Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’ – a depressing view of our Humanity

by Sarah Allen

It was at a party that a friend told me that I should read Sapiens. It explains loads of things, he said, describing how Islamic fundamentalism just comes out of the need for a big story, and implying that he thought it explained away my faith, too.

sapiens PB9781784703936
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli Historian, and its sequel, Homo Deus, have sold well and spread widely.  Published in 2014 and 2016 respectively, at the time of writing they are still at numbers 2 and 6 of Waterstones non-fiction bestsellers chart, and, despite their door-stop size (each just under 500 pages), both have been commended by plenty of famous names, from Barack Obama to Chris Evans. These are popular books which make provocative and significant claims about what it is to be human and how the world works. Christians, take note.

Subtitled ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, Sapiens takes the reader on a breakneck tour of human development, starting at pre-history and ending today.   His writing is as conversational and expansive as his subject, full of opinion and engaging, detailed stories as well as a few facts.  Like many other historians Harari identifies key leaps in progress which changed the course of human history: the movement of early man out of Africa; the discovery of fire; the beginnings of agriculture; the development of written language.  As an atheist he has no sense of why these changes happened.  Big leaps just happen, he seems to say.  Discoveries are made, new skills learned.  But if the why is absent, the how at times is tendentious.

Claiming ‘wheat domesticated us’ as he describes the birth of agriculture, Harari presents an idyllic foraging lifestyle disrupted by the burden of production.  But this gloomy depiction is of a precarious monoculture,  a society depending just on wheat and hard work.   But was that the way farming emerged, was there not a variety of crops and hunting practiced alongside?  And how does he know what life really was like for hunter-gatherers anyway?  Perhaps he is guilty of anthropological romanticism here, as scant archaeological evidence is used to prop up a belief that the primitive is somehow purer than the developed. Worse still is his strange claim that prior to about the fourteenth century AD people didn’t look for knowledge for its own sake – what about Pliny or Archimedes or Galen?  Or again, that prior to the enlightenment writers weren’t interested in feelings – what of Sophocles or Shakespeare or Chaucer?   Whilst cultural shifts in attitude did happen at these times which changed western ways of thinking significantly, Harari is laughably wrong to think in such black and white categories; history is being warped to suit his big ideas.

And what are his big ideas?  Well, they are nothing particularly new (if you have studied humanities or social science in the last thirty years, you’ll think this old hat), but perhaps expressed in a more daring and accessible form than before.  Harari’s confidence in atheistic evolution leads him to conclude that we are no different from any other animal.  No God, no soul, the material is all.  But at the same time, he identifies in us a capacity which sets us apart from other life-forms, saying ‘sapiens could invent socio-political codes that went far beyond the dictates of our DNA and the behaviour patterns of other human and animal species’.  Ironically, he is saying that it is our very capacity to think beyond the material that sets us apart.  The use of language, money, law, nationhood and religion are all examples of these codes, and for Harari they are all convenient fictions.

Although convenient, Harari doesn’t find these myths benign.  They allow humans to progress and cooperate, he says, but they often result in oppression and exploitation.  He picks apart capitalism and Babylonian law, nationalism and individualism (amongst other -isms) deftly, and his observations are at times spot on.  The American declaration of independence which states, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” rests upon a Christian framework which he finds redundant, truthfully acknowledging, “there are no such things as rights in biology” (123).   Humanism is just another myth he suggests, a type of religion, and so he concludes that his beloved liberalism rests on a lie.  Tellingly he admits: ‘There is no way out of the imagined order.  When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious yard of a bigger prison’.   And yet, Harari cannot follow this nihilism through.  He expresses sympathy for human suffering (and even more for animal suffering) and wants to expose untruth, but if meaning is all fabrication, why bother?

Homo Deus, subtitled A Brief History of Tomorrow, repeats many of the ideas in Sapiens and then uses them to predict the future.  Picking up his argument that ‘human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses rather than free will’ (p263 Sapiens) he neatly and controversially summarises it – we are just algorithms, just a set of rules like a computer program.  Take a pill that increases serotonin level and you feel happy, stimulate certain areas of the brain and you will be calm.   Use an internet search engine and very quickly choices will be presented to you through an algorithim, predicting your preferences and subtly steering you to buy, or believe, or vote.

In this way the division in Harari’s world between what is human and what is not begins to look scarily blurred: robotic limbs and brain implants are just the beginning.   As technology develops, so ways of improving the human condition grow – we can be mini-gods, happy all the time, near-immortal and very powerful.  Life looks as though it is about to get a lot better.  But, says Harari we should be scared of what is round the corner.  A tiny elite which controls technology and so enslaves the rest of us?  Or a non-human super brain – the collection of all knowledge, an internet of all things?  Common to both of these, and in an echo of his argument in Sapiens, is the absence of free will.  Both options sound like science-fiction but are more technologically possible than we realise.   Having depicted these dystopias and argued for a reductive, determinist vision of life, Harari’s ending is abrupt and unexpected.  He asks us to decide the questions: What is life? What is valuable?  What is going to happen to society?  Amazingly (and illogically?), he encourages us to opt out of his conclusions, and choose a different future.

Depressing though these books often are, they do present a great opportunity for debate.  Harari asks at the end of Sapiens, speaking of humanity, “is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want” (Sapiens, 466).  When we make ourselves gods, as happened in Eden, framing for ourselves what is truth and goodness, danger ensues.  Christians know that already.   Harari’s rejection of meaning offers no hope for this chaos, but unintentionally points us in the right direction.   We humans desperately need meaning because we are cooperating and communicating persons made in the image of the personal three-in-one God.   We need to know that our values of love and justice and our feelings of pain and compassion are not part of a lifeless algorithm, or a convenient myth, but have significance beyond our brain chemistry.   We need a story, not a fabricated one, but a history, a true story, to make sense of our lives.  And wonderfully the gospel gives us a story that spans past and future as it takes us to the true sapiens, the true homo deus, Jesus Christ.