Yuval Noah Harari, the Gilgamesh Project, and the Science Industry

|
November 8, 2022

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Yuval Noah Harari, the Gilgamesh Project, and the Science Industry

Transhumanism is a philosophical and technological movement that seeks to enhance human cognition and longevity. With emerging technologies that promise to overcome fundamental human limitations, Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian, believes that we are among the “final generations” of homo sapiens on Earth.[1] This re-genesis would be a time of superhuman “gods”, where Christianity and Islam, communism and capitalism, and male and female can become relics of a primitive past.[2]

 

Elixir of Lies

In a recent interview, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump, said, “I think there is a good probability that my generation, hopefully, with the advances in science, will either be the first generation to live forever or the last generation that’s gonna die.”[3] An unnamed aide said that this comment was made in jest,[4] but it is noteworthy that Kushner and Harari are both regulars at World Economic Forum meetings in Davos,[5] [6] [7] and are most probably familiar with each other’s work.

The Gilgamesh Project is a term used to describe efforts in modern science to solve the “technical problem” of death.[8] Science has already come a long way in extending life expectancy and limiting child mortality. The next step is to create a bionic immune system made up of nanobots that open blocked arteries and fight bacteria and cancer cells. They will try to find ways to slow down or stop the aging process as well.[9]

Liberalism has no real philosophy of death and no conception of an afterlife. Death is seen simply as a technical problem caused by “technical failures” (organ failures, diseases, accidents). So, to increase the freedom and agency of the individual, death should be cancelled, or we should die trying. The goal is to become “a-mortal” i.e. immune from natural death, but still vulnerable to murder and accidents.[10]

The quest for the fountain of youth (mā’ al-ḥayāt), the elixir of life (al-iksir al-ḥayāt) or the holy grail is an ancient one. The Gilgamesh Project is only a naturalist reincarnation of it, having died in its previous alchemical form. The irony, of course, is that Gilgamesh, at the end of his epic journey, learned that death is the inevitable destiny of man.

I applaud all efforts to save and preserve life. But the desire for immortality is an egotistical failure to recognize our weakness as a contingent creation. Death is what gives value to our time, because the finite nature of our lives is what makes us get up in the morning, produce work, do good deeds, and tell our loved ones that we care. The finish line also exists to remind us that we are not gods.

None of us have gone into the dark and come back from it. The Islamic thesis is that those who trust God and live in accordance with His prescriptions, both legal and spiritual, are promised a goodly life (16:97) that is wholesome and honourable. In this understanding, when we finally do pass through the womb of this world, we will find eternal youth in the undiscovered country. There, we will live forevermore – not with power-hungry psychopaths, but with the Beloved and His Beloveds.

Put in another way: you must choose to be and not to be, for those who think they can be forever will only spend forever not being

 

Unnatural Selection

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes that “organisms are algorithms”.[11] This includes humans, who consist of algorithms that produce copies of themselves. Sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviours all come from these algorithms. In an evolutionary worldview, these biological algorithms were produced over billions of years of random variation and natural selection. The human essence is not the soul for Harari – it is DNA.[12] Soon, he says, we will be able to rewrite DNA strands and engineer a new species of humans.[13]

“Now humankind is poised to replace natural selection with intelligent design, and to extend life from the organic realm into the inorganic.”[14]

The realization that DNA is an informational code for all living things was made by Francis Crick in 1953. The four chemicals that form the basis of DNA function like alphabetical characters in a written language, or like code in software.[15] They carry instructions to build the proteins that cells need to stay alive. This “code” is even arranged in very particular sequences that would usually be degraded if changed.

In other words, there is highly complex genetic information inside the DNA molecule.

So, are we going from natural selection to intelligent design? I believe in almost the reverse. As Stephen Meyer often points out, our lived experience says that all information comes from a mind. Just like coding comes from programmers, and just like books come from authors, inference to the best explanation would suggest that information in DNA also comes from a mind.[16] Meyer’s reasoning would suggest, for example, that DNA is like a book – it cannot be written by unguided chance – or like a video game – it cannot be developed out of unguided inputs and variations.

The existence of genetic information is so problematic that Crick went on to hypothesize that it was engineered by an alien intelligence that seeded life onto this planet.[17]

For Harari, the time is coming where homo sapiens will tinker with this code to gain new biological properties. Science won’t just stop at healing the sick, but it will try to slow down the aging process, boost cognitive functions, strengthen immune systems, fill bodies with nanobots, and buff lifespans.[18] Hence, “homo Deus”. While ethics boards may resist transhumanism, all it takes is one country to develop these superhumans for other countries to follow suit as a national security measure. Thus, if transhumanism is embraced for survival purposes, then it begins to look a lot like a new form of natural selection. Designed, sure, but by a subpar, hasty, and selfish intelligence – the human being. Societies that fail to adapt and compete with these superhumans would go the way of the dodo bird.

 

“I believe in Science™”

The science that we all know and love is empirical data discovered through experimentation and observation. It has brought us much good in the modern world. But “Science™” has become a vague entity that holds the highest seat of authority in the modern day. It aspires toward the highest greatness. Science today is seen as the key to unlock this a-mortality, engineer the next stage of human evolution, develop advanced pharmaceuticals, foster space exploration, merge man and machine, create cutting-edge security and surveillance, and put us in a constant state of bliss. In a word, it will become a god that people will turn to for the solution of all of life’s problems. This god will also need its own tithes to fund Big Tech, Big Pharma, and technocrats.

In this sense, it’ll resemble the fake alchemy that promised practitioners gold and eternal life but failed to deliver either. A lot of these promises will come with their own side effects, profit motives, accidents, and general short-sightedness.

As Jon Stewart once said to Stephen Colbert, “Science is incredible, but they don’t know when to stop, and nobody in the room with those cats ever goes ‘I dunno if we should do that’ … the last word man utters will be somewhere in a lab where a guy goes ‘ha, it worked!’”[19] [20]

Science moves faster than any bureaucracy can regulate it. If it can do something, it will do it. It takes decades to realize if something was good overall for society or bad (take social media as an example). By then, we cannot choose to go back. Remember what J. Robert Oppenheimer said after the Manhattan Project invented the atomic bomb. The explosion brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”[21]

Any science that is unguided by the right metaphysics, ethics, and praxis can easily turn into a thorn in our side. Humanity must proceed with caution, or else we will engineer our own demise.

[1] Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pp. 350

[2] Ibid, pp. 350

[3] Cheryl Teh, “Jared Kushner says he’s been trying to keep his body in shape because he might one day become immortal”, Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/jared-kushner-keeping-fit-thinks-he-might-live-forever-2022-8

[4] Ibid

[5] World Economic Forum website, https://www.weforum.org/people/yuval-noah-harari

[6] Ibid, https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_AM22_Official_List_of_Participants.pdf

[7] Silvia Amaro, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin: Here’s the US team attending Davos this year”, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/15/us-trump-delegation-attending-the-world-economic-forum-2020.html

[8] Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, pp. 27

[9] Ibid, pp. 27-28

[10] Ibid, pp. 30

[11] Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, pp. 80

[12] Ibid, pp. 100

[13] Ibid, pp. 140

[14] Ibid, pp. 72

[15] Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, pp. 202-203

[16] Ibid, pp. 223, 229, 261.

[17] Crick, Life Itself, pp. 88, 95-166. See also Crick and Orgel, “Directed Panspermia.”

[18] Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pp. 231

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSfejgwbDQ8

[20] https://youtu.be/jtTvXZ5lby8

[21] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb13ynu3Iac

2022-11-12T09:17:26-08:00
Published Date: November 8, 2022
Topics:

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
View all publications

Subscribe

Loading