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Summer readings

Sometimes it’s good to step back and assess the bigger picture, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Abdel-Moneim Said

During the last half year of his term, US President Barack Obama held numerous press and television interviews in which he basically tried to defend the decisions he took during his time in office. It took Fareed Zakaria, former editor of Newsweek and host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS programme, to ask what the president what books he was reading. Obama responded with a long list of titles and a brief synopsis of each. He drew attention, through his praise, to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Israeli historian and Hebrew University professor Yuval Noah Harari.

I went out to purchase the items on Obama’s recommended reading list and I suspect many others did likewise, because I quickly learned that these books were on the national and international bestseller lists, especially the abovementioned title and its sequel which appeared not long afterwards, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Ultimately two books from a single work, the first part starting long before the emergence of humans with the first appearance of atoms and molecules some 13.5 billion years ago, the work proceeds through the formation of Earth 4.5 billion years ago to the emergence of organic cells or the beginning of biology 3.8 billion years ago. It would only be after a quantum leap in time and biological evolution that the first ancestors of the human species emerged. That was around six million years ago. It would take another few million years for the species “homo” to evolve, appearing in Africa only two and a half million years ago. As for the closest resemblance to contemporary human beings, or homo sapiens, he and she would only appear around 300,000 years ago after fire came into daily usage.

This exciting book opens our eyes to the fact that the “modern” era, in which sapiens began to communicate with one another, and transmit information in unprecedented ways, only began 70,000 years ago, about which time they began to spread outside of Africa and settle in the world’s other five continents. It was not until only 12,000 years ago that man discovered agriculture while the kingdoms and states that make the substance of what we are, today, call history first emerged 5,000 years ago. However, according to Harari, modern man would only make his entrance onto the world stage when humankind began to “admit ignorance”. This is what enabled the great Scientific Revolution that led us to a series of industrial revolutions from the harnessing of steam power to the computer revolution and ushered in a qualitative shift that brought mankind to the threshold of the superhuman and to a new phase in his story, the signs and initial stages of which are the subject of the second book.

The school of thought to which these two books belong is unquestionably secularist, which draws a sharp distinction between Darwinist philosophy and the religious outlook. According to the former, evolution proceeds according to the eternal law of “survival of the fittest”, which is to say the ability to adjust to and live with the world in which we live. From this perspective, human history seems like a process involving the continual rectification of different courses of which the ones that are least able to adjust to contemporary realities die out. According to the second outlook the notion of divine creation cannot be excluded. It remains within the scope of religious faith, which has continued to provide its shelter to mankind for thousands of years since the beginning of the conceptual revolution, and holds that the complexity of the universe and of the human being can only be explained through existence of a “creator” and “intelligent design”. As he confronts this dilemma in the second book, Harari finds that scientific queries stand perplexed when it comes to the search for the “Prime Mover” of things, from the first cells to the system of the universe. Nor does it resolve the problem if you decide to exclude “spirit” from the human equation because no amount of scientific research has ever or will ever be able to locate it.

Even so, the two books remain useful from two perspectives. The first is that the Scientific Revolution that was based on man’s discovery of his ignorance remained the driving force behind the acts of questioning that generated the searches that created the other scientific and technological revolutions. The second, which comes under focus in the second book, is that the whole of human history up to the present was primarily shaped by the confrontation against three major realities: “famine, plague and war”. These blights have not ended yet, but they are on their way to extinction. For example, although there are still outbreaks of famine in Africa today, the fact remains that the periodic famines that had once swept India, China and other parts of Asia no longer exist. Moreover, even those that strike Africa are relatively short-lived. There is a multiparty international organisation that moves into action immediately in order to confront a famine the moment it breaks out. We thus find that far fewer people in the world today die of starvation than of obesity and overeating. Moreover, in the coming decades access to food will not be the problem but rather the need to safeguard human beings and control the effects of some of the types of foods they eat.

Diseases and epidemics, which the book sums up with the word “plague”, are also on their way to extinction. For example, thanks to enormous advances in tissue engineering and stem cell research, it is now possible to produce human “spare parts” which, if added to today’s modern smart drugs which distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells, make diseases such as cancer and AIDS curable. To some extent we can say that epidemics no longer have a place in human history. Even when a disease such as Ebola breaks out in West Africa, the whole world is galvanised into action in order to combat it and prevent its spread. According to UN figures, the average anticipated lifespan at birth is 70 years. It is over 80 in some industrialised countries. There are more people over 100 than at any other time in history. The book suggests that at the rates of progress indicated by current statistics the average life expectancy could reach 150 years by the middle of this century and 500 years by the beginning of the next.

Even war is on its way out as a means to resolve human disputes. In spite of the wars we see today in the Middle East, the casualty tolls are not as high as those in previous world wars or other wars. Also, only a relatively limited number of countries are gripped by civil war or by intervention on the part of world powers which, for their part, have ceased armed conflict with one another, perhaps because warfare is no longer possible in view of developments in the technologies of weapons of mass destruction. No one predicts a war between Russia and the US, or Britain and Germany or India and China, even if armies eye each other across front lines in Ukraine or Raqqa or the South China Sea.

At any rate, whether or not readers are pleased with the two books, we will return to the Middle East in this column next week.

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