Review: Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”

by Miles Raymer

21 Lessons

Last week, I was one of the lucky audience members who witnessed a live discussion between Yuval Noah Harari and Sam Harris in San Francisco. Harris opened the conversation by saying, “So, Yuval, you have these books that just steamroll over all other books.” That’s pretty much how I felt about Harari’s two previous works, Sapiens and Homo Deuswhich address humanity’s past and possible futures. In 21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyHarari focuses his incomparable intellect on the here and now. Given the urgency and complexity of this moment in history, this is probably his most important work to date, if not necessarily his best.

My analysis of 21 Lessons comes with the usual Harari caveat: these books are all about the big picture, and are written for a popular, nonacademic audience. Harari’s art is that of synthesis and summary, and there are myriad perspectives and details that he leaves out in order to distill his ideas into their most accessible forms. I happen to think that the benefits of this approach far outweigh the drawbacks in Harari’s case, but acknowledge that for some readers his style is a dealbreaker.

For those willing to accept the limitations of Harari’s project, 21 Lessons is brimming with wisdom both practical and theoretical. Although the book covers a wide range of subjects, there is one overarching goal that feels always immanent: the discovery of mental clarity via an ongoing, dynamic exchange between global and individual mindsets. Harari reminds us that “clarity is power” in his opening sentence, and argues that clarity about the present can only emerge from a careful examination of the needs of individual humans as well as those of global civilization:

Though this book takes a global perspective, I do not neglect the personal level. On the contrary, I want to emphasize the connections between the great revolutions of our era and the internal lives of individuals. For example, terrorism is both a global political problem and an internal psychological mechanism. Terrorism works by pressing the fear button deep in our minds and hijacking the private imaginations of millions of individuals. Similarly, the crisis of liberal democracy is played out not just in parliaments and polling stations but also in neurons and synapses. It is a cliché to note that the personal is the political, but in an era when scientists, corporations, and governments are learning to hack the human brain, this truism is more sinister than ever. Accordingly, this book offers observations about the conduct of individuals as well as entire societies. (xv)

Harari has no qualms about using clichés when they serve his message and align with available evidence. As reductive as clichés can be, the right ones laid out in the right order prove indispensable in helping us deal with the overwhelming character of contemporary human life. The power of Harari’s perspective is not derived from its novelty, but rather from its brevity and syncretic clout.

When trying to combine individual and global frameworks, it is good to be realistic about what we can and can’t know. Early on, Harari encourages readers to retreat from the idea that they––that anyone––can comprehensively understand the world’s current state:

Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions of biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions. The next decades might therefore be characterized by intense soul-searching and by the formulation of new social and political models…At present, humankind is far from reaching any consensus on these questions. We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading: down. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clearsighted. Do you feel like running down the street crying, “The apocalypse is upon us”? Try telling yourself, “No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.” (16-7)

It may seem strange to receive lessons from someone who is skeptical that we can even understand the world well enough to proceed intelligently, but this is the first step in the Socratic tradition: one must first admit ignorance in order to seek true wisdom. Harari combines this ancient idea with Douglas Adams’s humorous directive––Don’t Panic!––into a kind of deep breath for the battered modern psyche. Only with a clear, rational mind can the solutions we seek reveal themselves and be effectively pursued.

In the 21st century, one thing that individuals must be willing to concede is that global problems demand global solutions. Harari posits that 21st-century humanity is facing three “common enemies”: climate change, technological disruption, and nuclear war. These enemies are not particularly sensitive to national borders or laws, and have the potential to affect all life on earth with a forceful celerity that would have shocked previous generations. Harari doesn’t call for a one-size-fits-all globalism that would suppress diversity and turn humanity into a “homogeneous gray goo,” but rather emphasizes that individuals must learn to identify strongly with a global community in order to successfully confront imminent obstacles to human flourishing:

Even on a united planet there will be plenty of room for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations toward it. Yet if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such loyalties with substantial obligations toward a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighborhood, her profession, and her nation––so why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list? True, when you have multiple loyalties, conflicts are sometimes inevitable. But then who said life was simple? Deal with it. (125)

Here Harari echoes the renowned philosopher Peter Singer and others who have promulgated the idea he put forth in The Expanding Circle. While our native tribalism often makes this a heavy lift, Harari insists that we have no choice but to embrace a global identity if we want to avoid the worst possible futures that the 21st century might bring.

Assuming we are willing to commit to a global identity, this will do little good if we downplay the fact that individuals are always the product of a particular culture or cultures, the norms and practices of which may conflict significantly with those of others around the world. Historically, such battle lines have often been drawn using racial distinctions, but Harari rightly notes that the challenge of the 21st century isn’t racism, but culturism––the belief that one’s own culture is or can be superior to others.

While it is good news that humanity has grown up enough to be less racist than in the past (although of course racism still exists), the challenge of culturism is far more nuanced than the problem of race ever was. This is because there was never a firm empirical grounding for racism; from the very start, it was a vicious hallucination designed to facilitate the domination of certain people by way of imbuing superficial differences in physical appearance with spurious importance. Culturists, however, can come up with reasonable, evidence-based arguments for why certain cultural practices may be better than others. Harari explains:

Upon reflection, most people concede the existence of at least some significant differences between human cultures. How then should we treat these differences? Cultural relativists argue that difference doesn’t imply hierarchy, and we should never prefer one culture over another. Humans may think and behave in various ways, but we should celebrate this diversity and give equal value to all beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, such broad-minded attitudes cannot stand the test of reality. Human diversity may be great when it comes to cuisine and poetry, but few would see witch-burning, infanticide, or slavery as fascinating human idiosyncrasies that should be protected against the encroachments of global capitalism and Coca-Colonialism. (149)

Harari is balanced in his approach to this issue, emphasizing that “the worst problem with culturist claims is that despite their statistical nature they are all too often used to prejudge individuals,” while still maintaining that “culturist arguments may sometimes be quite sound” (155, emphasis his). The lesson, then, for normal people, would be to responsibly investigate differences in culture, advocate peacefully for beneficial cultural practices over harmful ones, and never use cultural assumptions to justify preemptive dismissiveness or aggression toward individuals.

In other words, we shouldn’t be shy about celebrating our chosen way(s) of life, but we should never let someone else’s different way of being stand in the way of giving them the benefit of the doubt until they’ve proven that they don’t deserve it. This message, if put into honest practice, could immediately improve any public discourse in which prejudgements based on slim or no evidence routinely win the day over true civility––people actually trying to understand one another and compromise. For the present moment, however, those of us seeking to use science and reason to weed out bad cultural practices and replace them with good ones spend far too much time trying to calm down our increasingly plangent and partisan neighbors.

If this weren’t enough work, each person on Earth must also accept the disturbing reality that we are, at all times, being scrutinized and manipulated by corporate and governmental entities wielding new and powerful technologies. Harari skips right over the menace of cybersecurity to get to the heart of the real threat––the direct and unfettered hacking of humans themselves:

As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart. When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, will you still be able to tell the difference between your self and their marketing experts? (271-2)

Given the lamentable and widespread influence of social media on elections in liberal democracies, anyone who continues to be skeptical of current technology’s power to seriously fuck with people’s heads is not paying attention. How do we resist?

To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better––to know what you are and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself…In the end, it’s a simple empirical matter: if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand yourself, authority will shift to them…If you want to retain some control over your personal existence and the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much baggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy. (272)

This brings us to my favorite of the 21 lessons: Acknowledge Your Shadow. In a fantastic explication and defense of the secular worldview, Harari reminds us that the very best way to “run faster” is to cultivate a tireless, placid awareness of our limitations and flaws, and to constantly implement corrective action knowing that we will never reach an end state of perfection:

Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naive reassurance that “it cannot happen to us.”  Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions––namely, that it is not inherently terrified of its shadow…As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility. (217-8)

I’ll save the final brushstroke of this conceptual painting for the conclusion; first I want to lay out a couple points of criticism. Since I love Harari and have to cop to fanboy status at this point, I try extra hard to uncover areas where I don’t fully agree with him.

The first of these in 21 Lessons is Harari’s comfortability with the claim that, “Today, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere” (101). By the broad standards Harari sets forth, he is technically correct: the US dollar is considered valuable even by Islamic terrorists, and most countries exhibit “at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage, and human rights” (101). Despite his efforts to avoid minimizing the differences between the world’s variegated civilizations, I felt Harari was overly sanguine in this regard. To state that the “huge arguments and bitter conflicts” awaiting us “are unlikely to isolate us from one another” is an act of optimism that goes too far for me at this particular time (109). I sincerely hope history comes down on Harari’s side and not mine.

My second critique is that Harari’s analysis of meaning sidesteps the significance of friendship and familial connection––those intersubjective sparks that can transform the mundane moments of existence into inspired exchanges. His lengthy chapter on meaning is not wrongheaded, but rather incomplete. He walks the reader through a garden of possible sources of meaning in human life, pointing out the shortcomings of each. This depressing stroll concludes with the wildly unsatisfactory suggestion that romantic relationships are “perhaps the safest and most parsimonious story” available to us (284).

Harari doesn’t properly acknowledge how connections with friends and family help people generate mortal meaning inside the vacuum of immortal meaninglessness that is our universe. I contend that these elements of human life can satisfy Harari’s two conditions necessary to give meaning to the story of one’s life: “First, it must give me some role to play…Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons” (280, emphasis his). The cultivation of friendship and familial relations can empower any person’s autobiographical narrative to meet both of these conditions. First, friends and family give us a special role to play that by definition no one else can. I’d explain further but better to cite Milton Mayeroff, who made this point brilliantly in his description of how caring for one’s “appropriate others” creates an extension of our identity and situates us “in-place”:

I experience the other as an extension of myself and also as independent and with the need to grow; I experience the other’s development as bound up with my own sense of well-being; and I feel needed by it for that growing…I often speak of caring for the other, but in any actual instance of caring it is always someone or something specific that is cared for: the writer cares for this idea, the parent cares for this child, the citizen cares for this community. (On Caring11-2, emphasis his)

My appropriate others complement me, they enable me to be complete, somewhat as playing music enables the musician to be himself…This sense of completeness does not mean the end of growth, as if one were now somehow finished; rather, it goes with being in the best position for further growth…To be in-place then is living that is centered and integrated by my caring for my appropriate others, one of whom, to repeat, must always be myself. (On Caring, 72-3)

Mayeroff’s position shows how meaning rushes into life when we embed ourselves in a specific social web of threads that would cease to exist (or at least weaken considerably) in our absence. This is a permutation of Harari’s “great chain of kindness,” in which “you can help somebody, and that somebody will subsequently help somebody else, and you thereby contribute to the overall improvement of the world” (284). But Harari falters by failing to personalize this argument, ultimately claiming “it is far from clear where its meaning comes from” (284). That is true if kindness is a sterile act that we pursue because of logic and spreadsheets, but acts of kindness are first and foremost motivated by feelings of love and empathy for particular people, which, when combined with the intersubjective uniqueness of each person’s social position, creates an authentic and powerful source of meaning––without doubt the greatest I’ve had the luck to encounter.

Love and empathy are not panaceas; they are critical in intimate relationships but prove useless (or even detrimental) when trying to scale up and solve global crises. I believe, however, that the experience of fellow feeling is what imbues our loved ones with value, which can lead us to realize that strangers are potentially lovable and loved by other strangers (i.e. he’s not my brother but he could be someone’s, loved no less by his own than I by mine)Is there a better starting point of meaning from which to construct the global identity for which Harari so ardently advocates? After all, it’s individuals themselves and not groups or nations who must do the hard work of integrating this global identity and its corresponding obligations with our more parochial ones.

It should be obvious that relationships with friends and family also fulfill Harari’s second condition: that the story of our life’s meaning must extend beyond our horizons. This is not simply because at least a portion of our loved ones will outlive us and yet be forever influenced by how we lived, but also because other people are intrinsically “beyond” us––connected by history and biology but also distinctive in everything from appearance to genome. The celebration of this paradox––that other people are simultaneously closer to us than anything else in nature and yet incontestably not us at all––can be a playful, mysterious energy that gets us out of bed in the morning. This becomes even more profound if we turn to the classic philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing, and realize that not only is there something, but at least a small fraction of that something has learned to experience pleasure and meaning, and these experiences can be extended and deepened by social cooperation and mutual enjoyment.

To close, let’s focus on one final lesson: “In order to keep up with the world of 2050,” Harari writes, “you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again” (266). As a person who craves stability and thrives on routine, I find this a disquieting state of affairs. In Harari’s view, the best way to develop your capacity for self-knowledge is through meditation. This may seem trite given that popular culture often depicts meditation as a fuzzy magical antidote to all the mind’s ills. But Harari makes a moderate, empirical case, demonstrating how meditation is a useful tool that may be more important than ever in the era of distraction and human hacking. He doesn’t deny that the activity of the brain is what generates the mind, but points out that the scientific instruments we use to study the brain are not adequate for providing equally useful insight about the mind. Meditation, therefore, is our most direct and effective method for interrogating the mind, and therefore deserves as much attention as our other investigative endeavors:

We can be inspired by anthropologists, zoologists, and astronauts. Anthropologists and zoologists spend years on faraway islands, exposed to a plethora of ailments and dangers. Astronauts devote many years to difficult training regimes, preparing for their hazardous excursions to outer space. If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us. (323)

I’ve long flirted with the idea of taking up meditation. I’ve read a lot about its benefits, and several of my closest friends who are devoted to the practice have encouraged me to try it. For lots of reasons––some good and some not so good––I convinced myself that it just wasn’t necessary, that I could spend my time otherwise and probably get the same benefits. But 21 Lessons changed all that. I’m not sure where the practice of meditation will take me, but I’m excited to have a new mode of self-examination to explore, and grateful as always to Harari for his inspiring determination to craft islands of clarity that provide safe harbor from modernity’s stormy seas.

Rating: 10/10