering for an eco-tourism project, so the safety of our guests was a pretty big deal.” Here Harari uses an exceedingly weak example to justify the need for our famously racist and violent police state.
This is a middling error because the Waorani were certainly once more violent than they are now, though we are not told whether they’re still more violent than an “average” society. As Steve Pinker pointed out in Better Angels, violence has declined worldwide in the past few hundred years, certainly in part because of organized law enforcement and punishment accompanying a better morality. Narayanan devalues her criticism by making the last statement about Harari’s justification “for our famously racist and violent police state.” Is that in fact what he’s doing? And one could certainly argue whether this characterization of modern law enforcement is accurate or, indeed, worse than the kind of crime and punishment in indigenous “tribal” societies.
Narayanan admits that this kind of error is “inconsequential” but argues that they add up to a crumbling edifice of a book:
These details could seem inconsequential, but each is a crumbling block in what Harari falsely presents as an inviolable foundation. If a cursory reading shows this litany of basic errors, I believe a more thorough examination will lead to wholesale repudiations.
I consider these more serious not just because anybody with the least expertise could spot them, but also because they are misleading about the status and fate of humans in nature. She quotes Harari on languages and then takes the statement apart:
Next, take the issue of language. Harari claims that “[many] animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages.”
Anybody who knows how human speech differs from that of other species will recognize the qualitative difference between human symbolic language and the non-symbolic lanaguage of other species, as does Narayanan:
Yet, in spite of all their similarities to humans, monkeys cannot be said to have a “language.” Language is a rule-bound symbolic system in which symbols (words, sentences, images, etc.) refer to people, places, events, and relations in the world—but also evoke and reference other symbols within the same system (e.g., words defining other words). The alarm calls of monkeys, and the songs of birds and whales, can transmit information; but we—as German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has said—live in “a new dimension of reality” made possible by the acquisition of a symbolic system.
Scientists may have competing theories on how language came to be, but everyone—from linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, to experts on primate communication like Michael Tomasello and Asif Ghazanfar—is in agreement that, although precursors can be found in other animals, language is unique to humans.
Here’s an error Narayanan put in one of the three footnotes to her article:
A similar excerpt from Harari’s 2017 bookHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow: “Once it becomes possible to amend deadly genes, why go through the hassle of inserting some foreign DNA, when we can just rewrite the code and turn a dangerous mutant gene into a benign version? Then we might start using the same mechanism to fix not just lethal genes, but also those responsible for less deadly illnesses, for autism, for stupidity and for obesity.”
We can’t just “rewrite the code”, as opposed to the CRISPR method of changing the sequence of a gene, because the genetic code is the dictionary telling us what amino acid in a protein is coded for in the DNA’s RNA product by each three-base-pair codon. That code is fixed, and I don’t understand how Hararis says we can “rewrite that code.” There’s no way that this seems possible.
And one more: Harari playing expert about pandemics:
Now here’s what Harari had to say about pandemics in his 2017 book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
“So in the struggle against calamities such as AIDS and Ebola, scales are tipping in humanity’s favor. … It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it.”
I wish we had come to miss it. Instead, over 6 million of us have died of COVID as per official counts, with some estimates putting the true count at 12-22 million. And whether you think SARS-CoV-2—the virus responsible for the pandemic—came directly from the wild, or through the Wuhan Institute of Virology, we can all agree that the pandemic was not created in “service of some ruthless ideology.”
Harari could not have been more wrong; yet, like a good science populist, he continued to offer his supposed expertise by appearing on numerous shows during the pandemic. He appeared on NPR, talking about “how to tackle both the epidemic and the resulting economic crisis.” He went on Christiane Amanpour’s show to highlight the “key questions emerging from the coronavirus outbreak.” Then it was on to BBC Newsnight, where he offered “a historical perspective on the coronavirus.” He switched things up for Sam Harris’s podcast, where he told us about “the future implications” of COVID. Harari also found time to make an appearance on Iran International with Sadeq Saba, on the India Today E-Conclave Corona Series, and a slew of other news channels around the world.
Well, I wouldn’t really call that a serious ERROR, but I would call it an unfounded prognostication. After all, many people would have—and probably did have—the same opinion. What’s potentially harmful is his appearing as an expert on the covid pandemic, particularly if he didn’t admit that he was wrong and say why he was wrong. It becomes most serious if, when Harari went on those shows, he said stuff that was dangerous, but Narayanan doesn’t give us an example of any serious misinformation imparted by Harari.
In general, then, Narayanan singles out some errors in Sapiens, but not a lot of them, and most of them appear relatively inconsequential. Whether they are harmful or not depends on whether they could affect people’s well being, which is an issue separate from simply conveying misinformation. But Narayanan says a couple of dubious things in her critique, too:
Narayanan’s own errors.
Narayanan has a beef with the “gene-centric” view of evolution most famous promulgated by Richard Dawkins, and this leads to some errors of her own. First, her animus:
Harari’s speculations are consistently based on a poor understanding of science. His predictions of our biological future, for instance, are based on a gene-centric view of evolution—a way of thinking that has (unfortunately) dominated public discourse due to public figures like him. Such reductionism advances a simplistic view of reality, and worse yet, veers dangerously into eugenics territory.
I don’t think Harari comes close to eugenic territory in his speculations below—after all, he’s talking about what is possible, not what we should be doing—and Narayanan herself gets things a bit wrong (she’s also wrong about the weakness of the gene-centric view of evolution: see below):
In the final chapter of Sapiens, Harari writes:
“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice. (The mouse genome contains about 2.5 billion nucleobases, the sapiens genome about 2.9 billion bases, meaning that the latter is only 14 percent larger.) … If genetic engineering can create genius mice, why not genius humans? If it can create monogamous voles, why not humans hard-wired to remain faithful to their partners?”
It would be convenient indeed if genetic engineering were a magic wand—quick flicks of which could turn philanderers into faithful partners, and everyone into Einstein. This is sadly not the case. Let’s say we want to become a nonviolent species. Scientists have found that low activity of the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is linked to aggressive behavior and violent offenses—but in case we are tempted to “go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens” (as Harari says we can), not everyone with low MAO-A activity is violent, nor is everyone with high MAO-A activity nonviolent. People who grow up in extremely abusive environments often become aggressive or violent, no matter what their genes. Having high MAO-A activity can protect you from this fate, but it is not a given. On the contrary, when children are raised in loving and supportive environments, even those with low MAO-A activity very often thrive.
I’m not an expert on the effect of low MAO-A, but mutations in the gene that cause this are associated with a number of behavioral and neurological disorders, including aggressive behavior. But who is claiming that there can be variations in the degree of association of low levels of this enzyme and behavior. On average, lowering the level through engineered mutations would create a number of these disorders, but perhaps not in everyone, or, when present, not to the same degree. Nor is anyone claiming that there are not environmental causes of aggression unassociated with MAO-A levels. Here Narayanan is attacking a straw theory: the view that everyone with a mutation (designed or not) has the same phenotype (here, level of aggression). Of course there are other causes of behavioral changes beyond MAO-A levels.
Here’s another of Narayanan’s misleading statements about genetics:
Our genes are not our puppet masters, pulling the right strings at the right time to control the events that create us. When Harari writes about altering our physiology, or “engineering” humans to be faithful or clever, he is skipping over the many non-genetic mechanisms that form us.
For example, even something as seemingly hardwired as our physiology—cells dividing, moving, deciding their fates, and organizing into tissues and organs—is not engineered by genes alone. In the 1980s, scientist J.L. Marx conducted a series of experiments in Xenopus (an aquatic frog native to sub-Saharan Africa) and found that “mundane” biophysical events (like chemical reactions in the cells, mechanical pressures inside and on the cells, and gravity) can switch genes on and off, determining cell fate. Animal bodies, he concluded, result from an intricate dance between genes, and changing physical and environmental events.
This is a common error, but one that should be caught by any biologist. And it is this: even environmental effects that turn genes on and off can be coded by the genes. After all, all of development involves both the external environment and the internal environment—the latter a network of evolved changes coded by genes—turning genes on and off. Ergo, stuff like the assortment of chromosomes, the fate of cells, biochemical reactions, an so on, are orchestrated by natural selection so that the “internal environment” produces a vehicle—an organism—that itself is adaptive. Yes, the external environment can turn genes on and off—the changing color of Arctic mammals or the length of your cat’s fur as winter comes are examples—but it’s a mistake to argue that there’s a strict difference between “hardwired physiology” and “changes in the internal environment”. We have evolved so that genes produce products that, acting in the body, turn other genes on and off, and in an adaptive way. Unless you’re a Lamarckian, plasticity largely comes down to gene effects, even if activated by changes in the external environment. The whole system is evolved, and that means that genes affect each other through “mundane” biophysical events.
In short, Narayanan’s attack on “hardwiring”—which may be ideologically based on from her “puppet master” comments and denigration of the gene-centric view of evolution—is misguided. The gene-centric view of evolution is in fact the most sensible way to look at evolution, and doesn’t require denying any effects of the environment. After all, the going definition of evolution is “changes om the proportions of gene variants in a population over time.” But even Richard Dawkins is not going to say, and hasn’t, that we’re puppets on genetic strings, with everything determined entirely by our DNA.
The rest of Narayanan’s article involves stuff that bores me to tears: artificial intelligence, the view of organisms as algorithms, and the growing group of “Dataists”: people who “perceive the entire universe as flows of data.” This is simply my own predilection, as I know others are keenly interested in such things.
As for Narayanan’s criticisms of Harari’s tendency to predict things without the necessary basis for prediction, well, I can’t speak to that as I haven’t read his book. But based on Narayanan’s critique, I do see that Harari appears to have been remiss in fact-checking. Whether that laxity is serious or not I cannot tell. But perhaps readers will below.
Here’s Narayanan reprising her critiques of Harari in a 38-minute interview with R. J. Eskow. There’s a lot of duplication with the stuff in her article: