Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner and I’d like to wish you happy holidays. I really appreciate your listening to Freakonomics Radio this year; we’ve had a great time making it, and also building out the Freakonomics Radio Network with new shows. One of them is People I (Mostly) Admire; it’s an amazing interview show hosted by my Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt. So today we wanted to play for you one of Levitt’s very best interviews — with Yuval Noah Harari, the author and historian best known for Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is a book that has changed how millions of people think about history and themselves. If you have read Sapiens, the conversation you’re about to hear will take you even deeper inside it. If you haven’t — well, prepare yourself for a treat, and perhaps to have your mind blown. Steve Levitt has gotten really good at having mind-blowing conversations — with scientists, philanthropists, healers, artists, trivia masters, you name it. Again, his podcast is called People I (Mostly) Admire, and I hope you’ll follow or subscribe to it on your favorite podcast app. As always, thanks for listening.
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My guest today is Yuval Noah Harari, author of the blockbuster book Sapiens, which tells the entire history of our species in under 450 pages. Sapiens took the world by storm, selling over 23 million copies in 65 languages.
HARARI: This is your story as a human being. What does it mean to be human?
Sapiens’ path to success was an extremely unlikely one. At the time he wrote it, Harari was a completely unknown historian of the Middle Ages, lecturing at Hebrew University in Israel. The book was originally written and published in Hebrew. Four years passed before it was even released in English. And yet it became one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 21st century. What makes the ideas in the book so powerful and compelling? I want to find that out today.
LEVITT: Yuval, what a pleasure getting to meet you. It’s absolutely amazing that you write such intelligent books and you get people to read them.
HARARI: It’s part of the job. It’s not about speaking up, it’s about being heard. So you need to think about how you express yourself in a way that is understandable.
LEVITT: So I’ve heard the story that if it weren’t for your deep insecurities around public speaking, the book Sapiens might never have come to be. Is that a true story?
HARARI: In a way, yes, because it came out of a course I gave at university, and I just would write everything that I have to say during the lecture, because I wasn’t so secure as a lecturer. And these lecture notes, they eventually became the book.
LEVITT: So I’ve also heard that your reaction to reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond back in the day when you were a Ph.D. student was something like, “I could write a book like that.”
HARARI: Well, maybe not “I” at first, but, “It is possible to write books like that.” I was doing my Ph.D. on the memoirs or autobiographical writings of soldiers from the 15th and 16th century — quite a narrow subject matter. And suddenly I read this book, and I realized that it is possible to look at history from such a broad perspective. So it didn’t immediately occur to me that I could do it, but at least somebody could do it.
LEVITT: When I read Guns, Germs, and Steel, my reaction was how is it possible that anyone could know enough and have enough confidence to write such a book? I think it’s very unusual to have your mix of apprehension in some domains, say like public speaking, and what must be extreme self-confidence to feel like you can write the entire history of mankind.
HARARI: I’m not sure it’s self-confidence. At least when I wrote Sapiens I didn’t take myself or the project too seriously because I didn’t think that many people would read it. It came out of this university course, I worked in Hebrew, originally, and I was struck by the fact that there was no book in Hebrew, which tells the history of the world to the Israeli audience. So I said there must be some people in university, in colleges, that could use that. So I write for them. And there is no competition because there was no other book available. And I thought, yeah, I might make some terrible mistakes, but that’s fine. I mean, who’s going to read it anyway?
LEVITT: Obviously, despite the fact that you wrote this for a very small Israeli audience, things really worked out for you. You not only sold a ton of copies, but I think people actually read Sapiens after they buy it, which isn’t always the case. I first learned about the book from Danny Kahneman. And he had purchased it in the U.K. ‘cause after Israel, it went to the U.K. And he told me that it was the most important book of the decade, and that he had read it twice. And he said, “I’ve only read a few books twice in my entire life.” So, like Danny, I’ve also read Sapiens twice, and I love it. But, being completely honest, I’m surprised anyone else loves it because it violates Stephen Dubner’s first two laws of storytelling. So Dubner’s first law is that every good story has a person at the center of it — an individual. You can’t tell a good story about an idea or an event unless there’s some personality to keep the audience captivated. And Dubner’s second law of storytelling is that people only want to read stories. They don’t want facts or hypotheses or subtle arguments. They want stories. And unlike almost every other popular nonfiction book that people read, Sapiens is almost completely devoid of characters. Or stories about people. This must have been a conscious decision on your part, right?
HARARI: Yes. There is a hero, which is us. So in some way, it doesn’t violate these laws. I think that I wrote it, and many people maybe read it, with yourself as the main character. This is your story as a human being. What does it mean to be human?
LEVITT: So I get that, but it’s still surprising to me that people have that much creativity to actually be able to inject themselves into what you’ve done.
HARARI: Part of the job of writing the whole of history in 400 pages or or 500 pages is: get to the point quickly. You don’t take people on very long rides. You immediately show them the destination. And many of the destinations you reach are quite shocking. If we talked about Neanderthals, you immediately begin with the idea that actually, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals not only had sex, but actually had children together. And you conjure in your mind this family scene of, you know, a Neanderthal mother, a sapiens father, and a child. And then you take this kind of extremely provocative scene, and you carry it forward, and you ask questions about, what would the Catholic Church say about the souls of Neanderthals? Because the Catholic Church, for instance, says that chimpanzees don’t have souls. When they die, that’s it. They don’t go to heaven or hell. So what about Neanderthals? If you say that Neanderthals don’t have a soul, then just imagine it. That your dad has a soul. He goes to heaven. Your mom doesn’t. She’s a Neanderthal. She doesn’t have a soul. So you can push in the direction of saying, “No, no, no, no, no. Neanderthals also had souls.”
But this is a slippery slope because as you move further back in the evolutionary story, you eventually reach the chimpanzees and the dogs and everybody else. So, you make a very long story very short and provocative. Or similarly to move to the field of economics, there is a short chapter on money. And right at the beginning, like, the main message — that money is simply trust. It’s not made of matter. It’s not gold. It’s not paper. It’s just an idea in our mind. And not just any idea — it’s trust. Trust between people, that’s money. So that’s shocking to the people who have used to think about money as evil. And also to the die-hard capitalists who like money very much. It’s also shocking to realize that it’s just a completely fictional story in our minds. It’s not the laws of nature. And therefore also all this idea that you can have a completely free market economy, without any regulations, without any government intervention — no, you can’t. Because the most basic thing, like money, it is based on people trusting each other. And if you don’t have some kind of codes, of parliaments, of governments, of religions, that help to establish trust between people, you will not get a market. You will get complete chaos.
LEVITT: What you’re saying is, it’s a social construct, right? Money can’t exist unless everyone agrees that money’s going to serve this purpose. And we’re all kind of brainwashed and maybe not even aware of the fact that we’re part of the social contract to accept money. It’s interesting you use the word “fiction” to describe that.
HARARI: Yes, because “social contract” or “social construct,” they’re abstract and complicated ideas. And, again, you need to make it clear. It’s not some abstract social construct. It’s simply a story that somebody is telling us. And going back to this law that you must have a person at the center of the story, that’s not true. The most successful story ever told is the story of money. I mean, how does it work, money? You have these big storytellers, like the chairperson of the Federal Reserve and the finance ministers and all these people. And they tell us that $1 equals a banana. It’s not true in any objective sense. You can’t eat dollars. You can’t drink them. It’s just a story that somebody told us, that a dollar is equal a banana. And it works, provided that enough people believe in the story. It’s not a true story about some objective biological fact. Viruses exist whether we believe in them or not. Even if you don’t accept the stories about viruses, they can still kill you. It’s not the same with money. If one person stops believing in the dollar, nothing happens. But if millions of people stop believing in the dollar, it disappears. It loses all its value. And it didn’t happen to the dollar so far, but it did happen to quite a number of other currencies throughout history.
LEVITT: Right before the financial crisis, I was scheduled to fly to Europe to give a talk to a bunch of clients of a big Icelandic bank. And we had a call ahead of time, and I said, “Hey, are you at all worried about what’s going on in the U.S.? And they said, “Oh, no, not at all. It’s no problem whatsoever. Everything’s great where we are.” And then, two or three days passed, and they said, “Hey, we decided given the unrest, we’re not going to have this conference after all, but per our contract, we agreed that we would pay you if the conference got canceled. So we will still pay your fee.” So on Monday, I received a wire transfer from this Icelandic bank, and on Tuesday, the bank no longer existed. It literally disappeared in exactly what you’re talking about — that Iceland had built an enormous financial sector around trust, but didn’t actually have a government or an economy of a size that could reinforce the trust in the case that people got spooked. And they went to the Bank of England and said, “Hey, would you support us and just say, yes, we’re for real, and you’ll bail us out?” And they said, “No,” and they literally disappeared. And probably the best timing I’ve ever had in my entire life.
HARARI: Maybe you broke the bank.
LEVITT: I know. The last check that this bank wrote was to me. So we’re talking about characters. The easiest character to build into any book is yourself, the author. Personal stories from your own life. So Jared Diamond, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Sapolsky, they frequently insert themselves into their books. But to the best of my recollection, you, yourself, do not make a single appearance in Sapiens.
HARARI: In the later books, a few times, but in Sapiens, no. This is because my line of research, as I mentioned earlier, was originally on autobiographical texts of these soldiers from the 15th and 16th century. And later, I did my other research on military memoirs and military autobiographies until the 20th century. And it just inoculated me against the autobiographical urge to inject yourself into the story. So many books, even books that don’t present themselves as an autobiography, when you dig you learn that actually, it is an autobiography. Undeclared autobiography. I was too familiar with the traps and the dangers involved in writing something which is too much based on the author’s own experiences.
LEVITT: But I would say your personality creeps in on a few topics. I know, for instance, that you don’t eat a whole lot of meat. And it’s really clear when you write about the modern meat industry that you write from the perspective of someone who doesn’t approve of the methods being used. Now, of course, many people don’t, but do you consider that autobiography, or that’s just common sense?
HARARI: Obviously, my views enter my books. How can you write otherwise? But, even just in terms of trying to influence people, it’s best if you don’t do it in a kind of in-your-face attitude. Yes, I care a lot about the suffering of animals, but my decision in Sapiens was simply to give them their proper place in the story. Without animals, you can’t really understand the agricultural revolution. You can’t understand ancient economic systems. You can’t understand military history. The horses, the cows, the chickens, they are there. And they are also sentient beings. So they were also influenced by it. And I just give them their proper place in the story.
LEVITT: Many of your points you make, I think, are obvious, but no one ever really talks about them or thinks about them, which I think are the best points to make, because it doesn’t take a lot of convincing. As soon as I see it on the page, I’m convinced, but it’s not part of my reality otherwise.
HARARI: I think that that’s part of the job of building a bridge between the scientific community and the general public. When I wrote Sapiens, my impression was that I’m just saying what I was taught as a student in my first year in the history department at university. I didn’t feel that there was anything there which was a new revelation to the scientific community or to scholars of history. And then a lot of readers, they pointed out what I thought were the most banal statements. And they said, “This was the most profound thing I’ve read,” and, again, like, even this thing that money is just a social construct or just a fictional story. Everybody knows it in academia. It’s just almost taken for granted, but you never talk about it. And when you do talk about it, it turns out that for many people, it’s extremely revolutionary.
We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Yuval Noah Harari after this short break.
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LEVITT: The thing that I find so addictive about your writing is the tone that you bring to it. Your voice is — it’s a little bit cranky in a way that allows you to make statements that would seem outrageous out of context, but within the flow of the narrative, they make a reader say, “Yeah. That’s so right.” So I bookmarked a couple of examples. Here’s one from Sapiens. You write, “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has no meaning.”
HARARI: When you ask, “What is the meaning of life?” Before you even attempt an answer, I would say the first step is to think what kind of answer would be acceptable to me? And the answer is a story. We are storytelling animals. We think not in facts, not in statistics, not in equations. We think in stories. People sometimes think about the cosmos as one big drama. And they ask themselves, “What is my role in the drama?” Or, “What is the role of humankind in the drama?” It’s like there is this big Hollywood production, and I’m one of the actors. I have a role in the drama, and this will be the meaning of my life. And on my death bed, I would feel complete and satisfied. I’ve done my share. And the shocking realization is that this entire approach is completely misguided. Because reality itself — the universe, the laws of physics — they don’t work like a story or like a drama. The laws of nature don’t care about us. If planet Earth explodes tomorrow morning and all life on it disappears, physics wouldn’t care. Planets and stars explode all the time throughout the universe, and the universe just goes along with its business. So the answer is there is no drama, and you have no role to play in it. Some people may get very depressed because of that. “So life has no meaning.” Yes, but I don’t think that the main question in life is the question of meaning. I think that the main question in life is the question of suffering. What is suffering? Where is it coming from, and how can we be liberated from it? And even the depression or the suffering that you experience from feeling meaningless, that’s where the question arises. What is happening there? Why should you feel miserable that you are not part of some big cosmic drama? What’s wrong with that? It’s not a mission from the cosmos. It’s something immediate. You suffer, and you don’t want to suffer. What could be more simple than that? It’s here and now.
LEVITT: The way that I disabused myself of this idea that I was at the center of the universe and everything was there to serve me is I took an undergraduate course from E.O. Wilson, the biologist at Harvard. And the basic point of that course is that you have no meaning. Any individual is worthless. And it could have been demoralizing and depressing, but it was just the opposite because I was really haunted by a pervasive fear of death as a teenager. I was just terrified of death. And I sat in that big auditorium, listening to E.O. Wilson talk, and by understanding I was meaningless, I was able to shed this fear of death. Now, what he did do, E.O. Wilson did do along the way, he said, “Look, you mean nothing. But the thing is, to the people around you, you actually mean something. They don’t matter either, but to the people around you, you matter.” And so his basic view was just be nice to people around you. When you’re free of being the center of the story about the universe — it’s liberating to be free of that and just to be able to do your daily things without those obligations.
HARARI: I remember, when I was 13 or 14 at school, we have the ceremony for the fallen soldiers who died during the wars of Israel, on Memorial Day. And everybody dressed in white shirts, and you have this big ceremony, and you bring flowers, and you sing songs, and so forth. And I just thought, eh, yeah, it must be wonderful to be a fallen soldier because now you have meaning in life. All these schoolchildren will be singing songs in your honor for millions of years. And then I thought, no, no, no, that, that’s not possible. I know that the universe is, like, 14 billion years old. It will probably go on for at least, let’s say, 14 billion years more. I know history. There is no way that there will still be a state of Israel and a Jewish people — forget about a million years from now, a thousand years from now, it’s very unlikely. On an even simpler level, you’re dead. How do you know that people are singing songs in your honor? Once you’re dead, it’s not like you’re lying in the ground and you can hear the songs coming from above.
LEVITT: So you talk about Judaism, but you speak like a Buddhist. You’ve obviously studied Buddhist thought — have you found that to serve your life purposes better than Judaism?
HARARI: Oh, far better. From a very early age, I just couldn’t accept the Jewish story because it’s completely false from a historical perspective. You look at every religion, every national mythology, and it’s always centered on us. I look at Judaism, which is the religion of my people, which is also the basis for Israeli nationality, and what is the role of the Chinese in the world? They have no role in Judaism. Who cares about these 1.5 billion people? Obviously, the 15 million Jews, they’re the center of the story. And then you go to China, and of course, the Chinese are the main heroes of the cosmic drama. And people in New Guinea, they have no role to play. And Buddhism, it was not studying it. It was really practicing meditation. One way to understand meditation is the instruction, “Just forget about all the stories in your mind and just observe what is actually happening.” You have the mind constantly producing stories, and leave them aside and try to observe reality. The first time I went to a meditation course, the first instruction given was to just focus all of your attention on your breath coming in and out of your nostrils. Just note: Now the breath is coming in. It’s still coming in. It’s still coming in. Oh, it stops coming in. Now it’s going out. It’s going out. In many meditation traditions this is, like, the most basic training. And it was so profound because you don’t need to do anything. You have no role. You’re just observing what’s happening. And the shocking thing was that I couldn’t do it for more than 10 seconds before my mind would run away somewhere. Where would it run? To a story. I would remember something from the past. I would fantasize about something in the future. I would imagine something. My mind couldn’t be with reality for even 10 seconds. So meditation for me is really the practice of trying to connect to reality and not to the stories we constantly create.
LEVITT: Let me give another quote. This one is from Sapiens, again. “The agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” My hunch is that listeners to this podcast who haven’t read your books, when they hear that sentence, they’d probably find it jarring because we’re taught to celebrate the agricultural revolution, not to think of it as being a fraud.
HARARI: If you look at it from the viewpoint of middle-class people in the West today, then agriculture is wonderful. We have all these apples and bread and pasta and steaks and eggs and whatever. And also if you look at it from the viewpoint of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh or a Chinese emperor, wonderful. I have this huge palace and all these servants and whatever. But if you look at it from the viewpoint of the ordinary peasant in ancient Egypt or ancient China, their life was actually much worse than the life of the average hunter-gatherer before the agricultural revolution. First of all, they had to work much harder. Our body and our mind evolved for millions of years to do things like climbing trees to pick fruits and going in the forest to sniff around for mushrooms and hunting rabbits and whatever. And suddenly you find yourself working in the field all day, just digging irrigation ditch, hour after hour, day after day, or taking out weeds or whatever, it’s much more difficult to the body. We see it in the skeletons, all the problems and ailments that these ancient farmers suffered from. It’s also far more boring. And then the farmers didn’t get a better diet in return. Pharaoh or the Chinese emperor, they got the reward. The ordinary peasant, they actually ate a far worse diet than hunter-gatherers. It was a much more limited diet. Hunter-gatherers, they ate dozens, hundreds of different species of fruits and vegetables and nuts and animals and fish and whatever. Most ancient farmers, if you live in Egypt, you eat wheat and wheat. If you live in China, you eat rice and rice.
LEVITT: If you’re lucky. If the crop doesn’t fail, yeah.
HARARI: Exactly, if you’re lucky. If you have enough. And then, because this is monoculture, most fields are just rice. If suddenly there is a drought, there is a flood, there is a new plant disease, you have famine. Farmers were actually more in danger of famine than hunter-gatherers because they relied on a much more narrow economic base. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, and there is a disease that kills all the rabbits, it’s not such a big deal. You can fish more. You can gather more nuts. But if you’re a herder, and your goat herd has been decimated by some plague, that’s the end of you and your family. And then in addition to that, you have many more diseases. In the days of Covid, it’s good to remember the fact that most infectious diseases started with the agricultural revolution because they came from domesticated animals, and they spread in large, permanent settlements. As a hunter-gatherer, you wander around the land with 50 people or so. You don’t have cows and chickens that live with you. So your chances of getting a virus from some wild chicken is much smaller. And even if you get it, you can infect only a few other people, and you move around all the time. So hygienic conditions are ideal. Now, if you live in an ancient village or town, you’re in very close proximity to a lot of animals, so you get more diseases. And if you get a virus, you infect the whole town and the neighboring towns and villages through the trade networks, and you all live together in this permanent settlement with your sewage, with your garbage. People in the agricultural revolution, they tried to create paradise for humans. They actually created paradise for germs.
LEVITT: I like that. At one point, you make the interesting observation that the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to convince yourself that you truly understand why things happened one way and not another. And that the people living through events, they’re the most clueless of all the people for understanding the implications. So acknowledging how clueless we are about our own times, I’d nonetheless like to get your guesses as to how history will view, let’s say, Covid-19.
HARARI: I get this question a lot and, unfortunately, I always have to say that it depends on the decisions that we are making right now. History is never deterministic. So you have a crisis like Covid-19. And how historians in 100 years would look at events simply depends on the choices we make. Up till now, what I can say is that Covid has been an amazing scientific triumph coupled with political failure. Never in history was humanity so powerful in the scientific tools it had to deal with a pandemic. With the Black Death, it killed between a quarter and a half of the population between China and Britain. And nobody understood what was happening for years and years. It was punishment from God. It was black magic. It was astrology. With Covid, it took something like two weeks to identify the virus correctly. It took a couple of more weeks or months to understand how it spreads, and what would be the most effective countermeasures. And then within a year, scientists developed not one, but several effective vaccines. It was an amazing scientific success.
LEVITT: And produced them at scale. It’s a miracle.
HARARI: Absolutely. But this makes the political failure only more depressing, only more tragic, because it was a political failure. The scientists, they just produced the tools. It’s the job of politicians to decide what to do with these tools. Now, some politicians in some countries, they did a good job. But in many countries it was a failure. And when you look at the global level, it was a global failure. And even now, we don’t have a plan for the next pandemic. In the long run, generally, pandemics have a smaller impact on history than other catastrophes like wars. You compare the First World War to the Spanish influenza of 1918, 1919, many more people died from the flu. But until Covid, people hardly even thought about it. And its impact was really far smaller. The first World War shaped the modern world. Even you think about something like art, so many new art forms came out of the trenches. So many great works of art. If you think about poetry like Wilfred Owen, if you think about painting like Otto Dix. You think about entire artistic movements. The Spanish influenza, nothing. There is no famous poem. There is no famous painting. There is no artistic genres that came out of it. And that’s true even if you look at the Black Death. It was maybe one of the biggest catastrophes in human history. Europe before and after the Black Death, there are, of course, differences, but there was no regime change in any country. You have the same political systems. You have the same economic systems before and after. Maybe because we are programmed to it. Evolutionarily, we are perhaps better at dealing with diseases than we are with man-made catastrophes like wars.
LEVITT: So I’ve had 70 or 80 guests on this podcast, and I have to say, it was harder to prepare to talk to you than any of the other guests I’ve had. Most of the time, it’s easy for me to get a sense of what people are about, what they believe in. But in your case, despite the fact that you make strong statements — we’ve already established that — most of the time, you don’t resolve things. You don’t tie things up with pretty bows and pick a winner among competing theories. So let’s take this idea of progress. Someone like Steve Pinker, or most economists, for that matter, they would see progress as necessarily good. Okay? But from what you’ve just said about hunter-gatherers, it’s clear that you say, “Look, there’s an argument that the progress we made going from being hunter-gatherers through the agricultural revolution, that was not all good.”
HARARI: Not for most people, no. I mean, you start seeing real progress for most people only in the 19th century.
LEVITT: Exactly. We live in a world in which progress has been amazing. Some of the evidence that’s so obvious: a longer life expectancy, cellphones — life is great, right? You don’t disagree that we have been amazing beneficiaries of progress?
HARARI: Yes. Over the last 200 years, there’ve been some terrible things happening, and there are still terrible things happening. I live in the Middle East, I know this perfectly well. But looking at the long span of history, at least since the agricultural revolution, the early 21st century has been, until now, the best time to be a human being. Not the best time to be a cow or a chicken, but the best time to be a human being. Despite Covid, you are more protected from infectious diseases than at any previous time in history since the beginning of agriculture. Then you look at famine — the only famine that still exists — and we see it now very painfully with the Russian invasion of Ukraine — the only famine that still exists is political famine. If a person anywhere on earth still dies from lack of food, it is only because of political reasons. We have the power to prevent it, which we did not have in the Middle Ages or in the ancient world.
And then you have violence. And here, I agree generally with Steven Pinker and other researchers that the recent decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Again, not completely peaceful. You don’t have to remind me. I live in Israel. I know this perfectly well. But compared to any previous time in recorded history, human violence is at its lowest. But there is a big caveat — this is not a prophecy for the future. This is only an observation of the last few decades. Humans have built institutions in order to deal with famine and plague and war. Institutions like the World Health Organization, like universities and their medical research institutions. Like, trading institutions, United Nations, international law. It was not a miracle. It was humans building institutions. And if we stop maintaining these institutions, then war and plague and famine will come back in an even worse form than ever before.
It’s like building a dam over a river and saying, “Hooray. We now have control of the river.” And then you stop maintaining the dam, and there is a crack and another crack, and the dam collapses, and there is a terrible flood. And this been happening over the last five, six years. Since the middle of the 2010s, you see a continuing deterioration in the maintenance of all these institutions. And it began with the very countries which were the leaders in building the global order — Britain, United States. In 2016 with Brexit and with the isolationist policies of Donald Trump, they declared, “We no longer support this project.” And looking at what happened over the last few years with the pandemic, now with the war, and the food crisis, unfortunately, we are seeing the institutions collapsing and plague and famine and war coming back. It’s not too late to save the dam that is holding the river, but we don’t have much time. And frankly, I don’t see that the leading countries of the world are doing enough to save the global order.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Yuval Noah Harari. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about the future.
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So if you think Yuval Noah Harari’s ideas about the past are surprising, just wait until you hear what he believes about the future. It is truly radical.
LEVITT: So we just talked, about how in the last 200 years, progress has been amazing. Science has been at the heart of transforming human life, at least, for the better. But you have deep concerns about the future of science, and where we’re going. In your final vision, essentially, humans no longer exist because of scientific progress. Is that a fair assessment?
HARARI: Yes. It can happen in a couple of ways, some better than others. And given the pace of technological and scientific progress today, I think it’s very unlikely, that there will still be Homo sapiens like you and me, in 200 years or 300 years. But it can happen in different ways. The worst way is that we will just destroy ourselves in some nuclear catastrophe or whatever. I don’t think this is very likely, but it’s possible. Then there is another frightening scenario: that we will use the immense powers of bioengineering and artificial intelligence and so forth to try and upgrade ourselves, or try and create a new super species. And because we don’t really understand the consequences of what we are doing, it will be a downgrade. If you give, for instance, to armies and big corporations the power to re-engineer humans, they are likely to try and amplify those human qualities that they deem the most useful to them. Qualities like intelligence and discipline. You want highly intelligent and highly disciplined employees and soldiers.
Other human qualities like compassion, like artistic sensitivity, spirituality — most armies and most corporations, they don’t need spiritual employees or soldiers with a very deep sense of compassion or a deep sense of artistic beauty. And if the result will be a race of superhumans who are highly intelligent and highly disciplined, but they lack compassion and they lack artistic sensitivity and they lack spiritual depth, this will be a terrible catastrophe, especially as this is kind of permanent. It’s very difficult to go back. If you think about the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, whatever harm they did, in the end, you can go back to basics — to the human body, to the human mind. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, they tried to create a new man, but they failed because they didn’t have the technology. The Stalins of the 21st century, they will have the technology. And this is extremely frightening.
Sometimes there are simple things in history. But very often, things are complicated. There are very few big revolutions in history which are all good or all bad. And it’s very dangerous if you focus overwhelmingly on just one side. You have to give the full picture. And the full picture is bound to be complicated. And yes, this is one of the biggest challenges in writing, especially popular science for the general public. The style should be simple, should be accessible, but the message shouldn’t. I’m now working, trying to push it to the extremes. Like, my latest project is a children’s book. Is basically, again, taking the history of humankind and retelling it, to kids aged 10, 11, 12. And I think this was the hardest project I ever worked on.
HARARI: Because people think it’s easier to write to kids. No, it’s actually harder. Because you need to distill the ideas further. How do you explain capitalism to kids in a way which will still be true to history? And yet, somebody who is 10 years old can understand it? How do you explain religion? How do you explain money? That’s even more difficult than explaining it to people who are 40 or 50 years old.
LEVITT: Is the life you’re living — best-selling author, voice for reason in a troubled world — is that a life you dreamed of?
HARARI: No. It just happened to me. It was never kind of part of my dreams to do these things. It’s really the kind of topics that I’m engaging with. Like, I went to history partly because I don’t like mathematics. It’s too accurate and too many numbers. The furthest thing from me is computer science. And I find myself suddenly talking much of my time about Bitcoin and blockchain and artificial intelligence and the dangers of A.I. and all these problems in computer science.
LEVITT: Do you ever think about slipping back into a private life? Does that have appeal to you?
HARARI: Well, I try to keep a lot of my time, a lot of my life private. And I take every year a long meditation retreat between one month and two months that I just completely disconnect. I know it’s a privilege. Most people, don’t have the ability to disconnect for two months, for one month. But even for a few hours, it’s extremely important. I get to meet a lot of politicians and business leaders, and they often ask me for advice, and one thing I tell them is to take time off to disconnect. One of the worst problems of leaders today in many fields is that previously, they had built, into their schedule some time off because of the limitations of communication technology in the old world. Now, there is none. You are always connected. There is immense pressure on you. And it’s extremely dangerous.
I think that the people at the top, they have a commitment to the public to take good care of their minds. And part of this is to disconnect and detoxify their mind. And also, they need a private life. Again, one of the frightening things I see now, especially in democracies, is the way that the people at the top, especially politicians, are denied a private life. Anything they say at any moment can and will be used against them. And, as a public speaker, I know that when I speak in public, I have to make a very big effort to concentrate and to be very aware of what I’m saying. But then when I’m off-record, I can let my mind rest. And part of resting is saying stupid things. Saying things you don’t think about carefully. The mind of every person is full of garbage. And I think this is a basic human right. You have a right to say stupid things in private.
As a gay man, if a politician, tells a homophobic joke in private to some friends, and somebody records it, and it’s now on YouTube and Twitter and whatever, I don’t care. I care what this leader says in public. If in public, he or she tell a homophobic joke, this is very bad because this is inciting hatred among millions. I care about their policies. But what they say in private, it’s not my business. Some people think the opposite. That, finally, we get to hear what they really think. This is their authentic self. What they say on stage, this is something that some spin doctor told them to say. What they really think, this comes out in private. And that’s a very dangerous direction because I don’t want authentic leaders. I want responsible leaders. Politics is not psychoanalysis. I don’t want somebody who stands there and just gives me his stream of consciousness. That’s authentic, and that’s bad. We need people who have a barrier, a wall, between the mind and the mouth and think very carefully about what they say, because it’s a big responsibility. And then they should have the privacy to go somewhere and just say stupid and terrible things. That’s, you know, just being human.
When I talk with authors, I often find that all their interesting ideas are already in their books, and that can still make a great podcast episode because most listeners won’t have read all their books. But it’s a little disappointing for me because I usually have read their books, so I don’t get anything new out of it. But Yuval definitely did not fall into that category. Yes, we talked a lot about his books. But what I found most striking is that whatever new topic we touched on, he had something to say that really sticks with me. Like on Covid, the idea that the brutal flu pandemic of 1918 had little lasting cultural impact compared to the world wars. Or the end of our conversation, the idea that people, including politicians, should be able to say stupid things in private. Yuval’s a guest I’d love to bring back in the future.
LEVITT: So now is the time where we take a listener question, and let me welcome my producer Morgan on to help us walk through that.
LEVEY: Hey, Levitt. So a listener named Francis wrote in. Because you’re an economist, he wants to know what are your incentives for hosting PIMA — PIMA being an acronym for People I (Mostly) Admire — and what do you surmise are your guests’ incentives for participating?
LEVITT: Oh, I like that question. Let me tell you about the reason I started the podcast. It really came out of frustration with teaching. I would spend so much time preparing lectures and I would stand in front of my class of 80 students, and they would mostly not want to be there. They would mostly be worried about their grades. And I just looked longingly at what Dubner was doing with Freakonomics Radio, and I thought, “Why am I spending so much time and effort on these 80 kids when maybe I could talk to an audience of thousands of people and try to get my ideas across?” Also in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’m kind of out of good ideas and if I got really interesting people to talk about their ideas, it’d both be a lot more fun for me and a lot better for everyone.”
LEVEY: So those incentives were what got you into the podcasting business. Do they still hold true or are there other incentives now?
LEVITT: Two other incentives arose once I got started. The first was I realized once I had these interesting people captive on my podcast, I could start to talk to them about collaborations and things we might do together. And beyond my wildest dreams, I’ve had so many great things happen with the guests after the podcast has ended, and that turned out really to be a a huge perk. The other thing that changed is we were actually successful and we get these big audiences, and it changes it for me. It makes it maybe less of a game and a little fun hobby. I feel a little bit of fear, a little bit of an obligation. Now, the incentive to do well is really motivated by the fact that if so many people are going to listen, I better not make a fool out of myself. When I have a guest on and I feel like I blew it, it just haunts me for days. I can’t get it out of my head, “Ah, how did I let that happen? How did I not ask this question?” For me, being an interviewer is not natural and it’s not completely pleasant either. But as a whole, maybe what I like about it is it’s very challenging for me.
LEVEY: So why do you think our guests come on the podcast?
LEVITT: I don’t fully understand the incentives of all my guests, but I certainly know how I think about it when someone invites me to be on a show, and the thing that’s most likely to lead me to say yes is if I have something to sell. That’s why you’ll see that many of the guests that are on the show have a new book or have a new podcast. But the other thing that leads me to say yes to being interviewed, is I tend to look at the list of other people who’ve done it before me. And if that list is full of people who I think are smarter or more important or funnier than I am, then I usually say yes ‘cause I think, “Well, if it was worth their time, probably worth my time too.”
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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner again, I hope you found it worth your time to listen to Steve Levitt in conversation with Yuval Noah Harari. Again, Levitt’s podcast is called People I (Mostly) Admire, and you should probably go right now and get it on your favorite podcast app. There are almost 100 episodes waiting for you there — the most recent one, weirdly enough, with me as the guest. If you want to suggest future guests for PIMA or send any feedback at all, the address is PIMA — P-I-M-A — @freakonomics.com. I’d love to know what you thought of this feed-drop episode: we are at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire are both part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes No Stupid Questions and Freakonomics, M.D. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin and Jasmin Klinger. Our staff also includes Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our music is composed by Luis Guerra.
- Yuval Noah Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
- “Iceland’s Economy, Its Bankruptcy, and the Financial Crisis,” by Kimberly Amadeo (The Balance, 2021).
- “Yuval Noah Harari: The World After Coronavirus,” by Yuval Noah Harari (Financial Times, 2020).
- “Yuval Noah Harari’s History of Everyone, Ever,” by Ian Parker (The New Yorker, 2020).
- “Iconic Plague Images Are Often Not What They Seem,” by Rae Ellen Bichell (N.P.R., 2017).
- “Yuval Harari, Author of Sapiens, on How Meditation Made Him a Better Historian,” by Ezra Klein (Vox, 2017).
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (2015).
- The Meaning of Human Existence, by Edward O. Wilson (2014).
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (2011).
- Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History and Identity, 1450-1600, by Yuval Noah Harari (2004).
- Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared M. Diamond (1997).
- “Jared Diamond on the Downfall of Civilizations — and His Optimism for Ours,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Daniel Kahneman on Why Our Judgment is Flawed — and What to Do About It,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Why Are Stories Stickier Than Statistics?” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- “Steven Pinker: ‘I Manage My Controversy Portfolio Carefully,’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).