Yuval Harari: A commentary on the world’s bestselling historian

Alvin Finkel

Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a publishing miracle. Published initially in Hebrew in 2011, it was translated into English in 2014 and has since been translated into about 50 other languages. By the end of 2018, it reportedly had sold over 11.5 million copies and today in Amazon Canada’s listing for all books, its paperback edition remains the country’s third best-selling book. That is amazing for a serious work of history, a discipline that rarely provides works that sell in large numbers and virtually never offers tomes that reach the sales numbers of books by or about celebrities, books of easily digested pop philosophy, or the top fiction books.

Harari is an Israeli academic historian whose work before Sapiens was largely restricted to medieval military history. He was unknown even to historians outside his field. But the appeal of his work on global history turned Harari away from his narrow earlier research to the writing of broad, philosophical works that make use of his historical knowledge but increasingly are more focused on the present and future than on history per se. The two books that he has published since Sapiens, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century distinguish Harari as one of the primary public intellectuals of our time. Their combined sales of 7.5 million by the end of 2018 emphasize that Harari is neither a one-hit wonder nor simply a popular writer of historical works. But both books have at their roots his understanding of the evolution of our species that forms the basis for Sapiens.

Sapiens is an intelligent, condensed history of humans. It provides well-grounded observations of the origins of religions, warfare, empires, science, capitalism, and much else. Although Harari’s influences are broad and he is no ideologue, he can be broadly categorized as an historian who judges past events and developments from within a progressive framework that is evidenced in his own life. He is a vegan, a spiritual man who is serious about meditative practices, a secular Israeli, and a gay man who married his husband in Toronto in a civil ceremony. Sapiens was endorsed as a must-read book by Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. But he almost certainly has qualms about the achievements of all three men, since, while he is fascinated by the impact of technology and economic growth on humans, he is mostly skeptical about how positive a role it has played in our evolution.

Indeed Harari is clear in his view that our best days as a species are behind us even though he hopes that we can regain something of what once made us admirable. He makes a strong case that human societies of the pre-agricultural period were largely marked by reciprocity, compassion, community, and a careful  balance of work and play. Harari regards the transition to agriculture as the worst mistake that humans ever made and the transition to industry as the second worst mistake. In these transitions he finds the creation of warlike nations and individuals, oppressive hierarchies, and a decisive move from communities where the collective good was the chief value to communities governed by greed, alienation of the led from leaders, and significant manipulation of the masses by elites. Of course, it is not hard for him to find plentiful examples to support his thesis.

But I think that his pessimistic conclusions, despite that evidence, are overstated and can cause people to feel wrongly that efforts to fight for social justice and climate justice today are a waste of time. A closer examination of a broader number of societies demonstrates that many agricultural societies for centuries and even millennia after the introduction of agriculture remained characterized by exactly the attributes that Harari reserves for pre-agricultural societies. Similarly there are a number of current-day industrial or semi-industrial societies for which it is fair to say that reciprocity, compassion, and a good balance of work and play exist even if perhaps they do not match what some pre-state societies could boast about.

Most of Africa in the period before European colonization, that is millennia after agriculture began on the continent, shared the values of its pre-agricultural forebears. So did India before the invasions that brought the caste system about 2000 years ago. The “Inca empire” was an agricultural cooperative over a large region that was more successful than the pre-agricultural small tribal societies of the region in guaranteeing food security for millions of people. Similarly, Iroquoian societies in North America, while agricultural and eventually governed by state-like bodies, proved as compassionate internally as many hunter-gatherer societies on the continent. Early European agricultural societies were also egalitarian. None of this negates Harari’s evidence of the growth of hierarchy, slavery, and imperialism within the set of agricultural societies that he discusses. But it raises questions about the generalization that the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture in and of itself almost reshapes the human brain away from the more peaceable and compassionate values of pre-agricultural humans.

In terms of today’s industrial societies, as well, of course Harari can find abundant evidence of irrationality, inhumanity, and plain stupidity that accompany planet-destroying attitudes of materialism, status-seeking, and ruthlessness towards those defined as “others.” But while he identifies with those who resist such attitudes, he overstates the hegemony of those who embody sociopathic approaches to their fellow humans. He treats feudalism as an inevitable outgrowth of agriculture and capitalism as an inevitable creation of industry, finding little room for discussing why either agriculture or industry must inevitably produce particular social class arrangements or the impact of dissent based on class, race, and gender within hierarchical societies.

And so, for example, there is no room in Harari’s book for the Indian state of Kerala where workers’ and peasants’ federations have managed to produce progressive governments since the 1950s that focus on improving the lives of the poorest citizens rather than on economic growth. The result has been that though Kerala is only middle of the pack for affluence in India, its 35 million citizens live seven years longer on average than Indians as a whole and do not experience at all the lopsided ratio of men to women that causes so many families in rural India and China to kill or abandon baby girls and to encourage abortions when it becomes clear that an expected baby will be a girl. Early on, the state divided feudal landholdings among the peasants who worked them and  provided guaranteed rations for all low-income people along with massive social housing. That causes Keralans to view the state, not male offspring, as their security guarantor in old age. Today the state government gives a large portion of its budget over to increasingly women-run municipal organizations who focus on what women and children need to survive and live with dignity: sanitary latrines, wells, remedial education, .immunization programs, child health programs, and the like. Spending on schools and on children’s programs in Kerala has been so generous relative to the rest of the country that its literacy rate is close to 100 percent in a country where the combination of limited state spending, the caste system, remnants of feudal landholding power, and the prevalence of communalism in politics all contribute to keeping the poorer classes illiterate and socially immobile.

Costa Rica, Cuba, the Scandinavian countries, Bolivia: yes, they are part of the “modern industrial world” but their value systems harken back to earlier, pre-agricultural societies. The Communist experiments of the 20th century receive little attention in Sapiens and there is little there as well about social democracy, including the impressive experiments in democratic socialism in inter-war Vienna or in a number of countries during the Cold War where American military intervention on behalf of international capital combined with local ruling classes to destroy progressive, often elected regimes. So, while Harari’s book opens up many important debates, a broader view of historical developments undermines his belief that our species can only produce compassionate, reciprocal, peaceful societies in small, tribal, pre-agricultural aggregations. I applaud efforts like Harari’s to pull together the entire human story in relatively few pages. We need big thinking. But we also need to examine critically whether certain sweeping generalizations for which there may be a great many good examples do not have countervailing arguments and examples that put into question the original generalizations. Nuance and recognition of positive achievements are important both in how we view the past and in planning for the future.

Alvin Finkel‘s latest book is Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is professor emeritus of History at Athabasca University, president of the Alberta Labour History Institute,  and co-author of the two-volume History of the Canadian Peoples, now in its 7th edition.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.