A select company of three met to discuss this month’s book, a follow-up to our look at his previous work, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’.
Since we did not wish to diminish the scope of our discussion by 33.3%, we did not have a blogger for the evening. Hence the notes that follow are a brief (briefer anyway than Yuval Noah Harari’s definition of the word) summary of the proposer’s preparatory notes.
The proposer felt that this is a book that invites discussion and debate. Like ‘Sapiens’, it stimulated him to run its ideas past whoever happened to be nearby when he was reading it. It also stimulated reflection on his own life decisions. The text is engagingly written, and frequently provokes the reader to interact with it, weighing the plausibility of the various arguments presented.
The first part of the book is to some extent a re-run of the content of ‘Sapiens’ – perhaps a necessary exercise in order to set a context for Harari’s account of the new projects of mankind. He defines these new projects as immortality, happiness and divinity, and argues that famine, plague and war are largely problems whose solution now lies in our own hands, rather than being beyond our control. These assertions, deliberately provocative, stimulated much discussion on the evening.
The writing throws up some great metaphors and similes. For example: “terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop’ (they have to enrage a bull), or the illustrative use of the history of lawns.
Harari also uses catchy section headings that provide a memorable framework for his ideas – for example ‘Organisms are Algorithms’ and ‘Why Bankers are different from Vampires’. The proposer also enjoyed the snippets of history and accounts of scientific experiments with which the writer illustrated his themes. For example the Pharoahs’ creation of a huge artificial lake and the city of ‘Crocodilopolis’, and the experiment with rats placed in flasks of water (not so enjoyable for the rats, of course).
The cover of the paperback edition was not great in terms of graphic design, but the little thumbprint/electronic circuit image was a clever interpretation of one of the book’s important themes. We noted too that it hinted at the shape of an acorn, also appropriate. The use of images in the book itself, while sparing, is very effective. The proposer particularly enjoyed the ‘Humanism in Five Images’ pages.
In conclusion, the proposer found the book somewhat overwhelming, in that each proposition opens up numerous new lines of enquiry. However, by identifying the quests for immortality, happiness and divinity as themes for investigation, Harari provides a useful framework to combat passive or heedless acceptance of ‘the way things are going’.