Listen to this article
I arrive half an hour early at Meshek Barzilay, a vegetarian restaurant in Tel Aviv, but moments later Yuval Noah Harari walks in early too.
When I began reading Sapiens, the Israeli historian’s vaultingly ambitious history of humankind, I envisaged an older, intimidating professorial type. In fact, he is 38, slim and with thinning hair, dressed informally in a black-and-grey striped polo shirt, with an eager-to-please smile – more striving docent than intimidating don.
We meet as Israel’s military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip – just 70km down the coast – is grinding into its dismal, violent final week but Tel Aviv, as always, seems encased in an imperviously bourgeois bubble of comfort. The restaurant has well-dressed clientele and is decorated with glass display cases featuring books on organic and whole foods. World music is playing on the sound system.
We’re shown to a corner table with two place settings alongside each other, as if for an amorous couple or small children. We move them so that we are facing, and I ask the staff to turn down the music so I can concentrate on our conversation. When I ask Harari if I can tape it, he, too, produces and turns on his own recording device, a small iPod.
I ask why he chose to tackle quite such a large subject and he launches into a discursive answer. (Harari, I discover, is someone who speaks in complete paragraphs.) “I was always interested in the really big questions of history,” he says. “For example, are we happier than our ancestors, or why men dominated women in most societies – and you can’t get answers to such questions from looking at just one bit of the picture.”
Sapiens had its origins in a course on world history that Harari, a lecturer at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, first taught a decade ago with other junior colleagues because no tenured professor wanted to take it on. Four publishers rejected the book – history doesn’t sell well in Israel – but a fifth took a chance; Sapiens, originally titled A Brief History of Mankind, shot to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list, and remains there three years after its original publication in 2011. It is being translated into 28 languages – from Finnish to Chinese – and the English edition came out this week.
A woman sitting at the next table interrupts us to congratulate Harari. “I have been reading history for years but he succeeded in putting things in perspective, which is such an amazing thing,” she tells me. “I don’t know about the rest of the world but here in Israel it made things much easier to look at now.”
The book is, at its heart, an extended thesis about what has made humans such a successful species. In Harari’s view, at the dawn of history homo sapiens shared, along with Neanderthals and other early humans, some winning attributes – a big brain, the ability to walk upright – but they sat somewhere in the middle of the food chain, and were no shoo-in to become masters of the world.
What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.
Any band of Neanderthals, Harari suggests, can raise a few dozen people for a hunt but humans can tell the stories needed to ensure co-operation in groups of 150 or more – numbers large enough to organise mass hunting using prepared traps, raise modern armies, or subdue the natural world.
Also woven into this theory of humankind are his own convictions about eating meat. Sapiens devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically “successful” creatures in history but the most miserable too.
This also accounts for our choice of restaurant. Meshek Barzilay, an organic bistro, got its start in a moshav (farming co-operative) in central Israel before moving to the trendy low-rise Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek. Harari describes himself as “vegan-ish”. “I try to be involved as little as possible with the meat and dairy industry,” he says. “But if I go to my Mom’s and she makes a cake with cheese, or whatever, I eat it.”
He tells me he gave up eating meat after studying what domestication and mass farming does to animals. “The main problem isn’t necessarily the slaughter itself,” he says. “What’s really different is the way in which animals are treated and raised during their lives, which takes care of their basic material needs but completely ignores everything else, including their social and psychological needs.”
The menu includes both vegan and vegetarian options, though when the waiter warns that the salad I choose for a starter contains cheese, it is as though he is informing me it contains ground glass. It is a sticky, hot day, and I order an Indian tali and a lemonade with mint, my favourite Levantine soft drink. Harari gets the tali, a cold soup made with soya milk to start, and tap water.
I tell Harari I like the idea of fiction as the supreme human construct. When reading a novel, I am happy to suspend disbelief and believe the characters are real people; does the same principle apply in other areas? “Yes, it really is the main thing,” he says. “We can suspend disbelief about Harry Potter, and we do the same thing with God, and we do the same thing with human rights, and we do the same thing with money.”
Limited liability companies, he writes, are among humanity’s most ingenious inventions but “exist as a figment of our collective imagination”, even if we have grown so used to them that we have forgotten this. Whereas an early human business lived or died on the fortunes of its owner-founder, the modern corporation (from “corpus” for body, Harari reminds us) has a life of its own thanks to our collective faith in the “fiction” of the legal code.
“Everybody since the ’60s has been saying the nation is a fiction, the nation is an imaginary unity, but people didn’t connect the dots and say all human endeavours sprang from the same principle,” he says.
Harari’s achievement in Sapiens is applying the same postmodern theories to history, anthropology, capitalism, and other areas and arguing that the whole power of humankind arises from that. “If you take 10,000 chimpanzees and cram them together into Wembley Stadium or the Houses of Parliament, you will get chaos,” he says. “But if you take 10,000 people who have never met before, they can co-operate and create amazing things.”
His thesis is vivid, provocative and enlightening. But in places I did feel Harari was stretching his universal theory to reflect personal hunches or biases. He regards the hunter-gatherer period, for example, as a golden age when people had balanced diets and a meaningful, healthy and active life, and suggests that history took a wrong turn somewhere around the agricultural revolution, which tied man to settlements and their oppressive institutions.
“Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt,” he writes. I point out that we are two middle-aged men about to eat a vegan meal, and that I for one would not make a very good hunter-gatherer.
“Neither would I!” Harari laughs. “I would die within a week of dysentery, or falling from a tree or something.”
Our food arrives. My salad is good, but the mint lemonade, apparently made without any sugar or sweetener, is disappointing. Harari, focused on our conversation, is barely touching his food.
He presses further the points he made about the agricultural revolution. The average peasant in Egypt in 1,000BC, he says, had a far worse life than the hunter-gatherers who lived in the same place 20,000 years earlier: a worse diet, back-breaking toil on the land, which is visible in skeletons from the era. Agricultural monoculture also opened the way to pests, droughts and famine, and other human disasters.
“Our bodies and minds evolved and were adapted for hundreds of thousands of years for tasks like climbing a tree and picking apples, or hunting rabbits, or looking for mushrooms in the forest,” he says. “They were not adapted to the very gruelling work that is involved in field work – ploughing, harvesting, bringing water, digging weeds – things like that.”
So was the agricultural revolution a mistake? I ask, chewing on the beans from my underspiced, somewhat boring tali.
“For the average person in Egypt, it was a mistake,” he says. “If you think of the viewpoint of a cow or a chicken, it was a terrible mistake.”
For that matter, he adds, “I think the average factory worker in Bangladesh today has a much harder life than the average hunter-gatherer who lived in what is now Bangladesh 30,000 years ago.”
Sapiens takes readers up to the present day when, Harari says, human beings can manipulate DNA, connect human brains to computers, and override the rules of natural selection to the point of becoming gods themselves.
“If you think what the three main problems of humankind were for thousands of years, they were always the same: starvation – lack of food; epidemics and plagues, and wars,” he says. “Over the past 60 years we didn’t eliminate them completely, of course, but in all three categories we are now in the best position in years.”
War, he says, is receding as the world moves from economies based on material wealth to those based on knowledge: China would never invade Silicon Valley, as there is no silicon there. Having spent much of this year covering the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, I suggest the stronger parties in both conflicts – Russia and Israel – are both rich, knowledge-based countries.
Harari disagrees. Russia, he says, is rich mainly because of mineral wealth: oil and gas. “I am not an expert on the war but what strikes me is how careful the Russians are – how unaggressive, how unwarlike compared to previous analogous situations in history.”
Now I really disagree. The war in Ukraine, I argue, is being fought stealthily with the help of proxies but is every bit as thuggish and brutal in its effects as any other.
I ask about the war in Gaza. Isn’t Israel, the self-styled “Start-Up Nation”, just the kind of knowledge economy that he claims has transcended wars?
“Israel is at the forefront of technological advances,” Harari agrees, but in a region – the Middle East – that is “looking in a different direction, which creates all sorts of strains and difficulties. The main question is whether Israel can sustain its place on this train of history.”
He goes on to mention ways in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contains “anomalies” – the fact that Israel’s existence is not recognised by its neighbours; the Palestinian territories’ lack of sovereignty; the fact that the Palestinians as a people have “permanent status” as refugees.
Is he saying the conflict is so anomalous that it becomes intractable? “The main problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the lack of theoretical solutions – you have quite a few of them – it is getting the parties to accept it,” he says. The conflict, he adds, “is not my field of expertise”.
Having hoped for a more incisive view from a rising Israeli intellectual, I can’t help feeling mildly let down. On the other hand, Harari is the author of a book that ranges freely over many millennia, alighting only selectively on current events to make broader theoretical points about humanity. The Gaza war may be fresh in my mind but in his grand scheme of things it registers as a blip.
We discuss his personal life – he lives midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with his husband Itzik, a former theatre producer who has become his full-time manager. Israel recognises same-sex couples but does not allow civil marriages, same- or opposite-sex, so the two wed in Canada. In the book, he writes that homosexuality, existing in the natural order, is by definition “natural” but when I ask him how he thinks homosexuals fit into the human order, he says he doesn’t know. “Like Israel, I am part of it but I am not an expert on it.”
His next project, he says, will be a book on “the human agenda for the 21st century”, when the priorities will be “eternal life, happiness, and being gods”. In this age, he posits, humans will use technology to develop “super-abilities”, both cognitive and mental, extending longevity and possibly connecting human brains to computers.
Will this be a good or a bad thing?
The possibilities are tantalising, Harari says, but the project cannot be egalitarian in a world where neoliberalism and capitalism reign supreme. If the 20th century was about closing gaps between people, the 21st will open new ones. “What worries me is that we are facing potentially the biggest revolution not only in history but in biology, and people are just leaving it to market forces to figure out how to manage what to do with it.
“This,” he continues as we prepare to leave, “worries me much more than the war in Gaza – which is worrying; I am not belittling the suffering – but, in comparison, it’s a completely different scale of worries.”
John Reed is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief
Illustration by Patrick Morgan