“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

It’s an excellent book I’m happy to talk about.

Harari is on the younger side of the scholarly world, barely 40 years old now, which is a year after the book’s initial publication and certainly years after he started work on it. He is a gifted thinker and writer, with a clear, wise voice and a descriptive, logical style that seems timeless. It reminded me of Edward Gibbon, but without quite the biting humor Gibbon could weave into his crystal clear prose.

Because much of what makes Sapiens such an astounding and rewarding read is how Harari unveils insight after insight, writing a review of it is a challenge. The insights come regularly, and he drops them so adroitly I found myself repeatedly putting the book down to take a walk and ponder the implications. I don’t want to ruin that experience for you.

To minimize the spoiler damage I might do, I’ll limit my review to general recommendation of “read this if you want to understand humanity better and come closer to accepting its strange ways and place in the world,” while adding some thoughts about a few threads that have relevance to scholarly publishers, editors, and researchers.

Harari starts by observing that many other Homo species existed contemporaneously with us, but we are the only one that remains, which is both impressive and worrisome. Homo neanderthanlensis, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo floresiensis, and others all vanished around the time that Harari labels the “cognitive revolution” of Homo sapiens.

Many changes occurred at this time, but one that seems to have set us apart was our ability to gossip, using spoken and written language to talk about each other and compare notes on a broad scale.

Add to this our ability to create fictions that allowed us to unify in ways the other species show no evidence of having done on a scale comparable to ours, and you have quite a group. Combining these two attributes allowed us to form larger groups, coordinate our activities much more closely, close ranks more effectively, marshal more resources to complete our plans, keep tabs on each other well, dream up reasons to do things, and dominate the other species we encountered. Quickly, our mid-food-chain species rocketed to the top. It happened so fast that we’re still feeling a little wobbly about the change in our fortunes.

The “gossip” and “fiction” aspects have relevance to the scholarly publishing world, as we deal with both. What we publish is very refined gossip from labs and researchers all over the world, who are participating in a fictitious human endeavor we call “science.”

Tying the concept of “gossip” to our world is somewhat freeing, but takes nothing away from the seriousness of what we do. After all, gossips who spread misinformation are ostracized, and deservedly so — it goes for the originator (author) or the transmitter. Making sure the gossip is correct matters a great deal to the reputation of those involved. And that, my friends, is your new way of thinking about journal publication — fancy gossiping.

But science is a fiction? To Harari it is, albeit an important and useful one. Harari makes a clean distinction between natural reality and human fictions. There is nothing in the natural world that is “science” — we made it up, and if we perish, it perishes, too. Science is a human fabrication, one we are constantly refining or redefining. We lived for tens of thousands of years without it — expanding our territories, making and remaking cultures, and dominating the animal world. It only mattered from about the year 1500 onward.

With the invention of science (an excellent and related book is David Wootton’s The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution), a great deal of human potential was unleashed. As Harari writes:

[Since 1500]. . . human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.

But, as both Harari and Wootton point out, before the invention of science came the invention of ignorance, a fascinating transition itself. Instead of thinking that all knowledge existed among priests or royalty, suddenly — likely with Columbus’ expedition to the New World — there was something inexplicable that no text or priest or king had ever seen before. Suddenly, we had to face our ignorance, and with ignorance came permission to invent science to fill the gaps.

You would think that with its track record, science would have become the dominant pursuit of humans. It’s clearly our path forward. But that’s humans for you — we’re great at contradicting ourselves and creating conceptual traps that take decades or centuries to resolve. Nevertheless, it remains worrisome within our current political and socioeconomic systems that we are pulling back from investments in science. It doesn’t make historical sense. As Harari writes:

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith – it was repeatedly proven empirically. The more proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments were willing to put into science.

There have been major economic benefits from investments in science, and Harari helpfully quantifies these:

The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. . . . The total value of goods and services provided by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars. Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.

The invention of science has been one of the most important in our history. However, it does not stand alone. Language, agriculture, religion, empires, and money are also tagged as critical inventions. Depending on your starting point, you may find disturbing or liberating insights about polytheism and imperialism in the book. No matter — collectively believing in such fictions has allowed humans to gain and retain dominance over the world. Sometimes a fiction can involve turning a blind eye to what is right in front of us.

Working in scientific and scholarly publishing at a time when money is demonized to some extent, Harari’s analysis of money as a human invention is revelatory:

. . . money is . . . the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

I have to admit, I’d never thought of money before as “the apogee of human tolerance,” but now I see it everywhere. It’s especially apparent when you travel, when you need the cooperation of strangers everywhere you turn, from taxis/Ubers to hotels/AirBnBs to restaurants/bars — money provides a safe and non-judgmental way for strangers to interact positively. Rarely are you asked your intentions when seeking transportation, shelter, food, or drink. Even if you are, if you can pay, these questions vanish.

When you also grasp how fungible money is — how money earned from theft or selling drugs can be converted into food to feed hungry children or donations to help flood victims — you begin to appreciate its power and importance. You also begin to see how pirates like Sci-Hub and those who use it are thumbing their noses at a major human achievement, and one worth preserving — namely, a major trust system (money), which helps large groups cooperate in ways they would not otherwise. Pirates exploit everyone else’s trust and leave the system. After reading Sapiens, it’s clear to me that this way of acting is literally inhuman.

Sapiens delivers a boatload of humility, which sets it apart in a culture of self-importance. You may never think of yourself, and the human-created world you inhabit, the same way again. And you may go back to your job with a new set of attitudes and insights as you earn “the apogee of human tolerance” to manage gossip flows emanating from a powerful and fictitious system of knowledge-based ignorance peculiar to our species.


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