25 August 2018

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

1. The New Human Agenda

The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies. Losing one’s job can certainly trigger depression, but depression itself is a kind of unpleasant bodily sensation.

People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.

The deeper parts of your mind know nothing about football or about jobs. They know only sensations. If you get a promotion, but for some reason don’t feel any pleasant sensations – you will not feel satisfied. The opposite is also true. If you have just been fired (or lost a decisive football match), but you are experiencing very pleasant sensations (perhaps because you popped some pill), you might still feel on top of the world. The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones.

This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness.

Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquillity; but most of us tend to jump all the way from stress to boredom and back, remaining as discontented with one as with the other.

This Buddhist view of happiness has a lot in common with the biochemical view. Both agree that pleasant sensations disappear as fast as they arise, and that as long as people crave pleasant sensations without actually experiencing them, they remain dissatisfied. However, this problem has two very different solutions. The biochemical solution is to develop products and treatments that will provide humans with an unending stream of pleasant sensations, so we will never be without them. The Buddha’s suggestion was to reduce our craving for pleasant sensations, and not allow them to control our lives.

At present, humankind has far greater interest in the biochemical solution.

A cyborg doctor could perform emergency surgeries in Tokyo, in Chicago and in a space station on Mars, without ever leaving her Stockholm office. She will need only a fast Internet connection, and a few pairs of bionic eyes and hands. On second thoughts, why pairs? Why not quartets? Indeed, even those are actually superfluous. Why should a cyborg doctor hold a surgeon’s scalpel by hand, when she could connect her mind directly to the instrument? This may sound like science fiction, but it’s already a reality.

Once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend.

Throughout history most gods were believed to enjoy not omnipotence but rather specific super-abilities such as the ability to design and create living beings; to transform their own bodies; to control the environment and the weather; to read minds and to communicate at a distance; to travel at very high speeds; and of course to escape death and live indefinitely. Humans are in the business of acquiring all these abilities, and then some. Certain traditional abilities that were considered divine for many millennia have today become so commonplace that we hardly think about them. The average person now moves and communicates across distances much more easily than the Greek, Hindu or African gods of old.

Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations ancient farmers had of their gods.

We can be quite certain that humans will make a bid for divinity, because humans have many reasons to desire such an upgrade, and many ways to achieve it. Even if one promising path turns out to be a dead end, alternative routes will remain open. For example, we may discover that the human genome is far too complicated for serious manipulation, but this will not prevent the development of brain–computer interfaces, nano-robots or artificial intelligence.

Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions. Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood-pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also cure impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

The same might happen with genetic engineering. If a billionaire openly stated that he intended to engineer super-smart offspring, imagine the public outcry. But it won’t happen like that. We are more likely to slide down a slippery slope. It begins with parents whose genetic profile puts their children at high risk of deadly genetic diseases.

Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates, all carrying your DNA, all perfectly natural, and none requiring any futuristic genetic engineering. Iterate this procedure for a few generations, and you could easily end up with superhumans (or a creepy dystopia).

in 2001, the US government banned this treatment, due to safety and ethical concerns.48 However, on 3 February 2015 the British Parliament voted in favour of the so-called ‘three-parent embryo’ law, allowing this treatment – and related research – in the UK.

Once it becomes possible to amend deadly genes, why go through the hassle of inserting some foreign DNA, when you can just rewrite the code and turn a dangerous mutant gene into its benign version? Then we might start using the same mechanism to fix not just lethal genes, but also those responsible for less deadly illnesses, for autism, for stupidity and for obesity.

Even if you don’t want that for your child – what if the neighbours are doing it for theirs? Would you have your child lag behind? And if the government forbids all citizens from engineering their babies, what if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours? And like that, in baby steps, we are on our way to a genetic child catalogue.

Designer babies may one day become as technologically feasible as murdering people to harvest their organs – yet remain as peripheral.

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.

Whether you want workers to go on a general strike, women to take possession of their bodies, or oppressed minorities to demand political rights – the first step is to retell their history.

What’s true of grand social revolutions is equally true at the micro level of everyday life.

The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility. Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work (...) the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns (...) important games – such as football and tennis – are played on lawns. Provided, of course, you have money. In thefavelas of Rio de Janeiro the future generation of Brazilian football is kicking makeshift balls over sand and dirt.

Grass is nowadays the most widespread crop in the USA after maize and wheat, and the lawn industry (plants, manure, mowers, sprinklers, gardeners) accounts for billions of dollars every year.

imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. 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. Of course this is not total freedom – we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.

3. The Human Spark

Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. Humans have feet, because for millions of generations feet enabled our ancestors to chase rabbits and escape lions. Humans have eyes, because for countless millennia eyes enabled our forebears to see whither the rabbit was heading and whence the lion was coming. But why do humans have subjective experiences of hunger and fear?

If the entire system works by electric signals passing from here to there, why the hell do we also need to feel fear? (...) why do the neurons, muscles and glands need such feelings in the remaining 1 per cent of cases?

The Romanian Communist Party successfully dominated the disorganised Romanian population. Does it follow that the life of a party member was more sacred than the life of an ordinary citizen? Humans know how to cooperate far more effectively than chimpanzees, which is why humans launch spaceships to the moon whereas chimpanzees throw stones at zoo visitors. Does it mean that humans are superior beings? Well, maybe. It depends on what enables humans to cooperate so well in the first place.

Research indicates that Sapiens just can’t have intimate relations (whether hostile or amorous) with more than 150 individuals. Whatever enables humans to organise mass-cooperation networks, it isn’t intimate relations.

Most people divide the money equally, or give themselves only a moderate advantage, offering $30 or $40 to the other player. The Ultimatum Game made a significant contribution to undermining classical economic theories and to establishing the most important economic discovery of the last few decades: Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. These emotions, as we saw earlier, are in fact sophisticated algorithms that reflect the social mechanisms of ancient hunter-gatherer bands.

In another recent experiment, the primatologist Frans de Waal placed two capuchin monkeys in two adjacent cages, so that each could see everything the other was doing. (...) This hilarious experiment (which you can see for yourself on YouTube), along with the Ultimatum Game, has led many to believe that primates have a natural morality, and that equality is a universal and timeless value. People are egalitarian by nature, and unequal societies can never function well due to resentment and dissatisfaction. But is that really so?

once you observe the behaviour of human masses you discover a completely different reality. Most human kingdoms and empires were extremely unequal, yet many of them were surprisingly stable and efficient.

All large-scale human cooperation is ultimately based on our belief in imagined orders. These are sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity.

Most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective, and that there is no third option. (...) However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example, has no objective value.

The value of money is not the only thing that might evaporate once people stop believing in it. The same can happen to laws, gods and even entire empires.

It is relatively easy to accept that money is an intersubjective reality.

Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives. We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.

People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously.

No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination.

4. The Storytellers

Though the history of writing is full of similar mishaps, in most cases writing did enable officials to organise the state much more efficiently than before. Indeed, even the disaster of the Great Leap Forward didn’t topple the Chinese Communist Party from power. The catastrophe was caused by the ability to impose written fantasies on reality, but exactly the same ability allowed the party to paint a rosy picture of its successes and hold on to power tenaciously.

Many of the difficulties faced by present-day African countries stem from the fact that their borders make little sense. When the written fantasies of European bureaucracies encountered the African reality, reality was forced to surrender.5 The modern educational system provides numerous other examples of reality bowing down to written records.

Only the mass educational systems of the industrial age began using precise marks on a regular basis. (...) Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough, schools soon began focusing on getting high marks.

The power of written records reached its apogee with the appearance of holy scriptures.

Fictions enable us to cooperate better. The price we pay is that the same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation. So we may have very elaborate systems of cooperation, which are harnessed to serve fictional aims and interests. Consequently the system may seem to be working well, but only if we adopt the system’s own criteria. For example, a Muslim mullah would say: ‘Our system works. There are now 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and more people study the Qur’an and submit themselves to Allah’s will than ever before.’ The key question, though, is whether this is the right yardstick for measuring success.

5. The Odd Couple

scientific theories are not just a way to bind people together. It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn’t exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves – it helps. Antibiotics, unlike God, help even those who don’t help themselves. They cure infections whether you believe in them or not.

If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you accuse them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but which humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.

Followers of every religion are convinced that theirs alone is true.

just as the gap between religion and science is smaller than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much bigger. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.

Such journeys are fundamentally different from religions, because religions seek to cement the worldly order whereas spirituality seeks to escape it. Often enough, the most important demand from spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. In Zen Buddhism it is said that ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Which means that if while walking on the spiritual path you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutionalised Buddhism, you must free yourself from them too.

6. The Modern Covenant

The cycle was eventually broken in the modern age thanks to people’s growing trust in the future, and the resulting miracle of credit. Credit is the economic manifestation of trust.

It sounds simple on paper. Why, then, did humankind have to wait until the modern era for economic growth to gather momentum? For thousands of years people had little faith in future growth not because they were stupid, but because it contradicts our gut feelings, our evolutionary heritage and the way the world works. Most natural systems exist in equilibrium, and most survival struggles are a zero-sum game in which one can prosper only at the expense of another.

Many animals cooperate effectively, and a few even give loans. The most famous lenders in nature are vampire bats.