A comment on Harari’s Sapiens: On the geo-historical emergence of language and social complexity

December 26, 2015

Yuval Noah Harari is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind (2011 in Hebrew; and 2014 in English) has been an international bestseller and translated into 30 languages. It has been compared positively to the most famous works in global and big history and reviewed favourably in many of the best-known newspapers in the world. Some people even claim to have changed their worldview because of the book.

What has made Homo sapiens successful as a species, according to Harari, is human language and imagination and the related capacity to cooperate. Homo sapiens did not always have language, however. For at least 80,000 years, and probably longer, it continued to forage in parts of Africa as an unremarkable specimen of the human line of apes. If anything, it seemed less capable than for instance Neanderthals in adopting to different environments and producing clothes and other artefacts.

This basic story-line is correct, I think, but the dates and details are not. Harari talks about a “cognitive revolution” some 70,000 years ago, which – together with climate changes – made it possible for sapiens to migrate from Africa to other parts of the world. First it wiped out other human species (there were at least three and might have been up to six species alive 70,000 years ago), then most of large-scale mammals and other species of Australia and, much later (yet thousands of years before the so called Agricultural Revolution), of Americas. In a sense the Anthropocene may have begun long before any agricultural or industrial production.

What I also like about Harari’s wide-ranging scholarship – which has inevitably been accused of some minor (or even a few relatively significant) errors here and there – is his readiness to acknowledge our ignorance. Evidence is typically scant and always open to many interpretations. We have been learning more, but only gradually, if at all. We have no direct evidence of what people discussed or thought before writing emerged some 5,000 years ago (or perhaps around 5,000 BCE). On p.64 Harari calls a painting from Lascaux Cave c.15,000-20,000 years ago “a Rorschach test that reveals much about the preconceptions of modern scholars, and little about the beliefs of ancient foragers”.

The available evidence thus remains open to many explanatory stories about the emergence of language, imagination, social complexity – and consciousness. The emergence of all these is a big question for social sciences and social ontology. So what evidence is there about a “cognitive revolution” some 70,000 years ago? The main evidence seems to be migration from Africa at around that time, but that can be explained also by climate changes and a long volcanic winter. “The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles” (p.23). This implies about one major invention per 10,000 years. In other words, developments remained very slow.

To my knowledge, Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (originally published in 1976) is still the most systematic account of the emergence of metaphorical language, consciousness and social complexity. Jaynes’s main claims may seem obscure because they are so radical, rather than because they would lack supportive evidence. Jaynes’s theory is based on the systematic assessment of the available archaeological and other data (to an extent, also the absence of buildings, philosophies, writing and so on can be taken to indicate something).

The most radical claim of Jaynes’s is that humanity became conscious only in the first millennium BC. This is because the development of complex verbal language with metaphoric capabilities took tens of thousands of years. Each new stage of linguistic learning created new perceptions and attentions, resulting in important cultural changes, which are reflected in the available archaeological record. First with intentional calls and their qualifiers, simple instructions and commands became possible. The evolvement of modifiers and qualifiers made the production of better tools possible. Instruction and commands also facilitated group work in hunting, perhaps especially so in the new and often less hospitable environments to which people gradually migrated.

The beginning of these developments may lie in the encounters with other human species in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, which led to both slight genetic modifications (through sexual intermingling, of which there is now indisputable evidence) and imitation and learning. We do not know which one was more important. Both might have played a role. In any case the trigger was extrinsic.

If this is true, there was no “cognitive revolution” some 70,000 years ago. Rather, it was only after our ancestors migrated from Africa and encountered other human species, especially Neanderthals, that the long development of language and other culturally transmitted skills commenced. Each slow step made sapiens more unique and overwhelming in the then prevailing ecosystems. In ecological systems changes are usually time-consuming and minor differences can have far-reaching repercussions.

Full sentences became possible probably sometime between 25,000 and 15,000 BCE. Language and social complexity is an emergent layer that changes lower level realities, at first especially our brains. This is a very important point: language changes not only thinking but also, at the material level,  brains.

Jaynes’s claim is that the first truly complex societies – the early empires – were made possible by a non-conscious bicameral mind. The pre-conscious “Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon”. Instead of consciously reflecting upon possibilities and having self-aware inner conversations, these people hallucinated and obeyed commands coming from the language part of their brains. They literally saw and heard gods, some of them violent. Their minds were bicameral. Social coordination and cooperation was achieved via a hierarchical structure, whereby the voice of the Gods was materialised in the voice and visible signs and statues of the ruler/God. The bigger the community or city, the larger the pyramids and temples.

In Harari there are interesting passages that point to the same direction. He mentions a few cases (especially pp.100-2) where the available archaeological evidence suggests that what emerged first was religion and religion-based capacities for complex cooperation; soon followed by things such as domesticated wheat. With complex oral language humans can continue activities over time and concentrate in working on something, which increases their capacities and productivity. This is clearly a benefit for survival and likely cause of population growth among those groups that adopted complex language. Other groups had to adapt, even if they did not become farmers — and even if life for an average individual farmer might have been harsher and shorter than for foragers.

These views are not so far away from the philosophical anthropology of Jürgen Habermas and other critical theorists. Personality and social systems are tightly interwoven and both have implications to our production capabilities. “If one examines social institutions and the action competencies of socialised individuals for general characteristics, one encounters the same structures of consciousness.”

Obviously what Habermas has in mind, first and foremost, is the development of society after the emergence of consciousness in the first millennium BCE (although Habermas interprets consciousness more widely than Jaynes and thus sees animistic foragers also conscious in some sense). Since the first millennium BCE there has been a process of rapid moral and related social development. The Hammurabi Code and US declaration of independence – or the more recent Universal Declaration of Human Rights – are qualitatively different, also in normative terms (despite some underlying and problematical similarities, see Harari pp.117-24).

My main comment on Harari is thus that even though he is on the right track, he fails to appreciate the fairly recent nature and sweeping acceleration of the process of cultural evolution and its consequences. He stresses the radically possibilistic social beingness of contemporary societies, but only in an ambiguous manner. Harari nonetheless makes the point that every society is founded on myths, which are intersubjective and become part of material realities and are thus difficult to change; often they are, in effect, self-fulfilling or even self-reinforcing prophecies.

The standard modern meaning of myth is that of a narrative that has no basis in reason and cannot be true (this confuses myths and mere fables). Mythos in this modern sense is opposed to logos. However, the modern meaning has been contested all along, at least since Giambattista Vico’s (1668-1744) The New Science (1725). Vico argued that human civilization is based on the emergent capacity to imagine, through complex language, and thus to create something new. Consciousness, society and history are mythopoetically constituted. Vico emphasised the “poetic” rather than the “rational” characteristics of man — the ability to speculate rather than calculate, to invent rather than imitate norms and means in practical life.

In these critical terms, Harari discusses for example individualism, advertising and consumerism – involving ecologically wasteful practices such as tourism – in our contemporary capitalist market societies. These are grounded on myths that guide our desires and activities. Harari’s approach seems fully compatible with the way in which Antonio Gramsci adopted Sorel’s concept of the motivating social myth, and his modern exemplar, workers’ general strike, to the analysis of the problem of collective action. Changes are possible through collective actions founded on alternative myths, but these alternative myths must appear credible and appealing to many.

Although Harari seems keener on Green than Left-oriented issues, at the ontological level there is no difference between the two. We have become reflectively conscious and reflexively ethico-political beings. It is at that level that we have to seek for next stages in our cultural evolution – through learning and political struggles that are necessarily open-ended given the possibilistic nature of social being.

Heikki Patomäki