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Yuval Noah Harari: 'We are living inside the dreams of dead people'

Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book makes big ideas accessible to young readers – who have the power to change their story

Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari photo supplied

Good news. Yuval Noah Harari thinks you are a superhero. We all are. But instead of being able to fly or become invisible, the superpower that sets us above the rest of life on earth is the ability to tell stories.

This is the central argument of Harari’s latest book, Unstoppable Us: How Humans Took Over the World.

The bestselling author of the hugely influential Sapiens is one of the world’s great thinkers. Unstoppable Us is aimed at younger readers, though the ideas remain profound. Here he tells us how we can realise our power and use it to do good in the world. 

The Big Issue: I’d prefer to be able to fly, but why is being able to tell stories a superpower we all share?

Yuval Noah Harari: If you look at humans individually, we aren’t the most impressive animal. I’m far weaker than a chimpanzee, and I’m even less smart than a chimpanzee in many ways. If you drop me and a chimpanzee in the jungle to see who survives better, I’d place my bet on the chimp.

But what makes humans super powerful is that we can cooperate in very large numbers. It’s possible for 50 or 100 chimpanzees to cooperate – but humans can cooperate in the millions or even billions. All big human achievements, from landing on the moon to building a national healthcare service, are based on large-scale cooperation. And what makes it possible for millions of people to cooperate is being able to invent and believe fictional stories. That’s the reason why storytelling is our superpower: it makes mass cooperation possible.

This is very obvious in the case of religions – millions of people cooperate to build a cathedral or fight a crusade because they believe some myth. But it works the same way in our modern economies, too.

The most successful story ever invented isn’t a religious story about some god, but rather the story of money. The British pound is only valuable because everybody believes it’s valuable. And everybody believes it is valuable because they believe the stories told by the government, the Bank of England and the major corporations.

As long as everybody believes in this story, I can go to the supermarket, hand a colourful piece of paper to a stranger, and get bread in return. That doesn’t work with chimpanzees: they don’t believe in money and would never agree to give you a banana in exchange for some colourful pieces of paper. That’s why we control the world, and the chimps don’t.

If storytelling led us to rule the world, how does the fact it’s so deeply hard-wired in us continue to affect what we love, fear and believe today?

Our ability to tell stories makes us unique among animals. But the things we tell stories about actually show how closely we are related to other animals. 

All the complex ideas that we express through language are just the upper crust of who we are. Under this crust, in the depths of our bodies and minds, we contain things that evolved over millions of years, long before there were any humans at all. Love between parents and children and fear of monsters in the night weren’t invented by humans. These things were created by millions of years of evolution.

Millions of years ago young mammals needed their parents’ love in order to survive. And young mammals always lived in fear that some lion or bear would come along in the dark and eat them. So when a child wakes up in fear and cries to his mum that there is a monster under the bed – this is really a memory from millions of years ago. The stories we tell today, about parent-child relationships or monsters in the night, are shaped by this deep history. 

If we don’t recognise storytelling as being really important, do we overlook how powerful it can be in shaping the opinions and behaviour of people listening? 

We are living inside the dreams of dead people. All these kings, priests and poets from hundreds of years ago created powerful stories that still shape how we behave and think today. It’s as if these dead people are still controlling us from beyond the grave.

As a historian, I think a major reason for studying history isn’t to learn about the past, but to liberate yourself from it. If some ancient story inflicted injustice and misery on people, in the present we can just change the story and thereby make the world a better place. That’s making good use of our superpower.

How can we all use our superpower to make the world a better place?

A good example of how we can use our storytelling power to improve the world is the feminist revolution. For thousands of years, there were political revolutions and economic revolutions and technological revolutions. But one thing always remained the same: men dominated women. Then within a very short period of time that historical constant suddenly gave way. We may still not have achieved complete equality, but over the last century things have changed dramatically. And the reason that this example makes me optimistic is the fact that it was accomplished peacefully.

Some revolutionaries – like Lenin – argued that “in order to make an omelette you have to break some eggs”, which means that deep structural changes in society can only be achieved through violence. But feminists didn’t break any eggs. The feminists didn’t start any wars. They didn’t set up guillotines in the city squares or send people to the Gulag. 

They changed the world by changing the story that people believed about what women are, and what women could or couldn’t do. For thousands of years people believed that women couldn’t be politicians or judges or scientists, and now this belief seems ridiculous to us.

Looking back, it’s easy for us to see that those people who believed that men were superior to women were trapped within an imaginary story that was causing needless suffering on a massive scale. 

Some suffering is unavoidable. We can’t change the laws of physics or biology, and these cause suffering when people get sick or have accidents. But a lot of suffering is caused by fictional stories, and in these cases, it is our duty to change the harmful stories. That’s what the feminists did.

Yuval Noah Harari feature illustration
Unstoppable Us Volume 1 – How Humans Took Over the World by Yuval Noah Harari is illustrated by Ricard Zaplana Ruiz

Why is it so important to let children know they have this power?

I thought it was important to write a book for children because if anyone is really going to change the world, it’s not the people who are now 50 – it is the people who are now 10.

Humanity faces many big problems: ecological collapse, nuclear war, global inequality, pandemics, the rise of artificial intelligence. Humanity is also very powerful, and we have both the scientific knowledge and the economic resources necessary to solve all these problems. No nation can solve these problems by itself.

Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen a sharp rise in global tensions rather than global cooperation. If this trend continues, it means we will not be able to prevent the next pandemic, to stop climate change, to decrease global inequality or to regulate AI. It also means that the danger of a new world war is becoming more serious. 

So the most urgent question regarding the future of humanity is: will we find a way to relax international tensions and increase global cooperation? This should be possible. While some leaders claim that global cooperation contradicts national loyalty, this is nonsense.

There is no contradiction between being a good patriot and cooperating with other countries. For patriotism isn’t about hating foreigners. Patriotism is about taking care of our compatriots. And there are many situations – for instance when trying to prevent a pandemic or to stop climate change – that in order to help our compatriots, we must cooperate with foreigners. 

My book teaches kids that cooperation is what makes humans special, and that we all share the same human identity. I hope that as readers grow up and become the future leaders of the world, they will remember these lessons. Today, it’s hard to find leaders who understand that global problems require global solutions. 

We had to learn how to control fire – are there strong, potentially dangerous, forces in the world today we also have to understand properly to improve our lives?

Control of fire gave humans unprecedented power to manipulate the external environment. As we learned how to use fire to make better tools, that power only grew. But because we didn’t understand the complexity of the ecological system, we misused this power. We unbalanced the ecological system and now we are facing ecological collapse.

Today, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are giving us the power to manipulate the internal world of our bodies and minds – to manipulate our emotions, thoughts, and sensations. But because we don’t understand the complexity of our internal mental system, we might misuse that power as well. We could face an internal mental breakdown as well as ecological collapse.

In particular, governments, corporations, and armies are likely to use these technologies to enhance the skills and traits they find desirable. They are more likely to want humans to have more intelligence and discipline, whereas they don’t really care about developing our compassion or spirituality.

As a result, we might end up with humans that are very smart and disciplined, but who lack compassion and spiritual depth. This would mean losing a large part of our human potential without even realising that we had it. I would therefore advise that we not use things like genetic engineering until we have a much better understanding of the human body and mind. Otherwise, in our attempt to upgrade humans we might accidentally downgrade ourselves.

Children are faced with fixing enormous problems to protect future generations – is that too much pressure or are they the only ones who can handle that responsibility?

I am totally against expecting children to solve major problems like climate change. I hear many adults say: “We cannot solve this, but hopefully the kids will solve it for us”. This is extremely irresponsible. It isn’t the job of kids to solve the problems of the world. It is 100 per cent the responsibility of adults.

Kids should be as free as possible to explore the world, play games, go to school, make friends, read books, discover who they are and what they want to be. That’s their job. Preventing climate change, stopping pandemics, making peace, reducing inequality – that’s the job of adults.

Of course, if kids volunteer to help, they are very welcome. We should listen to what they say, and we should take their interests and views seriously. We should also prepare them for when they are older, and give them the tools they will need to manage the world when they become adults. But for the time being, it is not their responsibility. It is our responsibility.

The moon landing is one historical event that will never be forgotten because we have great ways to record the moment – what even more significant milestones over many millennia would you loved to have been able to witness?

Something even more important than the moon landing happened about 50,000 years ago. It was the Australia Landing. The moment when the first humans reached Australia.

Until then, for millions of years, all humans lived only in Africa, Asia and Europe. No human was able to cross open sea and reach distant islands and continents like Australia. That was true of all other big land mammals, too. Elephants, lions and apes couldn’t cross over from Asia to Australia. That’s why very different animals like kangaroos evolved in Australia.

Then, about 50,000 years ago, humans learned how to work together to build boats and launch expeditions to settle new lands across the sea. At first they hopped only short distances, to islands they could see from the shore. Eventually they reached an island that seemed like the end of the world. They couldn’t see any other island in the distance. But it didn’t stop them. Perhaps some adventurous people said that there might be more islands hiding beyond the horizon. “How do you know there are more islands?” their cautious friends asked. “You haven’t seen them.” “How do you know there aren’t more islands?” they replied. “You haven’t been there.”

At least one group of people must have decided to take the risk and sail into the unknown to see for themselves. And these people reached Australia. The journey made by the first people to reach Australia is one of the most important events in history. It’s even more important than Columbus’s journey to America, or the Apollo 11 journey to the moon.

The moment when the first humans set foot on an Australian beach was the moment when we humans became the most dangerous animal in the world – the rulers of planet Earth. Until then, humans had had a relatively small impact on their environment, but from the moment humans landed in Australia, they started completely changing the world.

When the first humans reached Australia, they changed the entire ecological system there, causing the extinction of 95 per cent of the ancient big animals of Australia (the only survivor was the kangaroo). It was the first really important thing humans ever did on earth. Since then, we have caused a lot more animals to go extinct and have destabilised the entire ecological system.

That’s why I chose to title the book “Unstoppable Us”. The title has two meanings. First, it means that no-one can stop us. We are so powerful, that no other animal can stop us. Secondly, it means that we too cannot stop ourselves. No matter what we achieve, we always want more, and in our pursuit of power and wealth, we undermine the ecosystem, as well as our own peace of mind. If we don’t learn to stop and enjoy what we have, we will never be happy, and we might destroy the whole world.

Unstoppable Us Volume 1 – How Humans Took  Over the World by Yuval Noah Harari

Unstoppable Us Volume 1 – How Humans Took Over The World by Yuval Noah Harari illustrated by Ricard Zaplans Ruiz, is out now (Puffin, £20)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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