Yuval Noah Harari: "This epidemic will pass and in 100 years whoever rules will hardly remember it"
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has managed, in the few years since the Sapiens essay, to become an intellectual reference all over the world for both the academic elite and the general reading public. Despite being often asked to participate in congresses and forums to rethink the world, Harari has mostly kept to himself. The coronavirus has allowed him to concentrate on his work and avoid travelling. On the occasion of the international publication of an innovative graphic version of the essay that launched him to fame, he has answered the ARA's questions by e-mail.
If you had written Sapiens now, during the pandemic, would you have given it a more dramatic ending?
No. In the midst of this pandemic, it seems like it is the biggest historical event ever. But this pandemic will pass, and with hindsight, it will look like just another event in the long history of our species. In 100 years, whoever rules our planet will hardly remember this pandemic (just as we barely remember the Influenza pandemic of 1918). We have already seen much worse things than Covid-19. The Black Death was much worse – it killed between a quarter and a half of all people in Asia and Europe. The World Wars were worse. The Cold War was worse. The virus itself doesn’t really threaten our existence. We have the scientific knowledge to overcome it. What we lack is the political wisdom. I think the big existential threats humanity faces today are not the virus, but rather the same threats that we faced when I wrote Sapiens: nuclear war, ecological collapse and the rise of disruptive technologies like AI.
Did you enjoy working on the graphic history version of Sapiens, with you featuring as one of the characters? Were you slightly bothered by having to lower the book’s degree of complexity?
It was the most fun project I ever worked on. Our aim has been to reach people who don’t usually read science books. To achieve this, I teamed up with two very gifted artists – Daniel and David – and together we decided to break with academic conventions and take a trip on the wild side of history. This book isn’t an illustrated version of the old Sapiens. It is an innovative exploration of what history means – and what it means to recount history.
In the graphic novel we experiment and play with different ways of telling stories. We depict the encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals by referencing masterpieces of modern art. The invention of fire, in contrast, is presented through a silly commercial. Some critical stages in human evolution are reimagined as a reality TV show. The invention of religion follows the conventions of superhero action blockbusters. The extinction of the mammoths and other large animals is told in the genre of a detective “whodunit” movie, complete with a gritty cop on the trail of the planet’s worst-ever ecological serial killers.
I too appear in the book as a character, but I insisted that it won’t be only me. There are a number of other scientists there – some real, others fictional. That is important to convey the message that science is a collaborative effort, and that scientists often hold different views.
I don’t think that the book lowers the level of complexity. Just because there are many jokes and more images than words doesn’t mean that the content is simple. Actually, switching from text to image required us to answer a lot of new and difficult questions. When you write in a text “humans discovered how to ignite fire”, you can just leave it like that. But when you draw an image of an ancient human using fire, you need to make many difficult decisions. Is that human a man or a woman? Young or old? White or black? It is not possible to draw a “general human” without gender, age or skin color. And you cannot just assume that the first person who discovered fire must have been an older white dude. Maybe it was a young black girl? So you have to go back to the scientific literature and research these questions.
What should we call this new genre? Illustrated, fictionalised, scientific-historical essay?
It is still history, told in a different way. There have always been different ways of telling history, and it has always involved a lot of imagination. Humans are storytelling animals. We think in stories. But reality never presents itself as a story. It is much more messy. So the job of all historians is to take the messy reality, and turn it into a clear story. That always demands a lot of imagination.
Think about it like a movie. In a movie, you always have a frame, right? The camera is pointing at a particular place. The hero is in focus, other characters are on the sidelines, and most people don’t appear at all. But reality is never like that. Where is the camera of reality? Nowhere. Reality has no focus and no obvious heroes. Take for example World War II. You can choose to make a movie in which Churchill is the hero, Hitler and Stalin are sideline characters, and the millions of Chinese who died in the war never appear at all. Is that reality? You can also make a movie that focuses on just one Chinese village, in which nobody appears except a handful of villagers. Is that reality?
Similarly, in a movie you must have a clear beginning and a clear end. You must decide what is the movie’s opening scene, and what is the last scene. You can make a movie about World War II in which the opening scene is German troops storming into Poland, and the last scene is the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. You can also make a movie that starts with a 5-year-old Hitler torturing flies, and ends with a Jewish Holocaust survivor reuniting with her children. There are a million other options. Reality never has any opening scenes or ending scenes. It just goes on forever. But to make a movie about a historical event, you must use your imagination to choose one scene and reject all the alternatives. It is exactly the same with writing books.
That doesn’t mean you can write whatever you want. You must base yourself on objective facts. You cannot end your World War II story with Donald Trump shooting Hitler in the head. That never happened. But choosing between all the facts and deciding how to weave the facts together into a story always demands a lot of imagination.
I guess the next format will be a TV series, will it?
Yes, if we can. Our aim is to build a bridge between the scientific ivory tower and the general public, and TV can be an excellent way to do it. Connecting the general public to the latest scientific findings is more important than ever, because there are closer ties than ever between science and politics. More and more political debates hinge on scientific knowledge. We saw it before with climate change, now with epidemiology, and we will see it even more with things like artificial intelligence and bioengineering.
If you don’t make an effort to bring science to the general public, you leave the arena free for all kinds of ridiculous conspiracy theories. In the battle between science and conspiracy theories, science suffers from a big disadvantage. Scientific reality is complicated. Take viruses like the coronavirus, for example. They are such a complicated thing! Viruses are not even living organisms. They are much smaller than bacteria. They don’t eat. They cannot reproduce by themselves. They are just bits of biological code. Amazingly, these bits of code have the ability to penetrate your body cells, and hijack the internal machinery of the body. The alien code can tell your cells to start producing more copies of that alien code. That’s how it turns viral, and how the disease spreads. This is something extremely complicated to understand. It is much easier for people to believe some ridiculous fiction that a couple of multibillionaires have created this pandemic in order to take over the world.
Scientists often make their job even more difficult by trying to talk to the general public in scientific language. Among themselves, scientists usually talk in numbers, statistics, graphs and models. But that won’t work with the general public! People need stories. The job of public intellectuals like myself is to take the latest scientific theories and find a way to translate them into an accessible story, without abandoning our commitment to the core facts. If I can do it with a TV series, that would be wonderful.
Besides the new format and narrative, does this new version of Sapiens include any relevant changes to the content? Has you understanding (your knowledge) of the evolution of homo sapiens changed at all in the short decade that has gone by since you first published your book?
Yes. There are many new details and twists, because science never stops. Every year there are new discoveries. For instance, when I wrote Sapiens, we had only a few tentative clues that Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred. Now we have a wealth of evidence. Today you can even tell who had sex with who: Was it a Sapiens man who had sex with a Neanderthal woman, or vice versa? Probably both, as it turns out. We have also learned that there were interbreeding events between Sapiens and lesser-known human groups such as Denisovans. When the book Sapiens was published, the first bones of Denisovans had only just been identified. Now we know that some modern humans have Denisovan DNA! In this way the human family tree keeps getting more tangled. And the new book was an opportunity to convey this growing understanding.
Have you considered aiming for an even younger audience? How would you explain the history of homo sapiens in a few words to a young child? How would you help them to understand that they are part of a long human chain? What would you say to them about the notion of progress and happiness?
We are working on a children’s book aimed at kids aged 10-12. It will come out next year. It is a big challenge to explain to kids that age how people invented gods, what money really is, and how capitalism works. But it can be done. After all, kids like fairytales, and gods, money and capitalism are all different kinds of fairytales.
After all, what is a euro? It has absolutely no value. You cannot drink or eat a 100 euro banknote. So why do people value them so much, and are willing to work hard for an entire month just in order to get a few colorful pieces of paper? Because people believe in the stories that the world’s best storytellers tell about these colorful papers. The best storytellers in the world are not those who win the Noble Prize in literature. They are those who win the Noble Prize in economics. All the economists and bankers and politicians come to us and tell us a story: “Look, you see this piece of paper? It is worth 10 bananas”. As long as millions of people believe this story, it works. I can take this piece of paper, go to a supermarket, give it to a complete stranger whom I have never met before, and get real bananas in exchange, which I can actually eat.
This is not behavior that comes naturally to chimps. They can be trained to barter and exchange tokens for food. But "you give me a worthless piece of paper, and I'll give you a banana?” You will never see chimps doing this in the wild. Only humans believe such things. That’s why only humans have trade networks, and that’s why we rule the world rather than the chimps.
I think if you explain it clearly, even 10-year-old kids can understand this.
To what extent is Humankind in danger? Is Humankind’s risk of dying of success ever more obvious now with the coronavirus crisis, together with the climate crisis and the nuclear danger (which, as you have pointed out, still exists even if it is not being discussed)?
Humankind today faces three problems that no border wall can fix. They can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption. Nuclear fallout and global warming don’t respect national borders. And no nation can regulate artificial intelligence (AI) or bioengineering single-handedly. If only the European Union forbids producing killer robots or only America bans genetically-engineering human babies, it won’t be enough. Due to the immense potential of such disruptive technologies, if even one country decides to pursue these high-risk high-gain paths, other countries will be forced to follow its dangerous lead for fear of being left behind.
Beyond a shared regulatory framework, we also need to consider a global safety net to protect the well-being of all humans against the shocks produced by new technologies. Automation and AI will produce immense wealth in certain high-tech hubs, but there will be negative consequences as well. Developing countries whose economies depend on cheap manual labor may suffer the worst effects. Unless we find solutions on a global level to the disruptions caused by AI, entire countries might collapse. And it is in everyone’s best interest to stop that happening because the resulting chaos will destabilize the whole world.
Sapiens was followed by Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, where you directed your vocation for reflection through essay towards key future challenges. Covid-19 has, once again, pitted us against our fear of death and the recession (our fear of life). Are we at a new crossroads for our civilisation?
Yes, we are at a crossroad. The shape of the world after coronavirus depends on the decisions we make today. But the greatest danger we face isn’t the virus, but the inner demons of humanity – hatred, greed and ignorance. We might react to the crisis by generating hatred – for instance blaming it on foreigners and minorities.
We might react to the crisis by generating greed – for instance a corporation that treats the pandemic solely as a business opportunity with no regard for human welfare.
We might react to the crisis by generating ignorance – for instance spreading and believing ridiculous conspiracy theories that put people’s health and safety at risk.
If we react in such a way, it will be much harder to deal with the crisis, and the world after this pandemic will be much worse. It will be a disunited, violent and poor world.
But we don’t have to react by generating hatred, greed and ignorance. We can react by generating compassion, generosity and wisdom. We can choose to believe science rather than conspiracy theories. We can choose to cooperate with foreigners instead of vilifying them. And we can choose to share what we have instead of caring only about getting more for ourselves.
If we react in such a way, it will be much easier to deal with the crisis, and it will create a much better world. A world ready to deal with future crises like future epidemics, ecological collapse and the rise of AI. I hope we all make wise decisions in the coming months, and out of this crisis we will create a global society that is more responsive to the shared challenges that we face.
On a more practical, geopolitical level, who do you think is winning the battle, the US or China? And what role could Europe play?
Both the US and China are winning. They are dividing the world between them. We are entering a new era, in which data is key. This is the era of data-colonialism. To dominate a country, you no longer need to send in the tanks. You just need to take out the data. And the Americans and Chinese are harvesting the data of the whole world.
Imagine the situation in 20 years, when somebody in Beijing or San Francisco has the entire personal data of every politician, mayor, journalist and judge in Barcelona. Every illness they ever had, every sexual encounter they had, every joke they told, every bribe they took. Would you still be an independent country, or would you be a data-colony?
I hope Europe can be a strong third power in this new geopolitical age, but for that we need stronger EU.
The Covid crisis has highlighted the fact that Europeans are not sure what they want from the EU. They seem to complain that the EU has both too much power, and too little power.
Europeans complain about the ineffective response of EU institutions to the pandemic, and the way each country was left to handle the crisis on its own. But the central institutions of the EU were never given the executive powers necessary to manage a crisis on such a scale. So the experience of this crisis can result in two opposite responses:
One option is to downgrade the expectations from the EU in order to align them with its actual capabilities. Europeans can acknowledge that the EU is a loose union with rather limited powers, in which case nobody should expect the EU to manage a major crisis like Covid-19.
The second option is to upgrade the powers of the EU in order to align them with expectations. If Europeans expect the EU to effectively manage such crises, they must agree to give the EU institutions the necessary powers to do so.
A case in point concerns the supply of essential medical equipment. European countries rightly realize now that it is dangerous to rely for essential medical supplies on China, India, the USA and other foreign powers. Global supply chains are subject to all kinds of disruptions that can affect the availability of essential goods in times of crisis. From trade wars and embargos to natural disasters, leaders are realizing that events outside of their control can suddenly restrict their access to critical supplies. One solution to this problem is to ensure that each individual country produces all of its vital medical equipment. That would mean establishing 27 national medical industries across the EU, which would involve a very high level of redundancy and inefficiency.
The other option is to establish a European medical industry, which would provide equipment for all EU members. But for such an industry to function in a time of crisis, the power to distribute the equipment should be vested in a central EU institution, and national governments should be deprived of the ability to overrule this institution. For example, if a “European” factory producing masks is established in Germany, and during an emergency the EU instructs that a million masks should be delivered to France, the German government should not have the authority to block the shipment of these masks from Germany to France. As long as the German government retains this power, France would rightly feel insecure, and would prefer establishing a national factory on its own territory, irrespective of the redundancies and waste.
The choice between these options should ultimately be made by the citizens of the various European countries. The role of leaders is to be frank and clear about the need to make such a choice, and about the costs and benefits of the different options.
Is there a recipe to thwart nationalist populisms?
I think the key is to realize that many of these populist politicians aren’t really nationalist. They are anti-nationalist. They don’t strengthen national solidarity – they deliberately undermine it.
In countries like the USA, we can see how weakening national solidarity has led to growing rifts within society. A sense of a shared mission has been replaced by a “winner takes all” mentality. The animosities within American society have reached such an extreme level, that many Americans hate and fear their fellow citizens far more than they hate and fear the Russians or the Chinese. Fifty years ago, both Democrats and Republicans feared that the Russians were coming to impose totalitarian rule on the land of free. Now, both Democrats and Republicans are terrified that the other party is bent on destroying their way of life.
In this crisis of nationalism, many leaders who present themselves as patriotic champions are in fact the exact opposite. Instead of strengthening national unity, they intentionally widen the rifts within society by using inflammatory language and divisive policies, and by depicting anyone who opposes them not as a legitimate rival but rather as a dangerous traitor. Trump is a prime example. When he sees a wound in the body of the American community, he doesn’t put any healing lotion on it. Rather, he shoves his finger straight into it and pokes around, inflaming the wound even further.
Another thing we should understand is that there is no contradiction between national loyalty and global cooperation. Some politicians present nationalism and globalism as mutually exclusive choices. They say that we should pick nationalism and reject globalism. But this is a dangerous mistake. There is no inherent contradiction between nationalism and globalism. Because nationalism isn’t about hating foreigners. Nationalism is about loving your compatriots. And in the 21(st) century, protecting the safety and prosperity of your compatriots means cooperating with foreigners. So good nationalists must now also be globalists.
We need to be clear about what these words mean. Globalism isn’t about establishing a global government, abandoning all national traditions, or opening borders to unlimited immigration. Rather, globalism means committing to some essential global rules. These rules don’t deny the uniqueness of each nation, but merely regulate the relations between nations. A good model for this is the Football World Cup. The World Cup is a competition between nations, right? And people often show fierce loyalty to their national team. But at the same time the World Cup is also an amazing display of global harmony. France cannot play football against Croatia unless the French and the Croatians first agree on the same rules for the game. That’s globalism in action. If you like the World Cup – you are already a globalist.
You asked about a recipe for overcoming these populist movements. Something like the World Cup actually gives us a good model for how to reconcile nationalism with the need for global cooperation. Hopefully, nations can agree on global rules not just for football, but also for how to prevent ecological collapse, how to regulate disruptive technologies, and how to reduce global inequality. That’s going to be much more difficult than football – but not impossible.
Can singular individuals, such as Donald Trump, play a decisive role in derailing the future of Humankind? The graphic history version of Sapiens mentions a category of homo sapiens that are defined as the worst serial killers in the world …
Yes, individuals sometimes can change the course of history. History is full of unexpected surprises. Think about the Roman Empire around the year 250 AD. At the time, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you told Romans that within a century Christianity will be the state religion, they would have thought you were utterly crazy. Similarly in October 1913, Lenin’s Bolsheviks were a tiny radical faction. No reasonable person would have predicted that within a mere four years they would take control of the Russian Empire. Yet they did.
It is too early to tell if the conspiracy theories and radical groups that have grown in prominence during the Trump administration will continue to have a major impact in the years ahead. But history shows us that we cannot rule out the possibility that these movements may spread in influence. And not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world as well.
I assume you are aware that your voice as a free-thinking, informed historian, as well as a scientist, is more than simply the voice of a successful author … It is a voice of hope. What will your next essay focus on? What messages are on your mind and what knowledge and tools will you use to send them out?
I will continue to work on the series of graphic novels, and work on the new children’s book. Beyond that – I need time to think deeply about new things… which can be hard to do in this age when people are expected to instantly have opinions on everything.
I hope people don’t turn me into a guru and expect me to have all the answers. I think it is very dangerous to turn anyone into a guru. Once a person is idolized, that person might actually begin to believe what people say about him or her, and this can inflate the ego and make you crazy. As for the fans, once they believe somebody knows all the answers they stop making efforts to figure things out for themselves. They expect the guru to provide them with all the answers and solutions. And even if the guru provides them with a wrong answer, they will just accept it. So I hope people read my books in search of questions rather than as a book of answers, and will see me as a companion on the road to the truth rather than as an all-knowing seer.
You and your husband, Itzik Yahav, set up Sapienship. What new projects is your company working on in the field of entertainment and education?
Sapienship advocates for global responsibility and collaboration, and believes in sharing knowledge and facilitating global conversations through its projects. We are currently developing and managing a variety of projects across different channels, including entertainment and education. In the realm of entertainment, in addition to developing the fictional TV show and producing the graphic novel and children’s series, Sapienship is also working on an immersive traveling show that tells the story of humankind. In the field of education, we are developing a series of engaging and thought-provoking 'conversation starters' for high school students and adults, which will be shared via digital platforms. We are also creating a program of workshops for schools, that will provide students with a macro-perspective on topics that concern their daily lives and immediate futures - such as employability, privacy, and disinformation.