Yuval Noah Harari (Photo by KRISTOF VAN ACCOM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
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The misanthropic history man

Yuval Noah Harari has become an intellectual superstar, but his predictions have become wilder and sillier

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In that strangely complacent dreamtime between the financial crash and the rise of populism, Yuval Noah Harari became a global superstar. The young Israeli history professor is frequently described as the world’s most-read public intellectual, while his speaking agency has no qualms about describing him as a philosopher.

Harari’s lack of recognisable cultural baggage lends him a mysterious other-worldliness, as if he’s a man from another, wiser planet or from the future; a vegan who practices Vipassana meditation for two hours a day and shares the housework with his husband.

He rapidly won the endorsement of celebrities such as Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg and became a fixture at Davos, Aspen and other plush retreats where political and business leaders assemble. Harari has now sold 65 million books. But he remains curiously under-examined.

The rise of mankind, he tells us, disrupted an otherwise harmonious planet

The professor first shot to fame with the sweeping trans-disciplinary Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The book begins 70,000 years ago and culminates with speculation about biotechnology and artificial intelligence. It’s the perfect cheat-sheet for bluffers and the intellectually insecure, the New York Times noted, allowing readers to acquire “apparent mastery of all human affairs” from “biology to economics”.

Sapiens was an ambitious “Big History” that eschewed the conventional narrative of one damned thing after another. Spengler, Toynbee, Braudel and others also attempted to tell big human stories. Braudel coined the phrase la longue durée to refer to narratives based around the evolving structures that govern human affairs, which he contrasted with conventional histoire événementielle, or “event history”.

Harari found a solution in the reductionist pop-science formula pioneered by Jared Diamond for his 1997 bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel. In place of complexity, the story is driven by a crudely materialistic explanation of human development. Harari would only belatedly acknowledge its influence.

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His work was perfectly tuned to the middle-class enclaves where guilt about modern material comforts hangs heavy. The Guardian promoted him heavily: an early piece for the paper asked “Were we happier in the Stone Age?” and asserted that “industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history”.

Simplification allows Harari to make huge swathes of human achievement disappear. “He avoids naming entire libraries of Western philosophical thought and any reference to literature. That is to say, he erases everything that is representative of a part of human culture,” explains the Argentinian historian Mauricio Meglioli. In its place is an odd collection of prejudices, which Harari does not try very hard to hide.

The rise of mankind, he tells us, disrupted an otherwise harmonious planet. Daring to temper nature to make life less miserable for us was a terrible mistake. Agriculture was “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains”, in which our species “cast off its symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. Was a subsistence life of foraging really that bad, he wonders, when “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives”?

“He’s really the worst prophet I’ve ever read,” says Megliloi

These sweeping, unsubstantiated claims were swiftly debunked by academics. Meglioli was particularly infuriated by Harari’s frivolity and elusiveness. He spent a year interviewing former colleagues, publishers and hundreds of experts such as linguistics specialists M.A.C. Huijbregts and Noam Chomsky, anthropologists like Christopher Hallpike and historians such as David Christian, Fred Spier, Patrick Manning and John McNeill to trace the genesis of Sapiens and the claims it makes. The result, Meglioli’s The Story of Sapiens, is a detective story almost worthy of Eco.

Harari’s 2004 PhD, “Renaissance military memoirs: war, history and identity, 1450-1600” was meticulous and rigorous and by 2008 he was a star lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Harari’s talks “dropped bombs”, says Meglioli, making startling but poorly-substantiated claims. The assembled coursework of 20 lectures became the 20 essays of A Brief History of Humankind. It was a slow burner; Harari self-published an English edition, titled From Animals to Gods: A Brief History of Humankind. The edited 2013 version, by now Sapiens, formed the basis of his sensational success in 2014.

Ambiguity and the absence of citations in Sapiens are not accidental, Meglioli advises. For example, the original edition begins with a linguistic revolution Harari says began 70,000 years ago “and nobody knows why”. By the 2014 edition, this had become a “cognitive revolution”. Language and cognition have a complex relationship, but are not substitutable. This kind of claim perplexes critics including Chomsky, who describes Harari’s account as “fanciful”. Others are less charitable.

As Harari’s thesis advisor, Steven Gunn, professor of early modern history at Oxford, puts it, this elusiveness allowed Harari to dodge the fact-checking process: “Let’s ask questions so large that no one can say, ‘We think this bit’s wrong and that bit’s wrong,” Gunn told the New Yorker magazine in 2020. Meglioli notes how Harari once attended academic conferences, but gradually withdrew because “he was terrified of being questioned”.

Harari’s sloppiness can also be seen with his loose use of “fictions”, which he applies both to religions and mythology and to formal constructs such as money or corporations. His most quoted claim, that “wheat domesticated humans” is another evasive conceit. It’s a reprise of Richard Dawkins’s concept of a “meme”, whereby ideas and behaviours move like parasites, with people reduced to the role of dumb hosts.

It’s a trick that removes the need to explain human choice. “To understand what influences affect people we need to grasp their actual needs and motives,” the late philosopher Mary Midgley countered. Nonetheless, as Meglioli observes tartly, “the select world of billionaires has incorporated him without hesitation as the great storyteller and the next great prophet: a historical need ironically portrayed in The Life of Brian”.

No wonder Dominic Sandbrook noted how much he was beginning to resemble Alan Partridge

“He’s really the worst prophet I’ve ever read,” says Megliloi. “Most of the predictions he made in the first book — that wars were over, that pandemics were over — went wrong. “Were we moving, as he claimed in Sapiens, towards empires? No, national sovereignty has been reasserted.”

Harari’s predictions have become even wilder and sillier. AI might produce a “useless class” of people, he predicted, since they “don’t have any skills that the new economy needs”. No wonder Dominic Sandbrook noted in 2018 how much he was beginning to resemble Alan Partridge. Others suggest he is becoming ever more messianic. While Harari is scathing about formal religion, he appears to be creating an ersatz religion of his own, Wesley J Smith suggested in a 2018 essay.

But none of this seems to deter him. His 2016 book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow goes over much of the same ground as Sapiens, adding gloomy predictions of technological transformation. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century repeats the trick. Meglioli estimates Harari has now rehashed the Sapiens formula ten times, including a graphic novel.

Ultimately, what drives Harari’s gloomy quest may not be that complicated at all, Meglioli suggests. “Many teachers and friends had this image of him as the lonely student who hated everyone. About the only philosopher he quotes is Sartre, and it’s a revealing line: ‘Hell is other people’.” That logic made him think that people are disgusting and the worst thing in nature. For Harari, hell is humanity.

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