Sapiens

This is a sec­tion-by-sec­tion sum­mary and re­view of Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind by Yu­val Noah Harari. It’s come up on Less Wrong be­fore in the con­text of Death is Op­tional, a con­ver­sa­tion the au­thor had with Daniel Kah­ne­man about the book, and seems like an ac­cessible in­tro­duc­tion to many of the con­cepts un­der­ly­ing the LW per­spec­tive on his­tory and the fu­ture. Any­one who’s thought about Moloch will find many of the same is­sues dis­cussed here, and so I’ll scat­ter links to Yvain through­out. I’ll dis­cuss sev­eral of the points that I thought were in­ter­est­ing and novel, or at least had a novel per­spec­tive and good pre­sen­ta­tion.

A his­tory as ex­pan­sive as this one nec­es­sar­ily in­volves op­er­at­ing on higher lev­els of ab­strac­tion. The first sec­tion ex­presses this con­cisely enough to quote in full:

About 13.5 billion years ago, mat­ter, en­ergy, time and space came into be­ing in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fun­da­men­tal fea­tures of our uni­verse is called physics.

About 300,000 years af­ter their ap­pear­ance, mat­ter and en­ergy started to co­a­lesce into com­plex struc­tures, called atoms, which then com­bined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their in­ter­ac­tions is called chem­istry.

About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, cer­tain molecules com­bined to form par­tic­u­larly large and in­tri­cate struc­tures called or­ganisms. The story of or­ganisms is called biol­ogy.

About 70,000 years ago, or­ganisms be­long­ing to the species Homo sapi­ens started to form even more elab­o­rate struc­tures called cul­tures. The sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ment of these hu­man cul­tures is called his­tory.

Three im­por­tant rev­olu­tions shaped the course of his­tory: the Cog­ni­tive Revolu­tion kick-started his­tory about 70,000 years ago. The Agri­cul­tural Revolu­tion sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scien­tific Revolu­tion, which got un­der way only 500 years ago, may well end his­tory and start some­thing com­pletely differ­ent. This book tells the story of how these three rev­olu­tions have af­fected hu­mans and their fel­low or­ganisms.

The main charm of the book, as I see it, is what I would call the “view from Mars,” or what oth­ers might call the “out­side view” or “view from nowhere.” We live in the mid­dle of the Scien­tific Revolu­tion, of his­tory, biol­ogy, chem­istry, and physics, and it is hard to imag­ine the days when biol­ogy was *new*. Over­ar­ch­ing his­to­ries like this help clar­ify and sep­a­rate the regimes and un­der­ly­ing trends, which is use­ful for un­der­stand­ing the past, pre­dict­ing the fu­ture, and di­rect­ing our efforts.

Fol­low­ing Harari, I’ll use “hu­mans” to re­fer to the mem­bers of the genus homo, and Sapi­ens to re­fer to homo Sapi­ens speci­fi­cally. I’ll use “kya” to re­fer to “kilo­years ago,” or thou­sands of years be­fore now. Harari splits his book into four parts: The Cog­ni­tive Revolu­tion, The Agri­cul­tural Revolu­tion, The Unifi­ca­tion of Hu­mankind, and The Scien­tific Revolu­tion. I’ll dis­cuss those parts sep­a­rately be­fore giv­ing my thoughts on the whole. Com­pared to pre­vi­ous re­views I’ve writ­ten for Less Wrong, I’m go­ing to em­ploy quotes far more heav­ily, pri­mar­ily be­cause Harari is a good writer who climbs the lad­der of ab­strac­tion up and down very well, so he of­ten self-sum­ma­rizes.

The Cog­ni­tive Revolution

Harari at­tributes the cog­ni­tive rev­olu­tion to the abil­ity of Sapi­ens lan­guage (and brains) to com­mu­ni­cate about fic­tions. From an in­di­vi­d­ual per­spec­tive, this seems prob­le­matic: an in­di­vi­d­ual who only be­lieves true things seems strictly more fit than an in­di­vi­d­ual who be­lieves both true and false things.

But from a col­lec­tive per­spec­tive, fic­tions can al­low co­op­er­a­tion on a much broader scale. This is the first ob­vi­ous benefit of start­ing from the lower lev­els and build­ing up—if you were a Mar­tian biol­o­gist, the strik­ing thing about Sapi­ens is their tremen­dous abil­ity to co­op­er­ate with each other. Other an­i­mals do not build cities, and would not find them liv­able, be­cause there would be too many of their own kind there. But to a city-dwelling hu­man, that hu­mans can meet strangers with only a touch of anx­iety seems nor­mal, not nec­es­sar­ily odd enough to de­mand a pow­er­ful ex­pla­na­tion.

Many differ­ent va­ri­eties of an­i­mals have tribes, of course, but there doesn’t seem to have been much so­cial differ­ence be­tween chim­panzee tribes, elephant tribes, and pre-Cog­ni­tive Revolu­tion Sapi­ens tribes. The so­cial roles of those tribes are of­ten rec­og­niz­able to us. Typ­i­cally, the tribe has coal­i­tions that are main­tained by close so­cial re­la­tion­ships, fre­quent con­tact, and (if the lan­guage is de­vel­oped enough) gos­sip. But this puts a hard limit on the growth po­ten­tial of tribes—even­tu­ally, the marginal coal­i­tion mem­ber will get more by join­ing an­other coal­i­tion than they will from join­ing the largest coal­i­tion, be­cause the largest coal­i­tion doesn’t have any spare en­ergy, at­ten­tion, or re­sources to de­vote to the po­ten­tial new mem­ber.

But when we go from co­op­er­at­ing based on truth—that we groomed each other yes­ter­day—to co­op­er­at­ing based on fic­tion—that both of us are in­tel­lec­tual heirs of Ba­con and Laplace—the prac­ti­cal­ities of group mem­ber­ship change dra­mat­i­cally. We don’t have just coal­i­tions sup­ported by pair­wise re­la­tion­ships, by prin­ci­ple-ori­ented fac­tions, where each per­son in the fac­tion has a re­la­tion­ship pri­mar­ily with the fac­tion. (Two ar­ti­cles by Yvain, Is Every­thing a Reli­gion? and I Can Tol­er­ate Every­thing Ex­cept the Out­group, seem rele­vant.)

Strictly speak­ing, of course, the prin­ci­ples un­der­ly­ing the fac­tion do not “ex­ist.” As Harari puts it:

There are no gods in the uni­verse, no na­tions, no money, no hu­man rights, no laws, and no jus­tice out­side the com­mon imag­i­na­tion of hu­man be­ings.

Peo­ple eas­ily un­der­stand that ‘prim­i­tives’ ce­ment their so­cial or­der by be­liev­ing in ghosts and spirits, and gath­er­ing each full moon to dance to­gether around the campfire. What we fail to ap­pre­ci­ate is that our mod­ern in­sti­tu­tions func­tion on ex­actly the same ba­sis.

But, of course, those mod­ern in­sti­tu­tions (as well as the ‘prim­i­tive’ ones) func­tion. One di­vi­sion Harari dis­cusses that I found use­ful was ob­jec­tive, sub­jec­tive, and in­ter-sub­jec­tive:

An ob­jec­tive phe­nomenon ex­ists in­de­pen­dently of hu­man con­scious­ness and hu­man be­liefs. … [Ra­dioac­tivity is his ex­am­ple.]

The sub­jec­tive is some­thing that ex­ists de­pend­ing on the con­scious­ness and be­liefs of a sin­gle in­di­vi­d­ual. … [A child’s imag­i­nary friend is his ex­am­ple.]

The in­ter-sub­jec­tive is some­thing that ex­ists within the com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work link­ing the sub­jec­tive con­scious­ness of many in­di­vi­d­u­als. If a sin­gle in­di­vi­d­ual changes his or her be­liefs, or even dies, it is of lit­tle im­por­tance. How­ever, if most in­di­vi­d­u­als in the net­work die or change their be­liefs, the in­ter-sub­jec­tive phe­nomenon will mu­tate or dis­ap­pear. …

Many of his­tory’s most im­por­tant drivers are in­ter-sub­jec­tive: law, money, gods, na­tions.

That last list looks fa­mil­iar. Gods and prices are not fea­tures of the wave­func­tion of the phys­i­cal uni­verse—they’re fea­tures of com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works, or cul­tures. The cre­ation of a third, ex­plic­itly defined cat­e­gory (phrases that mean similar things are “so­cial con­struct” and “myth,” at least when used non-pe­jo­ra­tively) solves the epistemic crisis of re­al­iz­ing that many, if not most, of the in­ter­est­ing things in life are nei­ther ob­jec­tive nor sub­jec­tive. The rules of as­so­ci­a­tion foot­ball are not ob­jec­tive nat­u­ral laws baked into the uni­verse be­fore there was time, but nei­ther can they be changed by a sin­gle per­son de­cid­ing to play differ­ently. (Many au­thors fall head­long into this epistemic crisis, and Harari ev­ery now and then seems to have his pre­sen­ta­tion, if not his ar­gu­ments, tripped up by it. But on the whole he man­ages it well.)

Harari gives the stan­dard his­tory of hu­mans from about 70kya to about 12kya; Sapi­ens spread out of Africa, dec­i­mat­ing and re­plac­ing many pop­u­la­tions in the way, in­clud­ing both megafauna and other hu­mans. Some man­aged to con­tribute genes to mod­ern Sapi­ens, like Ne­an­derthals, but this is likely cold com­fort to an­i­mals, peo­ples, and cul­tures buried by ri­vals that were not in­di­vi­d­u­ally stronger, but more suited to large-scale con­flicts.

The Agri­cul­tural Revolution

Harari also gives the stan­dard his­tory of the start of agri­cul­ture: it seems to have been in­di­vi­d­u­ally un­pleas­ant but col­lec­tively em­pow­er­ing. This is one of the ma­jor trends that Harari iden­ti­fies—the path of his­tory is that stronger col­lec­tives ab­sorb or de­stroy weaker col­lec­tives. Much like Dawk­ins called his ac­count of evolu­tion The Selfish Gene to make ob­vi­ous that his con­cep­tion of evolu­tion cen­tered on genes in­stead of on in­di­vi­d­u­als, one might call this ac­count of his­tory The Selfish Cul­ture to make ob­vi­ous that this con­cep­tion of his­tory cen­ters on cul­tures in­stead of on in­di­vi­d­u­als. (Con­trast with Yvain’s ar­ti­cle cen­tered on in­di­vi­d­u­als.) Harari states this late in the book:

his­tory’s choices are not made for the benefit of hu­mans. There is ab­solutely no proof that hu­man well-be­ing in­evitably im­proves as his­tory rolls along. There is no proof that cul­tures that are benefi­cial to hu­mans must in­ex­orably suc­ceed and spread, while less benefi­cial cul­tures must dis­ap­pear.

And so viewed from Mars, the story of his­tory af­ter agri­cul­ture is the story of col­lec­tives trad­ing off in­di­vi­d­ual satis­fac­tion for col­lec­tive power time and time again. Since col­lec­tive power is what de­ter­mines sur­vival of a cul­ture, we are left with an im­mensely strong cul­ture that holds the en­tire world in its grasp—but, to the in­di­vi­d­ual peo­ple liv­ing in it, may not ac­tu­ally be any more satis­fy­ing than life as a no­mad. When we broaden our view to other or­ganisms, do­mes­ti­cated and wild an­i­mals make the story even more clear and ex­treme. In­dus­tri­ally man­aged cat­tle are more ‘col­lec­tively pow­er­ful’ (in the sense of be­ing eco­nom­i­cally use­ful to Sapi­ens) than wild au­rochs herds, but by al­most any scale their lives are tremen­dously mis­er­able com­pared to their un­do­mes­ti­cated an­ces­tors. Sapi­ens to­day are not quite in­dus­tri­ally man­aged and only par­tially do­mes­ti­cated, but po­ten­tial fu­tures where there is more man­age­ment and more do­mes­ti­ca­tion strike most mod­erns with hor­ror.

The Unifi­ca­tion of Humankind

The abil­ity to rea­son about in­ter-sub­jec­tive ob­jects al­lows hu­mans to scale their co­op­er­at­ing col­lec­tives; larger col­lec­tives have more power, in­tel­li­gence, and in­vest­ments, which al­lows them more con­trol over the phys­i­cal world. This con­trol is rein­vested, and the trend of in­creas­ing col­lec­tive power con­tinues. This pe­riod of his­tory marks the tran­si­tion from many in­de­pen­dent and mostly un­con­nected col­lec­tives of hu­mans into one con­nected col­lec­tive.

Over the mil­len­nia, small sim­ple cul­tures grad­u­ally co­a­lesce into big­ger and more com­plex civil­i­sa­tions, so that the world con­tains fewer and fewer mega-cul­tures, each of which is big­ger and more com­plex.

The de­fault be­hav­ior of all so­cial an­i­mals is to di­vide the world into “us” and “them,” and what is re­mark­able about Sapi­ens is the ca­pac­ity to en­large the “us” to in­clude more and more power (and in­di­vi­d­u­als). The three trends Harari iden­ti­fies lead­ing to more unifi­ca­tion:

The first mil­len­nium BC wit­nessed the ap­pear­ance of three po­ten­tially uni­ver­sal or­ders, whose devo­tees could for the first time imag­ine the en­tire world and the en­tire hu­man race as a sin­gle unit gov­erned by a sin­gle set of laws. Every­one was ‘us’, at least po­ten­tially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first uni­ver­sal or­der to ap­pear was eco­nomic: the mon­e­tary or­der. The sec­ond uni­ver­sal or­der was poli­ti­cal: the im­pe­rial or­der. The third uni­ver­sal or­der was re­li­gious: the or­der of uni­ver­sal re­li­gions such as Bud­dhism, Chris­ti­an­ity, and Is­lam.

Mer­chants, con­querors, and prophets were the first peo­ple who man­aged to tran­scend the bi­nary evolu­tion­ary di­vi­sion, ‘us vs them’, and to fore­see the po­ten­tial unity of hu­mankind. For the mer­chants, the en­tire world was a sin­gle mar­ket and all hu­mans were po­ten­tial cus­tomers. The tried to es­tab­lish an eco­nomic or­der that would ap­ply to all, ev­ery­where. For the con­querors, the en­tire world was a sin­gle em­pire and all hu­mans were po­ten­tial sub­jects, and for the prophets, the en­tire world held a sin­gle truth and all hu­mans were po­ten­tial be­liev­ers. They too tried to es­tab­lish an or­der that would be ap­pli­ca­ble for ev­ery­one ev­ery­where.

I won’t go through the de­tails of Harari’s his­tory of how those three forces worked to bring col­lec­tives to­gether. In­stead, I’ll just share the pas­sages I high­lighted from those chap­ters:

Chris­ti­ans and Mus­lims who could not agree on re­li­gious be­liefs could nev­er­the­less agree on a mon­e­tary be­lief, be­cause whereas re­li­gion asks us to be­lieve in some­thing, money asks us to be­lieve that other peo­ple be­lieve in some­thing.

For thou­sands of years, philoso­phers, thinkers, and prophets have be­smirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of hu­man tol­er­ance.

The Chi­nese Man­date of Heaven was given by Heaven to solve the prob­lems of hu­mankind. The mod­ern Man­date of Heaven will be given by hu­mankind to solve the prob­lems of heaven, such as the hole in the ozone layer and the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of green-house gases. The colour of the global em­pire may well be green.

When an­i­mism was the dom­i­nant be­lief sys­tem, hu­man norms and val­ues had to take into con­sid­er­a­tion the out­look and in­ter­ests of a mul­ti­tude of other be­ings, such as an­i­mals, plants, faeries, and ghosts.

(Con­sider Gw­ern’s ar­ti­cle on The Nar­row­ing Cir­cle.)

Harari dis­cusses two philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems that re­li­gions sug­gest an­swers for: or­der and evil. It is per­haps sur­pris­ing that we live in a uni­verse that seems me­chan­i­cal and or­derly, with uni­ver­sal laws closely re­lated to fairly sim­ple math­e­mat­ics. It is also per­haps sur­pris­ing that we live in a uni­verse with tremen­dous amounts of suffer­ing and wicked­ness.

So, monothe­ism ex­plains or­der, but is mys­tified by evil. Dual­ism ex­plains evil, but is puz­zled by or­der. There is one log­i­cal way of solv­ing the rid­dle: to ar­gue that there is a sin­gle om­nipo­tent God who cre­ated the en­tire uni­verse—and He’s evil. But no­body in his­tory has had the stom­ach for such a be­lief.

That no one can stom­ach it is not quite true, es­pe­cially if one lets “evil” in­clude in­differ­ence. Love­craft’s Cos­mi­cism seems to fit, and Moloch and Gnon both seem to fit. The most heart­en­ing ver­sion is the “du­al­ism” that sees the math­e­mat­ics be­hind the uni­verse as fun­da­men­tally un­car­ing, in­differ­ent, and om­nipo­tent, and hu­mans and hu­man cul­ture as the force of car­ing, grow­ing in power and strength. One might unite be­hind the hu­man­ist Ahura Mazda against the math­e­mat­i­cal An­gra Mainyu; one prob­a­bly won’t unite over iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of evolu­tion with Aza­thoth.

One can see that as an ex­am­ple of what Harari iden­ti­fies as the dom­i­nant re­li­gion of the day, “hu­man­ism,” which he splits into three broad sects:

To­day, the most im­por­tant hu­man­ist sect is liberal hu­man­ism, which be­lieves that ‘hu­man­ity’ is a qual­ity of in­di­vi­d­ual hu­mans, and that the liberty of in­di­vi­d­u­als is there­fore sacro­sanct. Ac­cord­ing to liber­als, the sa­cred na­ture of hu­man­ity re­sides within each and ev­ery in­di­vi­d­ual Homo sapi­ens. The in­ner core of in­di­vi­d­ual hu­mans gives mean­ing to the world, and is the source for all eth­i­cal and poli­ti­cal au­thor­ity. If we en­counter an eth­i­cal or poli­ti­cal dilemma, we should look in­side and listen to our in­ner voice—the voice of hu­man­ity. The chief com­mand­ments of liberal hu­man­ism are meant to pro­tect the liberty of this in­ner voice against in­tru­sion or harm. Th­ese com­mand­ments are col­lec­tively known as ‘hu­man rights’. …

The liberal be­lief in the free and sa­cred na­ture of each in­di­vi­d­ual is a di­rect legacy of the tra­di­tional Chris­tian be­lief in the free and eter­nal souls. Without re­course to eter­nal souls and a Creator God, it be­comes em­bar­rass­ingly difficult for liber­als to ex­plain what is so spe­cial about in­di­vi­d­ual Sapi­ens.

Another im­por­tant sect is so­cial­ist hu­man­ism. So­cial­ists be­lieve that ‘hu­man­ity’ is a col­lec­tive rather than in­di­vi­d­u­al­is­tic. They hold as sa­cred not the in­ner voice of each in­di­vi­d­ual, but the species Homo sapi­ens as a whole. Whereas liberal hu­man­ism seeks as much free­dom as pos­si­ble for in­di­vi­d­ual hu­mans, so­cial­ist hu­man­ism seeks equal­ity be­tween all hu­mans. Ac­cord­ing to so­cial­ists, in­equal­ity is the worst blas­phemy against the sanc­tity of hu­man­ity, be­cause it priv­ileges periph­eral qual­ities of hu­mans over their uni­ver­sal essence. For ex­am­ple, when the rich are priv­ileged over the poor, it means that we value money more than the uni­ver­sal essence of all hu­mans, which is the same for rich and poor al­ike.

Like liberal hu­man­ism, so­cial­ist hu­man­ism is built on monothe­ist foun­da­tions. The idea that all hu­mans are equal is a re­vamped ver­sion of the monothe­ist con­vic­tion that all souls are equal be­fore God. The only hu­man­ist sect that has ac­tu­ally bro­ken loose from tra­di­tional monothe­ism is evolu­tion­ary hu­man­ism, whose most fa­mous rep­re­sen­ta­tives are the Nazis. What dis­t­in­guished the Nazis from other hu­man­ist sects was a differ­ent defi­ni­tion of ‘hu­man­ity’, one deeply in­fluenced by the the­ory of evolu­tion. In con­trast to the other hu­man­ists, the Nazis be­lieved that hu­mankind is not some­thing uni­ver­sal and eter­nal, but rather a muta­ble species that can evolve or de­gen­er­ate. Man can evolve into su­per­man, or de­gen­er­ate into a sub­hu­man.

The Scien­tific Revolution

Harari iden­ti­fies the sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion as a feed­back loop be­tween re­search, power, and re­sources that led to run­away growth. But ‘re­search’ is as old as the cog­ni­tive rev­olu­tion, in the sense that there have always been schol­ars of one form or an­other. The three differ­ences un­der­ly­ing the Scien­tific Revolu­tion were the will­ing­ness to ad­mit ig­no­rance, the cen­tral­ity of ob­ser­va­tion and math­e­mat­ics, and the ac­qui­si­tion of new pow­ers.

No ra­tio­nal­ist will be sur­prised by the im­por­tance of ig­no­rance, un­cer­tainty, and cu­ri­os­ity. No em­piri­cist will be sur­prised by the cen­tral­ity of ob­ser­va­tion (while the ne­ces­sity of math re­mains po­ten­tially puz­zling). And un­less it led to the ac­qui­si­tion of ad­di­tional pow­ers in the realms of physics, chem­istry, or biol­ogy, it seems un­likely that the Scien­tific Revolu­tion would be an epoch of his­tory, rather than just a philo­soph­i­cal cu­ri­os­ity.

The Scien­tific Revolu­tion has not been a rev­olu­tion of knowl­edge. It has been above all a rev­olu­tion of ig­no­rance. The great dis­cov­ery that launched the Scien­tific Revolu­tion was the dis­cov­ery that hu­mans do not know the an­swers to their most im­por­tant ques­tions.

The de­scrip­tion of pre­vi­ous eras cen­ters on what Eliezer calls a “mere Ul­ti­mate Prophet.” Either an in­di­vi­d­ual per­son doesn’t know some­thing (but could learn it by study­ing the prophets /​ an­cients), or that thing is unim­por­tant, or it is im­por­tant and this new prophet can ex­plain it. Ac­cep­tance of ig­no­rance on the im­por­tant ques­tions leads to ob­ser­va­tion on the im­por­tant ques­tions, and more im­por­tantly a sus­tained com­mu­nity of ob­ser­va­tions. In­stead of tak­ing a sin­gle ob­ser­va­tion and cen­ter­ing a com­mu­nity around that an­swer (‘eat­ing an ap­ple a day will ex­tend your life’), a com­mu­nity can be cen­tered around a ques­tion (‘what be­hav­iors ex­tend lives?’).

Modern-day sci­ence is a unique tra­di­tion of knowl­edge, inas­much as it openly ad­mits col­lec­tive ig­no­rance re­gard­ing the most im­por­tant ques­tions. Dar­win never ar­gued that he was ‘The Seal of the Biol­o­gists’, and that he had solved the rid­dle of life once and for all. After cen­turies of ex­ten­sive sci­en­tific re­search, biol­o­gists ad­mit that they still don’t have any good ex­pla­na­tion for how brains pro­duce con­scious­ness.

The will­ing­ness to ad­mit ig­no­rance has made mod­ern sci­ence more dy­namic, sup­ple, and in­quisi­tive than any pre­vi­ous tra­di­tion of knowl­edge. This has hugely ex­panded our ca­pac­ity to un­der­stand how the world works and our abil­ity to in­vent new tech­nolo­gies.

As sci­ence be­gan to solve one un­solv­able prob­lem af­ter an­other, many be­came con­vinced that hu­mankind could over­come any and ev­ery prob­lem by ac­quiring and ap­ply­ing new knowl­edge. Poverty, sick­ness, wars, famines, old age and death it­self were not the in­evitable fate of hu­mankind. They were sim­ply the fruits of our ig­no­rance.

A crit­i­cal part of the feed­back loop, of course, is re­sources. Re­search is funded by gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, and in­di­vi­d­u­als be­cause they ex­pect to see some poli­ti­cal, eco­nomic, or re­li­gious good from that re­search. Progress is not in ev­ery di­rec­tion or a ran­dom di­rec­tion; it is in a di­rec­tion de­ter­mined by the val­ues of the fun­ders of re­search.

The book ends with a de­scrip­tion of tran­shu­man­ism. With power and in­tel­li­gence comes the abil­ity to de­sign, and his­tor­i­cally we have mostly thought about de­sign­ing our en­vi­ron­ments. The or­ganisms around us were in­her­ited and par­tially de­signed, but we can see a time when farm an­i­mals are de­signed like farm ma­chin­ery, and even in­tel­li­gences like our­selves are in­tel­li­gently de­signed. But Harari is no techno-op­ti­mist who as­sumes that ev­ery­thing will turn out well; if any­thing, he draws the trendline to­wards dystopia. He rec­og­nizes the value prob­lem as per­haps the most im­por­tant is­sue of the near fu­ture.

But, much like Robin Han­son think­ing that Ems will lead lives they con­sider worth­while, Harari spends about a chap­ter point­ing out that we live in a dystopia rel­a­tive to our an­ces­tors, alienated from many deep re­la­tion­ships that they would have trou­ble imag­in­ing a worth­while life with­out. It looks to me like Harari iden­ti­fies Moloch as a ma­jor force of his­tory, and re­tain­ing the View From Mars, does not see a point in ex­tol­ling its virtues or con­demn­ing it, ask­ing what will hap­pen in­stead of what should hap­pen, and point­ing out that we should think long and hard about what should hap­pen, and how to turn that into what will hap­pen.


The other book that I’ve read that I think this is most similar to is Why The West Rules—for Now by Ian Mor­ris (some dis­cus­sion on LW here). Both are writ­ten by his­to­ri­ans, both start their de­scrip­tion of the uni­verse 13 billion years ago, and both con­clude with tran­shu­man­ist pre­dic­tions that the story of the uni­verse from 2050 on­wards will differ from the story be­fore­hand in deep and mean­ingful ways. (Mor­ris makes the claim that the two pos­si­bil­ities are “sin­gu­lar­ity” and “col­lapse,” with “busi­ness as usual”—how most peo­ple ex­pect the fu­ture to go—be­ing en­tirely un­rea­son­able on his­tor­i­cal grounds.)

But while I just thought Mor­ris’s book was neat as an in­de­pen­dent sum­mary and con­fir­ma­tion of this view of his­tory, I thought Harari’s book was im­por­tant enough to write up this ar­ti­cle be­cause Sapi­ens seems to have much crisper ab­strac­tions, more de­vel­oped causal re­la­tion­ships, and more fo­cus on the non-ma­te­rial as­pects of his­tor­i­cal changes. (It’s also shorter, at about 460 pages in­stead of about 700, which puts it at a length such that I can recom­mend it more eas­ily.)

Over­all, the book is re­mark­ably even-handed and broad, which is difficult when talk­ing about the pos­si­bil­ities of the fu­ture, in­clud­ing the val­ues that we might take on. The parts I found weak­est were when the I thought the View From Mars slipped, though that may be per­sonal taste (and none of the points seemed egre­gious enough to quote and at­tack). I want to say it’s the best in­tro­duc­tion I’ve come across to this per­spec­tive of his­tory and the fu­ture and the un­der­ly­ing trends and prin­ci­ples that unite them—but, re­ally, what I mean it’s the most com­pact and read­able pre­sen­ta­tion of them. Whether or not it ac­tu­ally func­tions as an in­tro­duc­tion is some­thing I’m too deep into this view to eval­u­ate (but, once I’ve sub­jected my par­ents to the book, will prob­a­bly be more able to de­ter­mine).

Who should read it? I found it in­ter­est­ing, de­spite hav­ing come across most of its com­po­nent claims be­fore. I sus­pect that any­one who wants to think deeply about Moloch, val­ues, or the pro­ject of so­cially de­ter­min­ing val­ues would benefit from read­ing the book, if just to see how other branches of thinkers are think­ing about these is­sues. I sus­pect most peo­ple would benefit from read­ing about early hu­man his­tory at least once, and if you’ve haven’t this is prob­a­bly a treat­ment more suited to the in­ter­ests of LWers than oth­ers.