||Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
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Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
The Cognitive Revolution
- Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had 2 daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
- Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means “Southern Ape”.
- The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species.
- 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.
- Women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal - and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. …since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal.
- …our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. 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 bad hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.
- Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.
- 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. … How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
- Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. … There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside of the common imagination of human beings.
- Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.
- Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths — by telling different stories. …ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens has been able to review its behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. …Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal specials in its ability to cooperate.
The Agricultural Revolution
- 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.
- Worldwide, wheat covers about 87,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain.
- The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. … From such a perspective, 1000 copies are always better than a 100 copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
- 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.
- This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
- We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.
- A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are impressive. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.
- a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy.
- 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:
- The imagined order is embedded in the material world.
- The imagined order shapes our desires.
- The imagined order is inter-subjective. (not a subjective order existing in my own imagination — it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and millions of people)
- Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nation.
- In order to change an imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
- Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. Our computers have trouble understanding how Homo sapiens talk, feels and dreams. So we are teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers, which can be understood by computers.
The Unification of Humankind
- Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality.
- Three universal orders whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws:
- The Monetary Order:
- Money was created many times in many places. Its development required no technological breakthroughs — it was a purely mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s share imagination
- More than 90% of all money — more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts — exists only on computer servers.
- Money isn’t a material reality — it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind.
- Money is a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
- The Political Order
- The Religious Order
- The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts.
- Buddhism: 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.
- Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it (e.g. weather). Level two chaos is chaos that does reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately (e.g. markets).
- 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.
The Scientific Revolution
- The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.
- The real test of “knowledge” is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100% correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
- 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.
- The feedback loop between science, empire, and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years.
- As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tingly intertwined. In the 18th and 19th 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.
- The great empires of Asia — the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese — very quickly heard that the Europeans had discovered something big. Yet they displayed little interest in these discoveries. The continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with Europeans for control of America or the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. …not one expedition of either exploration or conquest was ever sent to America from the Islamic world, India or China.
- People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology has now been replaced by “culturism”. Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say “it’s in their blood.” We say, “it’s in their culture.”
- 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.
- economies remained frozen. The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based not rust 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.
- If the global pie stayed the same size, there was no margin for credit. Credit is the difference between today’s pie and tomorrow’s pie.
- In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: “The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.”
- This was the magic circle of imperial capitalism: credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.
- The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is “Invest!” The supreme commandment of the rest of us is “Buy!”
- The new ethic [capitalist-consumerist] 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.
- Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. 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 vert week to the family dinner. Yo 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.”
- Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interest and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination.
- Real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world.
- The price of war has gone up dramatically. While the price of war soared, its profits declined. While the war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.
- Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.
- If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
- 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.
- So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusion.