Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: This book went off on some tangents and made some unconvincing claims, but it was engaging and made me think about the world in new ways.
There was a lot to like about this book and also some aspects that bothered me quite a bit. For one, it’s supposed to be about what humanity’s next challenges will be. Now that we (mostly) know how to prevent famine, plague, and war, the author begins by asking what subsequent challenges humanity will focus on. He does acknowledge that knowing how to solve problems is different from having solved them. He also presciently notes that a runaway plague could happen if management of the situation was poor. So what bothered me here wasn’t the premise, although I was initially skeptical. What bothered me was that the bulk of the book felt tangential to answering that question. As an example, a large section of the book focused on how human beings view animals. Do we think they have self-awareness? What does science have to say on that topic? Supposedly this section was going to be important for a later section discussing how upgraded humans or AI might treat ‘normal’ humans in the future. We never really returned to these ideas later though.
Even though the book wasn’t well focused, the tangents the author followed were fascinating. Unfortunately, I didn’t always find his points persuasive. My least favorite thing about this book was the way the author presented his opinions as though they were facts. In the few cases where his discussion intersected with my professional knowledge, I feel strongly that he misrepresented the world in some of his claims. In particular, he claims that biologists primarily view “humans [as] algorithms that produce… copies of themselves”. There is some basis for this claim. Specifically, a popular definition of living beings includes a requirement that they are able to reproduce. However, I can tell you that most biologists I’ve interacted with are not working within a framework where they think of humans as algorithms. Problematically for me, he presents this claim with no caveats or alternatives. If a reader didn’t know better, it would seem as though he’s presenting the scientific consensus.
Here’s the bright side – the author writes engagingly and presents all sorts of interesting new ways of looking at the world. The author is very clear that he doesn’t believe he’s making definitive predictions. He’s just starting a conversation. I think it succeeds in that goal and for that reason, could be a particularly good pick for a book club. As the author points out, there are many values and systems in our lives that we take for granted. Once you stop to think about them, it’s easier to envision alternatives. I enjoyed reading this. It made me think in new ways and about topics I hadn’t really considered before. I love when I find a book that shifts how I view the world and that alone made this book a great read for me, despite its flaws. I’m not sure I loved this quite as much as rave reviews made me expect, but I’d definitely recommend it.