Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
For example, increasing numbers of schoolchildren take stimulants such as Ritalin. In 2011, 3.5 million American children were taking medications for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). In the UK the number rose from 92,000 in 1997 to 786,000 in 2012.
The original aim had been to treat attention disorders, but today completely healthy kids take such medications to improve their performance and live up to the growing expectations of teachers and parents.
Many object to this development and argue that the problem lies with the education system rather than with the children. If pupils suffer from attention disorders, stress and low grades, perhaps we ought to blame outdated teaching methods, overcrowded classrooms and an unnaturally fast tempo of life. Maybe we should modify the schools rather than the kids? It is interesting to see how the arguments have evolved. People have been quarrelling about education methods for thousands of years. Whether in ancient China or Victorian Britain,
everybody had his or her pet method, and vehemently opposed all alternatives. Yet hitherto everybody still agreed on one thing: in order to improve education, we need to change the schools. Today, for the first time in history, at least some people think it would be more efficient to change the pupils’ biochemistry.
Armies are heading the same way: 12 per cent of American soldiers in Iraq and 17 per cent of American soldiers in Afghanistan took either sleeping pills or antidepressants to help them deal with the pressure and distress of war. Fear, depression and trauma are not caused by shells, booby traps or car bombs. They are caused by hormones, neurotransmitters and neural networks. Two soldiers may find themselves shoulder to shoulder in the same ambush; one will freeze in terror, lose his wits and suffer from nightmares for years after the event; the other will charge forward courageously and win a medal. The difference is in the soldiers’ biochemistry, and if we find ways to control it we will at one stroke produce both happier soldiers and more efficient armies.
The biochemical pursuit of happiness is also the number one cause of crime in the world. In 2009 half of the inmates in US federal prisons got there because of drugs; 38 per cent of Italian prisoners were convicted of drug-related offences; 55 per cent of inmates in the UK reported that they committed their crimes in connection with either consuming or trading drugs. A 2001 report found that 62 per cent of Australian convicts were under the influence of drugs when committing the crime for which they were incarcerated.
People drink alcohol to forget, they smoke pot to feel peaceful, they take cocaine and methamphetamines to be sharp and confident, whereas Ecstasy provides ecstatic sensations and LSD sends you to meet Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. What some people hope to get by studying, working or raising a family, others try to obtain far more easily through the right dosage of molecules. This is an existential threat to the social and economic order, which is why countries wage a stubborn, bloody and hopeless war on biochemical crime.
The state hopes to regulate the biochemical pursuit of happiness, separating ‘bad’ manipulations from ‘good’ ones. The
principle is clear: biochemical manipulations that strengthen political stability, social order and economic growth are allowed and even encouraged (e.g. those that calm hyperactive kids in school, or drive anxious soldiers forward into battle). Manipulations that threaten stability and growth are banned. But each year new drugs are born in the research labs of universities, pharmaceutical companies and criminal organisations, and the needs of the state and the market also keep changing. As the biochemical pursuit of happiness accelerates, so it will reshape politics, society and economics, and it will become ever harder to bring it under control.
And drugs are just the beginning. In research labs experts are already working on more sophisticated ways of manipulating human biochemistry, such as sending direct electrical stimuli to appropriate spots in the brain, or genetically engineering the blueprints of our bodies. No matter the exact method, gaining happiness through biological manipulation won’t be easy, for it requires altering the fundamental patterns of life. But then it wasn’t easy to overcome famine, plague and war either.
It is far from certain that humankind should invest so much effort in the biochemical pursuit of happiness. Some would argue that happiness simply isn’t important enough, and that it is misguided to regard individual satisfaction as the highest aim of human society. Others may agree that happiness is indeed the supreme good, yet would take issue with the biological definition of happiness as the experience of pleasant sensations.
Some 2,300 years ago Epicurus warned his disciples that immoderate pursuit of pleasure is likely to make them miserable rather than happy. A couple of centuries earlier Buddha had made an even more radical claim, teaching that the pursuit of pleasant sensations is in fact the very root of suffering. Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Even when we experience them, we don’t react to them with contentment; rather, we just crave for more. Hence no matter how many blissful or exciting sensations I may experience, they will never satisfy me.
If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.
This Buddhist view of happiness has a lot in common with the biochemical view. Both agree that pleasant sensations disappear as fast as they arise, and that as long as people crave pleasant sensations without actually experiencing them, they remain dissatisfied. However, this problem has two very different solutions. The biochemical solution is to develop products and treatments that will provide humans with an unending stream of pleasant sensations, so we will never be without them. The Buddha’s suggestion was to reduce our craving for pleasant sensations, and not allow them to control our lives. According to Buddha, we can train our minds to observe carefully how all sensations constantly arise and pass. When the mind learns to see our sensations for what they are – ephemeral and meaningless vibrations – we lose interest in pursuing them. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises?
At present, humankind has far greater interest in the biochemical solution. No matter what monks in their Himalayan caves or philosophers in their ivory towers say, for the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Period. With each passing year our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, and our craving for pleasant sensations increases. Both scientific research and economic activity are geared to that end, each year producing better painkillers, new ice-cream flavours, more comfortable mattresses, and more addictive games for our smartphones, so that we will not suffer a single boring moment while waiting for the bus.
All this is hardly enough, of course. Since
was not adapted by evolution to experience constant pleasure, if that is what humankind nevertheless wants, ice cream and smartphone games will not do. It will be necessary to change our biochemistry and re-engineer our bodies and minds. So we are working on that. You may debate whether it is good or bad, but it seems that the second great project of the twenty-first century – to ensure global happiness – will involve re-engineering
so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure.
The Gods of Planet Earth
In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum. If we ever have the power to engineer death and pain out of our system, that same power will probably be sufficient to engineer our system in almost any manner we like, and manipulate our organs, emotions and intelligence in myriad ways. You could buy for yourself the strength of Hercules, the sensuality of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena or the madness of Dionysus if that is what you are into. Up till now increasing human power relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future it may rely more on upgrading the human body and mind, or on merging directly with our tools.
The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.
Biological engineering starts with the insight that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons were
enough to transform
– who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – into
, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure. Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old Sapiens body, and intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance, and even grow entirely new limbs. They will thereby create new godlings, who might be as different from us Sapiens as we are different from
Cyborg engineering will go a step further, merging the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes, or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and repair damage. Such a cyborg could enjoy abilities far beyond those of any organic body. For example, all parts of an organic body must be in direct contact with one another in order to function. If an elephant’s brain is in India, its eyes and ears in China and its feet in Australia, then this elephant is most probably dead, and even if it is in some mysterious sense alive, it cannot see, hear or walk. A cyborg, in contrast, could exist in numerous places at the same time. A cyborg doctor could perform emergency surgeries in Tokyo, in Chicago and in a space station on Mars, without ever leaving her Stockholm office. She will need only a fast Internet connection, and a few pairs of bionic eyes and hands. On second thoughts, why
? Why not quartets? Indeed, even those are actually superfluous. Why should a cyborg doctor hold a surgeon’s scalpel by hand, when she could connect her mind directly to the instrument?
This may sound like science fiction, but it’s already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies, through electrodes implanted in their brains. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or operate computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can already remote-control electric devices in your house using an electric ‘mind-reading’ helmet. The helmet requires no
brain implants. It functions by reading the electric signals passing through your scalp. If you want to turn on the light in the kitchen, you just wear the helmet, imagine some preprogrammed mental sign (e.g. imagine your right hand moving), and the switch turns on. You can buy such helmets online for a mere $400.
In early 2015 several hundred workers in the Epicenter high-tech hub in Stockholm had microchips implanted into their hands. The chips are about the size of a grain of rice and store personalised security information that enables workers to open doors and operate photocopiers with a wave of their hand. Soon they hope to make payments in the same way. One of the people behind the initiative, Hannes Sjoblad, explained that ‘We already interact with technology all the time. Today it’s a bit messy: we need pin codes and passwords. Wouldn’t it be easy to just touch with your hand?’
Yet even cyborg engineering is relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command-and-control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether, and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software, which could surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds, free from the limitations of organic chemistry. After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams. After all, our wildest dreams are still the product of organic chemistry.
We don’t know where these paths might lead us, nor what our godlike descendants will look like. Foretelling the future was never easy, and revolutionary biotechnologies make it even harder. For as difficult as it is to predict the impact of new technologies in fields like transportation, communication and energy, technologies for upgrading humans pose a completely different kind of challenge. Since they can be used to transform human minds and desires, people possessing present-day minds and desires by definition cannot fathom their implications.
For thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals. Yet one thing remained constant: humanity itself. Our tools and institutions are very different from those of biblical times, but the deep structures of the human mind remain the same. This is why we can still find ourselves between the pages of the Bible, in the writings of Confucius or within the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. These classics were created by humans just like us, hence we feel that they talk about us. In modern theatre productions, Oedipus, Hamlet and Othello may wear jeans and T-shirts and have Facebook accounts, but their emotional conflicts are the same as in the original play.