For our purpose, that's not the point: In Chapter 1 of his best-selling book, Professor Harari offers an instructive point about the way we in our self-impressed species may have long been inclined to "see ourselves from afar."
The species in question is Homo sapiens. The title of Harari's rolling best-seller is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. At the New York Times, it's still number one on the relevant list. For background, see yesterday's post.
Are we humans "the rational animal," as Aristotle is constantly said to have said? Does that famous assessment, as commonly understood, really capture our essence?
Staing the obvious, anyone who has ever read the New York Times will tend to wonder about that famous assessment. And sure enough! Right there in his opening chapter, Harari delivers a glancing blow at the way we've long viewed ourselves:
HARARI (page 18): Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it...Within our floundering, war-like species, do we really tend to see ourselves as "the epitome of creation?" It has ever been thus!
At least over here in the western world, we've described ourselves as "made in God's image"—and of course as the rational animal. We've tended to think that we alone possess a soul, even that we alone possess consciousness or, by apparent implication, the "rational" faculty itself.
(Meanwhile, when we hear that our upper-end journalists often "went to the finest schools," this only tends to increase our sense that they must be possessed of sound moral judgment and may even know what they're talking about! That's the way our human brains are possibly wired to work!)
Meanwhile, what did Harari mean with his slightly snippy remark about our being "the only human species?" He was referring to information in the following, earlier passage—information about prehistory's other human species, the ones he says we drove into the sea, presumably in much the way God would have wanted it done:
HARARI (page 5): Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a [biological] family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.It wasn't just the Neanderthals, whose brains (and muscles) were bigger than ours. Along the way, Harari calls the roll of the other human species which were driven into extinction after our own species emerged from Africa about 70,000 years ago.
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
It wasn't just the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). It was also Homo erectus (Upright Man), Homo soloensis (Man from the Solo valley), Homo floresiensis and Homo denisova.
While we're at it, let's not forget Homo rudolfensis (Man from Lake Rudolf) and Homo ergaster (Working Man). "They were all human beings," Harari notes. And they were all in existence, in various parts of the world, when our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged from its point of origin in East Africa, not all that long ago.
None of these species exists today. And uh-oh! When Harari explains why our species ended up as the only human species around, he attributes our dominance, not to our rational powers, but to our unique ability to engage in "gossip" and to develop and promulgate group "fictions."
It wasn't our rational powers, he says. He says research supports his claims.
Before the week is done, we'll review Harari's treatment of gossip and fiction, noting that these are the obvious engines on which our upper-end "press corps" runs. For today, we'll merely float an obvious question:
Does Professor Harari know what he's talking about? Barack Obama and even Bill Gates may have loved, and blurbed, his best-selling book. But when Harari seems to offer surprising assessments, is there any particular reason to assume he knows what he's talking about? Are his assessments correct?
Are Harari's assessments correct? That doesn't especially matter to us, for reasons we'll run through in a bit more detail tomorrow.
As the year goes along, we'll be offering Harari's assessment as an alternate paradigm through which to imagine our own human race. We'll be presenting his portrait as an alternative to the more pleasing traditional view, if which we've long seen ourselves as "the epitome of creation," even as an essentially "rational" being.
That may not be our self-impressed species' essence at all, Harari's book seems to suggest.
That said, how accurate are Harari's views, especially those our species' cheerleaders may not be inclined to like?
Tomorrow, we'll show you what the leading authority on this question has said. We'll also visit that famous duck-rabbit, further discussing our method.
Tomorrow: Two paradigms