Top critical review
Taking human history for a spin
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on April 1, 2017
Review of Harari’s "Sapiens" by Paul F. Ross
Harari invests this work in speculations about how ideas shape the course of human history. If you enjoy the imagination of the novelist, if you enjoy a romp in the sandbox of ideas, if you seek the speculations of the philosopher, you may enjoy this pretend review of the history of humankind. Harari borrows the timeline of the universe at 13.5 billion years, humans having been around for 2 million years, ____________________________________________________________________________________
Harari, Yuval Noah Sapiens: A brief history of humankind 2015, HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY, x + 445 pages
and spends over half his pages reviewing the most recent 3,000 years, one quarter of one millionth of the universe’s life. Thomas Jefferson, in helping author the US Declaration of Independence, says the Creator gave the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all human beings. Harari sees happiness as controlled by expectations with an individual’s expectations changing constantly based on the individual’s successes and failures. Harari sees humans as living in a world of ideas which have no substance, no physical reality, and therefore no real existence. Harari characterizes Nazism, communism, liberalism, socialism, feminism, and capitalism as religions alongside Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Manichaeanism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Stoicism. Harari’s “history” is a grand ride through idea-land.
History shares something with science and something with story-telling. History says “Show me the evidence, then I’ll find a way to make the evidence hang together, the credibility of the ‘hanging together’ with learned audiences being the only criterion needing satisfaction.” Science says “Show me the evidence, then I’ll search for an explanation which works in multiple situations, perhaps everywhere, and can be reproduced by any observer following the original methods.” Harari takes his history of the universe from the knowledge base developed by the sciences and hangs upon that sequence “ideas” which seem to him to have been key in guiding events. Harari’s history is all about the shaping and reshaping of ideas.
Harari’s timeline reads … 13.5 billion years ago matter and energy are created (in the Big Bang), 6 million years ago chimpanzees and humans shared their last common grandmother, 2 million years ago humans spread from Africa to Eurasia, 200,000 thousand years ago homo sapiens (distinguished by a large brain) evolved in East Africa, 30,000 years ago the Neanderthals went extinct (perhaps because they were
out-competed by their cousins, homo sapiens), 16,000 years ago homo sapiens found its way to the Americas, 12,000 years ago homo sapiens converted from being a hunter-gatherer to being an agriculturist, 5,000 years ago kingdoms and money had been invented, 2,500 years ago coinage was invented, 2,000 years ago Christianity came into being, 1,400 years ago Islam came into being, 500 years ago the industrial revolution began affecting what humans produce, 200 years ago the scientific revolution began affecting what humans produce.
Scientists, in their own way, share Harari’s approach. Scientists trace facts and try to explain them. For example, Pinker describes The better angels of our nature (2011). Pinker shows that today’s human tendency to kill each other – the killing-rate per 100,000 people per year, one aspect of human behavior – is lower than at any previous time in history. That statement is evidence-based. Pinker, using methods like those of Harari, then searches for the steps humans made in arriving at today’s low rate of killing. Piketty in Capital in the twenty-first century (2014) and Milanovic in Global inequality (2016) explore what drives and what impedes the spread between the wealth of the least-wealthy fifty percent and the wealth of the most-wealthy one percent. They describe the evidence. Then they search for explanations. Piketty has one explanation. Milanovic has several. Pinker, Piketty, and Milanovic, each are science-like in reporting data and historian-like in searching for explanations. Much science is even more rigorous than Pinker, Piketty, and Milanovic, forming an explanation based on having examined data, then testing whether that explanation holds up in a new batch of data. Harari, historian, writes Sapiens (2015) with a much looser approach to explaining the direction of history than scientists.
Thinking as a scientist thinks, this reader sees Harari’s primary “findings” as rubbish. Harari’s explanations for the new directions in history merit the evaluation “rubbish” for five reasons …
… (1) Science forms an hypothesis and then tests it by gathering data. It uses two methods. It forms an hypothesis, then gathers data to see if the hypothesis holds up when the data are examined. Or science gathers data, does analysis, forms an hypothesis, then gathers a second sample of data to see if the hypothesis holds up in the second sample. Repeated, similar observations reinforce scientists’ confidence in the observed relationships. History also gathers data, but it has no requirement that the data gathered can be justified as “representative” of experience for a designated population of people. History then forms an explanation for why the data are as they are. The test for the correctness of that explanation is that fellow humans accept the explanation. In science, many hypotheses fail the scientist’s test. Surely “taking thought” by historians, thus forming explanations, is just as vulnerable to forming false explanations as is the hypothesis-formation of scientists. Harari’s history may entertain, but is as subject to being wrong as is framing hypotheses in science. Science discovers its errors by a test. History has no such test.
… (2) Science asks scientists to cite the sources of their data and their ideas. If the hypothesis being tested today was formulated by someone other than the author, the scientist is expected to cite its source. Harari turns to recently published work by scientists – anthropologists, archaeologists, evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and the like – and, using their data, presents ideas explaining the data without naming the author of the explanation. An unsophisticated reader will assume that all the explanations are Harari’s ideas. This reader doubts that Harari is the originator of all the explanations he presents. Harari seems to violate the “due credit to others” which is a value guiding scientific work and also, I suspect, guiding the work of historians.
… (3) The behavioral sciences recognize “culture” as a mélange of knowledge and practices passed from generation to generation by way of education. The behavioral sciences develop ways to measure aspects of culture and individuality. A behavioral scientist acknowledges “consideration” as an aspect of behavior guiding social interaction that varies from individual to individual, culture to culture. The behavioral scientist develops questionnaires to win self-reports or observer-reports about consideration. The same can be said for many aspects of culture and individuality … egalitarianism, initiative, risk taking, happiness, sadism, religiosity, conscientiousness, populism, and so on. Harari understands how happiness is measured using a questionnaire but shows no indication that he understands measurements of many other aspects of personality and culture can be captured by these methods, understands their reproducibility, understands the waxing and waning of the measured characteristics. Harari almost seems to believe that if an idea has no weight (in grams), cannot be seen with a microscope or telescope, cannot be judged for its age by the decay of the C14 isotope, the idea has no meaning. Ignorance of the behavioral sciences and their measurements at this level cannot be tolerated in someone who seeks to lead thought.
… (4) Harari sees animals’ fear of humans as an instinct developed through evolution. He seems not to understand that ideas can be developed by sapiens and passed to their offspring by education. The same seems to be likely for more than a few animal species … chimpanzees, elephants, … Harari seems to allow a change in genetics as the only means for changing an organism’s behavior. Ignorance of the importance of education in modifying behavior – the capability for an individual to learn – cannot be tolerated in someone who seeks to lead thought. Harari needs to have taken an introductory course in psychology and learned that Pavlov’s dogs, after a while, salivated when they heard a bell. There was nothing genetic, nothing evolutionary, in that response to a bell by Pavlov’s dogs. People, too, change behavior based on experience. Psychologists and educators call it learning. People even pass along what they have learned to the next generation. The process is called education.
… (5) Harari seems to revel in the ill that a transition in the human story introduces. The change from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist brought increased food supplies, population growth, formation of villages and cities, a place to live called home, the opportunity to accumulate property. Harari seems to focus on the increased liability of crops to disease and crop failure, the increased work in weeding a crop-producing field, the decline in variety in diet from many foods to a few, the increased burden of channeling water to the field, the increased risk of communicable disease and its devastation in villages and cities, the development of families with wealth and power, the development of government and accompanying loss of individual freedom. By contrast, Pinker (2011) sees the same transition, from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist, as one in which a cooperating populace was understood to have gained collective wealth and power, that killing each other reduces that wealth and power, and that killing each other needs to be suppressed as a practice through the influence of government. Pinker documented his hypothesis with statistics about death from severe trauma gathered from gravesites … hunter-gatherers’ gravesites and agriculturists’ gravesites. We do not need to accept Harari’s downbeat view of human social development as the major social direction. This reader prefers that his scientist-historian have clear glasses, neither dark-tinged nor rose-colored.
Publishers cover a book’s dust cover’s backside with testimonials from well-known people who find value in the author’s and publisher’s product. HarperCollins quotes pre-publication reviews of Harari’s book. On the front of the dust cover, above the author’s name and book’s title, HarperCollins quotes Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, germs, and steel (1997) in which Diamond sought to understand how societies emerge and disappear. Diamond says “Sapiens tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.” Harari tackles questions like when and why did governance begin and when and why did people begin to cooperate in waging war? The quote from Diamond omits saying whether Diamond thinks Harari makes any useful progress in answering these questions! This reader thinks that omission is a telling, damning omission.
Harari’s method for deciphering why cultures advance, and science’s method for gaining insight into why cultures advance, are brought into sharp contrast by a story from science. Having followed history’s timeline to about 1600 CE, Harari then asks “What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world?” Harari answers his own question by adding “There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism (p 282).” Harari contrasts the small population and equally small Gross Domestic Product of Europe in 1600 CE with the large populations and large GDPs of China and India of that time. Then Harari tells stories of advances in science and exploration initiated in Europe (Chapter 15) and triumphs of the capitalist creed in Europe (Chapter 16). Working cheek by jowl, according to Harari, science and capitalism powered Europe and America to world leadership in ideas and productivity by 2000 CE.
But Harari is wrong. It is not an advance in knowledge yoked with the motivation to pursue profits that produce changes in organizational behavior and improvement in productivity. Organizations (governments, peoples) adopt innovative new practices only when new ideas flow into the organization and when, at the same time, the organization finds the means (push, courage, supporters of experimentation) to support trials of the new methods (Ross, 1974). “Initiating” and “sustaining” mechanisms have nothing to do with effort spent at R&D (science) nor are they yoked to capitalism’s search for profits or market dominance. In the late 1960s, Ross (that’s me) and his colleagues at Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were asked by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to investigate how school districts could be encouraged to adopt new methods, becoming more effective in their educational missions. We began by studying the experts’ views of that time. The experts said it was necessary to have a “change agent” in the organization, someone who saw the opportunity and built interest in the new practice. We selected for study an innovation holding attention in education at that time … team teaching. We located a few school districts across the nation that had just adopted team teaching. We asked the school superintendents if we could visit those districts and interview teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members about their use of team teaching and how the district came to adopt the new practice. We gained permission. We made our first visit to a school district in South Carolina. We did our interviews and made our notes over the course of two or three days, then returned to our offices. It was blatantly clear that the widely popular “change agent” theory for how change occurs did not explain what happened in this district. I sat at my desk in puzzlement, then – stimulated by what we had learned in South Carolina – generated a new theory. My theory said “The new idea has to come from somewhere, typically from outside the organization, and find its way into the school district.” That could happen several different ways. I called those processes for importing new ideas “initiating mechanisms.” My theory also said “There must be support within the district for trying the new idea.” Support, too, could materialize in several different ways. I called those processes “sustaining mechanisms.” My theory said “The new practice will remain in place, or be abandoned, depending on the results that it produces.” I called the processes for measuring results and sharing that information “feedback mechanisms.” My theory said that nothing happens unless both initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms are present. Weakness in either mechanism means no innovation, no change in practice, occurs. Notice that there’s not a word in this theory about “having science present,” “investing in R&D,” “earning profits,” “earning fame,” “winning a competition.” I clearly was not using Harari’s notion that when “science” and “capitalism” are side by side, organizations adopt new practices. I developed questionnaires asking the interviewers who had traveled to South Carolina about the “initiating mechanisms” and the “sustaining mechanisms” that they may have learned about in their interviews. I prepared a questionnaire which asked the interviewer to describe the degree to which the “team teaching” we had observed in that district conformed to the best practices for a teaching team leading a classroom. The interviewers who had gone to South Carolina completed my questionnaires. Then we identified teams of interviewers who went on to six or eight other school districts across the nation … one district in Tennessee, Illinois, California, and so on. The interviewers in South Carolina did some of the other site visits. Additional interviewers were trained and did interviews in still other school districts. We completed visits and questionnaire answering. We assembled the scores for each district with respect to “initiating mechanisms (I),” “sustaining mechanisms (S),” and “accomplishments in following best practices in doing team teaching (A).” I wrote an equation describing my theory. The measure of “I” (developed from the questionnaires of several interviewers) multiplied by the measure of “S” (also developed from questionnaires answered by several interviewers) produced a predictor of accomplishment in team teaching. Measures for each district were developed by combining the results from questionnaires from all interviewers in the district. We correlated the “I x S” score for each district with the “A” score for the district. The correlation was r ~ 0.9 … statistically different from zero even with our tiny sample of school districts … and surprisingly large. Our theory, not the theory that a “change agent” is key, was supported by our findings. Funds for our study did not provide follow up with the school districts to see how long the new team teaching practices remained in place and whether other parts of the school district, or other school districts, adopted the new practices, so we learned nothing about the third leg of the theory … whether feedback mechanisms determined how long the new practice remains in place and/or is adopted elsewhere.
Even with our small study, science had given its answer to the question “What leads organizations to adopt new practices?” Organizations adopt new practices (a) when a relevant idea arrives from somewhere (the idea for most innovations originates off site) and (b) when there is support from somewhere within or outside the organization (teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, state education leaders, incentives offered by the federal government, etc.) that approves (lobbies for) adoption of the new practice.
Science had answered Harari’s 2015 question in 1974 (see Ross, 1974). Science’s answer was very different from Harari’s answer. Science having made its pronouncement forty years ago, have organizations, influenced by that new knowledge, increased the rate at which they adopt new practices? Do organizations look for ways to increase initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms so their performance in adapting to new challenges improves? The answer to both questions is “No.” The Ross theory (1974) of innovation adoption by organizations has not been seen by scientists or by organization leaders. Science’s answer to Harari’s question is buried in the scientific literature and remains undiscovered. Presidents and CEOs today don’t ask “How can we increase initiating mechanisms? How can we increase sustaining mechanisms?” They say “Damnit, I want to see this happen. Make it happen.” They believe in the “change agent” model for innovation adoption by organizations, the CEO being the chief change agent, even though science has “known” for four decades that the change agent model does not work. Not incidentally, science produces more new knowledge each year than even scientists can follow and absorb. It is common enough that scientific knowledge is little utilized in the first century of its existence. Note, for example, that the statistical procedure called factor analysis was invented in 1903, had been vastly improved by 1970 aided by the arrival of digital computers, but is little used in any science today when, in fact, its use would significantly improve the rate at which scientific knowledge grows. Factor analysis handles the task of assessing the influence of each one of many variables on outcomes of interest, a task with which every scientist is faced. Despite factor analysis having been in hand for 100 years, and very usable for 45 years, today’s “gold standard” in scientific study remains having an experimental group and a control group for study, manipulating one variable for the experimental group and not manipulating that variable for the control group, then observing the differences in the outcome of interest in the two groups. Having not learned factor analysis, science advances more slowly and more expensively than need be. Having not learned the importance of initiating mechanisms and sustaining mechanisms for promoting innovation, the pace of innovation today surely continues to fit the trend lines available from innovation-tracking data covering centuries of human history. While ideas are important, as Harari insists, humans are remarkably slow to recognize and adopt many new, worthwhile ideas.
Taking thought is important when examining a problem and making decisions … and taking thought always needs to be done. Sometimes taking thought is the only method available for deciding what is true, most advantageous, best by many standards. Thinking carefully (thinking “slow”) needs to be exercised with diligence (Kahneman, 2011). When you have data – as Harari does in forming this history of humankind thanks to his acquaintance with data from science – this reader strongly prefers the methods and standards of science for deciding what is true and how to estimate likely outcomes that will follow from particular action choices. Harari’s work in Sapiens does not meet those scientific standards.
Harari is sensitive to injustice, to lack of consideration for those affected by our choices. It is a strength of his work.
If you like a no-holds-barred approach in searching for the “laws” that guide human behavior and our future, if you enjoy watching the tools of the philosopher being used (taking thought, moving words and ideas about), if you’re reading for entertainment, you may find Harari’s work in Sapiens of interest. If you’re looking for a believable advance in knowledge, you’ll find this work bitterly disappointing.
4 January 2018
Copyright © 2017 by Paul F. Ross All rights reserved.
Diamond, Jared Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies 1997, W. W. Norton, New York NY
Harari, Yuval Noah Sapiens: A brief history of humankind 2015, HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY
Kahneman, Daniel Thinking, fast and slow 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York NY
Milanovic, Branko Global inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization 2016, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
Piketty, Thomas Capital in the twenty-first century 2014, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA
Pinker, Steven The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined 2011, Viking, New York NY
Ross, Paul F. Innovation adoption by organizations 1974, Personnel Psychology, 27, 21-47