Where Homo Deus went wrong or Why Sociology matters
Why you should not read more than 1/3 of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus” and what to read instead
The name of Mr Harari’s new book “Homo Deus” speaks for itself. The author, a renowned history professor with great storytelling skills, presents a three-step attempt to discuss where humanity might be heading. The purpose of the book in itself is intellectually and ethically a very noble one: Mr Harari aims to analyse patters of past and current human behavioural trends and, based on this, seeks to suggest possible scenarios of our future.
While this outline promises a captivating intellectual exercise, and some parts of the book certainly deliver on this promise, we find the 500+ pages work specious. Below we explain why, despite some brilliant and interesting points, the work overall seems more like a draft than a complete and coherent intellectual exercise and recommend sources that can satisfy the intellectual hunger of the curios in a much healthier and holistic manner.
3 note-worthy things
The book has a very strong first part that explains the entire history of humankind, playing to the author’s strength. Mr Harari presents a lively and engaging account and analysis of events and discourses that ruled over human minds and lives; he draws on empirical and statistic evidence to show how much better off we are now. Famine, violence, lack of means of communication and medical expertise – these are problems and challenges we still face, but on a much smaller scale than before, thus giving space to address new, underexplored challenges.
2. The Theory of Cooperation
It will not be a surprise to most that many other living creatures form networks and work together, so what does Harari’s theory of cooperation contribute to our understanding of this phenomenon?
Harari claims that many of Earth’s inhabitants do cooperate on a daily basis, none can establish such a diverse and flexible cooperation modes with their fellow species, as human beings can. He draws on several examples, one of them being the Ancient Rome’s Conquest of Greece. He stresses the fact that the Conquest was successful not because the Romans were smarter, but because they managed to organize better. This is why for thousands of years, disciplined armies triumphed over a disorganized horde, and well-organized elites controlled their subjects.
3. Myths and the Instersubjective Reality
Harari presents a very interesting take on the subject of multiple realities we live in: there is 1) an objective reality (for example, gravity exists whether you believe in it or not) 2) a subjective reality (our personal feelings and beliefs), and 3) the most interesting one - an intersubjective reality, which depends on the interaction of a large number of people.
Any human being needs to believe in something that helps them derive some objective meaning of life. This meaning, however, is derived from the myths that a certain number of people holds to be true. We support Harari’s vision that this ability to create a system of intersubjective realities based on human imagination, is partially responsible for humans being in a more advantageous position when it comes to ruling the world.
While modern science does not know enough about animal psychology to support Harari’s claim that this ability is inherently a human-only trait, we agree that in order to understand what the future of human race is likely to be, we need to better to understand the myths that give meaning to life.
Having so eloquently and interestingly outlined the importance of different reality dimensions to the fabric of any society, Mr Harari then does the most surprising thing by skipping the part of actually exploring any reality of the modern world closely enough to acquire the dataset necessary to make any forecasts on. Mr Harari seems to operate on the basis of his own intuitive understanding of social, political and even economic discourse, and thus defeats the whole purpose of the book as an intellectual exercise and dives into the world of speculation.
Where it all went wrong
1. Ignorance and delusion
While being an expert in human history, Mr Harari demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the diversity of current social discourse and the most pressing challenges that modern societies are faced with. Mr Harari refers to “us” as one homogeneous group of people, whereas human beings are anything but, as proven by literally any sociological research. Here are some examples, to name a few:
“Modern society believes in humanist dogmas and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them” (Harari: 2015, page 232) –Mr Harari seems not to be acquainted with many countries, in which political and religious leaders dominate public discourse and spending decisions by using both dogmas and science to challenge the basis of humanism.
“Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life-drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning.” (Harari: 2015, page 234) – again, this is a very subjective experience of the world, one that dismisses the rise of spiritual movements, current political discourse of a large number of countries and societies that were built around the belief of a great cosmic plan for one society or another.
The author seems to have serious personal issues with humanism: he proclaims it to dominate our world (Harari: 2015, page 232) and also leading it into the abyss, while successfully ignoring that fact that humanism is still more of a theory than practice, take dehumanisation of people via technological advances (cyber bullying, representation of distance suffering in media and the news), challenges that the new media pose (fake news, news feed segregation contributing to the rise of extremist movements) and many other examples of challenges modern humanist movement faces.
Moreover, the author limits his definition and understanding of modernity as “a deal [in which] humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” (Harari: 2015, page 233), whereas any academic inquiry by scholars like Henry Jenkins (USC Annenberg), Manuel Castells (USC Annenberg), Shamus Khan (NYU Steinhard) and many others demonstrates by example that, enabled by the technological and social progress, human beings are in the constant process of negotiation and contestation of power and meaning.
“The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is “shit happens” (Harari:2015, page 235) – the author clearly missed the “make this world a better place” motto of Western millennials and entrepreneurs of the Silicon Valley. In fact, research published by Business Insider, Harvard Business Review and many others show that “purpose” is among key priorities for millennials – soon to be the largest group in the Western workforce – when making employment-related decisions.
The lack of information on diversity, inequality, national, racial and religious tensions that all societies face today, makes the author’s analysis seem like a very subjective and ill-informed opinion, not something to base your analysis and forecast on, surely.
2. Breeding contempt & division
Like an aggrieved child, Mr Harari dismisses humanism and liberalism, without providing a comprehensive picture of what these systems are about or how they could be adapted to the needs and realities of the modern world.
We believe that one should care about what happens in the world, because it will inevitably have an effect on oneself and one’s descendants. But again, this is view derives from our system of coordinates. Obviously, Mr Harari has a different one.
3. Black Mirror on paper
Mr Harari’s attempt to forecast possible scenarios of human development seems like an attempt to create a written analogue of The Black Mirror. The author draws speculative, and almost always negative image of our future: humankind will either be at the mercy of either superhumans or almighty algorithms, or dissolve in the flow of information, becoming a tiny unimportant particle of this flow.
As many social scientists know, a work not well researched and thoroughly worked through is doomed to be dotted with contradictions. Mr Harari, having deprived himself and his readers of a thorough overview and analysis of current human agenda, finds himself with countless contradictory arguments that degrade the book to a level of subjective ill-informed speculation.
While Mr Harari demonstrated exemplary knowledge of history, he failed at creating a logical, properly researched and well-informed link between the past, the present and the future. Having stumbled and tripped over when faced with the present, Harari spent 254 pages mumbling some ignorant, delusional, divisive and contradictory forecasts.
We would strongly discourage anyone from wasting time of a poorly researched exercise in analysing and forecasting the future of human condition, compiled with next to zero respect for the reader. “God often hides in the fine print of factual statements” (Harari: 2015, page 221), the devil is in the detail, which in the case of Homo Deus is the basic research on all the matters mentioned above, and many more.
There is too much about human existence and cooperation that we do not yet fully understand, to waste one’s time and money reading Homo Deus. We strongly recommend any and all other academics mentioned above: they all regularly publish comprehensive and digestible accounts on human condition and do not shy away from showing respect for the reader by doing their research properly.