Tags: noah

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Sapiens

I finally got around to reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s one of those books that I kept hearing about from smart people whose opinions I respect. But I have to say, my reaction to the book reminded me of when I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

It was an exasperating read.

At first, I found the book to be a rollicking good read. It told the sweep of history in an engaging way, backed up with footnotes and references to prime sources. But then the author transitions from relaying facts to taking flights of fancy without making any distinction between the two (the only “tell” is that the references dry up).

Just as Matt Ridley had personal bugbears that interrupted the flow of The Rational Optimist, Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

When the book avoids that particular historical conspiracy theory, it fares better. But even then, the author seems to think he’s providing genuinely new insights into matters of religion, economics, and purpose, when in fact, he’s repeating the kind of “college thoughts” that have been voiced by anyone who’s ever smoked a spliff.

I know I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not terrible. It’s just …generally not that great. And when it is great, it only makes the other parts all the more frustrating. There’s a really good book in Sapiens, but unfortunately it’s interspersed with some pretty bad editorialising. I have to agree with Galen Strawson’s review:

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

Towards the end of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari casts his eye on our present-day world and starts to speculate on the future. This is the point when I almost gave myself an injury with the amount of eye-rolling I was doing. His ideas on technology, computers, and even science fiction are embarrassingly childish and incomplete. And the bad news is that his subsequent books—Home Deus and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century—are entirely speculations about humanity and technology. I won’t be touching those with all the ten foot barge poles in the world.

In short, although there is much to enjoy in Sapiens, particularly in the first few chapters, I can’t recommend it.

If you’re looking for a really good book on the fascinating history of our species, read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford . That’s one I can recommend without reservation.

A quick theological question

Did Noah have to put two of every fish in the ark?

Update: I guess I should have titled this “A quick rhetorical theological question”, but in any case, thank you to everyone who sent me emails attempting to answer this question.

Philip wrote to say “only carried land animals” but doesn’t back that up with any references. Drew, on the other hand, had me RTFM by pointing to Genesis chapter 6, verse 20:

Of fowls according to their kind, and of beasts in their kind, and of every thing that creepeth on the earth according to its kind: two of every sort shall go in with thee, that they may live.

But that is immediately proceeded by verse 19 which clearly states:

And of every living creature of all flesh, thou shalt bring two of a sort into the ark, that they may live with thee: of the male sex, and the female.

Meanwhile, Pete points out there might have been seven of each type of kosher fish but just two of eels. Actually, it looks to me more like 14 of clean fish and 4 of unclean:

Of all clean beasts take seven and seven, the male and the female. But of the beasts that are unclean two and two, the male and the female.

Alternate translation:

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.

There are a lot of ambiguities in the specifications. I can’t help but feel that Noah would have been better off if God had been more like Jason Fried:

Noah, just build it. Get real!

P.S. Please forgive my blasphemy. I have the greatest respect for people’s beliefs and I don’t mean to mock sacred institutions like Judaism, Christianity or 37 Signals.