Interview with Yuval Harari, the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and the new Sapiens: A Graphic History – “If belief in a story causes suffering, it is harmful. Better change the story.”

It was only a few hours before Yuval Noah Harari embarked on his annual two month meditation retreat that I reached him for this interview. With nearly 30 million books sold in more than 60 languages and a PhD in History from Oxford University, Harari teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives in Israel – a place he calls a myth factory. In 2020, the author published the graphic novel Sapiens: A Graphic History – The Birth of Humankind, as well as articles on the pandemic, and was undoubtedly one of the most in-demand thinkers to analyze humanity’s advancements and shortcomings in Covid-19 times. His work is recommended by Barack Obama and Bill Gates – self-declared admirers – and has led millions of readers to reflect on the story of the most evolved animals that have ever existed. It’s fair to say that such a best-seller’s credibility is beyond dispute; still, Harari generously answered my questions. And about to celebrate his 45th birthday, he opens 2021 with a crucial question: how far will we go for fictional stories?

Harari and his rescue dog, Pengo, in Israel Foto: Vicens Gimenez

Clara Jardim: Professor Harari, in such a particular year as 2020, what is the lesson, or interesting aspects, that you would mention in a chapter about the pandemic?

Yuval Noah Harari: The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the enormous power of our science as well as the weakness of our politics. It has been a scientific victory coupled with a political disaster. Scientists from throughout the world cooperated to identify the novel virus, contain its spread, and develop a vaccine. Thanks to this global scientific collaboration, humanity has better tools to deal with Covid-19 than with any previous pandemic in history.

Unfortunately, politicians have failed to use these tools wisely. A year after the beginning of the pandemic, we still don’t have any global leadership, any global plan to stop the virus, or any global plan to deal with the economic crisis.

This gap between the scientific power of our species and our political incompetence is extremely worrying. Dealing with Covid-19 should have been a straightforward political project. It is easy to understand that as long as the virus continues to spread and evolve in any one country – no country can feel safe. And yet we have failed to cooperate effectively. What will happen when humanity faces much more complicated threats, such as ecological collapse or the rise of artificial intelligence?

I hope that our politics will catch up with our science, and that humanity will learn to use our immense powers wisely.

Clara Jardim: “Only the names, shapes and sizes of our own pyramids change from one culture to the other”, we work with constant building, some of us also aim to destroy, and there are those who don’t know what they are trying to build. In your opinion, sir, what is our intrinsic fight while we try to build our own pyramids?

Yuval Noah Harari: The main fight is to distinguish reality from fiction. Fictions are essential for any large scale human-cooperation – whether to build a pyramid or a hospital or a nation. Without belief in collective myths, all our systems would collapse. There would be no money, no trade networks, no states, no healthcare systems.

So we cannot just destroy all the fictions. But we need to remember that all these fictional stories are tools we have created to help us. They can be very useful in uniting people and enabling large-scale cooperation. But if we begin to mistake these stories for the ultimate reality – they can become dangerous. Instead of using stories to help people, we begin to sacrifice people for the sake of stories.

For example, in order to play football you must first get 22 people to believe in the same rules, despite the fact that these rules exist solely in our imagination. Playing football is great fun, but if some hooligan starts beating up fans of the opposite team, he is taking the story a bit too seriously. Similarly, to have a functioning country you must get millions people to believe in the nation, its flag, its currency etc., despite the fact that all of these things exist only in their imagination. Nations are a wonderful invention. They enable people to care about complete strangers, and provide for their health, safety and education. But if we forget that nations are stories we created to help people, we might begin killing millions of people for the sake of the nation.

We should never forget the difference between real entities such as human beings, and fictional entities such as nations. If you hear a story, and you want to know whether the hero of the story is a real entity or a mere fiction, you should ask “can it suffer?”. A nation cannot suffer, even if it loses a war. It has no mind, and it cannot feel pain or sadness. Suffering is accordingly the best yardstick to evaluate whether a story is beneficial or harmful. If belief in a story reduces suffering, that’s a good story. If belief in a story causes suffering, it is harmful. Better change the story.

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Graphic History – The Birth of Humankind