Nonfiction Review: Homo Deus

February 15, 2021 Uncategorized 5 ★★★★

Nonfiction Review: Homo DeusTitle: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
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.

5 Responses to “Nonfiction Review: Homo Deus”

  1. Helen Murdoch

    This one would not work for me. Opinion presented as fact and too many tangents don’t work for my linear brain. Good thing it’s written in such an engaging manner!

    • DoingDewey

      I sometimes even like tangents, but the ones here went on for so long! It was written well enough that it was enjoyable read though, so that helped 🙂

  2. Rennie

    I agree with you that a book and/or author who makes you look at the world differently is such a valuable thing. I also like the idea of his starting a conversation about different ideas and potential concepts, but it sounds like the whole point was undermined if these were presented as being more evidence-based and less opinion than they actually were. Kind of a shame that he didn’t include other voices to create that kind of dialogue, since you were able to immediately identify areas where your professional experience provided a counterpoint!

    That’s interesting that you mention the point about “a popular definition of living beings includes a requirement that they are able to reproduce”. I’m starting Carl Zimmer’s new book Life’s Edge and read that idea, and was immediately surprised. I hope it’ll explore it more and I’m sure there’s more to it than how it sounds on the surface, but it just struck me as very odd.

    Great to hear your take on this one because like you mention, other reviews have been completely glowing. Reading yours though I don’t really think this one is for me…I don’t have the scientific background you do to better sift through fact and opinion and I don’t want to be influenced by something inaccurate if I can’t determine that on my own. Thanks for the insights here!

    • DoingDewey

      It would definitely have helped if he’d provided multiple viewpoints throughout. The topics were fascinating and he asked great questions; I just didn’t feel I could trust that he was giving me the whole picture.

      The definition of life is a fascinating one! Viruses are an interesting edge case for the needing to reproduce requirement, for example, since they depend on cells from other beings to do so. I’ve not yet read anything by Zimmer, but I’d definitely like to and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on that one.

      I feel a little bad being the negative voice on this one, but I do think the one sided perspective is a real concern. I know a lot of the other people in my science book club didn’t think much of this one either, so that made me feel less like the lone dissenter 🙂

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