Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian and author

Yuval Noah Harari is not a historian of centuries, epochs, or nations. He is a historian of ideas.

“According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should be therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possible distinguish from the ‘real’ world. Some brain scientists believe that in the not too distant future, we shall actually do such things. Well, maybe it has already been done – to you? For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario , mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion: since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.”

His delving under the covers of what makes things happen is usually about the compromises Homo Sapiens has made in order to get what it wants.

Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”

He doesn’t explain how and why a country emerged, floundered, revived, and then flourished; he explains how the Dark Ages persisted for so long – the future was thought unnecessary – but then evolved into the Renaissance and eventually into modernity because of the invention of trust and its consequence, credit. And it is this expansion of ideas that maintains and powers our modernity, and although we are looking down the barrel of an environmental disaster, it is the evolution and development of ideas, and their consequences, that may be our salvation. Not God or the return of one, but our own endeavours.

Europe for centuries was a hotbed of conflict, disasters, and battlegrounds. Now, just sixty years after the last great conflict, World War II, Europe is the most stable, cooperative, and progressive region on Earth; mainly thanks to two other ideas: democracy and capitalism. Yes, at the moment there is an energy crisis, but no hint of war.

We once asked God to help us recover from illness; now we ask science whose credo is humanism. Religion still exists. Sapiens hasn’t completely lost faith in God, but we have found our faith in humanity.
It was thought for centuries that if Sapiens stopped believing in God law and order would vanish. But the greatest threat to global law and order today is not the secular nations, the Netherlands, Sweden, Vietnam, but god-fearing nations, Syria, Afghanistan, and bands of god-warriors, Boko-Haram, Islamic-State.

“Religion is any all-encompassing story that confirms super-human legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimises social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.”

Religions: Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and the like, but also Buddhism, communism, Nazism, and liberalism.
And humanism is the current one.

“If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’ so since there is no cosmic plan we can do whatever we want. We can even create paradise here on earth; we just have to find a way and overcome a few technical difficulties.” This is at the heart of the book.

Islam says do what God says, you servants, and you will be rewarded in Heaven; Christianity says even though you were created bad, you sinners, you must strive to be good; Humanism says create meaning, you humans, for a meaningless world.

This book was written pre Covid, 2015. But when referencing the Ebola epidemic in West Africa on 2014 prayers weren’t sent to Heaven (as was done as late as 1918 during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic) but calls were made to stockbrokers, and shares of pharmaceutical companies working on anti-Ebola drugs increased to up to 90%. Now shares in Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna, and the rest have skyrocketed. They have the money to work on a cure, a vaccine in record time.

“For the stock exchange an epidemic [pandemic] is a business opportunity.”

If a woman in mediaeval Britain had sex with her married neighbour and worried later about her actions she would go to a priest, tell her story, and ask what should she do. The priest would say she must atone for her sin, say twenty Hail Mary’s, go on a pilgrimage, go without meat for a month, and put a lot of coins in the collection box. Today the woman would go to her therapist, tell her story and ask what should she do. The therapist will say “How do you feel about what you have done?”

What next? What comes after Humanism? … Dataism.

You must read the book to find out what that means.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here is a lecture given by Harari at the University of California in 2017 about this book, Homo Deus.

And here is a shorter TED talk from 2015 on “Why Humans Run the World.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

yuval hariri pic
Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197