Yuval Noah Harari: Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so

The visionary historian, author of two dazzling bestsellers around the condition of mankind, takes questions from Lucy Prebble, Arianna Huffington, Esther Rantzen and an array of our readers

Last week, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans read out page one of Sapiens, it through the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Considering that radio audiences in those days each morning aren’t recognized for their appetite for intellectual engagement the prior segment had worked with Gary Barlows new tour it had been a unique gesture. But because Evans stated, page one is easily the most stunning first page associated with a book.

If DJs are vulnerable to mindless hyperbole, this was a honourable exception. The subtitle of Sapiens, within an echo of Stephen Hawkings great work, is A Short History of Humankind. In grippingly lucid prose, Harari sets on that first page a condensed good reputation for the world, adopted by a listing of the books thesis: the way the cognitive revolution, the farming revolution and also the scientific revolution have affected humans as well as their fellow microorganisms.

It’s a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the rest of the book meets on nearly every page. Although Sapiens continues to be broadly and noisally recognized, some critics have recommended that it’s too sweeping. Possibly, but it’s an intellectual pleasure to become taken along.

Its certainly one of individuals books that cant help but cause you to feel smarter for getting see clearly. Obama and Bill Gates have gone through that have, as have numerous others within the Davos crowd and Plastic Valley. The irony, possibly, is the fact that among the books warnings is that we’re at risk of just as one elite-dominated global society.

In the center from the book may be the contention that what made Homo sapiens probably the most effective individual, supplanting rivals for example Neanderthals, was our capability to have confidence in shared fictions. Religions, nations and cash, Harari argues, are human fictions which have enabled collaboration and organisation on the massive scale.

Initially printed in Hebrew this year, it was converted into British 3 years later and grew to become an worldwide bestseller. It ranges across numerous disciplines with apparently easy scholarship, getting together an enthusiastic knowledge of history, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, philosophy, theology, financial aspects, psychology, neuroscience and far else besides.

The author of the accomplished and-reaching book is really a youthful Israeli historian whose career, up to that time, have been dedicated to the relative academic backwater of medieval military history. Apparently, Sapiens is dependant on an opening course to world history that Harari needed to educate, after senior colleagues dodged the job. The storyline goes the major Israeli publishers werent interested. Nobody saw worldwide stardom beckoning.

This past year, Hararis follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, was printed within the United kingdom, becoming another bestseller. It develops most of the styles explored in Sapiens, especially examines the potential impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on Homo sapiens, heralding possibly the start of a brand new bionic or semi-computerised type of human.

Again, its an exciting book that can take the readers deep into questions of identity, awareness and intelligence, grappling with what types of choices and dilemmas a completely automated world will show us with.

Now 41, Harari increased in a secular Jewish family in Haifa. He studied history in the Hebrew College of Jerusalem and completed his doctoral at Oxford. He’s a vegan and that he meditates for 2 hrs each day, frequently happening extended retreats. He states it will help him concentrate on the problems that really matter. He lives together with his husband on the moshav, an farming co-operative, outdoors Jerusalem. Being gay, he states, helped him to question received opinions. Nothing ought to be overlooked, he’s stated, even when everyone believes it.

Among the pleasures of studying his books is the fact that he constantly calls on readers, both clearly and unconditionally, to consider what we should know and our opinion we all know. And that he has very little time for fashionable stances.

He writes and speaks just like a man who isn’t excessively troubled by doubt. In the event that makes him seem arrogant, allow me to clarify: he gets to his conclusions after a lot of research and contemplation. However, once hes convinced themself and that he states he always leaves it towards the evidence to determine his thinking he doesnt restrain in the efforts to influence the readers. It can make for which Jared Gemstone known as unforgettably vivid language.

Harari is really a naturally gifted explainer, almost always ready using the telling anecdote or memorable example. Consequently, its tempting to determine him less like a historian than as some type of all-purpose sage. We requested politicians and readers to pose questions for Harari, and a number of these ( below) were of the moral or ethical nature, seeking solutions by what ought to be done, instead of about what is happening. However the Israeli appears accustomed to the function, and perfectly pleased to give his best shot at replying. A historian of a time long ago and the long run, he’s created out another discipline of their own. Its one achievement by an impressively multiple-minded man.

Photograph: Sonja Horsman for the Observer

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?
Helen Czerski, physicist
Im not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think well probably have just one system, and in this sense well have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

Andrew Anthony: Are you saying that the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama was correct in his analysis of the end of history?
It depends how you understand the end of history. If you mean the end of ideological clashes, then no, but if you mean the creation of a single civilisation which encompasses the whole world, then I think he was largely correct.

Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex Shutterstock

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?
Lucy Prebble, playwright
Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesnt seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?
TheWatchingPlace, posted online
I think it will be just the opposite that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and youll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

What role does morality play in a future world of artificial intelligence, artificial life and immortality? Will an aspiration to do what is good and right still motivate much of the race?
Andrew Solomon, writer
I think morality is more important than ever before. As we gain more power, the question of what we do with it becomes more and more crucial, and we are very close to really having divine powers of creation and destruction. The future of the entire ecological system and the future of the whole of life is really now in our hands. And what to do with it is an ethical question and also a scientific question.

So to give just a simple example: what happens if several pedestrians jump in front of a self-driving car and it has to choose between killing, say, five pedestrians or swerving to the side and killing its owner? Now you have engineers producing the self-driving cars and they need to get an answer to this question. So I dont see any reason to think that AI or bioengineering will make morality any less relevant than before.

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

After reading Homo Deus I began to wonder why we are so wilfully ushering in a future that will slowly make us redundant. We are the only animal obsessed with progress. Should we try to resist the idea of the future as one of inevitable technological advancement and create a different kind of futurism?
Matt Haig, author
You cant just stop technological progress. Even if one country stops researching artificial intelligence, some other countries will continue to do it. The real question is what to do with the technology. You can use exactly the same technology for very different social and political purposes. If you look at the 20th century, we see that with the same technology of electricity and trains, you could create a communist dictatorship or a liberal democracy. And its the same with artificial intelligence and bioengineering. So I think people shouldnt be focused on the question of how to stop technological progress because this is impossible. Instead the question should be what kind of usage to make of the new technology. And here we still have quite a lot of power to influence the direction its taking.

Will humans always find ways to hate each other, or do you lean more towards Steven Pinkers view that society far less violent than it was once, which this trend is placed to carry on?
Sarah Shubinsky, readers
I am inclined to accept Steven Pinker. We currently reside in probably the most peaceful era ever. There’s certainly still violence My home is the center East and so i know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there’s less violence than in the past ever. Today more and more people die from overeating than from human violence, which is actually an amazing achievement. We cant be sure concerning the future however, many changes get this to trend appear robust. To begin with, there’s the specter of nuclear war that was possibly the main reason behind the decline of war since 1945, which threat remains. And next, you will find the alternation in the character from the economy the economy switched from as being a material-based economy towards the understanding-based economy.

Previously, the primary economic assets were material such things as wheat fields and gold mines and slaves. So war made sense since you could enrich yourself by waging war upon your neighbours. The primary economic asset is understanding, and it is tough to conquer understanding through violence. The majority of the large conflicts these days continue to be in individuals areas such as the Middle East, in which the primary supply of wealth is material its gas and oil.

Photograph: SilverHub/Rex/Shutterstock

You stated our predilection to produce abstract concepts for example religion, nationality etc may be the quality which designated sapiens using their company hominids. Considering that can also be the muse for wars that could produce our destruction, could it be a strength or perhaps a weakness?
Esther Rantzen, broadcaster
When it comes to power, its apparent this ability made Homo sapiens probably the most effective animal on the planet, and today provides for us charge of the whole planet. From your ethical perspective, whether or not this was bad or good, thats an even more complicated question. The important thing concern is that because our power depends upon collective fictions, we’re not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans think it is tough to understand what is real and what’s only a imaginary story in their own individual minds, which causes lots of disasters, wars and problems.

The very best test to understand whether a business is real or imaginary may be the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it can’t feel discomfort, it can’t feel fear, it’s no awareness. Even when it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, however the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, an organization cannot suffer, the pound sterling, if this loses its value, it doesnt suffer. Each one of these things, theyre fictions. If people keep in mind this distinction, it might improve the way you treat each other and yet another creatures. It is not such smart to cause suffering to real entities within the service of imaginary tales.

AA: However these fictions frequently inspire us to complete excellent achievements. Would an unblinking look at reality produce the same motivation?
We certainly take some fictions to be able to have large-scale societies. Thats true. But we have to begin using these fictions for everyone us rather to be enslaved by them. A great example is probably a football game. The laws and regulations from the game are imaginary, theyre a development of humans, there’s nothing anyway that mandates the laws and regulations from the football game. As lengthy while you the reason is that are simply laws and regulations that individuals invented for everyone your goal, you’ll be able to take part in the game. Should you completely quit these laws and regulations since they’re imaginary, then you definitely cant play football.

The future of human food? Professor Mark Post shows the worlds first lab-grown beefburger in London, August 2013. Photograph: Alamy

So Im certainly not recommending that people stop using all these fictional entities. You cannot have a large-scale economy if you dont use money. But you can use money in the same way you use the football laws, and still remember that this is just our creation. And similarly with the nation. There is nothing wrong in principle in having feelings of loyalty towards the group. But when you forget that this is a human creation, then you can end up sacrificing millions of people for the interests of the nation, forgetting that its the people who invented it.

Is being compassionate and empathetic a major flaw in human evolution? Is psychopathy the future for our species?
Dominic Currie, reader
No, I dont think so. First of all, if it is, then its going to be quite a terrible future. But even if we leave aside the moral aspect and just look at it from a practical aspect, then human power comes from cooperation, and psychopaths are not very good at cooperation. You need empathy and compassion, you need the ability to understand and to sympathise with other people in order to cooperate with them effectively. So even if we leave aside all moral issues, still I dont think that empathy is bad for us or that psychopaths are the future of humankind.

AA: You argue that humanism is a product of capitalism. Is it inseparable from capitalism?
There are close connections between them but I dont think they are inseparable. They can certainly go along different ways in the 21st century. One of the big dangers we face is exactly the separation of capitalism from humanism, especially from liberal humanism. In the last decades the main reason why governments all over the world liberalised their politics and economics is not because they were convinced of the ethical arguments of humanism, but rather because they thought it will be good for the capitalist economy.

Now the fear is that in the 21st century capitalism and humanism will be separated, and you could have very sophisticated and advanced economies without any need to liberalise your political system or to give freedom to invest in the education and welfare of the masses.

Photograph: Fiona Shaw for the Guardian

Was the move from hunter-gathering to farming a mistake? If so, how can we make the best of it now?
Philippa Perry, writer and psychotherapist
It depends on your perspective. If youre talking from the perspective of a pharaoh or some ancient Chinese emperor, then it was a very good idea. If you look at it from the perspective of a simple peasant woman in ancient Egypt, then it looks like a pretty bad idea. If you look at it from the perspective of the middle classes in the affluent societies of today, then again it looks like a very good idea. If you look at it from the perspective of somebody in Bangladesh who works 12 hours a day in a sweatshop, again it looks like a bad idea.

There is absolutely no way to turn back the clock, with 8 billion people returning to living as hunter-gatherers. So the question is really how to make the best of our current situation, and how not to repeat the mistakes of the agricultural revolution. With the new revolution in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, there is a danger that again all the power and benefits will be monopolised by a very small elite, and most people will end up worse off than before.

You said animal farming might be the worst crime in history. What advice do you have for helping society end it?
Jacy Reese, reader
Our best chance is with what is known as cellular agriculture or clean meat, which is the idea of creating meat from cells and not from animals. If you want a steak, you just grow a steak from cells you dont need to raise a cow and then slaughter the cow for the steak. This may sound like science fiction but its already a reality. Three years ago they created the
first hamburger they made from cells. It is true it cost $300,000 nevertheless its always like this with a brand new technology. Right now, 2017, the cost, so far as I understand, is lower to $11 per hamburger. And also the developers expect, that, given enough investment and also the proper research, they might bring lower the cost to under a slaughtered meat hamburger within, I do not know, ten years approximately.

Its still a way before you decide to view it within the supermarket as well as in McDonalds, however i think thats the only real viable solution. Im vegan, and that i avoid meat along with other animal products, but Im under no illusion will be able to convince vast amounts of others to stop completely meat and milk and so on. But when we are able to produce them from cells, then great. It will likewise have lots of environmental benefits since it will lessen the enormous quantity of pollution which is because high animal farming today.

Bettany Hughes Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Does the phrase the modern mind mean anything to you, and if so when was the modern mind born and what does it look like?
Bettany Hughes, historian
We know very little about the mind. We dont understand what it is, what are its functions and how it emerged. When billions of neurons in the brain fire electrical charges in a particular pattern, how does this create the mental experience, the subjective experience of love or anger or pain or pleasure? We have absolutely no idea. And because we understand so little about the mind, we also dont know how and why it emerged in the first place. We assume that the people in the late stone age who drew the cave art of Lascaux and Altamira had fundamentally the same minds as we have today. And we also assume that Neanderthals had a different kind of mind, even though they had bigger brains than ours. But the details at present are far beyond our understanding.

AA: You live in a part of the world that has been shaped by religious fictions. Which do you think will happen first that Homo sapiens leave behind religious fiction or the Israel-Palestine conflict will be resolved?
As things look at present, it seems that Homo sapiens will disappear before the Israeli political conflict will be resolved. I think that Homo sapiens as we know them will probably disappear within a century or so, not destroyed by killer robots or things like that, but changed and upgraded with biotechnology and artificial intelligence into something else, into something different. The timescale for that kind of change is maybe a century. And its quite likely that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved by that time. But it will definitely be influenced by it.

Would we and all the other species on this planet have been better off without the cognitive revolution? Would we then still be living in harmony with all the other forms of life instead of dominating them and making ourselves unhappy in the process?
NassauOrange, posted online
Im not sure about harmony because there is also a lot of violence and disharmony between other species. But we definitely would not have dominated the planet if we did not undergo the cognitive revolution. And then, also, you would not have the ecological crisis that the planet now faces. So yes, without a cognitive revolution, I guess most other organisms, most other big animals, would be much better off.

Were the Lascaux cave paintings in France created by minds like ours? Photograph: D Nidos/ Departement 24

What concerns you most about the world, and what are you doing about your concerns?
LeaActforChange, posted online
There are so many different concerns that Im not sure which is the biggest one. At present, because of the enormous power of humankind, maybe the biggest concern of all is human blindness and stupidity. Were an extremely wise species in so many ways but when it comes to making important decisions we have this tendency sometimes to make these terrible mistakes, and we are now in a situation when we just dont have much room for error. As we gain more and more power, the consequences of making a stupid choice are catastrophic for us and for the entire ecological system. So this is a great cause for concern.

Is anti-intellectualism is rising in the west? If so, is there a relation between the rise of anti-intellectualism and the decline of liberalism?
guneydas, posted online
Im not sure that its rising. Its definitely there but it was always there, and Im not sure if the situation now is worse than in the 1950s or 1930s or the 19th century or the middle ages. So yeah, its definitely a concern. And I would say its not so much anti-intellectualism as much as anti-science. Because even the most fundamentalist religious fanatics, they are intellectuals. They give far too much importance to the human intellect. One of the problems with a lot of religious fanaticism is that it gives far too much importance to the creations of the human intellect and far too little to empirical evidence from the world outside us.

AA: Are you confident that radical Islam is nothing more than the death rattle of the pre-modern era?
In the 21st century, humanity is facing some very difficult problems, whether its global warming or global inequality or the rise of disruptive technology, such as bioengineering and artificial intelligence. And wWe need answers to these challenges, and at least as of March 2017 I havent heard anything relevant being offered by radical Islam. So this is why I dont think that radical Islam will shape the society of the 21st century. It could still be there, it could still cause a lot of trouble and violence and so forth, but I dont see it creating or shaping the road ahead of humankind.

Photograph: Mike McGregor/Observer Magazine

Youre clearly a big-picture guy, so what do you do to recharge and get the perspective that you need for your work?
Arianna Huffington, entrepreneur
I read a very large number of books from all fields, all disciplines. I usually start with a big question, such as whether people today are happier than in the past, or why men have dominated women in most human societies. And then I follow the question instead of trying to follow my own answer, even if it means I cant formulate any clear theory.

AA: What does meditation do for you?
Above all it enables me to try and see reality as it is. When we try to observe the world, and when we try to observe ourselves, the mind constantly generates stories and fictions and explanations and imposes them on reality, and we cannot see what is really happening because we are blinded by the fictions and stories that we create or other people create and we believe. Meditation for me is just to see reality as it is dont get entangled in any story, in any fiction.

How would you advise the individual who wants to live a good life and contribute to the wellbeing of those not yet born as well as those already here?
Paul Baker, reader
Get to know yourself better, and especially what you really want from life, because otherwise technology tends to dictate to people their aims in life, and instead of technology serving us to realise our aims, we become enslaved to its agenda. And its very difficult to know what you really want from life. Im not saying its an easy task.

AA: If we can indefinitely prevent death, would it still be possible to create meaning without what Saul Bellow called the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything?
I think so, yes. You have other problems with what happens when you overcome old age, but I dont think lack of meaning will be a serious problem. Over the past three centuries, almost all the new ideologies of the modern world dont care about death, or at least they dont see death as a source of meaning. Previous cultures, especially traditional religions, usually needed death in order to explain the meaning of life. Like in Christianity without death, life has no meaning. The whole meaning of life comes from what happens to you after you die. There is no death, no heaven, no hell there is no meaning to Christianity. But over the past three centuries we have seen the emergence of a lot of modern ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, communism that dont need death at all in order to provide life with meaning.

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