Neither Wise nor God-like: the Inglorious Story of Mankind

Among the many voices offering to interpret world affairs as they stumble from bad to worse is that of Yuval Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On such things as climate change, Covid-19, the invasion of Ukraine, he gives his thoughts in the press, in interviews, at international conferences, through his own online platforms, and even by means of a limited company called Sapienship. He seems less like an individual academic, more a sort of international enterprise, and in fact he is an enterprise of sorts, or at least a team – which is the word he frequently uses for the group of people that manages him and his works. No wonder, then, that the modest few lines of acknowledgements that went with his first foray into popular history, Sapiens: a Brief History of Mankind (originally published in Hebrew in 2011, English edition 2015) had expanded to a fulsome two pages by the time of Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (English edition 2016).

It’s on the very great success of those two books, with help from a more recent collection of essays titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (“a thrilling journey through today’s most urgent issues”, says the publisher), that Harari’s celebrity is founded. Sapiens and Homo Deus are large and ambitious works, covering the past, present, and future of our species in about 450 pages each. The first of them shows how Homo sapiens broke away from the other human species, and from fellow-animals at large, and came to dominate the world. Our crucial advantage, Harari argues, was co-operation: not merely of the herd or tribal type already practised by other species, but on a huge pyramid-building or Manhatten-project scale. This sort of co-operation was made possible by language, and made effective by shared myths or “stories” (a favourite word of Harari’s), which have been able to bind even far-distant strangers together into collaborative or at least compatible effort: not just ideological stories like Christianity or liberalism, but social constructs like states, corporations, and above all money. The second book, Homo Deus, follows the species into the future, where he makes a try at divinity and immortality (I say ‘he’ because, as world-subjugator, sapiens feels like a ‘he’, though Harari writes ‘she’), but then comes up against a new and less vulnerable contender for supremacy: artificial intelligence.

Sapiens cover

These are not celebrations of Home sapiens. In fact both titles come to feel bitterly ironic as the narratives progress. The species appears at its modest best in the conditions provided for it by nature, as hunter-gatherer tribes. The agricultural revolution, which turned humans into stationary owners of land and animals, is seen by Harari as a disaster, not just for the animals (of whose part in it, more later) but for the humans too. The chapter that recounts it is titled ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’, and Harari derives from it one of his major generalisations, characteristically illustrating it not just with the invention of farming but also with the coming of e-mail: “Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.”

For although humans in some sense invented history when they used their large brains to emancipate themselves from mere biology, they have always been more its victims than its managers. Harari shows (though he doesn’t expressly say) that the term ‘sapiens’, coined for us in the eighteenth century by the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, is a laughable misnomer. A much more accurate word would be ‘habilis’ (clever, dexterous), except that it’s now unavailable, having been appropriated for one of the extinct or conjectural Homo species. As for Homo deus, into which sapiens may hope to transform himself, Harari foresees that human god-likeness would almost certainly be an accomplishment within reach of an elite only, a matter of “upgrading a handful of superhumans” (and we can guess the sort of people they’d be). But anyway, the project will become irrelevant, because the “tremendous religious revolution” already now taking place is set to apotheosize not man but the data handled by artificial intelligence (the final chapter of this second book is titled ‘The Data Religion’). “Once this mission is accomplished,” suggests Harari, Homo sapiens will vanish.”

Homo Deus cover

Neither wise nor god-like, then, and of course the delinquencies and blunders of sapiens have been most steadily and consistently felt by his fellow-animals. Early on in Homo Deus, Harari says “Some readers may wonder why animals receive so much attention in a book about the future.” His answer, a slightly disingenuous one, is that our relations with the other animals “is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.” Disingenuous because it’s very clear that he minds what’s happened to the animals not so much as a caution to our self-interest, but rather as a terrible wrong in itself, and he minds that wrong a lot more than he seems to mind “how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans”. That’s partly because his great sweep across human history suggests that subduing and even extirpating this “deadliest species ever in the 4-billion-year history of life on earth” would be quite a planet-friendly and well-justified next step, whomever it’s taken by. More obviously, the wrong to animals has really happened and shows no signs of abatement.

In both the books, Harari devotes many pages to descriptions of the ruthlessness of animal husbandry. It was bad enough in its first days, but even in the early chapters of Sapiens, when we’re still deep in the past, he shows in some detail what it has now come to in the mass cruelties of modern factory farming. By page 425, when we’ve had time to notice how much of human advancement in health, comfort, and mere numbers, has been plundered from the life-potential of these animals, he concludes that “industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” He has by this point reviewed the Spanish destruction of the Inca and Aztec peoples, the slave trade of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the aggressive Europeanization of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, and many other horrors. Recall also that Harari is himself Jewish, and his first audience were Israeli students (Sapiens started life as a lecture series). It is, then, a bold and determined statement to make, and one, incidentally, which he has repeated in at least one recent interview.

Harari does include laboratory animals in this record of exploitation, but he makes no equivalent survey or complaint of their experience. Rather, he uses results from animal research to support a larger theme of the books, that animals have more sentience, more talent, more value than humans have found it convenient to recognise. Thus Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments in maternal deprivation, evidencing the passion of the maternal bond in mammal nature, are accepted as science, and used to condemn the violation of that bond in dairy farming. The swim-test, which puts rats in a tube of water and times their willingness, with and without anti-depressant medication, to struggle in the hope of escape, is reported by Harari as showing that rodents must be supposed to have “human-like emotions”. He does not conclude that in these cases the findings themselves show the experiments should never have been undertaken (though he does call Harlow’s “shockingly cruel”). Reviewing some less intrusive research into the intelligence of pigs, carried out at Pennsylvania State University in the 1990s, he mentions without comment, perhaps even as an entertaining detail, that the pigs were christened Hamlet and Omelette – a patronizing vulgarity which ought surely to be derided. The animals, notably the monkeys, that are being used in the cause of cyborgism (enhancements of human mental and physical powers, a major theme in Homo Deus) go unmentioned.

In short, these books are disappointing on the subject of animal research. (Oddly enough, Harari is also disappointingly equivocal, in his interviews, on the merits of veganism, a subject not touched on at all in either of the books, unless I’ve missed it.) Still, he clearly means to promote animals in human estimation, and these various research instances, showing as they do the quality of non-human animal minds and emotions, cumulatively enforce what Harari says in a late chapter of Sapiens about the pursuit of happiness:

When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.

That, however, is what history – as piloted, or at least fronted, by humans – has consistently done. For of course the special importance and indeed sanctity of sapiens himself is another of those ‘stories’ that he tells. But it seems that the coming of Dataism, even if it never does quite subvert humanity, will not do the other animals any good either. Since, as imagined by Harari, it countenances only whatever can create the data it grows by, then “value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.” Animals cannot do this, and therefore, for instance, “all the experiences of wolves – as deep and complex as they may be – are worthless.”

In fact, those formerly dominant ‘-isms’ – theism, capitalism, humanism – have already gone a long way to make animal experience “worthless”, except in special condescensions (don’t muzzle your ox when he’s treading out the corn, don’t cause ‘unnecessary’ suffering, etc.). And as you’ll have noticed, Harari’s ‘Dataism’, sinister as it sounds, is not an easy thing to envisage, not very convincing or even intelligible (perhaps that’s its secret weapon). But then he doesn’t ask us to believe in it, only to think about it or to worry about whatever else we may think is preparing to supplant us. And supposing we can imagine something worse than sapiens in charge of the world, at least Harari’s account of the human regime makes it just as easy to imagine something a whole lot better.

You’ll feel that these two books don’t say anything new about the plight of animals. Certainly they aren’t works of research or innovative philosophy. (Harari’s academic speciality is, or was, military history; academic reviewers tend to think he should have stuck with what he knows best.) Their novelty consists in shrewd summaries, speculations, and insights. It consists also in their very sombre and corrective version of that familiar theme, what it means or has meant to be human (compare, for instance, the treatments by Steven Pinker and Rutger Bregman, discussed elsewhere in this blog). The first section or sub-chapter of Sapiens is titled ‘An Animal of No Significance’, and the last, almost with a sneer, ‘The Animal that Became a God’. The book’s penultimate sentence summarizes humanity as “wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” So this is human history not just as it affects sapiens himself but as it has been felt by the other animals and by the rest of the planet. We have good reason to want everyone else to read these books, even if we don’t get round to it ourselves.

And the great thing is that everyone else is reading them. Some of the front covers have been introducing their titles as “The million copy bestseller”, but by now that’s patently an underestimate. There can be few mainstream languages into which the books haven’t been translated. Nor is it just low-life readers like me and passengers at airports ingesting them. Interviewers and other promoters like to dazzle us with names of the books’ eminent admirers: Obama, Gates (“I knew it would spark great conversations round the dinner table”, his blog brightly exclaims about Sapiens: I wonder why that’s such a counter-inducement), Zuckerberg, Netanyahu, Macron. This list of names may not prove anything about the books, but it does show their reach. And since they are books which are surely capable of doing some good, we can take satisfaction in their success and in Harari’s rise to international notice.

Notes and references:

Quotations are taken from Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind (Vintage Books, 2015) and Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (Vintage Books, 2017; first edition in Hebrew, 2015). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, advertised as “an exploration of what it means to be human”, is published by Jonathan Cape, 2018. Rather typically, they are now available as a boxed set of three. I should add that all three books are easy and enjoyable to read: one reviewer, rather unkindly, calls them “infotainment”. Interviews with Yuval Harari in the New Yorker, Guardian, and other publications can easily be found online.

This Coward Cruelty: the Activist Art of William Hogarth

As promised in the previous post, here are some comments on William Hogarth’s series of engravings published in 1751 and titled The Four Stages of Cruelty. These pictures have some topicality anyway, because the exhibition Hogarth and Europe is in its last few days of presenting Tate Britain’s “new ways of looking” at the great man’s work.

You might expect those “new ways” to involve relating this most English of artists to his European fellow-practitioners, and something of that sort is indeed attempted, but it’s not the main theme of the show as signposted in the running commentaries. These are much more interested in the contemporary “inequalities around class, race and gender” which can be found illustrated by the pictures, sometimes with evident purpose on Hogarth’s part, more usually without. The continual nagging on these subjects has keenly irritated the exhibition’s reviewers, who have spoken variously of “pious captions”, “sanctimonious wall-texts”, “self-righteous sociological lectures” and “wokeish nonsense”.

Of course there is good reason for reading morals in or even into Hogarth’s art, if rather less for reading politics there. Many of the pictures – and those the best known and most original to Hogarth – are indeed presented as moral tales, told in sequences of images, with their consequentialist morality announced or at least hinted at in their titles: The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, Industry and Idleness. But ruthless as the moral justice is that punishes vice in these paintings, there is much more fecklessness than vice to be seen in them, and more largely a generous and boisterous acceptance of what a near-contemporary critic and biographer of Hogarth, Allan Cunningham, called “the follies and frivolities of the passing scene”. While the central characters are contriving their own personal ruins, there goes on around them a vulgar confusion of human life which Hogarth does not seem particularly indignant about: drinking, petty thieving, snogging, urinating, larking of all kinds.

Only in one of these moral series that Hogarth created, namely The Four Stages of Cruelty, is there something like the strict and concentrated censoriousness that the Tate’s wall-texts are looking for, and ironically enough it’s on a theme in which the Tate commentators seem to have no interest at all. Indeed the series itself is not shown in the exhibition or, as far as I could find, even mentioned. And yet Hogarth himself spoke with unusual earnestness of it, saying that he created the engravings “in the hope of, in some degree, correcting that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind”.

Accordingly,his approach to them had a single-mindedness of purpose nearly unique in his work (Gin Lane has it too). Most of the other series began as paintings, from which engravings were made for more popular sales; the Four Stages were engravings from the start, and were made and sold as cheaply as possible, so as not to be “too expensive for the persons to whom they were intended to be useful”. Stylistically Hogarth wanted “a strong bold stroke” rather than “delicate engraving”: not just as cheaper to make, but as more immediately eloquent of the ugly scenes (“expressing them as I felt them”), and also because, since these images “were addressed to hard hearts”, he “preferred leaving them hard”. It’s exactly what the artist Sue Coe means by her phrase “activist art”, and in fact she based her own illustrated narrative of animal cruelty, Pit’s Letter (published in 2000), on these engravings.

Probably it’s an essential feature of such art that it’s distressing to view. Sue Coe says that when people weep in front of her prints of animal suffering, “That, to me, is great – it’s like,You’ve got it!’ ” No doubt that’s why Allan Cunningham, who saw in the Cruelty series “great skill in the grouping, and profound knowledge of character”,none the less wrote “I wish it never had been painted [i.e. engraved].” Better, of course, to say, as Hogarth himself would surely have done, ‘I wish the subject had never been there to paint.’

Hogarth plate 1

Here is the narrative sequence. In Plate 1, as shown, we see boys in a street variously tormenting cats, dogs, and birds. In the centre, the series protagonist Tom Nero (his name being chalked on a wall by a neighbour, with a scrawled gallows above it) hideously maltreats a dog. In Plate 2 we find Nero at work as a hackney coachman. His horse has collapsed with a broken leg, and Nero, now habituated to cruelty, tries to beat the horse back to work. Elsewhere in the street, a donkey is being similarly worked toward death, a sheep beaten, an escaped bull being chased. In Plate 3, Nero’s savagery, thus rehearsed upon animals, has been directed against his pregnant lover. In a lurid moonlit scene, she lies dead with her throat cut, while Nero himself is taken into custody. A discarded letter shows her pathetic loyalty to the man. And lastly, we see in Plate 4 the end foretold by the boy with the chalk: Nero has been hanged, and, in line with the Murder Act of that same year (1751), his body has been made available for dissection. The discarded heart of the corpse (for what’s going on seems to be half-science, half-butchery) is being eaten by a dog.

So the argument of the Four Stages is – partly, at least – that cruelty to animals naturally passes into cruelty to fellow-humans, and thence into crime, disgrace and degradation. That is the human story to it, one that continues to be told in police files and reports today. Thus far, the ethics might be as the contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Kant had them: one should be kind to animals because it’s good practice for treating humans well.

But that detail of the dog in Plate 4 puts the matter rather differently. Hogarth is giving the animal a kind of come-back (it happens also in Plate 2, where the escaped bull tosses a human into the air, and a nearby dog seems to be entering into the fun). For although the stage-by-stage ‘progress’ in cruelty may be a purely human matter (the downfall of a man habituated to violence), the wrong to animals is of the same character and the same weight as the wrong to humans. Nero’s crime against the woman is shown by that love-note as a cruel betrayal; just so, the dog in Plate 1 licks the hand of the bully tying a bone to his tail. The real difference pictured in the Four Stages is not in the importance of the wrongs, but in the instituted sanctions. The humane man in that hackney coach notes down Nero’s name and number, and perhaps Nero will lose his licence (though I can find no mention in the licensing regulations of the time that horses had to be well treated). But in 1751 the criminal law gave no protection to animals; it is only for violence against the person that Nero is finally punished. The implication of the Four Stages is clear: sanctions ought to begin where cruelty itself does. It took another seventy years for that to start to happen.

Under each of the four pictures there’s a set of verses commenting on the action (written by a poet friend of the artist). One such verse addresses Tom Nero thus:

Inhuman Wretch! say whence proceeds
This coward Cruelty?
What Int’rest springs from barb’rous deeds?
What Joy from Misery?

These questions actually appear under Plate 2, but by that stage there’s a reasonable answer to them: these men have a use for the animals, and mean to effect it. Violence has become a routine of work to them. The stanza really belongs under Plate 1, where the cruelty of the boys is quite gratuitous, practised as something enjoyable in itself, as their gleeful expressions show. One might despairingly answer that the “barb’rous deeds”, far from being ‘inhuman’, derive from a trait or flaw peculiar to the species: the restless ego and its search for acknowledgement. But a more particular explanation seems also to be offered.

In the top left corner, at a high window, two boys have tied bladders to a cat and launch the poor animal into the air. It’s a type of experiment: will the cat float or fall? Something of the same depraved curiosity is present in the other acts of cruelty. In all of them, humans are trying things out on animals to see what will happen. One or two of these cruelties distinctly call to mind more formalized animal researches: the two cats induced to fight (see Roger Ulrich’s experiments in the 1960s, featured in this blog), a bird blinded (see any of the countless experiments that have involved depriving animals of sight, hearing, etc.?). And therefore perhaps there’s a cautionary tale in Plate 4 that goes beyond Tom Nero’s case.

32.35(121)

That scene of dissection is apparently set in the premises of the Company of Surgeons, just then being established as a separate and learned profession (separate, that is, from the traditional barber-surgeons): hence the royal arms set up above the president’s chair, and other signs of professional dignity. It may be that what Hogarth’s first biographer John Ireland calls “disgusting and nauseous objects” are unsurprising, if still deplorable, in such a context. More concerning is that these medical men, as Hogarth depicts them, “seem to have just as much feeling as the subject [i.e. Tom Nero] now under their inspection” – that is, none at all.  Ireland concludes that “frequent contemplation of sanguinary scenes hardens the heart, deadens sensibility, and destroys every tender sensation.” Worse still, Hogarth leaves us unsure whether Nero himself, fixed to a pulley and eviscerated, really is without feeling. He seems to be crying out, as if suffering vivisection rather than dissection at the hands of these unfeeling men.

It may be the end of Nero’s career, then, but this shocking final act of the series doesn’t wrap up the story. It looks into the future, and warns that what Hogarth calls “hard hearts” may need correcting in professional places as well as in the streets – may in fact be more intractable there, for these are not powerless urchins satisfying idle curiosity, but members of a proud and established collective, whose curiosity had the honourable name of ‘natural philosophy’ or, as it would come to be called, science.

William_Hogarth_006

                *            *          *             

William Hogarth especially liked dogs. They appear in odd corners of many of his pictures, pursuing their own interests. He put one of his own admired pugs into a self-portrait, as if to take pride in their similar personalities. But in his garden at Chiswick, the pets’ cemetery seems to have accommodated other deceased animal friends too. Everything about his Four Stages engravings was aimed at making them not profitable or liked but “useful” in the service of animals, and he said of them, “If they have had this effect, and checked the progress of cruelty, I am more proud of having been the author, than I should be of having painted Raphael’s Cartoons.”

Notes and references:

The exhibition Hogarth and Europe continues at Tate Britain until 20 March. Quotations are from the pages of the gallery’s web-site devoted to it. The reviews appeared in various papers and journals, and seem to have been unanimous in admiring the pictures but ridiculing or at least deprecating the Tate’s commentary on them.

Contemporary quotations from Allan Cunningham, John Ireland, and Hogarth himself are taken from the compilation Anecdotes of William Hogarth, edited and published by John Nichols in 1833, pp. 64-5 and 233-7.

Sue Coe is quoted from two interviews, one in 2012, now online here, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/drawing-attention-sue-coe/ , and one in 2017 for the online journal Animal Liberation Currents here: https://animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/

Her own activist art for animals is reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The post in this blog about Roger Ulrich’s research into the origins of violence is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/fighting-for-peace/

Other information and ideas about Hogarth come from Hogarth: Life in Progress by Jacqueline Riding, Profile Books 2021, and this article in The Eighteenth Century, vol.42, Spring 2001: ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, by James A. Steintrager.

The illustrations show Plates 1 and 4 of the Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) and Self-Portrait with Pug, painted in 1745.