Sapiens: A Review


Dear friends,

Yuval Harari has become a famous and influential thinker. His book Sapiens was praised by Barak Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among others. Many continue to read it. This week, I take a look at this brilliant and dangerous history of humanity.

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Yours with gratitude,


Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) is written as a wakeup call to human thoughtlessness in the form of an entrancing description of 70,000 years of human history. Harari is convinced that the “history of humankind” is packed with interesting and important stories that will shape – and also potentially lead to the annihilation of– our species’ mind-bending future. Harari’s book, then, serves as an example of the kind of rigorous thinking that he believes is urgently necessary: thinking that makes sense of the past, asks challenging questions of the present, and faces the future with clarity, creativity, and courage.

And to this reader, he massively succeeds – and woefully fails – in his task.

First, Harari’s command of the English language is extremely impressive. He writes with engrossing turns of phrase and artistry. Second, he is a master storyteller with a seemingly effortless knack for weaving together reconstructions of ancient times with modern and future developments, traditional dates-and-names with big philosophical and religious questions and ideas. Nearly every page of this 466-page book has a quotable passage, counter-intuitive insight, or thought-provoking question that simultaneously makes the reader want to stop-and-think and race onward to see where the story goes.

According to Harari, some 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens – us – were just one human species among many, hunting and gathering in small bands of intimate community. He calls humans “an animal of no significance.” Our unique history was thenceforth driven by at least three novel engines.

First, what he calls the Cognitive Revolution is the development of intelligent, adaptive consciousness through the accident of our enlarged brains and language, which enabled us to tell massive stories and make up religious myths. These ideologies enabled cooperation between larger and larger groups of strangers. Even if two sapiens never met before, if they both worshiped the same gods and imagined the world through the same story, they were more likely to work together and reproduce, rather than separating or fighting.

Thus, second, the Cognitive Revolution laid the foundations for empire. As sapiens told larger stories and more strangers started to cooperate with one another, it became possible for massive political power to accumulate and expand to dominate more and more peoples and places. Humans started settling down in fixed kingdoms, unleashed the Agricultural Revolution, and lived in increasingly stratified and politically complex (and destructive) states. This resulted in our increasingly inter-connected world. (Harari sees complex unity as the “direction” of history.)

Third, the empires that emerged out of the Cognitive Revolution and fed themselves through the Agricultural Revolution simultaneously needed and fueled more wealth. Harari tells captivating and brutal stories of discovery, conquest, and invention, which weave together the story of the Industrial Revolution, new technology, and the triumph of capitalism. Harari sees capitalism as a novel economic philosophy driven by trust in the future and the reinvestment of profit for the sake of ever-increasing wealth, knowledge, and power.

The final sections of Sapiens are stuffed with massive questions for the present and provocative forecasts of the future. For example, Harari asks, “What happens to concepts such as the self and gender identity when minds become collective? How could you know thyself or follow your dream if the dream is not in your mind but in some collective reservoir of aspirations?” (457).

Having begun with the claim that sapiens started off as one human species among others, Harari cautiously but audaciously projects that humans will use our exponentially increasing technological powers to become “gods.” (This is the topic of his next book Homo Deus.) These “gods” will “intelligently design” new kinds of beings through biological, genetic, and digital engineering, which will “change Homo sapiens itself” (461) and very plausibly enslave or annihilate us, like we did the Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Harari writes, “the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very tern ‘human’ into question” (463).

In short, then, Harari’s “brief history of humankind” is a big story about the human drive for story (myth/religion), power (empire/politics), and money (capitalism/economics), and thus the questions that we must address today facing the future as an increasingly interconnected planetary species with increasingly godlike technological powers that may eventually spell our end. The final pages of Sapiens ominously and thrillingly entertain a post-human future.

What I find most interesting and worthy of thought in response to Sapiens is Harari’s emphatically grim assumptions about humanity based on his materialistic nihilism.

First, Harari argues that we exist today because we annihilated competitor human species who once co-existed with us on planet Earth. The bedrock of human existence as we know it is the violent domination and obliteration of others. Colonization and killing are our original specialty, which we have been doing since the beginning of our species-centric struggle. “Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature” (218).

Second, Harari assumes that nothing is real other than what is physically observable (283). Interestingly, he does not feel the need to argue for this materialism but simply assumes that it is obvious – a telling indication of our times and its philosophical climate.

Thus, third, Harari is a nihilist, in the precise sense that he assumes that God, values, and ethical orders are nothing more than the imaginative fictions of human brains, who in large part use these fictions to dominate others and capture material advantages for themselves. There is no God, no creation, and no purpose to the world. It’s not that Harari finds these debatable or implausible; he assumes they’re phony. Thus, Harari is crystal clear and names his first chapter “An Animal of No Significance.” Humans have no intrinsic value; they were not created but evolved randomly without any “moral arc” to the universe as Dr. King insisted. (Strangely, this ambitious book never touches the arch-question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) To repeat, we evolved, killed off our competitors, and invented the ability to tell imaginary stories, which enabled us to talk, cooperate with strangers, and kill others. Everything else is made up and unreal, including our stories about why “we” “matter.” Thus, Harari deconstructs the Declaration of Independence as bogus mythology: humans haven’t been “created,” they don’t have “unalienable rights,” and “liberty” is an illusion.

Fourth, then, Harari’s philosophy of history is explicitly hopeless. His eighth chapter is named “There Is No Justice in History.” This is one of the longer chapters in the book, which explores the history of hierarchy, racism, slavery, colonization, sexism, and other forms of violence. He writes with blunt frankness, “from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural… In truth, our concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of God who created nature’… But evolution has no purpose” (164-165).

While Harari’s book is not entirely heartless and even reveals moments of melancholy, he assumes there is no justice in history and that it is a Christian hangover even to talk seriously about “good” and “evil,” since these are imaginary concepts that don’t exist in reality. We may not like the transatlantic slave trade, which brutalized the lives of 10 million people. But that doesn’t mean that it was “wrong.” For Harari, it simply was. And just like the species Homo sapiens was able to survive and/or kill off other species, certain groups of modern humans managed to colonize, enslave, and annihilate other humans, just like future (post-biological) species may likely do the same to us. For Harari, this isn’t damnable; it’s data – and nothing more. History is unjust and hopeless.

Thus, fifth, when Harari talks about the present and future and the “ethical quandaries” they confront us with, it is hard to know what he is talking about and with what resources. Based on his assumptions – the originality of violence, materialism, nihilism, and hopelessness – there are no ethical quandaries whatsoever. Instead, whatever happens to humanity literally doesn’t matter, because once it’s over, it will be nothing and mean nothing to no one (at least no one who cares). In many ways, Harari’s history marches toward ethical interrogations that momentarily float in the air but immediately fall to pieces once we stop and think. His book so entirely guts ethics that it’s hard to hear Harari’s ruminations and warnings as more than the gibberish of a hung-over Christian, meriting Nietzsche’s mockery. That is, Harari spends most of his book assuming or arguing that ethics is imaginary and unreal but then concludes by asking us to care about it, which strikes this reader as tragically self-defeating.

By the end, Harari has no “ethical” resources left, other than the negotiation and manipulation – often domination – of clashing preferences and interests. The outcomes are ultimately all the same, equally valueless, and laden with suffering.

Overall, Harari’s Sapiens is a wakeup call ringing with wonder and alarm. He wants us to think more, harder, and better about ourselves, our past, and our future. But the irony of his brilliant book is that he seemingly destroys the grounds for his own project.

Ultimately, what we say, do, and become doesn’t matter. There is nothing at stake. There is nothing to celebrate or mourn, nothing to have faith in or fear other than ourselves. All that remains is the brute struggle for survival, which we can willfully abandon (suicide), fight to the end (sapienism), or upgrade by becoming trans-human “gods.” In the beginning, we killed off the others. In our end, others may kill us off – or, we may re-engineer ourselves and dominate an earth (and other planets) marked by the greatest inequality and cruelty in history.

If we accept Harari’s materialistic nihilism, I believe his basic principles are undeniable and undefeatable: (1) our existence is founded in violence; (2) nothing is real but what we can physically observe; (3) nothing is intrinsically valuable, and all “transcendent” values are made up; (4) human history is hopeless; and (5) we are left facing the most consequential questions and decisions of our history with no ethical resources or, more likely, “ethics” as just another disguised and dishonest form of domination.

It is striking that Harari’s nihilistic and ultimately hopeless account of humanity – past, present, and future – has become such a blockbuster success. Over five years after its publication (in English), it is still #118 on Amazon’s bestseller list. President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates have all recommended it. What does this say about our time and the status of the human condition?

In one of the most provocative moments in his Sapiens, Harari reports, “Out of 57 million dead [in 2002], only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died in violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide. It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier, or a drug dealer” (411). In the face of techno-scientific breakthroughs that could make science fiction look unimaginative and humans live indefinitely, Harari melancholically confesses, “humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction” (466)

Irresponsibility, loneliness, destruction, dissatisfaction – that’s Harari’s final word about the state of the human condition today, an evaluation with which some of our most powerful world leaders apparently resonate.

The questions that I am left with include the following.

First, can sapiens overcome Harari’s materialistic nihilism by rediscovering a robust Creator theology that is able to make sense of the best (and worst) of contemporary physics, biology, history, political science, economics, philosophy, and the other disciplines? Is it possible to maintain faith in a good Creator if human history from its very beginning is as violent as Harari argues? Why might a good God create a world so vulnerable to violence, which apparently preceded sapiens’ intervention and thus can’t be blamed on sapiens’s wrongdoing?

Second, is it possible to rediscover – not reinvent – the ethical sources that can help us confront our crisis of hopelessness, irresponsibility, and suicidal quest for a godless future driven by power devoid of value? If we don’t, why should we care about the devastation of the planet, its species, and our own lives, doubtful as we are that it is good to exist? Here I think the Christian ethics of neighbor-love is especially powerful. Hear Dr. King: “Love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation… More than ever before, people of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly. The call for a worldwide good-neighbor policy is the call to a way of life that will transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”

Third, Harari’s book adds weight to the argument of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche: life without God inevitably leads to nihilism. (1) If there is no Creator, then (2) material reality has no intrinsic value and (3) the only “values” that “exist” are the ones that we project and impose onto reality. But (4) our value projections/impositions are in conflict with those of others, and thus (5) what makes life worth living – its value – is ultimately an endless tribal war of each with all. Thus, (6) our history is a struggle for survival at any price or what Bonhoeffer called “the murderous law of never-ending beginnings.” Whether or not God exists, Harari’s Sapiens is a sobering tour de force indicating that life without God is inevitably nihilistic, ultimately violent, and devastatingly unworthy of love.

Harari’s Sapiens raises important questions that are worth wrestling with: How shall we speak of God in the face of evolutionary violence? Why is human life valuable and worthy of love? Can we begin again with new hope for the future?

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