Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (London: Vintage Books, 2014)
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli professor of world history and a best-selling author. He lives in the moshav (agricultural cooperative) of Mesilat Zion (founded on Bayt Mahsir, a “depopulated” Palestinian village). He is remarkable not only because of the breadth of his view of history but for his attempt to ground his history in biological science.
Harari published Sapiens in Hebrew in 2011 and it has since been translated into English, making for a perfect airport paperback. The opening flap breathlessly proclaims: “I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.” The book is adorned with the most prestigious of blurbs: Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Daniel Kahneman, Chris Evans (an establishment historian specializing in the Third Reich), Jared Diamond (a Jewish author who in his famous Guns, Germs, and Steel simultaneously claimed that race played no role in civilizational differences and that Stone Age Papua-New-Guineans are more intelligent than Europeans). Sapiens has over 4,000 customer reviews on Amazon and has been promoted by influential billionaires such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
All that is enough to make one suspicious, but Sapiens is in fact a very interesting book. And were it not for a catastrophic chapter denying regional human evolution and attributing all racial inequalities to discrimination, I would say this is a good book. Harari provides a stimulating overview of the biological and social changes in human life over the last 200,000 years, a withering critique of egalitarian liberalism as fundamentally in denial about human biological nature, a positive account of the European empires’ massive contribution to science and human development, and even a rather fair and nuanced account of German National Socialism.
This book has a dark side however. Harari is an advocate not just of empire, but of world-empire, and his work is ultimately an apology for a technologically-advanced world dominated by a small, rootless international elite.
Reconstruction of Homo rudolfensis (a similar image appears in Sapiens)
Harari’s book seeks to ground human history in light of evolutionary theory and biological science. Human beings have been hunter-gatherers for 200,000 years, farmers for 10,000 years, and (post-)industrial workers for less than 200 years. Our psychological hardware is therefore defined first and foremost by what was adaptive in prehistoric tribal societies of hunter-gatherers. Harari covers humans’ development as bipeds, cooks, socio-linguistic creatures, and much else, with an impressive breadth of scope.
Harari is often refreshingly realistic. Hunter-gatherers may have been healthier in terms of diet and lifestyle than their agricultural descendants, but they were by no means peaceful: “Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark” (19). Human beings are furthermore instinctively ethnocentric: “Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else” (190). Harari presents much evidence for humans’ constant competition for status within societies and for tremendous violence between societies. Europe’s twentieth century was not, in fact, particularly violent by historical standards (rather, I would argue that the twentieth century came to seem extraordinarily violent as Westerners have grown extraordinarily wimpish).
Harari often amusingly skewers the left. “Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim our ancestors lived in harmony with nature,” for the expansion of humans in various continents coincides quite perfectly with the extermination of local megafauna (82). He also remarks on the current obsession with climate change: “It’s common today to explain anything and everything as the result of climate change, but the truth is that earth’s climate never rests” (73).
Harari strongly emphasizes the regionalization and recentness of human evolution up to but not including Homo Sapiens. Multiple human species emerged in different continents over the past 2 million years:
Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name. (6)
But all the rivals to Sapiens (Neanderthalensis, Erectus, Soloensis, Floresiensis) were exterminated and/or replaced by us, sometimes as late as 10,000 years ago.
Harari presents a loose definition of “species” as any group of animals which tends to breed only among their own. A recent study found that a new species of Galapagos finches can develop in as little as two generations, because the finches tend to reproduce only with birds sharing the same shaped beak. This means that hybridized finches, which might occasionally be produced due to the migration of males into new populations, would then mate only among themselves and form a new, perfectly identifiable species.
Harari believes that Sapiens, which emerged 150,000 years ago, has been a relatively unremarkable hominid species for most of its existence. That is, until the so-called “Cognitive Revolution” which is supposed to have happened between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. This biological revolution entailed significant changes in human social and cognitive abilities, including speech and imagination, which would have given Sapiens uniquely powerful abilities of social cooperation and cultural adaptation. These fundamental skills, we are led to believe, allowed Sapiens to expand out of Africa, exterminating virtually all forms of large flightless animals along the way, including all other hominids.
So far, so good. However, Harari simultaneously states that there has been no significant regionalized human evolution since the expansion out of Africa 45,000 years ago. He claims that “the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible,” and that therefore these cannot explain social differences between ethnic groups (161). He also specifically says: “Between black and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin color and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality” (152).
In fact, mainstream scientists recognize that human regional evolution over the last 45,000 years has been sufficient to produce meaningfully different physical features (as recognized by forensic science), health factors (as recognized by the medical profession), and sporting ability between racial groups. Thus, Harari and other blank-slatists are effectively claiming countless human organs and muscles have undergone significant change due to regional human evolution with the single exception of . . . the brain, the single most important human organ insofar as this distinguishes us from non-sentient animals and defines us as social and cultural beings. This does not seem credible. The theory seems to be that the organ that gave rise to the cognitive revolution as the result of natural selection somehow managed to avoid natural selection in the subsequent 45,000 years despite confronting very different natural and socio-cultural environments in different parts of the world. A Gouldian miracle!
Harari’s narrative also strikes me as internally incoherent on this mark. The Cognitive Revolution is supposed to have happened between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, that is to say, it ended after the supposed expansion of human beings out of Africa which Harari claims happened 45,000 years ago. This implies that 15,000 years of Cognitive Revolution would have occurred when human evolution was regionalized, which would result in regionally-differentiated populations with different cognitive abilities and temperaments. What’s more, the Cognitive Revolution is supposed to have occurred over a period of 40,000 years, which implies that massive evolutionary change in humans can take place over such a short period. Human beings have been inhabiting different regions of the Earth for at least 45,000 years, a comparable period, with limited gene flow between regions. This implies that it is highly likely that there would be regionally-differentiated populations — differentiated in both their bodies and brains — evolving according to local selection pressure, which was very different “in the snowy forests of northern Europe [and] Indonesia’s steaming jungles.” Harari seems to be completely unaware of his contradictions.
One can debate these complex issues, but for Harari to say there is “no evidence” for the opposing side is simply an outrageous falsehood that dismisses over a century of scientific study. There is a mountain of historical, social, psychometric, and genetic evidence for regionalized human evolution and differences in cognition and temperament. Brain shape itself has been found to be highly predictive of racial ancestry!
Harari however does imply that regional racial differences would exist if Sapiens had interbred with other hominid species (the so-called Interbreeding vs. Replacement debate):
A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans, and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories. (17)
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal child (the image also appears in Sapiens).
The Interbreeding Hypothesis is now widely accepted. Estimates suggest that 1–3% of Eurasian DNA is Neanderthal and up to 3–5% of Melanesan DNA. This would however by no means be the only source of regional genetic differences.
Elsewhere, Harari recognizes that recent evolution may be quick, as when he argues that civilization has led to dysgenic pressures (without using the term):
There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new “niches for imbeciles” were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker. (55)
Harari elsewhere points out the maladaptive nature of childless elites, such as “the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders, and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies” (37), and pokes fun at the Pope for being a curiously barren “alpha male.”
From Biohistory to Biopolitics
We can salute Harari for seriously seeking to ground the social sciences, including history and politics, in biology, which is after all the foundation of physical human existence. Harari writes that: “Biology sets the basic parameters for the behavior and the capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena” (43).
The Cognitive Revolution, Harari argues, meant that culture could now have a massive role in human development. This was a huge evolutionary advantage, because it meant that human societies could experiment with new forms of social organization through cultural change, rather than solely through slow genetic change. With the Cognitive Revolution and the rise of culture, human development became not only biological, but also historical. Harari wisely cautions however: “This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws” (42).
Harari argues that every society is constrained by a particular “horizon of possibilities”:
A “horizon of possibilities” means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices, and experiences that are open before a particular society, given its ecological, technological, and cultural limitations. Each society and each individual usual explore only a tiny fraction of their horizon of possibilities. (51)
This seems to me to be a very fine definition, though we must add the biological limitations that humans face, which also differ according to a society’s gene pool.
Against Liberal Equality
This grounding in biological reality leads Harari to a full-throated attack on modern liberalism as an ideology. Harari argues, I think rightly, that human societies are held together by shared myths, taking the example of the hierarchic Code of Hammurabi and the egalitarian Declaration of Independence: “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth” (122).
Harari then mercilessly skewers the Declaration of Independence:
According to the science of biology, people were not “created.” They evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be “equal.” . . . However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation, and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. (121–22)
Harari remarks that there is “no such things as rights in biology” (123) and rewrites Jefferson’s famous Declaration into a biologically-accurate parody:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure. (123)
Harari then backtracks slightly, observing that a society needs myths, not necessarily accurate ones, to hold together. But do false values, whether incoherent or not in line with reality, not lead a society to perdition?
National Socialism as an “Evolutionary Humanism”
Harari’s grounding of his history and politics in biology leads him to make a surprisingly balanced and nuanced appraisal of German National Socialism. Harari describes all modern ideologies (again, I believe rightly) as in effect secular religions and variants of humanism: liberal humanism (liberalism), socialist humanism (communism), and evolutionary humanism (National Socialism and, presumably, various eugenic ideologies). Liberalism and communism were however tainted by unscientific egalitarian assumptions inherited from Christianity. Harari says:
The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of “humanity,” one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.
The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. (258)
You heard it here folks, and from an Israeli professor no less: Le national-socialisme est un humanisme ! Harari goes on:
The Nazis did not loathe humanity. They fought liberal humanism, human rights, and Communism precisely because they admired humanity and believed in the great potential of the human species. But following the logic of Darwinian evolution, they argued that natural selection must be allowed to weed out unfit individuals and leave only the fittest to survive and reproduce. By succoring the weak, liberalism and Communism not only allowed unfit individuals to survive, they actually gave them the opportunity to reproduce, thereby undermining natural selection. (261)
Harari then quotes, with no sign of disapproval, a National-Socialist-era biology textbook on the inseparability of life and struggle:
Biology not only tells us about animals and plants, but also shows us the laws we must follow in our lives, and steels our wills to live and fight according to these laws. The meaning of life is struggle. Woe to him who sins against these laws. (262)
Harari then reproduces the textbook’s quotation from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “The person who attempts to fight the iron logic of nature thereby fights the principles he must thank for his life as a human being. To fight against nature is to bring about one’s own destruction” (262).
It is striking that of the three humanisms proposed — liberal, egalitarian, and evolutionary — Harari is clearly advocating for the latter, despite the association with National Socialism. Harari only discretely observes that National Socialism exaggerated the genetic differences between human beings, on which we would have to partially agree.
It is also noteworthy that Harari cogently summarizes Nordic and Aryan theories (259, 155), and notes that National Socialist racial and eugenic ideas were for the most part well within the scientific mainstream of the 1930s. Harari eloquently concludes:
A huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences, a gulf we cannot ignore much longer. . . . Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science? (263)
Harari’s Bizarre Blank-Slatism
Sapiens’ Chapter 8, “There Is No Justice in History,” is dedicated to unequal outcomes between ethnic groups. We discover the usual blank-slatist excuses and even a basically “social constructivist” interpretation of gender norms. The contrast with the rest of the book could not be more startling. This chapter is one-sided, old-fashioned, and simplistic.
Harari’s blank-slatism even extends to social class. He claims, like a Marxist professor and without providing any citation:
It’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family. (152–53)
This is simply a ludicrous claim in modern societies, characterized by mass education and the elimination of formal caste barriers, not to mention the data from behavioral genetics. Modern Western societies tend to be reasonably porous and meritocratic, as a result of which individuals tend, over the generations, to rise or fall in the social system according to their temperament and abilities (above all their intelligence). Harari makes only the slightest nod to the role of “natural abilities” in determining social outcomes and implies these are overwhelmed by unequal nurturing and discrimination (153–54).
Harari devotes considerable attention to inequality between American Whites and Blacks, mostly ignoring inequalities between other groups (such as Asians’ and Jews’ having more wealth and, in many areas, more elite representation relative to Whites). As mentioned above, Harari claims that while Blacks and Whites may have evolved different appearance, health outcomes, and so on, their brains were miraculously protected from such selective pressure.
Harari is then reduced to explaining away the Black-White gap in America by an unupdated version of Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 “Vicious Circle” hypothesis: Blacks underperform relative to Whites purely because of the self-reinforcing cycle of discrimination and poverty. This hypothesis would be a bit more persuasive if there had been a meaningful reduction in the Black-White gap in the last 50 years. After all, since the 1960s, we have witnessed desegregation, an “affluent society” of historically unprecedented wealth, the welfare state, and “positive discrimination” (“Affirmative Action”) in favor of Blacks and other underperforming minorities. Yet, strikingly, there has been, on the whole, no significant reduction in the Black-White gap in terms of educational performance, wealth, or criminality. This strongly suggests factors other than White discrimination are at work. I suggest that Black advancement has also been retarded by social liberalism, notably due to the collapse of the Black family and to integration’s de facto being a brain drain, leading many Black neighborhoods to collapse due to their being deprived of a native Black middle-class leadership.
Harari dismisses a century of evolutionary science and psychometric tests showing differences between Blacks and Whites as nothing more than a racially-motivated conspiracy to justify White supremacy:
But people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it’s economically expedient. Like the Aryan conquerors of India, white Europeans in the Americas wanted to be seen not only as economically successful but also as pious, just, and objective. . . . Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases — in other words, they are a source of pollution. (157)
On the latter point, Harari notes later these scientists were right in observing higher rates of infection among Blacks, but he feels the need to psycho-pathologize this utterly legitimate observation and concern.
Harari is only very slightly more open to recognizing biology’s role in observed social differences between men and women. He rightly says: “Since patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious circle that was kick-started by a chance occurrence” (171–72). Harari is apparently unaware of the similar universality of the Black-White gap (or indeed of the gaps between Blacks and other groups, such as Indians or Chinese . . .), which is visible just about everywhere where the two groups coexist: namely France, Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, etc.
Even concerning men and women, Harari argues gender roles (such as a female penchant for child-rearing and a male one for aggression) are essentially socially constructed. He weirdly even downplays physical differences between men and women: “There are also many women who can run faster and lift heavier weights than many men” (172). This certainly has not stopped more and more men claiming to be “transsexual women” from participating in women’s sporting events and annihilating the competition with their male bodies. I suggest that it would be more accurate to say that men and women have different propensities due to millions of years of very distinct reproductive strategies, and that these can be magnified or partially suppressed through culture. (I would add that culture should, rather than seeking to mindlessly iron out differences, try to encourage complementary gender norms which are conducive to both individual happiness and the well-being of the species.)
Harari claims our concept of what is “natural” stems from arbitrary Christian theology and thus: “There is little sense . . . in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth, or that homosexuality is unnatural” (166). This is very questionable. From a Greek philosophical, and in particular Aristotelian, perspective, that which is “natural” is that which enables a thing to fulfill its nature and potential. If the human race is to exist and thrive, women (and indeed ideally the most gifted women) must bear children, and to that extent it is natural and good that they do so. Men should, for their part, provide women all the help possible in protecting and rearing these children.
 Harari gives a sympathetic account of the Aché people of Paraguay, who had a custom of murdering disabled or sickly members of the tribe, so that the entire tribe would still be mobile and survive (59—60). Comparisons with the Third Reich’s notorious T4 program came to mind.
 The analogy with certain human populations, using culture to form genetically-distinct populations by controlling reproduction, is fascinating. The genetic evidence suggests that the Ashkenazi Jewish population was formed, like the finches, by the migration of males and their intermarriage with indigenous females, and then culturally-mandated inbreeding, thus becoming a distinct hybridized population with distinct genetic and phenotypic characteristics (undeniably so in terms of health, but most significantly in terms of behavior.) From this perspective, bans on miscegenation can then be considered a way of encouraging speciation and the preservation of distinct genetic and phenotypic characteristics in a population.
On which see David Epstein, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (Penguin, 2013).
See for instance, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994).
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper & Brothers, 1944).
Sadly, little has changed concerning Black Americans and infectious diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection observes: “Blacks/African Americans account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses, those living with HIV, and those ever diagnosed with AIDS, compared to other races/ethnicities. In 2015, African Americans accounted for 45% of HIV diagnoses, though they comprise 12% of the US population.” Source: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/racialethnic/africanamericans/index.html
The relevant data was most memorably compiled in J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (Transaction Books, 1995).
A recent case of this increasingly banal blank-slatist insanity: “Male weightlifter Gavin Hubbard has won a medal competing against women under the name ‘Laurel.’ Hubbard, 39, won two women’s silver medals at the world championships of the International Weightlifting Federation in Anaheim, California this week.” Source: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/whatever-he-wins-is-worthless-transgender-man-competes-in-womens-weightlift