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Book review

  • February 2018
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
homosapiens_homodeusbook

Sapiens and Homo Deus

by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens
Publisher: Harper;
ISBN-10: 0099590085
ISBN-13: 978-0099590088

Homo Deus
Publisher: Harper;
ISBN-10: 1784703931
ISBN-13: 978-1784703936

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland.

These two books by Yuval Noah Harari have received worldwide acclaim and have been praised for their insights on the history and future of humankind.

The first book, Sapiens, looks at the evolution of our species, and covers three fundamental moments that set Homo sapiens apart from all other species: the cognitive revolution, which kickstarted the development of human culture and history; the agricultural revolution, which shaped humans as social actors; and the scientific revolution, which defined the era we now live in, and which according to Harari “may well end history and start something completely different”.

In this sentence lies the scope of both books: to understand how science is enabling the transformation of Homo sapiens into a new species, shaped by technologies which are able to understand how we function much better than we do ourselves. If Sapiens articulates how the scientific revolution is leading this new development of humankind, the second book, Homo Deus, focuses on its consequences: a (near) future where humans are intrinsically connected with the data flow that already controls most of the systems necessary for our society to exist.

Harari masterfully weaves a profound knowledge of history with smart insights on today’s society, and the result is a fascinating and thought provoking analysis of our present and a glimpse into our future.

Harari makes a very convincing point about the inability of science to set its own priorities. For instance, he asks in Sapiens, what should we do with our increasing understanding of genetics? “Should we use this knowledge to cure cancer, to create a race of genetically engineered supermen, or to engineer dairy cows with super-sized udders? It is obvious that a liberal government, a Communist government, a Nazi government and a capitalist business corporation would use the very same scientific discovery for completely different purposes, and there is no scientific reason to prefer one usage over others.” This argument opens the section about the scientific revolution, and how scientific research cannot be discussed without taking into account “the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.”

We find a similar approach in Homo Deus, where the argument is made that data and algorithms can in fact be seen as a new ideology or religion. “If gods can possess land and employ people, why not algorithms?” asks Harari. This question is more than a provocation, though. Today we are already seeing how humans can’t cope with the amount of data which is produced and necessary to organise society. We have given up control of this data to a complex computer-based infrastructure, to a system which can make sense of all the data much better than any human possibly could do. What’s left for us humans? Being smart enough to protect us from the data. “In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore”. My humble advice: don’t ignore these two books.

Keywords

  • good reads
  • Sapiens
  • Homo Deus
  • human culture
  • history
  • technologies