Book of the Week: Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Two of the most intellectually thrilling books I’ve read in the last few years are the bestselling Sapiens and this eye-opening follow up. Sapiens married biology and history to present a sweeping exploration of the rise of our species from the dawn modern cognition about 70,000 years ago until now.

In this new book Harari uses the same technique of narrative inquiry to explore where our species might be headed. Reading it, I was reminded of Stewart Brand’s comment at the dawn of the computer age: “We are as gods and we better get good at it.”

Harari argues that man has increasingly mastered technology and we are today at a tipping point. Once the product of biological evolution, man now has some of the tools to control that evolution. Moreover, our runaway advances in high level computing are starting to match the ability of the human brain—and that while machines will not soon “feel”, machine learning will soon outstrip what the human brain can do.

In a book that is chock-a-block with insight, the really startling one to me was how far we already are down the path to routinely handing off “thinking” to computational systems that do it better than humans.

Doubt that? Here’s a simple way to test the assertion: leave your phone home for a day. If you’re like me you’ll quickly realize that you’ve turned over routing your travel to a machine that can analyze the variables more quickly and efficiently than you can–and has more information about road conditions than you do. That machine can also tell you the best time to go for your run if you want to avoid rain, remind you about your appointments, help you research the people you are meeting… oh, and supply you with the name of the actress who starred with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront when your own tired biological computer can’t remember it.

The machine in your pocket is networked to an unthinkably vast collection of data—the result of combined human and machine thinking—and it’s this network and our increasing faith in “datism” that seems poised to transform the world and perhaps threaten the primacy of species Sapiens in unimaginable ways.

What Jared Diamond said of Sapiens is true also of this book: “[It] tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language.” Homo Deus is a pesky, unnerving, frightening and revelatory book. It will wake you up to the water you are already swimming in.

There’s a terrific review in The Guardian if you’d like a much more detailed assessment. I encourage you to take a look and include the conclusion here:

“This is a very intelligent book, full of sharp insights and mordant wit. But as Harari would probably be the first to admit, it’s only intelligent by human standards, which are nothing special. By the standards of the smartest machines it’s woolly and speculative. The datasets are pretty limited. Its real power comes from the sense of a distinctive consciousness behind it. It is a quirky and cool book, with a sliver of ice at its heart….But it is hard to imagine anyone could read this book without getting an occasional, vertiginous thrill….Homo Deus makes it feel as if we are standing at the edge of a cliff after a long and arduous journey. The journey doesn’t seem so important any more. We are about to step into thin air.”

Already released in the UK to great reviews, anticipation is high here—expect Homo Deus to be discussed everywhere starting with NYTBR, NPR’s All Things Considered, Wired, The LA Times Review of Books, WSJ, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, The Atlantic, Time, Washington Post Book World, The New Republic and American Scholar.

 “Throughout history, humans prayed for deliverance from famine, disease, and war with spotty success. For centuries, prophets agreed that all of the suffering was “an integral part of God’s cosmic plan.” Today, obesity kills more humans than starvation, old age more than disease, and suicide more than murder. Having reduced three horsemen of the apocalypse to technical problems, what will humans do next? Harari’s answer: we will become gods—not perfect but like Greek or Hindu gods: immortal and possessing superpowers but with some foibles….A relentlessly fascinating book that is sure to become—and deserves to be—a bestseller.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Thrilling to watch such a talented author trample so freely across so many disciplines… Harari’s skill lies in the way he tilts the prism in all these fields and looks at the world in different ways, providing fresh angles on what we thought we knew… scintillating.”
The Financial Times

Harari is an intellectual magpie who has plucked theories and data from many disciplines – including philosophy, theology, computer science and biology – to produce a brilliantly original, thought-provoking and important study of where mankind is heading.”
Evening Standard (London)

“Harari is an exceptional writer, who seems to have been specially chosen by the muses as a conduit for the zeitgeist… Fascinating reading.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)

 “Where have we been, where are we now and where are we going as a species? Pitched for the general reader with clarity, humor and many ‘aha’ examples, we are taken on an amazing journey from the dawn of humanity to the current Anthropocene Era dominated by man and the religion of Humanism. While pointing out possible pitfalls in our continuing evolution (including self-extinction), Harari remains cautiously hopeful. What separates human consciousness from other species is imagination and the drive to tell stories and Science, Politics and Religion are the tools. Is consciousness simply a sophisticated series of algorithms? Will the continued development of artificial intelligence eventually put an end to the species? We are currently in the Age of Dataism where information IS religion. This book should be required reading for all. Magnificent, profound and delightfully readable.”
— Karen Frank, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, NH

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (9780062464316) by Yuval Noah Harari. $35.00 hardcover. 2/21/17 one day laydown.

New Children’s Picture Book: I Used to Be a Fish – Tom Sullivan

Along with Words and I Am a Story, this debut is among the very best picture book offerings on our fall list. Simple Seussian illustrations walk small children through evolutionary history while opening kids’ eyes to our world’s past and possibilities.

And it includes a timeline and author’s note at the end for older children or parents who want material for further discussion.

Sullivan makes a strong debut with this clever, matter-of-fact, and much-needed look at humanity’s origins. The narrator is a boy who nonchalantly conflates evolutionary biology with his own backstory. He starts with his beginnings in the sea (hence the title) before moving on to his sprouting appendages and fur….Sullivan’s vignettes have a laid-back earnestness, each one a minimalist, sketchlike cartoon, boldly outlined and employing only three colors—bright red, vivid cerulean, and crisp white. An afterword respectfully delves deeper into the science of it all, but irreverence rules the day, and Sullivan proves that, in this regard, he’s a highly evolved talent.”

Publishers Weekly

I Used to Be a Fish (9780062451989) by Tom Sullivan. $17.99 hardcover. 10/11/16 on sale.

New Nonfiction: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

You only have to walk past display tables in the science and health sections of bookstores these days to know that “the microbiome” is one of the very hottest research—and science reading–areas right now. Microbiome discoveries have led to breakthroughs in treating intestinal disorders and asthma; it’s thought that managing the microbiome may be the answer to superbugs that have thwarted traditional antibiotics, and adjusting the microbiome may even give us breakthroughs in treating cancer.

While there been much written on the topic you won’t find a more accessible and engaging discussion than Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes. Yong is an award-winning science writer and you only have to watch a few minutes of his TED talk below on parasites to see why he’s being compared to first-rate science explainers like Richard Dawkins, Natalie Angier, David Quammen and Lisa Randall. I Contain Multitudes arrives with three starred advance reviews.

‘[Yong] argues that humans must move past the belief that bacteria are bad and need to be eradicated, and adopt a deeper understanding of the positive role they play in the lives of most organisms. Yong makes a superb case for his position by interviewing numerous scientists and presenting their fascinating work in an accessible and persuasive fashion. Throughout, he takes a holistic ecological perspective, contending that it makes no sense to examine bacteria in isolation. As in all ecological systems, context is everything…[He] shows that scientists have moved beyond the theoretical by successfully performing ‘ecosystem transplants’ of human gut microorganisms, and he envisions a future that includes ‘artisanal bacteria’ designed to perform specific tasks.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The microbiome is one of the most talked-about topics in modern science, but it’s a complex and evolving field with important nuances often missed by the media. Atlantic science writer Yong refines the natural history of these microscopic wonders and breaks down the cutting-edge science that may soon result in revolutionary medical advances….An exceptionally informative, beautifully written book that will profoundly shift one’s sense of self to that of symbiotic multitudes.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“You’re probably aware that there’s this thing called the microbiome. But what you probably do not know is that this microbiome is, as Ed Yong puts it in his beautiful and terrifying book, ‘more management than labor’….We used to think germs were hostile invaders, to be nuked from space with antibiotics and slathered out of existence with hand sanitizer. But if we treat them well and cultivate them properly, they won’t be the end of us. They’re actually kind of the boss of us.”
Wired, “This Summer’s 14 Must-Read Books”

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (9780062368591) by Ed Yong. $27.99 hardcover. 8/9/16 on sale.

New Nonfiction: This Idea Must Die – edited by John Brockman

Every new volume in this series is a cause for celebration. Not familiar? Edge.org annually poses a “big question” and the world’s most interesting thinkers from a variety of disciplines take it on. The result is a kaleidoscopic take on a corner of human inquiry. This year 175 of the world’s most brilliant minds tackle the question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Contributors include Jared Diamond, Ian McEwan, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Carr, Matt Ridley, Kevin Kelly and more.

Last year’s edition was my favorite — What Should We Be Worried About? But the bestselling volume was This Explains Everything. Why not dip and try them all? Booksellers, for my money this series deserves an annual display in every bookstore.

[A] series of humorous and thought-provoking short essays….One fascinating result of having several authors address the same topic is seeing firsthand the ways experts disagree with one another. A common thread throughout is the reminder that science and its practitioners do not exist in a vacuum: those who work in areas that many consider esoteric still fight traffic and worry about what their work will do to make the world better. Brockman succeeds in presenting scientific work that will appeal to a variety of readers, no matter their background.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Physics, statistics, robotics, linguistics, medicine–all are zestfully scrutinized in this exuberant, mind-blowing gathering of innovative thinkers.”
Booklist

“An epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology, and beyond.”
 — Atlantic Monthly

This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (9780062374349) edited by John Brockman. $15.99 trade paper original.  2/17/15 on sale.

Book of the Week – Nonfiction: Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

It’s the rare week I have two books so good that I want to walk down the street putting them in readers’ hands. If The Country of Ice Cream Star creates a carefully constructed future, Sapiens offers an eye-opening structure for understanding the evolution of human beings over the past 70,000 years. It marries biology, history and flat-out exciting writing to come up with a new narrative of the human story, as well as some ideas on where we might be going. And it’s a handsomely produced volume filled with color photos, maps and illustrations—a great gift for any reader who enjoys an intellectual thrill ride.

Already an international bestseller, the book has two starred advanced reviews here. Media in the U.S. starts with coverage in the Wall Street Journal, NYT, Washington Post, Smithsonian, The Nation and on NPR’s All Things Considered and On Point.

“Here is a simple reason why Sapiens has risen explosively to the ranks of an international best-seller. It tackles the biggest questions of history and of the modern world, and it is written in unforgettably vivid language. You will love it!”
— Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

“An encyclopedic approach from a well-versed scholar who is concise but eloquent, both skeptical and opinionated, and open enough to entertain competing points of view.…The great debates of history aired out with satisfying vigor.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Writing with wit and verve, Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attempts to explain how Homo sapiens came to be the dominant species on Earth….Harari argues persuasively that three revolutions explain our current situation. The first, the cognitive revolution, occurred approximately 70,000 years ago and gave us ‘fictive’ language, enabling humans to share social constructs as well as a powerful ‘imagined reality’ that led to complex social systems. The second, the agricultural revolution, occurred around 12,000 years ago and allowed us to settle into permanent communities. The third, the scientific revolution, began around 500 years ago and allowed us to better understand and control our world.”
— Publishers Weekly

“This title is one of the exceptional works of nonfiction that is both highly intellectual and compulsively readable… a fascinating, hearty read.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“The sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain…. Harari…is an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps will have you gasping with admiration.”
Sunday Times (London)

“Harari’s account of how we conquered the Earth astonishes with its scope and imagination…. A bravura retelling of the human story…brilliantly clear, witty and erudite.…One of those rare books that lives up to the publisher’s blurb. It really is thrilling and breath-taking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world.”
The Observer (London)

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (9780062316097) Yuval Noah Harari. $29.99 hardcover. 2/10/15 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Tales from Both Sides of the Brain – Michael S. Gazzaniga

It’s not every day I run across endorsements from professional comedy writers for a memoir by a neuroscientist. But that should tell you something about the scope of the life recalled in this book. Michael Gazzaniga was part of the team that developed the now commonly known right brain/left brain theory. Not only is he a brilliant researcher, he’s a kind of funny guy and a terrific popular science writer. (Check out Who’s In Charge, which CNBC called “an exciting, stimulating, and at times even funny read.”) Gazzaniga is a regular media figure and has appeared on PBS, NBC Nightly News and The Today Show. With a forward by Stephen Pinker and support from both the scientific community and the media, this books seems like a must-have for most Indie bookstores.

“In this fascinating memoir . . . [Gazzaniga’s] warmth and good humor virtually jump off the page. . . . Gazzaniga’s memoir should delight fans of the television series The Big Bang Theory, but it will also have tremendous appeal for non-nerds, too.”
— Booklist (Starred Review)

Tales From Both Sides of the Brain is a fun, accessible story of not just how both halves of our minds function but also how a group of brilliant and sweetly quirky neuroscientists have struggled to find answers.”
— Conan O’Brien

Gazzaniga … reveals the role of ego, politics, jealousy, envy, lust, and all the other deadly sins in the advance of human knowledge. This is a must-read for those who care about science, history, the human brain, and, speaking only metaphorically, the human heart.”
— Eric Kaplan, co-producer and writer of The Big Bang Theory

“[A] winding tale of a life lived in science and the joys of bringing science to the public. Gazzaniga’s work on the ‘split brain case studies spanned decades, universities, and medical schools, but as he makes clear, there’s much more to a life than the pursuit of science as a career. Outside his research, Gazzaniga kept busy by organizing public debates featuring William F. Buckley Jr. and others, which led Buckley to invite him on Firing Line and to write pieces for National Review, including a spoof of the Pentagon Papers…. [This book should be] of great interest to those embarking on careers in pure research, and to anyone intrigued by the story of one of the greatest discoveries in cognition.”
—  Publishers Weekly

“. . . This engaging, accessible biography . . . illustrates that work in the laboratory does not occur in a vacuum and that advances in science are sometimes inspired by people working in other fields as well as students and mentors.”
   — Library Journal

Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience (9780062228802) by Michael S. Gazzaniga. $28.99 hardcover. 2/3/15 on sale.

New Nonfiction: The Universe – edited by John Brockman

I read lots of change memos explaining why we are moving on sales dates around after our catalogs are published. Lots. Generally the reasons range from the mundane to the predictable (“timed to a new publicity opportunity…”) But this is, hands down, the coolest change memo rationale ever: to capitalize on the recent discovery of gravitational waves which proves cosmological inflation theory.”

Yeah! I am channeling a knowledgeable young woman in Perennial marketing who goes on to explain: “Inflationary theory was co-developed by Andrei Linde and Alan Guth and others in the 1980s and basically explains the ‘bang’ in The Big Bang theory. Both Linde and Guth have essays on the subject in The Universe… To understand just how big of a deal this is, watch this charming video of Professor Linde receiving the news”:

I’m still not sure what they are talking about…but I am convinced. And I guess I need to read a few essays from this book, which is part of Brockman’s series that includes Thinking, Culture, and The Mind. As with the other volumes in this series you’ll get world-class thinkers and explainers like Brian Greene and Walter Isaacson cluing you in to the astronomical (I couldn’t resist) changes surrounding us.

The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos (9780062296085) by John Brockman. $15.99 trade paper original. 6/24/14 on sale.