“At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind.”
HOWEVER awful events might have been through history, it is over. It won’t come back. We are safe in the present tense. The future on the other hand is scary. Having looked back over our time on this planet for his last book Sapiens, the historian Harari starts to peer forward. It is not a comfortable prospect. Those science fiction monsters start to seem quite cuddly compared to what Harari sees. Of course they may not happen but, as he argues most cogently, the big things that do happen are not necessarily what you thought they were going to be, good or bad. The inventors of Viagra back in 1991 for example thought they were looking for a cure for angina.
We live at the end of what Harari defines as the Anthropocene era: A time when all life on the planet was subject to the laws of what we call nature, natural disaster, disease, famine etc. In the 21st century we are moving into a new period where we, as mankind, start to exert control over our own destiny and that of the rest of the planet. We are becoming godlike. Or some of us are. We aspire to longer life, happiness. On the face of it, that may sound great but, well there are quite a few buts coming up here, but, but, but, but…Harari writes like a barrister making a case for the prosecution. He points out we don’t exactly have the greatest track record in looking after things. We have previous. Quite a lot of previous. It is not encouraging.
“People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single constant of history is that everything changes.”
One measure of his thesis is how we treat other creatures on the planet. For the most part we have killed them off or subjected them to the cruelties of factory farming so that we can eat them. If that is what we do to other creatures then the law of chance suggests we might end up doing the same to each other.
Here is an arresting statistic: In 2012 more people committed suicide than were killed in acts of violence but twice as many again died of diabetes. “Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.” This is an agenda setting vision, the intellectual tools to guide us forward, to make us think. In that regard he is akin to Stephen Hawking, a visionary coming at us from the heart of the scientific. That he is obviously such a brilliant mind, is doubly troubling. A question for you: what is the difference between the brain and the mind? Or what is consciousness? Discuss.
It is relevant because for all the pomp of modern science our intelligence remains a mystery. Another riddle is that larger groups of people do not behave or think in the same ways as smaller groups, so intelligence differs. This ability to cooperate has set us out as humans. Harari refers to it as the intersubjective, when a group of people buy into an idea which makes something real happen. Obvious examples are religion or money. The intersubjective is what will forge the shape of our tomorrows.
Harari’s skill as a writer is to communicate such complex ideas. He wraps his arguments up in cute box-sized chunks. They are not hard to follow, one vignette rolls comfortably into the next…he has the gift of making you feel intelligent enough to understand where he is coming from through a long read of nearly 400 pages. Of course, he is a vegan who lives on a collective farm and won’t be expecting a phone call from Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu one suspects. More is the pity.
For a while you feel he is going to come down as a humanist but then he sides as a scientist. He disowns things he cannot prove – no soul, no freedom of action, even no individuality but dividuality which leads us to his intellectual crescendo.
“The train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens…to get a seat you need to understand 21st century technology…biotechnology and computer algorithms.”
An image stays in the mind from Chekhov: If a gun appears in act one of a play, then for sure it will be fired in act three. Harari is putting the gun on the table.
The answer he suggests is…dataism or the flow of data.