As a teenager, the Israeli author and historian Yuval Noah Harari wanted to answer life’s biggest questions. But he had to endure a detour through academia and the minutiae of medieval military history first, before getting tenure at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and shifting his focus to macro-history. His book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind hit many must-read lists around the world, and his recent follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, takes his theories into the future. He’ll discuss them both when he comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall for a free talk on Monday, February 27, at 7:30 p.m. He answered a few of my questions via email.
As an anthropology undergrad at UCSB in the 1990s, we were often told the analogy that a fish doesn’t realize that it’s swimming in water. The point was that, as humans, it is hard if not impossible for us to take a step back and understand the grand scheme of things, to really accurately observe our evolution and how we fit into the world. Yet your two books attempt to cut through that analogy and blow the water out of the fishbowl. So do you think that we can indeed analyze our place in this world and predict our future path? The analogy has much truth in it. Each of us is born into a particular world governed by a particular system of norms and values, and a particular economic and political order. Since we are born into it, we take the surrounding reality to be natural and inevitable, and we tend to think that the way people today live their lives is the only possible way.
We seldom realize that the world we know is the accidental outcome of chance historical events, which condition not only our technology, politics, and economics but even the way we think and dream. The past grips us by the back of the head and turns our eyes toward a single possible future. We have felt the grip of the past from the moment we were born, so we don’t even notice it.
I believe the chief aim of studying history should be to loosen this grip and to enable us to turn our head around more freely, to think in new ways, and to see many more possible futures. If we don’t know history, we easily mistake the accidents of history for our real essence.
For example, we think about ourselves as belonging to a certain nation such as Israel; we believe in a certain religion such as Judaism; we view ourselves as individuals; we believe that we have certain natural rights. So when I ask myself, “Who am I?” I might reply that “I am Israeli, I am Jewish, and I am an individual having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Yet, in fact, nationalism, individualism, human rights, and most religions are recent developments. Prior to the 18th century, nationalism was a rather weak force, and most nations today are hardly a century old. The individual was created by the modern state and the modern market in their struggle to break up the power of traditional families and communities. Human rights are a story invented over the last three centuries, which has no basis in biology. There are no rights inscribed in our DNA.
Most religions we know today were born only in the last two or three thousand years and have undergone far-reaching changes in the last few centuries. The Judaism of today is entirely different from the Judaism of biblical times. Religions are not eternal truths but human creations. Some of these creations may have been very beneficial, of course, but in order to know the truth about ourselves, we need to go beyond all such human creations.
This is why history interests me so much. I want to know history, so that I could go beyond it and understand the truth which is not the outcome of chance historical events.
How did you go from medieval military history to a much more broad take on our species? When I was a teenager, I became very troubled by the fact that I don’t understand what is really happening in the world, why things are the way they are, and what is the aim and meaning of life. I asked my parents, my teachers, and other grown-ups, and, shockingly, it turned out that they, too, didn’t really understand life.
But I was even more amazed by the fact that they seemed not to care about it. They were very worried about money, about careers, about the mortgage, about the political situation — but were completely nonchalant about the fact that they don’t understand what life is all about. I promised to myself that when I’ll grow up, I will not get bogged down in the mundane troubles of daily life and will do my best to understand the big picture.
When I began studying at university, I thought, this will be the ideal place to try and answer such big questions. But I was disappointed. The academic world encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions and gave me the impression that one cannot approach the big questions in a scientific way. So I became a specialist in medieval military history and kept exploring the big questions of life as a side hobby.
And then I read Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and it was a revelation. It showed me that it is possible to tackle the biggest questions of history and of human existence in a scientific way. I also benefited enormously from the support of my mentor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Benjamin Z. Kedar, who encouraged me to think big and initiated a program of macro-history studies. So when I got my tenure at the Hebrew University and was no longer dominated by the “publish or perish” regime, I wrote Sapiens and Homo Deus.
Writing Sapiens and Homo Deus was, in a way, fulfilling the promise I made to myself as a teenager. My aim in writing the book was not to give a survey of facts and names and dates, but rather to decipher the deeper mechanisms of history. To understand how our reality came to be the way it is. How did we come to believe in gods, in individualism, and in human rights? How did men come to dominate women in most human societies? How did capitalism become the dominant belief system of the whole world?
On a linguistic front, how is translating from Hebrew to English? I didn’t really translate Sapiens and Homo Deus from Hebrew to English. I rewrote them in English. This is especially true of Homo Deus, which is really a different book from the Hebrew original. I changed many of the examples I use, deleted entire sections, and added new sections. You never really finish writing a book. You just have to stop changing it if you want it published. So after I had to stop working on the Hebrew editions, I had a chance to give the books a second reincarnation in English.
Your new book shows us on a dangerous path but gives some hope for change. What specific things can people do now to correct our course? There are so many things we can do. I would highlight a few. On the one hand, we need to construct truly global identities and loyalties. All our major problems are global in nature: global warming, global inequality, and the rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering. In order to face these challenges successfully, we need global cooperation.
For example, no nation can regulate bioengineering single-handedly. It won’t help much if the U.S.A. forbids genetically engineering human babies as long as China or North Korea allow it. Similarly, no nation can stop global warming by itself. Can the U.S.A. build a wall against rising oceans?
On the other hand, we also need to protect our local communities. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have been adapted to living in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Consequently, even today most humans find it impossible to really know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Facebook “friends” they boast. No nation, corporation, or global network can replace such communities. Without them, we will feel lonely and alienated. Global identities can work only if they leave room and give support to local communities.
On an even more intimate level, we need to keep in touch with our bodies. During the last century, technology has been distancing us from our bodies. We have lost the ability to pay attention to what we smell, touch, and taste, and instead we get absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are far more interested in what is happening in cyberspace or on the other side of the world than in what is happening right here, right now. Before we use bioengineering to upgrade our bodies, we first need to get back in touch with them.
Finally, we need to understand our minds better, because it is the deep source of all our desires as well as all our problems. In recent decades, we have made great progress in understanding the human brain, but we have made far less progress in understanding the mind. Many people, including many scientists, tend to confuse the brain with the mind, but they are really very different things. The brain is a material network of neurons and synapses. The mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger and love.
Science assumes that the brain somehow produces the mind and that biochemical reactions in billions of neurons somehow produce experiences such as pain and love. However, so far we have absolutely no explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain.
How come when billions of neurons are firing electrical signals in a particular pattern, I feel pain, and when the neurons fire in a different pattern, I feel love? We haven’t got a clue. That’s the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. And it is a very dangerous lacuna.
In past centuries, we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the entire planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century, we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might inadvertently disrupt our entire mental system.
In practical terms, I would recommend to every reader to disconnect from the technological network for at least a few hours every week and just come to know the immediate reality of your own mind and body. I personally dedicate two hours every day to meditation and every year take a long meditation retreat for a month or two.
I practice Vipassana meditation, which I have learned from a teacher called S.N. Goenka (dhamma.org). Vipassana is a method for observing the mind in a systematic and objective manner. The mind is constantly in contact with body sensations. In every moment, we always experience some sensation on the body, and the mind reacts to it. Even when we think that we are reacting to an email or a tweet or a YouTube video, we are in fact reacting to some bodily sensation that is present here and now.
In Vipassana, one trains oneself to observe in an orderly and objective way the body sensations and the mind’s reactions to them, thereby uncovering our deepest mental patterns and helping us see reality as it is rather than our own imaginations. Thus, meditation is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for two hours a day, I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with the concepts you bring up in today’s world? It seems like we have more answers and data at our fingertips than ever, and yet many people appear more lost than ever. I think that today our ability to understand the world is smaller than ever before. In the past, human knowledge increased slowly and technology took time to develop, so politics and economics also changed at a leisurely pace. Today, our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better.
But the very opposite is happening. Our newfound knowledge leads to faster economic, social, and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently, we are less and less able to make sense of the present or to forecast the future.
In 1017, it was relatively easy to predict how the world would look in 1050. Sure, dynasties might fall, Vikings might invade, and natural disasters might strike; yet it was clear that in 1050 most people would still work as farmers, men would dominate women, life expectancy would be about 40, and the human body would be exactly the same.
In contrast, today we have no idea how the world will look in 2050. We don’t know what people will do for a living, we don’t know what gender relations will be like (or even if there will be any distinct genders at all), people might live much longer than today, and the human body itself might undergo an unprecedented revolution thanks to bioengineering and direct brain-computer interfaces.
No wonder people feel apprehensive and are very curious to hear about the future. It is a pressing issue. For example, we have no idea what to teach our kids, because we have no idea what kind of world they will inhabit. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.
What will you speak about during your talk at UCSB? I will focus on the shift in authority from humans to algorithms. Given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms will soon know us better than we know ourselves. Once this happens, authority might shift from humans to these algorithms, and practices such as democratic elections and free markets might become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.