All the notes were taken directly from the source mentioned.
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Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago.
ABOUT 13.5 BILLION YEARS AGO, MATTER, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang.
300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms,
3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules…
Intricate structures called organisms.
70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures.
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.
Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books.
Horses and donkeys have a recent common ancestor and share many physical traits. But they show little sexual interest in one another.
Homo sapiens – the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).
All members of a family trace their lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch. All cats, for example, from the smallest house kitten to the most ferocious lion, share a common feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago.
We are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest.
Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means “Southern Ape”.
Homo rudolfensis (East Africa); Homo erectus (East Asia); and Homo neanderthalensis (Europe and western Asia). All are humans.
Homo erectus, “Upright Man”, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever.
Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia.
Who knows how many lost relatives of ours are waiting to be discovered in other caves, on other islands, and in other climes.
Humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals.
In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body”s energy when the body is at rest.
Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it”s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like throwing stones or signalling.
Humans can perform very intricate tasks with their hands. In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools.
Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human.
Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.
Only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust.
By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis.
Best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms – such as wheat, rice and potatoes – became staples of our diet thanks to cooking.
Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.
Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it”s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.
When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force.
The power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours.
“Interbreeding Theory” tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.
Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm.
“Replacement Theory” tells a very different story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another.
If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago.
If the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.
It turned out that 1–4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA.
The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.
How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely different species like horses and donkeys. On the other hand, they were not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. Biological reality is not black and white. There are also important grey areas. Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. There must have been a point when the two populations were already quite different from one another, but still capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile offspring.
50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at that borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species.
Scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities – learning, remembering, communicating – were far more limited.
About 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things.
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages.
The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.
According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It”s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.
Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.
As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution.
This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.
Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately.
The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop. When two individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females.
When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact – hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities.
Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals.
In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum “natural” size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
States are rooted in common national myths.
Churches are rooted in common religious myths.
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
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. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.
It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.
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.
The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as “fictions”, “social constructs”, or “imagined realities”.
Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights.
Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories.
Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs.
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.
As long as Homo erectus did not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the same
In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.
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. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.
Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.
Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade,
The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations. When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.
If archaic Sapiens believing in such fictions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served Neanderthals and other archaic humans. Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these differences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between different bands.
The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology,
To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.
If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns – such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions – that they could never have created in isolation.
Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years.
However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically.
Bar.. Indians. According to the beliefs of such societies, a child is not born from the sperm of a single man, but from the accumulation of sperm in a woman”s womb. A good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover.
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 most notable characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies is how different they are one from the other. They differ not only from one part of the world to another but even in the same region.
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.
The dog was the first animal domesticated by Homo sapiens, and this occurred before the Agricultural Revolution.
Dogs that were most attentive to the needs and feelings of their human companions got extra care and food, and were more likely to survive.
Techniques for drying, smoking and freezing food also made it possible to stay put for longer periods. Most importantly, alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood and waterfowl, humans set up permanent fishing villages – the first permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural Revolution.
To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes.
They foraged for knowledge as well.
They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably.
The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history.
There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging.
They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits, beehives and bird nests. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t”ai chi.
Evidence from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants.
The foragers” secret of success, which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet.
Furthermore, by not being dependent on any single kind of food, they were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed. Agricultural societies are ravaged by famine when drought, fire or earthquake devastates the annual rice or potato crop. Forager societies were hardly immune to natural disasters, and suffered from periods of want and hunger, but they were usually able to deal with such calamities more easily. If they lost some of their staple foodstuffs, they could gather or hunt other species, or move to a less affected area.
Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution. Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of these scourges.
Anthropologists who lived with them for years report that violence between adults was very rare. Both women and men were free to change partners at will. They smiled and laughed constantly, had no leadership hierarchy, and generally shunned domineering people. They were extremely generous with their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth. The things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-quality friendships.8 They viewed the killing of children, sick people and the elderly as many people today view abortion and euthanasia. It should also be noted that the Ache were hunted and killed without mercy by Paraguayan farmers. The need to evade their enemies probably caused the Ache to adopt an exceptionally harsh attitude towards anyone who might become a liability to the band.
During the last million years, there has been an ice age on average every 100,000 years. The last one ran from about 75,000 to 15,000 years ago. Not unusually severe for an ice age, it had twin peaks, the first about 70,000 years ago and the second at about 20,000 years ago. The giant diprotodon appeared in Australia more than 1.5 million years ago and successfully weathered at least ten previous ice ages. It also survived the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. Why, then, did it disappear 45,000 years ago? Of course, if diprotodons had been the only large animal to disappear at this time, it might have been just a fluke. But more than 90 per cent of Australia”s megafauna disappeared along with the diprotodon. The evidence is circumstantial, but it”s hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills. Secondly, when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are usually hit as hard as land dwellers. Yet there is no evidence of any significant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago. Human involvement can easily explain why the wave of extinction obliterated the terrestrial megafauna of Australia while sparing that of the nearby oceans. Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace. Thirdly, mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia – whenever people settled another part of the Outer World. In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. For example,
A third explanation agrees that hunting and fire agriculture played a significant role in the extinction, but emphasises that we can”t completely ignore the role of climate.
Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions.
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.
We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.
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.
Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.
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.
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stonehenge in Britain.
Stonehenge dates to 2500 BC, and was built by a developed agricultural society.
That leaves us with the theory that they were built for some mysterious cultural purpose that archaeologists have a hard time deciphering. Whatever it was, the foragers thought it worth a huge amount of effort and time. The only way to build G√∂bekli Tepe was for thousands of foragers belonging to different bands and tribes to cooperate over an extended period of time. Only a sophisticated religious or ideological system could sustain such efforts.
Such domesticated animals – sheep, chickens, donkeys and others – supplied food (meat, milk, eggs), raw materials (skins, wool), and muscle power.
As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals.
Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueller with the passing of the centuries.
Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world.
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.
Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world. 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. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueller with the passing of the centuries.
Domesticated chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months, because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age from an economic perspective. (Why keep feeding a cock for three years if it has already reached its maximum weight after three months?)
In many New Guinean societies, the wealth of a person has traditionally been determined by the number of pigs he or she owns.
Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after giving birth to calves, kids and lambs, and only as long as the youngsters are suckling. To continue a supply of animal milk, a farmer needs to have calves, kids or lambs for suckling, but must prevent them from monopolising the milk. One common method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves and kids shortly after birth, milk the mother for all she was worth, and then get her pregnant again. This is still a very widespread technique.
The females are reared to become the next generation of dairy cows, whereas the males are handed over to the care of the meat industry.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their 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.
Farming enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting and gathering. Around 10,000 BC, before the transition to agriculture, earth was home to about 5–8 million nomadic foragers.
Foragers discounted the future because they lived from hand to mouth and could only preserve food or accumulate possessions with difficulty.
The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service. The agricultural economy was based on a seasonal cycle of production, comprising long months of cultivation followed by short peak periods of harvest. On the night following the end of a plentiful harvest the peasants might celebrate for all they were worth, but within a week or so they were again up at dawn for a long day in the field.
Concern about the future was rooted not only in seasonal cycles of production, but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture.
Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present.
These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent 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 mere fact that one can feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflicts, and how to act in times of drought or war. And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if the storehouses are bulging.
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.
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.
“Cooperation” sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.
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.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. According to the science of biology, people were not created”. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be “equal”. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”?
Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. “Created equal” should therefore be translated into “evolved differently”.
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a “Creator” who “endows” them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals. “Endowed by their creator” should be translated simply into “born. Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. 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”. And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? “Life”, certainly. But “liberty”? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about “happiness”? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily defined and measured. So “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be translated into “life and the pursuit of pleasure”.
This is exactly what I mean by “imagined order”. 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.
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.”
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.
An imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well.
A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively.
To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order?
An even more interesting question concerns those standing at the top of the social pyramid. Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves don”t 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.
How do you cause 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.
The imagined order is embedded in the material world. The imagined order shapes our desires.
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order.
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. Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite “market of experiences”, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier.
The imagined order is inter-subjective.
In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me.
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them.
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child”s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away.
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.
If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn”t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it”s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
Large systems of cooperation that involve not twenty-two but thousands or even millions of humans require the handling and storage of huge amounts of information, much more than any single human brain can contain and process. The large societies found in some other species, such as ants and bees, are stable and resilient because most of the information needed to sustain them is encoded in the genome.
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.
Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons. First, its capacity is limited.
Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them. Any information stored in a brain will be erased in less than a century. It is, of course, possible to pass memories from one brain to another, but after a few transmissions, the information tends to get garbled or lost. Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information. In order to survive, ancient hunter-gatherers had to remember the shapes, qualities and behaviour patterns of thousands of plant and animal species. They had to remember that a wrinkled yellow mushroom growing in autumn under an elm tree is most probably poisonous, whereas a similar-looking mushroom growing in winter under an oak tree is a good stomach-ache…
Evolutionary pressures have adapted the human brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological, topographical and social information. But when particularly complex societies began to appear in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, a completely new type of information became vital – numbers.
Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital. It was never enough to legislate laws and tell stories about guardian gods.
Without this capacity, the state would never know what resources it had and what further resources it could tap.
Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom, mathematical data was vital. It was never enough to legislate laws and tell stories about guardian gods. One also had to collect taxes. In order to tax hundreds of thousands of people, it was imperative to collect data about peoples incomes and possessions; data about payments made; data about arrears, debts and fines; data about discounts and exemptions. This added up to millions of data bits,
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”.
(The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.)
The first texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry, legends, laws, or even royal triumphs. They are humdrum economic documents, recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of debts and the ownership of property.
Only one other type of text survived from these ancient days, and it is even less exciting: lists of words, copied over and over again by apprentice scribes
Sumerian writing was a partial rather than a full script. Full script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language more or less completely.
Latin script, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Braille are full scripts. You can use them to write tax registers, love poems, history books, food recipes and business law. In contrast, the earliest Sumerian script, like modern mathematical symbols and musical notation, are partial scripts. You can use mathematical script to make calculations, but you cannot use it to write love poems.
It was written by tying knots on colourful cords called quipus. Each quipu consisted of many cords of different colours, made of wool or cotton. On each cord, several knots were tied in different places. A single quipu could contain hundreds of cords and thousands of knots. By combining different knots on different cords with different colours, it was possible to record large amounts of mathematical data relating to, for example, tax collection and property ownership.
Yet writing”s most important task continued to be the storage of reams of mathematical data, and that task remained the prerogative of partial script. The Hebrew Bible, the Greek Iliad, the Hindu Mahabharata and the Buddhist Tipitika all began as oral works. For many generations they were transmitted orally and would have lived on even had writing never been invented.
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.
Ancient scribes learned not merely to read and write, but also to use catalogues, dictionaries, calendars, forms and tables.
Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, understood its usefulness, refined it, and spread it through the Middle East and then to Europe. When several other signs were later added to the Arab numerals (such as the signs for addition, subtraction and multiplication), the basis of modern mathematical notation came into being.
A critical step was made sometime before the ninth century AD, when a new partial script was invented, one that could store and process mathematical data with unprecedented efficiency. This partial script was composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9. Confusingly, these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus
Every piece of information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored, spread and processed with mind-boggling speed and efficiency.
More recently, mathematical script has given rise to an even more revolutionary writing system, a computerised binary script consisting of only two signs: 0 and 1.
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 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen”s private property or tell him what to do with it.
All the above-mentioned distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. (The hierarchy of men and women will be discussed later.) Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.
Contrary to Aristotle, there is no known biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.
Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories,
Complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination.
Why did traditional Indian society classify people according to caste, Ottoman society according to religion, and American society according to race?
Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges.
It probably has its roots in biological survival mechanisms that make humans feel an instinctive revulsion towards potential disease carriers, such as sick persons and dead bodies. If you want to keep any human group isolated – women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks – the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.
They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than from Europe or East Asia due to three circumstantial factors. Firstly, Africa was closer, so it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam. Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade (exporting slaves mainly to the Middle East), whereas in Europe slavery was very rare. It was obviously far easier to buy slaves in an existing market than to create a new one from scratch. Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations in places such as Virginia, Haiti and Brazil were plagued by malaria and yellow fever, which had originated in Africa. Africans had acquired over the generations a partial genetic immunity to these diseases, whereas Europeans were totally defenceless and died in droves. It was consequently wiser for a plantation owner to invest his money in an African slave than in a European slave or indentured labourer.
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. But economic disadvantage was not the whole story. Alabama was also home to many poor whites who lacked the opportunities available to their better-off racial brothers and sisters. In addition, the Industrial Revolution and the waves of immigration made the United States an extremely fluid society, where rags could quickly turn into riches. If money was all that mattered, the sharp divide between the races should soon have blurred, not least through intermarriage. But that did not happen. By 1865 whites, as well as many blacks, took it to be a simple matter of fact that blacks were less intelligent, more violent and sexually dissolute, lazier and less concerned about personal cleanliness than whites.
You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by.
“Jim Crow” laws and norms that were meant to safeguard the racial order. Blacks were forbidden to vote in elections, to study in white schools, to buy in white stores, to eat in white restaurants, to sleep in white hotels. The justification for all of this was that blacks were foul, slothful and vicious, so whites had to be protected from them. Whites did not want to sleep in the same hotel as blacks or to eat in the same restaurant, for fear of diseases. They did not want their children learning in the same school as black children, for fear of brutality and bad influences. They did not want blacks voting in elections, since blacks were ignorant and immoral.
Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time.
Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
That is one good reason to study history. If the division into blacks and whites or Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be sufficient for understanding human society. 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.
In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often their fathers, husbands or brothers. Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her.
The Bible decrees that “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife” (Deuteronomy 22:28–9).
Raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a crime at all, just as picking up a lost coin on a busy street is not considered theft. And if a husband raped his own wife, he had committed no crime.
To say that a husband “raped” his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet.
As of 2006, there were still fifty-three countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife.
Childbearing has always been women”s job, because men don”t have wombs. Yet around this hard universal kernel, every society accumulated layer upon layer of cultural ideas and norms that have little to do with biology.
In democratic Athens of the fifth century BC, an individual possessing a womb had no independent legal status and was forbidden to participate in popular assemblies or to be a judge. With few exceptions, such an individual could not benefit from a good education, nor engage in business or in philosophical discourse. None of Athens” political leaders, none of its great philosophers, orators, artists or merchants had a womb.
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. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. 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.
In truth, our concepts “natural” and unnatural” are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology.
There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak
Similarly, wings didn’t suddenly appear in all their aerodynamic glory. They developed from organs that served another purpose. According to one theory, insect wings evolved millions of years ago from body protrusions on flightless bugs. Bugs with bumps had a larger surface area than those without bumps, and this enabled them to absorb more sunlight and thus stay warmer. In a slow evolutionary process, these solar heaters grew larger. The same structure that was good for maximum sunlight absorption – lots of surface area, little weight – also, by coincidence, gave the insects a bit of a lift when they skipped and jumped. Those with bigger protrusions could skip and jump farther. Some insects started using the things to glide, and from there it was a small step to wings that could actually propel the bug through the air.
The same sort of multitasking applies to our sexual organs and behaviour. Sex first evolved for procreation and courtship rituals as a way of sizing up the fitness of a potential mate. But many animals now put both to use for a multitude of social purposes that have little to do with creating little copies of themselves. Chimpanzees, for example, use sex to cement political alliances, establish intimacy and defuse tensions. Is that unnatural?
Biologically, humans are divided into males and females. A male Homo sapiens is one who has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome; a female is one with two Xs. But “man” and woman” name social, not biological, categories.
A man is not a Sapiens with particular biological qualities such as XY chromosomes, testicles and lots of testosterone. Rather, he fits into a particular slot in his society”s imagined human order. His culture”s myths assign him particular masculine roles (like engaging in politics), rights (like voting) and duties (like military service). Likewise, a woman is not a Sapiens with two X chromosomes, a womb and plenty of oestrogen. Rather, she is a female member of an imagined human order. The myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles (raising children), rights (protection against violence) and duties (obedience to her husband).
To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between “sex”, which is a biological category, and “gender”, a cultural category.
Sex is child”s play; but gender is serious business.
Since most masculine and feminine qualities are cultural rather than biological, no society automatically crowns each male a man, or every female a woman. Nor are these titles laurels that can be rested on once they are acquired. Males must prove their masculinity constantly, throughout their lives, from cradle to grave, in an endless series of rites and performances. And a woman”s work is never done – she must continually convince herself and others that she is feminine enough. Success is not guaranteed. Males in particular live in constant dread of losing their claim to manhood. Throughout history, males have been willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives, just so that people will say “He”s a real man!”
Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies.
The most common theory points to the fact that men are stronger than women, and that they have used their greater physical power to force women into submission. A more subtle version of this claim argues that their strength allows men to monopolise tasks that demand hard manual labour, such as ploughing and harvesting. This gives them control of food production, which in turn translates into political clout. There are two problems with this emphasis on muscle power. First, the statement that men are stronger than women” is true only on average, and only with regard to certain types of strength. Women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men.
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. Boxing matches were not used to select Egyptian pharaohs or Catholic popes. In forager societies, political dominance generally resides with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most developed musculature. In organised crime, the big boss is not necessarily the strongest man. He is often an older man who very rarely uses his own fists; he gets younger and fitter men to do the dirty jobs for him.
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.
Millions of years of evolution have made men far more violent than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence.
Augustus succeeded in establishing a stable imperial regime, achieving something that eluded both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who were much better generals. Both his admiring contemporaries and modern historians often attribute this feat to his virtue of clementia – mildness and clemency.
Hence an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate and how to see things from different perspectives.
A third type of biological explanation gives less importance to brute force and violence, and suggests that through millions of years of evolution, men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies. As men competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile women, an individual”s chances of reproduction depended above all on his ability to outperform and defeat other men. As time went by, the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most ambitious, aggressive and competitive men.
If she wanted her children to provide her with grandchildren, she needed to carry them in her womb for nine arduous months, and then nurture them for years. During that time she had fewer opportunities to obtain food, and required a lot of help. She needed a man. In order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden.
There are many species of animals, such as elephants and bonobo chimpanzees, in which the dynamics between dependent females and competitive males results in a matriarchal society. Since females need external help, they are obliged to develop their social skills and learn how to cooperate and appease. They construct all-female social networks that help each member raise her children. Males, meanwhile, spend their time fighting and competing. Their social skills and social bonds remain underdeveloped. Bonobo and elephant societies are controlled by strong networks of cooperative females, while the self-centred and uncooperative males are pushed to the sidelines.
Sapiens are relatively weak animals, whose advantage rests in their ability to cooperate in large numbers. If so, we should expect that dependent women, even if they are dependent on men, would use their superior social skills to cooperate to outmanoeuvre and manipulate aggressive, autonomous and self-centred men.
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.
If, as is being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal system has been based on unfounded myths rather than on biological facts, what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?
Since patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious circle that was kick-started by a chance occurrence. It is particularly noteworthy that even before 1492, most societies in both America and Afro-Asia were patriarchal, even though they had been out of contact for thousands of years. If patriarchy in Afro-Asia resulted from some chance occurrence, why were the Aztecs and Incas patriarchal?
Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true. 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.
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.
Every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change. For instance, in medieval Europe the nobility believed in both Christianity and chivalry.
Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to fund programmes to help the poor, elderly and infirm.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to maximise individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap between rich and poor will grow wider and that many Americans will not be able to afford health care.
Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture.
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.
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. The Mongol Empire expanded to dominate a huge swathe of Asia and even parts of Europe, only to shatter into fragments. Christianity converted hundreds of millions of people at the same time that it splintered into innumerable sects. The Latin language spread through western and central Europe, then split into local dialects that themselves eventually became national languages.
It becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity. The sectioning of Christianity and the collapse of the Mongol Empire are just speed bumps on history”s highway.
By AD 1450, their numbers had declined even more drastically. At that time, just prior to the age of European exploration, earth still contained a significant number of dwarf worlds such as Tasmania. But close to 90 per cent 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. It consumed the Mesoamerican World in 1521, when the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire. It took its first bite out of the Oceanic World at the same time, during Ferdinand Magellan”s circumnavigation of the globe, and soon after that completed its conquest. The Andean World collapsed in 1532, when Spanish conquistadors crushed the Inca Empire. The first European landed on the Australian continent in 1606, and that pristine world came to an end when British colonisation began in earnest in 1788. Fifteen years later the Britons established their first settlement in Tasmania, thus bringing the last autonomous human world into the Afro-Asian sphere of influence.
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).
They still argue and fight, but they argue using the same concepts and fight using the same weapons.
We still talk a lot about “authentic” cultures, but if by authentic” we mean something that developed independently, and that consists of ancient local traditions free of external influences, then there are no authentic cultures left on earth.
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 cafe is thick hot chocolate under an alp of whipped cream. But none of these foods is native to those nations. Tomatoes, chilli peppers and cocoa are all Mexican in origin; they reached Europe and Asia only after the Spaniards conquered Mexico.
Native American horsemen were not the defenders of some ancient, authentic culture. Instead, they were the product of a major military and political revolution that swept the plains of western North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a consequence of the arrival of European horses.
Thus Mexican chilli peppers made it into Indian food and Spanish cattle began grazing in Argentina.
In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs.
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.
Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, “us vs them”, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. 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.
When an Aztec wanted to buy something, he generally paid in cocoa beans or bolts of cloth. The Spanish obsession with gold thus seemed inexplicable.
Three centuries before the conquest of Mexico, the ancestors of Cortes and his army waged a bloody war of religion against the Muslim kingdoms in Iberia and North Africa. The followers of Christ and the followers of Allah killed each other by the thousands, devastated fields and orchards, and turned prosperous cities into smouldering ruins – all for the greater glory of Christ or Allah.
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.
Villages that gained a reputation for producing really good wine, olive oil or ceramics discovered that it was worth their while to specialise nearly exclusively in that product and trade it with other settlements for all the other goods they needed.
But specialisation created a problem – how do you manage the exchange of goods between the specialists?
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”.
Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. There have been many types of money. The most familiar is the coin, which is a standardised piece of imprinted metal. Yet money existed long before the invention of coinage, and cultures have prospered using other things as currency, such as shells, cattle, skins, salt, grain, beads, cloth and promissory notes. Cowry shells were used as money for about 4,000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania.
Cowry shells in British Uganda in the early twentieth…
One Auschwitz survivor described the cigarette currency used in the camp: “We had our own currency, whose value no one questioned: the cigarette. The price of every article was stated in cigarettes In “normal” times, that is, when the candidates to the gas chambers were coming in at a regular pace, a loaf of bread cost twelve cigarettes; a 300-gram package of margarine, thirty; a watch, eighty to 200; a litre of alcohol, 400 cigarettes!”
In fact, even today coins and banknotes are a rare form of money. In 2006, the sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes was less than $6 trillion.7 More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.
For complex commercial systems to function, some kind of money is indispensable. A shoemaker in a money economy needs to know only the prices charged for various kinds of shoes – there is no need to memorise the exchange rates between shoes and apples or goats. 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.
Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.
It is even possible to convert sex into salvation, as fifteenth-century prostitutes did when they slept with men for money, which they in turn used to buy indulgences from the Catholic Church.
In order to use wealth it is not enough just to store it. It often needs to be transported from place to place. Some forms of wealth, such as real estate, cannot be transported at all.
Money solves these problems. The farmer can sell his property in exchange for a sack of cowry shells, which he can easily carry wherever he goes.
Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or their colour, or their shape. In other words, money isn”t a material reality – it is a psychological construct.
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 real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel.
The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia.
Why should Chinese, Indians, Muslims and Spaniards – who belonged to very different cultures that failed to agree about much of anything – nevertheless share the belief in gold? Why didn”t it happen that Spaniards believed in gold, while Muslims believed in barley, Indians in cowry shells, and Chinese in rolls of silk? Economists have a ready answer. Once trade connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalise the prices of transportable goods.
Assume that when regular trade opened between India and the Mediterranean, Indians were uninterested in gold, so it was almost worthless. But in the Mediterranean, gold was a coveted status symbol, hence its value was high. What would happen next? Merchants travelling between India and the Mediterranean would notice the difference in the value of gold. In order to make a profit, they would buy gold cheaply in India and sell it dearly in the Mediterranean. Consequently, the demand for gold in India would skyrocket, as would its value. At the same time the Mediterranean would experience an influx of gold, whose value would consequently drop. Within a short time the value of gold in India and the Mediterranean would be quite similar. 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
Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
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.
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.
Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water seeping through cracks in a dam. Parents have been reduced to selling some of their children into slavery in order to buy food for the others. Devout Christians have murdered, stolen and cheated – and later used their spoils to buy forgiveness from the church. Ambitious knights auctioned their allegiance to the highest bidder, while securing the loyalty of their own followers by cash payments. Tribal lands were sold to foreigners from the other side of the world in order to purchase an entry ticket into the global economy.
Money has an even darker side. For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbour – we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust.
Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another.
An empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, to qualify for that designation you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory. How many peoples exactly? Two or three is not sufficient. Twenty or thirty is plenty. The imperial threshold passes somewhere in between. Second, empires are characterised by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite. They can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering their basic structure or identity.
Cultural diversity and territorial flexibility give empires not only their unique character, but also their central role in history. It”s thanks to these two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of planet Earth.
Size, too, does not really matter. Empires can be puny. The Athenian Empire at its zenith was much smaller in size and population than today”s Greece. The Aztec Empire was smaller than today”s Mexico. Both were nevertheless empires, whereas modern Greece and modern Mexico are not, because the former gradually subdued dozens and even hundreds of different polities while the latter have not.
Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity.
The contemporary critique of empires commonly takes two forms: 1. Empires do not work. In the long run, it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of conquered peoples. 2. Even if it can be done, it should not be done, because empires are evil engines of destruction and exploitation. Every people has a right to self-determination, and should never be subject to the rule of another.
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.
Imperial elites used the profits of conquest to finance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art, justice and charity.
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.
Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, “we” and “they”. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don”t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don”t care an iota what happens in their territory.
In contrast with this ethnic exclusiveness, imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world, the existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and the mutual responsibilities of all human beings. Humankind is seen as a large family: the privileges of the parents go hand in hand with responsibility for the welfare of the children.
Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.
A second and equally important reason why empires actively spread a common culture was to gain legitimacy.
One reason was to make life easier for themselves. It is difficult to rule an empire in which every little district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language and its own money.
A second and equally important reason why empires actively spread a common culture was to gain legitimacy. At least since the days of Cyrus empire have justified his actions – whether road-building or bloodshed – as necessary to spread a superior culture from which the conquered benefit even more than the conquerors.
The cultural ideas spread by empire were seldom the exclusive creation of the ruling elite. Since the imperial vision tends to be universal and inclusive, it was relatively easy for imperial elites to adopt ideas, norms and traditions from wherever they found them, rather than to stick fanatically to a single hidebound tradition. While some emperors sought to purify their cultures and return to what they viewed as their roots, for the most part empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples. The imperial culture of Rome was Greek almost as much as Roman. The imperial Abbasid culture was part Persian, part Greek, part Arab. Imperial Mongol culture was a Chinese copycat. In the imperial United States, an American president of Kenyan blood can munch on Italian pizza while watching his favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, a British epic about the Arab rebellion against the Turks. Not that this cultural melting
While some emperors sought to purify their cultures and return to what they viewed as their roots, for the most part empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples. The imperial culture of Rome was Greek almost as much as Roman. The imperial Abbasid culture was part Persian, part Greek, part Arab. Imperial Mongol culture was a Chinese copycat. In the imperial United States, an American president of Kenyan blood can munch on Italian pizza while watching his favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, a British epic about the Arab rebellion against the Turks.
China”s ruling class treated their country”s neighbours and its foreign subjects as miserable
Most imperial elites earnestly believed that they were working for the general welfare of all the empires inhabitants. China”s ruling class treated their country”s neighbours and its foreign subjects as miserable barbarians to whom the empire must bring the benefits of culture. The Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon the emperor not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity. The Romans, too, justified their dominion by arguing that they were endowing the barbarians with peace, justice and refinement. The wild Germans and painted Gauls had lived in squalor and ignorance until the Romans tamed them with law, cleaned them up in public bathhouses, and improved them with philosophy. The Mauryan Empire in the third century BC took as its mission the dissemination of Buddha”s teachings to an ignorant world. The Muslim caliphs received a divine mandate to spread the Prophet”s revelation, peacefully if possible but by the sword if necessary. The Spanish and Portuguese empires proclaimed that it was not riches they sought in the Indies and America, but converts to the true faith.
While some emperors sought to purify their cultures and return to what they viewed as their roots, for the most part empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples. The imperial culture of Rome was Greek almost as much as Roman. The imperial Abbasid culture was part Persian, part Greek, part Arab. Imperial Mongol culture was a Chinese copycat. In the imperial United States, an American president of Kenyan blood can munch on Italian pizza while watching his favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, a British epic about the Arab rebellion against the Turks. Not that this cultural melting pot made the process of cultural assimilation any easier for the vanquished. The imperial civilisation may well have absorbed numerous contributions from various conquered peoples, but the hybrid result was still alien to the vast majority. The process of assimilation was often painful and traumatic. It is not easy to give up a familiar and loved local tradition, just as it is difficult and stressful to understand and adopt a new culture. Worse still, even when subject peoples were successful in adopting the imperial culture, it could take decades, if not centuries, until the imperial elite accepted them as part of “us”. The generations between
The sun never set on the British mission to spread the twin gospels of liberalism and free trade. The Soviets felt duty-bound to facilitate the inexorable historical march from capitalism towards the utopian dictatorship of the proletariat. Many Americans nowadays maintain that their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered by cruise missiles and F-16s.
Most imperial elites earnestly believed that they were working for the general welfare of all the empires inhabitants. China”s ruling class treated their country”s neighbours and its foreign subjects as miserable barbarians to whom the empire must bring the benefits of culture. The Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon the emperor not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity. The Romans, too, justified their dominion by arguing that they were endowing the barbarians with peace, justice and refinement. The wild Germans and painted Gauls had lived in squalor and ignorance until the Romans tamed them with law, cleaned them up in public bathhouses, and improved them with philosophy. The Mauryan Empire in the third century BC took as its mission the dissemination of Buddha”s teachings to an ignorant world. The Muslim caliphs received a divine mandate to spread the Prophet”s revelation, peacefully if possible but by the sword if necessary. The Spanish and Portuguese empires proclaimed that it was not riches they sought in the Indies and America, but converts to the true faith. The sun never set on the British mission to spread the twin gospels of liberalism and free trade. The Soviets felt duty-bound to facilitate the inexorable historical march from capitalism towards the utopian dictatorship of the proletariat. Many Americans nowadays maintain that their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the benefits of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered by cruise missiles and F-16s.
Since the imperial vision tends to be universal and inclusive, it was relatively easy for imperial elites to adopt ideas, norms and traditions from wherever they found them, rather than to stick fanatically to a single hidebound tradition.
Most part empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their subject peoples.
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?
Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire. The British killed, injured and persecuted the inhabitants of the subcontinent, but they also united a bewildering mosaic of warring kingdoms, principalities and tribes, creating a shared national consciousness and a country that functioned more or less as a single political unit.
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.
They laid the foundations of the Indian judicial system, created its administrative structure, and built the railroad network that was critical for economic integration. Independent India adopted Western democracy, in its British incarnation, as its form of government. English is still the subcontinent”s lingua franca, a neutral tongue that native speakers of Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam can use to communicate. Indians are passionate cricket players and chai (tea) drinkers, and both game and beverage are British legacies.
If an extreme Hindu nationalist were to destroy all the buildings left by the British conquerors, such as Mumbai”s main train station, what about the structures left by India”s Muslim conquerors, such as the Taj Mahal?
As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit.
Pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit. States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system.
As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit. States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system. States are obliged to conform to global standards of financial behaviour, environmental policy and justice.
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.
Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements.
Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.
First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone.
The Agricultural Revolution seems to have been accompanied by a religious revolution.
A leading theory about the origin of the gods argues that gods gained importance because they offered a solution to this problem. Gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the gods” main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.
Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals – the first chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example.
Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans.
Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks.
The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.
Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”.
Subject peoples throughout the empire were expected to respect the empire”s gods and rituals, since these gods and rituals protected and legitimised the empire. Yet they were not required to give up their local gods and rituals.
If we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.1 In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.
The first monotheist religion known to us appeared in Egypt, c.350 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.
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.
Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.
“Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?”
One well-known explanation is that this is God”s way of allowing for human free will. Were there no evil, humans could not choose between good and evil, and hence there would be no free will.
If God knew in advance that a particular person would use her free will to choose evil, and that as a result she would be punished for this by eternal tortures in hell, why did God create her?
What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard time dealing with the Problem of Evil.
For dualists, it”s easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God.
Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the Problem of Evil, it is unnerved by the Problem of Order. If the world was created by a single God, it’s clear why it is such an orderly place, where everything obeys the same laws. But if Good and Evil battle for control of the world, who enforces the laws governing this cosmic war?
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.
Christians, Muslims and Jews manage to believe at one and the same time in an omnipotent God and an independent Devil.
Another key dualistic concept, particularly in Gnosticism and Manichaeanism, was the sharp distinction between body and soul, between matter and spirit.
From a monotheistic perspective, this is nonsense – why distinguish so sharply between body and soul, or matter and spirit? And why argue that body and matter are evil? After all, everything was created by the same good God.
Belief in heaven (the realm of the good god) and hell (the realm of the evil god) 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.
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.
All the religions we have discussed so far share one important characteristic: they all focus on a belief in gods and other supernatural entities.
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. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering evident all around him. He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it? At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus but 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 behaviour patterns of one”s own mind.
Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things, such as pain. As long as the pain continues, we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify. People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it. Some become anxious that their partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could have found someone better. And we all know people who manage to do both.
Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind. But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, “What am I experiencing now?” rather than on “What would I rather be experiencing?” It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.
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. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama himself attained nirvana and was fully liberated from suffering. Henceforth he was known as “Buddha”, which means “The Enlightened One”. 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. That “suffering arises from craving”
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?”
Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering, rather than for stops along the way such as economic prosperity and political power.
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.
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. The similarity does not end there. Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and prophetic books, such as Marx”s Das Kapital, which foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary of the October Revolution. It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics, and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who monitored the piety of soldiers and officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. Soviet Communism was a fanatical and missionary religion. A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the price of his or her life.
Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order.
We can divide creeds into god-centred religions and godless ideologies that claim to be based on natural laws. But then, to be consistent, we would need to catalogue at least some Buddhist, Daoist and Stoic sects as ideologies rather than religions. Conversely, we should note that belief in gods persists within many modern ideologies, and that some of them, most notably liberalism, make little sense without this belief.
American nowadays is simultaneously a nationalist (she believes in the existence of an American nation with a special role to play in history), a free-market capitalist (she believes that open competition and the pursuit of self-interest are the best ways to create a prosperous society), and a liberal humanist (she believes that humans have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights).
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.
Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that “humanity” is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct.
The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority. If we encounter an ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner voice – the voice of humanity. The chief commandments of liberal humanism are meant to protect the liberty of this inner voice against intrusion or harm. These commandments are collectively known as “human rights”.
This, for example, is why liberals object to torture and the death penalty. In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilise the cosmic order. To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the order re-established.
Without recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens.
Another important sect is socialist humanism. Socialists believe that “humanity” is collective rather than individualistic.
According to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because it privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their universal essence.
Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God.
Evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis.
Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman. The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution. This is why the Nazis said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even exterminated.
White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s. The White Australia policy which restricted immigration of non-white people to Australia remained in force until 1973. Aboriginal Australians did not receive equal political rights until the 1960s, and most were prevented from voting in elections because they were deemed unfit to function as citizens.
The Nazis did not loathe humanity. They fought liberal humanism, human rights and Communism precisely because they admired humanity and believed in the great potential of the human species.
By succouring the weak, liberalism and Communism not only allowed unfit individuals to survive, they actually gave them the opportunity to reproduce, thereby undermining natural selection.
A 1942 German biology textbook explains in the chapter “The Laws of Nature and Mankind”
The battle for existence is hard and unforgiving, but is the only way to maintain life. This struggle eliminates everything that is unfit for life, and selects everything that is able to survive¬†‚Ä¶¬†These natural laws are incontrovertible; living creatures demonstrate them by their very survival. They are unforgiving. Those who resist them will be wiped out. Biology not only tells us about animals and plants, but also shows us the laws we must follow in our lives, and steels our wills to live and fight according to these laws.
The meaning of life is struggle. Woe to him who sins against these laws. Then follows a quotation from Mein Kampf: “The person who attempts to fight the iron logic of nature thereby fights the principles he must thank for his life as a human being. To fight against nature is to bring about one”s own destruction.”
Why is English so widespread today, and not Danish? Why are there about 2 billion Christians and 1.25 billion Muslims, but only 150,000 Zoroastrians and no Manichaeans? If we could go back in time to 10,000 years ago and set the process going again, time after time, would we always see the rise of monotheism and the decline of dualism?
The Hindsight Fallacy
Historians can speculate, but not provide any definitive answer. They can describe how Christianity took over the Roman Empire, but they cannot explain why this particular possibility was realised. What is the difference between describing “how” and explaining “why”? To describe “how” means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain “why means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.
The better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect. If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state religion, you”d have been laughed out of the room just as you would be today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be the state religion of the USA. In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small radical Russian faction. No reasonable person would have predicted that within a mere four years they would take over the country. In AD 600, the notion that a band of desert-dwelling Arabs would soon conquer an expanse stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India was even more preposterous.
This conclusion disappoints many people, who prefer history to be deterministic. Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history. It is natural and inevitable that we live in nation states, organise our economy along capitalist principles, and fervently believe in human rights. To acknowledge that history is not deterministic is to acknowledge that it is just a coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism and human rights. 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.
Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialise. If the current price of oil is $90 a barrel, and the infallible computer program predicts that tomorrow it will be $100, traders will rush to buy oil so that they can profit from the predicted price rise. As a result, the price will shoot up to $100 a barrel today rather than tomorrow. Then what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows.
Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.
So 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.
History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans.
The victors, of course, always believe that their definition is correct. But why should we believe the victors? Christians believe that the victory of Christianity over Manichaeism was beneficial to humankind, but if we do not accept the Christian world view then there is no reason to agree with them. Muslims believe that the fall of the Sassanid Empire into Muslim hands was beneficial to humankind. But these benefits are evident only if we accept the Muslim world view.
They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host. In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them.
According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.
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”.1 Successful cultures are those that excel in reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and benefits to their human hosts.
Postmodernist thinkers describe nationalism as a deadly plague that spread throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, causing wars, oppression, hate and genocide. The moment people in one country were infected with it, those in neighbouring countries were also likely to catch the virus. The nationalist virus presented itself as being beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself.
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. For example, postmodernist thinkers describe nationalism as a deadly plague that spread throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, causing wars, oppression, hate and genocide. The moment people in one country were infected with it, those in neighbouring countries were also likely to catch the virus. The nationalist virus presented itself as being beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself.
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. When Pakistan buys advanced aeroplanes, India responds in kind. When India develops nuclear bombs, Pakistan follows suit. When Pakistan enlarges its navy, India counters. At the end of the process, the balance of power may remain much as it was, but meanwhile billions of dollars that could have been invested in education or health are spent on weapons.
(Keep in mind that an arms race, like a gene, has no awareness – it does not consciously seek to survive and reproduce. Its spread is the unintended result of a powerful dynamic.)
No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics – the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being.
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.
Why did the Scientific Revolution begin there of all places, and not in China or India? Why did it begin at the midpoint of the second millennium AD rather than two centuries before or three centuries later?
The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavadgita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.1 The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today”s dollars.2 Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.3 In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day.4 (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)
A modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare. Any large bank today holds more money than all the world”s premodern kingdoms put together.
In 1873, Jules Verne could imagine that Phileas Fogg, a wealthy British adventurer, might just be able to make it around the world in eighty days. Today anyone with a middle-class income can safely and easily circumnavigate the globe in just forty-eight hours.
In 1500, humans were confined to the earth”s surface. They could build towers and climb mountains, but the sky was reserved for birds, angels and deities. On 20 July 1969 humans landed on the moon. This was not merely a historical achievement, but an evolutionary and even cosmic feat. During the previous 4 billion years of evolution, no organism managed even to leave the earth”s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle print on the moon.
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.
05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
It is a revolution because, until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers. While government and wealthy patrons allocated funds to education and scholarship, the aim was, in general, to preserve existing capabilities rather than acquire new ones.
The willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – “we do not know”.
Our ancestors put a great deal of time and effort into trying to discover the rules that govern the natural world. But modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: a. The willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – “we do not know”. It assumes that we don”t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge. b. The centrality of observation and mathematics. Having admitted ignorance, modern science aims to obtain new knowledge. It does so by gathering observations and then using mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive theories. c. The acquisition of new powers. Modern science is not content with creating theories. It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known.
It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Qur”an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe – a secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures.
To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew.
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.
After all, God knew perfectly well how spiders do it. If this were a vital piece of information, necessary for human prosperity and salvation, God would have included a comprehensive explanation in the Bible.
Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions.
Darwin never argued that he was “The Seal of the Biologists”, and that he had solved the riddle of life once and for all. 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.
The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.
Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?
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).
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.
Even science itself has to rely on religious and ideological beliefs to justify and finance its research.
Of course, physicists analysing the spectra of distant galaxies, archaeologists analysing the finds from a Bronze Age city, and political scientists studying the emergence of capitalism do not disregard tradition. They start by studying what the wise people of the past have said and written. But from their first year in college, aspiring physicists, archaeologists and political scientists are taught that it is their mission to go beyond what Einstein, Heinrich Schliemann and Max Weber ever knew.
Earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories. Modern science uses mathematics.
In the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas or the Confucian classics. When traditional mythologies and scriptures laid down general laws, these were presented in narrative rather than mathematical form.
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.
Only around the end of the nineteenth century did scientists come across a few observations that did not fit well with Newton”s laws, and these led to the next revolutions in physics – the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.
A new branch of mathematics was developed over the last 200 years to deal with the more complex aspects of reality: statistics.
Similar probabilistic models have become central to economics, sociology, psychology, political science and the other social and natural sciences. Even physics eventually supplemented Newton”s classical equations with the probability clouds of quantum mechanics.
In medieval Europe, logic, grammar and rhetoric formed the educational core, while the teaching of mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic and geometry.
Today few students study rhetoric; logic is restricted to philosophy departments, and theology to seminaries.
Such as the study of human language (linguistics) and the human psyche (psychology), rely increasingly on mathematics and seek to present themselves as exact sciences. Statistics courses are now part of the basic requirements not just in physics and biology, but also in psychology, sociology, economics and political science.
First required course in the curriculum is “Introduction to Statistics and Methodology in Psychological Research”. Second-year psychology students must take “Statistical Methods in Psychological Research”. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would have been bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human mind and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics.
Out of the 7 billion people in the world, how many really understand quantum mechanics, cell biology or macroeconomics?
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.
The real test is utility.
We often think that it is impossible to develop new technologies without scientific research, and that there is little point in research if it does not result in new technologies.
Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields. When Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it was a revolutionary idea. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this relationship tightened, but the knot was tied only in the nineteenth century. Even in 1800, most rulers who wanted a strong army, and most business magnates who wanted a successful business, did not bother to finance research in physics, biology or economics. I don’t mean to claim that there is no exception to this rule. 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. Generally speaking, most premodern rulers and business people did not finance research about the nature of the universe in order to develop new technologies, and most thinkers did not try to translate their findings into technological gadgets.
The world”s military forces initiate, fund and steer a large part of humanity”s scientific research and technological development.
When World War One bogged down into interminable trench warfare, both sides called in the scientists to break the deadlock and save the nation.
Science played an even larger role in World War Two.
By the time the bomb was ready, in early August 1945, Germany had already surrendered, but Japan was fighting on. American forces were poised to invade its home islands. The Japanese vowed to resist the invasion and fight to the death, and there was every reason to believe that it was no idle threat. American generals told President Harry S. Truman that an invasion of Japan would cost the lives of a million American soldiers and would extend the war well into 1946. Truman decided to use the new bomb. Two weeks and two atom bombs later, Japan surrendered unconditionally and the war was over.
This obsession with military technology – from tanks to atom bombs to spy-flies – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Up until the nineteenth century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of organisational rather than technological changes.
The Arabs did not defeat the Sassanid Empire thanks to superior bows or swords, the Seljuks had no technological advantage over the Byzantines, and the Mongols did not conquer China with the help of some ingenious new weapon.
Its advantage rested on efficient organisation, iron discipline and huge manpower reserves.
The most important military invention in the history of China was gunpowder. Yet to the best of our knowledge, gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist alchemists searching for the elixir of life.
Only in the fifteenth century – about 600 years after the invention of gunpowder – did cannons become a decisive factor on Afro-Asian battlefields. Why did it take so long for the deadly potential of this substance to be put to military use? Because it appeared at a time when neither kings, scholars, nor merchants thought that new military technology could save them or make them rich.
Logistics and strategy continued to have far greater impact on the outcome of wars than technology.
The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to disappointment and disaster.
Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during a lightning storm to test the hypothesis that lightning is simply an electric current.
Social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others; and biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.
In fact, in many societies more people are in danger of dying from obesity than from starvation.
Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting and important: the problem of death itself.
Try to imagine Islam, Christianity or the ancient Egyptian religion in a world without death. These creeds taught people that they must come to terms with death and pin their hopes on the afterlife, rather than seek to overcome death and live for ever here on earth.
That is the theme of the most ancient myth to come down to us – the Gilgamesh myth of ancient Sumer. Its hero is the strongest and most capable man in the world, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who could defeat anyone in battle. One day, Gilgamesh”s best friend, Enkidu, died. Gilgamesh sat by the body and observed it for many days, until he saw a worm dropping out of his friend”s nostril. At that moment Gilgamesh was gripped by a terrible horror, and he resolved that he himself would never die. He would somehow find a way to defeat death. Gilgamesh then undertook a journey to the end of the universe, killing lions, battling scorpion-men and finding his way into the underworld. There he shattered the stone giants of Urshanabi and the ferryman of the river of the dead, and found Utnapishtim, the last survivor of the primordial flood. Yet Gilgamesh failed in his quest. He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with one new piece of wisdom. When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man”s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.
For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures – a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution. If the heart flutters, it can be stimulated by a pacemaker or replaced by a new heart. If cancer rampages, it can be killed with drugs or radiation. If bacteria proliferate, they can be subdued with antibiotics. True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death.
Even if killing death seems a distant goal, we have already achieved things that were inconceivable a few centuries ago. In 1199, King Richard the Lionheart was struck by an arrow in his left shoulder. Today we”d say he incurred a minor injury. But in 1199, in the absence of antibiotics and effective sterilisation methods, this minor flesh wound turned infected and gangrene set in. The only way to stop the spread of gangrene in twelfth-century Europe was to cut off the infected limb, impossible when the infection was in a shoulder. The gangrene spread through the Lionheart”s body and no one could help the king. He died in great agony two weeks later.
As recently as the nineteenth 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 nineteenth century. Before the advent of chloroform, four soldiers had to hold down a wounded comrade while the doctor sawed off the injured limb.
The average life expectancy jumped from around twenty-five to forty years, to around sixty-seven in the entire world, and to around eighty years in the developed world.
In seventeenth-century England, 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during their first year, and a third of all children were dead before they reached fifteen.9 Today, only five out of 1,000 English babies die during their first year, and only seven out of 1,000 die before age fifteen.
The youngest, Edward, was the first of the boys to survive the dangerous years of childhood, and at his fathers 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.
On average, Edward and Eleanor lost a child every three years, ten children one after another. It’s nearly impossible for a parent today to imagine such loss.
How long will the Gilgamesh Project – the quest for immortality – take to complete?
What, exactly, happens to a Communist after he or she dies? What happens to a capitalist? What happens to a feminist? It is pointless to look for the answer in the writings of Marx, Adam Smith or Simone de Beauvoir. 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.
Galileo Galilei, Christopher Columbus and Charles Darwin. If these particular geniuses had never been born, their insights would probably have occurred to others. But if the proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have compensated for that. If Darwin had never been born, for example, we”d today attribute the theory of evolution to Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the idea of evolution via natural selection independently of Darwin and just a few years later. But if the European powers had not financed geographical, zoological and botanical research around the world, neither Darwin nor Wallace would have had the necessary empirical data to develop the theory of evolution.
It is likely that they would not even have tried. Why did the billions start flowing from government and business coffers into labs and universities?
Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. For example, in the sixteenth century, kings and bankers channelled enormous resources to finance geographical expeditions around the world but not a penny for studying child psychology. This is because kings and bankers surmised that the discovery of new geographical knowledge would enable them to conquer new lands and set up trade empires, whereas they couldn”t see any profit in understanding child psychology.
In the 1940s the governments of America and the Soviet Union channelled enormous resources to the study of nuclear physics rather than underwater archaeology.
Scientists themselves are not always aware of the political, economic and religious interests that control the flow of money; many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.
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.
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.
Was Cook’s ship a scientific expedition protected by a military force or a military expedition with a few scientists tagging along? That”s like asking whether your petrol tank is half empty or half full. It was both.
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 per cent of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production.
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 worlds economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas Chinas portion had been reduced to 5 per cent.
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. Even today”s burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance.
How did the people of this frigid finger of Eurasia manage to break out of their remote corner of the globe and conquer the entire world? Europe”s scientists are often given much of the credit. It”s unquestionable that from 1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military–industrial–scientific complex and technological wizardry.
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 world”s first commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in Britain. By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 40,000 kilometres of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America there were only 4,000 kilometres of tracks.
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.
The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.
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 twenty-first century. Europe and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are growing ever stronger.
But until the mid-twentieth century, the people who collated these myriad scientific discoveries, creating scientific disciplines in the process, were the ruling and intellectual elites of the global European empires.
Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. The Arabs, to name one example, did not conquer Egypt, Spain or India in order to discover something they did not know. The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth – not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant lands had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he took 165 scholars with him. Among other things, they founded an entirely new discipline, Egyptology, and made important contributions to the study of religion, linguistics and botany. In 1831, the Royal Navy sent the ship HMS Beagle to map the coasts of South America, the Falklands Islands and the Galapagos Islands. The navy needed this knowledge in order to be better prepared in the event of war. The ship”s captain, who was an amateur scientist, decided to add a geologist to the expedition to study geological formations they might encounter on the way. After several professional geologists refused his invitation, the captain offered the job to a twenty-two-year-old Cambridge graduate, Charles Darwin. Darwin had studied to become an Anglican parson but was far more interested in geology and natural sciences than in the Bible. He jumped at the opportunity, and the rest is history. The captain spent his time on the voyage drawing military maps while Darwin collected the empirical data and formulated the insights that would eventually become the theory of evolution. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals. One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour. “What do you want?” they asked. “Well,” said the old man, “the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.” “What”s the message?” asked the astronauts. The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.
Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there “Indians” because he thought he had landed in the Indies – what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago.
The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseem√ºller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe”s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseem√ºller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person
The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504.
Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseem√ºller named the continent in his honour – America.
Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.
Throughout history most human societies were so busy with local conflicts and neighbourhood quarrels that they never considered exploring and conquering distant lands. Most great empires extended their control only over their immediate neighbourhood – they reached far-flung lands simply because their neighbourhood kept expanding.
It took them 400 years to get from Rome to London. In 350 BC, no Roman would have conceived of sailing directly to Britain and conquering it.
The Zheng He expeditions prove that Europe did not enjoy an outstanding technological edge. What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa.
Zheng He’s flagship next to that of Columbus.
The previous rulers of Central America – the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Maya – barely knew South America existed, and never made any attempt to subjugate it, over the course of 2,000 years. Yet within little more than ten years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizarro had discovered the Inca Empire in South America, vanquishing it in 1532.
For the subjugated natives, these colonies were hell on earth. They were ruled with an iron fist by greedy and unscrupulous colonists who enslaved them and set them to work in mines and plantations, killing anyone who offered the slightest resistance. Most of the native population soon died, either because of the harsh working conditions or the virulence of the diseases that hitch-hiked to America on the conquerors” sailing ships. Within twenty years, almost the entire native Caribbean population was wiped out. The Spanish colonists began importing African slaves to fill the vacuum. This genocide took place on the very doorstep of the Aztec Empire, yet when Cortes landed on the empire’s eastern coast, the Aztecs knew nothing about it. 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. To them it was unimaginable that outside their domain could exist anything like these Spaniards. When Cortes and his men landed on the sunny beaches of today’s Vera Cruz, it was the first time the Aztecs encountered a completely unknown people. The Aztecs did not know how to react. They had trouble deciding what these strangers were. Unlike all known humans, the aliens had white skins. They
They came in giant ships, the like of which the Aztecs had never imagined, let alone seen. They rode on the back of huge and terrifying animals, swift as the wind. They could produce lightning and thunder out of shiny metal sticks. They had flashing long swords and impenetrable armour, against which the natives” wooden swords and flint spears were useless.
Within a century of the landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of the Americas had shrunk by about 90 per cent, due mainly to unfamiliar diseases that reached America with the invaders.
The first non-European power that tried to send a military expedition to America was Japan. That happened in June 1942, when a Japanese expedition conquered Kiska and Attu, two small islands off the Alaskan coast, capturing in the process ten US soldiers and a dog. The Japanese never got any closer to the mainland.
When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things.
Another notable imperialist scholar was William Jones.
Thus in Sanskrit, “mother” is “matar”, in Latin it is “mater”, and in Old Celtic it is “mathir”. Jones surmised that all these languages must share a common origin, developing from a now-forgotten ancient ancestor. He was thus the first to identify what later came to be called the Indo-European family of languages.
The study of linguistics provided invaluable help in understanding the structure and grammar of local languages.
Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, the European conquerors knew their empires very well.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fewer than 5,000 British officials, about 40,000–70,000 British soldiers, and perhaps another 100,000 British business people, hangers-on, wives and children were sufficient to conquer and rule up to 300 million Indians.
The British conquered Bengal, the richest province of India, in 1764. The new rulers were interested in little except enriching themselves.
In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of “The White Man”s Burden” 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. You think that these empires were evil monstrosities that spread death, oppression and injustice around the world? You could easily fill an encyclopedia with their crimes. You want to argue that they in fact improved the conditions of their subjects with new medicines, better economic conditions and greater security? You could fill another encyclopedia with their achievements.
There are very few scientific disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries, collections, buildings and scholarships to the generous help of army officers, navy captains and imperial governors.
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.
For most of history the economy stayed much the same size. Yes, global production increased, but this was due mostly to demographic expansion and the settlement of new lands. Per capita production remained static. But all that changed in the modern age. In 1500, global production of goods and services was equal to about $250 billion; today it hovers around $60 trillion. More importantly, in 1500, annual per capita production averaged $550, while today every man, woman and child produces, on the average, $8,800 a year. What accounts for this stupendous growth?
Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means that 90 per cent of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes.2 If all of the account holders at Barclays Bank suddenly demand their money, Barclays will promptly collapse
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.
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.
It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn”t trust that the future would be better than the present.
The king of England might enrich himself, but only by robbing the king of France. You could cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger.
If the global pie stayed the same size, there was no margin for credit. Credit is the difference between today”s pie and tomorrows pie. If the pie stays the same, why extend credit? It would be an unacceptable risk unless you believed that the baker or king asking for your money might be able to steal a slice from a competitor. So it was hard to get a loan in the premodern world, and when you got one it was usually small, short-term, and subject to high interest rates. Upstart entrepreneurs thus found it difficult to open new bakeries and great kings who wanted to build palaces or wage wars had no choice but to raise the necessary funds through high taxes and tariffs.
It was lose-lose. Because credit was limited, people had trouble financing new businesses. Because there were few new businesses, the economy did not grow. Because it did not grow, people assumed it never would, and those who had capital were wary of extending credit. The expectation of stagnation fulfilled itself.
Then came the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progress. The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve.
In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. In the eighth chapter of its first volume, 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.
Yet Smith”s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
Smith taught people to think about the economy as a “win-win situation”, in which my profits are also your profits. Not only can we both enjoy a bigger slice of pie at the same time, but the increase in your slice depends upon the increase in my slice. If I am poor, you too will be poor since I cannot buy your products or services. If I am rich, you too will be enriched since you can now sell me something. Smith denied the traditional contradiction between wealth and morality, and threw open the gates of heaven for the rich.
A crucial part of the modern capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethic, according to which profits ought to be reinvested in production.
“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.
Medieval noblemen wore colourful robes of gold and silk, and devoted much of their time to attending banquets, carnivals and glamorous tournaments. In comparison, modern CEOs don dreary uniforms called suits that afford them all the panache of a flock of crows, and they have little time for festivities.
Medieval noblemen wore colourful robes of gold and silk, and devoted much of their time to attending banquets, carnivals and glamorous tournaments. In comparison, modern CEOs don dreary uniforms called suits that afford them all the panache of a flock of crows, and they have little time for festivities. The typical venture capitalist rushes from one business meeting to another, trying to figure out where to invest his capital and following the ups and downs of the stocks and bonds he owns. True, his suits might be Versace and he might get to travel in a private jet, but these expenses are nothing compared to what he invests in increasing human production.
But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic – a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth.
When capitalist governments and businesses consider investing in a particular scientific project, the first questions are usually, “Will this project enable us to increase production and profits? Will it produce economic growth?” A project that can”t clear these hurdles has little chance of finding a sponsor.
Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that the scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts. Everything depends on the people in the labs.
Of course, credit was not invented in modern Europe. It existed in almost all agricultural societies, and in the early modern period the emergence of European capitalism was closely linked to economic developments in Asia. Remember, too, that until the late eighteenth century, Asia was the world”s economic powerhouse, meaning that Europeans had far less capital at their disposal than the Chinese, Muslims or Indians.
Credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.
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.
And it was the Dutch merchants – not the Dutch state – who built the Dutch Empire.
The Mississippi Bubble was one of history”s most spectacular financial crashes. The royal French financial system never recuperated fully from the blow.
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.
The nationalisation of Indonesia by the Dutch crown (1800) and of India by the British crown (1858) hardly ended the embrace of capitalism and empire.
In the late 1830s the Chinese government issued a ban on drug trafficking, but British drug merchants simply ignored the law. Chinese authorities began to confiscate and destroy drug cargos. The drug cartels had close connections in Westminster and Downing Street – many MPs and Cabinet ministers in fact held stock in the drug companies – so they pressured the government to take action. In 1840 Britain duly declared war on China in the name of “free trade”. It was a walkover. The overconfident Chinese were no match for Britain”s new wonder weapons – steamboats, heavy artillery, rockets and rapid-fire rifles. Under the subsequent peace treaty, China agreed not to constrain the activities of British drug merchants and to compensate them for damages inflicted by the Chinese police. Furthermore, the British demanded and received control of Hong Kong, which they proceeded to use as a secure base for drug trafficking (Hong Kong remained in British hands until 1997). In the late nineteenth century, about 40 million Chinese, a tenth of the country”s population, were opium addicts.
This is why today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating.
A country devoid of natural resources, but which enjoys peace, a fair judicial system and a free government is likely to receive a high credit rating. As such, it may be able to raise enough cheap capital to support a good education system and foster a flourishing high-tech industry.
Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft and violence. It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts and jails which will enforce the law. When kings fail to do their jobs and regulate the markets properly, it leads to loss of trust, dwindling credit and economic depression. That was the lesson taught by the Mississippi Bubble of 1719, and anyone who forgot it was reminded by the US housing bubble of 2007, and the ensuing credit crunch and recession.
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.
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. Even worse, greedy bosses might curtail the workers” freedom of movement through debt peonage or slavery. At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe.
However, growing cane and extracting its sugar was a labour-intensive business. Few people wanted to work long hours in malaria-infested sugar fields under a tropical sun. Contract labourers would have produced a commodity too expensive for mass consumption. Sensitive to market forces, and greedy for profits and economic growth, European plantation owners switched to slaves. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. About 70 per cent 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.
It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand. Private slave-trading companies sold shares on the Amsterdam, London and Paris stock exchanges. Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment bought these shares. Relying on this money, the companies bought ships, hired sailors and soldiers, purchased slaves in Africa, and transported them to America. There they sold the slaves to the plantation owners, using the proceeds to purchase plantation products such as sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, cotton and rum. They returned to Europe, sold the sugar and cotton for a good price, and then sailed to Africa to begin another round. The shareholders were very pleased with this arrangement. Throughout the eighteenth century the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6 per cent a year – they were extremely profitable, as any modern consultant would be quick to admit.
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.
Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed. The Atlantic slave trade did not stem from racist hatred towards Africans. The individuals who bought the shares, the brokers who sold them, and the managers of the slave-trade companies rarely thought about the Africans. Nor did the owners of the sugar plantations. Many owners lived far from their plantations, and the only information they demanded were neat ledgers of profits and losses.
Within a short time the humanitarian organisation became a business enterprise whose real aim was growth and profit. The schools and hospitals were forgotten, and the Congo basin was instead filled with mines and plantations, run by mostly Belgian officials who ruthlessly exploited the local population.
The economic pie of 2014 is far larger than the pie of 1500, but it is distributed so unevenly that many African peasants and Indonesian labourers return home after a hard day”s work with less food than did their ancestors 500 years ago.
Capitalism has two answers to this criticism. First, capitalism has created a world that nobody but a capitalist is capable of running. The only serious attempt to manage the world differently – Communism – was so much worse in almost every conceivable way that nobody has the stomach to try again. In 8500 BC one could cry bitter tears over the Agricultural Revolution, but it was too late to give up agriculture. Similarly, we may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it. The second answer is that we just need more patience – paradise, the capitalists promise, is right around the corner. True, mistakes have been made, such as the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the European working class. But we have learned our lesson, and if we just wait a little longer and allow the pie to grow a little bigger, everybody will receive a fatter slice. The division of spoils will never be equitable, but there will be enough to satisfy every man, woman and child – even in the Congo.
At least when we use purely material criteria – such as life expectancy, child mortality and calorie intake – the standard of living of the average human in 2014 is significantly higher than it was in 1914, despite the exponential growth in the number of humans.
Yet can the economic pie grow indefinitely? Every pie requires raw materials and energy. Prophets of doom warn that sooner or later Homo sapiens will exhaust the raw materials and energy of planet Earth. And what will happen then?
Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. When and if they run out, the entire system will collapse. But the evidence provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory. Counter-intuitively, while humankind”s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also completely new types of energy and materials.
For millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans already knew how to make use of a large variety of energy sources. They burned wood in order to smelt iron, heat houses and bake cakes. Sailing ships harnessed wind power to move around, and watermills captured the flow of rivers to grind grain. Yet all these had clear limits and problems. Trees were not available everywhere, the wind didn”t always blow when you needed it, and water power was only useful if you lived near a river. An even bigger problem was that people didn”t know how to convert one type of energy into another.
Humans had only one machine capable of performing such energy conversion tricks: the body. In the natural process of metabolism, the bodies of humans and other animals burn organic fuels known as food and convert the released energy into the movement of muscles.
Since human and animal bodies were the only energy conversion device available, muscle power was the key to almost all human activities. Human muscles built carts and houses, ox muscles ploughed fields, and horse muscles transported goods. The energy that fuelled these organic muscle-machines came ultimately from a single source – plants. Plants in their turn obtained their energy from the sun. By the process of photosynthesis, they captured solar energy and packed it into organic compounds. Almost everything people did throughout history was fuelled by solar energy that was captured by plants and converted into muscle power.
When sunlight was scarce and when wheat fields were still green, humans had little energy. Granaries were empty, tax collectors were idle, soldiers found it difficult to move and fight, and kings tended to keep the peace. When the sun shone brightly and the wheat ripened, peasants harvested the crops and filled the granaries. Tax collectors hurried to take their share. Soldiers flexed their muscles and sharpened their swords. Kings convened councils and planned their next campaigns. Everyone was fuelled by solar energy – captured and packaged in wheat, rice and potatoes.
People stood face to face with the most important invention in the history of energy production – and failed to notice it. It stared them in the eye every time a housewife or servant put up a kettle to boil water for tea or put a pot full of potatoes on the stove. The minute the water boiled, the lid of the kettle or the pot jumped. Heat was being converted to movement.
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.
A partial breakthrough in converting heat into movement followed the invention of gunpowder in ninth-century China.
About 600 years passed between the invention of gunpowder and the development of effective artillery.
The new technology was born in British coal mines.
In 1825, a British engineer connected a steam engine to a train of mine wagons full of coal. The engine drew the wagons along an iron rail some twenty kilometres long from the mine to the nearest harbour. This was the first steam-powered locomotive in history. Clearly, if steam could be used to transport coal, why not other goods? And why not even people? On 15 September 1830, the first commercial railway line was opened, connecting Liverpool with Manchester.
For example, when physicists realised that an immense amount of energy is stored within atoms, they immediately started thinking about how this energy could be released and used to make electricity, power submarines and annihilate cities. Six hundred years passed between the moment Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder and the moment Turkish cannon pulverised the walls of Constantinople. Only forty years passed between the moment Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that”s what E = mc2 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 idea of spilling blood for the sake of oil would have seemed ludicrous. You might fight a war over land, gold, pepper or slaves, but not oil.
The career of electricity was more startling yet.
At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. It has demonstrated again and again that there is no limit to the amount of energy at our disposal.
Why are so many people afraid that we are running out of energy? Why do they warn of disaster if we exhaust all available fossil fuels? Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs. The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuel on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun dispenses every day, free of charge.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the human energy market was almost completely dependent on plants.
Learning how to harness and convert energy effectively solved the other problem that slows economic growth – the scarcity of raw materials. As humans worked out how to harness large quantities of cheap energy, they could begin exploiting previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials (for example, mining iron in the Siberian wastelands), or transporting raw materials from ever more distant locations (for example, supplying a British textile mill with Australian wool). Simultaneously, scientific breakthroughs enabled humankind to invent completely new raw materials, such as plastic, and discover previously unknown natural materials, such as silicon and aluminium.
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.
During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture. Machines such as tractors began to undertake tasks that were previously performed by muscle power, or not performed at all. Fields and animals became vastly more productive thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and an entire arsenal of hormones and medications. Refrigerators, ships and aeroplanes have made it possible to store produce for months, and transport it quickly and cheaply to the other side of the world. Europeans began to dine on fresh Argentinian beef and Japanese sushi.
Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs.
Their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations.
It has no intrinsic interest in the animals” social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).
Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes.
Many dairy cows live almost all their allotted years inside a small enclosure; standing, sitting and sleeping in their own urine and excrement.
Chicks on a conveyor belt in a commercial hatchery. Male chicks and imperfect female chicks are picked off the conveyor belt and are then asphyxiated in gas chambers, dropped into automatic shredders, or simply thrown into the rubbish, where they are crushed to death.
Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating.
Evolutionary psychology maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction. For example, a wild cow had to know how to form close relations with other cows and bulls, or else she could not survive and reproduce. In order to learn the necessary skills, evolution implanted in calves – as in the young of all other social mammals – a strong desire to play (playing is the mammalian way of learning social behaviour). And it implanted in them an even stronger desire to bond with their mothers, whose milk and care were essential for survival.
What happens if farmers now take a young calf, separate her from her mother, put her in a closed cage, give her food, water and inoculations against diseases, and then, when she is old enough, inseminate her with bull sperm? From an objective perspective, this calf no longer needs either maternal bonding or playmates in order to survive and reproduce. But from a subjective perspective, the calf still feels a very strong urge to bond with her mother and to play with other calves. If these urges are not fulfilled, the calf suffers greatly. 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.
Harry Harlow studied the development of monkeys.
Monkeys must have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material requirements, and if these are not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly.
This conclusion applies not only to monkeys, but to other mammals, as well as birds.
Consequently, in almost all societies peasants comprised more than 90 per cent of the population.
Today in the United States, only 2 per cent of the population makes a living from agriculture,
For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand. And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity. As we saw in the previous chapter, the resources available to humankind are constantly increasing, and are likely to continue to do so. That”s why doomsday prophesies of resource scarcity are probably misplaced. In contrast, the fear of ecological degradation is only too well founded. The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.
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 just shy of 7 billion Sapiens.
For example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle. If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the others. However, in a modern footwear-factory assembly line, every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine no. 5 has overslept, it stalls all the other machines. In order to prevent such calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable. Each worker arrives at work at exactly the same time. Everybody takes their lunch break together, whether they are hungry or not. Everybody goes home when a whistle announces that the shift is over – not when they have finished their project.
The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.
If workers needed to start their shift by 08:00, the train or bus had to reach the factory gate by 07:55. A few minutes” delay would lower production and perhaps even lead to the lay-offs of the unfortunate latecomers.
Schools too adopted precise timetables, followed by hospitals, government offices and grocery stores.
In 1847, British train companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time, rather than the local times of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow.
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. This modest beginning spawned a global network of timetables, synchronised down to the tiniest fractions of a second.
In order to run the timetable network, cheap but precise portable clocks became ubiquitous. In Assyrian, Sassanid or Inca cities there might have been at most a few sundials. In European medieval cities there was usually a single clock – a giant machine mounted on top of a high tower in the town square. These tower clocks were notoriously inaccurate, but since there were no other clocks in town to contradict them, it hardly made any difference.
The collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.
The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society.
The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market.
Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions.
The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. “Become individuals,” they said. “Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.”
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.
Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one”s parents were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age.
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. 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. As long as millions of Germans believe in the existence of a German nation, get excited at the sight of German national symbols, retell German national myths, and are willing to sacrifice money, time and limbs for the German nation, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world. The nation does its best to hide its imagined character. Most nations argue that they are a natural and eternal entity, created in some primordial epoch by mixing the soil of the motherland with the blood of the people. Yet such claims are usually exaggerated. Nations existed in the distant past, but their importance was much smaller than today because the importance of the state was much smaller. A resident of medieval Nuremberg might have felt some loyalty towards the German nation, but she felt far more loyalty towards her family and local community, which took care of most of her needs. Moreover, whatever importance ancient nations may have had, few of them survived.
The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy. These diplomats determined in 1918 that the people of Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra would henceforth be “Iraqis”. It was primarily the French who decided who would be Syrian and who Lebanese.
Traditionally, the social order was hard and rigid. “Order” implied stability and continuity.
People tended to reconcile themselves to the status quo, declaring that “this is how it always was, and this is how it always will be.
It now exists in a state of permanent flux. When we speak of modern revolutions we tend to think of 1789 (the French Revolution), 1848 (the liberal revolutions) or 1917 (the Russian Revolution).
Hence any attempt to define the characteristics of modern society is akin to defining the colour of a chameleon. The only characteristic of which we can be certain is the incessant change.
From World War One to World War Two to the Cold War, from the Armenian genocide to the Jewish genocide to the Rwandan genocide, from Robespierre to Lenin to Hitler.
We focus too much on the puddles and forget about the dry land separating them. The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquillity.
It is especially true of the seven decades that have elapsed since the end of World War Two. During this period humankind has for the first time faced the possibility of complete self-annihilation and has experienced a fair number of actual wars and genocides. Yet these decades were also the most peaceful era in human history – and by a wide margin.
None of us was alive a thousand years ago, so we easily forget how much more violent the world used to be.
However, in order to understand macro-historical processes, we need to examine mass statistics rather than individual stories.
It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug dealer.
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. Well-off British subjects travel daily from Nottingham to London through Sherwood Forest without fear that a gang of merry green-clad brigands will ambush them and take their money to give to the poor (or, more likely, murder them and take the money for themselves). Students brook no canings from their teachers, children need not fear that they will be sold into slavery when their parents can”t pay their bills, and women know that the law forbids their husbands from beating them and forcing them to stay at home. Increasingly, around the world, these expectations are fulfilled.
The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state.
Yet even in the worst years, the average Brazilian in Rio de Janeiro was far less likely to die at human hands than the average Waorani, Arawete or Yanomamo. The Waorani, Arawete and Yanomamo are indigenous people who live in the depths of the Amazon forest, without army, police or prisons.
In 1945 Britain ruled a quarter of the globe. Thirty years later it ruled just a few small islands. In the intervening decades it retreated from most of its colonies in a peaceful and orderly manner.
It is chilling to contemplate what might have happened if Gorbachev had behaved like the Serbian leadership – or like the French in Algeria.
With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up. Such conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time immemorial.
Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map.
We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful. Yet only once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). There have been quite a few border clashes (e.g. Syria vs Jordan in 1970), many armed interventions of one in
Yet there have been no full-scale international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War.
Since African states won their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, very few countries have invaded one another in the hope of conquest.
There has never been real peace in the world. Between 1871 and 1914, a European war remained a plausible eventuality, and the expectation of war dominated the thinking of armies, politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
This situation might of course change in the future and, with hindsight, the world of today might seem incredibly naive. Yet from a historical perspective, our very naivety is fascinating. Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.
First and foremost, the price of war has gone up dramatically. The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms. Secondly, while the price of war soared, its profits declined. For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital, technical know-how and complex socio-economic structures such as banks.
While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.
In modern capitalist economies, foreign trade and investments have become all-important.
As long as China and the USA are at peace, the Chinese can prosper by selling products to the USA, trading in Wall Street and receiving US investments.
There is a positive feedback loop between all these four factors. The threat of nuclear holocaust fosters pacifism; when pacifism spreads, war recedes and trade flourishes; and trade increases both the profits of peace and the costs of war.
The tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of most countries, lessening the chance that any one of them might single-handedly let slip the dogs of war.
But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?
Nationalists believe that political self-determination is essential for our happiness. Communists postulate that everyone would be blissful under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Capitalists maintain that only the free market can ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number, by creating economic growth and material abundance and by teaching people to be self-reliant and enterprising. What would happen if serious research were to disprove these hypotheses? If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, what”s the benefit of Capitalism? What if it turns out that the subjects of large empires are generally happier than the citizens of independent states and that, for example, Algerians were happier under French rule than under their own? What would that say about the process of decolonisation and the value of national self-determination? These are all hypothetical possibilities, because so far historians have avoided raising these questions – not to mention answering them. They have researched the history of just about everything politics, society, economics, gender, diseases, sexuality, food, clothing – yet they have seldom stopped to ask how these influence human happiness. Though few have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it. In one common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history. Since humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers. But this progressive account is unconvincing. As we have seen, new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life. When humans
For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33 per cent to less than 5 per cent. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families and friends?
Other unprecedented achievements include the steep drop in violence, the virtual disappearance of international wars, and the near elimination of large-scale famines.
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.
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.
The generally accepted definition of happiness is “subjective well-being”. Happiness, according to this view, is something I feel inside myself, a sense of either immediate pleasure or long-term contentment with the way my life is going. If it”s something felt inside, how can it be measured from outside?
One interesting conclusion is that money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyond that point it has little significance. For people stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder, more money means greater happiness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prophets, poets and philosophers realised thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important than getting more of what you want.
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.
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.
Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them but against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards. So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to First World standards.
Biologists hold that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution. Like all other mental states, our subjective well-being is not determined by external parameters such as salary, social relations or political rights. Rather, it is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.
There’s no natural selection for happiness as such – a happy hermit”s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious parents get carried on to the next generation. Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Perhaps it”s not surprising, then, that evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations.
If orgasms were to last for ever, the very happy males would die of hunger for lack of interest in food, and would not take the trouble to look for additional fertile females.
On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between levels six and ten, stabilising with time at eight. Such a person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her money in a stock-exchange crash and is diagnosed with diabetes. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilises at five. Such an unhappy person remains depressed even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete. Indeed, even if our gloomy friend wins $50,000,000 in the morning, discovers the cure for both AIDS and cancer by noon, makes peace between Israelis and Palestinians that afternoon, and then in the evening reunites with her long-lost child who disappeared years ago – she would still be incapable of experiencing anything beyond level seven happiness. Her brain is simply not built for exhilaration, come what may.
We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace, get married, finish writing that novel, buy a new car or repay the mortgage, we would be on top of the world. Yet when we get what we desire we don”t seem to be any happier.
How can this be squared with the above-mentioned psychological and sociological findings that, for example, married people are happier on average than singles? First, these findings are correlations – the direction of causation may be the opposite of what some researchers have assumed. It is true that married people are happier than singles and divorcees, but that does not necessarily mean that marriage produces happiness. It could be that happiness causes marriage. Or more correctly, that serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin bring about and maintain a marriage. People who are born with a cheerful biochemistry are generally happy and content. Such people are more attractive spouses, and consequently they have a greater chance of getting married. They are also less likely to divorce, because it is far easier to live with a happy and content spouse than with a depressed and dissatisfied one. Consequently, it”s true that married people are happier on average than singles, but a single woman prone to gloom because of her biochemistry would not necessarily become happier if she were to hook up with a husband.
Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysees. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysees don”t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X.
If we invest billions in understanding our brain chemistry and developing appropriate treatments, we can make people far happier than ever before, without any need of revolutions. Prozac, for example, does not change regimes, but by raising serotonin levels it lifts people out of their depression.
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. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as “miserable slaves to a baby dictator” or as “lovingly nurturing a new life”. As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.
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, who in the long term can expect nothing but complete and meaningless oblivion. 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.
As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.
The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
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. This is quite a depressing conclusion. Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?
Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning), and that in order to judge people”s happiness, all we need to do is ask them how they feel.
Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right. Liberal art declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Students in liberal schools and universities are taught to think for themselves. Commercials urge us to “Just do it!” Action films, stage dramas, soap operas, novels and catchy pop songs indoctrinate us constantly: “Be true to yourself”, “Listen to yourself”, “Follow your heart”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated this view most classically: “What I feel to be good – is good. What I feel to be bad – is bad.”
Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning), and that in order to judge people”s happiness, all we need to do is ask them how they feel. To many of us, that seems logical because the dominant religion of our age is liberalism.
Yet this view is unique to liberalism. Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how things ought to be.
And so would Christian theologians. St Paul and St Augustine knew perfectly well that if you asked people about it, most of them would prefer to have sex than pray to God. Does that prove that having sex is the key to happiness? Not according to Paul and Augustine. It proves only that humankind is sinful by nature, and that people are easily seduced by Satan.
Imagine that a psychologist embarks on a study of happiness among drug users. He polls them and finds that they declare, every single one of them, that they are only happy when they shoot up. Would the psychologist publish a paper declaring that heroin is the key to happiness?
According to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals.
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.
People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.
New Age cults frequently argue: “Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.” Or more succinctly, “Happiness Begins Within.” This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.
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.
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.
They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?
What is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions.
Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it.
For close to 4 billion years, every single organism on the planet evolved subject to natural selection. Not even one was designed by an intelligent creator.
The first crack in the old regime appeared about 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution. Sapiens who dreamed of fat, slow-moving chickens discovered that if they mated the fattest hen with the slowest cock, some of their offspring would be both fat and slow. If you mated those offspring with each other, you could produce a line of fat, slow birds. It was a race of chickens unknown to nature, produced by the intelligent design not of a god but of a human.
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.
Animal-rights activists decry the suffering caused to lab animals in genetic engineering experiments, and to the farmyard animals that are engineered in complete disregard of their needs and desires. Human-rights activists are afraid that genetic engineering might be used to create supermen who will make serfs of the rest of us.
The prevailing feeling is that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise and far-sighted use of the skill.
Cyborgs are beings which combine organic and inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands.
The third way to change the laws of life is to engineer completely inorganic beings.
In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein.
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