A critique of Yuval Harari’s popular-science writing

October 26, 2022 • 10:00 am

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

Trivial errors. 

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.

Middling errors:

Here’s one:

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.

Serious errors.

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.

‘Tis true.

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:

73 thoughts on “A critique of Yuval Harari’s popular-science writing

  1. I can’t remember if it was Sapiens or Homo Deus (I read them both), but while he is brilliant and has some great insights, it was painful to read as he went on and on about humanism is a religion – the very thing it isn’t.

    1. It depends on how one defines ‘religion’ and ‘humanism’. Humanists generally adhere to a certain set of values or overarching goals for humanity, which are not dictated by facts or science. It is in this sense that humanism could be considered a kind of religion, though one without a deity.

      1. I suppose, if one stretches a word – as a tanner does with hide – but why, when writing a book, would one muddy the waters by repeatedly using the word “religion” when speaking about Humanism, when 99.999999% of the readers think of religion as an ideology which most definitely does include a deity? Why not just say Humanism?

        1. If Harrari is a science popularizer, he’s likely going to be in the habit of thinking to himself “okay, what ordinary analogy can I use to get the Hypothetical Average Person to understand this complex subject.” The Average Person is either religious or thinks of religion as something that helps people to be good. Thus, the analogy. Then, he scraps it as an analogy because it’s easier.

          Or, alternatively, Harrari is one of those folks with a permanent bee in their bonnet about “religion” being secular, too. There’s not much to do with this one.

    2. Generalizing is also ignoring irrelevant details, I think that’s what Harrari tries to do. When he seemingly conflates religion and ideology he means they function the same, they are of course not the same thing.

      All language is symbolic, in my opinion, all communication is a representation of something else. We need to exchange particles to communicate, and these particles have no meaning. That’s not different for humans or animals, I believe. However human languages are recursive and I believe this property has not been seen in languages of other animals; in other words for other animals communication is more one dimensional.

      Harrari makes some fact checking mistakes but I think they don’t necessarily undermine his books. What annoys me sometimes are his moralistic points, but compared to most others it’s not too bad.

    3. I think humanism and religion have some overlap. Sort of life philosophy. Religion has a lot of other baggage on top, but they can be compared if you take a subset of religious ideas.

      I consider myself to be a humanist and what I found to be striking was his definition of humanism was significantly different from the one I have. To me a core part of humanism is seeing other people as having an inherent dignity. To him, he seemed to focus on the idea that whatever I want is right for me (I’m exaggerating it). I think his version is a valid interpretation and there may be some who center on that version, but it still felt a little like a distorted humanism to me.

    4. I would argue that it shares some characteristics with religion. It seems to be some sort of philosophical framework for people to follow but it differs from religions in not being centred on myths.

  2. Along with anthropologist Mike Wilson, I wrote a review of Sapiens for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, we said:

    “Reading Sapiens brings to mind looking at one of those pictures that, when viewed from a distance, is clearly a portrait of, say, Lincoln, but when viewed closer turns out to be a mosaic of thousands of other tiny images. But when you look closely at the tiny images, many of them are just a bit off – a horse with six legs, or George Washington wearing a cocktail dress. The big picture is compelling, admirably made by making connections among disparate topics, but the details are often not quite right.”

    So I definitely agree with the more critical take.

  3. On the “rewrite the code” error, surely he just means “rewrite the sequence”. It’s a slightly sloppy usage in this context, but that’s all.

    1. When reading your take on “rewrite the code” I had the same reaction as in Coel’s comment. Although sometimes a code means a mapping, as you’re taking it and as the phrase “the genetic code” uses it, it can very often mean the content itself. Notice “source code” or our modern usage “she’s learning coding” to refer to “programming”.

        1. Unless something fundamental has changed since I did computer science many moons ago, source code is just human readable code in one of the many higher level languages, or maybe even assembly, before compilation into machine code.

          1. That’s what the term meant to me as a software developer. “Code” could refer to a line, an entire application, or something as vast as the Windows source code.

        2. Actually it says “the preferred form for making modifications to [a work]”. But the genetic code is not source code – the DNA base sequence is.

          The genetic code is (in my – possibly wrong – understanding) the rules for turning a base sequence into proteins and thence into an organism. For example, the DNA base sequence CAT translating to “put the amino acid histidine into your protein” is part of the genetic code.

          As for the bit about rewriting the code

          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.

          Jerry has interpreted “rewriting the code” as rewriting the genetic code i.e. changing the way the base sequence is interpreted. It could mean “change the sequence of bases”, but if it does, how is it different from “inserting some foreign DNA”?

      1. Yes but that is not the meaning of the term “code” in the context of the “genetic code”. A code is a set of rules for converting a message from one form into another. Mose code, for example, is a set of rules for translating letters of the alphabet into sequences of dots and dashes, and vice versa. In computing terms, “source code” should more properly be called “source text” but language also evolves, so it’s not.

  4. I was given this book as a present from a friend (not a scientist). I confess I was interested because I had enjoyed Jared Diamond’s book. However, this ended up being one of those books that I didn’t finish, and I came to the conclusion very quickly that it wasn’t worth my time. A bit of simplified just-so hypothesis is pragmatist, but a non-stop chain of just-so’s are, in my mind, sloppy and dangerous for developing a thesis. Like bad pop-sci, it didn’t do an honest job of clarifying speculation (there was much) from fact.

  5. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to read the whole post yet, but wanted to give a quick reaction: I started to read Sapiens but could not continue after having read only very little because of the prevalence of sloppy research (often it seemed he had only read some other pop science take that was already dated at the time he wrote) and, worse, sloppy thinking. I stopped at the place where he said something to the effect that although there are “revolutions” (toppling of alpha animals) among other primates or mammals, too, humans are the only species where a revolution can lead to the abolishment of hierarchy and leadership as such. I have yet to see such a revolution among humans.

    1. I’ll have to add that it is impossible to write a long book on so broad a topic without mistakes or misjudgements. My main reason for stopping was that I had the impression that this was an author who knew less than me about most of what he wrote about in that book, and that I would not really be able to trust him on details that were new to me.

    2. Have read the whole post now and largely agree with PCC(E)’s critique of the critique, except for the “code” part where I think he is just using a sloppy but (among laypeople) common way of referring to “sequence”).
      The main problem with Harari is probably that his fame as intellectual of the century/man of outstanding wisdom/oracle is wholly undeserved.

  6. I really enjoyed all three of his books. He can be sloppy and certainly too profoundly sweeping, but it doesn’t really bother me. A couple of months ago the Current Idea on Twitter was that Sapiens was a very overrated book and I thought that was excessive. Even from a number people I hold in significant regard, I’ve often thought some of their tweets are quite foolish. Concerning his take on language in other animals, I’m not positive, but I’d bet money the entire context is missing. One possible criticism of Harari is that his thinking is too heavily influenced by poststructuralism. The symbolic significance of human language would not have escaped him.

  7. I enjoyed Sapiens, finding it thought provoking as just an overall look at ideas about human history and prehistory. I particularly remember Harari’s point–a clearly deliberate exaggeration–that “we didn’t domesticate wheat, wheat domesticated us,” showing that you can look at such things as farming from different points of view to get different lessons from it.

    I didn’t notice too many substantive errors that changed the main points he was making, but I haven’t been able to get into his subsequent books, not that I’ve tried too hard. It is somewhat troubling if people are treating him as an expert in matters in which he is not one, but, well…humans ARE prone to want to have our magic wise-persons, and to treat them as if they have access to knowledge we cannot quite match, and I’m sure it’s hard to resist if people start treating you that way.

    I say, take a writer for what the writing is worth, but certainly don’t treat one as a guru or a conduit to supernal knowledge. His book was interesting and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed it.

    1. “we didn’t domesticate wheat, wheat domesticated us,”, I’ve heard that about dogs and cats, but it is obviously even more true for wheat and rice. However, I think it cannot be denied we were mildly ‘active’ agents in our own domestication.
      Obviously Natural Selection was involved, agriculturalists can produce much more surviving offspring than hunter/gatherers.
      I think we should ditch Spencers’s “survival of the fittest” in favour Smilodon’s “reproduction of the fit enough”. That’s why agriculturalists replaced hunter/gatherers, despite the latter generally being way more ‘physically fit’ (echoes of King Julian in Madagascar) as individuals than agriculturalists.

  8. I read Sapiens on enthusiastic reviews of some friends and I found it moderately entertaining but fairly superficial, like most science on tv. I decided I would not read anything else from this author and in general I’m quite wary of “gurus”

    1. > in general I’m quite wary of “gurus”

      Me too. I’m at the point now where I mistrust confidence, charisma, and enthusiasm. I’ve often found that people tend to be both confident AND competent. I know there has been some debunking to the Dunning-Kruger Effect (confident and incompetent), but the Imposter Syndrome still stands (unconfident and competent). None of this is absolutely, of course. That would be too confident for me. 🙂

  9. And lets’ just point out here that predictions that we might someday be able to change genes at will, to yield a beneficial effect, is a common example of what I call Star Trek science. There are exceptions, but in general you can’t do that in a walking talking multicellular human bc there is no possible way that one can penetrate into organs and change a particular gene in all targeted cells.

    1. I had a discussion a while ago with a person defending trans women as real women and it got to a point where she said that with all the new gene manipulation technology, we soon will be able to change our genetic makeup, making such transition ‘real’.
      I pointed out that exact same thing you just said.
      It would be an interesting experience if we could. One might feel a little funny, peculiar.

  10. I enjoyed parts of “Sapiens” that I read. It was a popularization, and thus employed popular usages—such as “rewriting the code” for rewriting a line of text (sequence); and it might have referred to animal “language” in a c onventionally oversimplified way, and mentioned cheetahs somewhere in place of leopards. Narayanan’s motivation in this nit-picking review is obvious enough from some of her own usages. These include: “veers dangerously into eugenics territory” in referring to anything touching on genes; and
    “our famously racist and violent police state” referring to “our” police (rather than to recent episodes in Iran). Another tiresome case of academic wokery.

    1. >“our famously racist and violent police state”

      Yes, I tripped over that phrase in Jerry’s critique and given that she has a non-English name and I had never heard of her, I thought indeed she was referring to Iran or some place like that. As soon as I realize from you that she is talking about policing in the United States, her credibility collapses like a cheap lawn chair at a body-positive picnic.

  11. Narayanan strikes me similar to Gen-Z journalists who gain followers by attacking public intellectuals whom they deem not woke enough.

    Did the minor errors in Harari’s works merit such an essay by Narayanan? I don’t think so. But Narayanan gets the spotlight by going after someone famous. So, my read on all this is that it’s self-promotional for Narayanan.

  12. “Purple passage”

    Great expression. Here’s the definition and meaning, in case anyone’s interested :

    [ Source: Merriam-Webster, link below ]

    : a passage conspicuous for brilliance or effectiveness in a work that is dull, commonplace, or uninspired
    chiefly British : a piece of obtrusively ornate writing
    called also purple patch

    translation of Latin pannus purpureus purple patch; from the traditional splendor of purple cloth as contrasted with plainer materials


  13. On a related note, I recently started Pinker’s Enlightenment now, my 3rd or 4th Pinker book, and had massive problems with the preface, so much so that I haven’t yet read on. He talks of those poor far off countries still mired in war and violence because they haven’t yet had enlightenment. How can he write that sitting in a post-Enlightenment country (America) that has waged war quasi constantly since the beginning of its existence, much of it justified by “enlightened” ideas? Is he unaware that the actual French Enlightenment caused and sponsored a lot of violence and war within a few decades of its culmination, including of course the American revolution and the Napoleonic wars (Bonaparte was an enlightenment missionary). It was enlightenment that by delegitimizing monarchs led to democracy and from there to nationalism and to warring nation states/people’s wars that were more horrible that the cabinet wars of kings and dukes. I am a huge enlightenment fan but that was an incredibly naive and uninformed take.
    Shortly after he says that evil (meaning moral eval) is just problems that can be solved. That sounded a lot like the blank slateism he used to argue against.

    1. I think if you read the book, many of your concerns will be addressed. I thought it was a great book — something a bit uplifting in “these troubled times.” I’ve never seen such a gargantuan number of encomiums in the front of a book in my life.

    2. He “can write that” because it is true. If you read the entire book, he justifies what he puts in the preface with argument and data. As Pinker writes in the preface:

      …In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment [similar to Ruth’s] of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.

      1. Okay guys, I’ll read it! But I think you have misunderstood me, I wasn’t making a bleak assessment of the world, or of the enlightenment (I consider myself its heir, as do most of us here, and have read heaps of the original works in French) but of Pinkers’ knowledge about the 18. century and of what America looks like from the outside world. But maybe I misunderstood Pinker.
        I had very much looked forward to the book (looking for something uplifting) and had kept it in the back drawer for years for a special treat, so was hugely disappointed with the preface

        1. Also read the English works, of course. But the French ones in original or near original editions in a university library, that makes for good memory (for a book and history lover)

        2. The most important part of the Enlightenment happened in the 17th century in England, Holland, and Scotland. The 18th century is commonly considered prime Enlightenment, but the major intellectual work had already been done by Hobbes, Spinoza, Adam Smith, Hume, Locke, Newton, and others. Descartes was certainly a seminal figure. Pierre Bayle was an important 17th century French Enlightenment figure, but who has read him? Bayle and Descartes worked in Holland (as did Locke, and of course, Spinoza). Rousseau can be seen as much as a reactionary as proponent of Enlightenment ideas. The Terror and Napoleon retarded the effects of the Enlightenment in France. America was different – freedom and light spread around much of the world from here.

  14. Big history books, while popular, are poor history IMHO. Too much generalization… I appreciate her review in spite of her “errors”.

  15. I was talking to my neighbour about this book only last week. I enjoyed it but I know almost nothing about history and as I was reading it, I found myself wondering what other experts might say. I had a sneaking suspicion that some of his views might be outside mainstream scholarly thinking.

  16. I was delighted to read the review of Harari’s book because I immediately thought, as I read it, that it was puerile (sorry for that word but Woody Allen used it too!), simplified,
    derivative, unoriginal and written for maybe fourth graders. Aside from errors it was
    just a bunch of rehashed ideas that float out in the internet or on popular blogs. Worst of all, I think it attracts readers who are timorous about reading serious science books and authors, of which there are plenty around to choose from. There are many very advanced science books (especially in physics) that I do not understand for the most part but there are also those that are clear and readable and dont talk down to their readers. Harari clearly understood that there is a huge readership out there who wont recognize errors, aren’t able to challenge him, and who will mistake entertainment for education. He is probably laughing all the way to the bank.

  17. Narayanan appeared to engage in the sort of sensationalism she was decrying. Labelling Hariri as “dangerous” seems a bit much. The fear-mongering is not extreme, but it is there. She doesn’t build much of case for the danger, just gestures at it with progressive fnords. Hariri is popular, but “populist” is not really an accurate description.

    I’ve read a couple of his books and I think he could be criticized for talking about more speculative ideas with too much confidence, but I don’t think he is terrible (he is nowhere near as extreme as Michio Kaku). I think if you take him with a grain of salt, he is fine. Anyone speculating about humanity’s future direction should be taken with at least some mild skepticism. I think his books were thought provoking and interesting. They may have gotten overhyped, but they also do point out some realistic possibilities.

  18. I read Sapiens when it came out. It left me unmotivated to read anything else by its author. There were too many lines of thought like this:

    Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.

    Every one knows nations and corporations are not “real’ in the way rocks and rivers are, but they are hardly imaginary. I found dwelling on this extremely tedious.

    1. I think Harari means that these things are products of human imagination, i.e., “imaginary.” He clearly didn’t mean imaginary in the sense of non-existent. Indeed, these exist only by and through our collective imaginations.

      The reason the distinction is important is because too often people forget that products of our imagination, marriage for example, are not like mountains. The former can be whatever we say it is (or imagine it to be). The latter is what it is. Treating marriage (or national borders, nations, corporations, whatever) like they’re fixed realities like mountains is actually a current social problem.

      The reverse is also a problem, wherein human biology is seen by some as imagined, and therefore changeable, instead of real, like rivers, mountains, and trees. The distinction matters.

    2. I completely agree, CarlW. He discusses social entities like companies and nations as fictions as if this were some big revelation, but most people know that those things are fruit of culture and social agreements.

      1. Permit me to suggest that what Hariri implies, and what this discussion has taken up, is more important than it might seem at first. Mountains are “real” in a sense that, for example, national identities are not. National identities are “social constructs” in a way that mountains are not. Many in all parts of the political spectrum ignore this distinction. The current ruler of Russia insists that his definition of national identities is as real as (or even realer than) a mountain. Conversely, it would be no surprise tomorrow if a couple of woke sociologists told us that mountains are social constructs, just as they say that sexual dimorphism is.

      1. He converses well enough in English. From the copyright page:

        Translated by the author, with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman.

        First published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir.

  19. I teach at a small state college located in the Bible Belt. My undergraduates come with zero knowledge of evolution (and often a lot of bunk notions). I use the first two chapters of Harari’s book, Sapiens, in a course on human communication as a broad introduction to human evolution, prehistory, and the emergence of language and material culture. It does a reasonable job conveying the gist of what is known in a way accessible to students (This is what much of popular science writing does best). We then talk about the potential limits to the credibility of trade press science publications written by an historian before moving on to university press and/or peer reviewed materials written by subject matter experts (e.g., Dunbar and Tomasello). The book is good enough for my purposes. Whatever “dangers” the book poses to corporate CEOs are more than offset by challenging students who are predisposed to dismiss evolutionary theory to think about it. If their interest is sufficiently sparked, whatever “misinformation” gleaned from the book will be corrected in later stages of the learning process. If they remain steadfast in their rejection of evolutionary science, they have plenty of other sources of misinformation sans Harari to confirm their biases.

  20. I found Harari a mixed bag. Some of his observations are good (for example, he pointed out to me how important it was for groups to have a coordination advantage), but on other topics, I found his thinking muddled and somewhat off. Sometimes, he relies on word play, like when he insists that something that occurs in nature cannot be unnatural.

    Sapiens is not his best book. Time and again, I wondered about the fact-checking aspect when reading it. But his book on the future is engaging and made me think.

    Finally: The lack of fact-checking bothers me a lot. I know almost no one fact-checks, but self-professed rationalists should at least put in some effort. I know many of them could afford it! Sometimes mistakes look like the result of unnecessary word padding, but it gets really annoying when studies are cited the author never read (not that they would replicate anyway).

  21. It didn’t seem to me that Harari was ever presenting his opinions as scientific facts. His books are not science textbooks, and he doesn’t present them as such. They’re more philosophical treatises. As such, I have found some of his ideas compelling.

    I particularly liked his speculation that complex speech evolved from gossip. There’s no way to test that, but it’s an interesting idea.

    1. Gossip – Dunbar’s idea. “Grooming, gossip & the evolution of language”.

      He is just trying to paint a big picture of history like Toynbee, so some things are out of focus. I like him.

  22. Misuse of the word “genetic code” is common in the media, for what a geneticist would describe as a gene or DNA sequence. Geneticists indeed reserve use of the word “code” for the translation rules relating to the 64 codons. But you can see why it happens: computer programmers use the word “code” to refer to a textual section of a program that results in a particular action. A geneticist would say that a particular sequence “codes for” a gene/exon/amino acid, but would rarely say that a particular sequence IS code. I think it’s a case of a common word used in subtly different ways when co-opted by science.

  23. I don’t care much for Harari, based on my reading of ‘Sapiens’, and I agree with many of the comments above.

    I would instead just like to give a shout-out to PCC(E) for a tour de force of a post. Thanks!

  24. I think the critiques by the author above are not all correct (for example, when she absurdly says the US is a “police state” like Russia). However, what did bother me a lot about Sapiens was his inaccurate description of political and economic philosophies. He says, for example, that humanism is an ideology that worships humans, and that it is responsible for Nazism (!), when in fact the Nazis were the negation of humanism. He also says that capitalism can be summarized with a motto like “Just do it”, and he never actually cites any economists to support that claim. There is a lot of sloppy writing in that book.

  25. I’d guess readers of WEIT skew pretty above average, education wise. This seems to be the case in the comments I enjoy reading each evening. Perhaps we’re being a bit harsh on a popularizer of science/history/politics (a large remit) given the AVERAGE understanding of these subjects?
    The reviewer seems a bit nitpicky and possibly what Dawkins calls a “flea”, making bank on attacking the famous.
    Hariri isn’t too bad – some errors I’ve noticed, but fit for purpose.
    NYC https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

  26. He is a big picture historian. These are errors but hardly enough to damn him. I read book reviews & this is pretty mild – much worse errors are spread by autjors. He has just produced the first book in a cartoon format. I read Sapiens a few years ago. Chimps / leopards – yes wrong, & I am a pedant, but, really?

  27. The “major error” involving the phrase “rewrite the code” is, IMHO, the result of a confusion between two distinct meanings of the word “code”. The mapping between triplets of the DNA “letters” and amino acids in a protein coded for by each of those triplets is one meaning of the term. The other meaning relevant in that phrase (which I suspect is what Harari was applying) is the sequence of DNA instructions which create proteins and regulate the expression of which DNA instructions are active an a given cellular context. That’s what can be re-written. Obviously, the former meaning of “code” is not something which can be altered. Today, people speak of “coders” when they mean what used to be called “computer programmers”. The sequence of instructions to computers which comprise computer programs is commonly referred to as code.

    I suspect all the errors listed in the “fact checking” of Harari are of the kind of criticisms applied to the movie “Dirty Dancing” by a welder in a skit on SNL where the welder criticized the movie because the bits about the lead character’s welding day job career contained errors about the techniques of welding. I’ve read Harari’s books and found their core theses to be pretty convincingly developed. Again, in IMHO, as a mere B.Sc. in Physics and Computer Science (from 1971), the “fact-checking” is just Ms. N. being a welder criticizing a story which is really not about welding.

  28. 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.

    It rings alarm bells for me. Her Linked-In profile that you linked suggests she is talking about the United States, since her location is given as New York. She characterises the USA as a “police state” which is clearly false even though police in the USA are often far from perfect. She also forgets that the USA is not the only nation state in the World and there are many that seem to be better at law enforcement.

    That one sentence has created a mental image of her politics in my mind that is somewhat negative and suggests to me that she prefers ideology over facts in at least some situations, which is bound to colour my reading of the rest of her review.

    1. I just did a quick Google search the meaning of the word religion:

      Religion; def:

      The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

      A particular system of faith and worship.

      The service and worship of God or the supernatural.

      Religion is belief in a god or gods and the activities that are connected with this belief.

      Religion is a set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to the belief and worship of a controlling force, such as a personal god or another supernatural being.

      Indeed, that is what people think about when they use and see the word religion. Nope, not even close to Humanism.

      Again, I’m suggesting that his use of the word religion (over & over) when speaking about humanism, was erroneous, and as one ought to strive to be clear when writing, it was a really bad choice of word. If I wear clothes, eat food and drive a car, it doesn’t mean that I call myself a Policeman, just because I share some characteristics of policemen.

  29. Last year I had to pick sufficient books of the right quality to keep me sane whilst locked in an isolation room for what was promised to be a six week process of misery and hoped-for redemption. Sapiens was one of them and very disappointing too. Wishy-washy generalisations and a rather romanticised teleological view of human development. You should not be surprised that when I was visited by the hospital’s Anglican chaplain he told me how much he had enjoyed it. I’m afraid my wife recorded me as the classic religiously-embarrassed Englishman “C of E” said quickly and under the breath, and his visit was how I discovered her crime. I had toyed with putting down Jewish as I thought a visit from a rabbi might be more entertaining, but forgot.
    I rather enjoyed picking out a variety of books, but was not surprised that what sustained me best was my third reading of Antony Powell’s magnificent A Dance To The Music of Time.

  30. Harari’s books are a damn good read and, unlikely to cause a revolution, aren’t in the least bit dangerous, snooty dismissals notwithstanding. They simply made me think differently about the world. Of course optimism is rarely popular among dismalists, mainly because the idea that things get better without an ideology or religion to prop them up is anathema to those who cling to superstitions. But sucks to them I say – the Beatles as so often were right.

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