Weak history, weaker science, and opinion masquerading as facts.

By Ken godwin – November 26, 2016 

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I found this book inadequate in terms of its understanding of biology, neuroscience, religion, and, especially, evolutionary biology. As an earlier review pointed out, Harari often disguises his opinions by writing them as if they were factual. As an agnostic, I found his attacks on Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity and his whitewashing of Judaism surprising and often quite wrong. Harari argues that because Judaism’s version of monotheism never moved beyond a local geographical area, it can’t be blamed for the intolerance and violence that monotheism has caused. Although the invasion of Canaan by the Hebrews is a fictional foundational myth, its myth of God-sanctioned genocide certainly shows the level of intolerance inherent in early Judaism and provides a model for other genocides. King Josiah, the last of the David’s line, not only killed all the priests of Bael and persecuted the worshipers of Bael, Josiah also attacked religious sites outside of Judah. He even dug up and burned the bones of earlier priests who did not worship the God of Israel and destroyed sites that the Northern Kingdom had built to worship the Hebrew God.

Harari claims that the Jewish Bible has no references to Satan or other similar evil force. I presume that this means Harari has dismissed the Book of Job from the wisdom writings in the Hebrew scriptures. The “Other” with whom God is betting in Job seems to me to be the predecessor of the evil one in Islam and Christianity. As Judaism often incorrectly claims to be the founder of monotheism, it seems to me that it shares at least some of the blame for the evils that Harari attributes to monotheism.

Similarly, Harari argues that Catholic saints really are demigods. Brigid, an Irish saint, for example is simply the Catholic Church adopting the Irish goddess Brigit. This may be true, but Irish scholars are divided deeply over this. Harai’s account of Catholicism adopting local gods and making them protectors of local areas would appear to make Catholicism is polytheistic religion.

Harari also seems to misunderstand how causality works. The Industrial Revolution took place 100 years before the disintegration of the modern family. Surely there are more proximate causes including women’s struggle for equal rights, geographic mobility, effective birth control, and women being able to support their children. Harari also attributes “strong individuals” to a weak family, a weak community, and a strong state and capitalist market. In contrast, weak individuals are the product of a strong family and community and a weak state and market. Harari might be correct if he were arguing that individualism grew as family connections declined, but if that is his argument, some evidence would be nice. What clearly is not the case, however, is that weak families lead to strong individuals. Almost all research on the effects of family structure shows that strong families lead to strong individuals and weak families lead to weak individuals.

There are a number of books that cover similar territory and are far superior to Sapiens. Matt Ridley’s “The Red Queen,” “The Origin of Virtue,” and “Nature via Nurture” all are better science and history. Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal” and “The Evolution of God” are far superior accounts of the development of virtue, cooperation, and why the world is becoming less violent. Laurence Tancredi’s “Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality” demonstrates why natural law is not imaginary as Harari claims, but developed from human awareness of ordering in nature and the role of order, reason, and altruism (inherited human preferences) led to the doctrine of natural law. Finally, for those who oppose evolutionary biology, Rose and Rose (eds.) “Alas Poor Darwin” covers many of the topics covered by Harari, but the chapters make more compelling use of science rather than opinion masquerading as science.
Harari writes well and gives plausible, but often incorrect, explanations of the major events in human history and their impacts on the world. His book is strongest when discussing the importance of empires in human history and in showing that the agricultural and industrial revolutions were, at best, mixed blessings.

Audio book in English:

Critical review for Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” 
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