This is a different kind of book reflection. It is about a book I normally do not write anything about, not because I find over simplified discussions about important issues boring and uninteresting (I sometime find it interesting to understand what simplification that are TED materials), but increasingly I find them dangerously stupefying. I read the book and wrote this reflection as I have seen politicians that I consider reasonably intelligent (including Obama), friends and artists I respect praise the book.
I should clarify that I agree with very much in the book and I’m happy that Yuval brings up a number of interesting and important issues, e.g. how western countries have used “free trade” to push drugs (the opium war) and how our society is ignoring animal rights.
What I find frightening, is that this kind of rhetoric is becoming so popular, and even considered knowledge. I have no problem with Yuval writing a book like this. He is a good writer and it is easy to read to book. I even think you can recommend people reading this book instead of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code or Harry Potter (both well written books that are entertaining). Some people like this kind of entertainment and I think almost all books can be used as inspiration to explore important issues (including the books by Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling that many criticize for their simplicity). But for me the way people have reacted to “Sapiens” reflect the dangerous disrespect for science and knowledge. They refer to this book as a source of knowledge in ways that differs from how people refer to Dan Brown.
It is as if Yuval set out to write the longest tweet ever, filled with “fun” “facts” that are easily quotable.
The book is filled with entertaining, but sloppy, provocations (at least that is what I think it is), e.g. he groups ideologies together with religion without a proper discussion about the differences. The simple fact that ideologies tend to be built on some rational ground and assumptions that can be discussed, compared with religion that are based on faith. Obviously, there are similarities that are interesting to discuss, but to book never moves in to complex questions.
I think Yuval makes a number of important observations, but the book has a tendency to erode the meaning of words that I find deeply disturbing and dangerous. Add to this the lack of serious references and it is hard to see this as anything more than fiction. I would even argue that the “edutainment” focus, where knowledge is simplified, statements are provided without proper backing and always presented in a personal and fun way, is one if the key contributions to the situation we have in society where facts, science and dialogue are under threats.
This kind of material is a lot more dangerous than what is usually regarded a “fake news” as few people actually think they are true, but rather sympathise with the general message.
When mainstream media, politicians that are seen as thinking people, talk about books like this as if it provides some kind of insight we are on a very slippery slope as exactly the same book can be written with very different values that are equally entertaining.
I think Yuval is in love with his fantastic capacity to write in a captivating way, providing us with small nuggets that fits perfect in a dinner conversations when someone want to sound interesting without thinking for themselves.
There are so many contradictions and hyperbole does not begin to describe many of the statements.
“But the single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.”
There are many moments that can be used to highlight different aspects of our society. Humans have always had the opportunity to change history, that is what we do. But even more important we did not get the chance to end human civilisation at that moment. What is true is that Edward Teller’s back of the envelope calculations that indicated that the earth atmosphere. What moment the Russians and US had enough nuclear weapons so that a full nuclear world result in such a catastrophic chain event that there was a probability that human civilisation would end, is hard to estimate, but it was long after 1945.
“The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life. Even if killing death seems a distant goal, we have already achieved things that were inconceivable a few centuries ago.”
Who have ever said that? Is there even one (1) leading project for the scientific revolution, and if such a thing could be established it would probably be something vague like “improve things”?
“The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all 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 questions.”
Again an interesting statement, and I’m curious to learn more about such a statement. But as always these general statements are not backed up in any way.
“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference.”
Who have said that the slave trade steamed from hatred, or that our current animal industry is based on hatred?
The book is filled with random, half-true statement that backs up a liberal view on the world. If people that consider themselves to be critical thinkers and supporters of the enlightenment embrace this kind of level of intelligence (or more correct, lack thereof) I think we are in serious trouble. This is not to say that Noah is unintelligent, I assume that he is smart (perhaps even very smart), but he has bought into the simplification narrative that is so dominating today and so have many of his readers I guess.
I know that it is easier for most people to be upset at racist webpages, anti-scientific attacks on climate change, and hateful trolls on Twitter, but such things will always exist. The real problem is when people who consider themselves educated and moderate use books like this as the bases for any kind of discussion about something important. As long as facts are less important than entertainment we will get Trump, Lomborg and other experts who are “sceptic” towards climate change, immigrants, science, etc.
Hopefully a number of people in media and politics (including lobbyists and PR/marketing people) are asking what kind of responsibility they have for the current situation.
I want to write a separate text about the need to protect democracy and the open society later.