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Book review: ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, by Yuval Noah Harari

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Yuval Noah Harari’s highly anticipated third book, ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, puts the unprecedented challenges of today into historical perspective with delightful clarity, but fails to deliver new ways to deal with them.

‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ (Penguin, £18.99, ISBN 9781787330672) follows the success of Harari’s ‘Sapiens and Homo Deus’. While Sapiens glanced at the history of our species and Homo Deus at our future, 21 Lessons covers the greatest challenges of the present day, relating to technology, politics, morale, truth and resilience.

In attempting not just to explain but also to suggest solutions for all the great problems of our age, Harari has set himself an even more ambitious task than before, and is inevitably forced to cover enormous subjects in a matter of paragraphs. At best, this gives the readers a sense of perspective which demonstrates the petty, myopic nature of nationalism and religious zealotry. At its worst, it results in sweeping statements and problems posed then immediately abandoned, like someone thrusting a hot potato into a stranger’s hands and bolting away, thumbing their nose: “Who said life was simple? Deal with it,” Harari comments at least twice after leaving the reader with crucial moral conundrums.

The problem is that Harari is a historian with the outstanding ability to write about humanity on a grand scale, but he is no moral philosopher, policymaker or technologist, and a historian alone cannot explain and solve all the problems of the 21st century. He would likely agree.

The challenges facing us in this age, Harari argues, are unprecedented, and can only be confronted through international cooperation and liberal democracy (which is getting an “angry kick in the stomach” after emerging over fascism and communism in the 20th century). These great challenges include climate change and the acceleration of technology – particularly AI and biotechnology – which will change what it means to be human as our cognitive abilities are matched and decision-making is automated. As these changes accelerate, we will fumble for new meaning in the world: “The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?” Harari asks.

In a world too complex for our ape brains, we cling to simplistic, self-important narratives often associated with nationalism and religion, with conspiracy theories and fake news a recent iteration of these narratives. Religious texts are “stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures” while nationalist narratives have created the fake country of Manchukuo and erased Tibet as an independent country. Part of the challenge is that these narratives are extremely attractive; understanding their allure is key to dismantling them.

Harari is at his best when discussing the follies of nationalism and religion with an eye on the history of humanity, harking back to his bestselling ‘Sapiens’. Nationalist and religious pride may provide a sense of identity, he says, but they “divide our human civilisation into different and often hostile camps”. All this for a nation or religion which is – on a cosmic or even human scale – probably irrelevant.

“None of the religions or nations of today existed when humans colonised the world, domesticated plants and animals, built the first cities or invented writing and money. Morality, art, spirituality and creativity and universal human abilities embedded in our DNA,” Harari writes. Secular folk (including myself) will nod vigorously in agreement, while the highly nationalistic and religious may balk at the notion that their country or god is a story told by apes to make sense of a bewildering world.

Putting an end to nationalistic and religious hostility – and other forms of divisive fake news – is too great a problem to be solved by one clever man and the same can be said for the other problems covered in ‘21 Lessons’. So Harari nudges forward thoroughly-discussed solutions, such as universal basic income or wages for domestic work. Unfortunately, this means that much of ‘21 Lessons is already old news, and I suspect that it will age quickly (in a way that ‘Sapiens will not) as our political and technological landscapes undergo rapid shifts.

‘21 Lessons is presented as a manual for understanding and fixing the grand challenges of today, but it lacks any fresh calls for action. Harari’s prose would be better served organised into a more modest collection of independent essays on subjects relating to 21st-century challenges. Despite these failings, I am sympathetic to Harari. I personally could not say what better framework we have for understanding and improving the world than the thoughtful, secular, internationalist, egalitarian perspective he represents.

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