Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015)
What does the future hold for humanity?
This is a question that many writers, artists, and thinkers have tried to answer. In fact, predicting the future is a sort of industry. Beyond sci-fi, serious writers have attempted to map out the future of our species in daring works of non-fiction. Yet Harari’s is one of the most believable.
Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, and his previous book, Sapiens, is one of my favourite books. In that text, he masterfully explored the entirety of our species’ history, and in this one he looks into the near future. He often makes bold claims, but then tempers them with caution that no one could know the future, as well as offering tempting evidence to support his ideas.
He starts off where the previous book left, by looking into the past. Here, he concludes – with the first of many seemingly shocking claims – that humans have defeated the problems that have tormented us since the dawn of time. We no longer suffer from disease, hunger, or war, he says. (Of course, he acknowledges that we do, but only in rather isolated cases and that, for example, more people die from eating too much than too little.)
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, Harari turns to the future. If we have beaten the problems that have always plagued us, where now do we turn? We turn ourselves into gods, of course. That means humanity will in the future seek to achieve happiness, immortality, and divinity. (For some reason, he always lists his ideas and examples in sets of three.) This change, however, will not by conscious. We will not decide to do these things, but rather we will step-by-step graduate into them without realizing it, even if it happens quickly:
In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.
The rest of the book sort of follows these ideas, but it wanders significantly into different but related territories. Structurally, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness work as it wanders hither and thither, covering animal rights and artificial intelligence, the validity of human experience and the importance of data, and even speculating as to whether our world is real or just a simulation. He zips between the distant past, the present, and the decades to come in order to ask and answer questions about what we can expect humans to do.
Yet even if it goes off track a little, and is sometimes a bit repetitive, it is always readable. Harari knows how to explain very complex matters in simple language. He delves into deep science and philosophy, as well as areas from across the whole of human history, and the reader is not overwhelmed. It is a pleasure to follow his arguments.