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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Yuval Noah Harari (author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”) answers some interesting questions

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Andrew Anthony writes in the Guardian:

Last week, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans read out the first page of Sapiens, the book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Given that radio audiences at that time in the morning are not known for their appetite for intellectual engagement – the previous segment had dealt with Gary Barlow’s new tour – it was an unusual gesture. But as Evans said, “the first page is the most stunning first page of any book”.

If DJs are prone to mindless hyperbole, this was an honourable exception. The subtitle of Sapiens, in an echo of Stephen Hawking’s great work, is A Brief Historyof Humankind. In grippingly lucid prose, Harari sets out on that first page a condensed history of the universe, followed by a summary of the book’s thesis: how the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

It is a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the remainder of the book lives up to on almost every page. Although Sapiens has been widely and loudly praised, some critics have suggested that it is too sweeping. Perhaps, but it is an intellectual joy to be swept along.

It’s one of those books that can’t help but make you feel smarter for having read it. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have undergone that experience, as have many others in the Davos crowd and Silicon Valley. The irony, perhaps, is that one of the book’s warnings is that we are in danger of becoming an elite-dominated global society.

At the centre of the book is the contention that what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.

Originally published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was translated into English three years later and became an international bestseller. It ranges across a multitude of disciplines with seemingly effortless scholarship, bringing together a keen understanding of history, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, philosophy, theology, economics, psychology, neuroscience and much else besides.

Yet the author of this accomplished and far-reaching book is a young Israeli historian whose career, up until that point, had been devoted to the relative academic backwater of medieval military history. Apparently, Sapiens is based on an introductory course to world history that Harari had to teach, after senior colleagues dodged the task. The story goes that the major Israeli publishers weren’t interested. No one saw international stardom beckoning.

Last year, Harari’s follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,was published in the UK, becoming another bestseller. It develops many of the themes explored in Sapiens, and in particular examines the possible impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on Homo sapiens, heralding perhaps the beginning of a new bionic or semi-computerised form of human.

Again, it’s an exhilarating book that takes the reader deep into questions of identity, consciousness and intelligence, grappling with what kinds of choices and dilemmas a fully automated world will present us with.

Now 41, Harari grew up in a secular Jewish family in Haifa. He studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed his doctorate at Oxford. He is a vegan and he meditates for two hours a day, often going on extended retreats. He says it helps him focus on the issues that really matter. He lives with his husband on a moshav, an agricultural co-operative, outside Jerusalem. Being gay, he says, helped him to question received opinions. “Nothing should be taken for granted,” he has said, “even if everybody believes it.”

One of the pleasures of reading his books is that he continually calls on readers, both explicitly and implicitly, to think about what we know and what we think we know. And he has little time for fashionable stances.

He writes and speaks like a man who is not excessively troubled by doubt. If that makes him sound arrogant, let me clarify: he arrives at his conclusions after a great deal of research and contemplation. However, once he’s persuaded himself – and he says he always leaves it to the evidence to decide his thinking – he doesn’t hold back in his efforts to persuade the reader. It makes for what Jared Diamond called “unforgettably vivid language”.

Harari is a naturally gifted explainer, invariably ready with the telling anecdote or memorable analogy. As a result, it’s tempting to see him less as a historian than as some kind of all-purpose sage. We asked public figures and readers to pose questions for Harari, and many of these ( below) were of a moral or ethical nature, seeking answers about what should be done, rather than about what has happened. But the Israeli seems used to the role, and perfectly happy to give his best shot at replying. A historian of the distant past and the near future, he has carved out a whole new discipline of his own. It’s a singular achievement by an impressively multiple-minded man.

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?
Helen Czerski, physicist
I’m not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think we’ll probably have just one system, and in this sense we’ll have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

Andrew Anthony: Are you saying that the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama was correct in his analysis of the end of history?
It depends how you understand the end of history. If you mean the end of ideological clashes, then no, but if you mean the creation of a single civilisation which encompasses the whole world, then I think he was largely correct.

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?
Lucy Prebble, playwright
Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?
TheWatchingPlace, posted online
I think it will be just the opposite – that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and you’ll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

What role does morality play in a future world of artificial intelligence, artificial life and immortality? Will an aspiration to do what is good and right still motivate much of the race?
Andrew Solomon, writer . . .

Continue reading.

The “fictions” Harari talks about are memes by another name. Their meme character is evident from his descriptions. And I like the picture he draws of those who are so caught up in memes that they ignore the non-meme world (i.e., physical reality). As you might expect, this does the persons no good at all. They’re trapped in the meme equivalent of a Venus flytrap.

I’m not sure he sees how memes evolve independently of us.

Written by Leisureguy

5 September 2017 at 5:31 pm

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