Ask a Historian: Yuval Harari

Ask a Historian: Yuval Harari

Ask a Historian: Yuval Harari

What happened 70 000 years ago that changed the course of humanity? Author of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" Professor Yuval Noah Harari shares his thoughts on imagined realities, the agriculture revolution and the evolution of humankind in this Q&A with Project Coordinator Kathryn Ford. 

In your book you talk about the power that imagined realities and fictional entities have over our society. How do these ideas impact our world and the fate of the natural world? 

For thousands of years fictional entities have been the most powerful forces on earth. Gods, nations, corporations, money and human rights are all fictional entities. They are not a physical or biological reality - they are stories invented and believed by human beings. Zeus, Indra and Jehovah don't really exist anywhere except in our shared imagination. Similarly, if you cut open a human being you would find there many organs, hormones and genes - but no rights. Human rights exist only in the story we tell one another.

Yet these fictions are extremely important, because they are essential for organizing large-scale human cooperation. No religious, political or economic network of cooperation can survive without believing in things like gods, money or human rights. The natural world too has come to depend on these fictions. The fate of forests, rivers and animals nowadays hangs on the wishes and decisions of entities like the European Union, the World Bank and Google - entities that exist only in our shared imagination.

Do you think that these imagined realities, or "stories" as you call them, are dangerous or are they a necessary part of modern life? 

They are a necessary but dangerous part of modern life. Without believing in some myth or the other - be it God, money, the nation, or human rights - large numbers of people cannot cooperate effectively. You cannot even play football without agreeing on some make-believe rules invented by humans. The danger lays in forgetting that these are all human inventions, and starting to believe that they are the ultimate reality. Then you wage entire wars for the greater glory of God or of the nation, oblivious to the fact that they are our own creation.

So we should certainly retain our more useful fictions, such as money and the football rules, but at the same time learn to clearly separate fiction from reality. We should ask ourselves "what is really real?". Perhaps the best test of reality is suffering. If you want to know whether an entity is real, ask yourself: "can it suffer?". When the temple of Zeus is burnt down, Zeus doesn't suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn't suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn't suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn't really suffer. It's just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When an investor loses all her wealth in a stock-exchange bubble, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newly-born calf, she suffers. This is reality. 

You've said that "beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things." Tell us about what changed at this point of time. 

Up to that point, the various human species that inhabited Africa, Europe and Asia were quite ordinary animals, with a relatively limited impact on the ecosystem. However, around 70,000 years ago African Homo sapiens acquired the ability to invent and spread fictional stories. This enabled these Sapiens to start cooperating in much larger numbers than before. Whereas the typical Neanderthal group numbered in the dozens, henceforth hundreds and even thousands of Sapiens could cooperate with one another.

The result was the appearance of the first large tribes, and an explosion of artistic, technological and cultural innovation. This in turn enabled Sapiensto spread out of east Africa, colonize the entire planet, and drive to extinction all the other human species as well as about half of the large land mammals of the planet.

In Big History we explore Threshold 7: Agriculture as a key defining moment in the history of the universe. What do you believe was the biggest impact that the agricultural revolution had on both humans and animals? 

It had two very important impacts. First, it enabled humans to start cooperating in even larger numbers than before. Without agriculture, humans could not have established cities, kingdoms and empires, and would never have split the atom, deciphered DNA or reached the moon.

Secondly, it created a new kind of life-form: domesticated animals. Though only few species have been domesticated, today more than 90% of the big animals of planet earth are domesticated. Only 200,000 wild wolves have survived in the world - compared to more than 500 million domesticated dogs. There are only 900,000 wild bison - compared to 1.5 billion cattle. There are 50 million penguins - compared to 50 billion chickens.

These billions of domesticated animals have been increasingly treated by humans not as sentient beings that can feel pain and distress, but as machines for producing meat, milk and eggs. Judged by the amount of suffering it has caused, the domestication and enslavement of farm animals may well be the greatest crime in history.

How do our lives differ from the lives of our ancestors? And what can we learn from the way they lived? 

If by "ancestors" you mean our Stone Age ancestors, than perhaps the biggest difference is that they were more chimpanzee-like whereas we are increasingly ant-like. Stone Age humans lived in small hunter-gatherer communities, and individuals had to develop superb physical and cognitive skills in order to survive. We moderns live in huge colonies and hives. In order to survive, we usually need to specialize in just a very narrow field such as manufacturing shoes, selling life-insurance or teaching history. For everything else - our food, our tools, our shelter - we rely on the expertise of others and on the support of the entire system. Consequently the modern individual is considerably less skillful and intelligent than his or her Stone Age progenitor, though obviously the human collective is thousands of times more powerful and more knowledgeable.

We could learn a lot of things from our ancestors. Perhaps the two most important things to learn, is how to pay attention, and how to adapt to our environment. Modern society is founded not on adapting itself to the environment, but rather on changing the environment to fit our own comfort and fantasies. Modern society also makes us ever more distracted and unfocused. If we could be a little more focused and a little more adaptable, that would go a long way towards creating a better world and better lives for ourselves as individuals.

Humankind has dramatically evolved and adapted to suit its environment throughout history. How do you think humanity will continue to develop and change in the future?

In the future humans will use technology to upgrade themselves into gods. Throughout history there were many economic, social and political revolutions, but one thing remained constant: humanity itself. We still have the same body and mind as our ancestors in the Stone Age or in ancient Egypt. Yet in the coming decades, for the first time in history, humanity itself will undergo a radical revolution. Not only our society and economy, but our bodies and minds will be transformed by genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces. Bodies and minds will be the main products of the 21st century economy.

This will result in enormous new opportunities, as well as frightful new dangers. There is no point being optimistic or pessimistic about it. We need to be realist. We need to understand that this is really happening - it is science rather than science fiction - and it is high-time we start thinking about this very seriously. Most of the problems that worry governments and private citizens alike are insignificant by comparison. The global economic crisis, the Islamic State, the situation in the Ukraine - these are all important problems, no doubt. But they are completely overshadowed by the question of human enhancement.

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