Yuval Noah Harari — scholarly professor, celebrated modern-day seer, author of weighty tomes — loves football. “The World Cup is a model for good nationalism,” he says. “People’s primary loyalty is to the national team, they wave flags and come together to watch their team. But at the same time it’s all based on a global understanding of co-operation, because you can’t have a World Cup if every nation invents its own set of rules.”
The 46-year-old Israeli historian, a black floral shirt peeking out from beneath his white pullover, is warming to his theme. “The offside rule didn’t come down from Heaven or from the laws of physics,” he says. “We created it. If you think about it, football is just a completely fictional story.”
This is how Harari made his name. His ability to take the everyday, the mundane, and assign it a place in the vast span of human history has won him a vast audience. Before the English translation of his bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in 2014, Harari was a little-known lecturer teaching medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But that book, which tells how humans rose from the apes to become godlike rulers of the Earth, changed his life. Barack Obama read it on his holidays, Bill Gates raved about it and Natalie Portman told her fans it would “blow your mind”. Two more similarly weighty books followed: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
In the past eight years his books have sold more than 40 million copies in 65 languages and Harari has been elevated from obscure academic to public intellectual, from lecturer to thinker, from historian to philosopher. It is a position he takes seriously. “I see myself as a kind of bridge between the scientific community and the general public,” he says. In 2019 Harari and his husband, Itzik Yahav, founded Sapienship, a social enterprise that aims to improve public discourse, reach new audiences and find solutions to humanity’s challenges.
On Thursday, as part of that mission, Harari is publishing his first children’s book, Unstoppable Us: How Humans Took Over the World. “I think it’s really crucial today that kids participate in the big conversations about our place in the world and where we are going,” he says. “And for that it’s crucial to give them the tools.”
He admits that the change of writing style was a challenge. “It’s actually in many ways harder to write for children about science, because you can’t hide behind big words and complicated language and long sentences. You really need to know what you think, what you want to say. You need to write in a very, very clear way, which I found forced me to think much harder about many key ideas.”
In the past eight years his books have sold more than 40 million copies in 65 languages.
The 208-page illustrated hardback, aimed at nine to fourteen-year-olds, is a retelling of Sapiens. But, while simplified, it is not dumbed down. At its core is the idea that humans rose to dominate the planet not because we were more intelligent, but because we learnt how to co-operate. And we were better at that than our cousins — the Neanderthals and Denisovans — because we used language to create legends and myths about religion and nationhood that bound us together. In Sapiens Harari called this the “cognitive revolution”. In Unstoppable Us he describes storytelling as humanity’s “superpower”.
Again Harari turns to football to explain his thesis. Around the world children play football in the park or the street, often with other children they have never met before. Without the “story” of football, he writes, “one kid might argue that the aim of football is to stand with both feet on the ball without falling … Another might hide the ball and say that the winner is whoever finds it first. Two others might just pick up the ball and start throwing it back and forth, saying that this is how they play football and there isn’t a winner at all.” And yet “everyone accepts that the aim of football is to kick the ball into the goal”.
He writes in the book: “If thousands of people believe in the same story, then they’ll all follow the same rules, which means they can co-operate effectively, even with strangers.”
He provides more complex examples, including the multinational corporations and how they brand themselves. “McDonald’s isn’t real in the same way that a chimpanzee or a banana is real,” he writes. “McDonald’s is a story that millions of grown-ups tell each other and believe very strongly, but it exists only in our imagination.” Even money is “just another imaginary story that grown-ups believe … You can’t eat it, or drink it, or wear it. But then along come some great storytellers called bankers and politicians … They tell stories like, ‘This small piece of paper is worth ten bananas,’ and the grown-ups believe them.”
This is provocative stuff. Do we really want primary school children learning that the fundamentals of our society are based on myth? That money is essentially worthless? Harari accepts that this is controversial — and not just for children — but he insists these concepts are vital.
“You have all these colorful children’s books about giraffes and elephants and dinosaurs — every kid probably has them in his home or at her school — and how many people actually interact with these big animals in their daily life? But every day they interact with these giant entities called corporations, Google or Facebook or TikTok or whatever. It’s part of our duty to try and explain to them what a corporation is. For a ten-year-old today it’s an important piece of knowledge.”
Harari insists that explaining the underpinnings of such institutions does not represent an attack on their value. “The main message is that we created them and therefore we can change them. And we need to check whether they’re doing good or not. I’m not out to dismantle society.”
Do we really want primary school children learning that the fundamentals of our society are based on myth?
He points to monarchy as one of these “quirky” but unifying stories — “like football, parliament and capitalism” — that brings society together, and says he was fascinated by the reaction of the British people when the Queen died. “Monarchy is one of the most ancient and universal stories in history,” he says. “It is a remarkable story that transforms a human being into a sacred institution. Elaborate ceremonies surround every bodily function of the monarch, from eating to fornicating, to hide the fact that this is a human body no different from any other body.
“Eventually, though, the royal body dies.” That point, he says, is a moment of danger for the myth of royalty. “The magic is broken. So before anyone can even think, a new body is immediately consecrated. It was very interesting to see the transition when Queen Elizabeth died. She reigned for so long that few people had any memory of how to behave when a monarch dies. Yet almost everybody followed the script without raising any questions.
“My personal views are that the monarchy has served an important role in uniting British society, and I hope the institution continues to provide this crucial service. Too many other institutions and traditions are at present being called into question. The key question to ask is whether the story does more good or more harm. It is the responsibility of Charles III and his family to prove the benefits of their particular fairytale.”
Part of Harari’s popular appeal is as a futurologist; his study of the past and assessment of the present has led him to strong views about what is yet to come. Technology and artificial intelligence, he says, will fundamentally change society. Computer algorithms may soon become advanced enough that they work better than the human brain.
Earlier this year a social media storm erupted when Harari told an interviewer the biggest challenge of the coming decades would be how to occupy the many “useless people” displaced from the workplace by technology. “My best guess, at present, is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most,” he said. Fury followed, but Harari’s point was largely misunderstood. He was not spelling out a desirable outcome, but one to be feared. The episode illustrates Harari’s fear about a widespread inability to process information. “Something is broken in our information system,” he says. “We have better information technology than any previous time in history. And yet people can’t agree on the most basic facts about what’s happening.”
Every year Harari goes on a two-month retreat — this year to India — to cut himself off from this relentless flow of information. “Information by itself isn’t truth,” he says. “In order to reach wisdom you need information, of course, but you also need silence.”
This is also why he loves football. He doesn’t support a particular team, he says, but loves watching matches, even when they get boring. “In too many places today we can no longer cope with boredom. But not with football. With football, a fan commits to watch the game for 90 minutes. We need more things like that in life.”
Harari has only a smartphone for use in emergencies. He says people who believe in conspiracy theories about global surveillance systems in which chips are implanted in the brain are missing the point. “They don’t realize it’s already happening,” he says. “They don’t need to implant a chip in your brain. If people want to know your political views, your sexual orientation, what’s happening in your private life, they just need access to your smartphone.”
Despite his concerns about what’s to come, he insists he cannot read the future. “I am definitely not a prophet.” But he is more worried than ever before — and his biggest fear is the future of democracy.
The danger is so real that he believes the 2024 presidential elections could be the last the US ever holds. “The idea of the human order is fragile,” he says. “If people change the story, the entire thing can collapse very quickly.”
When he published the first version of Sapiens in Hebrew in 2011, the world was largely stable. “Now there is such chaos. What seemed to be solid turned out to be extremely fragile and fluid. From the viewpoint of 2012 or 2013, American democracy seemed to be the solid rock of global politics,” he says. “But there are now suddenly doubts about the viability of American democracy. There are now plausible scenarios that perhaps the next presidential elections in the US will be the last democratic elections in US history. I think the chances are not high. But let’s say it’s 20 per cent — it’s still mind-boggling.”
Part of Harari’s popular appeal is as a futurologist.
The problem, Harari believes, is the breakdown of a unifying nationalism. “I think nationalism really should be about love and not hate — at its core nationalism is the feeling that you are connected to the other people in your country, that you care about them. For instance, you pay your taxes so that somebody you never met on the other side of the country will have good healthcare.”
In many countries, though, politics is so divided that this unifying identity has broken down. “One of the key conditions of democracy is the ability to have a public debate about the key issues of the day, that we can talk with one another. Once people see their political rivals as enemies, democracy simply becomes untenable.”
In the US, he says, Republicans and Democrats now fear and hate each other “more than they fear and hate anybody else on the planet, more than they fear and hate the Russians or the Chinese”. He adds: “In the long run you just can’t sustain a democracy in this situation.”
Harari believes a key problem is the death of conservatism. “Traditionally in most democracies you had this kind of double act: the conservative parties, who wanted to slow things down, who were mainly about protecting institutions, protecting traditions, and then the progressive forces who were pushing for change.”
The Republicans in the US — and center-right parties the world over — have become radicalized, pushing to sweep away institutions and traditions. He points to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. “So-called conservatives were applauding,” he says. Trump’s attacks on the United Nations and the World Health Organization are another example.
“The traditional conservative parties no longer exist,” Harari says. “It then becomes the job of progressive parties to protect institutions and traditions — which they are not good at. And the end result is that there is almost nobody in the political system that is simply concerned with preserving institutions and traditions. And when I talk about institutions, it’s everything from the court system to the sewage system.
“Just imagine the situation in a couple of years, if there is another contested election in the US. And if people say that the elections were rigged, and officials do what they refused to do in 2020, which is declare that the elections were a fraud. What happens then? Is it in the hands of the army? Is it in the hands of the Supreme Court? I don’t know. I think the chances of an actual collapse of the system in the next few years are small, but they are not zero.”
Harari is equally gloomy about world affairs. He believes the handling of the Covid pandemic revealed an inherent weakness in our ability to deal with a global crisis. “It was an unprecedented scientific victory and a political failure,” he says. “It took two weeks to identify the virus and it took a year to mass-produce several effective vaccines. But these are just tools. We need to use them wisely.”
The inability to stop the initial spread of the virus and then to distribute vaccine stocks equitably to people around the world was, Harari says, a symptom of what he sees as the wrong kind of nationalism — an inward-looking, outward-fearing mindset.
“This type of nationalism destroys democracy and destroys any chance of global co-operation,” he says. “If you think about much more complicated issues — whether it’s climate change or the rise of artificial intelligence — it really kind of makes me pessimistic that we’ll be able to co-operate on those fronts.”
The danger is so real that he believes the 2024 presidential elections could be the last the US ever holds.
The biggest imminent challenge we face is that posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, published in 2018, Harari said the past few decades had been the “most peaceful era in human history”. War, he wrote, was simply no longer profitable, as it had been in the past. But he added: “Alas, even if wars remain an unprofitable business in the 21st century, that would not give us an absolute guarantee of peace. We should never underestimate human stupidity.”
Enter Vladimir Putin. The invasion of Ukraine, Harari believes, was a huge miscalculation on the Russian president’s part. “Ultimately this war is the whim of a single person,” he says. “It’s not something the Russian people wanted, it’s not something Ukraine wanted, it’s not something Nato wanted. It’s a rare case in history but it’s really just the fantasies and the megalomania of a single person. And he miscalculated the reaction. He was looking at things like Brexit and saying, ‘This means that Britain doesn’t care anymore about Europe, so if I invade Ukraine they won’t do anything.’ ”
The impact, though, will be felt for decades: “He is now planting seeds of hatred which will last for generations. The defining thing about being Ukrainian now is ‘we are not Russians’.”
What if Putin succeeds? “If he is allowed to win, if he gets away with it, then this is a turning point in world history. The global order of the late 20th century and early 21st century is over, and we are back in the jungle. This will become the new normal — governments all over the world might invade their neighbors. And the only thing that prevents it is military power, which means we will see military budgets all over the world go up. There is suddenly a realistic scenario that we might have a Third World War within the next few years.”
On the flip side, he says, if Putin can be defeated, it will show world leaders that aggression backfires. Harari is hopeful that will be the outcome, and believes the downsides are already becoming clear.
“Putin has destroyed Russia’s position as a superpower,” he says. “Before the invasion people thought Russia stood on the same level as China and the US. Now it’s very, very clear that it doesn’t. The historical impact could be to turn Russia into a Chinese puppet state. Putin is making Russia more and more dependent on China. If you look at history, Moscow began as the tax collector of the Mongols. It might come full circle and end as the servant of the Chinese.”
So which is the biggest threat? Russia’s aggression, another pandemic or the threat of AI?
“At the moment, the culture war within the West,” Harari says. “The democratic countries — the European Union, Britain, the US, Australia, Japan, India, Brazil — they are by far the strongest force on Earth. So if the democratic camp could hang together, this could be enough. If you think about all these threats, the key thing to realize about them is that we have the power to solve them.”
If these democracies fall apart, however, there will be no safety net.
“The growing split within democracies means they are collapsing from within,” Harari says. “The real tragedy about it is that the ideological differences are not so big. The ideological hot spots today in the US — abortion, gun control, gay marriage, environmental regulations — they’re much, much smaller than the debates of the 1960s about civil rights, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, the Cold War. If you go back to the 19th century you find even bigger issues; people didn’t even agree whether we should have a monarchy or a democracy.”
He goes on, becoming animated. “Are the debates today enough to destroy American democracy, maybe even human civilization? There is a mismatch, because if you think about the great ideological battles of the 20th century — communism versus fascism versus liberal democracy — this was a huge battle. Most people today agree on the basics. They agree about democracy, that people should choose their own government instead of having some divinely ordained king. Everybody agrees that people should have the right to choose their own career and have the opportunity to develop their own talents. Nobody believes in a caste system.”
He pauses, before adding: “People are much closer to each other than ever before, and yet they seem willing to destroy the whole thing.”
This seems a depressing outlook, but Harari disagrees. “It is hopeful because it means that ultimately, if we just get our act together, we can solve all the big problems. I can’t guarantee that it will happen and I’m not very optimistic at the present. But it’s completely within our power.”
Ben Spencer is the science editor at The Sunday Times of London