Sharing collective myths

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape; £12.99). Reviewed by Chris Timms.

10 June 2019

This book completes Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s trilogy about humankind. Sapiens charted human history with great insight and clarity – casting humans as the planet’s storytellers. Deus projected humanity to 2050+ when brains will merge with machines and be governed by computer algorithms. 21 Lessons returns us to the present, to explore the psychological and philosophical challenges facing 21st century humans – exploring what it means to be human in an ‘age of bewilderment’.

Harari’s over-arching thesis is that human success has been based on the sharing of collective myths (such as liberalism, equality, human rights, and gods). The endurance of the most valuable of these myths is in danger from next-generation information technologies.

The book amalgamates various talks and publications, making it lumpier than Sapiens and Deus. Important assertions come and go in single paragraphs – while, in almost every chapter, Harari illustrates human weakness with gratuitous caricatures of religious belief that he demolishes with righteous fervour. Unsurprisingly then, the most constant lesson that emerges from 21 Lessons is Harari’s argument for secularism over religious faith. We must embrace science, not false gods – and understand the difference between observed evidence and mere belief.

Alas, Harari’s positive depiction of science is as credulous as his negative depiction of religion is narrow-minded. If he is aware that the behavioural life-sciences are characterised by human biases of every conceivable type – and some wildly hubristic claims – it is not obvious. Harari declares as established truth, for example, that neuroscience has now ‘hacked the human brain’, and proved that humans are soulless bio-machines lacking free will, significance and meaning. A priest could very fairly riposte these are merely statements of Harari’s faith – the opinions of a historian unable or unwilling to see that neuroscience is still in its stumbling infancy… Hasn’t history shown repeatedly that scientists (and brilliant historians) are just as prone to hubris, selective perception, self-delusion – and plain vanity – as everyone else, yea, unto the biblical prophets?

To such reasonable misgivings, Professor Harari is deaf. 21 Lessons states his vision, very eloquently, of a determinist, Eaglemanesque humanity – doomed to a future of brain-merged bio-tech that can only be relieved through meditation. And he countenances no alternatives.

Happily, for those of us who prefer to find our realities in modest hedonism, Harari’s evidence for this dystopian future is weak and narrow-minded – certainly no basis, just yet, for shoving Moses out of the way to carve yet more thinly-tested hypotheses into tablets of stone.

- Reviewed by Chris Timms, who taught psychology at colleges and universities for 25 years.