Man is solely responsible for global warming. With that achievement, our species is not the most obvious protagonist during a children’s book week (October 5 to 16) themed ‘Gi-ga-green’. But look, the book really shines between the titles about grasshoppers, palms and reptiles How we became the most powerful animal on earthby Israeli bestselling author (for adults) Yuval Noah Harari.
And it is not so illogical, says Harari, known for books such as sapiens and Gay Deus, during a conversation in Amsterdam. “It will come as a shock to some people, but man is an animal. In Israel people always get angry when I say that. It’s almost taboo there. A large percentage of people do not accept it, or only in theory. But to understand how our love lives or our politics work, you really have to study humans as a species along with other animals.”
Human fear also comes from the animal kingdom, says Harari. A human child who loses its mother is afraid, as is a hedgehog or giraffe child. Behind that fear lies an evolutionary fact: a lost hedgehog baby does not survive in the wild. Humans therefore benefit from separation anxiety in order to survive. Or take the monster under your bed. That too, Harari says, is a “memory from millions of years ago, when a lion arrives to eat you.”
You see the same phenomenon in the human response to terrorist attacks, says Harari. “We react much more strongly to that than to curbing the danger, such as climate change. We recognize terrorists as a fundamental danger, just as other social animals recognize such dangers. But no animal has had such an effect on the climate as humans have had over the past few hundred years. The fear of the threat of climate change, which is much greater than that of a bomb threat, has not had a chance to enter our genes.”
And this, Harari says, was why he wanted to write a children’s book about human origins. “I think kids want to understand where the fear of the monster under their bed comes from.”
If Harari can pick one message he would have liked to have received as a child, it is universalism. “It would have freed me from false stories, for example about nationalism and religion. In Israel, you grow up with the story that the Jewish people are the most important people in the world and that your Jewishness is an important part of who you are. Of course, that’s also valuable, but it’s not the whole story. Man is millions of years old. To understand our feelings, look not to Judaism, but to evolution.”
And thereby, he says, an exclusively nationalist-religious narrative draws from outside influences. “We are not the most important people in the world. As a child I loved football. It was invented by the British. I liked to eat sweets and sugar cane was originally grown in New Guinea. Hebrew comes from other languages. And that I can write a book, I owe that to the Sumerians, the people who developed the concept of ‘writing’. Therefore, I understand nothing of contemporary extremism cultural appropriation.”
Cultural appropriation is when members of a dominant culture adopt elements of a minority culture without really understanding its cultural background. This must be seen in a colonial context and is thus different from exchanging cultural elements on an equal footing. Often there is also an economic component, with members of the dominant group making money by exploiting a minority culture. This adoption of elements from another culture or identity—think white people with dreadlocks or Native American feathers—is considered inappropriate by some left-wing activists.
Harari: “It’s ridiculous! Everything about our culture comes from another culture, from the clothes we wear to the songs we sing. Our whole culture has been appropriated.”
Harari’s children’s book, suitable from ten years old, is the first in a series of four. Together, this quartet will treat the history of mankind. After the now published first part, about the Stone Age, books will follow, in which, among other things, the development of agriculture and colonialism will be discussed.
It’s no easy feat for children when you have such all-encompassing ambitions with a storybook, admits Harari. “Of course the history of a nation is also valuable. But there are already so many books on that. You could fill a whole library with books on Judaism. I wanted to add something to what is already there.”
It is, globally speaking, the story of his breakthrough book sapiens, cast in childish language, but not simplified. Harari does not shy away from making abstract concepts like ‘democracy’ or ‘capitalism’ clear to children. “Although luckily I still have a while before the parts where those concepts appear,” he laughs.
In the first part, he explains the concept of ‘business’ using McDonald’s. Does that burger restaurant consist of its buildings? No, because if the buildings collapse, the company builds new ones. Out of the burgers? From the employees? No, everything can be replaced. Business, Harari argues in catchy style, is as abstract an idea as religion or money. People have agreed with each other that it exists, so it exists.
On religion, Harari promises to write “respectfully”. “We don’t joke about faith, and we want to emphasize the good things. But the faith has also brought violence and intolerance. And I would say that the religions of the world revolve around stories created by men. Take the New Testament. It consists of 27 texts. But Jesus did not know that book. In the early centuries AD Christians debated which texts should or should not be included. So it’s people’s work’.
With his book, Harari hopes to stimulate children to ask questions about things that you don’t normally think about so quickly. “During a meeting in Leiden, a child asked: why do people cry? That’s a good question! It’s exactly the kind of question I hope to inspire children to ask.”
The weak homo sapiens
In addition, he hopes to help children understand that humans make a difference on the planet – in a positive and negative way. The book includes examples of children who have done something important, such as discovering the world-famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France. And it is about the power of cooperation, the decisive reason for the world domination of the relatively weak homo sapiens.
He also shows that humans were already responsible for the mass extinction of animal species tens of thousands of years ago. It started in Australia, where shortly after the arrival of the first humans, all large land animals died out to the last specimen. The giant moa, wonambi, procoptodon, megalania, diprotodon, glyptodon and ground sloth are beautifully drawn in the book by Ricard Zaplana Ruiz.
Harari: “In the Stone Age there were no pets or livestock. Even humans were wild and lived closely with animals. In our present life we live far away from animals. Animals are like meat in the freezer section of the supermarket. People are too busy with modern life to spend much time with animals. At the same time, you can see a desire to relate to animals: from stuffed animals to animal images on shirts and animals as main characters in cartoons.”
According to the historian, man has a responsibility to do better than he has done. “And not with simplified messages, for example that the climate crisis is the fault of capitalism. There are clearly problems with capitalism. But that is not the whole story. We have already done enormous damage before capitalism arose. And the canal state of communism is only worse: in the Soviet Union there was more pollution and more destruction of nature than in capitalist countries. We need a broad historical understanding.”
If you want to understand climate change, he says, you have to understand the companies. “They have caused the damage, but they are also part of the solution. That’s why I thought it was so important to tell children what a business is. Children may no longer encounter elephants in their daily lives, but businesses see them around them all day long.”
The central message of his book, says Harari, is that the world need not have been as it is. “People have made decisions that have created this world. So they can change her too. It’s not easy, but it’s been done before. It’s a message from empowerment.”
But instead, “people tend to become victims,” notes the historian. “The Russians and the Chinese tell themselves they’re victims, so does Israel. Sometimes it’s more justified than other times. But as a key story, it’s dangerous. It makes you irresponsible. After all, if you’re a victim, you didn’t cause the situation. So you’re not responsible for solutions either.”
Of course, Harari also knows that there are power differences. “Each person has a little bit of power. Because of their unique ability to cooperate, humans are also able to preserve, for example, animal species. That’s part of my message to children: you are stronger than a lion who can’t change the economy or the legal system. You do, especially if you’re with many.”
Also read: In search of the one story of everything: this book tells about 300,000 years of history