The visionary historian, author of two dazzling bestsellers on the state of mankind, takes questions from Lucy Prebble, Arianna Huffington, Esther Rantzen and a selection of our readers
Last week, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans read out the first page of Sapiens, the book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Given that radio audiences at that time in the morning are not known for their appetite for intellectual engagement the previous segment had dealt with Gary Barlows new tour it was an unusual gesture. But as Evans said, the first page is the most stunning first page of any book.
If DJs are prone to mindless hyperbole, this was an honourable exception. The subtitle of Sapiens, in an echo of Stephen Hawkings great work, is A Brief History of Humankind. In grippingly lucid prose, Harari sets out on that first page a condensed history of the universe, followed by a summary of the books thesis: how the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
It is a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the remainder of the book lives up to on almost every page. Although Sapiens has been widely and loudly praised, some critics have suggested that it is too sweeping. Perhaps, but it is an intellectual joy to be swept along.
Its one of those books that cant help but make you feel smarter for having read it. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have undergone that experience, as have many others in the Davos crowd and Silicon Valley. The irony, perhaps, is that one of the books warnings is that we are in danger of becoming an elite-dominated global society.
At the centre of the book is the contention that what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.
Originally published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was translated into English three years later and became an international bestseller. It ranges across a multitude of disciplines with seemingly effortless scholarship, bringing together a keen understanding of history, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, philosophy, theology, economics, psychology, neuroscience and much else besides.
Yet the author of this accomplished and far-reaching book is a young Israeli historian whose career, up until that point, had been devoted to the relative academic backwater of medieval military history. Apparently, Sapiens is based on an introductory course to world history that Harari had to teach, after senior colleagues dodged the task. The story goes that the major Israeli publishers werent interested. No one saw international stardom beckoning.
Last year, Hararis follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, was published in the UK, becoming another bestseller. It develops many of the themes explored in Sapiens, and in particular examines the possible impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on Homo sapiens, heralding perhaps the beginning of a new bionic or semi-computerised form of human.
Again, its an exhilarating book that takes the reader deep into questions of identity, consciousness and intelligence, grappling with what kinds of choices and dilemmas a fully automated world will present us with.
Now 41, Harari grew up in a secular Jewish family in Haifa. He studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed his doctorate at Oxford. He is a vegan and he meditates for two hours a day, often going on extended retreats. He says it helps him focus on the issues that really matter. He lives with his husband on a moshav, an agricultural co-operative, outside Jerusalem. Being gay, he says, helped him to question received opinions. Nothing should be taken for granted, he has said, even if everybody believes it.
One of the pleasures of reading his books is that he continually calls on readers, both explicitly and implicitly, to think about what we know and what we think we know. And he has little time for fashionable stances.
He writes and speaks like a man who is not excessively troubled by doubt. If that makes him sound arrogant, let me clarify: he arrives at his conclusions after a great deal of research and contemplation. However, once hes persuaded himself and he says he always leaves it to the evidence to decide his thinking he doesnt hold back in his efforts to persuade the reader. It makes for what Jared Diamond called unforgettably vivid language.
Harari is a naturally gifted explainer, invariably ready with the telling anecdote or memorable analogy. As a result, its tempting to see him less as a historian than as some kind of all-purpose sage. We asked public figures and readers to pose questions for Harari, and many of these ( below) were of a moral or ethical nature, seeking answers about what should be done, rather than about what has happened. But the Israeli seems used to the role, and perfectly happy to give his best shot at replying. A historian of the distant past and the near future, he has carved out a whole new discipline of his own. Its a singular achievement by an impressively multiple-minded man.