According to Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who teaches in the faculty of humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, what makes humans different from other animals is not reasoning, toolmaking or a capacity for morality, all of which are found to some degree among our animal kin. Humans are different because they inhabit an imagined world, created from their own ideas, myths and fantasies, which they take as real. Inhabiting this virtual world, humans have achieved things no other animal can match. The power of the imagination has turned the human species – at the beginning, “an animal of no significance” midway up the food chain on the African savannah – into “self-made gods”. But these “deities” lack self-restraint. Wiping out other species, they have dominated the planet without making themselves noticeably happier. Now, with new technologies enabling them to create artificial forms of life and alter their own natures, they hardly know what to do with their new dominion. “Is there anything more dangerous”, Harari asks, “than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
Already a bestseller in Hebrew, Sapiens mounts a fundamental challenge to the predominant contemporary view of humans and their place in the world. “Liberal humanism,” Harari points out, “is built on monotheist foundations.” Take away the soul and the privileged place in the world accorded to humans by a creator-god, and it becomes difficult to explain why humans are so special. The task becomes harder if we perform a thought-experiment based on the facts of human origins. We’ve grown used to thinking of ourselves as the only species of humans. But for most of its history Homo sapiens shared the planet with several humanoid species – the Neanderthals being only the best known. “The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man”, writes Harari. Suppose some or all of these species had survived alongside ourselves up to the present. What would become of the cherished sense that we are set apart from the rest of the natural world by having some peculiar transcendent value? Human uniqueness, Harari concludes, is a myth spawned by an accident of evolution.
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