Bengaluru: “He sacrifices science for sensationalism, and his work is riddled with errors,” writes behavioural neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan in Current Affairs, in a new critique of celebrated author Yuval Noah Harari’s work.
Harari, 46, is the author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), its sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), and other books. His latest, Unstoppable Us, a children’s book series, is scheduled to hit the shelves later this year.
While Sapiens dealt with the past, Homo Deus speculated about the future based on humans’ existence as the dominant species on the planet. Of the two books, the former was a huge publication success, leading to the Israeli author and historian becoming close to a household name in many parts across the world.
The books together claim to explore the scientific concepts related to human evolution, philosophy, biology and culture, and the confluence of human behaviour and natural science.
With Sapiens sweeping through human history, admirers say it is a book “that can’t help but make you feel smarter for having read it”.
Translated into 65 languages, Sapiens was hailed widely for being an “intelligent, challenging nonfiction” and was recommended as a favourite by men of note, such as Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, and former US President Barack Obama.
However, critics like Narayanan say Harari is a “science populist” — a “gifted storyteller” who abandons scientific facts for simple narratives.
John Sexton, former student at the Committee on Social Thought, an academic body specialising in the study of philosophy and history, has summarised Sapiens as “fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has been receiving”, echoing many in the scientific community.
Needless to say, eleven years since Sapiens was published, Harari, who received his PhD from the University of Oxford in 2002 and is currently a lecturer at the department of history in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, remains a controversial figure.
Biological flaws in Harari’s books, lectures
Sapiens lays out the history of humankind in Harari’s words — from the Stone Age to modern day. He organises this history into four chunks: cognitive revolution (70,000 years ago), agricultural revolution (12,000 years ago), unification of humankind (2,000 years ago), and the scientific revolution (500 years ago).
Scientists have pointed out several flaws in Harari’s books and lectures.
One particularly controversial statement of his goes thus: “Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”
But evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and many other experts are quick to point out that a species does not have collective memory of feelings from millennia ago, nor does it behave purposefully with the objective of not being underdogs on the evolutionary tree.
Harari says migration out of Africa is what led to the cognitive revolution of humankind, and that when ancient foragers had to survive, they utilised such remarkable intelligence that they are seen as cognitively and emotionally similar to us.
However, the speculation was debunked even before he wrote Sapiens.
Anthropologist C.R. Hallpike has pointed out that when linguist Daniel Everett met the Pirahã foragers in the Amazon in the 1970s, he discovered they did not have conceptual understanding of numbers, past and future, or myths and stories.
Their understanding of reality was limited to the present and the world around them, he found. This was said to extinguish any possibility that they could understand, say a book like Alice in Wonderland or the paradoxes of quantum physics, as Harari claims humans could have been able to do 30,000-70,000 years ago.
Language has been shown to evolve through societal interaction in large groups over millennia, said Hallpike.
Harari also talks about kingdoms of the past controlling their subjects through access to financial data, which falls in line with what Darshana Narayanan describes as part of surveillance capitalism, “a new economic model invented by Google and perfected by Facebook”.
His thoughts align with the ideology propagated by Silicon Valley billionaires that AI is heading towards becoming smarter than humans, while many specialists debunk these claims.
In another section of the book, Harari argues that laws required to establish a corporation are similar to religion and mythology that invent gods and demons, saying both require stories people are convinced by to believe. His conflation of non-provable myths passed down from generations through storytelling with established procedures that lay a framework for a functioning society, has drawn the ire of many anthropologists, too.
Journalist Shawn Vandor points out that when Harari was asked why Silicon Valley is so enamoured with his work — “when much of his writing seems critical of nearly everything they stand for” — he said it was because his message was “not threatening to them”. According to Vandor, Harari’s work offers metanarratives for those who don’t like them and those who don’t know enough to discern the meaningful ones from the others.
The ‘fictions’ in Harari’s writings
Most obviously flawed of all statements in retrospect was Harari claiming in Homo Deus that “the era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it”.
The global Covid death toll today, according to the World Health Organization, stands at over 6 million, Darshana Narayanan points out, even as he gives high-profile talks and makes guest appearances on how to survive the pandemic.
Author Jeremy Lent, who has written about human history, thought, and culture, points out four main “fictions” in Harari’s sweeping narratives. The first is equating all of nature to computing, a myth that originated in Europe in the 17th century. Believing that nature functions like technology leads us to seek solutions oriented around technology rather than nature, he elaborates.
The second is that human systems follow “no other alternative” path, where he says that after the collapse of communism, only liberalism remains and that provides no meaningful answers to today’s problems.
The third is an extension of the second, stating that life itself is meaningless and our actions are pointless. In this, Harari echoes metaphysical arguments by Asian philosophers and saints, but, as Lent points out, reduces them to “sound bites” as well as contradicts millions of years of culture.
The fourth and the last is Harari’s claim that he can “actually observe reality as it is” because of his Vipassana practice, which leads him to conclude that reality itself is the perception of reality. Harari writes from a lens that claims to be scientifically objective, Lent explains, but his understanding of science revolves around the first fiction that believes nature is a machine, thus basing his entire argument on a flawed premise.
In a profile of the author in The New Yorker, Harari’s former PhD adviser from Oxford guesses that he protected himself from expert criticism of the book by “asking questions so large” that no one can answer them definitively.
In his 2014 review of Sapiens, philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson described it as “exaggerated and sensationalist”, with “a kind of vandalism” in his “sweeping” judgments.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)