Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.