Notes on — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Once we were an inconsequential animal on the African Savanna, today we are semi gods on this tiny blue dot of the universe. What got us here? Where are we going? These are the questions that Yuval Harari seeks to answer in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind an eye opening, culture shocking and informative book.
Following a chronological order Harari dedicates a chapter to discussing the “big” inflection points that we as a species took on this amazing journey that we have had so far. Some of the more impressive facts are the following:
- Homo Sapiens (our species), are animals from the genus Homo (man) and the species Sapiens (wise). Members of the Homo genus evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago. This means that when Sapiens first evolved, there were multiple other Homo species on this planet including the more famous Homo Neanderthalensis. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago to until around 10,000 years ago the world was home to several human species. Only our species survived to the present day and we are not sure why this is.
- From about 300,000 years ago our genus began using fire. This created a revolution as it allowed us to cook food — allowing us to eat foods we normally can’t digest, killing bacteria and massively decreasing the amount of time chewing and digesting our food. It is believed that this revolution allowed us to grow the jumbo brains we are now so used to.
- Homo Sapiens, humans that look just like us, first appeared on East Africa around 150,000 years ago. At this point we were an inconsequential species fighting for our survival like many others on this planet.
- Something very special happen around 70,000 years ago that lead to what is called the Cognitive Revolution. From around 70,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago Sapiens experienced unprecedented prosperity allowing us to leave Africa and reach places as far as Australia. It is in this time that boats, oil lamps, bows, arrows and needles (for clothe making) were invented. During this period we also see the development of art, religion, commerce and social stratification. It is commonly believed that a genetic mutation allowed us to think and communicate in unprecedented ways thus igniting this revolution.
- There is something very special about out language habilites, specifically our ability as a species to speak about fiction. We are the only animal that can speak about things that don’t exist and from this collaborate in flexible ways that no other animal is able to. This is why we rule the world.
- There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice. All of these concepts exist solely in the imagination of human beings.
- It is this diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented and the resulting different behavior that we today refer to as “culture”. Ever since we created a culture these have changed and developed leading to the changes in what we refer to as “history”.
- The transition to agriculture began around 9500 years ago and today 90 percent of the calories that feed humanity come from plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC — wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley. Even though the Agricultural Revolution increased the food supply this extra food did not translate in an increase in the quality of life for most humans. It lead to a population explosion, social and class division, exploitation and diet problems that had never existed before.
- The Agricultural Revolution allowed Sapiens to settle and begin forming large communities that had never before existed. These communities began developing different “cultures” to organize themselves. It is this imagined order that allows us to cooperate effectively and as such create a more specialized society.
- Human Rights is an imagined order. A Homo Sapiens has no natural rights in the same way that a dog, elephant, dolphin or ant have no natural rights. Gravity, a natural order, will not cease to exist tomorrow. In contrast an imagined order is only valid because enough people believe in its truth or validity.
- Since all these imagined orders that we created are not passed down in our DNA we needed to create external tools to preserve them. A great leap in helping us maintain the imagined orders that we created came with the invention of full script writing — cuneiform — invented around 3000 BC and 2500 BC by the Sumerians.
- Sapiens are able to organize in mass cooperation networks even though we lack the biological instincts to do so due to our created imagined orders and devised scripts. It is these myths and fiction that accustomed us from the momento of birth to think in certain ways and behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things and to observe certain rules. This network of artificial instincts is called culture.
- Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. And the best part, it all lives in the imagination of Sapiens. It is thanks to this system of trust society was able to cooperate in newer ways and develop. Money is the only system developed by humans that can bridge cultural gaps and does not discriminate.
- An empire, also a Sapiens creation, has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2,500 years. Empires allow people and cultures to develop while furthering cooperation.
- Religion, another great unifier of mankind, has given superhuman legitimacy to the fragile social orders and hierarchies. Religion asserts that our laws are not the result of some human caprice, but they are created by a supreme authority. This helps place some “fundamental” moral and behavioral standards of our society beyond challenge therefore ensuring social stability.
- In the past 500 years of our history we have seen unprecedented growth and power of our species. This process is known as the Scientific Revolution. Rooted in this revolution is a belief that the problems that plagued humans were not our inevitable fate but rather the result of our ignorance. This quest to acquire new knowledge to solve problems has given Sapiens unprecedented power.
- A capitalist creed developed in Europe whose first and most important belif is: The profits of production must be reinvested in increased production. Capital is the investment of resources to create new production and it is different from wealth accumulation or wasted on unproductive activities. It is through this ideal that we have seen unprecedented economic growth in the world.
- The most important economic resource in a “free market” is economic trust in the future. It is the job of a political system to ensure trust in this market by legislating sanctions cheats and provide the support necessary (police, courts, jails) to enforce the law.
- The Industrial Revolution is fundamentally a revolution in the conversion of energy which we have proven to only be limited by our ignorance. Every time we have felt we hit a limit, through our ingenuity we discover a new source of energy to keep satisfying our insatiable demand.
- We live in an unprecedented era of peace brought about by the invention of the atomic bomb, which dramatically escalates the price of war, and by the declining profits of war. For most of our history, nations enriched themselves through looting or annexing territories. In today’s society wealth consists mainly of human capital and organizational know how. Both of these cannot be conquered by military force.
- Family and community have a larger impact on our happiness than money or health. Most disturbing, our happiness is the result of our biology. We have evolved through natural selection to never be in complete éxtasis or complete misery. Evolution requires us to have mood swings, and those are relative to our circumstance not absolutes. Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful homes, powerful positions. None of them will bring us happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
- A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.
- Today, Sapiens are on the cusp of a biological revolution that will alter 4 billion years of natural selection to replace it with intelligent design. The consequences of this revolution would be far greater than anything out little species has achieved before. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company and accountable to no one.
As a CEO, the book speaks powerful truths about our species leaving you to ask big questions about your responsibility as a member of this species and challenging many “standard beliefs” of society.
In his journey to develop worldly wisdom, a CEO must understand the powerful biological and ideological forces that have shaped mankind and society. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is an excellent place to start.
Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
Presumably, everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens — the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).
Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes.
point, I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.
Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia. Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name.
Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley’), popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever.
On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island — the small island of Flores — archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing.
While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.
The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar — and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.
Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing 130 pounds have an average brain size of 12 cubic inches. The earliest men and women, 2.5 million years ago, had brains of about 36 cubic inches. Modern Sapiens sport a brain averaging 73–85 cubic inches. Neanderthal brains were even bigger.
The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.
Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it’s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like throwing stones or signalling. The more things these hands could do, the more successful their owners were, so evolutionary pressure brought about an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in the palms and fingers. As a result, humans can perform very intricate tasks with their hands. In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools. The first evidence for tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago, and the manufacture and use of tools are the criteria by which archaeologists recognise ancient humans.
Women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal — and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.
This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind’s extraordinary social abilities and to its unique social problems. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.
addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal.
Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years — with the rise of Homo sapiens — that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.
By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. Humans now had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions. Not long afterwards, humans may even have started deliberately to torch their neighbourhoods. A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.
But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms — such as wheat, rice and potatoes — became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.
By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.
We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar. Thanks to the blessings of fire, they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had massive brains, equal in size to ours.
How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely different species like horses and donkeys. On the other hand, they were not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. Biological reality is not black and white. There are also important grey areas. Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. There must have been a point when the two populations were already quite different from one another, but still capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile offspring. Then another mutation severed this last connecting thread, and they went their separate evolutionary ways.
Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged.
But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia — a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man in this chapter), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.
The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.
This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food.
In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.
In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two.
What happened in the Cognitive Revolution? New ability Wider consequences The ability to transmit larger quantities of information about the world surrounding Homo sapiens Planning and carrying out complex actions, such as avoiding lions and hunting bison The ability to transmit larger quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships Larger and more cohesive groups, numbering up to 150 individuals The ability to transmit information about things that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights a. Cooperation between very large numbers of strangers b. Rapid innovation of social behaviour
The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.
The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.
The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.
At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools.
The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. It began slowly and in a restricted geographical area. Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC; olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over. Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC — wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.
Today, scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. People in Central America domesticated maize and beans without knowing anything about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle East. South Americans learned how to raise potatoes and llamas, unaware of what was going on in either Mexico or the Levant. China’s first revolutionaries domesticated rice, millet and pigs. North America’s first gardeners were those who got tired of combing the undergrowth for edible gourds and decided to cultivate pumpkins. New Guineans tamed sugar cane and bananas, while the first West African farmers made African millet, African rice, sorghum and wheat conform to their needs. From these initial focal points, agriculture spread far and wide. By the first century AD the vast majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists.
The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution. When we study the narrative of plants such as wheat and maize, maybe the purely evolutionary perspective makes sense. Yet in the case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.
History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.
Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages.
Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.
Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative.
a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone.
b. The imagined order shapes our desires. Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths.
c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear.
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
Because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny. A conscious effort has to be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse.
The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’.
Partial script, on the other hand, is a system of material signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to a limited field of activity.
The Mesopotamians eventually started to want to write down things other than monotonous mathematical data. Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform.
Although this system of writing remains a partial script, it has become the world’s dominant language. Almost all states, companies, organisations and institutions — whether they speak Arabic, Hindi, English or Norwegian — use mathematical script to record and process data. Every piece of information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored, spread and processed with mind-boggling speed and efficiency.
how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.
scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.
Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel — and very real — social structures.
fact, human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. In most societies, it’s the lower classes who do the manual labour. This may reflect Homo sapiens’ position in the food chain. If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Sapiens would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder. But their mental and social skills placed them at the top. It is therefore only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force.
AFTER THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.
that history is moving relentlessly towards unity.
The single global culture is not homogeneous. Just as a single organic body contains many different kinds of organs and cells, so our single global culture contains many different types of lifestyles and people, from New York stockbrokers to Afghan shepherds. Yet they are all closely connected and they influence one another in myriad ways. They still argue and fight, but they argue using the same concepts and fight using the same weapons. A real ‘clash of civilisations’ is like the proverbial dialogue of the deaf. Nobody can grasp what the other is saying. Today when Iran and the United States rattle swords at one another, they both speak the language of nation states, capitalist economies, international rights and nuclear physics.
But beginning with the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens became more and more exceptional in this respect. People began to cooperate on a regular basis with complete strangers, whom they imagined as ‘brothers’ or ‘friends’.
The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently.
People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
The appearance of a single transnational and transcultural monetary zone laid the foundation for the unification of Afro-Asia, and eventually of the entire globe, into a single economic and political sphere. People continued to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in gold and silver coins.
Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust: with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project. These principles have enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively in trade and industry. But these seemingly benign principles have a dark side. When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.
An empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, to qualify for that designation you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory. How many peoples exactly? Two or three is not sufficient. Twenty or thirty is plenty. The imperial threshold passes somewhere in between. Second, empires are characterised by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite. They can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering their basic structure or identity.
The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. In general, they have been toppled only by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite.
The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’.
This new imperial vision passed from Cyrus and the Persians to Alexander the Great, and from him to Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, Muslim caliphs, Indian dynasts, and eventually even to Soviet premiers and American presidents. This benevolent imperial vision has justified the existence of empires, and negated not only attempts by subject peoples to rebel, but also attempts by independent peoples to resist imperial expansion.
There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation, untainted by sin. These ideologies are at best naïve; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. Perhaps you could make a case that some of the myriad cultures that emerged at the dawn of recorded history were pure, untouched by sin and unadulterated by other societies. But no culture since that dawn can reasonably make that claim, certainly no culture that exists now on earth. All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.
The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire.
Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria: 1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements. Professional football is not a religion, because despite its many laws, rites and often bizarre rituals, everyone knows that human beings invented football themselves, and FIFA may at any moment enlarge the size of the goal or cancel the offside rule. 2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. Many Westerners today believe in ghosts, fairies and reincarnation, but these beliefs are not a source of moral and behavioural standards. As such, they do not constitute a religion.
leading theory about the origin of the gods argues that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to this problem. Gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the gods’ main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals. Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals — the first chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example.
The Agricultural Revolution initially had a far smaller impact on the status of other members of the animist system, such as rocks, springs, ghosts and demons. However, these too gradually lost status in favour of the new gods. As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square miles, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin.
Yet the greatest impact of the rise of great gods was not on sheep or demons, but upon the status of Homo sapiens. Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans.
The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’.
Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.
The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise. For example, the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid. When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptised. She became St Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland.
have to practise intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world. One well-known explanation is that this is God’s way of allowing for human free will. Were there no evil, humans could not choose between good and evil, and hence there would be no free will. This, however, is a non-intuitive answer that immediately raises a host of new questions.
Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions. So it should not come as a surprise that millions of pious Christians, Muslims and Jews manage to believe at one and the same time in an omnipotent God and an independent Devil. Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so far as to imagine that the good God even needs our help in its struggle against the Devil, which inspired among other things the call for jihads and crusades.
In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.
In the end he came to the realisation that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, by social injustice, or by divine whims. Rather, suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind.
Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering.
But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, ‘What am I experiencing now?’ rather than on ‘What would I rather be experiencing?’ It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.
He encapsulated his teachings in a single law: suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is. This law, known as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature.
Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.
The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls. Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.
They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will — the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?
Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system.
Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.
We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear. There is no proof that Christianity was a better choice than Manichaeism, or that the Arab Empire was more beneficial than that of the Sassanid Persians.
The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. In the year 1500, there
It is a revolution because, until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers. While government and wealthy patrons allocated funds to education and scholarship, the aim was, in general, to preserve existing capabilities rather than acquire new ones. The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.
trying to discover the rules that govern the natural world. But modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: a. The willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus — ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge. b. The centrality of observation and mathematics. Having admitted ignorance, modern science aims to obtain new knowledge. It does so by gathering observations and then using mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive theories. c. The acquisition of new powers. Modern science is not content with creating theories. It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.
In fact, the relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields.
Poverty, sickness, wars, famines, old age and death itself were not the inevitable fate of humankind. They were simply the fruits of our ignorance.
Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. For example, in the sixteenth century, kings and bankers channelled enormous resources to finance geographical expeditions around the world but not a penny for studying child psychology. This is because kings and bankers surmised that the discovery of new geographical knowledge would enable them to conquer new lands and set up trade empires, whereas they couldn’t see any profit in understanding child psychology.
Scientists themselves are not always aware of the political, economic and religious interests that control the flow of money; many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.
In short, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries. Hence in order to comprehend how humankind has reached Alamogordo and the moon — rather than any number of alternative destinations — it is not enough to survey the achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists. We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others.
How did the people of this frigid finger of Eurasia manage to break out of their remote corner of the globe and conquer the entire world? Europe’s scientists are often given much of the credit.
The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly.
What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages.
As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant lands had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries.
For 300 years, Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America and Oceania, in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The only significant struggles in those regions were between different European powers. The wealth and resources accumulated by the Europeans eventually enabled them to invade Asia too, defeat its empires, and divide it among themselves. When the Ottomans, Persians, Indians and Chinese woke up and began paying attention, it was too late.
They noticed that the earliest Sanskrit speakers, who had invaded India from Central Asia more than 3,000 years ago, had called themselves Arya. The speakers of the earliest Persian language called themselves Airiia. European scholars consequently surmised that the people who spoke the primordial language that gave birth to both Sanskrit and Persian (as well as to Greek, Latin, Gothic and Celtic) must have called themselves Aryans. Could it be a coincidence that those who founded the magnificent Indian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilisations were all Aryans?
Next, British, French and German scholars wedded the linguistic theory about the industrious Aryans to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and posited that the Aryans were not just a linguistic group but a biological entity — a race. And not just any race, but a master race of tall, light-haired, blue-eyed, hard-working, and super-rational humans who emerged from the mists of the north to lay the foundations of culture throughout the world.
This is obviously not the whole story. Science was supported by other institutions, not just by empires. And the European empires rose and flourished thanks also to factors other than science. Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism.
Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.
This may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted. We hear variations on this theme every day in the news. Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history — revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
A crucial part of the modern capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethic, according to which profits ought to be reinvested in production. This brings about more profits, which are again reinvested in production, which brings more profits, et cetera ad infinitum.
In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’
Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. It was both descriptive and prescriptive — it offered an account of how money worked and promoted the idea that reinvesting profits in production leads to fast economic growth. But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic — a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth.
In Europe, on the other hand, kings and generals gradually adopted the mercantile way of thinking, until merchants and bankers became the ruling elite. The European conquest of the world was increasingly financed through credit rather than taxes, and was increasingly directed by capitalists whose main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their investments. The empires built by bankers and merchants in frock coats and top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes and shining armour. The mercantile empires were simply much shrewder in financing their conquests. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but everyone is happy to invest.
In such ways did the king of Spain squander the trust of investors at the same time that Dutch merchants gained their confidence. And it was the Dutch merchants — not the Dutch state — who built the Dutch Empire.
The most famous Dutch joint-stock company, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC for short, was chartered in 1602, just as the Dutch were throwing off Spanish rule and the boom of Spanish artillery could still be heard not far from Amsterdam’s ramparts. VOC used the money it raised from selling shares to build ships, send them to Asia, and bring back Chinese, Indian and Indonesian goods. It also financed military actions taken by company ships against competitors and pirates. Eventually VOC money financed the conquest of Indonesia.
This free-market doctrine is today the most common and influential variant of the capitalist creed. The most enthusiastic advocates of the free market criticise military adventures abroad with as much zeal as welfare programmes at home. They offer governments the same advice that Zen masters offer initiates: just do nothing. But in its extreme form, belief in the free market is as naïve as belief in Santa Claus. There simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias. The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence. It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts and jails which will enforce the law. When kings fail to do their jobs and regulate the markets properly, it leads to loss of trust, dwindling credit and economic depression.
This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way. When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe. Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.
After 1908, and especially after 1945, capitalist greed was somewhat reined in, not least due to the fear of Communism. Yet inequities are still rampant. The economic pie of 2014 is far larger than the pie of 1500, but it is distributed so unevenly that many African peasants and Indonesian labourers return home after a hard day’s work with less food than did their ancestors 500 years ago. Much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud. The human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many more individuals may live in hunger and want. Capitalism has two answers to this criticism. First, capitalism has created a world that nobody but a capitalist is capable of running. The only serious attempt to manage the world differently — Communism — was so much worse in almost every conceivable way that nobody has the stomach to try again. In 8500 BC one could cry bitter tears over the Agricultural Revolution, but it was too late to give up agriculture. Similarly, we may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it.
THE MODERN ECONOMY GROWS THANKS to our trust in the future and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in production. Yet that does not suffice. Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. When and if they run out, the entire system will collapse. But the evidence provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory. Counter-intuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also completely new types of energy and materials.
At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. It has demonstrated again and again that there is no limit to the amount of energy at our disposal. Or, more precisely, that the only limit is set by our ignorance. Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing.
Learning how to harness and convert energy effectively solved the other problem that slows economic growth — the scarcity of raw materials. As humans worked out how to harness large quantities of cheap energy, they could begin exploiting previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials (for example, mining iron in the Siberian wastelands), or transporting raw materials from ever more distant locations (for example, supplying a British textile mill with Australian wool). Simultaneously, scientific breakthroughs enabled humankind to invent completely new raw materials, such as plastic, and discover previously unknown natural materials, such as silicon and aluminium.
Altogether, tens of billions of farm animals live today as part of a mechanised assembly line, and about 50 billion of them are slaughtered annually. These industrial livestock methods have led to a sharp increase in agricultural production and in human food reserves. Together with the mechanisation of plant cultivation, industrial animal husbandry is the basis for the entire modern socio-economic order.
How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.
Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed.
Finally, in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market. As best we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic building blocks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms. Most of the traditional functions of families and communities were handed over to states and markets.
Most people worked in the family business — the family farm or the family workshop, for example — or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.
The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market. In an old-fashioned medieval community, when my neighbour was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his sheep, without expecting any payment in return. When I was in need, my neighbour returned the favour. At the same time, the local potentate might have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a penny. In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and barbarians. Village life involved many transactions but few payments. There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited. You could buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and doctors. Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services were bought in the market. Most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community.
Many kingdoms and empires were in truth little more than large protection rackets. The king was the capo di tutti capi who collected protection money, and in return made sure that neighbouring crime syndicates and local small fry did not harm those under his protection. He did little else.
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse — usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.
The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all — however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.
Hence any attempt to define the characteristics of modern society is akin to defining the colour of a chameleon. The only characteristic of which we can be certain is the incessant change. People have become used to this, and most of us think about the social order as something flexible, which we can engineer and improve at will. The main promise of premodern rulers was to safeguard the traditional order or even to go back to some lost golden age. In the last two centuries, the currency of politics is that it promises to destroy the old world and build a better one in its place. Not even the most conservative of political parties vows merely to keep things as they are. Everybody promises social reform, educational reform, economic reform — and they often fulfil those promises.
It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.
Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year.
they have identified several contributing factors. First and foremost, the price of war has gone up dramatically. The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms. Secondly, while the price of war soared, its profits declined. For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of material things like fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital and organizational know-how. Consequently it is difficult to carry it off or conquer it by military force.
THE LAST 500 YEARS HAVE WITNESSED A breathtaking series of revolutions. The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.
Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. People with strong families who live in tight-knit and supportive communities are significantly happier than people whose families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a community to be part of.
Marriage is particularly important. Repeated studies have found that there is a very close correlation between good marriages and high subjective well-being, and between bad marriages and misery. This holds true irrespective of economic or even physical conditions. An impecunious invalid surrounded by a loving spouse, a devoted family and a warm community may well feel better than an alienated billionaire, provided that the invalid’s poverty is not too severe and that his illness is not degenerative or painful.
happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
There’s no natural selection for happiness as such — a happy hermit’s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious parents get carried on to the next generation. Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations. For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings as rewards to males who spread their genes by having sex with fertile females. If sex were not accompanied by such pleasure, few males would bother. At the same time, evolution made sure that these pleasant feelings quickly subsided. If orgasms were to last for ever, the very happy males would die of hunger for lack of interest in food, and would not take the trouble to look for additional fertile females.
Think for a moment of your family and friends. You know some people who remain relatively joyful, no matter what befalls them. And then there are those who are always disgruntled, no matter what gifts the world lays at their feet. We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace, get married, finish writing that novel, buy a new car or repay the mortgage, we would be on top of the world. Yet when we get what we desire we don’t seem to be any happier. Buying cars and writing novels do not change our biochemistry. They can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point.
Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions — none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.2 As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.
According to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals. Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.
What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing — joy, anger, boredom, lust — but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.
Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
Natural selection may have provided Homo sapiens with a much larger playing field than it has given to any other organism, but the field has still had its boundaries. The implication has been that, no matter what their efforts and achievements, Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits.
Still, compared to an all-powerful deity, Homo sapiens had limited design skills. Sapiens could use selective breeding to detour around and accelerate the natural-selection processes that normally affected chickens, but they could not introduce completely new characteristics that were absent from the genetic pool of wild chickens. In a way, the relationship between Homo sapiens and chickens was similar to many other symbiotic relationships that have so often arisen on their own in nature. Sapiens exerted peculiar selective pressures on chickens that caused the fat and slow ones to proliferate, just as pollinating bees select flowers, causing the bright colourful ones to proliferate.
the potential Alba signifies is realised in full — and if humankind doesn’t annihilate itself meanwhile — the Scientific Revolution might prove itself far greater than a mere historical revolution. It may turn out to be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth. After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design. If this happens, the whole of human history up to that point might, with hindsight, be reinterpreted as a process of experimentation and apprenticeship that revolutionised the game of life. Such a process should be understood from a cosmic perspective of billions of years, rather than from a human perspective of millennia.
At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life.
Biological engineering is deliberate human intervention on the biological level (e.g. implanting a gene) aimed at modifying an organism’s shape, capabilities, needs or desires, in order to realise some preconceived cultural idea, such as the artistic predilections of Eduardo Kac.
The Cognitive Revolution that turned Homo sapiens from an insignificant ape into the master of the world did not require any noticeable change in physiology or even in the size and external shape of the Sapiens brain. It apparently involved no more than a few small changes to internal brain structure. Perhaps another small change would be enough to ignite a Second Cognitive Revolution, create a completely new type of consciousness, and transform Homo sapiens into something altogether different.
Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn. What if such interfaces are used to directly link a brain to the Internet, or to directly link several brains to each other, thereby creating a sort of Inter-brain-net? What might happen to human memory, human consciousness and human identity if the brain has direct access to a collective memory bank? In such a situation, one cyborg could, for example, retrieve the memories of another — not hear about them, not read about them in an autobiography, not imagine them, but directly remember them as if they were his own. Or her own. What happens to concepts such as the self and gender identity when minds become collective? How could you know thyself or follow your dream if the dream is not in your mind but in some collective reservoir of aspirations?
We might soon have the answer to such questions. The Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain. The project’s director has claimed that, if funded properly, within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does.
Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies. Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves. A baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince. With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality.
The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds. This is something most Sapiens find extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own.
The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.
SEVENTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, HOMO sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction. Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals. In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of. Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?