Wednesday, 19 October 2016

From Ape to Robocop

Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, “Sapiens – a brief history of humankind” was written in Hebrew in 2011. Its English translation appeared in 2014, and became a bestseller. In 2016, his second book has come out, “Homo Deus – a brief history of the future”. This post about these two books.




Harari’s approach to history is innovative and interesting. It questions many of the scientific dogmas and entrenched beliefs around evolution. At the same time, it links history to knowledge from different fields including biology, genetics, economics, archaeology, sociology and anthropology.

“Sapiens” starts with the first progenitors of humans and ends with the modern age, speculating briefly about the things to come. “Homo Deus” carries forward this speculation on the future and how it could affect the humanity.

Progenitors of the Sapiens

In “Sapiens”, Harari proposes that initially the different human species were unremarkable animals, not much different from other apes. They were not able to compete with the brute strength, force and attacking capacities of most other animals, however they had larger brains and could invent wood and stone tools for cracking open bones. They occupied a niche role - extracting marrow from bones of animals killed and eaten by other larger animals.

The human evolution was not linear. From about 2 million years ago until some 10,000 years ago, the world was home at the same time, to several human species. Fire was first used by humans 800,000 years ago. By cooking food on fire, it became easier to digest and thus humans needed less time and shorter intestines compared to other animals for digesting their food. Thus more time coupled with larger brains leading to stone tools and control of fire gave them a strategic advantage over other animals.

“Sapiens” is broadly organised around the three themes, or the three revolutions –cognitive, agricultural and scientific – that have spurred human evolution.

Cognitive Revolution

Cognitive revolution was constituted by the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, due to random genetic mutations. Harari proposes that social cooperation among different groups of humans facilitated by the new communication skills ultimately was the key development of this era.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution”. Capacity to imagine and to share that imagination with other humans was the next step. No other animals before humans were capable of this, and this development of collective imagination helped the sapiens to cooperate in extremely flexible ways with large number of other humans.

Humans shared information with others about the surrounding world, about their social relationships, and about things that do not really exist except in imagination, such as totems, spirits and gods. This same capacity of collectively imagining things continues even today leading to our ideas of countries, brands and human rights. Harari explains how these abilities lie at the base of all that progress that modern humans have achieved.

Initially humans lived as foragers in small groups, at the most a few hundred individuals, hunting and gathering food and materials. They also foraged for knowledge, important for their survival. Foragers had wider and deeper knowledge of their surroundings, they also had to master the internal world of their own bodies and senses. This was the time for the development of human diversity, each tribe developing its customs, language and culture.

This long experience of hunting and gathering life has shaped the biology and psychology of present humans.

Agricultural Revolution

The agricultural revolution, 8-10,000 years ago, changed everything. Harari suggests that “the rise of farming was a very gradual affair spread over centuries and millennia. A band of Homo sapiens gathering mushrooms and nuts and hunting deer and rabbit did not all of a sudden settle in a permanent village, ploughing fields, sowing wheat and carrying water from the river. The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life.

Agriculture accompanied by domestication of few animal species, helped in creating villages and towns, along with increases in populations. It led to the creation of rulers, commanders and kings, who lived on the hard work of others. It also led to the arrival of organised religions. Development of agriculture has been seen as important for improving the quality of life of humans, but Harari proposes a different view. He also points out its negative aspects including worsening of diets, poverty, back-breaking hard work and diseases, and suggests that though in the long run it helped to expand the reach of humans, for the early agriculturists its impact was negative.

Scientific revolution

The third part of “Sapens” is about the different ways the scientific revolution is impacting human lives – “A modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare. Any large bank today holds more money than all the world’s premodern kingdoms put together.

Starting from the “discovery” of Americas in the 16th century, this part of the book traces impact of the different changes of modern age on humans. One key change caused by this revolution was the wider understanding about the limits of our knowledge of the world, and that there was/is much more to be discovered. This led to the belief that humans can increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. While generally optimist regarding the future of humanity, the book raises the issue of environmental destruction as one of the key challenges, “The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.

Harari notes that inter-dependence and inter-connections between countries are leading to the whole world joined together as one empire, inside whose boundaries peace rather than war is valued – the world has never been as peaceful before as it is today.

He concludes “Sapiens” with discussions on the important issues for the future of humanity - pursuit of happiness including manipulation of our biochemistry for the “chemical” happiness, quest for immortality and possible role of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence leading to the end of Homo sapiens as we know them.

Homo Deus: The Future of Humans

Compared to “Sapiens”, Harari’s second book “Homo Deus” is shorter and less optimistic. Harari explains that it is not about prophecies, but is rather about a possible dystopian future for humans. The book is dedicated to his late teacher, S. N. Goenka, a Vipassana guru from India.

Homo Deus starts with the consideration that ever since their arrival on the earth, across the centuries, Homo sapiens faced three main problems – hunger/famines, plagues/infections and wars/terrorism. Harari explains that at the dawn of twenty-first century, all the three have been already resolved or can be resolved if properly tackled because we have the means to answer each of these challenges.



For example, regarding terrorism, Harari suggests a different remedy than what has been adopted usually by the countries:
However, terrorism is a strategy of weakness adopted by those who lack access to real power. At least in the past, terrorism worked by spreading fear rather than by causing significant material damage… How, then, do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation throughout the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos. Consequently states often feel obliged to react to the theatre of terrorism with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.
He thinks that humanity needs challenges and the new challenges will be about prolongation of human life in the quest for immortality, and improvement of human life through biotechnology and artificial intelligence so that we become God-like.

The remaining part of the book is devoted to the possible innovations in these areas and their impact on us. Like “Sapiens”, “Homo Deus” is also organised around three main themes – domination of humans (anthropocene), how humans give meaning to the world and the risk of losing control so that artificial intelligence and machines along with a tiny number of God-like humans control everything.

The possible dystopian future depicted by Harari is scary and uncomfortable. Repeatedly, Harari points fingers at us humans - we think that we are special beings and we have a right to exploit, kill and destroy all other beings. He wonders if the future Homo Deus who will control the world, will treat Homo sapiens as we have treated our planet and the animals on it. Our system of large scale brut use of animals grown in big farms blocked in narrow confined spaces or nailed to the ground for their milk, meat & skin, treats them as commodities. Before humans, no single species of a life form had ever dominated and affected the whole planet, therefore he calls it the Anthropocene age.

Harari devotes a lot of pages to the understanding of the different ideas of humanism which will become the dominant force in future replacing the religions, with the ideas about the centrality of ordinary people, their beliefs and feelings in the way we make decision, instead of leaving the decisions to sacred books or authorities. Thus, Harari is equally dismissive about the threat posed by the fundamentalists of different religions:
How about radical Islam, then? Or fundamentalist Christianity, messianic Judaism and revivalist Hinduism? Whereas the Chinese don’t know what they believe, religious fundamentalists know it only too well. More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is a mirage. God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervour, the zealots don’t really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.
It is the concluding parts of the books regarding the new humans with long lives and conjoined with artificial intelligence, which are the most disturbing, and at the same time less believable. Probably my lack of technological understanding precludes from understanding some of these ideas.

Conclusions

I found the two books fascinating in their scope and the way they manage to provide an overview and general understanding of so many diverse events and issues of human history - why we are the way we are and where are we going. All this is done with wit and great story-telling, and thus the book is not a dry lesson but rather a kaleidoscope of stories and stimulating discussions that sometimes meander, go out to follow some new paths before folding back and continuing with their chosen direction.

Compared to "Homo Deus", “Sapiens” is much bigger book but it tells a larger and a more fascinating story.

On some specific events about which he uses as examples to explain his points, sometimes I felt that he is a bit superficial. However in the two books looking at the human history of the whole planet and its future, that is inevitable.

I think that both are wonderful books and would warmly recommend them if your interests lie in our history, evolution, how we came to be where we are and our possible future directions.

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2 comments:

  1. I have been meaning to read these two for long (even if the second one came out a few weeks back), but have been doing so many other things to keep myself busy, as procrastinators can only do! Godspeed to your reading habits and reviewing these two great books.

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    1. Thanks Sandeep. Even I have become very slow in reading and take ages to finish a book. Still I have to say that Harari knows how to grip you, especially the first book, Sapiens, is difficult to put down. :)

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