What are we really doing here? 10 quotes from Yuval Noah Harari

The Israeli historian has plenty to say.

  • In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari investigated the last half-million years to understand how we've arrived here.
  • In Homo Deus, he speculated on how our present course will influence the future of humanity.
  • Harari's insights are strongly influenced by his thoughts on religion, sexuality, and animal rights.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari made his mark investigating the transition from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens. His 2014 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is that rare history book that made a global impact; the bestseller has been translated into twenty-six languages.

Whereas his debut traced how we got here, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) is a cautionary tale about what "dataism" is doing to our societies and bodies. He takes AI to task, not as a curmudgeonly opponent but more so in the role of a big brother that sees the track you're heading on and wants to lead you in the right direction.

Throughout his works Harari dissects capitalism, religion, and basic social mores that we've overlooked. An ardent practitioner of vipassana meditation and a hardcore animal rights activist, Harari is one of the most reflective and self-introspective historians in existence. Below are ten quotes from his first two books; as I've recently ordered his latest, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), I'll check back in in a few weeks after I've finished what he calls his book "about the present."

Sapiens

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.

Harari has serious misgivings about modern agriculture. He's not alone: Jarred Diamond, James C Scott, Daniel Lieberman, and Colin Tudge have all been critical about the move from hunting and gathering to farming. While we can debate the validity of these arguments—city-states and, eventually, nations would not have bound together without food supplies that serviced the necessary scale—agriculture has changed our physical movements for the worse.

It is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.

You might have heard this one recently: "I alone can fix it." Trump isn't the first to claim such; it's a hallmark of authoritarianism (and wannabe authoritarians).

Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.

Check out this overview on women and math and science skills. Turns out that if you tell a gender that they're bad at something, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you don't prime them in such a manner, the playing field is wide open. Confidence matters.

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.

Religion can certainly use a bit more religion. Harari repeatedly reminds his readers of this fact.

If you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

See: Simon Sinek, Start With Why.

Homo Deus

Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Our imagined enemies are not nearly as dangerous as the ones we pretend aren't there.

The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.

It's good to constantly up the ante, but at the same time an incessant desire for more is unhealthy. Harari surveys Buddhism in both books, reminding us that Siddhartha Gautama's great perception is that life is dukkha. Usually translated as "suffering," a more accurate definition is "unsatisfactory." The reason we suffer is because we think reality should be what we want, which usually means "more," instead of facing reality for what it is. This distinction lies at the heart of Buddhism.

Science and religion are like a husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counseling still don't know each other.

Maybe science and religion really just need a session with Esther Perel.

We always believe in 'the truth'; only other people believe in superstitions.

A good reminder on the relativity of "truth."

Never in history did a government know so much about what's going on in the world—yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as the contemporary United States. It's like a poker player who knows what cards his opponents hold, yet somehow still manages to lose round after round.

Just think of how much truer this statement is than when it was written in 2016.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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