Yuval Noah Harari’s books reduce individuals to mere functioning mechanisms. That is to miss the entire point of existence, argues Mark Vernon in this extract from Idler magazine #67, July/August 2019
There is one thing that this summer’s exhibition at Tate Britain, Van Gogh and Britain, gets absolutely right. It’s the balance between talking about the art of the great impressionist and letting the art speak for itself.
Experts don’t always get this balance right. Art historians and critics can get too excited about how a particular still life or landscape fits the fashions of the time, or how a new technique allowed a picture to be created. The means then eclipses the ends. There’s more interest in the process than in the product. The image is lost behind a veil of analysis.
Van Gogh refuses to let that happen. Several great works are in the show, such as Starry Night Over the Rhône, Sunflowers, and the one that unexpectedly stood out for me, Pollarded Willows. They outshine any comment. Their beauty and soul will not be put down.
But if you remove the beauty and soul then all you have left is the explanation, the mechanics. This is the dubious trick that Yuval Noah Harari pulls off in his account of the history of our species, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity.
It’s a publishing phenomenon, having been translated into dozens of languages, stacked in thousands of bookshops, and bought by millions worldwide. The Guardian newspaper put it among their top brainy tomes of the decade. Bill Gates has it in his ten favourite books.
That should be a clue. Gates is the man who dreamt of putting a computer into every human home. Harari is one of many thinkers of our age who imagine that there’s a computer, and not much more, clicking away in every human skull.
His story of human history is entirely about the process. The word “beauty” barely appears. The word “soul” is clearly one to junk. “Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there,” Harari writes in a typically perfunctory summary. The book is elegantly composed but full of such hasty, careless dismissals. And why would it be otherwise? His vision of humanity is precisely that we’re dismal survival machines. Little wonder, the book that followed on from the extraordinary success of Sapiens imagines data destroying our freedom and algorithms usurping our consciousness. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow argues that as our ancestors were self-deluded robots, our offspring will be usurped by the robots that are coming to outsmart us.
There’s something pernicious about these books. They are written not only without soul, but with the spirit of humanity systematically excluded. My fear is that the millions who read them will accept them as gospel truth. They will presume that this is what modern science proves and, further, they will buy into the worldview, consciously or not. Their imaginations will be crushed by the implication that their humanity is nothing more than the running of DNA code. They will be unable to conceive of a future not overshadowed by pitiless, calculating machines. As the philosopher of the virtual age, Jaron Lanier, puts it: “The problem with computers is not that they will become conscious but that we will lose touch with what it means to be conscious as we interact with them.” This submission seems already to have gripped Harari.
But maybe there’s an upside. Since his books are already out there, maybe they can be read as false histories, as dark images of the full truth. By being attentive to what they exclude, it’s possible to see what really makes homo sapiens sapiens. We need to recall what Van Gogh could see and read with our spirits engaged, heart and mind.