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Reviewing Sapiens — Back to the Guy Who Lost His Faith Over Harari

Photo: Yuval Noah Harari, by CEU / Daniel Vegel, via Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s note: In a series, Casey Luskin has been reviewing Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is Part 6, the concluding entry. Look here for Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5. The full review can be found here.

In the first installment of this series reviewing Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Oxford-trained historian Yuval Noah Harari, I mentioned that one person I know of 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 Ways of Thinking

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 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. 

An Uncompelling Vision

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.

Editor’s Note: This post initially misspelled the last name of “Sam Devis.” It has now been corrected.