One of the greatest publishing successes of the last 10 years is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. This attempt to sum up all of human history in a few hundred pages first appeared in Israel in 2011 and promptly became a bestseller. It has since been translated into almost 50 languages and has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. The English edition appeared in 2014 and rapidly reached the top of the New York Times charts. The Washington Post called it “important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens,” Forbes recommended its “superb job of outlining our slow emergence, and eventual domination, of the planet,” and London’s Guardian called it one of “the ten best brainy books of the decade.” Following the publication, Harari became an intellectual superstar, showing up at the World Economic Forum at Davos (after Angela Merkel and before Emmanuel Macron), on YouTube, addressing Google and Instagram, and meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. According to a long New Yorker profile earlier this year, Harari, who has since published two other bestsellers, now works out of an office of 12 in Tel Aviv, where plans are afoot to publish a graphic novel of Sapiens, a Sapiens children’s book, and “a multi-season ‘Sapiens’-inspired TV drama, covering sixty thousand years, with a script by the co-writer of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.” It would seem that the world has found its favorite new historian.
But for all its crisp and entertaining explanations of everything from the disappearance of the Neanderthals to the mixed accomplishments of global empires and the probable future of genetic engineering, Sapiens is a distinctly nihilist tract, rejecting every sort of theism, every claim that life has meaning, and every assertion of human rights. According to Harari, there’s nothing the least bit sacred about human life, the Declaration of Independence is in error about liberty and equality, and the word “nature” itself—as in human nature—is meaningless. Insofar as Sapiens is a work of philosophy, it’s Nietzchean in its rejection of the most central human values, as well as in its suggestion that a superman—created by genetic or “inorganic” engineering—may be on the way.
That Harari’s nihilism has gone unchallenged—and even unmentioned—by many of the book’s reviewers is disturbing. The news here is not one man’s cynical assessment of the human situation so much as it is his wide acceptance by critics—and by millions of readers. One would have expected an outcry, an overflowing of indignation, an energetic rush to defend the truths Harari mocks. Instead: delight, acceptance, dinners with world leaders, and fame. Has the enterprise of Western faith—in God, rights, equality, liberty—disappeared?
It’s easy to understand Sapiens’s popularity. Synthesizing knowledge from a great swath of studies, Harari covers millennia, looking briefly at the very largest questions and then skipping directly, with pungent prose and humor, to the next. He never gets bogged down in the minutiae of scholarly debate and seems miraculously to find the through line connecting the Stone Age with the Digital Age, with lots of references to Darwinian evolution. (In fact, Harari has said he doesn’t identify with the Jewish religion of his birth but is “much more influenced by Buddha and Darwin than by the Bible.”) Most of all, his grand leaps seem to make sense: Yes, all history can conveniently be grouped around the Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens began to form cultures; the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago, when humans began to manipulate plant and animal species; and the Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago, when “humankind…obtained enormous new powers by investing resources in scientific research.” And in investigating each revolution, Harari has lots to teach. Why, for example, did Homo sapiens survive while Neanderthals died off? Although there is a smattering of Neanderthal DNA in modern Middle Eastern and European peoples, it’s likely that “competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.” Why did Homo sapiens, originally not very intelligent, suddenly invent boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, art and religion? Probably an accidental genetic mutation created language, leading to life-saving, life-illuminating gossip. Why are we so inclined to overeat, even after a satisfying dinner? “The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-wired into our genes. Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.” Of course!
Harari is equally entertaining in his discussion of the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago, when humans began farming and depending on a few domesticated animals and crops. Perhaps his most famous claim here is that the turn to agriculture was “history’s biggest fraud,” that it removed H. sapiens from a comfortable, satisfying existence and varied diet and replaced them with constant labor and dietary sameness:
Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women labored long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over fields…dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it….The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks.
It was also the beginning of ruling classes and elites. As Sapiens tells it, these fat cats lived off the surplus food of peasants, leaving laborers with a bare subsistence but using the leisure so acquired to make politics, art, philosophy, and religion. He writes: “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” Harari is also fascinating on the subject of sexual discrimination, asking why almost all cultures have valued manhood over womanhood. He considers the major theories, shows the flaws in each one, and finally admits that the question remains unanswered. But his tour of the arguments is eloquent and informative, and his implied egalitarianism is refreshing.
His take on globalization is also ingenious. Harari sees three “universal orders” tying humankind together: money, empire, and religion. Money doesn’t really exist, he says: It’s an imagined thing, “inter-subjective.” But “people who do not believe in the same god or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money.” As to the imperial order, he asserts that most people over the last 2,500 years have lived under some empire, and that the results weren’t always evil. To bolster his point, he argues that when local groups demanded equality with their European conquerors, it was often in the name of values they’d absorbed from those same conquerors: self-determination and human rights. Religion, meanwhile, supplied a superhuman legitimacy for humanity-unifying political and social structures. Harari clearly despises theistic systems, but he’s also aware that the great religions have brought masses together and created fraternity among strangers thousands of miles apart. Humanism too is a religion, he says, as is nationalism and capitalism. And free will, by the way, is bogus. Evolutionary scientists have discovered, Harari says, that human behavior is determined “by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will.” So: “How long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?”
Science changes everything. In his chapters on the Scientific Revolution, Harari brings us to our own culture, with its faith in progress, technology, medicine, computing. He explains how science has always depended on money and empire, how capitalism funded the gambits and depredations of everyone from Columbus to the African slave traders to the British East India Company, and how even today no scientific research will find grantors if it doesn’t somehow promise to turn a profit. Harari certainly doesn’t romanticize capitalism, but he doesn’t reject it, either. And he’s surprisingly sanguine about the continued availability of natural resources: “Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing,” he says. Solar energy is, naturally, the latest thing: “The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuel on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun dispenses every day, free of charge.” He suspects there’s more room for growth—if we can solve such worries as global warming, rising oceans, and widespread pollution. And if we don’t, well, he’s not anxious. We’re just clearing the way for the reign of rats and cockroaches.
Or maybe something even worse. In the last chapters of Sapiens, Harari notes that humans have recently become “intelligent designers,” flesh-and-blood gods who can craft human reality and create beings with superpowers. We are replacing “natural selection”—the Darwinian sort—with biological engineering, cyborg engineering (part organic, part nonorganic beings), and the engineering of inorganic life (computers with consciousness and feeling). Already one lab has created a fluorescent green rabbit, another has extended sixfold the life expectancy of worms, while a third has created prosthetic limbs that respond to thought impulses. The ethical challenges are tremendous: Will one’s income determine whether one becomes enhanced or “a-mortal”? Will labs be permitted to re-create Neanderthals from ancient DNA? What if our brains can be coupled to a computer program with near-infinite memory access? Don’t imagine these things won’t happen, says Harari: “Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike…all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant.”
And so the “brief history” ends. As narrative, it’s sort of thrilling. To cover so much ground so efficiently, with such wit, is a genuine feat. But unfortunately, Sapiens is not only history.
Throughout the book, Harari propagates a philosophy that is nihilistic to the core, disparaging every major religion, every claim of human rights, even the existence of meaningful altruism. The philosophy of Sapiens is so contemptuous of Western values that the reader is left with a stark choice: to be shocked or seduced. Which makes Harari’s adoption by readers in the millions worrisome.
Consider Harari’s assault on the language of the American Declaration of Independence. Knowing what we know now, he says, this founding document needs rewriting.
The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality….“Created equal” should therefore be translated as “evolved differently.”
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a “Creator” who “endows” them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. “Endowed by their creator” should be translated simply into “born.”
Similarly, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings….
And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? “Life,” certainly. But “liberty”? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty too is a political ideal rather than a biological phenomenon. From a purely biological viewpoint, there is little difference between the citizens of a republic and the subjects of a king.
There are assertions like this throughout Sapiens, and they demand a serious response. The fact is, the fundamental Western statement of human rights precedes Thomas Jefferson by some 3,000 years. It appears in the Bible’s assertion that all humans, equally created in God’s image, are not to be murdered (“Thou shalt not kill”), deprived of liberty (“And he that kidnaps a man…shall be put to death”), or robbed of their personal property (“Thou shalt not steal”). It’s no coincidence that Jefferson stated that it was the Creator who endowed humans with such “unalienable” human rights as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What Jefferson surely knew—as did the men who added the phrases “the supreme judge of the world” and “the protection of divine providence” to his draft of the Declaration—was that if God had not given these rights, they would be no more binding than an opinion, however well-intentioned.
But according to Harari, opinion—or what he calls “imagined order”—is all that human rights are. Here’s how he puts it in a comparison of the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi with Jefferson’s Declaration:
Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans, all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong…[T]he only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
These principles have no objective validity. And how could they if, as Harari believes, there’s no Ultimate Judge to ratify them? If there’s no Higher Being to choose between Jefferson and Hammurabi, we have to admit that human rights are up for grabs, like fashion, cuisine, and television miniseries. The laws that protect individuals from false arrest, torture, and political murder are just someone’s fallible opinion.
It naturally follows that all religions must be false. In the earliest section of Sapiens, Harari claims: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” Harari’s anti-monotheism turns up again in the section on the Agricultural Revolution where he tries to promote polytheism as more defensible and tolerant than “monotheistic brainwashing” has led us to believe. In a section on religions generally, Harari insists that monotheists “have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain…how a good God allows so much suffering,” and he mistakenly asserts that there’s no suggestion of an immortal soul anywhere in the Hebrew Bible (wrong; see Daniel, 12:2). In an argument right out of a high-school bull session, Harari notes that after 200 years of research, scientists “have found no soul,” and he asserts: “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning….Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning…human subjectivity would not be missed.”
Harari uses the same “sensible” tone in all parts of his book, and this slyly creates the impression that both his history and philosophy must represent the way very intelligent and au courant intellectuals think today. Judging from his American reviews, he seems to have come up against little philosophical opposition. In the Wall Street Journal, Charles C. Mann wrote a scorching attack on Harari’s scientific and geopolitical claims but didn’t once complain about the author’s dismissal of 3,500 years of the biblical assertion of human rights. In the Washington Post, Avi Tuschman related most of Harari’s historical claims uncritically and recommended the book to intelligent readers but didn’t find the author’s religio-political skepticism worthy of remark. A few months later in the same newspaper, Michael Gerson did write an op-ed quietly suggesting that though Harari’s view “destroys the whole basis for ethics, law and democracy,” still it may be the case that “the myths produced by Homo sapiens would be not the lies we tell ourselves but the truths we dimly perceive.” In any case, Gerson asserted that Sapiens “is one of the best accounts by a Homo sapiens of the unlikely story of our violent, accomplished species.” And in the Nation, Michael Saler didn’t once object to Harari’s claim that human rights are a fiction. He ended his essay instead by writing, “The original title of Harari’s book was From Animals Into Gods, but Sapiens is a better one: It means wisdom.”
Perhaps the response to Harari’s book is a kind of bellwether. Maybe the doubt, the disbelief, the void is more widespread than anyone dared think. With 12 million copies sold and the author lionized, what’s a reviewer who believes in the Torah and who reveres the Declaration of Independence to feel? In a word: grief. Harari, born and raised in the Holy Land of Israel, thinks that God and God-given rights are a fiction. It’s true that his positions aren’t shared everywhere and that belief in divinely given rights can claim a certain momentum after three-and-a-half millennia. But as the familiar metaphor reminds us, cut flowers can retain their vigor for only so long. Sooner or later, a generation that has lost all faith in the God of the Torah will think that human rights are just one arguable opinion among others. And if that occurs, there’s no end to the possible damage.
When the Continental Congress commissioned Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to design a great seal for their just-born country, Jefferson’s choice was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” How many still believe that? If it is, as Harari says, a pragmatic but groundless fiction, will nihilists stand up for the oppressed of the world? The Hebrew prophets didn’t think they were transmitting mere opinion. If that’s all it was—and is—who will bother to listen?
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