22 Comments

oof, i read that bit about white lotus, and thought to myself, "oh no, am i wrong for having loved it??" how dare you hijack my brain like that, nat! 😤

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Jan 9Liked by Nat Eliason

Sapiens did more for invoking charm of masses around history, geography, society and culture than 100s of books 📚 gathering dust on the shelves whose authors were either too highbrow or naive to assume they did a good job by just putting it out there and expecting the readers to climb the 1000 stairs of intellect all the way to the their temple 🛕 top.

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The cultural context changed a lot, though. Possibly because of the book!

For one, you can’t have a conversation about the flaws in a book that nobody has read. There’s also this element of, once everyone knows about the concept (ie we collaborate by means of stories that are true only because we believe in them), the book stops being valued for introducing a now-obvious truth, even if this truth was once obscure or non obvious.

I think there’s a mix of both here, plus a third factor. Once a book changes the zeitgeist by bringing a concept into the Overton window, people can now criticize the book’s treatment of that concept.

There’s also been a change in the culture in that the distrust of institutions has accelerated dramatically. I think a lot of criticism of Sapiens is from that angle: people seeing Harari as part of the Davos Elite / WEF empire. He does explicitly say in the book, “hey empires are good, actually.” Maybe before 2020 this was kind of Edgey or provocative, but now more and more educated adults believe there is already a nameless global empire that tries to control global narratives.

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great article. it's been a wild trajectory to watch. same thing is now happening with atomic habits. no status juice left in liking so people flip to critiquing it.

though i think this can flip around again where the popular sentiment is so negative that you are more unique for liking it. heck, it's a bit of what you're doing with this article :)

i'm team sapiens (and atomic habits). though "the red queen" is another great one around the evolution of human nature

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Jan 10Liked by Nat Eliason

“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.”

This is a fair distinction from our point of view as consumers, but when attempting to read the book it seemed to me (and subsequent interviews & books) that Harari definitely thinks of himself as a serious academic rather than a writer of “casual pop history.”

So maybe you’re right, we should judge it for what it IS and not for what it objectively is not. But many of the sweeping claims the author makes, in the egoistic style he makes them, feels like a valid turn-off and window for criticism into the work.

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Harari took the throne from gladwell.

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Jan 9Liked by Nat Eliason

re: a better "Sapiens"

I asked this on Twitter recently, got a few suggestions: https://twitter.com/connerdelights/status/1607560598765867011. Can't specifically endorse any, but may be worthwhile contenders for better examples.

I also like Sapiens. Not because of the content — or perhaps, maybe some of the content, I don't remember many of the specifics. I do remember the broad strokes, and it still checks out. But, more importantly, I read it at the perfect time where its ideas took me from exactly where I was, towards a new understanding of human history and culture. And from there, I explored a lot more. It was less about the facts, and more about how to think about the world.

For the same reason, The Beginning of Infinity is a great book. People may disagree with Deutsch about Popperian philosophy, objectification of beauty, or even get annoyed with parallel universe sci-fi. But it's doing the same thing: offering new perspectives to receptive people who haven't had them before.

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Damn.. that was some article man.. amazing read.

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I enjoyed Sapiens too! I'm keeping hold of my banana too though.

For something else in the space ... I can't strongly recommend it yet because I only just started it, but so far The Dawn of Everything seems like an interesting addition/counterpoint in the same arena as Sapiens.

And a differently awesome book that casts a sweeping lens across history, society and culture is The Status Game by Will Storr.

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I liked Sapiens when I read it and to some of the other commenters--I got something out of it, even if it's not as nuanced as it could be (which, I dunno, it doesn't make a difference to me whether that's true or not). However, I think there's a simpler explanation for the pattern you're describing, which is that when something becomes widely known, its flaws are exposed more widely. This makes sense--if everything were as good at it appeared on first impression, we'd have a lot more classics than we do now! This is, for example, the case for plenty of pop psychology that came out of the replication crisis, but can also be true of history books that lack nuance. I think this is also one of the dynamics that happens in political campaigns--someone looks like the hot new candidate, but under the glare of the media, their flaws are exposed. But some candidates do end up surviving and being popular enough to win election. None of these require accepting as true the social dynamic you outlined. (This doesn't mean that that dynamic isn't also at play, but I think it's worth acknowledging that there are more object level reasons why wide appeal could lead to a reassessment.)

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I'll recommend "A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World" as a good "big history" book.

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Sapiens is bad because it's inaccurate (which bothered me in 2015 when I read it and tweeted as much) and Harari is both an egotist and a monster (discovered only more recently in his public/WEF persona of the 2020s).

There's no other book to recommend because no one else has the ego to claim they can write a sweeping history of all mankind; anyone that cares about accuracy is better off reading a *piece* of history that interests them, whether that be an era, a region, a culture, or some other slice.

Equally important, it's Harari's own words that betray him. Calling for a group of people to be deemed the "Useless Class" is a genocidal monster in the making (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMDlfNWM1fA), and shows the only thing worse than his historical accuracy, is his dangerously bad predictions for the future.

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a couple more factors that could be contributing to this phenomenon:

1. tweets about popular things garner more attention and it’s far easier to comment on something that’s already popular than to be accurately “ahead of the curve”

2. even if you don’t have a particularly unique criticism, you can still signal you have better taste than the masses by making a unfalsifiable claim along the lines of “it is more popular than it should be.”

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I think the truth is that Sapiens is actually a mediocre book. When a mediocre book gets hyped into the stratosphere, you can expect the backlash to be quite severe. I myself have never read it, because at the time no one mentioned any unique insights of the book that would be worth reading it for, but I took a look at your notes on Sapiens (https://www.nateliason.com/notes/sapiens-yuval-noah-harari) and find this judgment confirmed. To create a good pop science book like Sapiens, you need to introduce and advocate at length for a legitimately controversial proposition, and it should be fresh in the pop science discussion (i.e., few outside of actual academics should have been familiar before the book). Examples are the Selfish Gene (evolution isn't controlled by the desires of organisms, but rather the genes that they contain - also memetics, which I think is only a chapter or two in this book, prefigures everything important that Sapiens says about religions and other common beliefs) and Guns, Germs, and Steel (geography plays a crucial role in determining which peoples domesticated plants and animals, and ultimately which peoples ended up controlling the world). Sapiens might have been insightful to someone seeing those ideas for the first time, but all the ideas in this book were quite commonplace at the time.

In addition, Sapiens was suspiciously popular among the mainstream progressive, Davos/WEF set, which is why some people reacted so negatively to it - having Obama, Zuckerberg, and Gates like a book simultaneously is usually a sign of a super buzzy book that speaks perfectly to their worldview. Once the fair weather fans from the hype period lose interest, and the lack of depth of the book is exposed, only the haters remain to solidify the reception of the book in society at large.

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Thank you for calling out the poseurs out there

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Ironically it's an easy trajectory from "OMG my interest was so piqued by Sapiens that I dove into the category and found all this more in-depth, nuanced info" to "Now that I know the greater depth and specificity in this area of knowledge/have discovered this other book that I personally think puts it better/etc., I now feel Sapiens is not as good of a work." The irony there is that without Sapiens many people would not have been put on this path. So it is "good" at the very least in the sense that it popularized an interest in human history, which is pretty hard to argue with being a net-benefit.

It's also important to consider the multiple dimensions of "good". There is "good writing", there is also "good messaging" (which is different than being "well written"), good positioning, good timing, good concept, and just plain "good enough". 😄 Sapiens is clearly some of those things!

Regarding 50 Shades of Gray, something being "good" is not the only - or perhaps even the most common - reason for something being popular and widely consumed or engaged with. And I don't think it's useful to broaden the concept of "good" to include all instances of "meets some desire in enough people that it becomes popular". Not all desires that people have are "good" either, as you well know. Popularity != quality, especially when it comes to media.

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