Yuval Noah Harari 2016. Homo Deus. A brief history of tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker, 440 pp.
This patchwork of a book is not nearly as interesting as it promises.
The very first chapter, The new human agenda , sets the scene in a promising way with some cogent observations: “For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than too little …”; “more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined …”. We don’t get exposed to the plan of the book until page 66 where it is explained that the first part is an attempt to understand if Homo sapiens is special compared with other animals. The second part is about “the bizarre world Homo sapiens has created in the last millennia”. The final part is about our current “predicament” and possible futures and “ … scrutinises our smartphones, dating practices and job market for clues of things to come”. I should have read the tea leaves and stopped right there.
Subsequent chapters and headings promise much but fail to deliver any substance: Why the stock exchange has no conciousness; The time bomb in the laboratory. Some are downright silly: Is Beethoven better than Chuck Berry; Electricity, genetics and radical Islam. Harari just goes on setting the scene for an interesting book, but he never delivers that book. There are plenty of trite truisms, opinions and judgements which he hides from unconvincingly with the statement “… this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto”. I should have been alert to the fact that Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and so he naturally sees events through the prism of an ebb and flow of power and wealth more than of cultures and civilisations. Fair enough, perhaps, if this was just a history. But the scope of this book, dabbling in possible futures, requires more substance and fewer contradictions. Harari regularly celebrates humanism, foibles and all, but decries the uncountable tragedies of history that result from the actions of ill-informed humans. But when contemplating possible futures in which humans might avoid such poor decisions through merger with or replacement by artificial intelligences he would rather hide in the humanist past, flaws and all, without even contemplating possible improvement. And although he pretends to adopt the obvious truth that organisms are just biochemical and genetic algorithms which are sufficient to explain being human, he can’t seem to imagine that a non-biological intelligence could also have those “human” qualities. Harari is no Nick Bostrom or Ray Kurzweil and there isn’t much here that is not covered more objectively by those and other better-informed authors.
Harari betrays the depths of his misunderstandings with his breathtakingly wrong view of science (p. 198): “Science is interested, above all in power”. I would be interested to hear him run that past an actual scientist. Science, of course, is interested above all in understanding the universe (including ourselves) and couldn’t give a toss about power. Except in attempting to understand how historians like Harari could come to admire their own opinions and biases to the extent that they project them into topics which they don’t understand.
There was at least one brief glimmer of reading pleasure. I did enjoy A brief history of lawns (pp. 61-64) where the author indulges in an amusing tirade on this gratuitous symbol of wealth, which started in palaces and chateaux and is now ubiquitous in the West in the form of suburban lawns, quadrangles, sports fields and the like. (They never bothered with lawns at the Acropolis. Too busy inventing philosophy and mathematics, I suppose.)