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.

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