Reading Harari’s “Sapiens”

After hearing positive recommendations from several friends, I finally picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, and I have to admit that I am somewhat disappointed. I can see why it’s such a popular book: it’s certainly written in a clear, vivid language and brings complex ideas to a layman level. In short, he’s doing a great job in terms of popularizing science. It’s the “science” that he’s popularizing that I find somewhat disappointing, especially when it comes to language.

Harari makes a strong emphasis on fictive language: human ability to speak of entities that do not exist such as the Santa Claus, unicorns, God… and, as Harari points out, nations, states, and money. All these are fictions that large groups of Sapiens (that’s us!) choose to believe in and which allow us as a species to divorce ourselves from the restraints of biology (more on this below). “This ability to speak about fictions,” Harari writes (p. 24) is the most unique feature of Sapiens language”. (Just as a clarification: Harari refers to communication systems of apes, elephants, dolphins and even ants and bees as “language”, whereas most linguists reserve the term to our species’ ability, which Harari agrees is crucially different from the ways other animals communicate. Linguists sometime talk about “human language”, but since Harari uses the term “human” for all Homo species, talking about “human language” in this context would be confusing. The term “natural language”, usually used in contrast to artificial/constructed languages, is no help either since communication systems of other species are natural too. I’ll use “Sapiens language” to refer to the unique ability of our species.)

The ability to talk about fictive entities that don’t exist at all is indeed unique to Sapiens, as far as we know. (We’ll get back to the Neanderthals below.) But it is only a small part of what is truly unique about Sapiens language. Harari defines fictive entities as things “they” (Sapiens who talk about them) “have never seen, touched or smelled” (p. 24). It is not clear to me where he would draw the boundary. Elsewhere, he uses terms such as “fictions”, “social constructs” and “imagined realities” (p. 31), and most of his discussion focuses on such myths as nations, corporations and the like. But what of entities that are not present here and now yet were as real as you and me at some point, like ‘Cleopatra’ or ‘JFK’? What about other abstract entities that cannot be seen, touched or smelled, like ‘love’ or ‘climate’? Are they fictions too? In fact, if we dig slightly deeper, it turns out that even when we talk about “things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions” (p. 31), we often talk about abstract/fictive entities. Take, for example, Dogs bark. What does this sentence say? It certainly doesn’t talk about some real entity that is present here and now and can be seen/touched/smelled. It says something about a whole class/kind of entities called ‘dogs’. Notably, this sentence is true even if some entities that can be classified as ‘dogs’ (exceptionally) do not bark. In order to refer to concrete individuals, we can use proper names (e.g. Fido) or combine class-referring terms like dog with a special word (technical term: quantifier) that indicates which/how many “real” entities we have to pick from a fictive class: the dog, some dog, five dogs. By combining a predicate (e.g. bark) with either a kind-denoting (dogs) or individual-denoting (the dogs/Fido) terms, we impart some information (e.g. ‘individuals in the class/kind ‘dogs’ typically bark’ or ‘the individual Fido barks’). Now, our ability to do that is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. Thus, Harari writes (p. 24):

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

I disagree: the truly unique feature of Sapiens language is the ability to transmit information, period. That’s what makes Sapiens language different from communication systems of other animal species. For example, Harari discusses the communication system (he calls it “language” but see above) of “green monkeys” (p. 22), which “use calls of various kinds to communicate”. For example, green monkeys have a call (or sign, or sound) that means (or can be “translated” into Sapiens language as) “Careful! An eagle!” and another one that means “Careful! A lion!”. Do these calls transmit information? Not exactly. These are not shared bits of information but calls to action: the first one signals to protect from danger from above and the second one — from the ground. It calls for different reactions (Harari, p. 22):

When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of a second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree.

Such animal calls do not impart information in the sense of truth/falsehood, like Sapiens sentences. A monkey cannot say “that’s not true!”. Sapiens language on occasion uses similarly instructive rather than informative signals, such as “Fire!”. However, the bulk of what we use language for is to transmit information, not to urge our listeners to do this or that action, at least not directly. This is discussed in great detail in Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue. How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, and I’ll refer the reader to Bickerton’s excellent discussion. In fact, on p. 37 Harari sums up the new Sapiens “Language” ability in three bullet points that all start with “the ability to transmit (larger quantities of) information about…”. That, in and of itself, is the core new ability that “happened in the Cognitive Revolution”: transmitting information.

The second important issue is when that ability first appeared in Sapiens. According to Harari’s “Timeline of History” (a term he also uses rather differently from the commonly accepted wisdom), “fictive language” appeared in Sapiens ca. 70,000 years ago, the event Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”. This date seems to be correlated with “symbolic explosion”: the sudden wealth of evidence in the archeological record for Sapiens developing symbolic abilities (such as jewelry and the like), which is more commonly dated as 50,000 years ago. Some scholars have indeed argued that language emerged at the same time as the abundance of more sophisticated (symbolic) artifacts (e.g. Klein and Edgar 2002). The slightly earlier date that Harari picks is necessary in order to peg the emergence of Sapiens language before the species spread from Africa into Eurasia and onwards. Thus, it seems that Harari assumes that Sapiens language emerged only once, before the species spread geographically, an assumption that most linguists share. (As a footnote, I’ll note that in a footnote on p. 21 Harari states: “Apparently, even at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, different Sapiens groups had different dialects”. It is not clear to me what evidence, if any, this is based on, nor how it is possible to have different dialects/languages at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, that is, when language first emerged. Not shortly thereafter, but at the time. I will leave it aside as an example of sloppy presentation.)

Going back to the date when the Cognitive Revolution happened, it is not clear to me what evidence there is that it happened 130,000 years after the emergence of the Homo Sapiens species. Existing genetic evidence suggests that (to the extent that it can be taken as evidence of language at all) the genetic basis for Sapiens language, the H. Sapiens version of the FOXP2 gene, emerged ca. 200,000 years ago. Some scholars have argued that not only did we Sapiens have the genetic underpinning for developing Sapiens language but that Sapiens language allowed us to out-compete other (human and non-human) species despite our lightly built skeleton and overall fragile physique. Harari himself suggests that our ability to use “fictive language” and to cooperate in language groups as a result of our linguistic capacity is what allowed us to out-compete (and ultimately push out of existence) our Neanderthal cousins: “In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens” (p. 34). How, then, did Sapiens survive language-less for 130,000 years with the same anatomy as their linguistically-endowed descendants in the last 70,000 years ago? And if they had some other evolutionary advantage that allowed them to survive alongside the Neanderthals and other ancient human species, as well as lions, hyenas, gorillas and other competitors, what could have been the impetus for the emergence of language ca. 70,000 years ago? Harari, disappointingly, leaves the whole issue of how Sapiens language emerged open, but it is clear that by his logic it must have been a biological event, one driven by “genes, hormones and organisms” (p. 38). Only the emergence of Sapiens language allowed us to the “bec[o]me exempt from biological laws”. If that’s the case, the emergence of Sapiens language should be correlated with some biological event, such as a mutation in a gene that produced our linguistic ability, whether directly or indirectly. This brings us back to the FOXP2 and its presumed emergence ca. 200,000 years ago, in contradiction to what Harari states.

And that brings us, inevitably, to the question of Neanderthals and their linguistic abilities, an issue that remains rather murky, to say the least. Harari assumes that the Neanderthals had some language (recall that he doesn’t reserve the term for the unique Sapiens ability). They “could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell — and revise — stories about tribal spirits” (p. 34). In other words, they did not have Sapiens language but they had the ability to transmit information about “real world entities”. Whether such an intermediate stage (i.e. predicative language without “fictive” entities) ever existed, what may have prompted its emergence or its transformation into a fully Sapiens “fictive” language is not at all clear. Which is not to say that it is impossible for such intermediate stage to have existed in our Homo cousins, but at the moment such a possibility remains rather “fictive” (in Harari’s own sense). It appears that the Neanderthals had the genetic basis for Sapiens language (if so, it would need to be renamed “Homo language”); see Krause et al. (2007). Yet, these findings are open to various interpretations. Harari could be right if FOXP2 could be shown to be responsible for predicative but not necessarily “fictive” language, yet I am inclined to agree with Bickerton that predicative language (i.e. language that can be used to transmit information) is impossible without the type of signs that refer to classes/kinds, ergo to abstract entities.

(To be continued, hopefully…)


Klein, R.G. and Edgar, B. (2002) The Dawn of Human Culture, Wiley, New York.

Krause, Johannes et al. (2007) The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals. Current Biology 17: 1908–1912

“The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep”, by David Satter

This past weekend I’ve been reading an excellent book by David Satter, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep, a real page-turner which reads as a mix of investigative journalism and a whodunit (buy it on Amazon). Satter sheds a compelling light on disturbing yet persuasive evidence that Putin’s “dunit”: he and his circle are implicated in a series of crimes, including the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk in 1999, the Nord-Ost theater siege in 2002, the Beslan school siege in 2004, and murders of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and scores of others who challenged Putin’s regime. (Satter himself, it must be added, has been expelled from Russia due to his investigative activities and writings.) In the conclusion (p. 172), Satter notes that although the evidence is circumstantial, its totality “presents a picture of guilt so convincing that were it presented against an individual in a criminal case, the verdict would be obvious and incontrovertible”. The only reason why “the Putin regime never faced a court of law [is] because it controlled the judicial process and was in a position to seize and then hide or destroy the evidence”. It is, therefore, a cautionary tale (as if the world needed another one!) about the dangers of an autocratic dictatorship and a “power vertical”.

In this book, as in his earlier book The Age of Delirium, Satter shows a clear understanding of what’s been going on in Russia: it’s not “just like America”, only people there speak Russian, drink vodka, and have bears walk the streets. Russia (in the sense of its ruling regime) operates by different rules entirely. Satter writes (p. xiv):

Understanding Russia is actually very easy, but one must teach oneself to do something that is very hard—to believe the unbelievable. Westerners become confused because they approach Russia with a Western frame of reference, not realizing that Russia is a universe based on a completely different set of values. If a Westerner takes it for granted that the individual has inherent worth and is not just raw material for the deluded schemes of corrupt political leaders, he may not realize that in Russia this outlook is not widely shared. To grasp the reality of Russia, it is necessary to accept that Russian leaders really are capable of blowing up hundreds of their own people to preserve their hold on power. They really are capable of ordering an attack with flamethrowers on a gymnasium full of defenseless parents and children. Once one accepts that the impossible is really possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise of power make perfect sense.

Tomorrow, my Russian film class is watching Andrey Zviagintsev’s Leviathan, an equally disturbing view of what the regime that’s capable of waging war on its own people looks like from the perspective of those people.

“For every ten girls there’s only nine guys”: Soviet World War II losses and the resulting sex ratios

Last week, my Russian cinema class watched and discussed Cranes are Flying, a Soviet cinematic masterpiece which focuses on the tragic side of World War II and the physical and emotional wounds it left behind. But the wounds were also demographic, and these wounds have hardly healed even now, 72 years after the war. The estimated 8.7 million military deaths, with significantly more men than women among them, left a huge disparity between the genders: far more women than men in the post-war period. In the 1960s and 70s, a popular Soviet song claimed that “for every ten girls, according to statistics, there’s only nine guys”. That, however, was not the case in real life: according to the 1970 census, for every ten women between ages 30 and 69, there were only 7.4 men in the same age bracket. By 1979, that number was up to 7.84, and the situation was a bit better among the younger generation. But even today Russia has not recovered the sex ratios of the pre-war and pre-1930s Great Terror period. The graph from an article by Nikolay Savchenko in Demoscope shows that the biggest drop in the men-to-women ratio occurred in the 20-year period that encompasses the war, between the 1939 census and that of 1959:

Sex ratio in the Russian Empire/USSR population data: the number of men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69


It is easy to blame the skewed sex ratios on the Nazi occupation: after all, nearly 2 million square km of Soviet territory and 45% of its population have been occupied during the war. But a closer look at the demographic data suggests that this is not the case. Although the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), as well as Belarus and Ukraine, were occupied in their entirety, it is the RSFSR (Russia), most of which was not under Nazi occupation, which showed the lowest sex ratio in the first post-war census of 1959 (chart from Savchenko’s publication, linked to above):

Sex ratios by republic: men per 1,000 women, aged 30-69 (1959 census)


Within Russia, there is no contrast in sex ratios between regions that were under Nazi occupation and those that were not. According to Savchenko, the lowest sex ratios (among those who were in age cohorts subject to mobilization during the war) is found in three of the regions in the Middle Volga: Mari ASSR (507), Chuvashia (517), and Mordovia (521). Next come three Russian oblasts, Ivanovo (528), Kirov (535), and Kostroma (538)—none of which were occupied by the Nazis!

Instead, the enormously skewed sex ratio must be due to the Soviet mobilization and military losses. As suggested by Savchenko, this can be seen from two statistics: (1) differences in sex ratios between age cohorts that were subject to mobilization and those that were not, and (2) differences in sex ratios between different regions of Ukraine and Belarus. Let’s begin by looking at the data concerning the age cohorts: among those born in 1930 (aged 15 in 1945), the sex ratio is 964—pretty much what would be expected in peacetime. The ratio declines as one goes back in birth years: among those born in 1926 (they were subject to mobilization in the last year of the war), the sex ratio is 829, and among those born in 1923 (and thus subject to mobilization from 1941 onward) the ratio is merely 644. In other words, for every ten 36-year-old women in 1959 there were only 6.44 male contemporaries, a far cry from the “nine guys” that the song claimed. This chart (based on the figures cited in Savchenko’s work) is easily explained: the older the guys were in 1941 and so the longer they were subject to mobilization, the more likely that they would be drafted and, sadly, that they would not come back from the war. The only anomaly is the data point for those born in 1927: the sex ratio for this age cohort is higher than for the next younger cohort, born in 1928. According to Savchenko, “this is a reflection of the fact that throughout the USSR, about 300-400 thousand young men born in 1925-1926 allegedly changed their papers to show 1927 as their birth date” (translation mine).

The second type of evidence that underscores the enormous effect of Soviet military losses on the remaining population structure involves sex ratios in Belarus and Ukraine. Since both of this republics were under Nazi occupation, based on the factor alone, one does not expect any differences within each republic, but that is not the case. Looking at those aged 31-70 in 1959 (the age bracket that made the men subject to mobilization),  Savchenko calculated that the sex ratio is highest in the westernmost parts of Belarus, and declines as one moves east. Thus, “in Grodno oblast of Belorussia there were 707 men for 1,000 women, in Brest oblast — 708, in Molodechno oblast — 700. But in the centrally located Minsk oblast the figure is 615, and in the eastern oblasts of Belorussia the difference [between the number of men and women] is even more conspicuous: in Vitebsk — 581, in Gomel — 578, in Mogilev — 562” (translation mine). If the Nazi occupation were the sole factor, this distribution would be counter-intuitive: after all, western areas such as Brest were under Nazi attack first and were generally occupied the longest. The real reason for this distribution, Savchenko suggests, is whether the area was part of the USSR, and hence subject to its mobilization, in the inter-war period. Western parts of Belarus were taken over by the USSR in the fall of 1939, before which time they were part of Poland.

The situation is similar in Ukraine, as Savchenko claims. For this post and for my class, I’ve created the map below, where the sex ratios for age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war are shown by oblast (Savchenko himself lists the figures only for half a dozen or so of the oblasts; I have calculated the remaining ratios based on the 1959 census data here). The base map here is one that shows territorial changes in Ukraine (I’ve discussed it also in my 2014 post):

As can be seen from this map, the highest (hence, most like peace-time) sex ratio, 843, is found in the westernmost region of Transcarpathia, which became part of Ukraine (and part of the USSR) only after the war. Areas that became part of the USSR in 1939 (Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Volyn, and most of the Rovno oblast) or in 1940 (Chernovtsy oblast and a substantial part of the Odessa oblast) exhibit fairly high sex ratios as well. The contrast between “Western Ukraine” (oblasts that were taken over by the USSR in 1939-40) and their immediate neighbors to the east (Khmelnitsky, Zhitomir, and Vinnitsa oblasts), as well as oblasts in central Ukraine (Kiev, Chernigov, Poltava, Cherkassy, and Sumy oblasts), is quite conspicuous. Overall, areas that were not part of the Soviet Union before 1939 have sex ratios in the high 600s, in the 700s or even above 800, while virtually all regions that were in the USSR prior to 1939 have sex ratios below 650, and about half of them—below 600. (The only exceptions are the industrially vital Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine and the city of Kiev, with the sex ratios of 670 and 668, respectively.)

In light of these figures, it appears that the timing of becoming a part of the Soviet Union is the best predictor of the severity of the sex ratio bias: the longer an area was part of the USSR, the higher the discrepancy between the two genders (and the lower the sex ratio figure) in the immediate pre-war period. This generalization is further confirmed by another data point, alluded to by Savchenko: Tyva, which became a part of the USSR only in 1944 and was little affected by the Soviet mobilization, has one of the highest sex ratios of any region in the USSR in 1959: 903, based on the 1959 census data here. (Again, only people aged 30-69 in 1959, the age cohorts that were subject to mobilization during the war, are being considered.)

All these figures underscore the immense human losses that the Soviet Union suffered, the “cost in blood” of the victory over Nazism whose 72nd anniversary is being commemorated today. These losses, skewed heavily against the “stronger sex”, were felt for a long time after the last shots were fired, and are perhaps still felt today. One consequence of this shortage of men is that the birth rate after the war, though higher than during the war, never reached the pre-war level, in sharp contrast to the U.S. and Britain, which experienced the “baby boom” in the same period. (The birth rates are shown by the blue line in chart below, from

Birth rate (blue line) and death rate (pink line) in the Russian Empire and the USSR


But the consequences of the skewed sex ratios after the war may be psychological as well: a whole generation of children, most notably boys, grew up with few fathers around, and thus with few role models of how to be a man, a husband, or a father. Is that perhaps the reason why the protagonist of our next film, Autumn Marathon, is so weak, meek, indecisive, and spineless? Nor is he alone among male cinema characters of that time; in fact, it seems that many if not most of the cinematic “good guys” in the late 1970s-early 1980s were very much like Buzykin.

Thoughts, anyone?

“The Last Empire”, by Serhii Plokhy

In preparation for my Russian history class, I’ve recently read Serhii Plokhy’s book The Last Empire. As the subtitle suggests, it’s a detailed account of “the Final Days of the Soviet Union” (a bit too detailed, to my mind). The focus of Plokhy’s narrative is on the rivalry between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and, predictably, the role of Ukraine in bringing about the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Plokhy is a scholar of Ukrainian history, after all). All in all, although the book is illuminating as to the minute details of the fateful year of 1991 and the varying opinions, plans and attitudes of the major players in and outside the Soviet Union, it left me dissatisfied as to the answer to the crucial question, why. Plokhy’s explanation of why the Soviet Union disintegrated makes sense:  once Ukraine pulled out, as did the Baltic countries, it was pretty much Russia against the Muslim republics of Central Asia, and those two camps didn’t want to be left alone in one union or confederation. But it does not touch upon the question of why the communism (or more accurately, socialism) failed as, and when, it did. After all, Ukraine, as Plokhy justly points out, wanted independence first and de-communization later, if at all. In fact, as late as the 1998 legislative election, the majority of the areas in Ukraine still voted for the Communist Party, as can be seen from the following map from

The Communist Party of Ukraine took part in the legislative elections in 2002, 2006, 2007, and 2012, albeit with more limited success. It was finally dissolved in December 2015.





One thing I did find beautifully poignant is a little vignette that Plokhy includes in the last chapter of the book, “Christmas in Moscow” (p. 374). Here, Plokhy tells the story of Gorbachev signing his resignation decrees. Apparently, for this final act as the first and last President of the USSR, Gorbachev had to borrow a pen from Tom Johnson, the president of CNN, whose crew was recording the events of those last few days of the Soviet Empire. The country that had once planned to enter the exalted state of communism by 1980 and later boasted to be poised “to catch up and overtake America” has run itself into such state of chaos and ruin that its president could not find a working pen in his own office.  A wonderful metaphor of what the collapse of socialism has been all about.