Fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting - The Tree of Knowledge, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
An increasing number of people believe Yuval Noah Harari will save mankind from committing intellectual Harakiri (suicide by disembowelment) through the sheer originality of his thought. Except, he may be the one wielding the sword.
Harari describes himself as a “historian, philosopher, best-selling author...considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals today”. That’s him. Describing himself.
Staggeringly, given his sweeping conclusions and growing reach, only a handful have clarified that he’s missing the wood for the trees. Not so much in detail as in big picture. Especially what seems his wilfully misleading tactic of mixing fact with fiction.
Like them, a much wider group of sensible spokespeople for the sciences, arts, humanities, religion needs to speak up. And soon.
Harari’s materialist, sensory worldview pretends. It pretends to start with a slavish embrace of scientific fact, but winds up at a wildly speculative dead end.
Most glaring is Harari’s inability to accept that we humans are not just unique among creatures but, uniquely, can create, feel, recall and respond to realities that can’t always be accessed through our senses (sight, smell, touch).
In a chapter in his book Sapiens dismissively titled An animal of no significance, he's out to show how unremarkable humans are, while nodding ever so slightly in the other direction.
He's harmlessly right when he echoes others: “As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.” - The Tree of Knowledge, Sapiens. But dangerously wrong when he adds that these things do “not really exist” or are merely rooted in common myths “that exist only in people’s collective imagination”.
If you ignore material objects, most human realities - our ever-growing, real-time depository of desire, loathing, trust, regret, memory, dreams, greed, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, loneliness - are “never seen, touched or smelled”. Are they any less real? To us? To others? Isn’t a mother’s love more real to her (and her son) than the smartphone she gifts him? Or are these realities too “fictions”, as Harari hints? As illusory as his other “fictions” - religion, money, nation, law, money, justice, human rights?
Harari dedicates Sapiens to “loving memory” of his father: is that (loving or memory or both) fiction or fact?
In a chapter The Battle of Good and Evil Harari uses high-school debating tactics to simplify. He argues that monotheism explains order but is foxed by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is foxed by order. Then his cocksure conclusion "one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God - and He's evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief." Harari is unable to demonstrate precisely how his way is logical or how it's solving anything, let alone the riddle. So he skips past, briskly - debating trophy firmly in hand.
Understandably, Harari is obsessed with biological or anthropological evolution. But worryingly, he's unconcerned with moral or spiritual (not necessarily religious) evolution. Evolution of the mind, of the imagination, of emotion. Especially humanity’s ability to create, re-create, sometimes for no defensible “reason”: doodles, cartoons, drawing, painting, music, song, dance, drama, humor, pranks, film, sport, party games.
Judit Polgár, Rembrandt's The Night Watch, Yehudi Menuhin
Experts can pick each of these and elaborate on countless variations that demonstrate the galactic expansion or ascent of human knowledge, skill, ingenuity, innovation, creativity.
Granted, wisdom is another matter - mankind's ascent, or expansion, isn't as certain!
Harari lends evolution a sentient, prime-mover aura: “that Evolution should select for larger brains”, “Evolution thus favored those capable”, “Evolution gradually produced”, “Evolution did not endow humans with”, “Evolution has made Homo Sapiens a xenophobic creature”, "Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers". At the same time he goes on to imply futility: “evolution has no purpose”!
“It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar - and perhaps incriminating.” - Skeletons in the closet, Sapiens
But if our ancestors were merely following evolutionary dictates, why is their attack of rival species (competing for the same resource) any more incriminating than a carnivore T-Rex slaughtering a herbivore ankylosaur millions of years before humans?
Why is our exclusivity “peculiar”?
“For more than 2 million years human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it. What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.” - The cost of thinking, Sapiens
With such ear-shattering authority surrounding Harari’s sweeping statements on evolution, is “we don’t know” good enough, for such a crucial gap in understanding?
In a Sapiens chapter The Discovery of Ignorance Harari correctly points to a willingness to admit ignorance that sets modern science apart from prior traditions of knowledge. It assumes that "we don't know" everything (from the Latin injunction ignoramus) and what we think we know could be proven wrong, as our knowledge grows. That's right. Such investigations should begin (and end) with humility. Dutifully, Harari sprinkles the phrase "we don't know" in a few places in his paperbacks (approx. 1400 pages at last count), but you can't shake the suspicion that somehow he himself feels, well, a little differently.
Harari points to inexplicable human evolutionary leap-frogging, even as far back as 2.5 million years ago: larger brains, standing upright, arms free to throw stones or to signal, fingers tuned for intricate tasks (start a fire, cook, feed, store food).
But he leaves too many questions unasked. And, therefore, unanswered.
Why didn’t Evolution - since it’s calling the shots - nudge other animals too? Why weren’t they too given power to control areas far beyond "their bodies"? Say, power to fuel a raging fire? Or plant seeds on a mighty grassland?
Harari can explain neither what came first nor why humans were singled out for the fast-track?
Did humans evolve to stand upright because they needed to "scan the savannah for game or enemies"? Or did they try scanning (by trying to stand) and therefore evolve upright? If so - and if Evolution decides everything - why didn’t it nudge other animals too? Didn’t they too deserve to scan? Especially if, as Harari says, "adjusting to an upright position was quite a challenge...humanity paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks." Never mind that your orthopaedic insists that your bad back has more recent origins than the savannah.
Did humans get their outlandishly bigger brains first? And therefore hunt for more food, to feed larger brains? And so build better neurons, at the expense of atrophied muscles? If so - and if Evolution decides everything, why didn’t it grant bigger brains to other animals too? Why did only humans evolve more sensible-efficient ways to feed, that require more neurons than muscles?
Why did Evolution nudge humans to be born premature, underdeveloped, dependent on caring parents? Why didn't other animals develop similarly sophisticated social skills?
Harari never tires of calling man an "ape", derisively. And delights in establishing common ground with chimpanzees, arguing that our ability to organize and order our collective around myths, sets us apart more than our individuality and its claim to distinction.
Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist (1998)
He states that our societal building blocks are not too different from Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, "the more we examine these building blocks - sensations, emotions, family ties - the less difference we find between us and other apes....one on one, even ten on ten we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees."
Clint Eastwood in Every/Any Which Way But Loose (1978)
Man’s inexplicable “spectacular leap” from middle of the food chain to the top? Harari shows contempt for a leap he can’t explain, but ridicules and blames it, for war and ecological damage.
Harari derides man’s “fears and anxieties” as those of a “banana-republic dictator”, compared to “top predators”, “majestic creatures” whose “millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence”.
Should Harari spend time with top predators to discover their fears and anxieties and how, given half a chance, they're no different from banana-republic dictators (in pride or pack) attacking or cannibalizing their own without hesitation, merely to assert themselves?
Should Harari spend time with a wider cohort of evolved humans too? Sure, some behave like beasts but many are holding each other accountable, for violence and ecological damage, prepared to convene when things get out of hand, to defang or pre-empt offenders where necessary, to atone even if within a flawed system. Harari might learn how several humans end up defending strangers, even those not of their nationality, color, caste, race, religion, gender, class. How even amidst starvation, cannibalism is almost never an option. How some starve themselves to stop mass violence, including toward animals. How some act as individuals against the pack, standing up for another, refusing to betray even under duress.
Believe it or not, naturalists are human too: Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Steve Irwin.
No one is blind to state callousness toward the poor and destitute. Or to human stupidity on colossal scale (legislative, judicial, bureaucratic, technological, environmental).
But can you ignore the state's attempt to reach the many, rather than the few? Can you ignore the extent to which a state will go (risking time, effort, money and other lives) to preserve the life (or body!) of a single man, woman, child caught up in a fire, natural disaster, kidnap, hostage crisis, terrorist incident?
Why has "Evolution" singled out humans for this refined form of spiritual-emotional-moral evolution?
The real world differs starkly from Harari’s.
If anything, man’s “fears and anxieties” are so unlike those of animals (still fussing about food and drink and little else). Once his bodily needs are met, man frets more about his spirit; he yearns to exercise choice, develop meaningful relationships, to create (or respond to) opportunities to sacrifice, to share, to belong, to laugh, have fun. Yes, negative impulses jostle with positive, but the majority are positive. Or we’d be hard pressed to point at deviants. Jails and electric chairs would overrun us.
On Sapiens-Neanderthal conflict that Sapiens survived, Harari again infers less likely - malicious - causes such as intolerance and ethnic-cleansing. Instead of more likely - relatively benign - causes such as an evolutionary battle for survival over limited resources.
Stunningly, Harari declares, “tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark”. Ignoring centuries of evidence of humans spontaneously forming families, communities, societies, including cross-social and cross-cultural networks.
Frankly, for most humans, tolerance is the norm, intolerance the exception. Or the idea of multi-class, multi-age, multi-race, multi-color, multi-religious, dual-gender neighborhoods would have died out ages ago.
Harari can’t explain the sudden evolution of language or the Cognitive Revolution either. Instead of accepting this epoch-defining turn as further proof of the uniqueness (if not superiority) of man, he puts it down to a roll of dice.
“What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell.” - The Tree of Knowledge, Sapiens
Forget Neanderthals, why didn’t "Evolution" favor any other animal or species for this special treatment? Why Sapiens? Pure chance??
Worse, Harari prefers to peg the evolution of one of mankind’s most refined traits (language) down to the basest instincts - mere survival-related information exchange and gossip.
Incredibly he writes about gossip: “It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose.” - The Tree of Knowledge, Sapiens
On the contrary, aren't our conversations a tad more eclectic than gossip!? Don’t we chatter about individual and collective health, well-being? Aren’t we consulting, sharing hard-won lessons, building collective wisdom? Offering comfort, reassurance, best wishes, praise, thanks, reward? Asking for help? Witness our bewilderingly diverse expressions to cajole, convince, charm: speeches, letters, debates, poems, limericks, plays, short stories, novels, novellas, songs and the like.
Harari ridicules man’s evolved dexterity with an astonishing: “Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter gatherer.” - History and Biology, Sapiens
Had it not been remarkable would we have gaped at the dexterity of men, women, children setting landmarks? Not just with a Rubik's cube but across sectors. Landmarks of scale, of technique? In carving, sculpture, fishing, architecture, agriculture, glass-making, watch-making, surgery, cosmetics, plumbing, welding, electronics, mining, painting, stitching, weaving, virtuosic mastery over musical instruments, engraving entire tomes on a grain of rice and so on. Setting landmarks, even when maimed or disabled!
Much of man's routine is outward-looking. His gaze at the stars is more puzzling than predatory. His curiosity about the oceans and mountains is more awe than avarice. His wonder at the plant and animal world is often just that - wonder.
In a confounding chapter in Sapiens titled A day in the life of Adam and Eve Harari talks glowingly of commune or polygamous living, “Since no man knew definitively which of the children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters. Such a social structure is not an Aquarian utopia.” How does he know if it was "equal" concern?
Harari isn't exactly covering new ground when he, rightly, flags the myth of superiority (rather than difference) imposed by evils such as elitism, feudalism, traditionalism (anointed clergy lording over hapless laity), sexism, racism, casteism. But he extrapolates myth-building to breaking point.
In a sweepingly presumptuous chapter An Imagined Order Harari likens the myth-logic of the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi of c. 1776 BC, to the American Declaration of Independence of AD 1776. He dismisses centuries of mankind's learning from, of and by mankind. He rubbishes hard-won contemporary tenets of equality and human rights enshrined in the Declaration, as myth-creating, myth-sustaining strategy. By likening them to the whim of Babylonian king Hammurabi, enshrined in the Hammurabi Code.
Harari is being disingenuous.
Faulty implementation of a principle isn't faulty principle. Flawed execution of a concept isn't flawed concept. Our execution is, usually, imperfect. And human. Our lived experience is the sum of our learning (or the lack of it), our growth (or the lack of it).
Falling short isn't failure; a refusal to keep trying, is.
Harari's conclusion, from lingering or growing inequality and cruelty is that Thomas Jefferson's precepts are as pathetic as Hammurabi's. Only, the former is better dressed.
Disappointingly and perversely, Harari uses every opportunity to belittle man, to build a fiction of a peace-loving, prosperous animal-plant world that, had it not been for us wretched humans, would have enjoyed nothing short of paradise on earth.
Harari's at his best when, on rare occasions, he doesn't deviate from proven history, anthropology. He summarizes better than most. If only he wasn't as whimsical with everything else. It is his frequently cavalier inferences from our still-hazy past, that make his insights about our chaotic-complex present, and his predictions about our still hazier future, doubly suspect.
As Harari warns “fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting”. In his non-fiction so far, Harari's fiction is, alarmingly, the former.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.