The success of Yuval Noah Harari’s books, which have blazed across international bestseller lists, is a phenomenon seeking explanation. They have moved millions to read about and rethink the role of human beings. Quite a feat for contemporary works of non-fiction. The first book by Harari to raise such attention, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, reportedly sold over 11.5 million copies worldwide. It has been translated into more than 50 languages since its publication in 2011. The follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has clocked in at 5.5 million since 2016. His fan club includes Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.
Harari is a professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He is married to Itzik Yahav, and is a conscious vegetarian. His writing could be classified as popular history/science. He rethinks the history of Homo Sapiens: from the supposed rivalry with other human species, to artificial intelligence and the emergence of “Homo Deus” in the future. Harari relies on current beliefs in natural sciences, from the Big Bang Theory to the Theory of Evolution, to explain the emergence of Homo Sapiens. Also that of his relatives (gorillas and orangutans), and his brothers and sisters (Neanderthals and Homo Erectus).
His books speak to believers of science, allowing them to grasp history through scientific discoveries. Besides drawing on current theories in natural sciences, Harari builds his main arguments from Constructionist theories. For decades, these have been prevalent in social sciences and humanities. He postulates that belief in common myths (be that God, state, or money), existing only in the collective imagination, enables large-scale cooperation. It is this ability which eventually culminated in humans’ large, complex political structures.
He combines the Constructivism of human culture with evolution and genetic theories.
This makes for exciting reading of human history in simple language, offering everyone a glimpse into the scientific world. This breathtaking bird’s perspective provides accessible information about human history to the layman. Harari preaches science, proclaiming that it can (and soon probably will) fulfill dreams of eternal life in providing humans with godlike capabilities. He explains Constructivism in easily understandable concepts, in turn explaining human development and its most common social formations: religion, the nation-state, capitalism.
In a world of religious believers, ethnic wars and racism, why would an author dethroning each of these beliefs become so popular? Why do believers in God, Marxism or the nation buy a book telling them their gods are nothing but chimeras?
While currently one of the most widespread philosophical positions, Constructivism has never been able to reach beyond academia. For the broader audience, nationalism, religion and other identity politics seem to operate above scientific criticism. Hence, this ability to simplify and persuade, to show the perspective of science to readers, is an exceptional feature of Harari’s books.
Simple language, with metaphors to transform complex concepts into accessible, understandable examples might not be the favored means of scientists. Foucault or Judith Butler offer more sophisticated accounts in nuanced, intellectual exercises. The simplicity of Harari’s examples is thrilling: Do you want to understand what is special about humanity’s imagined order? Try persuading a monkey to give you a banana by offering him a bunch of bananas in monkey paradise after death. You believe that the agricultural revolution was progress? Maybe for the species, but for individuals it was a turn from relative freedom and living in nature, to endless work and suffering.
In Homo Deus, Harari broaches topics which were excluded from the scientific agenda for centuries.
Godlike abilities of humans, eternal life and happiness, and proclaiming that the previous agendas of humanity have been resolved. One might be surprised to learn that war, disease and hunger have been conquered, or are on the path to extinction. Or that Homo Deus will be the real topic of the 21st century. But these controversial claims are at the heart of the book.
Declaring the end of questions of equality and 20th-century politics (left/right, authoritarian/democratic), he moves toward the questions of the future. Physical inequality might replace what was considered socially conditioned difference, like gender, class, and race. Such arguments sometimes seduce or even provoke the reader. Nevertheless, there is a plethora of material to think about, revising your own stand on politics, animal rights or artificial intelligence.
No less important is the scale from which he speaks.
Harari moves from what has been the primary place of intellectuals, the national scale, to the global scale. Even more impressively, he does that intrinsically rather than ideologically.
Intellectuals contemplating the world from a global, transnational perspective is nothing new. However, even the bravest remain confined within the national framework. Anderson is right to point to this failure of The Communist Manifesto, where the proletariat of each country has to settle matters with “its own bourgeoisie first.” Hence, even for Marx and Engels, class struggle remained within the national frame. This remained the dominant scale of intellectual voice in the 20th century, despite the veneer of cosmopolitanism.
In other words, intellectuals who held international, cosmopolitan, transnational positions, nevertheless remained hooked on the national voice. It peeks out from the most unexpected places in their writings, subtly defining their audiences as national.
Harari manages to overcome this division, taking a risky jump to the global scale by looking at the species rather than its historical variations. By reminding humans of their animal nature, on one hand, while prophesying a deistic future, Harari establishes his global voice. He looks at the human and other species, avoiding the particularities of the Anthropocene age in any of its manifestations.
This is the second powerful point of his writings: Harari deconstructs the main myths of humankind without being insulting. He accomplishes this without angering and without hurting, instead pacifying readers into becoming believers of science.
Finally, Harari provides hope.
However doomed the future of Homo Sapiens might be, it is there to engage with, to elaborate on, to choose. Harari doesn’t scare, terrify, proclaim the apocalypse, or raise fear. Even when talking about such existential threats as global warming, he upholds his optimistic tone. Scientists will find the solution to climate change, regardless of our inability to see this solution at the moment.
Interestingly, his books maintain a progressive framework, and progress is made thanks to science – or more broadly, knowledge. Whether that progress is in industrial development, medicine, food production, travel, or communications. At the same time, there is a warning. What are the costs of this progress for the planet, and for whom is this benefit – for some, or for many? For the species or for individuals?
In Homo Deus, Harari notes that the three major concerns of humankind – war, disease and hunger – have been solved. Not in their practical eradication, but in the way humans think about them. They are not inevitable features of nature or godly punishments, but outcomes of human failure. As such, they deserve human engagement, thinking and planning in order to be controlled. In other words, our free will as thinking humans is the final hope for progress. The general framework of our thinking about the world has actually become rationalist and activist. This is based on the underlying belief that humans are both capable of and responsible for life on earth.
Harari is first of all a historian, and his approach to history is interesting.
It is a liberal, emancipatory project which Harari is undertaking. He notes that the development of gardens in the 16th century was an expression of status. Only the extremely rich could afford not to use the land for crops. The even richer could afford to employ others to take care of it. Hence, the garden came to symbolize the status, power and prestige of aristocracy and kings. This sign of success has gradually moved towards the middle class, as industrialism and capitalism have brought luxury to wider groups. As a status symbol, in some countries gardening became a Sunday ritual comparable only with church visits.
Knowing this history, Harari concludes, gives you the liberty to choose, and the ability to decide whether to have a garden. You can have one or not, but be aware of the value the garden as a symbol has in society. It makes your choice informed and reflexive, and grants you the ability to free yourself from the social tyranny of “Gardenism.”
His books might be so popular precisely because they are written within the progressive narrative of liberation.
Emotional and direct, full of hope and love – they address the audience in the way preachers do. Although cloaked in scientific language, with evidence and quotations, his voice is soft, caring, empathetic and hopeful. Harari has found the voice to address people in a new, inclusive way, providing both reason and clarity. These unique features make his books much more than popular science, or bestseller non-fiction. They reach out to the audience as a truly global society, establishing Harari as a preacher of science and humanity.
Updated April 10th, 2023