I don’t often write book reviews, because it’s not often that this sociologist digests a readable academic book that begs wider discussion. Some books have compelling ideas that deserve promotion, but require too much slogging along the way to commend. Others seem too parochial to promote a wider reading. Still others deal too much in “dialogues,” “diasporas,” and “intersectionalities” ever to merit a second look.
Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind involves little slogging and is anything but narrow. An interview with him, entitled “Death is Optional,” circulated widely in early March, prompting enough curiosity for me to acquire the book. While I prefer two hundred pages to Harari’s 416, it was nevertheless a quick read. Why such praise in this venue for a book by a secular, gay, Jewish professor of history? Because unlike many scholars of human society, Harari seems less committed to wielding his pen to win something than he is to wrestling over gritty realities.
Reader be warned: Harari holds that religion is a fiction—but he doesn’t single it out. Religion is no more of a fiction, he holds, than is the notion of law, human rights, money, justice, liberal humanism, the nation, or limited liability companies. His is not an equal-opportunity shellacking of sacred things, but rather an assertion that no one has ever been able to navigate life apart from what he calls inter-subjective myths or stories, without which human community simply cannot work. But he makes a more interesting observation than that one. Harari holds that big ideas like religion have enabled Homo sapiens to accomplish things that were impossible without it:
Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.
We take for granted that our sociality and our communities will continue ad infinitum. But we shouldn’t, and Harari doesn’t. Instead, he holds, religion is one of the great unifiers of humankind. So is money, faith in which transcends faiths: “whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.”
For all its hatred of Christianity and America, ISIS trusts in greenbacks because we do, too. And yet Harari recognizes that money has a dark side:
When everything is convertible . . . it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand. Human communities and families have always been based on belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honor, loyalty, morality and love.
Indeed, global financial interdependence is upon us. From Russian natural gas, Saudi oil, American debt, to Greece’s dependence on the Euro, states’ abilities to operate independently have diminished profoundly. This has positive byproducts, including fewer wars and battle deaths, as states’ internal affairs become vulnerable to external pressure. Indeed, Harari observes, global power is consolidating:
Immensely powerful currents of capital, labor, and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states . . . Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite.
Any mention of oligarchy or the last days of the Roman Empire will doubtlessly attract readership among social conservatives. There is more to woo them, including frank talk about the growing chasm between liberal humanist talk and action in the domain of the health sciences. This, the author predicts, is ground zero of future inequalities. Nazi-like ideals of “upgrading” the best (meaning the wealthiest) human beings are on their way, and talk of restricting them is ineffectual.
It’s depressing, but I think Harari is right. The global community is too diverse to forbid elite wishes for access to ethically dubious cutting-edge health technology. Judicial and political systems will comply, if not in one country then another. And it won’t even be difficult, because here too an inter-subjective myth—Big Science—paves the way. There is now “an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths,” Harari states. I observe it in the Facebook conversations of very different types of friends. The scientists reinforce the superiority of their thoughts and interpersonal norms with regular assaults on soft targets—like creationism—that are then morally equated with harder targets, such as differences over abortion or the science of vaccinations. The normative implication is that science, if unconstrained, would act more justly in the world because science is different.
Not so, argues Harari:
In academic circles, many are naïve enough to believe in pure science. They believe that government and business altruistically give them money to pursue whatever research projects strike their fancy. But this hardly describes the realities of science funding. Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic, or religious goal.
All this from a scholar who would self-identify as liberal.
But it’s Harari’s discussion of the collapse of the family and the territorial grab of state and market that garnered my quickest attention. We’ve become a nation of isolated individuals, and we are voting against marriage and families:
With the individual wielding unprecedented power to decide her own path in life, we find it ever harder to make commitments. We thus live in an increasingly lonely world of unraveling communities and families.
Harari attributes the collapse in family authority to the active colonization of state and market, going where even I would fear to tread:
Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. . . . In order to really break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column. The state and market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents’. . . . You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead.
We family conservatives can cry foul all we want but it’s possible that what we really want is what we cannot have—a marrying culture, together with all the desired fruit of its destruction: greater freedom, security (from family violence), a social safety net, and economic and educational opportunity. We know well the undesirable consequences of the flight from marriage. But it’s a mixed bag, for sure.
Harari speculates that the marriageability of men, already deteriorating, will be further hamstrung by a future that will require fewer workers of higher skill. (He makes a compelling case—software increasingly surveils, polices, trades, and orders.) What to do with so many excess underemployed adults, especially men? Harari speculates that drugs—legal and illegal—and computer games are the probable go-to solutions to the problem of less work. Before you roll your eyes, open them. We’re already there. Neither Minecraft nor marijuana is a very marriageable quality, and both are popular and increasingly normative. Socially acceptable. I’ve observed Rooster Teeth, an Austin-based company that focuses on the convergence of gaming and “Internet culture,” explode in popularity in a few short years. A convention they hosted in Austin in 2011 drew six hundred enthusiasts. Last year? 30,000.
Conservatives often hold that the current situation is simply unsustainable, though the timetable for the depletion of social, emotional, and economic “capital” long accrued by the sacrifices—and difficult lives, no doubt—of so many stably married households is anything but clear. But just because the current situation doesn’t appear sustainable doesn’t mean it cannot be sustained. Or that we won’t make adjustments, because we can, we have, and we probably will again.
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.