The Superhuman Upgrade

Steven Shapin

  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
    Vintage, 528 pp, £9.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 78470 393 6

Hedda Gabler’s husband, Jørgen Tesman, is an academic historian – diligent, if a little plodding. He is researching a book which he hopes will make a splash, secure him a coveted professorship and support his wife’s taste for life in Oslo high society. When Tesman’s aunt asks him what the book will be about, he says it will deal with the domestic industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages. ‘Fancy,’ she says. ‘To be able to write a book on such a subject as that!’

Ejlert Løvborg is Tesman’s academic rival – and Hedda’s former lover. He has recently published an enthusiastically received book dealing with nothing less than ‘the march of civilisation – in broad outline, as it were’. Now he calls on Tesman carrying the completed manuscript of yet another great work. Tesman asks what this one is about and Løvborg says it’s ‘the continuation’. The first book traced the history of civilisation from its beginning up to the present; the new book will be about the future. ‘Good heavens,’ Tesman says, ‘we know nothing of the future!’ Yes, Løvborg concedes, but ‘there is a thing or two to be said about it all the same.’ His book will describe ‘the civilising forces of the future’ and forecast ‘the probable lines of development’. Tesman is astonished: ‘I never thought of writing anything like that.’ Quite, Hedda thinks: Løvborg’s history of the future is sexy; her husband is just a dull ‘specialist’.

Today’s Ejlert Løvborg is the Israeli historian Yuval Harari. His Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind appeared in English in 2014, having been published in Hebrew three years earlier. Following ‘the march of civilisation’ from the Neolithic to the present in a punchy four hundred pages, it was an international bestseller, endorsed by Barack Obama and tagged as essential reading by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. There were TED talks, public lectures, a dedicated YouTube channel, a hugely popular online course, speeches to the futurologists at Google and the Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

There’s a new and expanding readership for this sort of thing. It is said that the humanities are ‘in crisis’: students aren’t enrolling in the same numbers and the monographs don’t sell. Increasingly exposed to ‘market forces’, some historians, risking the eye-rolling disapproval of colleagues, are attempting to satisfy a demand for the Book That Explains It All. They take encouragement from recent prods to produce work of greater scope. In The History Manifesto (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage worry that the production of scholarly miniatures disqualifies historians from contributing to urgent cultural and political discussions – about climate change, sustainable production, international governance etc – in which the longue durée would give valuable perspective. The focus on local historical meaning should give way to the search for overall historical pattern. Grand Histories weren’t uncommon in Ibsen’s time; by the middle of the 20th century, exercises such as Løvborg’s had come to seem ridiculous. Today, the tide may be turning again.

The probable lines of humanity’s future were heavily trailed in the last chapter of Sapiens, which Harari has expanded to form the core of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. As he tells it, our species has done great things already and unimaginably greater things are surely in store. There are reasons to be cheerful. Once upon a time, we accepted three score years and ten as our divinely allotted lifespan; we reckoned there wasn’t much we could do to prevent or counter epidemic disease; we looked on dearth and famine as bad hands dealt by fate or divine judgment; we considered war to be in the nature of things; and we believed that personal happiness was a matter of fortune. Now, Harari says, these problems have all been reconfigured as managerial projects, subject to political will but not limited by the insufficiencies of our knowledge or technique. We have become the masters of our own fate – and ‘fate’ itself should be reconceived as an agenda for further research and intervention. That is what it means to refer to the world era in which we live as the Anthropocene: one biological species, Homo sapiens, has become a major agent in shaping the natural circumstances of its own existence. The gods once made sport of us; the future will ‘upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus’.

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