Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (10 page)

What’s true of grand social revolutions is equally true at the micro level of everyday life. A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.

Stone Age hunter-gatherers did not cultivate grass at the entrance to their caves. No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem or the Forbidden City in Beijing. The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.

Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’ The bigger and neater the lawn, the more powerful the dynasty. If you came to visit a duke and saw that his lawn was in bad shape, you knew he was in trouble.

The precious lawn was often the setting for important celebrations and social events, and at all other times was strictly off-limits. To this day, in countless palaces, government buildings and public venues a stern sign commands people to ‘Keep off the grass’. In my former Oxford college the entire quad was formed of a large,
attractive lawn, on which we were allowed to walk or sit on only one day a year. On any other day, woe to the poor student whose foot desecrated the holy turf.

Royal palaces and ducal chateaux turned the lawn into a symbol of authority. When in the late modern period kings were toppled and dukes were guillotined, the new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns. Parliaments, supreme courts, presidential residences and other public buildings increasingly proclaimed their power in row upon row of neat green blades. Simultaneously, lawns conquered the world of sports. For thousands of years humans played on almost every conceivable kind of ground, from ice to desert. Yet in the last two centuries, the really important games – such as football and tennis – are played on lawns. Provided, of course, you have money. In the
of Rio de Janeiro the future generation of Brazilian football is kicking makeshift balls over sand and dirt. But in the wealthy suburbs, the sons of the rich are enjoying themselves over meticulously kept lawns.

Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth. No wonder that in the nineteenth century the rising bourgeoisie enthusiastically adopted the lawn. At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences. Yet when the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.

This was when a new rite was added to the suburban liturgy. After Sunday morning service at church, many people devotedly mowed their lawns. Walking along the streets, you could quickly ascertain the wealth and position of every family by the size and quality of their turf. There is no surer sign that something is wrong at the Joneses’ than a neglected lawn in the front yard. Grass is nowadays the most widespread crop in the USA after maize and wheat, and the lawn industry (plants, manure, mowers, sprinklers, gardeners) accounts for billions of dollars every year.

The lawns of Château de Chambord, in the Loire Valley. King François I built it in the early sixteenth century. This is where it all began.

© CHICUREL Arnaud/Getty Images.

A welcoming ceremony in honour of Queen Elizabeth II – on the White House lawn.

© American Spirit/Shutterstock.com.

Mario Götze scores the decisive goal, giving Germany the World Cup in 2014 – on the Maracanã lawn.

© Imagebank/Chris Brunskill/Getty Images/Bridgeman Images.

Petit-bourgeois paradise.

© H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images.

The lawn did not remain solely a European or American craze. Even people who have never visited the Loire Valley see US presidents giving speeches on the White House lawn, important football games played out in green stadiums, and Homer and Bart Simpson quarrelling about whose turn it is to mow the grass. People all over the globe associate lawns with power, money and prestige. The lawn has therefore spread far and wide, and is now set to conquer even the heart of the Muslim world. Qatar’s newly built Museum of Islamic Art is flanked by magnificent lawns that hark back to Louis XIV’s Versailles much more than to Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. They were designed and constructed by an American company, and their more than 100,000 square metres of grass – in the midst of the Arabian desert – require a stupendous amount of fresh water each day to stay green. Meanwhile, in the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East.

Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do it. But you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation. This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course this is not total freedom – we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.

A Gun in Act I

All the predictions that pepper this book are no more than an attempt to discuss present-day dilemmas, and an invitation to change the future. Predicting that humankind will try to gain immortality, bliss and divinity is much like predicting that people building a house
will want a lawn in their front yard. It sounds very likely. But once you say it out loud, you can begin to think about alternatives.

People are taken aback by dreams of immortality and divinity not because they sound so foreign and unlikely, but because it is uncommon to be so blunt. Yet when they start thinking about it, most people realise that it actually makes a lot of sense. Despite the technological hubris of these dreams, ideologically they are old news. For 300 years the world has been dominated by humanism, which sanctifies the life, happiness and power of
Homo sapiens
. The attempt to gain immortality, bliss and divinity merely takes the long-standing humanist ideals to their logical conclusion. It places openly on the table what we have for a long time kept hidden under our napkin.

Yet I would now like to place something else on the table: a gun. A gun that appears in Act I, to fire in Act III. The following chapters discuss how humanism – the worship of humankind – has conquered the world. Yet the rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall. While the attempt to upgrade humans into gods takes humanism to its logical conclusion, it simultaneously exposes humanism’s inherent flaws. If you start with a flawed ideal, you often appreciate its defects only when the ideal is close to realisation.

We can already see this process at work in geriatric hospital wards. Due to an uncompromising humanist belief in the sanctity of human life, we keep people alive till they reach such a pitiful state that we are forced to ask, ‘What exactly is so sacred here?’ Due to similar humanist beliefs, in the twenty-first century we are likely to push humankind as a whole beyond its limits. The same technologies that can upgrade humans into gods might also make humans irrelevant. For example, computers powerful enough to understand and overcome the mechanisms of ageing and death will probably also be powerful enough to replace humans in any and all tasks.

Hence the real agenda in the twenty-first century is going to be far more complicated than what this long opening chapter has suggested. At present it might seem that immortality, bliss and divinity occupy the top slots on our agenda. But once we come nearer to achieving these goals the resulting upheavals are likely to deflect us towards entirely different destinations. The future described in this
chapter is merely the future of the past – i.e. a future based on the ideas and hopes that dominated the world for the last 300 years. The real future – i.e. a future born of the new ideas and hopes of the twenty-first century – might be completely different.

To understand all this we need to go back and investigate who
Homo sapiens
really is, how humanism became the dominant world religion and why attempting to fulfil the humanist dream is likely to cause its disintegration. This is the basic plan of the book.

The first part of the book looks at the relationship between
Homo sapiens
and other animals, in an attempt to comprehend what makes our species so special. Some readers may wonder why animals receive so much attention in a book about the future. In my view, you cannot have a serious discussion about the nature and future of humankind without beginning with our fellow animals.
Homo sapiens
does its best to forget the fact, but it is an animal. And it is doubly important to remember our origins at a time when we seek to turn ourselves into gods. No investigation of our divine future can ignore our own animal past, or our relations with other animals – because the relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans. You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.