Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
Kinnneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir (Hebrew edition) 2011
McLelland & Stewart (English paperback) 2016
I picked up this book believing Harari was an anthropologist. He’s actually an Israeli historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His area of of specialty is medieval and military history.*
The book is aimed at a sixth grade reading level and and displays a disappointing lack of scholarship (Harari has mentioned in several interviews that “meditation” is a primary tool he uses in research). Largely based on popular pseudo-scientific mythology, it seems aimed at promoting Harari’s pet theories linking history and biology to conclude humans have no serious alternative to the pro-corporate political/economic regime we currently live under.
Many of his assertions blatantly contradict existing research evidence:
- Harari devotes a whole chapter to the history of money, which he erroneously traces back to barter. This is a discredited myth first promulgated by Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations. Recent anthropological research indicates that primitive credit creation (rather than barter) was the true precursor to coins and notes.
- He states Columbus died erroneously believing he had discovered islands off the west coast of India, which is totally unsupported by the contemporaneous letters and diaries (See Lies My Teacher Told Me).
- He maintains industrialized agriculture was essential to the development of industrialized cities, which totally overlooks major cities India built in a country devoted almost exclusively to pre-industrial agriculture. At present industrialized agriculture only produces 20% of the food we eat. See Capitlaism, Colonialism and the Failure of Industrial Agriculture
- He promotes the discredited myth that fields and and feed lots have become vastly more productive thanks to artificial fertilizers and pesticides, hormones, and GMOs. More than two decades of research reveals otherwise – that industrial monoculture agriculture produces far fewer calories per acre than traditional polyculture methods that emphasize soil health. Other research reveals industrial farming methods are systematically degrading and depleting topsoil, as well as killing vital soil organisms and pollinators (such as bees).
- He also promotes the discredited serotonin model of happiness promoted by drug companies, despite hundreds of studies showing SSRIs are no more effective in alleviating depression than placebo.
Some of his claims are just plain ludicrous (even for 2011):
- Since 1945 no independent nation recognized by the UN has been wiped off the map. (He conveniently overlooks Palestine)
- The world has seen no international wars since 1945. (What about the US wars on Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen?).
- Famine has been eliminated (He seems to overlook the 800,000 – 1,000,000 million people who die annually from malnutrition and malnutrition-related illness).
- He assures us that prophecies of resource scarcity are “probably misplaced” (ignoring well-documented collapse of fish stocks, die off of bees and other pollinators, freshwater shortages, and topsoil depletion).
- He maintains if we are sick in modern society, health insurance steps in (Is he joking?)