A Response to Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’

By C. R.  Hallpike (December 2017)







Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
464 pp. Harper.











see or touch the Prime Minister, for example, but only a human being, and someone who does not know what ‘Prime Minister’ means has to be told. This can only be done properly by explaining how this role fits into the British Constitution, which in turn involves explaining parliament, cabinet government, the rule of law, democracy, and so on. This world of roles, institutions, beliefs, norms, and values forms what we call culture, but just because the components of culture are immaterial and cannot be seen, touched or smelled does not make them fiction, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, or the myths of Genesis or the Australian Aborigines. We can’t see, touch, or smell truth because truth is not a material object, but that does not make it unreal or fictitious either.

When it comes to the task of explaining social institutions, the idea of culture as fiction is about as useful as a rubber nail:


Really? He takes the Peugeot motor company, with its image of a lion, and tries to argue that the company itself is no more real than an ancient tribal totem, but nevertheless can form the basis on which large numbers of people could co-operate:


How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history . . . It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them . . . In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocusa new company was formed (p 34).


More unsustainable claims do not take long to appear. It may well be true that by about 400,000 years ago Man became able to hunt large game on a regular basis, and that in the last 100,000 years we jumped to the top of the food chain. There also seems little doubt that after humans migrated out of Africa in the last 70,000 years or so they exterminated large mammals in Australia, the Americas, and other parts of the world. But part of his explanation for this is that


Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump (pp 12-13).



the less difference we find between us and other apes. (p 42)


Alice in Wonderland would have fallen rather flat as well.

While Harari recognises that we know almost nothing about the beliefs and social organization of ancient foragers, he agrees that the constraints of their mode of life would have limited them to small-scale groups based on the family without permanent settlements (unless they could fish), and with no domestic animals. But then he launches into some remarkable speculations about what they might nevertheless have achieved in the tens of thousands of years between the Cognitive Revolution and the beginning of agriculture.




Unfortunately, Harari not only knows very little about tribal societies but seems to have read almost nothing on the literature on state formation either, which he tries to explain as follows:


attract people by having something to offer them, not by threatening them, because he has no means of doing this. To have power over people one must control something they want: food, land, personal security, status, wealth, the favour of the gods, knowledge, and so on. In other words, there must be dependency, and leaders must be seen as benefactors. In tribal societies, where people are not self-sufficient in defence, or in access to resources or to the supernatural, they will therefore be willing to accept inequality of power because they obviously get something out of war-leaders, or clan heads, or priests. Political authority in tribal society develops in particular through the kinship system, with hereditary clan heads, who are also believed to have the mystical power to bless their dependents. When states develop we always find that the legitimacy of kings is based on two factors: descent and religion. It is only after the advent of the state can power be riveted on to people by force whether they like it or not, and when it is too late for them to do anything about it except by violent rebellion. 

Anyway, what was needed here to control these much larger populations were networks of mass co-operation, under the control of kings, and Harari takes us almost immediately into the world of the ancient empires of Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and Persia and China. But how were these networks of mass communication created?

He recognises, quite rightly, the importance of writing and mathematics in human history, and claims they were crucial in the emergence of the state:


This was beyond the power of the human brain, however.


This mental limitation severely constrained the size and complexity of human collectives. When the amount of people in  a particular society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process large amounts of mathematical data. Since the human brain could not do it, the system collapsed. For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, human social networks remained relatively small and simple (p 137).


But it is simply not true that kingdoms need to collect vast quantities of financial data in order to tax their subjects, or that social systems beyond a certain size collapsed until they had invented writing and a numerical system for recording this data. If Harari were right it would not have been possible for any kingdoms at all to have developed in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, because there were no forms of writing systems in this region until quite late when a few developed under European or Islamic influence (Ethiopia was a special case.) Nevertheless, pre-colonial Africa was actually littered with states and even empires that functioned perfectly well without writing.

They were able to do this because of the undemanding administrative conditions of early kingdoms. These are based on subsistence agriculture without money and have primitive modes of transport, unless they have easy access to river transport like Egypt, Mesopotamia or China. They also have a simple administrative structure based on a hierarchy of local chiefs or officials who play a prominent part in the organization of tribute. The actual expenses of government, apart from the royal court, are therefore relatively small, and the king may have large herds of cattle or other stock, and large estates and labourers to work them to provide food and beer for guests. The primary duty of a ruler is generosity to his nobles and guests, and to his subjects in distress, not to construct vast public works like pyramids. The basic needs of a ruler, besides food supplies, would be prestige articles as gifts of honour, craft products, livestock, and above all men as soldiers and labourers. In Baganda, one of the largest African states, with a population of around two million, tax messengers were sent out when palace resources were running low:


The goods collected were of various kindslivestock, cowry shells, iron hoe-blades, and the cloths made from the bark of a fig-tree beaten out thin [for clothing and bedding] . . . Cattle were required of superior chiefs, goats and hoes of lesser ones, and the peasants contributed the cowry shells and barkcloths . . . the tax-gatherers did not take a proportion of every herd but required a fixed number of cattle from each chief. Of course the hoes and barkcloths had to be new, and they were not made and stored up in anticipation of the tax-collection. It took some little time to produce the required number, and the tax-gatherers had to wait for this and then supervise the transport of the goods and cattle, first to the saza [district] headquarters and then to the capital. The amount due was calculated in consultation with the subordinates of the saza chiefs who were supposed to know the exact number of men under their authority, and they were responsible for seeing that it was delivered (Mair 1962:163). (Manpower was recruited in basically the same way, and in Africa generally was made up of slaves and corvée labour.)

-59, 61-119, and so on. [Chrisomalis 2010:241-45])


When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint-stock companies to provide the needed social links. (p 115) 

Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money (p 235)


But his chapter on the rise of the universal religions is extremely weak, and his explanation  of monotheism, for example, goes as follows:


With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheist insight. They began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war (p 242).



Against this new intellectual background it also became much easier to think of Man not as a citizen of a particular state, but in universal terms as a moral being. There is the growth of the idea of a common humanity which transcends the boundaries of nation and culture and social distinctions of rank, such as slavery, so that all good men are brothers, and the ideal condition of Man would be universal peace (Hallpike 2016:167-218).

Eurasia, however, does make a good deal of cultural as well as ecological sense, not only because it recognises the obvious importance of Europe, but because of the cultural links that went to and fro across it, so that the early navigators of the fifteenth century were using the Chinese inventions of magnetic compasses, stern-post rudders, paper for their charts, and gunpowder, and were making their voyages to find sea-routes from Europe to China and the East Indies rather than relying on overland trade.

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has above all been a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important question. (p 279).


This is a statement whose truth is not immediately obvious, and he justifies it as follows:


Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. The great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions (pp 279-80).

These traditions may have claimed to know all that was essential to salvation and peace of mind, but that kind of knowledge had nothing whatsoever to do with pre-modern traditions of science. In Europe this meant Aristotle and Greek natural philosophy but about which, astonishingly, Harari has nothing at all to say anywhere in his book. Apart from a willingness to admit ignorance and embrace new knowledge, science


This is a nineteenth-century view of what science does, whereas the really distinctive feature of modern science is that it tests theory by experiment, and does not simply collect empirical observations. On why modern science developed specifically in Europe Harari has the following explanation:



it contained fundamental errorsbut that it presented a coherent theoretical model of how the world worked that stimulated thought and could be tested.

This illustrates a vital difference between Europe and the other imperial civilisations. Whereas the Caliph and the Byzantine Emperor had the authority to impose intellectual orthodoxy, in Europe the Popes could not enforce their will on society, and neither could the secular authorities, because there were too many competing jurisdictionsof the Holy Roman Emperor, of kings, of free cities, of universities, and between church and state themselves. Another vital difference was that in the other imperial civilisations there was that basic gulf between scholars and artisans and between merchants and the rest of the upper classes to which I referred earlier. Medieval European towns and cities, however, were run by merchants, together with the artisans and their guilds, so that the social status of artisans in particular was very much higher than in other cultures, and it was possible for them to interact socially with learned scholars. This interaction with scholars occurred in the context of a wide range of interests that combined book-learning with practical skills: alchemy, astrology, medicine, painting, printing, clock-making, the magnetic compass, gunpowder and gunnery, lens-grinding for spectacles, and so on. These skills were also intimately involved in the making of money in a commercially dynamic society.






Chrisomalis, S. 2010. Numerical Notation. A comparative history. Cambridge University Press.

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Hallpike, C.R. 1979. The Foundations of Primitive Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hallpike, C.R. 1986. The Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hallpike, C.R. 2008. How We Got Here. From bows and arrows to the space age. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse.

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Do We Need God To Be Good? (2017), Ethical Thought in Increasingly Complex Societies: Social Structure and Moral Development (2016), On Primitive Society: and other forbidden topics (2011), and How We Got Here: Bows and Arrows to the Space Age (2008).

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