top of page

Homo Sapiens, Harari (& Harakiri) - Part 2

An increasing number of people believe Yuval Noah Harari will save mankind from committing intellectual Harakiri (suicide by disembowelment) through the sheer originality of his thought. Except, he may be the one wielding the sword. Part 1 is here.

Staggeringly, given the sweeping nature of his conclusions and his growing reach, only a handful (see below) have spoken up to clarify that he’s missing the wood for the trees. Not so much in detail as in big picture. Especially what seems his wilfully misleading tactic of mixing fact with fiction.

Like them, a much wider group of sensible spokespeople for the sciences, arts, humanities, religion needs to speak up. And soon.

John Sexton at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago wrote that Sapiens is "an effort in the genre of universal history. Like many such efforts, it does not contain much actual history. Rather, it is a speculative reconstruction of human evolution, supplemented by the author’s thoughts on recorded history and the human condition. The book is fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has been receiving. But it is worth considering the book’s blind spots and flaws — the better to understand the weaknesses of the genre and the intellectual temptations of our age."

Norman Lewis explains why (and how) Harari is pretending to know more than he does.

Historian and sociologist of science Steven Shapin in his London Review of Books piece, very subtly suggests just how dangerously confusing and confused Harari is to the gullible or ill-informed reader, "maybe it's Harari who needs to make up his mind".

Books and culture columnist Laura Miller wrote, “He (Harari) disrupts history, as a tech mogul might put it. He doesn’t do this in a way that makes sense to historians themselves: For that, he’d need to be generating original research instead of repackaging and simplifying the work and interpretations of others, which is what most of Sapiens consists of. In fact, historians and anthropologists have been Sapiens’ most vocal critics.”

Author Jeremy Lent wrote, “Harari...perpetuates a set of unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, this risks causing considerable harm. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged.”

Fabien Abraini a specialist in human evolution and anthropology writes in a painstaking 3-part commentary, "Harari is not a specialist in the Paleolithic, and he seems to have a somewhat naive vision of it, probably second-hand (the fact that he does not cite any source is very problematic to be sure) and all the more problematic since he intends, on the contrary, to bring revelations and to draw lessons from them for the understanding of human nature."

Writer on philosophy, psychology, economics and politics, Oliver Waters wrote that for all Harari’s allegedly benign objectives, “The irony is that it is actually the fallacious arguments Harari puts forward themselves that, if taken seriously, fatally undermine the core tenets of liberal humanism. And, just like inventing a toxin capable of obliterating the human race, subverting the philosophical worldview primarily responsible for the rise in human well-being over the past few centuries, is one of those Very Bad Ideas.”

A writer in a A Journal of Technology & Society wrote, “Harari’s view of culture and of ethical norms as fundamentally fictional makes impossible any coherent moral framework for thinking about and shaping our future. And it asks us to pretend that we are not what we know ourselves to be — thinking and feeling subjects, moral agents with free will, and social beings whose culture builds upon the facts of the physical world but is not limited to them.”

Rotterdam-based philosopher Miriam Rasch explains why Harari's reductionism can be problematic because of his all too frequent philosophical and logical inconsistencies.

Agustín Fuentes an expert on Anthropology wrote about why at their heart, the science is missing from books such as Harari’s and why writers such as Harari are wrong, “Getting the science of human evolution right matters. Being ignorant of the diversity, complexity, data, and depth in the study in human evolution is not only problematic but downright dangerous…Despite their often entertaining nature, many popular books get the science of human evolution wrong and thus mislead the public about what we know, what we don’t know, and why it matters. Do yourself a favor: Never take these assertions at face value.”

Claire Lowdon, Assistant Editor of the Arete Magazine wrote, “If all of Harari’s premises are slightly off, then why should we trust his inferences? Take a look at Harari’s predictions about the arts in HOMO DEUS. As you’ll see, everything is slightly approximate, slightly exaggerated.” She explains why he's so seductive, "Insist on your story loudly and often enough, and it will stick – no matter if the science is shaky...I defended Harari with decreasing vim, and gave up entirely when I reached the section about the future of the arts. The misplaced confidence with which he pronounced on two subjects he clearly knew very little about undermined every other swashbuckling assertion in the book."

Mark E Leib, playwright and arts critic who teaches at the University of Florida wrote, “That Harari’s nihilism has gone unchallenged—and even unmentioned—by many of the book’s reviewers is disturbing. The news here is not one man’s cynical assessment of the human situation so much as it is his wide acceptance by critics—and by millions of readers. One would have expected an outcry, an overflowing of indignation, an energetic rush to defend the truths Harari mocks. Instead: delight, acceptance, dinners with world leaders, and fame.”

Jeremy Keith, a web developer and writer wrote, “The author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up)....the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff...His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete.”

A 125-year-old group of humanists clarifies why Harari’s version of humanism is plain wrong, “Harari seems unaware of the way the word ‘humanism’ is most commonly used today, which is in many ways the direct opposite of the meaning he gives it. Ultimately, Harari is just using the word in a different way from previous mainstream usage. Because of the unfortunate popularity of his ideas, this is a problem.”

Thought leader, businessman and author, Scott A. Shay says that Harari's "clever writing almost obscures the logical shortcomings of his arguments. Behind his style of cool logic and balanced evaluations Harari’s message is an incoherent polemic that verges on the nihilistic and bizarre. Sadly, not a single one of Harari’s 21 lessons stands up to serious scrutiny.

Prof. Shlomo Sand, a historian at Tel Aviv University calls Harari’s work simplistic and says he is sometimes even a charlatan – that Harari’s fertile imagination leads him to present hypotheses as the veritable truth. “It is appropriate for a storyteller, but not a historian.”...Helen Lewis wrote in The Guardian, “His sweeping statements, breathtaking though they are, can also feel untethered from the intellectual traditions from which they come.”

Writer Mark Vernon wrote, “Harari is one of many thinkers of our age who imagine that there’s a computer, and not much more, clicking away in every human skull. There’s something pernicious about these books. They are written not only without soul, but with the spirit of humanity systematically excluded. My fear is that the millions who read them will accept them as gospel truth. They will presume that this is what modern science proves and, further, they will buy into the worldview, consciously or not. Their imaginations will be crushed by the implication that their humanity is nothing more than the running of DNA code.”

Shawn Vandor, an expert on the ethics of donor insemination wrote, “If you accept Harari’s thesis—that we live in a new paradigm, the quality and composition of which resembles nothing we’ve ever previously encountered—then one is tempted to accept the possibility that maybe we do live in an all-new moment in which Silicon Valley’s love of Harari is, in fact, a sign of Harari’s rightness and, by extension, their own. When Harari wonders aloud, “Maybe I’m missing something?” I think he’s right. He is missing something. He’s like a car salesman who’s convinced you that cars don’t really matter, they’re just figments of our imagination. And by the way, he’d like to sell you a new car….I’ve been struck, watching Harar speak at various...institutions...many of which are tech or economics related - by the reverential way...hosts and audience members look at him. Sure, Harari’s smart. But it’s like these people haven’t spoken to anyone outside of their narrow field of expertise in decades; it’s like they forgot the humanities existed.”

Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at the think tank Theos wrote of Harari’s books, “they turn on what seems to me to be a fundamental and ultimately rather problematic error about human beings and the creation in which we live...Harari’s vision of human beings — simply and solely biological organisms that are now, through arbitrarily-acquired cognitive capacities, in a position to transform ourselves by revising, rewriting or even erasing our material existence — does not come close to reflecting our deepest understanding of ourselves.” Not that Harari's challenge to received wisdom is unwelcome, but he does so so on the basis of a crudely reductionist and positivistic approach which fails to do justice to the complex, multi-layered human organisms about which he is writing."

Francis J Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University wrote "a person who ignores evidence, good reasoning, and thoughtful reflection, while embracing wishful thinking, fallacious reasoning, and thoughtless meandering, is wronging himself."

Jeffrey J Folks wrote, "Yuval Harari is far from being the visionary writer that some of his critics supposed following the publication of Sapiens. One finds oneself more often questioning his generalizations than agreeing with them, and as the questioning mounts, one finds that the writing loses credibility." And of his later writing "Harari discards the persona of the historian altogether and becomes what he has trended toward all along: a speculative futurist...filled with overblown claims and sweeping generalizations that make the work appear to be bold and insightful. In reality, like his earlier works, Harari’s third book falls into a familiar tradition of antagonist thinking of the sort analyzed in great depth in the work of Roger Scruton."

Casey Luskin, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture wrote, "there are strong bases for rejecting Harari’s evolutionary vision. It fails to explain too many crucial aspects of the human experience, contradicts too much data, and is too dark and hopeless as regards human rights and equality.

Thomas Fuchs, MD, PhD, Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophy and Psychiatry at Heidelberg University, Germany articulated just how harmful reductive understandings of mankind (such as Harari's) can be. Fuchs's book In Defence of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology prioritizes the human person.

So too a pathbreaking new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by (the late) David Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and David Wengrow, a professor of comparative archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Jan Bransen, professor of philosophy of behavioral sciences at Radboud University warns that Harari's often 'incoherent interpretation' of emotion or action shows a 'lack of understanding of what the ancient Greeks called phronesis, practical wisdom'.

French philosopher Gaspard Koenig says that while Harari argues that AI knows us better than we know ourselves, it may actually prevent us from becoming ourselves.

Charles T Rubin, Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University writes on Harari's notoriously non-committal approach, "Where he stands is unclear, probably because he has left himself very little ground to stand on."

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz


bottom of page