I am currently reading a thought-provoking book titled, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, who has a Ph.D. in History from Oxford University and who now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Harari is no friend of religion, but he is quite frank in acknowledging that liberal humanism is founded on monotheistic beliefs, and that the current scientific consensus among evolutionary biologists is increasingly at odds with the tenets of liberal humanism.
In chapter 6 of his book, Dr. Harari contrasts two documents: Hammurabi’s Code (written in 1776 B.C.) and the American Declaration of Independence (written in 1776 A.D.). Under Hammurabi’s Code, society was viewed as a hierarchy: people were divided into two genders and three classes (superior people, commoners and slaves), each of differing monetary values. Children were the property of their parents, and could be killed as punishment for crimes committed by their parents, such as murder. Now, it is easy for us to recognize that the Babylonian division of people into superior and inferior classes was not based on any objective reality, but on a social myth that was widely accepted by people living at that time. But Dr. Harari argues that the belief, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are equal, is also a myth with no basis in reality. He writes:
Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically? Let us try to translate the most famous line of the American Declaration of Independence into biological terms:
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.
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 is no such thing as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but 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 has 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 standpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about ‘happiness’? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily defined and measured. So ‘life, libery and the pursuit of happiness’ should be translated into ‘life and the pursuit of pleasure’.
So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.
Dr. Harari goes on to say that he has no argument with those who would contend that encouraging people to believe in the myth of equality will help create a stable and prosperous society, thereby creating an imagined order, which is neither a subjective mirage nor an objective fact, but rather, a publicly accepted fiction residing in the consciousness of many individuals, which enables large numbers of humans to co-operate effectively. He goes on to note, however, that Hammurabi’s Code, in which the social order was based on a shared belief in hierarchy, could be justified by the same line of reasoning.
Dr. Harari also notes that any social order requires what he calls ‘true believers’: in order for it to work, a large number of people – including people in the elite class and in the security forces – have to actually believe that the myth is true. “American democracy,” he writes, “would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights.”
Dr. Harari also makes the interesting point that in order to change an imagined order, which is collectively held by the vast majority of citizens, we need to simultaneously changes the beliefs of millions of citizens. But since these citizens still need to function as a society, they will need to replace the myth they discarded with a new myth.
In a later chapter, Dr. Harari explores the disturbing social implications of evolutionary biology, whose findings do not support liberal humanism, but a radically different kind of humanism – evolutionary humanism – in which the ultimate goal of society is to encourage the evolution of human beings into a race of superhumans:
At the dawn of the third millennium, the future of evlutionary humanism is unclear. For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to ‘upgrade’ Homo sapiens. But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speaks openly about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.
At the same time, a huge gulf is opening between the tentes of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences, a pull we cannot ignore much longer. Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no sould there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behavior of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?
(Emphases mine – VJT.)
How long, indeed?
Dr. Harari and I disagree profoundly on the human soul, and on the sufficiency of blind processes to explain the course of human evolution. Nevertheless, Dr. Harari is to be commended for his clearsightedness and frankness, in expounding the logic of evolutionary biology with perfect clarity. You cannot believe in the values enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and at the same time, call yourself an evolutionary biologist. Which raises an interesting sociological question: why are American schools teaching a doctrine in their science classrooms which undermines the founding principles of their own society?