December 31, 2017

Books Read (December 2017)

Managed to squeeze in some reading towards the end of the year. These include the celebrated pair of books by Israeli historian Professor Yuval Noah HarariSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Written as “popular science” books, with engaging simplicity, the first book provides a broad sweep of human history from prehistoric times (when Homo sapiens arose among the other archaic humans such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalis) to the present, while the second builds on the first and speculates on how humans (Homo sapiens) may evolve in the future (hence Homo deus). There are many big and bold ideas generated from the analysis of history, and I learned many interesting theories and facts (some of which I should already have known). Tremendously enjoyable, even if one does not agree with some of the ideas and speculations.

In Sapiens, I learned that Homo sapiens co-existed with the other archaic humans, and the predominant theory is that our ancestors essentially wiped out all the other archaic humans, just as humans collectively caused the extinction of multiple species of fauna and flora wherever they went. But 100,000 years ago, there was probably nothing special about humans. The key difference occurred when Homo sapiens underwent what Harari termed a “cognitive revolution” (how or why is not known), allowing humans to go beyond the social groupings of other animals in organizing large-scale collaboration as well as to share and build upon existing knowledge. Thereafter, the agricultural revolution permitted humans to evolve from hunter-gatherer groups into even larger and more complex societies, using the human “inter-subjective reality” (a nice term for which there are many definitions, but Harari used the one that means “things that do not exist except in communities of collective minds”) inventions of law, religion, money, and countries. Then the interconnected fields of capitalism/commerce and the scientific revolution truly allowed humans to transcend natural selection (and the law of the jungle) to intelligent design.

Where can humans go from our current reality? That is the subject of the second book, Homo Deus. Harari made a number of thought-provoking postulates.

  • Famines, plagues and wars – terrible as they still are – are no longer unavoidable tragedies but manageable challenges.
  • One pressing concern must be to protect humans and earth from … humans.
  • However it may be phrased now, humans will attempt to overcome old age and death via natural means as the first “grand project” – these become a series of technical challenges that could include “upgrading” humans.
  • The pursuit of happiness may well be the second “grand project”. Here, Singapore gets a brief mention (would one rather be a highly productive but dissatisfied Singaporean, or a less productive but satisfied Costa Rican?).
  • The third “grand project” could be to achieve divinity (therefore Homo Deus) via re-engineering human bodies but especially minds, subsuming the first two “grand projects”.

Harari hits the same stumbling block that he described succinctly in the book – it is difficult to imagine how the world will look in 2100 or 2200 because the ability to re-engineer bodies and minds – the drive for divinity, the third “grand project” – means that our current minds cannot conceive of what future minds may do with biotechnology. But his powerful argument is that achieving these things could well be bad for humans as a whole. Progress will tend to lead towards greater inequality with a small group of elites controlling an even greater part of the world than these do today, and perhaps even the creation of a large “useless class” of humans – when robots and artificial intelligence can do most things better than humans can today, what is the majority of humans to do? This “purpose problem” for humans might lead to a new religion beyond humanism, but Harari’s arguments are tentative, as they can only be. Bill Gates, for example, is not convinced that the arc of history will bend towards such a bleak scenario as depicted by Harari.

One might disagree with many of the arguments and postulates of both books, but they are collectively a highly enlightening, sobering and perhaps even depressing read.

As usual, I did far more light reading – the young American author Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Divine Cities fantasy trilogy makes for good holiday reading, if one likes fantasy books (not set in “western European” type settings with elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.) with great world building and a certain grim realism.

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