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Neuroscientist Takes Aim at Yuval Noah Harari’s Claims re Humans

Behavioral neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan says that much of what Harari writes “sacrifices science for sensationalism” and is “riddled with errors”

Many readers have read our article last June on historian and transhumanist Yuval Noah Harari’s musings on what to do with the people that artificial intelligence is rendering “useless.”

Now, first off, what Harari envisions is not happening. As business prof Jay Richards is fond of noting, AI enables more people to craft the jobs they want, with AI doing the traditional drudgery. Despite automation (or because of it),there are still plenty of Help Wanted signs out there.

Call the argument Homo Deus vs. The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, if you like.

Darshana Narayanan

But at Current Affairs, behavioral neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan offers another critique. Apart from having a disturbing attitude to fellow humans, he “he sacrifices science for sensationalism, and his work is riddled with errors.” She deplores the seriousness with which the intellectual word takes Harari (whose books have sold 23 million copies):

This may be surprising, but the factual validity of Yuval Harari’s work has received little evaluation from scholars or major publications. Harari’s own thesis advisor, Professor Steven Gunn from Oxford—who guided Harari’s research on “Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450-1600”—has made a startling acknowledgement: that his ex-pupil has essentially managed to dodge the fact-checking process. In the New Yorker’s 2020 profile of Harari, Gunn supposes that Harari—specifically, with his book Sapiens—“leapfrogged” expert critique “by saying, ‘Let’s ask questions so large that no one can say, We think this bit’s wrong and that bit’s wrong.’ … Nobody’s an expert on the meaning of everything, or the history of everybody, over a long period.”

Darshana Narayanan, “The Dangerous Populist Science of Yuval Noah Harari” at Current Affairs (July 26, 2022)

Well, considering that Harari is asking the movers and shakers to decide what to do about the rest of us, that fact should elicit more interest than it has. No?

Anyway, Narayanan tried her hand at his 2015 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, whose topics overlap her expertise:

Next, take the issue of language. Harari claims that “[many] animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages.”

I have spent a decade studying vocal communication in marmosets, a New World monkey. (Occasionally, their communication with me involved spraying their urine in my direction.) In the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, where I received my doctorate, we studied how vocal behavior emerges from the interaction of evolutionary, developmental, neuronal, and biomechanical phenomena. Our work succeeded in breaking the dogma that monkey communication (unlike human communication) is pre-programmed into neural or genetic codes. In fact, we discovered that monkey babies learn to “talk,” with the help of their parents, in a fashion similar to the way human babies learn.

Yet, in spite of all their similarities to humans, monkeys cannot be said to have a “language.” Language is a rule-bound symbolic system in which symbols (words, sentences, images, etc.) refer to people, places, events, and relations in the world—but also evoke and reference other symbols within the same system (e.g., words defining other words). The alarm calls of monkeys, and the songs of birds and whales, can transmit information; but we—as German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has said—live in “a new dimension of reality” made possible by the acquisition of a symbolic system.

Darshana Narayanan, “The Dangerous Populist Science of Yuval Noah Harari” at Current Affairs (July 26, 2022)

It’s worth asking why a thinker would deny something so obvious as that only human beings speak. Humans unlike monkeys, live in a world heavily populated by abstractions and human languages are ways of processing abstractions.

The rest of Narayanan’s critique of Harari is well worth the read as well.

You may also wish to read: A Great Reset historian muses on what to do with “useless” people. Transhumanist Yuval Noah Harari, a key advisor to the World Economic Forum, thinks free will is “dangerous” and a “myth.” It’s not clear that, given his intense, dramatic focus on “useless,” “meaningless,” and “worthless” people, Harari is far off from totalitarianism.

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Neuroscientist Takes Aim at Yuval Noah Harari’s Claims re Humans