The Misguided Pessimism of “Homo Deus”

Yuval Noah Harari’s book is right that humans have developed God-like powers, but it’s wrong about the reasons — and it underestimates what will come.

Illustration by Ellen van Engelen

Data is, literally, the new God. At least according to Yuval Noah Harari. In Homo Deus, his sweeping overview of the past, present and future of the human species, this medieval military historian reminds me of a great debater, one who lays out his case with zero doubts. The result is a fascinating, challenging, entertaining and infuriating read.

Harari attempts to explain comprehensively why centuries of decisions and actions by humans have led in a linear way to Homo deus — a God-like human who nonetheless has no meaning and will soon be rendered irrelevant and ultimately eliminated. Channeling his inner existentialist, Harari argues that modernity can be summarized in a single phrase: “humans agree to give up meaning, in exchange for power.” In his view, “every organism — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms … and there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to duplicate or surpass.” I suppose I had expected a lot of biology alongside the history and sociology, but this book turns out to be more of an IT-AI treatise, based on the premise that all organisms are just algorithms and life is a simple data-processing continuum. (Perhaps our world is destined to become the Matrix-like simulation that some Silicon Valley heavyweights believe we are already living within?)

As a historian, Harari has focused on when life was most decidedly nasty, brutish and short. So it is not surprising that he paints a picture of a doomed humanity. Given nuclear weapons, and our ability to alter broad swaths of our climate and environment, this prediction may not be entirely unjustified. But it is not foreordained. It’s also possible that, despite recent elections, we are evolving into a gentler, less violent, more empathetic, better educated and more successful species. The evening news doesn’t lead with the impact of all the United Nations millennium goals being met. And yet those long-term trends tell us a whole lot more about where almost all of humanity is headed — which may turn out to be a far more optimistic tale than that painted by Harari.

One has to wonder whether Harari’s conclusions would not be so dire had his initial historical focus been on the peak of Greek ingenuity, the Renaissance or the emergent computer-biological age. Our rapidly emerging ability to alter life may lead to a fundamental redesign of parts of humanity that don’t end in disaster and enslavement but instead allow us to live a healthier life, perhaps even on very different planets as we explore the Milky Way. We now understand how organisms thrive in the equivalent of boiling battery acid or very high-radiation environments. We have very rough blueprints that tell us that a fundamental redesign of a conscious human, for a very different environment, is increasingly feasible.

While Harari is an extraordinarily broad-thinking and smart individual, biology is not a field he’s very comfortable in. Nor is evolution, especially human-driven evolution. If one is to truly describe a human species with God-like powers, one might focus on a Homo evolutis, an emerging species that has ever-greater powers to determine what lives and dies on this planet, and soon on other planets.

We are becoming a Homo deus, but not because we are algorithms. It’s because we are fundamentally redesigning our species and a vast number of other species. We are redesigning life itself.

After nearly four billion years of Darwinian evolution, we have created a separate and independent evolutionary logic. Whereas what lived and died used to depend only on natural selection and random mutation, now at least half of what lives and dies is due to human selection. A cornfield is a good example of completely unnatural selection; absent humans, no single species would grow in orderly rows, eliminating almost all other life forms, not even being able to self-reproduce. Absent humans, likely there would not be a whole lot of Lhasa Apsos. About half of what lives on our planet today depends on our decisions, what we find cute, useful, beautiful or harmful.

Our newfound powers take the randomness out of genetics and ensure directed evolution. For instance, “gene drives” ensure that every descendant of a particular species expresses a particular genetic trait. In practical terms, this means we can now eliminate every Zika- or malaria-causing mosquito and every Lyme disease-carrying tick. As J. Robert Oppenheimer once reminded us, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” because one group, acting in the hinterlands of Brazil or in the Florida Keys makes a decision on the life or death of a whole species.

As we acquire the power to destroy, we also acquire the power to create. By resurrecting extinct species like bucardos, passenger pigeons, dodos and even woolly mammoths, we can revive and restore what we crushed out of existence. And, thanks to folks like Floyd Romesberg, we are even altering the most fundamental code of life, by creating self-reproducing species that are not written in the four letters of DNA (A, T, C and G), which heretofore coded all independent life forms on the planet. By creating separate evolutionary branches that code in ATXY, or in ATCGXY, Romesberg et al prove we can create completely separate evolutionary trees, unlike anything “natural” on this planet thus far. One need only go peruse the poster presentations at iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, to understand that high school and college students are already acting as miniature gods, with teams like the one from Tokyo University that is attempting to slightly modify bacteria so as to terraform other planets to our needs and specifications.

What this means is that we are becoming a Homo deus, but not because we are algorithms. It’s because we are fundamentally redesigning our species and a vast number of other species. We are redesigning life itself. We are becoming a Homo deus because we can use instruments like CRISPR to modify our own gene code such that we may birth the next human species. But why stop there? Our god-like technology to redesign life could lead to multiple human species on this and other planets. That is a somewhat terrifying prospect, if, as Harari points out, purely data-driven, algorithmic hominids were to treat us as we have treated our closest relatives: chimps, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas.

Harari’s book is strangely earth-anchored during a period in which we have discovered hundreds of planets, some of which may be habitable, but which require a fundamental redesign of our humanity to reach and thrive on. By largely ignoring biological evolution in favor of algorithm evolution, Harari misses out on some of the urgent ethical-science questions that we now face. That leaves a very large hole in the blueprints of what a Human-God can become, how fast, and in which direction. Reducing life to a series of programmable, mathematical equations ignores humanity’s greatest superpower, our ability to shape and determine what lives and dies, how life forms are shaped, modified, and recreated.

Despite the lack of emphasis on biology, Harari’s book is really important. It brings up fundamental questions about ethics and morals, about what it is to be human, about where we came from and where we are going. It’s the kind of book you want to read on paper, so as to make it easier to scribble in the margins as you agree with, debate, underline or cross out the text. If you like to debate, especially uncomfortable, complex ideas, it is well worth your while to spar with a mind like Harari’s.

Juan Enriquez’s most recent book, co-authored with Steve Gullans, is Evolving Ourselves: Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time. He is a managing director of Excel Venture Management.