I came late to the Sapiens party. Published in 2015 by Yuval Noah Harari, this work, subtitled A Brief History of Humankind, is massive in scope and ambition. He traces our species from our differentiation from ancestral primates up until today, all in just over 400 pages. His theories and observations were interesting, bold, over-generalized and certainly prone to exaggeration.
What I loved most was the quality of his story-telling, which moved me along and made me want to buy everything he was selling. And this despite the fact that I find his worldview impoverished. Harari espouses an extreme materialism, and he pushes that view to its logical ends. If he can’t find a biological explanation for something, he labels it imaginary or worse. Not all imagined things are “unreal” in his eyes; he argues for the power and productivity of artificial systems such as money and the modern state. Most of the force of his work is his unleashing of raw materialism to declare every ideology and religion as fiction parading as truth. As he states on page 28, “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 seems to position himself as unassailable in his critiques, taking refuge in the fact that if you can’t prove your ideology (such as human rights or Islam) with raw physical science, you have nothing to stand on. Given the confidence of his stance and the swoon of the book’s reception, I think a detailed rebuttal of materialism would be an excellent response to Sapiens. But I’m currently more interested in noticing where his worldview leads, and where it starts to break down.
The one that stood out to me the most was his ambiguity on the moral value of life. On the one hand, in chapter three Harari devotes pages to presenting the dynamic life of pre-agricultural humans. He extols their varied diet, their supple bodies, and their high-quality relationships. Naming this chapter, “A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve,” he paints these early humans as living in the Garden. As he puts it, “on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps” (49,50).
It’s disconcerting to then arrive at his description of how these foragers almost certainly practiced the brutal killing of unwanted or deformed children, invalids, and the elderly. Harari cautions the reader from jumping to judgment of these practices, since these humans also were friendly, gregarious, and egalitarian. The logic is that a human lives and suffering should not outweigh the delightful life that most otherwise lived.
On the other hand, Harari seems to be highly disturbed about modern agricultural abuse of animals for human consumption. He complains that “farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines” (342) in the midst of pages of detail about these practices. In fact, in his afterword which sums up the heart of his thoughts about Homo sapiens, he laments that we are “self-made gods…accountable to no one…wreaking havoc on our fellow animals” (416).
So, is life to be valued or not? If yes, which life? Harari postures throughout the volume as if the answer is obviously no, with a devastating casualness, and yet he gets worked up over chickens and rebukes us that we “are seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction” (416). If biology is all there is, if evolution is the master of meaning, where is the authority for such rebuke grounded?
It’s all arbitrary; there is no authority. Why should Harari’s voice have power to set the agenda, if no authority can exist? And this I think is the point that has been rattling in my mind since I finished the book. Many people of the materialist worldview turn up their noses at the idea of authority, especially a metaphysical authority, all-encompassing authority. Yet they are not shy about exerting some themselves.
I don’t want to throw stones. After all, none of us perfectly inhabit our worldviews. I just want to invite us to ponder why and how it is that right and wrong feel so intrinsically real, how they can break through even at the seams of an ideology designed to shut them out. Is it inescapable because it exists? I think so. And because it does, we will grab at authority over it for ourselves with both hands, even as we put others off the trail. God help us all.