A dialectical reading of Sapiens and Homo Deus

by Munir Pervaiz

A “million” is a fascinating number. One followed by six zeros invariably astounds many minds. As a metaphor it means a very large number, and that is why we say that “one has asked a million dollar question”.

The fascination with the number million, becomes further intriguing when we hear that, a young Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has sold over two million copies of Milk and Honey, her first self-published collection.  Whereas as all the books of Canadian poetry published in the last century never collectively reached that number.

And that the first print of her second poetry collection, Sun and Her Flowers, was about 150,000 as compared to average first prints of about 5 to ten thousand for major Canadian authors.

We may or may not remember that, an Indian author Vikram Seth was once paid over a million dollar each, worth of advances for his two novels. And that Victor Hugo was paid may be half a million dollar in current value for his Les Misérables that has left an everlasting imprint on human mind since its publication.

The number of sales of books also brings to mind that about 20 Million copies of Bible are sold each year just in United States.

All of this brings us to Noah Harari and his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. It is estimated that his first book Sapiens sold over a million copies, and has been occasionally on the best seller lists. His second book Homo Deus has not done so well for now.
All of the references to millions or hundreds of thousands mentioned above raise some questions, for example:

  • Is Rupi Kaur a better poet than many major poets including the classics, based on the staggering sales of her books?
  • Was Victor Hugo a lesser writer than Vikram Seth?
  • Is Bible better than the books by Noah Harari, because it significantly oversold more than Sapiens and Homo Deus put together?

These questions arise for a student, when he or she tries to determine the literary, historical, or human truth hidden in a book. Can it be done by looking at the cover of a book or by the numbers of books sold, within which such fundamental values may be inherent.

To resolve such questions, the student has to rely on a critical reading or dialectical reading of the books to try to determine value for his or her own learning. And I have no qualms in acknowledging that each student may reach his or her own conclusion.

I would also like to mention here that during the US elections more than 80,000 advertisement by some Russian agents were targeted towards and seen by over 150 million Americans, through the use of social media to possibly influence many US voters. This was probably the biggest threat that the US democracy ever faced. I will pick it up further later.

Touching upon social media reminds us of Marshal McLuhan who is deemed to be the prophet of communications and modern media, whose aphorism “Medium is the Message” is essential in understanding the role and influence of media on the Sapiens or wise men.

To determine the value of Noah Harari’s two books under consideration, the critical method I have adopted is Dialectic.

In the most common understanding, Dialectic is the method that encompasses, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of arguments on a subject. However more profoundly Dialectic tries to understand the inherent contradictions in a society, in history, in ideas, and thoughts.

Scientific principle also requires to take some random samples in order to deduce the traits of a larger mass.

I have therefore, picked up some random narrations, themes, or ideas from Noah Harari, either directly from his books or from his discussions on the same elsewhere. I also share comments on these.

He asserts that, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. Expanding on this he chooses the sub title, “Marriage of Science and Religion”.

After making this proclamation he does not provide any answers as to why the religions do not accept ‘evolution’, the very idea that his books are based upon. He neither advises us as to which major modern scientific achievements have been funded by which religion or by which religious institution or authority.

He concedes that religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order.

But still wants us to believe that, while Islam and Buddhism are religions, Communism, Humanism, and Social Humanism are also religions. According to him, Liberal humanism is a religion founded on monotheist beliefs.

He asserts that, ‘Communism’ too has its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Capital which foretold that history would soon end up with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. To him Communism had its holidays and festivals such as the First of May, and the anniversary of the October Revolution. And so on.

One must mention here that declaring Communism and Socialism as religion and Marx as a prophet has been the favorite pastime and refrain of not just the Islamists but also of other conservatives.

Such claims by someone who asserts his scholarship, can only be pedantic and populist at best.  These are not based on any scientific analysis, and can be nothing but proclamations of a historian who has tried to don the mantle of a philosopher.

In the opening pages of Homo Deus, Harari informs us that,

 “For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from infectious diseases; …..In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.”

In making this absurd claim, he either ignores or overlooks the data form WHO that in 2016 there were over 815 million people affected by hunger globally. According to Unicef and other reports, between 21,000 to 25,000 people have been dying of hunger or malnutrition every day.

In a section in Sapiens, titled Peace in our Time, he claims:

“Most people don’t appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in… Many more people think about the wars raging today in Afghanistan and Iraq than about the peace in which most Brazilians and Indians live.” He shares some data from the years 2000 and 2002 advising us that about 310,000 and 172,000 people died due to the wars in those years.

He simply fails to provide the data closer to publication of his book and does not advise, as to how many people died in wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and neither advises of the deaths by violence in Rwanda, Darfur, and Burundi for example.

He then contradicts himself in the same chapter speculating that in the twentieth century tens of millions of people if not hundreds of millions of people were killed by the security forces of their own states.

And then further contradicts himself by stating that, “from a macro perspective state run courts and police have probably increased the level of security worldwide. He then speculates that “even in oppressive dictatorships, the average modern person is far less likely to die at the hand of another person than in premodern societies.” He never shares data that allows him such far flung speculation.

It must be noted that Harari contradicts himself in pages after pages, in his books.  Throughout his books Harari uses selective data to support his arguments, and ignores the facts that may contradict him. This adds to a possible fallacy of his arguments.

It is very interesting to note that Harari is engrossed with religions, and regularly confuses these with ideologies. One may say that he tries to keep his reader in a perpetual state of confusion.

He makes a very controversial claim about Judaism, in which he was born in, suggesting that “Judaism had little to offer to other nations….”. He also wants us to reflect as to why Constantine chose Christianity over Judaism, suggesting that Judaism had a lesser impact than Christianity.

And later, may be,  to appease the Jewish people who were very upset with his assertions, he tries to mollify them in a lecture through his habit of contradiction, “it goes without saying that the Jewish people is a unique people with an astonishing history (though this is true of most peoples). ….

It similarly goes without saying that the Jewish tradition is full of deep insights and noble values (though it is also full of some questionable ideas and of racist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes). It is further true that, relative to its size, the Jewish people has had a disproportional impact on the history of the last 2,000 years.”

He does not inform the reader that George Orwell coined the term Judeo-Christian values that were influencing US Democracy and Politics. The term continued to gain currency in the 1940s. It has remained popular in the conservative circles of various Western democracies including Canada.

Within the realm of religion he proclaims, ‘Religion is a deal. Spirituality is a journey.’ “God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behavior.”

And then says, “Spiritual journeys take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life, etc..”

In doing so he fails to disclose that he practices Buddhism and does two hours a day of Vipassana meditation, (a meditation practice of Buddhist religion) and every year goes on a 30-day meditation retreat.

Let me share a gem from of his TED talks on his books:

“Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.”

However he does not speculate as to what will happen to 100,000 Homo sapiens if they are dropped far from their familiar environment into a colony of Whales in an ocean’

 If a student believes that the value of a work of scholarship may be determined by academic peer reviews, he or she will find it difficult to find.

Most of the book reviews of Sapiens and Homo Deus appear to be publicist oriented.

However these comments by Adam Gopnik, at the New Yorker may be educational:

 with Harari’s move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious….

…. Harari’s conclusions in his earlier book, “Sapiens,” are properly ambivalent, not to say ambiguous, and more fully aware of the traps of large-scale history. “It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years,” he writes. “Since it was written in 2014,” he says, the book “takes a relatively buoyant approach to modern history.” The intellectual modesty and appropriate uncertainty of this sentence seem an essential prerequisite to getting the big things right. Some might even call it humanism.”

Before I close, let me apply Marshal McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message’ aphorism on some of the thoughts above. He meant that human beings believe the value of medium through which a content is conveyed more than the value of content itself. As an example assertions made over a Prime Time talk show are more believed by the audience then in a daily newspaper.

Similarly the messages conveyed through social media like, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., are believed as truths.

Rupi Kaur understood the power of her Instagram presence when she first launched her book to her less than 100,000 followers. She now has over 2 million followers who live by their belief in the truth of the message reaching them through this ‘cool’ medium.

Russians also understood this principle and targeted over 150 million US voters to spread false ads through Facebook. The news that, Russians were successful in trying to breach the principles of US democracy is now under major investigation.

Similarly, Noah Harari has a significant following at TED Talk, at Twitter, at his own website and at other Media.  His publishers and modern marketing people have also learned the principle established by McLuhan.

There may be nothing wrong in exploiting these media. However the risk that speculation may be accepted as principles, half-truths may be believed as truth, and some falsehoods many be perceived as reality, is too great in this world of social media where false news is becoming a norm. The impact of such on the students of future generation of such manufactured truths may be too grave.

Therefore the only process to determine, literary, historic, philosophic, other values, is to critically read a book yourself with as much care and multiple readings as possible.

This article was presented at a seminar organized by Family of the Heart (FOTH). November 11, 2017.

I acknowledge the support of Dr. Tahir Qazi for his help in preparation and research.


  1. syeda nuzhat siddiqui says:

    Very well researched paper. The writer’s independent judgement penetrates through the smoke screen of media hype about Harari’s books, Sapiens and Homo Deus. He shows the weaknesses of the arguments presented in the books in a very readable manner.

  2. Good work, Saami Sahab.

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