Charting the Future of Humanity: Goals for Earth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do you think should be the main goals of humanity, going forward? Do you think we will one day be able to eradicate disease, death, and scarcity? What will humanity strive for, if or when survival is no longer a concern?

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari envisions humanity shifting to the next phase of human evolution—the era of Homo Deus. In this era, survival is no longer a concern in most parts of the world. Consequently, humanity will look towards higher goals of immortality, happiness, and divinity.

Keep reading to learn about the projected future of humanity, goals to keep in mind, and Yuval Noah Harari’s perspective.

Envisioning the Future of Humanity: Goals and Ideas

To understand the projected goals of humanity going forward, we must first look at the obstacles that have hindered human progress in the past. For millennia, human beings struggled with three serious problems: famine, plagues, and war. Consequently, all our efforts were aimed at fighting these challenges.

However, in the modern era, we’ve mostly overcome these three problems through technological and medical advancement, using information and technology to address life-threatening issues and improve our way of life. 

Famine

Until the 20th century, famine could easily result in 5-10% of a nation’s population starving to death. Resources were scarce, transportation was too slow to rely on imported food, and governments tended to reserve provisions for the elite. This meant natural disasters, stolen livestock, or razed farmland were a death sentence for many people. 

In the last century, leaps in technology and transportation have made famine a non-issue in most areas of the world. While malnutrition is still a problem in some regions, a lack of food doesn’t usually result in death. For example, in France, while 6 million people (10% of the population) don’t know where their next meal is coming from, few actually die of starvation.

In many areas of the world, populations struggle more with overeating than starvation. In 2010, malnutrition and famine led to the deaths of about 1 million people worldwide. Comparatively, obesity led to the deaths of about 3 million people worldwide. This access to food means that there are no more natural famines, only political ones. Every country on the planet can provide basic resources for its people. If a group starves to death, it’s likely because someone in power wanted them to.

Plagues

Before the advent of modern medicine, disease was an unexplainable phenomenon. People had little to no understanding of bacteria and viruses and, therefore, viewed disease as a punishment from a divine being. They prayed to gods for salvation and, often, didn’t think to take any other action to combat the illness. The lack of knowledge and medical resources led to the deaths of millions of people a year up until the mid-20th century. 

Today, human beings have a much better understanding of infectious diseases. Doctors and medical professionals have the resources and knowledge to combat illness and protect people from contracting diseases. Even as pathogens continue to mutate, doctors are constantly making new discoveries that keep them ahead of the curve.

When disease begins to spread, people no longer blame the gods. Instead, they put pressure on governments and medical institutions to find solutions. Significant medical and technological advancements led to lower child mortality rates and disease eradication.

When compared to the pandemics of the past, modern pandemics don’t carry the same level of severity as their predecessors. For example, in 2014, the WHO labeled Ebola “the most severe public health emergency seen in modern times.” However, the epidemic was mostly handled by 2015 and only resulted in 11,000 deaths worldwide. 

War

Historically, human civilizations adhered to the “Law of the Jungle,” or the concept that brute force is necessary to superiority or survival. This led to regular conflicts stemming from the need for resources, the desire to colonize, or the belief in religious expansion. This concept was prevalent through WWII, and it forced governments, businesses, and citizens to plan their futures around inevitable war.

However, in the second half of the 20th century, war became less prevalent in most areas of the world for two reasons: 

  • Going to war creates the risk of mutually assured destruction. Mutually assured destruction would be the result of two countries using nuclear weapons against each other. For example, if the United States were to use nuclear weapons against Russia, Russia would likely respond by using its nuclear weapons against the United States. With each nuclear attack, each country would be one step closer to ensuring its own annihilation.
  • The modern global economy relies heavily on the exchange of knowledge and information instead of materials and resources. Before the mid-20th century, countries relied on raw materials to compete in the global economy. This led them to go to war to gain access to raw materials. However, with the development of advanced technology and transportation, most countries are able to access any resource or material they need without going to war. Instead, value is now usually associated with ideas. For example, China wouldn’t benefit from invading Silicon Valley because there aren’t any raw resources there. Instead, they cooperate with tech companies by agreeing to produce their products, thus generating billions of dollars for their own economy. 

Because of these factors, war has become the exception, not the rule. Deaths due to violence have decreased drastically in recent years:

  • In ancient agricultural societies, violence accounted for 15% of deaths worldwide. 
  • In the 20th century, violence accounted for 5% of deaths worldwide. 
  • In the early 21st century, violence accounted for only 1% of deaths worldwide. 

The New Goals of Humanity

With the old obstacles under control and survival no longer a concern in most areas of the world, humanity now looks toward new goals that will usher in the next phase of human evolution: immortality, happiness, and divinity.

Immortality

Historically, people have accepted death as an eventuality. Religions such as Christianity and Islam alleviate the fear of death by creating grand depictions of the afterlife offered to those who obey religious standards. Because of these depictions of an afterlife, people haven’t historically focused on preventing death. 

However, modern science suggests that mortality could eventually be avoidable. Rather than accepting it as inevitable, scientists and doctors believe we can circumvent fatal issues such as disease, war, and natural disasters. This belief drives medical research and scientific exploration.

As medical advances continue, people have begun to talk about the possibility of eventual immortality with many large corporations investing in the concept. For example, as of 2015, Google was investing 36% of its $2 billion Google Ventures portfolio in “life sciences.” 

Of course, eradicating death is a far-off goal. While steps are being taken to discover the secret to immortality, most life science organizations currently focus on expanding life expectancy. For reference, in 1900, average life expectancy was 40; by 2000, it was 70. Using that trend as a guide, some believe that, as early as 2050, people will live twice as long as today.

The fight against death will continue to be one of the central goals of humanity. If people find the secret to immortality, they’ll tap into a lucrative market with infinite demand. The power of immortality would spark socio-political wars and could lead to a class divide unlike anything the world has ever known, separating an immortal elite from the rest of society.

Happiness

Historically, people have pushed aside their personal happiness to serve a “greater” purpose. Originally, this purpose was attached to religion. People were willing to put aside earthly happiness in exchange for eternal happiness.

In recent history, people’s “greater cause” has shifted to nationalism. People are willing to put aside personal happiness to provide national happiness.

However, in the 21st century, we’ve started to value personal happiness over service to a “greater cause.” Because of this, many have started to question the use of GDP as a barometer of success. While it factors in economic strength, it doesn’t factor in the overall happiness of a nation’s populace. Many economists, philosophers, and politicians have pushed for the use of a new barometer: GDH, or gross domestic happiness. Their argument is that a prosperous nation is focused on the happiness of its people, not just the strength of its economy.

For example, in 1985, South Korea was considered a very poor country, but their suicide rates were quite low (nine deaths for every 100,000 citizens). However, as South Korea became an economic powerhouse, their suicide rates almost quadrupled (36 deaths for every 100,000 citizens). Using GDP as the standard, South Korea has become more successful in recent years. However, the increase in suicides suggests that people’s overall happiness may have actually decreased.

Divinity

Humanity’s quest for immortality leads to its ultimate goal: divinity. In this context, divinity isn’t a metaphysical existence with unlimited power such as the God of the Bible. Instead, it’s closer to the Greek gods or Hindu devas—flawed but powerful beings who have emotions and limitations.

We’re already accomplishing feats once considered to be “acts of God.” For example, ancient civilizations once considered a healthy harvest to be a “gift from above.” In contrast, modern humans rely on science and technology to create favorable harvest conditions, even when the natural environment is harsh.

In the quest for divinity, humans will likely “upgrade” along the following paths: 

  • Biological: Biological manipulation will likely be the first step toward “god-like” status. If scientists can discover the biology behind happiness and immortality, they’ll likely be able to manipulate almost anything within the human body through genetic alterations. This means that, for the right price, anyone could become a god-like being with immense strength, intelligence, or sensuality. Today, people are already experiencing the early stages of this development through hormonal manipulation and DNA coding.
  • Cybernetic: Cybernetic augmentation will likely follow biological manipulation. Cybernetic augmentation is the combining of organic and inorganic materials in the human body. This would allow people to remove parts of the body that are threatened by decay and replace them with more durable material. It would also allow people to interact with technology around the world with just their thoughts. While this may sound like something out of Star Trek, people have already begun to combine inorganic materials with their bodies. In the medical field, cybernetic limbs and hearts are used to sustain life. In the technological field, “mind-reading” helmets allow people to control devices with their thoughts.
  • Inorganic: Inorganic assimilation may follow cybernetic augmentation. Taking cybernetic augmentation one step further, inorganic assimilation is the process of moving one’s consciousness into an inorganic body. Neural networks would be replaced with hardware, and people could live in both the physical and virtual worlds at the same time. For example, if a human mind could be transferred to an inorganic body, the newly formed being could hypothetically explore the internet, see out of connected cameras, and move their new form using the electrical impulses generated from the brain. This would allow humanity to abandon its organic form and become practically immortal. Space exploration and recolonization would become a more realistic concept as inorganic material can survive harsher environments than flesh and bone.

While advancements are typically first created in the name of health, they’re often later used for modification purposes. For example, plastic surgery was first developed to treat wounded soldiers in WWI. However, after the war, healthy people wanted to use it to modify the features of their body that they viewed as “imperfect.” 

In the near future, medical advances will likely continue to lead to modification. Some of the resources used today for unhealthy or wounded individuals may have benefits for the average person. For example, bionic legs currently allow amputees to walk, but they could be used in the future to enhance the speed of a non-amputee. 

Further in the future, genetic manipulation is likely going to take the same route. For example, today, doctors use DNA testing and in vitro fertilization to help couples become pregnant with a low-risk child. The next step of this development is DNA replacement, which is already being done through the use of three-parent embryos (a third party provides their DNA to replace defective mitochondrial DNA). In the future, scientists will likely be able to directly modify all pieces of DNA in a lab, creating genetically “perfect” or even “enhanced” babies.

The Power of History, Knowledge, and Information

As humanity strives for the new goals of immortality, happiness, and divinity, we often look to history to shape our decision-making process. Everything from political views to social norms has been influenced by historical actions. For example, prior to the late Middle Ages, no one kept a private lawn. Private lawns came into existence when French and English nobility wanted to show their status by purchasing land that only had aesthetic value. Because of this historical behavior, lawns are common today in residential, commercial, and public spaces.

People can use historical knowledge combined with new discoveries to influence their decisions. This gives them power over their future trajectory if they choose to use it. For example, if a politician receives controversial information about an opponent, they may be tempted to attack them publicly. However, if they also know that, historically, publicly attacking an opponent can lead to losing voters, they may find a more subtle way to release the information. They use both new information and historical knowledge to influence their choices.

However, while knowledge is powerful, it’s of limited use. Knowledge that doesn’t influence behavior has no purpose, but knowledge that changes behavior becomes irrelevant. To understand this, consider the following:

  • The more information we have, the better we can understand history.
  • The better we understand history, the more knowledge we have to address issues. 
  • The faster we address issues, the more quickly historical knowledge becomes outdated.
  • As historical knowledge becomes outdated, we need to gain more information to better understand history, thus restarting the loop.

For example, Karl Marx used his economic insight to predict that capitalist societies, such as Britain, France, and the U.S., would collapse because of their economic structure. He believed that the working class would revolt against the wealthy and implement a communist structure. However, capitalist countries read Marx’s works and adapted accordingly, bolstering worker’s rights, changing campaign strategies, and integrating unionization into the economic structure. Because these nations adjusted their trajectory, Marx’s predictions didn’t come to fruition, rendering his insight outdated.

The Rate of Change

Because of the ever-increasing rate at which humanity discovers new information, society is changing fast, and it shows no signs of slowing down. The world is moving ahead at unprecedented speeds and humans have no way of predicting what the world will look like in 50-100 years. 

In recent years, technology has already completely changed the way we go about our daily lives. For example, in 1970, people had to rely on landlines, fax machines, and letters to communicate. In 2020, the use of the internet has rendered those three things practically obsolete. In just 50 years, humanity’s primary forms of communication have changed completely.

As the frequency of technological discoveries continues to increase, many people want the rate of change to slow down. They fear rapid change will destabilize the status quo and make their work and aspirations insignificant in an “upgraded” society.  

However, there’s no stopping progress: 

  • First, no one knows how to. While many scientists are experts in specific fields, no one is an expert in every field. Therefore, no one is able to determine the bigger picture. Since no one understands the global system of development as a whole, no one has the power to stop it. 
  • Second, even if someone could stop technological progress, doing so would shut down the entire global economy. The world thrives on technology and information, and freezing developments in those areas would lead to the collapse of the global economic system.
Charting the Future of Humanity: Goals for Earth

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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