Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
[Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]
Timeline (Years Ago):
~ 13.5 Billion: Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
~ 4.5 Billion: Formation of planet Earth.
~ 3.8 Billion: Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
~ 6 Million: Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
~ 2.5 Million: Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
~ 2 Million: Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Evolution of different human species.
~ 200,000: Homo sapiens evolve in East Africa
Part 1: The Cognitive Revolution (circa ~70,000 BCE)
– The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution
– The ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
– How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
– States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag.
– Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.
– 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 far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps.
– 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’.
– From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens.
– 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
– For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers.
– The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.
– Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.
– Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.
– The Stone Age should more accurately be called the Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were made of wood.
– 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.
– In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. That is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it.
– The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as ‘the original affluent societies’. It would be a mistake, however, to idealise the lives of these ancients.
– The sociopolitical world of the foragers is another area about which we know next to nothing. As explained above, scholars cannot even agree on the basics, such as the existence of private property, nuclear families and monogamous relationships.
– While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious conflicts.
– The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo II expedition to the moon. It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system – indeed, the first time any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to Australia.
Of even greater importance was what the human pioneers did in this new world. The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.
– The settlers of Australia, or more accurately, its conquerors, didn’t just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition.
– Mammoths had flourished for millions of years over most of the northern hemisphere, but as Homo sapiens spread – first over Eurasia and then over North America – the mammoths retreated.
– Humans don’t come across as particularly dangerous. They don’t have long, sharp teeth or muscular, lithe bodies. So when a diprotodon, the largest marsupial ever to walk the earth, set eyes for the first time on this frail-looking ape, he probably gave it one glance and then went back to chewing leaves.
These animals had to evolve a fear of humankind, but before they could do so they were gone.
– The extinction of the Australian megafauna was probably the first significant mark Homo sapiens left on our planet.
– Homo sapiens was the first and only human species to reach the western hemisphere landmass, arriving about 16,000 years ago, that is in or around 14,000 BC. The first Americans arrived on foot, which they could do because, at the time, sea levels were low enough that a land bridge connected north-eastern Siberia with north-western Alaska. Not that it was easy – the journey was an arduous one, perhaps harder than the sea passage to Australia.
– Why banish oneself to Siberia by choice? Perhaps some bands were driven north by wars, demographic pressures or natural disasters. Others might have been lured northwards by more positive reasons, such as animal protein. The Arctic lands were full of large, juicy animals such as reindeer and mammoths.
– Time and again, the analyses yield the same results: the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel bones date to the period when humans flooded America, that is, between approximately 12,000 and 9000 BC. Only in one area have scientists discovered younger dung balls: on several Caribbean islands, in particular Cuba and Hispaniola, they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to about 5000 BC. This is exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands.
Part 2: The Agricultural Revolution (circa ~12,000 BCE)
– FOR 2.5 MILLION YEARS HUMANS FED themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention.
– All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution.
– The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant.
– Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 percent 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.
– Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question.
– There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.
– Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.
-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.
– Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew. The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias.
– Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate the wheat. It domesticated us.
– Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15 percent of deaths, including 25 percent of male deaths.
In time, human violence was brought under control through the development of larger social frameworks – cities, kingdoms and states. But it took thousands of years to build such huge and effective political structures.
– The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.
If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies.
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions. Yet why should individuals care about this evolutionary calculus? Why would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply the number of copies of the Homo sapiens genome? Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap.
– In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty. Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children.
– One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without
– It may well be that foragers switched from gathering wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, not to increase their normal food supply, but rather to support the building and running of a temple. In the conventional picture, pioneers first built a village, and when it prospered, they set up a temple in the middle. But Göbekli Tepe suggests that the temple may have been built first, and that a village later grew up around it.
– In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.
-The vast majority of domesticated animals’ evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures.
This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
-THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION IS ONE of the most controversial events in history. Some partisans proclaim that it set humankind on the road to prosperity and progress. Others insist that it led to perdition. This was the turning point, they say, where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.
– Until the late modern era, more than 90 percent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. 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.
– Mythology, the ancient sociologist would have thought, could not possibly enable millions of strangers to cooperate on a daily basis. But that turned out to be wrong. Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined.
– When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.
– Around 8500 BC the largest settlements in the world were villages such as Jericho, which contained a few hundred individuals. By 7000 BC the town of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals. It may well have been the world’s biggest settlement at the time. During the fifth and fourth millennia BC, cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants sprouted in the Fertile Crescent, and each of these held sway over many nearby villages.
– In 3100 BC the entire lower Nile Valley was united into the first Egyptian kingdom. Its pharaohs ruled thousands of square miles and hundreds of thousands of people. Around 2250 BC Sargon the Great forged the first empire, the Akkadian. It boasted over a million subjects and a standing army of 5,400 soldiers.
Between 1000 BC and 500 BC, the first mega-empires appeared in the Middle East: the Late Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, and the Persian Empire. They ruled over many millions of subjects and commanded tens of thousands of soldiers.
– ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.
– Two of the best-known myths of history: the Code of Hammurabi of c.1776 BC, which served as a cooperation manual for hundreds of thousands of ancient Babylonians; and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 AD, which today still serves as a cooperation manual for hundreds of millions of modern Americans.
– Hammurabi’s Code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice, dictated by the gods. … Hammurabi’s Code was based on the premise that if the king’s subjects all accepted their positions in the hierarchy and acted accordingly, the empire’s million inhabitants would be able to cooperate effectively.
– Like Hammurabi’s Code, the American founding document promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be able to cooperate effectively, living safely and peacefully in a just and prosperous society.
– The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong.
– Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. 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.
– Rights are myths: Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings. And it’s not true that these organs, abilities and characteristics are ‘unalienable’. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’.
– Line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.’
– 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. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively [and perhaps for an individual to thrive]. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’
– It is easy to accept that Hammurabi’s Code was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth. … Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights.
– 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. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.
– Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order?
It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.
– Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:
a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism. Someone’s worth was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other people said about them.
b. The imagined order shapes our desires. For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries. Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band.
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. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people…
– In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. 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. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
– Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data. 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’.
– At this early stage, writing was limited to facts and figures. … Writing was time-consuming and the reading public tiny, so no one saw any reason to use it for anything other than essential record-keeping. If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years ago, we’re in for a big disappointment.
– The earliest messages of our ancestors have left us read, for example, ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.’ The most probable reading of this sentence is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’
– 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. (Egyptian hieroglyphics was the other full script developed around the same point in time.)
– What set apart Sumer, as well as pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, is that these cultures developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records.
– The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world.
-UNDERSTANDING HUMAN HISTORY IN THE millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: 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.
– In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.
– In modern India, matters of marriage and work are still heavily influenced by the caste system, despite all attempts by the democratic government of India to break down such distinctions and convince Hindus that there is nothing polluting in caste mixing. …
– A similar vicious circle perpetuated the racial hierarchy in modern America. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the European conquerors imported millions of African slaves to work the mines and plantations of America.
– Even though the slaves were freed, the racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom.
– In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment mandated that citizenship and the equal protection of the law could not be denied on the basis of race. However, two centuries of slavery meant that most black families were far poorer and far less educated than most white families. A black person born in Alabama in 1865 thus had much less chance of getting a good education and a well-paid job than did his white neighbours. His children, born in the 1880s and 1890s, started life with the same disadvantage – they, too, were born to an uneducated, poor family.
– Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history.
– 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.
– Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.
– In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux.
– Even more importantly, there simply is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. People in their sixties usually exercise power over people in their twenties, even though twentysomethings are much stronger than their elders. The typical plantation owner in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century could have been wrestled to the ground in seconds by any of the slaves cultivating his cotton fields.
– In forager societies, political dominance generally resides with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most developed musculature. … Even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
– In 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.
– How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer. Maybe the common assumptions are just wrong. Maybe males of the species Homo sapiens are characterised not by physical strength, aggressiveness and competitiveness, but rather by superior social skills and a greater tendency to cooperate. We just don’t know.
Part 3: The Unification of Humankind (escalated around 2500 BCE with the invention of coinage, “a universal money”)
– Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
– Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality.
The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
– Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.
-If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
– Around 1450 AD, just prior to the age of European exploration, earth still contained a significant number of dwarf worlds such as Tasmania. But close to 90 percent of humans lived in a single mega-world: the world of Afro-Asia. Most of Asia, most of Europe, and most of Africa (including substantial chunks of sub-Saharan Africa) were already connected by significant cultural, political and economic ties. Most of the remaining tenth of the world’s human population was divided between four worlds of considerable size and complexity:
1. The Mesoamerican World, which encompassed most of Central America and parts of North America. 2. The Andean World, which encompassed most of western South America. 3. The Australian World, which encompassed the continent of Australia. 4. The Oceanic World, which encompassed most of the islands of the south-western Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.
– Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other worlds.
– Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognised states); the same economic system (capitalist market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least theoretically); and the same scientific system (experts in Iran, Israel, Australia and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis).
– Tomatoes, chilli peppers and cocoa are all Mexican in origin; they reached Europe and Asia only after the Spaniards conquered Mexico.
– In 1492 there were no horses in America. The culture of the nineteenth-century Sioux and Apache has many appealing features, but it was a modern culture – a result of global forces – much more than ‘authentic’.
– From a practical perspective, the most important stage in the process of global unification occurred in the last few centuries, when empires grew and trade intensified.
– The 1st 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.
– For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.
– Money, empires, and universal religions laid the foundation of the united world of today. The greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples: Money.
– Hunter-gatherers had no money. Each band hunted, gathered and manufactured almost everything it required, from meat to medicine, from sandals to sorcery. Different band members may have specialised in different tasks, but they shared their goods and services through an economy of favours and obligations.
– An economy of favours and obligations doesn’t work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate. It’s one thing to provide free assistance to a sister or a neighbour, a very different thing to take care of foreigners who might never reciprocate the favour. One can fall back on barter. But barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy.
– In a barter economy, every day the shoemaker and the apple grower will have to learn anew the relative prices of dozens of commodities. … Even if you manage to calculate how many apples equal one pair of shoes, barter is not always possible. After all, a trade requires that each side want what the other has to offer.
– Some societies tried to solve the problem by establishing a central barter system that collected products from specialist growers and manufacturers and distributed them to those who needed them.
The largest and most famous such experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union, and it failed miserably. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.
– More than 90 percent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – now exists only on computer servers.
– Money also frees apple experts from the need to search out apple-craving shoemakers, because everyone always wants money. This is perhaps its most basic quality.
– Everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or need. The shoemaker will always be happy to take your money, because no matter what he really wants – apples , goats or a divorce – he can get it in exchange for money. Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.
– 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. When a wealthy farmer sold his possessions for a sack of cowry shells and travelled with them to another province, he trusted that upon reaching his destination other people would be willing to sell him rice, houses and fields in exchange for the shells.
– 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.
-Why do I believe in the cowry shell or gold coin or dollar bill? Because my neighbours believe in them. And my neighbours believe in them because I believe in them. And we all believe in them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes, and because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes.
– The mere fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Indians to start believing in it as well. Even if Indians still had no real use for gold, the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the Indians value it.
– Whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
– Money is based on two universal principles:
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.
– It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naïve. Brutal warriors, religious fanatics and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating merchants, and even to reshape the economy. It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process.
– In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel.
– Our imperial history: Most past cultures have sooner or later fallen prey to the armies of some ruthless empire, which have consigned them to oblivion. Almost all people in the 21st century are the offspring of one empire or another.
– 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.
– To colour all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture. Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity. A significant proportion of humanity’s cultural achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered populations.
– 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.
– It is tempting to divide history neatly into good guys and bad guys, with all empires among the bad guys. For the vast majority of empires were founded on blood, and maintained their power through oppression and war. Yet most of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies. If empires are by definition bad, what does that say about us?
– Is the Taj Mahal an example of ‘authentic’ Indian culture, or the alien creation of Muslim imperialism?
Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance. Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.
– 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.
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.
2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.
– A religion must possess two further qualities. First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary.
– As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money.
– The first monotheist religion known to us appeared in Egypt, c. 1350 BC, when Pharaoh Akhenaten declared that one of the minor deities of the Egyptian pantheon, the god Aten, was, in fact, the supreme power ruling the universe.
– The big breakthrough (for monotheism) came with Christianity. This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah.
– Christian success served as a model for another monotheist religion that appeared in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century – Islam.
– How can a monotheist adhere to such a dualistic belief (which, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament)? Logically, it is impossible. Either you believe in a single omnipotent God or you believe in two opposing powers (good and evil), neither of which is omnipotent. Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions.
Belief in heaven and hell was also dualist in origin. There is no trace of this belief in the Old Testament, which also never claims that the souls of people continue to live after the death of the body.
– 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.
– The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, sometime around 500 BC.
Upon all his studies amd travels Gautama found that nothing liberated him entirely – some dissatisfaction always remained. He did not despair. He resolved to investigate suffering on his own until he found a method for complete liberation. He spent six years meditating on the essence, causes and cures for human anguish. 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 [craving] patterns of one’s own mind.
– Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
– COMMERCE, EMPIRES AND UNIVERSAL religions eventually brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today.
– The Hindsight Fallacy: an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
– History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.
So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes.
– Why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
– There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.
– Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host.
This approach is sometimes called memetics: cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units (ie cultural ideas) called ‘memes’. Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.
Most scholars in the humanities disdain memetics, seeing it as an amateurish attempt to explain cultural processes with crude biological analogies. But many of these same scholars adhere to memetics’ twin sister – postmodernism.
Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture. Yet they too see cultures as propagating themselves with little regard for the benefit of humankind.
– Similar arguments are common in the social sciences, under the aegis of game theory.
Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and behaviour patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root and spread. Arms races are a famous example. Many arms races bankrupt all those who take part in them, without really changing the military balance of power.
– No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics –the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being.
There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens.
– Around AD 1500, history made its most momentous choice, changing not only the fate of humankind, but arguably the fate of all life on earth…
We call it the Scientific Revolution.
– In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7+ billion.
– Suppose a single modern battleship got transported back to Columbus’ time (around 1500). In a matter of seconds it could make driftwood out of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria and then sink the navies of every great world power of the time without sustaining a scratch.
– Prior to the 16th century, no human had circumnavigated the earth. This changed in 1522, when Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain after a journey of 44,000 miles. It took three years and cost the lives of almost all the crew members, Magellan included.
– For most of history, humans knew nothing about 99.99 per cent of the organisms on the planet – namely, the microorganisms.
Microorganisms are our best friends and deadliest enemies. Some of them digest our food and clean our guts, while others cause illnesses and epidemics. Yet it was only in 1674 that a human eye first saw a microorganism, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek took a peek through his home-made microscope and was startled to see an entire world of tiny creatures milling about in a drop of water.
During the subsequent 300 years, humans have made the acquaintance of a huge number of microscopic species. We’ve managed to defeat most of the deadliest contagious diseases they cause, and have harnessed microorganisms in the service of medicine and industry. Today we engineer bacteria to produce medications, manufacture biofuel and kill parasites.
– The single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it. The historical process that led to Alamogordo and to the moon is known as the Scientific Revolution.
– 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.
– The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance…
The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.
– Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions.
After centuries of extensive scientific research, biologists admit that they still don’t have any good explanation for how brains produce consciousness. Physicists admit that they don’t know what caused the Big Bang, or how to reconcile quantum mechanics with the theory of general relativity.
– All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis (who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts) and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute economic truths that could never be refuted).
b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth. This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens.
– In 1687, Isaac Newton published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, arguably the most important book in modern history. Newton presented a general theory of movement and change. The greatness of Newton’s theory was its ability to explain and predict the movements of all bodies in the universe, from falling apples to shooting stars.
Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. Some chapters (for example) boil down to a clear-cut equation; but scholars who attempted to reduce biology, economics and psychology to neat Newtonian equations have discovered that these fields have a level of complexity that makes such an aspiration futile.
This did not mean, however, that they gave up on mathematics. A new branch of mathematics was developed over the last 200 years to deal with the more complex aspects of reality: statistics.
– Throughout most of history, mathematics was an esoteric field that even educated people rarely studied seriously. In medieval Europe, logic, grammar and rhetoric formed the educational core, while the teaching of mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic and geometry. Nobody studied statistics. The undisputed monarch of all sciences was theology.
– In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us.
Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
– A good historian can find precedent for everything. But an even better historian knows when these precedents are but curiosities that cloud the big picture.
– When outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of the growing power of the military-industrial complex, he left out a part of the equation. He should have alerted his country to the military-industrial-scientific complex, because today’s wars are scientific productions. The world’s military forces initiate, fund and steer a large part of humanity’s scientific research and technological development.
– Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.
– As recently as the 19th century, the best doctors still did not know how to prevent infection and stop the putrefaction of tissues. In field hospitals doctors routinely cut off the hands and legs of soldiers who received even minor limb injuries, fearing gangrene. These amputations, as well as all other medical procedures (such as tooth extraction), were done without any anaesthetics.
The first anaesthetics – ether, chloroform and morphine – entered regular usage in Western medicine only in the middle of the 19th century.
– Before the advent of chloroform, four soldiers had to hold down a wounded comrade while the doctor sawed off the injured limb. On the morning after the battle of Waterloo (1815), heaps of sawn-off hands and legs could be seen adjacent to the field hospitals.
In those days, carpenters and butchers who enlisted to the army were often sent to serve in the medical corps, because surgery required little more than knowing your way with knives and saws.
In the two centuries since Waterloo, things have changed beyond recognition.
The average life expectancy jumped from around 25 to 40 years, to (now) around 67 in the entire world, and to around 80 years in the developed world.
– When we recall how little we knew about the human body in 1900, and how much knowledge we have gained in a single century, there is cause for optimism.
– Death suffered its worst setbacks in the arena of child mortality. Until the 20th century, between 1/4 and 1/3 of the children of agricultural societies never reached adulthood. Most succumbed to childhood diseases such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox.
In 17th-century England, 150 out of every 1,000 newborns (15%) died during their first year, and 1/3 of all children were dead before they reached fifteen.
– Example of the family of King Edward I of England (1237–1307) and his wife, Queen Eleanor (1241–90):
Their children enjoyed the best conditions and the most nurturing surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe. They lived in palaces, ate as much food as they liked, had plenty of warm clothing, well-stocked fireplaces, the cleanest water available, an army of servants and the best doctors. Sources mention sixteen children that Queen Eleanor bore between 1255 and 1284…
10 out of the 16 (62%) died during childhood. Only six managed to live beyond the age of 11, and only three – just 18% – lived beyond the age of 40. They lost 10 children, one every three years on average.
The youngest, Edward, was the first of the boys to survive the dangerous years of childhood, and at his father’s death he ascended the English throne as King Edward II. In other words, it took Eleanor sixteen tries to carry out the most fundamental mission of an English queen – to provide her husband with a male heir. (But then the woman Edward chose for his wife, Isabella of France, had him murdered when he was 43!)
– The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. In its more poetic and desperate moments, nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will forever live in its collective memory. Yet this promise is so fuzzy that even most nationalists do not really know what to make of it.
– 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.
Two forces in particular deserve our attention: imperialism and capitalism. The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years.
– The discovery of an effective treatment for scurvy greatly contributed to British control of the world’s oceans and its ability to send armies to the other side of the world.
Captain James Cook claimed for Britain many of the islands and lands he ‘discovered’, most notably Australia (and surrounding islands including Tasmania and New Zealand) for the settlement of millions of Europeans in the new colonies… and for the extermination of their native cultures and most of their native populations.
– The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable. People such as Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks could hardly distinguish science from empire.
– Between 1500 and 1750, western Europe gained momentum and became master of the ‘Outer World’, meaning the two American continents and the oceans. Yet even then Europe was no match for the great powers of Asia.
Europeans managed to conquer America and gain supremacy at sea mainly because the Asiatic powers showed little interest in them.
The early modern era was a golden age for the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Mughal Empire in India, and the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. They expanded their territories significantly and enjoyed unprecedented demographic and economic growth.
In 1775 Asia accounted for 80% of the world economy.
– The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the world’s economy and most of its territory.
– Under the European aegis a new global order and global culture emerged. Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste.
They may be fiercely anti-European in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes, and listens to music written in European modes with words in European languages.
– It’s unquestionable that from 1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military–industrial–scientific complex and technological wizardry.
A common saying among European soldiers facing African enemies was, ‘Come what may, we have machine guns, and they don’t.’
Civilian technologies were no less important: Canned food fed soldiers, railroads and steamships transported soldiers and their provisions, while a new arsenal of medicines cured soldiers, sailors and locomotive engineers. These logistical advances played a more significant role in the European conquest of Africa than did the machine gun.
– 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.
France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.
– 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…
When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else. So it is hardly coincidental that science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world of the 21st century.
Europe and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are growing ever stronger.
– European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world.
– The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed.
– The coming of the Spaniards was the equivalent of an alien invasion from outer space. The Aztecs were convinced that they knew the entire world and that they ruled most of it.
Within about twenty years (late 1400s early 1500s) almost the entire native Caribbean population was wiped out. The Spanish colonists began importing African slaves to fill the vacuum.
The surviving natives (roughly only 10%) found themselves under the thumb of a greedy and racist regime that was far worse than that of the Aztecs.
– Only in the 20th century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony.
– In truth, neither the narrative of European imperialists as exploitative oppressors nor that of generous society builders completely matches the facts. The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them.
– People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by ‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it’s about time we coined it.
Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’
– Behind the meteoric rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force: capitalism.
Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on the surface of the moon.
– What enables banks –and the entire economy –to survive and flourish is our trust in the future. This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world.
– We’ve already seen that money is an astounding thing because it can represent myriad different objects and convert anything into almost anything else. However, before the modern era this ability was limited. In most cases, money could represent and convert only things that actually existed in the present.
The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods – goods that do not exist in the present – with a special kind of money they called ‘credit’.
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.
– Credit arrangements of one kind or another have existed in all known human cultures, going back at least to ancient Sumer.
The problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present.
– In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time.
Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.
– Adam 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.
– Smith denied the traditional contradiction between wealth and morality, and threw open the gates of heaven for the rich. Being rich meant being moral.
In Smith’s story, people become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the overall size of the pie. And when the pie grows, everyone benefits. The rich are accordingly the most useful and benevolent people in society, because they turn the wheels of growth for everyone’s advantage.
– All this depends, however, on the rich using their profits to open new factories and hire new employees, rather than wasting them on non-productive activities. Smith therefore repeated like a mantra the maxim that ‘When profits increase, the landlord or weaver will employ more assistants’ and not ‘When profits increase, Scrooge will hoard his money in a chest and take it out only to count his coins.’
– In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’ That’s why capitalism is called ‘capitalism’.
Capitalism distinguishes ‘capital’ from mere ‘wealth’. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.
– Capitalism’s 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.
– 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.
– In 1568, the Dutch became the richest state in Europe.
How exactly did the Dutch win the trust of the financial system? Firstly, they were sticklers about repaying their loans on time and in full, making the extension of credit less risky for lenders. Secondly, their country’s judicial system enjoyed independence and protected private rights – in particular private property rights.
– Louis XV found it more and more difficult to raise credit. This became one of the chief reasons that the overseas French Empire fell into British hands. While the British could borrow money easily and at low interest rates, France had difficulties securing loans, and had to pay high interest on them. In order to finance his growing debts, the king of France borrowed more and more money at higher and higher interest rates.
Eventually, in the 1780s, Louis XVI, who had ascended to the throne on his grandfather’s death, realised that half his annual budget was tied to servicing the interest on his loans, and that he was heading towards bankruptcy. Reluctantly, in 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General, the French parliament that had not met for a century and a half, in order to find a solution to the crisis. Thus began the French Revolution.
– The first English settlements in North America were established in the early seventeenth century by joint-stock companies such as the London Company, the Plymouth Company, the Dorchester Company and the Massachusetts Company.
– In the late 19th century, about 40 million Chinese, a tenth of the country’s population, were opium addicts.
– Today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources.
– 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.
– In a completely free market, unsupervised by kings and priests, avaricious capitalists can establish monopolies or collude against their workforces. If there is a single corporation controlling all shoe factories in a country, or if all factory owners conspire to reduce wages simultaneously, then the labourers are no longer able to protect themselves by switching jobs.
– After large sugar plantations were established in America, ever-increasing amounts of sugar began to reach Europe. The price of sugar dropped and Europe developed an insatiable sweet tooth.
The annual sugar intake of the average Englishman rose from near zero in the early 17th century to around eighteen pounds in the early 19th century.
– From the 16th to the 19th centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. About 70% of them worked on the sugar plantations.
Labour conditions were abominable. Most slaves lived a short and miserable life, and millions more died during wars waged to capture slaves or during the long voyage from inner Africa to the shores of America…
All this so that Europeans could enjoy their sweet tea and candy – and sugar barons could enjoy huge profits.
– The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.
– 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.
– 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.
– Whereas in 1700 carts were built mainly by the muscle power of carpenters and smiths, today the machines in Toyota and Boeing factories are powered by petroleum combustion engines and nuclear power stations.
A similar revolution has swept almost all other fields of industry…
We call it the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760 – 1840).
– Throughout these long millennia, day in and day out, people stood face to face with the most important invention in the history of energy production – and failed to notice it.
The minute water boiled, the lid of the kettle or the pot jumped. Heat was being converted to movement.
– A partial breakthrough in converting heat into movement followed the invention of gunpowder in 9th China.
At first, the idea of using gunpowder to propel projectiles was so counter-intuitive that for centuries gunpowder was used primarily to produce fire bombs. But eventually – perhaps after some bomb expert ground gunpowder in a mortar only to have the pestle shoot out with force – guns made their appearance.
About 600 years passed between the invention of gunpowder and the development of effective artillery.
– Around 1700, a strange noise began reverberating around British mineshafts. That noise – harbinger of the Industrial Revolution – was subtle at first, but it grew louder and louder with each passing decade until it enveloped the entire world in a deafening cacophony. It emanated from a steam engine.
There are many types of steam engines, but they all share one common principle. You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam.
As the steam expands it pushes a piston. The piston moves, and anything that is connected to the piston moves with it. You have converted heat into movement!
– On 15 September 1830, the first commercial railway line was opened, connecting Liverpool with Manchester. The trains moved under the same steam power that had previously pumped water and moved textile looms. A mere 20 years later, Britain had tens of thousands of miles of railway tracks.
– 600 years passed between the moment Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder and the moment Turkish cannon pulverised the walls of Constantinople.
Only 40 years passed between the moment Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that’s what E = mc ² means –and the moment atom bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear power stations mushroomed all over the globe.
– Another crucial discovery was the internal combustion engine, which took little more than a generation to revolutionise human transportation and turn petroleum into liquid political power.
Petroleum had been known for thousands of years, and was used to waterproof roofs and lubricate axles. Yet until just a century ago nobody thought it was useful for much more than that.
– The career of electricity was more startling yet. Two centuries ago electricity played no role in the economy, and was used at most for arcane scientific experiments and cheap magic tricks. A series of inventions turned it into our universal genie in a lamp.
– Learning how to harness and convert energy effectively solved the other problem that slows economic growth –the scarcity of raw materials.
– The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials. The result was an explosion in human productivity.
The explosion was felt first and foremost in agriculture. Usually, when we think of the Industrial Revolution, we think of an urban landscape of smoking chimneys, or the plight of exploited coal miners sweating in the bowels of the earth.
Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
– For the first time in human history (upon the Industrial Revolution), supply began to outstrip demand upon the Industrial Revolution. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?
– Since the Industrial Revolution, the world’s human population has burgeoned as never before. In 1700 the world was home to some 700 million humans. In 1800 there were 950 million of us. By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers to 1.6 billion. And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion. Today there are over 7 billion Sapiens.
– Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic growth. Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor were they terribly interested in doing so. The world went about its business without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants.
There was no uniform working day, and all routines changed drastically from season to season. People knew where the sun was, and watched anxiously for portents of the rainy season and harvest time, but they did not know the hour and hardly cared about the year.
– In 1847, British train companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time…
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.
– 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.
– 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 deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. 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.
– The two most important examples for the rise of imagined communities are the nation and the consumer tribe. The nation is the imagined community of the state. The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market. Both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation really to know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past.
– Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense.
– The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquillity. We tend to focus too much on the puddles and forget about the dry land separating them.
Charles Dickens wrote of the French Revolution that ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This may be true not only of the French Revolution, but of the entire era it heralded.
Today, in most parts of the world, people go to sleep without fearing that in the middle of the night a neighbouring tribe might surround their village and slaughter everyone.
– It is perhaps debatable whether violence within states has decreased or increased since 1945. What nobody can deny is that international violence has dropped to an all-time low. Perhaps the most obvious example is the collapse of the European empires.
In 1945 Britain ruled a quarter of the globe. Thirty years later it ruled just a few small islands.
– The Soviet collapse in 1989 was even more peaceful [than the French empire]. The Soviet elite, and the Communist regimes through most of eastern Europe (Romania and Serbia were the exceptions), chose not to use even a tiny fraction of this military power. When its members realised that Communism was bankrupt, they renounced force, admitted their failure, packed their suitcases and went home.
– Campaigns of conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map. Limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars, but wars are no longer the norm.
– Real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war.
– 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.
– Consider California. Its wealth was initially built on gold mines. But today it is built on silicon and celluloid – Silicon Valley and the celluloid hills of Hollywood.
What would happen if the Chinese were to mount an armed invasion of California, land a million soldiers on the beaches of San Francisco and storm inland? They would gain little. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley…
The wealth resides in the minds of Google engineers and Hollywood script doctors, directors and special-effects wizards, who would be on the first plane to Bangalore or Mumbai long before the Chinese tanks rolled into Sunset Boulevard.
– So, is the modern era one of mindless slaughter, war and oppression, typified by the trenches of World War One, the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and the gory manias of Hitler and Stalin? Or is it an era of peace, epitomised by the trenches never dug in South America, the mushroom clouds that never appeared over Moscow and New York, and the serene visages of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
The answer is a matter of timing. It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years. If this chapter had been written in 1945 or 1962, it would probably have been much more glum. Since it was written in 2014, it takes a relatively buoyant approach to modern history.
– But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? … Historians seldom ask such questions. … Yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history.
– Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all bad. For instance, over the last two centuries, modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33% to less than 5%.
Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. …
Mass famines continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the 20th century. During Communist China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, somewhere between 10 and 50 million human beings starved to death. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of nuclear annihilation. …
Hence, though the last few decades have been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an ephemeral eddy of good fortune.
– When judging modernity, it is all too tempting to take the viewpoint of a 21st-century middle-class Westerner. We must not forget the viewpoints of a 19th-century Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict, or Tasmanian Aborigine.
– If people are richer and healthier, then they must also be happier. But is that really so obvious?
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…
This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community.
– But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations…
If you want a [new phone] and get a new phone, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived.
When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.
– We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.
It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. The problem is a fallacy of reasoning embedded deep in our psyches. When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others.
– Most biologists are not fanatics. They maintain that happiness is determined mainly by biochemistry, but they agree that psychological and sociological factors also have their place.
If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.
Take, for example, the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were busy: they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of man, abolished noble privileges and waged war against the whole of Europe…
Yet none of that changed French biochemistry. Consequently, despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after.
– In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, published in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, happiness is the supreme value and psychiatric drugs replace the police and the ballot as the foundation of politics. Each day, each person takes a dose of ‘soma’, a synthetic drug which makes people happy without harming their productivity and efficiency. The World State that governs the entire globe is never threatened by wars, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, because all people are supremely content with their current conditions, whatever they may be.
Huxley’s vision of the future is far more troubling than George Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why. Everybody is happy all the time –what could be wrong with that?
– Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. But that definition is contested by some scholars. Many say that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values (our appraisals of experience) make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’.
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.
– Assessing life minute by minute, medieval people certainly had it rough. However, if they believed the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife, they may well have viewed their lives as far more meaningful and worthwhile than modern secular people. Asked ‘Are you satisfied with your life as a whole?’, people in the Middle Ages might have scored quite highly in a subjective well-being questionnaire.
– 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 (craving/clinging), which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied.
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.
– Sapiens are subject to the same physical forces, chemical reactions and natural-selection processes that govern all living beings.
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.
But as the 21st century unfolds, this is no longer true: Homo sapiens is transcending those limits.
– If the potential [of intelligent design by humans] 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.
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.
– We’re at present using only a fraction of the potential of genetic engineering. Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies –plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.
– 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.
– Sapiens, too, are being turned into cyborgs. The newest generation of hearing aids and retina implants may be referred to as ‘bionic ears & eyes’.
Producing a film about the life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of Neanderthals. Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals.
– Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.
– History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass.
– What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. …
How long do we have? No one really knows. Some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia?