Read ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’ to understand who we are, now.
If you only read two books to understand what now means, read these.
The lingering power of books in a world drowning in the seductions of the internet, is the mystery of how a tiny few catch fire and reshape the world in their own image, even despite of the fact that so few people ever read them.
We are seeing this process taking place around Yuval Noah Harari’s two masterpieces on the history and future of our species, Sapiens and Homo Deus. Together, they have rapidly become the books that shape our present moment. From Bill Gates’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s reading lists, to celebrity fans in the Guardian begging salvation from this brilliant new thinker, to DJ Chris Evans, now revealed as the BBC’s highest earner, reading Sapiens’ remarkable first page live on air to his millions of morning listeners, we are turning towards Harari as sharing a narrative that explains where we are at, and where we’re going.
Can we understand why these books mean so much now, and can we see if that meaning will continue to hold in the years ahead? Or whether they will become more sand upon the beach left by the endless tide of books the world keeps writing?
I believe we can if we look at three aspects that determine their current impact:
- Where these books came from: their origins online, and in Israel
- The intellectual act they represent: History as the new core discipline
- Their great majestic failure: why their ignorance of climate change leaves them trapped in the humanist past
The places where ideas grow.
Sapiens and Homo Deus are books born in two spheres: online, in the tumult of the internet, and in the globalised world beyond the boundaries of Anglo-American academia and intelligentsia, with its broken factions of Left and Right, bitterly atheist science and breaking liberal democracy.
Harari is an Israeli academic, trained at Oxford but not embedded there, and Sapiens began not in the lecture theatre but as a MOOC on Coursera, an online course for students from all around the world. He talks, modestly, of how he began crafting and teaching his retelling of world history only because no one else would do it. As so often with human genius, from the incidental and accident come our greatest moments. That MOOC grew, both in scale and popularity, eventually being used by over 100,000 students. Let us not underestimate the significance of this. Nicholas Carr has warned us in The Shallows and The Glass Cage how the internet risks making us stupider, our ideas and understanding weakened. Yet these two most potent self-representations gestated and were birthed in the chaos of the Web.
Whether ultimately positive or negative, thinking for a digital audience is different in ways we don’t yet fully understand from thinking for the intensity of human contact of the lecture theatre, and Harari’s ideas have the feel of ones crafted for faceless multitudes rather than the present few. You can feel that in the register he chooses — informal, conversational, yet making definitions at the grandest levels. He speaks from the same place that Instagram stars do, from amongst the crowd down within the Boschian ferment rather than up from the academic pulpit.
You could pick almost any passage from across the books to demonstrate this, but a section from around the mid-point of Sapiens is indicative:
Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states.
The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by a particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and manager are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire. (Sapiens, p.232)
The direct style of Harari’s writing collapses the difference between our current global technocratic elite and the Roman empire with an unspoken reference to an empire every reader understands: Star Wars. This is highly directive writing, but do not underestimate the importance of making an idea this big this simple.
Reaching this direct, conversational tone marks an important point which acts as a fulfillment of the promise of the period of ‘informalising’ society which Steven Pinker noted as an offshoot of the 1960s. If we can speak at the very highest intellectual level in a direct, clear, human and humane way, then maybe we can say about ourselves that progress has been made? Or at least recognise that it was always a myth.
That these books also come from Israel should not be taken lightly. The greatest challenge of our present moment is the tumble into fresh nationalisms in Western democracies, as autocratic, religious, technocratic and oligarchic models in Singapore, the Gulf, China, Russia and beyond seem to hold better coherence, and sometimes tolerances, for a complex age. Israel, of all countries, is a state whose very existence is at once to be rejoiced and difficult and divisive. And so it is a brilliant, rich irony that these books, which are magnificently unifying statements about who we are, come from there. Let us laugh together at the wonder of a world where a gay, vegan intellectual can think like this in a place where human identity pushes hardest at its self-created boundary narratives of race and religion and nationhood. Harari acts then as a reminder of the human transcendence of the temporal boundaries we create and their basic absurdity, whilst providing a vision that can be shared no matter who we are or where we come from.
The intellectual act.
Sapiens and Homo Deus mark a critical public act in the reconfiguration of traditional academic disciplines into a new model that can unleash great and potential narrative.
At the end of Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond makes a long impassioned argument for the rethinking of what the discipline he calls the historical sciences means. This discipline includes not just history itself, but astronomy and other disciplines which share four core features:
“methodology, causation, prediction and complexity.”
These features reshape how we work and think and mean that local idiosysncracies, the beautiful wrinkles in the fabric of human existence that great men or cultural particularity produced are stretched away to identify new generalisations:
“Like cultural idiosyncracies, individual idiosyncracies throw wild cards into the course of history. They may make history inexplicable in terms of environmental forces, or indeed of any generalizable causes. For the purposes of this book, however, they are scarcely relevant, because even the most ardent proponent of the Great Man theory would find it difficult to interpret history’s broadest pattern in terms of a few Great Men. Perhaps Alexander the Great did nudget the course of western Eurasia’s already literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states, but he had nothing to do with the fact that western Eurasia already supported literate, food-producing, iron-equipped states at a time when Australia still-supported only non-literate hunter-gatherer tribes lacking metal tools.” (Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 420)
This approach formalises a journey begun by Fernand Braudel back after World War II, where in books like The Mediterranean in the Ancient World he moved the process of looking at the past away from the tales of kings and men, to the story of the interrelationship between geography, geology, climate, chance and the human outcomes they enabled. And so, as with all acts of comprehension in a post-Darwinian world, human outcomes lie delicately balanced at the intersection between chance produced by evolutionary circumstance and intention.
After the intellectual resignation of post-modernism however, where all hope of meaning was given up, we can see in this new form of history not a new interdisciplinary method, but simply a new core intellectual discipline. Built around the chronological history of the universe, of the earth and of life, we can see that through its method we can redefine who we are and what we mean without it turning meaning into a joke where everything is relative. As in the work of someone like Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, we can move with confidence from a world of post-structural relativism and uncertainty, and begin to speak again of truths with new and better grounded meaning. Alongside Harari’s work, we can place the Big History Project and the work of David Christian that is building this method into an approach to education for the world. But in Sapiens and Homo Deus we have the foundational texts, the must reads.
Harari, you sense, would not write a chapter like Jared Diamond’s on the academic shaping of this new discipline of historical thought. Rather, he makes it real by embodying what its outcomes can be in the very books he’s writing. That allows him to knit his radical re-imagining of the human story to a more fundamental act: storytelling. Over and over again across both books Harari brings back the question of human meaning to the telling of stories about ourselves. Through faith, through science, through art we have learnt ways to tell the story of what we are. Through this new kind of historical science, he shows, we have a new way, fit for the challenges of an age where we stand on the brink of transformation from the Sapiens’ we were to the gods we may yet become.
Through hubris, greatness
The deeper reason why Sapiens and Homo Deus are the great books of our present moment is that they are, finally, failures in their re-conception of what being human means. In this they give in to an act of hubris whose overcoming we may take as the central project of our near future.
Think of Harari as a modern day Hamlet. His books understand and can diagnose our present ailment — no-one has done it better — and like the doomed prince in Shakespeare’s play, he wears their diagnosis as a ‘cloak of nighted colour’ for everyone to see. Over and over again, he tells us that there is little difference between the human of today, and those who came through the last cognitive revolution 10,000 years ago. And over and over he tells us that this time is coming to an end. He does not weep for the greatness of what we were, nor does he see the post-human future as a horror to be feared. Yet finally, tragically, he cannot escape our humanist shell to recognise the depths of our greatest common challenge, and the intellectual leap it will take to think our way out of the present.
The lack of understanding of climate change, and his diagnoses of its meaning, are the tragic failure of Sapiens and Homo Deus. They are the reason why it remains trapped inside a humanism that makes it more familiar to the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet than the distinct emerging challenges of the Anthropocene. The end of Sapiens and the beginning of Homo Deus tell us that we stand at a moment of choice, a choice where we get to decide what the future of our species is. But they keep that choice at a human level, as something we can make, rather than an act over which we are not the decision maker, but are the thing about which a choice will be made by the biosphere of the Earth as we interact with it in the centuries ahead.
If the next great cognitive break in human history is coming, as Harari says, it is not one in which our primary act is to become gods, but perhaps the inverse, to let the things around us which are not human stand more as equals to ourselves. The myth of human exceptionalism is held up for ridicule in Sapiens and Homo Deus, but whilst we continue to set ourselves apart from bird and beast and earth and sky on one side, and machine and AI and robot upon the other, and think that a story that is one of Ecce Homo is the right one to tell, then we remain mired in the past. Harari reminds me of the Hamlet of Act V here, the one who has understood the world but sees in it only death.
How do we overcome that? It comes from seeing not that the post-human change is coming, as Harari does, but that by realising that it is already here. It happened at whatever moment the Anthropocene, the new era of the Earth we now realise we live in, began. With the Great Acceleration, and the speeding up of every core measure of our world, from population to temperature to Ocean acidification and more, the need to live a different way was forced upon us. We change now or we die. Harari’s error is in the belief that the time to choose is ahead of us. The real tragedy is that the choice about our future has already been made, we just don’t know what the answer to the question was, or even, perhaps, what the question was at all.
The measures of socioeconomic and environmental change that mark our entry into a new era of the earth.www.slideshare.net
Let’s not end by making that failure into criticism however. Persistent blindness to our limitations has given us the confidence to build the world we’ve made our own, no matter the damage we have done in doing it. If, as we enter the Anthropocene, and discover the meanings of the choices we have made, we can use these two remarkable books as last memories of the dream of being human — of what we were, of what we felt we could be — then they have found their proper place as an end not a beginning. If instead we do take them as a guide then we only risk repeating our same constant failure since the ice age ended and we appointed ourselves rulers of the earth. And in that failure’s death.
This post in the first piece in my attempt to understand why, in face of the decay of Western democracy, the threat of AI and the crisis of climate change, the world felt like a mess I didn’t understand. My solution? Read my way out of the problem, one book at a time. Find out more about the project and the books i’m reading here.
Read my latest piece on Nationalism by Radindranath Tagore to understand how nationalist politics connects to modernity and science. Then learn how Tagore’s universalist philosophy can help overcome it.
Please follow me to read more like this. And let me know what you think I should read to try and understand the world we live in now, and what it means.