by Yuval Noah Harari 2017
Book Review by Ray Herrmann
For hundreds of years humankind has enjoyed a growing economy without suffering ecological meltdown. Yet future success is not guaranteed. And when disaster strikes, the poor usually suffer more than the rich. Global Warming is already (2016) affecting the lives of poor people in arid African countries.
Archaic Hunter-Gatherers probably believed there was no essential gap separating humans from animals. Then about 70,000 years ago something changed in Sapiens brains allowing them to cooperate in large groups. Since this change is copied in all Sapiens, it must be genetic. It is this ability to cooperate and make plans with humans which we don't even know, that allowed us to coordinate our activities and to out-compete the other animals.
Yuval proposes that Humans (Sapiens) seek three main things in life: Immortality, Bliss (happiness) and Devine Powers.
For thousands of years people believed in the soul. Yet, in the absence of any supporting evidence and given the existence of more detailed alternative theories, the life sciences have dropped that belief.
Are humans Conscious? How can we measure that? Even amongst humans, we just assume others are conscious. If all experience is the result of electrical activity in the brain, then we should be able to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the "real" world.
On July 7, 2012 Leading experts in neurobiology and cognitive sciences signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which says "Convergent evidence that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neuropsychological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors." And in 2015, New Zealand became the first country in the world to legally recognize animals as sentient beings (the Animal Welfare Amendment act). The Canadian province of Quebec has since passed a similar Act and other countries are likely to follow suit.
Making the case for our Human advantage: Even between human groups, it is the ones who have better social cooperation that usually win. Rome conquered Greece because Romans were able to able to cooperate more effectively. For a revolution to be successful, it has to have the right organization at the right time.
A modern example is Romania in 1989: Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu set up a rally to show off his power and the people as united under him. But someone in the crowd booed, which led others to follow (sudden loss of cooperation). Result was an overwhelming display against him. He was then loosing, however the masses were still uncoordinated so they lost their chance to take power. Watch the Video.
Three levels of reality:
The invention of writing has facilitated cooperation among human multitudes and led to the development of better processes (algorithms) for coordinating our activities (in hospitals, schools, prisons, corporations, armies …).
Much of the power of human organizations rests on their ability to force their fictional beliefs on a submissive reality. An example is Money where governments make worthless pieces of paper, declares them to be valuable, and then uses them to compute the value of everything else. We, then are forced to recognize this imposed value in order to pay taxes and buy things).
By Religion we mean an all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. In this sense, Christianity, Hinduism, as well as communism and Nazism are all religions. A few stories in the book help to clarify.
"Religion" gives a complete description of the world and offers a well-defined contract with predetermined goals (i.e. obey god and go to heaven).
Credit is the economic manifestation of trust in the future. Banks make loans based on anticipated returns. Stock Markets do the same: During an epidemic, stocks (loans) rise in involved medical companies, thus rising to the need. Modern times is based on the firm belief that economic growth is essential. If you want your wealth to increase you must produce more. If your population is growing, you must make more products just to stay even, since products will be split amongst your population. This obsession with growth was not present in earlier times.
The very power of science may make the rich more complacent. There is a tendency to think that new technology will spring up and save us, but also the rich are more mobile so can afford escapes. In 2015, the Paris Agreement set goals for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC, but how many countries have followed up?
For 300 years the world has been dominated by Humanism, which sanctifies life, happiness and the power of humans. The attempt to gain immortality, bliss and divinity is the logical conclusion of Humanism. Yet Humanism shared the fate of every successful religion (Christianity, Buddhism …). As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. Its three main branches are:
Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bond like shared myths.
Even though Christianity, Islam and other traditional religions are still important, their role is now reactive rather than creative. Radical Islam has not even come to terms with the Industrial Revolution.
The momentum today is taken by liberal Humanism. Where do you think the biggest changes of the 21'st century will emerge: From the Islamic State or from Google?
Free Will: As far as decisions are concerned, determinism and randomness have covered the issue, leaving little of no room for freedom (free will). Scientists studying the mind have discovered neither the soul, free will nor "self" - only genes hormones and neurons. Today, we can use brain scanners to predict people's desires and decisions well before they are aware of them.
Scientific studies have shown that the human brain can be divided into two "self's": The "experiencing self" remembers nothing, tells no stories and is seldom consulted for decisions. And the "narrating self" that retrieves memories, tells stories and takes short cuts, usually involving peek moments and end results. The brain's need to fabricate a "narrative story" to cover events might explain the human paradox: The more sacrifice we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold onto it.
Artificial Intelligence -AI: With advances in AI, humans are in danger of loosing their economic value. Human's today move to "specialize" their careers, which then makes it easier for AI to replace them. As we give more control to AI systems, we becomes subservient to their decisions. Already, one company (Deep Knowledge Ventures) has named an AI program (VITAL) to its board! VITAL makes investment recommendations. When will it vote for members? explore.
As Google, Facebook, Microsoft and probably others enhance their "Digital Assistants" these might start speaking to each other as they manage our activities. But for whose benefit? Eventually we may reach a point here it will be impossible to disconnect (if some medical hopes are realized).
A summary is presented of our history and beliefs extending from our interpreting the stars for guidance, through Religious myths, to Humanist theories, to Scientific understandings. The author comments on where we might go, based on the pressures of emerging Techno-Humanism and Dataism, but he stresses that the future is undetermined and fickle to intervening events.:
As if that is not enough, here is an interesting history: Why we now have Lawns. The idea of nurturing a lawn was born in the era of Castles amongst the French and English aristocrats, in the Middle Ages. In those days, a well-kept lawn was a display of wealth, just like today's building of Skyscrapers. Since before lawnmowers and automatic Sprinklers, maintaining a well groomed (but essentially useless lawn required a lot of work. So humans began to associate lawns with political power, social status and wealth. In American suburbia, having a nice lawn transformed from being a rich person's luxury into a middle-class necessity