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Sapiens is Good You Silly Status Monkeys
No banana for you!
When did so many people start pretending Sapiens was bad?
I imagine you remember the mania as well as I do. After its launch in 2014, Sapiens gained a steady stream of accolades and support. By 2015 it was making its way onto seemingly every book list.
Naval Ravikant is the first person I remember hearing about it from, but then it was everywhere. Obama, Zuckerberg, Gates. It has been on the NYT Bestseller list for 182 weeks. It has over 68,000 Amazon reviews, a staggering number, especially for a nonfiction book.
For many people, it was among the first history books they enjoyed reading. It briefly introduced our evolutionary and societal history in a pop-nonfiction style that hadn’t been done particularly well in history before. Guns, Germs, and Steel would probably be the next-best book in this category, and its success seems to have only been a fifth of Sapiens.
Sapiens was the cool book to talk about, and almost no one was saying, “actually, it’s bad.” And I’m speaking about the casual social media reading crowd, not academics. There were some critiques from historians about its accuracy, sure, but people generally enjoyed the book.
At some point in the last couple of years, though, this changed. Sapiens has continued to sell well, but there’s a sort of sneering condescension about it, at least in some circles on Twitter. It has become cool to pretend that Sapiens is bad or lowbrow.
But the book hasn’t changed since 2015. There haven’t been tons of new criticisms or new proofs of its inaccuracy. There hasn’t been a new pop-history book to unseat it. Nothing about the book or its context has changed, yet the very-online techy community seems to now think it’s bad.
I have a few theories. The first one, which I think we can quickly dispose of, is that everyone has read tons of other history books since then and decided it was too basic. If Sapiens truly sent you down a reading frenzy of history, biology, and evolutionary theory, and fifty books later, you can say, “it turns out there are more accurate, easier to read, intro-level books, and here’s the list,” then please put it in the comments. I’d love to see this list.1
Another possibility is that you just didn’t like it. And maybe this is what some people mean when they say it’s “bad,” but there’s a difference between taste and quality. You can dislike something good, and that doesn’t make you wrong or everyone else wrong. I don’t like uni, but I understand many people think it’s the best sushi. They aren’t wrong. It’s just not my vibe.
But if someone isn’t confused about the difference between badness and dislike, and they don’t have a reading list of more accurate, equally easy-to-read intro books, then why else would they say it’s bad?
There is a way that the mixup between “bad” and “dislike” happens with art that is worth drilling down on. And I think this reason for calling Sapiens bad probably applies to a certain subset of people.
Let’s use a different book as a thought experiment: 50 Shades of Grey. Is it a good book? It’s in the roughly 100 best-selling books of all time, so it’s hard to immediately say “it’s bad.” If it were bad, then why would it sell so many copies?
But… I still really really really wanna say it’s bad. Why? Basically, because it’s “not well written.” Because there are other books with better language, plot, character development, and perhaps even inner goddesses.
50 Shades of Grey isn’t literary fiction, though, nor is it trying to be. It’s good at what it is: an erotic comfort read that spoke to some previously unsatiated literary desire. If we judge it on what it is, it’s a great book.
I suspect some people are doing the same thing with Sapiens. They are judging it as a serious academic work of history instead of as a more casual, pop intro to evolutionary history book. And yeah, if you judge it as something it’s not, then, of course, it will be bad.
So it could be that people have found better alternatives. Or it could be confusing taste and quality. Or it could be judging it for something that it isn’t.
But there’s a fourth reason some people are saying it’s bad that’s a bit sadder. They don’t recognize that they’re in this camp, of course, and they’ll tell themselves they’re in one of the other ones, but many people dunking on it fall into this group.
Jamie Ryan had a great thread on this phenomenon. Basically:
People are constantly vying for status
It’s much easier to seem high-status than to be high status
An easy way to seem high status is to criticize things that many people like, even if you liked it as well.
So a few people start criticizing something popular, and then it spreads because everyone else is afraid of being seen as a midwit who likes popular things. “If these people on Twitter are snickering at people who like Sapiens, then it must be mid, and I don’t wanna seem mid… mom said I’m special… I better pretend Sapiens is bad too.”
When a new cultural meme is rising, it’s high-status to talk about it because you’re ahead of the curve. You are a tastemaker who found it and liked it on its own merits. Not because of the hype.
But once a book, artist, movie, or whatever reaches a certain zenith of popularity, the status algebra flips. It’s now too popular for you to be seen recommending it. You’ll be seen as one of the masses. Not special. No gold star. So you must flip to saying, “Actually, it’s bad, IDIOT.”
And, look, sometimes mediocre work becomes popular for unknown reasons, like White Lotus. It’s a plodding show full of plot holes, and anyone who thinks the acting or soundtrack are good just hasn’t watched much quality television.
See how that felt? That was complete bullshit, White Lotus is fantastic, but if you thought White Lotus was good going into that sentence, now you’re worried you might be dumb. And now you need to go signal on Twitter how ~~artistic and cultured~~ you are by dunking on it.
So, yeah, don’t do that. If you like something, say you like it.
Don’t be swayed by the silly status monkeys.
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I’m being earnest here, not snarky. If you have found equally good or better books in this category, please share them. I’d love to read them.