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Imagination, Progress and Revolutions: Three Things I Learned From 'Sapiens'

28/08/2015 16:08 | Updated 10 August 2016

Sapiens by Yuval Harari has got a lot of (deserved) attention. Within it, Harari sketches out a number of provocative theses about what human beings have been, are and will become, and shows how they play out over hundreds of thousands of years.

It's one of the richest books in terms of raw ideas that I've ever read, but as with the Second Machine Age, I'll restrict myself to a few ideas that had a big impact on me (although I could have easily picked others that were just as interesting):

1. Humans are often trapped by "progress"
2. Humans haven't made much progress in 70,000 years
3. The scientific revolution makes the end of humans fairly likely

1. Humans are trapped by 'progress'
Harari discusses at some length the "Agricultural Revolution", which saw humans abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This is a key turning point in human history - but not necessarily a positive one for Harari. He notes that it "certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager and got a worse diet in return".

Effectively, the Agricultural Revolution saw a big increase in GDP, but a fall in GDP per capita: 'This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions".

This is just the first occasion on which Harari draws the distinction between what's good for humans as a species and what's good for individuals. As he puts it, "One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations" - which implies that individuals rarely experience sustained improvement from technological or economic advances. The gains are swallowed by increased demands.

This doesn't wholly ring true to me and, in general, Harari is consistently more pessimistic than I am. That said, I was amused by his extension of the argument into modern careers given our mission at EF: "How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five?".

Good question! It's not quite a call to entrepreneurship, but I couldn't help but think of Elon Musk (whose biography is next in my series of posts), when I read, "Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individuals humans for their part and usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage".

2. A lack of human progress
Just in case the rather downbeat mood were not clear enough, Harari opens his final chapter with the words, "Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of".

Harari bemoans our impact on the rest of the world but he's also interested in the idea that the modern obsession with individuals has destroyed something more valuable: "the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was [possibly] offset by the collapse of the family and the community".

For Harari, "progress" is a sequence in which mysteries are reduced to physical explanations - which appears to improve conditions for a while, but ultimately destroys meaning and leaves us worse off. When you combine the idea that "as Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how" with the notion that "as far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning", you have a fairly depressing conclusion!
Harari's answer, though he never says so explicitly, appears to be Buddhism, but he strikes me as unnecessarily pessimistic. He never engages with the idea of revealed preferences - and it seems deeply implausible to me that any of us would choose to swap with even the most meaning-laden hunter-gatherer.

3. The scientific revolution makes the end of humans fairly likely
Harari doesn't think humans will be around much longer, at least in our current form. He highlights genetic engineering of life expectancy, memory and learning skills; resurrection of Neanderthals; cyborg insects; thought controlled robots; and collective brains. All big topics to muse on.

But he does think that humans will have one more critical role to play: "And yet the great debates of history are important because at least the first generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their human designers. Would they be created in the image of capitalism, of Islam or of feminism? The answer to this question might send them careening off in entirely different directions." This idea alone could launch a thousand conferences, Congressional committees - perhaps even startups.*

The closing pages of the book push this line of reasoning even deeper into imponderable territory. "But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not 'What do we want to become?' but 'What do we want to want?' Those not spooked by the question probably haven't given it enough thought".

Harari's prose is endlessly elegant and provocative. The book's final sentence seems both a good summary of his worldview, but also a challenge to those who are more optimistic: "Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?"

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I've rarely enjoyed a book I've disagreed with so much. I highly recommend both reading it and wresting with it. There's a lot to discuss; if you'd like to read and discuss as a group in London, I'd be happy to host. Let me know.