Friday, February 12, 2021

"Homo Deus," by Yuval Noah Harari--Nonfiction Review

Hello, my dear obscurists! Last week, we talked about a science fiction speculating on the possible darker side of humanity’s future. So today, I thought we’d discuss a nonfiction written by Yuval Noah Harari called “Homo Deus,” which is about humanity’s possible future. Lookout, we’re doing a theme here.

Yuval Noah Harari

What I love about this book:

Futurism and futurists have a special place in my heart—like Ray Kurzweil, for example—but despite the title and content of this book, to claim Yuval Noah Harari as a futurist might be a bit of a stretch. In this book, Harari looks at the intersection between our species’ history and where our technology is progressing and charts out what our course might be in the future. That aspect of it reminded me of Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near,” a book I rather quite liked, and I enjoyed that speculation on the future in “Homo Deus” nearly as much. 

Harari has such a conversational tone and sharp insight that it makes reading—or in my case, listening to—this book a real joy. How he flows from topic-to-topic while weaving in evidence to support his points is almost hypnotic in a way. He makes it look easy, is all I’m saying, which is impressive for a book about deep history and time.  

In “Homo Deus,” Harari tackles prejudices of thought that aren’t exclusively the racist sort of prejudices, but things like the proposition that the agriculture revolution was an unqualified good thing. It had good effects for us—humans—some bad too, but that’s a different topic, but mostly it’s an example of how one kind of creature could fundamentally change the environment around them. Great for us, but catastrophic to all the other life in our way. This is our superpower as a species, in action, and we’re only getting better at it in terms of power and not necessarily wisdom. Since there is no going backward—barring world-ending nuclear holocaust—I believe Harari’s point in this book is that we need to proceed with a clear understanding of the past and with restraint, characteristics of wise decision making.

The primary prejudice “Homo Deus” points out is the assumed primacy of humans, specifically Homo Sapiens—our brand of humans. Quick aside, there are no other groups within the Homo genus because we killed them. Sure there is the argument they might have died out because of climate change. But what seems more likely to you? The Homo Neanderthalensis, and assorted Homo cousins, all died out because the weather fundamentally changed. Or that “climate change” was represented as one group of the genus, say Sapiens, for example, invented language, close communities born of cooperation, and the throwing spear. Let me remind you we don’t even like other Sapiens who happen to have different skin colors. The tragedy here is our best qualities are often used for terrible purposes.

All of this certainly made us powerful. But does power or rather—and you may have heard this before—might make right? That’s the primacy of humans, and “Homo Deus” questions the objectivity of that premise.

What I don’t love about this book:

Harari spends a great deal of time covering territory, or rather re-covering territory in this book that seems more appropriate for his preceding book, “Sapiens.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that he’s whole cloth restating himself from that book in this one. What I mean is far more subtle than that. If “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” work as a series and the former is a look at humanity’s past, the latter should be a look at the future—and it is—sort of, but a lot of it also looks at the past. You could make the argument that you can’t understand the future without understanding the past, and I agree. He wrote a whole book covering that before this one. The next argument is that maybe not every reader of “Homo Deus” has read “Sapiens” first, and he needs to do it this way to include them. Fair, but I still don’t understand why people do this—read books out of order, which drives me nuts when I do it accidentally. 

My old nemesis of hyper long chapters raises its irksome head in this book, which I know I mention a lot in this blog. But when it stops annoying me, I’ll stop mentioning it, so settle in that heat death of the universe thing can’t be too much longer off from now.

A thing that made me uncomfortable about my own failings; is all the allusions in this book to the horrors of industrial-scale ranching and meat production. Harari is an ardent vegan—and I admire him for that. I wish I could say that I could maintain the lifestyle of just a vegetarian, but so far, that isn’t the case. I really, really like the taste of buffalo chicken wings, and a steak made rare. I wish that I didn’t. Books like this have made it so I will never eat veal knowingly ever again. But even I realize that’s like saying, “look, I only cut down ninety acres of the hundred-acre wood. Pooh and his friends have like ten whole acres of woods left to gallivant around in whenever they want.” So this is a necessary societal—and clearly personal for me—evil that we needed to be confronted with, so I’m glad Harari put it in this book from an intellectual perspective. Emotionally, it sucks because I don’t like feeling like the bad guy, especially when I am the bad guy.

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Parting thoughts:

The will to change—and change for the better—is hard. It takes immense willpower, and willpower is a finite resource. From my understanding of modern-day psychology, this is true of not just individuals but also societies of people. To indulge in a cliché, the future isn’t written yet—but it is coming, and coming faster and faster every day. If the last thirteen odd months have taught me anything, it’s that if we want a bright future like the one Gene Roddenberry imagined, then we collectively need to change for the better. Otherwise, we’ll end up living in one a lot more like Orwell and Huxley imagined.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that some things get set in motion. Then their inertia is such that as an individual, the momentum is too much to overcome alone. There is a limit to what one person can achieve or grow beyond—and that sucks. I’ve even touched on one of my own limitations when it comes to diet. I consider myself an animal lover. But no matter how you gussy it up, though, no argument has ever convinced me that quality about my character isn’t incompatible with the fact that I find chickens delicious—and am therefore unwilling to stop eating chickens. As an individual, the willpower to change—on this specific topic—just isn’t there for me. I just accept the flaw and live with the discontinuity.

I would argue, though, that the point of a society is to overcome individuals’ flaws and deficiencies to create a better world for everyone. In America—this American too—we’re deeply skeptical of that concept, and historically, we have always been so too. We believe in the strength and character of the individual, the maverick, the pioneer, and there is precedent for this belief. When individual Americans such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant led us through the civil war, they had their supporters, numerous even—but the collective in power was mostly against them. That’s another example of how the collective isn’t always morally correct. But on the other hand, taking another American president whose face is on money as an example, Andrew Jackson was undoubtedly a dynamic individual, and he was a lunatic. So you win some, you lose some. 

The great question is; how do we balance these conflicting notions of the flexibility and innovation of the individual and our species superpower of collective cooperation to change the world—and do it for the benefit of all life, not just human life?

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