Sapiens – a critical review

I much enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is a brilliant, thought-provoking odyssey through human history with its huge confident brush strokes painting enormous scenarios across time. It is massively engaging and continuously interesting. The book covers a mind-boggling 13.5 billion years of pre-history and history.

Sapiens CoverFrom the outset, Harari seeks to establish the multifold forces that made Homo (‘man’) into Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) – exploring the impact of a large brain, tool use, complex social structures and more. He brings the picture up to date by drawing conclusions from mapping the Neanderthal genome, which he thinks indicates that Sapiens did not merge with Neanderthals but pretty much wiped them out. ‘Tolerance’ he says, ‘is not a Sapiens trademark’ (p19), setting the scene for the sort of animal he will depict us to be.

Fascinating but flawed

Harari’s pictures of the earliest men and then the foragers and agrarians are fascinating; but he breathlessly rushes on to take us past the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, to the arrival of religion, the scientific revolution, industrialisation, the advent of artificial intelligence and the possible end of humankind. His contention is that Homo sapiens, originally an insignificant animal foraging in Africa has become ‘the terror of the ecosystem’ (p465). There is truth in this, of course, but his picture is very particular. He is best, in my view, on the modern world and his far-sighted analysis of what we are doing to ourselves struck many chords with me.

Harari is a better social scientist than philosopher, logician or historian

Nevertheless, in my opinion the book is also deeply flawed in places and Harari is a much better social scientist than he is philosopher, logician or historian. His critique of modern social ills is very refreshing and objective, his piecing together of the shards of pre-history imaginative and appear to the non-specialist convincing, but his understanding of some historical periods and documents is much less impressive – demonstrably so, in my view.

Misunderstanding the medieval world

Harari is not good on the medieval world, or at least the medieval church. He suggests that ‘premodern’ religion asserted that everything important to know about the world ‘was already known’ (p279) so there was no curiosity or expansion of learning. When does he think this view ceased? He makes it much too late. He gives the (imagined) example of a thirteenth-century peasant asking a priest about spiders and being rebuffed because such knowledge was not in the Bible. It’s hard to know where to begin in saying how wrong a concept this is.

For example, in the thirteenth century the friars, so often depicted as lazy and corrupt, were central to the learning of the universities. Moreover they were, at that time, able to teach independently of diktats from the Church. As a result, there was an exchange of scholarship between national boundaries and demanding standards were set. The Church also set up schools throughout much of Europe, so as more people became literate there was a corresponding increase in debate among the laity as well as among clerics. Huge library collections were amassed by monks who studied both religious and classical texts. Their scriptoria effectively became the research institutes of their day. One surviving example of this is the fascinating library of the Benedictines at San Marco in Florence. Commissioned in 1437, it became the first public library in Europe. This was a huge conceptual breakthrough in the dissemination of knowledge: the ordinary citizens of that great city now had access to the profoundest ideas from the classical period onwards.

And there is Thomas Aquinas. Usually considered to be the most brilliant mind of the thirteenth century, he wrote on ethics, natural law, political theory, Aristotle – the list goes on. Harari forgets to mention him – today, as all know, designated a saint in the Roman Catholic church.   

Harari tends to draw too firm a dividing line between the medieval and modern eras

In fact, it was the Church – through Peter Abelard in the twelfth century– that initiated the idea that a single authority was not sufficient for the establishment of knowledge, but that disputation was required to train the mind as well as the lecture for information. This was a breakthrough in thinking that set the pattern of university life for the centuries ahead.

Or what about John of Salisbury (twelfth-century bishop), the greatest social thinker since Augustine, who bequeathed to us the function of the rule of law and the concept that even the monarch is subject to law and may be removed by the people if he breaks it. Following Cicero he rejected dogmatic claims to certainty and asserted instead that ‘probable truth’ was the best we could aim for, which had to be constantly re-evaluated and revised. Harari is wrong therefore, to state that Vespucci (1504) was the first to say ‘we don’t know’ (p321).

So, historically Harari tends to draw too firm a dividing line between the medieval and modern eras (p285). He is good on the more modern period but the divide is manifest enough without overstating the case as he does.

Short-sighted reductionism

His passage about human rights not existing in nature is exactly right, but his treatment of the US Declaration of Independence is surely completely mistaken (p123). To ‘translate’ it as he does into a statement about evolution is like ‘translating’ a rainbow into a mere geometric arc, or better, ‘translating’ a landscape into a map. Of course, neither process is a translation for to do so is an impossibility. They are what they are. The one is an inspiration, the other an analysis. It is not a matter of one being untrue, the other true – for both landscapes and maps are capable of conveying truths of different kinds.

The Declaration is an aspirational statement about the rights that ought to be accorded to each individual under the rule of law in a post-Enlightenment nation predicated upon Christian principles. Harari’s ‘translation’ is a statement about what our era (currently) believes in a post-Darwinian culture about humanity’s evolutionary drives and our ‘selfish’ genes. ‘Biology’ may tell us those things but human experience and history tell a different story: there is altruism as well as egoism; there is love as well as fear and hatred; there is morality as well as amorality. The sword is not the only way in which events and epochs have been made. Indeed, to make biology/biochemistry the final irreducible way of perceiving human behaviour, as Harari seems to do, seems tragically short-sighted.

Religious illiteracy

I’m not surprised that the book is a bestseller in a (by and large) religiously illiterate society; and though it has a lot of merit in other areas, its critique of Judaism and Christianity is not historically respectable. A mere six lines of conjecture (p242) on the emergence of monotheism from polytheism – stated as fact – is indefensible. It lacks objectivity. The great world-transforming Abrahamic religion emerging from the deserts in the early Bronze Age period (as it evidently did) with an utterly new understanding of the sole Creator God is such an enormous change. It simply can’t be ignored in this way if the educated reader is to be convinced by his reconstructions.

Harari is demonstrably very shaky in his representation of what Christians believe

Harari is also demonstrably very shaky in his representation of what Christians believe. For example, his contention that belief in the Devil makes Christianity dualistic (equal independent good and evil gods) is simply untenable. One of the very earliest biblical texts (Book of Job) shows God allowing Satan to attack Job but irresistibly restricting his methods (Job 1:12). Later, Jesus banishes Satan from individuals (Mark 1:25 et al.) and the final book of the Bible shows God destroying Satan (Revelation 20:10). Not much dualism there! It’s all, of course, a profound mystery – but it’s quite certainly not caused by dualism according to the Bible. Harari either does not know his Bible or is choosing to misrepresent it. He also doesn’t know his Thomas Hardy who believed (some of the time!) precisely what Harari says ‘nobody in history’ believed, namely that God is evil – as evidenced in a novel like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or his poem The Convergence of the Twain.

Fumbling the problem of evil

We see another instance of Harari’s lack of objectivity in the way he deals with the problem of evil (p246). He states the well-worn idea that if we posit free will as the solution, that raises the further question: if God ‘knew in advance’ (Harari’s words) that the evil would be done why did he create the doer?

I would expect a scholar to present both sides of the argument, not a populist one-sided account as Harari does

But to be objective the author would need to raise the counter-question that if there is no free will, how can there be love and how can there be truth? Automatons without free will are coerced and love cannot exist between them – by definition. Again, if everything is predetermined then so is the opinion I have just expressed. In that case it has no validity as a measure of truth – it was predetermined either by chance forces at the Big Bang or by e.g. what I ate for breakfast which dictated my mood. These are age-old problems without easy solutions but I would expect a scholar to present both sides of the argument, not a populist one-sided account as Harari does.

Moreover, in Christian theology God created both time and space, but exists outside them. So the Christian God does not know anything ‘in advance’ which is a term applicable only to those who live inside the time–space continuum i.e. humanity. The Christian philosopher Boethius saw this first in the sixth century; theologians know it – but apparently Harari doesn’t, and he should.

Ignoring the resurrection

In common with so many, Harari is unable to explain why Christianity ‘took over the mighty Roman Empire' (p243) but calls it ‘one of history’s strangest twists’. So it is, but one explanation that should be considered is the resurrection of Christ which of course would fully account for it – if people would give the idea moment’s thought. But to the best of my knowledge there is no mention of it (even as an influential belief) anywhere in the book.

Harari is unable to explain why Christianity ‘took over the mighty Roman Empire' 

The standard reason given for such an absence is that ‘such things don’t happen in history: dead men don’t rise.’ But that, I fear, is logically a hopeless answer. The speaker believes it didn’t happen because they have already presupposed that God is not there to do it. Drop the presupposition, and suddenly the whole situation changes: in the light of that thought it now becomes perfectly feasible that this ‘strange twist’ was part of the divine purpose. And the funny thing is that unlike other religions, this is precisely where Christianity is most insistent on its historicity. Peter, Paul, the early church in general were convinced that Jesus was alive and they knew as well as we do that dead men are dead – and they knew better than us that us that crucified men are especially dead! The very first Christian sermons (about AD 33) were about the facts of their experience – the resurrection of Jesus – not about morals or religion or the future.

A one-sided view of the Church

Harari is right to highlight the appalling record of human warfare and there is no point trying to excuse the Church from its part in this. I have written at length about this elsewhere, as have far more able people. But do we really think that because everyone in Europe was labelled Catholic or Protestant (‘cuius regio, eius religio’) that the wars they fought were about religion?

If the Church is cited as a negative influence, why, in a scholarly book, is its positive influence not also cited?

As the Cambridge Modern History points out about the appalling Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 (which event Harari cites on p241) – the Paris mob would as soon kill Catholics as Protestants – and did. It was the result of political intrigue, sexual jealousy, human barbarism and feud. Oxford Professor Keith Ward points out ‘religious wars are a tiny minority of human conflicts’ in his book Is Religion Dangerous? If the Church is being cited as a negative influence, why, in a scholarly book, is its undeniably unrivalled positive influence over the last 300 years (not to mention all the previous years) not also cited? It’s simply not good history to ignore the good educational and social impact of the Church. Both sides need to feature.[1]

Philosophical fault-lines

I wonder too about Harari’s seeming complacency on occasion, for instance about where economic progress has brought us to. Is it acceptable for him to write (on p296): ‘When calamity strikes an entire region, worldwide relief efforts are usually successful in preventing the worst. People still suffer from numerous depredations, humiliations and poverty-related illnesses but in most countries nobody is starving to death’? Tell that to the people of Haiti seven years after the earthquake with two and a half million still, according to the UN, needing humanitarian aid. Or the people of South Sudan dying of thirst and starvation as they try to reach refugee camps. There are sixty million refugees living in appalling poverty and distress at this moment. In the light of those facts, I think Harari’s comment is rather unsatisfactory.

But there is a larger philosophical fault-line running through the whole book which constantly threatens to break its conclusions in pieces. His whole contention is predicated on the idea that humankind is merely the product of accidental evolutionary forces and this means he is blind to seeing any real intentionality in history. It has direction certainly, but he believes it is the direction of an iceberg, not a ship.

Many of his opening remarks are just unwarranted assumptions 

This would be all right if he were straightforward in stating that all his arguments are predicated on the assumption that, as Bertrand Russell said, ‘Man is…but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms’ and utterly without significance. But instead, he does what a philosopher would call ‘begging the question’. That is, he assumes from the start what his contention requires him to prove – namely that mankind is on its own and without any sort of divine direction. Harari ought to have stated his assumed position at the start, but signally failed to do so. The result is that many of his opening remarks are just unwarranted assumptions based on that grandest of all assumptions: that humanity is cut adrift on a lonely planet, itself adrift in a drifting galaxy in a dying universe. Evidence please! – that humanity is ‘nothing but’ a biological entity and that human consciousness is not a pale (and fundamentally damaged) reflection of the divine mind.

The fact that (he says) Sapiens has been around for a long time, emerged by conquest of the Neanderthals and has a bloody and violent history has no logical connection to whether or not God made him (‘her’ for Harari) into a being capable of knowing right from wrong, perceiving God in the world and developing into Michelangelo, Mozart and Mother Teresa as well as into Nero and Hitler. To insist that such sublime or devilish beings are ‘no more than’ glorified apes is to ignore the elephant in the room: the small differences in our genetic codes are the very differences that may reasonably point to divine intervention – because the result is so shockingly disproportionate between ourselves and our nearest relatives. I’ve watched chimpanzees and the great apes; I love to do so (and especially adore gorillas!) but…so near, yet so so far.

Arguable assumptions

Here are a few short-hand examples of the author’s many assumptions to check out in context:

  • ‘accidental genetic mutations…it was pure chance’ (p23)
  • ‘no justice outside the common imagination of human beings’ (p31)
  • ‘things that really exist’ (p35)

This last is such a huge leap of unwarranted faith. His concept of what ‘really exists’ seems to be ‘anything material’ but, in his opinion, nothing beyond this does ‘exist’ (his word). Actually, humans are mostly sure that immaterial things certainly exist: love, jealousy, rage, poverty, wealth, for starters. Dark matter also may make up most of the universe – it exists, we are told, but we can’t measure it.

His rendition of how biologists see the human condition is as one-sided as his treatment of earlier topics.

Harari’s final chapters are quite brilliant in their range and depth and hugely interesting about the possible future with the advent of AI – with or without Sapiens. His rendition, however, of how biologists see the human condition is as one-sided as his treatment of earlier topics. To say that our ‘subjective well-being is not determined by external parameters’ (p432) but by ‘serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin’ is to take the behaviourist view to the exclusion of all other biochemical/psychiatric science. Recent studies have concluded that human behaviour and well-being are the result not just of the amount of serotonin etc that we have in our bodies, but that our response to external events actually alters the amount of serotonin, dopamine etc which our bodies produce. It is two-way traffic. Our choices therefore are central. The way we behave actually affects our body chemistry, as well as vice versa. Harari is averse to using the word ‘mind’ and prefers ‘brain’ but the jury is out about whethe/how these two co-exist. There is one glance at this idea on page 458: without dismissing it he allows it precisely four lines, which for such a major ‘game-changer’ to the whole argument is a deeply worrying omission.

I liked his bold discussion about the questions of human happiness that historians and others are not asking, but was surprised by his two pages on ‘The Meaning of Life’ which I thought slightly disingenuous. ‘From a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning…Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan.’ (p438, my italics). The first sentence is fine – of course, that is true! How could it be otherwise? Science deals with how things happen, not why in terms of meaning or metaphysics. To look for metaphysical answers in the physical sciences is ridiculous – they can’t be found there. It’s like looking for a sandpit in a swimming pool. Distinguished scientists like Sir Martin Rees and John Polkinghorne, at the very forefront of their profession, understand this and have written about the separation of the two ‘magisteria’. Science is about physical facts not meaning; we look to philosophy, history, religion and ethics for that. Harari’s second sentence is a non-sequitur – an inference that does not follow from the premise. God’s ‘cosmic plan’ may well be to use the universe he has set up to create beings both on earth and beyond (in time and eternity) which are glorious beyond our wildest dreams. I rather think he has already – when I consider what Sapiens has achieved.

A curiously encouraging end

I found the very last page of the book curiously encouraging:

We are more powerful than ever before…Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. (p466)

Exactly! Time then for a change. Better to live in a world where we are accountable – to a just and loving God.

Harari is a brilliant writer, but one with a very decided agenda. He is excellent within his field but spreads his net too wide till some of the mesh breaks – allowing all sorts of confusing foreign bodies to pass in and out – and muddies the water. His failure to think clearly and objectively in areas outside his field will leave educated Christians unimpressed.


[1] See my book The Evil That Men Do. (Sacristy Press, 2016)

© Marcus Paul, 2018