Admittedly, I’m late to the Sapiens party. Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was first published in English in 2014, but I only bought my copy as the pandemic sent waves of sickness and societal disruption around the globe.
For the most part, the book lives up to its remarkable hype, in that it offers new perspectives on our collective history and our journey from ‘just another species’ to apex predator and planet earth colonizer. Unfortunately, a short but important section of the book stands out to me as being outdated and backward-looking. Frankly, I’m amazed it made it to print.
Indulge me, if you will, with a brief thought experiment about three historians seeking publication:
Historian A: I’ve written a book called “A Brief History of the USA”. When discussing slavery in the US and its lasting legacies, I’ve framed the issue as follows: What made slave owners so great? What qualities gave white slave owners a biological ‘edge’ over the black people they enslaved? Let us count the possible ways …
Publisher: Wow. This is disgustingly racist. You will never be published.
Historian B: I’ve written a book called “A Brief History of the Jewish Diaspora.” When discussing antisemitism, which is common in many cultures and throughout history, I’ve framed the issue as follows: What makes society value gentiles over Jews, and what makes Jews biologically inferior? Let us count the possible ways …
Publisher: Wow. This is beyond repulsive. You will never be published.
Yuval Noah Harari: I’ve written a book called “A Brief History of Humankind”. When discussing the subjugation of women and why patriarchal structures are so commonplace, I’ve framed the issue as follows: What makes men so great? And what makes women biologically inferior for leadership roles? Let us count the possible ways …
Penguin Random House: Wow. This is brilliant. This book will sell millions of copies and presidents and celebrities alike will celebrate your genius.
I find that last one irksome.
That Harari’s muddled reasoning fails to find satisfactory answers to ‘the patriarchy conundrum’ is unsurprising. That he frames the issue the way he does is so ignorant as to be unforgiveable.
There Is No Justice in History
Chapter 8 of Sapiens is titled “There is No Justice in History”, and it is in this chapter that Harari posits that there must be a biological explanation for why human societies ‘value men more highly’ (more on that problematic assertion later).
The chapter begins with a discussion of man’s tendency towards ‘mass-cooperation networks’ following the Agricultural Revolution, and how these networks are of dubious blessing for many, since they divide people into ‘make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy.’
Hammurabi’s Code, Harari writes, established an arbitrary hierarchy of superiors, commoners, and slaves. Thousands of years later in 1776, the Americans proclaimed all men equal, and yet:
[The Declaration of Independence] created a hierarchy between men, who benefitted from it, and women, whom it left disempowered. It created a hierarchy between whites, who enjoyed liberty, and blacks and Native Americans, who were considered humans of a lesser type and therefore did not share in the equal rights of men. Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. They did not release their slaves upon signing the Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites. In their view, the rights of men had little to do with Negroes.
So far so good, in that I am in agreement with Harari that these made-up hierarchies favour a subset of the species for no good reason. The first sign of trouble is on the following page.
All of the above-mentioned distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. (The hierarchy of men and women will be discussed later).1 [Emphasis added]
Here is our first indication that Harari does not believe that creating a hierarchy where men are placed above women is rooted in fiction. Instead, as we will see, Harari believes there is a natural, biological explanation for why men always end up in the superior position.
Which is ironic, because Harari pokes fun at those who offer ‘pseudoscientific’ justifications for hierarchies based on race, wealth, and caste. As he notes, ‘it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.”
Yet twenty pages later he makes the exact same ‘natural and inevitable’ claim when it comes to patriarchy and the subjugation of women.
What Does Harari Actually Say About Women?
In fairness, not much. Sapiens does not explicitly label women as ‘biologically inferior’.
Instead, Harari’s Sapiens focuses on men, and suggests a two-pronged explanation for why patriarchies are common:
- societies ‘prefer maleness’, and thus
- men, at least when it comes to leadership, must be biologically superior to women.
Which … is the same thing as calling women biologically inferior.
On the topic of patriarchy, it seems that Harari has not managed to escape the ‘inside-the-box’ thinking in which he has grown up, nor break from the ranks of other ‘great thinkers’ of yore who sought to prove the theory of innate male superiority. Harari views society from the top of the hierarchy (the male perspective), and his writing encourages the notion that females are less valuable to society. Judging by a lack of feminist scholar sources, Harari did not seek alternative perspectives.
Let’s examine his assumptions and arguments objectively.
- Does Society ‘Value Men More Highly’?
In a word, no.
Some men value men more highly, just like most white slave owners valued whites more highly, and those at the top of a caste system generally value themselves more highly.
Do Native Americans and black Americans value whites more highly? Do those in lower castes believe they are lower humans? Of course not. Those in power don’t speak for all of society.
Harari’s argument on this point is so circular it’s difficult to know where to jump in to debate the issue. He’s done here exactly what he said the American Declaration of Independence did: only count those who he thinks should count.
But the views of enfranchised men do not speak to the values of all of human society. “Society” doesn’t prefer maleness, it’s just the men who promote patriarchy who do.
The female half of society thinks he’s talking nonsense.
2. Biology as The Only Explanation
Excusing bad behaviour, either of the individual or the group, by putting forward pseudoscientific evolutionary arguments is rarely a good look. Harari himself writes:
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths?
Yet there is a superficial logic to Harari’s argument that patriarchal society structures must have a biological explanation.
In his discussion of racism, Harari includes a simple graphic explaining the ‘vicious circle’ whereby a ‘chance historical situation’ leads to ‘a rigid social system’:
- Chance historical event leads to
- White control of blacks; leads to
- Discriminatory laws; leads to
- Poverty and lack of education among blacks; leads to
- Cultural prejudices;
With 5 (cultural prejudices) then feeding back into and reinforcing 3 (discriminatory laws) and 4 (poverty and lack of education among blacks). Hence cultural prejudices, and racism generally, being founded on myth, not biological fact.
With patriarchy, however, Harari notes the following:
Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies. It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social revolutions and economic transformations. Egypt, for example, was conquered numerous times over the centuries. Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Mameluks, Turks and British occupied it – and its society always remained patriarchal. …
Since patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious circle that was kick-started by a chance occurrence. … It is far more likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing. [Emphasis added]
As discussed above, the notion that ‘society’ values manhood over womanhood’ is problematic, but if Harari had written that there must be some universal biological reason why almost all cultures are patriarchal in structure, then it would be tempting to agree.
Harari goes on to list out and analyze three possible biological explanations as to why manhood is valued more highly, namely muscle power, higher aggression in men, and ‘patriarchal genes.’ Harari ultimately finds fault with all three. After discussing how humans are a relatively weak species whose advantage ‘rests in the ability to cooperate in large numbers’, Harari writes:
How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present we have no good answer.
The final page of the chapter finds Harari still searching for a cogent explanation of man’s (supposed) biological advantage over woman, with a suggestion that perhaps the assumptions are wrong, and men actually have ‘superior social skills and a greater tendency to cooperate.’ But he admits, “We just don’t know”.
After a paragraph summarizing significant societal changes in the past century regarding gender, sexuality, and voting rights, Harari ends the chapter as follows:
These dramatic changes are precisely what makes the history of gender so bewildering. If, as is being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal system has been based on unfounded myths rather than on biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?
I am not convinced Harari thinks that it has been ‘clearly demonstrated’ that the patriarchal system is based on unfounded myths.
True, in one confusingly worded final sentence, Harari is technically leaving the door open to other explanations. But he’s spent the previous seven pages setting out his argument that it is ‘far more likely’ that ‘there is a universal, biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood.’ If Harari believed it had been ‘demonstrated so clearly’ that males are not biologically superior, why spill so much ink on the subject?
Thus one is left with the clear impression that men must have some biological edge over women, and it’s just that Harari hasn’t figured out precisely what it is yet.
How Could the ‘Patriarchy Conundrum’ be Framed Differently?
Let’s go back to our three hypothetical historians seeking publication. Clearly, the explanation for how and why slavery occurred is not that whites are biologically superior. Same goes for antisemitism and, I assert, same goes for sexism and the subjugation of women.
Asking ‘what makes the oppressor superior’ yields gobbledygook answers. A more appropriate way to frame the issue is always: what’s in it for the oppressor?
What’s In It for the Oppressor?
When Harari asks why society values maleness over femaleness and poses the question ‘What’s So Good about Men?’ (bolded because that is an actual subtitle in his book), he presupposes that the answer must be: men are more valuable and, somehow, better than women. This answer is predetermined by the way he has framed the question.
We come to very different conclusions if we instead ask the question ‘what’s in it for the oppressor?’
With caste systems, class systems, and racial hierarchies, the answer generally boils down to money and power. The people at the top of the hierarchy get all the power, as well as the best land, best houses, best food, etc., while the rest of society gets the dregs.
There are some minor variations on this theme. Slavery = free labour (so even more money and power for those at the top of the hierarchy). Genocide = ‘racial purity’ (the most repugnant of all biological arguments) plus money and power (in addition to taking lives, genocide involves expropriating land, possessions and businesses).
Does money and power explain the subjugation of women? Maybe a bit, but not really.
Historically, it was only the men who had the right to vote, own property, become educated and earn a living (wealth). In these circumstances, a husband always had more money and authority than his wife. Sure, he could share his wealth with her, but he controlled it (power).
Today, there remains a wage gap in every country on earth (women earning less for the same work), such that even in countries where job discrimination based on gender is technically illegal, men usually earn more than women, and thus generally have more money and power.
But this doesn’t feel like the whole explanation for millennia of subjugating females.
What’s Really In It for Men?
Plot twist: despite the dangers, I’m putting forward a pseudoscientific, biological argument, too.
I agree with Harari that it can’t just be a coincidence that patriarchy is so common across time and cultures. But since I’m framing the issue differently and asking a different question, my conclusions differ from his significantly.
What motivates men?
If this were a lecture, this is the part where I’d throw it out to the audience. Money? Power? Pizza? Beer? All yes. Aaaaaanything else?
Yep, it’s sex.
As a group, men are highly motivated by sex. A superficial peek at the billion-dollar pornography industry, or a visit to a bar, will generally confirm the existence of this motivation.
True, some percentage of the male sex drive may have societal, rather than biological underpinnings, since boys are told through various sources from a young age that to be ‘real men’ they should try to have lots of sex. And true, there are heterosexual couples in which the wife has the higher sex drive.
But at the species level, it is a fact that men are highly motivated by sex, and it is this (largely biological) motivation that has led to patriarchy being the common human societal structure across time and cultures.
A patriarchal societal structure subjugates women and makes them dependent on their husbands, either completely (historically) or a little (wage gap and glass ceilings keeping men in positions of power), providing surer access to sex for men.
Historically (and even today in many countries), when a man married a woman she became his property, with which he could do as he pleased (‘Congratulations! You may now kiss your bride’). While the vast majority of men would never force themselves on anyone, let alone their wife, women understood the marriage ‘deal’. As a non-person under the law, a woman was incapable of owning property, including a home of her own. Marriage was preferable, if not necessary, and in exchange for being housed and fed, regular sex was expected.
If you think I’m being hyper-feminist and unreasonable for saying so, perhaps you will find Harari’s words more convincing:
In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often their fathers, husbands or brothers. Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. …
And if a husband raped his own wife, he had committed no crime. In fact, the idea that a husband could rape his wife was an oxymoron. To be a husband was to have full control of your wife’s sexuality. To say that a husband ‘raped’ his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet. Such thinking was not confined to the ancient Middle East. As of 2006, there were still fifty-three countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife. [Emphasis added]
“To be a husband was to have full control of your wife’s sexuality.”
This is the answer to Harari’s so-called patriarchy conundrum. This is why societies have been structured to subjugate women. The ‘deep biological roots’ explanation for the male/female hierarchy is spelled out by Harari himself, but he doesn’t recognize it for what it is.
The biological explanation for organizing human societies such that men have ‘full control’ over women’s sexuality is that human males are highly motivated by sex, and thus prefer to have full control over their partners’ sexuality. As the historically disenfranchised, and the smaller and weaker of the sexes, women have had little choice but to acquiesce. That’s all there is to it.
Some may question how women have ‘allowed this to happen’ if women are equally capable. The answer is that, like every person of colour facing cultural and institutional racism, every non-heterosexual person facing discrimination, every lower-caste person struggling for equal rights, women haven’t been given a choice in the matter.
I will reiterate here that I am speaking, as Harari does, at a societal level, and not accusing any man of any particular moral crime. We are all products of societies rooted in millennia of female subjugation. No man is guilty of subjugating his wife simply because he makes more money than she does.
My point is a simple one: despite Harari’s bumbling claims that the best possible explanation for patriarchy is that males are biologically superior leaders, there are other, more plausible, and less misogynistic explanations.
Don’t Write a History of Humankind if You Only Know the History of Mankind
Harari professes much confusion on the issue of patriarchy (“At present we have no good answer” / “We just don’t know” / “These dramatic changes are precisely what makes the history of gender so bewildering”). I call boloney on that. There are plenty of ways to frame the issue which yield satisfactory answers, and they have been around for decades, if not centuries.
I hear feminist scholars and female historians existed before 2011 when this book was first published. Harari clearly asked none of them for help when he wrote this section (I’ve checked the extended references), and instead he insists there’s ‘no clear consensus’ – as if there are historic subjects around which all the academics agree.
Harari’s choice to pursue an outdated explanation for patriarchy (innate male superiority) gives credence to that view. Claiming that there’s no consensus as to why patriarchy is common is no excuse for peddling an ancient smear against womankind.
What has the Reaction to Sapiens Been?
The ‘Praise for Sapiens’ pages in my copy of the book quote rave reviews from five important men, eight newspapers and Kirkus Reviews (no rave reviews from important women, I note). Barack Obama’s 2016 recommendation, in particular, is a top video hit when Google searching Sapiens reviews. Eight years after it was first released in English, Sapiens remains in the top ten on Amazon’s ‘Most Read’ non-fiction charts in the US, UK and Canada.
An on-line search of “Sapiens” and ‘feminist’ does not pull up the critiques I expected.
Instead, the top hit is a 2018 discussion 2 between Dr. Harari and actress and Harvard alumnus Natalie Portman – re-released on International Women’s Day 2021 no less – in which Dr. Harari compares human societies to those of bonobo chimpanzees (both Portman and Harari agree this does not clarify matters), and Natalie Portman glows, not just with physical beauty but with intellectual curiosity, as Harari expresses bewilderment as to how the Women’s Movement has accomplished all that it has without the violence societal revolution usually entails.
And I’m watching this and thinking: these two are both way smart, so how is this not obvious to them? Women cannot effectively employ violence against bigger, stronger men, and that’s part of the reason the fight for equality is taking so long. This is the opposite of bewildering.
So is everyone else crazy, or am I?
But then I see Maya Angelou’s wise face in my mind’s eye. And she’s taking me by the shoulders and shaking me.
Do you remember what I taught you? The Maya Angelou in my mind asks.
Yes, Ms. Angelou.
What did I tell you?
You told us that when someone shows us who they are, we should believe them.
And what are you doing instead?
Doubting. Doubting myself and my ability to understand these words that are written so plainly, because they are written in a well-respected book.
What should you be doing?
Standing up and saying this is not okay.
This is Not Okay
When discussing the oppression of one group of people by another, it is never appropriate to frame the issue as: ‘What makes the oppressors so great?’ Doing so implies that the oppressors are superior to the oppressed and, therefore, that the latter somehow deserve their oppression. Yet this is exactly how Dr. Yuval Noah Harari frames the issue of the subjugation of women in his celebrated book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
My copy of Sapiens is 464 pages long. Eight of those pages are spent discussing patriarchy and why men still, to this day, enjoy the lion’s share of leadership roles. Those eight pages give credence to an ancient slur against women: that women are innately inferior. These are dangerous words, made all the more dangerous by the fact that they have been slipped into an otherwise brilliant and forward-looking book on humanity.
It is said that history is written by the victors. Let Harari’s not be the last word on the subject.