A Not So Brief History of Humankind
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.”
It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. … The universe is all that therever is and ever was and ever shall be. Carl Sagan
I remember waking up on December 20, 1996 and reading in the paper that Carl Sagan had died. I felt sorry for him but I thought, “Well – — – – he knows now.”
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is not so brief in one way – human beings of the genus Homo have existed for 2.4 million years according to him. He says that the surviving species to which humans now belong – Homo sapiens – have been around for only 150,000 years. He says that 100,000 years ago at least six species of humans inhabited our planet.
Harari has little evidence other than one finger bone to back up his claims. About how the brain evolved to its massive size he says, “Frankly, we don’t know.” (p. 10) About how communication appeared he says, “We’re not sure.” (p. 23) Maybe it was a matter of “pure chance.” (p. 24) More mere guesses appear on pages 69, 71, (“archaeologists have yet to unearth the evidence”), and many more places. Harari has only 14 pages of footnotes compared to Peter Frankopan’s 115 pages of footnotes. It isn’t only Harari’s antipathy to religion that leads to difficulties for me with his book, but his carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism. I’ll take Dr. Frankopan’s history.
In spite of that those negatives, there were some interesting thoughts to chew on:
- His treatment of “Imagined orders” reminded me of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities”. Anderson’s communities were ‘imagined’ but that did not mean that they weren’t real. The ‘imagined’ part was the image that people had of their nation in their minds.
Harari’s imagined orders “exist only in our minds.” (p. 127) In Harari’s imagined order the people are kept in line by never admitting that the order is imagined. They are educated into believing in a shared myth. The myths shape our desires, and in our culture today we have been shaped into consumerists. (Vincent Miller, Ross Douthat, and William Cavanaugh come to mind here.) We can’t help our desires. Harari is rather pessimistic. Even if a renegade broke out of the imagined order, she would only find “the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” (p. 133)
- I found myself in agreement with Harari that there are many more religions today than just the traditional ones. We are largely living in an increasingly secular culture and people are just as fervent in their faith in liberalism, Communism, capitalism, and nationalism as they are in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. One key idea is that in all religions an “us vs. them” idea develops. Hitler was especially effective in using that to promote his religion – Nazism.
- In light of our recent trip to South Africa I found his comments on ‘hierarchy’ to be apropos. Imagined orders divide “people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy.” (p. 149) Hierarchies are established by those in power. Whites enjoy liberty that they deny to Blacks and Native Americans. Men benefit from power over women whom they leave disempowered. Many rich obtain their wealth from the poor who have little power.
Reflecting on this as a Christian, I have to say that the Church should be ashamed that she used the Bible to justify the claim that slavery of blacks is natural and correct.
Harari notes that women today have more freedom than in the past. He demonstrates that patriarchy cannot be based on ‘unfounded myths’ rather than biological facts. So, “what accounts for the universality and stability of this system (patriarchy)?” (p. 178) I’d like to know that answer to that myself.
- In his section on “The Capitalist Hell” Harari gives a caricature of a greedy shoemaker. Harari assumes that all owners of businesses will mistreat their employees. We discussed market systems (Max Weber, Karl Polanyi) and I still believe that if a society was truly run on Christian principles, employees would get a fair deal.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and technology the “pie” is getting bigger and there is more to share. If Christians lived with the principle of servanthood, the poor would get a fair share.
- Harari spent a lot of time talking about happiness. But should happiness be the goal of life? Here again, something said in South Africa comes to mind. When we were on the bus going to Guguletho Deon encouraged us to wave at the people we passed. Someone said, “They look happy.” Deon said, “But they would not want you to ask if they are happy. They would want you to ask if they are well.”
Finally, Harari gets around to considering the future. He talks about the return of the Neanderthals. He says that life as we know it may be replaced by bioengineered humans, and “amortal” (not immortal) cyborgs. Perhaps there will be inorganic “life”. We just await a singularity like the Big Bang. Perhaps a new Dr. Frankenstein will create something superior to us. (p. 462)
So we have come full circle to Harari’s bleak idea about human life. If life is indeed just a trip through some alternate realities ending in annihilation, then what is the meaning of it all?
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said, “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Job 38:1-4
 Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London, UK: Vintage Books, 2011). 123.
 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, NY: Verso Books).
 In one of my undergrad classes I wrote a paper on Mary Shelley’s book. I took “abiogenesis” as my topic. I knew better than to quote from the Bible to my secular professor. I went to the library and got books by atheist scientists. The honest ones admit that no one has ever produced life out of non-life. Neither can they explain where the material came from for the Big Bang. They don’t know how order came from chaos. They can’t explain nuclear binding force.
5 responses to “A Not So Brief History of Humankind”
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Mary, thank you for your very thought-provoking post. I so resonated with your closing statement: “So we have come full circle to Harari’s bleak idea about human life. If life is indeed just a trip through some alternate realities ending in annihilation, then what is the meaning of it all?” Without God, life can be so bleak, meaningless, and purposeless. Through this reading, I really was able to imagine the hopelessness people must feel to not see themselves created in the image of God. I agree Havari is pessimistic, like one who actually believes what he writes! I would feel pretty low with his belief system too.
“Harari is rather pessimistic”– an understatement!
Mary, Thanks for your openness and honesty about your responses to this book, I really appreciate it.
At a few points you critique Harari specifically and more broadly a lot of the scientific community and their assertions.
At one point you highlight several areas where Harari lacks ‘proof’ and/or admits to not knowing things.
This is, of course a legitimate critique. At the same time, I want to highlight the value and importance of acknowledging when you don’t know why/how something is the way it is or how it happened.
This is a critical element of the scientific process…. you can make a hypothesis, but then you have to ‘test’ and ‘prove’ it.
The scientific process operates in a constant state of needing to be convinced, relies on things that are tangibly provable and lives in a posture of constant questioning. (this is why many things that we all ‘know’ and accept are still called ‘theories’ even when they have become the accepted explanation for something.
My point? That maybe all of us Christians could use a little humility and might benefit from a posture of questioning. Obviously, I am not talking about the absolute foundations of faith – Salvation through Jesus Christ, etc….
But all of us have likely heard people give as an explanation for some belief or behavior that ‘The Bible says’….. when usually it isn’t nearly so clear and the individual books of the Bible may have slightly (or even greatly) varied views on said issue.
As I have gotten older, I am more and more wary of people that seem to have absolutely no doubt about any of their beliefs and are completely convinced that they have everything figured out.
We are called to ‘continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12)
To me, that means, at least in part, continuing to question what exactly we believe and why & also approaching those that disagree with us with humility.
Thanks again for the post
I appreciate your critique of Harari’s work, Mary. The more I read, the more I got the feeling that Harari doesn’t necessarily believe what he has written, but is instead putting alternative theories out there for humans to pick apart, discuss, and chew on in ways we seldom do anymore. I rather admired that he took this on, even though I found little that I could agree with or really accept.
One thing I feel pretty strongly that we must be careful of as Christians, is painting biology or evolution with too broad a brush. I am an evolutionary creationist. I believe that science (biology and otherwise) has given us enough proof that there has been an evolutionary process that has occurred throughout the ages. I do believe that the earth was created by God through this process. I do not believe that it happened in 7 days. The biblical creation story is, in my understanding, a beautiful saga proposed by the Jews as an alternative to the Babylonian saga. It was never intended as science or history, but as poetry that informs humanity of the character of God. Biology and other sciences tell us now that certain things happened in certain orders over certain timeframes. Some people choose to believe this information eliminates God as creator. I do not. I suppose another way of looking at it is to say that the Jewish exiles were doing for the people what Harari is kind of attempting with Sapiens – saying “What if it is not how you always believed?”
I love your take on this. It is a challenge to balance the creation with evolution but we can find some common ground.