Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus (2015) Review

homo-deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is marketed as the sequel to Harari’s earlier popular non-fiction book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. And in a sense, it is. Sapiens started off with explaining the biological baseline of our human bodies and early societies, and then explained how “fictions” like money, religion and statehood made us so successful as a species. In Homo Deus, Harari looks to the future, to see what it might hold. But now he starts off from a very different place: he discusses how humanity is solving its problems of war, plague and famine, and now humanity has to decide what else to do with its time.

This makes Homo Deus also a possible sequel to Steven Pinker’s stunning book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), in which Pinker explains how violence is disappearing from our world, even though we might not see it. Pinker gave us the whole rundown of how violence in all its manifestations has been decreasing throughout the centuries in a mammoth non-fiction book that gave a great stimulus to a positive vision of the world. But Pinker didn’t really talk about the future, or where this experiment might lead us, and Harari is willing to give it a try. Homo Deus starts off from this same positive vision of what we call “progress”.

It’s like science fiction, but non-fiction!

The good thing about Harari is that he knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. History, science, humanities, it all comes together. He’s like a professor who refused to specialize and is generally interested in everything, and when you read his material, he tells you about stuff that you never properly connected in your own mind. And Harari has a real talent for science communication and eloquent speaking. He’s very accessible for everyone, like a more serious Bill Bryson with stronger opinions and an urge to explain the whole universe step by step.

Harari quickly acknowledges that we need to solve the incoming environmental catastrophe, but then sets it aside as not a part of his story. The future means for him immortality, power and happiness. I think this environmental catastrophe is a much bigger problem, and a much bigger element in our future, than the second-tier issue that he relegates it to.

In any case, Harari just talks about what he thinks humanity will probably do, and not what we should do. So, he’s not really trying to predict the future of the planet, but considers how humans will probably behave and what will grab our collective imagination. So, when he says that humans will pursue happiness in the form of physical and chemical pleasure, that is not an endorsement that he is making. Neither is he explaining every possible consequence of our actions. To do that, you might as well jump right into science fiction.

There’s no serious talk about the future ‘til halfway through the book. Harari takes a long time to set the scene. Because, what he really wants to talk about is the future of humanism, or, the belief in humanity and human experience as the source of meaning in the world. So, first he needs to explain how this belief entered our society, how Homo sapiens is an animal that creates beliefs to get people to cooperate with each other, and how science undermined the previous religions and therefore how humanism cropped up to fill the gap. His ideas about the future are quite high-brow and, you know, paradigm changing and so on, and that needs explanation. The exploration of the limits of humanism is the most interesting and confronting part of the book.

Occasionally, he makes certain jumps in his argumentation that feel messy. I often find myself waiting for him to make certain arguments, or I feel frustrated with his style of argumentation. For example, when he discusses death, he dismisses metaphysical meanings about death as meaningless because death is “only about technical errors in the body”. He makes these jumps because he wants to point us towards a certain direction of thought. “Think about it this way,” he says, but his arguments feel more like blunt personal opinions. In his previous book, Sapiens, he was cutting corners in his arguments the same way.

I also wonder when he talks about immortality, about the endless population growth it implies. And I especially wonder why he drops the whole topic of immortality in the third part of the book. It is one of his major items to discuss at the outset. But when the final part of the book arrives, which is about possible future merging of humans with AI and about future religion, the whole point of immortality is suddenly forgotten. After such a lengthy setup and so many pages, his treatment of where it all would lead is strangely unmethodological and short.

But these are minor squabbles. Most of his book is really excellent. He raises loads of interesting questions about our future and chilling or stunning visions of what might be possible. The way, for example, how genetic engineering might sneak into our lives gradually. Science fiction often skips this step; it creates its energy from the shock effect between the now and the then. But Harari makes us see what steps lie in between.

IF YOU LIKE crazy ideas about the future, I’d like to recommend the follow SF novels:

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7 Responses to Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus (2015) Review

  1. jameswharris says:

    I can’t wait to read this. I can understand your reservations. If we can’t solve the environmental problem, I doubt civilization will progress much further. I’m not sure Homo sapiens will change, nor do I expect we’ll produce a biological descendant. I believe AI minds will be the next evolutionary stage after us. Our job is to produce them. We might be an end to biology. Although, I think we should preserve all the biology we can on Earth.

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    • Thanks for reading, James. Yes I agree about the environmental problems. I am trained as a biologist and environmental scientist and every week I read reports about studies that track how the ecosystems are changing because of climate change. The refusal of today’s politics to deal with this is absolutely maddening. It is criminal. I am really very upset and worried about it. The countries that are now refusing to deal with this will be judged very badly by history.

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      • jameswharris says:

        People protect themselves by denial. Conservatives believe in a small government, reducing taxes, minimum regulation. If climate change is true they have to give up all those cherished beliefs. It’s easier for them to deny science than give up their ideals.

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  2. Pingback: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) | A Sky of Books and Movies

  3. kabrown4 says:

    I’m about halfway though this book, and I will admit I have been struggling – I usually wouldn’t read a review mid-book for fear of spoilers, but I though with a non-fiction book I’d ‘risk’ it and I’m really glad I did.
    I’m not familiar with his previous book, and most non-fiction I read is about history or geography rather than about science. I had deeply considered putting the book down and not carrying on with it, but if the discussion about humanism does pick up more in the second half as you say, I’ll carry on, as that was what had attracted me most to the book in the first place.
    Thanks for a great review

    Liked by 1 person

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