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February 2015

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Yuval Noah Harari Interview: "There Is a Collision Between the Latest Scientific Findings and the Stories That You Find in the Bible"

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Image attributed to Harper Collins

Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind

Dr. Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in World History, medieval history and military history. He also teaches a Massive Open Online Course called “A Brief History of Humankind.” More than 80,000 students from throughout the world participated in the first run of the course in 2013. The second run began in August 2014, and in its first three weeks, 30,000 students joined.

Harari has published numerous books and articles. His most recent book, released February 10, 2015, is entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of Homo sapiens in the Stone Age up to the political and technological revolutions of the 21st century. Sapiens is an international bestseller and is being published in more than thirty languages worldwide. Harari lives with his husband in moshav Mesilat Zion near Jerusalem.

“When it comes, however, to the factual stories, that the world was created 5,000 years ago, that humans were the descendants of Adam and Eve that were created from earth by God and not evolved from previous species of animals, there is a collision between the latest scientific findings and the stories that you find in the Bible in Christian scriptures. How to reconcile the two? You’d have to really ask a believer.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dr. Harari, thanks for speaking with me today, and congratulations on the great success of the book!

Yuval Noah Harari: Thank you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet you were a very inquisitive child. Did you ask your parents questions about the beginning of mankind?

Yuval Noah Harari: Yes. I remember asking both my parents and my teachers at school continuously about where we came from and what was the meaning of all this. My main surprise was not so much that they didn’t know the answers to some of the questions, it was that they didn’t seem to care much. It didn’t bother them, and they went on worrying about the mortgage and the political situation and whatnot, not the fact that they didn’t understand what was really happening in the world. Not knowing the meaning of all this human existence didn’t bother them at all.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you raised in a religious environment?

Yuval Noah Harari: No. They were secular Jews on both sides of my family, I think even atheists. The family on both sides came in the 1920s/1930s from Eastern Europe. Many of them were raised to believe in the nation and to believe in socialism, but they didn’t believe in God or the Bible. As a child also, it was a very secular family in a small, industrial suburb in the Haifa Bay where all the petroleum chemical industries are located.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You live with your husband in Israel. Are same sex-marriages legal?

Yuval Noah Harari: Basically you cannot get married in Israel except in religious ceremonies, so you can’t have same-sex marriages there, but Israel does recognize same-sex marriages that were formed outside its borders. We got married in Toronto in Canada, and Israel recognizes same-sex marriages in Canada.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been involved in politics or activism?

Yuval Noah Harari: I think I may have gone to a few demonstrations, but no organized political activities. I was always involved in science more than politics.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why the early interest in medieval history?

Yuval Noah Harari: I had a very good and very helpful mentor at the Hebrew University, Professor Benjamin Kedar. He was a well-known expert on medieval history, especially Crusades, and I just followed in his footsteps. It’s not like I had always dreamed about being a medieval expert (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can a Christian who believes in the God of the Bible also agree with mainstream scientific beliefs about evolution?

Yuval Noah Harari: I think we should separate the question of ethics from the factual questions. I think that Christian ethics can certainly dovetail very well with belief in evolution and with the most up to date understandings of history and of biology. I think it’s important that scientists keep an ethical perspective on history and on evolution and especially develop a compassionate understanding of ethical processes and of biological development.

When it comes, however, to the factual stories, that the world was created 5,000 years ago, that humans were the descendants of Adam and Eve that were created from earth by God and not evolved from previous species of animals, there is a collision between the latest scientific findings and the stories that you find in the Bible in Christian scriptures. How to reconcile the two? You’d have to really ask a believer.

I think they are irreconcilable on the factual level, but on the other hand, as a historian, I know that humans have a wonderful capacity for interpreting and reinterpreting. You can always find a very creative way of interpreting a text or a story so that it fits with some new discovery. Personally I feel that people are taking it too far, that there is some degree of intellectual dishonesty when you can always reconcile everything, but as a historian, I know it’s certainly possible to do that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You say that the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. Please expound.

Yuval Noah Harari: Well, there are several levels on which the Agricultural Revolution was not such a good idea. They all concern the level of the individual. On the collective level, it is certainly the case that agriculture gave immense power to the human collective. Without agriculture, you cannot have cities, kingdoms and empires and things like that. Certainly you cannot have societies without the basic of agriculture.

If you look at the daily lives of individuals, you find that very often people had worse lives after agriculture than before in several ways. Before, they had to work much harder. Our bodies and our minds were adapted to life as hunter gatherers climbing trees to pick apples, going to the forest to run after rabbits and to gather mushrooms. Suddenly after the Agricultural Revolution, what most people did was dig canals, harvest wheat and grind the corn, jobs which are much harder for the human body and much less interesting. They’re boring in comparison with going to the forest to look for mushrooms.

Secondly, most people had a far worse diet in agricultural societies. Of course, that didn’t apply to the kings or the high priests, but the ordinary peasant woman ate a worst diet after the Agricultural Revolution than before. Hunter-gatherers usually ate dozens of different species of animals, plants, berries, nuts and mushrooms and whatever, so they got all the nutrients and vitamins they needed. In contrast, most peasants subsisted mainly by eating a single source like in the Middle East where everybody ate wheat and barley. All of their calories came from wheat and barley. In East Asia, it was rice, and in South America, it was potatoes. The problem is when ninety percent of your calories come from a single source, it’s a far worse diet. It’s poor in nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

The other problem with agriculture is you see the beginning of social hierarchies and exploitation. Hunter-gatherers lived in totalitarian societies, and there wasn’t much difference between rich and poor, but with agriculture, you begin to see very big gaps between different social groups with most people belonging to the lower strata and a small elite exploiting everybody else.

From the point of the individual, it was much better probably to live as the hunter-gatherer twenty thousand years ago than to live in the present in ancient Egypt. If you think about the life of somebody in Bangladesh, maybe the person who manufactured the shoes that I’m wearing right now, they work for maybe ten or twelve hours a day in some polluted factory getting ten cents an hour, and they’re having it much more difficult in some ways than their ancestors did twenty thousand years ago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe in the Interbreeding Theory where Homo sapiens bred with the other species called Neanderthals?

Yuval Noah Harari: Well, I’m not an expert on genetics, so I’m just relying on the evidence and research of other scholars, but I think the weight of the evidence today points out that there was some level of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and other human species. According to the Neanderthal research program of the Neanderthal genome, at least 4% of the unique human gene of Europeans and people from European origin come from Neanderthal ancestors which means there were some fertile sexual intercourse between sapiens and Neanderthals maybe 40,000 years ago.

This is quite amazing to think that we sapiens can, not only have sex with an animal from a different species, but we can actually have children together with an animal from a different species. This should make us rethink our position in the animal kingdom. We tend to think there is a huge gap between us and all the other animals, but if this is the case, we can actually have children with an animal from a different species, and the gap is not so big. It also, I think, has an impact on what we believe about the existence of souls.

At least according to Christian dogma, only humans have a soul. Other animals like chimpanzees or gorillas don’t have souls. Now what do you do with such a case when you have a sapiens’ mother and a Neanderthal father, and they have a child together? Does he or she have a soul or not? I think this is a very interesting, problematic issue to consider if you believe that there is a soul, and that only humans have a soul.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people believe their dogs and cats have souls and pass over the “Rainbow Bridge” when they die because the animals are so precious to them.

Yuval Noah Harari: I have pets also, and I know what you’re talking about.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When the sapiens arrived in Australia about 45,000 years ago, they were greeted with a strange universe of rather giant animals that eventually became extinct, so it appears that the humans were the worst things to ever happen to those animals.

Yuval Noah Harari: From the point of view from most of the animals, yes, humans were probably the worst things that ever happened to them. It was 45,000 years ago when humans first came there, and within a few thousand years, 95% of all the big animals of Australia had become extinct. Later on, the same thing happened in North America and South America and many other places. When you think about domesticated animals, it is even worse. The life for chickens, pigs and cows in industrial agriculture is really hellish, really terrible. If they did a contest of who is the most miserable species that’s ever existed on the planet, I think the medal would be divided between the chickens, pigs and cows.

From their prospective, it’s really terrible, and what we often don’t take into account is that today they are actually the main population of large animals on the planet. Most of them are domesticated animals. You have something like only 200,000 wild wolves in the world, but 500 million domesticated dogs. You have 80,000 giraffes, but 1.5 billion cattle. You have 50 million penguins and 50 billion domesticated chickens, so their plight is really a problem on an immense scale.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is no definitive answer as to why humans live in a patriarchal society when some animals live in a matriarchal society?

Yuval Noah Harari: This is one of the biggest riddles of history as to why it is in almost all societies known to science, men dominated society and relegated women to subjugated positions legally, economically and politically. Many people think that the answer is simple, that it’s because men are physically stronger. But in human societies and also in other animal societies like Chimpanzees, social power does not come strictly from physical power. It’s not that the strongest male is necessarily the dominant one.

If you look at human society, you see that people in their 50s and 60s in most societies dominate people in their 20s even though people in their 20s are physically stronger. Similarly in the Catholic Church, the Pope is not the strongest male Catholic. He didn’t become Pope by picking up all the other bishops and priests. Usually you become Pope or president or CEO, not by using mere physical force, but by building a strong correlation of supporters. In order to reach the top position, you need good social skills. You need to understand how other people are thinking, especially maybe your opponent.

The thing is that usually women have better social skills than men, that women are better at understanding the viewpoint, the needs, the desires of other people, so how come, even though they have better social skills (and social skills are the key to social power), men still dominate? The answer is, we don’t really know. It’s one of the biggest riddles in trying to explain human society.

We have examples from the animal kingdom like our closest cousins in nature, the Chimpanzees, where females are physically weaker than the males, but nevertheless, they dominate the society. You have clicks with females there with very strong social bonds, and they dominate the society, and the men are obedient to them. If this happens among Chimpanzees, why not among Homo sapiens? We don’t have an answer.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will humans be completely replaced by robots in the future?

Yuval Noah Harari: I think it’s not a question of replacement. It’s more a question of merger. Humans are increasingly merging with computers, with bionic parts, not only getting bionic arms and legs, but on a day-to-day level, more and more people around us are conducting more and more of their lives in computers. They’re basically merging with their cell phones, with their laptops, and this will accelerate probably in the coming decades.

I think, within a century, Homo sapiens will be upgraded by very different kinds of beings, beings that are more different from us in their cognitive abilities, in their physical abilities, in the way that they live, think and fell. It’s not like an apocalyptic Hollywood movie in which the robots revolt against humans, and then you have a fight between the robots and humans. Much more likely, it will not be a war, but a wedding, a merger, between humans and technology, between Homo sapiens and computers, to create maybe the next stage of evolution.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has social media technology largely contributed to that next stage of evolution?

Yuval Noah Harari: I think that’s a continuing trend of the last two centuries of the collapse of intimate communities of relationships and families and the replacement of new types of imaginary or virtual communities. It has been going on for maybe 200 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One of the main effects of the Industrial Revolution was to give immense power to states and to the market forces so that the traditional roles of the family in the intimate communities were trounced to the fate of the market.

If you go back 300 years, there was no system of education, of health, of police. Almost everything you needed was provided by your family and your community. There was no pension fund. The only pension fund was your children. There was no national health service. The only health service was your neighbors, your acquaintances and your family members. Then you have the rise of the market and the state that would provide all these services which goes hand in hand with the collapse of families and communities because people can live without them.

People become individuals that can live apart without this network of family members and community members that support them, but people still feel the need to be a part of some tribe or community, so you see the creation of more and more virtual communities. The modern nation is immerged with millions of strangers whom you’ve never met before. Previously, you had a real tribe of say 200 people whom you actually knew, and your life actually depended each day on the support and cooperation of these 200 people. Now you have these huge networks of maybe 200 million people. You don’t know them, but you imagine that they are a part of your national community or whatever.

We see now the next stage, with the rise of social media, that people build for themselves these virtual communities of friends on Facebook, and it provides some emotional needs, but it’s a very long distance from the intimate communities that sustained most human life up to about 300 years ago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you begun writing a new book, Dr. Harari?

Yuval Noah Harari: Actually my next book is coming out this year in Hebrew in Israel. It will be probably two or three years until the English translation, but it’s about the human agenda for the 21st century, the main problems, the main dangers and the main opportunities facing humankind.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds very interesting. What worries you the most about the future of mankind?

Yuval Noah Harari: That we will upgrade our bodies, and we will upgrade our brains, and in the process, we will lose our minds. We are becoming better and better at understanding and manipulating our bodies and brains, but we don’t really understand the mind. The mind is very different from the brain, and it is the most important thing, and we’re neglecting it.

I fear the result will be that we’ll have these amazing abilities to manipulate everything, but we will have no clue what to do with it. The result could be catastrophic, both to ourselves and to the entire planet around us.

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