A Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Barry L. Schwartz
A child asked his mother, “Where do people come from?”
“Well,” the mother said, “Adam and Eve were the first parents on earth. They had babies who became grownups. Then those grownups had babies who eventually became grownups, and so on and so forth, until today.”
Later, the child decided to ask his father the same question. The father had a different explanation. “Long ago, there were no people on earth-just monkeys. Slowly the monkeys developed and changed into people. We call this process ‘evolution.’”
The children ran back to his mother and tearfully blurted, “You lied to me! You said people came from Adam and Eve, but Dad just old me that people came from monkeys!”
“I did not lie,” the mother replied calmly. “Your father was talking about his side of the family.”
Where do we come from? And where are we going? Those are two really big questions…. And the buzz these days is about a pair of books written to answer these questions that have become global bestsellers.
Yuval Noah Harari is a 40 something year old professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem…and now an international celebrity. His first book is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His new book is called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Both are on the short list of many a world leader, from Bill Gates to Barak Obama. You need a good block of time to read and digest these formidable tomes. But the writing is surprisingly accessible and the discussion provocative. The author pulls no punches and tells you where he stands. Soon enough you will discern that Yuval Harari is a secular Jew and a skeptical academic. He is a student of Spinoza, a devotee of Darwin, and an acolyte of Einstein. Harari has little use for the Bible in particular and religion in general.
Harari’s provocative thesis about the future is embodied in the title of his second work: Homo Deus. To explain: The first humans on the evolutionary tree were homo habilis, “handy man” if you will, who mastered primitive tool making. They were followed by homo erectus, “upright man”, who not only walked solidly on two feet, but mastered fire. A long time later we finally arrived: “homo sapien, “wise man” (or is it “wise guy”), who mastered language and writing and computer science. It is Harari’s belief that we will soon become homo deus, “god-man”; super-human, god-like creatures, part carbon, part silicon; part man, part machine; an indistinguishable blend of human and robot. This revolutionary- evolutionary great leap forward will ironically lead to the extinction of the human race as we now know it. As Harari says in his attention grabbing quote at the top of his website: “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods.”
What does Harari mean when he says we will become gods? He explains that “The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.” The first will involve the intentional rewriting of our genetic code and the altering of our biochemical composition. The second will involve the intentional merging of our organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, and nano-robots infused into our bloodstream. The third will involve the supplementing and eventual replacement of our neural network, meaning our brain, with artificial intelligence.
The reason we will want to do all this, according to Harari, is that it will be the final fulfillment of humanity’s three deepest desires: immortality, bliss and omnipotence. We want to live forever, we want to be happy forever, and we want to be all powerful. Harari points out that that the march toward this holy trinity is unstoppable. The desire is unquenchable. The progress is inexorable. The technology is inevitable. After all, Harari grandly notes, over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible: turn the uncontrollable forces of nature- namely famine, plague and war, the big three scourges of human history, into manageable challenges. Today more people die from eating too much then from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed by war or crime.
Harari cheerfully cautions against calling this future world populated by homo deus dystopian. He emphasizes how homo deus will alleviate human suffering, enable us to survive on Earth, and embolden us to populate the planets. But in the process Harari does admit that freedom and equality, humanism, liberalism, rationalism- all the isms we cherish, will collapse and disappear. He further concedes that the rate of change is accelerating so quickly that we have no idea how society will truly function by the end of the century. Homo deus will be more different from homo sapien than we were from homo erectus. In the pursuit of health, happiness and power we will upend every assumption about human life that you can possibly make.
Harari has a sub-chapter heading “Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes?” Then he proceeds to say- um, no we can’t. Firstly, nobody knows where the brakes are. And secondly, our economy and society will crash if we try. It’s that first contention, I would offer, that reveals his not-so-hidden bias, or moral blind-spot; the malady of many a great thinker. Harari is heir to a great religious tradition even if he downplays it to a point just short of denial. Why do I say this about someone of such astute intellect and passion? Not because Harari doesn’t believe in God. He’s entitled, and anyway, Judaism is a big-tent religion that has room for believers and non-believers alike. Not because he is, evidently, a non-practicing Jew. He’s entitled, and anyway, Judaism is a big tent ethnicity that has room for secular Jews, cultural Jews, and Jews who, like Harari, embrace Eastern meditation. And not because Harari agrees with Marx that religion is an opiate for the masses, and the faithful simply deluded followers of now discredited myths.
Harari’s blind-spot is that he chooses to ignore the great ethical revolution of ancient Israel, known as Prophetic Judaism, which changed the course of Western Civilization. The Prophets who gave to the world a moral imperative that is as essential today as it was two millennia ago; who gave us the Golden Rule that we should do unto others as we would others do unto us; who gave us the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves; who gave us the Ten Commandments that forbid murder and theft; who gave us the charge to love the stranger, the widow, the orphan…those most vulnerable in our society; those without a voice; who gave us the demand “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly”.
We do well to ponder anew that old and famous distinction between Athens and Jerusalem. The Greeks gave us reason and science, the Hebrews gave us compassion and ethics. Leo Strauss opined that “Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought”. Matthew Arnold wrote that “Hebraism and Hellenism are the two essential philosophies of life between which civilized man must choose.” Solomon Freehof clarified that, “The Greek is interested in nature’s law; the Hebrew in nature’s lawgiver. The Greek is interested in peace of heart; the Hebrew in progress of character. The Greek said: Seek harmony and your will find serenity; the Hebrews said: Seek holiness and you will find nobility.”
As we hurtle toward the future we need Athens and we need Jerusalem. We need the Greek sensibility that the unexamined life is not worth living, and we need the Hebraic sensibility that the immoral life is not worth living. We cannot fear the advance of science, and anyway Harari is right that it will speed ahead whether we like it or not. But neither should we abandon the insights of religion that will tap the brakes, and slow us down just enough to temper knowledge with wisdom It’s a touch ironic that the brave new world depicted by Harari was in a way anticipated by the opening myth of Genesis. Adam and Eve want to eat not just from the Tree of Knowledge but also from the Tree of Life; they want to be omniscient and immortal. That is why God says in Gen.3:22, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch our his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”
But remember that the full name of the second tree is The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Humankind is unique in its moral discernment. That is why it God can pose the question to Adam and Eve, “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 3:13). And that is why the question is repeated to Cain (Gen.4:10), after he is explicitly warned, “Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Gen.4:7)
It makes no sense to judge ourselves if we don’t know right from wrong or to warn ourselves if we can’t control our actions, or to even question ourselves if we can’t take responsibility for those actions. When Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer is yes! “Your brother’s blood cries out to me!” (Gen.4:9-10). If we are going to reprogram our brains the software package better contain an ethical decision making file, or we will not become homo deus, but homo roboticus, mere robotic drones in human look-alike costume.
Read Harari. Take all the time you need; it’s worth it. You will feel challenged and exalted…but by the end of the second work, you will also be depressed. But remember that if we are truly homo sapien/wise the next stage of human evolution will not be homo deus, but homo moralis, moral man. And perhaps our brave new world will be not a nightmare, but a dream. Or as the poet Judy Chicago penned it, “And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.”
Barry L. Schwartz is director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia and rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl and the forthcoming Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life.