Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

Yuval Noah Harari, SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

This is a history of the human species in the context of “Big History” – the first page sketches the history of the entire universe as a backdrop – and is a history of trends, discoveries, concepts, and ideas, not of wars and conquests and politicians. It’s been a perennial bestseller since its English-language publication in 2015, and seems to have established itself as part of the cultural zeitgeist, much as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel have. Harari has since published two further books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which I’ll summarize here too.

The prime virtue of this book is that it covers an enormous amount of material about the growth and expansion of our species, using the widest possible perspective, and not getting bogged down by the names and dates of conventional history. Harari likes big ideas. Yet at times he’s overly reductionist in collapsing many ideas into those few big ideas.

Top-level summary:

  • Harari demarks human history by three great revolutions: the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific.
  • He echoes Diamond’s assessment of the agriculture revolution as a ‘fraud,’ i.e. not so much a great leap forward as the cause for many of our problems today.
  • A principle theme is the notion of ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths to build societies larger than small tribes in which everyone knew each other. These are ‘inter-subjective’ ideas like religion, nationalism, and legal system, that depend on the beliefs of many people in the society to sustain them. (E.g. without a shared belief about money, the coins and paper would be valueless.) And that modern society is impossible without them.
  • Between the agricultural and scientific revolutions he traces the history and significant of…
    • Writing, numbers, and hierarchies;
    • Money, empire, and religion.
  • (Opinion: In his discussion of religion his penchant for reductionism becomes problematic, by equating religion with ideologies, like communism, and considering secular philosophies to be ‘humanistic religions’! Thus a lack of worship of gods is, to him, a worship of humanity.)
  • And then he relates:
  • The idea of ignorance and how science admits ignorance and thus allows discovery and progress
  • How science and empire supported each other to allow humanity to expand across the world
  • How economic growth became the trend of history; how this depends on increased productivity, and the discovery of new kinds of energy, and the necessity of consumerism
  • How this threatens the ecology of the planet; how modern life has replaced family and local community with the state and the market, with imagined communities, with the idea that we live with incessant change
  • But how this threatens the ecology of the planet, and how it hasn’t necessarily led to an increase in human happiness.
  • Finally he considers the end of the species, threatened by various kinds of engineered creatures, biological or cybernetic.
  • He concludes: we are powerful as gods, but don’t know where we’re going.


Detailed summary, with key points bolded and [[ my comments in brackets ]]

Part One, The Cognitive Revolution

1, An Animal of No Significance

  • Book begins with thumbnail recap of history—summarized in timeline, several pages earlier. In this history there are three revolutions: the cognitive revolution, 70Kya (i.e thousand years ago, my abbreviation), the agricultural, 12kya, and the scientific, 500ya.
  • There were humanlike minds 2mya, but those creatures were insignificant on the world stage. Species come in families, and humans used to belong to a family too, i.e. other humans, including the Neanderthals and others, which have become extinct. At one time thousands of years ago there were several such species existing simultaneously; there was no linear progression from one to the next. He calls our species ‘Sapiens’ to emphasize that there were other ‘human’ species.
  • Author doesn’t expect that our species will last another 1000 years, 6b [my abbrev. For page 6 bottom].
  • Our success came from our large brains, and our ability to walk upright. Human babies are born relatively prematurely, 10m, and require years of care, requiring social ties (it takes a village).
  • The earliest tools were likely used to extract marrow from bones of animals killed by other animals; humans were in the middle of the food chain. What changed was the use of fire, which enabled cooking, and reduced the amount of time needed to eat each day.
  • About 70kya we emerged from Africa, to places other human species already resided. Did we interbreed, or replace them? Most favor the second theory, though recent evidence does show that modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA; this has implications for notions of racial equality, but that’s what the evidence shows.
  • What drove those other species to extinction? Were we more resourceful, or simply more violent? Key observation about intolerance toward humans of even slightly different groups, 80.0: “Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group.”
  • What if those other species had survived? How would religion and politics have been different?
  • So why did we prevail? Perhaps language.

[[ Passing thought: is the rejection of evolution, by a large part of the modern population, in part due to distaste at being related to chimps and gorillas—which trigger the same disgust attitude that racists feel when encountering other colors of their own species…? ]]

2, The Tree of Knowledge

  • We acquired our current intelligence by 30K years ago, presumably due to random mutations. This was the Cognitive Revolution.
  • Language is supple, enables gossip, and enables the thinking of things that don’t exist—collective myths, that enabled cooperation.
  • Chimps are highly hierarchical, with an alpha male ruling, and coalitions among members of groups, which typically have 20-50 members each.
  • Our own threshold for groups is about 150 – beyond that, we cannot keep track of inter-relationships. [[ this is a commonly cited psychological limitation; e.g. you may have 500 Facebook friends but most of them you don’t know very well. ]]
  • In order to manage larger groups, humans need common myths—religious, national, and legal.
  • Example: the lion of Peugeot (the car maker), representing the legal fiction of an LLC or corporation.
  • We tell stories and need others to believe them. These aren’t lies, but sincere beliefs. [[ as I’ve long thought, ‘rights’ are simply social agreements, not anything handed down from on high or pre-existing in nature. ]]
  • These are ‘imagined realities’, 31b that come to override genetic dictates. Changing stories can lead to changed behavior. Thus the emergence of childless elites… trade between groups (Neanderthals didn’t trade), cooperative hunting… cultures… and history. It’s our mythical glue that makes all this possible.
  • He summarizes, p39.

[[ This keys with ideas about how religion is *useful*, like nationalism, and perhaps why it should not be disabused? –issue to consider: if every person could recognize all these myths for what they are—would society collapse? What would hold society together? Well, the answer might be, how do freethinkers of various types keep on living? What makes them keep on going? ]]

3, A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

  • We’ve spent almost our entire history as hunter-gatherers, and that has shaped our eating habits and much else; thus now we have obesity because we crave sweets, which used to be rare. There are also suggestions that primitive tribes were communities without monogamy, where children were imagined to have multiple fathers; a ‘commune’ theory, controversial [[ author footnotes the Sex at Dawn book I read some years ago, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, and reviewed here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Views/?p=732 ]]
  • This was how humans lived from roughly 70,000 to 12,000 years ago. They left few artefacts. We can look at modern forager societies for clues – yet these are highly variable. There is/was no single ‘way of life’.
  • Yet these societies generally consist of small bands, of only humans – except, at some point, dogs. Contact between them was rare, and only valuables were traded. Still, slow wandering or spreading of these tribes would have reached China in 10K years.
  • These were the original ‘affluent society’. The earliest settlements were fishing villages along rivers, perhaps 45K ya. Most people had intimate knowledge of the natural world, and led more interesting lives, than people today, who exist in niches of specialty. They worked less. They had high infant mortality. They had a more varied diet, and fewer infectious diseases (which came with settlements).
  • Animistic beliefs were common; these were not a religion, but rather assumptions about individual animals, rocks, etc. Not theism, 55t, which “is the view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship between humans and a small groups of ethereal entities called gods.”
  • We don’t know much about whether these people lived mostly at peace, or in war. They exist behind a ‘curtain of silence’.
  • What they *did* do was reshape the ecology of the planet.

4, The Flood

  • (Author uses term ‘flood’ to mean how Sapiens spread across the globe and killed off many other species)
  • Early sapiens lived in the Afro-Asian region, while around the world were many independent eco-systems, with different animal species. Sapiens didn’t reach Australia until 45K ya, and quickly became the deadliest species. Soon most large marsupials became extinct. Life there had survived multiple ice ages, and humans didn’t affect sea life, so human cause is virtually certain. This happened around the world; New Zealand, reached only 800 years ago (!).
  • Three reasons: those large mammals or marsupials were slow breeders; humans had fire, and could burn down forests (which is how eucalyptus, formerly rare, thrived and became dominant); and climate change at the time did contribute.
  • The Americans, 16K ya, and the very southern tip of South America by 10K bc. Many species lost, p71.
  • Again and again: Madagascar, 1500ya, Hawaii in 500, NZ in 1200. There were three waves of extinction: the first, by the foragers; the second, by the spread of farmers; the third, by industrial activity today. It may well reach sea life as well.

[[ all of this echoes the big extinctions in Kolbert’s book; in hers everything humans have done is part of her big Six. ]]

Part Two, The Agricultural Revolution

5, History’s Biggest Fraud

  • The transition to agriculture began around 9500-8500 BC in Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant [middle east]. It developed independently elsewhere, but only certain areas, because so few plant and animals species were amenable to domestication. See map p79.
  • The idea that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity—is a fantasy, p79. In fact, people weren’t more intelligent at the time, and the life of farmers was generally less satisfying than that of hunter-gatherers, and farmers worked harder; it led to population explosions and pampered elites. It was history’s biggest fraud, 79b.
  • The culprits were the plants themselves, esp wheat, rice, and potatoes. The transition was slow; there was no planned series of steps. Wild wheat etc was part of the hunter-gatherer diet. The plants domesticated the humans. To maintain the plants, humans settled into communities, with rises in violence and spread of diseases. (Note violence rates, p82—compare Pinker?)
  • The one benefit was the expansion of the human population, an evolutionary success only in that way, even if their conditions were worse.
  • The luxury trap—as throughout history, people were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions, p86.7. People worked hard, had more children, then had to keep working hard. An iron law of history is that luxuries become necessities, 87b. Thus it was never practical to abandon the settlement and go back to foraging. This is an important lesson…88.
  • P89, possibly there were cultural motivations: evidence has been found of monuments built in 9500 BC by foragers. For some religious purpose? Did building the temple require a village to support it? Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
  • Meanwhile the domestication of animals was underway, especially by breeding docile varieties of sheep etc, managing the young to keep the milk coming, slaughtering the males for food. Ironically, these few species—sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens—number in the billions in today’s world, but live miserable lives. A few other species—dogs, cats, horses—live pampered lives. But again, evolutionary ‘success’ for most came at the cost of misery, p97.

6, Building Pyramids

  • There was no turning back from the agricultural revolution. By the 1st century, there were 1 or 2 million foragers left, and 250 million farmers.
  • With that came a shift in human sensibilities: an attachment to home and neighbors. As late as AD 1400, farmers occupied just 2% of the planet’s surface—the rest was too hot, dry, cold, wet, etc. Most people felt tied down.
  • The farming life entailed concern about the future—seasons, preparing against bad years—with worry and stress.
  • Growing communities brought rulers and elites, including soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers – “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.” 101b.
  • Throughout history wars have more often been triggered by these elites, not by food shortages. The cooperation of large groups required myths to bind them. It turns out mythology was much stronger than fables about spirits and totems. Mighty empires were created when “people invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links” 103.3.
  • History: a few hundred people in Jericho, 8500 BC; Anatolia, a town of some 10,000 in 7000 BC; 3100 BC the first Egyptian kingdom in the Nile valley; 2250 BC Sargon’s empire of Akkadia, with a million subjects. By 1000 BC to 500 BC, the mega-empires of the middle east, 103.8. 221BC, the Qin dynasty in China; later the Roman Empire with 100 million subjects.
  • These ‘cooperation networks’ were seldom benign, but they were ‘imagined orders’ based on shared myths.
  • Two examples. In 1776 BC, the code of Hammurabi in Babylon laid out rules for various offenses, p106-7, with examples like “If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye.” The order entailed three classes of people, superior people, commoners, and slaves, and two genders, with different values placed on each combination. Families were hierarchical; children were property of their parents.
  • In 1776 AD, the Declaration of Independence also claimed to be divinely inspired, but with much different tenants: that “all men are created equal” and so on. Both of these declarations were wrong; they reflect no objective reality; they were both imagined realities about universals that exist only in the minds of Sapiens. For example, we can replace the presumptions of the Declaration with what we know about the reality of biology and sociology, and come up with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.” P110.4
  • [[ Of course Harari is being cheeky; what the founders meant wasn’t that all men were literally equal, but they were intended to be treated equally before the law. Or as much as seemed feasible at the time, without the 14th amendment. ]]
  • The point is these imagined orders are *useful*:
  • Quote:
    • We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large members of humans can cooperate effectively.

[[ and my personal theme is that it’s possible to, privately, understand that all these schemes are not objectively true, and that an objective truth about the nature of the universe can be found, is available to be found, and understood ]]

  • At the same time, there needs to be ‘true believers’ in these orders for them to survive; Voltaire: “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.” Natural orders are fragile, prone to collapse if people stop believing. A society can not survive merely by force. Those who lead cannot all be cynics, p112.

[[ this recalls a theme among atheist writers, that perhaps it’s not wise to disabuse people of their beliefs, for the maintenance of social order; and the counter-theme that this is condescending, to think that people are not able to handle the truth. Harari suggests that the social order depends on some kind of myth – if not a shared religious one, then a shared nationalist one, or similar. This is why my project only addressed the individual’s ability to step away from the myths and apprehend reality for what it has been found to be, not any attempt to revolutionize society. ]]

  • So, how do make people believe? First, never admit that the order is imagined, 112b. Educate them from birth in this order. The humanities and social sciences are all about how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life, 113m. There are three factors that keep people from realizing that these orders exist only in their imagination:
  • 1, The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Thus, modern belief in individuality is reflected in modern house’s divisions into individual bedrooms for each child, where they can maintain privacy; this was never true in medieval times.
  • 2, The imagined order shapes our desires. Thus romantic ideals shape both our consumerism, and our desire to travel to exotic locations, a notion expressed in ancient societies by the building of pyramids, in times when travels abroad would have made no sense.
  • 3, The imagined order is inter-subjective. Not objective, like radiation; not subjective, like imaginary friends; but subjective among the larger group, p117, shared by many people. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.” 117.
  • To change these imagined orders is difficult, given they might require a change of consciousness of a billion people. “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.” And to change the imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
  • There is no escape. When we break down the walls or a prison and run towards freedom, we are merely running into the more spacious yard of a bigger prison. 118b.

[[ again, you can escape the prison through science, but likely only privately ]]

Ch7, Memory Overload

  • Rules for games allow even strangers to play. As societies grew the rules became too elaborate and complex to be remembered—laws, taxes, etc. Human brains are inadequate: their capacity is limited; they die; they are only adapted for certain kinds of information, p121, e.g. about flora and fauna, and about personal relations among the tribe.
  • And so complex societies required—numbers. Growing societies collapsed if they could not manage the information to manage them.
  • The earliest solution came from the Sumerians, in 3500bc – writing, on clay tablets. Those tablets show accounting records, about who sold what to whom.
  • These early systems of writing were ‘partial scripts’, like math and music notation – systems to record only particular kinds of information. They didn’t capture poetry. The Andeans used knots tied on cords, the quipus, p125.
  • Full scripts came by 2500 BC, in Sumeria, that became cuneiform. The issue then became, how to store and maintain huge amounts of information inscribed on clay tablets? P127. Some cultures did develop methods of storing and retrieving such records; they had catalogues; they had schools for scribes. This entailed developing ways of categorizing, of thinking about the world—free association and holistic thought gave way to compartmentalization and bureaucracy. 130.3.
  • Then came numbers. The ‘Arabic’ numerals were invented by the Hindus. Mathematical notation has become the world’s dominant language (example of equations, p131). They are needed because “With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics.” 131.5
  • Entire fields of knowledge require mathematics.
  • And the extension – the binary script of computers.

Ch8, There is No Justice in History

  • How did humans organize themselves into large mass-cooperation networks, without instincts to do so? They created imagined orders and devised scripts.
  • But these imagined orders were neither neutral nor fair. Thus Hammurabi established classes of people; even the American order created a hierarchy between whites and others, between rich and poor.
  • Ironically, every imagined hierarchy claims its order is natural and inevitable. Ordained by gods; Aristotle’s natures; white supremacist theories. Hindus cosmic forces. All of these are of human origin. Modern Americans are shocked by racial ideas—yet are OK with the hierarchy of the rich and poor, who both get what they deserve, 136m.
  • And yet—complex societies seem to *need* some imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination; there are no known societies that have no discriminations. Hierarchies serve functions; they enable people to know how to interact with others, though social cues.
  • The vicious circle, p138—all hierarchies arose through accidents of history, e.g. the Hindu caste system, from the invasion by the Indo-Aryan people 3000 years ago; thus outcasts == untouchables.
  • 140, Purity in America—Europeans imported slaves from Africa because 1, Africa was closer than, say, Asia; 2, there was already a slave trade in Africa itself; and 3, Africans were partially immune to the malaria and yellow-fever that plagued the plantations. And then religious and scientific myths were created to justify it. These myths remained even after the slaveholders gave up, in a vicious circle of cause and effect; Jim Crow laws; see diagram p143.
  • 144, He and She—every society has a hierarchy that divides men and women, and almost everywhere men prevail. Girls are thought unlucky; wives ‘belong’ to their husbands. Is this an imagined system, or why is it so widespread? Is there a biological basis? Similar concerns about homosexuality, p146, which has been perfectly fine in some societies. Rule is: biology enables, culture forbids. Whatever is possible, is by definition natural p147.2. The idea of the unnatural comes from Christian theology, with its ideas about the purpose of each limb and organ. In fact, organs have evolved to perform many functions; evolution has no purpose. Mouths, wings, sex organs.
  • 148, Sex and Gender—are different things; diagram p149. Standards of masculinity have varied; compare Louis XIV to Obama, p150-1. Gender is serious business; men must prove themselves their whole lives.
  • 152, What’s So Good About Men?—so why are men preferred? Many theories, none satisfactory. Because men are stronger? This is true only on average; and social power doesn’t depend on muscle power. Because men are more aggressive? But again, the lower classes are more often employed to fight, while the upper classes stay at home. Because of differing reproduction strategies? P157. Men are more ambitious; women more choosy. Yet other species are matriarchal, as in elephants and bonobos. Humans are a cooperative species; why then don’t more cooperative women lead the way? So we don’t know the answer to this. We do know that gender roles have changed greatly in recent decades: women can vote, hold high offices; homosexuality now taken for granted.

Part III: The Unification of Mankind

Ch9, The Arrow of History

  • A century ago it was thought different cultures were unchanging, each with its own essence. Now it’s the opposite: cultures are in constant flux. All manmade orders are packed with internal contradictions, e.g. Christianity and chivalry in medieval Europe; freedom and equality now, with the battle between Democrats (more equality) and Republicans (more freedom). This cognitive dissonance drives cultural change; it’s an asset, 165.
  • 166, the spy satellite—history does have a direction, when seen from on high: small simple cultures coalesce into bigger and more complex cultures. History is moving relentlessly towards unity, 166b. thousands of years ago there were many separate human worlds. By 1450, there were five: the whole Afro-Asia world; the Mesoamerican world; the Andean world; the Australian world; and the Oceanic world, map p169.
  • Today we all follow the same geopolitical system, the same economic system, the same legal system, the same scientific system, 168b. The foods we think of as ethnic are really imported from elsewhere, 170t. Indians adopted horses from Europeans.
  • 170 the global vision—homo sapiens evolved to distinguish between us and them. Now we are shifting to a universal order, driven by three universal orders: the monetary order; the imperial order; and the order of universal religions. These are the next three chapters.

Ch10, The Scent of Money

  • When Cortes arrived in Mexico in 1519, the locals didn’t understand his interest in gold, to them a useless metal. When coins became common, they were exchanged with tolerance for the varieties of opposing sides.
  • 174, how much is it?—small tribes bartered; as larger cultures allowed specialization, the barter system was impractical, e.g. p176. The largest barter experiment, the Soviet Union’s, failed miserably.
  • 177, shells and cigarettes—money was created many times in many places. Money is anything to mark an exchange, not just coins and banknotes; cowry shells were used, cigarettes are used in modern prisons. And now money resides on computer servers. It’s a way to store wealth, where some kinds of wealth cannot be moved, e.g. real estate.
  • 180, how does money work?—it works by trust, in the figments of collective imagination; money is the most universal and efficient system of mutual trust ever devised, 180.6. Early money had intrinsic value, e.g. barley. Later the shekel (mentioned in the Bible) is a standard 3 oz. weight of silver. Coins came in 640 BC, with ID marks and a stamp of authority. They didn’t have to be weighted. Roman denarius became the dinars of many cultures. Once one group believed in the value of gold, or any money, it spread automatically to other groups, based on common belief.
  • 186, two universal principles: convertibility, and trust.
  • Some things are ‘priceless’ like honor and loyalty, which is why certain things can’t be done, like selling one’s child. But money keeps working its way into everything. And it comes to be valued for itself, turning the world into a heartless marketplace. Money itself isn’t enough to explain the world….

Ch11, Imperial Visions

  • An empire like Rome could be defeated in battle, if it kept winning the war. They responded to Numantia by starving them, a story that became enshrined in myth and Spanish culture—ironically.
  • 190, what is an empire?—it rules over a significant number of distinct peoples, and it has flexible borders and an unlimited appetite, constantly acquiring new territories. Other factors, like its origin, form of government, etc., are not relevant.
  • 191, evil empires? – we now regard empires as evil. But they work, and the argument that it’s somehow immoral for one group to rule over another is problematic, because history is constant stream of empires, one take over by another, lasting for centuries. And they exploit conquered peoples by enabling artists and other elites. Today’s world is a legacy of empires, 194t.
  • 194, it’s for your own good—the first empire was the Akkadian Empire of Sargon, c2250 BC. It didn’t last long, and was subsumed by the Persian empire by 550 BC, whose attitude was that being part of an empire is for a nation’s own good. Other imperial visions, 196b, presumed legitimate authority from heaven, to rule over all for the good of all. The Quin of China.
  • 197, When they became us—empires have brought together smaller diverse cultures, entailing standardization and legitimacy, and a sense of a large family of common people, sometimes including barbarians who needed to be converted to the one true faith in a moral imperative, 198b. Examples.
  • 202, Chart of the ‘imperial cycle’—empire established; its culture adopted by subject peoples; they demand equal status in the name of those values; the empire’s founders lose their dominance; the culture continues to flourish and develop.
  • 204, Good guys and bad guys in history—it’s tempting to label the emperors as bad, but we all derive from imperial legacies. There are no pure authentic cultures. Would the Indians want to abandon the legacy of British rule—democracy, English, the railways, etc.? There is no dividing the world into good and bad.
  • 207, The new global empire—now, nationalism is losing ground; more people feel part of all humankind. Then why not a global government? The problems of the modern world cannot be solved by any one nation.

[[ ironically things have backslid a bit since he wrote this ]]

Ch12, The Law of Religion

  • Description of the holy Ka’aba in Mecca. P210:
    • Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.
  • So religion is “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.” This entails both this superhuman order, and that this order establishes norms and values that are binding. Thus football is not a religion, and beliefs in ghosts and fairies are not a source of moral standards, and are not a religion.
  • To unite peoples, a religion must espouse a *universal* superhuman order, and it must spread this belief: both universal and missionary. Many ancient religions were local and exclusive. The universal and missionary religions appeared in the first millennium BC.
  • 211, Silencing the lambs—the earliest beliefs involved animism, the idea that every animal and rock represented some kind of spirit. [[ Author doesn’t address the psychological source of these beliefs, i.e. agency detection. ]] These were very locale-specific. The agricultural revolution made plants and animals into property, creating a problem. The answer: gods. Ancient mythology often involves a contract with these gods for mastery over plants and animals—see Genesis. Recall animal sacrifices. [[ recall Equus: a thousand ‘local gods’ ]]. This development raised the status of humans.
  • 213, The benefits of idolatry—some of these polytheistic religions nevertheless identified a single power or law. Greeks had a head god. Hindus identified Atman. The principle here was that this supreme power has no interest in human wants and desires. Whereas the lower gods with partial powers can be dealt with. Polytheistic religions rarely persecute heretics, or tried to convert subjects. The local gods of conquered people were fine.
  • Except for the Christians under Rome, who refused to pay respect to the divinity of the emperor, 215b. Thus the Romans treated them as a subversive faction, though in 300 years only a few thousand Christians were killed, compared to the millions killed by fellow Christians over the next 1500 years. Especially in wars between Catholics and Protestants, in disagreement about the nature of Christ’s love, p216, gruesome examples.
  • 217, God is one—some followers of polytheistic gods came to believe that their own particular patron was the only god, the supreme power, but moreover that he did have interest in humans and could be bargained with. “Thus were born monotheist religions, whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war.”
  • The first was that of Akhenaten, c 350 BC, whose worship of Aten was abandoned after his death.
  • Others remained marginal, like Judaism, who believed the supreme power’s interest was only in their tiny Jewish nation.
  • The breakthrough was Christianity, who believed Jesus of Nazareth was their messiah, and who leader Paul of Tarsus reasoned that this news should be spread to the entire world. “In one of history’s strangest twists, this esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman Empire.” 218t.
  • This served as the model for Islam, in the 7th century. “In an even stranger and swifter historical surprise it managed to break out of the desert of Arabia and conquer an immense empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India.” [[ this would have to be because of the appeal of such a belief to human nature… obviously not because of any actual evidence from the real world. ]]
  • Monotheists have been more fanatical and missionary than polytheists, part of their mission being to exterminate all rival religions. It worked. Monotheistic religions spread across the globe, by the end of the first millennium and by today, outside East Asia.
  • And yet, the idea of monotheism doesn’t always settle well. Thus Christians have their patron saints, each one to watch over this country or that specialty—an analog to the polytheistic gods, sometimes the same old gods in disguise, 220.
  • 220, The battle of good and evil—and there were dualistic religions, which claimed two opposing powers: good and evil, that the universe is a battlefield between two forces. This explained the famous Problem of Evil.
  • Yet it begs the problem of order: if there are two forces, who created this set-up and what are the rules? 221m. Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil; dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. One possible answer: there’s one single omnipotent God, but He’s evil.
  • An early example of dualism was founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra) by 1000 BC. Later, Gnosticism and Manichaeanism. The latter creed rivaled Christianity for dominance of the Roman Empire, but lost.
  • Yet dualism survived; belief in the Devil or Satan are now commonplace, though such claims are not to be found in the Old Testament. Humans believe in logical contradictions. Another dualistic concept led to the distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. Why, if all was created by God? Led to the belief in the dualist heaven and hell—again, though not in the OT.
  • “The average Christian believes in the monotheistic God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.” 223m
  • 223, The law of nature—there have been other religions, that do not focus on gods, creeds which think a superhuman order is a product of natural laws; if there were gods, they too were subject to those laws. The prime example is Buddhism, whose central figure was a young prince who, around 500 BC, reflected on suffering and realized that people are never content. He meditated for six years and realized the problem was in the human mind, and the solution is to simply understand things as they are, and avoid suffering through practices of meditation, achieve a state of contentment and serenity known as nirvana. “…the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is” 226b.
  • Still, most Buddhists don’t attain nirvana and continue to worship various gods, 227.7… many Buddhas and bodhisattavas. [[ so the belief in gods has some root in human nature, the idea of deferring to authority perhaps? Parents? ]]
  • 228, The worship of man—the last 300 years has seen growing secularism, but not if you consider ‘natural-law religions’. These are liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. These are usually called ideologies, not religions, but they all entail belief in a superhuman order. [[ Here his conflation of religion with ideology, and calling a non-religion a religion, becomes annoying. ]]
  • Thus communists believe the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, et al. It has its holy script, Das Kapital. It has its holidays.
  • Author admits this line of reasoning is dicey, p229. [[ Yup. ]]
  • These modern creeds are also syncretic: a typical American is a nationalist, a capitalist, and a liberal humanist, p230t. More on these later.
  • Humanist religions worship humanity 230m (!???); the world and all other beings exist solely for our species. [[ Nope; humanists merely deny any supernatural order superseding human values, which isn’t the same thing at all. ]]
  • There are three sects, depending on the definition of humanity.
  • There is liberal humanism, in which the quality of individual humans is paramount; its priority is human rights; it reflects monotheist beliefs about eternal individual souls.
  • Socialist humanism, that believes humanity is a collective, that equality is the priority; it also reflects monotheistic beliefs in the idea that all souls are equal before God.
  • And evolutionary humanism, which believes humankind is a species that can evolve or degenerate. The most famous representatives are the Nazis, who prioritized the Aryan race as the finest, against degradation by other races or by the infirm. Their ideas have been debunked, but similar ideas survive; thus racist laws have persisted. They emphasized what they thought was the struggle for survival, 235-6.
  • And now today ideas about projects to upgrade humans are back in vogue. Life sciences have undermined belief in eternal souls, but this recognition has not filtered down to our laws or political science, 236e.

[[ The end of this chapter is extremely problematic in that author thinks deference to human values is ‘worship’. No no no no no. It’s realism, the recognition that there are no gods to worship, that humans are able to establish their own values. At best his descriptions are analogies. Furthermore it’s increasingly recognized by ‘humanists’ of various shades (and not by folks who think that God is in charge) that it’s not true that “the world and all other beings exist solely for our species” because acting like they do will destroy the planet, and thereby humanity. ]]

[[ I note that conservatives in the US treat the constitution as a kind of holy script, and the founders as some kind of infallible gods. This is again a reflection of a certain kind of thinking; a psychological matter. ]]

[[ p236, might be worth exploring how natural selection, the ‘struggle for survival,’ isn’t about weeding out the weak; the process preserves almost everyone. The process is about responding to changes in the environment, mostly. ]]

Ch13, The Secret of Success

  • What can we saw about why the world exists as it does, rather than some other way?
  • First, the Hindsight Fallacy. Why did Rome choose Christianity, when there were so many other options? Some have come up with deterministic explanations – about geography, genetics, or economy [[ pretty sure he’s alluding to Jared Diamond here ]] – but in fact the future is always a fog; the iron rule of history is that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time, 239.2.
  • And it’s easy to imagine alternate scenarios. But history cannot be predicted; it’s chaotic. And history is a Level Two chaotic system—it reacts to predictions about it. [[ well this is why Hari Seldon kept his predictions secret! ]]
  • Then why study history? Precisely to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, 241m.
  • Second, Blind Clio. History’s choices are not made for the benefit of humanity. There’s no reason to believe that the way things turned out was for the best. The victors always believe their definition of good is the correct one.
  • But maybe cultures are ideas that spread at the *expense* of their hosts, an idea variously called memetics [[ after Richard Dawkins’ ‘memes’ ]] , or in post-modernism ‘discourses’, or game theory, e.g. arms races.

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

Ch14, The Discovery of Ignorance

  • Things have changed more in the past 500 years than over any comparable time before that; since then we’ve circumnavigated the earth, landed on the moon, become aware of micro-organisms, and become able to end history, with atomic bombs.
  • This process, the scientific revolution, entailed the realization that life was not static, that new discoveries could be made that improved the human condition. The feedback loop involved resources to do research, research that provided new powers, and powers that provided new resources. P250 How did the bond between science, politics, and economics emerge?
  • 250, Ignoramus. First by the willingness to admit ignorance; then the centrality of observation and mathematics; and then using new theories to acquire new powers.
  • This is contrast to the scriptures, which were assumed to possess all-encompassing wisdom; anything they excluded (like details about how spiders built their webs) was irrelevant. Anyone who suspected that religious traditions were ignorant of important things… were treated as heretics. Modern science allows for collective ignorance on such issues. “The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge.” 253.4 But doesn’t this undermine the shared myths that enable society? There are two responses. First, simple declare some theory to be true—as the Nazis and communists did. Second, declare a non-scientific truth and live with that, as liberal humanism does.
  • 254, The scientific dogma. There is no dogma; there is always the possibility of completely new knowledge. Traditional rules were told as stories. Science resorts to math, and when calculus didn’t work, statistics were developed, at first by life-insurance people, to identifies trends where uncertainties prevails in individual cases. P256, in 1744. These techniques were so useful they changed education, making math something no longer for elites.
  • 259, Knowledge is power. Yet most people find math hard, because its finding often defy common sense. [[ key point ]] 259.4 Science and technology only became aligned only by World War I, with aircraft, poison gas, etc p261. In the past, military advantages were organization; it didn’t occur to general to search for new technology.
  • 264, The ideal of progress. Yet most societies have thought the golden age was in the past; that progress was not possible. Stories taught about the dangers of human efforts; lightning; poverty. [[ p264, note how progress moves beyond the idea that human efforts are fruitless, or evil ]]
  • 266, The Gilgamesh project. The most ancient problem is that of death: Gilgamesh follows his best friend into the underworld, and emerged persuaded that death was inescapable. But now death is a technical problem, to be solved, 268.2. Examples from the past, how common injuries led to death; child mortality; how many children of Queen Eleanor died before she produced a male heir. And modern religions have lost interest in understanding death. [[ well, that’s because author’s modern ‘religions’ aren’t really religions…. P271 ]]
  • 271, The sugar daddy of science. Science is expensive, and it’s naïve to think that science is funded for any reason other than for some political, economic, or religious goal. Science can’t make such judgements itself, or decide what to do with the results.

Ch15, The Marriage of Science and Empire

  • How far is the sun from the Earth? In the 18th century it was realized this could be determined from transits of Venus, of which there would be two, in 1761 and 1769. So expeditions were sent to far places around the world, including one led by Captain Cook, who used citrus to avoid scurvy. The expedition had both a scientific and a naval mission; he ‘discovered’ Australia, and within a century, many of its natives died, and the Tasmanians were wiped out completely.
  • 278 Why Europe?—Europe was relatively a backwater; the world was dominated by Asia until 1850 or so. But then Europe discovered technology, like railroads, that quickly spread around the world. Why Europe? Modern science, and capitalism.
  • 283, The mentality of conquest—the key factor in the spread of Europe’s science was its imperial mentality. Europeans admitted ignorance; they sought out new knowledge, rather than merely spreading their own view of the world, 284.
  • 286, Empty maps—earliest world maps were full of the known world; by 1525 the Salviati world map had lots of empty space, for lands yet to be explored. The discovery of America was key, because it was aa area unknown to scripture—new knowledge was possible. The European voyages to explore and conquer were unprecedented in world history, p289b. Compare Zheng He’s expedition, which did not try to conquer or colonize.
  • 291, Invasion from outer space—The Aztecs knew of no other world; when they were invaded, it was as if from outer space. Cortes captured Montezuma. Pizzaro used the same strategy for the Inca. China and other nations weren’t interested in the new world. Only in the 20th century did non-European nation adopt a global vision.
  • 297, Rare spiders and forgotten scripts—when Britain conquered India, they studied it (unlike the Muslims before them); they deciphered the cuneiform script, and the languages; these conquerors knew their empires. They identified this as a progressive, altruistic project, thus the ‘white man’s burden’ p301. OTOH some discoveries led to racist theories that later became anathema. These days we don’t speak in terms of race; we talk in terms of cultural purity.
  • Thus science and empire building supported each other, 304.

Ch16, The Capitalist Creed

  • Modern economic history is all about growth—unlike most of history, when the size of the economy stayed the same. To grow, you needed the concept of credit, and the idea that the future would be better. Example about a baker, a banker, etc. The idea that the future would be better was new. The idea that life was a zero-sum game was the reason wealth was considered sinful (in the Bible); to be wealthy meant someone else was deprived, 308b.
  • 310, A growing pie—the scientific revolution brought the idea of progress. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that greater profits enable businessmen to hire more assistants; thus increase in profits is what drives collective wealth. Greed is good. But it depends on the rich using profits to open new factories, rather than counting their coins like Scrooge. Medieval noblemen gave way to today’s corporate elite, in dreary suits. Economic growth became the supreme good, and became possible through science’s new discoveries every few years. If that bubble bursts, we’d be in trouble.
  • 315, Columbus searches for an investor—Asia was a powerhouse, but did not use much credit. Columbus tried several nations before resorting to Spain. Financial systems became more complex. The Dutch succeeded with credit, by repaying their loans and protecting property rights; while the Spanish fought wars. Example of two sons who invest differently. Famous Dutch joint-stock company was VOC, which drove the conquest of Indonesia, and the settlement of New Amsterdam—New York, when the Dutch lost it. France did the Mississippi Company, for the lower M valley, including New Orleans, but a stock bubble led to a huge crash, which triggered the French Revolution, p324. M/w the British settled North America, and India.
  • 325, In the name of capital—eventually governments did the bidding of companies, as in the first opium war of China, 1840, in which free trade (to sell opium to the Chinese and create millions of addicts) was defended by war. Similarly the UK funded a Greek war with Turkey.
  • 328, The cult of the free market—how much should capital and politics influence each other? Capitalists argue that politics should do nothing—reduce taxation and regulation; this is the most common creed today. Yet this belief is naïve; all markets have some political bias. The job of politics is to protect against cheats and enforce the law—if not, we get the Mississippi bubble, or the 2007 US housing bubble and recession.
  • 329, The capitalist hell—another reason markets shouldn’t have free rein is that monopolies can grow and take over freedom of the employees. Thus the slave trade, driven by markets to supply workers for sugar plantations. The slave trade wasn’t a government operation; it was a free market enterprise, p331. Free markets don’t guarantee that profits are made in a fair way. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed, 331.6.
  • Another example: Belgian Congo, exploited for its rubber, the natives exploited; 6 million died.
  • Capitalism has two answers: first, only capitalists are capable of running the modern world. Second, we need patience for the pie to grow big enough for everyone to have a slice.
  • But can the economy grow indefinitely? What will happen if we exhaust the raw materials and energy of the planet? [[ Still an important question, which is why some thinkers are exploring ideas for sustainability, how societies can thrive without growing indefinitely, like cancer. ]]

Ch17, The Wheels of Industry

  • Answer: the amount of energy and raw materials to be exploited have *increased*. [[ But they can’t increase indefinitely; the planet is finite. ]] Before the Industrial Revolution, humans were unable to convert energy except by muscle power, from plants and from the sun.
  • 336, The secret in the kitchen—one method was staring people in the face: steam. The first steam engines were invented to clear flooded coal mines – after Britain had cut down all their forests—and the coal powered those engines. By 1825 steam locomotives were invented, and people became obsessed by the idea that machines could convert one type of energy to another. Internal combustion engines converted petroleum into power. Then electricity.
  • 339, An ocean of energy—so we keep discovering new sources of energy. This solved the scarcity of raw materials; cheap methods were found to refine aluminum for example.
  • 341, Life on the conveyer belt—productivity swelled, especially in agriculture, with tractors and refrigerators. Even animals became machines, locked into pens or put down conveyer belts to be harvested. This led to the discovery of distress in animals. Now only 2% of the population is involved in agriculture. Increased production raised another problem: who would buy all that stuff?
  • 347, The age of shopping—thus consumerism, a new kind of ethic, replacing the thrift of never throwing anything away, 347. Now we are all good consumers, and products are designed with short-term lifespans. Religious holidays have become shopping days. This holds true in the food market, where ironically obesity is now more of a problem than starvation. And now it’s the rich who invest, and the poor who buy all that stuff they don’t need. Capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin.

[[ of course SF anticipated this in the 1950s, in Pohl et al. ]]

Ch18, A Permanent Revolution

  • And so the population has expanded, and there are few large animals left, part of the ecological degradation that threatens homo sapiens. It’s not that nature is being destroyed—only changed.
  • 352, Modern time—daily life has become aligned with industry. We live by timetables and clocks now. The advent of trains required nationalized time. Which happened in 1880. Everything in our daily life… 355m.
  • 356, The collapse of the family and the community– And this led to the collapse of the family and local community, to be replaced by the state and the market. Most of us no longer live with a nuclear family, an extended family, and a local intimate community. In the old days family was everything, and the community performed favors without payment; government intervention was limited. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense powers—education, police, courts. With this came the notion of being individuals, to do whatever one wants without regard to family or community—the state will take care of you, 359m. [[ This is the state that conservatives want to dismantle. Problem is there’s no going back, without vastly reducing the population. ]]
  • And women and children were recognized as individuals. The cost was weak families and communities, and diminishment of parental authority (to discipline children, etc).
  • 362, Imagined communities—and so now markets provide ‘imagined communities’ of people with common interests, including national identities, and more recently fans of pop stars, or fans of sports teams.
  • 364, Perpetuum mobile—once humans assumed the social order was stable; now it changes so quickly that every year is revolutionary, e.g. how the internet emerged only 20 some years ago, 365t. Now we live with incessant change, with a presumption that things will improve; even conservative politicians don’t strive to return to the past, but at best keep things as they are. [[ well arguably there is some reactionary movement currently. ]]
  • And the past seven decades have been remarkably peaceful…
  • 366, Peace in our time—we forget how violent the world used to be. Deaths from wars are far fewer than from car accidents, etc. [[ recalls Pinker ]]. This decline is due to the rise of the state [[ that conservatives want to dismantle ]].
  • 368, Imperial retirement—and so the empires gradually retired—the British, the French, the Soviet. They went away peacefully.
  • 370, Pax atomica—there are few international wars; countries don’t invade each other much anymore (examples 370). Humans have broken the law of the jungle, 371.5. The price of war is too high, with the threat of nuclear annihilation. And profits have declined from invading other countries. Intellectual wealth can flee. Peace is more profitable. The elites see war as evil. And there is positive feedback among these four forces. The result is most countries are no long truly independent—they are inter-dependent on each other, 374m.
  • Thus we are witnessing the formation of a global empire, which effectively enforces world peace.
  • But is this a genuine trend, or could we swing back toward war and destruction? We could go either way.

Ch19, And They Lived Happily Ever After

  • Summary. But are we happier? Such questions are rarely studied. The assumption might be that as our capabilities increase, alleviating miseries, we become happier (the progressive account). Or, is it that evolution shaped us as hunter-gatherers, and the modern world takes us far away from that environment, away from Eden? P478. Both are oversimplifications.
  • While it’s true that the last few decades have been a golden age, 379t, perhaps our timeframe is too narrow. And we are ignoring looming ecological havoc, and the harm we cause to other animals.
  • 380, Counting happiness—what makes people happy? Surveys have been done. Money does buy happiness—but only to a point. And illness reduces happiness, but only to a point. Beyond these points people readjust. Family and community help. But the most important finding is that happiness is relative—it depends on subjective expectations of objective conditions. 382b. It’s about expectations.
  • Mass media and advertising erode satisfaction (example of football star marketing underwear, p385). And this suggests that immortality would bring about rage among those who could not afford it.
  • 385, Chemical happiness—we don’t stay happy for very long; there’s no evolutionary advantage in staying happy, and the pleasure of sex quickly subsides; if it did not, males would be uninterested in anything else, 386b.
  • Different people do have different innate levels of contentment. And these can be adjusted with drugs—like Huxley’s soma. What would be wrong with that?
  • 390, The meaning of life—people often say what makes them happy is doing something meaningful, e.g. raising a child, which is hard work. Kahnmann. Thus the faithful might be very happy, and a faithful person from the middle ages might have been just as happy. 391.6: “So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they?” And yet as far as we can tell, there is not purpose or cosmic plan (that is, those beliefs are delusions). So does happiness depend on self-delusion?
  • 392, Know thyself—they idea that people know their own happiness is a liberal idea, because liberalism sanctifies individuals. Whereas religions held that objective standards to be met, that individual desires were irrelevant or sinful. Modern geneticists point out that DNA is about promoting genes, and happiness is irrelevant.
  • Buddhism has studied ideas of happiness and reached different conclusions: that the problem is suffering and wanting, and the solution is to understand these feelings and stop craving them. The ideal is serenity. Western cultures have turned these insights upside down: “Happiness Begins Within” 395b, what we feel inside. This is the opposite of Buddhism.
  • So perhaps the issue isn’t whether people are fulfilled and enjoy pleasant feelings. Perhaps the question is whether people know the truth about themselves. Do people today understand this truth better than the ancients? Most history has ignored this theme.

[[ and of course the answer is YES, at least for some people – those who study reality and try to understand it, i.e. scientists and philosophers, and likely NO for the vast majority who live their lives in the ancient human roles. And this is perhaps my ultimate PvC: it’s all about understanding reality outside the bubble of merely being human. ]]

Ch20, The End of Homo Sapiens

  • Now the in the 21st century we are beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. Scientists are engineering creatures, like a green rabbit. This may be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth, 399.4. This process could happen three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; engineering inorganic life.
  • 399, Of mice and men—People have been doing this for millennia—castrating bulls. But now we can grow an ear on a mouse. We can transfer genes from one creature to another.
  • 402, The return of the Neanderthals— we might revive extinct animals, or even Neanderthals. Or we could redesign sapiens, despite ethical concerns; the changed species might no longer be sapiens.
  • 404, Bionic life—cyborgs from animals or humans. Replacement limbs. Brain computer interfaces. (lots of sf ideas here) again, the results might no longer be human.
  • 408, Another life—computer viruses, that mutate on their own. Is this life? What if human brains were backed up to a hard drive?
  • 409, The singularity—mapping DNA. The issue of rights arises—could companies discriminate based on DNA traits? Most SF [movies] depict humans like us in the far future with fast spaceships, 411t, but the real potential is changing the species itself.
  • 411, The Frankenstein prophecy—Frankenstein created a monster; the lesson is that if we try to play god, we’ll be punished. But we are nearly able to do that now. We find comfort in that story because we like to think we are the best of all beings, that nothing can be better. But we may need to decide, what do we want to become? This will dwarf all current problems. The real question may be, what do we want to want? 414e

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

  • 415. summary. We remain unsure of goals; nobody knows where we’re going. Yet we are powerful as gods. “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want”?

[[ The final chapter echoes Wilson, in THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE, that humanity is on the verge of transforming itself. ]]

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