Comments on “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Mankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

Having caught this part-way through the radio serialisation, I was immediately aroused by its repetition of the old error that we evolved a new form of language 70 to 30 thousand years ago.

As I pointed in my blog posting in Dec 2012, the fact that the San people of Southern Africa split from everyone else 130,000 years ago, yet apparently have the same language facility as everyone else, strongly suggests that there has been little significant language evolution since then. And as Harari’s thesis largely depends on the claim that a remarkable new cognitive super-power enabled us to break free from Africa and into Saudi Arabia and beyond, there was a chance the book was completely misguided.
Working, I admit, just from the radio serialisation (completed via Listenagain), – plus the BBC’s brief Meet the Author programme – where he was interviewed by Nick Higham, it seems the claimed super-power was the ability to imagine what isn’t there.

But the whole concept of goal achievement, even when it’s no more than imagining that you have food in front of you and then causing it to happen, requires imagining something that isn’t there. Most vertebrates can do this. If it’s a variant of this that is meant – imagining then creating something that has never existed – then not only have people been able to do this for 130kyrs, but the ability was completed by then, and had probably hardly changed for several tens of thousands of years before then. And if we split from the Neanderthals 3.5 – 4.5kys ago, then they too probably shared a considerable degree of our creative ability… and therefore such a difference was unlikely to have caused our break-out from Africa, and past and through them to the rest of the world.

But having said that… there are some good lessons in his book. He recounts some of the wisdom from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, such as the decreasing health caused by our adoption of agriculture.

What I liked most was something I only caught from the interview – that our characteristic obsessive storytelling and story making helps us, whether the stories themselves are “true” or rubbish. As I said in my blog posting in February:

“Often in human societies, these models or theories merely had to generate behaviour required to survive and thrive. It didn’t matter if the theory involved gigantic mythical snakes whose movements had thrown up mountains, or giant dragons that regularly swallowed the moon, so long as they allowed the production of suitable actions at suitable times or situations. If all you needed to know was when to burn the vegetation back, or warn the emperor of an impending eclipse, or plant crops under suitable conditions, those theories, which your brain was designed to invent, bizarre though those theories may be, had done their job.”

This is all about generating models, which are told, passed on, and used to guide behaviour-generation. I’ve never heard anyone say this apart from myself, so I can approve of that piece of novelty!

The stuff he’s got from Diamond, and the new revelations of the Denisovans is all good too, and can easily bear repetition.

So all he needs now is to use the attention he’s got to put out the truth about language evolution timing! We probably broke out from Africa because of climatic/geographical events; however our thwarting of the Neanderthals (and everyone else) I suppose might need some explanation beyond the spilling of a large African gene-pool into an unobstructed expansion area. I’m just not sure Harari’s explanation – of special imagination powers in the language – is the right one. It may be that Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy idea of special entrepreneurial-style middle-man tendencies is closer to the truth.

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