Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – by Yuval Noah Harari
Date read: 6/11/17. Recommendation: 8/10.
Follow-up to Harari's critically acclaimed Sapiens. Whereas Sapiens is focuses on humanity's history, Homo Deus examines on humanity's future. Compelling book in its own right and worth reading. Guaranteed to expand your perspective and worldview. He discusses how Homo sapiens came to dominate the world, imagine and assign meaning to life, and what our current trajectory looks like.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
The New Human Agenda
For thousand of years, human agenda centered around same three problems: famine, plague, and war.
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
Black Death began in the 1330s...between 75 million and 200 million people died – more than a quarter of the population in Eurasia.
Until the early twentieth century, about a third of children died before reaching adulthood. (now less than 5%)
In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence. In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda....In essence, terrorism is a show...Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop.
Contrary to common notions, seventy-year olds weren't considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight without help from antibiotics, vaccinations, or organ transplants.
In truth, so far modern medicine hasn't extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.
The war against death is still likely to be the flagship project of the coming century...Our ideological commitment to human life will never allow us simply to accept human death.
If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach.
People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.
If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system. Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.
This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.
Part 1: Homo sapiens Conquers the World
In most Semitic languages, 'Eve' means 'snake' or even 'female snake'. The name of our ancestral biblical mother hides an archaic animist myth, according to which snakes are not our enemies but our ancestors.
The Bible, along with its belief in human distinctiveness, was one of the by-products of the Agricultural Revolution.
Whereas hunter-gatherers were seldom aware of the damage they inflicted on the ecosystem, farmers knew perfectly well what they were doing. They knew they were exploiting domesticated animals and subjugating them to human desires and whims. They justified their actions in the name of new theist religions, which mushroomed and spread in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution.
Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals.
Animist religions had previously depicted the universe as a grand Chinese opera with a limitless cast of colorful actors. Elephants and oak trees, crocodiles and rivers, mountains and frogs, ghosts and fairies, angels and demons – each had a role in the cosmic opera. Theist religions rewrote the script, turning the universe into a bleak Ibsen drama with just two main characters: man and God.
In the new theist drama Sapiens became the central hero around whom the entire universe evolved.
According to Christianity, God gave an eternal soul only to humans...Humans thus became the apex of creation, while all other organisms were pushed to the sidelines.
There is no doubt that Homo sapiens is the most powerful species in the world. Homo sapiens also likes to think that it enjoys a superior moral status, and that human life has much greater value than the lives of pigs, elephants or wolves. This is less obvious. Does might make right? Is human life more previous than porcine life simply because the human collective is more powerful than the pig collective? The United States is far more powerful than Afghanistan; does this imply that American lives have greater intrinsic value than Afghan lives?
We want to believe that human lives really are superior in some fundamental way. We Sapiens loves telling ourselves that we enjoy some magical quality that not only accounts for our immense power, but also gives moral justification for our privileged status.
According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 15 percent of Americans think that Homo sapiens evolved through natural selection alone, free of all divine intervention...Spending three years in college has absolutely no impact on these views. The same survey found that among BA graduates...14 percent think that humans evolved without any divine supervision. Even among holders of MA and PhD degrees...only 29 percent credit natural selection alone with the creation of our species.
If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul...the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution. Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities.
However, there is a crucial difference between mind and soul...Whereas the existence of eternal souls is pure conjecture, the experience of pain is a direct and very tangible reality.
By humanizing animals we usually underestimate animal cognition and ignore the unique abilities of other creatures.
Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.
Sapiens don't behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. These emotions, as we saw earlier, are in fact sophisticated algorithms that reflect the social mechanisms of ancient hunter-gatherer bands.
People constantly reinforce each other's beliefs in a self-perpetuating loop. Each round of mutual confirmation tightens the web of meaning further, until you have little choice but to believe what everyone else believes.
This is how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously.
Part 2: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World
Humans think they make history, but history actually revolves around the web of stories. The basic abilities of individual humans have no changed much since the Stone Age. But the web of stories has grown...pushing history from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age.
For the Sumerians, Enki and Inanna (gods) were as real as Google and Microsoft are real for us.
Prior to the invention of writing, stories were confined by the limited capacity of human brains. You couldn't invent overly complex stories which people couldn't remember.
Writing has thus enabled humans to organize entire societies in an algorithmic fashion...In literate societies people are organized into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that make the important decisions. This is the essence of bureaucracy.
Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the center of this world and therefore who little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. That's why divorce is so traumatic for children. A five-year old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him...He is convinced that everything happens because of him. Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.
No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation.
Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention, and, not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks.
Fiction isn't bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function...But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks.
Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolded, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality...Unfortunately, blind faith in these stories meant that human efforts frequently focused on increasing the glory of fictional entities such as gods and nations, instead of bettering the lives of real sentient beings.
It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn't exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves–it helps.
Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.
Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
-Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals.
-Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question...Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the power that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit.
Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wards and product food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.
Modernity is a deal...The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realized how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, aim of existence is 'a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom.'
God is dead – it's just taking a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervor the zealots don't really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and having nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.
True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don't count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.
Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That's a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates...Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from.
Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality or Donna Haraway's 'A Cyborg Manifesto.'
Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault.
Part 3: Homo Sapiens Loses Control
Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.
Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the 'peak-end-rule' – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average. This has far-reaching impact on all our practical decisions.
Given the unbearable torments that many women undergo during childbirth, one might think that after going through it once no sane woman would ever agree to do so again. However, at the end of labor and in the following days the hormonal system secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins, which reduce the pain and create a feeling of relief and sometimes even elation. Moreover, the growing love towards the baby and the acclaim from friends, family members, religious dogmas and nationalist propaganda, conspire to transform childbirth from a trauma into a positive memory.
If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.
Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe in one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament.
Organisms are algorithms. Every animal – including Homo sapiens – is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.
Medicine is undergoing a tremendous conceptual revolution. Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.
Twentieth-century armies needed millions of healthy soldiers, and economies needed millions of healthy workers. Consequently states established public health services to ensure the health and vigor of everyone...In 1914 the Japanese elite had a vested interest in vaccinating the poor and building hospitals and sewage systems in the slums, because if they wanted Japan to be a strong nation with a powerful army and a robust economy, they needed many millions of healthy soldiers and workers.
In themselves human experiences are not superior at all to the experiences of wolves or elephants. One bit of data is as good as another. However, humans can write poems and blogs about their experiences and post them online, thereby enriching the global data-processing system....No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn't a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value.
After Darwin, biologists began explaining that feelings are complex algorithms honed by evolution to help animals make correct decisions...For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world.