Yuval Noah Harari on what history teaches us about justice and peace (Transcript)

ReThinking with Adam Grant
Yuval Noah Harari on what history teaches us about justice and peace
April 2, 2024

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking my podcast on the science of what makes us tick with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. 

My guest today is Yuval Noah Harari. He's the historian best known for his book Sapiens, which has sold over 25 million copies and spent more than 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Yuval has a new book for young readers, Unstoppable Us: Volume 2, Why the World Isn't Fair. 

[00:02:25] Yuval Noah Harari:
In many cases, there is really, uh, uh, contradiction or, or a clash between justice and peace. 

[00:02:41] Adam Grant:
Let's start on fairness then, since it's the subject of the hour. Maybe you can answer a question that's bothered me since I was a kid. I remember growing up, my mom would always say, life isn't fair, and I hated hearing that. I think you have an explanation that might be a little more satisfying than the one that she gave. 

[00:03:00] Yuval Noah Harari:
Our ideas of fairness are usually stories invented by humans, and the universe doesn't follow our stories, so most concepts of fairness and justice, they are just human imagination. And, uh, when we try to impose them on reality, it, it doesn't work. Actually, some of the worst catastrophes in human history occur because humans try too hard to impose their concepts of fairness on the universe. 

When you have this, kind of, uh, fantasy of a perfect world, and you encounter the imperfect world, there are many people who are standing in your way to accomplish this kind of perfect world and you, then, begin to see them as evil, uh, because they're trying to prevent fairness. They're trying to prevent justice. And, this is at the root of many of the worst wars and worst conflicts that happened in history. 

Every piece in history needed compromises including compromises on what we understand as justice and one of the big differences between justice and peace is that, again, justice tends to be subjective. Every person, every people, every religion have their own definitions, whereas peace is much more objective. 

Are people being killed or not is, is not a matter of belief. Uh, this is a, a matter of reality. 

[00:04:29] Adam Grant:
Are you saying then that we should care less about fairness and justice than we do?

[00:04:34] Yuval Noah Harari:
We should care about them very much, but we should be aware that it is impossible to create a completely perfect society, a completely just society, again, especially because different people have different concepts of what justice means, and ultimately, if we have to choose between justice and peace, I would go with peace. 

[00:04:55] Adam Grant:
I would too. In psychology, we, we tend to think about three different definitions of fairness that people often clash over. One is, is equality where everyone gets the, the exact same outcome, uh, and most people tend not to like that. Another is equity where people get what they deserve. And, then a third is need where the people who are most disadvantaged or unfortunate end up getting the greatest attention or, or support. 

I'm curious to hear a couple things. One is how you react to the, the equality equity need distinction. Is this a useful framework for you for thinking about why people disagree on what's fair? What's, what's your take on that? 

[00:05:29] Yuval Noah Harari:
No, I think it's, it's very useful. It's very accurate. I would only add to that, that in, in many cases, the disagreements are, are about something even more fundamental. Who do we include in the community that deserves justice? Do we include only humans or also other entities and who counts as a human?

Very often in conflict between people, one of the first steps is to dehumanize your rivals or your enemies. 

One of the big differences I think, between philosophy and history is that many things that sound simple and obvious in the realm of philosophy, when they try to migrate to the much harsher kingdom of history, they get lost on the way. 

[00:06:19] Adam Grant:
Well, this I think, goes to one of the points that you're most, probably most famous for, um, which is fiction as humanity's superpower. 
Without stories about who's in our ingroup and who's in our outgroup, or who's worthy and who's not, there would be no dehumanization, right?

[00:06:39] Yuval Noah Harari:
Stories are, are, are superpower. It's what enables complete strangers to unite and to work together towards common goals. But, at the same time, they could also be the, the, the cau- the cause of the worst crimes in, in history. 

Uh, we invent often terrible stories about the world or about each other. I think if we look especially the modern world, we can say that there are three big stories that people tell about history and about the question of, of, of justice and fairness. Uh, you have the fascist story about the world, about history, which says that history is a conflict between nations or between races, and, uh, it'll end only with the victory of one nation or one race over everybody else. 

Then, you have the Communist or the Marxist story of history, which again understands history essentially as a conflict, as a conflict between classes, which will end only with the complete victory of one class over all the others.

The third big story that people tell about the world, about history, I think is, is much more optimistic. 
This is the liberal story, which doesn't see history as, essentially, a conflict, just the other way around. Liberals tend to argue to think that all humans share some common experiences. It doesn't matter to which nation or race or class you belong, you don't like pain. You don't like hunger. You love your children. You want dignity. 

There are certain experiences which are common to everyone. Based on these experiences, we should be able to formulate some common values and common interests. Why is there conflict and injustice in the world? It is not a structural problem with history. It's really a problem of ignorance or misunderstanding. 

We fall victim to fictional stories, for instance, like racism, which tells us that one race is fundamentally different from another or superior to another. And, the hope is that we can just by, not with violence, but by talking with each other, we can sometimes understand this mistake and come up with a better story. 

So, to take some historical cases, if you think about, say, the formation of the European Union, which is a, a, a huge and, and successful, so far, liberal project. Uh, it didn't come about by one country defeating all the others. It came about by convincing people in almost 30 different countries to recognize their shared experiences and values and interests.

Or, to take another example, the relative success of the feminist revolution, which managed to change what we think about gender, about men and women and L-G-B-T-Q people and so forth with very little use of violence. 

So, you can understand from the way I describe it, that I ascribed to the liberal story, which places a lot of emphasis not on these kind of inevitable structural conflicts between human groups, but rather on the content of our mind, on the content of our imagination gives rise to the hope that sometimes, I mean not always, but at least sometimes we can resolve conflicts and we can end at least some injustices just by talking with each other. 

[00:10:43] Adam Grant:
Well, I, I obviously subscribe to that viewpoint as well. I think the, the empirical evidence I've read is, is really clear on this, right? That non-violent resistance campaigns are significantly more effective, uh, than, than violent resistance campaigns, even when, uh, you're trying to overthrow an authoritarian government, which is extraordinary. 

I don't know if you've seen the, the Erica Chenoweth research or not, but in their case, they study violent and nonviolent campaigns, every single one that happened over the course of more than a century, starting in 1900. And, we see actually that that peaceful resistance is more effective than violent resistance. 

It seems like there's rising discomfort with that idea, and people are more and more unwilling to accept that that might be possible today than they were even a decade ago. What, what do you think has changed? 

[00:11:33] Yuval Noah Harari:
As a historian, one of the things that kind of characterizes my way of thinking is that very often we cannot explain the causes of what is happening. 

We can describe the chain of events, but we don't understand the deep causes. Again, because it's, it's, it's very often it's because something changes in people's minds, in the stories they believe and not in the structures of the world. You know, I look at the rise of fascism in the 1920’s and thirties. I, we now have so much evidence on, on it. 
We have the, the wisdom of insight, and yet, personally, I don't have an explanation why fascism rose in the 1920’s and thirties. I can describe how it happened, but I don't know why.

And, this is also true of what is happening now. Uh, looking at the world, it's obvious that people are, again, gravitating towards seeing the world in terms of inescapable conflict. 

Whether it's the way that Putin sees the international arena, or whether it's internal conflicts in countries like United States or like my own, uh, country of Israel, people are increasingly attracted to seeing the world simply in terms of power, as if any human interaction is always a power struggle when you understand reality simply in terms of power, then you are inevitably drawn towards conflict and towards, ultimately, towards violence. Because if everything is just power relations, there is no way to change something in the world to end injustice just by talking. The only way to change power relations is, ultimately, with force.

When I think about myself, I don't think that the only thing that interests me in the world is power. 
Yes, sometimes I want power, but very often I have other interests. People are interested, also, genuinely interested in something like truth or something like love, not as a mechanism to gain power. So, if I don't think about myself as a simple power-crazy individual, why should I think like that about the other people in the world? 

A lot of the relations between people in the world, they are shaped by these fictional stories, these fantasies in our minds. Many of these stories are, are wrong or deeply wrong, but they, they potentially could be changed through conversations and not through violence. 

[00:14:16] Adam Grant:
I think that's, that's certainly a great place to start. 

I think it seems that this is harder to do in times of threat. So, I'm, I'm thinking about whole body of evidence showing that when people are facing personal threat or when they perceive, you know, society as turbulent and unstable and potentially disadvantaging them, they're more likely to vote for tough, dominant leaders as opposed to kind, caring ones. 

Um, I think that has obvious implications then for, you know, for leaning toward violence, war as opposed to peace and cooperation? 

[00:14:48] Yuval Noah Harari:
Yeah, I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you think about the world simply in terms of power, you will tend to vote, for instance, for politicians who behave that way, and then it becomes a reality. 

Then, reality becomes, like, this zero-sum power struggle, and then other people are also forced to, to think and, and behave in, in, in that way. The way we understand history is it itself shapes history, that the more you think about history, just in terms of, of power struggles, the more power struggles there will actually be in the world. 

To make peace, uh, you need an effort from a lot of people at the same time. To make war, often just one individual or one party is enough to force a conflict on everybody else. This makes it much more difficult, of course, because you, if you want peace, you need basically to change the minds of everybody simultaneously. 
If you have even one important party, which sticks with this, kind of, more violent and forceful view of the world, it is enough to thwart, uh, uh, all your attempts. 

[00:16:06] Adam Grant:
I've been curious about where we intervene to prevent a self-fulfilling prophecy from happening because it seems like the more times the cycle repeats, the more it provides historical evidence that, well, if we ignore power, then we're gonna become victims of it, and so we, we need to respond to force with force. 

I think one of the places that, that I've tried to intervene personally is, is to say, well, let's, let's actually think about what it takes to be an effective leader. Let's think about reframing the job. Let's consider the possibility, it’s, it's not just a role that requires, you know, the capacity to use power, uh, hard power, it's also a role that requires relationship building skills and emotional intelligence, um, the capacity to communicate, to build coalitions, uh, diplomacy, conflict resolution. And, I found in one experiment that when, you know, I, I simply reminded people that this was a critical part of a leader's job, uh, that it shifted their preferences on who they were willing to vote for. 

Um, I don't think that's enough, obviously. It does strike me that that's an example of a way that we can begin to change the story of what we need in people who are going to play these roles, uh, that ultimately decide how power is used. How do you think about ending the self-fulfilling prophecy or, or maybe even making it a self-negating prophecy? 

[00:17:18] Yuval Noah Harari:
It's important to realize that if you take a long-term view of history, we do not see a, a kind of constancy of, of violence. We see more peaceful and more violent conflicts, uh, uh, periods following one another. Those people who argue that humans have always been violent and war is a, is a constant feature of human nature, they are just projecting their own ideas onto the record. It's not there. Even after that date, you see, uh, these kind of waves of peaceful, so, of peaceful periods and violent periods interchanging.

In recent decades, we have, actually, uh, uh, managed to reduce the level of international violence to historical low. 
The early 21st century was the most peaceful era in human history as far as we can tell. It's not just evidence from, you know, number of wars or number of casualties. It's also if you look at, for instance, state budgets. What do governments spend their resources on? For most of human history, the number one item on the budget of every king, every emperor, every republic, every city state was the military. 

If you look, say in the early 20th century, then during World War I, the Britain spent about 50% of its budget on the military. During World War II, it rose to 70%, and this was the normal state of affairs. If you look, if you read state budgets from the early 21st century, this is the maybe one of the most optimistic and, and, and, uh, uh, uh, reading materials ever, much more convincing than any pacificist track because you would find that worldwide, taking all countries into consideration, the average expenditure on the military was down to 7% of the government budget.

In contrast, expenditure on healthcare rose to 10% of the budget. Worldwide, governments were spending considerably more on healthcare than on the military, and this was unthinkable for most of history. 
And, this was actually achieved and it's not some kind of pacifist fantasy for the future. It was, actually, achieved. In recent years, we are seeing the resurgence of war in many parts of the world, including in my region of, of the Middle East, because again, the decline of war was not the result of some divine miracle or the result of a change in the laws of nature, it was a result of humans changing their own behavior and they can change it back. And, we are now unfortunately, changing it back and we are seeing a resurgence of war, but simply realizing that the level of violence is not constant and that if we make the effort, we can create a much more peaceful society. This is the first step towards, actually, realizing it.

[00:20:37] Adam Grant:
I, I love the point that we can disrupt the inevitability narrative just by attending to variability throughout history. And, I wonder if we, we could broaden the lens a little bit and say, we don't just have to do this with humans. You could, actually, do the same thing with, with primates too. 

So, I, I can't, I can't count the number of times that I've heard somebody say, you know, humans at their core are just chimps and chimps go to war and it's just inevitable. And, whenever I hear that, I wanna say, well, what about the fact that we share 99% of our DNA with bonobos who are peace-loving, sociable creatures? 
Like, why are we only indexing on the chimp model? The bonobo model is…

[00:21:18] Yuval Noah Harari:

[00:21:18] Adam Grant:
…is just as relevant to us. And, we should be aware that both are possible and our choices decide which path we end up on. 

[00:21:25] Yuval Noah Harari:
Absolutely. And, you know, people often say that we live in a jungle. I mean, this is, actually, a hopeful thing to say because you know, if you look at how jungles actually function, every jungle in the world, in Amazonia, in India, in every rainforest in the world, it's really based on a lot of cooperation and symbiosis and altruism displayed not just by apes, but by countless animals and plants and fungi and bacteria. If in real jungles, organisms simply competed for power, for hegemony, the rainforest would die very, very quickly. Uh, this is the real law of the jungle, uh, and it should apply to us too.

And, another thing that when people compare humans to chimpanzees or to wolves or to lions and so forth and say, you know, conflict is inevitable, one thing we should remember is that, uh, there is actually a difference there. Humans usually fight for different reasons than chimpanzees or wolves. Uh, among social animals, we do see a lot of conflict. Most conflict is either about food or territory. Humans, a lot of people think that humans fight for the same reason, that we also fight over territory or food, but this is not true, certainly not in the modern world.

If I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, uh, it's not about food. There is enough food between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River to feed everybody. There is no objective lack of food. And, if you think about, you know, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it's certainly not for territory. Russia is the biggest country in the world. It doesn't lack territory. War is really about the imaginary stories in the mind. And, on the one hand, this is extremely tragic that, that even though there is no objective reason to be killing each other, people still do it. But, you can also read it in a hopeful way that, uh, there is no objective reason to fight. 

And, if we can somehow sort out the fantasies in our mind, we can, then, live in peace. 

[00:23:47] Adam Grant:
I think this goes to one of my favorite observations of yours, which I'm just gonna quote you to you. Hopefully you'll recognize the words you wrote it this way: “This is the best reason to learn history, not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.” 

[00:24:05] Yuval Noah Harari:
When I think about, for instance, Jerusalem, this is the, the biggest problem of Jerusalem. It has too much history. People are caught up in, in, in the history, in the stories we tell about the past. And, I think we need to learn more history. And, not in order to remember what happened a hundred years ago or 500 years ago, and they did this to us and they did that to us, but to be liberated from, you know, you have all these dead people from the past basically holding captive are our imagination, our mind, our feelings and forcing us to continue their conflicts, their hatreds, their fear.

Now, there, there are also wonderful things about the past. I'm not saying that we need to get rid of, of all of it. 
The idea is, you know, like we get this inheritance from, from, from the past. Like our ancestors are passing onto us this big suitcase full of things they accumulated and they tell us, we carried it for hundreds of years. Now it's your turn. Now you carry this baggage. And, I think what we need to do is open the suitcase and sort it out. 

We don't really have to carry everything that's in there.

[00:25:23] Adam Grant:
Uh, that, that's such a powerful way of putting it. Uh, it reminds me of, um, of one of my favorite memes, which says that traditions are just peer pressure from dead people. 

[00:25:34] Yuval Noah Harari:
Yeah. From the moment we are born, we are shaped by these legacies from the past. 

You know, our deepest fears, our deepest hopes that they, they come from there. You know, if, if you're a kid and you wake up in the middle of the night afraid that there is a monster under the bed, this is, actually, a historical memory from hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans lived in the savanna and there were actually monsters that came to eat children in the middle of the night. 

A cheetah would come or the lion would come. And, if you wake up in fear and cry out to your mom, you have a chance to survive. And, this is what is such a powerful survival mechanism that we still carry it with us in the 21st century. The fact that we get these legacies from our ancestors doesn't mean we have to be behave like them. 

It doesn't mean we have to repeat their mistakes, but equally, we can't just uh, uh, be a blank slate where history has left no marks, and we can start for, from zero. This is also impossible. 

[00:26:41] Adam Grant:
Maybe a related mistake that a lot of people make is they're too focused on the, the, the goal of basically making their ancestors proud when they should be more concerned about making their offspring proud. 

Like you, you, you can't help your ancestors anymore, right? You may feel indebted to them. You may owe them something, uh, in your own mind, but they're not gonna benefit from any of your choices today. On the other hand, your successors will right, our children, their children, future generations. I think we have a greater responsibility to the future than we do have to the past. 

And, it seems to me that most people think that the other way around. 

[00:27:19] Yuval Noah Harari:
Yeah, that, that's a very good point. The people in the past, they're all dead. They don't care. The people who lived centuries and thousands of years ago and that created the languages, their religions, the nations, the ideologies that we now carry, they're all dead. 

And, they don't care, not just about what we do, they don't even care about how we remember them. As historian I, I don't think that history is the study of the past. I think it's the study of change, of understanding how things change, what we can do is try to prevent or correct the injustices of the present and the future. 

And, this very often involves forgiving the injustices of the past. For the sake of ensuring peace in the present and the future. 

[00:28:43] Adam Grant:
Ready for the lightning round?

[00:28:45] Yuval Noah Harari:
Uh, yes. 

[00:28:46] Adam Grant:
What's the worst advice you've ever gotten? 

[00:28:48] Yuval Noah Harari:
Just be true to yourself. I mean, the big question is getting to know yourself. 

[00:28:54] Adam Grant:
What's your best advice for thinking more like a historian? 

[00:28:58] Yuval Noah Harari:
History is complicated. You should be able to hold two thoughts at the same time. In most cases, the same people are both victims and perpetrators at the same time. 

[00:29:13] Adam Grant:
What is something you're rethinking right now or you've been rethinking lately? 

[00:29:18] Yuval Noah Harari:
Can democracy survive without nationalism? More and more convinced that in, at least, many cases, nationalism is a precondition for democracy and without, uh, strong patriotic feelings, without, uh, um, a strong national community, democracy cannot survive. Now, by nationalism, I, I, I, I'm don't mean the dark side of nationalism of, of hating and fighting other communities. Uh, I mean the feeling of special love and care for your particular community. I, I think that without that, democracy cannot survive for long. 

[00:30:04] Adam Grant:
This is really tricky, though. It feels like a bit of a slippery slope. 
I, I think of some work by Marilyn Brewer, for example, which suggests that most discrimination stems not from outgroup hate, but from ingroup love. And, if you just have a preference for your own kind, that's enough to create entire structures and cultures that end up privileging one group over others. 

[00:30:25] Yuval Noah Harari:
That's true. But, again, the other side of the coin is that without strong feelings of a national community, people feel loyal only to one tribe within the nation. They will do anything to win the election for their tribe. If they win, they only take care of their own tribe, not caring about the other tribes in the nation. 
If they lose, they see no reason to accept the result. And, over time, this leads to the collapse of, of the democratic system. 

[00:31:00] Adam Grant:
There's the distinction that's often overlooked between, uh, being proud of your group and saying, this group is, is a great fit for me, uh, and saying I'm attached to my group and it's better than all other groups. 

[00:31:16] Yuval Noah Harari:
The key distinction is between, uh, feeling unique and feeling superior. It's perfectly fine to feel that my group is unique. It has special traditions, it has a special culture, and we need to safeguard and develop it. That's true of all, almost all, all groups, and feeling that my group is superior to the others and should have special privileges and, and, and, and, and the rights that other groups don't, don't, don't deserve. 

And, this is really the difference between the kind of positive patriotism and the dark side of, of nationalism that can easily veer in the direction of fascism and racism and, and so forth. 

[00:32:03] Adam Grant:
You've been writing and thinking a lot about tech. What do you foresee coming with AI as a historian that most of the world doesn't see? 

[00:32:12] Yuval Noah Harari:
It'll take over culture. Uh, the, the tendency is to think about AI in terms of, you know, tech, gadgets, autonomous weapon systems, that it will transform our, our tools, but as a historian, I'm much more concerned about the potential of AI to take over culture, to take over, out religion. Already today, it, it, it's doing it in 10 years, maybe it'll create not only completely new styles of art, but completely new religions, which will then take over the world. 

[00:32:53] Adam Grant:
Thanks to look forward to. What's the question you have for me? 

[00:32:59] Yuval Noah Harari:
W-Why do you think that the, it, it, it seems to become much more difficult to simply hold a conversation with people who think differently from you. I mean, you are holding conversations all, all the time. Uh, it, it's, it's part of the job and it now seems that, especially in democracies, the conversation is breaking down. 

We have the most sophisticated communication, technology in human history, and people are just unable to talk with to one another anymore. What's happening? 

[00:33:34] Adam Grant:
There was a study published a couple years ago showing that people would rather have a conversation with a stranger who shared their political views than a friend who didn't, which, yeah, I thought was just a stark illustration in the pattern you're describing. 

We know that algorithms are really good at, at amplifying outrage and making extremes seem both more extreme and more pervasive than they really are. I think that aggression gets attention, and what that does is it elevates both the most extreme and the most hostile views and then rewards people with status for expressing those views. 

And, pretty soon we have what researchers have called a perception gap, uh, where, you know, in the US for example, Democrats believe in a caricatured version of Republicans who, you know, want to control women, always, at all times and want people to shoot each other with guns whenever they want to. And, Republicans see equally caricatured version of Democrats who want to completely abandon the idea of merit and want to kill babies and want no one to be safe. It, it goes back to your idea about the primacy of stories.

I think when, when those stories are the ones that are told most frequently and most vividly, you start to believe them. Let me take my job back here and turn the tables back around. The one thing that's always bugged me as a social scientist about the humanities is the comfort with argument over empirical evidence. 
And, you know, sometimes I'll, I'll read a theory from history and say, well, you could test that historian metrically, let's begin to measure some of the, the variables and to, to your earlier point, they're not always gonna explain, but sometimes we can test whether they describe and predict well. I wanted to push you maybe on one of those that I was reading about recently.

[00:35:18] Yuval Noah Harari:
Yeah, please.

[00:35:19] Adam Grant:
I think your, probably your most famous argument from, from Sapiens is that there was a cognitive revolution about what, years ago? 

[00:35:24] Yuval Noah Harari:
Yeah. 70,000, give or take. Yeah.

[00:35:27] Adam Grant:
Potentially a gene mutation allowed Homo sapiens to be better storytellers, better communicators, uh, better at language, and that's why we outlasted the Neanderthals. 

Is that a, is that a fair oversimplification? 

[00:35:39] Yuval Noah Harari:

[00:35:39] Adam Grant:
Okay. So, I was reading a book recently by a sociologist, Jonathan Kennedy, uh, called Pathogenesis, where he says there, there's no evidence that there was a gene mutation around that point. What I think is more compelling is that Homo sapiens had, uh, greater resistance to disease than Neanderthals, and so they were able to survive plagues and other events that could wipe out a species. 

And, I'm like, oh, this is a great opportunity to say, okay, we could gather the data. Right? I think getting the historical data is probably hard going that far back, but this, this is an empirical test waiting to happen. In the absence of, you know, of that kind of test, how do you think about sorting out the differences between your thesis and the disease thesis? 

[00:36:23] Yuval Noah Harari:
I, I'm not committed at all to the gene, uh, aspect of, of, of the thesis. What I'm committed to is the centrality of storytelling and fiction, and the ability to imagine narratives as the driving force of history and as the source of the unique superpower of Homo sapiens compared to Neanderthals or chimpanzees or other animals. 

What strikes me again, on, on the empirical level, that until about 70,000 years ago, you don't see either Homo sapiens or any of the other human species doing something particularly remarkable. We have our ancestors, very small groups. They don't have any particular, achievements unique to them in terms of technology, or most importantly, any sign of, of large-scale cooperation. 

You don't have evidence for trade. You don't have evidence for cultural traditions spreading quickly or for political arrangements larger than a single band.

Then, after about 70,000 years ago, you see two things happening. First of all, you see Homo sapiens spreading out of our ancestral homeland in Africa very rapidly in evolutionary terms, overrunning not just the Neanderthal homeland in Europe and Western Asia, but also East Asia, also reaching Australia, which no human species or, actually, no big land mammal, ar, uh, uh, reached before Sapiens, uh, go get to Australia around 60 or 50,000 years ago. Uh, then also crossing the Bering Straits to America, which is something that no Neanderthals or the Denisovans or, or any of the other human species managed to, to, to accomplish. 

At the same time, you find the first clear evidence for trade, which you find in the archeological record, items moving long distances, and the first clear evidence for significant artistic traditions like the ones in the cave, in in, in, in cave art, and for large scale political cooperation. For instance, in burial of certain individuals with lots of grave goods, indicating that this was probably either an important political or religious figure. 

And, all these things together are caring at the same time, leading to Homo sapiens becoming not just the dominant human species in the world, but the only human species in the world. Previously, you had simultaneously five or six different human species around, and within a very short time, in evolutionary terms, only Homo sapiens survives. 

Now, what is the explanation? To my mind, the proximate cause of all this is that sapiens gains the ability to cooperate in large numbers. And, then the question is, what enables large numbers of sapiens to cooperate and we don't have of course any textual evidence, but we do have cave art and grave good and so forth. 

And, we also have the evidence from later in history. And, as a historian, it, to me, it's obvious. Every large scale human cooperation is always based on fictional stories, whether it's religion, when it's, it's, it's, it's the most obvious, but also in economics, money, is the greatest story ever told, but it's completely fictional. 

Its value is only in our imagination. So, this is the kind of empirical basis. I'm not saying that the, the theory of better resistance to certain diseases is wrong. Uh, it could very well be right, but it can't be the whole, and so the whole, the, the, the whole story of how within, within a very short time evolutionarily, uh, this unimportant ape from East Africa conquers the whole world. 

[00:40:20] Adam Grant:
Last topic before we wrap. One of my favorite places of convergence between your thinking and psychology is around the, the fact that reality is getting better objectively and happiness is basically a constant, and the way that we explain that in psychology is that, you know, essentially you judge your, your happiness by your expectations, not your circumstances. 

And, I thought, I thought you captured this very powerfully when you wrote that quote, one of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. How do we escape this, this vicious cycle, or at least this hedonic treadmill? 

[00:41:04] Yuval Noah Harari:
I don't know. You know, on the individual level, we can meditate, we can go to therapy, we can rely on, on art, on sport, different people rely on different methods. 

It's looking at the whole of human history, I can summarize it very briefly that as a species, we are incredibly successful in gaining power. We are not very good in translating power into happiness. Uh, we are far more powerful than we were in the stone age. We don't seem to be significantly happier than we were, and this is a, a, a huge, huge problem. 

And, also, it's one of the reasons why I think we should, as far as possible, focus less on power and more on happiness in our understanding and of, of human relations also in the present and future, because we don't need more power. We have enough of it already. That's not where our problem lies. 

[00:42:00] Adam Grant:
Well, I'm so glad we finally got to meet. 
It's endlessly fascinating to, to get a window into your brain. 

[00:42:07] Yuval Noah Harari:
Thank you. Thank you for the conversation. 

[00:42:13] Adam Grant:
Take it from a historian. You don't have to carry the baggage of the past. Your core responsibility is to lighten the burden for the future. 

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant. This show is part of the TED Audio Collective, and this episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.

Our producers are Hannah Kingsley-Ma and Aja Simpson. Our editor is Alejandra Salazar. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

Our team includes Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. 

Part of me thinks that a little bit of unhappiness is necessary for, for continued progress, but I suppose we could question what really counts as progress. 

[00:43:12] Yuval Noah Harari:
Hmm. Uh, and, and as far as, as having a little bit of unhappiness, uh, it's not going to, it's not going to run out anytime soon. 

[00:43:19] Adam Grant:
We don't need to engineer misery. 
It's, it's built in.

[00:43:21] Yuval Noah Harari:
No. Yes.