"It can't be strength because the strongest person doesn't usually rule societies." Then moves on to, "men are more violent and therefore may make better soldiers, but fighting doesn't mean you'll be successful at leadership." Finally he says, "maybe there are evolutionary pressures that would make men more competitive and ambitious and make women more subservient, but women could gain power by cooperating amongst themselves and we see matriarchal societies among animals so that can't be it."
The first 2 are basically restatements of themselves, and he completely ignores how strength or violence can establish conditions where the stronger party would gain power without the strongest individual within that party necessarily leading the whole group. In essence, strength contributes to patriarchy, which then is self-reinforcing and within the group of strong people there are many qualities that can bring out a leader. He glosses over the volumes of examples from history of military leaders taking over societies. Those leaders had to be good fighters to rise through the ranks and earn their soldier's respect. Then they had the army to impose their will. Seems plausible, fairly obvious, but he doesn't address it.
The 3rd is really oddly toxic because it suggests maybe a genetic subservience. I personally find that hard to square with the people I know and what I understand about genetics, particularly that very complex traits such as social behavior are extremely unlikely to have strong genetic ties at a population level. So much gets influenced by culture. See for example the tribe of baboons that went from patriarchal to matriarchal . It's good that he dismisses it, but he should have emphasized culture more.
Essentially he doesn't consider that reasons 1+2 could predispose to one type of dynamic (stronger people have more power) which will then tip over into patriarchy, and once a social system is established it takes a lot to change that system. Many arguments in the book could have been made in 1/3 the amount of text, and could have been made better.
Small other annoyance: at one point he says that until modern times nobody wanted to travel, that the desire to travel is a consumerist urge and a demonstration of wealth. Nevermind that for most of human history it would have been insane to even think of traveling more than a few dozen miles from home and BTW that would have taken months/years, and anyway you probably wouldn't have known that things like the pyramids (picking a random example) existed at all. So how exactly does he conclude people didn't want to travel for leisure because they weren't poisoned by consumer culture?
I've spent some time in areas immediately after a natural disaster, when looting is a possibility and governments and law enforcement is no longer effective. Even those times are relatively safe, but strong people with guns immediately become very appealing people to have on your side in situations like that.
Thinking about tribal societies and evolution, those societies that are best able to protect their reproductive capacity (women and children) from the elements and other humans are obviously going to survive in much greater numbers over those that are not. This has to have an effect on gender roles. You can lose half the men and reproduce at the same rate. You can't lose the women.
The reason fighters were leaders probably had as much to do with practicality as “domination”, because organizing society for war was a big undertaking and extended into peace time. Even in societies where women are now acknowledged to have held considerable power, like the historical Cherokee, the military hierarchy had considerable social power during peace time and was majority male.
Although it's a serious enough error that it might be more than just a "gross generalization." I certainly think it is.
It's like saying you don't like Expanse because you don't like sci-fi... Okay, but why did you read it if you know you hate sci-fi?
If you say so.
I don't think that's a shield against criticism. His treatment of humanism is asinine. In addition to engaging in gross generalizations on the topic, he is - to use your words - "really wrong." Getting the history of modern ideas right seems like it ought to be the easy part with a book like this, particularly if you're content with generalizations.
It seemed to gloss over major historical factors in a way that presented them as accepted wisdom. This often hides implicit assumptions about those historical factors that reinforce modern systems.
I just didn't find Sapiens to be that interesting once it got out of discussions about pre-history. The rest of it's views on human development seem to really be focused on explaining the "rightness" of how we currently already see the world. I'm probably not explaining myself well here.
The overwhelming praise for Harari also makes me suspect. The people praising Sapiens are people that I don't trust. So...yeah, that's me being a weirdo.
My issue with it is basically this: Harari's original insights and opinions are only mildly interesting. There is no single thesis presented (at least as summarized) that justifies an entire book. By grafting those ideas on to what is otherwise a rather dull exposition of mainstream anthropology, he impresses the less educated audience with knowledge, while lulling the more educated into an agreeable attitude by restating the well-known, at length.
It's a common persuasion and marketing tactic: Fact, fact, conjecture. Fact, fact, conjecture. Fact, fact, fact, bold conjecture.
And of course, being unwilling to slog through the filler, I'll be written off by Harari's acolytes as ignorant. But that's OK. I'm starting to regard the rejection of pop phenomena like this one a necessary self defense of my own time and attention.
i know a lot of people that loved it and recommend it (and later books) left and right. my best guess is that it’s trendy and some sort of status symbol. i wish people could look past the hype
Actually the blog post literally shows that, by repeating "We’re not sure".
I can imagine many critics to the book, but presenting speculations as fact is definitely not one of them.
i also fundamentally disagree with speculating on what might have happened 10000 years ago. If you're going to speculate present at least 2-3 plausible scenarios.
This makes no sense (and reflects a complete misunderstanding the expression).
I’d like to see a speculation stated as fact, but have yet to see a satisfactory example.
Quick question: Why do you think its version of pre-history is better than its history? (Or are you familiar with pre-historical archaeology and find it to be good there?)
The fact that Harari seems to think that everything is just a 'story' that we tell ourselves, is way too nihilistic.
Maybe, taking this external perspective, we can understand better the direction in which we're going, but it doesn't resolve a fundamental question: why do we live the way we do?
In the long(human timescale) run, this is unsustainable and depressing, it takes away from the ethics and the aesthetics that have made human life what it is, that have brought us to live the way we do.
I find that the great challenge that confronts our species is precisely the search for meaning.
There are myriad options for sale in the marketplace of ideas, many coming with pre-packaged meaning. This is the typical case with Judeo-Christian religions, where some external authority dictates meaning to us. But let's suppose that there really is an Anthropomorphic God in the Sky that created everything and has rules for us. Ok, good for him I guess, but you have to lack a bit of imagination to not see the absurdity of that situation. It's just a parent-child relationship, with an imaginary parent, that spares the followers the pain of confronting existential questions, provided that development remains arrested.
The same is true of Atheists and Materialists. Ok, there's only atoms. Everything can be explained as a cold mechanism that progresses from the Big Bang, through evolution, to us and all of our preferences and inclinations. Of course, given that the scientific model of reality is so useful, it is easy to forget that it is just another story when it comes to meaning.
To actually reach adulthood, I believe that one has to confront the scary reality that one is one's own source of meaning. In one sense the universe is made of atoms, in another it is made of stories. Both of these models are useful, but no model can ever spare you from the task of becoming your own source of meaning.
The whole book is a cry for people to understand that most facts of life stem from the stories model, not the physical model, and hence are to some extent under our control.
I guess it's a matter of opinion, I didn't find it to be nihilistic at all, nor do I really see/understand why it could be.
It erases any limits on what's possible and makes thinking creatively (humanity's biggest strength) a lot more fun. It also makes the search for truth that much more urgent, since in a nihilistic universe that's all we have.
I also don't see any conflict between this kind of optimistic nihilism and fundamental ethics - mainly that you shouldn't hurt others.
I friekin' loved Sapiens by the way.
The enjoyment I get from riding my mountain bike comes at least in part from adrenaline, endorphins and exposure to sunlight - these are biological realities we likely share with species which can't tell stories.
Instead of thinking that culture just popped out of our heads, it’s thinking that culture is mostly if not entirely tied to events happening in the real world.
Being steeped in one field it's easy to believe you've got it all figured out. Engineers, of which I am one, are notoriously bad about speaking with confidence from a position of ignorance, but all of us do it.
Can you describe that framing and how it "doesn't assault the STEM ego?" I haven't read the book, but I'm genuinely curious about sociological observations like this.
> You can get the book here 1
And the "1" footnote says it's an affiliate link. I exactly hoped and expected that to be the case, and I plaud him for being so explicit about it. He has gained my trust immediately.
I wish more people were this gentle and transparent about things on the Internet.
By the way, I think several people (including me) have been tempted to do what you did, but never did it because it takes a long time to do it properly! Kudos for the perseverance and stamina!
I hope I'll be able to return the favor one day by doing a similar thing of some of my favorite books ("1491", "1493", "Debt: the first 5,000 years", "Atlantide" (book by Renzo Piano and his son Carlo, only in Italian) etc).
Another monster book I just finished reading and want to do a summary of is Guns, Germs and Steel, which is similar, but focused on one time-section.
I found writing down a mind map of what the author wants to convey really helps distill down the ideas.
More than once, I'd read through one section of the book (again) - and be unable to make the connection to the overall theme. This post (and any summary I want to read) aims to solve that - do the hard work once of figuring out the progression, how things connected together, so I can draw upon them for future use.
The first ~half of the book (prehistory) was much better than the second. Even then, I recall the author missing some rather significant points.
For example, the hypothesis that megafauna die-offs were related to the appearance of humans minimized one of the biggest, non-human contributors - the recession of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age (Pleistocene). The accompanying environmental dislocation is enough on its own to explain the extinction, but you'll find almost nothing about it in the book.
It's almost certainly no coincidence that the early phases of what we think of as civilization begin to appear very soon after the end of the last ice age. Yet the author seems to blithely skip over that looming detail as well.
The error in this is the thinking that the gains from agriculture accrue evenly to everyone. In reality, the "us" who are farmers and the "us" with leisure time are not the same people. You can see this by looking at the economic stratification for every single agricultural society... ever?
I would highly recommend reading James C Scott's 'Against the Grain' .
His thesis is that agriculture came in quite slowly, as part of a semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer society. It was only once the natural environment was depleted and agriculture became the only option to feed yourself that fixed, sedentary agriculture took over.
This is all tied to the rise of states, which could only obtain stability once their taxation base was locked in place. It's the best explanation I've seen for why "we" would choose agriculture.
(Incidentally I think it's much better written than his first book 'Seeing like a State', if you've read that.)
His viewpoint (while interesting) was not very grounded at all. Simply because agriculture requires more work doesn't mean it's inferior to hunting. Try hunting an antelope if you've got a sprained ankle.
Another perspective that irked me was his blind faith that modern society is built purely conceptual ideas. Citing empires, car brands, and money. In reality all these things work because they provide practical benefits. Few people or groups go out of their way to work purely on ideological bases, and those who do, do so on a rational philosophy. Let alone as soon as it becomes impracticable (See Maslow's hierarchy of needs).
* Worse nutrition because you're eating only the narrow selection you can grow.
* Poor nutrition means worse health, digestive, and dental problems.
* Agriculture leads to higher population densities and living in proximity to animals which in turn leads to plagues.
* Agriculture leads to population growth and consequent vulnerability to weather, floods, etc.
* Agriculture leads to population density, leads to social organization, leads to war, genocide, feudalism, etc
There are lots of problems with primitive agriculture and it seems perfectly plausible that it would be a better life to be an early hunter gatherer than an early farmer. Try tilling a field with a sprained ankle, or with rotting teeth after a bad harvest to feed your starving children. Etc.
I hope you are going to summarize the rest of the books of the same author and go on to other nonfiction authors perhaps. I would read such a blog regularly.
I realise now I should make that more explicit in my posts!
There's usually some more interesting one-off gems in there!
The genetic mutation story is not the most commonly accepted view in anthropology, regardless of what Harari suggests. Perhaps it was more popular at one time when archaeological evidence for "behavioral modernity" abruptly ceased beyond ~50 kya, but if anything, it has been waning as a convincing hypothesis as alternative interpretations and evidence for modernity continues pushing back the ~70 kya date.
This isn't to say that a real uptick in complex behavior and cognition didn't happen in the Upper Pleistocene; of course it did. But an absence of archaeological data is a pretty poor basis for inferring a single mutation that caused artefact data to go from sparse to abundant/ complex. Beyond the obvious (simply lacking data), it also seems to gloss over, for example, the possibility of cultural evolution, demographic shifts, etc., all of which require no "Tree of Knowledge mutation".
Recommend this book: https://www.amazon.com/Debt-Updated-Expanded-First-Years/dp/...
Harari gives very good examples of how money is useful for trade in his book. These examples underline how money is useful for trade. Its downright impractical to trade goods for goods because of multiple factors: fluctuation of value, different values for different people, lack of preference of the item from one of the parties.
Perhaps there was not one reason why money is useful. There surely isn't one now.
I was also surprised to find that there's lots and lots of text stowed away in the HTML comments. Perhaps it's a peak into how this particular article evolved?
I haven't figured out a nice way to make them responsive yet.
This blog post seems to start off with the premise that you understand what's going on, which I don't. Is the author summarising his own impressions of Sapiens (surely acceptable), or literally lifting the original text of the book and taking it as his own, as this quote seems inadvertently to suggest?
From the top of the blog post:
> The goal? Future-me should be happy to read this once future-me forgets how we evolved.
The post isn’t for you, but a reference for the author. It seems to be one of those “I’m making this for me, but if it’s useful for anyone else, so much the better” cases.
And for the other comments, no, I didn't update that right now. :)
> I spent over 25 hours building a cut-down version of Sapiens.
Unless OP is on HN and added that after comments here.
Because however many hours were spent making it is irrelevant as to why it was made, which was the point.
> Is the author summarising his own impressions of Sapiens (surely acceptable), or literally lifting the original text of the book and taking it as his own [...]?
The first sentence about cutting it down answers that.
No, I was not, I was replying to the section I quoted (hence quoting it, that’s how that works).
Given that, and seeing as the blog post author was upfront about it, I don’t see a problem with it unless the book’s author objects. Affiliate links don’t even steal credit — they give an author’s work more visibility to people who might be interested in it without cutting into their revenue. A commission is an incentive to share work you enjoy.
Thanks, footnote. I was completely stumped.
LOL, such a succinct rebuttal-yet-affirmation of the "Paleo diet"
"The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’"
If nothing else, two centuries is an awfully short time to allow you to conclude that 100,000 years of the past are no longer especially relevant.