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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Salvation by algorithm: God, technology and the new 21st-century religions

With its world-changing inventiveness, technology has become the force religion once was.

More than a century after Nietz­sche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is probably a mirage. Despite all the talk of Islamic fundamentalism and Christian revival, God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body.

Nowadays, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not Syria or the Bible Belt, but Silicon ­Valley. That is where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us amazing new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology. They promise all the old prizes – happiness, peace, justice and eternal life in paradise – but here on Earth with the help of technology, rather than ­after death and with the help of supernatural beings. (Of course, this does not mean that these techno-religions will fulfil all their extravagant promises. Religions spread themselves more by making promises than by keeping them.)

Godless religions are nothing new. Thousands of years ago Buddhism put its trust in the natural laws of karma and paiccasamuppāda (dependent origination) rather than almighty deities. In recent centuries creeds such as communism and Nazism have also upheld a system of norms and values based on allegedly natural laws rather than on the commandments of some supernatural being. These modern creeds prefer to call themselves “ideologies” rather than “religions” but, seen from a long-term perspective, they play a role analogous to that of traditional faiths such as Christianity and Hinduism. Both Christianity and communism were created by human beings rather than by gods, and are defined by their social functions rather than by the existence of deities. In essence, religion is anything that legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.

The assertion that religion is a tool for organising human societies may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, religion and spirituality are very different things. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. “God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you will burn in hell.” The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The search often begins with some big question, such as: who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit. Often enough, one of the most important obligations for spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. In Zen Buddhism it is said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Which means that if, while walking on the spiritual path, you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutional Buddhism, you must free yourself from them, too.

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, because it is a lonely path, fit only for individuals rather than entire societies. Human co-operation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who rage against stultified religious structures often end up forging new ones in their place. It happened to Martin Luther, who – after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church – found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to the Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth, they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of conventional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.

***

Because they are human creations that seek to cater to human fears and hopes, religions always dance a delicate tango with the technology of the day. Religion and technology push one another, depend on one another, and cannot stray too far from one another. Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some priest or prophet to make the crucial choices and point towards the required destination. Thus, in the 19th century, engineers invented locomotives, radios and the internal combustion engine. But as the 20th century proved, you can use these same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships or liberal democracies. Without religious or ideological convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go.

On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious vision, like a waiter who demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. For instance, in ancient agricultural societies many religions had surprisingly little interest in metaphysical questions and the afterlife. Instead, they focused on the very mundane task of increasing agricultural output. The Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death. Rather, he tells the people of Israel:

 

“And if you will diligently obey my commandments that I am commanding you [. . .] I will also give rain for your land at its appointed time [. . .] and you will gather your grain and your new wine and your oil. And I will provide vegetation in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful not to let your heart be enticed to go astray and worship other gods and bow down to them. Otherwise, Jehovah’s anger will blaze against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will not give its produce and you will quickly perish from the good land that Jehovah is giving you.”

Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

 

Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations the ancient farmers had of their gods. And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain – the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all of their drinking water from the sea. Consequently, present-day Judaism has almost lost interest in rain and agricultural output and has become a very different religion from its biblical progenitor.

The faithful may believe that their religion is eternal and unchanging, but in truth even when they keep their names intact, religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have no fixed essence. They have survived for centuries and millennia not by clinging to some eternal values, but by repeatedly pouring heady new wine into very old skins. For all the heated debate about the supposed nature of Islam – whether it is in essence a religion of peace or a religion of war – the truth is that it is neither. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it, and over the centuries they have made of it remarkably different things.

 

 

***

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that “Islam is the answer”, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms people in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a vast new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn 80 into the new 50? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor and between the remaining productive class and the new useless class?

You will not find the answers to any of these urgent questions in the Quran or sharia law, nor in the Bible and the Confucian Analects, because nobody in the medieval Middle East nor anyone in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor.

True, hundreds of millions may go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, but numbers alone don’t count for much in history. Ten thousand years ago most human beings were hunter-gatherers and only a few myriad pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers. In 1850, more than 90 per cent of humanity lived as peasants, and in the small villages along the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze nobody knew anything about steam engines, trains or telegraph. Yet the fate of these peasants and villages had already been sealed in Manchester and Birmingham by the handful of engineers, politicians, financiers and visionaries who spearheaded the Industrial Revolution.

Even when the Industrial Revolution spread around the world and penetrated up the Ganges, Nile and Yangtze, most people continued to believe in the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran more than in the steam engine. As of today, so too in the 19th century there was no shortage of priests, mystics and gurus who argued that they alone hold the solution to all of humanity’s problems. In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed bin Abdalla declared that he was the Mahdi (the Messiah), sent to establish the law of God on Earth. His supporters defeated an Anglo-Egyptian army and beheaded its commander – General Charles Gordon – in a gesture that shocked Victorian Britain. They then established in Sudan an Islamic theocracy governed by the sharia.

In Europe, Pope Pius IX led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma. Among other initiatives, he established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the pope can never err in matters of faith. In China a failed scholar called Hong Xiuquan had a religious vision, in which God revealed that Hong was none other than the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent to establish the “Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven” on Earth. Instead of proceeding to establish a kingdom of peace, Hong led his followers into the Taiping Rebellion – the deadliest war of the 19th century. In 14 years of warfare (1850-64), at least 20 million people lost their lives, far more than in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War. Meanwhile, in India, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati led a Hindu revival movement whose main principle was that the Vedas are never wrong.

Hundreds of millions clung to such religious dogmas even as factories, railroads and steamships filled the world. Yet most of us don’t think about the 1800s as the age of faith. When we think of 19th-century visionaries, we are far more likely to recall Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin than the Mahdi, Pius IX or Hong Xiuquan. And rightly so. Although in 1850 socialism was just a small fringe movement, it soon gathered momentum and turned the world upside down. If you count on national health services, pension funds and free education, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than the Mahdi and Hong Xiuquan.

Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where the Mahdi and Hong failed? Because Marx and Lenin were relevant to their time. They studied new technologies and novel economic structures instead of perusing ancient texts. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems as well as unprecedented opportunities. The needs, hopes and fears of the new urban proletarian class were simply too different from those of biblical peasants. To answer these needs, hopes and fears, Marx and Lenin studied how a steam engine functions, how a coal mine operates, how railroads shape the economy, and how electricity influences politics.

Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. “Communism?” he answered. “Communism is power to the soviets [workers’ councils] plus electrifi­cation of the whole country.” There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. Marx and his followers understood the new technological and economic realities, and so they had relevant answers to the new problems of industrialised society, as well as original ideas about how to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities.

The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history and changing the foundations of human discourse. Up until then, the great religious debates revolved around gods, souls and the afterlife. Naturally, there were differences between the economic ideas of Sunnis, Shias, Catholics and Protestants. Yet these were side issues. People defined and categorised themselves according to their views about God, not production methods. After Marx, however, questions of technology and economic production became far more divisive and important than questions about the soul and the afterlife.

In the second half of the 20th century, humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods. Even the harshest critics of Marx and Lenin adopted both men’s basic attitude towards history and society, and began thinking about technology and production much more carefully than about God.

***

In the 19th century few people were as perceptive as Marx, and only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening and therefore missed the train of progress. Dayanand’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the past few years has India managed to close the geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still lagging far behind.

In the early 21st century the train of progress is once more pulling out of the station. And this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. Whereas during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century human beings learned to produce vehicles, weapons, textiles and food, in the new industrial revolution of the 21st century human beings are learning to produce themselves. The main products of the coming decades will be bodies, brains and minds. The gap between those who will know how to produce bodies and brains and those who will not know will be far bigger than the gap between Charles Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan.

Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology of the late 20th century. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his supporters to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the internet. Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has yet to come to terms with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. No wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

In the past, Christianity and Islam were a creative force. For instance, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was responsible for numerous social and ethical reforms as well as important economic and technological innovations. The Church founded many of the first European universities; its monasteries experimented with novel economic methods; it led the way in techniques of data-processing (by creating archives and catalogues, for instance). Any king or prince who wanted an efficient administration turned to priests and monks to provide him with data-processing skills. The Vatican was the closest thing 12th-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.

Yet in the late-modern era Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet – and rabbis argue about whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call on women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the 20th century?” This is difficult to answer, because it is hard to choose from among a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of religions such as Islam and Christianity in the 20th century?” This, too, is difficult, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and mullahs discover in the 20th century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, whence do you think the big changes of the 21st century will emerge: from Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, Isis knows how to upload video clips to YouTube. Wow. But, leaving aside the industry of torture, what new inventions have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

This does not mean that religion is a spent force. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam, so in the coming decades new techno-religions are likely to take over the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. In the 21st century we will create more powerful myths and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds and to create entire virtual worlds, complete with hells and heavens.

If you want to meet the prophets who will remake the 21st century, don’t bother going to the Arabian Desert or the Jordan Valley – go to Silicon Valley.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” and most recently of “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow”, newly published by Harvill Secker

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers