by Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, £25
This is Yuval Noah Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, his much-praised “brief history of humankind”. The dust jacket of this book, subtitled A Brief History of Tomorrow, tells us that “Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus shows us where we are going.”
Homo Deus deals with an immense range of scientific, sociological, ethical and spiritual issues in its 440 pages, which are never ponderous or boring. Does it show us the future? Well, maybe, at least in part. Much is tantalising guesswork and possibility, and you cannot quite unscramble science fiction from scientific fact.
As the book progresses there are a series of elephants in the room. The first is an over-optimistic belief in the inevitability of progress. The back cover proclaims: “War is obsolete … Famine is disappearing … Death is just a technical problem.” Tell that to a Syrian refugee or Ebola victim in Africa. True, Harari gives a nod to such issues in his narrative, but they are just in passing – signs that we haven’t sorted everything out yet. His speculations about technological advancement might have much to commend them, but they fail to give due regard to human nature.
This is the second elephant in the room: humanity. “Sapiens” have tremendous skills that have brought dominance of the planet and improved life chances, cured many diseases and created levels of communication which make it easier for nations to cooperate in various ways. The human race need not progress onwards and upwards, though, as we can see in the rise of Putin’s Russia, the migrant crisis, the horrors of ISIS and the popularity of Donald Trump. Human beings themselves are morally flawed, and this is something that education, reason and prosperity cannot eradicate totally (though it can help). We are fallen beings, to speak theologically.
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