Frankenstein on the shoulders of Gilgamesh – Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”
In the academic discipline of “Big History,” historians and thinkers attempt to draw the grand lines of human history. And it’s no wonder that Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” has become many people’s first encounter with this discipline. He writes in an easily readable style with a lot of humour – and his arguments strike a fine balance between moments of insight and controversial claims.
When discussing 70,000 years of human development, it’s only natural that broad strokes are used. Harari identifies three major shifts in our history: the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific revolutions – each of these creating the conditions for the subsequent one,with the cognitive revolution therefor being the most crucial.
Harari’s main point is that the cognitive revolution didn’t bring us closer to the truth – on the contrary, we developed a unique ability to firmly believe in completely fictional concepts. He avoids the controversial term “social constructs”, instead discussing them as imagined realities. Human development over millennia has been guided by our belief in elaborate fabrications with little connection to our physical reality: religion, money, nation-states, human rights, to name just a few.
However, along the way, I find a number of Harari’s arguments rather questionable: He describes humanism as based on an inexplicable belief that humans are something special. Where I would argue that humanism is simply an extension of early humans’ tribal concept: As we got to know foreign tribes and cultures, it made sense to see all humans as members of the same community. But – Harari is also very concerned about animal welfare and doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of our brutal treatment of agricultural animals. And yes – hunter-gatherer cultures see themselves on par with animals – not above them – but Harari has just described how this idea of equality disappeared (had to disappear) when we started keeping livestock. On the other hand, his angle on Nazism as “evolutionary humanism” is as convincing as it is unexpected.
In the section on mental constructions, Harari also refuses to distinguish between religions and (political) ideologies. I don’t find that quite as insightful. Yes – both are “imagined realities,” but I personally believe that belief in or absence of a concept of God makes the two phenomena very different. One of Harari’s arguments is that Buddhism has a very weak concept of God – but for that reason among others, it should perhaps be regarded as a philosophy rather than an actual religion, shouldn’t it?
An interesting section discusses whether the progress of humanity has overall made us happier. And in the best philosophical manner, Harari begins with thorough considerations of what happiness actually is – whether it’s measurable – and even if it is, how do you measure the happiness of people long dead? In a time marked by great consensus on the blessings of technological progress, it’s almost a pleasure to see Harari conclude: No – we probably haven’t become much happier.
As is well known, it’s difficult to predict the future, but Harari manages to navigate it relatively unscathed – with a couple of strange exceptions:
In his review of the impressive triumphs of medical science, he refers to “the Gilgamesh project” (after the Mesopotamian legendary king who tried to overcome death). He claims that today’s researchers across the board see it as their most important task to make humans immortal. I think I know quite a few medical professionals who would wonder about that claim. They, like others, have more important and down-to-earth tasks to solve before getting tangled up in idealist fantasies.
His considerations about computer technology are also quite incisive: If human brains ever become capable of directly communicating with computers – and thereby with each other – we’re not at all able to imagine what it would mean for human consciousness.
But unfortunately, he falls headfirst for the most idiotic delusion ever to come out of Silicon Valley: The Singularity. The idea that one can digitally emulate human consciousness and “upload oneself” to a computer. In an earlier section, Harari has a keen eye for the absurdity of the dualistic idea that one can sharply distinguish between mind and body. So why doesn’t he grasp that the Singularity is a hyper-dualistic monstrosity – hatched by over-intellectualizing nerds without bodily awareness? When mad scientists talk about transplanting a person’s head onto another person’s body, we recoil in disgust at the thought of the horror of living with a stranger’s biology. But in the holy name of information technology, we’re supposed to uncritically swallow the idea that one’s “mind” (read: biochemical processes in a physical organ) can continue undisturbed in chips and hard drives on a piece of technology completely deprived of a body. Dear reader: If anyone should happen to upload me to the cloud, promise me to switch “me” off immediately, for that must be the closest thing to hell I can imagine.
That being said, Harari himself admits that many of his statements are deliberately controversial – and if I’m going to read “big history,” I’d rather be provoked by slightly too clever propositions than read through pointles pages of polite banalities.
Taking Harari with a grain of salt, “Sapiens” can be used to put a long and thoughtful perspective on the fundamentally unique everyday life of modern humans.