“The earth on which we live is a spinning globe. Vast though it seems to us, it is a mere speck of matter in the greater vastness of space.” That’s the beginning of H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History” (1920), a history of the world that helped to move me toward atheism and socialism when I was a teenager.
“An Animal of No Significance.” Ninety-five years later, that’s the title of Chapter 1 of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” which numerous reviewers lauded in 2015. Last year was a breakout year for the Israeli professor, an atheist who joined what “The Guardian” termed “the globetrotting TED-ocracy: the academic superstars who travel the world delivering keynotes on zeitgeisty topics.”
In one sense, it’s strange that Harari should be popular. After all, he insists that “human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan. ... Any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
Such Harari jibes sound like intellectual sadism, and who except a masochist would want to buy a book that screams, “You’re an idiot”? Ah, but Harari allows a tiny but crucial exception to his contention that “Homo sapiens” is really Homer Sap, even more of a simpleton than Homer Simpson: Harari says, “Meet the people in Google, in Facebook, they have tremendous visions about the future, about overcoming death, living for ever, merging humans with computers.”
The author’s compliment to potential patrons is huge: Harari throws in an obligatory attack on the intelligent design movement, which “claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance.” He says they are silly, of course, “but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future”: Googlians and Facebook-ites will be the intelligent designers, creating Homo Google and Homo Facebook in their own image.
No surprise, then, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg selected “Sapiens”for his online book club, inviting 38 million followers to read that their lives are meaningless -- unless they work to create humanity’s successor through genetic engineering, cyborg engineering (combining organic and inorganic parts), or creating minds inside computers that take on all the characteristics of life except for flesh and blood.
The appeal of this bravest of new worlds is obvious at a time when you can put ISIS into a search engine and instantly see examples of man’s absolute depravity. What Augustine wrote in “The City of God” 1,600 years ago we see on our computer and television screens: “Men plunder their fellow-men and take them captive. They chain and imprison, exile and torture. They cut off limbs, destroy organs of sense, and misuse bodies to gratify the obscene lust of the oppressor.”
Harari’s religion of salvation by technology has its appeal, as does every religion that says some Sapiens can ascend to heavenly heights if they are smart and work hard enough. Only Christianity teaches that our hope lies not in ascending to godlike status but in God descending to become man. As Gerald Bray writes in his excellent Crossway-published biography, “Augustine on the Christian Life,” “The more he came to understand of God, the less he trusted in himself and his own resources.”
“Sapiens” is likely to become required reading in many college freshman courses. Some readers will try to avoid meaninglessness by embracing technocracy, as I embraced communism. “You will be like God,” Satan whispered in the garden. The inoculation against H.G. Wells or Harari is the Bible’s teaching that all, including Lenin or Zuckerberg, sin and rebel against God -- and that our hope is in Christ. Anyone who holds out false hope is selling something: a book, a program, maybe an ideology, but always an idol.
If we create supposedly egalitarian societies or marvels of genetic and computer engineering, we will inevitably infect them with our sin. If we continue to build Towers of Babel, the future will be more like that of “Terminator”films than Harari’s gauzy vision.