Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sapiens Review

Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens manages the tricky feat of being one of the best history books of recent years and a book with which I have profound and deep disagreements. It pulls off this one-two because of its incredible ambition. Whereas tomes five times as long have been written about a single individual, Harari burns through the history of the human race in a little more than 400 pages. The pure quantity of information he conveys on the reader, the brilliant way he educates us on a a number of topics, the wonderful counterintuitiveness of many of his explanations, and the shockingly clever writing throughout the book make this a must read for any intellectually-engaged person.

Too often, prose in popular history books is drab and boring. Harari has no such problem. Take this passage on the rise of wheat: instead of saying we master grains, Harari writes "these plants domesticated homo sapiens, rather than vice versa."

He continues: "Wheat didn't like rock and pebbles, so sapiens broke their back clearing the fields. Wheat didn't like sharing its space, water, and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight....Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grow."

But it's not jus the prose that is clever. Chapters analyzing if and how human beings wiped out other species on Australia, the role science and technology played in imperialism, and his interesting happiness analysis toward the end of the book all show a brilliant thinker at the top of his game. Harari's belief that humans have succeeded largely because we are able to divine imaginary stories that become collective belief is powerful and often persuasive.


Before I go on to my more serious disagreements with Harari, let me point out the flip side of some of the strengths of the book.

First, while the writing is mostly wonderful and vivacious, sometimes it becomes too cute for its own good. Harari says "few of us understand how electricity does all these things [works in more than a cursory way], but even fewer can imagine life without it." This misplaced attempt at breezy writing is just wrong. More than 1 billion people still live without electricity. Not nearly that many people understand the science behind it deeply.

Second, Harari's opinionated, counterintuitive takes at time seem selective. He has no problems consistently calling the religions of the world make-believe, something billions would find offensive, but steers much more gently around racial and gender issues.

Third, Harari seems to pick and choose explanations for phenomena in a random way at times. Take the well documented trend of decreasing violence and an increasingly peaceful world since World War II. Harari says "scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more book and articles than you would ever want to read yourself." True, and the overriding answer to this question is the Pax Americana: the United States has been an incredible force for peace in the world in a way no other nation ever has.

Harari's subsequent explanations demonstrate this without ever actually referring to the U.S. His explanations are that the "price of war has gone up dramatically" because of the invention of the nuclear bomb, that the prize of war have declined, third that the economic benefits of peace have become greater, and fourth the global elite is dominated by people who value peace.

All true, and all phenomena caused by the U.S. The nuclear bomb was of course developed in the U.S. by U.S. scientists and Harari writes that "the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb." On the second count, Harari mentions that the benefits of war have gone down. He cites only the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as an example of war for plunder. Of course, the result of that invasion, was a U.S. led coalition to defeat Iraq. The main reason countries don't invade other countries now is because they know the U.S. won't let them get away with it. On the third count, peace has become prosperous because of the U.S. led international order which established the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and of course the United Nations. Countries that join these U.S, founded institutions can grow rich quickly (see South Korea); those that ignore them stay poor (see North Korea). And finally, the global elite still comes more from the U.S. than any other nation.


On to the major disagreements. I've only read two reviews, and both take Harari to task for his overly counterintuitive take on the cultural revolution. Bill Gates- who also loved the book- found this to be the biggest issue with Harari's work. I too found this to be problematic but found Harari's work to stem from his general pessimism on humanity.

He writes in the afterword: "unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on Earth has so far produced little we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires, and created far flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not neccessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and caused immense misery to other animals."

I think this is entirely wrong. On the count of human welfare, we don't have to worry about getting mauled by a tiger, butchered in our sleep by another tribe, or worry about a minor wound getting infected and killing us. Our lives are much longer, much better, and much easier, than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Harari overly romanticized hunter-gatherer lifestyle from the first chapter on and is way too down on our modern era.

The animal welfare count stands up stronger but is still flawed. The analytical move that we humans tend to make is valuing only the welfare of our species. This seems untenable to me: if some species are capable of happiness and suffering (and they are) than it seems that should be taken into account by public policy.

But sapiens have risen to the top of the foodchain and come to dominate the world precisely because our mental and emotional ranges are significantly greater than that of animals. If I kill a cockroach for my fiance, I would guess that the utility gain she gets from having the cockroach dead and the utility gain I get from having her not talk about the bug anymore would far outweigh the utility loss to the cockroach and his compadres. Even though obviously this is a more dramatic in the life and death of the cockroach than it is for the human couple, the utility gain from the latter is still greater than the utility loss from the former because we are significantly more complex beings.

For cows and pigs, the same logic still applies, although cows obviously have more going on inside than insects. Nonetheless, I think its fair to say humans get a lot of utility out of eating these two animals (myself included). Though I don't think we have the scientific evidence to make a clear utility calculation, my strong hunch would be that the aggregate welfare to humans from eating meat would outweigh the aggregate losses to animals.

Regardless, there seems to be clear public policy solutions to Harari's concern. First, tax the hell out of meat (especially from mammals) and subsidize fruits and vegetables. There would be clear winners and losers from this policy, but it would probably improve health in the rich world as well as benefitting our fellow species. Second, pour endless funds into companies looking to capture the taste of meat without actually using animals. Some companies are already making real progress on this. It's strange Harari does not bring this up.


Just because I found strong point of disagreements, doesn't mean that Harari's work isn't a masterclass of history. Read it, to learn, enjoy, and question your own views.