The Unwise Sapiens of Yuval Harari

Posted by  $  MikeMarotta 9 months ago to Books
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Despite (or perhaps indicative of) its runway popularity, this book is shallow and facile, drawn from second-hand sources and not well integrated in its presentations.

Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind by Juval Noah Harari. (Harper, 2014. 443 pages.)

Harari failed to correctly explain the origin of writing, the origin of counting, the origin of money, and the origin of coinage. They are all tightly bound. In every case, his supporting citations point to other popularizers, rather than validated peer-reviewed academic publications. So, he gets a lot of the details wrong. From those he builds his attractive and erroneous narrative. Finally, like me and other bloggers, he is a synthesizer, collecting and republishing ideas that he likes without actually challenging any of those claims for their want of proof.

One such assertion is that the agricultural revolution was not worth the price. Domestication of wheat brought longer working hours and slavery. It actually brought malnutrition, and set the stage for periodic starvation never known to hunter-gatherers.

I reviewed Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning (North Point Press, 2004 ISBN: 0865476225) for the Objectivist discussion site, Rebirth of Reason, in 2006 and later in 2010. I wrote: "Among Manning's many points is that the "surplus" usually went to a handful of unproductive people, priests and nobles. Moreover, as I pointed out in my original review, the nobles themselves hunted -- which they denied to those who were bound to the cultivating fields. Nobles did not suffer a steady diet of grain. When times were good, they ate well, a variety -- another point Jacobs(1) made about city life -- with lots of fresh meat."

It is an interesting fact to consider. But Harari just stops there. He does not see strawberries in January. Cutting off our food supply is integral to his thesis, which includes disdain for liberal humanism. Harari advocates for the postmodern anti-industrial revolution.
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(1) [Jacobs referred to Jane Jacobs and her book The Economy of Cities. According to Jacobs agriculture began in the cities, not the other way around. The first cities evolved from the permanent camps of successful hunter-gatherers who gathered to exchange their surplus. Among those bounties were grains and other plant foods. The first wild gardens - a consequence of midden heaps - became cultivated fields that were moved outside the city walls.]


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  • Posted by Herb7734 9 months ago
    When I read many of MM's posts I often feel like a student at a lecture or having essays corrected. The neat thing about it is that it often gives fresh insights or kills off incorrect ones. This time, however, the first part got me thinking about what it would be like to live in those times at the beginnings of civilization. The thrilling breakthrough of learning to count. The invention of a new word or phrase. All the things we take for granted in learning to count, math, communication. What excitement these breakthroughs must have caused. Even not-so-long-ago, wouldn't it be wonderful to walk up to Pythagoras and ask, 'Where did you get the inspiration for that triangle business?I guss those hundred thousand tons of stone got my imagination running full bore.
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  • Posted by CircuitGuy 9 months ago
    I liked the parts of the book about how our culture is a set of short cuts so that when we meet a stranger we have convenient points of reference for interaction before we know the stranger. I thought it was a stretch when he described the modern monetary system and said it was similar to a religion. He also said the desire to take vacations in distant places is a similar cultural expedient. There are reasons to use fiat money and to travel to distant places. Those behaviors are not just cultural like counting beads on a rosary.
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    • Posted by  $  9 months ago
      One reviewer - you can find it at the end of the Wikipedia article - likened the book to a college dormitory bull session.

      It is not that money is a religion, but that religion and money are both conceptual constructs. Society is another.

      Even within a tribe, rites of passage place you within a new group. Abstracted from that and far distant in time from that, the ancient Greeks had mystery cults: you belonged to a society different than your "tribe" (phylum). The philosophical schools were later examples of the same thing. In the Middle Ages, they had craft guilds. "Society" is an idea. So are religion, money, science, and tying knots. But Harari says that they are all falsehoods, just other kinds of religion, making religion-ness the essential distinguishing characteristic.

      (BTW, even though Catholics say the that the rosary was given to the Virgin Mary by the archangel Gabriel, in fact, prayer beads were brought back to Europe by returning crusaders.)
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      • Posted by  $  Dobrien 9 months ago
        Prayer beads are commonly associated with the Middle Ages (A.D. 600–1400) and Roman Catholicism. Their use, however, is universal and predates the Christian Era. Christianity, in fact, was the last of the major religions to employ prayer beads in an important ritualistic role. Even today, the religions of nearly two-thirds of the world's population utilize some form of prayer beads.

        The word bead is derived from the Anglo-Saxon bidden ("to pray") and bede ("prayer"). During the medieval period, when jewelry was discouraged by the church, rosaries were acceptable as convenient portable devices for counting prayers. Their purpose was to assist the worshiper in accurately repeating from memory the correct number of prayers and incantations required by his faith.

        The rosary is only one of several ancient ways used to count prayers. The earliest means involved counting on fingers or shifting pebbles from one pile to another as the prayers were recited. These unwieldy methods were replaced by tying knots on a cord: the strings of prayer beads probably evolved from strings of knots. The Greek Orthodox church still employs a knotted rosary, the kombologion. One of the oldest forms of the rosary in Europe is a thong of leather sewn into a circlet, with bone rings attached like scales to the spine of a fish. The rings were turned over as prayers were counted. This form of rosary, known from eighth-century graves, was still in use in southern Germany in the nineteenth century.

        The use of beads to count prayers appears to have originated with the Hindus in India. Sandstone sculptures of the Sunga and Kushan periods (185 B.C.–A.D. 320) portray Hindu sages holding rosaries. It is possible, however, they were used even earlier by the Hindu cult of Siva, or, according to legend, by Sakyamuni (c. 563–483 B.C.), the founder of Buddhism. One account places the rosary's origin in the sixth century B.C. when Sakyamuni paid a visit to King Vaidurya, a recent Buddhist convert. Assisting the king in his new faith, "Sakya directed him to thread 108 seeds of the Bodhi tree [Ficus religiosa] on a string, and while passing seed by seed between his fingers to repeat a certain formula meaning 'Hail to the Buddha, the Law, and the Congregation' at least two thousand times a day." Later, Buddhists in Tibet, China, and Japan used rosaries, as did Muslim Persians and Arabs.
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  • Posted by CircuitGuy 9 months ago
    Thanks for this review. I first hear the claim that adopting agriculture was a bad deal for the average hunter/gatherer first adopting it in Guns, Germs, and Steel. I thought the idea was it was a bad deal at first, but it paved the way for industry, which was an undeniable improvement for most people. I thought Harari even says that, something to the effect of we enjoy amazing plenty now but it was painful road to get here.
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