by Loren Seibold
It’s the year of analyzing our own consciousness, and the megahit Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari rules the field. (Recent others in a similar vein: Leonard Mlodinow’s The Upright Thinkers, Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, and The Human Age by Diane Ackerman.)
Naturally, Harari asserts that somewhere along the evolutionary line a bipedal ape developed an astonishing level of consciousness of a sort that was quite different from that of its similarly large-brained relatives. Sapiens is about how we became the thinking primate, and what that led to.
The religious people who reject the initial premise might miss out on the what is a marvelous insight from a secular historian and anthropologist: that the key to humanness is faith, i.e., the ability to believe in things that aren't physically there. These abstract notions are impossible for our nearest primate relations. Writes Harari:
"It's relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don't really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven."
This cognitive revolution, says Harari, sets the stage for everything that comes afterwards: the agricultural revolution, human cooperation in government, religion and economics, and our advancement into science and discovery. All the great achievements of humanity—tribe, trade, money, corporations, religion, government, scientific theories, mathematics, literature, music and art, rights and laws, contracts, even relationships—are predicated on that ability to create and trust abstractions, an ability that Harari sees manifested in (and possibly first stimulated by) religious faith.
"[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories."
One needn't accept the evolutionary narrative in order to be fascinated by this key point. After all, isn't it the Bible's claim that God breathed into God's most advanced creature a breath of consciousness that made us, in a fundamental way, thinkers like our Creator?
We religious people know that faith isn't responsible for everything that has proceeded from abstract thinking: the machinery of capitalism, for example, as astonishingly abstract and fictional as it is, is only as moral as its practitioners make it. Nor does the ability to imagine what isn't there mean that everything we can imagine actually is.
Yet here is at least a small admission, from academic disciplines that Christians sometimes complain has pushed God out of every gap where there were still bits of him to be found, that faith is at the heart of humanness, as necessary as our biological wiring. It's neither a theology nor an incontrovertible fact, but I'll take it.