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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Book Review: SAPIENS by Yuval Harari II

Review of Yuval Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
by C.R.Hallpike

Part II of IV

Harari's belief that the Cognitive Revolution provided the modes of thought and reasoning that are the basis of our scientific civilisation could not therefore be further from the truth. We may accept that people became able to speak in sentences at this time, and language is certainly essential to human culture, but anthropologists and developmental psychologists, in their studies of primitive societies, have found that their language development and their modes of thought about space, time, classification, causality and the self have much more resemblance to those of the Piraha than to those of members of modern industrial societies. The Piraha are an extreme case, but the Tauade of Papua New Guinea, for example, with whom I lived only had the idea of single and pair, and no form of calendar or time-reckoning. Harari clearly has no knowledge at all of cross-cultural developmental psychology, and of how modes of thought develop in relation to the natural and socio-cultural environments. The people who carved the Stadel lion-man around 30,000 years ago and the Piraha had the same ability to learn as we do, which is why Piraha children can learn to count, but these cognitive skills have to be learnt: we are not born with them all ready to go. Cross-cultural developmental psychology has shown that the development of the cognitive skills of modern humans actually requires literacy and schooling, large-scale bureaucratic societies and complex urban life, the experience of cultural differences, and familiarity with modern technology, to name some of the more important requirements (see Hallpike 1979).

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.

These long millennia may have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces...The foragers may have had their all-conquering Napoleons who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg; gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to tears with the sound of their bamboo flutes...' and so on (pp. 68-9).

Er, no. They couldn't. All these imagined triumphs of the hunter-gatherers would actually have required a basis of large populations, centralized political control and probably literate civilisation, which in turn would have required the development of agriculture.

This is normally regarded as, after language, the innovation that made possible the extraordinary flowering of human abilities. As Harari correctly points out, agriculture developed independently in a number of parts of the world, and tribal societies based on farming became extremely common, many of them surviving into modern times. But he describes the Agricultural Revolution as 'history's biggest fraud' because individuals in fully developed farming societies generally had an inferior diet and harder work than foragers, and their food supply depended on a limited range of crops that were vulnerable to drought, pests, and invaders, unlike the more varied food resources of hunter-gatherers.

These criticisms of agriculture are, of course, quite familiar, and up to a point legitimate. But if agriculture was really such a bad deal why would humans ever have gone along with it? Harari begins by suggesting that wheat and other crops actually domesticated us, and made us work for them, rather than the other way round, but this doesn't get him very far in explaining the persistence of agriculture, and instead he argues that wheat offered nothing to individuals, but only to the species by enabling the growth of larger populations. But since it is actually individuals who have to do all the hard work of sowing and reaping this won't do either, so finally he says that people persisted in the agricultural way of life because they were in search of an easier life, and couldn't anticipate the full consequences of agriculture.

Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work - say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering the seeds on the surface - people thought, "Yes, we will have to work harder, but the harvest will be so bountiful! We won't have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry." It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan. (p. 97)

It didn't work out that way, however, because people didn't foresee population growth, poor diet and disease. Since it would have taken many generations to realise all the disadvantages of agriculture, by that time the population would have grown so large that it would have been impossible to go back to foraging, so the agricultural trap closed on Man for evermore.

The change from foraging to agriculture as principal mode of subsistence would have actually taken hundreds of years in many cases, and there are many important advantages of agriculture which he ignores. It is likely that one of the primary attractions of planting crops was that it allowed people to live in fixed settlements for some or all of the year, for a variety of reasons. Some favoured locations would have provided access to a plentiful supply of food or water; a whole series of craft activities are all more conveniently carried out in permanent or semi-permanent settlements; and these are also very convenient for holding ceremonies such as initiations and feasts. We also know that the food surplus from agriculture can be used in systems of exchange and competitive feasting, for trading with different groups, and for feeding domestic animals. A larger population also has many attractions in itself: it permits a much richer social life than is possible for small foraging bands,  with more impressive ceremonies, a larger labour force for social projects such as irrigation and communal buildings, and more effective defence against local enemies. Agriculture would therefore have had many attractions which would have been obvious to the people concerned, (see Hallpike 2008:52-65).

Agriculture with the domestication of animals, then, was the essential foundation for the growth of really large populations which are in turn essential for the development of complex cultures and social systems in a new 'tribal' form of social organization. Land ownership became closely related to kin groups of clans and lineages, which were in turn the basis of formal systems of political authority based on elders or chiefs who could mediate in disputes and sometimes assume priestly functions. A whole variety of groups sprang up based not only on kinship but on residence, work, voluntary association, age, and gender and these group structures and hierarchical organization made it much easier to co-ordinate the larger populations that developed (see Hallpike 2008:66-121). This tribal organization was the essential precursor of the state, particularly through the development of political authority which was always legitimated by descent and religious status. By the state I mean centralised political authority, usually a king, supported by tribute and taxes, and with a monopoly of armed force. Although it has been estimated that only about 20% of tribal societies in Africa, the Americas, Polynesia, New Guinea, and many parts of Asia actually developed the state, the state was almost as important a revolution in human history as agriculture itself, because of all the further developments it made possible, and a large literature on the process of state formation has developed (e.g. Claessen & Skalnik 1978, Hallpike 1986, 2008, Trigger 2003).

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:

The stress of farming [worrying about the weather, drought, floods, bandits, next year's famine and so on] had far reaching consequences. It was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants' surplus food. (p. 114) 

The reader might well wonder how peasants worrying about next year's possible famine could possibly have been the foundation of any major political developments, and why in any case they would have meekly allowed their crops to be plundered, as well as where these rulers and elites suddenly sprang from. If Harari knew more about tribal societies he would have realised that the notion of a leader imposing his will on his followers misses the whole point of leadership in pre-state societies, which is that the leader has to 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.

Part III of Dr. Hallpike's review will be posted tomorrow.
Part I

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36 Comments:

Blogger Howard Stone November 04, 2017 4:50 PM  

I’ve termed this sort of thing a super-myth, or myth of all myths, but in the end, just another myth.

Blogger S1AL November 04, 2017 4:51 PM  

Based on this review, there's a whole lot of Waldensian fallacy going on in the book.

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 6:43 PM  

Potlatching = Early political power. Duh!

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 6:50 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger David The Good November 04, 2017 6:53 PM  

I stand with agriculture!

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 6:54 PM  

The shear "twistiness" to turn this into a Leftist Narrative is so freaking absurd, well, as we know, you cannot parody these giants in intellect.

Those poor peasants being taken advantage of by their rulers, while all the inventions came from them....such Deplorable Victims?!

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 6:56 PM  

David The Good wrote:I stand with agriculture!

Only if you have a great micro-brewery.

Blogger David The Good November 04, 2017 7:03 PM  

Agriculture also requires a longer time horizon than foraging. Land must be cleared, seed saved, crops planned into the future. At the basic level of agriculture - annual crops - one still has to understand proper planting times, ongoing maintenence of the fields via weeding, harvest and preservation of the crop. In more complicated systems for long-term crops such as fruits, nuts, timber, etc., there is a required stability and long-term investment into the future. The biblical story of Naboth's vineyard and Ahab's desire to buy that vineyard and turn it into a vegetable garden has much deeper meaning when you realize he's taking a long-term productive asset (grapes only begin producing well after proper training and at least three years in the ground, then only improve in quality over the century or more the vines may last) and desiring to tear it out and plant short-term low time-horizon crops. It could be read as an insight into the wickedness and short-sightedness of the king and not just a "I want that land - give it to me!" story.

Agriculture likely attracts longer term thinkers and in turn promotes and encourages them long term, unlike wandering the jungle in search of wild fruit and meats. Breeding of animals, preservation methods such as salting and smoking, selection of plant species for greater yields or other valuable assets such as seedlessness in bananas - that takes thinking and planning which translates into higher levels of culture.

Anonymous Causal Lurker November 04, 2017 7:05 PM  

Obvious next points:

When clan leaders, war chiefs, or priests are unable to provide benefits to the people, then the peasants and soldiers band together and remove them. The new leader then has the object example of his predecessor's corpse to encourage better behavior.

The system works until a king gains enough power to impose taxes and use his own independent agents to assess and collect. It gets far worse if "the people" are given this power without the constraints of clan or religious ties and traditions.

Summary: the review will leave quite a mark in four part harmony.

Note to self: put Dr. Hallpike's works higher on the reading list.

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 7:15 PM  

Yeah, the differences between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic environments may be too spergy to go into all the changes, and there were even some Paleolithic cultures and tribes that had some aspect of more advanced cultures.

Yet, if you wanted advances beyond the simplest metallurgy, medicine people that could save your butt if you had a Witch accusation against you, and a little city state that could keep thousands of people together, with a moat, and at least dirt or wooden walls protecting you...agriculture and keeping tame animals was the neolithic way to go.

Blogger ((( bob kek mando ))) - ( Fine Purveyor of Quality Artisanal Gorm ) November 04, 2017 7:30 PM  

6. tuberman November 04, 2017 6:54 PM
Those poor peasants being taken advantage of by their rulers,


by their rulers?

hell, Harari is making the case that we are oppressed by WHEAT. as well as by cattle and chicken and hogs and dogs and cats ( well, okay, you've got a point about cats ) and everything else we've domesticated.

you'll have to excuse me while i go out in the farm yard and cut a pigs throat and steal eggs from a chicken. because they oppressed me into doing it.

if this is the level of intellect being cultivated in Israel, we need to cut off their funding toot sweet.

what's worse is that Harari is arguing in circles AGAINST HIS OWN ASSERTIONS.

agriculture bad for people!

agriculture required in order to support large enough populations to synthesize Civilization!

because hunter-foragers are better at collecting food than can be garnered via agriculture and never experience famine or drought!

and only the civilized are subject to disease! so agriculture is a really, REALLY bad thing!

when you assume that all Abstractions ( the Superset ) are Fiction ( the Subset ), contradicting your own position is of no importance.

because you were never doing anything but spinning bullshit in the first place.

according to his own hypothesis, every word out of Harari's mouth or dripped from his pen or typed from his keyboard is Fiction.

that is, A LIE.

well, he DID tell me what he was doing up front.

truly, the Jews are the most Righteous of Men.


frankly, i don't know if i can take any more of this. Hallpike is doing valuable, yeoman's work rebutting it.

but Harari's assertions are so willfully stupid, deceitful and contradictory that i don't want to read the excerpts or even the summaries of what he said.

Blogger Snidely Whiplash November 04, 2017 7:40 PM  

What agriculture offered, at least in Europe and the Near East, was simple: Beer.
People who don't grow grains can't make beer.
Everything else follows.

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 7:43 PM  

Snidely Whiplash wrote:What agriculture offered, at least in Europe and the Near East, was simple: Beer.

People who don't grow grains can't make beer.

Everything else follows.



SW, Quit stealing from me, I already suggested that.

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 7:46 PM  

((( bob kek mando ))) - ( Fine Purveyor of Quality Artisanal Gorm ) wrote:6. tuberman November 04, 2017 6:54 PM

Those poor peasants being taken advantage of by their rulers,


by their rulers?

hell, Harari is making the case that we are oppressed by WHEAT. as well as by cattle and chicken and hogs and dogs and cats ( well, okay, you've got a point about cats ) and everything else we've domesticated.

you'll have to excuse me while i go out in the farm yard and cut a pigs throat and steal eggs from a chicken. because they oppressed me into doing it.

if this is the level of intellect being cultivated in Israel, we need to cut off their funding toot sweet.

what's worse is that Harari is arguing in circles AGAINST HIS OWN ASSERTIONS.

agriculture bad for people!

agriculture required in order to support large enough populations to synthesize Civilization!

because hunter-foragers are better at collecting food than can be garnered via agriculture and never experience famine or drought!

and only the civilized are subject to disease! so agriculture is a really, REALLY bad thing!

when you assume that all Abstractions ( the Superset ) are Fiction ( the Subset ), contradicting your own position is of no importance.

because you were never doing anything but spinning bullshit in the first place.

according to his own hypothesis, every word out of Harari's mouth or dripped from his pen or typed from his keyboard is Fiction.

that is, A LIE.

well, he DID tell me what he was doing up front.

truly, the Jews are the most Righteous of Men.

frankly, i don't know if i can take any more of this. Hallpike is doing valuable, yeoman's work rebutting it.

but Harari's assertions are so willfully stupid, deceitful and contradictory that i don't want to read the excerpts or even the summaries of what he said.


Yes, I know he is stupid, and that was OBVIOUSLY MY POINT.

Blogger tuberman November 04, 2017 8:08 PM  

OT. Well, I gotta go workout, while my club is still open.

Blogger Snidely Whiplash November 04, 2017 8:22 PM  

tuberman wrote:SW, Quit stealing from me, I already suggested that.

Are you saying I stole your beer?

Blogger S1AL November 04, 2017 8:32 PM  

Beer and coffee, the twin pillars of modern civilization...

And I hate both.

Thank God for clear liquor and energy drinks.

Blogger Doc Rampage November 04, 2017 8:36 PM  

Although the anthropology of modern primitive tribes is interesting, I think it's risky to attribute their mental and social characteristics to old stone-age cultures simply on the basis of technological level. There must be some reason that the tribes remained primitive through the centuries as other peoples advanced. Whatever those reasons are, it isn't a sign of inquisitive or innovative or agile minds.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab November 04, 2017 8:59 PM  

I prefer horse mounted pastoralism. All the benefits of a large-ish group but none of the downsides of being tied to a patch of land or growing crops. Plus you get kumis and a much better diet.

Blogger Tatooine Sharpshooters' Club November 04, 2017 9:02 PM  

Is it the academic background that incites the run to commie agitprop in anthropology and even in history? The need for organization and cooperation demanded by the expansion of irrigated agriculture is instantly turned into parasitic "leaders and elites living off of the oppressed proles".

It must really chaps their asses that their happy Smurf village of "from each according to their ability and to each according to their need" has never emerged organically, even in the earliest days of agriculture, human nature being what it is.

Blogger S1AL November 04, 2017 9:24 PM  

"Plus you get kumis and a much better diet."

Query: do you know which of the East Asian sub-populations is most consistently physically impressive, why that is, and why it contradicts your statement?

Blogger Johnny November 04, 2017 9:25 PM  



I can still remember sitting in a classroom with all the benefits of a modern society, and at the same time listening to the professor drone on about the benefits of living in a stone age society. Of all those things called science, anthropology is the least compentent, with sociology a close second.

Something this guy overlooks and is commonly overlooked, is that for many primitives it was not either/or, but both some farming and some hunting-gathering at the same time. Thus they could spontaneously stress which ever method was producing the best outcomes.

Blogger Johnny November 04, 2017 9:29 PM  

Tatooine Sharpshooters' Club wrote:Is it the academic background that incites the run to commie agitprop in anthropology and even in history?

I think it is social competition. You can make yourself bigger with accomplishment, or by running other people down. What the professor 'class' is doing is making itself bigger by disparaging the other groups in the society it lives in.

Blogger JohnofAustria November 04, 2017 9:51 PM  

He's a Jew, he's projecting his own parasitism. They always project.

Blogger tz November 04, 2017 11:33 PM  

While they talk about the plow and farming, ranching and herding might be more important. You can find animal species that like to stay together, and become shepherds or whatever the equivalent is for other species. Also Chickens (for both meat an eggs). Herders can be and sometimes are required ot be nomadic. But that changes the social structure. Ranchers and farmers are related but far from identical.

Anonymous Bob November 04, 2017 11:51 PM  

LOL So I guess the rules wouldn't change if we provided bacon for the pigs?

Anonymous vfm November 04, 2017 11:55 PM  

"The biblical story of Naboth's vineyard and Ahab's desire to buy that vineyard and turn it into a vegetable garden has much deeper meaning when you realize he's taking a long-term productive asset (grapes only begin producing well after proper training and at least three years in the ground, then only improve in quality over the century or more the vines may last) and desiring to tear it out and plant short-term low time-horizon crops. It could be read as an insight into the wickedness and short-sightedness of the king and not just a "I want that land - give it to me!" story."

Excellent points Dave.

Blogger Thucydides November 05, 2017 12:44 AM  

Damn. I wish I had been able to read this some years ago before I actually bought the book. I had lots of nagging questions in the back of my mind while reading, but this provides the answers I was looking for in clear, concise language.

Anonymous Brick Hardslab November 05, 2017 1:28 AM  

Ok I'll bite who are you thinking of?

Anonymous Anonymous November 05, 2017 1:50 AM  

"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."

Given examples of transition from tribal societies to states that happened in historical times and therefore lived on in records, such as in Scandinavia, this is a rather overoptimistic point of view. What Hallpike describes happened - maybe - on the level of separate clans, but states uniting those clans were formed by chieftains who got lucky enough in war to form a retinue of professional warriors around themselves and kill or exile everyone who refused their demands.

Anonymous vfm November 05, 2017 4:53 AM  

"Is it the academic background that incites the run to commie agitprop in anthropology and even in history? The need for organization and cooperation demanded by the expansion of irrigated agriculture is instantly turned into parasitic "leaders and elites living off of the oppressed proles".


And then those selfsame commie leaders turn around and do the exact same thing living parasitically off of the proles with genocides thrown in as well. And leftards want to just keep trying it again and again because...

Anonymous vfm November 05, 2017 5:26 AM  

"Sapiens" the anthropological equivalent of the Noble Savage or Noble Savage redux.

Anonymous Avalanche November 05, 2017 7:29 AM  

A larger population also has many attractions in itself: it permits ... a larger labour force for social projects such as irrigation and communal buildings,

Isn't that entirely circular?

A large population living by agriculture gives you a large labor force to build irrigation -- which you only need because of agriculture -- and more workers to build larger buildings -- which you only need because of a large populations (because: planting)?

As against:

A small population living by hunting and foraging gives you no motive to build irrigation -- which you don't need -- and no need for a larger building -- because you don't have large population.

(Sorry, coffee hasn't kicked in yet -- am I missing something?)


And then:
peasants worrying about next year's possible famine could possibly have been the foundation of any major political developments, and why in any case they would have meekly allowed their crops to be plundered, as well as where these rulers and elites suddenly sprang from.

Did not most hunting/foraging bands HAVE leaders? Not leaders in this fellow's "Occupy Agriculture" mode: "rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants' surplus food" -- but they were not amorphous bands of amoebas wandering the plains in groups of one!

Blogger tuberman November 05, 2017 7:43 AM  

Snidely Whiplash wrote:tuberman wrote:SW, Quit stealing from me, I already suggested that.

Are you saying I stole your beer?


I'm suspicious, as in why did that guy leave his beer sitting there to be stolen? Sounds like he walked a long way, away? Possibly a setup, as he already knew who was stealing beers at that bar. A trap, one more time a black guy getting over on another black guy trying to get over on him?

Ha! Or more likely it was just some poor sap having his last beer stolen just when he didn't have any money for more....but, but, he got a song out of it didn't he? Could of been Country, or could of been Blues?

In my own case the beer flowed so heavily that when someone stole your beer, it was a sign it was your turn to go back to the filler and return with a case of beer to share. I worked in a distillery from age 19 to 30.

Blogger wreckage November 05, 2017 10:22 AM  

No sooner was settled agriculture underway than elites sprang up to steal the surplus that there wasn't?
Well, in any case, those "elites" were what now? Well, specialists. Military and organizational specialists, largely. And they wanted allegiances, soldiers, weapons and trade (for wealth). Which in turn demanded MORE specialists; more and better makers of weapons, tools, and decorations.
And each of those specialists could now spend his entire life refining his craft.
Yes, this consumed all the surplus, and brought about every achievement of civilization; each of which generated and consumed yet more surplus, permitting more specialists, and so on.
Does anyone seriously believe that the Greeks and Romans didn't achieve more, millenia ago, than their contemporary hunter-gatherers, let alone hunter gatherers who STILL haven't achieved anything today? Settled agriculture achieved more in a few centuries than the entire history of humankind beforehand did.

Blogger wreckage November 05, 2017 10:31 AM  

Those weapons and decorations are metallurgy. The fine, dyed clothes of the high ranking women are chemistry. The entire field of microbiology sprang from cloth merchants. The mines and factories, even neolithic ones, needed engineering and mathematics; trade and fisheries required navigation, whence astronomy.

They didn't come about due to elaborate thought experiments, they came about via clever people competing to get stuff done, to harness the ever expanding range of materials and skills to propel themselves toward the apex of the every-larger and ever more rewarding social hierarchy.

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