‘The bitter truth is that the world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.’
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
by Yuval Noah Harari
Disillusionment; Work; Liberty; Equality; Community; Civilisation; Nationalism; Religion; Immigration; Terrorism; War; Humility; God; Secularism; Ignorance; Justice; Post-Truth; Science Fiction; Education; Meaning; Meditation:
What meaning do the words in this list hold for us at the dawn of yet another year? Many of them topics which define this century, they have in common that they are chapter headings in Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book.
Having presented a novel review of our species’ history in Sapiens, and a prophetic vision of its future in Homo Deus, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century Harari encourages us to examine the world of NOW with its many problems and challenges.
‘…. People tend to believe …. their culture is the linchpin of human history.’
Today’s body of knowledge is so vast, he argues, that is beyond the grasp of any individual or group. Prehistoric humans had a simple view of their world – eat, sleep, breed, you might say – and knew enough about their environment and their fellow humans to do those things successfully. That is no longer so. The progress of technology has become so rapid that it has outpaced the ability of our brains to adjust and comprehend. Knowledge is no longer in our heads but at our finger-tips, accessible via a computer screen or mobile phone. Truth (whatever that might be) ‘is defined by the top results of the Google Search’.
All of humanity’s theories of world order, our visions of the perfect socio-political system – Harari calls them stories – have failed or are failing. Fascism and Communism are discredited. Liberalism, thought to provide solutions, has not eliminated the gap between elite and underprivileged. People are even beginning to question the democratic ideal. Waging conventional war, Harari suggests, is futile, since economic assets, once the target of the aggressor(s), are now in the form of scientific and technical know-how.
While religious creeds have brought people together and aided large-scale co-operation, they continue to divide humanity, even in a largely secular world. 21 Lessons demonstrates how puny and contradictory these divisions often are. And Harari tries to avoid cries of prejudice here by focussing on his own Israeli/Jewish heritage and showing us how irrelevant nations, political systems and religious structures are in the face of 100,000 years of human pre-history. Ethics and morality transcend any one faith and are older than what we regard as civilisation. They aim, and have always aimed towards the avoidance of suffering. The Greek philospher Epicurus might have expressed it as life’s goal to maximise pleasure and minimise pain (cynical though some people may consider that objective to be). Jeremy Bentham might have added that morality and justice ought to maximise the greatest happiness in the greatest number.
In other places the book tackles the dilemma of immigration and explains its ‘rules’. It looks at the role of Artificial Intelligence in possibly widening the gap between the economic classes. What is left for the majority if machines take away the work that gives meaning to their lives?
‘We are all complicit in at least some  biases. Writing this book brought the lesson home to me on a personal level.’
21 Lessons does not provide answers to the challenges of modern living. For example, when technological progress is accelerating and the store of human knowledge expanding at such a phenomenal rate, what do we teach our children? In the past, we told them stories, of gods, and heroes, and glorious nationhood, but that is no longer good enough.
This is a book one can wallow in, discovering in the arguments so much of one’s own personal philosophy, marvelling at the author’s insights into the human condition, shaking one’s head in disbelief at the stupidity of the rest of the human race. Maybe you laugh at some of Yuval Harari’s ‘stories’, at the ‘fake-news’, or grow angry at the unspeakable arrogance of nationalism, economic or political elitism, even of blind faith. Suddenly, you realise the writer is talking about himself, and understand with horror he is also talking about YOU!
In many ways, 21 Lessons is controversial but it gets to the core of what is wrong with the world and what we need to do about it. The message, expressed succinctly at the end of the book is, if you want to know about life, the universe and everything, ‘the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.’