by Yuval Noah Harari, 2017, Harper Collins Books
I looked forward to reading this book as I thought it would provide me with some ideas as to how we will progress in the future. Sadly, I was disappointed as it didn’t give me a believable scenario.
The first part of the book attempts to give a brief history regarding how we got to be what we currently are. Unfortunately, it veered off with some unsubstantiated pronouncements. Harari implies that we had already solved the major issues of mankind: famine, disease and war. During the same time I was reading this book, I read an article that suggested we may not have the means to feed everybody when by the year 2050 there will be an estimated 10 billion humans inhabiting the earth. Another article stated that 750,000 people are dying each year from antibiotic resistant bacteria, a number which may reach ten million by the year 2050 based on current trends. Finally, the book was written prior to the current tensions between North Korea and the U.S., a situation, unless it is diffused, certainly raises the possibility of nuclear war. All in all, his assessment of the current state of affairs gave me doubts as to whether he has the ability to predict the future of humans.
After giving the reader his views on where we currently are, the author states that, since we have solved the major issues facing us currently, humans can now turn to the quest for “divinity.” He basically defines “divinity” as achieving immortality. We should be able to reach immortality through additional advances in medicine and technology.
My reaction to this premise was that it was flawed. I was thinking that most scientists and doctors are primarily focused on relieving our suffering from the maladies that inflict us as we age. Through attempting to cure cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc., they can increase the average life span of humans, but our bodies would eventually wear out and that we would die anyway. The focus, therefore, isn’t to defer death, but to make our normal lives more comfortable and enjoyable.
While I initially thought that the idea that mankind is in the process of seeking immortality was invalid, I also came across some accounts that seem to back up his premise. The revelation that we may be fairly close to being able to clone humans is one possibility that supports the idea. While some may feel that this possibility is morally repugnant, there are probably some individuals in this world who may not share that view and will probably proceed with experiments to do it just because they can. Another development that may support the quest for immortality is the possibility of doing head transplants. We are very close to being able to perform this operation from a technical standpoint. If we are able to do it, somebody will probably try it. Finally, there is the possibility of creating a new individual from preserved DNA. Another article I read described the efforts of one person who is trying to bring back woolly mastodons from strands of frozen DNA in the Arctic. Any one of these developments has the possibility of providing a human with immortality.
Another premise that Harari puts forth is that Religion is no longer alive. It has been replaced by Humanism. He provides no data to support this premise. If this is true, why are some religions apparently growing? Why are some basic tenants of some religions which seem to be based on myth (such as the creation story), still so strongly held by so many individuals, despite scientific evidence to the contrary? I haven’t read his prior book, Sapiens, where he might have made the case much more strongly, but the premise as it is stated in this book seems to be unsupported.
Despite some severe doubts about the assumptions Harari makes in the first part of this book, he does raise some interesting ideas about our future. What do we do with all these people if the average life span is increased substantially? Will all individuals have a role in determining their future, or only a small elite group of individuals? These are interesting questions to contemplate and he does provide some food for thought. While they are interesting, however, they don’t seem to be all that original. The book would probably have had more impact for me if his original assumptions were more believable. Another possibility for improvement would have been to eliminate the first half of the book which covered the history of yesterday and today, and just get down to contemplating tomorrow.