There is a consistent historical materialism running throughout Harari's Sapiens, and for that he should be congratulated and his eminently readable book widely recommended. There is no pandering to imaginary gods or other supernatural forces, just a down to earth account of the human story from the time of the big bang right through to our genetically and biologically modified future. From our humble hunter- gatherer beginnings, through the Neolithic revolution and onwards to both the industrial and now information revolutions, Harari paints a convincing narrative. This sort of text is desperately needed to help counteract the superstitions and historical ignorance that amazingly, still persists to this day. Sapiens is the sort of text that should be compulsory reading for all GCSE and A Level students, with a simpler, scaled down version available for younger children. Rather than the hotchpotch of chronologically disjointed nonsense that is currently served up to our students, here is a chronologically coherent account of the history of mankind.


If Sapiens has one failing, and it is a significant one, it is that it fails to grasp the dialectic. In other words, things tend to just happen in Harari's account rather than logically emerge out of long running, deep seated contradictions. Harari writes;

History proceeds from one junction to the next, choosing for some mysterious reason to follow first this path, then another. P244

Yes, history can be random but notwithstanding this randomness it is still possible to discern certain patterns and inevitabilities to the human story. Slave owning societies of the classical era, for example, finally succumbed to a land based feudalism because an economy based principally on slavery proved too inefficient and unreliable for the world's growing population. Similarly, capitalism and its bourgeois elite emerged out of the feudal world because the latter had exhausted its potential and had become a break on human development. More recently, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to be defined not just by their technological advances but by the sharp contradiction between private ownership of production and the increasingly social nature of that production. So acute were those contradictions that it produced revolutionary movements and actual revolutions right across the globe. In fact, It very nearly brought the entire human race to a nuclear Armageddon. You will find no recognition or discussion of these epoch defining contradictions in Sapiens, and that is a serious flaw.

So a materialist account yes, but a dialectical materialist account it is definitely not. Without adequately explaining just why the human economy transitioned from subsistence, to slavery, to feudal farming and more recently to industrial manufacture and finance capitalism, Harari offers instead a more simplistic story of three fundamental revolutions; the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution. And while there is nothing fundamentally incorrect with describing human history in these terms, such an approach tends to airbrush out of history the notions of competing classes, of unresolved contradictions and the inevitable resolution of those contradictions into something altogether new. 


Without contending classes struggling over social contradictions, we Sapiens would never have been able to change the ancient status quo. We would forever be stuck in our hunter-gatherer incarnation. Today, the central contradiction facing all humans is wrought by the private ownership of the world's means of production. Arising from this private ownership comes the vast inequalities that are so deforming our social and political structures, leading as they do to endless disputes and wars over resources and markets. But this ongoing contradiction is not seen by Harari as either an impediment to human progress nor as a predictable cause of social conflict. What exercises Harari most at the end of his text is the threat to homo sapiens themselves from genetic and biological engineering. A whole new species may emerge according to Harari, supplanting the slow and lumbering homo sapiens who are just too slow and irrational to adapt.

The Cognitive Revolution that turned Homo sapiens from an insignificant ape into the master of the world did not require any noticeable change in physiology or even in the size and external shape of the Sapiens brain. It apparently involved no more than a few small changes to internal brain structure. Perhaps another small change would be enough to ignite a Second Cognitive Revolution, create a completely new type of consciousness, and transform Homo Sapiens into something altogether different. P403

This is a completely legitimate and predictable way to end this impressive history of our species, yet it conveniently sidesteps the giant unresolved contradiction facing mankind; that of running the planet either collectively or as is the case today, by a handful of corporations and oligarchs lording it over the vast mass of humanity. To put the matter succinctly, the wealthiest 85 people on the planet now own more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Humankind will keep returning to this unresolved contradiction, albeit in differing forms, until the contradiction has been resolved one way or another and a new synthesis emerges. On this Harari is silent.

Harari comes at his work from a biological evolutionist perspective and in so doing fails to understand that we humans are both the object and the subject of history. We are not simply the plaything of history, we are also active agents of our own history and increasingly so. This dialectic between being shaped by and in turn shaping our economic environment is the one constant in the human story but Harari, despite his very best efforts, ultimately fails to grasp this dialectic and his noble efforts suffer as a result.

End JPK copyright. 23/12/14

Replies to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

Last Updated ( Monday, 21 May 2018 07:37 )