A lot of people suggested that I read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I got a copy — it’s moldering in a pile somewhere in my office somewhere — and read a couple of pages before the klaxon blaring in my head made me put it down. I did not trust the author in the slightest bit, and his stories all seemed either off or clearly weird opinions. I see my initial presentiments were valid, if you accept this review of Sapiens.
Unfortunately, Harari is tainting the reputation of science popularizers. At least the article labels him as a “science populist”, which is a whole different ball of wax. I think the difference is that a populist tries to ingratiate themselves with an audience by telling stories that reassure them that their biases about themselves are right.
We have been seduced by Harari because of the power not of his truth or scholarship but of his storytelling. As a scientist, I know how difficult it is to spin complex issues into appealing and accurate storytelling. I also know when science is being sacrificed to sensationalism. Yuval Harari is what I call a “science populist.” (Canadian clinical psychologist and YouTube guru Jordan Peterson is another example.) Science populists are gifted storytellers who weave sensationalist yarns around scientific “facts” in simple, emotionally persuasive language. Their narratives are largely scrubbed clean of nuance or doubt, giving them a false air of authority—and making their message even more convincing. Like their political counterparts, science populists are sources of misinformation. They promote false crises, while presenting themselves as having the answers. They understand the seduction of a story well told—relentlessly seeking to expand their audience—never mind that the underlying science is warped in the pursuit of fame and influence.
Since I didn’t read his book, I didn’t discover one of his core messages was something that drives me into a rage: he’s one of those genetic reductionists. All we need to do is figure out what genes you have, and we’ll understand everything. We won’t.
Harari’s speculations are consistently based on a poor understanding of science. His predictions of our biological future, for instance, are based on a gene-centric view of evolution—a way of thinking that has (unfortunately) dominated public discourse due to public figures like him. Such reductionism advances a simplistic view of reality, and worse yet, veers dangerously into eugenics territory.
Our genes are not our puppet masters, pulling the right strings at the right time to control the events that create us. When Harari writes about altering our physiology, or “engineering” humans to be faithful or clever, he is skipping over the many non-genetic mechanisms that form us.
For example, even something as seemingly hardwired as our physiology—cells dividing, moving, deciding their fates, and organizing into tissues and organs—is not engineered by genes alone. In the 1980s, scientist J.L. Marx conducted a series of experiments in Xenopus (an aquatic frog native to sub-Saharan Africa) and found that “mundane” biophysical events (like chemical reactions in the cells, mechanical pressures inside and on the cells, and gravity) can switch genes on and off, determining cell fate. Animal bodies, he concluded, result from an intricate dance between genes, and changing physical and environmental events.
Yeah, that’s pretty much the consensus among informed biologists. It’s hard to argue against it, unless you’re the kind of racist who ignores the science. Yet somehow, Harari gets all these recommendations from big name people like Obama and Zuckerberg and Gates. Why?
Harari’s motives remain mysterious; but his descriptions of biology (and predictions about the future) are guided by an ideology prevalent among Silicon Valley technologists like Larry Page, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others. They may have differing opinions on whether the algorithms will save or destroy us. But they believe, all the same, in the transcendent power of digital computation. “We’re headed toward a situation where A.I. is vastly smarter than humans and I think that time frame is less than five years from now,” Musk said in a 2020 New York Times interview. Musk is wrong. The algorithms will not take all our jobs, or rule the world, or put an end to humanity anytime soon (if at all). As A.I. specialist François Chollet says about the possibility of algorithms attaining cognitive autonomy, “Today and for the foreseeable future, this is stuff of science fiction.” By echoing the narratives of Silicon Valley, science populist Harari is promoting—yet again—a false crisis. Worse, he is diverting our attention from the real harms of algorithms and the unchecked power of the tech industry.
Yeah, one path to fame and fortune is to pander to the biases of Silicon Valley tech bros. You know that “Larry Page, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others” are people lacking in any biological expertise at all, but they do love uplifting stories of human nature and evolution, especially when the message is that the artificial hierarchy that has made them rich is intrinsic and natural. Yuck.
(To those of you who recommended the book to me: I appreciate it! It sounds like the kind of book I would like, it’s just that you can’t know until you dig into the content. Harari relies on superficial impressions to fuel the Harari industry.)