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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

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Official U.S. edition with full color illustrations throughout.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.

Editor's Note

What the future holds…

Few authors have the power to truly expand or alter your worldview, but Yuval Noah Harari is certainly among those few. Where Harari’s “Sapiens” gave a unique look at humanity’s evolutionary past, “Homo Deus” postulates on our possible futures.

LanguageEnglish
PublisherHarperCollins
Release dateFeb 21, 2017
ISBN9780062464354
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

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Author

Yuval Noah Harari

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, philosopher, and the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and Sapiens: A Graphic History. His books have sold over 35 million copies in 65 languages, and he is considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals today. The Guardian has credited Sapiens with revolutionizing the non-fiction market and popularizing “brainy books”. In 2020 Harari joined forces with renowned comics artists David Vandermeulen and Daniel Casanave, to create Sapiens: A Graphic History: a radical adaptation of the original Sapiens into a graphic novel series. This illustrated collection casts Yuval Noah Harari in the role of guide, who takes the reader through the entire history of the human species, accompanied by a range of fictional characters and traveling through time, space and popular culture references. Born in Haifa, Israel, in 1976, Harari received his PhD from the University of Oxford in 2002, and is currently a lecturer at the Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He originally specialized in world history, medieval history and military history, and his current research focuses on macro-historical questions such as: What is the relationship between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded? What ethical questions do science and technology raise in the 21st century?

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Reviews for Homo Deus

Rating: 3.335067637877211 out of 5 stars
3.5/5

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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Not as good as the first book, but still a lot to think about while reading it.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Es una teoría futurista, no todos esta dicho, pero pareciera muy mecánica. No me gusto tanto como sapiens.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Detailed information presented organized, relevant and with tasteful humor!!!
    One of the best reads I’ve had in my 70 years.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Harari does a wonderful job of weaving disparite things together.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    A most illuminating book! It is not super strong on specific predictions for the future, but what it may not completely achieve for the expectations of others, it exceeds tremendously in presenting, discussing and supporting the arc of possibilities for humanity. Harari uses history, biology and science to take us through the currents and forces propelling us. It altered my perspective much. Highly recommended for the deep speculative thinker!
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Amazing and a bit horrifying at the same time!
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    I have read several other books by Yuval and liked the others better. This book has a lot of good ideas and I agree with much of it but his definition of religion in this book is flawed in my opinion. He also introduces the concept of datatism at the end that seems strange. Overall I recommend this book but not as strongly as his other books.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Quite enlightening! I was amazed to find a book reflecting so well the reality.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Nice book, Great Author and Historian.
    Worth the time
    Was fun to read .
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    In Yuval Noah Harari’s previous book, Sapiens, he considered how humanity got to where we are today from a hunter-gatherer culture to a modern industrial farming systems that can support millions. In this latest volume, Home Deus, he contemplates the future; our future, and the events that will shape us in the twenty-first century.

    We have reached the apex of our abilities with current technology. Going back only a hundred years our lives were frequently cut short by famine, war and illness. Today, in the Western world at least, we have mostly conquered disease and extended our lifespan, but now we are as likely to suffer from obesity or contemplate suicide, total different challenges for the coming decades. He suggests that these will be met as we embrace the modern age of data, pervasive networks and genetic modification. That is assuming that we have a place to live as our world too is under threat because of our relentless pursuit of extracting the maximum resources for the cheapest price.

    So, what does the future hold for humanity?

    Harari ponders the possibilities and pitfalls of our future self. He asks and goes some way to answer the questions that we will have to address in the coming years. He proposes that our obsession with information flow may almost become a religion, dataism. How will we deal with the dilemma of choosing between intelligence and consciousness and what is the possibility that we might become part of a wider algorithm or part of the internet of things. These are all interesting questions and whilst he goes some way to answering them, there is a fair amount that is pure speculation and conjecture, but that is what makes this actually quite an interesting book. 3.5 stars overall.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    One of the most captivating and thought provoking book I have ever read. A MUST READ!!!!
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Definitely gets you thinking about what's next for Humanity. The book does a good job of summing up where we are now and how we got here, (reading Sapiens is not required, but I highly recommend it) the last part of the book looks into what the next possible leap for humankind is and whether it will be a very different outcome for the individual and the choices they are able to make, and the possibility of a superhuman class for those that can afford it, leaving everyone else behind. Yuval has an amazing ability to get you thinking... he presents the data that is currently known, and offers his opinion, but at the same time not forcing it on you, allowing you the opportunity to have your own opinion and respecting those that differ from his. With today's ever changing world, the book has become somewhat out of date with some of the topics covered, but that's to be expected with unpredictable events we face in these times. Can't wait for his next project!
  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    2/5
    I lost my review of this awhile back, so adding another. I think I was nicer right after I finished reading this book, but it didn't age well over time, on me. There were some interesting suggestions brought up (albeit nothing very original), and I enjoyed considering what the future of humanity and technology might look like. Now, what I remember from reading the book, is that it was long-winded, presumptive, and rather generous as far as logic goes...meh.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    1/5
    Some retreading of "Sapiens". The new material was highly speculative and generally ill-informed. Harari seems to have toured Silicon Valley after writing Sapiens, and his thoughts on technology are inaccurate and often factually wrong; one gets the impression that he credulously reads emojied Twitter posts based on clickbait Wired articles based on university press releases based on scientific papers, and never actually looks to the source itself. The book is full of ridiculous syllogisms, as in: Information is important, Humans process information, Therefore humans will outsource their decisions to Google and thanks to the Internet of Things conquer the solar system, the galaxy, and the entire universe! I very much enjoyed Sapiens, so the sloppy thinking here was quite disappointing. One star for being provocative.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    2/5
    Catchy, easy and partly also entertaining to read. Partly just irritating. Many times I had a feeling Harari was just filling in the space with words, rephrasing the same thing multiple times. The message did not deserve a whole book to be told, but at least there is a message. It is not very original and the material provided to support the theory is mostly superficial. Therefore I felt this book did not have much to offer.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    A lot of exaggerations to make the messy world conform to the grand ideas presented. The future, I'm afraid, is being wildly oversold in this one.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    Basically, technological advances will challenge liberal ideas of self and human importance. Some entertaining factoids, but if you're familiar with transhumanism you can skip the first two-thirds.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    This is the follow up to Sapiens and it is as excellent as Sapiens. A follow up and expansion. If you liked Sapiens then you mist read this, if you didn't like Sapiens then you aren't going to find much here either.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Few Thinkers today - have such a broad and deep grasp of where the future can go.Harari is a MUST READ - even if you don't agree with him - he will deepen your understanding of the forces at work today that are shaping the future we are creating. His grasp of the future is based on a deep understanding of the past and the emergence of humans.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    This book is the follow up to Sapiens which I thought was one of the best non-fiction books that I have ever read. In this book Harari spends much of the book rehashing concepts that he introduced in Sapiens. For me this helped build on these complex theories. Having had a chance to look at things through Harari's prism, I do see the concept of myths that dominate our society. He continues to build on these concepts while getting into the influence of "humanism" over the last 300 years. You begin to understand the impact of religion in restricting society from advancing against famine, plague, and war. Once the value of the human is introduced and the concept of expanding knowledge becoms the reality, we begin to see the incredible advancements that the world has made in the last 300 years. With this foundation in place, Harari begins to paint a future that is based on science and the belief that we are nothing more than algorithms of our neurons that determine behavior. He splits hairs on the concept of free will with what we feel is free choice is nothing more than an algorithm. One can debate this concept, but ultimately he postures that increased AI developments along with data gathering through google, facebook etc, and biological data gathering through devices like the Apple watch can lead to enough data being available to eliminate the need to for humans to make choices. Given this book was written in 2016, he gives examples on how data from facebook can be used to influence election strategy. Very prescient! You may not agree with his predictions but this is a thought provoking book that will make you think about the big concepts that you base your life on such as organized religion, government, and science. Along with Sapiens these are 2 books that are must reads.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    This, at many levels, is a disturbing book. It is indeed disturbing if the gentle reader pauses to contemplate the future. The thoughts he leaves us with are not new. They have been predicted by science fiction writers, and if you apply the Big Brother concept of 1984 to today's world, you will get an idea of how disturbing this can be. Indeed, in today's world of big data, electronic eavesdropping, AI, genetic research etc, indeed the possibility of a race of 'superhuman', with the mass of humanity being stooges of the same, is not that remote a possibility. The question then becomes, what happens to nations? The book is indeed well written, and is quite accessible in its style. You could argue some points. I personally believe that, despite our data and the modern rush towards algorithms, we are not algorithms. We are emotional beings who will burn the planet (and ourselves) to extinction. Having said that, he raises many pertinent issues, and it would be a mistake to dismiss them as mere speculation. An excellent book, and one that we should all read, and ponder over.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Interesting and engaging look at social forces that have shaped currently politics and philosophy with hypotheses for what the future may hold. Forecast is concerning and thought-provoking.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Until the last two chapters, I was with this book. Harari has written a book which many reviewers have taken as a dystopian prediction of the future but, which is in reality, a discussion document looking at potential futures, working on current trends.If you are as old as me, you will remember those 'Tomorrow's World' type programmes on the television: if their 1970's ideas as to life in the 21st century had been accurate, we would all be using flying cars, have limitless free energy and be living the life of luxury whilst robots undertake all the work. I don't need to tell you, that this is not quite the way things worked out! Similarly, this book is most unlikely to be a pre-history.The author does raise many interesting concepts: the end of the liberal era is something which I could see coming to pass but, I did find his dismissive attitude to religion irritating. Naturally, Mr Harari is entitled to his view as to whether a, or indeed any, religion is based on more than superstition, but to write a supposedly factual book and simply state that religion is now dead, is a little far fetched. Mr Harari goes further than this, he offers us the replacement 'religion' for the new era; he calls this 'Dataism'.Dataism is described as a new, fact based religion. It seems that human beings, if they survive, will become a sort of universal virus, collecting information just for the pleasure of knowledge. I say, 'if they survive, because the suggestion is that artificial intelligence will be far more effective at this task and that we will either become enhanced human/computer mergers or, we will replace ourselves with a homo sapiens creation. This seems unlikely to me.The wealthy, the influential, the high rollers will not negotiate themselves into a position of less power and the underclasses are sadly showing a lack of concern for the issues of significance; they are neatly side tracked into a world of 'needing the latest technology', and playing with these new toys. Capitalism will not go gently into that good night. Interestingly, a brief study of t'interweb, shows that the whole concept of 'Dataism' is far from a rapidly expanding new religion, it is a crank idea with little following.An interesting book, but don't expect it to change your life.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    1/5
    Very simplistic angle for considering humankind. Lack of system thinking.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    This was a spellbinding, captivating book. The problems of tomorrow, interrelated with the outcomes of the day, permeate this book and facilitate comprehension of what it is to be in a world full of humans who no longer understand their place. Harari's work is commendable, multilayered, and written eloquently. The questions that he poses, his answers, and the possible scenarios are desirable, yet left open-ended at the same time. This is one of the best recent non-fiction books I have read in some time. I recommend it for everyone.5 stars-- and well deserved.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    This book, a follow up to Sapiens, is just about as much a page-turner as Harari, better than anyone I can remember recently, is able to make the most complex ideas and subjects clear in his writing. The story here, however, is even more depressing than that of Sapiens. Essentially, now that Sapiens, that is Man, controls everything, what will he do with it? Harari stresses that these are only "possible" futures, but there is little doubt that the super-rich and super-powerful will take advantage of medical advances to extend their own lifespans and further increase their dominance over the rest of us. In Harari's worst scenario, most human beings simply don't have any reason for existence in the brave new world that is coming closer every day. And when that happens, will the rich even care to feed us? Or will they think of us the same way we think of cows and pigs, merely lower animals to be exploited? Yes, it's bleak, and my summary doesn't begin to do it justice, but you need to read it. Yes, Harari can be a bit annoying at times. He is so sure of so many things, and he makes broad sweeping statements indicating that religion really doesn't count for much these days. Obviously he doesn't live in the United States.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    A good, if somewhat long prophecy and pitch for the future of humanity and how society and humanism is going to change in this process. Whilst interesting, thought provoking and certainly well argued, with layered thoughts and conclusions, this was prophecy with a heart of ice. Do we seek these changes that are happening to us? Are we happy with them? Is it what we want long term? Thought provoking and intriguing

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    At first, I was frustrated because this book seemed a bit long-winded - I mean... 500+ pages?

    But I can tell you that it was worth it. I think that each person will get something different from this book. And each person will view the goal of the book differently - perhaps even different than the author themselves - but I am certain that whoever you are, you will be prompted to think of things as you never have before.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
    2/5
    Overhyped. The beginning sounds like he will create a grand structure and paradigm to understand the future. However, he ends up rambling about numerous subjects, like politics, economics, health, and technology, for which he has little expertise in.

    Most of his claims within these topics can be easily refuted by current experts in their respective fields or soon will be obviously outdated and misguided by the general population.

    The worst part is that he sounds like a person that has gone through a mental break at the end of the book. He starts rambling about how everyone will be obsessed with gathering data and uploading data for its “own sake,” not for cultural pressures or biological pressures, but because algorithms want data and we need to feed this data monster.

    This data monster won’t necessarily kill us or enslave us, but just see us as a small piece of the puzzle to its data consumption quest. No exaggeration. What the f**k?

    He perpetuates some infuriating misconceptions about “how people have been becoming increasingly more useless” even the statistics show increased worker productivity going back decades. However, as much as those parts annoyed me, I feel no real good reason to refute his ultimate points because they are so stupid.

    2 people found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    insightful but indeed im struggling with his 3 questions. he is right about the notion of logic value

    1 person found this helpful

Book preview

Homo Deus - Yuval Noah Harari

1

The New Human Agenda

At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind. ‘There was something with barbed wire, and huge mushroom clouds. Oh well, it was just a bad dream.’ Going to the bathroom, humanity washes its face, examines its wrinkles in the mirror, makes a cup of coffee and opens the diary. ‘Let’s see what’s on the agenda today.’

For thousands of years the answer to this question remained unchanged. The same three problems preoccupied the people of twentieth-century China, of medieval India and of ancient Egypt. Famine, plague and war were always at the top of the list. For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems – but they continued to die in their millions from starvation, epidemics and violence. Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them.

Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realisation. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it.

True, there are still notable failures; but when faced with such failures we no longer shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way things work in our imperfect world’ or ‘God’s will be done’. Rather, when famine, plague or war break out of our control, we feel that somebody must have screwed up, we set up a commission of inquiry, and promise ourselves that next time we’ll do better. And it actually works. Such calamities indeed happen less and less often. For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

Hence even though presidents, CEOs and generals still have their daily schedules full of economic crises and military conflicts, on the cosmic scale of history humankind can lift its eyes up and start looking towards new horizons. If we are indeed bringing famine, plague and war under control, what will replace them at the top of the human agenda? Like firefighters in a world without fire, so humankind in the twenty-first century needs to ask itself an unprecedented question: what are we going to do with ourselves? In a healthy, prosperous and harmonious world, what will demand our attention and ingenuity? This question becomes doubly urgent given the immense new powers that biotechnology and information technology are providing us with. What will we do with all that power?

Before answering this question, we need to say a few more words about famine, plague and war. The claim that we are bringing them under control may strike many as outrageous, extremely naïve, or perhaps callous. What about the billions of people scraping a living on less than $2 a day? What about the ongoing AIDS crisis in Africa, or the wars raging in Syria and Iraq? To address these concerns, let us take a closer look at the world of the early twenty-first century, before exploring the human agenda for the coming decades.

The Biological Poverty Line

Let’s start with famine, which for thousands of years has been humanity’s worst enemy. Until recently most humans lived on the very edge of the biological poverty line, below which people succumb to malnutrition and hunger. A small mistake or a bit of bad luck could easily be a death sentence for an entire family or village. If heavy rains destroyed your wheat crop, or robbers carried off your goat herd, you and your loved ones may well have starved to death. Misfortune or stupidity on the collective level resulted in mass famines. When severe drought hit ancient Egypt or medieval India, it was not uncommon that 5 or 10 per cent of the population perished. Provisions became scarce; transport was too slow and expensive to import sufficient food; and governments were far too weak to save the day.

Open any history book and you are likely to come across horrific accounts of famished populations, driven mad by hunger. In April 1694 a French official in the town of Beauvais described the impact of famine and of soaring food prices, saying that his entire district was now filled with ‘an infinite number of poor souls, weak from hunger and wretchedness and dying from want, because, having no work or occupation, they lack the money to buy bread. Seeking to prolong their lives a little and somewhat to appease their hunger, these poor folk eat such unclean things as cats and the flesh of horses flayed and cast onto dung heaps. [Others consume] the blood that flows when cows and oxen are slaughtered, and the offal that cooks throw into the streets. Other poor wretches eat nettles and weeds, or roots and herbs which they boil in water.’¹

Similar scenes took place all over France. Bad weather had ruined the harvests throughout the kingdom in the previous two years, so that by the spring of 1694 the granaries were completely empty. The rich charged exorbitant prices for whatever food they managed to hoard, and the poor died in droves. About 2.8 million French – 15 per cent of the population – starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while the Sun King, Louis XIV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles. The following year, 1695, famine struck Estonia, killing a fifth of the population. In 1696 it was the turn of Finland, where a quarter to a third of people died. Scotland suffered from severe famine between 1695 and 1698, some districts losing up to 20 per cent of their inhabitants.²

Most readers probably know how it feels when you miss lunch, when you fast on some religious holiday, or when you live for a few days on vegetable shakes as part of a new wonder diet. But how does it feel when you haven’t eaten for days on end and you have no clue where to get the next morsel of food? Most people today have never experienced this excruciating torment. Our ancestors, alas, knew it only too well. When they cried to God, ‘Deliver us from famine!’, this is what they had in mind.

During the last hundred years, technological, economic and political developments have created an increasingly robust safety net separating humankind from the biological poverty line. Mass famines still strike some areas from time to time, but they are exceptional, and they are almost always caused by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes. There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.

In most parts of the planet, even if a person has lost his job and all of his possessions, he is unlikely to die from hunger. Private insurance schemes, government agencies and international NGOs may not rescue him from poverty, but they will provide him with enough daily calories to survive. On the collective level, the global trade network turns droughts and floods into business opportunities, and makes it possible to overcome food shortages quickly and cheaply. Even when wars, earthquakes or tsunamis devastate entire countries, international efforts usually succeed in preventing famine. Though hundreds of millions still go hungry almost every day, in most countries very few people actually starve to death.

Poverty certainly causes many other health problems, and malnutrition shortens life expectancy even in the richest countries on earth. In France, for example, 6 million people (about 10 per cent of the population) suffer from nutritional insecurity. They wake up in the morning not knowing whether they will have anything to eat for lunch; they often go to sleep hungry; and the nutrition they do obtain is unbalanced and unhealthy – lots of starch, sugar and salt, and not enough protein and vitamins.³ Yet nutritional insecurity isn’t famine, and France of the early twenty-first century isn’t France of 1694. Even in the worst slums around Beauvais or Paris, people don’t die because they have not eaten for weeks on end.

The same transformation has occurred in numerous other countries, most notably China. For millennia, famine stalked every Chinese regime from the Yellow Emperor to the Red communists. A few decades ago China was a byword for food shortages. Tens of millions of Chinese starved to death during the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and experts routinely predicted that the problem would only get worse. In 1974 the first World Food Conference was convened in Rome, and delegates were treated to apocalyptic scenarios. They were told that there was no way for China to feed its billion people, and that the world’s most populous country was heading towards catastrophe. In fact, it was heading towards the greatest economic miracle in history. Since 1974 hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, and though hundreds of millions more still suffer greatly from privation and malnutrition, for the first time in its recorded history China is now free from famine.

Indeed, in most countries today overeating has become a far worse problem than famine. In the eighteenth century Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving masses that if they ran out of bread, they should just eat cake instead. Today, the poor are following this advice to the letter. Whereas the rich residents of Beverly Hills eat lettuce salad and steamed tofu with quinoa, in the slums and ghettos the poor gorge on Twinkie cakes, Cheetos, hamburgers and pizza. In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.⁴ In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.⁵

Invisible Armadas

After famine, humanity’s second great enemy was plagues and infectious diseases. Bustling cities linked by a ceaseless stream of merchants, officials and pilgrims were both the bedrock of human civilisation and an ideal breeding ground for pathogens. People consequently lived their lives in ancient Athens or medieval Florence knowing that they might fall ill and die next week, or that an epidemic might suddenly erupt and destroy their entire family in one swoop.

2. Medieval people personified the Black Death as a horrific demonic force beyond human control or comprehension.

2.The Triumph of Death, c.1562, Bruegel, Pieter the Elder © The Art Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

The most famous such outbreak, the so-called Black Death, began in the 1330s, somewhere in east or central Asia, when the flea-dwelling bacterium Yersinia pestis started infecting humans bitten by the fleas. From there, riding on an army of rats and fleas, the plague quickly spread all over Asia, Europe and North Africa, taking less than twenty years to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Between 75 million and 200 million people died – more than a quarter of the population of Eurasia. In England, four out of ten people died, and the population dropped from a pre-plague high of 3.7 million people to a post-plague low of 2.2 million. The city of Florence lost 50,000 of its 100,000 inhabitants.

The authorities were completely helpless in the face of the calamity. Except for organising mass prayers and processions, they had no idea how to stop the spread of the epidemic – let alone cure it. Until the modern era, humans blamed diseases on bad air, malicious demons and angry gods, and did not suspect the existence of bacteria and viruses. People readily believed in angels and fairies, but they could not imagine that a tiny flea or a single drop of water might contain an entire armada of deadly predators.

3. The real culprit was the minuscule Yersinia pestis bacterium.

3.© NIAID/CDC/Science Photo Library.

The Black Death was not a singular event, nor even the worst plague in history. More disastrous epidemics struck America, Australia and the Pacific Islands following the arrival of the first Europeans. Unbeknown to the explorers and settlers, they brought with them new infectious diseases against which the natives had no immunity. Up to 90 per cent of the local populations died as a result.

On 5 March 1520 a small Spanish flotilla left the island of Cuba on its way to Mexico. The ships carried 900 Spanish soldiers along with horses, firearms and a few African slaves. One of the slaves, Francisco de Eguía, carried on his person a far deadlier cargo. Francisco didn’t know it, but somewhere among his trillions of cells a biological time bomb was ticking: the smallpox virus. After Francisco landed in Mexico the virus began to multiply exponentially within his body, eventually bursting out all over his skin in a terrible rash. The feverish Francisco was taken to bed in the house of a Native American family in the town of Cempoallan. He infected the family members, who infected the neighbours. Within ten days Cempoallan became a graveyard. Refugees spread the disease from Cempoallan to the nearby towns. As town after town succumbed to the plague, new waves of terrified refugees carried the disease throughout Mexico and beyond.

The Mayas in the Yucatán Peninsula believed that three evil gods – Ekpetz, Uzannkak and Sojakak – were flying from village to village at night, infecting people with the disease. The Aztecs blamed it on the gods Tezcatlipoca and Xipetotec, or perhaps on the black magic of the white people. Priests and doctors were consulted. They advised prayers, cold baths, rubbing the body with bitumen and smearing squashed black beetles on the sores. Nothing helped. Tens of thousands of corpses lay rotting in the streets, without anyone daring to approach and bury them. Entire families perished within a few days, and the authorities ordered that the houses were to be collapsed on top of the bodies. In some settlements half the population died.

In September 1520 the plague had reached the Valley of Mexico, and in October it entered the gates of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan – a magnificent metropolis of 250,000 people. Within two months at least a third of the population perished, including the Aztec emperor Cuitláhuac. Whereas in March 1520, when the Spanish fleet arrived, Mexico was home to 22 million people, by December only 14 million were still alive. Smallpox was only the first blow. While the new Spanish masters were busy enriching themselves and exploiting the natives, deadly waves of flu, measles and other infectious diseases struck Mexico one after the other, until in 1580 its population was down to less than 2 million.

Two centuries later, on 18 January 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook reached Hawaii. The Hawaiian islands were densely populated by half a million people, who lived in complete isolation from both Europe and America, and consequently had never been exposed to European and American diseases. Captain Cook and his men introduced the first flu, tuberculosis and syphilis pathogens to Hawaii. Subsequent European visitors added typhoid and smallpox. By 1853, only 70,000 survivors remained in Hawaii.

Epidemics continued to kill tens of millions of people well into the twentieth century. In January 1918 soldiers in the trenches of northern France began dying in the thousands from a particularly virulent strain of flu, nicknamed ‘the Spanish Flu’. The front line was the end point of the most efficient global supply network the world had hitherto seen. Men and munitions were pouring in from Britain, the USA, India and Australia. Oil was sent from the Middle East, grain and beef from Argentina, rubber from Malaya and copper from Congo. In exchange, they all got Spanish Flu. Within a few months, about half a billion people – a third of the global population – came down with the virus. In India it killed 5 per cent of the population (15 million people). On