Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Gossip and nonsense: a partial review of Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens"

Dear T-,

Once you've been buying books on Amazon for years, you start to realize that a best-seller gets a few thousand five-star ratings because it's written by a genius or it's written for idiots.  Yuval Noah Harari's monster-hit Sapiens thus far appears to have the qualities of both.  Like the best teachers, he says deep things in simple ways and is thus capable of getting morons to think.  Thus far there's no frilly writing, or convoluted phrasing, or wonkish lingo, or affectation of any sort.  He gets right at what he's going to say and he does it with the straight-forwardness of a C.S. Lewis, or a George Orwell -- not the finer prose of either, but the grandfather-like simplicity.  He preaches, but gently.  The only people who hate his book, from what I can tell from the one-star reviews, are religious folks who realize the rug is being pulled from under them.  He says God is imaginary, like nations, money, and corporations, they realized they couldn't believe Sapiens and the book of Genesis, and they artfully picked the latter.


Mr. Harari probably expected this reaction when he wrote it.  In fact, so far from being hostile to the idea that human beings hang on to their bullshit, he likes it, and attributes the existence of civilization to it.  That and to nothing other than gossip.  He says the Homo Neanderthalensis had bigger brains and were more muscular than Homo Sapiens; and the former, which lived in and owned Eurasia, were capable of keeping us stuck down in Africa.  What changed everything was a cross between language and imagination.  We Sapiens began talking about one another differently.  We became more precise about what kind of person Og was, or whether Bing Bong was likely to lie about you, or cheat you, or cheat on you.  Thus we developed complex ways of tattling on each other, for better and for worse; and what this led to was our ability to organize more meaningfully.  We would save each other by describing one another -- most usually behind our backs.

But this wasn't enough.  Harari says that the immensely useful tool known as gossip (he goes so far to call it the original fourth estate*) could only boost organization in groups up to about 150 people.  Beyond this size it became impossible to keep tabs on everyone.  Thus groups split into more groups; those groups tended to fight one another for hunting rights and territory; and the genus homo never turned into nations.  The difference came when we began imagining things like Genesis.

Once you start imagining things like God, and heaven, and the First Day, you begin to think of stories about them.  Stories which mean things for more people than a hundred and fifty.  They mean you have more than an alpha male.  One day you wake up and you have a common prophet, or a universal lawgiver.  You can organize yourself not by who-knows-who and who's-good-for-what, but by the idea that you all have the same Father, or the same cause, or that all of you who behave the right way are going to the same place.  Thus atheists like to say that religion is backward; but Harari says it's based on the same abstract thinking that turns us into corporations, or Americans.  The winners aren't the people who see past the stories, but the people who have stories so good that they don't want to see through them.  It helps them give up fun things and embrace hard things to do big things with lots of people.  We say we like the truth, but without a good narrative, and one probably injected with large doses of nonsense, we can't organize meaningfully -- like we did to take Europe from the Neanderthal.  Our storytellers are as important to us as engineers, warriors, farmers, and businessmen.

I have no idea what he expects us to do once we've heard this, but this is what he says.  He seems to be trying to ruin our stories with his story.  Atheists don't really have an inspiring narrative, or at least none with a happy future; and what the book seems to be leading to isn't the enlightenment of the human race, but its eventual extinction.  He says many interesting things about us -- that, despite our American myths about the Indians, prehistoric man wasn't any less ecocidal than we are today; that modern man's brains are shrinking because he uses them far less than prehistoric man; that the agricultural revolution was a step back for mankind, in terms of happiness and long-term survivability; that wheat, due to the extensive amount of work we do for it, has cultivated us as much as we've been cultivating it; that human rights are as imaginary as the Bible; that a long time ago, there were other kinds of human species we had trouble breeding with and probably killed off; that intolerance is an extremely human trait; that Europeans have somewhere up to 4% Neanderthal genes, Australian aborigines have up to 6% Denisovan, and others around the world have God-knows-what else -- that we're all, in effect, a mix between different species, and that these cocktails could play a role in our development.  All in all an interesting book but a worrisome, dispiriting one, and less helpful in the long run than The Old Testament -- which may have been his point, but I haven't finished the book, so I'll leave my essay here.  I'll merely say that Christians will hate it and they probably ought to, with good reason.  I, for one, thought it was a fun read, but I see no good in it myself.       

Your father,
-J

*Joan Didion once described the business of journalism as selling people out.

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2 comments:

  1. I'm taking the plunge finally due to your review. Perhaps you did not mean to imply that a scholar of primatology and myth is any more qualified to further predict the continuing arc of mankind than my UPS guy, but on that I disagree. Tell me what you have seen, I'll take it (with the indispensable help of others, probably other Israelis who are smoking hot, as always, on things that matter) from there.

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    1. Not really sure what you mean by "taking the plunge," but I want you to know that this review was only a review of his thoughts -- I wasn't there 50,000 years ago and I don't know what's going to happen 50,000 years from now. Harari wrote an interesting book and this is a review, plus my thoughts, of his thoughts. I'm not a religious man, but I think religion and myths in general are indispensable to not only our survival, but our happiness. He seems to want to get past them. Quite frankly I don't see much difference between getting past them and slitting your own wrists.

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