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The quest to upgrade humans to gods

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2016

In Sapiens (which I enjoyed and recommend), Yuval Noah Harari gave us a “brief history of humankind”. In his upcoming Homo Deus, Harari turns “his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods”.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style — thorough, yet riveting — famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century — from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

We Work Remotely

Six million years of human history, explained in 10 minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2016

Kurzgesagt gives us a short tour of human history, from the six different species of human that existed 100,000 years ago to the present. If you found that interesting and want more detail, you should read Sapiens…Kurzgesagt used it as a major reference here.

Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.

Bill Gates’ summer reading list

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2016

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in addition to attempting to save the world, is also a voracious reader. He recently recommended five books that you should read this summer. On the list is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which I might finally try, having absolutely loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon when I read them a few years ago. Gates also recommends Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which I read earlier this year and think about every few days. I wrote a bit about Sapiens and the invention of farming, which is a topic about which Gates disagreed with Harari.

The invention of farming

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2016

Where Farming Began

A wonderful map by National Geographic of the Fertile Crescent highlighting where the domestication of grains and livestock first took hold.

I’m currently reading an interesting and provocative book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. He calls the Agricultural Revolution “history’s biggest fraud”.

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Harari also argues that wheat domesticated humans, not the other way around:

Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of miles without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?

Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

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. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

The book is full of crackling passages like that…and this one:

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

I am enjoying reading it a lot. (via @CharlesCMann)