Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Some Comments On "Sapiens"

Over the weekend I read Sapiens, by Yuval Harari. It's a good read even if you've already read a lot of pop-science/history, telling a history of the human race with emphasis on "revolutions" --- "cognitive", "agricultural", "industrial", etc. Unfortunately, the more he ventures into areas where I have detailed knowledge --- in particular, Christianity and computing --- the more it becomes apparent that he's sloppy.

He clearly has no sympathy for Christianity, and monotheism in general, which is fine, but he doesn't seem to try to treat them fairly. For example he carefully describes the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre as being solely about Catholics and Protestants disputing over doctrines of salvation; he surely knows that other issues, including struggles over temporal power, were deeply involved. Elsewhere, on economics, he says religions hold "money is the root of all evil", but he or his editors should have known this is a popular misquotation of 1 Timothy 6:10: "For the love of money [φιλαργυρία, philargyria, "avarice"] is the root of all evil". His interpretation of Matthew 19:16-30, the parable of the rich young ruler, is likewise off. There's a throw-away line (I don't have the text here) where he suggests Christianity grew mainly or solely through conquest and bloodshed, which it did at times but did not do, for example, in its critical first few centuries, nor in its recent explosive growth in Africa and Asia.

That sort of thing is normal among Harari's pop-science peers so I hardly fault him for it. He betters them by also showering skepticism on post-Enlightenment intellectual projects. He points out that the idea of "all people are created equal" is absurd once you rip away its theistic underpinnings. He states clearly that societies cannot function without shared myths, or at least "belief in belief" (e.g., belief in the value of money). In the conclusion of his book, he takes atheism to its bitter end and acknowledges its great problem: "what then shall we do?" I can't give him full marks, because throughout the book he backslides and shows irrational dedication to principles such as "individual suffering matters" without acknowledging that this is just his shared myth — but overall, well done.

He talks a bit about the computing revolution and the future of history, but there he misses the mark. He talks about computer viruses evolving via mutation and natural selection, which hasn't happened and isn't going to happen for various reasons, but he says very little about AI, or about how the Internet is reshaping society, which are much more important.

Generally when an author is sloppy in areas you know about, you should be cautious about everything else they say. I have to hope he's better than that, but it's still a good read regardless.

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