Unreviewed! Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

There are two kinds of popular history book: the cameo and the synthesis. Historians find it easy to fit cameos into their working lives. They produce exquisite little portraits of a family in Wars of the Roses England, or uncover the poignant mental history of an aristocrat at the end of the long nineteenth century. They focus on a crime or an incident or a vignette and use it to draw little lessons and inferences about the world in which it took place.

Syntheses are different. They only incidentally involve the writer’s own original research; they are commentary which should inform the lay reader while also making the expert see a familiar area in a new light. But what they should have at least is a solid angle. The Mediterranean’s history can be told as a giant narrative of interlocking narratives, for example. Or, the history of the world can only be told through money (reprise).

I’m not sure Yuval Harari’s Sapiens has a compelling angle, judging by the extract or whatever it was I read in the Guardian from last weekend. He starts by suggesting that there have been:

almost no scientific studies of the long-term history of happiness.

This might come across as less goady if he then made the slightest attempt to set out a suitable research strategy for this, but he doesn’t, or at least not in the Guardian piece. And scientific studies, really? What he means here is “rigorous”, which is all anybody in a qualitative discipline can aspire to; it’s exactly this kind of sloppy thinking that makes STEM people think HASS people are basically being funded to make shit up. The works to which he obliquely refers on measuring happiness in modern populations normally talk about markers like mental health and reported life satisfaction. It’s certainly an intriguing idea that we might be able to find some corresponding measurements from previous eras and stack them up against each other but that sounds like a lifetime’s work for several people complete with conferences, a dedicated journal, acolyte students, three schisms, seventeen famous blazing rows and eight trillion pints of beer.

And that’s not what’s going to happen, because what Harari is planning to do instead is gallop through the great revolutions in the history of modern humans and offer his take on whether or not they were Good Things. That really seems to be all there is to it, and that’s not an angle. Depending on your specialism, you will find some of his takes intuitively correct, some mildly revelatory and some shonky and over-simplified. The trouble is, once you’ve seen shonky over-simplification in one place, you suspect that it might be lurking in other passages whose background you don’t know so well. For me, the tell was the agricultural revolution. Harari – along with every palaeo-geek and primal dieter on the internet – thinks this is a Bad Thing. The subject is foregrounded in the Guardian piece and caught the attention of the subsequent reviewer:

It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Well, so it is, but it’s not Harari’s. Ian Hodder, Jacques Cauvin, Peter Wilson and pretty much every Neolithic specialist who has come after them have played with the idea that domestication is always a two-way process, and that changes in the head or in social arrangements may have led change in the environment and not the other way round. Above all, the field is implicitly familiar with the fact that agriculture brought tremendous problems to the burgeoning human populations it produced. This is not new. If it were, Harari wouldn’t be able to quote Jared Diamond, for god’s sake, suggesting agriculture was the greatest mistake in human history, which he duly does. Synthesizers quoting other synthesizers. Aieee.

Lack of novelty may not a problem in historical synthesis, but lack of close examination is. That cutesy “agriculture was a mistake, we belong on the savannah” line is a commonplace internet chatroom trope of (usually) white American middle-aged men. It quickly falls to bits when unpicked – what savannah, in what time? Exactly when were we eating “the perfect diet”, how many human groups in a world of massive bio-diversity were really eating it, and above all, how many of the disadvantages of this Eden are you willing to take on board alongside your nuts and berries? Incidentally, there’s also an entire field of philosophy called population studies dedicated to teasing out the implications of the position Harari seems to take as read in all this, that fewer, happier people are better than more, miserable people. Derek Parfitt calls it “a repugnant conclusion” that this is not in fact the case – from the point of view of the potential individual it is better to exist, however miserably, than not. Did no-one mention this to Harari, really?

Maybe I just know the most about the part of history Harari is weakest on, and maybe this is why most people don’t write synthesis history, because everybody’s a well-informed critic about something, the bastards. I’ll read the full thing because I’m a sucker for this stuff, but it don’t look promising so far.


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