Yuval Noah Harari: Interview

Yuval Noah Harari: Interview

“Storytelling is our speciality. It’s the basis for everything we do as a species”.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari—a slight figure on a squashy sofa in a central London hotel—is explaining how, from among the various species of human which inhabited the earth 100,000 years ago, an insignificant African ape called Homo Sapiens came to rule our planet. An amusing and engaging presence, there is nothing of the intellectual either in Harari’s manner or his explanations. And yet in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he has pulled off something spectacular: an erudite yet eminently readable history of our species in fewer than 500 pages. And it’s not just history either: biology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, art, literature, ethics, and a discussion of happiness and the meaning of life are all in there.

Having topped the Israeli bestseller lists for three years in its original Hebrew edition, Sapiens is now set for publication in 20 countries worldwide. Ahead of its September publication by Harvill Secker in the UK (following a nine-way bidding war), a considerable buzz is building. A BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme interview is already in the can, a major profile will run in the Sunday Times, and a Guardian essay has been commissioned.

As a historian, Harari’s speciality was originally a much narrower one: his PhD was on the military memoirs of soldiers in the Middle Ages. He credits author Jared Diamond with encouraging him to take a much broader view—his Guns, Germs and Steel was an enormous influence. Harari says: “It made me realise that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.”

Remarkably, however, in his “slimming-down” of the human story, Harari has managed to avoid producing “history lite”; he zooms in, beautifully and profoundly, on the essentials. “In the writing, the question was always: what is really important? From all these details, all these events, all these theories, what is essential for people to know?”. Harari has also striven to make the book as “non-academic” as possible. Originally written with his first-year undergraduates in mind, it reads with considerable verve and wit, and is full of killer quotes you itch to take a highlighter to. All the more impressive for a work in translation, rendered into English by Harari himself—a non-native speaker—with the help of two editors.

Sapiens is unique, not only for its scope and accessibility, but for connecting the macro: the development of a whole species, with the micro: the playing out of ordinary, daily, human lives throughout history. “A lot of people in Israel told me they hated history in school because it was just boring lists of dates of battles and kings: things they felt had absolutely nothing to do with their lives. But reading Sapiens has made them realise that the way we live, down to the most trivial details—what our houses look like, what timetables we keep—is the result of historical processes”.

Catalysts

Harari distils these processes down to seven crucial catalysts: Fire, Gossip, Agriculture, Mythology, Money, Contradictions and Science. “Gossip? Really?”, I question, harbouring unpleasant thoughts of the Daily Mail’s “sidebar of shame”. “Sapiens is a social animal. So it’s not enough to know how to hunt bison and pick mushrooms. You have to know how to co-operate with other people if you want to stay alive and raise children. And to do that, you need to know something about them. You need to know who loves whom, who hates whom, who is sleeping with whom. Who is honest, who is a cheat”.

So gossip isn’t the same as communication? “All animals communicate. What’s special about gossip is that it’s not about the here and now. You don’t gossip about lions. You don’t gossip about clouds. You only gossip about other people. And once you do, you can keep track of many more people—this is the basis for forming larger communities. Even today, most of human communication is gossip. When history professors meet for lunch, they sometimes talk about the reasons for the First World War. But much more often they gossip. It comes easily to us. Because this is what language primarily evolved for”.

It is this ability to form large communities that has assured the dominance of Homo Sapiens. But it’s a misconception to think of modern humans as superior to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. “There is evidence that on an individual level they were actually more skilled than us. In order to survive in a very small tribe, you needed to know how to do lots of things for yourself: how to make your tools, how to get food and how to make your clothes—things most of us today don’t need to know. The only thing I need to survive is to know history. I am paid for teaching it, and for writing books about it; and everything else I just buy for money. Individuals today get along with smaller brains and fewer qualifications. But as a collective of course, we know much more than tribes 30,000 years ago”.

The collective is key. “There is no other animal that can co-operate flexibly in large numbers. Animals such as ants and bees co-operate in large numbers but they do so in a very rigid way. Chimpanzees co-operate flexibly but only with a small number of individuals they know personally, because they can’t gossip. We can co-operate with millions of people we’ve never met before.”

Apparently we don’t really know why Sapiens evolved to be able to do this. “The leading theory is that some quirk, some genetic mutation rewired the brain in such a way that we became able to share our imaginations. Sapiens has this unique ability not to only to communicate about reality but to create completely new realities, like gods, money and all kinds of fantasies”.

Storytelling

And so to the storytelling. Because it is through the shared stories we tell each other, Harari says, that Sapiens came to believe in religions, capitalism, nations, justice, and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism. “If you look at politics, if you look at the economy, it’s all based on storytelling. Money doesn’t have any value in itself; it’s just a story we invented that these little pieces of paper are worth a certain number of loaves of bread. As long as everybody believes in the story, it works”.

Sapiens is essentially a history of the complicated network of stories we have told each other. Our consequent success as a species is staggering, although we have done terrible things both to the ecosystem and to other animals in the process. (Sapiens is so trenchant on this point that it sparked a discussion about animal rights in the Israeli government).

But now, the end is near. For some time in the next thousand years, Homo Sapiens as we know it, will become extinct. “Actually, I would give it another hundred, two hundred years at most. It’s not that there will be an apocalypse of destruction. What is much more likely is that Sapiens will upgrade itself into another kind of being, using either genetic engineering or direct brain-computer interfaces, or by creating a complete consciousness and intelligence inside computers. We are starting to do it today. And it’s very likely, with the pace at which things are happening now, that within a couple of centuries at most, Earth will be populated by beings who are different from us in their cognitive and physical abilities”.

In the meantime, says Harari, we have to decide what we really desire. “All kinds of deep philosophical questions that people have been thinking about for thousands of years are becoming practical questions, because of technology. We now have the ability to reshape the human body, the human psyche, and even human desires. So that philosophical question, ‘What do we want to want?’ becomes a practical question. And those who are not spooked by that question probably haven’t given it enough thought”.

Metadata

Publication Date 04.09.14
Formats £25 HB/EB
ISBN 9781846558238/ 9781448190690
Rights Sold in UK, Poland, Holland, Slovenia, France, Canada, Croatia, US, Greece, Catalan, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Turkey, Korea, Taiwan, China, Sweden, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Serbia and Hungary
Editor Michal Shavit, Harvill Secker
Agent Caspian Dennis at Abner Stein

CV

1976 Born Haifa, Israel
1991-1996 Degree in History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
1996-1998 MA in History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
1998-2002 PhD, University of Oxford (on the military memoirs of medieval soldiers)
2005-present Lecturer in the Department of History at the Herbrew University of Jerusalem