Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

by stephenpalmersf

I read Sapiens by this author and thought it a brilliant book. I’m not so sure about this one.

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The sequel to Sapiens takes the reader through history into a speculative future, based on ideas of what the 21st century might be like. Sapiens showed the gift Harari has for summarising and describing with marvellous clarity how people have changed according to a number of revolutions – the cognitive revolution of (in Harari’s estimation) 70,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. This book begins with a similar survey, before going into four chapters showing how human beings invest their world with meaning. Harari observes, as others have, that our modern world is conspicuously lacking the sense of meaning and order which existed in earlier times. But he does show how what he calls humanism took over from religious notions some time around the Enlightenment, to give us a situation where, instead of an external, usually religious source for meaning, it came instead from inside. “Listen to your feelings,” as he puts it. The third section of the book looks at how the recent modern world is changing, through genetics, AI and Big Data. These are the speculative chapters.

First, I’ll say what I think is good about this book. Harari exhibits the same sort of brilliance as, say, Karen Armstrong when it comes to extracting profound meaning from history. In the same way that Sapiens was brilliant, so is much of Homo Deus. Harari also has a laudable agenda of empathy with the animal world. Interestingly, he is a vegan – of which, more later. The speculative chapters are good, with the one on the decoupling of consciousness and intelligence – i.e. our headlong rush to create algorithms that do specialised tasks far, far better than we do – a particularly fine piece of work. There is much here for the SF author to be inspired by.

But this book has in my opinion quite a few flaws.

The first is Harari’s concepts of consciousness, of our understanding of consciousness, and of the nature of individualism, liberalism and humanism in modern society. The most significant lines in the whole book for me are these: “However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger, love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that [my emphasis].” Throughout this book, Harari uses his gifts to persuade. The above line is the only place in the book where he bullies the reader into accepting his view.

This happens because the chapter on the human mind and consciousness is the weakest point of the whole work. Although there is one mention of Daniel Dennett and one (uncredited in the text) mention of 150, the Dunbar Number, there is no mention of any of the other pioneers of consciousness studies – no Hofstadter, no Humphrey, nobody else. Harari’s whole stance requires him to claim that the human mind and consciousness are still a mystery. But that is not the case.

The rest of the enterprise fails as a consequence. Harari is notably harsh on the concept of humanism, which he rightly propels into the foreground as the guiding light of post-Enlightenment centuries: listen to yourself, look within, listen to your feelings… In fact, there is a rather odd mocking of such notions in this book, which I suspect speaks of a deeper malaise. For the first time reading this author I noticed a certain misanthropy about him. I suspect Harari is a very sensitive man, who, like me, has been appalled, shocked and disgusted by what he has seen in his lifetime. This is a gay man who lives in Israel, it should be pointed out – he must have been through some exceptionally difficult circumstances. Whether this misanthropy is conscious or unconscious I don’t know, but I sensed it throughout much of the book.

The problem with Harari’s thesis is (a) we know far more about the nature of consciousness than he admits and (b) a mystery is not necessarily a mystery forever. To be fair, the author does say something along these lines in the case of (b), but his inability to see the value and likelihood of a scientific description of the human condition is a peculiar and notable lack.

And in the end, although there is a sarcastic paragraph on Hollywood’s portrayal of love, there is nothing else here about why human beings matter to one another. The sense of misanthropy I felt was revealed also by this strong emphasis on everything unlovely. But, as Harari knows, our many millennia of evolution have made us in a particular way. His jaundiced view has nothing to offer on compassion, love or even on social solidarity. And yet, with ultimate irony, the author is well aware of what the solution might be to some of the disasters human beings are looking at. It’s all about types of co-operation, styles of organisation.

Quite a few reviewers of this book have noted Harari’s veganism and made something of it. I’m a vegetarian and passionate about ethical farming etc, but I didn’t find this book’s pro-animal stance too overt. Harari is scathing about how animals have been treated since the agricultural revolution, and I think his explanations are good and accurate. There are only a few mentions of the issue, all are in context, and none bash the reader over the head.

Where Harari is undoubtedly right is in warning about the future. Blithely we are all giving the Big Data corporations all the food they need to get fat and to control our lives. For Harari it is all about algorithms – the virtual mechanisms we are making (or in many cases allowing to expand all by themselves) for what is supposed to be our convenience. We are making our own demise, I think – and this author agrees.

This is a book that, like Sapiens, all should read. It gives a lot despite being fundamentally flawed. But where Sapiens was a work of history and relatively neutral, Homo Deus is a much more partisan account. In tone it is often dismissive of human goodness. I find that rather a shame.

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