Questions as experts launch new assault

Bengaluru: “He sacrifices science for sensationalism, and his work is riddled with errors,” behavioral neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan writes in Ongoing casesin a new review of the work of acclaimed author Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari, 46, is the best-selling author Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), its sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015) and other books. His last, We unstoppablea series of children’s books, due out later this year.

Whereas Sapiens treaty of the past, Homo Deus have speculated about the future based on the existence of humans as the dominant species on the planet. Of the two books, the first was a huge publishing success, which made the Israeli author and historian a household name in many parts of the world.

Together, the books claim to explore scientific concepts related to human evolution, philosophy, biology, and culture, as well as the confluence of human behavior and the natural sciences.

With Sapiens sweeping human history, admirers say it’s a book “that can only make you feel smarter for reading it”.

Translated into 65 languages, Sapiens has been widely hailed as “intelligent and thought-provoking non-fiction” and has been recommended as a favorite by leading men, 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 “scientific populist” – a “gifted storyteller” who abandons scientific facts for simple narratives.

John Sexton, alumnus of the Committee on Social Thought, an academic body specializing in the study of philosophy and history, summarized Sapiens as “fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has received”, echoing many in the scientific community.

Needless to say eleven years ago Sapiens was published, Harari, who received his doctorate from Oxford University in 2002 and is currently a lecturer in the history department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, remains a controversial figure.


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Biological defects in Harari’s books and lectures

Sapiens exposes the history of mankind in the words of Harari – from the Stone Age to the present day. He organizes this history into four pieces: the cognitive revolution (70,000 years ago), the agricultural revolution (12,000 years ago), the unification of humanity (2,000 years ago) and the scientist (500 years ago).

Scientists have pointed out several flaws in Harari’s books and lectures.

One of his particularly controversial statements is the following: “Having been so recently one of the outsiders of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties as to our position, which make us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historic calamities, from deadly wars to ecological disasters, have resulted from this too hasty leap.

But evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and many other experts are quick to point out that a species has no collective memory of feelings from millennia ago, nor does it behave deliberately in order not to be the outsiders of the evolutionary tree.

Harari says migration out of Africa is what has led to the cognitive revolution of humanityand that when the ancient foragers had to survive, they used such remarkable intelligence that they are considered cognitively and emotionally similar to us.

However, the speculation was debunked even before he wrote Sapiens.

Anthropologist CR Hallpike pointed out that when linguist Daniel Everett encountered the Piraha gatherers in the Amazon in the 1970s, he found they had no 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. It 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 might have done 30,000 to 70,000 years ago.

Language has been shown to evolve through societal interaction in large groups over millennia, Hallpike said.

Harari also speaks of past kingdoms controlling their subjects through access to financial data, which is what Darshana Narayanan describes as part of surveillance capitalism, “a new business model invented by Google and perfected by Facebook.”

His thoughts align with the ideology propagated by Silicon Valley billionaires that AI is getting smarter than humans, while many scholars deny these claims.

In another section of the book, Harari argues that the laws required to create a society are similar to religion and mythology which invent gods and demons, saying that both require stories that people are convinced to believe. Its amalgamation of unprovable myths passed down from generation to generation through storytelling with established procedures that establish a framework for a functioning society has also drawn the ire of many anthropologists.

Journalist Shawn Vandor points out that when Harari was asked why Silicon Valley was so enamored with his work – “while much of his writing seems to be critical of almost everything he stands for”- he said it was because his message “didn’t threaten them”. According to Vandor, Harari’s work offers meta-narratives for those who dislike them and those who don’t know enough to discern the most significant from the rest.


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“Fictions” in Harari’s Writings

In retrospect, the most obviously erroneous of all statements was Harari asserting in Homo Deus that “the time when humanity was helpless in the face of natural epidemics is probably over. But we may miss it.”

The global death toll from Covid today, according to the World Health Organization, stands at more than 6 million, Darshana Narayanan points out, even as he gives high-profile lectures and makes appearances on the way to survive the pandemic.

Author Jeremy Lent, who has written about human history, thought, and culture, points to four main “fictions” in Harari’s accounts. The first equates all of nature with computers, a myth born in Europe in the 17th century. Believing that nature works like technology leads us to look for technology-driven solutions rather than nature-driven ones, he says.

The second is that human systems follow the “no other alternative” path, where he says that after the collapse of communism, only liberalism remains and it provides no meaningful answer to today’s problems.

The third is an extension of the second, stating that life itself is meaningless and our actions are useless. In this, Harari echoes the metaphysical arguments of Asian philosophers and saints, but, as Carême points out, reduces them to “soundbites” and contradicts millions of years of culture.

The fourth and final is Harari’s assertion that he can “actually observe reality as it is” due to 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 early fiction that believes nature is a machine, thus basing his entire argument on a faulty premise.

In an author profile in the new yorkerHarari’s former Oxford thesis supervisor assumes he shielded himself from expert book criticism by “asking questions so broad” that no one can definitively answer them.

In his 2014 review of Sapiensphilosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson described it as “exaggerated and sensationalistic”, with “a kind of vandalism” in its “sharp” judgements.

(Editing by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)


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