Future-casting is a notoriously tricky business. I’m still waiting for the flying cars, robots and jet packs that Tomorrow’s World promised me as a child in the 1980s. Of course, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a go. But speculation for speculation’s sake can be a rather hollow exercise, and I’m not sure that historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus has enough stuffing.
The general idea of Homo Deus is an interesting one. We have always used technology to change our world and there seems little question that we will continue to do so. But it’s not an easy thing to write a book about, and there is always a danger of seeing non-existent patterns when stepping outside one’s own subject area. The general premise of the book is not dissimilar to Steven Pinker’s 2011 work The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which suggested that humans are less violent now than in the past, and that as a species we have simply improved.
Here, Harari argues that we have ameliorated the effects of those old human foes war, famine and plague, but face new and even more serious challenges created by modern lifestyles and technology. He adds a brief caveat that this isn’t an easy idea to accept if you happen to be in the middle of a war zone or an epidemic, but maintains that the effects of modern technology and lifestyles are more problematic for humanity. However, this misses a crucial point about human society. It was, is, and will almost certainly continue to be massively unequal: war, famine and disease still have devastating consequences for swathes of humanity. Technology is a very clear example of this inequality. HIV/Aids is in effect not a problem for Western medicine but in Africa it continues to be a death sentence. The impact of non-biological adaptations (ie, cultural stuff such as technology) has always been unequal. I’d argue that the pattern Homo Deus describes is merely a magnification of the impact of technologies that affect only a portion of the global population rather than the paradigm change that Harari suggests.
One of the criticisms levelled at Harari in his first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, were the mistakes that he made when he strayed away from his own specialist subject. Amusingly, one of the most glaring of these, which he repeats here, was the book’s title, which failed to follow the Linnaean rules for writing species names – Homo sapiens, never “Homo Sapiens” or “Sapiens”. As I get bored of telling my students, attention to detail is important; anything else just makes you look like you don’t understand. While it sounds like a cheap debating point, it is totemic of the quick, broad brushstrokes used throughout. Ultimately, Homo Deus is only partially successful as a book. Reading it put me in mind of one of those Channel 4 “Top 100” programmes. The odd five minutes is amusing/interesting/shocking (delete as appropriate) but you wouldn’t want to watch all four hours in one go. I’m not sure if there is a literary equivalent to television’s “water cooler moment”, but this book seems to be pitching to that demographic.
The old trope goes that those who don’t learn history’s lessons are doomed to repeat them. Here, we have something different: a historian suggesting the mistakes we might make in the future. I’ll leave you to enjoy the irony.
Simon Underdown is senior lecturer in biological anthropology, Oxford Brookes University.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
By Yuval Noah Harari
Harvill Secker, 448pp, £25.00
Published 8 September 2016