"Rational animal, my asp," Israeli professor declares: Have we the humans, at least in the west, been seeing ourselves from afar?
We ask that question for a reason. Aristotle, our first great logician, is widely said to have told us this:
"Man [sic] is the rational animal."
Everyone says that he said it! But anyone who watches cable news, or reads our nation's major newspapers, knows that any such claim would seem to be wrong on its face, at least as the famous claim is commonly understood.
Are we humans essentially rational? In the most common meaning of the term, is rationality our distinguishing characteristic?
We'd have to say that the answer is no. Indeed, it's widely understood that figures like Darwin and Freud began to undermine the idea that we humans are fundamentally "rational" in the most obvious sense.
Years later, "cable news" came along, determined to eliminate any last doubts. Does anyone think they're gazing on rational conduct when they review the work of the modern American press?
The sheer stupidity of the American discourse seems to make the basic point clear. We humans have our sensible moments, especially on the personal level, and our technology largely works as designed. But should we be viewed as "the rational animal?"
First great logician, please!
What did Aristotle actually mean by the famous old bromide at issue? We can't exactly answer that, and it doesn't matter that much for our purposes this year.
We're here to suggest that we "rational animals" need a better way of understanding ourselves. And sure enough! As if to offer an alternate portrait, along came Professor Harari with his best-selling big book.
We refer to Yuval Noah Harari, whose widely-praised book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, has been on the world's best-seller lists for several years now. In its present incarnation, it tops the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction chart, even now, after 38 weeks on the list.
In its American paperback edition, the book is blurbed by Barack Obama on the back—and by Bill Gates on the front! Gates has called it one of his ten favorite books.
That should settle any questions about the best-seller's value and worth. By way of background, the leading authority on Harari and his book thumbnails him like this:
Yuval Noah Harari (born 24 February 1976) is an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of the international bestsellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). His writings examine free will, consciousness, and intelligence.We've highlighted the only part of Harai's book with which we'll be concerned. Meanwhile, what are "apex predators," since that's what our own floundering species is said to have become?
Harari's early publications are concerned with what he describes as the "cognitive revolution" occurring roughly 50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens supplanted the rival Neanderthals, developed language skills and structured societies, and ascended as apex predators...
Inquiring minds might want to find out! You can click this link for a bit of background, but no, it doesn't sound good.
In the first two chapters of his book, Harari describes the way our own species, Homo sapiens, took control of the planet. And it wasn't just the Neanderthals who were "supplanted" by our ancestors in a global movement which started roughly 70,000 years ago.
At that time, there were a half dozen human species in the world, not just us and them. It wasn't just the Neanderthals. All those species were driven to extinction by the advance of our own species out of Africa at that time.
Why did our species succeed to the extent that the other species went into extinction? According to Professor Harari, it didn't happen because of our "rational" conduct.
According to Professor Harari, it happened because, due to chance mutations, our ancestors had developed the ability to "gossip," along with the ability to promulgate and advance compelling group "fictions."
In Professor Harari's account, these new abilities allowed our ancestors to drive the Neanderthals, and the other human groups, into the literal and figurative sea. Near the end of his opening chapter, he offers this unflattering picture of the way this may have occurred:
HARARI (page 17): Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.According to Professor Harari, it wasn't our rational essence which led to our control of the planet. It was our new-found skill with gossip and fiction, mixed perhaps with our lack of tolerance for those who aren't like us.
Harari even compares what happened to an "ethnic cleansing." Based on the professor's wider account, a person could even imagine that, in these ancient encounters, the more rational animals lost!
Is Professor Harari actually right in his various claims and conjectures? Tomorrow, when we resume, we'll see what the experts have said.
For today, we'll only say this. Anyone who has read the New York Times, with today'front page as a case in point, will know that we aren't "the rational animal" in any definitive sense. Is it time to develop a clearer idea of who and what we are?
If so, Harari's book gives us a way to slide away from the famous old claim in which we see ourselves as the wondrously "rational animal." The gentleman has a new attitude, and presents a new gestalt.
We may not need a new attitude, but we clearly need a new paradigmatic understanding of who and what we are. Here within our own failing nation, our discourse has run on gossip and group fiction for decades now.
In Harari's portrait, those traits have been present all along. They may start to define what we are, as seen on cable news each night and all through the upper-end press.
Tomorrow: Experts v. Gates and Obama