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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

"Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari

The real beauty of this book is that it is written in very clear, very accessible, very simple language. It explains ideas and concepts. And it covers 2 million years of human history in 466 pages.

The inevitable downside of all this simplicity and brevity and clarity is that it admits no uncertainty. There is no suggestion that the ideas it presents may be controversial, that even the facts it offers are interpretations of evidence about which there are often fundamental disagreements.

For example, on page 55 he states that there is "some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging." (p 55) Fair enough. But he then builds speculation on this evidence as if it were a fact. Human brains have decreased in size because agriculture opened up "niches for imbeciles".  One of his great themes is how well adapted humans were to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and how much more miserable agricultural peasants were than their forebears.

He defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order" (p 255) and thus he claims that Buddhism and Marxism are religions even though they deny the supernatural. I would classify religions as systems of beliefs that accept the supernatural and thus I would deny that either Buddhism or Marxism are religions. He doesn't argue the point, he just states his definition and that is that. Later he says "if it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion" but that just made me feel patronised! Presumably science, in that the Laws of Nature are 'superhuman' and that  a scientist is likely to have a world view with human norms and values embedded into it (such as Occam's razor) qualifies as a religion. Hmm.

Another example: On page 266 he states that "one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline" is that "historians tend to be sceptical of ... deterministic theories." Yet this comes at the end of several pages when he is arguing that empires inevitably grow.

I mean, I like the idea that: "Capitalism's belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of nearly everything we know about the universe. ... The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years." (p 352) But is this a fact or Mr Harari's opinion?

I have grumbled enough. Such a wide sweep over world history in such an accessible book inevitably requires short cuts. On balance, Sapiens is a delightful book with lots of brilliant insights. I agree with most of his claims above. I also thoroughly enjoyed the insights below.

  • Chimpanzees have a hierarchical structure in which less dominant grunt and grovel to the alpha male (p 28)
  • The Maoris only reached New Zealand 800 years ago; almost immediately the islands' mega-fauna became extinct. (p 74): We are not the first generation to drive other species out of existence.
  • Wheat "domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than the other way around". (p 90)
  • "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural." (p 164) Some things are forbidden in our culture but they are not 'unnatural'
  • "Every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions." (p 182) For example, the values of equality and freedom inevitably contradict one another (p 183) "Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values , it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture." (p 184) Eg God and the devil. Logically, monotheists cannot admit a dualistic belief such as the devil (p 247)
  • History is a "level two chaotic system" (p 267) because predictions made by historians are likely to affect the outcome (the weather is a level 1 chaotic system because weather forecasts won't affect what the weather is ,unless we start seeding clouds etc). He suggests that this is likely to make historians "prophets who predict things that don't happen" (p 268)!
  • Cultures are "a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host", carried by memes (p 270)
  • "Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics, but politics should not be allowed to influence capital." (p 367)
  • "It is chilling to contemplate what might have happened if Gorbachev had behaved ... like the French in Algeria." (p 414)
  • Many of us act like a man on the beach trying to welcome good waves and push back bad waves. Buddhists suggest we should behave like a man who "sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please." (p 442)

Read this book. It is beautifully written and full of important ideas (but remember that they are ideas, not holy writ). November 2015; 466 pages

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