🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- The progress of humankind isn’t necessarily positive. It happened due to circumstance and most often by chance. This doesn’t mean that it’s a better situation for us today compared to 10,000 years ago.
- Humans have made up so-called inter-subjective myths in order to make the jump from tribalism to society work. These are, for example, religion, money, corporations, human rights, capitalism. They only work as long as everyone believes in them.
- All of the big revolutions in history, like for example the Agricultural, the Industrial, or the Scientific Revolution, happened mostly by accident, are irreversible and didn’t happen because people wanted to be happier – so we need to ask ourselves what we want for us in the future with more agenda.
Yuval Noah Harari is an incredibly smart historian, at least seen from my point of view. There were many passages which required me to read them again and spend a moment thinking them over just to get the idea. The connections he makes sometimes blew my mind. In addition to giving us the bigger picture, possibly the biggest possible picture actually, this book is filled with fun facts which spice it up and keep you interested. For example, I found it fascinating although quite understandable that there wasn’t any need for a synchronized time system up until the year 1880, when the British government set Greenwich as the standard. Just put yourself in this frame of mind before we measured time.
Also, how colonialism wasn’t a state affair but driven by capitalist interests. India wasn’t captured and exploited by the British, but by a British company which wanted to increase profits to the maximum possible amount. And how the Agricultural Revolution made life worse for people instead of better. There is so much to learn from this book about us and what drives not just us as a society but us as individuals. Individualism is one of those modern ideas, or myths, as Harari calls them – systems of imagination which all of the people choose to believe in, making them real –, for which there isn’t any clear sign that it has improved our well-being.
The last few chapters are the most interesting, in my opinion. They focus on the topic of happiness. Happiness is on many people’s minds in this era, there are college degrees on it, it’s baked into constitutions of whole states, but humans didn’t have to care about finding happiness for most of the time of their existence. It’s only now that people are missing it. Evolution doesn’t select for happiness. And it’s possible that the more comfortable we were getting due to scientific progress and elimination of threats and hardship, the less variance we had in our states of mind, the less happy we may have become. He brings up Buddhist philosophy a few times as a special example of thinking about this. It is odd in its way that the goal is to end suffering by reducing the feelings and internal struggle of individuals. None of the other religions or philosophies in the known history have put that at the forefront.
All in all, this book is a strong recommendation for everyone interested in how we got here. And to draw possible conclusions for the future of humankind. There is a lot of potential for improvement.
🍀 How the Book Changed Me
- We’re all connected by shared believes which we have made up.
- Evolutionary success has no regard to improve anything and very often led to more individual suffering.
- You can’t destroy nature and nothing can ever be unnatural. You can only change nature. If humans go extinct like dinosaurs did, paving the way for the evolutionary success of humans, the possible extinction of humans will make room for other organisms to thrive. We are not at the center of it all and there is no meaning or purpose to our evolution. That’s all the more reason to keep going and see where it will lead.
📔 Highlights & Notes
Part I: The Cognitive Revolution
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution.
Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction.
Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumor-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.
[Regarding the development of speech] Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid.
The unique thing between Sapiens’ communication and the communication between other species is our ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution.
You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? It creates community and trust between strangers and therefore makes cooperation easier.
The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition.
Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.
Larger numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
An example of a common shared myth is the existence of something intangible such as a corporation. Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot car company really existed.
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.
Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as currencies, banks and corporations.
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.
Our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah and need to take every opportunity to store fat and carbs for worse times. That’s what makes some of us spoon down an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s when we find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke although completely unnecessary in this day and age.
The heated debates about Homo sapiens’ ‘natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens.
The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.
Early human foragers moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners.
The peasant’s ancient ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast; fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for dinner. Tomorrow’s menu might have been completely different. This variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary nutrients.
The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon. It was the first time any large terrestrial mammal left Afro-Asia, climbed to the top of the food ladder and became the deadliest species ever in the history of Earth.
The archaeological record of island after island tells the same sad story. The tragedy opens with a scene showing a rich and varied population of large animals, without any trace of humans. In scene two, Sapiens appear, evidenced by a human bone, a spear point, or perhaps a potsherd. Scene three quickly follows, in which men and women occupy centre stage and most large animals, along with many smaller ones, are gone.
Part II: The Agricultural Revolution
Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.
Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.
Building fences, guarding fields, or even collecting animal feces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew were tasks the body of Homo sapiens had not evolved to do. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets.
We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
The essence of the Agricultural Revolution is the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening.
Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions.
How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
You have to view the chicken’s, cattle’s, or pig’s growth in numbers due to domestication by humans as a success for spreading their DNA. Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.
The extra food which was produced because of the Agricultural Revolution fed the tiny minority of elites. Kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists, and thinkers, who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.
The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.
According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’.
Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.
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.
The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Today’s Westerners believe in individualism. Kids are growing up in their own private rooms with maximum autonomy. Growing up in such a space, people cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual’, their true worth emanating from within rather than from without.
People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can.
We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’. Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible.
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.
Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence.
In order to establish such complex organizations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order. In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful. There is no other way out of the imagined order.
Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. Hierarchies like these have evolved as a shortcut for behaving towards strangers without wasting time getting to know them on an individual basis. It has no biological basis.
Societies associate a host of attributes with masculinity and femininity that, for the most part, lack a firm biological basis.
Similarly, Mother Nature does not mind if men are sexually attracted to one another. It’s only human mothers and fathers steeped in particular cultures who make a scene if their son has a fling with the boy next door.
A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.
Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies. It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social revolutions and economic transformations.
In forager societies, political dominance generally resides with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most developed musculature.
Part III: The Unification of Humankind
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off.
Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
Cultures are in constant flux and have the tendency towards forming bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures.
It took the Afro-Asian giant several centuries to digest all that it had swallowed, but the process was irreversible. Today almost all humans share the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into internationally recognized states); the same economic system, the same legal system, and the same scientific system.
Different band members may have specialized in different tasks, but they shared their goods and services through an economy of favors and obligations. A piece of meat given for free would carry with it the assumption of reciprocity – say, free medical assistance.
If one hundred different commodities are traded in the market, then buyers and sellers will have to know 4,950 different exchange rates. And if 1,000 different commodities are traded, buyers and sellers must juggle 499,500 different exchange rates! How do you figure it out? The solution was the invention of money.
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. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.
Money’s most basic quality is that everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants money.
Money isn’t a material reality – it is a psychological construct.
People are willing to do such things when they trust the figments of their collective imagination. Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
People continued to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, obey different rulers and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in gold and silver coins.
Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.
Empires. An empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples – somewhere between 3 and 20, for example – second, an empire has flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite.
In many cases, the destruction of one empire hardly meant independence for subject peoples. Instead, a new empire stepped into the vacuum created when the old one collapsed or retreated.
Egyptians, Syrians and Mesopotamians were increasingly seen as ‘Arabs’. Arabs, in their turn – whether ‘authentic’ Arabs from Arabia or newly minted Arabs from Egypt and Syria – came to be increasingly dominated by non-Arab Muslims, in particular by Iranians, Turks and Berbers.
During the modern era Europeans conquered much of the globe under the guise of spreading a superior Western culture.
Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance. Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.
For 2,500 years since Cyrus the Great, numerous empires have promised to build a universal political order for the benefit of all humans. They all lied, and they all failed. No empire was truly universal, and no empire really served the benefit of all humans.
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.
- Religion is an entire system of norms and values, rather than an isolated custom or belief.
- To be considered a religion, the system of norms and values must claim to be based on superhuman laws rather than on human decisions.
Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’. Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects.
The Roman empire was polytheistic. The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the monotheistic and evangelizing god of the Christians.
It turns out that in these three centuries (0-300), the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions.
More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in the twenty-four hours of St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (August 23, 1572) than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence. When the pope in Rome heard the news he was overcome with joy.
So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.
Buddhism is an unusual religion. The founder Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction.
When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’).
The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism.
In the current belief system of humanism, by honoring the human nature of a murderer and not killing them in revenge, everyone is reminded of the sanctity of humanity, and order is restored.
For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to ‘upgrade’ Homo sapiens. But today such projects are back in vogue. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people, but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to create superhumans.
Scientists increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will.
Why did humanity develop in the way it did? Historians can describe how Christianity took over the Roman Empire, but they cannot explain why this particular possibility was realized.
It is particularly important to stress that possibilities which seem very unlikely to contemporaries often get realized.
Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history, but history cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic.
Not only that, but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.
We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.
Cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them. This approach is sometimes called memetics. It assumes that, just as organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes’.
The nationalist virus presented itself as being beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself.
There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens. Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms.
Part IV: The Scientific Revolution
The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a 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. People coming to the conclusion that that’s not the case is what started the Scientific Revolution.
A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).
We are living in a technical age. Many are convinced that science and technology hold the answers to all our problems.
Most scientific studies are funded because somebody believes they can help attain some political, economic or religious goal.
To channel limited resources we must answer questions such as ‘What is more important?’ and ‘What is good?’ And these are not scientific questions.
Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste. They may be fiercely anti-European in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes.
So it is hardly coincidental that science and capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has bequeathed the post-European world of the twenty-first century.
In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world.
For the modern European conqueror, like the modern European scientist, plunging into the unknown was exhilarating.
Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson, the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself. Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages.
Modern Europeans came to believe that acquiring new knowledge was always good.
The European empires did so many different things on such a large scale, that you can find plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them, positive or negative.
Today’s elites usually justify superiority in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood.’ We say, ‘It’s in their culture.’
For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused teenager.
Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means that 90 per cent of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes.
The fact is, it’s not a deception, but rather a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination. What enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.
The way out of the trap was discovered only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on trust in the future. [..] – with a special kind of money they called ‘credit’. Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.
The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve. This idea was soon translated into economic terms.
Everybody would simply develop new tastes and eat more. I can be wealthy without you becoming poor; I can be obese without you dying of hunger. The entire global pie can grow.
Yet [Adam] Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history.
What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.
Smith therefore repeated like a mantra the maxim that ‘When profits increase, the landlord or weaver will employ more assistants’ and not ‘When profits increase, Scrooge will hoard his money in a chest and take it out only to count his coins.’
In the new capitalist creed, the first and most sacred commandment is: ‘The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production.’
Governments too strive to invest their tax revenues in productive enterprises that will increase future income.
But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic – a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think.
Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.
This was the magic circle of imperial capitalism: credit financed new discoveries; discoveries led to colonies; colonies provided profits; profits built trust; and trust translated into more credit.
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 remains of the wall built by WIC [Dutch West Indies Company] to defend its colony against Native Americans and British are today paved over by the world’s most famous street – Wall Street.
The Indian subcontinent too was conquered not by the British state, but by the mercenary army of the British East India Company.
Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts.
In the view of many business people, it would be far better if the government left the money with them. They would use it, they claim, to open new factories and hire the unemployed.
During the early modern period, the rise of European capitalism went hand in hand with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Unrestrained market forces, rather than tyrannical kings or racist ideologues, were responsible for this calamity.
The slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market
Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.
Countless other crimes and misdemeanors accompanied the growth of the modern economy in other parts of the planet.
Much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud.
In 8500 BC one could cry bitter tears over the Agricultural Revolution, but it was too late to give up agriculture. Similarly, we may not like capitalism, but we cannot live without it.
Yet can the economic pie grow indefinitely? Every pie requires raw materials and energy. Prophets of doom warn that sooner or later Homo sapiens will exhaust the raw materials and energy of planet Earth. And what will happen then?
Economic growth requires energy and raw materials, and these are finite. When and if they run out, the entire system will collapse. But the evidence provided by the past is that they are finite only in theory.
Why are so many people afraid that we are running out of energy? Why do they warn of disaster if we exhaust all available fossil fuels? Clearly the world does not lack energy. All we lack is the knowledge necessary to harness and convert it to our needs.
Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.
Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.
This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.
Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.
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!’
Capitalism-consumerism is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.
Humans created and worsen ecological degradation, global warming, pollution and other things with total disregard for its consequences. Many call the process ‘the destruction of nature’. But it’s not really destruction, it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed. Humankind might annihilate itself, but other organisms are doing quite well. Think of rats and cockroaches.
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.
The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.
Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child.
Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination.
People who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests often feel part of the same consumer tribe – and define themselves as such.
Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms. Secondly, while the price of war soared, its profits declined.
The threat of nuclear holocaust fosters pacifism; when pacifism spreads, war recedes and trade flourishes; and trade increases both the profits of peace and the costs of war.
If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people happier, what’s the benefit of Capitalism? [So far researching these possibilities has been avoided]
At what price are we improving the life of humankind? If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.
This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community. If so, the average person might well be no happier today than in 1800.
But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.
We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillizers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction.
We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace, get married, finish writing that novel, buy a new car or repay the mortgage, we would be on top of the world.
If so, what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become any happier, then what was the point of all that chaos, fear, blood and war?
The findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
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.
Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.
So perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions.
Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims.
Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world.
Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
The prevailing feeling is that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise and farsighted use of the skill.
Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.
The real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’