Wide Angle

The History Disruptor

Why has Silicon Valley embraced a little-known Israeli academic?

Yuval Noah Harari surrounded by a copy of his book Sapiens, the Google logo, the Hollywood sign, a cathedral, and the evolution of man drawing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Yuval Noah Harari/YouTube, Thomas Wolf, Google, CEphoto, Uwe Aranas/Wikipedia, and 00Mate00/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Less than a decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a junior professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stuck teaching a world history survey course because none of the senior faculty would deign to take it on. Today, he’s listened to and praised by the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who reviewed Harari’s latest book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Harari speaks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED, and TimesTalks. At the time of this writing, his books occupied the top two slots on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list.

Not bad for a vegan medievalist who meditates two hours a day and lives with his husband on a farming cooperative outside Jerusalem. And it’s all due to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book based on that survey course that no one else wanted to teach—a book that has leapt far beyond the original audience for which Harari intended it and has been embraced by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. On the West Coast, half a world away, this young Israeli academic has been informally elected the man best equipped to tell those industries what matters to them most: what will happen next. He can explain why the sleek, friction-free technological utopia they once promised has slid back in primal conflict and turmoil. And he assures them that they—the engineers, the scientists, and the storytellers—still hold the power to radically transform the world.

Published in Israel in 2011, Sapiens quickly became a best-seller there. The English-language version (translated by Harari himself) didn’t appear in the U.K. until 2014, and by the time that edition was selling like hotcakes, the book had already been turned down by 25 U.S. publishers. Why? “No one had heard of him before,” said Claire Wachtel, who finally acquired the U.S. rights for HarperCollins and published the book in February 2015. Wachtel, who also edited 2005’s Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, explained that Sapiens wasn’t an instant hit stateside, but when Mark Zuckerberg, who had just launched a very public yearlong reading project, selected it a few months later, interest in the title began to snowball. A glowing endorsement from Gates the following spring cemented Sapiens’ status as a slow-build blockbuster; by June 2017 the English version had sold 1 million copies. Harari has published two more books since then, 2017’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and mostly recently, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Each release bumps Sapiens back onto the best-seller lists, making it the prime example of what the Guardian has called “the ‘brainy’ book as publishing phenomenon.” Ridley Scott and documentarian Asif Kapadia are reported to be adapting it for the screen.

Despite publishers’ initial skepticism toward Sapiens, its success can’t be called a fluke. Readers have long exhibited an appetite for sweeping surveys of world history, from H.G. Wells’ 1919 Outline of History to The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant—11 volumes published between 1935 and 1975, most of them Book of the Month Club selections. The ’60s and ’70s saw very popular companion books to documentary series on public television; Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (which focused on art) and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (which focused on science and technology) are the best-known examples. In whatever form it takes, the global survey—usually delivered by a well-known, graying eminence whose scholarly credibility never impinges on his storytelling panache—promises its audience that they can whip their flabby sense of the past into shape. In post–World War II America in particular, the GI Bill and a strong autodidactic impulse made books that promised mastery of “world” history (the focus was almost entirely on Europe) catnip to the general reader.

Sapiens appeals to this old-fashioned appetite even as it revamps the genre to address the dreams and fears of a 21st-century audience. The readers of The Story of Civilization and the viewers of Kenneth Clark’s series looked back over the span of centuries with reverent complacency; they were absorbing humanity’s greatest and most inspiring achievements in an orderly narrative of progress, from the perspective of that progress’s highest point yet. (This was exactly how my own family saw it when we tuned into our local PBS station for our weekly serving of elevating yet digestible high culture.) Sapiens, by contrast, presents history as a series of wrenching revolutions, each contributing to our species’ dominance over the planet but at a terrible cost. Not all “ascent” is for the better. Things could go terribly wrong in the future, Harari warns, unless we make a better effort to understand the past. If the TED talk is the PBS series of our time, Harari—young, slender, pale, and with a receding hairline that gives him an almost comically eggheaded appearance—makes an unsettlingly nervy, cerebral successor to Clark’s suave Oxbridge accent and Bronowski’s grandfatherly bristling silver eyebrows. He has come not to congratulate us for our achievements, but to deliver some inconvenient truths.

One of Harari’s most controversial assertions is that the transition from small hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural settlements was a net loss for most human beings. “On the whole,” he writes, “foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps.” Their daily activities were more varied and interesting, their diets better, their societies more egalitarian, and their bodies fitter. This argument is quintessential Harari: It taps into a contemporary infatuation (in this case, with “paleo” health regimens) even as it tweaks the myopia of the middle-class people who embrace such fads. Any reader insisting that, given a choice, they’d prefer to keep antibiotics, central heating, and The Ring of the Nibelungen is bidden to remind themselves of how many people in the modern era have to scrape by without such luxuries. “If you look at it from the perspective of the middle classes in the affluent societies of today,” he told the Guardian, the agricultural revolution “looks like a very good idea. If you look at it from the perspective of somebody in Bangladesh who works 12 hours a day in a sweatshop”—the end result of that revolution—“it looks like a bad idea.”

Another foundational idea in Harari’s take on history is that “fiction” is the superpower that has enabled homo sapiens to access unprecedented power over other species. The other primates can’t manage stable communities of more than about 150 members. But following what Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”—marked by the development of language—“large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” It isn’t merely our big brains or our opposable thumbs that have made us the emperors of the planet; it’s our ability to work together en masse, mobilized by shared beliefs. This idea isn’t new; sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson have often characterized religion as a fiction that creates advantageous social unity. But this argument often goes hand in hand with a macho strain of atheism and evolutionary psychology that trumpets both the obsolescence of faith in the age of science and an exaggerated focus on “selfish gene” scenarios in which a ruthless competition underlies every aspect of human existence. An even cruder version of the same attitude can be found in online communities of incels, pickup artists, MGTOWs, and other alienated men, with their pseudoscientific mythos of alpha and beta males and the women who will or won’t sleep with them.

In a Harari twist, Sapiens inverts evolutionary psychology’s usual fetishization of raw male dominance by stating that “even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.” The pervasiveness of patriarchy among human cultures he regards as an enduring puzzle: “How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

Shrugs like this are another key element to Harari’s appeal. Unlike those serenely authoritative 20th-century history summarizers, he’s frank, even humble, about what the available data can’t tell us. This makes him seem more scrupulously scientific and less like someone selling a party line. It’s also a departure from evolutionary psychology’s fondness for conservative “just-so stories,” pseudoscientific rationales that explain how “nature” has hardwired traditional behavior like gender roles into our biology. But liberals shouldn’t expect to find Harari’s views entirely comfortable, either. In a talk the author delivered at Google’s headquarters just before the American publication of Sapiens, he described “liberal humanism” as the dominant “religion” of our time. For Harari, “religion” denotes a set of ideas that “gives legitimacy to human laws and norms by hanging on to some superhuman law or entity.” Often, the superhuman authority is a god, but increasingly, ideologies refer to “natural law,” including such principles as human rights, which have no existence outside the human mind. These beliefs, too, are fictions in his book. Liberal humanism, rooted in the idea of the inviolable individual who carries a sense of truth and freedom at her core, is imaginary. It may soon give way to a different “center of meaning,” most likely “data.”

The title of that 2015 Google talk, “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets,” suggests why Sapiens found such an infatuated readership in Silicon Valley: While most of the book concerns humanity’s past, Harari’s closing chapters speculate about a science-fiction future populated by sexless cyborgs “who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own.” Kevin Roose, who covers the business world for the New York Times, wrote in an email that “the Harari craze is real” in the tech world. “If I had to guess,” he added, the author’s “hyper-scaled way of looking at history—zoomed way out, at the scale of species and eons—makes sense to engineers who are used to systems-level thinking.” That Harari’s two follow-up titles speculate more about the future than they contemplate the past shows a keen perception of what the market wants. But how did Sapiens get into the tech industry’s bloodstream in the first place?

“Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets” wasn’t Harari’s first Google talk. He lectured at the company’s Tel Aviv offices in 2011, when the original Hebrew edition of Sapiens was published. In both instances, the connection was Google software engineer and fellow Israeli Ron Merom, who originally connected with Harari on a dating site—but as they seldom lived in the same country at the same time, they developed an email friendship instead. In 2011, Merom and his husband, Ariel Gordon, knew that Harari had written a book to accompany his class at Hebrew University, but “we thought it would be a boring textbook,” Gordon told me. Harari’s presentation at Google Tel Aviv was one of the first times he’d spoken before a nonacademic audience.

While it’s probably impossible to trace how Sapiens ended up in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg, it’s likely that “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets” was the valley’s first proper introduction to Harari. Those who picked up a copy of Sapiens afterward would have found it a bracingly unpredictable series of declarations. The author might best be described as a contrarian without an easily discernible political orientation (beyond his abhorrence of factory farming, a theme that crops up a lot in Sapiens). Harari observes that modern science could not have flourished without the often-deplored “empire and capital” of European powers. Forget the “great man” theory of scientific discovery; if “particular geniuses had never been born, their insights would probably have occurred to others. But if the proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have compensated for that.” Furthermore, “scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology,” because such “fictions” motivate the powers that be to foot the bill; there’s no such thing as “pure science.”

Sapiens keeps its readers off-balance with a series of trademark Harari moral switchbacks. “While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth,” he writes. Then, a few paragraphs later, he cautions against “rosy illusions. … ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.” Because such statements, taken together, don’t seem to be in service of any familiar political agenda, they make Harari appear, as an audience member invited to ask a question at the end of the 2015 Google talk put it, to “have, absurdly, no bias.” Few historians would be rash enough to claim no bias at all, but Harari responded that, like a scientist, he considered this a high compliment, and that “my aim as a historian is above all to describe reality, not to judge it.” Of course, he judges it all the time in Sapiens, just not in a way that makes it easy to fit him in an established camp. He praises the accomplishments of capitalism and even imperialism, for example, while also condemning their many atrocities.

This stance is more the style of objectivity than its substance, but it nevertheless appeals to engineers, who, as Gordon sees it, are “used to trying not to let their opinions influence what they do.” Just as important is the sense that Harari is perpetually toppling sacred cows and habitual ways of interpreting the past. He disrupts history, as a tech mogul might put it. He doesn’t do this in a way that makes sense to historians themselves: For that, he’d need to be generating original research instead of repackaging and simplifying the work and interpretations of others, which is what most of Sapiens consists of. In fact, historians and anthropologists have been Sapiens’ most vocal critics.

The serene confidence with which Harari makes his sweeping assertions (about the agricultural revolution, or abstractions like the law or money, included among his “fictions”) nettles many historians because theirs is a discipline in which the more you study something, the less ease you feel in making conclusive statements about it. Even Harari acknowledges this when he writes, “This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline—the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.” Most rigorous historical works feature a lot of equivocating, which can be frustrating for the lay reader. By this logic, the best way to produce a popular history, the kind that delivers the definitive declarations that general readers like, is to have a relatively shallow grasp on your subject, which is what Harari’s critics accuse him of.
Many of Silicon Valley’s “disruptions” share a similarly swashbuckling self-assurance that has often run aground on the complications of reality. Fortunately, provoking complaints from fellow historians rarely draws as much attention as, say, creating a free internet ad service that accidentally drives newspapers out of business.

A big problem with the complex and uncertain positions taken by academic historians is that however accurately they may describe the world and what’s happened in it, they can be paralyzing. If you can’t be sure what has caused a problem or situation or what the ultimate results of a particular action will be, how can you summon the confidence to act at all? Harari’s boldness, on the other hand, however often it bulldozes conventional thinking, suggests that decisive action is possible. Furthermore, his argument that most of the enduring institutions of civilization are “fictions” promises that we can change the human condition by first changing the stories we tell ourselves. After all, we’ve done it before. Once, Westerners lived in a world whose order was ordained by the Christian God, but most of us (not to mention other peoples around the world) now see our society as founded on the values of liberal humanism. The human “hardware” remains constant, but the fictional software of culture transformed society. This jibes beautifully with tech companies’ frequent depiction of themselves as “changing the world.” Harari, speculates Roose, flatters Silicon Valley types “by giving them a sense that they’re not just pushing pixels around, but are participating in a huge, civilization-level revolution.”

Harari also appeals to people whose business is making up stories. “Who doesn’t love to hear that the skills of their trade have been so important to human history?” said Tim Brittain, a television writer who has worked on the series Fargo and American Crime Story. “I’m sure that’s contributed to some God complexes around town!” Brittain is currently shopping a “postapocalyptic comedy” based on Sapiens. “In the small camp where the story takes place,” he said, “there are characters from diverse backgrounds, religious people, hippies, tech geniuses. They have to come together to figure out what was wrong with the stories they told before and how to do it better.” In this telling, Harari’s ideas are cast not as a way of transforming the world, but as tool for not screwing up the do-over humanity gets when civilization as we know it implodes. Brittain reports that he’s far from the only Hollywood creator galvanized by the book. “It comes up pretty consistently in the meetings I’ve been in,” he said. “People will say, ‘I love science!’ and then they’ll refer to Elon Musk and Sapiens.

Yet Harari can hardly be called the lap dog of the glittering industries that have embraced his work, particular the high-tech world. Last year, he wrote a critical examination of Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto for building a global community with Facebook, a text considerably influenced by Harari himself, for the Financial Times. He called Zuckerberg to account for not acknowledging how online communities, while supportive of offline communities, can also damage them. “Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot hope to match,” he wrote, “at least not in the near future. If I lay sick at my home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a nice cup of tea.” (This is an archetypal Harari passage, the broad statement immediately followed by the concrete, relatable example.)

In a cautionary recent essay for the Guardian, Harari presents himself as poised (with some reservations) to defend the liberal democracy whose obsolescence he seemed to regard with equanimity when delivering “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets.” Like nearly everyone else, Harari appears to have been backfooted by the political upheavals of the past five years. (We’d all like a do-over, if not quite a postapocalyptic one.) In Sapiens, for example, he wrote, “as the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground.” Chastened by the spectacle of social media and big data mobilized to manipulate voters and sow tribal division, Harari now sounds the alarm, writing “AI and bioengineering are about to change the course of evolution itself, and we have just a few decades to figure out what to do with them.” Whether he can sway the tech moguls and Hollywood types who adore him to take greater responsibility for their actions is hard to say, but at least he’s trying and, at least for now, they’re listening.