December 16, 2018
The author of global bestseller Sapiens is back, with a self-help guide for a bewildering age – and its sweeping statements are peppered with truly mind-expanding observations
Yuval Noah Harari’s career is a publishing fairytale. An obscure Israeli academic writes a Hebrew-language history of humanity. Translated into English in 2014, the book sells more than a million copies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg includes it in his book club in 2015. Ridley Scott wants to turn it into a TV series. Barack Obama says it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted”. Its sales spike when it is mentioned on Love Island.
That book was Sapiens, which is bold, breezy and engaging, romping its way from the discovery of fire to the creation of cyborgs in less than 500 pages. The future-gazing follow-up, Homo Deus, was also a global bestseller, and now Harari has turned his attention to the present with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It covers everything from war – Harari’s academic specialism – to meditation, his favourite leisure activity. (He does two hours a day, and a month-long retreat every year.) The collection of pieces aims to take stock of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. Ultra-topical concerns such as “fake news” and the rise of authoritarians such as Donald Trump are set in the context of centuries of our biological and social evolution. As Obama said, this approach certainly gives the reader perspective. Ivan the Terrible was probably more, well, terrible than Trump. Cheer up! Until you remember climate change, at least – because, to his credit, Harari is one of the few futurists to factor ecological collapse into his predictions.
All the classic Harari themes are here. Life in 15th-century China was pretty slow, but now the pace of change feels unstoppable. Religion can be bad, but has its uses. Nationalism can be bad, but has its uses. Factory farming is very, very bad. Liberalism is good, but under threat. Hunter-gathering is a more exciting lifestyle choice than farming, or working in a factory. Technological advances bring Big Ethical Questions. And, of course, there is Harari’s main question, which is here spelled out in a chapter heading. “How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?” He contends that collective myths, such as money and laws, have allowed us to build huge, complicated societies far beyond what our biological limitations might suggest is possible. But in the secular west, religion is fading from public life. And in our globalised world, the idea of a coherent nation-state is threatened. What do we have left to believe in?
One of the answers, although the author does not provide it, is gurus, of which we have created a new class, each individually tailored to our needs. Some anxious middle-class women have Gwyneth Paltrow, who promises enlightenment through yoni steaming and dietary restrictions. Angry, disaffected young men have Jordan Peterson, whose banal advice about tidying your room is camouflaged with Jungian blah and sulky oppositionalism. And people who shone at school and don’t understand why that hasn’t made them happy have Harari.
His books use evolutionary psychology as self-help: the world is a scary, fast-changing place, so it’s no surprise our savannah-trained ape brains struggle to navigate through it. We simply haven’t evolved to cope with automated checkouts and emailing after 7pm.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century is, as the title suggests, a loose collection of themed essays, many of which build on articles for the New York Times, Bloomberg and elsewhere. That has strange results. A chapter arguing that “Judaism played only a modest role in the annals of our species” seems random until you realise it started life as a piece for the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz. However, the format plays to Harari’s big selling point: the ambition and breadth of his work, smashing together unexpected ideas into dazzling observations. “Why do we fear terrorism more than sugar?” Harari asks at one point. (Answer: terrorism is not delicious on porridge.) “Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality.” (Told you he was nostalgic for the era of berry collection.) “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.” (OK, but you did this riff in Sapiens.) Microsoft “is an intricate legal fiction”. (And this one, except then it was Peugeot.)
The best reason not to throw this book out of the window is that, occasionally, Harari writes a paragraph that is genuinely mind-expanding. In the chapter on religion he notes: “Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles.” Cue a hundred military historians dropping their marmalade. Say what? But it’s a feint: “We know these missiles as the kamikaze.” The willingness of Japanese pilots to die made their military hardware more effective, and “was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shintō”. Humans are endlessly creative, goes the lesson, and sometimes we solve problems by changing the question rather than answering it. Beat that, AI.
There are plenty of provocations – why climate change might benefit the Russian economy, how humans could evolve into different species – but the globetrotting, history-straddling scope of Harari’s approach has an obvious drawback, which is that some of the observations here feel recycled. His sweeping statements, breathtaking though they are, can also feel untethered from the intellectual traditions from which they come. References to previous thinkers and writers on the subjects he covers are largely tucked away in endnotes.
Here’s an example. In the chapter on work, Harari suggests that technology could reduce the availability of paid labour for humans, creating millions of “spare” people. In response, we could “widen the range of human activities that are considered to be ‘jobs’”, Harari writes. “Maybe we need to turn a switch in our minds and realise that taking care of a child is arguably the most important and challenging job in the world.” Unpaid caring labour is undervalued in capitalist systems? No one tell the feminist movement, it’ll blow their minds.
It’s an unkind comparison, but I am compelled to return to Jordan Peterson. The two men are almost mirror-images: Harari is a vegan, while Peterson says that a beef-only diet is the best treatment for his depression. Both can sound like prophets. Harari advises that if you want to “know the truth about the universe … the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is”, while Peterson tells readers: “Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.”
And both men are treated as general all-purpose Clever People, rather than as academics with a particular specialism. They inhabit the high-altitude world of speaking tours and TED talks, repackaging their books into bite-sized chunks. They also fuse high and low culture, to show they are brainy but also with it, sharing a surprising interest in the 1994 Disney classic The Lion King. Peterson once gave a lecture where he praised Mufasa’s dominant, manly posture: “He’s a very regal-looking person … lion,” he told students. Meanwhile, Harari sees the film as a retelling of the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, with its themes of revenge and the circle of life. This kind of pop-culture criticism often relies on implying that no one else (ie, people without PhDs) has contemplated the existence of subtext before. Harari is hardly the first person to spot that the 2015 film Ex Machina was about gender, not just AI. “Many movies about artificial intelligence are so divorced from scientific reality that one suspects they are just allegories of completely different concerns,” he writes.
Ultimately, the smudges and slips of Sapiens are forgivable, because it’s a rollicking good read and I suspect it acts as a gateway drug to more academic accounts of human history. However, this book sees Harari enter that class of gurus who are assumed to be experts on everything. The 22nd lesson of this book is obvious: no single member of the tribe Homo Sapiens can know everything. If this new age needs new stories, then we have to let more people tell them.
• 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) is the Guardian Bookshop’s Book of the Month. To order a copy for £13.99, saving £5, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.