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Yuval Noah Harari

Are Human Rights Just Fictional Stories?

January 30, 2024

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Yuval Noah Harari, the Declaration of Independence, and Evolutionary Biology

In a recent viral video receiving massive online blowback, the author and historian Yuval Noah Harari says,

“Human rights, just like God and heaven, are just a story that we’ve invented. They are not an objective reality; they are not some biological effect about homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights are in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they’re still just fictional stories that we’ve invented.” 

But no human rights advocate thinks human rights are physical objects lodged somewhere between the liver and the lungs. An autopsy can hardly abolish human rights. 

In making his claims, Harari simply assumes the philosophy of materialism, the claim that only material objects exist. Yet if only material objects exist, then Harari can give us no reason for thinking that only material objects exist. Rational arguments make use of propositions, logical necessities, and metaphysical assumptions all of which (according to materialism) are not true, but just invented fictional stories. So, any justification Harari could give for materialism is self-defeating, undermining itself

Moreover, materialism is a false philosophy. It is a reality that 2+2=4. It is a reality that 7+5=12.  These realities have no length in inches, no weight in pounds, and no bodily dimensions. These realities existed before humans existed and would remain realities even if all humans died, so these mathematical truths are not human stories. If there are realities that are not material realities, then materialism is false. There are realities, like 2+2=4 and 7+5=12, that are not material realities. So, materialism is false. 

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari provides a more nuanced case against human rights in his discussion of the Declaration of Independence. After evolution, says Harari, we cannot believe that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” We are not created equal; we evolve differently. Human equality is a secular remnant of the ‘soul’ possessed equally by each human as proclaimed in Christian theology. The blind process of evolution points not to equality but to difference in both genetic makeup and environmental factors leading to radically different outcomes in which the fittest survive.

Any justification Harari could give for materialism is self-defeating, undermining itself. 

Harari holds that evolutionary biology knows nothing of rights, which he says are an imaginary invention used to promote cooperation. Likewise, evolutionary biology knows nothing of liberty, a quaint reflection of freedom of the will, an invention of the Christian theology of Augustine. Indeed, according to Augustine’s Christian theology, freedom of the will arises because of the soul, and so in recognizing the purely material constitution of all things including the human person, illusions of freedom must also perish from our intellectual horizons.

In Harari’s view, we still might believe in this imagined order of equality and rights with or without its Christian origins. But in so doing we are playing make-believe rather than basing our ethical and political decisions on objective truths. This imaginary order of human equality and basic rights may be useful to promote social cohesion, but this order is no more real than the wings of angels, the gold of leprechauns, or the wands of tooth fairies. 

In accordance with evolutionary biology, Harari proclaims an updated declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.” On this view, the objective truths of evolutionary biology reveal the imaginary (even if pragmatically useful) fictions of a Divine Creator, human equality, and inalienable rights.

Harari holds that evolutionary theory undermines the Declaration in part by demolishing the plausibility of the Creator mentioned (by various names) in the text of 1776. Of course, whether the findings of evolutionary biology are in fact incompatible with belief in God depends in part on what is meant by God. Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Deistic philosophers describe the Divine Being as eternal, immaterial, and infinite. God, on this view, is the transcendent First Cause of all time, matter, and space. Is acceptance of evolutionary biology incompatible with belief in such a Divine Being?

In as much as evolutionary biology is an empirical science, its methodology constrains it from affirming or denying whatever lies beyond empirical verification. God, at least God as understood in the Abrahamic faiths and by Deistic philosophers, is not a being who is material, a being who can be measured or weighed. He is the cause of all matter, and so is not material. He is the cause of time, and so is absolutely prior to time or eternal. Evolutionary biology confines itself to consideration of living material things reproducing over time. Understood in this way, evolutionary biology as such must remain silent, including remaining silent about the existence or non-existence, of whatever is outside of the scope of its scientific domain. Biology no more addresses the question of God’s existence than biology addresses questions about the revolving of the earth, ruby mines, or rival interpretations of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Some evolutionary biologists deny God’s existence; other evolutionary biologists do not. But these conclusions express their personal philosophy or theology rather than the results of evolutionary biology. 

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But surely, an objector might suggest, evolutionary biology undermines belief in the Biblical God of the Genesis story who creates every living thing within seven days. Evolutionary biology demolishes belief in this God, and so demolishes belief in the Creator of the Declaration.

However even before Darwin, some of the Founders expressed skepticism about Biblical revelation. Thomas Jefferson’s rejection of the allegedly miraculous interventions by God in the Biblical text inspired the author of the Declaration to take scissors and excise all passages in the New Testament referring to miracles. He thereby created an edited version of Scripture he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, later known as The Jefferson Bible. Yet Jefferson saw no contradiction between his denial of parts of the Bible and his Declaration of inalienable rights.

But even those who embrace the idea of the Bible as divinely inspired and a reliable record of miraculous interventions, Darwinian evolution over millions of years need not be understood as in contradiction to the Genesis account of creation. Why?

Innumerable Hebrew, Patristic, Medieval, and modern readers have offered rival interpretations of the Genesis account. Some readers, like Ambrose of Milan (d.397), understand the seven days of Genesis in a simplistic sense of meaning seven 24-hour periods in which God made everything. Evolutionary biology in conjunction with geology and cosmology does demolish the interpretation of Ambrose and his contemporary like-minded readers. But innumerable other interpreters including Justin Martyr (d.165), Irenaeus (d.202), Clement of Alexandria (d.215), Augustine of Hippo (d.430), Rabbi Moses Maimonides (d.1204), Thomas Aquinas (d.1274), and John Henry Newman (d.1890) reject what might be called the 24-hour interpretation of Genesis. They each offer readings of the text in which each “day” of Genesis is not taken to mean a 24-hour period. If someone says, “back in my day, during high school, no one had a cell phone,” the person is not claiming to have completed high school in 24 hours. Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis follow in this tradition of interpretation. 

If one adopts an interpretation of Genesis in accordance with Ambrose, then an irresolvable contradiction exists between the Biblical text and contemporary science of the origin of species. On the other hand, if one reads Genesis in the manner of Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Newman, or Pope Francis, then no such contradiction exists. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “There is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation.” And if there is no conflict, then Harari’s grounds for rejecting human rights as found in the Declaration of Independence is just another fictional story.