A decade since ‘Sapiens’: Scientific knowledge or populism?

Years after the publication of this book — which turned its author into a global phenomenon — there is still pending doubt about the intellectual rigor of the work by Yuval Noah Harari

Alberto Miranda
Javier Sampedro

It has been 10 years since an obscure history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — Yuval Noah Harari — became one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. The reason was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book he published in 2011, which subsequently exploded on the international market a few years later. Now available in 65 languages — and clocking in at 464 pages in English — it spent 96 weeks in a row on The New York Times’ Bestseller list. It became one of Bill Gates’ 10 favorite books and has sold 45 million copies to date.

Harari is an extraordinary publishing phenomenon — there’s no doubt about that. But Sapiens has often been considered a popular science book, since it deals with some of the central questions of human evolution, such as the development of language and our cognitive abilities. And scientists who deal with these same questions aren’t very comfortable with Harari’s work.

While the world press was full of praise for Sapiens, anthropologists such as Christopher Hallpike, from McMaster University in Canada, found that the book offered no “serious contribution to knowledge.”

“Whenever his facts are broadly correct, they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously,” the anthropologist wrote in a scathing review. Other analysts have pointed out that the text is built on statements that lack empirical evidence, while arbitrary theories and sensational exaggerations abound.

What accounts for this abysmal discrepancy between the public reception of Sapiens and its harsh academic critics? Well, one can imagine that a guy who sells 45 million copies in 65 languages is condemned to receive more than just praise from other experts, who usually struggle to find readers. When a computer scientist sees that Mark Zuckerberg is calling not him, but Harari, to consult on the effects of technology on humanity, he’s understandably mortified, just as an epidemiologist likely is, when he finds out that UNESCO has asked Harari about the effects of Covid on international scientific cooperation. For a long time now, Harrari hasn’t been a simple essayist: he has become the Oracle of Delphi.

The central thesis of Sapiens is that our species — Homo sapiens — came to dominate the world thanks to its ability to cooperate in large numbers. This, in turn, is due to our incredible ability to believe in non-tangible things, such as gods, nations, the value of money and human rights. According to this notion, our mastery of the world is due to our talent for fiction, for constructing (and believing) stories about things that only exist in our imagination. It’s undoubtedly a simple and easy idea to buy into. But the question is whether this idea is also another one of those stories about things that don’t exist.

“We have been seduced by Harari because of the power not of his truth or scholarship, but of his storytelling,” writes neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan of Princeton University, who published an essay that is highly critical of Sapiens in Current Affairs last year. This expert sees Harari as a “science populist” — a talented storyteller who weaves “gifted storyteller who weave sensationists yarns around scientific ‘facts’ in simple, emotionally persuasive language.” Harari’s account of the world is not hampered by nuances and doubts: he disguises himself with “a false air of authority.” Like any populist, the author is a source of misinformation who invents non-existent crises to triumphantly resolve them immediately.

Yuval Noah Harari, photographed in Beverly Hills, in September 2018.
Yuval Noah Harari, photographed in Beverly Hills, in September 2018.©Emily Berl / The New York Time

Harari is a techno-pessimist, if not a scientific catastrophist. His analysis of the scientific revolution is demoralizing for someone who — like me — has dedicated half of their life to trying to explain to the public the importance of science as a force for social progress. The historian sees science as a vector of European imperialism and the cultural homogenization of the modern world: he seems convinced that technology will end our species through genetic engineering and synthetic life. He also thinks that it’s likely that the human species will disappear within 100 years and that the planet will be inherited by artificial intelligence and cyborgs, hybrids of people and machines.

In the new commemorative edition, the author dedicates his best artillery to attack ChatGPT — the fashionable (or almost out of fashion) AI chatbox. In fact, he even asked ChatGPT to write a preface for the new edition of the book. The poor machine has written a piece that does in fact sounds vaguely like Harari:

“In the past, we could have power in the imaginary order of nation-states and the capitalist market. Thanks to that order, we could achieve unprecedented prosperity and well-being. However, the same order is trying to break us down.”

However, Harari wasn’t very pleased. “For now I feel confident,” he says, “[ChatGPT] isn’t going to take my job away… at least not in the next few years.” But he also confesses to being fascinated by the machine: “I had to read the text carefully for a minute or two [before concluding] that no, I didn’t write that.”

Harari’s bestseller barely deals with artificial intelligence. It wasn’t a big deal 12 years ago, which is a reminder of how quickly these technologies have advanced in recent times. The emergence of deep learning and large language models (LLMs) have been an enormous stimulus for the field, of which ChatGPT is only the most famous result. Harari sees these events as “the end of our history as we know it.” In fact, he has announced the end of civilization in several recent op-eds.

“Artificial intelligence and genetic engineering could easily be put at the service of the objectives of tyrants,” the author warns us. Certainly they could, but the same can be said about almost anything. The fact that artificial intelligence is being used to heavily accelerate knowledge of human biology, or that genetic engineering is a fundamental tool in medicine, don’t seem to excite the author too much. As these realities don’t fit into his narrative, he excludes them.

In any case, Harari insists on his central message: that Homo sapiens is best understood as an animal that tells stories. So, let’s look at some of the stories Harari tells. For example, the author assures us that all monkeys have language, in an attempt to downplay the importance of language in the process of human evolution, as he wishes to show us that the true key is our ability to invent narratives. But scientists who have researched how animals communicate — Narayanan among them — don’t believe that monkeys truly have a language: that is, a symbolic, generative and hierarchical system based on rules, such as syntax. Human language is not a mere mode of communication like the one we see in animals — it’s a reconfiguration that affects all our cognitive processes, offering us a “new dimension of reality,” in the words of German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. We don’t know if the narrative capacity is unique to humans, but language — in this sense — certainly seems to be. That Harari discards it as an inconvenient hindrance to his story is hardly tolerable.

“In the fight against disasters such AIDS or Ebola, the balance is increasingly tipping in favor of humanity,” the historian wrote in 2017. “It is, therefore, probable that major epidemics will continue to pose a threat to humankind in the future only if humankind itself generates them, in service to some ruthless ideology.” This was penned two years before the Covid pandemic broke out, killing over 15 million people worldwide. Virologists had been warning for decades that there would be another pandemic — the questions were only about when it would occur and which specific virus would cause it. But Harari opted to sign up for a kind of cheap conspiracy theory. Despite this, once Covid broke out, all the major media outlets — from the BBC to India Today — called Harari to consult him about the best way to handle the pandemic and its future consequences.

Harari’s ideas about artificial intelligence and the end of civilization as we know it are in line with those of big tech moguls such as Elon Musk, who claim to be concerned about the possibility of machines achieving a form of consciousness and taking control. These futuristic speculations get a lot of airtime, but they’re diverting public attention from the damage that algorithms are already doing in a world that is still run by Homo sapiens. Companies widely use AI systems to hire, fire and monitor employees. The algorithms they use feed on texts generated by people, subsequently absorbing the same cognitive biases that prevent human beings from thinking clearly and maintaining a certain sense of justice. These machines have no consciousness and don’t threaten civilization, but they are worsening discrimination based on race, sex and other factors. This is the issue we should be addressing — the rest of the concerns are, for the moment, science fiction.

Even the scientists most critical of Harari recognize his great ability to tell stories. “Harari has seduced us with his storytelling,” neuroscientist Narayanan acknowledges, “but a close look at his record shows that he sacrifices science tosensationalism, often makes grave factual errors and portrays what should be speculative as certain.” This statement captures the impression that Sapiens has made on many scientists, including the author of this article. I must disclose that I also know researchers who admire the book, as well as many others who have never read it.

None of this is to suggest that there’s some kind of scientific police dedicated to verifying the claims made by every author. Harari and his book are a special case, due to the enormous reach and influence they have not only among the public, but also among the magnates who govern our technological destinies. Stimulating public discussion is laudable and necessary, but monopolizing it is a completely different matter. Sapiens has the prestige of a scientific work, but it’s not a scientific work. And this, understandably, has bothered scientists. For in science, there are no Hararis and there are no authorities. There are only informed arguments.

Sapiens is a historian’s book. It shines more in the areas of its competence — the last 5,000 years — than in its forays into the mists of time. Harari believes that humanity — what makes us truly human — is the product of a “cognitive revolution” that occurred 70,000 years ago in the Middle East. This hypothesis is old and clumsy, already discarded and buried when he wrote the book, because half of humanity would be left out of this “cognitive revolution.” Harari disregards — or simply ignores — the deep evolutionary roots of our brain (and the rest of our body). The evolution of the human mind didn’t begin 70,000 years ago, but 500 million years ago, on the coasts of the Cambrian continents. Talking about evolution without having some notion of biology is audacious, usually leading to confusion among the public.

You should read Sapiens if you haven’t already. It’s a very entertaining book. Just make sure to remember that it isn’t a work of science — it’s a story.

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