TED talks are a great way to communicate succinctly and in a logical manner some interesting theories and ideas. What follows are three main challenges to Yuval Noah Harari’s answer to the question: What explains the rise of humans? which he answers in a TED talk.
The objections stem from his main idea that humans are different from other species because they have imagination and that allows them to “cooperate flexibly in large numbers”. Therefore, humans live in two realities: one is objective, and, in his words, “over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations. And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities, like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination.” These are great ideas, but the objections below stem from my perplexity about some of them.
Challenge 1: The social collaboration, “the flexible cooperation in large numbers” cannot be possible without a supple and versatile communication system, i.e. verbal language, that allows humans not only to share the imaginative musings of individuals, but also reinforces the ever-present possibilities of cognitive transformations. Clearly, it is still a moot point whether language actually helped the development of imagination (symbolic, abstract thinking) or whether it followed the rise of symbolic, abstract thinking. Harari does not explain the rise of imagination in the human species, nor does he mention the important aspect of the existence of language without which no collaboration would be possible. Furthermore, to share one’s imaginative stories is not enough, other humans must “buy” into them, must be convinced of their utility, functionality, necessity, etc. This was not explained in the talk either. Moreover, to understand, share and accept these stories is not enough: they must be acted upon, defended, elaborated on to actually construct the “objective” reality he mentions.
Challenge 2: The list of stories mentioned by Harari as those imaginative creations on which humans built everything includes religion, political and economic systems, states and nations, companies, corporations, money. The stories behind all of them make sense, with the exception of money. In fact, all of them except money are attempts at answering our deepest concerns about the purpose of life. Money is not a story in the sense that a religion is a story: there are stories around money and with money as the protagonist, but money itself is not a story. The explanatory strength of his idea of imagination and stories behind everything human is greatly weakened by this example. On the other hand, all these examples except money bring to mind Giambattista Vico’s “three ages” and human institutions which he elaborated on in the early 18th century in his Scienza nuova.
Challenge 3: It is interesting that Harari avoids the use of the word “narrative” in the sense of Foucault’s grand narratives: this avoidance weakens his general idea further. The consequences of this point to the question What happens when these narratives (stories) do not prevail any longer? Of course, other narratives take the places of the old. One could muse and suggest that transhumanism is replacing religion as the grand narrative now. If this is the case, then all the other examples of Harari’s stories would fall to the wayside (ironically, maybe except for “money”). To be a transhuman surely means to have narratives (imagination), but not of the kind Harari proposes for humans.
In conclusion, Harari’s ideas are worthy of interest, if only to point towards perspectives that challenge them.