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Reviewing Sapiens: An Evolutionary Deconstruction of Human Rights

Casey Luskin
Image: "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776," by John Trumbull, via GPA Photo Archive/Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s note: In a series, Casey Luskin is reviewing Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is Part 5. Look here for Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 6.

In this series reviewing Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we previously saw that the historian Yuval Noah Harari adopts a staunchly materialistic outlook. As he 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. 

So Much for the Declaration

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. 

Little Else Needs to Be Said

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. 

Next, “Reviewing Sapiens: Back to the Guy Who Lot his Faith After Reading Harari