A Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Chaplain Mike gifted me with a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, a sprawling tour-de-force summary of the human race from pre-humans to… well… what he speculates are post-humans.  It’s a combination of rigorous science, scholarly history, and breezy, humorous pop culture.  I’m sure the author would make a fascinating conversational partner over a few beers. A conversation, that, would no doubt, stretch long into the wee hours of the night.  The author, Yuval Noah Harari, has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history.

Sapiens is the only surviving species of the genus Homo.  The other (now extinct) members of genus Homo include:

  1. Homo Heidelbergensis
  2. Homo Rudolfensis
  3. Homo Habilis
  4. Homo Floresiensis
  5. Homo Erectus
  6. Homo Neanderthals
  7. Homo Denisova

Harari notes there were humans long before there was history.  Sometime around 2.5 million years ago animals much like modern humans first appear in the fossil record.  But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats.  Harari divides human history into four main parts:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution, 70,000 years before present (YBP)
  2. The Agricultural Revolution, 12,000 YBP
  3. The Unification of Humankind, 5,000 YBP
  4. The Scientific Revolution, 500 YBP

According to Harari, the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.  He says:

What caused it?  We’re not sure.  The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using altogether new type of language.  We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation…

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world.  But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions or bisons.  Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.  According to this theory Homo Sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.  It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.  It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

Well, there you go… the pinnacle of our evolution is… the National Enquirer???  Throughout the book Harari keeps tossing out these juicey bon mots of controversy in this breezy, but semi-serious manner.  It is really an entertaining read.  And thought provoking.

Another example of that breezy controversy is that he calls the Agricultural Revolution “history’s biggest fraud”.  He says foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  Hunter-gathers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.  They ate a more varied and healthful diet than the monoculture that developed with farming.  Even though the Agricultural Revolution enlarged the sum total of calories available to humankind, the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.  In fact, it translated into a population explosion, and attendant plagues, as well as a pampered elite.  The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet and worse social conditions in return.  Is that true?  Could we assess remaining forager bands in places like New Guinea or South America and compare their health and well-being to… say… agricultural village life in Africa, or India?  I don’t know, but again, a provocative idea.

In Part Three- The Unification of Humankind, Harari notes that at around 10,000 BC the planet contained at least several thousands of mostly separate “worlds”.  By 2,000 BC their number dwindled to the hundreds or at least a few thousand.  By 1450 AD, just before the age of European exploration, their numbers had declined even more drastically.  There were still a significant number of dwarf worlds, like Tasmania; but close to 90% of humans lived in the mega-world of what Harari calls “Afro-Asia”.  Most of Asia, most of Europe, and most of Africa (including substantial chunks of sub-Saharan Africa) were already connected by significant cultural, political, and economic ties.

As Map 3 from his book shows, most of the remaining tenth of the world’s human population was divided between four worlds of considerable size and complexity:

  1. The Mesoamerican World, which encompassed most of Central America and parts of North America.
  2. The Andean World, which encompassed most of western South America.
  3. The Australian World, which encompassed the continent of Australia.
  4. The Oceanic World, which encompassed most of the islands of the south-western Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.

Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds. Harari says:

It took the Afro-Asian giant several centuries to digest all that it had swallowed, but the process was irreversible.  Today, almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognized states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia, and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis).

Harari says that Homo Sapiens first evolved to think of people as divided into us and them.  No social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs.  No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species.  All concern is localized into the family and the tribe.  But beginning with the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens became more and more exceptional in this respect.  People began to cooperate with complete strangers, whom they imagined as “brothers” or “friends”.  By the first millennium BC there appeared three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws.  Everyone was “us”, at least potentially.  There was no longer “them”.

  1. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order.
  2. The second universal order was political: the imperial order.
  3. The third universal order was religious: the universal religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.

The main point that Harari makes about these underlying unifier’s are that they are fictions.   They are shared and agreed-upon illusions.  And here Harari’s underlying default atheism comes to the forefront.  Atheism is the rock-bottom truth, all else, is simply self-deception.  He has a whole chapter entitled, “The Benefits of Idolatry”.  He says, for example:

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance.  Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods.  Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’.

But lest you think this just another screed by an academic decrying the bad influence of religion, Harari, as he discusses the rise of the Scientific Revolution, endeavors to make the point that the Scientific Revolution didn’t free us from religion, but the growing secularism is actually a natural-law religion that causes modernity to be an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history.  Communism, capitalism, nationalism, Nazism, and in particular, liberalism, prefer to be called ideologies, but to him that is just a semantic exercise.

Most of us want to believe that modern Western Liberalism, as propounded in documents such as the Magna Charta, the American Declaration of Independence and the American (and similar) Constitution is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty and equality. We generally support civil rights, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and free markets.  Probably most of us think this is the best system to ever have evolved for human flourishing, or we credit God for having revealed it.  But not to Harari, they are fictions; they are shared and agreed-upon illusions.  They might last, and they might not last, who’s to say, because no one can predict the future, it’s a level 2 chaos system that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Once again, his default atheism comes to the surface:

So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife?  Yes.  As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they?  As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.  Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.  Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual… Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.

Not surprisingly, Harari’s view of the future of Homo Sapiens tends to be a little bleak.  He references bio-engineering and projects like Project Gilgamesh. Project Gilgamesh, formally established on 3rd May 2014, is an initiative devoted to educating the public about radical life extension and cryonics as scientific possibilities and moral imperatives.  In that context, Harari brings up Mary Shelley and her 1818 book Frankenstein.  He notes that we seek comfort in the fantasy that Dr. Frankenstein can only create terrible monsters, whom we would have to destroy to save the world.  He warns that we could have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr. Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that would look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals.  In the Afterword he says:

Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever.  We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.  We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with that power.  Worse still, 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.  Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?  No. No, there isn’t.  Good thing we aren’t God. Still, would God permit us to destroy ourselves?  Maybe all those warnings of plagues and judgments in Revelation are just that; a warning to those of us who would say to ourselves:

“I’ll climb to heaven. I’ll set my throne over the stars of God.  I’ll run the assembly of angels that meets on sacred Mount Zaphon.  I’ll climb to the top of the clouds.  I’ll take over as King of the Universe!”

But you didn’t make it, did you?  Instead of climbing up, you came down—down with the underground dead, down to the abyss of the Pit. People will stare and muse:  “Can this be the one who terrorized earth and its kingdoms, turned earth to a moonscape, wasted its cities, shut up his prisoners to a living death?”

Maybe that’s not a warning to Satan, maybe it’s a warning to us.

77 thoughts on “A Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

  1. Here’s the link to that interview, numo. When he says that his ambition as a historian is to tell what’s really happening in the world and to distinguish that from the fictions that people have been telling for thousands of years to explain what’s really happening in the world, I have to question his ability to get outside his own fiction (which includes his meditation practice and his self-identification as a historian!) and actually do this. I’d be interested in your take on this.

    It’s been good to “talk” with you! Hope you check in more often.


  2. Robert, do you have a link to that piece? I’d like to read it myself. Thanks muchly, and no worries if you don’t have it..

    Again, thanks so much for your kind thoughts and words. I’ve been needing to come back here more often, I think, though I’m not as interested in discussing the ways out of evangelicalism as I one wss.

    Re. “fiction,” I agree- it’s by no means the same as untruth or outright lies. But I’m feeling unable to say more without better understanding how he’s using the word. Context is important!


  3. Misinterpretation- exactly. And I had to make myself go back and re-read that really brief excerpt a fee times before I could see that I’d misread him myself.


  4. I just read an interview online about Harari’s vipassana practice and how it affects his work as a historian. He talked about how his practice helps him to see through the fiction involved in human projects, from religion to human rights. I realize the place I take issue with him is in the idea that fiction is not capable of containing and expressing truth, that it is simply something to be seen through in order to dispel its power over us. A fiction is not what it seems to be, but it is not nothing either; and fiction definitely has the power to convey truth and reality.


  5. Once again, numo, I want to say it’s good to hear from you, and to exchange thoughts with you. Thanks to your comments, your help understanding the Harari quote correctly, I have a more open attitude toward him.


  6. I went back and reread the quote in question, and I can see what you mean. He may be speaking about the limitations of science rather than endorsing nihilistic-sounding answers based on those limitations. I agree. This is the handicap of reading a few short extracts from a book instead of the whole book, or at least larger sections of it. Misinterpretation is likely.


  7. To answer my own question, the book was indeed translated from Hebrew, though I’m sure Harari must be fluent in English, given his CV.


  8. Also, he prefaced his remark about science, meaning etc. with “…as far as we can tell,” this leaving the door open for plenty, including God.


  9. Yeah, I’m not fond of Fox’s thinking, either. But I think those who misuse the term “tikkun olam” – and many do – have little or no idea what it actually means, in its various ways. (The 1st thing i read about it was from the perspective of Lurianic Kabbalah, which goes way back, though an awful lot of Jewish folks either don’t embrace Kabbalah and,/or, if they do, don’t give Luria’s interpretations much credence.)


  10. Err, atheist. Sometimes autocorrect works, sometimes it doesn’t – and sometimes I wish it hadn’t!


  11. He did not say “life is meaningless.” You’re putting that on him, imo.

    I do wish that more was done to help folks understand that it’s possible to be non-theistic but not an steist; equally, that there are non-theistic forms of Hinduism and some other religions that are actually quite ancient.

    Myself, I’m kind of partial to panentheism, though not in the form Klasie describes in today’s post. I’m certainly not a pantheist, either – but I do believe that everything *is* connected somehow, in ways that we’ll likely never understand, with our small and finite brains. That might make me sound heterodox to some, but I don’t believe it’s at all incompatible with monotheism.


  12. That is *not* what he said, Robert – it is your (sing and pl) *interpretation* of what he said.

    For one thing, his mother tongue is Hebrew, not English, and I’d be interested in knowing if this book was written in English or translated from Hebrew… Translation literally is an interpretation of a given work, reimagined from one language to another, and no single translator is ever going to get everything in a given book, poem, article exactly as the writer intended. It’s not possible to do it, and in many instances, there’s no single “right” rendering of a sentence or much more than that. (As I found out, in ways that startled me, while helping edit some texts about music that were translated from another language into English. It was a freakin’ minefield!)


  13. But I do not think he’s saying life is meaningless; rather, that science cannot supply the kind of meaning we are assigning to it. I think he would agree. Science isn’t something that’s “about” spirituality, religion, philosophy or belief – human life, like all other forms of life on our planet, simply *is,* and that’s where many things – scientific research and enquiry not least of them – has to start.

    Science cannot, by itself, provide a metanarrative of “meaning” in the same way that the arts, religion, philosophy, belief itself can. It’s like asking that question ” What is it like to be a bat”?” *of* a bat and expecting the bat to be able to explain that in ways that we humans can understand. The bat might well be able to try and answer, but we don’t have the cognitive facility – or, I suspect quite enough imagination- to understand its answer.


  14. Point well taken.
    I should be more circumspect rather than charging in willy-nilly.
    Both friends and enemies tell me that it will be my undoing one day.


  15. I didn’t mean to disparage the idea of Tikkun Olam. But I’m not comfortable with Christian Creation Spirituality as advocated by Matthew Fox, and for whatever reasons valid or not I found myself reacting to the echo of it I thought I heard in Christiane’s comment. Although I’m liberal in certain ways, I have a pretty traditional belief in Jesus Christ as the singular human incarnation of God, and as Lord and redeemer of humanity and this world — and I do believe that humanity and this world are in need of redemption, not just spiritual insight and understanding. My apologies for my wrongheaded response.


  16. Harari is making his assertion that life is meaningless based on his own metanarrative, which is rooted in Buddhism. And that’s fine. Christians have a lot to learn from Buddhism. But then Harari shouldn’t claim his assertion is the result of scientific objectivity, and he shouldn’t suggest that the his view is not rooted in a religious/philosophical metanarrative while other views are.


  17. Okay, my misunderstanding. But he still shouldn’t claim that the reason he asserts life has no meaning is the result of scientific knowledge or understanding. The fact is, such an idea, when it is not merely nihilistic, is the result of religious/spiritual insight.


  18. That’s interesting, numo. People often forget that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, so it is perfectly suitable for an atheist. It also rejects the idea that there is a lasting meaning to existence, as much as it rejects the idea that the self is real. In the Mahayana tradition, Vipassana practice is used to develop the insight of sunyata, the emptiness of all phenomenon, meaning that nothing, not self or the gods, has its own intrinsic identity. All of this would be completely in line with Harari’s assertion that life is meaningless, and that the underlying unifiers of societies and religions are fictions, or illusions. But I would point two things out –1) To say that something is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it appears to be; Buddhism asserts that all illusory apparent systems of unity are actually unified by the “interbeing” (a term coined by twentieth/twenty-first century Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh) of all that is, and 2) this is a religious insight , developed by mindfulness and spiritual practices, not from the scientific viewpoint, as Harari asserts.


  19. Have you read this book? I’m curious, as it seems like you might be dismissing him based on this blog post, not on his actual writing. He’s a historian – please give him a chance.


  20. I find it odd (unless viewed as a kind of Mel Brooksian black comedy), that such a high-powered academic (Harari) would bad mouth the rise of agriculture.
    It is after all, the very thing that made him possible.
    In my opinion, the guy’s stuff is little more than repackaged Neecha (Nietzsche).


  21. The thing is, he’s a historian, and not a scientist. He began as a specialist in medieval and Renaissance history.

    And I have a suspicion that the “has no meaning[by itself]” thing might actually be more like “Life simply *is,” rather than how you folks are interpreting it.

    Just my .02-worth…


  22. Tikkun Olam comes from very old Jewish mysticism, Robert. Some people (not necessarily Jewish) might put a New Age spin on it, but that’s not where it comes from or what it’s about at its heart.

    I think you will find plenty of info on the concept, from Jewish sources, should you look for it.


  23. Thanks, Robert and Christiane. These turbulent times have taken away my appetite for reading and commenting, barring the occasional foray.


  24. but Klasie,
    where does the music come from? and the sense of wonder? and the beauty? and the ‘hope’?

    I suspect we lose something when we ‘grow up’ and leave behind the freshness of our first encounter with life as children, but it is said that we carry within us an ‘inner child’ that remains . . . .

    maybe we should start not with death, but with life itself and the wonder of it, and the genuine grief that comes when our loss is felt because we LOVED the lost one(s) . . . . and then be THANKFUL that they lived at all and were loved

    Is that we have taken for granted ‘life itself’ our greatest sin,
    and most certainly not any willful lack of some forced belief that might serve others as ‘an opiate of the people’ ?

    speaking of sieves, this:

    “After one moment when I bowed my head
    And the whole world turned over and came upright,
    And I came out where the old road shone white,
    I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
    Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
    Being not unlovable but strange and light;
    Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
    But softly, as men smile about the dead.

    The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”

    G. K. Chesterton


  25. Harari is an interesting read, albeit a slightly depressive one. Steven Pinker is a bit of an antidote- maybe too positive though.

    But as to the need for fictions, I was reminded of this fantastic quote from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather:

    All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”


    “Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


    “So we can believe the big ones?”


    “They’re not the same at all!”


    “Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”



  26. I live in an apartment, and the owner/manager does not allow us to plant on the property, although we do have a few flowers planted in a small plot outside our apartment door. They would not allow us to plant vegetables at all; besides that, due to personal physical limitations, I wouldn’t be able to tend to them. Afraid I’ll never be a farmer, even though my dad was one in Italy up through his young adulthood.


  27. Robert,
    it sounds like you’re doing better than me come to think of it, yes;
    although lately I’ve considered full planting of my backyard with organic vegetables and potatoes, and a host of other ‘inconveniences’ to cut down on my own gigantic carbon footprint

    consideration is not ‘doing’, so I credit you with your progressive ways and I take a lesson from your example

    my ‘consideration’ time is running out and I know that very well


  28. Still choose what, Christiane? What is it you or others are doing that I’m not, and that I should be doing? I’ve contributed significantly to the Earth’s longevity, and to lightening the human footprint I leave behind, by not having any children. I recycle; I don’t travel far from home, thereby reducing my emissions greatly — if I could live without a car, I would; I don’t consume a lot of electronic devices, all made with plastics, which are among the worst pollutants; and there are other things, which I won’t enumerate. What is it I’m not doing, or opening my eyes to?


  29. is Christian fundamentalism ‘monotheistic’? Is it ‘trinitarian’?

    I think it descends more, in spirit, from the early heresies that saw a division between the ‘God of Wrath’ of the OT and the Jesus Christ of the NT . . .

    the fundamentalists, in their self-righteous anger, seem to embrace their model as ‘the God of Wrath’ as they see Him in the OT;
    and they seem to roundly reject that Jesus Christ IS ‘the Revealer of God’, in fact if you ask many fundamentalists this, you will be amazed and what they reply:

    Is Jesus Christ God?


    Did God die on the Cross?

    Tinitiarian faith if not taken for granted among those who are hard-core fundamentalists, no. Not at all. Even they will give evidence that they have great difficulty ‘connecting’ the ‘God of Wrath’ together with ‘Jesus Christ Son Savior’ Ask them and see for yourselves what they reply. Oh my goodness!


  30. Hello Burro,

    you wrote, this:
    ” I don’t know the current status of de Chardin’s thought among thoughtful Catholics today, but he was something of a scandal in the 60s.”

    well, for what it’s worth, there is this:

    “Over the next several decades prominent theologians and prelates, including leading cardinals, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all wrote approvingly of Teilhard’s ideas. In 1981, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, on behalf of Pope John Paul II, wrote on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano:

    What our contemporaries will undoubtedly remember, beyond the difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in this audacious attempt to reach a synthesis, is the testimony of the coherent life of a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul. He was concerned with honoring both faith and reason, and anticipated the response to John Paul II’s appeal: “Be not afraid, open, open wide to Christ the doors of the immense domains of culture, civilization, and progress”.[29]”

    while not a fan of Wiki’s, it sometimes does a credible job as a place to begin to find connections:


  31. ‘Tikkun Olam’ is far from ‘new age’, Robert.

    we had abused our Earth to breaking point, to continue now with that abuse unrelenting as we are the first generation to feel its effects seems a kind of madness to me . . . or blindness . . .

    the children, the grandchildren . . . . their future. . . . these generations to come are also our legacy, not just the pollution, and they will see not just the beginnings of the effects, but worsening, compounded, and at some point, beyond repair (?)

    ‘new agey’?
    Robert, it’s already here, this new world of the tormented Earth . . . open your eyes, or not . . . you can still choose;
    but the day is coming when the choices are over and our children and grandchildren will either ‘live’ or ‘survive’ in those times without us . . . ‘the end of living and the beginning of survival’ (Chief Sealth/ Seattle)

    On that quote from Chief Seattle, strangely this ironic recognition:
    “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates the life of Seattle on June 7 in its Calendar of Saints”


  32. I’m willing to do what I can, but I’m not banking on the success of the human race in this. Frankly, taken too far, some of this could easily turn into a new kind of extremism and fanaticism. It also sounds New Agey to me, and I have some of the same problems with New Age religion that I do with Name-It and Claim It Christianity.


  33. It may be that polytheists are more religiously tolerant than monotheists, as Harari asserts, although I suspect that tolerance has some pretty definite limits; but, given that polytheists invented and employed crucifixion, I am not at all sanguine about their overall embrace of tolerance, humane values, or “openness.”


  34. Hello Robert F.

    perhaps the healing of all things began with the event INCARNATION, and we humans will become a part of that healing, having had our humanity taken into Him Who with a word can calm the storm that rages within each of us. . . .

    maybe the Incarnation needs another examination because, realizing having been convicted of our own part in the polluting of our world, we may not have recognized our ‘Incarnational’ commissioning to be a part of its healing also. What is that Jewish teaching . . . ‘Tikkun Olam’ . . . to heal the world, to seek what is just socially, sure, but maybe also to re-connect with the earth from whose elements our physical beings are made, and to bring healing also to that which we have neglected in our assumption that it was ours to squander without caring for it as stewards of its needs and its natural cycles and its natural systems of self-purification, which we have intruded on in our greed, if not in our ignorance. We have sinned all right. And Bomb Cyclones and floods and fires are convicting us of that sin.

    Time to wake up . . . . we are to be a part of ‘All Shall Be Well’ . . . .. He has assumed us on board Himself, and its all hands on deck. . . .


  35. If that’s all that Scripture had to say about the matter, it would be a “real turn-off” too, and nothing but. But the good news of Jesus Christ starts where Ecclesiastes ends.


  36. A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions or bisons. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo Sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

    And who should be crucified.


  37. Hello Burro,

    I’ve never ‘connected’ the incredibly negative, ‘perenially-angry’ YEC ‘Bodgetts’ of N. American ‘Fundagelicalism
    their hard-core views on a nature corrupted by evil, (a belief that finds its culmination in Calvinism, in my opinion)

    I guess it was right there in front of me, but your comment lit the connection up in lights and wow, yeah, I get it.

    Maybe we need to look again at the effects of our own examination of God’s Natural World which we are doing ‘through a glass darkly’ and maybe we will be able to see that a lot of our own previous viewing was colored by our own negativity encouraged by those in religion who thrived on it to their own purposes;
    and who today are reaping their reward in the voices of those in high places who say we have not hurt the Earth and we must not commit to a Green Plan to heal it . . .

    I’m ready to re-examine, because right now is somekind of ‘cyclone’ spinning in the ‘interior’ of my country reeking havoc among the people that I love, who have no idea that our human decisions might just have had a hand in the formation of that monster storm and all the extreme weather events to come.


  38. Hello out there Mike-The-Geologist

    Jon Garvey! Yes, a very thoughtful man indeed.
    Looking forward to your review here very much!


  39. No optimist here either, Dana. Outside hope in the resurrection and parousia of Jesus Christ, I don’t see much hope in the short term, and it’s all short term. I hope and look for the universal reconciliation and renewal of all things in Christ that D.B. Hart also subscribes to. “All shall be well, and all shall be well…”


  40. “SteveA, if you are anything like me, you have the intuition that there is Something Very Important just beyond your grasp in Barfield’s thought.” Yes indeed.

    And yes, I find the work of Teilhard de Chardin admirable. With regard to his status in Catholic circles, am not qualified to say, but his Catholic interpreters, John Haught and Ilia Delio make a lot of sense to me and are helpful. First heard of him in my philosophy of religion class as a junior at my Christian college in the summer of 1971. We discussed the Phenomenon of Man. Thought he was crazy and talk of the Omega Point creepy. Forgot all about him till late 90’s when the arrival and evolution of the internet began to provide validation of the concept of the Noosphere and lure me to further investigation. From Barfield what it is that we can perceive depends on the nature and style of consciousness and that is something that changed at the arrival of the modern world.


  41. The other part of that is: surely, even if his understanding of science doesn’t admit of meaning in human life, other parts of the man clearly see *value* in that life. If that wasn’t the case, why bother writing in the 1st place?

    Yes. Humans routinely profess one belief, and act and speak in other contexts as if they believed something entirely different and even contradictory. In this case, it’s a good thing, and means that we can value many of the things Harari writes without accepting or subscribing to his professed philosophical belief that life has no meaning.

    And yes, personal suffering may play a significant part in his nihilistic philosophical position; it’s even likely, given the pervasiveness of suffering in human experience. But since we are not cognizant from this review of what the personal experience of suffering may involve in Harari’s case, or if he speaks of it in his book, it’s not something we can address.


  42. “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” (Letter #195), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

    Fr Stephen wrote a great post a few years ago: Tolkien’s Long Defeat. In order to not have my comment relegated to spam, I won’t put the link here, but do go over and search for it in the archives. In the comment section are a couple of links to articles which are also worth reading, one an essay by C.S. Lewis.

    Also worth reading is this, on the Australian Broadcasting site:

    “Abiding” is a good word to use.

    Not that classical Christianity expects the material universe to disintegrate when Christ returns; no, God will do something beyond what we can imagine in order to renew it. However, it seems to me that there is a parallel between the course of history and human consciousness from the dawn of humanity until the Cross, and the course of the same from the Cross onward.

    “The fullness of time” into which Christ came was not the apex of Progress in the ancient world; it was a time of failure on some important levels: the end of the Roman Republic and the colonialism and monopolization of food production by the Roman Empire; widespread slavery; the Roman subjugation of Palestine; conquest of people by other strongmen in the parts of the world not yet known to those in the Mediterranean basin; the rise of human sacrifice in the Americas. An interesting take on the course of Jewish faith reflected in the course of their scriptures is Jewish scholar R.E. Friedman’s “The Hidden Face of God”. Friedman writes that throughout their history, the Jews as a people broke each of the Ten Commandments, and as the Hebrew scriptures were compiled, the content of the books shows less personal involvement by God with the Jews as a people, so that in the books that were written last God is nearly or completely absent, and there is silence on God’s part after that. The faithfulness of the Jews as God’s people became diluted, esp with the advent of Greco-Roman culture in Palestine. Even the faithful Jews realized they were still in Exile, though they had returned to the Land – something was amiss, and though some tried through terrorist activity to change that and drive out the Romans, it was clear that only God could fix this. It is at *that* point that Christ enters history as incarnate – his first coming.

    Since then, Christianity spread to the known world and beyond, but is now in decline where it was once strong, and more and more deformations of it have sprouted over time. People are still enslaved, despite slavery being outlawed. Armed power-hungry strongmen abound, and we continue to face the possibility of thermonuclear war. Materially people are doing better, and the numbers of people living on pennies a day have dramatically declined; but in those places there is also widespread pollution and economic colonization. Our oceans are a mess. Greed has been instantiated in our economic and legislative systems. We continue to engage in human sacrifice; let the reader understand. There is no spiritual comfort to be found if one rejects the explanation of the first 900 years or so of classical Christianity. (See D.B. Hart’s article “Christ and Nothing” at First Things, October 2003)

    We want – I think I can say we desperately want – things to continue at least as what we see as an even keel, if not to continued “progress”. I used to be an optimist about the course of Progress; surely as humans we all want to do whatever we can to make things Better!?! I do believe we should do everything we can in our own circles of influence to help people as Jesus told us to in Matt 25, including the logical loving extensions of those actions. But no longer do I have a rosy outlook on the future. As at his first coming, Christ will return when the long defeat has finally reached its nadir, though outwardly things will keep humming along. Harari’s book is simply another window into the present conditions on the trajectory of that defeat.

    Abiding is pretty much the only thing I can do, in my poor attempts at faithfulness.



  43. The thing is, though, that Harari’s statement about human life and meaning might well be coming from a place of suffering and desperation in his own life. If he is a nihilist, there are reasons for it.

    I wonder how he defines the word “meaning” in this context? (Serious question.)

    The other part of that is: surely, even if his understanding of science doesn’t admit of meaning in human life, other parts of the man clearly see *value* in that life. If that wasn’t the case, why bother writing in the 1st place?

    As an aside, I like his tongue in cheek observations about the beginnings of spoken language, and have a suspicion that there’s more truth in them than we might like to admit. Small towns are like that, and I grew up in one.


  44. Think of this post as a response to both SteveA and Eeyore above, re: Owen Barfield. SteveA, if you are anything like me, you have the intuition that there is Something Very Important just beyond your grasp in Barfield’s thought. Worse than that, it may even be crucial. To me, all of the ahem-ing and harrumphing accompanying the (to me) undeniable fact of anthropogenic climate change (“You first, peon, bend over”) is not a failure of enough lazy, greedy, swinish Trump Nationalists refusing to become shiny-eyed, altruistic, duty-now-for-the-future Hubert Humphrey liberals, but is primarily a crisis of consciousness.

    Our self-consciousness and ability to manipulate nature is something that arose from nature and is just as much a product of natural processes as the species which are lamentably departing the scene as a result of it. It is not something which stands apart from nature, or even less, “dominates” it.

    If we say that Goethe looked on man as a part of nature, there is a deceptively familiar ring about the last part of the sentence. ‘So do I’, most people will reply, and yet there is a very great difference between what Goethe meant and what most people mean today when they speak, or think, of man as being a part of nature.

    When we say it, we have at the back of our minds – most of us – what I will call the outside of man, his flesh and his bones and his brain –and we think of all this as having developed by gradual process from a world in which there were once no men and at an earlier stage still no animals. Whatever he thought about this process, Goethe also believed that the inside of man was a part of the inside of nature.

    There are of course those who contend, or appear to contend, that man has no inside, in the sense in which I am using the word. They say that his consciousness, including his thoughts, is a bodily process analogous to secretions. But I do not think I need pause to consider if they are right, because it follows, if they are not wrong, that there is no such thing as being right or wrong but only secretions and a making of noises.

    I think that most of us know the work of Teilhard de Chardin, whose admirable philosophy concerning Evolution and Christianity, in its broad outline, described the processes by which matter gradually became more and more complex until Hey! Shazam! interiority (consciousness) emerged within the crania of certain hominids. I don’t know the current status of de Chardin’s thought among thoughtful Catholics today, but he was something of a scandal in the 60s.

    Nevertheless, de Chardin’s basic postulate made sense to me, and I uncritically adopted it as part of my mental furniture. Then I came across Barfield’s hypothesis that de Chardin was not so much wrong but he needed to be turned inside out. It was not that matter “blindly” recombined until eventually monkeys started to contemplate their navels, but rather that this ‘interiority’, for lack of a better word, was always there, and was struggling to manifest itself in material form.

    Hell, this is getting long. I’m going to take it over to my moribund blog.


  45. I agree that there is value to be found in pursuing thoughts of meaning. I also think that Peterson and Vanderklay’s commentary thereon a worth including in the mix.

    I went to a Veritas Forum event a week ago with a pair of philosophers, one atheist (Alan Lightman) and one christian (Meghan Sullivan), discussing meaning in the context of time, our culture’s obsession with efficiency, and our scientific models of the universe all agreeing that it will end (if not how).

    Prof. Sullivan compared the common approach of seeking meaning in the impact of our actions in the future to a reverse ponzi scheme. That approach borrows meaning for today from the future. But if there will be an end to time, there will be a last generation of people. They have no way to borrow meaning from the future. So there is no meaning for them. And if there is no meaning for them, there is no meaning for the generation before them that can only borrow it from them. This collapse into meaningless rushes back up the generations to a result that on this approach there is no meaning available for this generation to borrow from the future. So this approach fails to find meaning.

    One theistic alternative is to ground meaning in the eternal (God). An alternative that was discussed at the event is grounding meaning for at least some things/activities in those things/activities themselves. Another that came to my mind is grounding meaning in the impact in the present rather than on impact for the future.


  46. The book is already out of date on the list of species in genus Homo, as Homo naledi was described and published in 2015, the year the book was published (so probably the year after it was written). They are an interesting species to add to the mix. The specimens we have look like they were buried in deeply dark parts of caves, don’t have directly associated tool evidence, and have an estimated age of 335,000 to 236,000 years ago. There are tools in that region from that time period, but they aren’t the only Homo species in the region, so the scientists are going to have to puzzle out whether the tools can be definitively assigned to any of the Homo species.


  47. “Maybe all those warnings of plagues and judgments in Revelation are just that; a warning to those of us who would say to ourselves”

    Given the likely outworkings of global warming, maybe a literal reading of the judgments of Revelation isn’t too far off the mark after all. :-/


  48. I read Saving The Appearances. Enjoyed it, reminded me of Marshal McLuhan some. But it was above me, need help with getting it. Have watched a few YouTube videos in that regard. His History in English Words was accessible and fascinating.


  49. “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.”

    “We may as well all hold hands and walk into a chopper blade.”
    — Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H


  50. “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.”

    I wonder if he knows that observation has been around for ages, from a purely Biblical viewpoint? See Ecclesiastes.

    “This kind of thing is a real turn-off for me.”

    Meh. It has scriptural backing, too. See Ecclesiastes.


  51. Naw, he is more dogmatic than that. Plenty of atheists, including our friend Klasie, say just that: they create their own meaning or “find” it in love of family and friends, the wonder of nature, etc. But Harari goes beyound that and says even that is delusion and illusion. By the time you finish the book, you realize he’s a nihilist. Still, I’d love to have a long conversation with him, he’d be fascinating.


  52. Owen Barfield’s Saving The Appearances is second (alphabetically) on Garvey’s reading list. It looks like most of his reading list is composed of polemical works defending evolution against the (supposedly, although this is in many ways an unfair straw man) perenially-angry Young Earth Creationist Blodgetts of North American Fundagelicalism, but it is good to see Barfield there.


  53. Well…what sort of “meaning” can human life have? It’s not that it is meaningless so much as it is that it’s simply impossible to reduce to an easily digestible “meaning”. We don’t FIND meaning; we CREATE it. Naturally, spontaneously. I think part of what Harari is saying is that it is time to do this consciously instead of unconsciously.


  54. This is a fascinating read. Garvey is new to me and I look forward to diving into his writings. Thanks for the reference.


  55. Oh good!
    Must get on with buying myself then, so I can interact intelligently.

    Re-reading my final sentence in last post, there was a context switch between the two uses of ‘here’, just in case it wasn’t clear.


  56. Ben and Robert: Indeed, Harari confuses his own metaphysical opinion with scientific fact. His condescending view of, not just Western Liberalism, but even the best parts of it, made me want to say to him, “And you know better, how?” He just knows the truth because he, with his superior intellect, has distilled all the scientific truth into (to quote a famous Hoosier philosopher), “Nothing really matters, and what if it did”. Pure arrogant bullsh*t.


  57. Ben S: I’m a long time reader of Jon Garvey’s “The Hump of the Camel” ever since I found him debating in the comments at Biologos. Many would label Harari’s view “realistic”, but I think Garvey far surpasses him in clear thinking. I’m in the process of reading Jon’s new book, “God’s Good Earth” and we’ll be reviewing it here.


  58. And then he proceeds to moralize about the selfishness of modern humans as “dissatisfied and irresponsible gods”, which is kind of funny. If human life is meaningless (I presume that means all life is meaningless, right, including the other species and planet that he indicts us for destroying?), on what grounds can one moralize? Moralizing of any kind is then meaningless.


  59. When Harari says that from “a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning” he has moved from science to philosophy. He is entitled to philosophize, as we all are, but invoking the word science, or his own status as a scientist, does not privilege his philosophical positions, commitments, and beliefs above those of others, and does not give him an epistemological advantage above the non-scientist. His thinking becomes fuzzy and all-too-human exactly at the point where he starts talking about what “a purely scientific viewpoint” leads to in terms of philosophical beliefs.


  60. PS: An example of Jon Garvey: http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2019/03/13/the-tree-in-berkeleys-square-no-nightingale/

    He’s attacking things from an angle that I’m not used to: backing right up to the beginnings of science and the philosophy of science and helping us to question the reigning paradigm of naturalistic materialism which is so pervasive that we can’t even see it.

    This ties in with another author (Lesslie Newbigin) who advocated a ‘missionary’ approach of living in the ‘culture of faith’ while understanding the culture of our surrounding society, so as to be able to ‘translate’ our faith into something understandable to those around us. My problem with that being that I find it far more difficult to have a faith-inspired worldview than a materialist-scientific view. Thus why I find Jon Garvey’s iconoclastic posts very helpful.

    Hope this helps someone. These are debates which I would love to see here, as I know nobody here with whom I can share on these matters.


  61. Thanks for the review, MtG; sounds like an interesting book. To the degree that Harari is presenting us with scientifically valid and sound perspectives and information, it is incumbent on us to accept the truth of it; to the degree that he is offering a philosophical metanarrative of his own about the place of humanity in the universe and the meaning of life as an alternative to other metanarratives, what he has to say is as much an illusion and fiction as he says they are, and that is a matter open for debate and disagreement by scientist and non-scientist alike. Let’s keep the science and the philosophy separate; scientific truth we are obliged to accept, philosophies we may rightly debate and disagree with.


  62. “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.”

    This kind of thing is a real turn-off for me. It’s equivalent to saying “As far as we can tell, with the lights off, you can’t see anything.”

    Science deliberately attempts to limit itself to what is objectively provable, and it is thus a-teleological and incapable of detecting meaning.
    For people who are serious about origins and faith, I’ve been mulling over these rather disparate sources recently:
    – John Walton’s “cosmic temple inauguration theory” – which I think is very compelling
    – Jon Garvey’s essays on the myth of randomness, and the possibility that Genesis 2 is a specific ‘awakening’ of an Adam & Eve, drawn from the pre-existing stock of humanoids from Genesis 1 (I don’t think it’s his theory, but that’s where I read it first).
    – Jordan Peterson’s Biblical lecture series – which has fascinating potential insights into evolutionary parallels with Genesis – especially in relation to the dawn of self-consciousness, the serpent and the ‘apple’. As Paul Vanderklay puts it, “Jordan Peterson is building the most potent natural theology of this generation”.

    I think that there is gold to be mined in there somewhere, in some kind of combination of these insights, and I think that even though we’re tired of the ‘culture wars’ and the ideological posturing of neo-atheists and religious fundamentalists, we need to press on because reality is one, and we suffer as long as we can’t reconcile our two powerful visions of it.


  63. Sounds like this book deserves a read and will put in on my list. Certainly seems like it is not a traditional look of how humans progressed. Just reading the small recap it seems to me that some things are just obvious as Homo’s progress. “Man: is by nature a social animal for sure, that is why cities developed and thrived. Homo’s can make choices and if they thought it better to farm than gather and hunt , well then as they say people vote with their feet. Civilization was built on passing on shared real “facts” and shared fiction, that is how I got to have all the wonderful blessings I enjoy and I say thank you Homo Sapiens and all my ancestors. I especially thankful air conditioning as I live in Florida. I also enjoy getting crushed ice from my refrigerator .

    Man is not monkey do, monkey see in their learning ,. Man though language can pass on knowledge and learned “secrets” he unlocked and they helped with historical progress. So until I read the book I am just going by this thumbnail overview but I have always thought we are born Homo Sapiens but we become “Human” by our fictions of love, cooperation, God and all the other things that make us human and the shared universe shared longings of mankind. The old saying if there is no God man would create one is true in my book. I do find the subject compelling and look forward to reading it.

    Mike the G Man, thanks for the good choice a book to bring to our attention.


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