21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Reviewed by K Rajeshwar Sharma
History is not my cup of tea. I hate history because I don’t like to be a slave of the past as most of us are.
Years ago, when I was at St. Joseph’s College at North Point, Darjeeling, I was absorbed in the world of plays and poems that took me to the ancient kingdom of Denmark and saw the ghost of king Hamlet, and to Xanadu where I saw Kubla Khan in his heavenly gardens. With Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman, I sailed far out into the Atlantic Ocean in an epic struggle to catch a marlin. Like Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, I wished I had the power of telepathy. As a young man, I attended the lavish parties of Jay Gatsby every weekend, and joined the Joads family in their arduous journey to California where Okies were exploited. But only recently when I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, did I realize history is as interesting as literature is. Other than Yuval, no historian has ever explained how Homo sapiens became the ‘ruler of planet Earth’.
Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor at the Department of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, he received a PhD in History from the University of Oxford, specializing in World History. Dr Harari is a best-selling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that became number one in the New York Times bestseller, and The Sunday Times top ten bestseller. He won the Polonsky Prize for creativity and originality in 2009 and 2012. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, his second book, Professor Harari explores ‘the long-term future of life’ where ‘humans might eventually become Gods.’
21 Lessons for the 21st Century is his third book and the number one international bestseller in 2019. It is published in paperbacks by Vintage.
Window shopping and browsing at book-shops have been my bad habits ever since my college days.
Only recently did I come across 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari at a book-shop at KIA (Kampegowda International Airport) Bangalore as I was waiting for my flight to Imphal. I could not resist the temptation to buy the book as it would give me company throughout the flight. As I flipped through the pages, I came across a chapter called God that attracted me most. Besides God, there are several other chapters on Equality, Justice, War, Ignorance, Education etc.
Unlike Sapiens and Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century dwells on the current pressing issues that we are facing today, such as climate change, war, technological disruptions, liberal democracy, misinformation or ‘epidemic of fake news’, nationalism etc. What impresses me is the author’s ability to dwell on a wide range of several issues that could have far reaching catastrophic consequences in one or two decades. As for instance, rise of sea level, which is due to climate change, will soon submerge several low lying coastal cities and islands rendering thousands homeless. We are so occupied with our daily chores that we do not think about these pressing issues and their catastrophic consequences.
Expressing his apprehension, Yuval Noah Harari writes ‘Climate change may be far beyond the concerns of people in the midst of a life-and-death emergency, but it might eventually make the Mumbai slums uninhabitable, send enormous new waves of refugees across the Mediterranean, and lead to a worldwide crisis in healthcare’.
Animals live in objective reality but humans live in both objective reality as well as fictional reality which is more powerful than humans. God, money, Governments, Nations and corporations, according to Yuval Noah Harari, are fictional realities. Ability to believe in these fictional stories enables human beings to cooperate and rule the Earth. ‘Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better’ says Yuval. Money, Nationalism, religion, Government, etc. are all stories that we humans are fond of. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval writes, ‘They (sacred texts) are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimize social norms and political structures.’ So are Governments, money, etc.
There are ‘three grand stories’–the fascist story, the communist story and the liberal story, which were formulated to explain the past and to predict the future. But each of them crumbled because of the inherent conflict among themselves. The Second World War had knocked out the fascist story. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the communist story had gone with the wind. The liberal story seems to be the most popular of the ‘three grand stories’ but ‘since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story.’ Moreover, the confluence of information technology and biotechnology has undermined free will that underpins the whole ideas of liberal democracy and free market economy.
With the merger of information technology with biotechnology, human beings could now be hacked with ‘Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers.’ In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari has formulated an equation to hack human beings:
bxcxd = ahh!
It means that Biological knowledge multiplied by Computing power multiplied by Data equals Ability to Hack Humans. This equation has the potential to destroy the myths of individualism, liberty and freedom that we all cherish. The brighter side of the equation is that ‘People will enjoy the best healthcare in history’ as ‘Big Data algorithms informed by a constant stream of biometric data could monitor our health 24/7. They could detect the very beginning of influenza, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, long before we feel anything is wrong with us’.
What strikes me hard is that animals that live in jungles are as much ethical as we humans are. They follow and act according to their ethical norms. They have a deep sense of morality perhaps more than the so called ‘civilized human beings’ do. Yuval Noah Harari cites an incident where an old male chimpanzee in the jungle of Ivory Coast adopted an orphan chimpanzee when other female chimpanzees had refused to adopt the orphan. He writes, “Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’.”
As 21 Lessons for the 21st Century covers as many as twenty-one different topics, this review is constrained to dwell upon a few of them. Last but not the least is the topic on Post-Truth. It is an era of fake news filled with lies and fictions. ‘When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news’ writes Yuval Noah Harari in his attempt to explain what fake news is. It is not a recent phenomenon that cannot be blamed on Facebook. “For millennia, much of what passed for ‘news’ and ‘facts’ in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons and witches, with bold reporters giving live coverage straight from the deepest pits of the underworld” says Yuval in his book to explain how deep – rooted fake news is in human civilizations. It is ‘the unique human ability to create and spread fictions’ that Homo Sapiens could conquer the planet Earth.
Never before have I read a non–fiction like 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It is so captivating that no reader would ever leave it in the middle or at the beginning. Grappling with the current global issues with an analytical mind is not an easy task that no scholar would ever take up without hesitation. Not only is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century a current affairs book, but it is also a piece of literature where the people are the protagonist or rather the victims of history. I hope every book-lover will enjoy reading it as much as I do, and take part in the debate on the current global issues which Yuval alone tries to grapple with.
About the writer
 K. Rajeshwar Sharma, who holds an Msc. Degree in Information Technology along with an Honours Degree in English and American literature, is a freelancer aspiring to be a Feature Writer, and a voracious reader. He is a resident of Khwai Brahmapur Nagamapal, Imphal. The writer can be reached at [email protected]