Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
It was hard to describe how he felt . . . it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive. There had been split seconds in his life when he’d felt death brush past, like when another fast-moving car veered from around a sharp curve and just missed hitting him head on. On this day he had lived with that feeling, with death breathing right in his face . . . for moment after moment after moment, for three hours or more . . . Combat was . . . a state of complete mental and physical awareness. In those hours on the street he had not been Shawn Nelson, he had no connection to the larger world, no bills to pay, no emotional ties, nothing. He had just been a human being staying alive from one nanosecond to the next, drawing one breath after another, fully aware that each one might be his last. He felt he would never be the same.
Adolf Hitler too was changed and enlightened by his war experiences. In
, he tells how shortly after his unit reached the front line, the soldiers’ initial enthusiasm turned into fear, against which each soldier had to wage a relentless inner war, straining every nerve to avoid being overwhelmed by it. Hitler says that he won this inner war by the winter of 1915/16. ‘At last,’ he writes, ‘my will was undisputed master . . . I was now calm and determined. And this was enduring. Now Fate could bring on the ultimate tests without my nerves shattering or my reason failing.’
The experience of war revealed to Hitler the truth about the world: it is a jungle run by the remorseless laws of natural selection. Those who refuse to recognise this truth cannot survive. If you wish to succeed, you must not only understand the laws of the jungle, but embrace them joyfully. It should be stressed that just like the anti-war liberal artists, Hitler too sanctified the
experience of ordinary soldiers. Indeed, Hitler’s political career is one of the best examples we have for the immense authority accorded to the personal experience of common people in twentieth-century politics. Hitler wasn’t a senior officer – in four years of war, he rose no higher than the rank of corporal. He had no formal education, no professional skills and no political background. He wasn’t a successful businessman or a union activist, he didn’t have friends or relatives in high places, or any money to speak of. At first, he didn’t even have German citizenship. He was a penniless immigrant.
When Hitler appealed to the German voters and asked for their trust, he could muster only one argument in his favour: his experiences in the trenches had taught him what you can never learn at university, at general headquarters or at a government ministry. People followed him, and voted for him, because they identified with him, and because they too believed that the world is a jungle, and that what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
Whereas liberalism merged with the milder versions of nationalism to protect the unique experiences of each human community, evolutionary humanists such as Hitler identified particular nations as the engines of human progress, and concluded that these nations ought to bludgeon or even exterminate anyone standing in their way. It should be remembered, though, that Hitler and the Nazis represent only one extreme version of evolutionary humanism. Just as Stalin’s gulags do not automatically nullify every socialist idea and argument, so too the horrors of Nazism should not blind us to whatever insights evolutionary humanism might offer. Nazism was born from the pairing of evolutionary humanism with particular racial theories and ultra-nationalist emotions. Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps.
Auschwitz should serve as a blood-red warning sign rather than as a black curtain that hides entire sections of the human horizon. Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and it is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century.
Is Beethoven Better than Chuck Berry?
To make sure we understand the difference between the three humanist branches, let’s compare a few human experiences.
Experience no. 1: A musicology professor sits in the Vienna Opera House, listening to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. ‘Pa pa pa PAM!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Pa pa pa PAM!’
Experience no. 2: It’s 1965. A Mustang convertible is speeding down the Pacific road from San Francisco to LA at full throttle. The young macho driver puts on Chuck Berry at full volume: ‘Go! Go, Johnny, go, go!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Go! Go, Johnny, go, go!’
Experience no. 3: Deep in the Congolese rainforest, a pygmy hunter stands transfixed. From the nearby village, he hears a choir of girls singing their initiation song. ‘Ye oh, oh. Ye oh, eh.’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Ye oh, oh. Ye oh, eh.’
Experience no. 4: It’s a full-moon night, somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. A wolf is standing on a hilltop, listening to
the howls of a female in heat. ‘Awoooooo! Awoooooo!’ As the sound waves hit his eardrums, signals travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, and the adrenal gland floods his bloodstream with adrenaline. His heartbeat accelerates, his breathing intensifies, the hairs on his neck stand up, and a shiver runs down his spine. ‘Awoooooo! Awoooooo!’
Which of these four experiences is the most valuable?
If you are liberal, you will tend to say that the experiences of the musicology professor, of the young driver and of the Congolese hunter are all equally valuable, and all should be equally cherished. Every human experience contributes something unique, and enriches the world with new meaning. Some people like classical music, others love rock and roll, and still others prefer traditional African chants. Music students should be exposed to the widest possible range of genres, and at the end of the day, everyone could go to the iTunes store, punch in their credit card number and buy what they like. Beauty is in the ears of the listener, and the customer is always right. The wolf, though, isn’t human, hence his experiences are far less valuable. That’s why the life of a wolf is worth less than the life of a human, and why it is perfectly okay to kill a wolf in order to save a human. When all is said and done, wolves don’t get to vote in any beauty contests, nor do they hold any credit cards.
This liberal approach is manifested, for example, in the
golden record. In 1977 the Americans launched the space probe
on a journey to outer space. By now it has left the solar system, making it the first man-made object to traverse interstellar space. Besides state-of-the-art scientific equipment, NASA placed on board a golden record, aimed to introduce planet Earth to any inquisitive aliens who might encounter the probe.
The record contains a variety of scientific and cultural information about Earth and its inhabitants, some images and voices, and several dozen pieces of music from around the world, which are supposed to represent a fair sample of earthly artistic achievement. The musical sample mixes in no obvious order classical pieces
including the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, contemporary popular music including Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and traditional music from throughout the world, including an initiation song of Congolese pygmy girls. Though the record also contains some canine howls, they are not part of the music sample, but rather relegated to a different section that also includes the sounds of wind, rain and surf. The message to potential listeners in Alpha Centauri is that Beethoven, Chuck Berry and the pygmy initiation song are of equal merit, whereas wolf howls belong to an altogether different category.
If you are socialist, you will probably agree with the liberals that the wolf’s experience is of little value. But your attitude towards the three human experiences will be quite different. A socialist true-believer will explain that the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole. As Mao said, ‘There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.’
So when coming to evaluate the musical experiences, a socialist will focus, for example, on the fact that Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony for an audience of upper-class white Europeans, exactly when Europe was about to embark on its conquest of Africa. His symphony reflected Enlightenment ideals, which glorified upper-class white men, and branded the conquest of Africa as ‘the white man’s burden’.
Rock and roll – the socialists will say – was pioneered by downtrodden African American musicians who drew inspiration from genres like blues, jazz and gospel. However, in the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll was hijacked by mainstream white America, and pressed into the service of consumerism, of American imperialism and of Coca-Colonisation. Rock and roll was commercialised and appropriated by privileged white teenagers in their petit-bourgeois fantasy of rebellion. Chuck Berry himself bowed to the dictates of the capitalist juggernaut. While he originally sang about ‘a
boy named Johnny B. Goode’, under pressure from white-owned
radio stations Berry changed the lyrics to ‘a
boy named Johnny B. Goode’.
As for the choir of Congolese pygmy girls – their initiation songs are part of a patriarchal power structure that brainwashes both men and women to conform to an oppressive gender order. And if a recording of such an initiation song ever makes it to the global marketplace, it merely serves to reinforce Western colonial fantasies about Africa in general and about African women in particular.
So which music is best: Beethoven’s Fifth, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or the pygmy initiation song? Should the government finance the building of opera houses, rock and roll venues or African-heritage exhibitions? And what should we teach music students in schools and colleges? Well, don’t ask me. Ask the party’s cultural commissar.
Whereas liberals tiptoe around the minefield of cultural comparisons, fearful of committing some politically incorrect faux pas, and whereas socialists leave it to the party to find the right path through the minefield, evolutionary humanists gleefully jump right in, setting off all the mines and relishing the mayhem. They may start by pointing out that both liberals and socialists draw the line at other animals, and have no trouble admitting that humans are superior to wolves, and that consequently human music is far more valuable than wolf howls. Yet humankind itself is not exempt from the forces of evolution. Just as humans are superior to wolves, so some human cultures are more advanced than others. There is an unambiguous hierarchy of human experiences, and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it. The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s
is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Chuck Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it!
According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the
degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality. If liberals or socialists had lived in the Stone Age, they would probably have seen little merit in the murals of Lascaux and Altamira, and would have insisted that they are in no way superior to Neanderthal doodles.
The Humanist Wars of Religion
Initially, the differences between liberal humanism, socialist humanism and evolutionary humanism seemed rather frivolous. Set against the enormous gap separating all humanist sects from Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, the arguments between different versions of humanism were trifling. As long as we all agree that God is dead and that only the human experience gives meaning to the universe, does it really matter whether we think that all human experiences are equal or that some are superior to others? Yet as humanism conquered the world, these internal schisms widened, and eventually flared up into the deadliest war of religion in history.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the liberal orthodoxy was still confident of its strength. Liberals were convinced that if we only gave individuals maximum freedom to express themselves and follow their hearts, the world would enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. It may take time to completely dismantle the fetters of traditional hierarchies, obscurantist religions and brutal empires, but every decade would bring new liberties and achievements, and eventually we would create paradise on earth. In the halcyon days of June 1914, liberals thought history was on their side.
By Christmas 1914 liberals were shell-shocked, and in the following decades their ideas were subjected to a double assault from both left and right. Socialists argued that liberalism is in fact a fig leaf for a ruthless, exploitative and racist system. For vaunted ‘liberty’, read ‘property’. The defence of the individual’s right to do what feels good amounts in most cases to safeguarding the property and privileges of the middle and upper classes. What good is the liberty
to live where you want, when you cannot pay the rent; to study what interests you, when you cannot afford the tuition fees; and to travel where you fancy, when you cannot buy a car? Under liberalism, went a famous quip, everyone is free to starve. Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as isolated individuals, liberalism separates them from their other class members, and prevents them from uniting against the system that oppresses them. Liberalism thereby perpetuates inequality, condemning the masses to poverty and the elite to alienation.