There are few recent publishing phenomena quite like the success of Yuval Noah Harari. Until recently a virtually unknown Israeli academic, he had huge international best-sellers – first Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and then Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017) – at a time when there was considerable hostility, at least within the Western academy, towards anything coming out of Israel. Now, having done the past and the future, he offers us 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Jonathan Cape).
While Harari’s first two books were written in Hebrew (and translated by him alone or with others), this one arises out of articles mainly in the UK and US press and seems to have been written in English. Because English is presumably not a mother tongue for him, one of his many virtues is that he writes the language, I would estimate, better than at least 95 per cent of native anglophone academics.
21 Lessons is more journalistic in style as well as origins than its predecessors, and indeed was “composed in response to questions I was asked by readers, journalists and colleagues”, Harari writes. Given that it covers just about everything, it is probably unsurprising that it sometimes falls back on banality. Reviews have criticised a chapter on war, for example, that concludes feebly that while a world war is “definitely not inevitable”, it would be “naïve to conclude that war is impossible”, given that “no god and no law of nature protects us from human stupidity”.
Harari has much to say about how ill-equipped politicians and indeed states are to cope with today’s unprecedented human and technological challenges. He includes an amusing vignette of attending a dinner with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, where he hoped to “hear some big secrets that are divulged only to important ears behind closed doors”. He was sorely disappointed, because “the gravitational pull of power” meant that everybody was being sycophantic to the PM. Yet this is fundamentally a structural problem: those at the centre of power have “an extremely distorted vision of the world” and little exposure to the kinds of “disturbing unconventional ideas” that include vital insights as well as much rubbish. Without the time to separate the wheat from the chaff, they have little choice but to fall back on outdated conventional wisdom.
In terms of general attitude, Harari urges us to embrace “clear-sighted…bewilderment” rather than “panic”. He is enthusiastic about meditation as a “valuable tool in the scientific toolkit, especially when trying to understand the human mind”. And what of the role of education? Surviving and flourishing in tomorrow’s world is going to require “a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance”, things far harder to teach than physics or history, especially when the teachers are themselves “the product of the old educational system”. Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant future, those of us who want to retain any real autonomy will need to find ways of “run[ning] faster than the algorithms” that know us better than we know ourselves and could easily come to control us. God only knows how national educational policies can help provide the right resources.