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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — Book summary

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This is my summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" written by Yuval Noah Harari.

Part one: The cognitive revolution

🦍 Chapter 1: An Animal of no significance

  1. About 14 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.
  2. About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules, and their interactions is called chemistry.
  3. About 4 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.
  4. About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.
  5. 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, started 500 years ago.
  6. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.
  7. Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring.
  8. Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading 'genus' (plural genera).
  9. Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name: genus followed by species. E.g:
    • Lions are called Panthera leo.
    • People are called Homo sapiens — the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).
  10. Genera in their turn are grouped into families, such as the cats.
  11. All members of a family trace their lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch.
  12. Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means Southern Ape.
  13. Over 10,000 years ago, there was more than one specie of humans (genus homo).
  14. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 percent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 percent of the body's energy when the body is at rest.
  15. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 percent of rest-time energy.
  16. Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs.
  17. Upsides of walking upright:
    • Vision advantage from increased height.
    • Arms are free because they are not required for locomotion.
  18. Downsides of walking upright:

    The skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head.[…]. Humankind paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks.

  19. Humans enjoyed all of the advantages of a large brain, the use of tools, and complex social structures for a full 2 million years. However, they remained weak and marginal creatures during that time.
  20. Genus Homo's position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.
  21. A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire:
    • Fire allowed humans to cook. This was essential for foods like wheat that are not digestible in their natural form.
    • Fire was useful in killing germs and parasites.
    • Fire opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, and the breadth of their wings. The power of fire was not limited by the form, structure, or strength of the human body.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Chapter 2: The Tree of Knowledge

  1. The ability to speak about fiction is the most unique feature of the Sapiens language.
  2. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.
  3. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.
  4. The secret to crossing this threshold for Homo sapiens was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

    Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination.

  5. The behavior of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes. However, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs.
  6. The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behavior patterns, are the main components of what we call cultures.

🍎 Chapter 3: A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

  1. The common impression that pre-agricultural humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on the archaeological bias that archaeological evidence consists mainly of fossilized bones and stone tools — Artefacts made of more perishable materials — such as wood, bamboo, or leather — survive only under unique conditions.
  2. The human collective knows far more today than the ancient forager bands; But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.
  3. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone:

    When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new 'niches for imbeciles' were opened up.

  4. While people in today's affluent societies work an average of 40-45 hours a week, and people in the developing world work 60-80 hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most inhospitable of habitats — such as the Kalahari Desert — work on average for just 35-35 hours a week.
  5. Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases:
    • Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution.
    • Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements — ideal hotbeds for disease.
  6. 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.
  7. Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient foragers.
  8. We assume that they were animists, but that’s not very informative. We don't know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or which taboos they observed.

⛵️Chapter 4: The flood

  1. Prior to the cognitive revolution, humans of all species lived exclusively on the Afro-Asian landmass.
  2. The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history: It was the first time any human had managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system.
  3. Humans journeyed to Australia and America and dramatically changed the ecosystem beyond recognition. Many animals went extinct around the time humans arrived. While climate might have contributed to the extinction, there is significant evidence and incentives that humans significantly contributed.

    If we combine the mass 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 colonization was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. The hardest hit were the large furry creatures. At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet's big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools. This ecological tragedy was restaged in miniature countless times after the Agricultural Revolution.

Part two: The agricultural revolution

👨‍🌾 Chapter 5: History’s biggest fraud

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways and were less in danger of starvation and disease.

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.

Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history's biggest fraud.

  1. For 2.5 million years humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention.
  2. All this changed about 10,000 years ago when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species.
  3. The hypothesis for why agricultural revolutions only erupted in certain areas like the Middle East, China, and Central America is that — there are only a few species of plants and animals that can be domesticated — these species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.
  4. 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.
  5. Foragers switched from gathering wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, maybe to increase their normal food supply, or maybe for other cultural reasons at that moment. We don’t know for sure.

👷‍♀️Chapter 6: Building Pyramids

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. [This is an imagined order.]

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

Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: “I know that superiors, commoners, and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.”

  1. Concern about the future was rooted not only in seasonal cycles of production but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture. Since most villages lived by cultivating a very limited variety of domesticated plants and animals, they were at the mercy of droughts, floods, and pestilence.
  2. Consequently, from the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theatre of the human mind. Peasants were worried about the future not just because they had more cause for worry, but also because they could do something about it.
  3. Until the late modern era, more than 90% 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 plowing fields and carrying water buckets.
  4. 🤔 If people realize that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn't there a danger that our society will collapse?

    Voltaire said about God that there is no God, but don't tell that to my servant, lest he murders me at night.

    Hammurabi would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas Jefferson about human rights.

    Homo sapiens have no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don't tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.

  5. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it.
  6. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative.
  7. Cynics don't build empires.
  8. 🤔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.

    Secondly, you educate people thoroughly. From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything.

  9. “Follow your heart” is common advice in today’s world. However, the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day.
  10. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.
  11. An objective phenomenon exists independent of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth.
  12. The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual.
  13. The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.

🧠 Chapter 7: Memory Overload

  1. Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data.
  2. The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires.
  3. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called writing.
  4. Full script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language more or less completely. Latin script, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Braille are full scripts.
  5. Partial script is a system of material signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to a limited field of activity. The earliest Sumerian script, like modern mathematical symbols and musical notation, are partial scripts.
  6. You can use the mathematical script to make calculations, but you cannot use it to write love poems.
  7. 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 compartmentalization and bureaucracy.

⚖️ Chapter 8: There is no justice in History

[…] Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways:

First, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed, and exercised.

Second, even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules.

  1. Many of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. They did not release their slaves upon signing the Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites. In their view, the rights of men had little to do with Negroes.
  2. Hammurabi's Code established a pecking order of superiors, commoners, and slaves.
  3. Aristotle argued that slaves have a slavish nature whereas free people have a free nature. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.
  4. A diehard capitalist will argue that the hierarchy of wealth is an inevitable outcome because of objective differences in abilities.
  5. Hindus who adhere to the caste system believe that cosmic forces have made one caste superior to another.
  6. 🔑 Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination.
  7. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin color and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.
  8. 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.
  9. In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.
  10. Even though slaves were freed, the racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom.

    Clennon King, a black student who applied to the University of Mississippi in 1958, was forcefully committed to a mental asylum. The presiding judge ruled that a black person must surely be insane to think that he could be admitted to the University of Mississippi.

  11. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimized by history are likely to be victimized yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
  12. Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis — they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.
  13. In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often their fathers, husbands, or brothers.
  14. Raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a crime at all, just as picking up a lost coin on a busy street is not considered theft 😢. And if a husband raped his own wife, he had committed no crime.
  15. As of 2006, there were still 53 countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife. Even in Germany, rape laws were amended only in 1997 to create a legal category of marital rape.
  16. Some of the cultural, legal, and political disparities between men and women reflect the obvious biological differences between the sexes.
  17. Childbearing has always been a women's job because men don't have wombs. Yet around this hard universal kernel, every society accumulated layer upon layer of cultural ideas and norms that have little to do with biology.
  18. Societies associate a host of attributes with masculinity and femininity that, for the most part, lack a firm biological basis.
  19. 🤔 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 realize some possibilities while forbidding others.

    Biology enables women to have children - some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another - some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility.

  20. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural.
  21. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.
  22. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesize, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.
  23. In truth, our concepts of 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.
  24. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. But there is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago.
  25. Biologically, humans are divided into males and females:
    • A male Homo sapiens has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, has testicles and lots of testosterone;
    • A female Homo sapiens has two Xs, a womb, and plenty of estrogen.
  26. During most of history, dominant men have been colorful and flamboyant, such as Native American chiefs with their feathered headdresses and Hindu maharajas decked out in silks and diamonds.
  27. Throughout the animal kingdom males tend to be more colorful and accessorized than females — think of peacocks' tails and lions' manes.
  28. To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between 'sex', which is a biological category, and 'gender', a cultural category.
  29. Sex is divided between males and females, and the qualities of this division are objective and have remained constant throughout history.
  30. Gender is divided between men and women (and some cultures recognize other categories). So-called masculine and feminine qualities are inter-subjective and undergo constant changes.
  31. Patriarchal societies educate men to think and act in a masculine way and women to think and act in a feminine way, punishing anyone who dares cross those boundaries.
  32. 🤔 What’s so good about men?
    • 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. There are three problems with this emphasis on muscle power:
      • The statement that men are stronger than women is true only on average, and only with regard to certain types of strength. Women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease, and fatigue than men. There are also many women who can run faster and lift heavier weights than many men.
      • Women have, throughout history, been excluded mainly from jobs that require little physical effort (such as the priesthood, law, and politics).
      • There simply is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. People in their sixties usually exercise power over people in their twenties, even tough twenty-somethings are much stronger than their elders.
    • Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from strength but from aggression. However, an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate, and how to see things from different perspectives. Women are often stereotyped as better manipulators and appeasers than men and are famed for their superior ability to see things from the perspective of others. If there's any truth in these stereotypes, then women should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders, leaving the dirty work on the battlefields to testosterone-charged but simple-minded machos.

Part 3: The Unification of Humankind

🌎 Chapter 9: The Arrow of History

  1. Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.
  2. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
  3. Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex.
  4. This is, of course, a very crude generalization, true only at the macro level. At the micro level, it seems that for every group of cultures that coalesces into a mega-culture, there's a mega-culture that breaks up into pieces.
  5. A real 'clash of civilizations' is like the proverbial dialogue of the deaf. Nobody can grasp what the other is saying.
  6. We still talk a lot about “authentic cultures”, but if by “authentic” we mean something that developed independently, and that consists of ancient local traditions free of external influences, then there are no authentic cultures left on earth.
  7. Over the last few centuries, all cultures were changed almost beyond recognition by a flood of global influences.
  8. How globalization affected ethnic cuisines for example:
    • In an Italian restaurant we expect to find spaghetti in tomato sauce;
    • In Polish and Irish restaurants lots of potatoes;
    • In an Argentinian restaurant we can choose between dozens of kinds of beefsteaks;
    • In an Indian restaurant hot chillies are incorporated into just about everything;
    • and the highlight at any Swiss café is thick hot chocolate under an alp of whipped cream.
  9. However, none of these foods is native to those nations:
    • Tomatoes, chili peppers, and cocoa are all Mexican in origin; they reached Europe and Asia only after the Spaniards conquered Mexico.
    • Potatoes reached Poland and Ireland no more than a few hundred years ago.
    • The only steak you could obtain in Argentina in 1492 was from a llama.

🤑 Chapter 10: The Scent of Money

  1. Specialisation created a problem — how do you manage the exchange of goods between the specialists?
  2. Barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or need.
  6. Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else.
  7. Ideal types of money enable people not merely to turn one thing into another, but to store wealth as well.
  8. In order to use wealth it is not enough just to store it. It often needs to be transported from place to place.
  9. Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or their color, or their shape. In other words, money isn't a material reality — it is a psychological construct.
  10. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
  11. Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.
  12. The crucial role of trust explains why our financial systems are so tightly bound up with our political, social, and ideological systems.
  13. Initially, when the first versions of money were created, people didn't have this sort of trust, so it was necessary to define money as things that had real intrinsic value. History's first known money — Sumerian barley money — is a good example.
  14. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value but was easier to store and transport.
  15. Once trade connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalize the prices of transportable goods.
  16. 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.
  17. The dark side of money: When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations, and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.

💂‍♀️ Chapter 11: Imperial Visions

  1. 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.
    • Second, empires are characterized by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite.
  2. Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity.
  3. Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered Egypt in the seventh century and crushed with an iron fist the repeated revolts that broke out against its rule.
  4. About 10 million Zulus in South Africa hark back to the Zulu age of glory in the nineteenth century, even though most of them descend from tribes who fought against the Zulu Empire and were incorporated into it only through bloody military campaigns.
  5. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, we and they.
  6. How many Indians today would want to call a vote to divest themselves of democracy, English, the railway network, the legal system, cricket, and tea on the grounds that they are imperial legacies?
  7. And if they did, wouldn't the very act of calling a vote to decide the issue demonstrate their debt to their former overlords?
  8. Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in the hope of reconstructing and safeguarding the “authentic cultures” that preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the legacy of an older and no less brutal empire.
  9. Those who resent the mutilation of Indian culture by the British Raj inadvertently sanctify the legacies of the Mughal Empire and the conquering sultanate of Delhi. And whoever attempts to rescue "authentic Indian” culture from the alien influences of these Muslim empires sanctifies the legacies of the Gupta Empire, the Kushan Empire, and the Maurya Empire.

🧎‍♀️ Chapter 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.

  1. Religion can 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* Religion is an entire system of norms and values, rather than an isolated custom or belief. Knocking on wood for good luck isn't a religion.
    2* To be considered a religion, the system of norms and values must claim to be based on superhuman laws rather than on human
  2. The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares, and worries of humans.
  3. In the three centuries of the persecution of Christians by the Romans, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians.
  4. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.
  5. Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognizes the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.
  6. The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise. For example, the chief goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid. When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptized. She became St Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland.
  7. Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualist believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God nor subordinate to it.
  8. Monotheism explains order (who governs the entire world) but is mystified by evil (why is there evil in the world). 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.
  9. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts.
  10. The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being Siddhartha Gautama.
  11. Gautama's insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless.
  12. Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle:

    If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering.

    If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness goes away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it.

    If you experience joy without craving that the joy lingers and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

🏆 Chapter 13: The Secret of Success

What is the difference between describing how and explaining why?

To describe 'how' means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another.

To explain ‘why’ means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.

  1. It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time.
  2. Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history.
  3. 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.
  4. History is also a “level two” chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes:
    • Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it.
    • Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.
  5. Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
  6. No matter what you call it — game theory, postmodernism or memetics — the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being:

    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.

Part 4: The scientific revolution

🔬 Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance

Only in the fifteenth century — about 600 years after the invention of gunpowder — did cannons become a decisive factor on Afro-Asian battlefields. Why did it take so long for the deadly potential of this substance to be put to military use? Because it appeared at a time when neither kings, scholars, nor merchants thought that new military technology could save them or make them rich.

  1. Modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  2. Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance:
    • First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew.
    • Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things. By definition, whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past did not bother to tell us was unimportant.
  3. Competing scientific theories are vociferously debated on the basis of constantly emerging new evidence.
  4. One of the things that have 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.
  5. Modern science has no dogma. Yet it has a common core of research methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations - those we can observe with at least one of our senses - and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools.
  6. In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled “The New Instrument”. In it, he argued that knowledge is power. The real test of knowledge is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us.
  7. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100% correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
  8. The relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields.
  9. A good historian can find precedent for everything. But an even better historian knows when these precedents are but curiosities that cloud the big picture.
  10. Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating.
  11. Throughout history, societies have suffered from two kinds of poverty:
    • Social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others and
    • Biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter.
  12. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.

🪖 Chapter 15: The Marriage of Science and Empire

  1. The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favor present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed.
  2. Scientists have provided the imperial project with practical knowledge, ideological justification, and technological gadgets. Without this contribution, it is highly questionable whether Europeans could have conquered the world.

💸 Chapter 16: The capitalist creed

In the late 1830s the Chinese government issued a ban on drug trafficking, but British drug merchants simply ignored the law. Chinese authorities began to confiscate and destroy drug cargo. The drug cartels had close connections in Westminster and Downing Street - many MPs and Cabinet ministers in fact held stock in the drug companies - so they pressured the government to take action.

In 1840 Britain duly declared war on China in the name of “free trade”. It was a walkover.

Under the subsequent peace treaty, China agreed not to constrain the activities of British drug merchants and to compensate them for damages inflicted by the Chinese police.

Furthermore, the British demanded and received control of Hong Kong, which they proceeded to use as a secure base for drug trafficking (Hong Kong remained in British hands until 1997).

In the late nineteenth century, about 40 million Chinese, a tenth of the country's population, were opium addicts.

  1. People agreed to represent imaginary goods — goods that do not exist in the present with a special kind of money they called “credit”.
  2. Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It's founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.
  3. The belief in the growing global pie eventually turned revolutionary. In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”. Smith made the following novel argument:

    When a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.

  4. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
  5. 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.
  6. Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. It was both descriptive and prescriptive — it offered an account of how money worked and promoted the idea that reinvesting profits in production leads to fast economic growth.
  7. The history of capitalism is unintelligible without taking science into account. Capitalism's belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe.
  8. Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. There simply is no such thing as a market free of all political bias. The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft, and violence. It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and establishing and supporting police forces, courts, and jails that will enforce the law.
  12. Adam Smith taught that the shoemaker would use his surplus to employ more assistants. This implies that egoistic greed is beneficial for all since profits are utilized to expand production and hire more employees. Yet what happens if the greedy shoemaker increases his profits by paying employees less and increasing their work hours? The standard answer is that the free market would protect the employees.
  13. This sounds bulletproof in theory, but in practice, the bullets get through all too easily. In a completely free market, unsupervised by kings and priests, avaricious capitalists can establish monopolies or collude against their workforces, then the laborers are no longer able to protect themselves by switching jobs.
  14. The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand. Private slave-trading companies sold shares on the Amsterdam, London, and Paris stock exchanges. Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment bought these shares.
  15. This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner.

🚂 Chapter 17: The Wheels of Industry

Throughout these long millennia, day in and day out, people stood face to face with the most important invention in the history of energy production - and failed to notice it.

It stared them in the eye every time a housewife or servant put up a kettle to boil water for tea or put a pot full of potatoes on the stove. The minute the water boiled, the lid of the kettle or the pot jumped. The heat was being converted to movement.

But jumping pot lids were an annoyance, especially if you forgot the pot on the stove and the water boiled over. Nobody saw their real potential.

  1. Counter-intuitively, while humankind's use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research. These have invariably produced not only more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources but also completely new types of energy and materials.
  2. There are many types of steam engines, but they all share one common principle. You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam. As the steam expands it pushes a piston. The piston moves, and anything that is connected to the piston moves with it. You have converted heat into movement!
  3. In 1825, a British engineer connected a steam engine to a train of mine wagons full of coal.
  4. Another crucial discovery was the internal combustion engine, which took little more than a generation to revolutionize human transportation and turn petroleum into liquid political power.
  5. Petroleum had been known for thousands of years and was used to waterproof roofs and lubricate axles. Yet until just a century ago, nobody thought it was useful for much more than that.
  6. At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion.
  7. 🤔 Why are so many people afraid that we are running out of energy? Why do they warn of disaster if we exhaust all available fossil fuels?

    Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs.

    The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuels on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun dispenses every day, free of charge. Only a tiny proportion of the sun's energy reaches us, yet it amounts to 3,766,800 exajoules of energy each year (a joule is a unit of energy in the metric system, about the amount you expend to lift a small apple one yard straight up).

    All the world's plants capture only about 3,000 of those solar exajoules through the process of photosynthesis.

    All human activities and industries put together consume about 500 exajoules annually, equivalent to the amount of energy the earth receives from the sun in just ninety minutes.

    And that's only solar energy.

  8. Chemists discovered aluminum only in the 1820s, but separating the metal from its ore was extremely difficult and costly.
  9. For decades, aluminum was much more expensive than gold. In the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon III of France commissioned aluminum cutlery to be laid out for his most distinguished guests.
  10. The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials. The result was an explosion in human productivity.
  11. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals while neglecting their subjective needs.
  12. Today in the United States, only 2% of the population makes a living from agriculture. Yet this 2% produces enough not only to feed the entire US population but also to export surpluses to the rest of the world.
  13. Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing.

☄️ Chapter 18: A permanent revolution

Nature cannot be destroyed [— it can only change]. 65 million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in so doing opened the way forward for mammals. Today, humankind is driving many species into extinction and might even annihilate itself.

  1. In 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich.
  2. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.
  3. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family, and the local intimate community.
  4. Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence.
  5. The family and the local community collapsed and were largely replaced by the state and the market.
  6. 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.
  7. In recent decades, when states and markets have become all-powerful and communities have vanished, violence rates have dropped even further.
  8. 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.

🥰 Chapter 19: And they lived happily ever after

If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively.

  1. Most current ideologies and political programs are based on rather flimsy ideas concerning the real source of human happiness:
    • Nationalists believe that political self-determination is essential for our happiness.
    • Communists postulate that everyone would be blissful under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
    • Capitalists maintain that only the free market can ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number, by creating economic growth and material abundance and by teaching people to be self-reliant and enterprising.
  2. What would happen if serious research were to disprove these hypotheses? If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, what's the benefit of Capitalism? What if it turns out that the subjects of large empires are generally happier than the citizens of independent states and that, for example, Ghanaians were happier under British colonial rule than under their own homegrown dictators?
  3. Even the freedom we value so highly may be working against us. We can choose our spouses, friends, and neighbors, but they can choose to leave us. With the individual wielding unprecedented power to decide her own path in life, we find it ever harder to make commitments. We thus live in an increasingly lonely world of unraveling communities and families.
  4. 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.
  5. The most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.
  6. 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.
  7. That's one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one's life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness.
  8. As Nietzsche put it, 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.
  9. As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without a goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual.
  10. So perhaps happiness is synchronizing 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.
  11. In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself — to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes, and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, I am angry. This is my anger. They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realize that they are not their feelings and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
© 2023 by Elvis Chidera. All rights reserved.