Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah

Israeli History Professor, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author Quotes

This network of artificial instincts is called culture?.

Today, the global average is only 1.5 per cent, taking war and crime together. During the twentieth century, only 5 per cent of human deaths resulted from human violence ? and this in a century that saw the bloodiest wars

Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

We have no idea what the builders of G”bekli Tepe actually called the place. With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim?s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted ?Kushim!? It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.1

What was so important about a metal that could not be eaten, drunk or woven, and was too soft to use for tools or weapons?

When we study the narrative of plants such as wheat and maize, maybe the purely evolutionary perspective makes sense. Yet in the case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.

worship of gods. Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering, rather than for stops along the way such as economic prosperity and political power. However, 99 per cent of Buddhists did not attain nirvana, and even if they hoped to do so in some future lifetime, they devoted most of their present lives to the pursuit of mundane achievements. So they continued to worship various gods, such as the Hindu gods in India, the Bon gods in Tibet, and the Shinto gods in Japan. Moreover, as time went by several Buddhist sects developed pantheons of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. These are human and non-human beings with the capacity to achieve full liberation from suffering but who forego this liberation out of compassion, in order to help the countless beings still trapped in the cycle of misery. Instead of worshipping gods, many Buddhists began worshipping these enlightened beings, asking them for help not only in attaining nirvana, but also in dealing with mundane problems. Thus we find many Buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout East Asia who spend their time bringing rain, stopping plagues, and even winning bloody wars ? in exchange for prayers, colourful flowers, fragrant incense and gifts of rice and candy.

The single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

The world?s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 25,000 miles of railroads ? but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 2,500 miles of tracks. In 1880, the West boasted more than 220,000 miles of railroads, whereas in the rest of the world there were but 22,000 miles of train lines (and most of these were laid by the British in India).5 The first railroad in China opened only in 1876. It was 15 miles long and built by Europeans ? the Chinese government destroyed it the following year. In 1880 the Chinese Empire did not operate a single railroad. The first railroad in Persia was built only in 1888, and it connected Tehran with a Muslim holy site about 6 miles south of the capital. It was constructed and operated by a Belgian company. In 1950, the total railway network of Persia still amounted to a meagre 1,500 miles, in a country seven times the size of Britain.

they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.

This new religion has had a decisive influence on the development of modern science, too. Scientific research is usually funded by either governments or private businesses. When capitalist governments and businesses consider investing in a particular scientific project, the first questions are usually, ?Will this project enable us to increase production and profits? Will it produce economic growth?? A project that can?t clear these hurdles has little chance of finding a sponsor. No history of modern science can leave capitalism out of the picture. Conversely, the history of capitalism is unintelligible without taking science into account. Capitalism?s belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep would keep on growing indefinitely. The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years ? such as the continent of America, the internal combustion engine, or genetically engineered sheep. Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.

Today, the society called New Zealand is composed of 4.5 million Sapiens and 50 million sheep.

Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, the large sea animals suffered relatively little from the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. But many of them are on the brink of extinction now as a result of industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic resources. If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and mammoths to oblivion. Among all the world?s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah?s Ark.

We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.

What was the Sapiens? secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn?t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won?t work because it pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It?s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn?t get it ? they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content.

Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur?an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?

The Soviet collapse in 1989 was even more peaceful, despite the eruption of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Never before has such a mighty empire disappeared so swiftly and so quietly.

The Worship of Man: The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam. Islam is of course different from Communism, because Islam sees the superhuman order governing the world as the edict of an omnipotent creator god, whereas Soviet Communism did not believe in gods. But Buddhism too gives short shrift to gods, and yet we commonly classify it as a religion. Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx?s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life. Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts. Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order. (Note the difference between ?superhuman? and ?supernatural?. The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist laws of history are superhuman, since they were not legislated by humans. Yet they are not supernatural.) Some readers may feel very uncomfortable with this line of reasoning. If it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion.

They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.

This was the magic circle of imperial capitalism: credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites ? kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers ? who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.

Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.

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Yuval Noah
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Israeli History Professor, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind