Yuval Noah Harari Believes This Simple Story Can Save the Planet
With the publication in the United States of his best-selling “Sapiens” in 2015, the Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari arrived at the top rank of public intellectuals, a position he consolidated with “Homo Deus” (2017) and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (2018). Harari’s key theme is the idea that human society has largely been driven by our species’s capacity to believe in what he calls fictions: those things whose power is derived from their existence in our collective imaginations, whether they be gods or nations; our belief in them allows us to cooperate on a societal scale. The broad sweep of Harari’s writing, which encompasses the prehistoric past and a dark far-off future, has turned him into a bit of a walking inkblot test. “The general misunderstandings of me,” says Harari, 45, co-author of the recently published “Sapiens: A Graphic History, Volume 2” (the latest in a series of graphic-novel adaptations of his work), “are that I’m the prophet of doom and then there’s this opposite view that I think everything is wonderful.” Both, of course, might be true. “Once the books are out, the ideas are out of your hands,” he says.
Some of the big ideas about humanity that you’ve helped popularize — that fictions or social constructs have political power or that Homo sapiens might be moving toward technologically driven obsolescence — have been around in various forms since way before you wrote about them. So what do you think it is about how you convey them that’s been so compelling? One hypothesis is that I’m coming from the discipline of history, and many of the recent attempts to create this kind of big synthesis were from biology and evolution or from economics and social sciences. In recent decades the humanities kind of gave up, and it became almost taboo to try to create grand narratives. But the humanities’ perspective is essential. Many of the philosophical questions that have bothered humanity for thousands of years are now becoming practical. Previously philosophy was a kind of luxury: You can indulge in it or not. Now you really need to answer crucial philosophical questions about what humanity is or the nature of the good in order to decide what to do with, for example, new biotechnologies. So maybe I’ve reached people because I’ve come from the perspective of history and philosophy and not biology or economics. Also, my most central idea is simple. It’s the primacy of fictions, that to understand the world you need to take stories seriously. The story in which you believe shapes the society that you create.
When you’re working in a mode that involves making broad conclusions about humanity, is it hard to determine whether those conclusions are banal? Well, I discovered this: The more banal they are, the more impressed people are.
That’s the trick? All these things about the fictional stories, this was one of the most basic things I learned in my first year doing a bachelor’s degree in history. I thought this was the most banal thing that everybody knows. It turned out that for lots of people, it was a big discovery: that you had these social constructs and intersubjective reality. I thought it was the most banal thing in the world.
Does it make you cynical if what you’d thought was the most banal thing in the world ends up being wildly popular? No. It just means that there is miscommunication between large parts of the scientific community and large parts of the public. The things that have been known and accepted by science or by scholars for many years, they’re still big news for the public. It’s just the way things are.
One area where the scientific community has communicated clearly is the scale of the climate crisis, and the story that they and so many other people are telling about it is incredibly urgent. Why then do you think we’re still lacking in the global political will to address the problem in a way that’s equal to the coming catastrophes? It’s important to have human enemies in order to have a catchy story. With climate change, you don’t. Our minds didn’t evolve for this kind of story. When we evolved as hunter-gatherers, it was never the case that we could somehow change the climate in ways which were bad for us, so it’s not the kind of story that we were interested in. We were interested in the story that some people in the tribe are conspiring to kill me. So we have a narrative problem with climate change. But the good news is that it’s not too late or too difficult to overcome. According to the best reports I’ve read, if we now start investing 2 percent of global annual G.D.P. in developing eco-friendly technologies and eco-friendly infrastructure, that should be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. The beautiful thing about 2 percent is that even though it’s a lot of money, it’s completely feasible. If it was 20 percent then I would tell you forget about it, it’s too late. But 2 percent? The job of the average politician is to shift 2 percent of the budget from here to there. We know how to do it. We need to stay away from the apocalyptic thinking that it’s too late and the world is ending and move toward a more practical thing: 2 percent of the budget. That’s it.
Is shifting 2 percent of global G.D.P. a sufficiently compelling story? The thing about 2 percent of G.D.P., it’s not very impressive, but that’s the whole point. It’s hopeful. It’s not like we have to completely change the entire economy and go live in caves. We just need to shift 2 percent. That’s all. So I think it’s a powerful message. And there are other stories: If you look at movements like Greta Thunberg’s and the whole youth movement, what the young people are telling the world is that you are sacrificing us on the altar of your greed and irresponsibility. It’s no longer something hazy like CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s a human drama of the old sacrificing the young. That’s powerful.
I know you get asked a version of this question a lot, but what do you make of the fact that your work is so popular in Silicon Valley? As you’ve pointed out, these are people whose work has very dangerous implications. Your popularity in that circle can’t be just a coincidence. There are many things to say. One reason I think that it’s popular in these circles is that even though I criticize some of their practices and present some of these practices as a major danger to humanity, I also point out that maybe this is the most important thing that now happens on the planet. So even if you criticize them but also emphasize the importance of what they do, it is still flattering to them to think that the future of humanity is to some extent in their hands. To be somewhat generous to these figures, I definitely don’t think that they are evil. Some of what they did was good. I met my husband online on one of the first gay dating apps in Israel, and I’m grateful for this because as a gay man in a small, provincial Israeli town, how do you meet guys? What I would say about Silicon Valley is that they don’t understand the enormous impact that they are having. They set out hoping to change the world with a deep understanding of technology and not as deep an understanding of history and human society and psychology. But, finally, I know as a historian that texts can gain a life of their own. The people who wrote the New Testament, if they could see what the Inquisition and the crusaders did with the idea of turning the other cheek and the meek will inherit the earth, I think they would be rolling in their graves. But that’s history. What can you do?
Is there an idea that you’re still sort of germinating that you think is maybe too radical for your audience? I’ll give two examples, a big one and a small one. When I wrote “Homo Deus,” my main interest was in what comes after humanism and after liberalism. I thought that liberalism and humanism were the best stories that humanity has ever managed to come up with. We now have to go beyond that because of the technological revolutions of the 21st century, which call into question the most basic ideas and assumptions of humanism and liberalism. But over the last five years, I’ve retreated from that frontier because of the political developments in much of the world. I’ve instead found myself starting to fight these rear-guard actions to convince people about humanism and liberalism when what I really want to do is to see what comes after.
What comes after? I’m not sure. I haven’t managed to go much beyond what was in “Homo Deus.” I explored the way in which the information revolution disintegrates the human individual, which is the foundation of humanism and liberalism. As far as I could see, the new foundation becomes the flow of data information in the world to the degree that even the understanding of what is an organism, what is a human being — it’s no longer that a human being is this magical self, which is autonomous and has free will and makes decisions about the world. No, a human being like all other organisms is just an information-processing system that is in continuous flow. It has no fixed assets. What are the implications in political terms? In social terms? I’m not sure. This is what I would be keen to explore.
What was the small example? The small frontier: I’m reading this book about new theories about transgender and nonbinary people and so forth. The previous book I’d read was about early Christianity. It struck me how similar these things are. So much of the debate about gender now, in a weird way it’s like these early Christians debating the nature of Christ and the trinity. Basically they were asking, was Christ a nonbinary person? Is Christ divine or human or both divine-human or neither divine and human? It resonates with many of the debates that we have now about the nature of humans and the person. Can we be both? Can we be only one? And if you don’t think like me, then you’re a heretic. I mean, the champions of the early Christians were the martyrs and the ascetic monks — you have this guy Simon standing on a pillar for years. They were exploring the limits of the human body with what was available to them. Now you have, with the gender issue, more questions of what can we do with the body; we can change it like this and like that. There are huge differences between these things but neurons in my brain started having this conversation about early Christianity and current gender debates.
Good thing history shows us that all debates within Christianity were settled amicably. The thing is, at the time these tiny Christian sects having these debates were insignificant! But afterward it turned out that these doctrinal debates and who won and who lost had an enormous impact on the development of human history. And this is a more serious thought: I think that the reason that there is so much political heat around debates about transgender people and nonbinary people and so forth is because people maybe subconsciously feel that debates of the future will be about what we can do with the human body and the human brain. How can we re-engineer them? How can we change them? The first practical place that we come across these questions is gender. You can say people are bigots and are always sensitive when you talk about sex or gender, but I think that subconsciously people realize this is the first debate about transhumanism. It’s about what we can do with technology to change the human body and brain and mind. This is why we see these heated debates.
What might it say about you and the stories you find most appealing that debates about gender, which could easily be interpreted as being about one group of humans wanting to be treated as equal to any another in the here and now, are ones that you interpret as being fundamentally about anxiety over future transhumanism? That’s the point! Transhumanism is about what it is to be human. I mean, there are different types of transhumanism, but one interpretation is that transhumanism is fulfilling the true potential of the human. Which depends of course on what you understand a human to be. This is the question that we want to pursue, and it’s not a question with easy answers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Emily Berl for The New York Times
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Alice Waters about being uncompromising and Neil deGrasse Tyson about how science might once again reign supreme.