Harari’s second book (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) breaks many a modernist myth but ends up shouldering, perhaps unavoidably, a rather excessive baggage of biology.
Dr. Kausik Gangopadhyay is an Associate Professor in the area of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode. An Economist by training, Humanist in yearning, he is interested in Dharma, Culture & Civilisation. Twitter Handle: @KausikGy
Yuval Noah Harari's first book of macro-history, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), was simply amazing. His falsification of the politically correct, present day narrative of equality of all human beings in Sapiens was beyond fabulous. He dissected the American declaration of independence - “that all men are created equal...” - and demonstrated its futility from a scientific perspective. I quote:
According to the science of biology, people were not created. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.
(Chapter 6, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind)
This passage above is only one narrow field of that grand panorama that makes his previous book such a riveting read. In his new book, he continues the same story - the story of mankind from a biological perspective. This time, it is a narration of the present in contrast with the past and a compelling projection of the future.
I suppose that the book would be especially difficult for those who wear the scientific attitude on their sleeves and yet sing paeans to equality all the time, for they seem to have never noticed the irreconcilability of the two positions. It has never occurred to them how a secular concept like equality could be an extension of the Christian worldview. For their benefit, Harari, in this book, demonstrates (Chapter 3, Homo Deus) convincingly that Liberalism, Communism, and Nazism are nothing but faiths - modern religions to be precise - without any scientific grounding whatsoever. The secularists, especially of the Indian variety, are likely to be sore with the blasphemous utterances of Harari, an Israeli for the record. If it is any consolation, they may note that long ago in the 1930s, during his stay in Europe, Syed Mujtaba Ali, a Bengali author, and scholar, observed that Communism and Nazism denounce religions all the time and yet manifest all the traits of a religion. Liberalism, back then, had not quite arrived on the scene, less so in India.
To delve into the future, let's first understand the much celebrated technological modernity. To be sure, this era proclaims the near-extinction of famine and a decisive decline in epidemics, diseases and large-scale violence. In accordance with this view, we are even tempted to say that the September 11 attack on the WTC was not as catastrophic as we may imagine if we were to consider the number of people who died in absolute numbers. The beauty of Harari's writing is that he offers an objective reading of the situation that can convince even a skeptic with a totally novel perspective: 9/11 did not kill even a micro-fraction of the number of annual deaths due to obesity.
By all counts, most of the humanity lives in an age of relative prosperity. Consider an average man in the United States. He uses about sixty times more energy than his stone-age counterpart. But is he sixty times happier than the stone-age person? Doesn’t look like it. The rising suicide rates over the last few decades indicate that in all probability, human happiness level has diminished. When we buy the air-conditioner in summer, we may not actually feel happier. But without it, we may feel less happy imagining ourselves hapless compared to our neighbour having the air-conditioner.
In the book, Harari repeatedly reminds us that Human Beings can imagine a reality, a unique attribute compared to other animals. Ancient Indic texts say the same: Man is the mind-based (“mānas”) creation of Brahmā, the ultimate creative agency, unlike other animals, which are based on life-force of the physical body (prāṇī means prāṇa based). Harari fails to note his own congruence with Indic thought and I don't blame him. As a macro-historian, he could not possibly have gone into the details into each of his observations. However, his bibliography suggests that his idea of India is greatly influenced by the writings of Sheldon Pollock and disappointingly, his perception of India is a strictly imagined one, in which the now defunct ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ sets the tone.
Harari has correctly recognized the underlying fallacy of consumerism as a means to happiness, when, in fact, it only abets ecological and environmental damage under the garb of economic growth. The solution, as he suggests, is to train our own brain to feel happy, something that the Buddha taught millennia ago. His acknowledgment that this Buddhist theory is in agreement with modern science is praiseworthy. Perhaps his conviction comes, in no small measure, from his daily practice of Vipassana, which he recognizes as a key source of his strength. No wonder he dedicates this book to his Vipassana teacher.
At the same time, his book gives the reader an impression that the Buddha was a pleasant exception in the backdrop of a primitive Vedic culture, whereas a closer examination reveals that the Buddha was hardly an anomaly in the hoary Indic tradition of pursuit of knowledge, defined by the methodology of what Rajiv Malhotra has called ‘first-person empiricism’. This is also illustrative of the fact that the human mind can not only be used for conceiving an imagined order but can also comprehend reality in a way that biology may not have a ready explanation for.
His frank admission (chapter 3) that science knows surprisingly little about the mind and consciousness is interesting but a historian like him may have noted the respect for the consciousness of animals and trees in the ancient Indic tradition. The west realized that plants too have consciousness as late as in the twentieth century and it is no surprise that the person who ‘discovered’ this fact for them was Jagadish Chandra Bose, who was thoroughly grounded in the Indic tradition and thus, only demonstrated scientifically what he ‘knew’ from his cultural upbringing.
Though he never states it explicitly, Harari, generally speaking, follows the Marxist framework, wherein the production process forms the base and the products of the human mind, like religion and scientific knowledge, are considered as the superstructure. In this framework, technology directs human living. This formulation leaves no scope but to go for a linear history of progress instead of a circular pattern. This notion may be somewhat inhibitive towards recognizing the circular pattern of human knowledge. Although Harari has some shed light (chapter 4) on the vibrant practice of history-writing among the pagans of Europe, like Herodotus, before this vocation was smothered under the Biblical monotheism of the medieval age, he never goes deep into this theme of the ups and downs of human consciousness. This omission keeps us from appreciating the possibility of human knowledge cultivation as remote from, and even independent of, the path of technological achievement.
Now, let's move to the ‘History of Tomorrow’ part of the book. Here the macro-history is not manifest but what is discussed is the logical implication of the various technological advancements of today on tomorrow. One important question is posed by automation. Economists are often found to be pro-automation, supported by a historical outlook that technology has added more jobs than it has destroyed in the last century. Harari's insight is sharp: So far machines were replacing the muscle part of man. Now, they have moved on to replacing man's mental ability. Consequently, loss of employment is inevitable with the rise of automation.
The future looks quite different: most human beings will find it too hard to get a job. Jobs will only be for superhuman beings with superhuman mental abilities. Machines will replace all jobs that are done by ordinary people today. Most men, therefore, will live on welfare. No wonder, universal basic income is becoming a topic of frontier level research. The superhuman beings will earn much more than others and will use the latest techniques of biotechnology to produce superhuman offspring.
Does it strike a familiar chord? Yes, it is the Eloi-Morlock story of H. G. Wells all over again, as expected under a linear history formulation. Did it ever happen in the history of three million years of humankind? Not really, based on our present-day understanding. If anything, Homo Neanderthals were absorbed in the modern species called Homo Sapiens. Perhaps this conclusion demonstrates that an exclusively technological destiny robs human beings of their very humanity.
The title of the book describes the present man to be equivalent to god—Deus in Latin, linguistically, is synonymous to deva of Sanskrit. Harari, perhaps under the influence of latent Abrahamic notions of the West, conceives god as an immoral entity capable of making own destiny by any means possible, as he employs the term in this particular sense. The Indic understanding of deva is different. The sixteenth chapter of the Gita mentions the daivi sampads—the possessions of the deva— which includes neither immortality not making her own destiny. What makes a person a deva? The answer lies in a host of human virtues like truthfulness, renunciation, inner peace of mind, reciprocity for all beings, no tendency to initiate violence in any form, cleanliness, the pursuit of knowledge, and so on. Not surprisingly, according to the Indic perspective, man has not become anything remotely close to a deva by his obsessive romance with technology.
Harari has, self-admittedly, worked within the constraints of biology. A good researcher knows and acknowledges the limitations of his framework. Can biology explain everything about the human condition? Certainly not. Things such as reincarnation and the mysteries attached to it remain largely inaccessible to it as they violate the internal consistency of the biological framework. Let us consider the case of Purnima Ekanayake from Sri Lanka, who is believed to have had a distinct memory of her past life. Her birthmarks were in the same area as her wounds that she claimed to have received during her accident in her previous life. Before we pooh-pooh this as primitive superstition, it would be good to note that this is not one standalone case. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson has published a meticulous two-volume monograph of over two thousand pages titled, “Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997)” (the popular version is called Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect), in which he demonstrates the association of birthmarks from the incidence of a previous life.
All said and done, Homo Deus is a must read book. I must confess that all my criticism is much like how people get upset with their caring and loving partner. It basically springs from the human trait that we expect even more from the person who delivers more. As an admirer of the author, I look for faults in his work using a magnifying glass, so to speak. Harari explains in his book that people are not happy even after receiving more. I guess my abnormally high expectations from the author make me fret unnecessarily.