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Related: Homo Deus, Guns, Germs and Steel
An outstanding book on the history of humans, including cultures, religion, and economic development.
It took me a couple reads to fully appreciate, but it's guaranteed to elevate your level of understanding of the modern world, and of humans. Highly recommend.
Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal.
Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings. Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order.
Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property.
Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions.
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens has 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.
In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two.
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’.
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.
While people in today’s affluent societies work an average of forty to forty-five hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert work on average for just thirty-five to forty-five hours a week.
The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet.
If we combine the mass extinctions in Australia and America, and add the smaller-scale extinctions that took place as Homo sapiens spread over Afro-Asia – such as the extinction of all other human species – and the extinctions that occurred when ancient foragers settled remote islands such as Cuba, the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom.
Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave and Second Wave extinctions, they’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part of. If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive. This is especially relevant to the large animals of the oceans. Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, the large sea animals suffered relatively little from the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolutions. But many of them are on the brink of extinction now as a result of industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic resources. If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales, sharks, tuna and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and mammoths to oblivion.
Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers.
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. 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.
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.
Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
The Luxury Trap
Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.
The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.
Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to no, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.
The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.
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. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?
Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.
Victims of the Revolution
From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep.
Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness. Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.
This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.
Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.
This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American democracy would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.
The Prison Walls
How do you convince people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.
You also educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.
Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’.
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product (a car, new clothes, organic food) or a service (housekeeping, relationship therapy, yoga classes). Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or service will make life better.
Because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny. A conscious effort has to be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse.
Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.
A significant number of human cultures have viewed homosexual relations as not only legitimate but even socially constructive, ancient Greece being the most notable example. The Iliad does not mention that Thetis had any objection to her son Achilles’ relations with Patroclus. Queen Olympias of Macedon was one of the most temperamental and forceful women of the ancient world, and even had her own husband, King Philip, assassinated. Yet she didn’t have a fit when her son, Alexander the Great, brought his lover Hephaestion home for dinner.
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.
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.
Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics. 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.
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.
Human cultures are in constant flux. Is this flux completely random, or does it have some overall pattern? In other words, does history have a direction? The answer is yes. Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex. This is of course a very crude generalisation, true only at the macro level. At the micro level, it seems that for every group of cultures that coalesces into a mega-culture, there’s a mega-culture that breaks up into pieces.
One of the most interesting examples of this globalisation is ‘ethnic’ cuisine. In an Italian restaurant we expect to find spaghetti in tomato sauce; in Polish and Irish restaurants lots of potatoes; in an Argentinian restaurant we can choose between dozens of kinds of beefsteaks; in an Indian restaurant hot chillies are incorporated into just about everything; and the highlight at any Swiss café is thick hot chocolate under an alp of whipped cream. But none of these foods is native to those nations.
The Global Vision
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.
We begin with the story of the greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples. This conqueror is money. People who do not believe in the same god or obey the same king are more than willing to use the same money.
Shells and Cigarettes
Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services.
Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex commercial networks and dynamic markets. Without money, commercial networks and markets would have been doomed to remain very limited in their size, complexity and dynamism.
The Gospel of Gold
For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits.
Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.
Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.
The Price of Money
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.
In our time, ‘imperialist’ ranks second only to ‘fascist’ in the lexicon of political swear words. The contemporary critique of empires commonly takes two forms:
From a historical perspective, the first statement is plain nonsense, and the second is deeply problematic.
The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. In general, they have been toppled only by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite. Conversely, conquered peoples don’t have a very good record of freeing themselves from their imperial overlords. Most have remained subjugated for hundreds of years. Typically, they have been slowly digested by the conquering empire, until their distinct cultures fizzled out.
This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in their wake. 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.
Good Guys and Bad Guys in History
There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation, untainted by sin.
These ideologies are at best naïve; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry.
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. Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys.
Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.
Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria:
Despite their ability to legitimise widespread social and political orders, not all religions have actuated this potential. In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human beings, 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.
God is One
Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.
In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.
The Law of Nature
All the religions we have discussed so far share one important characteristic: they all focus on a belief in gods and other supernatural entities.
During the first millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin, were characterised by their disregard of gods.
Gautama grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules meant to make it easier for people to focus on actual experience and to avoid falling into cravings and fantasies. He instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke the fire of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth). When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). Those who have attained nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering. They experience reality with the utmost clarity, free of fantasies and delusions. While they will most likely still encounter unpleasantness and pain, such experiences cause them no misery. A person who does not crave cannot suffer.
Buddha spent the rest of his life explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could be freed from suffering. He encapsulated his teachings in a single law: suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.
This law, known as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature.
The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’
The Worship of Man
The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history.
The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.
Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it.
Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.
At the dawn of the third millennium, the future of evolutionary humanism is unclear. For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to upgrade’ Homo sapiens. But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.
At the same time, a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences, a gulf we cannot ignore much longer. Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual. Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants.
But saying that a global society is inevitable is not the same as saying that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now have. We can certainly imagine other outcomes.
1. The Hindsight Fallacy
This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
2. Blind Clio
We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along.
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. It assumes that, just as organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’. Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.
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.
Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser.
Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things. By definition, whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past did not bother to tell us was unimportant.
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.
Knowledge is Power
In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto tided 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.
The Sugar Daddy of Science
To channel limited resources we must answer questions such as ‘What is more important?’ and ‘What is good?’ And these are not scientific questions. Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.
In short, scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.
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.
A Growing Pie
In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time.
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.
Columbus Searches for an Investor
Capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property.
The Capitalist Hell
This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits and production blinds people to anything that might stand in the way.
Life on the Conveyor Belt
This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.
The Age of Shopping
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.
Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured.
It has succeeded. We are all good consumers. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed. Manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products that we must purchase in order to stay ‘in’. Shopping has become a favourite pastime, and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses and friends. Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day – originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers – is now an occasion for special sales. Most people mark this day by going shopping, perhaps to prove that the defenders of freedom did not die in vain.
The flowering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in the awful shade of starvation. In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.
How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.
The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.
In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.
Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market. As best we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic building blocks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms.
Most of the traditional functions of families and communities were handed over to states and markets.
The Collapse of the Family and the Community
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, social security steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins
But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbours in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?
Like the nuclear family, the community could not completely disappear from our world without any emotional replacement. Markets and states today provide most of the material needs once provided by communities, but they must also supply tribal bonds. Markets and states do so by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that contain millions of strangers, and which are tailored to national and commercial needs. An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do.
The two most important examples for the rise of such 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.
Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination.
Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, we have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences. A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.
Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals.
If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.
One interesting conclusion is that money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyond that point it has little significance.
Another interesting finding is that illness decreases happiness in the short term, but is a source of long-term distress only if a person’s condition is constantly deteriorating or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating pain. People who are diagnosed with chronic illness such as diabetes are usually depressed for a while, but if the illness does not get worse they adjust to their new condition and rate their happiness as highly as healthy people do.
Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. People with strong families who live in tight-knit and supportive communities are significantly happier than people whose families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a community to be part of. Marriage is particularly important. Repeated studies have found that there is a very close correlation between good marriages and high subjective well-being, and between bad marriages and misery.
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 happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
The Meaning of Life
Another is that the findings demonstrate 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.
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.
So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.
Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
To sum up, subjective well-being questionnaires identify our well-being with our subjective feelings, and identify the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of particular emotional states. In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
If this is so, then our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?
Homo sapiens is transcending those limits. It is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design.
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.
Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.
Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction.
Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of. We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.
In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and war. Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and fragile to be certain of.
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
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