The fleas in Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’

Many scholars know that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is full of errors and inaccuracies, but from time to time I stumble upon smart people – academics, researchers, public intellectuals – praising the book. They should read some reviews first.

Actually, one may be enough. Charles C. Mann did a great job exposing some of the problems in the book in 2015, for the Wall Street Journal.

Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. “Sapiens” is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big.


There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.

His examples are great.

There is more here, from Max Roser (Twitter, Our World in Data):

A good example how ‘Sapiens’ works.

Harari makes his readers believe that a 20-year life expectancy for 45-year-olds means that foragers enjoyed good health.

In fact that suggests worse health than England in 1850 (when health there was by any standard absolutely miserable).


Some popular books suggest that hunter-gatherers were healthy.

This historical study finds that 49% of children in the studied hunter-gatherer societies died during childhood:

Is there competing evidence that suggests that the popular books are right?

Paul Graham:

The idea that hunter-gatherers lived wonderful lives and that we got cheated when we switched to agriculture is one of the dumbest ideas believed by smart people. I opened Sapiens, saw that, and immediately put it down.