Sapiens | Notes & Critical Review

Yuval Noah Narari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperCollins, 2015. (443 pages) Sapiens home page; Gates Notes; John Sexton, The New Atlantis; Ezra Klein, Vox;

Timeline of History

Years Before the Present  (Sapiens | Years Before the Present .pdf)
13.5 billion Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
4.5 billion Formation of planet Earth.
3.8 billion Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
6 million Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
2.5 million Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
2 million Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.

Evolution of different human species.

500,000 Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
300,000 Daily usage of fire.
200,000 Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
70,000 The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language.

Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.

45,000 Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
30,000 Extinction of Neanderthals.
16,000 Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
13,000 Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
12,000 The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
5,000 First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
4,250 First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
2,500 Invention of coinage – a universal money.

The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’.

Buddhism in India – a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.

2,000 Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
1,400 Islam.
500 The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
200 The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
The Present Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
The Future Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by superhumans?

Part One The Cognitive Revolution

A human handprint made about 30,000 years ago, on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France. Somebody tried to say, ‘I was here!’

1 An Animal of No Significance

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. (3)

Skeletons in the Closet

homo rudolfensis

homo rudolfensis

homo neanderthalensis

Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley’)

Homo erectus (‘Upright Man’)

Homo soloensis (‘Man from the Solo Valley’)

Homo floresiensis (‘Flores Man’)

Homo denisova (‘Denisova Cave Man’)

Homo rudolfensis (‘Man from Lake Rudolf’)

Homo ergaster (‘Working Man’)

Homo sapiens (‘Wise Man’)

The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not the multi-species past, that is peculiar — and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings. (8)

The Cost of Thinking

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. (9)

Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. (9)

Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln — any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving. (10)

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo‘s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. (11)

A Race of Cooks

Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food. (12)

Our Brothers’ Keepers

Yuval Harari | Interbreeding vs replacement theory. (BBC). Smithsonian.

Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. (18)

Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate. (18)

2 The Tree of Knowledge

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways to and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. (21)

What, then, is so special about our language? | The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. (22)

A second theory agrees that 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. (22)

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that hey have never seen, touched or smelled. (24)

This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. (24)

…fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. (25)

Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories. (25)

The Legend of Peugeot

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. (27)

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. (29)

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? (31)

Bypassing the Genome

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths — by telling different stories. (32)

This was the key to Sapiens’ success In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell — and revise — stories about tribal spirits. 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. (34)

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. (36)

What happened in the Cognitive Revolution?

New Ability Wider Consequences
The ability to transmit larger quantities of information about the world surrounding Homo sapiens Planning and carrying out complex actions, such as avoiding lions and hunting bison
The ability to transmit larger quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships Larger and more cohesive groups, numbering up to 150 individuals.
The ability to transmit information about things that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights a. Cooperation between very large numbers of strangers.

b. Rapid innovation of social behavior.

History and Biology

The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history.’ (37)

The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. (37)

To summarize the relationship between biology and history after the Cognitive Revolution

a. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.

b.  However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further.

c. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical evolution of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sports-caster who, attending the World Cup football championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing. (39)

3 A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah. That’s what makes some of us spoon down an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke. | This ‘gorging gene’ theory is widely accepted. (41)

The proponents of this ‘ancient commune’ theory argue that the frequent infidelities that characterise modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software. (42)

Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager ancestors. The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and ‘eternal monogamy’ schools is based on flimsy evidence. (42)

The Original Affluent Society

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. (48)

The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. (49)

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. Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty to forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. (50-51)

The foragers’ secret of success, which protected the from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. (51)

Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. (51)

It would be a mistake, however, to idealise the lives of these ancients. Though they lived better lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world could still be harsh and unforgiving. (52)

Talking Ghosts

Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers. Animism (from ‘anima’, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in Latin) is the belief that almost every place, every animal, every plant, and every natural phenomenon has awareness and feelings, and can communicate directly with humans. (54)

Any attempt to describe the specifics of archaic spirituality is highly speculative, as there is next to no evidence to go by and the little evidence we have — a handful of artefacts and cave paintings — can be interpreted in myriad ways. The theories of scholars who claim to know what the foragers felt shed much more light on the prejudices of their authors than on Stone Age religions. (55)

Most importantly, we don’t know what stories they told. It’s one of the biggest holes in our understanding of human history. (55)

A painting from Lascau Cave, c.150,000-20,000 years ago. What exactly do we see, and what is the painting’s meaning? Some argue that we see a man with the head of a bird and an erect penis, being killed by a bison. Beneath the man is another bird which might symbolise the soul, released from the body at the moment o death. If so, the picture depicts not a prosaic hunting accident, but rather the passage from this world to the next. But we have no way of knowing whether any of these speculations are true. It’s a Rorschach test that reveals much about the preconceptions of modern scholars, and little about the beliefs of ancient foragers.

Hunter-gatherers made these handprints about 9,000 years ago in the ‘Hands cave’, in Argentina. It looks as if these long-dead hands are reaching toward us from within the rock. This is one of the most moving relics of the ancient forager world — but nobody knows that it means.

Peace or War?

…during pre-industrial warfare more than 90 per cent of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and disease rather than by weapons. (59)

Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates. While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquility, others were riven by ferocious conflicts. (60)

The Curtain of Silence

This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history. (61)

4 The Flood

The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth. (64)

Guilty as Charged

Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer. (67)

The End of Sloth

But in America, the dung ball cannot be dodged. We are the culprits. There is no way around that truth. Even if climate change abetted us, the human contribution was decisive. (72)

Noah’s Ark

If we combine the ass extinctions in Australia and America, and add the smaller-scale extinctions that took place as Homo sapiens spread over Afro-Asia — such as the extinction of all other human species — and the extinctions that occurred when ancient foragers settled remote islands such as Cuba, the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. (72)

Reconstructions of two giant ground sloths (Megatherium) and behind them two giant armadillos (Glyptodon). Now extinct, giant armadillos measured over ten feet in length and weighed up to two tons, whereas giant ground sloths reached heights of up to twenty feet, and weighed dup to eight tons. (73)

Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.

| Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave and second Wave extinctions, they’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part of. If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be more motivated to protect those that still survive. … Among all the world’s large creatures, the only survivors of the human flood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark. (74)

Part Two The Agricultural Revolution

A wall painting from an Egyptian grave, dated to about 3,500 years ago, depicting typical agricultural scenes.

5 History’s Biggest Fraud

The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. (77)

Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC — wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers. (78)

Scholars once believed that agriculture spread from a single Middle Eastern point of origin to the four corners of the world. Today, scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. (78)

Locations and dates of agricultural revolutions. The data is contentious, and the map is constantly being redrawn to incorporate the latest archaeological discoveries.

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (79)

Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (80)

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. (80-81)

Tribal warfare in New Guinea between two farming communities (1960). Such scenes were probably widespread in the thousands of years following the Agricultural Revolution.

Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15 per cent of deaths, including 25 per cent of male deaths. (82)

Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. (83)

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. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (83)

The Luxury Trap

In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty. Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children. (86)

Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.

| The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty. (86-87)

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

| One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. (87)

Divine Intervention

One of the decorated stone pillars (about five metres high).

The remains of a monumental structure from Göbekli Tepe.

Victims of the Revolution

Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world. (93)

A painting from an Egyptian grave, c.1200 BC: A pair of oxen ploughing a field. In the wild, cattle roamed as they pleased in herds with a complex social structure. The castrated and domesticated ox wasted away his life under the lash and in a narrow pen, labouring alone or in pairs in a way that suited neither its body nor its social and emotional needs. When an ox could no longer pull the plough, it was slaughtered. (Note the hunched position of the Egyptian farmer who, much like the ox, spent his life in hard labour oppressive to his body, his mind and his social relationships.)

A modern calf in an industrial meat farm. Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body. There the calf spends its entire life – about four months on average. It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong. Soft muscles mean a soft and juicy steak. The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.

This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution. When we study the narrative of plants such as wheat and maize, maybe the purely evolutionary perspective makes sense. Yet in the case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience. In the following chapters we will see time and again how a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering. (97)

6 Building Pyramids

Ancient hunter-gatherers usually lived in territories covering many dozens and even hundreds of square kilometres. ‘Home’ was the entire territory, with its hills, streams, woods and open sky. Peasants, on the other hand, spent most of their days working a small field or orchard, and their domestic lives centred on a cramped structure of wood, stone or mud, measuring no more than a few dozen metres – the house. The typical peasant developed a very strong attachment to this structure. This was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural. Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-centred creature. (98-99)

As late as AD 1400, the vast majority of farmers, along with their plants and animals, clustered together in an area of just 11 million square kilometres – 2 per cent of the planet’s surface. Everywhere else was too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, or otherwise unsuited for cultivation. This minuscule 2 per cent of the earth’s surface constituted the stage on which history unfolded. (99)

The Coming of the Future

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. (100)

A peasant living on the assumption that bad years would not come didn’t live long. | Consequently, from the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theatre of the human mind. (100-101)

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. (101)

An Imagined Order

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. It was not food shortages that caused most of history’s wars and revolutions. (102)

Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths. (102)

Myths, it transpired, are stronger than anyone could have imagined. 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. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth. (103)

A stone stela inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, c.1776 BC.

‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. (104)

The Declaration of Independence of the United States, signed 4 July 1776.

All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths. (105)

The two texts present us with an obvious dilemma. Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. 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. (108)

So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure. (110)

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. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. (110)

True Believers

…myths vanish once people stop believing in them. (111)

The Prison Walls

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. (112-113)

You also educate people thoroughly. (113)

Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination:

a. The imagined order is embedded in the material world. (113)

b. The imagined order shapes our desires. (114)

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. (115)

Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place. (116)

c. The imagined order is inter-subjective. (116)

For the imagined order is 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. (117)

In order to understand this, we need to understand the difference between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’. (117)

An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.  (117)

The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. (117)

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. (117)

…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. (118)

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison. (118)

7 Memory Overload

Because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny. (120)

Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons. (120)

First, its capacity is limited. (120)

Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them. (121)

Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information. (121)

But when particularly complex societies began to appear in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, a completely new type of information became vital — numbers. (121)

Signed, Kushim

A clay tablet with an administrative text from the city of Uruk, c.3400–3000 BC. ‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an officeholder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! All the names applied earlier in human history – the Neanderthals, the Natufians, Chauvet Cave, Göbekli Tepe – are modern inventions. We have no idea what the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually called the place. With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted ‘Kushim!’ It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.


Partial script cannot express the entire spectrum of a spoken language, but it can express things that fall outside the scope of spoken language. Partial scripts such as the Sumerian and mathematical scripts cannot be used to write poetry, but they can keep tax accounts very effectively.


A man holding a quipu, as depicted in a Spanish manuscript following the fall of the Inca Empire.

The Wonders of Bureaucracy

In the brain, all data is freely associated. … In bureaucracy, things must be kept apart. (129)

In order to function, the people who operate such a system of drawers must be reprogrammed to stop thinking as humans and to start thinking as clerks and accountants. As everyone from ancient times till today knows, clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion. They think like filing cabinets. This is not their fault. If they don’t think that way their drawers will all get mixed up and they won’t be able to provide the services their government, company or organisation requires. The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy. (130)

The Language of Numbers

An equation for calculating the acceleration of mass i under the influence of gravity, according to the Theory of Relativity. When most laypeople see such an equation, they usually panic and freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding vehicle. The reaction is quite natural, and does not betray a lack of intelligence or curiosity. With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics. Physicists nevertheless manage to do so, because they set aside the traditional human way of thinking, and learn to think anew with the help of external data-processing systems. Crucial parts of their thought process take place not in the head, but inside computers or on classroom blackboards.

A person who wishes to influence the decisions of governments, organisations and companies must therefore learn to speak in numbers. Experts do their best to translate even ideas such as ‘poverty’, ‘happiness’ and ‘honesty’ into numbers (‘the poverty line’, ‘subjective well-being levels’, ‘credit rating’). Entire fields of knowledge, such as physics and engineering, have already lost almost all touch with the spoken human language, and are maintained solely by mathematical script. (131)

Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master. (132)

8 There is No Justice in History

UNDERSTANDING HUMAN HISTORY IN THE millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: 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.

| However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious blessing. The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression. (133)

A sign on a South African beach from the period of apartheid, restricting its usage to whites’ only. People with lighter skin colour are typically more in danger of sunburn than people with darker skin. Yet there was no biological logic behind the division of South African beaches. Beaches reserved for people with lighter skin were not characterised by lower levels of ultraviolet radiation.

Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination. Of course not all hierarchies are morally identical, and some societies suffered from more extreme types of discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. (136)

Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted. (136)

The Vicious Circle

Purity in America

The vicious circle: a chance histotical situation is translated into a rigid social system.

Most sophisticated hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis — they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history. (144)

He and She

One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution. (144)

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. (146-147)

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. (147)

In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. (147)

[via: φυσιν]

Sex and Gender

Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality. (148)


Eighteenth-century masculinity: an official portrait of King Louis XIV of France. Note the long wig, stockings, high-heeled shoes, dancers posture – and huge sword. In contemporary Europe, all these (except for the sword) would be considered marks of effeminacy. But in his time Louis was a European paragon of manhood and virility.


Twenty-first-century masculinity: an official portrait of Barack Obama. What happened to the wig, stockings, high heels – and sword? Dominant men have never looked so dull and dreary as they do today. During most of history, dominant men have been colourful and flamboyant, such as American Indian chiefs with their feathered headdresses and Hindu maharajas decked out in silks and diamonds. Throughout the animal kingdom males tend to be more colourful and accessorised than females – think of peacocks’ tails and lions’ manes.

Sex is child’s play; but gender is serious business. To get to be a member of the male sex is the simplest thing in the world. You just need to be born with an X and a Y chromosome. To get to be a female is equally simple. A pair of X chromosomes will do it. In contrast, becoming a man or a woman is a very complicated and demanding undertaking. (152)

What’s So Good About Men?

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? It is far more likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing. (154)

Muscle Power

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. (154)

Even more importantly, there simply is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. (154)

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. (155)

The Scum of Society

Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from strength but from aggression. (155)

Patriarchal Genes

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. (157)

But this approach also seems to be belied by the empirical evidence. (158)

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. (159)

What we do know, however, is that during the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. (159)

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? (159)

Part Three The Unification of Humankind

Pilgrims circling the Ka’aba in Mecca

9 The Arrow of History

Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called culture’. (163)

Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in constant flux. The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures. But cultures also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics.Even a completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment cannot avoid change. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change. (163-164)

Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such 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, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds. (165)

Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture. (165)

The Spy Satellite

Human cultures are in constant flux. Is this flux completely random, or does it have some overall pattern? In other words, does history have a direction?

| The answer is yes. (166)

When we adopt the proverbial bird’s-eye view of history, which examines developments in terms of decades or centuries, it’s hard to say whether history moves in the direction of unity or of diversity. However, to understand long-term processes the bird’s-eye view is too myopic. We would do better to adopt instead the viewpoint of a cosmic spy satellite, which scans millennia rather than centuries. From such a vantage point 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. (166)

Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a single unit, but for most of history, earth was in fact an entire galaxy of isolated human worlds. (167)

It took the Afro-Asian giant several centuries to digest all that it had swallowed, but the process was irreversible. 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).

| The single global culture is not homogeneous. Just as a single organic body contains many different kinds of organs and cells, so our single global culture contains many different types of lifestyles and people, from New York stockbrokers to Afghan shepherds. (168-169)

Earth in AD 1450. The named locations within the Afro-Asian World were places visited by the fourteenth-century Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta. A native of Tangier, in Morocco, Ibn Battuta visited Timbuktu, Zanzibar, southern Russia, Central Asia, India, China and Indonesia. His travels illustrate the unity of Afro-Asia on the eve of the modern era.

The Global Vision

From a practical perspective, the most important stage in the process of global unification occurred in the last few centuries, when empires grew and trade intensified. Ever-tightening links were formed between the people of Afro-Asia, America, Australia and Oceania. (170)

Sioux chiefs (1905). Neither the Sioux nor any other Great Plains tribe had horses prior to 1492.

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially 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. Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them’. 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. (172)

10 The Scent of Money

How Much is It?

An economy of favours and obligations doesn’t work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate. (175)

Shells and Cigarettes

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 shared imagination.

| 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. (177)

In ancient Chinese script the cowry-shell sign represented money, in words such as ‘to sell’ or ‘reward’.

How Does Money Work?

Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. … In other words, money isn’t a material reality — it is a psychological construct. It works by converting matter into mind. But why does it succeed? (180)

People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted. … 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 every devised. (180)

The silver shekel was not a coin, but rather 0.3 ounces of silver. (182)

One of the earliest coins in history, from Lydia of the seventh century BC.

Counterfeiting is not just cheating — it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king. (183)

The Gospel of Gold

The name ‘denarius’ became a generic name for coins. Muslim caliphs Arabicised this name and issued ‘dinars’. (184)

Once trade connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalise the prices of transportable goods. (185)

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. (185)

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively. (186)

The Price of Money

Human communities and families have always been based on belief in ‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold for money. Even if the market offers a good price, certain things just aren’t done. Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord; and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners.

| 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 (186) 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. As money brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace.

| Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations. With one hand people willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of money and commerce for so long. Yet with the other hand they build new dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to market forces.

| It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naïve. Brutal warriors, religious fanatics and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating merchants, and even to reshape the economy. It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process. In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel. (187)

11 Imperial Visions

What is an Empire?

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. (190)

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. (190)

Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples (such as the Numantians), forging out of them new and much larger groups. (191)

Evil Empires?

The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. … Empire is also a very stable form of government. (191)

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. (193)

It’s for Your Own Good

Sargon the Great. Cyrus the Great.

The Akkadian Empire and the Persian Empire.

Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. (195)

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. (196)

When They Become Us

Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms. 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. Standardisation was a boon to emperors.

| A second and equally important reason why empires actively spread a common culture was to gain legitimacy. (197)

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’. (199)

Good Guys and Bad Guys in History

There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation, untainted by sin. These ideologies are at best naïve; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. Perhaps you could make a case that some of the myriad cultures that emerged at the dawn of recorded history were pure, untouched by sin and unadulterated by other societies. But no culture since that dawn can reasonably make that claim, certainly no culture that exists now on earth. All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient. (204)

The Chhatrapati Shivaji train station in Mumbai. It began its life as Victoria Station, Bombay. The British built it in the Neo-Gothic style that was popular in late nineteenth-century Britain. A Hindu nationalist government changed the names of both city and station, but showed no appetite for razing such a magnificent building, even if it was built by foreign oppressors.

The Taj Mahal. An example of ‘authentic’ Indian culture, or the alien creation of Muslim imperialism?

Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance. Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere. Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys. (207)

The New Global Empire

As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all of humankind is the legitimate source of political authority, rather than the members of a particular nationality, and that safeguarding human rights and protecting the interests of the entire human species should be the guiding light of politics. (207)

The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps, nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation states. (207)

The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any particular state or ethnic group. Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and common interests. Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs, engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the empire. They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain loyal to their state and their people. More and more choose the empire. (208)

12 The Law of Religion

Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.

| Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria:

| 1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements. Professional football is not a religion, because despite its many laws, rites and often bizarre rituals, everyone knows that human beings invented football themselves, and FIFA may at any moment enlarge the size of the goal or cancel the offside rule.

| 2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. Many Westerners today believe in ghosts, fairies and reincarnation, but these beliefs are not a source of moral and behavioural standards. As such, they do not constitute a religion.

| Despite their ability to legitimise widespread social and political orders, not all religions have actuated this potential. In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human beings, a religion must possess two further qualities. First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary. (210)

Silencing the Lambs

Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property. (212)

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. For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, religious liturgy consisted mainly of humans sacrificing lambs, wine and cakes to divine powers, who in exchange promised abundant harvests and fecund flocks. (212)

As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square kilometres, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin. (212)

Polytheism thereby exalted not only the status of the gods, but also that of humankind. (213)

The Benefits of Idolatry

The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman. (214)

God is One

The first monotheist religion known to us appeared in Egypt, c.1350 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. (217)

Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition. … It worked. At the beginning of the first century AD, there were hardly any monotheists in the world. Around AD 500, one of the world’s largest empires – the Roman Empire – was a Christian polity, and missionaries were busy spreading Christianity to other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. (218)

The Spread of Christianity and Islam.

The Battle of Good and Evil

Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to dualistic ones. (220)

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. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things. (221)

…humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions. So it should not come as a surprise that millions of pious Christians, Muslims and Jews manage to believe at one and the same time in an omnipotent God and an independent Devil. Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so far as to imagine that the good God even needs our help in its struggle against the Devil, which inspired among other things the call for jihads and crusades. (222)

In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion. (223)

The Law of Nature

The Spread of Buddhism.

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. (226)

…nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). (226)

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?’ (227)

The Worship of Man

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. (228)

Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order. The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules reflect superhuman edicts. Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order. (Note the difference between ‘superhuman’ and ‘supernatural’. The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist laws of history are superhuman, since they were not legislated by humans. Yet they are not supernatural.)

Humanism has split into three rival sects that fight over the exact definition of ‘humanity’, just as rival Christian sects fought over the exact definition of God. 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. (230)

Another important sect is socialist humanism. (231)

Humanist Religions — Religions that Worship Humanity

Liberal humanism Socialist humanism Evolutionary humanism


Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature that is fundamentally different from the nature of all other beings and phenomena. The supreme good is the good of humanity.
‘Humanity’ is individualistic and resides within each individual Homo sapiens. ‘Humanity’ is collective and resides within the species Homo sapiens as a whole. ‘Humanity’ is a mutable species. Humans might degenerate into subhumans or evolve into superhumans.
The supreme commandment is to protect the inner core and freedom of each individualHomo sapiens. The supreme commandment is to protect equality within the speciesHomo sapiens. The supreme commandment is to protect humankind from degenerating into subhumans, and to encourage its evolution into superhumans.


A Nazi propaganda poster showing on the right a ‘racially pure Aryan’ and on the left a ‘cross-breed’. Nazi admiration for the human body is evident, as is their fear that the lower races might pollute humanity and cause its degeneration.


A Nazi cartoon of 1933. Hitler is presented as a sculptor who creates the superman. A bespectacled liberal intellectual is appalled by the violence needed to create the superman. (Note also the erotic glorification of the human body.)

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? (236)

13 The Secret of Success

1. The Hindsight Fallacy

Every point in history is a crossroads. (237)

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. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realised. They offer a just-so story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable. Those more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the roads not taken. (238-239)

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. (240)

[via: the following paragraphs I would label as “historical chaos theory.”]

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. Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce better and better weather forecasts.

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.

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. (241)

2. Blind Clio

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. There is no proof that Christianity was a better choice than Manichaeism, or that the Arab Empire was more beneficial than that of the Sassanid Persians. (241)

There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans 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. 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. It may well be that we’d all be better off if Christianity and Islam had been forgotten or defeated.

Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. 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. 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. The human dies, but the idea spreads. 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. (242)

There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. (243)

Part Four The Scientific Revolution

Alamogordo, 16 July 1945, 05:29:53. Eight seconds after the first atomic bomb was detonated. The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavadgita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

14 The Discovery of Ignorance

But the single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it. (249)

The Scientific Revolution’s feedback loop. Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics. Political and economic institutions provide the resources without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used, among other things, to obtain new resources, some of which are reinvested in research.


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.

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. (250-251)

Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. … Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things. (251)

Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions. (252)

The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. (253)

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:

a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis (who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts) and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute economic truths that could never be refuted).

b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth. This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. Even science itself has to rely on religious and ideological beliefs to justify and finance its research. (253)

One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths. (254)

The Scientific Dogma

Mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories. Modern science uses mathematics. (254)

Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace. Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers. Robert Malthus.

Knowledge is Power

Francis Bacon, The New Instrument.

German V-2 rocket ready to launch. It didn’t defeat the Allies, but it kept the Germans hoping for a technological miracle until the very last days of the war.

The Ideal of Progress

When modern culture admitted that there were many important things that it still did not know, and when that admission of ignorance was married to the idea that scientific discoveries could give us new powers, people began suspecting that real progress might be possible after all. As science began to solve one unsolvable problem after another, many became convinced that humankind could overcome any and every problem by acquiring and applying new knowledge. Poverty, sickness, wars, famines, old age and death itself were not the inevitable fate of humankind. They were simply the fruits of our ignorance. (264)

Benjamin Franklin disarming the gods.

The Gilgamesh Project

Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. 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. (267)

The Sugar Daddy of Science

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. (272)

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. (273)

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. (274)

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. (274)

15 The Marriage of Science and Empire

Why Europe?

Truganini, the last native Tasmanian.

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. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently. (282)

What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism. 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. (282)

The Mentality of Conquest

What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? … The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared as similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world. (283-284)

James Cook. Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand Magellan.

Empty Maps

A European world map from 1459 (Europe is in the top left corner). The map is filled with details, even when depicting areas that were completely unfamiliar to Europeans, such as southern Africa.

Amerigo Vespucci. Martin Waldseemüller.

The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. (288)

The Salviati World Map, 1525. While the 1459 world map is full of continents, islands and detailed explanations, the Salviati map is mostly empty. The eye wanders south along the American coastline, until it peters into emptiness. Anyone looking at the map and possessing even minimal curiosity is tempted to ask, ‘What’s beyond this point?’ The map gives no answers. It invites the observer to set sail and find out.

The European imperial expeditions transformed the history of the world: from being a series of histories of isolated peoples and cultures, it became the history of a single integrated human society. (289)

Zheng He’s flagship next to that of Columbus.

What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. … The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’

Invasion from Outer Space

The Aztec and Inca empires at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Rare Spiders and Forgotten Scripts

For modern Europeans, building an empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project. (297)

Henry Rawlinson. William Jones. Asiatic Society.

Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself. Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries. (300)

Modern Europeans came to believe that acquiring new knowledge was always good. (301)

Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-European races – in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’:

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

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. (301-302)

…‘culturism’. There is no such word, but it’s about time we coined it. 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.’

| Thus European right-wing parties which oppose Muslim immigration usually take care to avoid racial terminology. Marine le Pen’s speechwriters would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the leader of the Front National go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan civilisation.’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture, which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics, fanaticism and misogyny. Since the two cultures are so different, and since many Muslim immigrants are unwilling (and perhaps unable) to adopt Western values, they should not be allowed to enter, lest they foment internal conflicts and corrode European democracy and liberalism. (303)

16 The Capitalist Creed

Yet to understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just a single word. The word is growth. (305)

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. (307)

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. (308)

Credit arrangements of one kind or another have existed in all known human cultures, going back at least to ancient Sumer. The problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to use it. It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present. (308)

The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma


The Magic Circle of the Modern Economy

A Growing Pie

The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve. This idea was soon translated into economic terms. Whoever believes in progress believes that geographical discoveries, technological inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth. (310)

The Economic History of the World in a Nutshell

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. (311)

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. … In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’ (312)

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. (312)

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. (314)

Columbus Searches for an Investor

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. (317)

Capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property. (318-319)

New Amsterdam in 1660, at the tip of Manhattan Island. The settlement’s protective wall is today paved over by Wall Street.

In the Name of Capital

The Battle of Navarino (1827)

The Cult of the Free Market

The Capitalist Hell

At the end of the Middle Ages, slavery was almost unknown in Christian Europe. During the early modern period, the rise of European capitalism went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Unrestrained market forces, rather than tyrannical kings or racist ideologues, were responsible for this calamity. (330)

The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand. (331)

When growth becomes a supreme good, unrestricted by any ethical considerations, it can easily lead to catastrophe. 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. (331)

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? (333)

17 The Wheels of Industry

Almost everything people did throughout history was fuelled by solar energy that was captured by plants and converted into muscle power.

| Human history was consequently dominated by two main cycles: the growth cycles of plants and the changing cycles of solar energy (day and night, summer and winter). (335)

The Secret in the Kitchen

An Ocean of Energy

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. (339)

Life on the Conveyor Belt

Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution. (341)

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. Hundreds of millions of chicks die each year in such hatcheries.

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. (343)

The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs. (344)

One of Harlow’s orphaned monkeys clings to the cloth mother even while sucking milk from the metal mother.

As those factories and offices absorbed the billions of hands and brains that were released from fieldwork, they began pouring out an unprecedented avalanche of products. Humans now produce far more steel, manufacture much more clothing, and build many more structures than ever before. In addition, they produce a mind-boggling array of previously unimaginable goods, such as light bulbs, mobile phones, cameras and dishwashers. 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? (346)

The Age of Shopping

The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism. (347)

Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. (347)

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. (348)

How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need. (348)

The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

| The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.

| In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television. (349)

18 A Permanent Revolution

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 fact, ecological turmoil might endanger the survival of Homo sapiens itself. (351)

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. (351)

Modern Time

The Industrial Revolution opened the way to a long line of experiments in social engineering and an even longer series of unpremeditated changes in daily life and human mentality. One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry. (352)

Charlie Chaplin as a simple worker caught in the wheels of the industrial assembly line, from the film Modern Times (1936).

The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.

Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market. As best we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin. The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic building blocks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, (355) managed within little more than two centuries to break these building blocks into atoms. Most of the traditional functions of families and communities were handed over to states and markets. (356)

The Collapse of the Family and the Community

The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated (358) by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.

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. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.

| 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. (359)

But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. (360)

The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. … Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture. (360)

The market shapes to an ever-greater degree the way people conduct their romantic and sexual lives. Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it’s the market that tailors our romantic (360) and sexual preferences, and then lends a hand in providing for them – for a fat fee. Previously bride and groom met in the family living room, and money passed from the hands of one father to another. Today courting is done at bars and cafés, and money passes from the hands of lovers to waitresses. Even more money is transferred to the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dieticians, cosmeticians and plastic surgeons, who help us arrive at the café looking as similar as possible to the markets ideal of beauty. (361)

Family and community vs. state and market

Imagined Communities

An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do. (362)

Perpetuum Mobile

Over the last two centuries, the pace of change became so quick that the social order acquired a dynamic and malleable nature. (365)

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. (365)

Just as geologists expect that tectonic movements will result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so might we expect that drastic social movements will result in bloody outbursts of violence. (365)

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. This is surprising because these very same decades experienced more economic, social and political change than any previous era. The tectonic plates of history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent. The new elastic order seems to be able to contain and even initiate radical structural changes without collapsing into violent conflict. (366)

Peace in Our Time

Most people don’t appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in. (366)

The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state. (367)

Imperial Retirement

Pax Atomica

For 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. (371)

An iron law of international politics decreed, ‘For every two nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go to war against one another within one year.’ This law of the jungle was in force in late nineteenth-century Europe, in medieval Europe, in ancient China and in classical Greece. If Sparta and Athens were at peace in 450 BC, there was a plausible scenario that they would be at war by 449 BC. (371)

Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. (371)

Scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more books and articles than you would ever want to read yourself, and they have identified several contributing factors. 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. (372)

Gold miners in California during the Gold Rush, and Facebook’s headquarters near San Francisco. In 1849 California built its fortunes on gold. Today, California builds its fortunes on silicon. But whereas in 1849 the gold actually lay there in the Californian soil, the real treasures of Silicon Valley are locked inside the heads of high-tech employees.

Last but not least, a tectonic shift has taken place in global political culture. Many elites in history – Hun chieftains, Viking noblemen and Aztec priests, for example – viewed war as a positive good. Others viewed it as evil, but an inevitable one, which we had better turn to our own advantage. Ours is the first time in history that the world is dominated by a peace-loving elite – politicians, business people, intellectuals and artists who genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable. (There were pacifists in the past, such as the early Christians, but in the rare cases that they gained power, they tended to forget about their requirement to ‘turn the other cheek’.)

| 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. Over time, this feedback loop creates another obstacle to war, which may ultimately prove the most important of all. 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. Most countries no longer engage in full-scale war for the simple reason that they are no longer independent. Though citizens in Israel, Italy, Mexico or Thailand may harbour illusions of independence, the fact is that their governments cannot conduct independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable of initiating and conducting full-scale war on their own. As explained in Chapter 11, we are witnessing the formation of a global empire. Like previous empires, this one, too, enforces peace within its borders. And since its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire effectively enforces world peace. (374)

To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction. (375)

19 And They Lived Happily Ever After

But are we happier? (367)

A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption. (379)

Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. 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. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans. (379)

Counting Happiness

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. (380)

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, (382) 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. (383)

You might say that we didn’t need a bunch of psychologists and their questionnaires to discover this. 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. Still, it’s nice when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches the same conclusions the ancients did. (383)

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. (384)

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. (384)

If that’s the case, even immortality might lead to discontent. Suppose science comes up with cures for all diseases, effective anti-ageing therapies and regenerative treatments that keep people indefinitely young. In all likelihood, the immediate result will be an unprecedented epidemic of anger and anxiety. (384)

In previous eras the standard of beauty was set by the handful of people who lived next door to you. Today the media and the fashion industry expose us to a totally unrealistic standard of beauty. They search out the most gorgeous people on the planet, and then parade them constantly before our eyes. No wonder we are far less happy with the way we look.

Chemical Happiness

If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier. (388)

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. (389)

The Meaning of Life

…if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is. (391)

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? (392)

Know Thyself

From a Christian viewpoint, the vast majority of people are in more or less the same situation as heroin addicts. (393)

Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power. (394)

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, (394) 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. (395)

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. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. (395)

Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. (396)

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. (396)

20 The End of Homo Sapiens

Today, the 4-billion-year-old regime of natural selection is facing a completely different challenge. In laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. They break the laws of natural selection with impunity, unbridled even by an organisms original characteristics. (398)

If the potential Alba signifies is realised in full – and if humankind doesn’t annihilate itself meanwhile – the Scientific Revolution might prove itself far greater than a mere historical revolution. It may turn out to be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth. (399)

Of Mice and Men

A mouse on whose back scientists grew an ‘ear’ made of cattle cartilage cells. It is an eerie echo of the lion-man statue from the Stadel Cave. Thirty thousand years ago, humans were already fantasising about combining different species. Today, they can actually produce such chimeras.

The Return of the Neanderthals

Bionic Life

It’s unclear whether bioengineering could really resurrect the Neanderthals, but it would very likely bring down the curtain on Homo sapiens. Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us. But we might fiddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens. (405)

Jesse Sullivan and Claudia Mitchell holding hands. The amazing thing about their bionic arms is that they are operated by thought.

Another Life

The Singularity

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed ‘before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world – me, you, men, women, love and hate – will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us. (411)

The Frankenstein Prophecy

What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question. (413)

If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people. After all, today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens. If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female. (413)

Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein. (414)

But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to be come?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought. (414)

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want? (416)

— critical review —

This is no doubt one my favorite reads. Harari’s approach to history, anthropology, and even religion, is piercingly accessible, allowing the reader to grasp huge concepts that are often clouded by the philosophical musings of the academy. He upends traditional thinking that is often grounded in our narrow and myopic view of history, which provides a perspective that could ultimately change the trajectory of our ideas, and thus, our actual lived experience. And, while I will critique some parts below as others have already done in their reviews, there seems to be a unanimous opinion that Sapiens is a book worth talking about, one that doesn’t just spark conversation, but enflames new ideas and ways of thinking about ourselves, and our world.

My critique:

On page 28, Harari writes,

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.

The definition of “existence” here needs further qualification and explanation. This is one of several times throughout the book that his philosophical basis for argumentation seems to shift in order to fit a certain narrative (admittedly, a human characteristic). To say that “none of these things exist,” but then to go on talking about them as “things,” is quite a dissonance, especially if those things really do emerge from the “common imagination of human beings.” I kind of get what Harari is saying, rhetorically, but wish there were further nuance, philosophically when discussing the ontologies of things.

On pages 30-31,

How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them.

Throughout the book, Harari deconstructs quite a few, what he calls “fictions,” and here is a glimpse into one of the ways in which he accomplishes his point. I concur, generally speaking, with his argument, but wish to suggest, however, that deconstructing a “myth” is not the same thing as dismantling the religion or dismissing its truth. As an example of my thinking, there is also no such thing as a “book,” or an “author,” yet, there is something still “true,” about its “existence,” and the emergence of its form within the course of human history. How else could someone blog notes about it, or critique it.

On page 41, Harari mentions the “gorging gene,” yet provides no discussion on what, if any role, our industrialization of food and sugar has played. It is my understanding that we have not just inherited our evolutionary past, but we are now greatly influencing our evolutionary trajectory.

On page 109,

Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.

In this segment, Harari discusses pathways by which we form meaningful “orders” within our society. This statement on evolution comes in the middle of that discussion with the rhetorical thrust of suggesting that our evolutionary journey of “difference” should inform our understanding of “created equal.” The problem with Harari’s argument is that while evolution doesn’t depend on “equality,” it isn’t grounded in “difference” either. “Difference” is a mere factor, but not a “basis” for evolution. If an organism is too different, it doesn’t survive. There are common requirements for an organism to be able to survive in its environment, and common ways in which various organisms have evolved together (why we share so much of our DNA with other species). Yes, we are different, and various mutations and adaptations create unique distinguishing factors and features from every other organism. Yet, we share far more in common than our differences. While I agree with what I think Harari is attempting to communicate–that we ought to consider deeply our evolutionary biology when constructing our “imagined order,”–the conclusions of that sentiment have a broader range of interpretation than what Harari writes. As an example, on the same page he writes,

‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

But he is referring essentially to the same species, namely Homo Sapiens.

On page 164,

…as the European nobility, clergy and commoners grappled with it, their culture changed. One attempt to figure it out produced the Crusades. On crusade, knights could demonstrate their military prowess and their religious devotion at one stroke. The same contradiction produced military orders such as the Templars and Hospitallers, who tried to mesh Christian and chivalric ideals even more tightly.

This is more just a historical note than a critique. It has been brought to my attention that the Crusades needs to be revisited, and its revised history perhaps needs to be revised again (see Rodney Stark). Something for consideration.

On page 193,

It goes without saying that the political, economic and social practices of modern Jews, for example, owe far more to the empires under which they lived during the past two millennia than to the traditions of the ancient kingdom of Judaea. If King David were to show up in an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in present-day Jerusalem, he would be utterly bewildered to find people dressed in East European clothes, speaking in a German dialect (Yiddish) and having endless arguments about the meaning of a Babylonian text (the Talmud). There were neither synagogues, volumes of Talmud, nor even Torah scrolls in ancient Judaea.

I take issue with Harari’s small line, “owe far more…” There is no doubt that the developments and transformation of religious expression are greatly influenced by the cultures through which they traverse, and there is no religion that is exempt from this reality. But while the forms, artifacts, and customs are all syncretized, this does not necessarily mean that those expressions have greater weight in the sustaining of the religion. It could be argued that the stories, the sacred texts that continue to be passed down, and the ethical practices (both virtues and vices) have equal weight in influence and presence. Harari’s use of the word “owe” is weighty, without provided any data to really substantiate his claim of influence.

Under the “Battle of Good and Evil” of Chapter 12, page, 221

So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief. (221)

There is one reference in Isaiah 45:7 that states that God creates light, darkness, and makes peace, and evil.

 יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ, עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע; אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה כָל-אֵלֶּה

While there are many different interpretations that could arise from such a line, and the fact that it is one line in the entire Hebrew Bible, still, in many Jewish circles, this is their understanding of monotheism. Harari’s statement that God therefore must be “one” and “evil” is, as with other statements, pejoratively rhetorical. I would perhaps say that Harari is “fighting fiction with fiction.”

On page 265,

Poverty is another case in point. Many cultures have viewed poverty as an inescapable part of this imperfect world. According to the New Testament, shortly before the crucifixion a woman anointed Christ with precious oil worth 300 denarii. Jesus’ disciples scolded the woman for wasting such a huge sum of money instead of giving it to the poor, but Jesus defended her, saying that ‘The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me’ (Mark 14:7). Today, fewer and fewer people, including fewer and fewer Christians, agree with Jesus on this matter. Poverty is increasingly seen as a technical problem amenable to intervention. It’s common wisdom that policies based on the latest findings in agronomy, economics, medicine and sociology can eliminate poverty.

Several things in this paragraph are worth commenting upon. First, is that Harari will also argue later in Homo Deus,

There is no justice in history. When disaster strikes, the poor almost always suffer more than the rich, even if the rich caused the tragedy in the first place. Global warming is already affecting the lives of poor people in arid African countries more than the lives of affluent Westerners. Paradoxically, the very power of science may increase the danger, because it makes the rich complacent.” Harari, Homo Deus, p. 215

There is an assumption of wealth disparity in the rest of his writings, which, while we will have to see how it plays out, appears to substantiate the belief that we all share, that the poor will always be among us. Second, Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15,

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying: ‘Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.’

כִּי לֹא-יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן, מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ; עַל-כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, לֵאמֹר, פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַעֲנִיֶּךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ, בְּאַרְצֶךָ

This allusion–a common teaching technique in rabbinic Judaism–is meant to elicit the full thrust of a passage by only quoting a few words from it. Here (in Mark 14), it appears that Jesus is not actually making a sociological comment about the perpetual existence of poor people, he is affirming that his disciples are right to care about the poor people that are among them. Many interpret this passage to understand Jesus as saying that both caring about the poor, and anointing Jesus can and must coexist. Taken one step further, it is possible Jesus is saying that the two are essentially the same. By affirming Jesus as the Messiah, the one who is to come to save the people, they are, in essence establishing the groundwork by which the poor will be cared for.

Last, on page 366,

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).4

I have no critique of the data but simply wish to point out that practically speaking, regardless of the “macro data,” we homo sapiens feel and operate at the “micro” levels. Technological advancements which have connected us in wider and more shallow ways amplify these feelings and events, skewing any sense of objective reality we may perceive. This is one significant reason why our socio-political discourse is so challenged and difficult, and why I believe works like Harari’s is so deeply important to our personal lives and public discourse.

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  9. Ramnarayan

    I just finished reading this excellent book…I took just under 8 (yes, eight) months. The reason was that I would repeatedly get ‘distracted’ by the references at the end of the book. From several of those references I would go off on a kind of sub-assignment which would engage me on a week or so of reading or browsing Internet resources. Most of the references still remain unexplored.
    Can somebody help me to a source where all these references are collected in text, pdf or web page format?
    Thank you

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