The book “Homo Deus”, written with extraordinary lucidity, by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a truly stimulating read.
It begins by discussing the three greatest problems that have accompanied humanity throughout history, these are: hunger, epidemics and war. Until recently – in fact only a few decades – these three problems have been reasonably controlled.
However its pathetic presence in world history is undeniable as well as the fact that the incidence of these calamities has decreased. For the first time in history, we now have more people dying from eating too much than from not eating, or from eating too little.
Now more die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more from suicide than from the weapons of soldiers. In fact, with some black humor it is mentioned that at the beginning of the 21st century, the average human is more likely to die in a robbery at a McDonald’s restaurant than as a result of a drought, Ebola or an attack by Al-Queda. Some of the most significant ideas of this book are summarized below.
For thousands of years the worst enemy of humanity was hunger. It was normal that due to a drought in ancient Egypt or medieval India ten percent or more of the population perished. In April 1694, a French official in the city of Beauvais described the impact of the famine at that time as follows: “an infinite number of poor souls, weakened by hunger and misery, dying of want because, having no job or occupation, they lack money to buy bread.
To stay alive and appease hunger, these poor people eat impure things such as cats and the meat of horses skinned and thrown on the manure heaps… Other unfortunates eat nettles and weeds, or roots and herbs that they cook beforehand.” 15% of the population of France died of hunger between 1692 and 1694. In Estonia 20% of the population also died and in Finland 25%. Between 1695 and 1698, 20% of Scots starved to death. Nowadays almost all of us know what it is like to go a day without eating (for example; due to a diet or any other justification voluntarily accepted by us), but we have no idea what it is like not to have to eat for days and days and remain without knowing when will a plate of food arrive.
Currently, but exceptionally, there are famines caused more by human factors than by natural catastrophes, in addition to the fact that governments or international NGOs operate in most of the planet that, although they do not solve poverty in depth, guarantee that people receive enough calories to survive. Actually, overeating is actually a bigger problem than hunger. Queen Marie Antoinette is said to have told the hungry crowd that “if you run out of bread, then eat cake.”
Paradoxically, it seems that this is the current situation: wealthy people eat nutritious salads and organic foods and products, while poor people eat Twinkies and Gansitos cupcakes, as well as cheetos, hamburgers and pizzas. While in 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, 850 million were undernourished. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed around one million people, while obesity killed three million.
The second historical enemy of humanity is epidemics. The Black Death began in Europe in 1330, spreading among the population thanks to rats and fleas, and killed between 75 and 200 million people. As an example of how devastating the Black Death is, it is worth noting that the population of England went from 3.7 to 2.2 million inhabitants and the city of Florence in Italy lost 50,000 of its 100,000 inhabitants.
No one knew how to stop the epidemic, let alone how to cure it.
People thought of witchcraft, angry gods or malevolent demons, but no one knew of the existence of viruses and bacteria, and even less of their molecular structure. Another even worse historical case occurred during the Spanish conquest of America. The flu, measles and other infectious diseases hit the population from 22 million in 1520 to less than two million in 1580. Something similar happened in Hawaii when Captain James Cook’s British expedition introduced tuberculosis, syphilis to the native population. , typhoid and smallpox, going from half a million in 1778, to only 70,000 survivors in 1853.
Another example is the Spanish flu pandemic of the last century which killed between 50 and 100 million people in less than a year while the first world war killed 40 million between 1914 and 1918. We currently know (WHO data) that the Covid-19 pandemic has killed approximately fifteen million people on the planet. It is clear that with modern medical-scientific infrastructure, vaccines, antibiotics and improvements in hygiene, humanity is now better prepared than ever to face these calamities. However, the vast majority of people in the world die as a result of non-infectious diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, or simply because of old age.
Despite cases notable for their high publicity – such as the current Russian invasion of Ukraine – the great wars have disappeared from the world. In ancient times wars caused approximately 15% of all deaths while during the 20th century violence caused 5% and at the beginning of this century war is responsible for only 1% of global mortality. For example, in 2012 around the world some 56 million people died, of these 620,000 due to human violence, while war killed 120,000 people and crime killed the other 500,000.
In addition, 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes. You can see that today sugar is more dangerous than gunpowder. Major wars have no longer occurred because nuclear weapons have turned war into a simple act of madness and collective suicide. These weapons have forced most of the powerful nations and their politicians to seek alternative ways of solving conflicts. While previous generations thought of peace as the temporary absence of war, today more sensibly peace is thought of as the implausibility of war.
For example, in 1913 people said that there was peace between France and Germany and meant that precisely at that time there was no war, while today no one would think that a war could break out between these two countries.
The possibility of living in a world without hunger, infections, or war, will force us to ask: What is the future of humanity? And particularly: What is the future of man? Having defeated the greatest enemies of humanity, does man now feel like God or will he seek to be God?