Russ Roberts

Yuval Harari on Sapiens

EconTalk Episode with Yuval Harari
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Hurricanes, Heuristics, and th... What's Your Story?...

Sapiens.jpg Yuval Harari of Hebrew University and author of Sapiens talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the history of humanity. Topics discussed include the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the role of fiction in sustaining imagination, the nature of money, the impact of empires and the synergies between empires and science.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: October 8, 2015.] Russ: Your book is about the rise and dominance of our species. It's a very ambitious book; it's a very provocative book. And you begin by focusing on our ability to imagine--to create stories and myths. Why is that important and how does that help us explain our history? Guest: Well, because humankind controls the world, primarily due to our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. If you look at all the huge human achievements, whether it's building the pyramids or reaching the moon, they are never the work of a single individual. They are always the work of many people cooperating. And we do that better than any other animal. And no other animal can cooperate so flexibly in such large numbers like human beings. And if you ask yourself what enables us to cooperate in large numbers--millions of people, strangers, coming together to work for a common cause, then if you dig deep enough, you always find fiction, mythology, story-telling at the basis of all large-scale human cooperation. You can never convince a chimpanzee, for example, to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies he'll go to chimpanzee heaven, and there receive lots and lots of bananas for his good deeds. No chimpanzee will ever believe that. Which is why chimpanzees don't come together to build a cathedral or to fight in a Crusade. Humans are the only animal, as far as we know, that can create and believe in such stories. Which is why humans are the only animals that build cathedrals and go on Crusades. And this is something you see not only in the religious sphere, but in all other spheres of human activity; also in politics; also in economics. Human rights are also just a fictional story that we have invented, just like the stories about God and heaven. They are not an objective, biological reality out there. If you take a human being and look inside, you find all kinds of organs and genes and hormones; but you don't find any rights[?]. It's not a biological reality that humans have rights. It's only in the stories that we've invented that humans have rights. And similarly, say, in economics, in money, business corporations, companies--all these things are also based on fictional stories that we've invented. This is why the imagination is so important. Russ: So, when you say 'fiction'--I'm a big fan of fiction, and my listeners know I'm a big fan of story telling. When you say 'fiction'--a less provocative but perhaps more accurate word might be 'abstractions.' Is that a fair reaction to your claim? Guest: Partly. But it's not always abstract. I mean, God or heaven, for people who believe in them, they are not abstract. They think heaven is a real place, above the clouds, where you go after you die if you were a good human. And Hell is also not abstract. It's a very real place, at least for the people who believe in it. And similarly, even something like money, the dollar bill isn't abstract. It's a green piece of paper which has no value in itself; but if you really believe in it, if millions of people believe that this green piece of paper is valuable, you can go to a complete stranger in a supermarket, give him this green piece of paper, and get in exchange bananas or apples or whatever. It's not an abstract concept, but a very concrete reality which is based however on human beliefs, not only physical or biological realities. Russ: So, just as a footnote to your earlier claim: I guess, although I think it's generally true that no other creature is going to cooperate sufficiently to get to the moon or to build a structure that's, say, 150 feet high, or higher, ants do cooperate. And bees to some extent. So there is some cooperation in the animal kingdom. But it's dwarfed by our cooperation, certainly. Guest: I think the main difference is that among ants and bees, the cooperation is very rigid. It's predetermined by their genetic code. Russ: Correct. Guest: And there is basically just one way in which, for example, a beehive can cooperate. And if there is a new opportunity or danger, the bees cannot reinvent those social systems overnight and start something different. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic of bees, or a communistic fellowship[?] of bees. And humans-- [?] Russ: Or Disneyworld. They are not going to make a Disneyworld. Guest: Yeah. Humans can change those social systems extremely quickly, from one year to the next, without any change in their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) simply by changing the stories in which they believe. Like in the French Revolution or the American Revolution, people didn't change their DNA. They just changed those stories in which they believed.
6:34Russ: So, that raises two questions. It's possible that some stories are better than others, or have some reality at their basis than others. But you begin by asking the question of where this human ability came from. And you have an interesting idea. Where did the return from storytelling emerge? How did it come to have value, evolutionary value? Guest: Well, we are not sure what gave Homo sapiens this ability. But with regard to the place and the date, we are quite sure it was in East Africa, about 60-, 70-, 80,000 years ago. Up until that time, human beings were not very significant animals. You had human beings of different species all over Africa, Europe, and Asia. But the most important thing to know about all these humans is that they were unimportant animals. They existed for at least 2 million years previously, and their impact on the ecological system, on the world, was not much greater than that of gorillas or of bees or jellyfish. And then about 70,000 years ago in East Africa we suddenly see humans starting to do very strange things, revolutionary things. They start to cooperate in larger numbers. We see the first appearance of art, of religion, of large-scale politics. And we see the spread of one human specie, Homo sapiens, from East Africa all over the world--first to Asia and Europe and then also to America and Australia, within a very short time, in evolutionary terms, at least. Humans from East Africa managed to cross the ocean and reach Australia about 50,000 years ago. And they managed to cross the Arctic Zone through the Bering Strait to Alaska and from there to the rest of the American continent about 15,000 years ago. Which are places where no previous human managed to settle. Russ: And as a result of that, as you point out, they had a rather devastating impact on the ecosystems that they arrived at. Guest: Definitely-- Russ: Or at least we think so. There are other theories--you mention them. There are other possibilities. It could be a correlation, not causation. But there's a correlation between human--it appears in the fossil record that the arrival of humans led to some large extinctions of large animals. Guest: Yes. Previously there was no real impact, big impact, of humans on the ecosystem. But about 50,000 years ago we start to see correlation between the arrival of humans to a new place and mass extinction of large animals in that place. First of all in Australia, where humans arrive, Homo sapiens arrive about 50,000 years ago, and within quite a short time after that, more than 90% of all the big animals of Australia disappear. In America, it's about 70% of all the large creatures of America disappear within about 2 or 3000 years from the arrival of humans. And 20,000 years ago, America looked like the Serengeti today in Africa, full of elephants and mammoths and mastodons and lions and horses and camels and many other large creatures that disappear--become extinct--within 2 or 3000 years from the arrival of Homo sapiens. And maybe most interesting of all, until the spread of Homo sapiens throughout the world, the world was actually home to many different human species. Just as today you have in the world many different species of bears: you have arctic bears and grizzly bears and brown bears and black bears. So, until, say, 60,000 years ago, you had many different species of humans. You go to different places in the world, you meet different species of humans, like the Neanderthals in Europe. And then when Homo sapiens spreads from East Africa, all the other human species disappear within a very short time. It was probably the most thorough and most important ethnic cleansing contain[?] in history, as Homo sapiens drive to extinction using more or less violence all the other human species around. Russ: It's a little hard to understand, both of those parts of the story--the devastation of other human species and the large megafauna. Because we didn't have very advanced tools at this point. We had very primitive tools. We didn't have a shotgun. We didn't have a cannon. What did we have at that point? Obviously we don't know precisely. But what do we think was the nature of human tools for violence at that point? Guest: As far as we know, technology was just stone tools and wood tools, and also the use of fire. But none of these were unique to Homo sapiens. Neanderthals also knew how to use fire and knew how to prepare and use spears and stone tools. The real advantage of Homo sapiens was in the ability to cooperate in large numbers. Whereas Neanderthals lived in small bands, maybe 30, 40, 50 Neanderthals cooperating, Homo sapiens could create networks of cooperation encompassing hundreds, even thousands of individuals. We have evidence from 30-, 40,000 years ago of trade between different Homo sapiens [?] which we don't see with Neanderthals. We have evidence for political connections. For example, we have tombs--burials--of chieftains from 30-, 40,000 years ago in which the chief, the big man or big woman, were buried with all kinds of artifacts--all kinds of beads and statues and bracelets and things like that. Which were probably produced by the combined effort of hundreds, if not thousands, of humans. So, these networks of cooperation were the big advantage that Homo sapiens had over all the other human species, as well as over the mastodons and mammoths and lions and the rest of the megafauna.
13:41Russ: So the puzzle though, is: We understand from our own modern experience that cooperation can be--it's not really cooperation; often in large-scale projects, it's coercion. You have slave labor-- Guest: Right-- Russ: that's used through much of human history that's used to create grandiose achievements for the leaders. For true cooperation, it's hard to understand how anything large--hundreds, thousands--could be sustained through cooperation. Because--you know, as an economist, I tend to think, 'What's the incentive? Where is the, what's the glue that gets me to go along with this grand project?' Whether it's a war? Right? And in the modern era, if you don't fight, the government puts you in jail. Or they shoot you. It's very effective, as you point out, as long as there's a sustained belief in the nation-state and certain sets of ideologies, or as you call them, fictions. But: How would you do that in primitive times? What do you think--what could we imagine sustained large-scale cooperation in a world with primitive tools? Guest: Well, partly it was utilitarian aims. Let's say, the Neanderthal band controls good hunting fields, good hunting territory. So, several Sapiens bands come together and expel or kill the Neanderthals in order to take over the territory. And then they have a bigger and better territory in which to hunt and to gather their food. So you certainly have material incentives for at least some kinds of cooperation. And the same is true of trade. There are obvious material benefits for the ability to trade between different groups. But then, at least as far as I'm concerned, the chief issue is, again, the issue of telling stories-- Russ: Explain that. Explain why--and you make this claim in the book--you say, 'Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis.... The fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions.' So, why isn't it sufficient just to say, 'You have something I can benefit from; let's make a deal?' Guest: Because the problem is you need to trust the other guy. This is why it is so difficult for example for chimpanzees to trade with one another. If it was simply a question of the material benefits, then why other animals don't trade is a very difficult question for biologists. But the thing is, you need--if you go, say, in the jungle, and you suddenly see a stranger, so in order to trade with this stranger, you don't know who it is; you don't know whether you can trust him; you don't know whether he is going to cheat you or maybe kill you and take the value of what you want to trade with him. It's very difficult. But if you have some kind of common religion or ideology with that stranger, if there are things both he and you, you both believe in the same things, then this can form the basis for a mutually beneficial relationship. And we see this in anthropological studies, for example, that when people from two different bands or tribes meet, they often try to look for a common ancestor, or for a common, let's say, protective spirit. That, even though it's complete fiction, it's complete mythology, once they find such an ancient common ancestor, then it makes them kin. Makes them family. And this gives them the basis to trust each other. Now, it may sound farfetched. When we think about some people in the jungle tens of thousands of years ago, but we are doing the same thing today. For example, with money. I go to the supermarket. I meet a stranger. How can I trust him? Well, I take out this green piece of paper, which has a mythical ancestor on it. Could be a Lincoln or Washington or Grant or somebody like that. Russ: He's not that mythical, probably. He probably did exist. But go ahead. The mythical part, the ancestor part. Go ahead. Guest: It's mythical because it's not probably my great-grandfather or your great-grandfather. And we share the same kind of ancestral figure that in the case of these tribes-people was served by, probably also in their case there might have been 500 years previously a common ancestor. All people really have common ancestors, at least if you go back to Africa 70,000 years ago. But the thing is, that you need to find some basic story which you tell children from an early age to believe in, and to trust. And if you find such a story, then even complete strangers can cooperate. And again, we see today, in our modern economies and modern states, with national ideologies or national mythologies. And also with the economic stories that we share. If you think about money again--it's the best example. Modern money has no value in itself. But as long as everybody believes in the same authority--let's say, the Federal Reserve in the United States--and everybody trusts the stories that are told by the Federal Reserve and by the Treasury and by the President, then this trust enables them to trade effectively. At the most basic level, I think all money is made of trust. It can be in physical terms money can be gold or silver or paper or even electronic data. But at a deeper level, all money is made simply of trust.
20:07Russ: I want to talk about that. I just want to say, first, I'm not convinced by your trade story. Guest: Okay. Russ: I'm not convinced an ancient people were able to trade much. Because I think you are right: I think they had trouble trusting each other. And I don't think ideology or fiction or myths or common ancestors helped them much when in the hunter-gatherer phase of existence. And probably widespread trade certainly--and widespread cooperation--took a much wider range of not just ideology, but also as you point out in the book-- Guest: That's true-- Russ: money. Guest: if [?]. I mean, trade, at that time, trade was small scale and rare. And cooperation, also--it's not that they lived in a common city. No. Maybe once or twice a year they came together for a big hunt or a big festival. And that was it. The cooperation networks were much, much more limited than today. You are definitely right. Russ: But, let's talk about money. Because money, I think, is--I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding of where the value of money comes from. I think you have it almost 100% correct, and I think you have an insight that is, that is very, very deep about money and I want to get to. So, it is certainly true--what's great about your book--there are many things I don't like about your book, I don't agree with; they are speculative; they are interesting, but I don't agree with them; they didn't convince me. But there are many things that make me think. There are a couple that are really special. One is this one that we all live with fictions. We all have religions. It's very hard for each of us to accept that. We all think, 'Well, my religion is the right one'--whether it's an actual religion, so-called actual religion, or atheism or whether it's liberal democracy as you point out or capitalism; we all have human rights; we all have certain things we just sort of accept. There are many things we question, but deep down, we have a bunch of things we don't like to think about too much, and we just sort of accept. And your book challenges those, and I'm sure offends a lot of people. But that's okay; it's good to be challenged. But the money part is very deep. Because most people think, 'Well, there is value to money. There used to be--because it used to be backed by gold.' And it's no different today. 'Backed by gold' doesn't have any meaning whatsoever. It's still a trust system. What the 'backing by gold' did was make it more probable that you could trust it, as long as there wasn't a lot more gold discovered. And so I think people don't like paper money. They want real money. There's no such thing. Guest: Hmmm. Yeah, I definitely agree. Gold, just like paper--I mean, you can do more things with paper than with gold. Today in electronics maybe you can do something with gold. But for most of history, gold was a completely valueless metal. The only things you could make from gold were artifacts with cultural value, like jewelry or statues or crowns. You couldn't make a sword or a plowshare out of gold. It's a very soft metal. It's not good-- Russ: It's useless. Guest: The only value, again, is people trust it. They trust it because the King and the Priest say we should trust it. You see, the King, and he has a gold crown; so you develop these kind of special hold[?], special liking to gold. But really it has no value. Russ: The deep part, the love that you point out, is that a lot of people say what you just said and they say, 'Well, gold has some value because it can be used for jewelry.' But the truth is it's the opposite: Causation probably goes the opposite direction. The reason we like gold jewelry is because it's money. That's a very deep point. I think you're right. I never thought about it. I think the idea that what we want to show off with happens to be gold isn't because gold is inherently beautiful. We do think it's because now, but that's only because we've come to think of it as valuable. But it's like you said--it's just a soft, yellow metal. Guest: Mmmhmm. Yeah. And if you look today, most of the money today in the world is just electronic data. Russ: Yep. Guest: If you take all of the real dollar bills and the paper and the nickels and all of that, it's less than 10% of the dollars that are on your computers. Russ: But the only part I want to push back on--I think there's a little more to story, which is: Trust--again, I'm not sure. Part of it is trust. But part of it is, I would say it a little bit differently. Maybe, expectation. So, I'm willing to accept a dollar if I expect other people to take it. Guest: Yes. Russ: That trust can disappear. If the sovereign inflates the currency and makes its value fall steadily--which has happened many times in human history, by both kings and democracies and other forms of government, I stop trusting it. Guest: Yes. Russ: It's not a pure myth, in the sense that it's something, I'd like to believe it. But once I see that it doesn't work, I drop it very quickly. So the trust is somewhat fragile. The other point I think to make is that, at the national level, it's not just that the king's crown is gold. It's that the king takes his taxes in gold. And once I know that I can pay my obligations to the sovereign, whether it's the government or the king, whether it's a democracy or the king, in, say, dollars, then I'm much more confident--and realistically so--that it will be accepted more widely. So, it's not pure trust. It's not just--I'd say it a different way: It's not blind trust. Guest: Oh, definitely. When I say 'trust,' I don't mean 'blind trust.' Trust is something that you need to work very hard in order to build. People are obviously not fools. You can't just go and say, 'This is now valuable' and everybody will believe. You need to do a lot of things, whether it's ceremonies or whether it involves coercion. For instance, you see that in modern empires, when the Europeans reach Africa and they want to convince the local population to start using money, to start using paper money that the imperial empires print, what they do is they demand that the local population pay taxes with money. And then the local people, they need these pieces of paper, because this is the only way they can pay their taxes. And if they don't pay their taxes-- Russ: they're in trouble-- Guest: they use violence. So this creates the initial trust, in a way, or the initial need. For these valueless pieces of paper, you must have that, in order to pay your taxes. And this is how they start building the trust, or the need, for these pieces of paper.
27:11Russ: So, I want to go back to the timeline. We were talking about primitive human beings. I want to fast forward about 50,000 years and get to the agricultural revolution. And you argue that agriculture was really not a very attractive transition. You called it 'a trap.' Why was agriculture a trap? What's wrong with it? Guest: Well, for the human collective[?] it was obviously a huge step forward, because without agriculture, you couldn't have cities and kingdoms and empires and so forth. But if you look at it from the viewpoint of the individual and not the king or the high priest, but the ordinary peasant, then you find that in most agricultural societies, especially early agricultural societies, the life of the average individual was actually much harder than the life of hunter-gatherers previously. First of all, on the most basic level, our bodies and our minds evolved for hundreds of thousands of years an adaptation to living as hunter gatherers. To go to the woods and look for mushrooms and climb trees and run after rabbits and things like that. But then, most peasants, what they do all day are very different things. They have to work in all kinds of jobs, like plowing the field or grinding the corn or bringing water from the river--jobs which are much more difficult for the body, and much more boring to the mind. In exchange for all this hard work, peasants usually got a worse diet. Hunter-gatherers subsisted by eating dozens of different species of plants and animals and mushrooms and fish and whatever. Peasants, in contrast, say in ancient China, they ate rice and rice and rice. It was a much more monotonous diet, a much [?] in vitamins and minerals and so forth. In addition, peasants suffered far more from infectious diseases because most infectious diseases came from domesticated animals and spread in the unhealthy, unhygienic conditions of early[?] villages and towns. Hunter-gatherers suffered far less from infectious diseases. And one last important point is that, whereas hunter-gatherer societies were relatively egalitarian--there were no huge differences between rich and poor--with the arrival of agriculture you also see the rise of steep social hierarchies, of exploitation, of small elites of kings and priests and bureaucrats, exploiting the masses of the population. So, for the collective and for the elites, agriculture was a very good thing. But for the average peasant in ancient Egypt or medieval Europe, agriculture was a much less positive development. Russ: And you also argue, because you have to if you are going to push that argument, that you need an answer to the question of why people didn't just leave the farms and go back to hunter-gathering--if it was so miserable. And you give an answer to that. Guest: Yeah. There are several answers. First of all, you had many more people. Agriculture supported demographic growth. You had many more people living on the same territory. Each person perhaps lived a harder life, but you had many more of them and you simply couldn't go back without most of the population dying from hunger. Which nobody would volunteer to die of hunger in order to go back. Secondly, you have the coercive power of the elites, which now control society, and wouldn't let it happen. And finally, with the transition to agriculture, most of the skills that people needed in order to live as hunter-gatherers disappeared. So it's not like you are a peasant or you are worker and you can simply go to the forest and start living as a hunter-gatherer. You'd probably die very quickly. If I, today, for example, try to leave my job as a university teacher and go to live as a hunter-gatherer, I would be dead within a week or two. Russ: So, the part I disagree with--and I think there's some obvious uncertainty about this--the part I really like is this idea that we went from a relatively unhierarchical--I think, because we've got to be careful here because we don't really have great evidence on what hunter-gatherer hierarchy was like. And I've got some information on that I want to mention in a second. But that, it seems to me, that part I agree with: That certainly when we went from smaller groups to larger groups, the ability of the elites to control larger groups of people through force is an important change in human wellbeing that it's taken a long time to make some progress against. And I would argue we have made progress, [?] time to agree; I'll talk about that next. But, the point I want to emphasize is that: Hunter-gatherers had a very tough life. Now, you suggest that they don't work very hard. And they had a lot of time for leisure. I think that's a very uncertain proposition. There's a lot of evidence that to sustain enough protein to keep a human being alive takes a lot of time. And many of the studies of hunter-gatherers exist and at least primitive people who are still around, require a huge amount of work. It's a lot of berries. It's a lot of berries to keep a person going. So, you want to hedge that at all? Guest: Yeah. I think the main point is not to say that hunter-gatherer had an ideal existence. This is not the point at all. The point is that peasants have an even harder existence. Russ: no[?]-- Guest: The main issue is: What is general[?] of the peasants? Not: What is the situation of the hunter-gatherers? I think there are some romantic views about hunter-gatherers, depicting their life as ideal, as living in paradise. And this is obviously far-fetched. The life of the hunter-gatherer could be very hard. But life as a peasant, in ancient China, was even harder. And that's the main point.
33:44Russ: Yeah; I'm not--I don't know. I take the point that they are both pretty hard. So, that's--it raises the question that I alluded to a second ago, which is this question of progress. You are not much of an optimist: you don't see much of a--I hope I'm being fair to you in the book--you don't human wellbeing improving over time in any fundamental sense. Is that a fair summary of what you believe? Or is that unfair? Guest: No, it's fair. I think humans have an amazing capacity to acquire power. But they are not good at all at translating power into happiness and into wellbeing. At least until I think the early 19th century, you don't see any correlation between power and wellbeing. If you use all kinds of objective measurements, like life expectancy, child mortality, and things like that, you don't see any correlation between power and wellbeing. Over the last 200 years, for the first time in history, we start seeing some correlation. But again, the trend is not just one-dimensional. There are also some very problematic things happening over these last 200 years, which makes it difficult to argue that we've finally solved the problem and that now we have a very clear and direct correlation, and that every increase in power necessarily makes humans better off than before. Russ: Yeah. I guess the other way to think about it is we don't know whether the last 200 years or so is an anomaly or not. But my cherished fictions--I have many--give me hope. But I'm probably just fooling myself. I'm going to read a short quote here that I'll let you riff on and talk about, again, so you can annoy some of our listeners. Here's what you say; you say,
For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Friends giving advice often tell each other, "Follow your heart." But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very recommendation to "Follow your heart" was implanted in our minds by a combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century consumerist myths.
You want to talk about that? Guest: Yeah, I'll be happy to. Many of the things that people today consider as necessities were, until a very short time ago luxuries that they could easily live without. And many of the things that people really desire--like going on vacation of [?]--there is nothing natural about wanting to go on vacation of [?]. Most people in history didn't think about it. Chimpanzees or cousins, you don't see any other [?] chimpanzee male using his power and authority in order to go on vacation to the territory of the neighboring chimpanzee band. I mean, basically, you don't have within yourself a box with all kinds of special emotions and sensations and on the box you have a big warning: 'Open only when you are in Paris. Unless you get to Paris, you'll never experience these sensations and emotions.' It doesn't work like that. Basically, anything you can experience in life, you can experience wherever you are at the present moment. So there is nothing, as I said, natural or obvious about wanting to travel [?] the world. Russ: But you suggest that travel is like a trick. That I've been tricked into wanting to travel. Guest: Yes. Russ: So, how do you make that argument? Explain that to me. Guest: You see again and again on television, in movies, you get a lot of messages that you need to travel. That travel is important; it will be good for you; you will be happy; unless you travel you won't be happy. And when you hear it so many times, from an early age, you become convinced that this is true. And let's say, I don't know, a married couple have a crisis in their relationship. So, the husband or wife would suggest, 'Okay let's forget a minute about all these problems[?], go to Paris.' This would solve a problem. Why? 'Because I saw so many commercials and so many films in which a problem in a relationship was solved by traveling to Paris that I believe in it.' Russ: So, I'm going to turn it around. That's stupid. I certainly agree. And a previous EconTalk guest, Alain de Botton, makes the great point that when you travel you escape much of your environment, but one part that you can't escape is you. When you are in Paris, you are with yourself. That might the best best travel, when you can leave yourself behind. But that's not an option, at least in present day technology. So, let me flip it around. So: I was in Jerusalem last April. And I had a glorious trip. I saw things--in fact, I was in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which has many of the, some of the artifacts you mentioned earlier. And it was exhilarating to see it. I was in London last fall--and we are going to talk about empire in a minute--I'm in the British Museum, and I saw some extraordinary things that I had only read about that were amazing, like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin marbles, the Cyrus cylinder. It's fabulous. Was I just a pawn of consumer myths, that I would go and have a good time? Did I really not have a good time? Guest: No, I don't hope to take it[?] to the other extreme and say to you that travel is bad, and that you actually have bad experiences by traveling. Travel can certainly be very inspiring and a very pleasant experience. What I'm saying is the deep consumerist myth is that you must have it. You cannot really be happy and content unless you travel. This is the issue: that people confuse what is basically unnecessary luxury with the kind of basic need. And this is something that develops with time. You see a trajectory throughout history that luxuries tend to become necessities with the passing of time; and people become convinced that they cannot live without them. And this is especially problematic today, because if you think about the standard of living of the common American, if every Chinese and every Indian and every African had the same standard of living as the average American today, the global ecology would collapse. There is no way, at least under present technological capacities, there is no way that Planet Earth can provide all the Chinese and Indians with the same standard of living as Americans. So, if all these things, like big houses and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) and vacations abroad and so forth---usually they are really necessary for humans to be happy, then we are facing a very, very stark choice between keeping billions of Chinese and Indians unhappy and destroying the planet. Russ: Yeah--I don't think that's the--I'll leave that alone. It's an interesting point. It's as you said--at current levels, it would be difficult to imagine. Difficult to achieve.
41:32Russ: But of course, in 1800 or 1850 and even 1900, as you said, there are going to be 7 billion people. And even fewer of them are going to be in poverty than now--certainly as a percentage and after a while in absolutely numbers--it would be impossible. But of course, as you point out many times in the book, we are a very imaginative species and we come up with some very good things. But I want to move on. I want to talk about empire and science, which you have some very interesting observations about. Let's start with two myths that you disagree with: two arguments about empires that you think are wrong. One, and this, I'm quoting you: "Empires do not--I'm quoting you as listing the myths; you don't agree with this: "One, Empires do not work. In the long run it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of conquered people. Two, Even if it can be done, it should not be done because the empires are evil engines of destruction and exploitation. Every people has a right to self-determination and should never be subject to the rule of another." And you push back against both of those views, which is very contrarian and very interesting. So, talk about why you think those two commonly-held views are not correct. Guest: Well, the first view, that empires don't work, it's simply wrong when you look at the facts. For the last, at least 2000 years, empire has been the most successful political system in the world. Most people for the last 2000 years lived in empires. And most empires did not collapse because the subjected people revolted. Some of them lasted for centuries. And when they eventually collapsed it was often because either of external invasion or because the elite itself fell out and started to have internal conflicts. So, it's not true that empires don't work. As for the moral[?] value of empires, this is of course a much more delicate and complicated issue. We don't have much time, so I will only point out that most of contemporary culture is an imperial legacy. So, if empires are evil, it means that most human culture today in the world today is evil, or the product of evil. To give just one obvious example, most people today on the planet talk and think and dream in imperial languages--languages which were created and spread, sometimes with violence, by empire. Whether it's English, French, and Spanish, or Arabic, Turkish, Russian and Chinese--Han Chinese--these are all imperial languages. Similarly, if you think about religion: Most of the religions in the world were spread by empires. So, [?] Christianity spread first by the Roman Empire, and later by the Spanish and Portuguese, the French. So you have people throwing off at certain points the yoke of the empire, the political yoke. But they go on believing in the religion of the empire. And they go on using the language of the empire. And you can say much the same thing about cuisine, architecture, legal concepts, and so forth.
45:19Russ: A part I found particularly interesting is your observations and details about how science and--let me say it a little bit better. And I'll let you say it better. The modern willingness to admit ignorance was an enormous scientific breakthrough. Explain that. And then explain how that combined with empire and the science. Guest: Okay, I'll try. Russ: I know; it's a tough one. But it's well said in the book. Hard to do on one foot. But take a shot. Guest: I'll try. Most pre-modern cultures were convinced that they have answers to all the important questions. Like, if you think about medieval Christianity--the Christians in Europe believed the answers to all the important questions of life are in the Bible. Or, in the writings of the Church fathers. So, if you start with the idea that we already have all the answers, this obviously doesn't give you much of an incentive to look for new knowledge, because what's the point? We already have all the answers, all the important knowledge. Maybe we can discover something new, but if it's not in the Bible, then by definition it's not important. If it was important, God would have told us this piece of information in the Bible. Then you have the scientific revolution and the most important discovery of the scientific revolution was the discovery of ignorance--of the fact that there are many important questions which we don't know the answer to. The answers are not in the Bible; they are not in the Quran; they are not in the Confucian Analects: nowhere. We simply--nobody knows the answers to these questions. And this gives you the incentive to start looking for new knowledge. And the idea is, if we find new knowledge, maybe we can solve problems which at present seem to be impossible. And what we see over the last few centuries is that we [?] the discovery of completely new knowledge enabled humans to solve all kinds of problems which were previously thought to be insoluble--impossible to solve. For centuries, people believed, for example, that plagues were just a part of the natural order of things. Maybe if God wants, there won't be any plagues, but this is up to God. There is no way that humans can find the solution to all the plagues by themselves. But over the last century or two, science has managed to overcome most lethal infectious diseases that humankind faced. So that today, more people, for the first time in history, die from old age diseases than from infectious diseases. And the same is true of famine. For centuries, millennia, people thought that famine is just a part of the world. Only when the Messiah comes, there won't be famine. But today, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little. Humankind has managed to overcome famine, not by Divine assistance but by discovering new knowledge. Russ: And talk about the way that science and empire--the discoveries of science were tied in to the discoveries of empire. Guest: Yeah. We tend to think that science is good and empire is bad. But for most of the last 500 years, science and empire were two sides of the same coin. The European empires could not have spread and conquered the world without the help of modern science. And vice versa. Modern science was developed to a large extent thanks to the efforts and the investment of the European empires. Not only in Europe--obvious case is like geography, which was developed mainly thanks to the contribution of the empires, but also even if you think about Charles Darwin, people often don't remember or don't think about it. But Darwin, when he went on the ship Beagle around South America to the Galapagos Islands, and the evidence, the facts that he witnessed caused him to start formulating the ideas that eventually became the theory of evolution. This voyage was not a scientific expedition. It was a military expedition. It was a ship of the British navy, of the Royal navy, sent to map the coasts of South America in preparation for war. And the captain took Darwin along on this expedition. And you see it happening again and again, this combination of science and empire. Basically they share the same desire, the same mindset, which we can call the mindset of exploring and conquering: the idea there is something out there beyond the horizon and we should explore it and conquer it. And, conquering both in the military sense, but also in the scientific sense: that we study things not just in order to know, but in order to control them, to manipulate them. But this is the deep connection between science and empire over the last 500 years. Russ: I also would argue--you don't say this in the book; and I want to defend religion here for a minute, and the Divine. Science has its own religion. Which of course is that things are discoverable. And they are. And that's a remarkable thing; we just sort of take it for granted; we assume that that's the way the world is. But it doesn't have to be that way. And that is really--why that is, is an unanswerable question. But it's a remarkable thing that allows us to extend our control that wouldn't have to be that way. But it evidently is. Guest: Definitely. And of course there could be some things which are undiscoverable; but for obvious reasons, we haven't discovered them. Russ: Well, we know some things are undiscoverable. It's a paradox that science has informed us about what we don't know. The first minute, minuscule, nano-nano-nanosecond of the Big Bang is veiled from human knowledge, at least as far as we know. That's at least the belief of science right now. I guess it could change. Guest: Well, for now. Things could change. And you have many examples of the last 500 years of all kinds of questions which people thought we'll never find the answer to that one-- Russ: Correct. Guest: and then within a hundred or two hundred years, we've got the answer. Russ: Yeah. Someone was telling me yesterday how bad voice recognition is. We'll fix that. That's an easy one. The real--perhaps the world can be divided into those who think that everything will be discovered and we'll master everything, versus those--and I would put myself in this latter camp--who argue that there are certain mysteries that we will not every uncover. I want to just talk about the British Museum for a second. I mentioned earlier, I was in the British Museum, and I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that human knowledge and how stuff had been accumulated--through plunder and theft and misguided self-righteousness. As you point out many times in the book. And I was reminded of the scene in the movie Life of Brian, where people are complaining about the Romans: 'Well, what have the Romans ever done?' 'Well, they gave us the roads.' 'Other than that.' 'Well, they gave us water and aqueducts.' 'But other than that?' 'Well, the schools.' So, it's an amazing thing. We don't like to think about it, but of course many aspects of civilization, that we call civilization, came from empire. And in many ways to me the British Museum is the church of that religion. It is awe-inspiring to see what human beings were able to achieve and collect, often through not-so-attractive ways. But it's amazing it's there. And the British had an unimaginable curiosity that you chronicle in the book. Any time they went somewhere, they tried to figure out what was going on. For selfish reasons, often. But sometimes it was a mix, right? Guest: Yeah, definitely. It's not that the view of empire is all evil. It's very problematic, because this implies that most of modern culture and most of science is evil. Russ: Yeah. That's hard for a religious--our myths, our fictions--that's not--we don't like that idea.
54:46Russ: Let's talk about capitalism. This show is called EconTalk, after all. You are critical of Adam Smith, I think a little unfairly--well, I think, unfairly. But talk about your view of capitalism and its mythologies. Guest: Well, I think the basic story of capitalism--which might be true; I'm not saying it's false, but it's just the basic story of capitalism--is that economic growth is the most important thing in the world, and anything worth having, you must have economic growth in order to have it. It doesn't matter if you want democracy or human rights or equality or anything. You have to have economic growth in order to get it. And on the individual level this is tied with the story that says [?] that if you have any problem in your life, you must buy something: the solution is probably to buy something, to consume more stuff. And in order to buy more things, we need to produce more things. Which brings us back to economic growth. So I would define capitalism as the religion or ideology which thinks that economic growth is the most important thing in the world, because it's the key to everything else, whether it's happiness or justice or freedom. You can't have any of those unless you have economic growth. Russ: So, how did that idea come to be? I think you are onto something. I don't see it quite as bleakly as you do in various parts of the book. But how did that idea become our religion--to the extent that it is? Guest: Well, first of all we have to emphasize that it's a very--to us, it seems quite natural because we live in a capitalist world. But most people in history couldn't grasp such an idea, because growth is, in a way, stands in contrast to the basic experience of the world. And to our evolutionary legacy. Most of existence is zero-sum games in which your profits are my loss, and vice versa. And for most of history, people thought that the only way for one person to become richer is for another person to become poorer. The only way for one kingdom to be more prosperous is for another kingdom to become more miserable. But then came along Adam Smith, and others of course--and I think their idea here was not just an economic revolution but also an ethical and religious revolution--they had the notion that everybody can profit at the same time because the entire--if the world is a pie, the entire pie can grow simultaneously. I can have a bigger slice of the pie not by taking something from you, but simply by making the pie larger so that everybody will have more at the same time. This was an amazing insight which at least until today has proved itself. The world has been growing; the economy has been growing. Maybe not everybody benefited. Certainly not the other animals. But if you look only at humans then this idea, that everybody can have more at the same time, so far has proven itself to be correct. But it's a very, very difficult idea to grasp and to convince people to believe. Which is why even today, there are many people who don't accept it and don't understand it. Russ: Don't you think we have--I hate to say it--a biological urge for more? Guest: Yeah. All animals have a biological urge for more. And this is not something which is strictly unique to Homo Sapiens. For most of history, societies were built on the assumption that, yes, individuals always want more. And we have to discipline individuals. We have to make them resist this temptation. Because the only way to create social harmony is for people to settle for what they've already got, and not want more. The revolutionary idea of capitalism is that: No; we not only don't have to discipline people and to make people settle for what they have; it's just the opposite. We have to encourage people to want more and more all the time, because this is the driving force behind economic growth. The greatest threat to the economic system is if people settle for what they've already got, and not want more than they have. If this happens, then growth stops. The entire capitalist system will collapse because it can't go on unless the economy keeps growing indefinitely. Russ: I don't know if that's true. I don't think we need to keep growing. I think we could certainly have a healthy economy. It's where religions don't always work well together. Right? We have one set of religions that says, the consumerist religion, that says: If you have more you'll be happy; you want this new gadget, etc. And we have this other, more traditional religion that says: Be happy with what you have. Adam Smith wrote a book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that basically said wanting more is a mistake; you are not going to be any happier. Most religions--many, many religions, traditional religions--argue that wealth is either bad, or certainly not good. And you know--it says in the Talmud: 'Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.' And that's a tough sell. It's a tough sell in the modern world. We all understand that. We all have, I think, a basic, fundamental, biological drive to have more. But I think that doesn't, as you point out in the book, doesn't necessarily make us happy. And I think the challenge of being a mature adult, whether it's a spiritual person or not, whether you are religious in the traditional sense or not, is to have some perspective about what real satisfaction, where it comes from. Guest: You know, I think that the ethical revolution of capitalism was that it reversed all these age-old maxims and the wisdom. It basically tells people, it's good to want more. Greed is good. Wealth is good. The most ethical people in society are exactly the ones that increase economic productivity. And in a very deep way, what capitalism says, is that egoism[?] is altruism. It's not bad to want more and to try to advance yourself. And it's usually not put in such stark terms. But I think this is the essence of the moral revolution that capitalism has brought about. And it should be said that compared to most other religions, capitalism actually lived up to many of its promises. You have all these religions that promise you paradise in the afterlife; and you know, who knows whether it's true or not. Capitalism promises a sort of paradise here on earth. And again, compared to most other religions, it provides a lot of its promises.
1:02:54Russ: Well, but as you point out, we don't get a lot happier as we get richer after a certain minimum point--probably. The part I think is true about that capitalist religion is that it's better to see your children survive childhood. It's better to see your children survive into adulthood, because you are living longer. And there's no doubt a relationship between life expectancy and health and quality of life and wealth. It's very hard to sustain long-lived healthy people without wealth. And one of the appeals of growth is this idea that we'll be able to live even longer. Maybe that's a mistake. But I certainly--it's certainly the case that it's a complicated story, right? Capitalism has got many good things about it; and it's got many things that are corrosive and destructive to the soul, if you are not careful. You can be lured into doing some very unhealthy things if you are not careful. Guest: Um, yeah. I think capitalism is, in this sense, maybe the most successful religion in history. It's the only religion in which everybody believes--Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus--everybody believes, to some extent. Russ: The Buddhists, not so much. As you point out, though. Guest: Not the religion. But you have many Buddhist countries which in effect adopt the maxims, the practices of capitalism. And so at the same time it's a force for immense good and a force for terrible things that are happening around the world. As, for instance, the destruction of the ecological system. It's not a simple story[?]. I don't think that--you hear, sometimes, very simplified stories that capitalism is evil and all the terrible things in the world, they are all the fault of capitalism. And then you have the simplified story that capitalism is wonderful, and all the good things in the world are that capitalism deserves the credit for that. And I think that, like most different [?] in history, it has a bit of both. It has done some wonderful things, like helping to overcome famine and plagues and even wars--which are on decline. But at the same time, it was also responsible for terrible things, both at the collective level and at the individual level. And the first tack [?] is to acknowledge the complexity of the situation, that one-sided, either black or white, story of capitalism is not going to advance us very far. Especially because today in the world there is no viable alternative. It's very fashionable to blame capitalism for all kinds of evil things and bad things. But the basic reality is that today, in 2015, nobody has a better idea about how to run the economy and how to run society. Russ: Yeah. Well, I like to think of this quote--I don't know where it comes from. I was told it was from Mad Magazine, but the quote is: "Under capitalism man oppresses man; but under communism it's the other way around." And I think that joke gets at a deep insight related to your insights. Which is: A lot of times we blame the religion--whether it's a traditional religion or a modern ideology or something bad that happens. Or, we give it credit for something good that happens. But a lot of it is built into our nature. It's who we are. And I think we are sometimes confusing causation and correlation there.
1:06:50Russ: Let's close--we're out of time. Let's close by talking--I want you to have the last word on history. You say, "So, why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions." I would have left economics out of that, but I would have said 'unlike physics,' but fine. You say, "We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons." Talk about that, and we'll close. Guest: What happens is that we are born into a particular social structure, a particular political situation, which was shaped by historical processes. And these historical processes changed not only the society around us, but also our minds--our thoughts, our fears, our hopes. We think they are our own, but very often, our deepest desires and fears and expectations are shaped by history. And we don't know it. And this limits our ability to envision alternatives--to envision alternative futures, to see the full horizon of possibilities that is facing us both as individuals and as collective, as the human collective. And I think the main benefit of studying history is that when you start understanding how these historical processes shape my thoughts and my fears and my hopes, you get a certain degree of freedom to start thinking of other thoughts. To start hoping other things and also start fearing other things. To give just an example, being born into a capitalist world, it's extremely difficult for us to think outside the capitalist box about alternative human societies, alternative economic arrangements. Similarly, being born into a humanist world, again, it's very difficult for us to imagine a non-humanist or post-humanist future. And this limits our horizon of possibilities. And also our ability to deal with change. Because things keep changing. And now they change at a much faster rate than every before in history. And if we are stuck with the old ideas, it's very, very difficult to understand what's happening and to adjust to it. If you look today at the world, I think it's fair to say that nobody has the slightest idea how the world would like in 2050. Except that it would be very, very different from the world of today. If you take practical things, like the job market, many experts estimate that artifical intelligence will take maybe 50% of the jobs in the USA within 30 or 40 years. If you today go to college and you think, 'What should I study so that I will have some useful profession in 30, 40 years?' nobody really knows what you should study. It could well be that in 30, 40 years, we won't need most human doctors or lawyers because computers would be able to do it better than humans. And similarly, we don't really know what the family structure would be like. What our [?] would be like, with the advent of electrical engineering and brain computer interfaces, and neuro-technology and things like that. Nobody really knows how the human body will look like in 50 years. So, I think the main thing that history can give us is a broader perspective on the present and the future. Some people think that we'll study the good decisions and bad decisions from the past, and simply repeat the good decisions and avoid the bad decisions. But it never works like that. Russ: Yeah. Guest: It's so different from anything that happened previously in history that I don't think you can make any generalizations, or you can make any practical decisions based on such a notion of history.

COMMENTS (45 to date)
Mike Hammock writes:

Harari's assertions about modern human desires being non-natural or artificial reminds me of Galbraith's similar arguments in The Affluent Society. Hayek did a pretty good job demolishing them.

The simple fact is that humans don't need anything more than some basic nutrition, sleep, and medical care. To suggest that this means nothing else makes them happier, or that nothing else is worth pursuing, is bizarre. We don't need Mozart's music, Spielberg's symphonies, or Roberts's Econtalk, or for that matter, air conditioning, internet access, and printed books, but does Harari seriously think we'd be just as happy without these things? Doesn't the fact that humans keep pursuing these things suggest that they satisfy some other kind of human need?

It seems to me that Harari makes some good basic points, and then makes unjustified jumps from those to some strange conclusions.

J. Dodge writes:

I'm struck by Mr. Harari's claim of fiction (storytelling) as a driving force of humanity and then so much of what he is stating as fact in this podcast episode is just "storytelling". For instance, it's taken as fact that there were many similar versions of Homo Sapiens existing at the same time. There is no proof of that whatsoever. Even Neanderthals are just a theory (a story) not based in 100% proven "fact". It is probable based upon the known evidence that Neanderthals existed and were a common ancestor of homo sapiens but it's a theory - there are other theories that could be (again story telling) based upon the known facts. Another example is this notion that Neanderthals had fire - it's possible, maybe probable - but we don't know. Take for example if the activities of a Neanderthal group was that they came in after homo sapiens left a settlement or encampment. So you have this situation where they are scavenger like and opportunistic - but for us looking at the "evidence" it might look like they played more of a role. I'm not saying it's not possible - it's a good "Story" - but much of science has this "Speculation" involved in it. Which is fine - but it's just a story.

MG writes:


I agree with you. I think Abraham Maslow would too.

Erik writes:

Mike: from what i understood, Harari is talking about modes that are unsustainable at a given moment in time, or modes that deprive individuals of their liberty, Not necessarily "unnatural modes". He says nature produces organizational outcomes that might horrify us today, but might not have in the past or might not horrify us in the future.

J. Dodge, a correction: not several species of Homo Sapiens, but several species of Homo. Some of the cousins he's referring to in his story branched off before the Sapiens branch evolved. Other than that, I'm not sure your point is very interesting because when it comes to powering the kind of progress we love, the stories of science end up with one of the better records.

A powerful episode. I'm going to buy the book.

Brian Gundlach writes:

One of the things I truly enjoy about your podcast is it covers topics that challenge my beliefs. This was one of those topics! I don't understand how Professor Harari can state definitively homo sapiens as a species are different from all others solely the fact we are able to cooperate. Many other species cooperate. Wolves, lions chimpanzees to name a few. The fact that he ignores is homo sapiens capacity for reason and the ability to think in the abstract. Rendering the aforementioned comparison inappropriate. I found the discussion interesting and as usual I enjoyed your classy style of conducting the discussion, disagreeing without being disagreeable, I found Professor Harari's arguments without merit.

Fred Kavanaugh writes:

There's so much value in being able to know that I'll never ever want to buy a book . . .

From the loose and half-baked way Harari carries on about "story-telling" . . .fiction . . .at the beginning of the podcast foreshadows the rest of his effort. Confusing Little Red Riding Hood for contracts, social customs and the shared effort to manage the future is only the beginning for Professor Harari's effort. Everything that can't be banged together or eaten is just part of this catagory of vague cosmic goo. .- story-telling - that he will kinda sorta stumplingly discuss. While describing the efforts to mentally navigate the future may be amusingly described as a variety of "story-telling", Harari carries this trope through the whole effort - to confuse and muddle the discussion and keep well away from hard observations and statements that could be testable. Anything he says. . he can fall back and say . . ."I was just story-telling. . ."

The topic of the book, the unique human talent for remembering the past, visualizing and acting for the future and from that creating value and power is a compelling story. . I can't wait for someone to write that book, but Harari spends much of his effort in the podcast. . telling tall tales. . .jamming together bad analogies. . leads me to believe he hasn't written that book.

"Heaven is the place above the clouds. . ." is a clear indicator that the good professor could not be bothered to read through the 2nd grade text for Sunday school, let alone any theology, but he definitely likes to throw out the conclusions fast and furiously. His remarks in the last portion of the podcast about religions and the "wanting" to be limited is just too callow to comment on. . .He can't be bothered to even check Wikipedia for the Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or Jewish doctrines of which he purports to speak. . .None of these faiths condemn "wanting more", they frown on all the dread things that might be done if wanting more is the ONLY goal of a person.

For all the discussion in the podcast. . .Harari can't seem to discern between two people telling tales about the happy happy land in the "future" and two people agreeing to swap one bag of grain for six pounds of moose meat on Wednesday next. In the first case, . . .it's story time . . in the second case . .it's a market and a basis for trust for the next swap that could lead to a moose meat/grain market.

I don't know whether it is the pernicious habit of contemporary writers to annoy and shock the reading audience with fabricated "ironies" and "paradoxes" for entertainment purposes or some deep-seated hatred for the clear use of words to describe what the world is like, rather than the exciting world of woolly doubletalk, but it is a drain on the effort to get to truth-searching mode.

I applaud Russ for his patient and polite efforts in this podcast. . .because the real test of manners is not when someone is agreeable, informed and open to discussion based on facts, but how it goes when these conditions are not available.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I really liked the discussion of trust in the beginning. I don't think it's often talked about, but I think it should be. Supply, demand, mutually beneficial exchange, etc, can all be tossed in the garbage if the level of trust is not sufficient.

jw writes:

There are a number of observations about this podcast that I'd like to make, so I numbered them to make it easier for further discussion (or criticism…).

1. The tribal trust rituals discussed immediately reminded me of RPPP (Russ' Prison Podcast Period...) where establishing trust among members of a gang and between gangs was one of the primary functions of the gang based prison society. This takes place in business as well, as when you meet a new client where you both are interested in establishing a relationship, brief work histories or references are exchanged so that each side has a known common connection that lends credibility to the other.

2. Agriculture may have been a rational tradeoff between highly variable hunting yields and much more stable (but still not guaranteed) crop yields. It may have been a well thought out volatility trade.

3. Science will NEVER know:
- What happened before the Big Bang.
- What exists beyond the observable universe
- WHY the universe exists
- WHY sentience exists. (Interestingly, religion provides answers to the last two, although those answers are obviously based on faith. Possibly they are deemed more important than the scientific questions?)

4. It’s ironic that Harari is quoting experts about technology 50 years from now during the Back to the Future 2 target week. (Where the heck is my jetpack?)

5. Diamonds are a marketing success by DeBeers, but thousands of years before that, gold was a shiny bauble universally coveted by females. This may have been the underlying power of its currency, as a symbol of wealth for mating purposes. Harari could no doubt counter this argument (is it genetic or learned), but it sure sounds reasonable.

6. Capitalism is not dependent on growth. Capitalism is the most efficient way to ACHIEVE growth. Empire did not measurably increase global wealth for thousands of years. In previous podcasts, it was shown that in hunter gatherer times, H Sapiens lived on roughly $1/day, in post agricultural times (10,000 BC to 1750 AD) we lived on $3/day (which also counters Harari’s claim that hunter gatherers had a better life), and somewhere in the confluence of Adam Smith, American democracy, the scientific method and (my favorite) harnessing fossil fuels for doing work, we have jumped to a $15/day worldwide average. (Sorry, I do not accept that business reputation as a cause.)

We may be in a temporary slump in worldwide growth, but that is not the fault of capitalism. It is the fault of a resurgence in statism and central planning, especially by central bankers.

People may be temporarily distracted by bread and circuses (sorry, this is 2015 – EBT cards and ESPN), but sooner or later free markets will regain their place and capitalism will again ENABLE growth.

Thanks for another great podcast!

[Mistyped email address corrected. Please use your validated email address else your comments may not be published.--Econlib Ed.]

Brian writes:

I agree that homo sapien's level and range of cooperation is without challenge. Only we trade: exchange something we want for something we want more.

Harari's depiction of capitalism is a straw man wildly exaggerated to be negative. Smith explicitly rejects Harari's characterization. Capitalism is simply protecting individual rights. Most, not all, choose to have more stuff over the other options capitalism affords.

Forest in the US covers more area and is denser than in the 50s. Among other things, wealthy humans buy better environment so Harari's argument that Chinese and Indians being more wealthy is unsustainable is naive at best.

Miller writes:

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I always thought that the idea that capitalism will collapse if consumption does not expand and the economy doesn't grow is based on simple accounting, PERIOD. Everyone seems to say that our economy is a ponzi-scheme. There must be truth to that, otherwise people wouldn't say it. Debts must all be repaid, and they cannot be repaid easily if the economy doesn't grow. There also wouldn't be any money at all in the economy if there were no debts. There are 5 dollars of debt for every dollar in circulation, last time I heard. It actually would be impossible, therefore, to pay all debts. Also, because we live in a market economy, the debt (and money-supply) must expand and more and more things must be sold in order to pay the bills, no matter if it's of true necessity for society.

That's why I have hoped beyond hope that Russ would host some of the more fringe economists or at least cover some far-out-of-mainstream topics for our consideration and critique. Where do these ideas come from and what are their merits?

It's not that I'm against growth, per-se. Humans need to be productive in order to thrive. However, capitalism currently seems to have no other goal at the present EXCEPT to grow, and it gobbles down tremendous amounts of resources while doing it. It would be nice if cities were created with the idea of having low overhead, (resource usage), and if they were better-thought-out. At the present, it just seems to me that our cities grow without this consideration as much in mind as it could be.

Indeed, that is the main problem I have with capitalism, is that it can be described as loosely-organized chaos, and as I have iterated before, though it sounds probably a little weird, Karl Marx was against private property partly because it got in the way of what he thought was proper city planning. In America, mostly we have zoning areas where people buy out property to use in the way they were intended, whether commercial or residential, and this leads to a hodgepodge of locations, not PLACES, with identity.

From your podcast last week, your guest mentioned the book, 'Bowling Alone' and the collapse of civic engagement. In our society, since we have little public space, our second-tier level of life outside of the family is practically non-existent. This leads to a crisis of mental health when people are locked up inside all day without proper means for healthy socializing. Is this part of the reason people are losing their insanity and going on shooting rampages?

Anyway, I'm getting a little sidetracked, so I digress. But I enjoy taking any opportunity I can to talk about these things.

lloydfour writes:

Most interesting. I have also read similar theories from Peter Turchin about a subject he calls Cliodynamics at

SaveyourSelf writes:

I really loved this episode. The pace and variety kept me smiling the entire hour. I've recommended it to all my friends.
I really appreciate Russ Roberts style in this episode--leading the conversation but staying out of it's way. I don't remember hearing this line before but it spoke to his restraint, ~41:00 “Yeah—I don’t think that’s the—I’ll leave that alone."

I must own this book.

Thanks for another great Econtalk.

Kevin writes:

Others have already made comments similar to mine and may save me some typing.

Too often with the crowded academic field an author strikes on a good idea and sadly feels compelled to pursue it so far beyond its rational application that it becomes ridiculous. Storytelling seems to have been thus abused.

Humans do indeed tell stories and they may be very compelling for many activities but that ability seems to pale in comparison to some other very important abilities like language, the ability to weigh risks, and the ability to imagine/create the future. Unless we want story telling to be a euphemism for thinking, storytelling simply does not get us very far.

And while Harari speculates that switching from hunter gather to agriculture was a net negative with the specious evidence that peasants in an empire were worse off - I prefer to leave the cost benefit analysis to those who originally did it and conclude their doing it in mass numbers once it was possible almost everywhere it was reasonable is strong evidence they were in fact better off.

Sometimes my sons and I watch shows about dinosaurs and are fascinated by how amazing these creatures were. And then we listen to paleontologist tell amazing tales about the dinosaurs based on the smallest evidence. Much of anthropology is like that - they see a bowl and it has something next to it and they weave crazy tales. Because they put it in their PhD thesis it must be right, but lots of other stories would fit the data. We simply have so little evidence from ancient man that it is hard to know.

Part of Harari's approach is that he seems to not appreciate emergent human activity but instead sees out behavior driven by someone else's stories. Even the trust of money can be emergent as we see in Bitcoin. But with Harari we are all the pawns of the marketing stories, or the priests stories, or the kings stories.

Finally, is it too much for the average academic atheist to have even the smallest understanding of religious ideas before pontificating on them? Or a small understanding about how religion and science are interwoven on so many levels. I think for them they think religion=silly so its something I can master in an afternoon and therefore requires no effort.

Emerich writes:

A bracing, challenging episode, very enjoyable, and the book is now at the top of my reading list. Harari provides tons of food for thought, though as some other commentators noted, he is rather shaky on his economics. He thinks capitalism requires constant growth, or it will collapse. Says who? Not Adam Smith or John Locke or Jefferson or Ricardo or Mill or Hayek or Mises or Friedman, as far as I know. Capitalism—i.e., economic freedom and rule of law (I simplify)---has historically led to economic growth, but that’s a by-product of competition and freedom. The argument for Socialism used to be that it would be more successful at producing growth and that capitalism would grind to a halt because of its economic failures. Only after Socialism failed at producing did we started hearing that growth is bad anyway so we need to tame capitalism because it creates too much growth.

Harari says we’ve all been born into capitalism and can’t think out of the capitalist box. Plenty of Chinese, Russians, and Eastern Europeans, not to mention Latin Americans (is Venezuela capitalist? Is Pope Francis capitalist?) alive today were born under non-capitalist regimes. We stay in the “capitalist box” because the alternatives have failed even minimal hurdles. No need to recall the records of Stalinism and Maoism, or the ecological disasters discovered in the Soviet block after its collapse. The North Korean model is an alternative, but it doesn’t seem so great to me.

That the “the most important discovery of the scientific revolution was the discovery of ignorance” is a wonderful insight!

jw writes:


One could understand how your understanding of capitalism could be skewed based on the worldwide bastardization of the concept that exists today.

The ridiculous amount of debt that exists today is a function of government manipulation, both in interest rates and implied "puts" on default. It is not required for capitalism.

If Schumpeterian principles were allowed to run free, a great amount of that debt would have already been destroyed by defaults, as no reasonable and prudent investor would lend money to a technically bankrupt government (Japan, US, Europe, others) at 3% for thirty years (or zero for ANY amount of time...).

We live in morally hazardous times. At some point (I don't know when as I thought it would have happened already), they will become interesting times.

William N. writes:

This being an economics podcast, I was quite frustrated by Mr. Harari's strange opinions on what he vaguely describes as the problems of capitalism and of the "religious" beliefs of capitalists. His notions that there are a set of rules that capitalism requires and that capitalists develop their entire cognitive structure around is pretty much nonsense. He anthropomorphizes what is essentially a legal term (the private ownership of capital) and extrapolates a series of vaguely negative beliefs that "capitalists" live by. The constant use of phrases like "capitalists require that people be unsatisfied with what they have" and "capitalism limits our horizons of what is possible" mean nothing that I can understand. Capitalism doesn't think anything and capitalism doesn't require anything other than a general sense of property rights and market opportunities. Capitalism != markets and socialism != !markets.

There is no religion of capitalism just like there is no religion of walking down the street. The concepts are simply incomparable. As are the "fictions" that he tries to apply to various concepts earlier in the podcast. It's just vague nonsense that appear to be the musings of someone who cannot articulate abstract ideas, "abstract" being a term he denies having any value. To say that the concept of money is not "abstract", but it is a "fiction"? I am just at a loss for just about everything Mr. Harari is saying here.

I simply have no idea what he is trying to convey in this podcast besides a naive romanticization of life for homo sapiens centuries and millenia ago and the typical childish discontent for the present you see from adolescents. Perhaps his book does a better job of describing his theories, but I don't think I would give him the benefit of the doubt based on what I heard in this episode. I'm not sure why Russ didn't push this guest on the loose grasp he seems to have on economics and the concept of capitalism that he usually does for his other guests, except for the fact it can be harder to address nonsensical arguments than simply incorrect arguments.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

After listening to this podcast (and listening to some interviews of Mr. Harari on youtube), I will definitely buy the book and give it a read. Thanks, Mr. Roberts for another interesting podcast!

While I may not necessarily agree with the conclusions arrived at by Mr. Harari, I think the frame-work he uses in his analysis is interesting and compelling.

However, like a number of the others here, I disagree that capitalism is the dominate or universal "religion" (ideology) of today. I agree that "capitalism", like any other religion or ideology, is founded on a number of assumptions, abstractions, and beliefs. In my view, however, it is the ideology of "nationalism" and "statism" that dominates the thinking around the globe. From totalitarian regimes such as North Korea, China or Zimbabwe to the so-called "social democracies" of the West, the dominate (and often unchallenged) "religion" is the Nation State. One can be an ardent nationalist and hold deeply antagonistic views towards "capitalism".

Free trade, private ownership of the means of production, privately held/controlled capital markets and individualism in general are not universally embraced in this World. I wish they were, but sadly they are not. This set of beliefs are openly challenged by numerous governments, clerics, and academics. There is actually a well-documented "anti-capitalist" bias that is held by the left-leaning and/or economically illiterate, and they number in the billions. Capitalism is forever being caricatured, ridiculed and mis-characterized by those who would rather have absolute and unchallenged government control and direction of the economy. The religions of "anti-capitalism", "collectivism", and "central control of the individual by the collective" are dangerously alive and well.

The idea of the "Nation", acting through the "State", is the legitimate "sovereign" of the "citizens" of the Nation, is in contrast almost universally held and rarely challenged. From Marxist dictatorships, fascist dictatorships, to social democracies, the universal assumption is that the "State" is legitimate and sovereign, and that the "subject" must serve the State (i.e, they must "pay and "obey").

Of course this "legitimacy" is entirely imaginary (as is the "State", the "Nation" and "citizenship"), and the whole notion of the Nation-State is built upon an Everest of abstractions, assumptions, and fantasies that may even surpass those of more traditional religions. The usual "hand-wave" in the "democratic" West is that the State gives you the opportunity to vote, so, therefore (hand-wave) it follows that you are now bound to whatever political decisions are arrived at by the democratic process. The State (of its own accord) provides goods and services to you, so, therefore (hand-wave) you are obligated to them in the form of taxes, conscription, and obedience to a myriad of incoherent (hand-wave) "laws".

The vast majority of people are such "true-believers" in the legitimacy, necessity, efficacy, and, quite often, the "goodness" of the State that I suspect many can not even imagine the world otherwise. Those who question this dogma (and I am one) can tell you there is a significant push-back to questioning the authority, legitimacy, efficacy, or "goodness" of the Nation-State. This is not so for capitalism...

Greg Linster writes:

I read this book a few months back and, despite some petty disagreements, found it to be the best grand narrative of human history I've read. For those who haven't read it yet, this podcast really only touched on some of the shocking ideas presented in the book -- if only there were more time for the interview!

Anyway, I really liked Harari's and Russ' thoughts on money. Many people do indeed seem stuck on the idea that gold is somehow intrinsically valuable and that this value somehow makes it the default global currency. Money is based on trust and belief, and can only become valuable when other people think it's valuable. For what it's worth, I see no reason why Bitcoin couldn't eventually be considered money by the mainstream.

As a fan of Bitcoin, and the advantages it offers over other electronic money, I hope it succeeds wildly. Like a previous EconTalk guest, Wences Casares, I believe the chance of success is small, but non-trivial.

Nonlin writes:

Many ideas were discussed, but this guest has very few of any value:

- Cooperation and story telling - animals cooperate too but their lower intelligence limits that cooperation. Animals also have common ancestors, so that doesn’t set us apart. Story telling has real value – it isn’t just worthless fiction. And how would you know so precisely what happened 50,000 years ago?

- Peasants were worse off than hunter-gatherers, but the size of the population exploded when people settled? Chinese “ate rice and rice and rice” but in the next sentenced they had domesticated animals. The proper question here would have been “what are you smoking?”

-“Modern willingness to admit ignorance” – is this true? People have always looked for ways to improve their lives. Religious texts are not engineering or medical manuals, but they are behavior guides. “Answers to all the important questions of life are [still] in the Bible” – you get to do science precisely because you don’t have to worry about your neighbor stealing your stuff and killing you as long as everyone follows the Ten Commandments (which are, more or less, also in the laws of the atheistic states)

- “Empires are good”. This is tenuous at best. People tend to adopt good ideas anyway, so the question is: what would have happened in the alternate scenario of “no empires”? Greek culture spread through trade and was adopted by the conquering Roman Empire.

- Capitalism and the consumerist religion – “capitalism” is the natural economy that emerged instead of being imposed top-down. We just don’t have a viable alternative economy to speak of. If we did, and if it were better, people would adopt that model instead. Consumerism is not related to capitalism although many mistakenly link them.

- Science and Religion – turns out that what we call Science is a composite of the Observable and Belief (Religion) so not only are they not in conflict, but Science includes Religion. Read more here:

Henry writes:

I want to thank Russ and Yuval for an excellent interview. I suggested to Russ (I suspect I was not alone) that he consider Yuval for the show. Russ in between reading voraciously, and authoring his own books, found the time to hear and responds to a humble listener's suggestion. For this I'm very grateful. Great show Russ.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Nonlin wrote:

Peasants were worse off than hunter-gatherers, but the size of the population exploded when people settled? Chinese “ate rice and rice and rice” but in the next sentenced they had domesticated animals. The proper question here would have been “what are you smoking?”

I think you hit on a key insight - agriculture could support a greater population density than the hunter gatherer lifestyle could. Harari made this point himself (sort of) when he suggested that the population in cities was too high for people to be able to return to being hunter gatherers.

But I think he was on point about the fact that agricultural lifestyle was characterized by elites and peasants who didn't live all that well. I think this was true right up until the industrial revolution - before that it was a very Malthusian world where additional societal wealth led to a greater population rather than greater individual wealth (save for the elites).

“Empires are good”. This is tenuous at best. People tend to adopt good ideas anyway, so the question is: what would have happened in the alternate scenario of “no empires”? Greek culture spread through trade and was adopted by the conquering Roman Empire.

Well, consider the Pyramids. I don't think those are getting built without Empire.

Alex Fortune writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Michael Byrnes writes:
This was such a poor defense by Russ of economics, capitalism, and basic logic

I would say that Harari is not an economist, but he had a lot of interesting things to say, nonetheless. Harari was not at all "backward and nonsensical".

What exactly would have been the point of Russ going toe to toe with him on issues of economics and capitalism? It's clearly not his area of expertise, yet he had a lot to say that was interesting food for thought and very relevant to economics. It's undeniable that many of mankind's greatest achievements were accomplished, at least in part, through coercion. That can be interesting and worth considering even if we decide that the ends did not justify the means.

He also made the point, which I thought was great, that trade requires trust. Not often talked about in discussions about economics, but he is correct. The level and extent of trust required for trade is obviously going to depend on the type of transaction, but some minimal level of trust - even if it's just "I know I'll be able to get in there, do the deal I want, and get back out of there alive" - is required for pretty much any transaction.

I thought this was a great episode.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Russ: Yeah. Well, I like to think of this quote--I don't know where it comes from. I was told it was from Mad Magazine, but the quote is: "Under capitalism man oppresses man; but under communism it's the other way around."

A somewhat different version of this quote can be found on page 352 John K. Galbraith's 1981 memoir titled "A Life in Our Times."

The context of the quote is his recollection of a 1958 visit to Poland:

"Trial and deprivation, as so often in Polish history, had nurtured the national humor. At my welcoming dinner given by the Polish Economic Society, one of my hosts said I would discover that 'No country has done so much for the theory of planning as Poland – and so little for its practice.' Later I was asked (as I believe many have been since) if I knew the difference between capitalism and Communism.

“'Well, I will tell you. Under capitalism man exploits man. And in Communism it is just the reverse'”

It is possible that Galbraith got the line from Mad Magazine, or the other way around.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

An earlier publication of essentially the same quote, but by Daniel Bell:

“Capitalism, it is said, is a system wherein man exploits man. And communism — is vice versa.” Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (1960).

Richard Fulmer writes:

Yuval Harari's claim that life was a zero-sum game until The Wealth of Nations was published is ridiculous on its face. If it were true, no wealth could have been created before 1776. If the sum total of the world's wealth is a few stones, how do zero-sum games produce the Bronze Age? The world was full of wealth - homes, farms, roads, churches, aqueducts - long before Smith was born.

James Kingsbery writes:

Mr. Harari, in the opening part, seems to confuse a couple of philosophical ideas - he says that things that are not material are necessarily fiction. While some believe this, many very intelligent thinkers throughout history have held that there are things that are real and immaterial.

As one example of this, he said that "[These ideas are] not always abstract. I mean, God or heaven, for people who believe in them, they are not abstract. They think heaven is a real place, above the clouds, where you go after you die if you were a good human." As Bishop Robert Barron is fond of quoting Thomas Aquinas, in at least one religious tradition God is not "one being among many," he is "being itself." Said another way, one speaks of Heaven's location as being above the Earth figuratively.

Similarly, many thinkers over the ages have rejected the notion of human rights being a "fiction" - instead they are a real immaterial thing. If they were merely a convention, then there would be no basis for judging many atrocities as morally wrong, instead we'd be stuck shrugging our shoulders saying "Oh well, I guess they came to a different convention about what's useful for society."

I don't raise this in a I'm-not-he's-wrong sense, I mean to raise this to say that Mr. Harari does not even bother fairly representing how many people through history have thought.

Mike Hammock writes:

Obviously I meant "Spielberg's films", not "Spielberg's symphonies".

Jim F writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

jw writes:

Coincidentally, a (non-mythological) speculation via Zerohedge today on why gold evolved into money (no trust required):

It's no accident that gold has become the most consistent form of money in world history.

The metal is uniquely suited to serve as currency, not only amongst precious metals, but compared against nearly everything else on the planet.

You can see for yourself by taking a look at the periodic table of elements, the scientist’s catalog of everything the world has to offer.

Many of the entries on the periodic table are immediately disqualified. Many elements are radioactive. Others are gasses that would be impossible to transport.

Still others are colorless, and hence indistinguishable from air.

Taking these out eliminates most of the list, and you’re left with just a few dozen metals.

Most of these, however, like copper or iron, can be easily eliminated as well. They’re simply too common. And a form of money is useless if its in too much abundance… a lesson that modern central bankers have completely forgotten.

Others (like cesium) are highly reactive and explode on contact with water, or at least corrode easily.

Clearly a currency that kills its holder, or can’t even maintain its physical state without debasing itself, is rather useless.

Even silver, which nearly passes every single test falters at the last point, because it tarnishes slightly in reaction to sulfur in the air.

So out of all the elements we’re left with just one that’s just right: gold.

Gold is inert and non-reactive. It’s stable. It holds its form over the long-term. It’s malleable and easily divisible. And it’s rare. But not too rare.

Judging by its chemical properties, it’s no accident that gold became the most widely-used currency in history.

[indention added. Please indicate material you are quoting.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve writes:

A very thought provoking podcast, well done.

I agree with jw that Capitalism is not dependent on growth. Capitalism is the most efficient way to ACHIEVE growth.

Unfortunately, the "captains of capitalism", the mega-banks, require growth, DEBT GROWTH; economic growth is secondary now, at least in the developed economies of the world.

A disproportionate amount of the debt in the USA and other developed economies is being used for rent-seeking, consolidating industries and creating barriers of entry, not for investment in R&D and production technology to improve productivity and increase production capacity for economic growth. The result is less innovation, less job creation, increased income inequality and slower GDP growth, in the developed economies.

Meanwhile GLOBAL economic growth ain't doing so bad...

Michael Byrnes writes:

jw wrote:

Coincidentally, a (non-mythological) speculation via Zerohedge today on why gold evolved into money (no trust required)

Actually, even with gold some trust is required. For example, someone trying to buy stuff with gold needs to trust that he won't have his gold stolen or be killed for his gold. And gold as a medium of exchange doesn't mean that a transaction will be free from duress.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Steve wrote:

I agree with jw that Capitalism is not dependent on growth. Capitalism is the most efficient way to ACHIEVE growth.

I think we need to establish what we mean by growth.

I think Harari was correct, not so much about captalism and growth, but about the more general idea that growth is essential to improve living standards among the less well off.

In a "no growth" scenario, then the only way to improve living standards around the globe is some kind of redistibution of the current levels of wealth and consumption.

I don't necessarily mean redistribution as government policy. Only that if we are dealing with a fixed pie, then the only way for some people to get a bigger share, whether through forced redistribution or through their own efforts, is for others to get a smaller share. In a no growth scenario, everything is a zero sum game.

So growth IS necessary, not for capitalism per se, but certainly for rising living standards around the world.

dullgeek writes:

Miller says:

However, capitalism currently seems to have no other goal at the present EXCEPT to grow, and it gobbles down tremendous amounts of resources while doing it.
I think that this is a misunderstanding of what economic growth is. Economic growth comes from being able to do one of 3 things:

1) Produce more using the same amount of resources
2) Produce the same using fewer resources
3) Produce more using fewer resources

Seen this way, you can see why economic growth is required. Since we are bound by finite resources, we must continue to grow in order to stretch those finite resources that we have. In this way, continued growth makes it appear as if our resources are infinite. But the only way to achieve that is through growth. If we stop growing, we are forced to confront the finite nature of the resources we have.

Growth is *NOT* a ponzi scheme. It's the recognition that we have finite resources and must continually innovate to preserve those resources for the highest valued use.

dullgeek writes:

My favorite insight from this episode was that the "discovery of ignorance" was what fueled science. This seems compatible with Diedre McClosky's ideas that the hockey stick of human well being shot up around the time that we started valuing innovators.

Robert Swan writes:

Late as usual, and most of what I'd like to have said is already here.

Like several, I found Harari's use of the word fiction rather irritating. To "make up stories" is not necessarily to create a fiction. E.g. Albert Einstein used "made up stories" to help think through relativity. I think it's a pretty general thing that the human mind finds it helpful to work with analogy and metaphor (mine does at least). If every time a metaphor is used you're going to label it a "fiction", that word is going to wear out pretty quickly.

Like Fred Kavanaugh above I suspect Harari's aim is to shock. It wouldn't be so controversial if he used belief or agreement or assumption.

I'll also take Russ to task on a couple of quibbles. Firstly, kingdoms and democracies aren't mutually exclusive. The U.K, the Netherlands, Canada are all both monarchies and democracies. I think republic would be the complement of kingdom. Secondly, that the reason some people like gold jewelry is because it's money doesn't seem such a profound insight. If it's news to you, what did you make of Rolex watches or Rolls Royces?

How to reconcile this interview with Greg Linster's comment that Harari's book was the "best grand narrative of human history" that he'd read?

Perhaps Russ was off his game and didn't probe the grand narrative all that well. Or maybe Harari isn't as good in interviews as he is in writing (telling stories, fictions if you like).

Then again, maybe Greg hasn't read all that many. I rather liked Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and also have a soft spot for the less grand, but more economics centred Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley. Certainly nothing in the interview gave me the impression that Harari's story (there's that word again) would be nearly as coherent as Ridley's in explaining how the world's economies evolved.

Dmitry writes:

Fascinating podcast this time!!!

Especially loved the discussion of happiness and capitalism as religion towards the end. Never thought about those questions in this perspective.

One philosophical issue that wasn't touched in the podcast: why is it better to be happy? Why is it important at all.
I've heard an opinion that soldiers during WW2 lived very meaningful lives trying to protect their motherland; yet it would be hard to believe that their lives were happy in any sense.

Rogue Aider writes:

I appreciate Russ' bringing on a provocative guest but the imprecise and mixed up terms make it hard to discern Prof. Harari's argument.

His use of the term "capitalism" is at odds with the Library's as well as Prof. Robert's own eloquent explanations. It's a word that almost always signals a mixed up conflation of free markets and marketing, consumers and consumerism, etc. and that certainly seems the case here.

It was similarly confusing to hear Prof. Harari's explanation of the transition from hunter-gatherer to sedentary agriculture. If the result was as negative as the professor described, why make the transition at all? Were there Machiavellian proto-elites gathering henchmen and manipulating their neighbors into becoming farmers, so they could get fat at the expense of others?

It seems far more likely that there is an "impulse" in homo sapiens towards trade and collaboration, albeit to different degrees and depending on identification of the trade/collaboration partner as friend or foe/other. I think Prof. Harari misses or neglects the connection between what he terms "consumerism" and the homo sapien drive towards gathering using tools, acquiring skills and knowledge, and passing those skills/knowledge along to others.

In what misreading of biology and history were the hunter-gatherers and pre-"modern" societies more content with staying put and living with scarcity? What does Prof. Harari think is behind the historical impulses of migration and exploration? Did the urge to move in search of a better life begin and end with the Ice Age?

For a better look at sociobiology with application to history and economics, I recommend a book like The Tangled Wing by Prof. Melvin Konner.

Don Rudolph writes:

The topic about the questionable benefits of travel hit close to home. We recently went on vacation, toward the end I could not stand one more hot day and my legs were covered in bug bites, but all that was soon forgotten when I was informed by the internet that the largest hurricane ever recorded was going to hit my hotel in twelve hours. The upside was we spent the next 15 hours on a comfortable bus which landed us in Mexico city where we had perfect temperatures. I was very much looking forward to going home. When we got home we got a letter that a permit violation was going to be investigated and we were locked out of our amazon seller account that provides us with half our income. On the bright side there were two new podcasts on econtalk that I could listen to.

Brian Baquiran writes:

Apropos fiction and belief, I was reminded of this part of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather:

David McGrogan writes:

I'm coming late to this but I think many of the commenters here are being unfair to Harari. The podcast lasts an hour and huge topics - subjects which entire departments of universities are devoted to - were being covered in a matter of minutes. Of course he's going to use shorthand descriptions which aren't nuanced enough. That's the nature of the beast.

For me, this episode is what econtalk is all about: making me think about things in a different way. I loved it.

Kevin writes:
Like, if you think about medieval Christianity--the Christians in Europe believed the answers to all the important questions of life are in the Bible. Or, in the writings of the Church fathers. So, if you start with the idea that we already have all the answers, this obviously doesn't give you much of an incentive to look for new knowledge, because what's the point?

I'm not sure this is accurate.
Wasn't the scientific revolution started by Christians, as well as others?
Newton? Pascal? Kepler? Sir Francis Bacon? Robert Boyle?

Alexandre writes:

This book makes for interesting reading. I was alarmed, though, by one innacurate piece of information that could have been checked and corrected by a single Google search. That left me wondering how many of the facts stated in the narrative one can acctually trust. Page 368 [page varies by edition] brings the information that during the twenty years of military dictatorship in Brazil, "several thousand Brazilians were murdered by the regime." The list of individuals murdered and missing, which count in the hundreds, not thousands, can be found here:

Even allowing for some level of innacuracy, due to the difficulty of putting together such a list, it is hard to imagine that the numbers could climb to the thousands.

I was born and raised in Brazil during the military dictatorship period. My mother was arrested by the army at one point under charge of "subversion", apparently due to her dangerous activities as a professor of sociology. She was fortunately released a couple days later without harm. My feelings towards the military regime are of outrage and disgust. Each life crushed under the military rule was a tragedy. However, even I have to admit that the Brazilian dictatorship was relatively benign compared to other military regimes in Latin America, specially to those in Chile and Argentina. I understand Prof. Harari's confusion, but find it inexcusable in a book with serious pretensions.

[Editions may vary. The full quote, graciously supplied by the commenter from his Kindle edition (location 5716) is "Even in oppressive dictatorships, the average modern person is far less likely to die at the hands of another person than in premodern societies. In 1964 a military dictatorship was established in Brazil. It ruled the country until 1985. During these 20 years, several thousand Brazilians were murdered by the regime. Yet even in the worst years, the average Brazilian in Rio de Janeiro was far less likely to die at human hands than the average Waorani, Arawete or Yanamomo...". --Econlib Ed.]

Tony writes:

Mike Hammock's first comment says what I was thinking perfectly.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Regarding gold value vs. jewelry, when aluminum was rare and expensive in the 19th century, rich women wore aluminum jewelry. See this link for example.

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