Sapiens. Youval Noah Harari.

Harari, Youval Noah. Sapiens.Hebrew Kinneret, Isreal, 2011, English translation Harvill Secker, London, 2014. NF;01/19.

I stumbled onto this after reading an article by the author in the New Yorker. I think it’s brilliant in its way and Harari ranks for me close to Pinker and Peterson as a stimulating current thinker about our world and culture. But his ideas though fascinating are sometimes overly simple and lead only to something bleak in the extreme. And he also follows Richard Prum in having an instinct for issues that set modern readers nodding their heads and wanting to read on: he’s a salesman as well as a sage. Still many of his arguments made sense to me. And he finally brought it together with clear and monstrous conviction (I haven’t seen such a dynamite closing sentence in a long time).

Humans as we know ourselves took over the world in a short few millennia, even from other humanoids like Neanderthals. It was the “cognitive revolution” – the invention of the imagination – that enabled this: “… the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about (predatory threats). Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.” (italics mine: the non-existence of imaginary things is one of Harari’s oversimplifications in my opinion). “…the real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.” The glue is fiction or myth. But what is that? Does it fit into traditional metaphysics (a construct if ever there was one), and if so where? And would that be metaphysically convincing or are we just talking about something useful to humans (and for a lot of thoughtful people who give a damn)? Or is it something mythic, that now no-longer-popular mysterious entity celebrated by  Northrop Frye? Hm.

Harari is an Israeli professor of history educated at Oxford. His science philosophy which doesn’t have much time for mystery or doubt reminds me of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the “Brights”. I should say I see naivete in the way some humanities academics revere Science as if, if only we followed it, it’d answer all our important questions. But Harari appreciates science’s humble agnosticism and recognizes that part of the “cognitive revolution” and the beginning of modernity was figuring out that we don’t know the half of what’s going on, and that the way to find out is to think creatively and then accept only ideas that don’t get disproven. But he makes a sharp distinction between “myths” and “biological facts” that seems to offer to slice through, for example, the mind-body problem. A lot of what he considers imaginary seems according to evolutionary psychology probably pretty biological, part of brain design and function. “But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?” This gives me a dystopian shudder from worrying that law and political science could end up worsening their own troubles with ones that biology including medicine are stuck with.  Science philosophy divides between science pursuing a world that is real and one that is “empirically adequate” (whatever that means). However that ends up, the real problem with science and the trouble the “Brights” to me don’t deal with is that science is applied by people.

This very smart author knows how to sell books. Harari is a vegan and animal rights enthusiast, and he advances anti-glutenism and other dietary fads as supported by arguments from human history, and expresses righteous disgust at the way we treat cattle and chickens. He supports radical feminism (gender is a construct: “Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality”), environmentalism (“Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre”), and respect for animals alongside the evils of private property and religion (“the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property”).  I think gender is one example of Harari’s unjustified suspension of agnosticism. I’d say human imagination comes from or at least operates in the human brain which is structured in “biological reality” to welcome it. And I’d also say there are in general some biological differences between male and female imaginations.

It isn’t always because he’s trying to attract the politically correct that Dr. Harari’s arguments don’t hold water for me. We are told that the decline of violence seen in the past number of decades is due to “the state”, at the end of pages and pages of rant against nations, which he argues are mythical or imaginary in nature. Quite possibly it’s an idiotic consistency in me that wants him, great and global commentator on humanity in the world, to come down on one side or the other of the concept of “countries”. His enthusiasm for putting a scientific definition on happiness seems to ignore the difference between the kind of populations that would be involved in such a statistical project and individual, strange, highly variable human beings and their feelings. He says understanding happiness scientifically may reveal that “the average person (is) no happier today than in 1800.” Speculative to say the least but, worse, pretty meaningless to any one sensible person. “we can make people far happier than ever before, without any need of revolutions. Prozac, for example, does not change regimes, but by raising serotonin levels it lifts people out of their depression.” This sounds naïvely reductionistic (and like poorly-informed pro-science cheerleading) to me.

I was getting frustrated at about 70% of the way through this book by not having sensed where Dr. Harari was trying to go. Lots of interesting new ways of looking at things reminiscent of the revelations in Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, but by that point in the book still no coherent worldview comparable to Pinker’s enlightenment optimism or Peterson’s insistence on personal responsibility. Then something seemingly more over-arching appeared: “unity”. Science, capitalism, the building of empires, the industrial revolution, and imagination-born belief are somehow driving Homo Sapiens toward one world. And yet…

Switching to foretelling the future, and always under the condition that thermonuclear war or environmental catastrophe don’t do away with us first, Harari delivers a summary of the worrisome predictions in Bostrom’s Superintelligence and O’Connell’s To Be a Machine. It’s inevitable given enough time, that “biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.” How many years, decades, centuries until currently exploding science, technology, and/or artificial intelligence genetically modify us, download our brains to laptops, and/or so massively outsmart us that our priorities, control of the earth, entire grasp of reality, and frail bodies disappear? Before we engineer our own demise?

We are “self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one … since we might soon be able to engineer our desires … perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.”

And then that final sentence: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” Gods? That’s either us genetically modified or machines with intelligent control. The religion of even the atheist de Botton has human form. These gods are anything but. And dangerous? That’s an orders-of-magnitude understatement. We are invited to contemplate the end of everything that ever mattered to any of us, an end that erases human history: none of it will be remembered. And what’s next? We’ll never know.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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