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.