March 16, 2017

Like his previous book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, Homo Deus, encompasses too many complex and mind-expanding concepts to possibly summarize in a short review. In short, this book is about the ways in which human beings are or are not special (in comparison to non-human animals and artificial intelligence), the ways in which we have conceived of how we are or are not special, and what these ways and conceptions mean for our future.

Harari makes so many incredible and interesting connections along the way among history, economics, philosophy, biology, technology, psychology, cognitive science, and just about every other field of human thought or endeavor. He conceives of human religions broadly and discusses how we have moved from animism to deism to humanism to dataism. He tells the story of how the modern world committed itself to liberalism in its several forms, including capitalism and communism, and how liberalism’s tenets may fail us in the 21st century. He asks if organisms are really just algorithms and whether the answer matters if we all proceed as if we believe it. He attacks the idea of free will and depicts a future where intelligence is not constrained by its pesky sibling, consciousness.

This is just a taste of the big questions and deep investigations featured in Homo Deus, often with scintillating cogency, though occasionally with murky incompleteness. Let me focus in on one particularly topical trend Harari discusses, the future trajectory of which does not take much prescience to chart: the widening wealth gap. Harari sees health care as increasingly focusing on “upgrading” rather than on prevention and cures. Genetic manipulation, bio-enhancement, and cognitive augmentation are already realities, and their capacities are expanding exponentially. Almost certainly, in twenty or thirty years, we will be able to design and reconfigure individuals to become, literally, superhuman.

This, of course, will be expensive. Only those with the best health care will have access to the best upgrading opportunities. Only those with the most money—or the most progressive governments—will be able to realize these opportunities. The U.S. lawmakers currently seeking to enhance the wealth of the very rich by taking health care away from the poor and middle class are, whether intentionally or not, accelerating a trend that will ultimately result in their children and grandchildren founding a new social class, the “Techno-humanist” elites, the Superhumans. This class will pursue “immortality, bliss, and divinity” without any regard for what might be happening with the poor old-model human masses.

This issue does not take up most of Harari’s time in Homo Deus, but it does tie together several of his recurring themes. I bring it up here to emphasize how critical is the current debate over Obama/Trump/Ryan-care—and in general, the issue of wealth inequality. As technological possibilities begin to offer human beings ways to surpass the limitations with which we’ve lived for tens of thousands of years, inequality will be magnified. We need to start asking not just, What kind of society do we want to be? We need to start asking, What kind of species do we want to be?

Sapiens immediately landed on my Top Ten Books EVER list when I read it two years ago. This book does not make it that high. It covers some of the same ground that Sapiens does, and by its very nature it is more speculative and on shakier ground in some of its assertions. However, I would still consider Homo Deus essential reading for anyone who appreciates the best interdisciplinary synthesis of complex ideas and phenomena that matter. Somehow, Harari makes such synthesis and such complex ideas as clear and readable as anyone else writing today. That, in turn, helps the reader understand why and how they matter as much as they do. And if you’re a book listener as I am, the narrator is also terrific. Few things make me feel as glad to be alive as smart ideas, clearly written and well-spoken.

 

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