Pop history of the Sapiens breed is difficult to judge academically because its goals are radically different from those of original scholarship. Should someone write a single book on all of history? Most historians would tell you “No.” But Harari has gone and done it, and we must deal with that.
Any pop history is inevitably going to simplify, inevitably err, and inevitably overlook. But much like Imagine Dragons or Fortnite, some pop history authors are very good at what they do, even if what they do isn’t very good. So what makes a pop history book suitable?
For one, it must adequately understand its role as an interlocutor between academia and lay readers. Far too many “science communicators” seem to think of communication as a one-way street: scholars produce accurate but incomprehensible, primary research that must be summarized, digested, and stripped of lingo before being delivered to public audiences. That’s only half the battle. The most effective famous writers demonstrate just as much familiarity with their audiences’ knowledge, experiences, and perspectives.
This idea is excellently covered in the special issue on pseudoarchaeology of the SAA’s Archaeological Record, particularly in this article from John Anderson (he did an AMA on Reddit, too!). To summarize, combating the increasingly prevalent belief in Atlantis or ancient aliens is not so easy as debunking those claims with knowledge produced by academics. After all, if people gave precedence to that knowledge, they wouldn’t have arrived at those beliefs in the first place. Instead, we need to understand that popular beliefs about history and the social sciences exist primarily in confirmation of (or derivation from) other, more fundamental beliefs- be they religious, political, or “the man is lying to us!”
Readers often look to accessible social science texts to make sense of their place in history and the world, not facts and figures. Thus, “Is it accurate?” can only tell us so much about the quality of a pop history book. We must intentionally consider the way an author understands and engages with their readers’ preconceptions. Do they validate a worldview by working within it, critically acknowledge its utility and issues? Do they take advantage of expected gaps in their readers’ knowledge to oversell the significance of things, or do they responsibly contextualize?
Academics can deride a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel for its numerous inaccuracies, which will resonate with other academics who want to evaluate how well the book represents their fields. As my years on reddit talking with users about the book has shown, however, that critique rarely suffices. “The details might be wrong,” dozens of comments have said, “but the big ideas make sense.” Never mind that it’s inane for a central thesis to be valid if the supporting evidence is not- the thesis holds because it explains a prior misconception without even considering that it may be a misconception. It tries to fill in gaps in widespread knowledge but doesn’t dare challenge that knowledge. People like GG&S because it makes the things people think they know as fact make sense.
This is why a book like 1491 has been so much more warmly received. One can undoubtedly find dozens of factual errors within. But instead of mirroring a popular inquiry born out of widespread ignorance (“Why were the Americas so decisively conquered?”), it recognizes that ignorance as a problem to be solved.
How does Sapiens fair in this regard? Quite poorly
Several quality individual critiques have already been linked. You can find more here, here, and here. This post gets at a single sentence from Harari that is monstrously incorrect, discouraging one from giving much credence to anything Harai says. The Hallpike review gets linked in many of those; as much as I find Hallpike a questionable scholar and the NER to be a disgusting publication, his critiques are valid.
To summarize, Harari has never read any literature on non-state societies, which overwhelmingly stress the importance of provision and cooperation in leadership strategies, not the coercion and manipulation Harari seems to think was the norm. He tosses around words like “significance” and “battle for dominance” to describe our evolution as if that were how evolution worked at all. Sapiens claims that writing enabled the state, even though “pre-colonial Africa was littered with states and even empires that functioned perfectly well without writing. As I’ve already discussed in a linked thread, Harari overstates the importance of the so-called “cognitive revolution” while missing the nature of the changes that make humans unique. He places a lot of weight on the ability to create and believe in myths- immaterial socially constructed fictions- as if that was a different cognitive trait than language itself. Some would argue that language is purely abstract- that calling something rock is what creates the rock. As much as the “rock” exists as a physical object with observable properties, there is no natural boundary between “rock” and “pebble” and “sand.” To see this in action, ask a Brit and an American what “scones” and “biscuits” are. In that sense, there’s little difference between our ability to talk about the supposedly non-real “spirits” and the somehow more real “scone.” That’s all without getting into the incredibly impractical way in which he discusses what Durkheim would call “social facts” and later social scientists would call “social constructions” as if their status as ideas made them less real. Our real development is that we can think in the abstract (not the “fictional”) and learn most anything.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.— Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
Beyond that, Harari generally seems unconcerned with differentiating the experience of Western Europe from the experience of “us”- the species. This is why I can’t recommend the book because this so thoroughly undermines his apparent goal. The book’s very name tells us that it will be a history of all of us and how we became so dominant in the world. And yet, so much of the book focuses on things that only a portion of H. sapiens ever developed but talks about them as if they were natural developments for our species as a whole. Agriculture? Writing? Money? A “brief history of humankind” that places the Agricultural Revolution as Part 2 of 4? Does an entire Part dedicate to Science, Capitalism, and Colonialism? These are all great things to talk about if you want to talk specifically about Western Europe, not if you’re writing something with such a grand concluding chapter title as “The Animal That Became a God.”
Tying back to the original point, this is a big issue because it plays right into readers’ preconceptions. Harari has given himself the soapbox from which to make exciting, provocative statements. Writing a “history of mankind?” Make it entirely about nomads and foragers- after all, only 3% of our species’s history has been after the agricultural revolution. Ignore the West until it gets to the globalizing era of 1500- after all, that’s how most history books treat the world beyond the Roman empire. Harari is not writing a book to challenge any preconceptions about the nature of humanity. He must know that he is writing for an audience that falsely believes that the story of “humankind” is one in which writing and Science are fundamental parts, an audience that sees human hunter-gatherers as “insignificant” (his words), an audience that sees evolution as directed, not random. He is writing an answer for the dude who looked at his iPhone, thought about “cavemen” for a second, then wondered “, How did we get from there to here?” but does so in a way that fits entirely into their problematic preconceptions about human societies.