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A Scientifically Weak and Ethically Uninspiring Vision of Human Origins: Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens

Published at Evolution News

When traveling through airports I love to browse bookstores, because it gives a sense of what ideas are tickling the public’s ears. For the last few years I’ve seen in airport bookstores a book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperPerennial, 2015), stocked in large piles and prominently displayed. In fact it’s still being sold in airport bookstores, despite the fact that the book is now some six years old.

As I’m interested in human origins, I assumed this was a book that I should read — but try reading a 450-page book for fun while doing a PhD. It doesn’t happen. Somewhere along the way I bought the book and saved it for later. 

Then earlier this year an ID-friendly scientist contacted me to ask my opinion of the book. He mentioned a former Christian who had lost his faith after reading Sapiens, and then told the story on Justin Brierley’s excellent show Unbelievable? My friend asked if I would address Sapiens in my talk at the Dallas Conference on Science and Faith, which I ended up doing. What could be so powerful in this book that it would cause someone to lose his faith? 

The author, Yuval Noah Harari, is an Israeli who holds a PhD from Oxford (where he studied world history), an atheist, and a darling of the intelligentsia who have given him and his book many reviews and profiles over the past few years. A big reason for his popularity is that Sapiens is exceptionally well-written, accessible, and even enjoyable to read. But the main reason for the book’s influence is that it purports to explain, as The New Yorker put it, the “History of Everyone, Ever.” Who wouldn’t want to read such a book? 

I offer this praise even though I disagreed with a lot of what Harari says in the book. Much of it involves uncontroversial accounts of humanity that you learned about in your eighth-grade history class — i.e., the transition from small hunter-gatherer foraging tribes, to agriculture-based civilizations, to the modern day global industrial society. 

No big deal there. But the book goes much further. 

Harsh Words from Academics

Sapiens purports to explain the origin of virtually all major aspects of humanity — religion, human social groups, and civilization — in evolutionary terms. Along the way it offers the reader a hefty dose of evolutionary psychology. While reading it I consistently thought to myself, “This book is light on science and data, and heavy on fact-free story-telling — and no wonder since many of his arguments are steeped in data-free evolutionary psychology!” So I decided to look up the book’s Wikipedia page to see if other people felt the same way. Turns out they did — and the reviews from academics have been devastating. From Wikipedia:

Anthropologist Christopher Robert Hallpike reviewed the book [Sapiens] and did not find any “serious contribution to knowledge”. Hallpike suggested that “…whenever his facts are broadly correct they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own he often gets things wrong, sometimes seriously”. He considered it an infotainment publishing event offering a “wild intellectual ride across the landscape of history, dotted with sensational displays of speculation, and ending with blood-curdling predictions about human destiny.”

Science journalist Charles C. Mann concluded in The Wall Street Journal, “There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions.”

Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman points out problems stemming from the contradiction between Harari’s “freethinking scientific mind” and his “fuzzier worldview hobbled by political correctness”, but nonetheless wrote that “Harari’s book is important reading for serious-minded, self-reflective sapiens.”

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, philosopher Galen Strawson concluded that among several other problems, “Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.”

Those are some harsh words, but they don’t necessarily mean that Harari’s claims in Sapiens are wrong. I will be reviewing the book here in a series of posts. It’s worth taking a closer look to evaluate what is compelling and what is controversial about it. At the end of this series I’ll address the precise claims in the book that apparently led one person to lose his faith.

Admissions and Overstatements about Human Evolutionary Origins

Sapiens makes intriguing admissions about our lack of knowledge of human evolutionary origins. For example, Harari admits, “We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us.” (p. 14) Harari is right, and this lack of evidence for the evolutionary origin of modern humans is consistent with the admissions of many mainstream evolutionary paleoanthropologists.

Another candid admission in the book (which I also agree with) is that it’s not easy to account for humanity’s special cognitive abilities — our big, smart, energetically expensive brain. This is especially difficult to explain if the main imperatives that drove our evolution were merely that we survive and reproduce on the African savannah. Here’s Harari’s account of how our brains got bigger:

That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a no-brainer. We are so enamoured of our high intelligence that we assume that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better. But if that were the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do calculus, and frogs would by now have launched their own space program. Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom?

The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling. But cars and guns are a recent phenomenon. For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it. What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know. 

Sapiens, p. 9

Again, this is exactly right: If our brains are largely the result of selection pressures on the African savannah — as he puts it “Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers” (p. 378) — then there’s no reason to expect that we should need to evolve the ability to build cathedrals, compose symphonies, ponder the deep physics mysteries of the universe, or write entertaining (or even imaginative) books about human history. Why should these things evolve? He said it, not me: “Frankly, we don’t know.”

Here’s something else we don’t know: the genetic pathway by which all of these cognitive abilities evolved (supposedly). Now you probably won’t appreciate this fact if you read Sapiens, because Harari gives a veneer of evolutionary explanation which really amounts to no explanation at all. Here’s what he says:

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. 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 an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world? 

Sapiens, p. 21

True, Harari admits that “We’re not sure” how all this happened. But he then proceeds to confidently assert that human cognitive abilities arose via “accidental genetic mutations” that “changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens.” No discussion is attempted and no citation is given for exactly what these mutations were, what exactly they did, how many mutations were necessary, and whether they would be likely to arise via the neo-Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection in the available time periods. 

If we don’t know the answers to any of those questions, then how do we know that his next statement is true: “It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell”? Of course the answer is clear: We can’t know that his claim is true. He doesn’t know the claim is true. He’s overstating what we really know. After all, evolutionary biologists have admitted that the origin of human language is very difficult to explain since we lack adequate analogues or evolutionary precursors among animals.

Yet for Harari and so many others, the unquestioned answer is that human cognitive abilities arose due to “pure chance.” This is an extremely important claim that he confidently asserts and it sets the stage for the rest of the book, which purports to give an entirely materialistic account of human history. For example, a few pages later he lets slip his anti-religious ideological bias. This is revealed in a claim he asserts as factually true, but for which no justification whatsoever is provided:

There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. 

Sapiens, p. 28

Did Religion Evolve, or Was It Designed, to Foster Cooperation?

Harari’s conjecture — “There are no gods” — is not just a piece of inconsequential trivia about his worldview — it forms the basis of many other crucial claims in the book. This naturalistic assumption permeates Harari’s thinking.

For example, Harari assumes that religion evolved by natural processes and in no way reflects some kind of design or revelation from a God. In fact, one of his central arguments is that religion evolved when humanity produced “myths” which fostered group cooperation and survival. Harari spends a lot of time developing this argument. Here are some key excerpts from the book:

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. … 

[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. … 

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. … 

Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths. … 

Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.

Sapiens, pp. 24, 25, 27, 102, 103

Thus if Harari is correct, then religion was not designed, but is a behavior which evolved naturally because it fostered shared “myths” which allowed societies to better cooperate, increasing their chances of survival. This view grows out of his “no gods in the universe” perspective because it implies that religion was not revealed to humanity, but rather evolved.

Harari is undoubtedly correct that shared beliefs — or “myths,” as he pejoratively calls them — facilitate group cooperation, and this fosters survival. But this is an observation about shared beliefs, myths, and religion, not an explanation for them. And it is quite easy for a design-based model to account for these observations in a manner that requires no unguided evolution. Here’s what it might look like:

Perhaps shared “myths” that foster friendship, fellowship, and cooperation among human beings were not the result of random evolution or “pure chance” (as Harari describes our cognitive evolution), but rather reflect the intended state of human society as it was designed by a benevolent creator. If this is the case, then “large-scale human cooperation,” as Harari puts it, might be the intentional result of large-scale shared religious beliefs in a society — a useful emergent property that was intended by a designer for a society that doesn’t lose its religious cohesion. In other words, these benefits may be viewed not as the accidental byproduct of evolution but as intended for a society that pursues shared spirituality. 

Failing to Account for the Complexity of Religion

Harari is by no means the first to propose cooperation and group selection as an explanation for the origin of religion. But do these evolutionary accounts really account for the phenomenon? Not so much.

Religion is much more than group cooperation. For many religions it’s all about prayer, sacrifice, and total personal devotion to a deity. How do you explain that in evolutionary terms? How many followers of a religion have died — i.e., became evolutionary dead ends — for their beliefs? Which “selfish genes” drive young males into monasteries to avoid sexual relationships and pray? How does it help society put food on the table if your religion demands sacrificing large numbers of field animals to a deity? What about requiring that the rich and the poor donate wealth to build temples rather than grain houses — does that foster the growth of large societies? And what about that commandment about taking a weekly day off, with no fire or work, to worship God? That was never very good for cooperation and productivity. How about the religious ascetic who taught his followers to sell their possessions, give to the poor, and then chose to die at the hands of his worst enemies, believing that his own death would save them? How did he get such a big following? 

I’m asking these questions in evolutionary terms: how do these behaviors help believers survive and reproduce? Sure you can find tangential benefits that are unexpected byproducts, but generally speaking, for the evolutionist these things are difficult to explain. That is why Harari’s repeated assurances about how religion exists to build group cohesion is simplistic and woefully insufficient to account for many of the most common characteristics of religion.

Getting the Origin of Religion Backwards

When it comes to the origin of religion, Harari tells the standard evolutionary story. According to this story, religion began as a form of animism among small bands of hunters and gatherers and then proceeded to polytheism and finally monotheism as group size grew with the first agricultural civilizations. At each stage, he argues, religion evolved in order to provide the glue that gave the group the cohesive unity it needed (at its given size) to cooperate and survive.

Here’s Harari claiming that religion starts off with animism among ancient foragers — a claim for which he admits there is very little direct evidence:

Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. … In the animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings. There are also immaterial entities — the spirits of the dead, and friendly and malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels. … Animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic name for thousands of very different religions, cults and beliefs. What makes all of them ‘animist’ is this common approach to the world and to man’s place in it. … [I]t is better to be frank and admit that we have only the haziest notions about the religions of ancient foragers. We assume that they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed. Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understanding of human history. 

Sapiens, pp. 55-56

Then Harari says the next step in humanity’s religious evolution was polytheism:

The Agricultural Revolution initially had a far smaller impact on the status of other members of the animist system, such as rocks, springs, ghosts and demons. However, these too gradually lost status in favour of the new gods. As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square miles, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin.

The attempt to answer these needs led to the appearance of polytheistic religions (from the Greek: poly = many, theos = god). These religions understood the world to be controlled by a group of powerful gods, such as the fertility goddess, the rain god and the war god. Humans could appeal to these gods and the gods might, if they received devotions and sacrifices, deign to bring rain, victory and health. 

Sapiens, pp. 212-213

With little explanation, he finally asserts that humanity’s polytheistic religious culture at last evolved into monotheism:

With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their particular patron that they … began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in fact the supreme power of the universe. Yet at the same time they continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that they could strike deals with Him. Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war. … Today most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another, and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations. 

Sapiens, pp. 217-218

His main argument for the initial origin of religion is that it fostered cooperation. At each step of humanity’s religious evolution, he more or less argues that the new form of religion helped us cooperate in new and larger types of groups.

As noted above, there is undoubtedly much truth that religion fosters cooperation, but Harari’s overall story ignores the possibility that humanity was designed to cooperate via shared religious beliefs. His evolutionary story about religious evolution also assumes the naturalistic viewpoint that religion evolved through various stages and was not revealed from above. No wonder Harari feels this way, since he admits his worldview that “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” As a monotheist, I’m skeptical of these accounts of religious evolution, especially since I’m accustomed to evolutionary arguments often leaving out important data points.

Recently there was a spat over a 2019 article in Nature. The article, titled “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history,” was just retracted. It proposed that societies produce beliefs in “moralizing gods” in order to “facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies.” The article purported to survey 414 societies, and claimed to find an “association between moralizing gods and social complexity” where “moralizing gods follow — rather than precede — large increases in social complexity.” As lead author Harvey Whitehouse put it in New Scientist, the study assessed “whether religion has helped societies grow and flourish,” and basically found the answer was no: “Instead of helping foster cooperation as societies expanded, Big Gods appeared only after a society had passed a threshold in complexity corresponding to a population of around a million people.” Their study was retracted after a new paper found that their dataset was too limited. When a proper dataset was used, “the reported finding is reversed: moralizing gods precede increases in social complexity.” It seems, therefore, that belief in a just and moral God helps drive success and growth in a society. 

Inadequate Datasets and Harari’s Claims

This problem of inadequate datasets undoubtedly plagues many of Harari’s claims about the evolutionary stages of religion. Perhaps there are some societies that progressed from animism to polytheism to monotheism. But anthropologists and missionaries have also reported finding the opposite — that some groups that practice animism today remember an earlier time when their people worshipped something closer to a monotheistic God. Though anecdotal, consider this striking account from the book Eternity in Their Hearts by missionary Don Richardson:

In 1867, a bearded Norwegian missionary named Lars Skrefsrud and his Danish colleague, a layman named Hans Børreson, found two-and-a-half million people called the Santal living in a region north of Calcutta, India. Skrefsrud soon proved himself an amazing linguist. He quickly became so fluent in Santal that people came from miles around just to hear a foreigner speak their language so well!

As soon as possible, Skrefsrud began proclaiming the gospel to the Santal. Naturally he wondered how many years it would take before Santal people, until then so far removed from Jewish or Christian influences, would even show interest in the gospel, let alone open their hearts to it.

To Skrefsrud’s utter amazement, the Santal were electrified almost at once by the gospel message. At length he heard Santal sages, including one named Kolean, exclaim, “What this stranger is saying must mean that Thakur Jiu has not forgotten us after all this time!”

Skrefsrud caught his breath in astonishment. Thakur was a Santal word meaning “genuine.” Jiu meant “god.”

The Genuine God?

Clearly, Skrefsrud was not introducing a new concept by talking about one supreme God. Santal sages politely brushed aside the terminology he had been using for God and insisted that Thakur Jiu was the right name to use. That name, obviously, had been on Santal lips for a very long time!

“How do you know about Thakur Jiu?” Skrefsrud asked (a little disappointed, perhaps).

“Our forefathers knew Him long ago,” the Santal replied, beaming.

“Very well,” Skrefsrud continued, “I have a second question. Since you know about Thakur Jiu, why don’t you worship Him instead of the sun, or worse yet, demons?”

Santal faces around him grew wistful. “That,” they responded, “is the bad news.” Then the Santal sage named Kolean stepped forward and said, “Let me tell you our story from the very beginning.”

Not only Skrefsrud, but the entire gathering of younger Santal, fell silent as Kolean, an esteemed elder, spun out a story that stirred the dust on aeons of Santal oral tradition… 

Eternity in Their Hearts, pp. 41-43

Richardson then recounts the Santal’s own history of its religious evolution: starting with devotion to a monotheistic God who created humanity, followed by a rebellion against that God after which they felt “ashamed,” and eventually leading to the division of humanity and the migration of their tribe to India. During that migration:

In those days, Kolean explained, the proto-Santal, as descendants of the holy pair, still acknowledged Thakur Jiu as the genuine God. Facing this crisis, however, they lost their faith in Him and took their first step into spiritism. “The spirits of these great mountains have blocked our way,” they decided. “Come, let us bind ourselves to them by an oath, so that they will let us pass.” Then they covenanted with the “Maran Buru” (spirits of the great mountains), saying, “O, Maran Buru, if you release the pathways for us, we will practice spirit appeasement when we reach the other side.”

Skrefsrud no doubt had thought it strange that the Santal name for wicked spirits meant literally “spirits of the great mountains,” especially since there were no great mountains in the present Santal homeland. Now he understood.

“Very shortly,” Kolean continued, “they came upon a passage [the Khyber Pass?] in the direction of the rising sun.” They named that passage Bain, which means “day gate.” Thus the proto-Santal burst through onto the plains of what is now called Pakistan and India. Subsequent migrations brought them still further east to the border regions between India and the present Bangladesh, where they became the modern Santal people. 

Under bondage to their oath, and not out of love for the Maran Buru, the Santal began to practice spirit appeasement, sorcery, and even sun worship. Kolean added: “In the beginning, we did not have gods. The ancient ancestors obeyed Thakur only. After finding other gods, day by day we forgot Thakur more and more until only His name remained.”

Eternity in Their Hearts, pp. 43-44

The traditions of the Santal people thus entail an account of their own religious history that directly contradicts Harari’s evolutionary view: they started as monotheists who worshipped the one “true” God (Thakur), and only later descended into animism and spiritism. There are similar accounts of other groups in Eternity in Their Hearts: peoples that started as monotheists and later turned to other forms of religion. This also directly counters the standard materialistic narrative about the origin of religion. While far from conclusive, it shows that questions about the origin of religion are far more complex than the story that Harari presents. Religion is a highly complicated human behavior, and simplistic evolutionary narratives like those presented in Sapiens hardly do justice to the diversity and complexity of religion throughout human societies.

An Evolutionary Deconstruction of Human Rights

As we saw, Harari assumes, “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (p. 28) We discussed how the book’s scheme for the evolution of religion — animism to polytheism to monotheism — is contradicted by certain anthropological data. Harari would likely dismiss such anthropological evidence as “myths.” But when we dismiss religious ideas as mere “myths,” we risk losing many of the philosophical foundations that religion has provided for human rights and ethics in our civilization.

Thus Harari explores the implications of his materialistic evolutionary view for ethics, morality, and human value. The results are disturbing. David Klinghoffer wrote about this two years ago, noting that Harari deconstructs the most famous line from the Declaration of Independence. Harari highlights in bold the ideas that become difficult to sustain in a materialist framework:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (emphases in original)

Harari divides beliefs into those that are “objective” — things that exist “independently of human consciousness and human beliefs” — “subjective” — things that exist only in “the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual” — and “inter-subjective” — things that exist “within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” (p. 117) In Harari’s evolutionary view, beliefs about the rights of man fall into the “subjective” categories. It all depends on humanity having been “not ‘created’.” Let’s just let Harari speak for himself:

According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. ‘Endowed by their creator’ should be translated simply into ‘born’.

Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, bur because they have wings. And it’s not true that these organs, abilities and characteristics are ‘unalienable’. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’. 

And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree…. 

Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. 

Sapiens, pp. 109-110

If you didn’t read that passage carefully, go back and read it again. What Harari just articulated is that under an evolutionary mindset there is no objective basis for equality, freedom, or human rights — and in order to accept such things we must believe in principles that are effectively falsehoods. 

Thus, in Harari’s view, under an evolutionary perspective there is no basis for objectively asserting human equality and human rights. He should be commended for providing such an unfiltered exploration of the evolutionary view. David Klinghoffer commented on the troubling implications of that outlook:

Harari concedes that it’s possible to imagine a system of thought including equal rights. A society could be founded on an “imagined order,” that is, where “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” [p. 110]

Or to put it differently, as I did, “You could imagine a meaning to life. But inevitably it would be a fictional rather than objective meaning.” Similarly, you could imagine ideals like those in the Declaration. But inevitably they would be fictional rather than based in objective reality. That’s the difference between trying to ground our civilization in evolutionary versus design premises. It should be obvious that a society whose roots are widely acknowledged as fictions is bound to be less successful and enduring than one where they are recognized as real.

Harari is remarkably self-aware about the implications of his reasoning, immediately writing:

It’s likely that more than a few readers squirmed in their chairs while reading the preceding paragraphs. … If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’. Hammurabi would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas Jefferson about human rights. Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night. 

Such fears are well justified. 

Sapiens, pp. 110-111

But there’s a reason why Harari isn’t too worried that servants will rise up and kill their masters: most people believe in God and this keeps society in check. He writes that it’s these beliefs that create society:

This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population — and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces — truly believe in it. 

Sapiens, p. 112

Privileged Access to the Truth?

But what if the world as a whole begins to follow Harari’s view as it’s being spread through Sapiens — the ideas that God isn’t real, or that human rights and the “imagined order” have no basis? If Harari is right, it sounds like some bad things are going to follow once the truth leaks out. But he’s convinced they won’t because the “elite,” in order to preserve the order in society, will “never admit that the order is imagined” (p. 112). 

But what makes the elite so sure that the “imagined order exists only in our minds” (p. 113), as he puts it? What gives them privileged access to the truth that the rest of us don’t have? Harari never says. 

As we saw earlier in this series, perhaps the “order” of society is an intended consequence of a design for human beings, where shared beliefs and even a shared religious narrative are meant to bring people into greater harmony that hold society together. Again, Harari gets it backwards: he assumes there are no gods, and he assumes that any good that flows from believing in religion is an incidental evolutionary byproduct that helps maintain religion in society. But why can’t those benefits — a universal basis for equality and human rights, a shared narrative that allows us to cooperate and work together — be the intended and designed benefits for a society that maintains its religious fabric?

Clearly Harari considers himself part of the “elite” who know the truth about the lack of a rational basis for maintaining social order. So why is he exempt from higher levels of control? Harari never considers that perhaps the view that the order is “imagined” is a view being imposed upon him to control his own behavior. Why must we religious peons be the ones whose entire lives are manipulated by lies? Why can’t atheist academics like Harari be the victims of similar kind of falsehoods? 

In any case, Harari never considers these possibilities because his starting point won’t let him: “There are no gods in the universe.” This belief seems to form the basis for everything else in the book, for no other options are seriously considered. 

Back to the Guy Who Lost His Faith Over Sapiens

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned a person who reported losing his faith after reading the book. On a January 2021 episode of Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? podcast, guest and podcaster Sam Devis told Brierley that what did it for him was reading Harari’s idea in Sapiens that “humanity is a weaver of stories.” Devis notes that these stories “bring us together and give us a joint narrative that we to adhere to and then do more because of.” He gives the example of the pyramids being successfully built because the ancient Egyptian civilization believed that the Pharaohs were gods, and belief in this myth “enabled a group of people to do an amazing feat.” Of course Devis recognizes that these ancient Egyptian religious beliefs were false, and thus people did great things because of “awe and worship of something that wasn’t necessarily true.” He explains that he was then forced to ask himself: “Could this be true of belief systems we hold in the 21st century?” 

Devis also states that what Harari did was deconstruct his notions that humans are special. He said that Sapiens “enabled me to see that actually it isn’t just a big jump from ape to man. There have been many, many steps in between,” where humans “might be better [than animals] in certain areas but not necessarily better in other areas.” Devis asks, “What is it specifically about people — humans today, Homo sapiens — that gives us the right or the ability to say that we are special?” For him, all of this opened up the possibility of “naturalism or materialism” being true. 

In the end, for Devis, Sapiens offered an “understanding of where we’ve come from and the evolutionary journey we’ve had.” All this suggested to him that God might not be objectively real. Devis needed some external way to “prove” that God was real, and he could see no way to do that.

Different people find different arguments persuasive. What convinces one person to come to faith may be quite uncompelling to another. And what dissuades one person from belief in God may seem entirely weak and unconvincing to someone else. This doesn’t mean that one person is smart and the other foolish, and we cannot judge another for thinking differently. It just highlights differences in how we think — a diversity that, as a Christian myself, I think is part of the beauty that God built into the human species. 

I say all of this because I have to confess that I found Sam Devis’s self-stated reasons for rejecting faith to be highly unconvincing. He seems to be a thoughtful person who is well-informed and genuinely trying to seek the truth. I was impressed by his showing on the Unbelievable? podcast. However, the fact that I respect him doesn’t mean that I have to find his arguments compelling. After all, consider what we’ve seen in this series:

  • Harari admits that under evolution it’s not easy to account for humanity’s special cognitive abilities — our big, smart, energetically expensive brain. He writes: “What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.” This is consistent with the fact that evolutionary biologists have struggled to explain the origin of human language, and to find analogues or evolutionary precursors of human language among animals
  • Harari proposes an essentially vacuous explanation for how human cognition evolved, vaguely attributing it to “accidental genetic mutations” and “pure chance,” while attempting no discussion or explanation of what these mutations were, what they did, how many mutations were necessary, and most important, whether they would be likely to arise via the neo-Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection in the available time periods.
  • Harari relies heavily upon the idea that religion evolved because it inspired shared “myths” which fostered friendship, fellowship, and cooperation — massively aiding in survival. But he fails to recognize that this is an observation about beneficial effects of religion, not an explanation of the origin of religion. He further fails to consider the possibility that “large-scale human cooperation” may have been an intended result of widely shared religious beliefs that an intelligent designer built into humanity as a reward to benefit societies that don’t lose their religious cohesion (more on that below).
  • Harari advocates a standard scheme for the evolution of religion, where it begins with animism and transitions into polytheism, and finally monotheism. But he ignores evidence from some animistic and polytheistic groups who recall that they originated as monotheists and only later forgot about their “true creator God,” and descended into other forms of religion.
  • Harari’s simplistic model for the evolution of religion fails to account for the complexity of the phenomenon — which in many cases would yield few apparent evolutionary benefits. This is not intended as a criticism of religion, for many of these aspects of religion are ones we highly esteem. For example, what survival benefits are there in people devoting their lives to prayer, sacrifice, and total personal devotion to a deity? How many followers of a religion have died — i.e., became evolutionary dead ends — because they held steadfastly to their religious beliefs in the face of persecution? Or how many religious persons have entered monasteries or convents and gave up the option to reproduce, in order to live lives of prayer and service to others? Why do billions of people follow a religious ascetic who taught to sell your possessions, give to the poor, and then chose to die at the hands of his worst enemies, believing that his own death would save them? It’s certainly true that religion provides advantageous cohesion in a society, but all of these praiseworthy behaviors represent “dead ends” from an evolutionary perspective. If anything, the complexity of religion demonstrates that human life is about much more than mere survival and reproduction. This directly counters the narrative of evolutionary psychology, which claims all behaviors must be reducible to benefits conferred towards survival and reproduction.
  • Harari simply asserts without any justification that, “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” Later he admits that this fact fully deconstructs any objective basis for human rights and equality. Harari explains that under this vision of humanity, “the science of biology” indicates “people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’.” Paralleling the Declaration of Independence, which says that we were “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” Harari admits that in his view, “Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything.” Harari admits the impotence of his worldview, saying we should believe in human rights “not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” But he further admits that his evolution-based ideology makes it “well justified” to fear “a danger that our society will collapse.” In other words, Harari’s worldview is so destructive that he wants his readers to believe in fictions for the sake of holding society together.

Harari’s dark vision of humanity — one that lacks explanations for humanity itself, including many of our core behaviors and defining intellectual or expressive features, and one that destroys any objective basis for human rights — is very difficult for me to find attractive. I much prefer the Judeo-Christian vision, where all humans were created in the image of God and have fundamental worth and value — loved equally in the sight of God and deserving of just and fair treatment under human rights and the law — regardless of race, creed, culture, intelligence, nationality, or any other characteristic.

If “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as John Keats wrote, then this beautiful vision of humanity must be true, and Harari’s must be false.

An Evolutionary Argument Against Evolution

On top of those problems, Harari’s evolutionary vision seems self-refuting: If we adopt his view and reject religion, then we lose all the social benefits that religion provides — benefits that provide a basis for the equality and human rights that hold society together. This, he admits, could lead to the collapse of society. But if we live in a world produced by evolution — where all that matters is survival and reproduction — then why would evolution produce a species that would adopt an ideology that leads to its own destruction? 

Moreover, how could we know such an ideology is true? If evolution produced our minds, how can we trust our beliefs about evolution? This point has been recognized by many thinkers over the years as a self-defeating aspect of the evolutionary worldview. 

Darwin himself wrote:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

Charles Darwin, letter to William Graham, July 3, 1881

Likewise C. S. Lewis:

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. … Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows therefore that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by our thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument that proved no argument was sound — a proof that there are no such things as proofs — which is nonsense. 

C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 26

Lewis quoted the influential evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane who acknowledged this problem: 

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

Quoted in Miracles, p. 28

Even materialist thinkers such as Patricia Churchland admit that under an evolutionary view of the human mind, belief in truth “takes the hindmost” with regard to other needs of an organism:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Insofar as representations serve that function, representations are a good thing. … [A representation] is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.

Patricia Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy, 84:544-553 (1987)

Another famous expositor of this argument is Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who writes:

Even if you think Darwinian selection would make it probable that certain belief-producing mechanisms — those involved in the production of beliefs relevant to survival — are reliable, that would not hold for the mechanisms involved in the production of the theoretical claims of science — such beliefs, for example as E, the evolutionary story itself. And of course the same would be true for N [belief in naturalism].

Alvin Plantinga, “An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism,” in Faith in Theory and Practice, eds. Carol White and Elizabeth Radcliffe (Open Court, 1993)

For all of Harari’s assumptions that Darwinian evolution explains the origin of the human mind, it’s difficult to see how he can justify the veracity of that belief. A Darwinian explanation of human cognition seems to defeat itself.

Restoring the Credibility of Human Exceptionalism

Sam Devis also said that Harari’s deconstruction of human exceptionalism was a major factor in his losing faith. But considering the bullet points listed above, there are still strong reasons to retain a belief in human exceptionalism. As noted in the first two bullets, there are distinct breaks between humanlike forms in the fossil record and their supposed apelike precursors, and the evolution of human language is extremely difficult to explain given the lack of analogues or precursors among forms of animal communication. This alone suggests humans are unique, but there are many other reasons to view human exceptionalism as valid.

It should be obvious that there are significant differences between humans and apes. For one, humans are the only primates that always walk upright, have relatively hairless bodies, and wear clothing. But the differences go far beyond physical traits and appearances.

Humans are the only species that uses fire and technology. Humans are the only species that composes music, writes poetry, and practices religion. When it comes to morality, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith observes: “[W]e are unquestionably a unique species — the only species capable of even contemplating ethical issues and assuming responsibilities — we uniquely are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct…” Humans are also the only species that seeks to investigate the natural world through science. Additionally, humans are distinguished by their use of complex language. As MIT linguist Noam Chomsky observes:

Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world.… There is no reason to suppose that the ‘gaps’ are bridgeable.

Other linguists have suggested that this finding would imply “a cognitive equivalent of the Big Bang.”

The human race has unique and unparalleled moral, intellectual, and creative abilities. In view of all this evidence, many scholars have argued that humans are indeed exceptional.

Independent Basis for Belief in a Designer

As noted, Sam Devis said that after reading Harari’s book he sought some independent way to “prove” that God was real, but he saw no way to do that. As I explained here, intelligent design does not “prove” that “God” exists, but much evidence from nature does provide us with substantial scientific reasons to believe that life and the universe are the result of an intelligent cause. This provides us with strong epistemic reasons to consider theism — the existence of a personal Creator God — to be true. Here are some key lines of evidence evidence from nature which supports intelligent design, and provide what Sam Devis requested when he sought some kind of “independent” evidence pointing to the existence of God:

  • The fact that the universe exists, and had a beginning, which calls out for a First Cause.
  • The exquisite “global” fine-tuning of the laws and constants of the universe to allow for advanced life to exist.
  • Additional “local” fine-tuning parameters make Earth a “privileged planet,” which is well-suited not just for life but also for scientific discovery.
  • The presence of language-based code in our DNA which contains commands and codes very similar to what we find in computer information processing.
  • The result of this information processing of language-based code is innumerable molecular machines carrying out vital tasks inside our cells. Combined with this observation is the fact that many of these machines are irreducibly complex (i.e., they require a certain minimum core of parts to work and can’t be built via a step-wise Darwinian pathway). And many are actually involved in constructing the very components that compose them — a case of causal circularity that stymies a stepwise evolutionary explanation.
  • The abrupt appearance of new types of organisms throughout the history of life, witnessed in the fossil record as “explosions” where fundamentally new types of life appear without direct evolutionary precursors.
  • The exceptional traits of humans and the origin of higher human behaviors such as art, religion, mathematics, science, and heroic moral acts of self-sacrifice, which point to our having a higher purpose beyond mere survival and reproduction.

If Sam Devis or others seek independent evidence that life didn’t evolve by Harari’s blind evolutionary scheme, but rather was designed, there is an abundance. 

Harari’s Uncompelling Vision in Sapiens

Materialists often oppose human exceptionalism because it challenges their belief that we are little more than just another animal. But no matter what gradations people claim to find between ape behavior and human behavior, we can’t escape one undeniable fact: it’s humans who write scientific papers studying apes, not the other way around. Apes don’t do anything like what we do. It’s not even close. The world we live in shows unbridgeable chasms between human and animal behavior. If you don’t see that, then go to the chimp or gorilla exhibit at your local zoo, and bring a bucket of cold water with you. Take a look at the apes, then dump the water over your head, wake up, and take a second look. If that doesn’t work, I can’t help you. 

Having come to the end of this review, I think there are strong bases for rejecting Harari’s evolutionary vision. It fails to explain too many crucial aspects of the human experience, contradicts too much data, and is too dark and hopeless as regards human rights and equality. On top of that, if it is true, then neither you nor I could ever know. Nor, for that matter, could Sam Devis or Yuval Noah Harari.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.