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Interesting BooksSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo Sapiens started to form elaborate structures called Cultures. The subsequent development of these cultures is called History.
Three important revolutions kickstarted the course of History— Cognitive Revolution kickstarted History about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got underway only 500 years ago, may well end History and start something completely different.
The most important thing to know about Prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago.
- Humans in Europe and Western Asia evolved into Homo Neanderthals (‘Man from the Neander Valley’), popularly referred to as simply ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals were bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age in Western Eurasia.
- The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo Erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our ow species, as it is doubtful whether Homo Sapiens will still be around a 1000 years from now.
- On the island of Java, in Indonesia lived Homo Soloensis, ‘Man from Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics.
- On another Indonesian island— the small island of Flores— archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland. When the seas rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources. Big people, who need a lot of food, died first. Smaller fellows survived much better. Over generations, the people of Flores became dwarves. This unique species, known by Scientists as Homo Floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only 1 meter, and weighed no more than 25 kgs.
- In 2010, Scientists excavating the Denisova Cave in Siberia discovered a fossilized ginger bone. Genetic analysis proved the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo Denisova.
- Homo Denisov— ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’.
- Homo Ergaster— ‘Working Man’
- Homo Sapiens— ‘Wise Man’
This linear model gives the impression that at any particular moment, only one type of human inhabited the Earth, and that all earlier species were merely models of ourselves. The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, the world was home to several human species.
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 body is at rest.
Archaic humans paid for large brains in two ways—
- They spend more time in search for food.
- Their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defense to education. Humans diverted money from biceps to neurons.
A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favored those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since Humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialized to a far greater extent than any other animal.
One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. This is key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solid in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by large predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years— with the rise of Homo Sapiens— that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
The spectacular leap from middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals evolved in that position gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances. As lions became deadlier, gazelles evolved to run faster. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so fast that the ecosystem was not given enough time to adjust. Hence we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire— as a source of light and a weapon against predators. But the best thing fire did was cook, which enabled humans to eat more kinds of food. Some scholars believe that there is a direct link between advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain.
It seems that about 5,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at the borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species. There is a strong possibility is that Homo Sapiens drove the other two to extinction. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin color, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group.
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 300,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
Every animal has some kind of language. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein can. Whatever advantage Einstein had over the parrot, it wasn’t vocal.
Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. Homo Sapiens is a primarily social animal. Social Cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. Numerous studies support this theory.
Even today, the vast majority of human communication—whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns— is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think history professors chat about the reasons for the First World War when they meet for lunch ? Sometimes, but more often, they gossip about the professor who caught their husband cheating.
The truly unique feature of our language, is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather it’s ability to transmit information about that do not exist at all. Legends, Myths, Gods and Religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. 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.
Churches are rooted in common religions myths. States are rooted in common national myths. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
Peugeot began as a small family business in a village in Europe, and grew to be one of the oldest and largest of Europe’s carmakers. The company employs 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers, and cooperate effectively to produce 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion Euros in 2008. Even if you sell all the cars to scrap metal and fire all managers, the company would still exist.
Peugeot belongs to a genre of legal fictions caller ‘limited liability companies’, or ‘legal fiction’ as lawyers call it. During most of recorded history, property could be owned only by flesh-and-blood humans. Humans were the business, and were fully liable without limit, for obligations incurred by him. If loan cannot be repaid, they had to sell private property— house, cow, land, children into servitude etc or thrown into prison by the state and enslaved by creditors.
This legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally dependent on the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them. In US, the technical term for a limited liability company is corporation. The American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings.
Armand Peugot, created Peugot, the company. He named it after itself, but it was independent of him. If one of the cars broke down, the buyer could sue Peugot, but not Armand Peugot. If the company borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugot did not owe its creditors a single franc.
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could only speak about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.
The kind of things people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. Claiming that there is a lion next to the river, even when there is not one, is a lie.
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
Some sorcerers are charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. And most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. And most human rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have this been living in a Dual Reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions. And on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became even more powerful, so that today, the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as United States and Google.
Sapiens have been able to change their behavior quickly, transmitting new behaviors to future generations, without any need of genetic or environmental change. The repeated appearance of childless elites like Catholic priesthood or Buddhist monastic scholars, goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation.
In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten the Sapiens. But in a conflict of 100s, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance.
Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations.
Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these differences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between different bands.
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’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.
The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.
The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban laborers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years during which most of Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye in comparison to the time period before.
Even today, or brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way out hunter gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its megacities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers.
This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.
Ever Since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.
Vast majority of people in preagricultural societies lived in small bands numbering several dozen or at most several hundred individuals, and all these individuals were humans. But most members of agricultural and industrial societies are domesticated animals.
Before the agricultural revolution, the human population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today’s Cairo. And cooperation was one of the important trademarks of Homo Sapiens, and gave it a crucial edge over other human species.
The Hunter-gatherer way of life was different from region to region and season to season. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of yoga or marathon. They also mastered their senses. They listened to movements in grass to spot snakes, observed foliage of trees to discover fruits, beehives and birds.
While people in today’s affluent societies work on an average 40-50 hours a week. Hunter-gatherers worked on an average for just 35-40 hours a week. They hunted 1 day out of 3, and gathering takes 3-6 hours daily.
Evidence from fossilized skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. But average life expectancy was apparently just 35-40 years, and this was largely due to high incidence of child mortality.
Animism is not a specific religion. It is a generic name for thousands of very different religions, cults and beliefs. What makes them animist is the common approach to the world and to mans place in it.
In pre-industrial warfare, more than 90% of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and disease rather than by weapons.
It’s common today to explain anything and everything as the result of Climate Change, but the truth is that Earths climate never rests. Every event in history occurred against the background of some Climate Change.
There are good reasons to believe that If Homo Sapiens had never gone Down Under, it would still be home to marsupial lions, diprotodons, and giant kangaroos.
Homo Sapiens was the first and only human species to reach Western Hemisphere landmass, arriving about 16,000 years ago, that is in or around 14,000 BC.
No previous human species had managed to penetrate places like Northern Siberia. Even the cold-adapted Neanderthals restricted themselves to relatively warmer regions further south.
Homo Sapiens drove to extinction, about half of the plane big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools.
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 extinction.
About 10,000 years ago, Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. It was a revolution in the way humans lived— the Agricultural Revolution.
Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa ? The reason is simple— most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. The fungi were far too elusive and the giant beasts too ferocious.
But it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.
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.
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 number of dollars in its bank account, not by happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution.
People throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions.
To hoe the field instead of scattering seeds, we will have to work harder but the harvest will be bountiful. The first part of the plan went smoothly— people indeed worked harder, but people did not foresee that the number of children would increase. Neither did they understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They also did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they are actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought.
One of histories 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.
In order to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient fraught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed.
The Agricultural Revolution was one of the most controversial events in history. Some claim that it set humankind on the road to prosperity and progress, while others insist that it led to perdition.
Peasants spent most their days working a small field or orchard, and their domestic lives centered on a cramped structure of wood, stone or mud, measuring no more than a few dozen meters— the house. The typical peasant developed a very strong attachment to this structure, which was the hallmark of a much more self-centered creature.
The stress of farming had far reaching consequences and laid the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Everywhere rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.
These fortified food surpluses fueled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90% of humans were peasants who rose each morning to toll 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.
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 snails pace, human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other seen on Earth.
‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but it is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation. 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 belief in shared myths.
Like Hammurabi’s Code, the American founding document promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be able to cooperate effectively, living safely and peacefully in a just and prosperous society.
Voltaire said about God that ‘There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’.
An imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces— truly believe in it.
Christianity would not have lasted 2000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. American Democracy would not have lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day of majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in Capitalism.
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 laws of nature.
From the moment they are born, you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which are incorporated into anything and everything. They are incorporated into fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions.
The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life.
Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined orders most important defenses.
For instance, the most cherished desires of present day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries.
An Objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs— Radioactivity, Atoms etc.
The Subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual— Imaginary friend etc.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals— Law, Money, God etc.
To change Imagined orders which are inter-subjective, we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organization, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organizations, it is 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 alternate imagined order.
In order to survive, ancient hunter-gatherers had to remember the shapes, qualities and behavior patterns of thousands of plant and animal species. Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, Sumerians invented a system for storing and processing information outside their Brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of mathematical data— ‘Writing’.
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.
Almost all states, companies, organizations and institutions— whether they speak Arabic, Hindi, English or Norwegian — use mathematical script to record and process data. Every piece of information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored, spread, and processed with mind boggling speed and efficiency.
A person who wishes to influence the decisions of governments, organizations and companies must therefore learn to speak in numbers. Experts do their best to translate 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. And more recently, mathematical script had given rise to an even more revolutionary writing system— computerized binary script consisting of two signs: 0 and 1.
Many of those 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 Negros.
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 are likely to be victimized yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis— they are nothing but perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history.
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.
Scholars usually distinguish between ‘sex’, which is a biological category, and ‘gender’, a ‘cultural’ category. Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies.
Social hierarchy is not founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women or the physical ability/ strength and testosterone. Nor is it purely based on cooperation and appeasement.
War is not a pub brawl. It is a very complex project that requires an extraordinary degree of organization, cooperation and appeasement. The ability to maintain peace at home, acquire allies abroad, and understand what goes through the minds of other people (particularly your enemies) is usually key to victory.
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’.
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can only be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
Tensions, conflicts and dilemmas are such an essential feature in culture that it has a name— Cognitive Dissonance. And we still talk a lot about ‘authentic’ cultures, as if they developed independently. Over the last few centuries, all cultures were changed almost beyond recognition by a flood of global influences.
Homo Sapiens evolved to think of people divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. But the first millennium witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the world and the entire human race as a single unit, governed by a single set of laws. The first universal order 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.
Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division ‘us vs them’. For merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects. And for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. But money succeeded where gods and kings failed.
Aztecs could not understand the Spanish obsession with Gold. What was so important about a metal that could not be eaten, drunk or woven, and was too soft to use for tools or weapons. Hunter-gatherers shared their goods and services through an economy of favors and obligations. But Barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy.
Some societies tried to solve the problem by establishing a central barter system that collected products from specialist growers and manufacturers and distributed them to those who needed them. The largest and most famous such experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union, and it failed miserably.
Money was created many times in many places. It’s 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. Even today, coins and bank notes are a rare form of money. More than 90% of all money exists only on computer servers.
Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. What created this trust was a very complex and long-term network of political, social and economic relations.
Counterfeiting money has always been considered a much more serious crime that other acts of deception. Counterfeiting is not just cheating— it’s a breach of sovereignty, an act of subversion against power, privileges and person of the king.
For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. But money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits.
Money is based on two universal principles
- Universal Convertibility
- Universal trust
We like to see underdogs win. But there is no justice in history. Most past cultures have sooner or later fallen prey to the armies of some ruthless empire, which have consigned them to oblivion. Empires too, ultimately fall, but they tend to leave behind a rich and enduring legacies. Almost all people in the 21st century are the offspring of one empire or another.
An empire is a political order with two important characteristics—
- You have to rule over a significant number of distinct people’s, each possessing a different cultural identity and separate territory.
- Empires are characterized 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.
It should be stressed that an empire is defined solely by its cultural diversity and flexible borders, rather than by its origins, its form of government, its territorial extent, or the size of its population. It need not even emerge from military conquest. Size too, does not really matter.
The contemporary critique of empires commonly takes two forms—
- Empires do not work. In the long run, it is not possible to rule effectively over a large number of people.
- Even if it can be done, it should not be done because empires are evil engines of destruction and exploitation. Everyone has the right to self-determination, and should never be subject to rule of another.
From a historical perspective, the first statement is plain nonsense, and the second is problematic. The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organization for the last 2500 years. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. They have been toppled only by external invasion or by split within the ruling elite.
Conversely, conquered people don’t have a very good record of freeing themselves from their imperial overlords. Most have remained subjugated for 100s of years. Typically, they have been slowly digested by the conquering empire, until their distinct cultures fizzled out. In many cases, the destruction of one empire hardly meant independence for subject people’s. Instead, a new empire stepped into the vacuum created when the old one collapsed or retreated.
Building and maintaining an empire usually requires the vicious slaughter of large populations and brutal oppression of everyone who was left. The standard imperial toolkit included wars, enslavement, deportation and genocide. This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in their wake. To color all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies is to reject most of human culture. 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.
Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. In contrast with this ethnic exclusiveness, imperial visions are developed which justified the existence of empires and negated not only attempts by subject people’s to rebel, but also attempts by independent people’s to resist imperial expansion.
Empires have played a decisive role in amalgamating many small cultures into fewer big cultures. Ideas, people’s, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region. Often enough, it was 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. Standardization was a boon to emperors. A second and equally important reason why emperors actively spread a common culture was to gain legitimacy. The benefits were salient— law enforcement, urban planning, standardization of weights and measures — and sometimes questionable — taxes, conscription, emperor worship. But most imperial elites earnestly believed that they were working for the general welfare of all the empires inhabitants.
It is tempting to divide history neatly into good guys and bad guys with all empires among the bad guys. For the vast majority of empires were founded on blood, and maintained their power through oppression and war. Most of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies.
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 civilization, untainted by sin. These ideologies are at best naive; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry.
Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires. It seems likely that in future too, most humans will live in one. But this time, the empire will truly be global. The imperial vision of dominion over the entire world could be imminent. As the 21st century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all humankind is the legitimate source of political authority, rather than 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.
As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit. States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system. States are obliged to conform to global standards of financial behavior, environmental policy and justice. Immensely powerful currents of capital, labor and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states.
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.
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 is, 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 fundamentals laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
2000 years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most Westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish bigotry. The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore unconcerned with the mundane desires and worries of humans. In Hindu polytheism, there are many gods, but a single principle called Atman controls the gods.
The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelizing god of Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but expected them to pay respect to the empires protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor. This was seen as a decoration of political loyalty. When Christians refused, they were violently persecuted.
Theological disputes between Catholics and Protestants turned very violent in the 16th and 17th centuries. More Christians were killed by fellow Christians at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on 24th August 1572 than the Polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its existence.
Judaism argued that the Supreme Power of the Universe has interests and biases. His chief interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel. The big breakthrough came with Christianity. This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah, and it was necessary to spread the good word — the Gospel— about Jesus throughout the world.
Christian success served as a model for another monotheist religion that appeared in the Arabian Peninsula in the 17th century— Islam. Like Christianity, Islam too began as a small sect in a remote corner of the world, but in an even stranger and swifter historical surprise it managed to break out of the deserts of Arabia and conquer an immense empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Henceforth, the monotheistic idea played a central role in world history.
Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. Because monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions.
Monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbled together in a single divine umbrella. 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 is called Syncretism, which might in-fact, be the single great world religion.
Gautama Buddha came to the realization that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, or by divine whims. Rather, suffering is caused by the behavior patterns of one mind. Buddha’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction.
Buddha found that there was a way to exist this vicious cycle. If the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. He developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. A person who does not crave cannot suffer.
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 ?”
The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in which religions have increasingly lost importance. But the modern age has witnessed the rise of a 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. If 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.
The Buddhist law of nature and Marxist laws of history are superhuman, since they are not legislated by humans. Yet they are not supernatural.
In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilize the cosmic order. To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the order reestablished. Attending gruesome executions was a favorite pastime for Londoners and Parisians in the era of Shakespeare and Moliere.
What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. The Nazis said that the Aryan Race was the most advanced form of humanity and needed to be protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo Sapiens, like Jews and Blacks had to be quarantined and exterminated.
Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory. In particular, genetic research conducted after 1945 has demonstrated that differences between human lineages are far smaller than the Nazis postulated. But these conclusions are relatively new. Politicians in Washington, London and Canberra took it for granted that it was their job to prevent the adulteration and degeneration of the white race, by, for example, restricting immigration from China or even Italy, to ‘Aryan’ countries such as USA and Australia. White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American Politics at least until the 1960s. And the White Australia Policy which restricted immigration of non-white people to Australia remained in force till 1973.
Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes and synapses rather than by free will— the same forces that determine the behavior of chimpanzees. But our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet.
Most historians tend to be skeptical of deterministic theories. This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline— the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.
When Constantine assumed the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an Esoteric sect. If you were to suggest that it would become the state religion, you would be laughed out of the room. In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small radical Russian faction. No reasonable person would have predicted that within 4 years, they would take over the country. In AD 600, the notion that a band of desert-dwelling Arabs would soon conquer an expanse stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India was even more preposterous.
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 forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. Not only that, but history is what is called ‘level 2’ chaotic system.
Chaotic systems come in two shapes
- Level 1 chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it—for example, weather. 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 2 chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately. Markets are a level 2 chaotic system. If we develop a computer program to predict the price of oil, then oil prices will immediately reach to the forecast. Politics too is a second order chaotic system. Revolutions are, by definition, unpredictable. A predictable revolution never erupts.
So why study history ? 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 or present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine. For example, studying how Europeans came to dominate Africans enables us to realize that there is nothing natural or inevitable about racial hierarchy, and that the world might well be arranged differently.
Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather than memes as the building blocks of culture. Yet they too see cultures as propagating themselves with little regard for the benefit of humankind.
Postmodernists thinkers describe nationalism as a deadly plague that spread throughout the world in the 19th century and 20th century, causing wars, oppression and genocide.
Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and behavior patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root and spread. Arms race are a famous example. Many arms race bankrupt all those who take part in them, without really changing the military balance of power. But billions of dollars that could have been invested in education or health are spent on weapons. ‘Arms racing’ is a pattern of behavior that spreads itself like a virus from one country to another, hating everyone under the evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction.
Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms. And individual humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to influence the course of history to their own advantage.
Prior to the 16th century, no human had circumnavigated the Earth. This changed in 1522, when Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain after a Journey of 72,000 kms. It took 3 years and cost the lives of almost all the crew members, Magellan included. Today, anyone with a middle-class income can safely and easily circumnavigate the globe in just 48 hours.
During the last 5 centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t blind faith— it was repeatedly proven empirically.
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.
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. So the scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge, rather it has been about revolution of ignorance.
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known. To them, knowledge was little more than trivia, with no bearing on the fundamental truths of society, politics and economics.
Communists are usually guided by the belief that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute economic truths that simply could not be refuted. This was the same method used by Nazis. They claimed that their racial policies were corollaries of biological facts.
Most people have a hard time digesting modern science because its mathematical language is difficult for our minds to grasp, and its findings often contradict common sense.
In fact, the relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, they were totally separate fields. When Bacon connected the two in the early 17th century, it was a revolutionary idea. He published a scientific manifesto titled “The New Instrument”. In it he argued that the real test of ‘Knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether is empowers us.
Four important scientific milestones
- Magellan’s expedition across the ocean in 1552.
- Landing on the moon on 20th July, 1969.
- Discovery of microorganisms in 1964 by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek.
- Detonating the first nuclear bomb on 16th July 1945.
Generally speaking, most premodern rulers and business people did not finance research about the nature of the universe in order to develop new technologies, and most thinkers did not try to translate their findings into technological gadgets. Only Rulers finances financed educational institutions whose mandate was to spread traditional knowledge for the purpose of buttressing the existing order.
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.
Until the 12th century, between a quarter and a third of children in agricultural societies never reached adulthood. Most succumbed to childhood diseases such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox. Also if you were struck by an arrow, you had to cut off the body part due to possibility of infection and gangrene. But due to science, not only are we living longer and healthier, but we are on the quest to give humankind eternal life.
The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. It promises that whoever dies for the nation will live in its collective memory.
Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal. The ideology that it allied with the research justifies the costs of it,. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.
In order to comprehend how humankind has reached has reached Alamogordo and the moon— rather than any other destinations— it is not enough to simply survey the achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists. We have to take into account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics, biology and sociology— pushing them in certain directions while neglecting others. Two forces particularly deserve our attention— imperialism and capitalism.
Ships that set sail to distant shores knew that more than half their crew members would die of a disease known as scurvy. Captain James Cook conducted controlled experiments and found out that lack of Vitamin C was the reason for scurvy, and instructed sailors to eat lots of fruits and vegetables when ship made landfall. Cook went on to claim for Britain many of the Islands and lands he ‘discovered’, most notably Australia.
The native Tasmanians who had survived for 10,000 years in isolation were completely wiped out to the last man within a century of Cooks arrival. European settlers first drove them off the richest parts of the island, and then killed them systematically. The few survivors were hounded into an evangelical concentration camp where they were indoctrinated in the ways of the modern world, such as reading and writing, Christianity, and various ‘productive skills’ such as sewing clothes and farming. Many became depressed and committed suicide, and even their bodies were dissected, weighted, measured and analyzed in articles.
The Scientific Revolution and Modern Imperialism were inseparable. Before Cooks expedition, little of importance happened in Europe. They were nothing but distant backwaters of the Mediterranean World. The Roman Empire— the only important premodern European empire— derives most of its wealth from its North African, Balkan and Middle Eastern provinces. Only at the end of the 15th century did Europe become a hothouse or important military, political, economic and cultural developments.
Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste. Almost everyone views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes.
It is unquestionable that from 1850 onward, European domination rested to a large extent on the military-industrial-scientific complex and technological wizardry.
A common saying among Europeans facing African soldiers was “Come what may, we have machine guns and they don’t.”
Chinese and Persians lacked values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.
Why did Europe develop in the early 18th century and dominated the late modern world ? The answer is modern science and capitalism.
When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he took 165 scholars with him. Among other things, they founded an entirely new discipline, Egyptology, and made important contributions to the study of religion, linguistics and botany.
The Native American told a message to Apollo astronauts who were planning to go the moon. The message was for the moon spirits which translated as, “Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.”
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.
The Aztecs did not know how to react when they met the Spanish for the first time. The aliens had white skin, lots of facial hair, and some had hair the color of the Sun. They even stank horribly and the Natives had to accompany them with incense burners. But the Spanish thought it was a mark of divine honour.
Within a century of the landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of Americas has shrunk by 90%. The Great empires of Asia— the Islamic World, India, and China continued to believe that the world revolves around Asia and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic or Pacific. Even puny European kingdoms such as Scotland and Denmark sent a few explore-and-conquer expeditions of either exploration or conquest.
For 300 years, Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America and Oceania, in the Atlantic and Pacific. The wealth and resources accumulated by them eventually enabled them to invade Asia too, defeat its enemies and divide it amongst themselves. When the Ottomans, Persians, Indians and Chinese woke up, it was too late. Only in the 20th century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. And this was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony.
When Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archeologists to study Indian history, but the British did. For modern European, building an Empire was a scientific project, while setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project.
In 1830s, a British officer named Henry Rawlinson was sent to Persia to help the Shah to train his army in European style. In his spare time, he observed local inscriptions in cuneiform script in 3 languages— Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. He became convinced that if he could decipher the writing, it would enable him and other scholars to understand an Ancient and forgotten world.
Without the efforts of modern Europe imperialists such as Rawlinson, we would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Empires. Another imperialist scholar named William Jones was captivated by the wonders of India when he was serving as a Judge in Supreme Court of Bengal in 1783. He noticed surprising similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin as well as Gothic, Celtic, Old Persian, German, French and English. Mother is ‘matar’ in Sanskrit, ‘mater’ in Latin and ‘mathir’ in Old Celtic. He was thus the first to identify what later came to be called the Indo-European family of languages. His study was an important milestone not merely due to his bold and accurate hypothesis, but because of his orderly methodology he developed to compare languages that formed the basis of Linguistics.
Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of non-European races, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘The White Mans Burden’—
Take up the White Mans 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 people’s
Half-devil and half-child
Neither oppression and exploitation, nor the ‘White Mans burden’ completely matches facts. You could fill an encyclopedia with both, their achievements as well as crimes. Due to their close cooperation with Science, they created medicines and cultivated knowledge. But they also used Science for more sinister ends, like using anthropologists and linguists to provide scientific proof that Europeans are superior to all other races, and consequently have the right (if not perhaps duty) to rule over them.
Money has been essential both for building empires and promoting science. To understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just one single word. The word is growth.
Banks are allowed to $10 for every $1 they actually possess. This means that 90% of all money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins or notes. If all the account holders at Barclays Banks suddenly demand their money, Barclays will promptly collapse. But the modern economy is not a giant Ponzi scheme, or a fraud. 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 future.
In the past, money could represent and convert only things that actually existed in the present. This imposed severe limitations on growth, since it made it very hard to finance new enterprises. Without money, you can’t bake cake, without cakes you can’t get money. Humankind was trapped in this predicament for 1000s of years.
The way out of this trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods— goods that do not exist in the present— with a special kind of money called Credit. Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
Credit arrangements of one kind of another have existed in all known cultures, going back to at least ancient Sumer. The problem in previous eras was that no one had the idea how to use it. And they generally believed past had been better off than their own times— or that the total amount of wealth was limited, if not dwindling. Business looked like a zero-sum game because people believed that you can cut the pie in many different ways, but it never got any bigger. Credit is the difference between today’s pie and tomorrow’s pie. If the pie stays the same, why extend credit ? So it was hard to get a loan in the premodern world, and if you got one it was usually small, short term and subject to high interest rates.
Then came the Scientific Revolution and the idea of progress. The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve. The idea was soon translated into economic terms and people put more and more trust in the future. Today, there is so much credit in the world that governments, business corporations and private individuals easily obtain large, long term and low interest loans far exceeding current income.
Capitalism is called “Capitalism” because it distinguishes itself from 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. The idea that “profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production” sounds trivial. Yet, it was alien to most people throughout history.
People thought the levels of production were more or less constant. And medieval noblemen espoused an ethic of generosity and conspicuous consumption. They spent their revenues on tournaments, banquets, palaces and wars. In the modern era, the nobility has been overtaken by a new elite comprising of board chairman, stock traders, and industrialists. The typical Venture Capitalist rushes from one business meeting to next, trying to figure out where to invest his capital and following the ups and downs of the stocks and bonds he owns. True, his suits might be Versace and he might get to travel in a private jet, these expenses are nothing compared to what he invests in increasing human production.
Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. But now it encompasses an ethic — a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. It’s principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme god because justice, freedom and even happiness depend on economic growth.
Over the last few years, banks and governments have been frenziedly printing money. Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air and pumping cheap credit into the system before the bubble bursts. Everything depends on the people in the labs and new discoveries like biotechnology and nanotechnology.
It was European imperialism that created that capitalism credit system. Until the 18th century, Asia was the world’s economic powerhouse and Europeans had far less capital. Non-Europeans empires despised merchants and mercantile thinking and financed war through taxes and plunder, and owed very little to credit systems. In Europe on the other hand, Kings and Generals gradually adopted the mercantile way of thinking until merchants and bankers became the ruling elite. Their conquests were financed through credit rather than taxes, and increasingly directed by capitalists who main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their investments. The empires built by bankers and merchants in frock costs and top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but everyone is happy to invest.
The magic circle of imperialism— credit financed discoveries, discoveries led to colonies, colonies provided profits, profits build trust, and trust translated into more credit. The Indian subcontinent was conquered not by the British state, but by the mercenary army of the British East India Company. Only in 1858 did the British crown nationalize India along with the company’s private army.
In order to increase the number of potential investors and reduce the risk they incurred, Europeans turned to limited liability joint stock-companies. Instead of a single investor betting all his money on a single rickety ship, the joint-stock company collected money from a large number of investors, each risking only a small portion of his capital. The risks were thereby curtailed, but no cap was placed on profits. Even a small investment in the right ship could turn you into a millionaire.
In 1568, the Dutch who were mainly Protestant revolted against their Catholic Spanish overlord. Within 8 years, the Dutch not only secured their independence from Spain, but had managed to replace the Spaniards and their Portuguese allies as masters of the ocean highways, build a global Dutch empire and become the richest state in Europe. The secret of Dutch success was credit. They were able to finance their military expeditions more easily than the mighty Spanish empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system while the Spanish Kings were carelessly eroding their trust in him. Amsterdam was fast becoming not only one of the most important ports of Europe, but also the continents financial Mecca.
How did the Dutch win the trust of the financial system ? They were sticklers about repaying their loans on time and in full, making extension of credit less risky for lenders. Secondly, their judicial system enjoyed independence and protected rights— in particular private property rights. 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.
The most important example of how governments did their bidding of big money was the First Opium War, fought between Britain and China (1840-42). British East India Company and Sundry British Business people made fortunes by exporting drugs, particularly opium, to China. The drug cartel had close connections in Westminster and Downing Street— many MPs and Cabinet ministers intact held stock in drug companies. British used Hong Kong as a secure base for drug trafficking, and about 40 million Chinese, a tenth of the country’s population were opium addicts.
The bear hug between capital and politics has had far reaching implications for the credit market. The amount of credit in an economy is determined not only by purely economic factors such as discovery of a new oil field or invention of a new machine, but also regime changes or ambitious foreign policies. That is why today a countries credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than is natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay back its debts. They also take into account political, social and economic factors.
The free market doctrine is today the most common and influential variant of the capitalist creed. In this view, wisest economic policy is to keep politics out of economy, reduce taxation and government regulation to a minimum, and allow market forces free rein to take their course.
Belief in the free market is as naive as belief in Santa Claus. 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. When King’s fail to do their jobs and regulate the markets properly, it leads to loss of trust, dwindling credit and economic depression.
During the early modern period, the rise of European Capitalism went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. And in the Industrial Revolution that swept through Europe in the 19th century enriched the bankers and capital owners, but condemned millions of workers to a life of abject poverty.
The rubber industry was particularly notorious. The African villagers who collected the rubber were required to provide higher and higher quotas. Those who failed to deliver their quota were punished brutally for their ‘laziness’. Their arms were chopped off and occasionally entire villages massacred.
Capitalism has 2 answers to its criticisms
- Capitalism has created a world nobody but a capitalist is capable of running. The only serious attempt to manage the world differently was Communism— much worse in every possible way. Just like the Agricultural Revolution, we may not like Capitalism, but we cannot live without it.
- We just need more patience. Mistakes like slave trade and exploitation of the European working class have been made. But if we just wait a little longer and allow the pie to grow a little bigger, everybody will receive a fatter slice.
There are also positive signs. At least when we use purely material criteria— life expectancy, child mortality and calorie intake— the standard of living of the average human in 2014 is significantly higher than it was in 1914, despite the exponential growth in the number of humans.
Today in the United States, only 2% of the population makes a living from Agriculture. Yet this 2% produces enough to feed the entire US population but also to export surplus to the rest of the world.
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate.
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.
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 Industrial Revolution opened up new ways to convert energy and produce goods, largely liberating humankind from its dependence on the surrounding ecosystem.
In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares little about the sun or the season. It sanctifies precision and uniformity. And the Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities. A crucial link in the spreading of timetable system was public transportation.
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 urbanization, the disappearance of peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common people, democratization, 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.
Prior to 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. While the community offered help, life was still far from ideal. All this changed dramatically over the last 2 centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the governments disposal an army of clerks, teachers and policemen. The states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community.
The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases, individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them.
The nation is the imagined community of the state. The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market. Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are intersubjective realities.
Many don’t appreciate how peaceful of an era we live in. The world was much more violent a 100 or even 1000 years ago. He decline in violence is largely due to the rise of the state.
Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.
It is sobering to realize how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years. Nationalists believe that political self determination is essential to our happiness. Communists postulate that everyone would be blissful under the dictatorship of the Proletariat. Capitalists maintain that only the free market can ensure greatest happiness by creating economic growth and material abundance.
Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter gatherers. But as humankind gained more and more power, they created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs. People in modern affluent societies suffer greatly from alienation and meaninglessness despite prosperity.
Money does indeed bring happiness, but only up-to a point. Beyond that point it has little significance. Even illness decreases happiness in the short term, but is a long-term distress only if the persons condition is constantly deteriorating, or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating pain. Family and community have a strong impact on our happiness than money and health. Marriage is also particularly important.
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. If you have a bullock cart and get a bullock cart, you are content. If you want a Brand new Ferrari, and get only a second-hand Fiat, you feel deprived. This why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on happiness as a debilitating car accident.
For all hopes of creating heaven on earth, our internal biochemical systems seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant. Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Mud huts or penthouses don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
In Aldous Huxleys dystopian novel Brave New World, published in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, happiness is the supreme value and psychiatric drugs replace police and ballot as the foundation of politics.
As Nietzsche puts 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.
As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion. The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find.
The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares his life is meaningful because he fights to defend the homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
The dominant religion of our age is liberalism. Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority.
According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. The problem according to Buddhism is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises.
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness not 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. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeing pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices— you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them.
When Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, like “Happiness begins within”, and thereby turning them on their head. While Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements, his more important and profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of external conditions.
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.
Sapiens who dreamed of fat, slow-moving chickens discovered that if they mated the fattest hen with the slowest cock, some of the offsprings would be fat and slow.
Replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in three ways—
- Biological Engineering
- Cyborg Engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts)
- Engineering of in-organic life
It is unclear whether bioengineering could really resurrect the Neanderthals, but it would very likely bring down the curtains on Homo Sapiens.
Mapping the first human genome required 15 years and $3 billion. Today you can map a persons DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few $100 bills. And the era of personalized medicine— medicine that matches treatment to DNA— has begun.
Throughout history, the upper class means always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves. Our late modern world now prides itself on recognizing, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans.
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. 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.
The future is unknown. When Sputnik and Apollo 11 fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies in Mars and Pluto. Few of those forecasts came true. And no body foresaw the Internet.