Date read: 2017-08-15
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
I resisted reading this popular history of mankind, because it came out when I had just finished “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches”, on the same subject. But wow - this book is at its best when the author is sharing his personal perspective about binding myths, humanism, and other ways that “truths” are not true. And you get an interesting history of the world along with it. Strange mix of history and philosophy.
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly.
In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.
One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding.
Debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens.
##### Wheat, rice and potatoes: These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.
Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.
This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
A dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering.
Peasants almost never achieved economic security through their hard work in the present.
Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.
These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy.
History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields
When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links.
Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers are both wrong. The only place where such universal principles exist is in the imagination. These principles have no objective validity. The American Declaration of Independence: "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." People were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. 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. Neither is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose. There are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics.
Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.’ I have no argument with that. 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. 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.’
> “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.” - Voltaire
An imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.
A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers – far more cheaply and effectively.
Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism. Someone’s worth was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other people said about them. Being laughed at was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the cost.
‘Follow your heart.’ But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day.
Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
To change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution.
The Sumerians base-6 system bestowed on us the division of the day into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.
More signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming it into a full script that we today call cuneiform.
Other full scripts were developed in China around 1200 BC and in Central America around 1000–500 BC.
0 to 9 are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus. But the 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.
Every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.
Hierarchies enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.
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.
Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal.
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
Contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
The very spot where people teeter between two imperatives is where you’ll understand them best.
##### From the viewpoint of a millennia rather than centuries, history is moving relentlessly towards unity.
Empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years.
Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.
This time the empire will be truly global.
Whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people? More and more choose the empire.
Religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. But religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.
Since all social orders are imagined, they are all fragile. Religion has given superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.
This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.
A leading theory about the origin of the gods: 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.
The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.
The 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.
Another important sect is socialist humanism. Socialists believe that ‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic. They hold as sacred the species Homo sapiens as a whole. Socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans. Inequality is the worst blasphemy
For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to ‘upgrade’ Homo sapiens. But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.
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.
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.
History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear. Because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit. Different cultures define the good differently, and we have no objective yardstick by which to judge between them. No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics – the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being.
In 1620 Francis Bacon argued that the real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us.
In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy. The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850.
What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? Modern science and capitalism. Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scientific and capitalist way even before they enjoyed any significant technological advantages. When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far better than anybody else.
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. On 10 April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted sixty years. British officers arriving in India were supposed to spend up to three years in a Calcutta college, where they studied Hindu and Muslim law alongside English law; Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian alongside Greek and Latin; and Tamil, Bengali and Hindustani culture alongside mathematics, economics and geography.
Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects to benefit the conquered populations and bring them the benefits of ‘progress’ – to provide them with medicine and education, to build railroads and canals, to ensure justice and prosperity. Of course, the facts often belied this myth.
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.
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. Why did nobody think of it earlier? They didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present. Business looked like a zero-sum game. Then came the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progress.
Whoever believes in progress believes that inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth.
In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. 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.
They spend a much smaller part of their profits on non-productive activities.
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.
The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans.
Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that’s what E = mc² means. The Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. The only limit to the amount of energy at our disposal is set by our ignorance. The Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.
In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.
In 1784 a carriage service with a published schedule began operating in Britain. Its timetable specified only the hour of departure, not arrival. Back then, each British city and town had its own local time, which could differ from London time by up to half an hour. When it was 12:00 in London, it was perhaps 12:20 in Liverpool and 11:50 in Canterbury. 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. GMT.
The Ottoman Empire allowed family vendettas to mete out justice, rather than supporting a large imperial police force. If my cousin killed somebody, the victim’s brother might kill me in sanctioned revenge. The sultan in Istanbul or even the provincial pasha did not intervene in such clashes, as long as violence remained within acceptable limits. In the Chinese Ming Empire (1368–1644), the population was organised into the baojia system. Ten families were grouped to form a jia, and ten jia constituted a bao. When a member of a bao commited a crime, other bao members could be punished for it, in particular the bao elders. Taxes too were levied on the bao, and it was the responsibility of the bao elders rather than of the state officials to assess the situation of each family and determine the amount of tax it should pay.
A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead.
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.
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.
In 2002 there were 741,000 victims of human violence. In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.
The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state. Throughout history, most violence resulted from local feuds.
Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map.
Power corrupts. As humankind gained more and more power, it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs.
Despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the French Revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after. Those with a gloomy biochemistry complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. If so, what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become any happier, then what was the point of all that chaos, fear, blood and war?
The keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus instead on the only thing that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
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.
Most males spend their lives competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims.
The real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings.
In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied.
True happiness is independent of our inner feelings.
The more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer.
Stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.