Two nonfiction books that have captured the imagination of readers recently: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari provide two different perspectives and prospects of modern humans and where they came from and where they are ultimately going.
Gawande’s vantage point is that of a surgeon and having intimate knowledge of the dilemmas and complications we all must face experiencing end of life care, either directly as a patient or as a family member of a loved one. He cites modern medicine’s reliance or fixation to control things with sophisticated and expensive tests and treatments with often only marginal benefits in longevity or quality of life. This book coincides with a series of provocative pieces like Ezekiel Emanuel’s The Atlantic article “Why I Hope to Die at 75” and Oliver Sacks‘ “My Own Life” in the New York Times. The examples cited by these articles and reinforced in the stories in Gawande’s book is that what really matters to people going through end-of-life care is not so being cured but more being respected and acknowledged as a human being. It is the power of being able to make our decisions and being able to think for ourselves. In philosophy class we called it ‘human agency’; in our everyday lives we should call it respecting our souls.
Harari’s book takes a different tract. Tracing the rapid evolution of homo sapiens within the last 150,000 years he cites a series of ‘revolutions’: the cognitive; where we acquire language, use symbols and abstract thoughts, form the basis of religion and morality; agricultural, the scientific, the industrial, followed by the informational and ultimately the bio-technological. The interesting aspect of Harari’s analysis is that the each successive is better than the previous, but thinking about the trade-offs between those ages. Although the agricultural revolution allowed for the creation of surplus in terms of food supply and division of labour, it also allowed for hierarchies, creation of private property, kingdoms and overlords, etc. In pre-agricultural societies there were limited resources for population growth, but the high protein hunter-gathering diet and the internal cooperation needed to secure food produced a better quality of life experience than the slavery and drudgery that was needed to maintain an agricultural society. And in many ways the same trade-off could be explained in the transition from agricultural society to industrial/capitalist society with the Irish potato famine and the Scottish clearances.
Similar books in the style would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and the more recent The Human Age by Diane Ackerman. The thing I find missing in Harari’s assessment of this great sweep of human history is the thing that is so primary in Gawande’s book and the articles by Emanuel and Sacks: that is the primacy of souls, our demand to be respected and to have our own intrinsic dignity upheld. This demand transcends political/ideological divisions: a conservative philosopher as such Roger Scruton in Soul of the World could find common ground with Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. Whatever technological transformation human beings will encounter, the fact remains that we must be aware we are not machines or robots to be manipulated with and marketed to; but we human beings with purpose and intent, bodies with a soul.