Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has become a popular (and profitable) prophet. His books have sold over 30 million copies. Silicon Valley seers and college students alike go gaga for his talks and insights. He is touted as presenting a creative and new way of looking at our world.
In reality his insights are as old as they are alarming. The dangers of Harari’s vision are presented with breathtaking concision in the first four verses of story of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Harari’s first great and supposedly novel insight is that the advances of homo sapiens and all of civilization are based on stories of equal fictitiousness. Whether about money, religion, liberalism, monarchy, or anything else, the stories serve as the organizing principles that provide a competitive advantage over other species and the natural environment. He also insists that we are simply lucky clumps of carbon. We happen to have evolved to having self-consciousness and the ability to create technologies, but despite millennia of evolution, we remain hackable animals. We can be manipulated in almost any way when the right inputs are applied to the carbon neurons in our brains. Our lives have no meaning, our feelings are just evolutionary spandrels, we have no free will. In Harari’s view accepting these insights is not only honest but necessary.
In fact these insights are neither new, nor honest, nor necessary.
Long before Harari’s particular genes were externally expressed, the Bible describes a world where only stories matter and man is but a cog in a wheel. The story of the Tower of Babel is the third creation story of the Bible. In the first, God creates a sacred space for Adam and Eve (whom He created in His image) in the Garden of Eden. But over several generations humankind disobeys His laws so completely that God destroys the world except for Noah. In the second creation story God starts over with Noah, to whom he again teaches his laws.
Babel is the overlooked third creation story. In Chapter 10 we learn that the peoples spread out as “the nations were separated in their countries, aligned with their languages with their families/clans and their nations.” (Genesis 10:5). In Chapter 11 (specifically in its first four verses), the diverse peoples of the earth have created a new civilization. Led by a tyrant (the Bible hints at Nimrod) they are forcibly globalized and coerced into speaking but one language. Most translations say that the people “had the same words.” A better translation would be that people knew just “a few things,” but what they knew was vital to them. They were also moved to a new area where they used new technologies for the first time. Taking bricks and mortar rather than the stones of yesteryear they set out to make houses and a city.
Then the whole project goes sideways. Rather than building homes they start to construct a tower whose “head will be in the heavens.” The Bible gives startling insights into this new civilization. Why build a tower? “To make a name for ourselves,” they say. Why make a name for ourselves? Because “we shall be scattered all over the world” and our lives rendered meaningless. We will lose our relationships, so we need something, anything, even fictions such as tower-building, to keep us together. The people of the Tower of Babel generation had forgotten that they once had families, clans, nations, languages, and the self-confidence to be content all over the world. Their new reality had become inevitable.
This story fits perfectly with Harari’s insights for another reason: God is absent. The civilization of the Tower of Babel is what the world looks like when we eliminate God and his laws from the world. After denying the existence of God in his book “Homo Sapiens,” Harari informs us in his aptly named book “Homo Deus” that humans will soon be gods. Silicon Valley technologists will extend our lives indefinitely; create drugs to distract us from reality; and program algorithms to pick our perfect spouse. With such powers these technologists will inevitably deify themselves and subjugate everyone else. Perhaps they will have to coerce us with new medications or maybe they will just need to manipulate our hackable brains. Whatever the case may be, for Harari this world is inevitable.
He is not the first to think this way. Marx prophesized the immanent collapse of capitalism. Prophets of communism like Mao placed the tower of the Chinese Communist Party ahead of all else. He thus caused the death of 75 million of his countrymen and was reputed to have said that if 300 million had died it still would have been worth it to establish Communist rule. It turns out when man seeks to create the world with his limited fictions, the results are catastrophic.
The Bible, unlike Harari, ends the story of the Tower of Babel by reminding humankind of its finite place. In the fifth verse, we read that God “comes down to look” at the tower and this new civilization and a few verses later he destroys it, dispersing humanity for a second time. The message is clear: No human creation is inevitable and no fiction is reality.
Harari is right that we humans make fictions and even begin to believe our powerlessness. We have been doing so since the Tower of Babel. But he is wrong about life’s inevitability or meaninglessness. The Bible warns against these fictions, what it calls idolatry, in the harshest terms. We are and never will be gods. But if when we start believing that we are, there are no limits to the horrors we humans can inflict on ourselves. God gave us a lesson in the Tower of Babel story, but it now depends on us to figure out why and how we are still building towers.