Harari’s previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gave a capsule history of human civilization in a spritely, and humorous manner. In this “sequel,” he explores what might be in store next for mankind.
He begins with the observation:
“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.”
Thus, since we are mostly liberated from worrying about famine, disease, and war, we have to find new concerns. [But have we really moved on from war? See this dissenting opinion from historian Margaret McMillan. Harari doesn’t deny wars are still being fought, but avers that because they are less profitable than they used to be, wars fought in the “traditional” way will continue to become less common as the conquering mechanism of choice.]
Harari, who has a PhD in history for the University of Oxford and now lectures on world history, offers a great many conjectures about where the trajectories of human behavior might take us next. In order to do so, he reviews the recent history of science and religion, and how both of them have evolved. Our new dominant narrative, he argues, is humanism, which he defines as a valorization of the inner self as a means both to understand the world and to evaluate what takes place in it and what we consider “good” or “bad.”
But religion remains a strong force all around the world, and Harari cites statistics to prove it, although the nature of religious belief has changed over time. Nevertheless, he argues that religion has always served to impose order on societies. It also confers power, by creating stories that unite human collectives and lead them to cooperate effectively.
He observes that one particular aspect of modern religions helps explain their tenacity: “The belief that humans have eternal souls . . . is a central pillar of our legal, political, and economic system….” This belief feeds the rejection by so many of the theory of evolution. According to the Pew Research Organization, only a minority of Americans fully accept the theory that evolution occurs through natural selection. Harari argues that objections to the theory of evolution ultimately stem from its denial of the existence of a soul, which threatens the whole edifice of religion, not to mention the plausibility of the wishful thought that life is actually eternal. (He points out that for both evolution and a soul be “true,” there would have had to be some actual moment in time in which souls entered the human body. When would that have been? Moreover, that first baby with a soul would have parents without a soul.)
Also, because the soul is limited to humans in most religious beliefs, this has meant humans have felt free to do what they wanted to animals. Harari goes into some depth on how egregiously humans treat animals, without regard for any pain they may experience or any needs they themselves might have. He asks, when upgraded humans rule the planet, how might they regard non-upgraded humans? Will they be treated as animals are treated now?
Such questions arise out of Harari’s conjecture that one of humanity’s new concerns will be to confer immortality on humans via medical engineering and artificial intelligence. Thus will evolution by natural selection be replaced, at least, for those who can afford it. Already, one can buy a DIY gene-engineering kit for just $159 that uses the new discovery of “CRISPR” to manipulate DNA, according to a recent science article in “The Economist 1843 Magazine.”
It won’t be long, the article in 1843 argues, before a CRISPR baby will be born. Author Tom Whipple observes: “The technology is too easy.” But mankind will need new collective myths to serve as guidebooks for the new reality. Does it matter if the narrative we come up with is “true”?
As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps.”
Evaluation: This entertaining book is full of thought-provoking observations. You may not agree with all of them, but I think one can’t help being stimulated by them. This would make an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published in hardcover in the U.S. by Harper, 2017
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
We listened to this book on audio. The narrator, Derek Perkins, did a fine job. We had to keep stopping the audio to discuss the issues raised, but that just shows how engaging it was.
Published unabridged on 13 CDs (approximately 15 listening hours) by Harper Audio, 2017