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.
From 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.
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 e 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.