From university professor in Jerusalem to intellectual-celebrity: Yuval Noah Harari conquered readers all over the world by explaining, in a clear way, how we got here. “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” his biggest bestseller, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” have sold 40 million copies in 65 languages together.
The Israeli historian began to approach young people with the adaptation of “Sapiens for HQ”. Now, he wants to talk to the kids. “Relentless: How We Rule the World”, the first volume of a tetralogy aimed at readers from 9 years old, the “future leaders”, has just been released worldwide. “If anyone is really going to change the world, it’s people who are now 10 years old,” he said in this e-mail interview with Estadão.
Why tell this story to children? What alert would you like to leave and what questions would you like them to ask after reading?
I would like to help children discover and understand who they are. In many countries, schools teach about their national identity. This is important, but not enough. Human beings are incredibly complex, and our national identity is just part of who we are. Each person is made up of many pieces that come from all over the world. The Roman playwright Terence said: “I am human, and nothing human is foreign to me.” This is so true. Each person is heir to the entire human creation. But who we are is even deeper than that.
All the inventions and ideas of humans over the last few thousand years are just the top layer of who we are. Underneath that shell, in the depths of our body and mind, we bring things that involved millions of years of evolution, from long before humans existed. The love between parents and children and the fear of monsters at night, for example, were not invented by humans.
One of the goals, then, is to connect children with their deep identity as humans and as heirs to thousands of years of evolution. The other is to encourage them to keep asking questions. This is a book about the big questions, and the big questions, like “what is the meaning of life?”, arise spontaneously for most children. And there are all those adults wanting to say what we should think about it. And yet, adults don’t know all the answers. At a certain point in life, many people get tired of asking the important things. So they cling to some story they’ve been told, think that’s the whole truth, and get annoyed if we question them.
My book doesn’t have all the answers either, but I hope to encourage children to keep asking questions throughout their lives, and not be afraid to question what adults tell them. I wish I had known, at age 10, that it was okay to be skeptical about the answers adults were trying to force on me. It could have saved me many years of clinging to harmful fantasies and wrong views. If I had to give them a warning it would be: Beware of people who give you answers you can’t question.
What do we need to know, and do, to be in this world in a more responsible and empathetic way? And how can a book like this help?
When we look at the world, we see only hatred and division. And these divisions arise because of stories that are relatively new. No nation or religion that exists today is more than 5,000 years old. And on the timescale of human evolution, that means these stories are very recent developments. And often these stories, with all the arrogance and fear and hatred they contain, are like heavy bags that people carry on their backs and then pass them on to the next generation. Sometimes we need to pause, dig through those bags, and think, “Do we really need to keep carrying all this stuff?” Much of the legacy we receive from our ancestors is good and useful. But some of them are harmful or outdated. We need to remember that we can choose what to keep and what to throw away. And that’s why studying history is important. The story is not about remembering the past, but about letting go of it in order to create a better future. So, as a historian, I thought it was important to write this book for children. Because if anyone is really going to change the world, it’s not the people who are now 50 – it’s the people who are now 10.
What, for you, is the most urgent question regarding the future of humanity? And how to involve children in the action?
I say in the book that cooperation is humanity’s superpower. This is what allowed us to spread across the Earth, create civilizations and even reach the Moon. Cooperation is also the key to our survival in the 21st century. Humanity faces many big problems like ecological collapse, nuclear war, global inequality, pandemics and the rise of artificial intelligence. Humanity is also very powerful, and we have the scientific knowledge and economic resources to solve all these problems. But as long as there is global cooperation.
Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen a sharp rise in global tensions rather than cooperation. If this trend continues, we will not be able to prevent the next pandemic, stop global warming, reduce inequalities in the world or regulate artificial intelligence. It also means that the risk of a world war is becoming more serious. Thus, the most pressing question regarding the future of humanity is whether we will be able to relax international tensions and increase global cooperation. Some leaders say such cooperation contradicts national loyalty. It’s an absurd. There is no contradiction between being a good patriot and cooperating with other countries. Because patriotism is not about hating foreigners. Patriotism is about taking care of our countrymen. And there are many situations, like when we are trying to prevent a pandemic or stop global warming, that in order to help our fellow countrymen, we must act together with foreigners. This book teaches children that cooperation is the human superpower, and that we all share the same human identity. I hope that when readers grow up and become leaders, they will remember these lessons.