#CaseStudy Ted Talk: What Explains the Rise of Humans?

Yuval Noah Harari gave a TED Talk, What explains the rise of humans?, and wrote a more concise version of his talk as a writing for Ted.com, Why humans run the world, both based on his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Our point isn’t so much to quibble with Harari’s point about the difference between humans and animals—his point can pretty much be taken right out of Classical Philosophy—so much as to deal with the conclusions he hastily reaches that result from his use of vocab. In this way, we will see an example of how the merits of modern thought frequently vindicate the Classics, and its demerits prove the Classics’ superiority.

As usual, we suspect that Harari’s strange comments are the result of some kind of modern bias. Its likely that he is trying to be edgy in order to present his findings as new to humanity. We have to consider that he doesn’t really believe the hasty conclusions that he suggests with his choice of vocab. But, we shouldn’t accept such a conclusion too quickly, since these hasty conclusions that he is suggesting are typical of a thinker that is biased by their modern perspective.

Harari says that the difference between humans and animals is that humans “are capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.” He says, “The answer is our imagination. We can cooperate with numerous strangers because we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of strangers to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.”

To a certain degree, that is fine enough. The essential point is similar enough to what Aristotle says when he explains why man is the political animal: “A voice is a signifier of what is pleasant or painful, which is why it is also possessed by the other animals (for their nature goes this far: they not only perceive what is pleasant or painful but signify it to each other). But speech is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust. For it is peculiar to human beings, in comparison to the other animals, that they alone have perception of what is good or bad, just or unjust, and the rest.”1

So, good news: Hareri is giving us an explanation that substantively was understood almost 2,500 years ago. Hareri refers to our imagination, whereas Aristotle refers to our speech (Greek word, logos). But this gap is easily bridged: the 20th century linguist Saussure notes that “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.”2 But, Hareri has to distinguish himself, or modernity (i.e. the future), from what has come before. For Hareri, humans are distinguished from animals by our ability to come up with fictions.

Hareri defines what he means by fiction in the course of his application of it. Only humans can believe fictions. Human rights are a fiction because you won’t find them if you cut a human open—i.e. they don’t materially exist. Apparently for the same reason, nations are fictions. He says, “A mountain is something real. You can see it, touch it, smell it. But the United States or Israel are not a physical reality.” Money is a fiction because it doesn’t have value unless large numbers of people agree that it has value.

It is tough to know where to begin, but we will begin where Hareri begins—with imagination. Humans use their imagination to create fictions and that is what makes them different from the animals. Really? In his TED Talk, Hareri says, “A chimpanzee may say, ‘look, there is a lion, run away.’ Or, ‘look, there is a banana tree over there, let’s go and get bananas.'” He says this to mean that a chimpanzee can only describe ‘reality’, but if one thinks about it, a chimpanzee could only have such a reaction if it imagines something that hasn’t actually happened—i.e. getting eaten by a lion or eating a banana. Hareri might note that the chimpanzee has witnessed a chimp being eaten by a lion or has eaten a banana before, but this is surely true of a human that assigns value to money. In fact, chimps can understand that things that are not food will give them food, similarly to humans with money. It seems as though Hareri’s explanation would even consider classical conditioning to be fictional.

But we can help Hareri out. It seems as though if Hariri were to replace the word fictions with arbitrary symbols then much of what he says wouldn’t be objectionable. Saussure says about language that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary…in that [the signifier] actually has no natural connection with the signfied.”3 This is one thing that distinguishes human language from animal language. When a chimpanzee encounters a lion, he can’t even think “look, there is a lion” as Hareri suggests, but only “look, there is that thing that is one of those things that it is,” except even that is merely an arbitrary symbol that humans can read to understand what a chimpanzee would think since a chimpanzee doesn’t actually use a human language to think.

Animals can apparently assign meaning to arbitrary symbols as in classical conditioning. But, in this case they repeatedly experience the symbol being paired with what it is to signify and it isn’t simply arbitrary, whereas I can tell a reader here that moon, month, and menses all had the same word in Ancient Greek, and that word was menses and a reader will take my meaning from a single read.

Human rights are a more complicated issue. If human rights are a fiction, it could be because society requires general rules even though what is right could only consist in particular situations—counting, of course, particular situations where a person has to make general rules (Plato, Statesman 295B). Because of the sad state of modern philosophy, it is quite rare that someone, in rejecting natural human rights, considers the possibility of natural human right—i.e. situational ethics. Natural right requires that a teleological view apply to humanity such that everything is considered in relation to its goal. In this case, although it may not be as easy to discern, a human has a goal just like a water bottle, a table, a piano or anything else, and in this case what is right for humans consists in the particular situation. Hareri may still say that human right and situational ethics are a fiction, but he would have to similarly say so about it being desirous that a water bottle is able to contain its liquid, a table is able to stand steady, that piano is in tune, and even a that human being has good physical or mental health. But, Hareri doesn’t actually live his life that way, and it is impossible for people generally to live their lives that way, so it is not clear what Hareri’s point could then be other than to win an argument. Also, it seems as though chimps and other animals couldn’t really live without making value judgments. Here, we should recall the notorious fact/value split which has been hastily accepted in modernity and says that value judgments—i.e. what is good or bad, what isn’t merely descriptive of matter—are limited to being just, like, someone’s opinion, man.

Hareri says that nations are fictions, that the United States and Israel are fictions. Here, we see quite clearly that Hareri is using an idiosyncratic definition of fiction: Oceania, Middle-earth and Coruscant are fictions—the United States and Israel are actual countries. Paul Johnson’s History of the American People doesn’t belong in the fiction section at the bookstore.

But, here too maybe we can help Hareri out. This time, it seems likely that the vocab word Hareri could use is ‘social construction’. Nations are a social construct, America and Israel are social constructs, but they are nonetheless real. Ian Hacking says that the first premise of a social construct is that “[it] need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. [It], or [it] as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.”4 This split between social construct and nature was known to the Classics as nomoi and physis. Certainly any particular country such as the United States or Israel is, then, a social construct. The idea of a nation is a social construct especially if we refer to the modern nation-state. But, for the Classics, especially as expressed by Aristotle, man lived in political communities that were formed by people discussing what was advantageous. Palestine, although not universally recognized as a State, is nevertheless a political community. It is by nature that man lives in such communities just as it is by nature that wolves hunt in packs or that bees are led by a queen.

Although it is doubtless that Hareri has lots of valuable things to say, it is quite bizarre that he has this moderately popular presence with TED Talks saying things that are so superficial. If my boss tells me to come into work early tomorrow to do work that actually has to be done, is that a fiction? And yet, you couldn’t tell a chimpanzee to show up for work early the next day. And yet, Hareri says that the ability to believe fictions is what separates humans from animals.

It doesn’t suffice either to say that humans believe in fictions because human language uses arbitrary symbols—i.e. that communication isn’t true or real because the symbols are arbitrary. As Aristotle notes, what really matters is what the symbols refer to since that is what we really deal with: “[I]t must be asked… that something has meaning; so that we must converse on the basis of definition by grasping what falsity or truth means.”5 Otherwise, it is like playing piano keys without regard for sounding the strings.

For a final word, we’ll consider one last superficial anecdote Harari included to be provocative. He says, “money is probably the most successful fiction ever invented by humans… everybody believes in money, and everybody believes in the dollar bill. Even Osama bin Laden. He hated American religion, American politics and American culture — but he was quite fond of American dollars. He had no objection to that story.”

Yes, Osama bin Laden essentially hated America. But unlike a chimp, he wasn’t unaware of America’s existence. In Harari’s terms, Bin Laden believed that America existed and he was motivated by that belief, as well as by the belief in the superiority of his own views about existence. This anecdote is almost completely irrelevant to Harari’s point.

At this point, Harari might say that he is making a different point that is thematically related—maybe he is merely pointing out the indispensability of myths to human life. But, this also merely vindicates the Classics. The Classics generally agreed that society was incompatible with genuine knowledge (i.e. philosophy), that the two were always in conflict. Notably, Plato’s Noble Lie was a result of the general circumstances that societies are founded by less than savory means, and that since any particular society is not simply just its continued existence cannot easily be argued for based on genuine knowledge. It might be objected that Plato did not believe this since he had the city run by genuine knowledge—i.e. by philosophers—implement the most bizarre Noble Lie. But, this merely reflects the knowledge that philosophers have of the indispensability of myth to society, and so someone designing a society according to genuine knowledge of societies would need recourse to myth.

That society is compatible with genuine knowledge is really a belief that has become authoritative with the development of modern physical science. This belief is much of the basis for such doctrines as the separation of church and state. The Classics, and apparently along with Harari, would consider this belief to be a myth, although, as we have seen, Harari uses an overly broad idiosyncratic definition of fiction.

And in any case, humans are only really able to consider myths like these because of their ability to use a language that assigns meaning to arbitrary symbols. Certainly language is a more successful ‘fiction‘ than money. In Hareri’s sense, money is denied by lots of people, such as some hippies. There are cases of humans literally being raised without human contact, such as being raised by wolves, and never having been exposed to human language, but those cases are incredibly rare—certainly more rare than the hippies that don’t believe in money (in Hareri’s sense). Language could be said to be denied by the likes of Eastern Religion-types, who describe reality by expressing themselves in contradictions like, “coal is black, coal isn’t black” or, “Empty handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands.”6 But, such people nonetheless use language to express their dissatisfaction with it and nonetheless do not deny language in Harari’s sense. Language is, after all, as Aristotle said, what separates humans from animals and allows humans to rule.


1. Aristotle, Politics 1253a7, translated by CDC Reeve.

2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course on General Linguistics, 2.IV.1, translated by Wade Baskin

3. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course on General Linguistics, 1.I.2

4. Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? p6

5. Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV.8.1012b, translated by Richard Hope

6. D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p33 and p58

Categories: #CaseStudy, TEDTalks

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