Extraordinary oeuvre

EducationWorld December 2019 | Books

Professor of world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, the globally acclaimed author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2104), an international phenomenon which was on the Sunday Times (UK) bestseller list for over 25 weeks and has been translated into 40 languages worldwide, is one of the foremost anthropologists of the new millennium.

As your reviewer had stated while reviewing Sapiens four years ago (https://www.educationworld.in/ecce-homo/), the merit of Harari’s first book is that it prompted the newly-emergent global community of homo sapiens connected everywhere and at all times by the Internet, instant telecommunication and ease of jet travel, to start thinking about the future of mankind in the post-digital age. In a telling “timeline of history” in his previous book, Harari reminded us that homo sapiens is a parvenu on the 4.5 billion-year-old Planet Earth, having evolved in East Africa only 200,000 years ago, and that humankind’s advanced cognitive capabilities became discernible a mere 70,000 years ago.

Moreover in his timeline, he made the case that far from being a great achievement in the history of mankind, the agriculture revolution (aka organised farming) — which it is sobering to note was discovered only 10,000 years ago — is “history’s biggest fraud” and the starting point of the descent of mankind.

It prompted demarcation of property for farming, the need for man-made laws to protect property rights which led to leaders of strongest bands of marauders becoming kings and emperors who introduced taxes to feed their armies.
Harari’s latest warning to humankind to mend its ways is Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, the author’s equally brilliant sequel to Sapiens. “At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretches its limbs and rubbing its eyes,” reads the first sentence of this fantastic crystal-ball gazing work.

In the new millennium, the three great scourges of humankind — famine, plague and war — are history. While there are undoubtedly some regions of the world still afflicted by these pestilences, natural famines (cf. man-made or political) on the scale of routine famines of the medieval world in Europe, Bengal famines of 1770 and 1943, the famines of Stalinist Russia, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are inconceivable in the 21st century because “technological, economic and political developments have created an increasingly robust safety net separating human kind from the biological poverty line”, writes Harari.

Similarly, the great epidemics which felled millions of people every few decades are also history. For instance the Black Death plague which wiped out between 75-200 million people in Eurasia, including 40 percent of the population of England and 50 percent of the Italian city of Florence, is beyond the realm of possibility, due to advances in the medical sciences and greater store of knowledge about preventive health and hygiene. The outbreaks of SARS, swine flu, Ebola and AIDS which at one time threatened the entire world, have been contained despite the humongous leap in international travel and trade. Ditto the dengue, pneumonia and encephalitis epidemics in the Indian subcontinent. “The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over,” writes the author.

Likewise, the threat of large-scale wars between nations which right until the second half of the 20th century routinely exterminated millions of people has come to an end. Organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and regional associations of nations (OPEC, Organisation of African Unity etc), and perhaps even multinational corporations, have a powerful vested interest in peace.

Of course, with the invention of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, the threat of annihilation of millions of humans is possible within moments. But MAD (mutually assured destruction) has proved an effective deterrent against thermo-nuclear conflict thus far, although one can’t rule out an accidental nuclear holocaust, especially if religious or other extremists get their twitching fingers on the nuclear button. In which case homo sapiens could suffer mass disease and mutation, if not extinction. Nevertheless, Harari’s conclusion that “sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder”, an allusion to lifestyle diseases — diabetes, obesity, hypertension — is substantially true.

The thrust of this gifted author’s latest oeuvre is that having conquered famine, infectious diseases and large-scale territorial wars which for millennia had made life uncertain, homo sapiens has achieved God-like status (homo deus) through mind-boggling technological inventions such as artificial intelligence, instant written and verbal communication, prolonged life spans (at least for the rich) and genetic engineering to make designer babies.

Exercising life and death power over all other life forms on Planet Earth, and having attained what to homo sapiens a mere century ago would seem divine-like powers, what’s the future of humankind from here onwards? That’s the essential question that Harari attempts to answer in this engrossing book.

Ex facie humankind never had it so good. But the conquest of famine, disease and war and unparalleled affluence and longevity, has enslaved us in greater greed for money, power and continuous economic growth. In turn, this has created huge income and lifestyle inequalities and the obsession with continuous economic expansion has caused toxic environmental pollution which could be the next global epidemic. Unchecked, it could be the new Black Death, slowly and agonisingly killing millions of people around the world.

Rising inequality is stoking resentment worldwide, generating continuous low-intensity violence, which could result in thermo-nuclear disasters. And in a radically transformed world of supercomputers driven by artificial intelligence capable of real time information assimilation and calculus, is there a possibility of human choice becoming redundant? All these and other questions arising from the overweening greed and increasing amorality of homo deus are intelligently examined and debated in this extraordinary work of scholarship and deep cognition.

Dilip Thakore

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