Six Lines

Book Review – Sapiens

Posted by Aaron Massey on 04 Feb 2018.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is a challenging, provocative book that I would recommend cautiously. Sapiens is a history of our species and how we came to dominate the world. It is thought-provoking and worth reading. However, as many reviewers indicate, it is not without controversy. His view of humans as creators of collective myths is both controversial and also presented as if it were plainly fact. His TED talk on the same topic gives you a sense of the arguments in the book.

Harari’s interpretation of human institutions, particularly religion and some social constructs, is fascinating and well-articulated, but also the primary source of controversy for at least two reasons. First, Harari presents our ability to create and sustain collective fictions as the crucial, differentiating feature of our species. He claims this allows us to cooperate in ways that are fundamentally transformative. Controversially, he presents all of these collective fictions, including religion, money, and many important social constructs as “fiction” without inherent meaning. This is probably a minority opinion even within philosophical circles, to say nothing of how unusual this opinion is elsewhere. It is, for example, completely at odds with social constructionism.

Second, Harari’s voice throughout the book is that of an expert plainly presenting facts. Most of the early chapters of the book are uncontroversial presentations of the archaeological record and various historical interpretations of this record. Ironically, Harari happily points out areas where consensus within the historical community is lacking. This makes his later omission of the controversial elements of his take on humanity particularly pernicious. It provides a veneer of authenticity and “fact” to an opinion that is actually a minority view. Read this book with discernment.

With those caveats, I would, however, recommend this book simply because it is an undeniably well-articulated description of a set of beliefs that I suspect many atheists hold. It connects science, history, and everything we know about the empirical record to create and cultivate a set of beliefs about humanity. Students of the philosophy of science, epistemology, and related areas will find the flaws in this reasoning quite interesting. Harari is undeniably well-educated and intelligent, and this book is quite the conversation piece.