Q. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is anything but brief. How did the concept come up?
A. I was very interested in the big questions of history. For example, I wanted to understand how humans came to dominate the planet — why men dominated women in most human societies, why Europe dominated the world in the modern era, and whether all the power we have accumulated has made us any happier than our ancestors. In order to answer such big questions, it was imperative to look at the entire history of humankind. I have been working on this project for about 10 years. The really difficult part was not just to gather all the details, but to combine evidence and insight from different scientific disciplines. In the academy, our single reality is divided into different disciplines like history, biology, economics and philosophy. In order to truly understand the history of humankind, it is necessary to transcend these divisions, and to combine the findings of historians with the findings of scientists from other disciplines, particularly biology. After all, humans are animals, and without understanding biology, you cannot really understand humans.
Q. Will a layman be interested in reading this book?
A. I hope so. Scientists should not be content with writing just for other scientists. They must convey their findings to the general public in a simple and interesting way. Otherwise, how can they hope to influence society and politics? Take for example the relations between men and women. This is of great relevance to all people, so new discoveries about the history of gender relations should be made accessible to everyone. Many people believe that men have dominated women throughout history because men are physically stronger. However, power in human societies is determined by social co-operation and social skills, not by brute force.
Dr Yuval Noah Harari
This is why people in their sixties usually dominate people in their twenties. Gandhi and Nehru didn’t become such important leaders because they went around beating up everybody else. Among pygmy chimpanzees — our closest relatives in nature — females dominate males because the females co-operate better. It is often argued that human females too, like female chimps, possess better social skills than males, and that they are more adept at understanding others, compromising, manipulating and co-operating. So how come among humans, women have been subordinated to men? The answer to this question should interest every inquisitive person, and not just university professors.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Dr Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, Random House, R699. Available in leading bookstores.
Q. Is there any chapter which will astound the reader given its unique content?
A. The chapter on the early human species is particularly thought-provoking. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans. The very idea that there could be humans from other species shocks many of us. Yet 50,000 years ago — which is a very short time in evolutionary terms — earth was home to at least six different human species. Homo sapiens lived in East Africa. The Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Middle East. In East and South Asia lived Homo erectus and Homo denisova. And other species lived on the islands of Indonesia. Just imagine how different our view of the world would have been, if at least one of these other species had survived alongside us. Try to imagine India of today, if besides all the other divisions, there was also a division between Sapiens and Neanderthals. Another shocking discovery is that there were sometimes mixed-couples from different species. Four years ago scientists mapped the entire Neanderthal genome, and it turned out that up to 4% of the unique human genes of modern Europeans come from Neanderthal ancestors. This means that tens of thousands of years ago, people from our species, Homo sapiens, not only had sex with Neanderthals, but even had children together. It is quite amazing to think that we can have children together with animals from a different species.
Q. You are associated with the Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also conduct an online course. You are also immensely successful on YouTube for other video lectures. How do you manage it all?
A. A lot of people think that history is a boring catalogue of dead kings and long-forgotten battles, devoid of any relevance to our lives. I try to show the relevance of history by focussing on the connections between the past and our daily lives. For example, today, daily life is subject to very precise timetables. Up until a short time ago, there were no timetables.
However, during the Industrial Revolution giant factories were built, that started producing shoes using long assembly lines. Here, every worker manned a machine that produced just a small part of a shoe, which was then passed on to the next machine. In order to prevent interruptions, everybody was forced to adhere to a precise timetable. The Industrial Revolution then turned the timetable and the assembly line into the basis for almost all human activities. Thus was created a global system of timetables, synchronised down to the tiniest fraction of a second, that controls every aspect of our lives.