By Yuval Noah Harari, Harper, February 10, 2015, 0062316095
Sapiens is a big book, not necessarily in length, but in concepts. Yuval Noah Harari is a big thinker, who has researched Sapiens quite deeply. I guess I’d put him in the neo-Darwinist camp along with Steven Pinker. They both are optimistic about the future of mankind.
Sapiens explains why Homo Sapiens became king of the hill. We use story (myths) as a method of organizing ourselves. Through imagination, we were able to leap past other peoples during the cognitive revolution. He also frames our history in around other revolutions: agricultural, unification, and scientific. All of which, explain why we are now gods: we can create species.
The book is filled with lots of details from biology and history. Like many neo-Darwinists, he builds a case that we are complex machines. He doesn’t dwell on this, but tries to use this fact to explain where we came from and a bit of where we need to go.
I took me a month to read Sapiens during the summer of 2016. I enjoyed it immensely. It was like taking a history coursse.
[k416] You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
[k464] Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
[k648] However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically.
[k760] 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.
[k785] The average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no more than a few hundred humans.
[k2295] 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).
[k2789] Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
[k2877] Similarly, the fact that another person believes in cowry shells, or dollars, or electronic data, is enough to strengthen our own belief in them, even if that person is otherwise hated, despised or ridiculed by us. 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.
[k2880] For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.
[k3230] Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures.
[k3644] Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees, wolves, and ants. Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?
[k3676] Yet most historians tend to be sceptical of such deterministic theories. This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
[k3696] Yet these constraints leave ample room for surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic laws.
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.
[k3701] History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.
[k3703] Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system.
[k3706] 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.
[k3727] We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans. There is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along.
[k3738] Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host.
[k3741] A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death.
[k3749] Most scholars in the humanities disdain memetics, seeing it as an amateurish attempt to explain cultural processes with crude biological analogies. But many of these same scholars adhere to memetics’ twin sister – postmodernism. Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture.
[k3765] Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms.
[k3843] Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge.
[k4874] Conversely, the history of capitalism is unintelligible without taking science into account. Capitalism’s belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep would keep on growing indefinitely. The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years – such as the continent of America, the internal combustion engine, or genetically engineered sheep. Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.
[k4893] Most non-European empires of the early modern era were established by great conquerors such as Nurhaci and Nader Shah, or by bureaucratic and military elites as in the Qing and Ottoman empires. Financing wars through taxes and plunder (without making fine distinctions between the two), they owed little to credit systems, and they cared even less about the interests of bankers and investors.
In Europe, on the other hand, kings and generals gradually adopted the mercantile way of thinking, until merchants and bankers became the ruling elite. The European conquest of the world was increasingly financed through credit rather than taxes, and was increasingly directed by capitalists whose main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their investments.
[k4920] Decade by decade, western Europe witnessed the development of a sophisticated financial system that could raise large amounts of credit on short notice and put it at the disposal of private entrepreneurs and governments. This system could finance explorations and conquests far more efficiently than any kingdom or empire.
[k4928] Yet within eighty years the Dutch had not only secured their independence from Spain, but had managed to replace the Spaniards and their Portuguese allies as masters of the ocean highways, build a global Dutch empire, and become the richest state in Europe.
The secret of Dutch success was credit.
[k5027] The Mississippi Bubble was one of history’s most spectacular financial crashes. The royal French financial system never recuperated fully from the blow FIXME
[k5032] Eventually, in the 1780s, Louis XVI, who had ascended to the throne on his grandfather’s death, realised that half his annual budget was tied to servicing the interest on his loans, and that he was heading towards bankruptcy. Reluctantly, in 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General, the French parliament that had not met for a century and a half, in order to find a solution to the crisis. Thus began the French Revolution.
[k5042] Only in 1858 did the British crown nationalise India along with the company’s private army. Napoleon made fun of the British, calling them a nation of shopkeepers. Yet these shopkeepers defeated Napoleon himself, and their empire was the largest the world has ever seen.
[k5262] 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. Or, more precisely, that the only limit is set by our ignorance. Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing.
[k5298] Luckily for the Germans, one of their fellow citizens, a Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber, had discovered in 1908 a process for producing ammonia literally out of thin air. When war broke out, the Germans used Haber’s discovery to commence industrial production of explosives using air as a raw material. Some scholars believe that if it hadn’t been for Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918. The discovery won Haber (who during the war also pioneered the use of poison gas in battle) a Nobel Prize in 1918. In chemistry, not in peace.
[k5424] 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.
[k5490] Finally, in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
[k5497] During World War Two, BBC News was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe. Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour – the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe.
[k5681] There is truth here, but this all too familiar list of calamities is somewhat misleading. 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.
[k5694] Even more importantly, it’s easier to relate to the suffering of individuals than of entire populations. However, in order to understand macro-historical processes, we need to examine mass statistics rather than individual stories. In the year 2000, wars caused the deaths of 310,000 individuals, and violent crime killed another 520,000. Each and every victim is a world destroyed, a family ruined, friends and relatives scarred for life. Yet from a macro perspective these 830,000 victims comprised only 1.5 per cent of the 56 million people who died in 2000. That year 1.26 million people died in car accidents (2.25 per cent of total mortality) and 815,000 people committed suicide (1.45 per cent).
The figures for 2002 are even more surprising. Out of 57 million dead, only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total of 741,000 victims of human violence). In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide. 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.
[k5729] In 1945 Britain ruled a quarter of the globe. Thirty years later it ruled just a few small islands.
[k5795] Most wealth consisted of material things like fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital and organizational know-how. Consequently it is difficult to carry it off or conquer it by military force.
[k5804] While war became less profitable, peace became more lucrative than ever.
[k5953] The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness. If happiness depended only on objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would have been relatively easy to investigate its history. The finding that it depends on subjective expectations makes the task of historians far harder.
[k5957] It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. The problem is a fallacy of reasoning embedded deep in our psyches. When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it – they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content.
That’s not so surprising, when you think of it. After all, our chimpanzee cousins seldom wash and never change their clothes. Nor are we disgusted by the fact that our pet dogs and cats don’t shower or change their coats daily. We pat, hug and kiss them all the same. Small children in affluent societies often dislike showering, and it takes them years of education and parental discipline to adopt this supposedly attractive custom. It is all a matter of 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. If you were an eighteen-year-old youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good-looking because there were only fifty other men in your village and most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids. But if you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. 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.
[k6008] If sex were not accompanied by such pleasure, few males would bother. At the same time, evolution made sure that these pleasant feelings quickly subsided. 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.
[k6029] Or more correctly, that serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin bring about and maintain a marriage.
[k6034] They maintain that happiness is determined mainly by biochemistry, but they agree that psychological and sociological factors also have their place.
[k6057] There is only one historical development that has real significance. Today, when we finally realise that 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. 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.
Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
[k6071] Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure.
[k6077] Kahneman found that when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a child turns out to be a rather unpleasant affair. It consists largely of changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums, which nobody likes to do. Yet most parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness. Does it mean that people don’t really know what’s good for them? That’s one option. 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.
[k6083] As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.
[k6100] 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.
[k6104] If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is there a third alternative?
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.
[k6122] 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.
[k6125] 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?
[k6146] 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.
[k6159] This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. 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.
[k6176] Scholars began to study the history of happiness only a few years ago, and we are still formulating initial hypotheses and searching for appropriate research methods. It’s much too early to adopt rigid conclusions and end a debate that’s hardly yet begun. What is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions.
[k6223] Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.
At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life.
[k6413] What is a spaceship compared to an eternally young cyborg who does not breed and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine?
Science fiction rarely describes such a future, because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible. Producing a film about the life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of Neanderthals.
[k6430] We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own.
[k6441] When sputnik and Apollo II fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet.
So don’t go out just yet to buy liability insurance to indemnify you against lawsuits filed by digital beings.
[k6467] The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.
[k6483] Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.