Alex Preston / bookshelf

Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

Annotation Summary of Homo Deus A Brief History of Tomorrow (Yuval Noah Harari [Harari, Yuval Noah]) (

1: The New Human Agenda

  • Highlight [page 9]: The same three problems preoccupied the people of twentieth-century China, of medieval India and of ancient Egypt. Famine, plague and war were always at the top of the list.

  • Highlight [page 10]: For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

  • Highlight [page 11]: Until recently most humans lived on the very edge of the biological poverty line, below which people succumb to malnutrition and hunger. A small mistake or a bit of

  • Highlight [page 11]: In April 1694 a French official in the town of Beauvais described the impact of famine and of soaring food prices, saying that his entire district was now filled with ‘an infinite number of poor souls, weak from hunger and wretchedness and dying from want, because, having no work or occupation, they lack the money to buy bread. Seeking to prolong their lives a little and somewhat to appease their hunger, these poor folk eat such unclean things as cats and the flesh of horses flayed and cast onto dung heaps. [Others consume] the blood that flows when cows and oxen are slaughtered, and the offal that cooks throw into the streets. Other poor wretches eat nettles and weeds, or roots and herbs which they boil in water

  • Highlight [page 13]: In the eighteenth century Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving masses that if they ran out of bread, they should just eat cake instead. Today, the poor are following this advice to the letter. Whereas the rich residents of Beverly Hills eat lettuce salad and steamed tofu with quinoa, in the slums and ghettos the poor gorge on Twinkie cakes, Cheetos, hamburgers and pizza. In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. 4In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million. 5

  • Highlight [page 14]: The most famous such outbreak, the so-called Black Death, began in the 1330s, somewhere in east or central Asia, when the flea-dwelling bacterium Yersinia pestis started infecting humans bitten by the fleas. From there, riding on an army of rats and fleas, the plague quickly spread all over Asia, Europe and North Africa, taking less than twenty years to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Between 75 million and 200 million people died – more than a quarter of the population of Eurasia.

  • Highlight [page 22]: From the Stone Age to the age of steam, and from the Arctic to the Sahara, every person on earth knew that at any moment the neighbours might invade their territory, defeat their army, slaughter their people and occupy their land

  • Highlight [page 22]: In most areas wars became rarer than ever. Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality. 22In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. 23Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

  • Highlight [page 27]: If incidences of famine, plague and war are decreasing, something is bound to take their place on the human agenda. We had better think very carefully what it is going to be. Otherwise, we might gain complete victory in the old battlefields only to be caught completely unaware on entirely new fronts. What are the projects that will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda in the twenty-first century

  • Highlight [page 38]: The same went for the health system. At the end of the nineteenth century countries such as France, Germany and Japan began providing free health care for the masses. They financed vaccinations for infants, balanced diets for children and physical education for teenagers. They drained festering swamps, exterminated mosquitoes and built centralised sewage systems. The aim wasn’t to make people happy, but to make the nation stronger. The country needed sturdy soldiers and workers, healthy women who would give birth to more soldiers and workers, and bureaucrats who came to the office punctually at 8 a.m. instead of lying sick at home

  • Highlight [page 38]: Even the welfare system was originally planned in the interest of the nation rather than of needy individuals. When Otto von Bismarck pioneered state pensions and social security in late nineteenth-century Germany, his chief aim was to ensure the loyalty of the citizens rather than to increase their well-being. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy. 30

  • Highlight [page 40]: When Epicurus defined happiness as the supreme good, he warned his disciples that it is hard work to be happy. Material achievements alone will not satisfy us for long. Indeed, the blind pursuit of money, fame and pleasure will only make us miserable. Epicurus recommended, for example, to eat and drink in moderation, and to curb one’s sexual appetites. In the long run, a deep friendship will make us more content than a frenzied orgy. Epicurus outlined an entire ethic of dos and don’ts to guide people along the treacherous path to happiness.

  • Highlight [page 40]: In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania – developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability – about one person in 100,000 commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty-five people per 100,000 take their own lives annually.

  • Highlight [page 41]: And even if we have overcome many of yesterday’s miseries, attaining positive happiness may be far more difficult than abolishing downright suffering. It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?

  • Highlight [page 42]: The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon

  • Highlight [page 44]: This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness. The biochemical system rewards actions conducive to survival and reproduction with pleasant sensations. But these are only an ephemeral sales gimmick. We struggle to get food and mates in order to avoid unpleasant sensations of hunger and to enjoy pleasing tastes and blissful orgasms. But nice tastes and blissful orgasms don’t last very long, and if we want to feel them again we have to go out looking for more food and mates

  • Highlight [page 48]: Some 2,300 years ago Epicurus warned his disciples that immoderate pursuit of pleasure is likely to make them miserable rather than happy. A couple of centuries earlier Buddha had made an even more radical claim, teaching that the pursuit of pleasant sensations is in fact the very root of suffering. Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Even when we experience them, we don’t react to them with contentment; rather, we just crave for more. Hence no matter how many blissful or exciting sensations I may experience, they will never satisfy me

  • Highlight [page 50]: Up till now increasing human power relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future it may rely more on upgrading the human body and mind, or on merging directly with our tools. The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of nonorganic beings.

  • Highlight [page 50]: Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons were enough to transform Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – into Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure.

  • Highlight [page 56]: If you speak with the experts, many of them will tell you that we are still very far away from genetically engineered babies or human-level artificial intelligence. But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. Hence, ‘very far away’ may mean twenty years, and ‘never’ may denote no more than fifty.

  • Highlight [page 64]: This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated

  • Highlight [page 66]: Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine. By observing the accidental chain of events that led us here, we realise how our very thoughts and dreams took shape – and we can begin to think and dream differently. Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.

  • Highlight [page 67]: Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble. 50

  • Highlight [page 68]: Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn. At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences. Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawn-mower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.

  • Highlight [page 73]: Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do it. But you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course this is not total freedom – we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.

  • Highlight [page 75]: No investigation of our divine future can ignore our own animal past, or our relations with other animals – because the relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans. You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.

  • Highlight [page 75]: History has witnessed the rise and fall of many religions, empires and cultures. Such upheavals are not necessarily bad. Humanism has dominated the world for 300 years, which is not such a long time. The pharaohs ruled Egypt for 3,000 years, and the popes dominated Europe for a millennium

2: The Anthropocene

  • Highlight [page 81]: Already tens of thousands of years ago, when our Stone Age ancestors spread from East Africa to the four corners of the earth, they changed the flora and fauna of every continent and island on which they settled. They drove to extinction all the other human species of the world, 90 per cent of the large animals of Australia, 75 per cent of the large mammals of America and about 50 per cent of all the large land mammals of the planet – and all before they planted the first wheat field, shaped the first metal tool, wrote the first text or struck the first coin. 6

  • Highlight [page 87]: Why do modern humans love sweets so much? Not because in the early twenty-first century we must gorge on ice cream and chocolate in order to survive. Rather, it is because when our Stone Age ancestors came across sweet fruit or honey, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as much of it as quickly as possible. Why do young men drive recklessly, get involved in violent arguments and hack confidential Internet sites? Because they are following ancient genetic decrees that might be useless and even counterproductive today, but that made good evolutionary sense 70,000 years ago. A young hunter who risked his life chasing a mammoth outshone all his competitors and won the hand of the local beauty; and we are now stuck with his macho genes. 11

  • Highlight [page 88]: The descendants of wild boars – domesticated pigs – inherited their intelligence, curiosity and social skills. 12Like wild boars, domesticated pigs communicate using a rich variety of vocal and olfactory signals: mother sows recognise the unique squeaks of their piglets, whereas two-day-old piglets already differentiate their mother’s calls from those of other sows. 13Professor Stanley Curtis of the Pennsylvania State University trained two pigs – named Hamlet and Omelette – to control a special joystick with their snouts, and found that the pigs soon rivalled primates in learning and playing simple computer games. 14

  • Highlight [page 89]: This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present

  • Highlight [page 93]: Natural selection evolved passion and disgust as quick algorithms for evaluating reproduction odds. Beauty means ‘good chances for having successful offspring’. When a woman sees a man and thinks, ‘Wow! He is gorgeous!’ and when a peahen sees a peacock and thinks, ‘Jesus! What a tail!’ they are doing something similar to the automatic vending machine. As light reflected from the male’s body hits their retinas, extremely powerful algorithms honed by millions of years of evolution kick in. Within a few milliseconds the algorithms convert tiny cues in the male’s external appearance into reproduction probabilities, and reach the conclusion: ‘In all likelihood, this is a very healthy and fertile male, with excellent genes. If I mate with him, my offspring are also likely to enjoy good health and excellent genes.’ Of course, this conclusion is not spelled out in words or numbers, but in the fiery itch of sexual attraction.

  • Highlight [page 93]: Even Nobel laureates in economics make only a tiny fraction of their decisions using pen, paper and calculator; 99 per cent of our decisions – including the most important life choices concerning spouses, careers and habitats – are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires

  • Highlight [page 94]: There are differences too, of course. Pigs don’t seem to experience the extremes of compassion and cruelty that characterise Homo sapiens, nor the sense of wonder that overwhelms a human gazing up at the infinitude of a starry sky. It is likely that there are also opposite examples, of swinish emotions unfamiliar to humans, but I cannot name any, for obvious reasons. However, one core emotion is apparently shared by all mammals: the mother–infant bond. Indeed, it gives mammals their name. The word ‘mammal’ comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast. Mammal mothers love their offspring so much that they allow them to suckle from their body. Mammal youngsters, on their side, feel an overwhelming desire to bond with their mothers and stay near them. In the wild, piglets, calves and puppies that fail to bond with their mothers rarely survive for long.

  • Highlight [page 97]: The theology, mythology and liturgy of religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity revolved at first around the relationship between humans, domesticated plants and farm animals. 25 Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals

  • Highlight [page 98]: A modern Jewish family that celebrates a holiday by having a barbecue on their front lawn is much closer to the spirit of biblical times than an orthodox family that spends the time studying scriptures in a synagogue.

  • Highlight [page 99]: Consequently you could no longer talk with trees and animals. What to do, then, when you wanted the trees to give more fruits, the cows to give more milk, the clouds to bring more rain and the locusts to stay away from your crops? That’s where the gods entered the picture. They promised to supply rain, fertility and protection, provided humans did something in return. This was the essence of the agricultural deal. The gods safeguarded and multiplied farm production, and in exchange humans had to share the produce with the gods. This deal served both parties, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.

  • Highlight [page 102]: Humans thus committed themselves to an ‘agricultural deal’. According to this deal, cosmic forces gave humans command over other animals, on condition that humans fulfilled certain obligations towards the gods, towards nature and towards the animals themselves. It was easy to believe in the existence of such a cosmic compact, because it reflected the daily routine of farming life. Hunter-gatherers had not seen themselves as superior beings because they were seldom aware of their impact on the ecosystem. A typical band numbered in the dozens, it was surrounded by thousands of wild animals, and its survival depended on understanding and respecting the desires of these animals. Foragers had to constantly ask themselves what deer dream about, and what lions think. Otherwise, they could not hunt the deer, nor escape the lions.

  • Highlight [page 103]: We should also bear in mind how humans themselves were treated in most agricultural societies. In biblical Israel or medieval China it was common to whip humans, enslave them, torture and execute them. Humans were considered as mere property. Rulers did not dream of asking peasants for their opinions and cared little about their needs. Parents frequently sold their children into slavery, or married them off to the highest bidder. Under such conditions, ignoring the feelings of cows and chickens was hardly surprising.

  • Highlight [page 103]: When an archaic hunter went out to the savannah, he asked the help of the wild bull, and the bull demanded something of the hunter. When an ancient farmer wanted his cows to produce lots of milk, he asked some great heavenly god for help, and the god stipulated his conditions. When the white-coated staff in Nestlé’s Research and Development department want to increase dairy production, they study genetics – and the genes don’t ask for anything in return.

3: The Human Spark

  • Highlight [page 109]: According to a 2012 Gallup survey, only 15 per cent of Americans think that Homo sapiens evolved through natural selection alone, free of all divine intervention; 32 per cent maintain that humans may have evolved from earlier life forms in a process lasting millions of years, but God orchestrated this entire show; 46 per cent believe that God created humans in their current form sometime during the last 10,000 years, just as the Bible says.

  • Highlight [page 115]: More broadly, scientists know that if an electric storm arises in a given brain area, you probably feel angry. If this storm subsides and a different area lights up – you are experiencing love. Indeed, scientists can even induce feelings of anger or love by electrically stimulating the right neurons. But how on earth does the movement of electrons from one place to the other translate into a subjective image of Bill Clinton, or a subjective feeling of anger or love?

  • Highlight [page 115]: The most common explanation points out that the brain is a highly complex system, with more than 80 billion neurons connected into numerous intricate webs. When billions of neurons send billions of electric signals back and forth, subjective experiences emerge. Even though the sending and receiving of each electric signal is a simple biochemical phenomenon, the interaction among all these signals creates something far more complex – the stream of consciousness

  • Highlight [page 123]: Finally, some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfils no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward. Humans don’t need carbon dioxide, but each and every breath fills the air with more of the stuff. Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.

  • Highlight [page 124]: In the nineteenth century, scientists described brains and minds as if they were steam engines. Why steam engines? Because that was the leading technology of the day, which powered trains, ships and factories, so when humans tried to explain life, they assumed it must work according to analogous principles. Mind and body are made of pipes, cylinders, valves and pistons that build and release pressure, thereby producing movements and actions. Such thinking had a deep influence even on Freudian psychology, which is why much of our psychological jargon is still replete with concepts borrowed from mechanical engineering.

  • Highlight [page 124]: Not only in armies, but in all fields of activity, we often complain about the pressure building up inside us, and we fear that unless we ‘let off some steam’, we might explode.

  • Highlight [page 126]: According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the ‘real’ world. Some brain scientists believe that in the not too distant future, we shall actually do such things. Well, maybe it has already been done – to you? For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario, mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion: since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.

  • Highlight [page 131]: A more sophisticated version of the argument says that there are different levels of self-consciousness. Only humans understand themselves as an enduring self that has a past and a future, perhaps because only humans can use language in order to contemplate their past experiences and future actions. Other animals exist in an eternal present. Even when they seem to remember the past or plan for the future, they are in fact reacting only to present stimuli and momentary urges. 12For instance, a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter doesn’t really remember the hunger he felt last winter, nor is he thinking about the future. He just follows a momentary urge, oblivious to the origins and purpose of this urge. That’s why even very young squirrels, who haven’t yet lived through a winter and hence cannot remember winter, nevertheless cache nuts during the summer

  • Highlight [page 148]: This hilarious experiment (which you can see for yourself on YouTube), along with the Ultimatum Game, has led many to believe that primates have a natural morality, and that equality is a universal and timeless value. People are egalitarian by nature, and unequal societies can never function well due to resentment and dissatisfaction.

  • Pens #### 4: The Storytellers

  • Highlight [page 161]: Animals such as wolves and chimpanzees live in a dual reality. On the one hand, they are familiar with objective entities outside them, such as trees, rocks and rivers. On the other hand, they are aware of subjective experiences within them, such as fear, joy and desire. Sapiens, in contrast, live in triple-layered reality. In addition to trees, rivers, fears and desires, the Sapiens world also contains stories about money, gods, nations and corporations

  • Highlight [page 163]: Writing and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms

  • Highlight [page 167]: pharaohs Senusret III and his son Amenemhat III, who ruled Egypt from 1878 BC to 1814 BC, dug a huge canal linking the Nile to the swamps of the Fayum Valley. An intricate system of dams, reservoirs and subsidiary canals diverted some of the Nile waters to Fayum, creating an immense artificial lake holding 50 billion cubic metres of water. 1By comparison, Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States (formed by the Hoover Dam), holds at most 35 billion cubic metres of water.

  • Highlight [page 168]: The truth is very different. Egyptians built Lake Fayum and the pyramids not thanks to extraterrestrial help, but thanks to superb organisational skills. Relying on thousands of literate bureaucrats, pharaoh recruited tens of thousands of labourers and enough food to maintain them for years on end. When tens of thousands of labourers cooperate for several decades, they can build an artificial lake or a pyramid even with stone tools.

  • Highlight [page 182]: When examining the history of any human network, it is therefore advisable to stop from time to time and look at things from the perspective of some real entity. How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’ When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.

  • Highlight [page 183]: Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; how come we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

5: The Odd Couple

  • Highlight [page 189]: The communist laws of history are similar to the commandments of the Christian God, inasmuch as they are superhuman forces that humans cannot change at will. People can decide tomorrow morning to cancel the offside rule in football, because we invented that law, and we are free to change it. However, at least according to Marx, we cannot change the laws of history. No matter what the capitalists do, as long as they continue to accumulate private property they are bound to create class conflict and they are destined to be defeated by the rising proletariat. If you happen to be a communist yourself you might argue that communism and Christianity are nevertheless very different, because communism is right, whereas Christianity is wrong. Class conflict really is inherent in the capitalist system, whereas rich people don’t suffer eternal tortures in hell after they die. Yet even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean communism is not a religion. Rather, it means that communism is the one true religion. Followers of every religion are convinced that theirs alone is true. Perhaps the followers of one religion are right.

  • Highlight [page 189]: Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour

6: The Modern Covenant

  • Highlight [page 205]: Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love and how we pass away

  • Highlight [page 207]: The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.

  • Highlight [page 207]: If in AD 1000 a hundred villagers produced a hundred tons of wheat,

  • Highlight [page 208]: and in AD 1100, 105 villagers produced 107 tons of wheat, this growth didn’t change the rhythms of life or the sociopolitical order. Whereas today everyone is obsessed with growth, in the premodern era people were oblivious to it

  • Highlight [page 208]: This stagnation resulted to a large extent from the difficulties involved in financing new projects. Without proper funding, it wasn’t easy to drain swamps, construct bridges and build ports – not to mention engineer new wheat strains, discover new energy sources or open new trade routes. Funds were scarce because there was little credit in those days; there was little credit because people had no belief in growth; and people didn’t believe in growth because the economy was stagnant. Stagnation thereby perpetuated itself.

  • Highlight [page 209]: The cycle was eventually broken in the modern age thanks to people’s growing trust in the future, and the resulting miracle of credit. Credit is the economic manifestation of trust.

  • Highlight [page 209]: If enough new ventures succeed, people’s trust in the future increases, credit expands, interest rates fall, entrepreneurs can raise money more easily and the economy grows. People consequently have even greater trust in the future, the economy keeps growing and science progresses with it

  • Highlight [page 214]: Capitalism even deserves some kudos for reducing human violence and increasing tolerance and cooperation. As the next chapter explains, there are additional factors at play here, but capitalism did make an important contribution to global harmony by encouraging people to stop viewing the economy as a zero-sum game, in which your profit is my loss, and instead see it as a win–win situation, in which your profit is also my profit. This has probably

  • Highlight [page 215]: helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek

  • Highlight [page 223]: Hence modernity needs to work hard to ensure that neither human individuals nor the human collective will try to retire from the race, despite all the tension and chaos it creates. For that purpose, modernity upholds growth as a supreme value for whose sake we should make every sacrifice and risk every danger. On the collective level, governments, firms and organisations are encouraged to measure their success in terms of growth, and to fear equilibrium as if it were the Devil. On the individual level, we are inspired to constantly increase our income and our standard of living. Even if you are quite satisfied with your current conditions, you should strive for more. Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities. If once you could live well in a three-bedroom apartment with one car and a single desktop, today you need a five-bedroom house with two cars and a host of iPods, tablets and smartphones

7: The Humanist Revolution

  • Highlight [page 226]: it is impossible to sustain order without meaning

  • Highlight [page 229]: Whereas medieval priests had a hotline to God, and could distinguish for us between good and evil, modern therapists merely help us get in touch with our own inner feelings.

  • Highlight [page 233]: Political authority came down from heaven – it didn’t rise up from the hearts and minds of mortal humans.

  • Highlight [page 235]: In ethics, the humanist motto is ‘if it feels good – do it’. In politics, humanism instructs us that ‘the voter knows best’. In aesthetics, humanism says that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

  • Highlight [page 247]: According to Chinese philosophy, the world is sustained by the interplay of opposing but complementary forces called yin and yang. This may not be true of the physical world, but it is certainly true of the modern world that has been created by the covenant of science and humanism. Every scientific yang contains within it a humanist yin, and vice versa. The yang provides us with power, while the yin provides us with meaning and ethical judgements. The yang and yin of modernity are reason and emotion, the laboratory and the museum, the production line and the supermarket. People often see only the yang, and imagine that the modern world is dry, scientific, logical and utilitarian – just like a laboratory or a factory. But the modern world is also an extravagant supermarket. No culture in history has ever given such importance to human feelings, desires and experiences. The humanist view of life as a string of experiences has become the founding myth of numerous modern industries, from tourism to art

  • Highlight [page 277]: On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious visions, like a waiter that demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That’s why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands fantasise about different paradises than peasants and why the revolutionary technologies of the twentyfirst century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day lose their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a massive new class of economically useless people

  • Highlight [page 278]: True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses. Ten thousand years ago most people were hunter-gatherers and only a few pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers

  • Highlight [page 280]: If you count on national health services, pension funds and free schools, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than Hong Xiuquan or the Mahdi.

  • Highlight [page 280]: There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. You couldn’t establish a communist regime in sixteenth-century Russia, because communism necessitates the concentration of information and resources in one hub.

  • Highlight [page 281]: Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife.

  • Highlight [page 281]: In the mid-nineteenth century, few people were as perceptive as Marx, hence only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These few countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening, and they therefore missed the train of progress. Dayananda’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan remained far more preoccupied with God than with steam engines, hence they were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the last few years has India managed to make significant progress in closing the economic and geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still struggling far behind

  • Highlight [page 282]: In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. In the twentyfirst century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.

  • Highlight [page 282]: Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has not yet even come to terms with the Industrial Revolution – no wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force. Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical idea that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries

  • Highlight [page 283]: In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations. The Catholic Church established medieval Europe’s most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogues, timetables and other techniques of data processing. The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods.

8: The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

  • Highlight [page 289]: . Today, when scholars ask why a man drew a knife and stabbed someone death, answering ‘Because he chose to’ doesn’t cut the mustard. Instead, geneticists and brain scientists provide a much more detailed answer: ‘He did it due to such-and-such electrochemical processes in the brain, which were shaped by a particular genetic make-up, which reflect ancient evolutionary pressures coupled with chance mutations

  • Highlight [page 290]: To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, an empty term that carries no discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.

  • Highlight [page 290]: When confronted with such scientific explanations, people often brush them aside, pointing out that they feel free, and that they act according to their own wishes and decisions. This is true. Humans act according to their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the ability to act according to your desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act out their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. Why does Polly want a cracker rather than a cucumber? Why do I decide to kill my annoying neighbour instead of turning the other cheek? Why do I want to buy the red car rather than the black? Why do I prefer voting for the

  • Highlight [page 291]: Conservatives rather than the Labour Party? I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free.

  • Highlight [page 303]: So what do the patients prefer: to have a short and sharp colonoscopy, or a long and careful one? There isn’t a single answer to this question, because the patient has at least two different selves, and they have different interests. If you ask the experiencing self, it will probably prefer a short colonoscopy. But if you ask the narrating self, it will vote for a long colonoscopy because it remembers only the average between the worst moment and the last moment. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the narrating self, the doctor should add a few completely superfluous minutes of dull aches at the very end of the test, because it will make the entire memory far less traumatic. 15 Paediatricians know this trick well. So do vets. Many keep in their clinics jars full of treats, and hand a few to the kids (or dogs) after giving them a painful injection or an unpleasant medical examination. When the narrating self remembers the visit to the doctor, ten seconds of pleasure at the end of the visit will erase many minutes of anxiety and pain.

  • Highlight [page 303]: Evolution discovered this trick aeons before the paediatricians. Given the unbearable torments women undergo at childbirth, you might think that after going through it once, no sane woman would ever agree to do it again. However, at the end of labour and in the following days the hormonal system secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins, which reduce the pain and create a feeling of relief and sometimes even of elation. Moreover, the growing love towards the baby, and the acclaim from friends, family members, religious dogmas and nationalist propaganda, conspire to turn childbirth from a terrible trauma into a positive memory

  • Highlight [page 304]: One study conducted at the Rabin Medical Center in Tel Aviv showed that the memory of labour reflected mainly the peak and end points, while the overall duration had almost no impact at all. 16In another research project, 2,428 Swedish women were asked to recount their memories of labour two months after giving birth. Ninety per cent reported that the experience was either positive or very positive. They didn’t necessarily forget the pain – 28.5 per cent described it as the worst pain imaginable – yet it did not prevent them from evaluating the experience as positive. The narrating self goes over our experiences with a sharp pair of scissors and a thick black marker. It censors at least some moments of horror, and files in the archive a story with a happy ending

9: The Great Decoupling

  • Highlight [page 315]: However, in the twenty-first century the majority of both men and women might lose their military and economic value. Gone is the mass conscription of the two world wars. The most advanced armies of the twenty-first century rely far more on cutting-edge technology. Instead of limitless cannon fodder, you now need only small numbers of highly trained soldiers, even smaller numbers of special forces superwarriors and a handful of experts who know how to produce and use sophisticated technology. Hi-tech forces ‘manned’ by pilotless drones and cyber-worms are replacing the mass armies of the twentieth century, and generals delegate more and more critical decisions to algorithms.

  • Highlight [page 317]: Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or identifying terrorists. However, we are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that can perform such tasks far better than humans. For all these tasks are based on pattern recognition, and non-conscious algorithms may soon excel human consciousness in recognising patterns. This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness? As long as they went hand in hand, debating their relative value was just a pastime for philosophers. But in the twentyfirst century, this is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional

  • Highlight [page 319]: On 23 April 2013, Syrian hackers broke into Associated Press’s official Twitter account. At 13:07 they tweeted that the White House had been attacked and President Obama was hurt. Trade algorithms that constantly monitor newsfeeds reacted in no time, and began selling stocks like mad. The Dow Jones went into free fall, and within sixty seconds lost 150 points, equivalent to a loss of $136 billion! At 13:10 Associated Press clarified that the tweet was a hoax. The algorithms reversed gear, and by 13:13 the Dow Jones had recuperated almost all the losses.

  • Highlight [page 320]: Even highly experienced lawyers and detectives cannot easily spot deceptions merely by observing people’s facial expressions and tone of voice. However, lying involves different brain areas to those used when we tell the truth. We’re not there yet, but it is conceivable that in the not too distant future fMRI scanners could function as almost infallible truth machines. Where will that leave millions of lawyers, judges, cops and detectives? They might need to go back to school and learn a new profession

  • Highlight [page 322]: in a recent experiment a computer algorithm diagnosed correctly 90 per cent of lung cancer cases presented to it, while human doctors had a success rate of only 50 per cent. 8In fact, the future is already here. CT scans and mammography tests are routinely checked by specialised algorithms, which provide doctors with a second opinion, and sometimes detect tumours that the doctors missed. 9

10: The Ocean of Consciousness

  • Highlight [page 365]: As Sapiens organised themselves in larger groups, our nose lost its

  • Highlight [page 366]: importance, because it is useful only when dealing with small numbers of individuals. You cannot, for example, smell the American fear of China. Consequently, human olfactory powers were neglected. Brain areas that tens of thousands of years ago probably dealt with odours were put to work on more urgent tasks such as reading, mathematics and abstract reasoning. The system prefers that our neurons solve differential equations rather than smell our neighbours.5

  • Highlight [page 366]: The same thing happened to our other senses, and to the underlying ability to pay attention to our sensations. Ancient foragers were always sharp and attentive. Wandering in the forest in search of mushrooms, they sniffed the wind carefully and watched the ground intently. When they found a mushroom, they ate it with the utmost attention, aware of every little nuance of flavour, which could distinguish an edible mushroom from its poisonous cousin. Members of today’s affluent societies don’t need such keen awareness. We can go to the supermarket and buy any of a thousand different dishes, all supervised by the health authorities. But whatever we choose – Italian pizza or Thai noodles – we are likely to eat it in haste in front of the TV, hardly paying attention to the taste (which is why food producers are constantly inventing new exciting flavours, which might somehow pierce the curtain of indifference). Similarly, when going on holiday we can choose between thousands of amazing destinations. But wherever we go, we are likely to be playing with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but no matter what we choose, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to it.6

11: The Data Religion

  • Highlight [page 383]: If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system, through four basic methods:

  • Highlight [page 383]: 1. Increasing the number of processors. A city of 100,000 people has more computing power than a village of 1,000 people. 2. Increasing the variety of processors. Different processors may use diverse ways to calculate and analyse data. Using several kinds of processors in a single system may therefore increase its dynamism and creativity. A conversation between a peasant, a priest and a physician may produce novel ideas that would never emerge from a conversation between three hunter-gatherers. 3. Increasing the number of connections between processors. There is little point in increasing the mere number and variety of processors if they are poorly connected to each other. A trade network linking ten cities is likely to result in many more economic, technological and social innovations than ten isolated cities. 4. Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections. Connecting processors is hardly useful if data cannot flow freely. Just building roads between ten cities won’t be very useful if they are plagued by robbers, or if some autocratic despot doesn’t allow merchants and travellers to move as they wish.

  • Highlight [page 386]: Ray Kurzweil’s book of prophecies is called The Singularity is Near, echoing John the Baptist’s cry: ‘the kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matthew 3:2).

  • Highlight [page 396]: The scientists not only sanctified human feelings, but also found an excellent evolutionary reason to do so. After Darwin, biologists began explaining that feelings are complex algorithms honed by evolution to help animals make the right decisions. Our love, our fear and our passion aren’t some nebulous spiritual phenomena good only for composing poetry. Rather, they encapsulate millions of years of practical wisdom. When you read the Bible, you get advice from a few priests and rabbis who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality tests of natural selection. Your feelings are the voice of millions of ancestors, each of whom managed to survive and reproduce in an unforgiving environment. Your feelings are not infallible, of course, but they are better than most alternatives

  • Highlight [page 401]: In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. People just don’t know what to pay attention to, and they often spend their time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore

  • Highlight [page 401]: If we think in term of months, we had probably focus on immediate problems such as the turmoil in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe and the slowing of the Chinese economy. If we think in terms of decades, then global warming, growing inequality and the disruption of the job market loom large. Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes: 1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms, and life is data processing. 2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. 3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves. These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book: 1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing? 2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness? 3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves.