Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Yuval Noah Harari (@harari_yuval), a historian and bestselling author who is considered one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals today. His popular books—Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century— have sold 27.5 million copies in 60 languages. They have been recommended by Barack Obama, Chris Evans, Janelle Monáe, Bill Gates, and many others. The Guardian has credited Sapiens with revolutionizing the nonfiction market and popularizing “brainy books.”
He is also behind Sapiens: A Graphic History, a new graphic novel series in collaboration with comics artists David Vandermeulen (co-writer) and Daniel Casanave (illustrator). This beautifully illustrated series is a radical reworking of his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The series will be published in four volumes starting in fall 2020 with Volume 1, The Birth of Humankind, which is out now.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today, many of you will know the name, and those who don’t will know much more about him shortly. Professor Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, a best-selling author who is considered one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world. I know that’s setting a high bar, but his popular books might ring a bell. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century have sold 27.5 Million copies, roughly, in 60 languages. I’ll let that sink in for people. 27.5 million copies. That is a lot of square footage or cubic feet, cubic meters.
They’ve been recommended by Barack Obama, Chris Evans, Bill Gates, and many others. He’s also behind Sapiens: A Graphic History, which we’ll talk about a brand new graphic novel series in collaboration with comic artists David Vandermeulen, I think, co-writer, and Daniel Casanave, the illustrator. This beautifully illustrated series is a radical reworking of his book, Sapiens, subtitle, A Brief History of Humankind. The series will be published in four volumes, starting with volume one, The Birth of Humankind, which is available now. His website, Y-N Harari, H-A-R-A-R-I dot com. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. On Twitter, Harari_Yuval. We’ll link to all the rest of them at tim.blog/podcast. And Yuval, so nice to finally see you.
Yuval Noah Harari: It’s good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to start in an unusual place, perhaps. And that is with correcting my pronunciation on a word, M-O-S-H-A-V. How do you pronounce that, and what does it mean?
Yuval Noah Harari: M-O-S-H-A-V. Oh, that’s actually a mistake on Wikipedia. It’s a moshav. It somehow got around that I live on a moshav, which is some kind of socialist, collective community, less radical than the kibbutz, but one of the experiments of socialists in Israel like decades ago. And it’s just not true. I live in a kind of middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv.
Tim Ferriss: So this is an example, for those listening, of something that some people call the Wikipedia echo effect because I actually—
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes. I tried to correct it so many times, and it’s just, I gave up. It’s stronger than me.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So, at some point, it got into Wikipedia, then it ended up in The Guardian. Then, other people cite The Guardian, and it just will not go away. So, it just keeps coming back. Let’s go to something that I think is more of a firsthand report. It’s a paragraph from your wonderful profile, I should say, answers to questions in Tribe of Mentors, which is my last book from a few years ago. Here’s the paragraph I’d like to read, and then we’ll explore it.
“Since that first course in 2000, I began practicing vipassana for two hours every day, and each year I take a long meditation retreat for a month or two. It is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for two hours a day, I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos. Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens and Homo Deus.” So the missing piece here is the first course. Would you be open to describing how you ended up going to your first vipassana experience?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. I was doing my PhD at Oxford at the time about medieval military history. And I was also looking for the meaning of life, and reading lots of philosophy books, and thinking a lot, and nothing really clicked. And a friend nagged me for about a year to try a meditation retreat instead of reading all these books. And finally, I gave up, and said, “Okay, I’ll try. I’ll see how it is.” And it was really fascinating because, the very first evening, the instructions that I was given by the meditation teacher was very, very simple instructions. I guess many people heard them, that you just focus your entire—you sit down, you close your eyes, and you just focus your entire attention on your nostrils, on your nose. And you just feel, try to feel whether your breath is coming in or whether your breath is going out.
Sounds like the simplest thing in the world. It’s not even a breathing exercise. You don’t need to control the breath. Just let it be what it is, and just feel what it does. And I couldn’t do it for more than 10 seconds like most people. That for 10 seconds, I would be focusing on my nostrils, on my breath, and after 10 seconds, my mind would run somewhere like to some memory, some stories, some something I forgot to do, something that happened years ago. And I would roll in that for minutes before realizing that, hey, I’m missing my breath, and come back.
And this was an extremely humiliating and important experience because it made me realize, for the first time in my life, that I have almost no control over my mind, that I was doing my PhD at Oxford. I thought I was a very intelligent person, very smart. And my mind is my tool, and I have absolutely no control over it. I give it this very, very simple task, and it can’t do it. And also, you realize how overwhelming the stories that the mind produces are.
This was not on the first night. But gradually, over time, it made me realize that if you can’t focus on the simple reality of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils without being overwhelmed by some story generated in your mind, then how can you hope to understand, I don’t know, the financial system of the world, the geopolitical system, what’s happening in Israel in the Middle East, some much, much bigger things, if you can’t do that. No matter what I try to do, these stories generated by my own mind get between me and reality. And most of my life, I just spent on these stories. So, it was ever since then, it was one of my main practices in life is how do you avoid being overwhelmed by the stories that your mind generates?
Tim Ferriss: Why did your friend nag you for a year? Was this a friend who was nagging everybody to go to a class? And the teacher, as I understand it, maybe it was in video or maybe in person, S.N. Goenka. I don’t know the lifespan.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: Did they nag you because there was something about you that told them you would benefit in particular? Or was it a general nagging among their friends?
Yuval Noah Harari: I think this guy was nagging everybody in a good way. I’m still good friends with him. And I think because I was really looking hard to understand life, to understand what’s happening here, then he thought I would be a good candidate. And then, he was absolutely right. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Now, vipassana clicks for some people. It doesn’t click for others. Some people gravitate to transcendental meditation and repeating a mantra. Other people might find a different type of mindfulness practice, but it clicked for you. What did the before and after look like? If we, let’s just say, go back to that point in time, your first experience, and then, we flash forward six months. What had changed six months later? Or how did your perception of the world change?
Yuval Noah Harari: Some things changed dramatically, most things didn’t. You have this kind of false enlightenment experience that you think you realize something very deep, and now, everything is going to change. And over time, you realize that the deep patterns of yourself, of your own mind, are much, much stronger than one course of meditation or practice of six months. And so, it’s a very long way. And again, for some people, it doesn’t click at all. When I came out of my first course, I thought, “Oh, that’s easy.” You can send anybody there, it will have the same effect. Later on, I realized it doesn’t work like that. Different things work for different people. But all the time, there were changing on so many levels. I’m not sure which of these levels is most interesting to you or to our listeners.
I can talk on several of them. Everything from simple peace of mind and better mental health to big change in my working methods, in my professional life. As I wrote in that passage you read, I don’t think I could have written Sapiens, or Homo Deus, or any of these other books without the practice of meditation because you need a tremendous amount of focus to do something like that. And you need to be able to see through the mass of details. And you try to summarize the whole of human history in 500 pages. So the most important button on the keyboard is “delete.” That’s the big thing. There’s so many important things. What is really important? That’s the big question. And I don’t think I could have done it without the kind of sharp focus that meditation gives.
Tim Ferriss: Many people have heard of Sapiens. Certainly, there was a point in Silicon Valley when it first came out, and nearly all of my friends seemed to be reading the same book. And I think there’s a revisionist’s grand delusion among many readers that Sapiens came out, and then, like the snap of the fingers, 20 million copies, or however many millions of copies, were sold worldwide in 60 languages. Now that doesn’t seem to match the story exactly. What was the title of the original English version of Sapiens, and how many copies did it sell?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. It was a long story. The original English version was titled From Animals Into Gods, and it was a self-publication on Amazon, and it sold something like 2,000 copies. They now go for, I don’t know, thousands of dollars or something because they are collector items. But, yeah. It was a long way.
Tim Ferriss: It was a long way. And you brought in, then, at that point, the number of professionals. I believe, maybe it was your husband who found a literary agent?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. That was the main thing. I think I’m quite a good writer, but I have very little skills in terms of publication, negotiations, or anything to do with the business side of life. And I tried for some time, for maybe a year or two to find a publisher by myself, and it was a complete failure. And then, my husband came in, and he has much, much better business skills than I do. And he immediately fired the agent that we were working with at the time, and let’s go back to zero. And he was the one that found the best literary agent in Israel, Deborah Harris. And she opened a lot of doors for us, and we worked on it too. We did the translation again in several—because originally, it was in Hebrew, and several rounds of editing, and eventually, something like three years or more than three years after the Hebrew version, the real English version came out in 2014.
Tim Ferriss: What were the biggest changes that were made aside from the title? I’d be curious to hear the story of Sapiens, the title itself, but what were some of the changes that were made in the editing process before the grand debut of the new version, if anything? I don’t know if it was just fine-tuning the language.
Yuval Noah Harari: It was fine-tuning, nothing major changed. All the major themes and ideas were already there in the Hebrew version. We just really redo the translation and edit it. And shortening here and there a few things, but there was no major revision to the content. It was mainly issues of style and the entire business approach of who to work with and how.
Tim Ferriss: You’ll correct me if I’m wrong because you never know what you read on the internet to the degree of veracity, but that it was based on lectures you had given previously. Is that true?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes. That’s correct. I gave, for five, six years previously, I was giving a course at the Hebrew University, which was, basically, introduction to the history of the world. And at some point, after working on it for a couple of years, I began handing out my notes to the students because I wanted them to focus on what I was saying and be part of the discussion instead of just scribbling down whatever I say. So, I told them, “Forget it. You don’t need to write anything. I’ll give you my notes.” And then, the notes started circulating not only among the students of the class, but also, other students at the university. And this gave me the idea that, well, maybe there is a larger audience for this. And I began working on turning these lecture notes into a book. Again, it was a long way, but a lot of the major ideas were there in the lecture notes.
Tim Ferriss: I wanted to hear more about this because I’ve seen in some books that I’ve quite enjoyed, like Zero to One by Peter Thiel and his co-writer, also came from lecture notes, originally, at Stanford.
Yuval Noah Harari: It’s a good method because the students take no bullshit. When you write a book and it’s only you, and the screen, and the computer, the computer suffers everything. Whatever you write, the computer is fine with it. It’s too long, it’s incomprehensible, it’s boring, the computer doesn’t care. But the students give you immediate feedback. If you stand in class and you talk, and you see that the students have lost interest, then that’s a sign. Or they just don’t understand what you’re saying. And the great thing about this course, it was really an introduction to first-year students and Israeli students. If it was, I don’t know, in Oxford, then maybe it wouldn’t work. But Israeli students, they tell you exactly what they think about you and what you say.
So, I got immediate feedback about everything. And maybe the most important feedback is that—and I was trying to explain the really basic concepts of human history. What is religion? What is money? What is capitalism? When you talk with professors or doctors, you can talk in a very, very complicated way so nobody realizes, including yourself, that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. But with first-year students, you have to use very simple language. And that’s a big challenge. The simpler the language, the bigger the challenge. It really shows you and your listeners whether you know what you’re talking about or not. You can’t hide behind professional jargon and very complicated, I don’t know, language. And so it forced me. I was trying to explain what is money, and I had to go back again and again, to the core ideas and to the lecture notes, and ask, “Do I really understand what I’m talking about? If I really understand, I should be able to make it simpler. I should be able to give a straightforward example.”
Tim Ferriss: Makes me think quite a bit about Richard Feynman, a physicist who was a very, very esteemed teacher and felt very similarly, that professionals could hide behind the labels, right? Pointing at the bird and knowing the name is very different from understanding the bird. And if you have to describe it in simple terms, it’s a real challenge of competence and clarity as a teacher. You mentioned the term “suffering,” and I, again, want you to fact check me, but it seems to me, in doing homework and reading your work, that you are very attuned to suffering, whether that is in the animal world, whether that is in the human experience, whether that is in your own experience, say, with the endless cloudy days in Oxford, at one point. Could you speak to how you developed that sensitivity, if I’m not imposing that on you? Because I’m looking behind you right now, and people might not be watching this video, but you have some calligraphy behind you, which is, I believe, it’s [foreign language], which is Buddhist heart or Buddhist mind and suffering is—
Yuval Noah Harari: I don’t know what it is. Somebody gave me a present. I hang it there.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right. Yeah, it’s beautiful. So, that’s what it says. Suffering and the concept of suffering is also central to a lot of Buddhist thought. Could you speak to how you think about suffering or why that is something that you’re so cognizant of?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. I realized both in my personal life and in my work as a historian, that this is the big question. The big question is not the meaning of life. And the big question is not how you satisfy some gods or how you achieve this or that goal. The big question is how you liberate yourself and others from suffering. And this is also, I think, the main kind of, for me, the main theme of human history is most historians are focused on the question of power. If you take most history books, and also, most economic books, and so forth, they are about power. They are not just a guide to how to get power, but about the history of power. Conflicts about power between two kings, between two kingdoms, between two gods, between two religions, between two classes. These are most history books are about that.
And it’s an important part, but it’s not the bottom line. I think the bottom line, okay, what does all this mean in terms of happiness and suffering? So, okay. The Roman Empire rose to power. Did it actually make humans happier? Did it make them more miserable? If it had no noticeable effect on, say, average happiness in the world, what does it matter whether they won or lost? And in my work, I try to always keep both of these perspectives at the same time, the perspective of power and of suffering, especially because humans are very, very good, as a species, not all humans, but as a species, we are very good in acquiring more power, but we are not good at all in translating power into happiness.
For me, the big paradox of history is that it’s obvious we are thousands of times more powerful than people in the Stone Age, but it’s not clear whether we are at all happier than they were. Maybe we are happier a bit, but not thousands of times more happier. So something is wrong. It’s like a car, which you press the fuel pedal with all your strength, but your gear is in neutral. We have so much power, it doesn’t move anywhere. And it’s also often the case in your personal life that you can achieve so much, and then, you look inside and you ask, “Am I actually happier than I was 10 years ago or 20 years ago?” And maybe not. And one of the things I also realized, personally and collectively as a historian, is that we just don’t understand suffering very well.
One of the main problems is that people think that with regard to suffering, it’s obvious what suffering is. The big problem is how to make it disappear. I know that, I don’t know, pain is suffering, or I don’t have enough money. That’s the cause of my suffering. So, now, let’s focus on getting more money or getting a medicine. And the mistake is that you don’t really understand the deep causes and mechanisms of suffering. You see just part of it. Yeah, obviously, pain is suffering. That’s true. But there is much more to it. And if we spent a little more time on understanding the deep mechanisms of misery and dissatisfaction in life, then we can act far more effectively in trying to alleviate it.
Tim Ferriss: Can you speak to the test of suffering to determine what entities are real and what are not, what are illusion and what are not? I shouldn’t say “illusion,” maybe abstractions.
Yuval Noah Harari: Ah-huh. The main way that humans gain power is through collective cooperation. As individuals, we are not particularly powerful animals. In a match between a human and chimpanzee, the chimpanzee will easily win. The big advantage of humans, we can cooperate, basically, in unlimited numbers, thousands, millions, today, even billions cooperate together. Chimpanzees can’t cooperate more than, say, 50 or 100. That’s about the limit. And then, what enables us to cooperate in very large numbers? This is our ability to invent and believe in fictional stories and fictional entities. All the big heroes of history, almost all of them, are fictional entities that exist only in our imagination, only in the stories that we create. Nations, gods, money, corporations, states, the only place they exist is in the stories that we invent and tell. They are not physical or biological realities. Again, the United States or Israel, the only place it exists is in the story that millions of people believe.
And it’s the same with money. Money has absolutely no objective value, but as long as millions of people believe in the story about the dollar or the story about the Euro, it works. Now, when you say that, sometimes, people go to the other extreme and think that what you’re saying is that nothing is real. That the entire world is just one big illusion, but that’s not the case. There is still reality. There are still chimpanzees, and elephants, and humans. And there is a very, very simple test to know whether the hero of the story that you’re telling is a real entity or a fictional entity invented by humans and existing only in the imagination. And that is the test of suffering, that a human being can suffer. A cow can suffer, an elephant can suffer, but a nation can’t. If a nation loses a war, it doesn’t suffer. It has no mind. It can’t feel pain or sadness or fear. The soldiers who are fighting for the nation, the citizens in that nation who are being conquered by some other nations, they can suffer a lot of things, but the nations can’t suffer. It should be obvious.
And it’s the same as corporations. Even if the corporation loses a billion dollars, it doesn’t suffer. If it goes bankrupt, it doesn’t suffer, because again, it has no mind. It can’t feel pain, it can’t feel anything.
So it’s a very, very simple test, that we should remind ourselves, from time to time, what is real in the world, and what are these fictional stories? Now, I’m not against the stories. We need them. They are the basis for cooperation, but we should always remember we created them as tools to serve us. We shouldn’t be enslaved by them. If a story enables people to cooperate well and thereby improve their lives, that’s wonderful. But once you forget it’s just a story and you begin entire wars just in order to protect, to defend the honor of the nation, or to increase the profits of the corporation, something went wrong.
Tim Ferriss: What is the story, if there is one, or stories that you have around money, yourself? I was reading the New Yorker profile from not too long ago, and you probably know the paragraph that I might be thinking about where you and your husband might relate to money differently. What are the stories that you have for yourself in your life—
Yuval Noah Harari: About—mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, in essence, money is just trust. It’s the most successful and universal system of mutual trust that humans ever came up with, and therefore, I don’t think it’s bad. It’s very common for historians and philosophers and people like that, “Oh, money, it’s the source of all evil in the world.” I don’t think so. Sometimes it causes a lot of bad things, but in itself, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s just a system of mutual trust, that 50,000 years ago, to trust somebody, you needed to know them personally. You needed to know their personality, what they did in the past, they like you, they don’t like you. And that makes it very, very hard to cooperate in large numbers because you can’t know a lot of people personally. And it also makes it particularly hard to cooperate with strangers and foreigners that you don’t know.
Now, you look at today, I can go to a supermarket and a complete stranger that I never met in my life would give me food that I can actually eat, which was grown by a couple of other people on the other side of the world and was transported from that field or plantation to the supermarket by a bunch of other people none of us knows.
So how do we cooperate so effectively? How do we trust each other? Money makes it possible. And money is really, it’s just trust. In the beginning, because people didn’t have a lot of trust, that money had to be made from something with an objective value which doesn’t depend just on human belief.
So the first money that we know about was simply grain. You paid for things with grain. And grain, you can eat them if nothing works. But gradually, the trust increased. And today, most money in the world, it’s just digital data being passed between computers. Most money is not even banknotes and coins. It’s, I don’t know, like 5 percent or something of the monies is physical money. Most of it is just digital.
During this crisis in the recent year, governments and banks in the US, in Europe, elsewhere, created trillions of dollars. They didn’t even bother to print the money. You just have some official in some bank goes into the computer, adds a zero somewhere, and poof, you have a trillion new dollars emerging out of nothing.
And it works. I mean, it works because people have so much trust in the banks, in the governments, not only of their own country. That’s the amazing thing. I mean, you’d have thought, well, you can only use the money of your government. No. You think about even, I don’t know, Islamic fundamentalists, ISIS, that they hated America, they hated American politics, American culture, American religion, but they had nothing against American dollars. When they conquered, I don’t know, Mosul, and entered the banks, they didn’t burn the dollars that were there. They took them. They used them.
So that’s amazing that you can have such a level of trust even between complete enemies. And in my personal life, therefore, I don’t have a negative attitude towards money. I think for me, also, I’m not chasing it a lot, but for me, the best thing about money is not to think about it. I’m now much wealthier than I was 10 years ago, just a young professor back then. Not that I was ever poor, but I’m now much more wealthier. And the thing I like most about my wealth today is I simply don’t have to think about money. I go to the supermarket and, I know in Israel, pineapples are very expensive. So if I want a pineapple, I don’t even look at how much it costs. I just, “Oh, I want the pineapple. Okay, let’s take it.”
Tim Ferriss: You’ve mentioned the alleviating of suffering and getting a better understanding first of defining the problem, as opposed to just rushing to solutions and getting a better understanding of suffering. Are there ways in which your life, in contrast to, say, not thinking about money, has been complicated or made harder to navigate with the tremendous success of Sapiens and becoming more publicly visible? In other words, was it, as just an example, easier to find sort of tranquility and connection with bodily sensations as a way to integrate yourself back at Oxford compared to today?
Yuval Noah Harari: No, but I have 20 years of experience now in doing that. So I don’t know, maybe if I remained an anonymous professor of medieval history, I would have much deeper experiences of meditation today. Maybe not. It’s impossible to know. I still have time. I’m not so busy. I have now a large team. Again, thanks to my husband to kind of set it up. We now have a team of 15 people working for us. So I get something like, I don’t know, 15, 20 emails a day, that’s it. And like this conversation, I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to come like two minutes before it started and just like plug myself in and that’s it. Somebody organized everything.
So I’m not extremely busy. I still have two hours every day to meditate. I still go every year for a long retreat of say 30 days or 40 or 60 days, something like that. Yeah, I mean, I think a lot. There are a lot of things to think, but I thought a lot even before that. So I mean, the content of my thoughts changed, but I don’t think the intensity changed.
One of the things I realized from now being this famous public intellectual and meeting all these famous people and leaders is that everybody is basically the same. When you are prime minister or president of a superpower, you can’t be more worried than when you run a small business. It’s impossible. It’s the same brain. It’s the same mind. So if you have a small shop and you’re the only worker maybe, and it’s now corona time and you have to shut it down and you have to pay your mortgage and whatever and you worry about it all day, it’s basically the same with the prime minister or president that worries about the economic crisis of a war. Now, of course, objectively they have to be much more worried, but they can’t. They have the same brain that you have.
So it really depends on, you know, maybe they are even far less for it than you are. If you’re an extremely neurotic person, I don’t know if Woody Allen had a small shop, I think he would be much more worried about his shop than certain presidents and prime ministers today in the world are worried about their countries.
Tim Ferriss: So I read a quote from you. This was in The New York Times. “If I was a [superhuman], my superpower would be detachment.” Feel free to correct that if need be, but assuming there’s some grain of truth to that, could you expand on that, please?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah, I think it is true that I can keep a kind of distance from situations, from development in my personal life or in world history. And even though I have my opinions and my preferences, I have a certain ability to keep a distance and say look at things from different angles. And also, it makes me very skeptical about my own positions, that maybe I just don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about it. It could have been debilitation that I can’t—like how can you write the history of the world if you’re not sure about what you’re saying? But actually, I just don’t take myself a hundred percent seriously. Okay, so maybe I’ll write something and it’s nonsense, so okay.
When I wrote Sapiens initially, I had no idea what would be a big success. So I kind of had this defense that I thought nobody’s going to read it. Like maybe my students at university would read it, and maybe a couple of other people, but that’s it, so I can write what they want basically. And later on, when I became very successful, it was the other way around that it doesn’t matter anymore. But if I write something and I’m not a hundred percent sure about it, then I can take the hint, then okay, so people will find out that I wrote something wrong and that’s fine, that’s part of the business.
I mean, if you really want to write these kinds of big books, you have to accept to some extent that you will make mistakes and that you will not get everything right. If you’re a perfectionist, then it’s better to write the history of kind of one battle in the Middle Ages; then you’re on safer grounds.
Tim Ferriss: So this is going to seem like a strange question perhaps, and if it goes nowhere, that’s totally fine, but I’m curious, what do your close friends come to you for when it comes to advice? Like what type of advice do your friends come to you for? Is there any pattern to it or any particular stand-out?
Yuval Noah Harari: It depends on the friends, I think. I have a core of very good friends that go with me for years, I mean from long before. I think that since I became kind of famous, I made maybe just one or two new good friends. Almost all my good friends are with me from years back.
And I have different relationships with each of them. It’s like each one of them holds a different part of my inner world or of my life, and I hold different parts of their world. So they don’t come to me for advice about history, that’s for sure. Maybe they’ll ask me, “Well, what do you think will happen in the US elections?” and I say, “I don’t know.”
But I mean, if something really big happens, I don’t know, during the height of the terrorist wave in the world, so they would come, at least some of them, and I would say, “Look, from a big historical perspective, this is not so important. I mean, every person that dies in a terrorist attack has their entire world destroyed, but looking at the big picture from the history of the world, this is a very small affair. I mean, I can explain to you why terrorism gets so much attention. It’s basically theater. These people are experts in theater, not in war, and they are very good at it. So they get so much attention, but you don’t need to worry that the terrorists will take over the world. It’s not going to happen.”
Most of the things, it’s like somebody breaking up with their boyfriend, girlfriend, somebody is just having a lousy day at work and the usual things.
Tim Ferriss: The usual stuff. What would they say your superpower is? If you said it’s detachment, which we could dig further into, but are there any other observations that they would have. If we gave all of your closest friends two drinks and we said, “Okay, Yuval, superpower, what is it?” what might they say?
Yuval Noah Harari: First, they will say different things because they know different angles of me.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Yuval Noah Harari: I think some of them will say I suppose that I’m a good listener, partly because I talk so much during my work, that when I meet these friends, I like to be quiet and just let somebody else do the talking for a while, which is a very good thing. Because very, very often when people come to you for help, they just want you to listen. They don’t want you to solve their problems. It often happens that somebody comes with a problem and you don’t have patience for them. So you think what is the fastest way to get rid of them? To end the phone call, I’ll find the solution of their problem, then they’ll go away. And this really is the last thing they want. They really just want to complain and for somebody to listen to them, and I’m quite good at it.
Tim Ferriss: Right. You spend all your words during the day—
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And then you have the space to listen.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: How do you relate to happiness? You’ve spoken about some of these contrasts.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah, I usually prefer to talk about suffering or misery because happiness is far more difficult to nail down. I mean, when you’re miserable, you know it.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Yuval Noah Harari: When you think you’re happy, you’re quite often just deluding yourself. It’s not so easy to really understand what’s happening there. It really goes down to the level of the body. This is something that I know from meditation. When you have a pain somewhere in your body, it acts like a magnet. It just throws the attention there. There is no way you can miss it. And you try to observe other things, and you can’t. It’s just—It gets drawn back to the painful sensation in the knee, in the stomach, wherever it is.
But when you have pleasant sensations in your body, they have usually the opposite effect. They throw you out. You kind of float a couple of feet above the ground. I mean, sometimes people come in meditation and they say, “I never have any pleasant sensations in the body, I just have pain,” and that’s never the case. What’s true is that when you have pleasant sensations, you don’t notice them because the usual effect of feeling something very pleasant, it throws you out. You start kind of imagining, “Hey, what if I win the lottery and I’ll have a million dollars? I’ll do that. I’ll do that,” and you lose connection with what—at the time that you are having these very pleasant thoughts, you are having very pleasant sensations in the body, but you don’t notice it.
And I find it’s harder to work and to see what’s actually happening there, but it’s even more important than kind of noticing and working with the painful sensations. I mean, in the end, I would say the really difficult problems, they begin with the pleasant sensations, that we become so attached to them that the moment they are gone, most of the time, people don’t have very painful experiences. Most of the time, if you are dissatisfied, it’s because you are missing or craving for some very pleasant experience which is just not there, and you’re not willing to settle for the kind of ordinary boring thing that you did.
Tim Ferriss: I want to rewind to your description of your current life compared to your just, say, pre-frame life, which seems to be similar in many ways. You’ve been able to preserve the space to do what you do best. You have this team, you have this husband who’s very good at saying no, you have personal assistants who are very good at saying no. And to many people listening who have achieved some modicum of success, I think they will listen with great envy because, very often, whether they are artists, whether they are business people, what made them successful is often the first thing to get crowded out by the new attention and success that they receive. Aside from luck, because perhaps there was some luck and chance involved in meeting the person who then became your husband, were there any decisions or are there any decisions or frameworks or anything at all that has helped you to preserve the space that you have?
Yuval Noah Harari: I think a very important decision was to keep the meditation first, that like when I plan my day, when I plan my year, it’s the first thing I put in the calendar is the meditation retreats, and everything else has to find space around that. And it was a conscious decision and a very important decision that really worked. And in a bit similar way also to keep time for my old friends, to keep time for my family, and understanding that this is kind of a marathon race and not a sprint. And okay, something very important happens, the new book is coming out. There is a lot of important things. Okay, so I can change my routines for a while, but over the long run, you have to keep these kinds of basic blocks intact.
And this was a very conscious decision. And I think, at least in my case, it worked. Also, to kind of remember, I don’t know, what’s really important for you in life. For me, I think maybe, on the personal level, I really want to understand life, to understand the world. What’s happening. And I noticed quite early that most of, kind of the big events that I’m participating in, like conferences and so forth, and the important people I meet, they don’t really contribute much to that. They don’t seem to understand the life or have some particular insight. In the big conferences, they never talk about these things. They talk about the global economy, they talk about climate change. They are important things, but in on the deeper level of what’s actually happening here, I won’t get any answers from there.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence if you look at the whole span of human history, and almost none of the important political leaders of humankind made a significant philosophical contribution to human thought. You have a few exceptions, I don’t know, Marcus Aurelius or something like that, but generally speaking, you would have thought that, from their vantage point, they see something that ordinary mortals don’t. Maybe they reach the top because they have some very keen insight into human nature. And if they have some keen insight, they keep it very, very secret.
Tim Ferriss: Who are some of the people you respect, it could be past or present, for really seeing or seeking what is going on on the deeper levels?
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, I can tell you, I mean, some of the names of thinkers and writers that influenced me.
Tim Ferriss: Great. Let’s start there.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. So Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, really influenced me a lot. His book Sources of the Self is, I think, one of the most important books I read in life, one of the most difficult books also. I mean, if people take this as a kind of reading recommendation, they should be warned, it’s really tough going. It’s a very big book, very dense, but if you make it, it’s really worth it.
Of course, I was very influenced by my meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka. Again, not necessarily by any books he wrote, just by the guidance. I mean, I remember sitting in my first vipassana course and having this—”This guy really gets it. He really understands what’s happening.” This was something quite surprising for me, to see that.
Some of my good friends have some insight into what’s happening here. Again, I can give a list of books that influenced me. I’m not sure if this kind of answers the question, but—
Tim Ferriss: We are free to meander. We don’t have tight constraints.
Yuval Noah Harari: I think one of the problems I realized it’s that it’s extremely difficult to share the really deep insights you have about life, that very often they are on the non-verbal level. And in any case, my impression is that most of the inner world of most humans is never shared. They never talk about it because they don’t even have the words and don’t have the audience. I mean, most of what happens to you deep down during the day, your spouse probably doesn’t know, your parents don’t know, your children don’t know, your friends don’t know, even you don’t know if you don’t really make the effort.
One of the qualities of great art, not just writing, but different kinds of art, that it really gives words that you feel something, maybe for years, and you’ve no idea how to communicate it. And then you read a poem or you see a TV show, and, “Yes, this is exactly what I’m feeling and I never knew how to communicate it.” So that’s why it’s also very difficult to kind of know. You meet somebody and you don’t really know what’s going on inside them and to what extent they understand or don’t understand their life or life in general. So it’s very, very hard to say.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you also underscore something that I’ve thought about a lot recently, which is it’s quite unfair to expect other people to understand you fully when you don’t understand yourself fully on your own. It’s quite an unfair expectation of people sometimes.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. But this is basic expectations. Because we have trouble understanding ourselves, we have this hope that somebody will lend us a hand. And we have the experience, at least most of us if we came from loving families, that when you’re kids, there were people there, like our parents, who did exactly that for us. Even on the most banner level that a child is crying, and the mother would say, “Well, you’re just tired. Just go to sleep,” and you figure it out, “You should know that you’re tired,” but no. It’s amazing that sometimes people are tired or hungry or whatever, and they don’t know it. And then somebody who really understands them comes and says, “Well, just go to sleep.” And in my writing, I engage a lot with the issue of the future of AI in surveillance, and I think one of the key fantasies with AI in surveillance is that the algorithms will do that for us.
Tim Ferriss: Well, this ties into one of the books that has had a big impact on you, if I remember correctly, right? Aldous Huxley and Brave New World.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah, Brave New World, it really had really, really deep impact on me, because I think he really got it. The interesting thing about Brave New World, it’s on the surfaces of dystopia, but when you kind of ask yourself, “Why? What’s wrong with Brave New World?” It’s very difficult to say it, to find out. Everybody seems to be satisfied. Everybody seems to be happy. There is a system in place that understands you very, very deeply, and makes sure that you will never be in great pain or suffer any great misery. And in this sense, 1984—like its brother book 1984, it’s a very simple book in this sense that 1984 describes a terrible, terrible dystopia. The only question is how do we avoid getting there? But Brave New World, you read it, and at least for me, I kind of think, “Okay, so what’s really wrong with it?” And it’s not easy to answer this question.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This sort of uncanny feeling that something is not quite right that you can’t put words to. It’s very similar to the feeling of something that is quite right that you can’t put words to that then gets reflected in good art. I think it can go both ways.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: A number of the things that I’ve read in preparation for this from various profiles, there was one that said you prefer television to novels. There was another that gave the example, might’ve have been the same profile of you swimming as part of your routine in the summer and listening to nonfiction books via headsets. But I guess they’re resonant, they deal with the vibration of the skull, the jawbone.
Yuval Noah Harari: This is some really nice gadget I came across, and I tried to listen through usual earplugs, and water would seep in somehow all the time and would ruin it. And then finally, I came across this gadget that you can just put it on your forehead, and in some mysterious way, it works better. And you actually hear it better than when you put it in your ears. So yeah, I would swim back and forth, back and forth listening to, I don’t know. I listened, say, to Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism while swimming back and forth in my pool.
Tim Ferriss: With the dolphin headset for the resonance. That’s amazing. So it’s a forehead headset, perhaps. Do you recall what type it is by any chance? I know this is getting into the minutia. If not, we can figure it out later.
Yuval Noah Harari: I can go and look for it if it’s very important. It’s just in the next room. So it will take me a second if you want.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, sure. Let’s grab it. Why not? I don’t want to say this is the most important thing in the world, but I’m curious.
Yuval Noah Harari: It’ll take a minute.
So this is how it looks by the way.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow. All right. So it’s connected to the dorsal snorkel that goes across the forehead so you don’t have to rotate, or it holds itself.
Yuval Noah Harari: I don’t have to put my head back and forth all the time from the water. It’s by Finis Duo. Finis, F-I-N-I-S.
Tim Ferriss: All right. We’ll find it and put it in the show notes. Thank you for grabbing that. In those examples in these profiles, it seems like you are not consuming much written fiction, but Brave New World is fiction.
Yuval Noah Harari: I think it’s philosophy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, fast becoming reality, and maybe also, like you said, philosophy disguised as science fiction. Are there other fiction books that you have found to have an impact on you or your thinking, or do you consume much in terms of fiction?
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes, quite similar to Brave New World, think Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Tim Ferriss: That is a great book.
Yuval Noah Harari: I also listed it as a philosophy book. I think that it had an impact not just on my thinking, but one on how I write or work that I’m not saying it is a kind of metaphor or something, they are philosophy books. They just are written in a different way. And this is one of the ideas that gave me the inspiration to kind of turn Sapiens into a graphic novel, which we might discuss later on if we have the time. That you can play with the form.
I think that Aldous Huxley, when he came to write Brave New World, he had these philosophical issues he wanted to discuss. And maybe I’m inventing, maybe it wasn’t like this at all, but my impression is that he thought, “Well, it will actually be easier and more interesting and engaging instead of having these formal, logical arguments.” And instead of having these thought experiments, which philosophers love so much, why not have an entire book, which is one long thought experiment, and see where it takes me? And I think that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is basically something similar that it explores a lot of deep philosophical issues, but in a much more fun way than your typical philosophy book.
Tim Ferriss: I could not agree more. I just, literally a few weeks ago, listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy narrated by Stephen Fry, who’s an incredible narrator, for the first time. And you’re right that it has so many what otherwise could be very sterile thought experiments and concepts embedded into this entertaining narrative.
And I remember one line, they’re talking about the, I want to say, he’s the president of the galaxy or something along those —
Yuval Noah Harari: Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right, Beeblebrox. And they talk about how successful he was, and how people have the mistaken notion that the job of the president is to wield power, but that’s not the job of the president. It’s to distract from those who are wielding power. And just these short nuggets contain so much to chew on. And it’s really an effective way of providing people with footholds in a way, toeholds.
Yuval Noah Harari: It’s the same with TV. I think that Black Mirror, at least some of the episodes in Black Mirror, are some of the best discussions that I’ve seen of certain dangerous tendencies in current technology. Some episodes are just fun. San Junipero, I think it’s an extremely good episode, but it describes the reality, which is so far away from us that it’s not really relevant to any of the discussions here.
But if you look at Nosedive, and maybe the Chinese got the idea for their social quality system from Nosedive, but it’s such a powerful and important episode. If you look at the one with the cartoon figure that became president, that almost became an MP, the blue bird or something. And this is before Trump, this was before this whole wave. This was so prophetic. When I watched it for the first time in 2013, I thought, “Well, what are they talking about?” And then I watched it later, like five years later, these guys are just geniuses. How did they see it coming?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s a real sweet spot of near-term or not-too-distant future kind of technological extrapolation. I love Black Mirror, and I always encourage people to watch at least three episodes, because I’d say maybe one out of three or one out of four just completely miss. For me, they don’t strike a chord. So your sample size has to be a few episodes, and you’ll usually strike on something.
We are going to talk about Sapiens: A Graphic History, because I’ve got a lot of questions about it. Before we get there, I’ll stick with one question before we get there, and that is any other television series, could be documentaries also or movies, that you think are intelligent examples of philosophy or thought experiments in disguise?
Yuval Noah Harari: Again, going back to the usual suspects of science fiction, I thought that Her was a very intelligent and low-key exploration of some of the potential of AI. I don’t like these movies when the robots rebel and kill everybody. It implants the wrong fears, and it encourages the wrong discussions. I don’t think that in the next 20 or 30 years, the robots are going to rebuild and kill everybody, but there are other dangers, much more, some more or less subtle, whether it’s the job market, whether it’s surveillance and equitability related to politics, or whether it’s changes in human relationships. And I thought that Her was a very, in this way, a very intelligent movie that avoided the usual traps. And it goes back exactly to what we were discussing earlier that we have a deep yearning that somebody out there in the world would understand us.
Like we go about life, and we hope that our parents would understand us, that our teachers, our lovers, our kids, somebody, please understand me. And it, for many people, it never happens. And to some extent, somebody understands them, but there are many hidden corners within themselves that they are unable to communicate, and maybe they don’t understand them fully. And there is nobody out there that reaches out and engages those corners in them.
And there is now, with technology on the rise, which could fulfill that dream. And this is extremely attractive and extremely frightening at the same time. And Her is spot on; what happens when there is an algorithm that constantly observes you, not just what you do, but also what’s happening inside your body and really understands your personality, your moods, your likes, your dislikes. You come back home from work, and you’re grumpy and your husband doesn’t notice it, but the computer does notice it. And what kind of world is it? What kind of relationships will there be when computers and objects understand you better than the people in your life? And that’s a fascinating and frightening question, and I think a very realistic question. Unlike the robots rebelling and killing everybody, the moment that your smart refrigerator knows you better than your husband is not very far in the future.
And we should be talking more about that, and I would like to see more movies, more TV shows, more science fiction novels that explore these kinds of questions.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. If you haven’t read any of Ted Chiang’s work, C-H-I-A-N-G. He has a compilation of short stories called Exhalation, and he has another collection of short stories. I think you would absolutely love them. One of his short stories was turned into, I believe it was Arrival, about the protagonist who’s this female linguist who decodes the graphic language of these aliens who arrive on Earth. And it’s about temporal perception. These are really, really, really incredible stories. So Ted Chiang, C-H-I-A-N-G, and Exhalation. I think you’d enjoy it.
Let’s talk about Sapiens: A Graphic History. Well, before we get to that, I just want to say that the word “understand” and the concept of understanding is also fraught with difficulties. And I think that that is part of what AI will also demonstrate, that knowing quite a few people who work on AI, what does it mean for, let’s just say, a computer or a refrigerator to pass the Turing test so effectively that you feel understood.
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, it’s not. I don’t believe they’ll be conscious. I don’t believe that we are near the point when they will have consciousness. And if by understand, you mean the kind of inner feeling that we have when we understand, that’s not the case. I think we are not near there, but understands in the sense that able to predict our behavior and response unconsciously in a way, which will be more appropriate than the people around us.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Yuval Noah Harari: So that’s what I mean by it. Yes, it’s weaker, definitely. I’m not thinking about the conscious experience of understanding. It’s about just predicting could be manipulating, but most importantly just are kind of reacting to us in a way that we will find appropriate, more appropriate than the way that—we will get so used to having these computers and robots that are very attuned to how we feel that we might become even more irritated with the humans who don’t feel, who don’t react, who don’t understand how we feel and not reacting in the right way.
And then part of the problem is that so many people, like everybody, are often self-centered. So I don’t get what my husband is feeling, because I’m too focused on my own feelings.
One of the reasons that computers could be better than humans in this is that they don’t have feelings. The refrigerator doesn’t have any expectations in life from you. It has no dreams, no fantasy, nothing. So the refrigerator can be a hundred percent focused on what you feel. It has no feelings of its own. So it can’t be insulted, can’t be angry. Nothing.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like you have an episode of Black Mirror to write. And to that point on some level, we were talking about philosophy disguised as fiction or thought exercises embedded into, say, Black Mirror in a way that are not just fascinating, but also prophetic in some respects.
Sapiens: A Graphic History. I want to talk about this, because I actually have a long history with graphic novels and comic books. I wanted to be a penciler, a comic book penciler, for about 12 years. Used to be an illustrator a long time ago, and then I lived in Japan in high school. Went to a Japanese school. And in Japan, unlike in the US, there is a long, rich history of comic books and graphic novels for adults, and also comic books and graphic novels for teaching difficult concepts, telling history. And these are extended, expansive collections of graphic novels. And I’ve seen how effective it is because I read some of these when I was in Japan, on the history of judo and other things. And I would not have consumed 500 pages of pure text, certainly not in Japanese. And I think it’s an incredibly powerful format. How and why did you decide to take Sapiens and create this piece of art, but also an effective vehicle for, perhaps, teaching in a different way?
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, actually the initiative didn’t come from me. It came from David and Daniel, the two artists who collaborated with me on this project, they came up with the idea. They brought some initial suggestions, and I really liked it. It connected to something that I did want to do for a long time, which is to reach new audiences. I see my main job today as bringing science and history to more people, people who wouldn’t necessarily read a traditional science book. Even if it’s popular science, they still won’t read it, like 500 pages of text with footnotes. They won’t touch it, but they might connect to a graphic novel. And yes, it is for adults and teenagers. Many people in the West have the idea that comics are for kids, but no, it’s just a different medium. It’s a different language.
It enables you to do—some things, you can’t—you need to cut down the text, but there are many things you can do much better in a graphic novel, certainly to show things like much of the graphic novel is about the life of hunter-gatherers. So you can just show it in images instead of long descriptions. An image is worth a thousand words, in many cases. It also enabled us to, and for me, it was the most fun project I ever worked on, because it was—okay, let’s take all the academic conventions of how you write history, and throw them aside. And let’s experiment. So it’s kind of a series of experiments in how to tell history. So one part about the evolution of different human species that sapiens, Neanderthals, and so forth, it’s told like a reality TV show that there are different competition between different human species.
Then you have an entire chapter about how humans caused the extinction of many of the large animals of the world as they spread from Africa over the world. And this is told as a detective movie. We created this fictional detective, Detective Lopez, like a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie kind of a person. And she goes around the world and investigates the worst serial killers in history who killed all these big animals. And the invention of the first religions is told according to the conventions of superhero action movies. So we created this superhero in Doctor Fiction who embodies the human ability to invent fictional stories and mythologies. And it was really fun working with David and Daniel on that and just saying, “Well, why not? We can try that. We can do that. It’s allowed.” It also forced me and actually all of us to answer many questions, which we can just ignore in the text.
When you draw, you have to draw specific things. When you write, you can write in obstructions. When you draw, you can’t draw obstructions. So if, for instance, you talk about the connection between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and we now know that some sapiens and Neanderthals had sexual relations and even had children, because most of us today still carry some Neanderthal genes in our DNA.
Now in a book, you can just write that sapiens had sex with Neanderthals, end of story. But in a graphic novel, if you want to draw it, you have to make some decisions. Who is the man and who is the woman? Is it a Neanderthal man with the sapiens woman, or the other way around? And what about skin color? What about hair color, hairstyle? All these questions you can’t draw a general human. It must have some skin color, must have some hair color. So we have to go back to the literature, the scientific literature, and investigate. And sometimes you find answers. Sometimes you don’t and then you have to take into account all the ideological and political issues of race and gender. And so it’s a huge, huge thing to engage with all these. And I found it that it’s not like, “Okay, let’s just take sapiens and add some illustrations.” It’s a completely fresh project.
Tim Ferriss: How did you problem-solve when there was a conflict or some tension between the literature and what might dictate a drawing and the sort of political sensitivities that exist today? How did you think about that or think through those types of decisions?
Yuval Noah Harari: We had a lot of discussions about these things, and it was a balancing act. You can’t ignore science just for the sake of being politically correct. On the other hand, you have to be aware of the political implications of the choices you make. You hide behind scientific objectivity, because there is no such thing as a completely objective narrative, just choosing what is the opening scene and what is the ending scene, it doesn’t come from reality. It comes from your political, ideological, or religious beliefs. Reality, that the real reality, it has no beginning and end. No historical event had a beginning and an end, and no historical event had a focus. It’s even easier to think about it in terms of movies. When you watch a movie, let’s say, about the Second World War. So the camera is somewhere and something is in the focus of the shot, something is on the side, and many things, you don’t see them at all.
Now in reality, there is no camera. There is no camera hanging above planet Earth, the camera of history, which points in a particular direction, and this is the center of events, and this is the sidelines. You can tell the Second World War with Churchill as the main hero, Hitler and Stalin appearing in a few scenes, and millions of Chinese that died in the war never appearing at all. And you can do an entire World War II movie just about a single Chinese village. Now both are true, and what do you choose, it’s not forced on you by the reality. It reflects, very often, political and ideological and also artistic choices.
Now when you go back to the Stone Age, it’s even more complicated, because there are so many things we just don’t know, the basic things. We don’t know what family structure was like. You have all these discussions about what is the natural human family. Lots of people believe, “Well it’s obvious. It’s a man, a woman, two and a half kids, and a dog. This is a traditional family. This was always the case,” but we know that even in recent history, this was not always the case. It’s not the case today. In many countries, close to 50 percent of children don’t grow in such a family today. You go back to the Middle Ages, it’s not the structure of everybody. You go to biology, to other apes. Chimpanzees don’t live like that. Gorillas don’t live like that. Orangutans don’t live like that. So how did humans live 50,000 years ago? The answer is, we don’t know. We have evidence from the Stone Age. We have tools, but the tools don’t tell you what was the family structure. You have cave paintings, but one of the interesting things about cave paintings, we’ve found thousands and thousands of cave paintings from the Stone Age. There is not a single image of a family. There are lots of mammoths. There are lots of horses. There are lots of ibex. There are some humans, or so mostly stick figures. But there isn’t a single image from the Stone Age that you can say, “Look, that’s how they depicted a family.”
And what does it mean? Why do people draw all these elephants, and never bother to draw their own family? I don’t know what it means. But it’s interesting, and it gives us a lot of artistic freedom about how to deal with these issues. So, I don’t know. We have this one scene about Neanderthals, and Neanderthals had a big revolution in the last 10 years. Of course, they are dead, but our understanding of them has completely changed in the last 10 years because of so many new evidence we have. Both from genetics, but also from artifacts and archeological records. Whereas 20 years ago, maybe, they were still these archetypal cave people, primitive and brutal, and things like that, now they have a very positive image. Not only because we have the genes, DNA, but also because we have evidence that they took care of wounded people, of elderly people, of disabled people. They had a much more sophisticated technology, and maybe even art and culture, than we assumed.
So we depicted in the graphic novel this change in image in the scene that you see these two Neanderthal guys sitting in the office of a PR consultant. And the PR consultant has on the wall this old-fashioned image of a Neanderthal, a brutal Neanderthal with a big stick dragging a female by the hair. And there was a big X over this image. And the PR consultant says, “Well, this was a good brand for the 19th century, but this is the 21st century. You need to lighten up your brand.” And the two Neanderthals say, “Yes, well, actually we two are gay.”
So obviously we don’t have any evidence that there were gay Neanderthals. I mean, our scientific understanding of sex and gender today indicates that it’s very likely that there were gay Neanderthals. But if you ask for the smoking gun, “Show me a grave from 50,000 years ago with two men together. Only then I believe.” Then, of course, we don’t have this. But we don’t have a lot of direct evidence for sex in the Stone Age. We have a lot of indirect evidence, like from genes. So we know that sapiens and Neanderthals had sex, but maybe also there were cases of a sapiens man having sex with a Neanderthal man. Could be. No evidence in the genes, of course. But could it have happened? Maybe. And we have this artistic license that we can show that. It makes sense.
Tim Ferriss: Well also, I mean, this is maybe going down a rabbit hole. But if you look at the behavior of chimpanzees and others, I mean, there’s some evidence to suggest that that type of interaction certainly exists. I mean, if you’re looking at the current-day precursors, in a sense. What is your hope for these graphic novels? And they’re coming out in four volumes. What do you anticipate or hope the spacing to be of those volumes?
Yuval Noah Harari: Oh, we hope for one every year. The main challenge is the drawing. I mean, this is Daniel’s job. I draw like a five-year-old kid. I mean, they can’t depend on me for anything when it comes to the drawing. And it takes a lot of time to draw these hundreds of images. Also, it goes back and forth because Daniel draws an image, or a couple of images, and send them. And then I go, “No. The archeological evidence indicates that actually, the spear points were not like you depicted.” And then the political issues. That, “Okay, well, we need more balanced gender relations in this image.” And it goes next to Daniel, and he needs to draw it again, and it takes a long time. So I guess it will be one volume each year. And the big hope, that it will reach new audiences that may not read a 400-page text about the history of humankind, but would be interested, and would find it fun and engaging when it’s told in a graphic novel.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, I’ve seen the graphic novel and it’s really well-done, I have to say. I have probably 5,000 to 10,000 comic books that I’ve saved and polybagged over the years. I’ve collected everything from Sandman in the US to dozens of different graphic novels in Japan. It’s very well-done.
Yuval Noah Harari: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: So, yeah. You and your team deserve a lot of credit for that. I’d love to ask a question about your mission statement. Now, I don’t know if you would call it a mission statement, but maybe it is. So this is from the New Yorker profile from this year, and it describes how your mission statement reads as follows. And this is on a bulletin board in your office. “Keep your eyes on the ball, focus on the main global problems facing humanity, learn to distinguish reality from illusion, care about suffering.” And I guess there was previously “embrace ambiguity,” but that got scratched out.
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So could you explain the origins of this mission statement, please?
Yuval Noah Harari: Oh, it’s a couple of mission statements. As we expand our team, it becomes more difficult to get everybody on the same page. To make sure that everybody—each person has a different personal and professional background. So when it was just me, or just my husband and me, there was no need to write down these official mission statements. But when you have 15 employees, then it becomes important. We had a long discussion, and a back-and-forth also with all the employees, and we came up with these as several kind of general guidelines to keep in mind.
Maybe the most important thing is that we see our task is helping to focus the global conversation on the most important issues, because one of the big problems of the 21st century is, people are flooded by enormous amounts of information. It’s not like in the past when information was scarce, and the problem was how to get it. Now it’s the opposite, and you just don’t know what to pay attention to. It also goes back to my practice of meditation, of how to stay focused. And it’s kind of link the personal practice with the global project of, again, we don’t see ourselves as providing solutions, but just kind of helping to steer the global conversation in the most important directions.
Tim Ferriss: You have such a historical context for determining the relative weight to assign to different events or phenomena in the world, as indicated or described in the example of terrorist attacks and their sort of cultural—or I shouldn’t say cultural, but his historic significance. Yes, they’re horrible. Yes, the theater and graphic nature of it is very compelling to the human psyche. Which would also be true of, say, a shark attack. Right? If a 12-year-old boy were attacked by a shark on the East Coast of the United States, it would be in every newspaper and there would be a huge response. Probably a dramatic over-harvesting of sharks, so on and so forth. But in the sweep of human history, its importance is close to zero. Negligible. What are some of the more important, the main global problems facing humanity from your perspective?
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, as we speak, I think the three big ones are nuclear war, which people tend to connect with the Cold War. Yeah, there was something there about nuclear weapons, but they are still here. I don’t think we’ll see nuclear war in the next few months, but if tensions in the world continue to grow, then it will become again a major issue. And it is an existential issue. Other things can’t destroy us, but nuclear war can. So we have to keep it in mind all the time.
The second big thing is ecological collapse. It’s not just climate change that gets most of the headlines lately. It’s many other things also, like loss of biodiversity, and destruction of habitats, and so forth. But generally speaking, yes, we are seeing—war as nuclear war, it’s just a future possibility. Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won’t happen. Ecological collapse has already begun. It’s all around us, and it threatens. Again, it’s an existential danger. It threatens the foundations of our civilization. I guess that some people will survive it. But if things really go bad, with the economic and political implications of it, it could cost the lives of billions of people.
The third big one, and I think most complicated, is technological disruption. The consequences of disruptive technologies, especially artificial intelligence and bioengineering. It’s the most complicated challenge, because with nuclear war and climate change and ecological collapse, you can disagree whether it’s true or not, but everybody agrees what needs to be done about it to stop it. Nobody thinks that having a nuclear war is a good idea. Nobody thinks that climate change is a good idea. Maybe some people deny it, but they don’t say it’s good.
Now with technological disruption, it’s much, much more complicated because it has a lot of positive potential. A lot of people positively wish to see greater and faster technological disruptions, and there is no agreement whatsoever about what we should do with technologies like AI or like bioengineering. The dreams of some people are the nightmares of other people. So, it’s very complicated. Again, like ecological collapse, it’s not a future scenario. It’s already happening all around us. And I think the pace is such that to some people it sounds crazy, but I strongly believe that given the technologies we are now developing, within a century or two at most our species will disappear. I don’t think that in the end of the 22nd century the Earth will still be dominated by Homo sapiens.
I think given the immense power of the technologies we are developing, there are two scenarios only. One scenario is that the technology will destroy humanity. I think it’s less likely, but still possible. The more likely scenario is that it will change humanity in a profound way. That we will use AI and bioengineering to change Homo sapiens and to create new kinds of beings that will be much more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or from chimpanzees.
To give just one example, I think it is possible that we will create the first inorganic life forms after four billion years of organic evolution. So again, it’s not the destruction of our species. It’s the changing of species into something else. But what kind of thing it will be, we have to be extremely careful about that. It won’t necessarily be a better version of us. It could be much, much worse.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give a bit more detail around the new inorganic life form? And in your mind’s eye, if we change for the worse in some tech-enabled way, deliberately or by accident, what might that look like to you?
Yuval Noah Harari: Well, I’ll start with the second question of what it could look like. You could use whatever technology to increase the efficiency of people, the intelligence of people, at the price of things like artistic sensitivity or like spiritual depth. I mean, if you ask armies, if you ask corporations, if you ask governments, “What do you need from your employees, from your soldiers?” They will say, “Oh, we want people to be more efficient. We want people to be more logical. We want people to be more disciplined.”
And if you have the technology, then you engineer such people. Even if it comes, and it always comes, at the—I mean, usually when you improve something, it tends to come at the price of something else. Things like, I don’t know, spiritual depth. What kind of army needs its soldiers to have spiritual depth? So if you leave it to the corporations and armies, it’s very likely that once you have a technology to change humans, it will, I would say, downgrade them and not upgrade them. It will make them more efficient soldiers, or employees, or whatever, but it will make them kind of poorer beings. Lesser beings.
So that’s about just one scenario, of what does it mean to downgrade people. Now with regard to inorganic life forms, for four billion years, all life forms were organic. Whether it’s a bacteria, or a mammoth, or a tree, or a human, it’s organic. It obeys the laws of organic chemistry. Now, with the rise of AI, we might have a chance—I tend to be agnostic about it. I’m not sure. But it is possible that in a couple of decades, we will be able to create either completely inorganic beings, or at least part organic/part inorganic cyborgs. This will be, if it happens, it will be the biggest revolution in the history of life, since the beginning of life. Much, much bigger than the creation of mammoths, or the creation of mammals or humans, because it’s a completely different game. Once you’re no longer subject to organic chemistry, we can’t even begin to imagine what it means because our imagination is the product of organic chemistry. So if you have a kind of intelligence which is not based on organic chemistry, it can be anything.
Tim Ferriss: If you look over the next—so you were talking about, I guess, the 22nd century and the prevalence, dominance, or existence of Homo sapiens. If we look over the next 50 years, just to choose an arbitrary timeframe, of nuclear war, ecological collapse, or these unforeseen accidents or mistakes of high technology, which scares you the most, or which do you worry about the most?
Yuval Noah Harari: I worry most about the third, because of what I said earlier. That it’s the most complicated. That it’s not enough to be kind of, I don’t know, good and wise to deal with the first two. It will be very hard to deal with the first two as it is, but the third one is really complicated because there is no agreement on the goal. With the first two, at least there is an agreement on the goal. That makes it very, very complicated.
Also, the first two, nobody is actively working to make it happen sooner. Even the people who deny climate change, they are not in favor of climate change. They just say, “It’s not real. It doesn’t happen.” But with AI and bioengineering, some of the most powerful people, and organizations, and governments, and corporations in the world, they are extremely busy making it happen faster. It’s also, we don’t have a framework even to think about it properly. So again, as a thinker and a politician, I think this is where I can contribute the most, is in trying to untangle this kind of completely new threat.
Tim Ferriss: So, just a few more questions. Then I’ll let you get going, because I know we’re separated by quite a few time zones. When you are thinking about these threats, perhaps hearkening back to your times reading Aldous Huxley’s work, and here we’re talking about Brave New World and not Island, right? Very different descriptions, although some parallels. When you feel the potential for these various types of collapse or disaster, what keeps you going? Where do you find the light?
Yuval Noah Harari: It’s a good question. If you’re able to deal with your own mortality, as every person has to on some level, then you should be able to deal with the potential mortality of your entire species. I mean, it’s still part of biology, yes. Individuals come and go. Nations come and go. Also, entire species come and go. 99 percent of the species that evolved on planet Earth are gone for one reason or another. Homo sapiens also is not eternal. Again, even in the best scenario, I don’t think Homo sapiens will be around in two or 300 years. The best scenario is that Homo sapiens will disappear, but in a peaceful and gradual way, and be replaced by something better.
I don’t think there is any chance whatsoever that people like us will just continue to have lives like us in 200 years. That there will be in 200 years a professor of history sitting and having a podcast talk with somebody. It’s not going to happen. I mean, the changes are going to be too big. So maybe it goes back again to the practice of meditation, and the realization that change is the only certainty in life.
Tim Ferriss: So you might as well tune in to the changes, so that you’re at least aware that you’re responding to your reactions to things outside and not the outside itself. Well, Yuval, this has been a lot of fun for me.
Yuval Noah Harari: Thank you. For me too.
Tim Ferriss: It’s nice to connect with you. Of course, I will link to everything in the show notes for people. The volume one of your series, Sapiens: A Graphic History, is out now. Volume one can be found, and I’ll include links to that in the show notes for everyone at tim.blog/podcast. Your website is ynharari. Facebook is Prof.Yuval.Noah.Harari. Twitter, harari_yuval. Instagram, yuval_noah_harari. I’ll provide all of those, so people don’t have to remember them. Is there anything else that you would like to say to my audience, ask of the audience, suggest to the audience before we wrap up?
Yuval Noah Harari: No, just thank you for your time. I know that time and attention are the most valuable resources today for most people, so I hope you benefited from investing them in listening to us.
Tim Ferriss: Likewise, and I can certainly speak for myself in saying that I enjoyed it quite a lot. Definitely check out Ted Chiang, Exhalation. I think you’ll love it.
Yuval Noah Harari: I will.
Tim Ferriss: I have a bunch of notes for things that I will be checking out. And to everyone listening, until next time. Thank you for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.