Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens
What is man?” to ask an old question in an old way. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a new answer to the old question. The first thing to say about this book is that it is not as boring as the title suggests. The book began as a university course that promised students an explanation of everything, “from the Stone Age to the age of capitalism and genetic engineering” (Harari, “Syllabus...”). Given the large swath of history and ideas it covers, the book is necessarily a catalogue of very interesting oversimplifications. Its aim is to help us envision a new kind of wisdom because, “The very future of life on Earth depends on the ideas and behavior of our species” (“Syllabus...”). The class is the kind of undergraduate course I would have enjoyed taking and the kind of class I would enjoy teaching had I Harari’s guts and gifts.
I gave a good part of my summer to engaging Sapiens not because I share Harari’s anxiety about the post-human future, but because Harari’s thinking about the post-human is so comfortably post-Christian. There is no trace of Dawkins’s or Hitchens’s anti-Christian animus. Harari’s approach is more like that of Gilfoyle, the Satanist, anarchist computer programmer in HBO’s Silicon Valley who announces that “Owning a pot-bellied pig is frowned upon almost as much as being a Christian.” Being a Christian and having a pot-bellied pig are unfashionable. Harari presumes that Christianity is a failed myth which means it can be treated as an interesting artifact. Christianity was once upon a time a successful myth which means that on the inter-subjective level—person to person—Christianity told a story that successfully sustained culturally significant beliefs. These beliefs ranged from thinking that medicine ought to be merciful and focused on healing the ill to recognizing that an abstraction like equality cannot but reflect the Christian belief in the relationship of persons within the Trinity who was creation’s (formal) cause.
Harari is a number-crunching game-theorist who thinks that the only things that count are those that can be counted and calculated. Everything else—religion, money, corporations, laws, principles etc.—are literally make-believe. Once we recognize that the squishy sides of existence—like moral values—are not facts but make-believe, we can get on with counting the things that yield to calculation and, in good conscience, treating everything else as creative fiction. Harari’s history is interesting because it seamlessly uses countable facts in spinning out his fictional account.
This post-Christian story of the post-human reflects Robert Jenson’s 1993 essay “How the World Lost Its Story,” in which he argued that the Christian story is now lost along with the Western values it, in large part, generated and sustained. This lost story creates a vacuum which will be filled with rival stories vying to interpret the post-Christian experience. Sapiens is not one of the stories, but rather is an early indicator of the kind of story or stories that will replace the Christian story of creation: redemption and a happy culmination on the far side of history.
The moniker “Sapiens,” as Harari refers to the species, suggests the difference between the Christian and post-Christian stories. Sapiens—derived from the Latin word for wisdom—is a rather more happy and hopeful term than “human” or “mortal.” In Genesis, we are creatures who were created ex nihilo. As such, the divinely designed trajectory is the natural movement from nothing to something; from emptiness to fullness. Creatures who are sinners follow the unnatural an nihilo arc, unable to shake free of the gravitational pull to annihilation. Human to humus, and mortal to mortus. Who wouldn’t prefer being called the wise rather than dirt or death?
This happy contrast is evident in the view that for Sapiens, “death is optional” (Harari and Kahneman 2015). For the first time it seems, the “Gilgamesh Project” to defeat death is within reach. Now we can imagine not believing the religious belief that disease and death are “metaphysical problems,” that are “something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality.” Once the Angel of Death decided the limits of life saying, “‘Come. Your time has come.’ Before, all we could say was, ‘No, no, no. Give me some more time.’” There was no bargaining with death, and so it cast its dark shadow over all of life. But what if the Angel of Death dies? Then the causes of death are not uncontrollable forces outside human experience; rather, the causes of death are that the heart stops pumping, an artery is clogged, or the cancer has spread. Once death ceases to be a religious or moral issue, it becomes a technical problem awaiting technical solutions. To seize this moment however, we need to expand our “field of vision” so that we can wisely accept the new conditions required to realize our potential.
One such condition is the revaluation of medicine. “Medicine in the 20th century,” asserts Harari, “focused on healing the sick, now it is more and more focused on upgrading the healthy, which is… a fundamentally different project.” For one, “there is no norm that can be applicable to everybody.” Don’t expect hospitals in the future to have “mercy” in their name, Harari explains. When the Biblical anthropology informed medicine, it was “an egalitarian project” of “healing the sick.” Creatures made in God’s image were naturally whole and healthy. This meant that it was mortals’ moral duty to care for “anybody that falls below the norm.” Once medicine makes the shift from healing the ill to enhancing the healthy it becomes “by definition an elitist project.” This understanding has been for some time “dominant in scientific circles.” Now the ultra-rich have adopted this view, while reasoning, “Wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die” (Harari and Kahneman).
In the old story, Icarus, Golem, and Babel characterize human hubris, but in the new story they show the way wisdom must proceed. The defeat of death is within our scientific/technological grasp only if we accept the fact that humans “will soon disappear.” Natural selection has endowed Sapiens with the means of “breaking free of their biologically determined limits” (397) imposed by natural selection. Until now, “intelligent design” was a make-believe concept predicated on religious superstition. “There was no intelligence which could design things” until “an insignificant ape” changed “into the master of the world” (403). Now we can imagine radical changes by means of “biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life” (399). If the moral limits are swept aside, every indicator suggests that the technological limits will steadily be overcome. But first we must rid ourselves of the moral residue still lingering from the unfashionable Christian fable. These “obstacles” of “ethical and political objections” have done nothing but “slowed down research on humans” (403). If it is enhancement we desire, then medicine and technology cannot be distracted by ethics and religion (413), which play on the fear that designer beings will be Frankenstein monsters. “We have become gods” (“Syllabus...”) and so are responsible for intelligently re-designing ourselves. Harari, with equal portions of deft and delight, tells us how we got here.
The Story of Conquest/The Conquest of Story
Sapiens announces that the world’s story is not of paradise lost but of possibilities grasped. Ours is, so far, a success story of effectively controlling “so many distant and ecologically different habitats.” Sapiens’s success is not synonymous with strength but with effectiveness, as evidenced in the way the weaker Sapiens drove “the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals into oblivion.” This success was due, in a word, to words: “Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language” (19). The first revolution was a “cognitive revolution” caused by the discovery of a language that made gossip possible. Neanderthal language was fixed in the practical, giving useful information on “the whereabouts of lions and bison.” What Sapiens discovered is another, less concrete way of knowing. If we know “who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat” (23) we become capable of developing “tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation” (24).
Gossip has its limits; it is useful in small communities of no more than about 150 members. When a polis or tribe exceeds this size, gossip fails as a social glue and must be replaced by faith “in common myths” (27). Created myths make for common cause. Catholic strangers are united by the belief that God is Triune, citizens are united by their faith in the nation, and lawyers by their trust in the happy coincidence that the rule of law can be purchased with “money paid out in fees” (28). Stories are not true or false: they are effective in bridge-building, until they are not. French citizens once believed in the divine right of kings, until, rather suddenly, they believed in “the sovereignty of the people” (33). “What is truth?” to ask a crucial biblical question. It is for Harari the temporary rhetorical triumph of an imaginative story effectively making conquest by cooperation possible. These stories “are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages… they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.”
Harari takes the American Declaration of Independence as his example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis his.) This American myth was once effective but always false. It was effective in that it generated unparalleled prosperity, but false because it was founded on the patently false claim of self-evident truths. We “were not ‘created’”; we evolved. There is no equality in either the genetic code or in environmental influences. Equality is a make-believe construct which worked because it was “inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation” where individuals were “souls (who) are equal before God” (109). God is dead, and so our view of the individual must change. We are not creatures endowed with rights but a collection of “organs, abilities and characteristics” that “evolved differently” (109). Again, asserts Harari, “There are no such things as rights in biology” (109), which means, “There is no justice in history” (133). There are make-believe schemes, advanced by make-believe stories, which endorsed the view that make-believe gods “rigged” things for history’s victors through make-believe “legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings” (137). Do not think that Harari is disparaging the make-believe. On the contrary, he is nothing but impressed with the Sapiens’s capacity to make up stuff that gets “large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively” (32).
So if we have reached the end of the usefulness of abstractions like equality, liberty and—to put an old concept in an old way—fraternity, then they ought to be swept into the myth-bin of history. Of course no one likes to be told “that the order governing their lives is imaginary” (114) or that myths like “Christianity, democracy or capitalism” have lost their persuasive power, but don’t panic… yet! Myths are not objective like radioactivity, which always kills whether one is conscious of it or not. Nor are they merely subjective, like an imaginary friend. Myths are inter-subjective interpretations of life that work because the make-believe has made enough believers and will stop working when the myth proves useless.
Myths work like a game of basketball. Once we accept basketball’s make-believe construction of time, goals, tribes, boundaries, and rules, we can enjoy, in any part of the world, the fun of a competitive and cooperative venture. Evolution did not think up basketball. It is not in the fabric of creation. We thought of it, and if we can do this kind of thinking with games, why not broaden the boundaries, rules, time, tribes, and goals to life. Of course, game theorizing can be done in better and worse ways, and science has taught us the best way, by showing us how a revolution in knowledge can happen by accepting the revolutionary importance “of ignorance.” We do not need to know the future. We merely need to know “that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions” (251), and then we can start throwing around creative stories and see which ones stick. (The difference between the objective and inter-subjective does not seem to present a problem.)
The species Sapiens is wise and clever. Voltaire argued that equality, liberty, and fraternity were secular values, while prudently recognizing that “‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’” (111). Stories are valued for their usefulness. This may explain why, suggests Harari in passing, the humanities are dying. The humanities (and social sciences), are academic make-believe myths that once effectively sustained the belief that an “imagined order” like liberty was actually “woven into the tapestry of life” (113) and was evident to those with specialized methods of discernment. Once the myth is deconstructed, liberty is recognized as “something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination” (110). The kind of knowing that is not imaginary is mathematics, which promises the “acquisition of new powers” (251) by learning “to speak in numbers” (131). Harari expects that this realization of the force in numbers is reflected in the way that liberal learning is becoming as unfashionable as potbelly pigs. Moreover, once we crunch the numbers, we will recognize that efficient cooperation is more valuable to Sapiens’s survival than the hard to manage and harmonize concepts of liberty and equality.
Said another way, we are now ready to welcome empire because we are exhausted by the moral demands required by the pursuit of a Christian/Aristotelean happiness. Once a few more of us recognize that morality is make-believe, then we can give no good reasons to make sacrifices. How will this change the pursuit of happiness? Already Harari says that we see happiness less in terms of liberty and equality and more in terms of pleasure and prosperity. “Bread and circuses,” was the Latin satirist Juvenal’s way of describing the enervating effect of valuing pleasure over duty. And, he observed, the elites paid for these excesses because they recognized it was the most effective means to manage the masses. Today’s bread and circuses are “a combination of drugs and computer games” (Harari and Kahneman), and shopping (347). Contemporary character is determined by consumption, because we have accepted the seemingly harmless invitation to “‘Become individuals.’” This meant, “‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents’… ‘Take up whatever job suits you’… ‘Live wherever you wish’” (359). That individual, no longer being defined by family and community, is defined by “the state and the market,” which promise to take care of us—though we may be wise to discern if “take care” is meant in a godly or a gangster way.
And so we come to a class divisions among Sapiens. Elites in Harari’s make-believe history are death-defying while commoners entertain themselves with gaming, shopping, and recreational-drug using. This class distinction must be maintained but not disclosed because elites recognize that their death-defying project requires funding by distracted consumers and passive taxpayers.
Eating, Art, and Gluten Intolerance
For Harari, obesity is a concrete problem that suggests Sapiens needs to rethink personal liberty. Sapiens is—at least for now—a biological animal, which means, as reflected in the 15,000-year-old Lascaux Cave paintings, that eating is at the core of culture. Whatever else can be said about these paintings is, according to Harari, mere speculation. G. K. Chesterton famously speculated that these cave paintings were, in a word, paintings, and that they were painted by persons we call artists. Speculating further he claimed that art back then expressed what art now expresses, which is the longing for a life that is neither dominated nor determined by utility. As such, art was and is an expression of the human longing for the eternal. By necessity they hunted to fuel the body, but they painted to make that need for food expressive of the sacramental desire to have our eternal hopes fulfilled in a way analogous to having our stomachs filled. For Chesterton, the useful is an icon of the beautiful. Make-believe nonsense, asserts Harari. All the “speech, song, dance and ceremony” we mystically associate with eating merely disguise the one cause of our actions: we are “hard-wired” to act and think in predetermined ways which means to be good hosts for DNA (41). We are not hardwired to think up basketball, but we are hardwired to play the game with moneyball efficiency to get the most out of existence. And this is a story told in the history of eating.
Once upon a time, there was the “agricultural revolution” which turned out to be “history’s biggest fraud” (79). Once upon a time, we were happy foragers who chose to become unhappy farmers. This happened because Sapiens proved to be dumber than wheat, and this mistake may mean that we are toast. Farmers thought they were domesticating wheat, when, in fact, wheat, “domesticated us” (81). Religion taught Sapiens to think that it is not at home in this world, even though it had no knowledge or experience of any other world. And so, as an act of religious defiance, they aimed to stabilize existence by growing domestic roots. Wheat fed this fancy for stability by making farming seem more predictable than foraging with a fraudulent sense that farmers have control over the unpredictable environment. The proof of the fraud is in the obesity producing pudding.
The path to obesity began with the desire for wheat requiring geographically fixed homes. This, in turn, generated the desire for property and the overvaluation of surplus possessions. This poisoned the social wells, which sawed off the branch of cooperation upon which Sapiens’s success sat from the start of the cognitive revolution. Now we find ourselves in “the throes of a plague of obesity” as we gorge and binge on “the sweetest and greasiest food we can find” (40–41). Starvation does not threaten us, as “more people are in danger of dying from obesity” (266). This threatening gluttony demands accepting some serious gluten intolerance.
Wheat is a double problem. It gave us too much to eat and prompted us to procreate too many new mouths to feed. Abundant food stabilized homes and “enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially” (83). Nomadic foragers limit their DNA reproduction because “Babies and small children… were a burden…” (84). The fraudulence of farming is its miscalculation of happiness. If a loaf of bread gives x units of happiness, then ten loaves must yield x times ten. The logic fails to recognize the law of diminishing returns which Harari calls the “luxury trap.” His example is the “many young college graduates who have taken demanding jobs… vowing that they will work hard to earn money to… pursue their real interests.” There is no such thing as truth, but there are, even in make-believe history, a “few iron laws,” one of which “is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations” (87). At the “advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theatre of the human mind” (101). The “stress of farming” incited Sapiens to seek the false security of corrupting systems like “politics, war, art, philosophy,” and in the construction of “palaces, forts, monuments, and temples” (101), all of which have been inimical to Sapiens’s happiness.
The corruption evident in obesity is sustained by a system of callousness and cruelty. Callousness in that “each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed the hungry people of the world” (348). Cruelty in the willingness to give up on traditional affection, the kind that the shepherd had for the sheep and which the Twenty-third Psalm draws on to express divine love. In place of the pasture, we maximize industrial efficiency by thrusting animals into short and miserable existence “inside a tiny box” (97). But the system is efficient, and so, I presume, needs stories so that we don’t get sidetracked by squishy distracting thoughts of animal cruelty.
It may be that thinking like Bacon will save us from eating like pigs. Francis Bacon recognized that knowledge is power and that rationality’s “real test is utility” (259). If free individuals freely choose to eat their way into the unhappiness of obesity, then maybe we should rethink liberty and increase happiness by limiting diet. And if equality proves too inefficient, why not consider giving different spins to old stories like Brave New World or Animal Farm? Maybe we should return to the early formula of Sapiens’s success and focus on fraternity, that is cooperation, which, if we are honest “is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian” (104). Empire is efficient, and there is no reason to think empires must be evil, just because they do not value the “right to self-determination” (191). The history of food and farming tells us what Sapiens does with self-determination. Maybe it would be happier under the “very stable form of government” (191) empire affords. Harari knows a lot about a lot of empires. Being imaginative and articulate, he can generate a make-believe history of world cooperation without the scary totalitarian bits. The truth is, we don’t have to imagine empire because “the global empire (is) being forged before our eyes… ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests.” Our choice is not for or against empire, but freely joining now or necessarily joining later (208).
And what about happiness? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, spoke of a chemically (soma) induced state of happiness that “seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why.” What is so dystopic about “Everybody” being “happy all the time… what could be wrong with that” (390)? Lots, some of which Harari considers when he says that we must rethink our “definition of happiness.” Scientifically speaking, says Harari, happiness means “synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with prevailing collective delusions” (392). No one, not even scientists, think happiness is remotely reflected in his definition. The word happiness, try as we will, cannot mean anything different than what Aristotle said it meant; that is, human happiness is the fulfillment of human ends, desires, goals, and purposes. Harari is mostly dismissive of such thinking until we come to the end of the book where he recognizes that “the Sapiens regime,” praised for its imaginative efficiency, “has so far produced little that we can be proud of.” Tersely put, our overvaluation of “comfort and amusement” is “wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and… ecosystem.” Harari wants us to do better but has laid waste to the foundation upon which a better way can be constructed, as when he says that we should see through such squishy pronouncements like saying the Great War was won by the immeasurable courage of the Allies when, in fact, victory owed itself to the very measurable quality and quantity of Allied tanks (261). Happiness is not algebraic; it is transcendental. Measurable facts never get us to the unmeasurable happiness that embraces things like courage and the willingness to sacrifice for others. Harari can assert that everything turns on happiness, but he cannot say what happiness turns on. This is troubling to Harari because Sapiens now wields a power so sweeping that earlier generations, not far removed from us, would have said we have become like gods. “History began,” states Harari, “when humans invented gods—and will end when humans become gods” (“Syllabus...”). And, Harari concludes, there is nothing “more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want” (416). And whom will they consult to know what they want? Not academics because, “The better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another… In fact, the people who knew the period best—those alive at the time—were the most clueless of all.”
What can we say about Sapiens? The species is, like Homer Simpson’s view of alcohol, “the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.” Harari enthusiastically endorses the first proposition; he is not so sure of the second. From my unfashionable Christian perspective, the book is morally incoherent which added to my enjoyment in trying to keep up with Harari’s gallop through life, the universe, and everything. As for the moral impasse he comes to with the lacuna of happiness (to mash up some metaphors), C. S. Lewis saw it coming a long time ago. “We laugh at honour, wrote Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” And, we might add, we deconstruct the hope of eternity, then bid each other to not worry and be happy.
As I mentioned earlier, Robert Jensen’s 1993 essay, “How the World Lost Its Story,” effectively argues that the power of the Bible’s story to interpret human experience has lost its cultural relevance. The question is what kind of post-Christian story or stories will fill this vacuum, telling us who we are, how we relate to one another, and in what direction we shall choose. Sapiens is not a story, but indicates the kind of story that a data driven, game theorizing, calculating culture would find canonical. If we insist that transcendent truth and goodness are delusions, then we should expect things to get ugly. If all are gods, then, as I understand the polytheistic pantheon, the big gods find their happiness in eating the little ones. This is not a new story but the actual story of fallen humanity. Except now the eaten—the victim—no longer has the consolation of believing that when they cried out, “You are wrong” they were saying something true, solid, and eternal. It is hard for me to fathom what it will be like to be a little god without that consolation.
David K. Weber is Lecturer in Theology at Valparaiso University.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.
_____. “Syllabus to A Brief History of Human-kind.” coursera. n.d. http://www.coursera.org/course/humankind.
Harari, Yuval Noah and Daniel Kahneman. “Death Is Optional.” Edge. March 4, 2015. http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional.
Jenson, Robert W. “How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things. October 1993. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/how-the-world-lost-its-story.