YUVAL NOAH HARARI — SAPIENS, A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND — 2011
The book was originally written in Hebrew and it was translated later on. That should imply some caution about what the real thinking of the author might be since Hebrew is a first articulation root language and English is a third articulation analytical frond language. The two languages are not compatible in many ways and translating one into the other is necessarily problematic.
This being said we can now deal with the book the way it appears in English.
The first remark is fundamental. Before even making this remark it is important to understand that phrase like “most … agree today that …” is a purely ideological and rhetorical means and it has absolutely no scientific value. It is not because the majority of mathematicians think this or that on a crucial and debated question that their opinion is true. All scientific progress always came from the ideas that challenged what most people in the concerned scientific field thought at the time. Copernic and Galileo Galilei would have had to invent nothing about the shape of the earth if the majority of people had thought it was round at the time. This discovery was a discovery because most people thought the earth was flat at the time. The majority was wrong. And such a majority rule is dangerous by principle, particularly in some political arenas.
My first remark is that the book starts the history of humanity at 70,000 years BCE. At this time all the migrations out of Africa have taken place and were practically finished. That enables the author NOT TO CONSIDER the at least 230,000 years of Homo Sapiens’s emergence before this date 70,000 BCE, and this emergence took place in Africa and ONLY Africa. This is from my point of view a grave and sinister shortcoming that is practically racist, de facto segregative against Africans. The author can then forget to tell us we are all originally black and in the book this black exclusion is systematic. Later on, when he speaks of the agricultural revolution, he rightly connects this agriculture with cereals, rice, wheat, corn, and some other like rye, oats, etc. And here again, since this agriculture that emerged in Africa too is not based on cereals (except in Egypt which is not officially black) but on cassava which is a root, the African continent is entirely ignored. This then becomes a bias, a choice, a desire, an intention: ignore Africa. But on the other hand, he writes for a good old western Jewish or Christian audience, marginally Muslim, and such emblematic symbols of these references are used, even as chapter titles, like “Adam and Eve.” There are quite a few moments on the book when you hesitate between a reference to some religious fundamental reference and some often indirect assertion of non-adherence to such religious faith and allegiance. These elements are in no way scientific and are in no way analyzed from any scientific point of view, and thus they become rattles or drums to attract the attention of the poor, ignorant, uneducated and naïve popular reader.
The second remark is about the three “revolutions” he states as the three stages of human history. These three revolutions are the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. He will refer later on to the industrial revolution but for him, it seems to be the result of the scientific revolution. He disdains technology as NOT being scientific, and he forgets that all science is by definition and first of all experimental and thus technological. But I want to make a general remark here that concerns absolutely all uses of the word “revolution.” It has become popular since the American and the French Revolutions, maybe even the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain some time earlier. Note this last one was achieved by one decision of the British parliament and with no violence, except of course the banning of Catholics and Jews from all official positions and at times with some cleansing local missions against this or that Jew or Catholic up to the 19th century, not to mention the supporters of the deposed king known as Jacobites. All revolutions take time and if the Soviet Revolution is reduced to ten days, it is a pure lie. The Soviet Revolution was only stabilized after four or five years of war. The French Revolution was never stabilized except by becoming an empire under the dictatorial authority of the war monger that Napoleon became. But the use of revolution for things like the emergence of agriculture and herding, of human cognition and of science is the most irrelevant use of the term. These three moments in the emergence of modern humanity took tens of thousands of years, each one of them, to actually emerge and stabilize. Let me look at these three moments considered by the author.
The “cognitive revolution” is by far the best case. The author never says that cognition needs a tool to exist, and that tool is language. So he does not ask the question of the origin of language and its emergence. He thus let the good old Christian, Jewish and Muslim idea that man received language fully developed from some godlike authority be the only reference behind. And this is non-scientific and vain. Language existed before Homo Sapiens and when Homo Sapiens emerged he inherited this language. What we can say is that the language of Homo Ergaster, to use one name of the Hominin who is the ancestor of Homo Sapiens (and also of Neanderthals and Denisovans), was more advanced than the language of the monkeys and apes he was descending from. We have studies of monkey language and it is clear it only contains three or four vocalic sounds and five or six consonantal sounds. These sounds are organized in syllabic calls of the Consonant-Vowel-Consonant form most of the time and their number is seven or so. By Human means, these vowels and these consonants could have produced about 125 one-syllable words. These monkeys did not have the rotation of vowels and consonants, the key to the first articulation of human articulated language. Did Homo Ergaster have some limited control of this rotation or not? It is an open question. Did Neanderthals and Denisovans have some limited control of this rotation? It is an open question.
But the most important element is that Homo Sapiens when he left the forest to enter the savanna was already bipedal like many Hominins before him. But he had to become a bipedal, fast, long-distance runner to be able to hunt and escape encounters like lions in a savanna that had very few trees, and Homo Sapiens was not a tree climber. This activity could develop because natural selection selected some mutations that made Homo Sapiens the runner he became: a very low larynx (the pump of long distance breathing); a very strong diaphragm (the piston of this breathing pump); a great innervation of the subglottal respiratory and articulatory zone indispensable for long distance running; and of course a developed Broca zone that coordinates all these I have mentioned, plus organs like the heart and every active part of the body at work in this long distance running. All these elements are fundamental to running but they open a new field of activity: speaking, which is by the way indispensable for hunting coordination in the savanna and over long distances between the hunters. Calls can do that but Homo Sapiens could produce an easy 12 vowels and 25 consonants (especially since the teeth of Homo Sapiens could produce dentals and other consonants that monkeys could not produce because of their teeth). And this started 300,000 years BCE, 230,000 years before the date of Harari’s cognitive revolution.
This language is essential because of the human brain. The human brain like all brains of all animals that have brains can deal with nerve impulses of some type or other coming from the various senses. Then it can process these nerve impulses and turn them into something the brain can process and this processing produces patterns the brain captures in what it processes. The brain then classifies these patterns in brain-code which is nothing but machine-code. Homo Sapiens and quite a few more hominins, and hominids before, can go a little bit further and attach a vocal production to these brain-coded patterns. You can see at once the rotation of vowels and consonants is essential to thus produce what is nothing but calls among monkeys, lower members of hominids, and it can become something richly developed as soon as the first articulation is captured. And that opens the road for Homo Sapiens and the top Hominins to a process that is only human. The brain-code patterns are names, which means the brain has to develop two things at the same time and those two things are virtual in the brain. It is the mind and language. The two develop simultaneously in a coordinated way. The development of one causes the development of the other and nourishes itself from this development, and vice versa. This development opens the door to experimentation, speculation, and conceptualization. There is no cognition if there is no language to express and transmit, hence to communicate the mental activity that starts from brain-code patterns that are experimented, speculated upon and conceptualized.
It is even more complicated because human articulated language has three articulations that have to be developed in a certain sequence dictated by the phylogeny of language. The very same phylogeny of language with the very same 10 vowels and 20 consonants, on the basis of the rotation of these sounds, will be able to develop on the model of the communicational situation a newborn is confronted too from the very first minute till he or she dies, a full morphology and a full syntax. Note the second articulation is morphological and the third articulation is syntactic. If the language spoken by the people at a certain moment in this phylogenetic development does not contain a morphology or a syntax per se, the communicational situation will provide what’s missing in discourse. When this is said it is obvious it must take some time, and cognition develops at the same time because cognition takes place in the mind and needs language which is developed and develops in the mind. Let’s say that Homo Sapiens had reached the third articulation of this phylogeny around 70,000–50,000 BCE, but the third migration out of Africa was already engaged and practically finished. What about the first two migrations that took place for the first one around 180,000 BCE (or slightly earlier) and attested in Crete in 160,000 BCE, and for the second one around 100,000 BCE or so? What was the phylogenic development of their language or languages at the time, where did the three migrations go and what languages did they produce, that are still alive today after their subsequent evolution?
We cannot reproach a historian with not being a linguist or a phylogenist, though he could have thought that history is the human activity that tries to follow and describe the phylogeny of human life, of any and all human-created elements of human life. Harari’s history is IN NO WAY phylogenic. The main question of phylogenic cognition is: Where did the element I am studying come from? That implies another question: What is the inner development of any phenomenon I am studying? And there I must say Harari is deficient.
I would like now to consider an element Harari totally overlooks. He does not even use the word: division of labor. Strangely enough, Harari does not transfer what he says page 300–301 concerning the Queen of England Eleanor, in fact, the wife of the King of England Edward I, who gave birth to sixteen children between 1255 and 1284, thus over 29 years. That means one pregnancy every 21–22 months. Only the last child was a boy. All others were girls and out of the sixteen pregnancies only 6 got to the procreational age of 12 and then to adulthood. Ten of these children either did not survive birth or only a few weeks or months, or died in infancy and childhood. That represents 37.5% of survival to adulthood. The only objective of this mother was to produce a male heir to the English crown. Harari should transfer this to Homo Sapiens emerging 300,000 years BCE. Life expectancy was about 29 and it will remain around 29 till the eighteenth century and even in some European countries the 19th century. Agriculture before Christ when it was developed is accused by some to have reduced for a while this life expectancy to 19. The point is that this accusation is not clear because does it concern only those working in the fields or does it concern the whole society. If it were true, the human species should have disappeared. Let me explain.
Before agriculture and before the Ice Age (peak 19,000 BCE) life expectancy was 29. Women were fertile from 13 to 29. That means only 16 years and we should take into account those who died during the pregnancy, while delivering and from various accidents or diseases. All women did not reach the age of 29. Difficult to know the proportion of those who did not. If we transfer the 21 to 22 months between each pregnancy and birth that means women in those days could carry about seven pregnancies. If we apply the proportion of survival we have seen, that means that only 2.75 children will reach maturity. It is quite obvious that this is not feasible for the survival and expansion of the species for a few reasons: the case taken before is the case of a queen living in perfect comfort at the time and with all medical help if necessary, and available, which is more than 300,000 years BCE. That means she had it easier than a women 300,000 years BCE. I would say the mother then, women in general had to shorten the distance between two pregnancies to 18 months to reach beyond three surviving child reaching maturity (13 years of age). Then a mother can have 10 or 11 pregnancies. If we reduce the survival rate to 33% then that makes 3.5 surviving children brought to maturity. That sounds more realistic, and yet some may say that it means a woman has to be impregnated within the first six to nine months following her delivery. Clearly women are either pregnant or carrying an un-autonomous child on her back and taking care of at least two more who are still dependent. The mistake here would be to treat each woman separately. In fact, if we treat women as a collective they have in their own hands the survival and expansion of the species but then they have to abide by a strict division of labor. Women as soon as they are of age for procreation (13 years of age) have to dedicate their life and activity to bearing, carrying and taking care of children collectively. This is an essential division of labor imposed by the long dependence of children on outside care. And then if we follow the recent research on cave paintings in Indonesia and in Europe that show many hand prints, these prints are essentially from women with a few young, very young teenagers (some male). That is to say women had another dimension: they were the artists, the priestesses, the go-between for humans and spirits, they were responsible for the spiritual life of the community. Woman were not dominant in any way as some want it with matriarchy. Their role was just as essential as the role of men, who were the main hunters and gatherers and who provided the community with the food and energy needed to survive and to expand. In this perspective it is a myth to believe that human communities before the Ice Age were “dominated” by women, just as much as it would be a mistake to consider the same communities were dominated by men. We are speaking here of division of labor within a community that has to be contemplated as cooperative. The emergence of agriculture after the Ice Age will change this division of labor.
To refer to Sally McBrearty, an archeologist who works on Southern Africa, the very concept of agricultural revolution is absurd because it took several thousand years (probably 10,000 more or less) to emerge all over the world, including in Africa, without any communication between the various and continents, based in each area on one local crop, mostly grains (except in Africa) and many other vegetables like potatoes, yakons, ocas, beans, squashes of all sorts, and many others. Harari deals with it as if it were a magical event and does not understand that some of these plants needed probably a lot of experimentation, speculation, and conceptualization before becoming edible for human beings. Cassava is poisonous and has to be cooked, processed in a very complex way to be purified. Corn is derived from self-sowing wild varieties but the domesticated variety cannot sow itself and needs the hands of human beings. The passage from the wild species to the domesticated species is still not clear. It is also a common knowledge that irrigation in the simple form of watering was invented too and had to be developed. The oldest irrigation systems known to men today are one in China, the oldest, another in Babylon in the Middle East, the second oldest. These two can be compared as to their complexity and technology and yet it is quite difficult to state a connection and if connection there were it would be from China to the Middle East, which would not surprise many people but is contradictory with Harari’s ideas who centers his vision of human history entirely on what is today the west. China, just like Africa is rejected out of Harari’s pale and territory. Harari forgets along this line the simple fact that before the Ice Age and for something like 180,000 years Homo Sapiens was emerging in Africa, and necessarily, just like the way he devised various hunting techniques after devising various stone cutting and polishing techniques he also devised some techniques to take care of the natural garden that nature was to him: clean up around the plants that interested him, maybe even water some of them, harvest them with care for them to produce again the following year, etc. I would be surprised if some of them did not experiment sowing for example, but it was probably not needed yet and it may have remained an experiment. That’s one thing Harari forgets: humanity develops a technique and a technology, not to mention a science, when humanity is ready to do it and to need it. The Roman invented the watermill next to Marseilles one century BCE and they never used it because slaves were by far good enough to grind cereals.
After the Ice Age, the surviving Homo Sapiens — and then no other Hominin species was still alive — agriculture developed slowly and required a new division of labor to cultivate the fields and to build the various constructions needed to live in, to store crops in and to practice various spiritual or collective activities in. As for the cultivation of the land, some had to be the controllers of the land and the work on it. Some had to be the controllers of the working teams on this land and of the herding teams further out. Some had to be the controllers of the harvests and their distribution. Some finally had to be the controllers of the storing and commercial use of the surplus after distribution. All that could be done on a cooperative basis and the controllers could also be rotating field workers on all positions. Some communities did work like that, particularly in Africa from what I know. It seems that most communities all around the world evolved towards a hierarchical society with an elite and the mass of the working population. The elite could be itself divided into several groups: the landowners, the human resources managers, the harvest collectors and other accountants (note writing seems to be a must at this stage and some clay tablets have been found with such data as far as Romania and dated as far as 6,000 BCE. Before this durable medium, Homo Sapiens probably used degradable media that have disappeared. Once again cuneiform writing goes a long may before the official date of 3,500–3,000 BCE.
We can note this elite probably contained a group of people who were controlling spiritual and/or religious activities. The new point at this moment is that this elite in all its various elements seems to be composed of men, or at least mostly men. The mass of people cultivate the soil, harvest the crops, process them, build the various needed constructions, eventually the towns, the roads, and the levees of the irrigation system and canals. In Sumerian, the same word or root is used for water, irrigation canals, sperm, and father. The change is complete. And Harari would have been inspired if then he would have studied the position and role women played and the degree of freedom/dependence the members of the mass of workers had. Then he could also have explored the tools, techniques and technologies these societies had (among others the wheel, the plow, the use of metal for field work, etc. He would certainly have been able to understand that such techniques, or such technologies are the result of a lot of experimentation, speculation and conceptualization, and that this elaboration is both technological and scientific.
But Harari’s worst case of western Europe-centered sectarianism concerns what he calls the scientific revolution that he dates with Bacon and his scientific works in the 16th century. Geometry in Greece is ignored though it was invented to manage the boundaries and surfaces of fields. The tremendous knowledge in cosmology, architecture, and physics necessary for the construction of all monumental pyramids, temples, cities, ports and harbors, etc. from Gobekli Tepe (he dates it as being from around 9,500 BCE) to the city of Rome, is all neglected, bypassed.. If all that knowledge is not scientific, then technology is reduced to tinkering about, which it is not. But even worse, he totally ignores the enormity of Asia, both China and India, and their phenomenal advances in various sciences. The existence of “ZERO” (the Mayas had an equivalent in their counting systems long before it was introduced in Europe) is one of these scientific items along with of course cosmology, navigation with ships about five to ten times as big as Christopher Columbus’s ship that looks like a bark or a boat next to the Chinese vessels. And what about the phenomenal architecture, enamels, advanced herding and agriculture, irrigation and transportation dating vastly to a time before anything comparable was introduced in the west. But even in the West, he does not know the horse collar was invented by the Benedictines in the 10th century. He does not know the Benedictines were known as the engineers of the Middles Ages and they recuperated the Roman invention of the watermill and developed it with the invention of the lantern-gear to transform the vertical rotating movement of the wheel into the horizontal rotating movement of the grindstone. He does not know these Benedictines arrived in Ireland in the 6th century and introduced technologies and knowledge they had preserved by salvaging the Roman libraries. He apparently does not know anything about Arabic medicine that was absolutely dominant in Europe, the Middle East and beyond up to the 12th century when Islam went through a closing up movement. China will go through a similar movement after the death of Admiral Zheng He in the middle of the 15th century. And what about Euclid and Archimedes in Greece, Ptolemy and many others in Alexandria and its library?
He might be right on one superficial point but totally wrong on how it happened. The Black Death decimated Europe (between 50% and 75% of its population was concerned or plainly killed). The need to have a new university system to train thousands and thousands of people was required to recover from the plague, rebuild the countries, their administration and services. This motivated Gutenberg and his associate to develop or maybe import from China, where it had existed for quite a while, the printing press in 1450. It is this Black Death catastrophe, the end of the 100-year war, and the printing press that provided the momentum needed to open up universities, start training people with books. That is called the Quattrocento, the Renaissance with tremendous technological inventions and progress. That means what Harari calls the scientific revolution is, in fact, the result of more than two millennia of evolution in what is going to be the west, probably the result of three millennia of evolution in the East, and a lot of exchanges from one world to the other, Spain being a crossroads till the Catholic Church reconquered it and expelled everything that was not European, Catholic and very humble towards the new crown. Let say the world had the chance of being able in a way or another to save the treasures of old technological and scientific knowledge kept and developed in Spain before the “Reconquista.” Otherwise, that knowledge which was not printed but copied in very few manuscripts would have been lost for quite a while. Descartes developed algebra but the very name of this science shows its Arabic origin, in fact, or rather Arabic transit or passage since this ZERO comes from a lot farther than the Arab world, and we could even say a lot farther than the Muslim world.
But where is he right? In the simple fact that Gutenberg’s printing technology, known for a long time as a mystery in England, gave learning and science the possibility to develop the position of the scientist. Before this character was a sorcerer, a metaphysical speculator or a heretic alchemist, most of them chased by the Catholic Church and its Inquisition, forced to abjure his discovery like Galileo Galilei or plainly tortured to purify them of the devil through their suffering and screaming and then burnt to the stake. It is quite obvious that the revolution if it is a revolution and not a several-century-long evolution, is not scientific but a lot wider: it is the conquest, in the west, of basic freedoms. The first document in that fields is signed by Henry I in England in 1100 promising his people (meaning free men paying taxes of course) he will respect their freedoms and liberties. And this declaration comes from a very distant past that probably goes back to the Greeks, though Aristotle considered that slaves had a slavish nature (page 150). Harari would have been well inspired if he had studied the emergence, hence the phylogeny, of basic human rights in the history of humanity after the Ice Age instead of pretending he was presenting a history of humanity as a whole, since he missed some if not most essential principles, steps, evolutions in the last seventeen or eighteen millennia. Humanity and its evolution do not have a teleology but they sure have a phylogeny. We might be able to construct a teleological vision of the future from this phylogeny but it would be absolutely vain to pretend the prediction has any historical and scientific value. In the very last chapters of the book Harari is totally disappointing because he misses the analysis necessary to understand not a supposed revolution in the field of technology or science, called the Singularity or whatever other concept, but to capture some dynamic that will produce the future in a general confrontation of contradictions and we could hope that maybe this will not lead to a conflagration.
I understand these people who told me they were disappointed by the end, just as much as I understand those who love the book because it is simple. True enough. It is simple and instead of experimenting, speculating and conceptualizing the book too often stops at the level of the simple patterns the brain captured, and translates the brain code in which they are frozen and stored into some excessively too long common and simple language. It is true if he had reduced the book to the two-hundred-page maximum it should have been, then the shortcomings would have been very clear for lack of wrapping paper and commercial bows and labels. Get into that book only if you are able to speed read.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
YUVAL NOAH HARARI — HOMO DEUS, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOMORROW — 2015
This is the too long presentation of the various ideological, technical, technological and scientific theories and at times pure dystopias produced today by the Internet-of-All-Things in the WEIRD world, meaning the new upgraded old WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) into Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic. he never questions these elements either in meaning or legitimacy. Why Western and not Asian. What on earth is an education valid for the whole “global village” (never attributed to its author, Marshall McLuhan) as he says so often? Industrialized is not elaborated upon and no question about what industry is, what it is for, what it produces, what makes the value of these products, how these products can bring in the added value they carry, where does this added value come from, and above all could there be any industrialized world without producers and customers? He easily envisages the total disappearance of human producers but what would the customers these producers are, become if they were no longer producers? Could the economy of a country work if all customers disappeared because of their not being producers at all? And there will always be a good mind, like Ron Hubbard to say that useless people have to be liquidated in a vast war against parasitical organisms.
This paragraph is just an appetizer that echoes the nearly concluding sentence in the book: “Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens has done to all other animals.” (460) You choose between domesticating human beings into chattel or sending them to the slaughterhouse, but to feed machines, computers, 3D Copiers? This is the main shortcoming in this very long book: it is an accumulation of dystopian ideologies, in no way a real discussion of the real stakes of this real period in which we really live. It is a long dystopic ranting that can never reach the end of its raving.
But now let’s be a little bit more detailed on the mistakes the author makes that block any possible real discussion.
In the previous volume, I insisted a lot on the fact that Harari took Homo Sapiens at 70,000 BCE fully communicational and fully endowed with a fully developed language. He did not even ask the question of where this language came from, and of the heritage, this language integrated as its starting point. In other words, by not asking the question he went the same way as Noam Chomsky, for whom it is innate, and here Harari stated (by not stating anything at all) that man had received in a way or another a fully developed language since its emergence, phylogeny, history were not taken into account and were not worthy of being taken into account. You can see the ghost of the Old Testament again: language was given ready-made by God to Adam, maybe slightly modernized into given ready-made by the cosmos to Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens has to be considered its totality from the very start of its emergence and along the long processes that make him invent and develop what I have called his mind and his language that develop simultaneously in man using the brain as the tool for this construction of the dual construct Mind-Language. It is so obvious the date of 70,000 BCE is absurd when we could read yesterday in the press that the oldest jaw of Homo Sapiens ever found in the world and in this case out of Africa was found in Israel and dated between 200,000 and 170,000 BCE. That should dwarf Harari assertion about 70,000 BCE into humility.
He starts of course with his three revolutions: 70,000 BCE the cognitive revolution; 12,000 BCE the agricultural revolution; he adds later in this book within the agricultural revolution the development of writing and money in 3,000 BCE; the scientific revolution he dates this time in 1492. And he adds the humanist revolution in the 18th-19th centuries. In this book, he insists on the digital revolution that is taking place right now.
He starts his book with considering, within humanism, the brain, feelings and consciousness that he amplifies with the reference to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, July 7, 20112, that insists on the fact that animals have consciousness. This very expansion of the word consciousness shows that language has nothing to do with it. It is clear there is no reference to the mind, but at the same time language is absent from this consciousness. He writes page 146: “It is unclear why language should be a necessary condition for being aware of past or future events.” And yet pages 175–176 he compares animals to Homo Sapiens and writes: “Cats and other animals are confined to the objective realm and use their communication systems merely to describe reality. Sapiens use language to create completely new realities. . . No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination.” We can be surprised by the use of the word “describe” for animals since they have no articulated language of any sorts that we know, except bees and very few others, but the essential point is that what is missing on the side of animals is not an articulated language but imagination. This is just plain amusing. If the animals we are speaking of had imagination, I just wonder how they could use or express it since they have no language. When you see the physical antics some cats, dogs and other animals perform, you may think they do have some imagination. When you listen to birds singing and you know there is a portion of their song that does not come from the birds of their species in the geographical zone over which they live, nor from their fathers but from themselves as some personal development, you can doubt the lack of imagination of these birds, and we are talking about robins, sparrows and other small birds that live exclusively in the wild.
What the author is missing here is that Homo Sapiens has an articulated language that realized and developed within his mind which is a virtual construct of the brain the conceptualizing power of this very brain that can discriminate and identify in brain code patterns in what the five senses bring to this very brain. This conceptualizing power is both necessary to describe the real world and to imagine a virtual world. If you do not have the concept of cat, you cannot speak of a cat except as “the furry white and black small four-legged animal there that goes mew.” Look at all the concepts you need to describe that little cat. Then you can imagine “green sleepless ideas that haunt your burning watery brain with peaceful violent dreams.”
And of course to show how this conceptualization develops in children we would have to enter the field of the psychogenesis of language, and this would prove clearly that children are self-centered as Harari says but not the way he sees it. But this is a complex domain that I will not enter here. Note it is extremely important to say that the personal system of any language is ternary and based on the experience of the child as soon as he is born. He will at first distinguish the human beings who are next to him and taking care of him without any distinction from himself, and in a vague consideration of others, of the more distant world. It is only when he discriminates himself from the person who is taking care of him that he builds a ternary personal system with “I/me” that he never names for a long time and “you” who is the direct nurturer, with beyond what will be sometime later “he/she/they.” That’s what is missing in this book: a real empathy with the human subject he is speaking of. He reduces him or her to an item, an artifact, a human thing and nothing else.
This appears brutally (206). “When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer.” He might be right because Zeus is an imaginary being, but the believers will suffer and the religion of Zeus will also suffer. And I will even say that anyone should suffer if any church, mosque or synagogue or temple of any religion is burned down. Then he goes on “When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer.” This is totally wrong. The euro suffers in its value because the euro is a material entity. He is right only if he reduces “suffer” to “bleed, cry, etc.” And beyond the euro itself, the Eurozone, the euro economy, and the euro users are suffering because of the inflation it will cause on Chinese products for example. But he goes on with “When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer.” What about the bank being dead and the bank’s users having lost their savings, etc.? He even goes further with “When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer.” In this case, it is plain arrogance because the country might suffer in many ways: loss of prestige, loss of a province or two, dead soldiers and civilians, wounded soldiers and civilians, looting and reparations, etc. When an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima not only Japan suffered, not only the Japanese suffered but the whole world suffered from this barbaric use of this horrendous weapon. This arrogant intellectual tone that does not consider real people in their real fate and situation is constant in the book and in many ways disqualify the book even concerning the serious questions that should be considered in a humane and empathetic way.
When he says “Fiction isn’t bad, it is vital,” (206) he misses the point completely because there is no fiction without language and that enables him to reduce the future to a dramatic dichotomy: “In the 21st century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era.” (206) In fact, for a fiction or a religion to capture any importance in a society it must have an author and a medium. Without the radio Hitler might never have succeeded. Without the radio Roosevelt would not have won. Without television Kennedy might not have been elected. Without the email communication Obama would not have been elected. Without social networks Trump would never have been elected. The fiction must speak to the people with whom it shares a language which is not only words but a lot of ideological stances, prejudices, principles, etc. But more important still is the fact that without a medium that message, fiction, religion cannot reach their audience and hence cannot be. Never Harari considers the language of these fictions and the media through which each one will reach its audience.
That leads us to his “modern covenant.” (233) He does not understand that the modern covenant cannot be separated from the one that started with the first human Hominins, hence Homo Faber if we consider this Hominin is the common ancestor who gave rise to Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. That Homo Faber was from Africa but he migrated as far as northern Caucasus, central Asia and northern central Asia. You must, to explain this geographical expansion by migration, understand that these Hominins negated a basic natural principle: the population of any species is determined by the available resources of the zone where that species live. Very few species expand their geographical territory by migration, especially over long distance. Wolves might be one exception in Europe. But we do not have African orangutans living in the wild in Europe. This is fundamental. Homo Faber instead of limiting his demography to the available resources, actually managed his demography to be able to expand geographically. That is a counter natural selection rule and that was acquired before Homo Sapiens, hence it was inherited. Neanderthals was the same and he covered the whole of Europe and a good share of Asia without leaving the Middle East. We can assume Denisovans did the same and their genes can be found among many Homo Sapiens populations in Asia, though many studies have still to be done.
That should have led Harari to wonder what made these species so special and he could have answered: their communication and that could have brought the next question about language and its phylogeny. The basic concept necessary is the concept of mind. But Harari does not have it. So to characterize the new covenant he gets down to “feelings” which is a very weak concept, and that enables him to state the humanist covenant, humanism, is based on the motto “do what makes you feel good.” This centers this covenant on the individual, his personal feelings, his personal direct knowledge. By centering the whole definition on this undividable individual you come to an individual who is the only one who can know himself and who only favors what he feels good doing, thinking, or whatever. He has no real self or soul. He only has feelings that he must satisfy in a way or another. These feelings are his own and have nothing to do with others. The individual is thus cut off and separated from the whole society, from all others. Strangely enough, this vision is a reduced vision of the Theravada Buddhist conception. He negates the soul and the self (page 332) like the basic Buddhist concept of ‘anatta.’ He reduces the individual to what he feels and he makes him do only what he feels good doing. That is only half of the central Buddhist concept of ‘dukkha’ which makes the life of the individual a constant succession of satisfaction of some need always ending in dissatisfaction of this very need, hence the idea that life is constant frustration. Harari seems to only consider the positive side of this concept, in fact the secondary and minor side, ‘sukha’ (satisfaction). Harari is mostly in agreement with the third basic Buddhist concept that considers everything changes all the time, ‘anicca.’ But even if this set of concepts anatta-dukkha-anicca is reduced as compared to standard Buddhist approaches, one central concept is missing, the concept of ‘citta,’ the mind which is essential and all-encompassing in Buddhism. Without the mind, there is no equilibrium in real everyday life, no future both in life and beyond. The mind is the sixth sense of man without which man cannot even envisage the idea of enlightenment. Enlightenment comes from the mind and its efforts to bring the individual onto the right track to this enlightenment.
Then the author examines the three variants of humanism — within the context of WEIRD as we have already said and seen. For him, there are three forms of humanism: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionist humanism. He rejects the last two by identifying socialist humanism to Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. In the same way, he rejects evolutionist humanism as being the humanism of Hitler. He does not even condescend to examine the evolutionist humanism of Scientology. He concentrates his approach on liberal humanism that he identifies as capitalism. Capitalism for him is based on individualism that implies human rights though he never speaks of the duties of individuals since for him you have human rights but no human duties in this WEIRD world. He considers human rights as attached to individuals and not to social groups. It is obvious in our modern world that collective rights are essential and identifying for many groups of people from women to music lovers. Next, this capitalism is defined as free market and you have to understand it means a free market that is in no way regulated. Even the Chinese version of market economy is rejected because it is a centralized and planified system. He does not see the fact that it is a mixed market economy with a constantly evolving frame of regulations to manage that freedom of the market economy so that it does not explode or reject any class of people, what he calls the “useless class.” (379) That once again negates the duty side of things. On that free market there are only free rights and if you make a wrong decision then you are destroyed and that is to him normal and healthy. He finally adds democracy defined of course on the western model which is essentially the American model without considering the several vicious elements that enable someone who has the majority of the popular vote to be defeated by someone who has the minority of the popular vote. And his whole construction is topped by and centered on free will. Any individual has complete free will. He is asserted as not determined at all in his life. It is not clear if that free will is seen as one potential with realistic necessary limits. It is asserted and defined page 330 as the “ability to act according to our desires, just like chimpanzees, dogs, and parrots.”
Too bad for Homo Sapiens. He is an animal since he has no mind and no language, unlike chimpanzees, dogs, and parrots. And at the same time, Harari opposes this free-will individual to contemporary science and we come to the last part of the book. He is conscious that modern science, in its basic alliance of computer science and biology, considers everything has been dominated by determinism plus randomness since the theory of evolution (page 329) for which mutations are absolutely random but their selection is absolutely dependent on the circumstantial determining context that blindly decides who can survive and who cannot. Homo Sapiens survived and all other human Hominins disappeared. That’s where he considers desires can be manipulated or even controlled either with drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation, and he speaks of a roborat as an experiment about what happens all the time and will happen more and more. But he is not able to capture a fourth way to manipulate the desires of a person with mental propaganda: flattering their desires in order for them to make the proper decision, which will give the manipulator a great advantage like his/her victory in an election.
But he even goes further and brings us to extreme solutions. He gets into the famous, though extremely debated, theory of the two brains, the left brain that controls speech and supports a narrating self, and the right brain that is non-verbal and support an experiencing self. Once again he considers the narrating self and the left brain that controls speech without seeing there is no speech without language, which enables him not to see every single concept in this language is a conceptualized pattern, identified in brain code as a pattern discriminated by the brain within the incoming nervous impulses from the various senses, hence from the experiencing body. Language is a construct of the mind and the mind is constructed along with language simultaneously from the experiential patterns in brain code discriminated within and from the sensations-perceptions coming directly from the senses and received/processed by the brain neurons.
And that is where he enters modern technology (more than science). “A flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans.” (355) I like the Biblical “flood” reference. And this Biblical reference starts a long series of ternary elements as if the binary God of Genesis (“God and his spirit”) had to be systematically paganized or Christianized into a trinity. To quote them is the best way to show the mental pattern of Harari’s thought. Is he conscious of it? He should be. By the way, three is the number of real life for the Buddhists, the real-life dominated by ‘anicca-dukkha-anatta,’ a full life of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that has to be stepped out thanks to the mind that leads to the quaternary or even octagonal enlightenment of nirvana.
Three practical developments: 1- Humans lose their economic and military usefulness; 2- value in humans collectively but not individually; 3- value only in a very limited unique upgraded superhuman elite of individuals. (356)
The useless class of all those who will be made useless by tomorrow’s Artificial Intelligence machines are defined by three principles: 1- organisms are algorithms; 2- algorithmic calculations are indifferent whether the calculator is organic (eventually human) or non-organic; 3- non-organic machines can do all that organic beings can do. (372)
The liberal belief in individualism is founded on the three important assumptions: 1- I am an in-dividual, that cannot be divided; 2- my authentic self is completely free; 3- I can know things about myself nobody else can discover. I really am how I feel and what I want. The voter knows best, the customer is always right and . . . beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (382–3)
Life sciences challenge all three assumptions: 1- Organisms are algorithms and humans are not individuals — they are ‘dividuals’; 2- The algorithms constituting a human are not free; 3- An external algorithm could know me better than I can ever know myself. (383)
Here starts the dystopia. He identifies two possible developments from this situation, either techno humanism or data religion. At this moment he rejects the concept of mind definitely: “As we discussed in chapter 3, we don’t really understand the mind. We don’t know how minds emerge, not what their function is.” He should remain silent since he does not understand the basic central concept of Homo Sapiens’s phylogenic emergence and Homo Sapiens’s psychogenetic maturation. He runs into a mutation of WASP to produce WEIRD with an unidentified reference to McLuhan’s “global village” that he redefines as built on ONE and only ONE culture, the basic culture of the humanist revolution reduced to three elements: 1- modern Western culture; 2- rejection of superior mental states; 3- sanctification of mundane experiences of average Joe. (414) These techno-humanists are trying to upgrade the mind (319) that has lost three things: 1- smelling; 2- paying attention; 3- ability to dream. (421)
This section ends up with a mundane conclusion: “We may successfully upgrade our bodies and our brains while losing our minds in the process.” Note the ternary structure here and the trite reference to the mind with the phrase ‘lose our minds’ that has no scientific value here. “Indeed, techno-humanism may end up downgrading humans.” (422) It is mundane because he does not give any argument why he rejects this approach and he does not really discuss their arguments. Furthermore, he does not explore the result of this approach if allowed to get into power. He does not explore the evolution of the mind when using these modern machines, Artificial Intelligence. He does not consider the limits the collective mind may impose on such evolution. He should read Dune by Frank Herbert to learn about the Butlerian revolution. He does not consider the human activities and jobs that will develop within the advancing growth of such technologies. And he does not consider what would happen if the machines took over within this techno-humanist revolution: Production but no customers; rebellion of men against idleness, a modern Luddite movement; refusal of being unconscious slaves or servants; and maybe other developments.
The data religion, that he calls dataism, is the extreme development of the digital revolution. It is based on big data that runs in a continuous growing flow of data that no organic being, in spite of the fact they themselves are nothing but data algorithms, are able to follow and exploit. It is cyberspace. Humanity in this perspective is crucified by four basic methods to improve the efficiency of the system by increasing: 1- the number of processors; 2- the variety of processors; 3- the number of connections between processors; 4- the freedom of movement along existing connections (440–1)
And that’s where he reaches the diabolical pentacle of five stages in human history: 1- the cognitive revolution (70,000 BCE); 2- the agricultural revolution (12,000 BCE); 3- within the agricultural revolution, the invention of writing and money (3,000 BCE); 4- the scientific revolution (starting here in 1492, Christopher Columbus’ first crossing of the Atlantic); 5- the dataist revolution: the full merging of humanity in ONE data processing system, the Internet-of-all-things. Then the conclusion is absolute: “Once this mission is accomplished, Homo Sapiens will vanish.” (441–3)
And to top up this diabolical pentacle he gets down three concepts. Humanity for him has moved from a deocentric vision to a homocentric vision and finally to a datacentric vision. In this new and final phase any kind of freedom of expression will be negated and the only freedom that will replace all others is the freedom of information, not for individual human beings, but meaning clearly the freedom for information to circulate, and he alludes to Aaron Schwartz and his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.
In front of this assertion from dataism “that the human brain cannot fathom the new master algorithms” (457) he comes up with another pentacle in the shape of five questions: 1- we may discover organisms aren’t algorithms; 2- sensations, emotions, thoughts certainly play an important part in making decisions, but is that their sole meaning? 3- what would be lost by replacing conscious intelligence with superior non-conscious intelligence? 4- interdisciplinary excursions may bring a unified scientific paradigm, extremely difficult to resist even if it is flawed. 5- What will happen to humans? Once the Internet-of-All-Things is up and running, humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data. “Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens has done to all other animals. (458–60)
On his last page, his last words are three interlinked processes and three key questions. He reaches here Solomon’s famous wisdom, three plus three in the shape of two equilateral triangles crossed into David’s Star. First, the three processes: 1- science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma; 2- intelligence is decoupling from consciousness; 3- non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves. And then the three key questions: 1- Are organisms just algorithms? 2- What’s more valuable — intelligence or consciousness? 3- what will happy to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
Unluckily the book does not come to the conclusion the author should have reached by just implementing his ideas. If Homo Sapiens vanishes then what is the use of the data flow since there will be no organisms that could consume the goods produced by machines. Machines would automatically become obsolete and disappear in rust and rot. The whole system of data flow is centered on the added value some work produces. That added value has to be realized on a market that has customers who acquire the products containing that added value. Then and only then it has any incentive to be produced. Let’s take a mash-up video broadcast on YouTube. First of all, the broadcasting will bring in a pittance to the author in proportion of the number of times it will be viewed. But for YouTube, it is a lot more important because they are going to put adverts on that video or around it on the page. These adverts will be paid by the advertisers according to the flow of viewers on that particular page where the advert is embedded. It is this money indirectly produced by the mash-up video that is the income of YouTube to pay for all their expenses, the royalties to the authors, their taxes, etc. And they expect to make a profit. As soon as all producers are reduced to idleness, without an income, then they cannot be customers, or the system has to produce an income for them all so that they can go on consuming. But that is artificial. The system these intellectuals, and Harari among other Ray Kurzweil or Aaron Schwartz, more or less represent, impersonate or just brandish to make people afraid so that they will buy the next volume, this system is just plain unfeasible. We’ll have to be patient and wait and see but I am sure that perspective of a society without any work will not go down even with a spoonful of sugar.
You can be sure millions and millions of jobs will be created, be it only to occupy people and justify the income they will get from the state, the system, the business world that will pay them enough for them to be satisfied with what they do and just enjoy the merry-go-round.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU