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How objective are books like "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind"? How are they "proven"?

How can one assess the objectivity of historical literature?

Why is it still not subjective, if not even personally biased?

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    Help me to understand what you mean by "objective"? How do I tell an objective book? It is a depressing book, and I don't find the thesis credible or the implications desirable. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 18 '18 at 13:00
  • @MarkC.Wallace That the interpretations that an author makes should be as much as possible observable as such regardless of who perceives it. – mavavilj Sep 18 '18 at 13:02
  • Now that I understand, this is a powerful question. Upvote with enthusiasm. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 18 '18 at 13:35
  • @MarkC.Wallace What exactly is depressing about the book? Personally, I didn't find it good, but I never felt depressed reading it. What did you find not credible or undesireable about its "implications", exactly? If I may ask. – Eff Sep 21 '18 at 12:50
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Start with whether or not the book gets the basic facts correct. Not the most obvious ones, but the more subtler ones. If those are correct, then one can start to presume a basic competence, and understanding, by the author.

For this book, a pdf file exists online. I started reading, and before finishing the first page I found two glaring errors:

Secondly, the muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It's hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can't win an argument with a Home Sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

The statements "the muscles atrophied" and "humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons" are both incorrect. It is correct that chimpanzees "can rip the man apart like a rag doll", which hides the error as to why - which has nothing to do with humankind's greater brain size. The real reason is that our hand and lower arm joints are constructed differently from our ape relatives. Ape joints are constructed to maximize leverage, to obtain the benefits of raw power. Human joints are constructed with less leverage, to the benefit of much finer motor control for tasks such as tool building. Additionally, humans have evolved a greater percentage of slow-twitch muscle compared to fast twitch muscle, for increased endurance at the cost of raw strength.

This leads into a further error on the subsequent page, where the author infers that humans evolved two hand from ape-like relatives with four feet. In fact, the opposite occurred. The proper sequence of evolution is that monkees evolved four hands from four feet, which trait is still possessed by our ape relatives today.

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Our ape relatives are almost as nimble with their "feet" as with their hands. Humans evolved two feet from the rearmost two hands in order to obtain the benefits of standing upright.

When one starts to see such errors of fact pile up in a book, one can dismiss any claim to serious scholarship on the part of the author. No author can expect to be perfect, but the reader has the right to expect an honest and earnest striving for perfection.

  • I think your point "has nothing to do with humankind's greater brain size" is a bit strange when you then go on to say "Human joints are constructed with less leverage, to the benefit of much finer motor control for tasks such as tool building." Isn't that his entire point in his paragraph? That the entire human, brain and body, evolved to use more intellect to solve problems (need both hands and brains for tool making), rather than raw strength. He is not saying that literally the big brain makes us not strong, but rather that less strength and bigger brains coevolved for a single purpose. – Eff Sep 21 '18 at 11:57
  • Don't get me wrong, I agree with your basic conclusion that "one can dismiss any claim to serious scholarship on the part of the author." In fact, this is one of my major criticisms with Sapiens; it's a book filled with assertions with little to back them up. But I don't think that particular paragraph is too bad as a (very) short description of human evolution. – Eff Sep 21 '18 at 11:59
  • @Eff: The claim that "our muscles atrophied" is false. Rather, our joints regeared from power to endurance and fine motor control. My point is that even when his conclusions are accurate, the author has the reasons exactly backwards. This suggests he has absorbed a few stray facts and attempted to weave a source narrative without any actual knowledge of the background. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 21 '18 at 12:11
  • "This suggests he has absorbed a few stray facts and attempted to weave a source narrative without any actual knowledge of the background." Well, I would agree with this characterization of the book. And I have read it. – Eff Sep 21 '18 at 12:56
  • @Eff: I didn't bother to inflict the entire book on myself. Discovering several errors of reasoning and fact in the first two pages was sufficient self-flagellation for the day. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 21 '18 at 12:58

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