Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so’

The visionary historian, author of two dazzling bestsellers on the state of mankind, takes questions from Lucy Prebble, Arianna Huffington, Esther Rantzen and a selection of our readers

Yuval Noah Harari.
‘An intellectual joy’: Yuval Noah Harari. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer New Review

Last week, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans read out the first page of Sapiens, the book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Given that radio audiences at that time in the morning are not known for their appetite for intellectual engagement – the previous segment had dealt with Gary Barlow’s new tour – it was an unusual gesture. But as Evans said, “the first page is the most stunning first page of any book”.

If DJs are prone to mindless hyperbole, this was an honourable exception. The subtitle of Sapiens, in an echo of Stephen Hawking’s great work, is A Brief History of Humankind. In grippingly lucid prose, Harari sets out on that first page a condensed history of the universe, followed by a summary of the book’s thesis: how the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

It is a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the remainder of the book lives up to on almost every page. Although Sapiens has been widely and loudly praised, some critics have suggested that it is too sweeping. Perhaps, but it is an intellectual joy to be swept along.

It’s one of those books that can’t help but make you feel smarter for having read it. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have undergone that experience, as have many others in the Davos crowd and Silicon Valley. The irony, perhaps, is that one of the book’s warnings is that we are in danger of becoming an elite-dominated global society.

At the centre of the book is the contention that what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.

Originally published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was translated into English three years later and became an international bestseller. It ranges across a multitude of disciplines with seemingly effortless scholarship, bringing together a keen understanding of history, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, philosophy, theology, economics, psychology, neuroscience and much else besides.

Yet the author of this accomplished and far-reaching book is a young Israeli historian whose career, up until that point, had been devoted to the relative academic backwater of medieval military history. Apparently, Sapiens is based on an introductory course to world history that Harari had to teach, after senior colleagues dodged the task. The story goes that the major Israeli publishers weren’t interested. No one saw international stardom beckoning.

Last year, Harari’s follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, was published in the UK, becoming another bestseller. It develops many of the themes explored in Sapiens, and in particular examines the possible impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on Homo sapiens, heralding perhaps the beginning of a new bionic or semi-computerised form of human.

Again, it’s an exhilarating book that takes the reader deep into questions of identity, consciousness and intelligence, grappling with what kinds of choices and dilemmas a fully automated world will present us with.

Now 41, Harari grew up in a secular Jewish family in Haifa. He studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed his doctorate at Oxford. He is a vegan and he meditates for two hours a day, often going on extended retreats. He says it helps him focus on the issues that really matter. He lives with his husband on a moshav, an agricultural co-operative, outside Jerusalem. Being gay, he says, helped him to question received opinions. “Nothing should be taken for granted,” he has said, “even if everybody believes it.”

One of the pleasures of reading his books is that he continually calls on readers, both explicitly and implicitly, to think about what we know and what we think we know. And he has little time for fashionable stances.

He writes and speaks like a man who is not excessively troubled by doubt. If that makes him sound arrogant, let me clarify: he arrives at his conclusions after a great deal of research and contemplation. However, once he’s persuaded himself – and he says he always leaves it to the evidence to decide his thinking – he doesn’t hold back in his efforts to persuade the reader. It makes for what Jared Diamond called “unforgettably vivid language”.

Harari is a naturally gifted explainer, invariably ready with the telling anecdote or memorable analogy. As a result, it’s tempting to see him less as a historian than as some kind of all-purpose sage. We asked public figures and readers to pose questions for Harari, and many of these ( below) were of a moral or ethical nature, seeking answers about what should be done, rather than about what has happened. But the Israeli seems used to the role, and perfectly happy to give his best shot at replying. A historian of the distant past and the near future, he has carved out a whole new discipline of his own. It’s a singular achievement by an impressively multiple-minded man.

Helen Czerski
Photograph: Sonja Horsman for the Observer

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?
Helen Czerski, physicist
I’m not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think we’ll probably have just one system, and in this sense we’ll have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

Andrew Anthony: Are you saying that the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama was correct in his analysis of the end of history?
It depends how you understand the end of history. If you mean the end of ideological clashes, then no, but if you mean the creation of a single civilisation which encompasses the whole world, then I think he was largely correct.

Lucy Prebble
Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex Shutterstock

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?
Lucy Prebble, playwright
Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?
TheWatchingPlace, posted online
I think it will be just the opposite – that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and you’ll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

Andrew Solomon
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

What role does morality play in a future world of artificial intelligence, artificial life and immortality? Will an aspiration to do what is good and right still motivate much of the race?
Andrew Solomon, writer
I think morality is more important than ever before. As we gain more power, the question of what we do with it becomes more and more crucial, and we are very close to really having divine powers of creation and destruction. The future of the entire ecological system and the future of the whole of life is really now in our hands. And what to do with it is an ethical question and also a scientific question.

So to give just a simple example: what happens if several pedestrians jump in front of a self-driving car and it has to choose between killing, say, five pedestrians or swerving to the side and killing its owner? Now you have engineers producing the self-driving cars and they need to get an answer to this question. So I don’t see any reason to think that AI or bioengineering will make morality any less relevant than before.

Matt Haig
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

After reading Homo Deus I began to wonder why we are so wilfully ushering in a future that will slowly make us redundant. We are the only animal obsessed with progress. Should we try to resist the idea of the future as one of inevitable technological advancement and create a different kind of futurism?
Matt Haig, author
You can’t just stop technological progress. Even if one country stops researching artificial intelligence, some other countries will continue to do it. The real question is what to do with the technology. You can use exactly the same technology for very different social and political purposes. If you look at the 20th century, we see that with the same technology of electricity and trains, you could create a communist dictatorship or a liberal democracy. And it’s the same with artificial intelligence and bioengineering. So I think people shouldn’t be focused on the question of how to stop technological progress because this is impossible. Instead the question should be what kind of usage to make of the new technology. And here we still have quite a lot of power to influence the direction it’s taking.

Will humans always find ways to hate each other, or do you lean more towards Steven Pinker’s view that society is much less violent than it used to be, and that this trend is set to continue?
Sarah Shubinsky, reader
I tend to agree with Steven Pinker. We now live in the most peaceful era in history. There is definitely still violence – I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement. We can’t be certain about the future but some changes make this trend seem robust. First of all, there is the threat of nuclear war which was perhaps the chief reason for the decline of war since 1945, and this threat is still there. And secondly, you have the change in the nature of the economy – that the economy switched from being a material-based economy to the knowledge-based economy.

In the past, the main economic assets were material – things like wheat fields and gold mines and slaves. So war made good sense because you could enrich yourself by waging war against your neighbours. Now the main economic asset is knowledge, and it’s very difficult to conquer knowledge through violence. Most of the large conflicts in the world today are still in those areas like the Middle East, where the main source of wealth is material – it’s oil and gas.

Esther Rantzen
Photograph: SilverHub/Rex/Shutterstock

You said that our predilection to create abstract concepts such as religion, nationality etc is the quality which singled out sapiens from other hominids. Given that is also the inspiration for wars that may bring about our destruction, is it a strength or a weakness?
Esther Rantzen, broadcaster
In terms of power, it’s obvious that this ability made Homo sapiens the most powerful animal in the world, and now gives us control of the entire planet. From an ethical perspective, whether it was good or bad, that’s a far more complicated question. The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.

The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.

AA: But these fictions often inspire us to do great things. Would an unblinking view of reality create the same motivation?
We certainly need some fictions in order to have large-scale societies. That’s true. But we need to use these fictions to serve us instead of being enslaved by them. A good analogy is maybe a football game. The laws of the game are fictional, they’re a creation of humans, there is nothing in nature that mandates the laws of the football game. As long as you remember that these are just laws that people invented to serve your aim, then you can play the game. If you completely give up these laws because they are fictional, then you can’t play football.

Professor Mark Post shows the world’s first lab-grown beefburger in London, August 2013.
Pinterest
The future of human food? Professor Mark Post shows the world’s first lab-grown beefburger in London, August 2013. Photograph: Alamy

So I’m certainly not recommending that people stop using all these fictional entities. You cannot have a large-scale economy if you don’t use money. But you can use money in the same way you use the football laws, and still remember that this is just our creation. And similarly with the nation. There is nothing wrong in principle in having feelings of loyalty towards the group. But when you forget that this is a human creation, then you can end up sacrificing millions of people for the interests of the nation, forgetting that it’s the people who invented it.

Is being compassionate and empathetic a major flaw in human evolution? Is psychopathy the future for our species?
Dominic Currie, reader
No, I don’t think so. First of all, if it is, then it’s going to be quite a terrible future. But even if we leave aside the moral aspect and just look at it from a practical aspect, then human power comes from cooperation, and psychopaths are not very good at cooperation. You need empathy and compassion, you need the ability to understand and to sympathise with other people in order to cooperate with them effectively. So even if we leave aside all moral issues, still I don’t think that empathy is bad for us or that psychopaths are the future of humankind.

AA: You argue that humanism is a product of capitalism. Is it inseparable from capitalism?
There are close connections between them but I don’t think they are inseparable. They can certainly go along different ways in the 21st century. One of the big dangers we face is exactly the separation of capitalism from humanism, especially from liberal humanism. In the last decades the main reason why governments all over the world liberalised their politics and economics is not because they were convinced of the ethical arguments of humanism, but rather because they thought it will be good for the capitalist economy.

Now the fear is that in the 21st century capitalism and humanism will be separated, and you could have very sophisticated and advanced economies without any need to liberalise your political system or to give freedom to invest in the education and welfare of the masses.

Philippa Perry
Photograph: Fiona Shaw for the Guardian

Was the move from hunter-gathering to farming a mistake? If so, how can we make the best of it now?
Philippa Perry, writer and psychotherapist
It depends on your perspective. If you’re talking from the perspective of a pharaoh or some ancient Chinese emperor, then it was a very good idea. If you look at it from the perspective of a simple peasant woman in ancient Egypt, then it looks like a pretty bad idea. If you look at it from the perspective of the middle classes in the affluent societies of today, then again it looks like a very good idea. If you look at it from the perspective of somebody in Bangladesh who works 12 hours a day in a sweatshop, again it looks like a bad idea.

There is absolutely no way to turn back the clock, with 8 billion people returning to living as hunter-gatherers. So the question is really how to make the best of our current situation, and how not to repeat the mistakes of the agricultural revolution. With the new revolution in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, there is a danger that again all the power and benefits will be monopolised by a very small elite, and most people will end up worse off than before.

You said animal farming might be “the worst crime in history”. What advice do you have for helping society end it?
Jacy Reese, reader
Our best chance is with what is known as cellular agriculture or clean meat, which is the idea of creating meat from cells and not from animals. If you want a steak, you just grow a steak from cells – you don’t need to raise a cow and then slaughter the cow for the steak. This may sound like science fiction but it’s already a reality. Three years ago they created the first hamburger they made from cells. It’s true that it cost $300,000 but it’s always like that with a new technology. By now, 2017, the price, as far as I know, is down to $11 per hamburger. And the developers expect, that, given enough investment and the proper research, they could bring down the price to less than a slaughtered meat hamburger within, I don’t know, 10 years or so.

It’s still some way before you see it in the supermarket and in McDonald’s, but I think that’s the only viable solution. I’m vegan, and I try to avoid meat and other animal products, but I’m under no illusion that I can convince billions of other people to give up completely meat and milk and so forth. But if we can produce them from cells, then great. It will also have a lot of ecological benefits because it will reduce the enormous amount of pollution which is caused by high animal farming today.

Bettany Hughes
Bettany Hughes Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Does the phrase “the modern mind” mean anything to you, and if so when was the modern mind born and what does it look like?
Bettany Hughes, historian
We know very little about the mind. We don’t understand what it is, what are its functions and how it emerged. When billions of neurons in the brain fire electrical charges in a particular pattern, how does this create the mental experience, the subjective experience of love or anger or pain or pleasure? We have absolutely no idea. And because we understand so little about the mind, we also don’t know how and why it emerged in the first place. We assume that the people in the late stone age who drew the cave art of Lascaux and Altamira had fundamentally the same minds as we have today. And we also assume that Neanderthals had a different kind of mind, even though they had bigger brains than ours. But the details at present are far beyond our understanding.

AA: You live in a part of the world that has been shaped by religious fictions. Which do you think will happen first – that Homo sapiens leave behind religious fiction or the Israel-Palestine conflict will be resolved?
As things look at present, it seems that Homo sapiens will disappear before the Israeli political conflict will be resolved. I think that Homo sapiens as we know them will probably disappear within a century or so, not destroyed by killer robots or things like that, but changed and upgraded with biotechnology and artificial intelligence into something else, into something different. The timescale for that kind of change is maybe a century. And it’s quite likely that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved by that time. But it will definitely be influenced by it.

Would we and all the other species on this planet have been better off without the cognitive revolution? Would we then still be living in harmony with all the other forms of life instead of dominating them and making ourselves unhappy in the process?
NassauOrange, posted online
I’m not sure about harmony because there is also a lot of violence and disharmony between other species. But we definitely would not have dominated the planet if we did not undergo the cognitive revolution. And then, also, you would not have the ecological crisis that the planet now faces. So yes, without a cognitive revolution, I guess most other organisms, most other big animals, would be much better off.

Were the Lascaux cave paintings in France created by minds like ours?
Pinterest
Were the Lascaux cave paintings in France created by minds like ours? Photograph: D Nidos/© Département 24

What concerns you most about the world, and what are you doing about your concerns?
LeaActforChange, posted online
There are so many different concerns that I’m not sure which is the biggest one. At present, because of the enormous power of humankind, maybe the biggest concern of all is human blindness and stupidity. We’re an extremely wise species in so many ways but when it comes to making important decisions we have this tendency sometimes to make these terrible mistakes, and we are now in a situation when we just don’t have much room for error. As we gain more and more power, the consequences of making a stupid choice are catastrophic for us and for the entire ecological system. So this is a great cause for concern.

Is anti-intellectualism is rising in the west? If so, is there a relation between the rise of anti-intellectualism and the decline of liberalism?
guneydas, posted online
I’m not sure that it’s rising. It’s definitely there but it was always there, and I’m not sure if the situation now is worse than in the 1950s or 1930s or the 19th century or the middle ages. So yeah, it’s definitely a concern. And I would say it’s not so much anti-intellectualism as much as anti-science. Because even the most fundamentalist religious fanatics, they are intellectuals. They give far too much importance to the human intellect. One of the problems with a lot of religious fanaticism is that it gives far too much importance to the creations of the human intellect and far too little to empirical evidence from the world outside us.

AA: Are you confident that radical Islam is nothing more than the death rattle of the pre-modern era?
In the 21st century, humanity is facing some very difficult problems, whether it’s global warming or global inequality or the rise of disruptive technology, such as bioengineering and artificial intelligence. And wWe need answers to these challenges, and – at least as of March 2017 – I haven’t heard anything relevant being offered by radical Islam. So this is why I don’t think that radical Islam will shape the society of the 21st century. It could still be there, it could still cause a lot of trouble and violence and so forth, but I don’t see it creating or shaping the road ahead of humankind.

Arianna Huffington
Photograph: Mike McGregor/Observer Magazine

You’re clearly a big-picture guy, so what do you do to recharge and get the perspective that you need for your work?
Arianna Huffington, entrepreneur
I read a very large number of books from all fields, all disciplines. I usually start with a big question, such as whether people today are happier than in the past, or why men have dominated women in most human societies. And then I follow the question instead of trying to follow my own answer, even if it means I can’t formulate any clear theory.

AA: What does meditation do for you?
Above all it enables me to try and see reality as it is. When we try to observe the world, and when we try to observe ourselves, the mind constantly generates stories and fictions and explanations and imposes them on reality, and we cannot see what is really happening because we are blinded by the fictions and stories that we create or other people create and we believe. Meditation for me is just to see reality as it is – don’t get entangled in any story, in any fiction.

How would you advise the individual who wants to live a good life and contribute to the wellbeing of those not yet born as well as those already here?
Paul Baker, reader
Get to know yourself better, and especially what you really want from life, because otherwise technology tends to dictate to people their aims in life, and instead of technology serving us to realise our aims, we become enslaved to its agenda. And it’s very difficult to know what you really want from life. I’m not saying it’s an easy task.

AA: If we can indefinitely prevent death, would it still be possible to create meaning without what Saul Bellow called “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”?
I think so, yes. You have other problems with what happens when you overcome old age, but I don’t think lack of meaning will be a serious problem. Over the past three centuries, almost all the new ideologies of the modern world don’t care about death, or at least they don’t see death as a source of meaning. Previous cultures, especially traditional religions, usually needed death in order to explain the meaning of life. Like in Christianity – without death, life has no meaning. The whole meaning of life comes from what happens to you after you die. There is no death, no heaven, no hell… there is no meaning to Christianity. But over the past three centuries we have seen the emergence of a lot of modern ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, communism that don’t need death at all in order to provide life with meaning.

Sapiens and Homo Deus are published by Vintage at £9.99 and £8.99. To order copies for £8.49 and £7.64 respectively go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

 

Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais

Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociaisversão On-line ISSN 1806-9053
 

Sumário
Rev. bras. Ci. Soc. vol.32 no.93 São Paulo  2017

 Artigos Originais
·  O QUE É CRÍTICO NA SOCIOLOGIA CRÍTICA?
Silva, Josué Pereira da

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  “VAMOS LUTAR, PARENTES!” As candidaturas indígenas nas eleições de 2014 no Brasil
Codato, Adriano; Lobato, Tiemi; Castro, Andréa Oliveira

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  CAROLE PATEMAN E A CRÍTICA FEMINISTA DO CONTRATO
Miguel, Luis Felipe

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  CONFISSÃO E NORMATIVIDADE POLÍTICA: CONTROLE DA SUBJETIVIDADE E PRODUÇÃO DO SUJEITO
Avelino, Nildo

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  REVOLUÇÃO, VOLTAS E REVESES: TEMPORALIDADE E PODER EM CUBA
Gonçalves, João Felipe

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  CONFLITOS DE PRESSUPOSTOS NA ANTROPOLOGIA DA ARTE: Relações entre pessoas, coisas e imagens
Cesarino, Pedro

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  AS TRÍADES E AS SOCIEDADES SECRETAS NA CHINA: ENTRE O MITO E A DESMISTIFICAÇÃO
Petta, De Leon

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  EVANGÉLICOS, PENTECOSTAIS E REPRESENTAÇÃO POLÍTICA NAS ELEIÇÕES LEGISLATIVAS NO BRASIL (1998-2010)
Lacerda, Fabio

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Inglês     · Inglês ( pdf )
·  CONEXÕES E RUPTURAS URBANAS: PROJETOS, POPULAÇÕES E TERRITÓRIOS EM DISPUTA
Machado, Carly

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  O LONGO CICLO DO PROGRESSISMO LATINOAMERICANO E SUA PARADA: AS MUDANÇAS POLÍTICAS NA AMÉRICA LATINA DA ÚLTIMA DÉCADA (2003-2015))
Moreira, Constanza

        · resumo em Português | Espanhol | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Espanhol     · Espanhol ( pdf )
·  RRAÍZES DO BRASIL, 1936: O ESTATISMO ORGÂNICO COMO CONTRIBUIÇÃO ORIGINAL
Schlegel, Rogerio

        · resumo em Português | Inglês | Francês     · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
 Resenhas
·  Reconfigurações da sociologia francesa contemporânea (1960-2000)
Martins, Carlos Benedito

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  Demência(s), em imagens, narrativas e experiências
Feriani, Daniela

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  O pensamento revolucionário de Nicolau Maquiavel
Mussi, Daniela

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  Mídias participativas e violências extremas: uma etnografia on-line dos tiroteios em escolas
Rodrigues, Tiago Hyra

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
 Errata
·  Errata: Pós-graduação em relações internacionais no Brasil: anotações sobre sua institucionalização

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )
·  Errata: CIÊNCIA E MERCADO Impasses na institucionalização de práticas empreendedoras em uma universidade pública brasileira

        · texto em Português     · Português ( pdf )

How we lost the world-changing power of useless knowledge

Review

15 March 2017

Intellectual freedom was the founding principle of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – something we lack the confidence to do now, show two new books

geezers in old pic
Luminaries at the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1930s

Photographer unknown. From the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives

IN 1930, the US educator Abraham Flexner set up the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research centre in Princeton, New Jersey, where leading lights as diverse as Albert Einstein and T. S. Eliot could pursue their studies, free from everyday pressures.

For Flexner, the world was richer than the imagination could conceive and wider than ambition could encompass. The universe was full of gifts and this was why pure, “blue sky” research could not help but turn up practical results now and again, of a sort quite impossible to plan for.

So, in his 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge”, Flexner listed a few of the practical gains that have sprung from what we might, with care, term scholastic noodling. Electromagnetism was his favourite. We might add quantum physics.

Even as his institute opened its doors, the world’s biggest planned economy, the Soviet Union, was conducting a grand and opposite experiment, harnessing all the sciences for their immediate utility and problem-solving ability.

During the cold war, the vast majority of Soviet scientists were reduced to mediocrity, given only sharply defined engineering problems to solve. Flexner’s better-known affiliates, meanwhile, garnered reputations akin to those enjoyed by other mascots of Western intellectual liberty: abstract-expressionist artists and jazz musicians.

At a time when academia is once again under pressure to account for itself, the Princeton University Press reprint of Flexner’s essay is timely. Its preface, however, is another matter. Written by current institute director Robbert Dijkgraaf, it exposes our utterly instrumental times. For example, he employs junk metrics such as “more than half of all economic growth comes from innovation”. What for Flexner was a rather sardonic nod to the bottom line, has become for Dijkgraaf the entire argument – as though “pure research” simply meant “long-term investment”, and civic support came not from existential confidence and intellectual curiosity, but from scientists “sharing the latest discoveries and personal stories”. So much for escaping quotidian demands.

“The structures throttling today’s scholars come not from Soviet-style planning, but market principles”

We do not know what the tightening of funding for scientific research that has taken place over the past 40 years would have done for Flexner’s own sense of noblesse oblige. But this we can be sure of: utilitarian approaches to higher education are dominant now, to the point of monopoly. The administrative burdens and stultifying oversight structures throttling today’s scholars come not from Soviet-style central planning, but from the application of market principles – an irony that the sociologist Lawrence Busch explores exhaustively in his monograph Knowledge for Sale.

Busch explains how the first neo-liberal thinkers sought to prevent the rise of totalitarian regimes by replacing governance with markets. Those thinkers believed that markets were safer than governments because they were cybernetic and so corrected themselves. Right?

Wrong: Busch provides ghastly disproofs of this neo-liberal vision from within the hall of academe, from bad habits such as a focus on counting citations and publication output, through fraud, to existential crises such as the shift in the ideal of education from a public to a private good. But if our ingenious, post-war market solution to the totalitarian nightmare of the 1940s has itself turned out to be a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity (as journalist Matt Taibbi once described investment bank Goldman Sachs), where have we left to go?

Flexner’s solution requires from us a confidence that is hard to muster right now. We have to remember that the point of study is not to power, enable, de-glitch or otherwise save civilisation. The point of study is to create a civilisation worth saving.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Abraham Flexner, companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf

Princeton University Press

This article appeared in print under the headline “The power of useless”

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331170-700-how-we-lost-the-worldchanging-power-of-useless-knowledge/?utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_source=Twitter&utm_term=Autofeed&cmpid=SOC|NSNS|2017-Echobox#link_time=1489919367

Robots, aliens, corporate drones – who will be the citizens of the future?

In the 1940s, science fiction author Olaf Stapledon gave a talk to a school about the future. Addressing his audience as “you citizens of the future”, he proposed three visions for this future: the “destruction of the human race”, a “worldwide police state”, and “an entirely new kind of human world”.

Citizenship will not be such an important issue if Stapledon’s first vision comes to pass. But any future in which humans persevere or flourish will be accompanied by a repeated need to reassess what a citizen is. As we increasingly consider what and where we are citizens of in the face of recent political events in Britain and America, what “citizens of the future” might look like takes on new resonance. And it’s something that science fiction has long imagined.

Citizenship obviously has different meanings. Etymologically, it implies the inhabitant of a city, but its connotations cut across legal, geographical, cultural and racial senses. Nobody necessarily agrees on what citizenship is, let alone who should have it. This is further compounded when we consider who the citizens of the future might be, from the “next generations” of children and grandchildren, to questions around the political, economic and geographical landscapes that will redefine current debates about citizenship.

Who will inhabit our future cities? Shutterstock

Citizens in space

The most common science fiction setting – space – is the site of one such redefinition, as humanity expands into the universe. This is something of a stalwart of science fiction from Star Wars (the Empire and the Galactic Senate) to Star Trek (the United Federation of Planets). In both cases, humans and aliens are part of the same political organisations. In Star Trek especially, the different series examine the various tensions surrounding Federation membership, from the inclusion of the Klingon Empire in The Next Generation to the founding of the Federation in Enterprise.

Even without aliens, science fiction has examined how humanity might be governed as it colonises space. One of the most explicitly political of such works is James SA Corey’s recently adapted Expanse series.

The Expanse sets the United Nations (as the governing body of Earth) against the Martian Congressional Republic and a “terrorist” Outer Planets Alliance. Here, a corollary between citizenship and colonialism comes to the fore. Citizens of the Belt imagine themselves to be citizens of one place (the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) but are in fact governed by Earth, Mars and corporations based on those planets.

World citizens

Much science fiction imagines some such incarnation of a “world citizen”, often emerging from space colonisation and a decline of national borders. Some examples of “post-nation-state” science fiction are concerned with the rise of mega-corporations (such as William Gibson’s early cyberpunk fiction or Continuum). Others explore the increasing homogenisation of humanity, as racial characteristics (broadly identified) become mixed across large sections of the population.

World citizenship isn’t necessarily imagined as a consumer hell or socialist paradise. One of the most famous, and perhaps provocative, examples of global citizenship in science fiction is the one portrayed in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s “citizens” are the opposite of civilians. In this novel, citizenship equates to being given the right to vote in the State (the Terran Federation) and is only earned via federal service.

In effect, Heinlein seems to be advocating limiting the right to vote to those who serve the State and, given that this service is often military, for many readers Heinlein’s sense of “world citizenship” is quasi-fascistic. Heinlein justifies this militaristic “citizen of the world” by the existence of an outside enemy — the Bugs. So citizenship here remains a case of “us” and “them”: what unites the world and humanity is a shared enemy beyond the State.

Us and them

Some authors are more overt about the ways in which the concept of citizenship can itself be redefined. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead – the sequel to his famous Ender’s Game – he introduces the Hierarchy of Exclusion, a framework that determines how “foreign” other nations, planetary populations, and species are. The Hierarchy of Exclusion codifies the ways in which categories of “us” and “them” are decided, and as one of his (alien) characters comes to realise, “the tribe is whatever we believe it is”.

Another recent example is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which underscores what happens when any particular racial or cultural imperative, whether a notion of “the human” or being born within a particular caste, comes to stand as a measure of citizenship. In her novel, she equates the struggle of a colony planet seeking independence from the empire with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) seeking to obtain its own legal identity. Both cases revolve around notions of citizenship, which Leckie rather cannily reframes in terms of “Significant Beings”.

What might citizenship look like for an AI? Shutterstock

Back to reality

Given Leckie’s narrative of AI rights, recent proposals for European legislation to reconsider the legal status of robots seem strangely relevant, even if truly autonomous machines do not exist yet. While much of the draft report is concerned with legal liability, section 32f looks to the future:

The most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations.

As The Independent reported, this implies that a robot could be legally a citizen. Yet in the same report, the committee advocates that designers include “opt-out mechanisms (kill switches)”. This creates a potential situation where an “electronic person” could be programmed with a kill switch – surely a somewhat self-contradictory gift of citizenship?

So where does all this leave the notion of “citizens of the future”? Aliens — in both senses — can become citizens (if our understanding of citizenship shifts), as can robots (if we have the means to kill them). But citizenship depends, it seems, as ever upon who we call “us” and who we call “them” – citizenship understood as an exclusive club.

Elsewhere in his writings, Stapledon counselled himself to “think cosmopolitanly” – that is, to think inclusively, outside of national and even anthropocentric structures. As citizens of Stapledon’s future, it seems we are still failing to consider citizenship in such innovative terms, even now. For all the speculations inherent to the field of science fiction, it appears that we still often limit ourselves, even in our imaginations, to a moribund sense of citizenship.


This article was written as part of the Citizens of Everywhere project, organised by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. @CitizensofWhere #CitizensofEverywhere.

 

https://theconversation.com/robots-aliens-corporate-drones-who-will-be-the-citizens-of-the-future-72137?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202017%20-%2069925237&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202017%20-%2069925237+CID_0f9aad10b66eb4ac5a4c1beb72740f60&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=Robots%20aliens%20corporate%20drones%20%20who%20will%20be%20the%20citizens%20of%20the%20future

Do We Have the Right to Visit Inhabited Planets? Carl Sagan Said, “No”

  • October 12, 2016

by Scotty Hendricks

 

Mars has captivated humanity since the time of ancient Babylonian astronomers. In the modern era, the idea of life on Mars has been a focus of such great minds as H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, and David Bowie. As Big Think has mentioned in the last week or two, plans are underway to take humanity to Mars within the next two decades. President Obama has even channeled John F. Kennedy in his recent endorsement of sending a person to Mars and “returning them safely to the Earth”.

There is no shortage of people who want us to get to Mars, but less noticed among them are the people who ask, “Should we go?”. While the reasons that would compel us to go to Mars are many and substantial there is a vital question that must be considered.

What if there is already life on Mars? Should we still go if there is?

Suppose for a moment that we discovered tomorrow that there was life on Mars, most certainly it would be limited to microscopic life, but it would still be life. It would be the most significant discovery in the history of science. Would mankind be entitled to colonize Mars in this case? Could we claim it was still moral to do so?

One of the greatest advocates of space exploration in the 20th century, Carl Sagan, said no. In the chapter ‘Blues for a Red Planet’ in his book Cosmos, he discusses the idea fully: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” When he wrote that in 1980, inconclusive evidence on such life being on Mars from the Viking landers made his statement incredibly relevant.

While we might consider the idea of life on Mars less likely than he did, the question he tries to answer remains important. Especially when mankind moves beyond Mars and towards other candidates for life harboring worlds such as EuropaTitan, or Enceladus.

Sagan was opposed to anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are exceptional or otherwise extremely significant, both on Earth and in the universe. In defending the rights of Martian microbes to their planet, Sagan suggests that all life has great value and that our ability to get to Mars does not constitute a right to colonize it. His position was reflected here on Earth through his support of the Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as their faculty advisor.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that the life we are most likely to find on Mars, if any, would be microbial and thus perhaps not entitled to any special rights. After all, who cares for the rights of microbes on Earth?

Consider a few methods of deciding who has certain rights in modern philosophy. They tend to run into the issue of anthropocentrism, and find it difficult to protect the rights, if any, of non-human life. Microbes get left out entirely.

James Griffin’s idea of human rights is based on the notion of Normative Agency, our ability to design and act on a plan of life, and could only be fully applied to humanity at this time. Even if you were to scale rights down with the ability of an animal to use said agency, microbes would be left with nothing.

Kant’s notion of Autonomy is also difficult to apply to anything less intelligent than a human. While it would be possible to support a maxim that respects all life rather than just humanity using his ethics, Kant still relies on the ability of a moral agent to reason, which we generally don’t consider microbes to be able to do. John Rawls, in his Kantian masterpiece A Theory of Justice, excludes animals from having “rights” because of this. In all of his works, he never suggests we owe non-human life anything more than a guarantee to avoid cruelty. His concern for microbes could be considered minimal.

John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism perhaps demands that we do invade Mars, as he places the happiness of a human at a much higher value than that of a lower life form. Stating in his classic text Utilitarianism: “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” The promotion of the total happiness then, calls for us to ignore the risks to microbial life on Mars.

Of course, the opponents of anthropocentrism could point out, perhaps accurately, that humans have a tendency to place high value on traits that they have a monopoly on. When happiness is discussed, we even claim access to a higher form of it. Perhaps we are biased towards our own virtues and value. After all, wouldn’t intelligent eagles value the power of flight and keen vision over having thumbs?

So, should we go to Mars? Or is Mars for the Martians, if any? The question of if there ever was life on Mars to begin with must be resolved first. When it is resolved, we are still faced with the issue of life on other worlds we desire to travel to. Should we invoke the Prime Directive of the Federation when exploring the heavens, or brush aside the bacterium of the cosmos? The philosophical jury is still out.

http://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/what-if-there-is-life-elsewhere-what-scientists-and-philosophers-say-about-our-right-to-visit-inhabited-planets?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1489676715

In a robot showdown, humanity may happily surrender

March 9

Matthew Hutson is a science and technology writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”

Many people fear that the path of artificial intelligence will eventually lead to a standoff between humans and machines, with humans as the underdogs. Confrontation looms in the forecasts of futurists and in the narratives of science fiction movies such as “The Matrix,” “The Terminator” and “Westworld.” But there’s another way our demise could go down. We could begin wondering what makes people so special, anyway, and willingly give up the title of supreme species — or even the preservation of humanity altogether. This is the path explored by historian Yuval Noah Harari in his new book, “Homo Deus.” There’s no need for a Terminator to come after us when, instead of fighting the network in the sky, we assimilate into it.

At stake is the religion of humanism. Whereas theists worship gods, humanists worship humans. Harari, whose previous book, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” foreshadows this one, defines religion as any system of thought that sees certain values as having legitimacy independent of people. “Thou shalt not kill” derives its force from God, not from the mortal Moses. Similarly, humanists believe in “human rights” as things earned automatically from the universe, whatever anyone else says. The right not to be tortured or enslaved exists outside human convention. (Philosophers call this bit of magical thinking moral realism.)

We may take for granted the right not to be tortured or enslaved — or various other humanist doctrines, such as the idea that we’re all inherently valuable individuals with the free will to express our authentic selves — but we have not always done so. People were seen as property even well after that bit about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was inked to parchment. As Harari argues, we’ve lived with alternatives to humanism, and we can again. And ironically, he writes, “the rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall.”

That’s kind of a fudge, one of a few in the book. It’s not the humanist revolution per se that planted those poison seeds. It’s more the (somewhat symbiotic) scientific revolution. You don’t need universal rights to study electricity and invent computers. Or to apply our inventions toward the evergreen pursuits of health, happiness and control over nature (or as Harari calls them, “immortality, bliss and divinity”). Nevertheless, scientific and technological progress might eventually undermine the humanist ethos.

On the scientific front, research is pushing back on the idea of free will (as philosophers have for ages). The more we can explain human behavior with neuroscience and psychology, the less room there is for some magical human soul.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is rendering us useless, taking the jobs of taxi drivers, factory workers, stock traders, lawyers, teachers, doctors and “Jeopardy!” contestants. And, Harari argues, liberal humanism rose on the back of human usefulness. It advanced not on moral grounds but on economic and military grounds. Countries such as France offered dignity to all in exchange for service to the nation. “Is it a coincidence,” Harari asks, “that universal rights were proclaimed at the precise historical juncture when universal conscription was decreed?” But with robots making and killing things better than we can, who needs people? Intelligence will matter more than consciousness. “What’s so sacred about useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences” in virtual reality?

Even if the human species does continue to serve the system meaningfully, we might not matter as individuals. Harari suggests that algorithms might get to know us better than we know ourselves. As they collect data on our Web searches, exercise routines and much more, they’ll be able to tell us whom we should date and how we should vote. We may happily take their advice, literally ceding democracy to databases. Once our authentic, enigmatic, indivisible selves are exposed as mere predictable computations — not just by philosophers and scientists but by our every interaction with the world — the fiction of free will might finally unravel. (Personally, I’m not sure our brains will allow this.) We’ll enlist as mere specialized processors in the global cyborganic network.

Harari presents three possible futures. In one, humans are expendable. In a second, the elite upgrade themselves, becoming essentially another species that sees everyone else as expendable. In a third, we join the hive mind, worshiping data over individuals (or God). “Connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning,” he writes. In any case, he says convincingly, “the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley.”

I enjoyed reading about these topics not from another futurist but from a historian, contextualizing our current ways of thinking amid humanity’s long march — especially a historian with Harari’s ability to capsulize big ideas memorably and mingle them with a light, dry humor.

 

In “Homo Deus,” Harari offers not just history lessons but a meta-history lesson. In school, history was my least favorite subject. I preferred science, which offered abstract laws useful for predicting new outcomes. History seemed a melange of happenstance and contingency retroactively cobbled into stories. If history’s arcs were more Newtonian, we’d be better at predicting elections.

Harari points to an opposing goal of his field. He writes that “studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past,” showing that “our present situation is neither natural nor eternal.” In other words, it emphasizes happenstance. That’s a useful tactic for the oppressed fighting the status quo. It’s also a useful exercise for those who see the technological singularity as a given. We have options.

It’s possible we’ll choose to avoid our loss of values. On the other hand, it’s possible we’ll choose to accelerate it. Harari, a vegan who disputes humanity’s reserved seat atop the great chain of being, briefly ponders this option: “Maybe the collapse of humanism will also be beneficial.” Indeed, don’t we owe a chance to animals and androids, too?

Homo Deus
A Brief History of Tomorrow

By Yuval Noah Harari

Harper. 449 pp. $35

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-a-robot-showdown-humanity-may-happily-surrender/2017/03/09/b03dea32-f3cd-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html?utm_term=.d536b9cfaf4e

“Ainda nos restam as pequenas utopias que nos ajudam a viver”

Quem diz é o filósofo espanhol Francisco Jarauta. No mundo de hoje, nada é como era antes. É um laboratório onde todos os modelos políticos, éticos e morais precisam ser repensados

 

Poucos filósofos contemporâneos conhecem tanto quanto Francisco Jarauta, catedrático de filosofia da Universidade de Múrcia, antropólogo e especialista em História da Arte, os desafios e as complexidades de uma sociedade globalizada em que, diz ele, “todas as certezas do passado voaram pelos ares ao mesmo tempo”.

Ele considera que, se as grandes utopias morreram, ainda nos restam “as pequenas utopias, as que nos ajudam a viver o cotidiano”, como a de poder morar em um bairro onde todos se conheçam e sejam solidários uns com os outros, ou a da busca pelo tempo livre e pelo silêncio criativo. A pequena utopia da amizade, ou aquela capaz de transformar nosso trabalho e nossos sonhos em fruição, em vez de pesadelos e escravidão.

Para o filósofo, a emergência do Outro está se transformando em um laboratório onde “nossos modelos políticos, éticos e morais precisam ser repensados”.

Como diretor do Conselho Científico do Instituto Europeu de Design (IED) da Espanha, e membro do Conselho Internacional do Grupo IED, hoje presente também no Brasil, com unidades no Rio e em São Paulo, Jarauta, que ensina em várias instituições universitárias do mundo, se nutre da experiência desses milhares de estudantes que formam um caleidoscópio cosmopolita das tendências que estão forjando a nova civilização.

A esses jovens, que estão se graduando em design industrial e gráfico, e como novos estilistas de moda, Jarauta surpreende e estimula com suas metáforas e paradoxos. Como quando lhes diz que “somos nossas próprias perguntas”, para acrescentar em seguida que “a intensidade dos fatos condena essas perguntas ao silêncio”.

Escrutinador do caminho por onde vai a nova civilização, Jarauta é também um intelectual que gosta de tomar o pulso da humanidade. Depois de uma viagem recente a um campo de refugiados na Grécia, declarou ao jornal O Globo que o mais urgente hoje é “reconstruir o coração da humanidade”.

Para isso, afirma, “é preciso caminhar pela viagem da vida”, onde existe a dor, a crueldade, a cegueira ante as tragédias como as dos refugiados e imigrantes, “esses novos párias da história”.

Em sua conversa, que tínhamos interrompido durante muitos anos, desde nossos encontros no IED de Madri, ressalta que “estamos na era do ‘pós’: a pós-verdade, a pós-democracia, a pós-política, a pós-modernidade a pós-identidade. Nada é mais como ontem”.

Diz “que temos de nos debruçar na janela do mundo para ver o que se está passando e o que está chegando”. Vivemos não só no mundo da velocidade, mas naquele em que “as geografias se deslocaram e os espaços e as distâncias desapareceram”. Um jovem estudante de Cingapura se encontra em poucas horas com um do Rio e é como se fossem do mesmo bairro. A globalização os transforma em contemporâneos.

Isso leva a um “inevitável processo de miscigenação cultural”, à nova “sociedade da rede”, onde todos nos comunicamos, misturamos, contagiamos e recriamos. Aí reside o verdadeiro futuro.

O que chamamos de crise na realidade significa que todas as velhas definições do saber e da cultura estão morrendo, assim como as velhas profissões. A neociência já está sendo criada fora das universidades clássicas, muitas delas ainda de “formato medieval”.

Nada mais está petrificado nem prefigurado. Saltam pelos ares as definições do passado. O que é a filosofia hoje, a política, a arte? O que é o design em uma sociedade pós-industrial? “Já não é a pura fabricação de objetos para o consumo e o mercado”, diz o filósofo.

É muito mais: “O design se transformou, por exemplo, em um dos instrumentos básicos na hora de definir as novas formas da cultura. Pertence, por direito próprio, ao mundo do projeto, capaz de transformar os gostos, as formas de percepção das coisas e as novas necessidades das pessoas”.

Para tentar apreender o mundo em ebulição, torna-se cada vez mais atual, diz Jarauta, o estudo das tendências. É preciso saber, como os antigos radioestesistas, detectar os mananciais que correm sob nossos pés. Temos que ser “mergulhadores do novo”.

Os jovens, mais que ninguém, necessitam hoje, segundo o filósofo, nutrir-se da certeza de que o mundo novo que os espera não só não lhes será hostil, mas lhes “permitirá participar para dar-lhe nome e sentido”.

 

http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/03/13/opinion/1489428472_963672.html

New Theory Suggests Religion May Have Been Responsible for Social Evolution

01 Mar 2017

Posted by Nathan Glover AddThis Sharing Buttons

Dunbar supports his theory by stating that humans needed something to stop them from killing and hurting each other and religion provided the necessary logic by presenting the idea that all humans were part of one family.

The evolutionary psychology professor, who teaches at Oxford University, had previously earned fame for his research on animal social networks. He found each species of primate was able to form and hold a social bond with other members of its own species. He also found the larger the brain of a certain primate species, the more social networks this species formed. For example, apes were better at forming social bonds compared to monkeys.

Similarly, Dunbar discovered humans were the most capable in terms of maintaining social relationships. In fact, he is the founder of “Dunbar’s number,” a construct which is used in reference to the consistent number of social ties a human being can maintain. According to Dunbar’s n umber, the average human can maintain ties with 5 intimate friends, 50 good friends, 150 friends, and 1,500 acquaintances.

In his recent quest to determine why the numbers were so significantly high for humans, he believes to have found his answer in religion. According to Dunbar, most of his observations pointed to religion in one form or the other.

This is in line with what neuroscientists have recently begun stating – that religion is natural. Now, with Dunbar’s hypothesis, it would make sense why most people are religious. After all, it could have laid the foundation for all of society’s most important functions.

Dunbar has conducted other studies where he found laughter and singing to be the two other key components involved in the development of social relationships. Religion is the third component that the scientist is trying to unravel.

Dunbar states that all three components trigger what is known as an endorphin release within the body, which leads to bonding. However, the role of religion will be explored further only in April. The scientist expects to see conclusive results within a period of three years. The study will rely on an “evolutionary tree of religion” to determine when religious traditions came about and how they became connected with each other.

Read more at World Religion News: “New Theory Suggests Religion May Have Been Responsible for Social Evolution” http://www.worldreligionnews.com/?p=35641

http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/new-theory-suggests-religion-may-responsible-social-evolution

If We Are Not Just Animals, What Are We?

From the exhibition, “Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Philosophers and theologians in the Christian tradition have regarded human beings as distinguished from the other animals by the presence within them of a divine spark. This inner source of illumination, the soul, can never be grasped from outside, and is in some way detached from the natural order, maybe taking wing for some supernatural place when the body collapses and dies.

Recent advances in genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have all but killed off that idea. But they have raised the question of what to put in its place. For quite clearly, although we are animals, bound in the web of causality that joins us to the zoosphere, we are not just animals.

There is something in the human condition that suggests the need for special treatment. Almost all people believe that it is a crime to kill an innocent human, but not to kill an innocent tapeworm. And almost all people regard tapeworms as incapable of innocence in any case — not because they are always guilty, but because the distinction between innocent and guilty does not apply to them. They are the wrong kind of thing.

We, however, are the right kind of thing. So what kind is that? Do any other beings, animal or otherwise, belong to it? And what follows? These questions lie at the center of philosophical inquiry today, as they have since the ancient Greeks. In a thousand ways we distinguish people from the rest of nature, and build our life accordingly. We believe that people have rights, that they are sovereign over their lives, and that those who live by enslaving or abusing others are denying their own humanity. Surely there is a foundation for those beliefs, just as there is a foundation for all the moral, legal, artistic and spiritual traditions that take the distinctiveness of human life as their starting point.

If, as many people believe, there is a God, and that God made us in his own image, then of course we are distinct from nature, just as He is. But talk of God’s image is a metaphor for the very fact that we need to explain, namely that we treat the human being as a thing apart, a thing protected by a sacred aura — in short, not a thing at all, but a person.

Much 20th-century philosophy is addressed to the question of how to define this fact in secular terms, without drawing on religious ideas. When Sartre and Merleau-Ponty write of “le regard” — the look — and Emmanuel Levinas of the face, they are describing the way in which human beings stand out from their surroundings and address one another with absolute demands of which no mere thing could be an object. Wittgenstein makes a similar point by describing the face as the soul of the body, as does Elizabeth Anscombe in describing the mark of intentional action as the applicability of a certain sense of the question “Why?”

Human beings live in mutual accountability, each answerable to the other and each the object of judgment. The eyes of others address us with an unavoidable question, the question “why?” On this fact is built the edifice of rights and duties. And this, in the end, is what our freedom consists in — the responsibility to account for what we do.

Evolutionary psychologists tell another story. Morality, they argue, is an adaptation. If organisms compete for resources, then a strategy of cooperation will be more successful in the long run than a strategy of pure selfishness. Hence cooperative features of an organism will be selected over time. And all that is special in the human condition can be understood in this way — as the outcome of a long process of adaptation that has conferred on us the insuperable advantage of morality, whereby we can resolve our conflicts without fighting and adjust to the demands that assail us from every side.

The astonishing moral equipment of the human being — including rights and duties, personal obligations, justice, resentment, judgment, forgiveness — is the deposit left by millenniums of conflict. Morality is like a field of flowers beneath which the corpses are piled in a thousand layers. It is an evolved mechanism whereby the human organism proceeds through life sustained on every side by bonds of mutual interest.

I am fairly confident that the picture painted by the evolutionary psychologists is true. But I am also confident that it is not the whole truth, and that it leaves out of account precisely the most important thing, which is the human subject. We human beings do not see one another as animals see one another, as fellow members of a species. We relate to one another not as objects but as subjects, as creatures who address one another “I” to “you” — a point made central to the human condition by Martin Buber, in his celebrated mystical meditation “I and Thou.”

We understand ourselves in the first person, and because of this we address our remarks, actions and emotions not to the bodies of other people but to the words and looks that originate on the subjective horizon where they alone can stand.

This mysterious fact is reflected at every level in our language, and is at the root of many paradoxes. When I talk about myself in the first person, I utter propositions that I assert on no basis and about which, in a vast number of cases, I cannot be wrong. But I can be wholly mistaken about this human being who is doing the speaking. So how can I be sure that I am talking about that very human being? How do I know, for example, that I am Roger Scruton and not David Cameron suffering from delusions of grandeur?

To cut the story short: By speaking in the first person we can make statements about ourselves, answer questions, and engage in reasoning and advice in ways that bypass all the normal methods of discovery. As a result, we can participate in dialogues founded on the assurance that, when you and I both speak sincerely, what we say is trustworthy: We are “speaking our minds.” This is the heart of the I-You encounter.

Hence as persons we inhabit a life-world that is not reducible to the world of nature, any more than the life in a painting is reducible to the lines and pigments from which it is composed. If that is true, then there is something left for philosophy to do, by way of making sense of the human condition. Philosophy has the task of describing the world in which we live — not the world as science describes it, but the world as it is represented in our mutual dealings, a world organized by language, in which we meet one another I to I.