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Preview — Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
Read between October 31 - December 30, 2019
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.
Most readers probably know how it feels when you miss lunch, when you fast on some religious holiday, or when you live for a few days on vegetable shakes as part of a new wonder diet. But how does it feel when you haven’t eaten for days on end and you have no clue where to get the next morsel of food? Most people today have never experienced this excruciating torment.
There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.
Whereas the rich residents of Beverly Hills eat lettuce salad and steamed tofu with quinoa, in the slums and ghettos the poor gorge on Twinkie cakes, Cheetos, hamburgers and pizza. In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.4 In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
Throughout history most humans took war for granted, whereas peace was a temporary and precarious state.
In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.23 Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge.
What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.
Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries.25 For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.
Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
Now try to imagine a person with a lifespan of 150 years. Getting married at forty, she still has 110 years to go. Will it be realistic to expect her marriage to last 110 years? Even Catholic fundamentalists might baulk at that. So the current trend of serial marriages is likely to intensify.
Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants. Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties.29
Epicurus was apparently on to something. Being happy doesn’t come easy.
It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?
We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations.
People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.
People drink alcohol to forget, they smoke pot to feel peaceful, they take cocaine and methamphetamines to be sharp and confident, whereas Ecstasy provides ecstatic sensations and LSD sends you to meet Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
No matter the exact method, gaining happiness through biological manipulation won’t be easy, for it requires altering the fundamental patterns of life. But then it wasn’t easy to overcome famine, plague and war either.
To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.
The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.
This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.
This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.
You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.
Humanism has dominated the world for 300 years, which is not such a long time. The pharaohs ruled Egypt for 3,000 years, and the popes dominated Europe for a millennium.
People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes.
The world is populated mainly by humans and their domesticated animals.
Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs.1 The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000 African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens.
What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.
The word ‘mammal’ comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast.
We normally think that theist religions sanctified the great gods. We tend to forget that they sanctified humans, too.
Yet traditional interpretations saw the deluge as proof of human supremacy and animal worthlessness. According to these interpretations, Noah was instructed to save the whole ecosystem in order to protect the common interests of gods and humans rather than the interests of the animals. Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist solely for our sake.
In recent years, as people began to rethink human–animal relations, such practices have come under increasing criticism. We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one.
Over the last few centuries scientists have not discovered any empirical evidence for God’s existence, while they did find much more detailed explanations for lightning strikes, rain and the origins of life.
Turing knew from personal experience that it didn’t matter who you really were – it mattered only what others thought about you.
To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability – rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness – explains our mastery of planet Earth.
Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions.
We refuse unfair offers because people who meekly accepted unfair offers didn’t survive in the Stone Age.
People are egalitarian by nature, and unequal societies can never function well due to resentment and dissatisfaction.
Sapiens often use visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’.
Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories.
In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection.
On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.
From its belief in the supreme value of growth, capitalism deduces its number one commandment: thou shalt invest thy profits in increasing growth.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences.
The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan.
I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.