Harari, Sapiens and historical accuracy : does it matter ?


I’ve been quite enjoying the latest hot book: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Hebrew University historian Yuval Noah Harari. He has a real flair for making complicated concepts readable. I would never have plowed through hundreds of pages about the fine lines distinguishing Neanderthals from Denisovans from Homo sapiens, or delving into the foraging habits of our forefathers on the prairie, were it not for his lively and engaging style. Consider this thought bubble: “It is unsettling—and perhaps thrilling—to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together” (17). As a writer, I am of course persuaded by his list of elements in our origin myth of civilization, especially by the large role played by “the inter-subjective,” described as phenomena that are “neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations” (117).

I also appreciate his cultural analysis of education: “From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.” Nevertheless, the two examples he provides for this fascinating array of cultural productions are disappointing: blue jeans and “Dear Sir or Madam” (113).

It is a pity—and sort of alarming–that he dispenses with dialogue among his colleagues in the academy with one rather cavalier sentence: “The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. In the limited space at our disposal we can only scratch the surface” (113). This may be credible if Harari’s book were short. But at 443 pages!?

RE: his grasp of French history? Well, it is worse than Wikipedia. Or am I being overly critical?

Consider the following passages from Chapter 16, “The Capitalist Credo.”

He describes the Law System hence: “In 1717 the Mississippi Company, chartered in France, set out to colonise the lower Mississippi valley, establishing the city of New Orleans in the process. To finance its ambitious plans, the company, which had good connections at the court of King Louis XV, sold shares on the Paris stock exchange. John Law, the company’s director, was also the governor of the central bank of France. Furthermore, the king had appointed him controller-general of finances…”(322)

Well, there is much that is true, except that the ruler of France in 1715 to 1723 was not King Louis XV but rather the duc d’Orléans, Regent. Surely that matters?  And the fact that Law was a Scot, and that the Regent’s friends and allies opposed Law’s reforms, accelerating what Harari calls “one of history’s most spectacular financial crashes” from which “the royal French financial system” never recuperated fully (324).

[Wikipedia mentions the Regent.]

This would not have bothered me overly much, had I not read on, for his account of the financial evolution through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

“In order to finance his growing debts, the king of France borrowed more and more money at higher and higher interest rates. Eventually, in the 1780s, Louis XVI, who had ascended to the throne on his grandfather’s death, realised that half his annual budget was tied to servicing the interest on his loans, and that he was heading towards bankruptcy. Reluctantly, in 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General, the French parliament that had not met for a century and a half, in order to find a solution to the crisis. Thus began the French Revolution.

While the French overseas empire was crumbing, the British empire was expanding greatly.  Like the Dutch Empire before it, the British Empire was established and run largely by private joint-stock companies based in the London stock exchange” (324).

After pointing at the Plymouth Company and the British East India Company, Harari finishes this sweep through the period from 1614 to 1858, concluding: “Napoleon made fun of the British, calling them a nation of shopkeepers. Yet these shopkeepers defeated Napoleon himself, and their empire was the largest the world has ever seen” (325).

What!? For one thing, it was Voltaire who said that (in Lettres sur les Anglais 1733). And wasn’t the French overseas empire, or the biggest wave of French colonization anyway, actually emerging in the 1830s—1870s? Even Wikipedia admits that “By 1900 [France] was the second-largest colonial empire in the world behind the British Empire.” Harari’s summary of the French Revolution is strangely corporate-sounding, as if it arose from a bunch of angry businessmen at an annual meeting.

Still, you have to love a book that ends with Frankenstein! Harari’s take is not original but it is gripping, and the way he puts down us Homo sapiens is humorously irreverent:  “We seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr Frankenstein can create only terrible monsters, whom we should have to destroy in order to save the world. We like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all things … We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look down at us condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals” (412).

Terrifying, and good for selling books!

–with thanks to Fabrice Rozié, Cultural attaché of the French Consulate, Chicago, for telling me about this amazing book.


4 thoughts on “Harari, Sapiens and historical accuracy : does it matter ?

  1. I’ve been listening to this in my car on my commute to and from teaching. I’ve been really enjoying the unusual style and wording and have learned a good deal, too.

    One thing that really sticks out to me is his odd definition and beginning/ending point of “history” – the development of human cultures / cognitive revolution. Such a definition is very limiting, unusual, and basically wrong, I’d say. It’s not just humans who have history. And history didn’t just suddenly start. And what about all the history before there were “cultures.” What is a “culture”? But definitions of history are something I really pay attention to. I always tell my students that, for example, US History started with the Big Bang. The “big picture” approach is so important! 🙂

    1. Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your comment. Well, it is a provocative book and he is trying to get people to think about the consequences of our species’s actions, so I guess that is good. The way he describes our subjugation to wheat and corn is bizarre, but it did make me think.

    2. The book is about Human History, not Natural History. Why would he start a book about Human History before the origin of the human species in my opinion unless he wanted to trace our (non-human) origins back to the Big Bang?

      1. It’s an overly ambitious book, clearly. Has some good bits though. I didn’t toss it when I moved 2,160 miles across the country, so it must have some lasting value for me!

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