this is an important book that must be read (part 4)

#54 – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

500 million humans in 1500 vs. 7 billion now.

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

“modern science differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways:

a. The willingness to admit ignorance. Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.”

b. The centrality of observation and mathematics. Having admitted ignorance, modern science aims to obtain new knowledge. It does so by gathering observations and then using mathematical tools to connect these observations into comprehensive theories.”

c. The acquisition of new powers. Modern science is not content with creating theories. It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.”

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

“In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories. Modern science uses mathematics.”

“Statistics courses are now part of the basic requirements not just in physics and biology, but also in psychology, sociology, economics and political science.”

“In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto tided The New Instrument. In it he argued that ‘knowledge is power’. The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.”

pre-modern humans did not invest or research in technology, not even to help them win wars or become rich.

“Science, industry and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution. Once this relationship was established, however, it quickly transformed the world.”

“Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating.”

“Throughout history, societies have suffered from two kinds of poverty: social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others; and biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.”

“carpenters and butchers who enlisted to the army were often sent to serve in the medical corps, because surgery required little more than knowing your way with knives and saws.”

“The average life expectancy jumped from around twenty-five to forty years, to around sixty-seven in the entire world, and to around eighty years in the developed world.”

“In seventeenth-century England, 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during their first year, and a third of all children were dead before they reached fifteen.9 Today, only five out of 1,000 English babies die during their first year, and only seven out of 1,000 die before age fifteen.”

“Genetic engineers have recently managed to double the average life expectancy of Caenorhabditis elegans worms. Could they do the same for Homo sapiens?”

“Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells and even reverse ageing processes.13 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).”

Science costs money, a lot of it.

“During the past 500 years modern science has achieved wonders thanks largely to the willingness of governments, businesses, foundations and private donors to channel billions of dollars into scientific research.”

“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. Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.”

“The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years”

“the British Isles and western Europe in general were but distant backwaters of the Mediterranean world. Little of importance ever happened there. Even the Roman Empire – the only important premodern European empire – derived most of its wealth from its North African, Balkan and Middle Eastern provinces. Rome’s western European provinces were a poor Wild West, which contributed little aside from minerals and slaves. Northern Europe was so desolate and barbarous that it wasn’t even worth conquering.”

“Only at the end of the fifteenth century did Europe become a hothouse of important military, political, economic and cultural developments. Between 1500 and 1750, western Europe gained momentum and became master of the ‘Outer World’, meaning the two American continents and the oceans. Yet even then Europe was no match for the great powers of Asia. Europeans managed to conquer America and gain supremacy at sea mainly because the Asiatic powers showed little interest in them.”

“In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production. In comparison, Europe was an economic dwarf.”

“The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the worlds economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas Chinas portion had been reduced to 5 per cent.”

“from 1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military–industrial–scientific complex and technological wizardry. All successful late modern empires cultivated scientific research in the hope of harvesting technological innovations, and many scientists spent most of their time working on arms, medicines and machines for their imperial masters.”

the Asians could have easily bought or copied the technology the Europeans had. but they did not because their thinking and way of living were different.

“The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly. France and the United States quickly followed in Britain’s footsteps because the French and Americans already shared the most important British myths and social structures. The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.”

how did europe dominate the late modern world?  “modern science and capitalism.”

non-europeans made many contributions to science. but it was the europeans who learned how to develop and exploit it.

“But until the mid-twentieth century, the people who collated these myriad scientific discoveries, creating scientific disciplines in the process, were the ruling and intellectual elites of the global European empires. The Far East and the Islamic world produced minds as intelligent and curious as those of Europe. However, between 1500 and 1950 they did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.”

“European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. The Arabs, to name one example, did not conquer Egypt, Spain or India in order to discover something they did not know. The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth – not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.”

“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant lands had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he took 165 scholars with him. Among other things, they founded an entirely new discipline, Egyptology, and made important contributions to the study of religion, linguistics and botany.”

Charles Darwin only visited South America, the Falklands Islands and the Galapagos Islands because several professional geologists refused to go.

“On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour.
‘What do you want?’ they asked.
‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.”

“What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.
The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.
‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.
‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’
When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorised, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.”

“During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces – one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world.”

“The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. If they really wanted to control the vast new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Christian Scriptures, old geography books and ancient oral traditions were of little help.”

“European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge began to draw maps with spaces left to fill in. They began to admit that their theories were not perfect and that there were important things that they did not know.”

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

“Most great empires extended their control only over their immediate neighbourhood – they reached far-flung lands simply because their neighbourhood kept expanding. Thus the Romans conquered Etruria in order to defend Rome (c.350–300 BC). They then conquered the Po Valley in order to defend Etruria (c.200 BC). They subsequently conquered Provence to defend the Po Valley (c.120 BC), Gaul to defend Provence (c.50 BC), and Britain in order to defend Gaul (c. AD 50). It took them 400 years to get from Rome to London. In 350 BC, no Roman would have conceived of sailing directly to Britain and conquering it.”

“Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices. There was nothing peculiar about that. The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!”

“When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, natives bearing incense burners were assigned to accompany them wherever they went. The Spaniards thought it was a mark of divine honour. We know from native sources that they found the newcomers’ smell unbearable.”

“The great empires of Asia – the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese – very quickly heard that the Europeans had discovered something big. Yet they displayed little interest in these discoveries. They continued to believe that the world revolved around Asia, and made no attempt to compete with the Europeans for control of America or of the new ocean lanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even puny European kingdoms such as Scotland and Denmark sent a few explore-and-conquer expeditions to America, but not one expedition of either exploration or conquest was ever sent to America from the Islamic world, India or China. The first non-European power that tried to send a military expedition to America was Japan. That happened in June 1942, when a Japanese expedition conquered Kiska and Attu, two small islands off the Alaskan coast, capturing in the process ten US soldiers and a dog. The Japanese never got any closer to the mainland.”

“When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archaeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things. On 10 April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted sixty years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the exact height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.”

“Mohenjo-daro was one of the chief cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished in the third millennium BC and was destroyed around 1900 BC. None of India’s pre-British rulers – neither the Mauryas, nor the Guptas, nor the Delhi sultans, nor the great Mughals – had given the ruins a second glance. But a British archaeological survey took notice of the site in 1922. A British team then excavated it, and discovered the first great civilisation of India, which no Indian had been aware of.”

“the European conquerors knew their empires very well. Far better, indeed, than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself. Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages. Without such knowledge, it is unlikely that a ridiculously small number of Britons could have succeeded in governing, oppressing and exploiting so many hundreds of millions of Indians for two centuries. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fewer than 5,000 British officials, about 40,000–70,000 British soldiers, and perhaps another 100,000 British business people, hangers-on, wives and children were sufficient to conquer and rule up to 300 million Indians.”

“The British conquered Bengal, the richest province of India, in 1764. The new rulers were interested in little except enriching themselves. They adopted a disastrous economic policy that a few years later led to the outbreak of the Great Bengal Famine. It began in 1769, reached catastrophic levels in 1770, and lasted until 1773. About 10 million Bengalis, a third of the province’s population, died in the calamity.”

“to understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just a single word. The word is growth.”

“ in 1500, annual per capita production averaged $550, while today every man, woman and child produces, on the average, $8,800 a year.”

“Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.”

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

“In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. In the eighth chapter of its first volume, Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.”

“Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.”

“That’s why capitalism is called ‘capitalism’. Capitalism distinguishes ‘capital’ from mere ‘wealth’. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities. A pharaoh who pours resources into a non-productive pyramid is not a capitalist. A pirate who loots a Spanish treasure fleet and buries a chest full of glittering coins on the beach of some Caribbean island is not a capitalist. But a hard-working factory hand who reinvests part of his income in the stock market is.”

“But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic – a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth.”

“In Europe, on the other hand (vs. Asians who prefer to finance their conquests through taxes and plunder), kings and generals gradually adopted the mercantile way of thinking, until merchants and bankers became the ruling elite. The European conquest of the world was increasingly financed through credit rather than taxes, and was increasingly directed by capitalists whose main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their investments. ”

“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. ”

“Ships hit icebergs, foundered in tropical storms, or fell victim to pirates. In order to increase the number of potential investors and reduce the risk they incurred, Europeans turned to limited liability joint-stock companies. Instead of a single investor betting all his money on a single rickety ship, the joint-stock company collected money from a large number of investors, each risking only a small portion of his capital. The risks were thereby curtailed, but no cap was placed on the profits. Even a small investment in the right ship could turn you into a millionaire.”

“In the sixteenth century, Spain was the most powerful state in Europe, holding sway over a vast global empire. It ruled much of Europe, huge chunks of North and South America, the Philippine Islands, and a string of bases along the coasts of Africa and Asia. Every year, fleets heavy with American and Asian treasures returned to the ports of Seville and Cadiz.”

“In 1568 the Dutch, who were mainly Protestant, revolted against their Catholic Spanish overlord. At first the rebels seemed to play the role of Don Quixote, courageously tilting at invincible windmills. Yet within eighty years the Dutch had not only secured their independence from Spain, but had managed to replace the Spaniards and their Portuguese allies as masters of the ocean highways, build a global Dutch empire, and become the richest state in Europe.
The secret of Dutch success was credit. The Dutch burghers, who had little taste for combat on land, hired mercenary armies to fight the Spanish for them. The Dutch themselves meanwhile took to the sea in ever-larger fleets. Mercenary armies and cannon-brandishing fleets cost a fortune, but the Dutch were able to finance their military expeditions more easily than the mighty Spanish Empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning European financial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly eroding its trust in him.”

“Amsterdam was fast becoming not only one of the most important ports of Europe, but also the continent’s financial Mecca.”

“How exactly did the Dutch win the trust of the financial system? Firstly, they were sticklers about repaying their loans on time and in full, making the extension of credit less risky for lenders. Secondly, their country’s judicial system enjoyed independence and protected private rights – in particular private property rights. Capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property.”

there once was company called VOC that ruled an empire.

“The most famous Dutch joint-stock company, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC for short, was chartered in 1602”

“VOC used the money it raised from selling shares to build ships, send them to Asia, and bring back Chinese, Indian and Indonesian goods. It also financed military actions taken by company ships against competitors and pirates. Eventually VOC money financed the conquest of Indonesia.”

“Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago. Its thousands upon thousands of islands were ruled in the early seventeenth century by hundreds of kingdoms, principalities, sultanates and tribes. When VOC merchants first arrived in Indonesia in 1603, their aims were strictly commercial. However, in order to secure their commercial interests and maximise the profits of the shareholders, VOC merchants began to fight against local potentates who charged inflated tariffs, as well as against European competitors. VOC armed its merchant ships with cannons; it recruited European, Japanese, Indian and Indonesian mercenaries; and it built forts and conducted full-scale battles and sieges. This enterprise may sound a little strange to us, but in the early modern age it was common for private companies to hire not only soldiers, but also generals and admirals, cannons and ships, and even entire off-the-shelf armies. The international community took this for granted and didn’t raise an eyebrow when a private company established an empire.”

“Island after island fell to VOC mercenaries and a large part of Indonesia became a VOC colony. VOC ruled Indonesia for close to 200 years. Only in 1800 did the Dutch state assume control of Indonesia, making it a Dutch national colony for the following 150 years. Today some people warn that twenty-first-century corporations are accumulating too much power. Early modern history shows just how far that can go if businesses are allowed to pursue their self-interest unchecked.”

“While VOC operated in the Indian Ocean, the Dutch West Indies Company, or WIC, plied the Atlantic. In order to control trade on the important Hudson River, WIC built a settlement called New Amsterdam on an island at the river’s mouth. The colony was threatened by Indians and repeatedly attacked by the British, who eventually captured it in 1664. The British changed its name to New York. The remains of the wall built by WIC to defend its colony against Indians 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. This company outperformed even the VOC. From its headquarters in Leadenhall Street, London, it ruled a mighty Indian empire for about a century, maintaining a huge military force of up to 350,000 soldiers, considerably outnumbering the armed forces of the British monarchy. Only in 1858 did the British crown nationalise India along with the company’s private army. Napoleon made fun of the British, calling them a nation of shopkeepers. Yet these shopkeepers defeated Napoleon himself, and their empire was the largest the world has ever seen.”

“The most notorious example of how governments did the bidding of big money was the First Opium War, fought between Britain and China (1840–42). In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company and sundry British business people made fortunes by exporting drugs, particularly opium, to China. Millions of Chinese became addicts, debilitating the country both economically and socially. In the late 1830s the Chinese government issued a ban on drug trafficking, but British drug merchants simply ignored the law. Chinese authorities began to confiscate and destroy drug cargos. The drug cartels had close connections in Westminster and Downing Street – many MPs and Cabinet ministers in fact held stock in the drug companies – so they pressured the government to take action.”

“In 1840 Britain duly declared war on China in the name of ‘free trade’. It was a walkover. The overconfident Chinese were no match for Britain’s new wonder weapons – steamboats, heavy artillery, rockets and rapid-fire rifles. Under the subsequent peace treaty, China agreed not to constrain the activities of British drug merchants and to compensate them for damages inflicted by the Chinese police. Furthermore, the British demanded and received control of Hong Kong, which they proceeded to use as a secure base for drug trafficking (Hong Kong remained in British hands until 1997).”

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

“Egypt, too, learned to respect the long arm of British capitalism. During the nineteenth century, French and British investors lent huge sums to the rulers of Egypt, first in order to finance the Suez Canal project, and later to fund far less successful enterprises. Egyptian debt swelled, and European creditors increasingly meddled in Egyptian affairs. In 1881 Egyptian nationalists had had enough and rebelled. They declared a unilateral abrogation of all foreign debt. Queen Victoria was not amused. A year later she dispatched her army and navy to the Nile and Egypt remained a British protectorate until after World War Two.”

“This is why today a country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating. As a result, it is likely to remain relatively poor since it will not be able to raise the necessary capital to make the most of its oil bounty. A country devoid of natural resources, but which enjoys peace, a fair judicial system and a free government is likely to receive a high credit rating. As such, it may be able to raise enough cheap capital to support a good education system and foster a flourishing high-tech industry.”

“The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans”

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

“From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, about 10 million African slaves were imported to America. About 70 per cent of them worked on the sugar plantations. Labour conditions were abominable. Most slaves lived a short and miserable life, and millions more died during wars waged to capture slaves or during the long voyage from inner Africa to the shores of America. All this so that Europeans could enjoy their sweet tea and candy – and sugar barons could enjoy huge profits.”

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

“Throughout the eighteenth century the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6 per cent a year – they were extremely profitable, as any modern consultant would be quick to admit.”

“Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed.”

“Human muscles built carts and houses, ox muscles ploughed fields, and horse muscles transported goods. The energy that fuelled these organic muscle-machines came ultimately from a single source – plants. Plants in their turn obtained their energy from the sun. By the process of photosynthesis, they captured solar energy and packed it into organic compounds. Almost everything people did throughout history was fuelled by solar energy that was captured by plants and converted into muscle power.”

“There are many types of steam engines, but they all share one common principle. You burn some kind of fuel, such as coal, and use the resulting heat to boil water, producing steam. As the steam expands it pushes a piston. The piston moves, and anything that is connected to the piston moves with it. You have converted heat into movement!”

“Six hundred years passed between the moment Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder and the moment Turkish cannon pulverised the walls of Constantinople. Only forty years passed between the moment Einstein determined that any kind of mass could be converted into energy – that’s what E = mc2 means – and the moment atom bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear power stations mushroomed all over the globe.”

“Another crucial discovery was the internal combustion engine, which took little more than a generation to revolutionise human transportation and turn petroleum into liquid political power. Petroleum had been known for thousands of years, and was used to waterproof roofs and lubricate axles. Yet until just a century ago nobody thought it was useful for much more than that. The idea of spilling blood for the sake of oil would have seemed ludicrous. You might fight a war over land, gold, pepper or slaves, but not oil.”

“At heart, the Industrial Revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion. It has demonstrated again and again that there is no limit to the amount of energy at our disposal. Or, more precisely, that the only limit is set by our ignorance. Every few decades we discover a new energy source, so that the sum total of energy at our disposal just keeps growing.”

“Chemists discovered aluminium only in the 1820s, but separating the metal from its ore was extremely difficult and costly. For decades, aluminium was much more expensive than gold. In the 1860S, Emperor Napoleon III of France commissioned aluminium cutlery to be laid out for his most distinguished guests. Less important visitors had to make do with the gold knives and forks.5 But at the end of the nineteenth century chemists discovered a way to extract immense amounts of cheap aluminium, and current global production stands at 30 million tons per year. Napoleon III would be surprised to hear that his subjects’ descendants use cheap disposable aluminium foil to wrap their sandwiches and put away their leftovers.”

“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. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. They pass their entire lives as cogs in a giant production line, and the length and quality of their existence is determined by the profits and losses of business corporations. Even when the industry takes care to keep them alive, reasonably healthy and well fed, it has no intrinsic interest in the animals’ social and psychological needs (except when these have a direct impact on production).”

“Egg-laying hens, for example, have a complex world of behavioural needs and drives. They feel strong urges to scout their environment, forage and peck around, determine social hierarchies, build nests and groom themselves. But the egg industry often locks the hens inside tiny coops, and it is not uncommon for it to squeeze four hens to a cage, each given a floor space of about twenty-five by twenty-two centimetres. The hens receive sufficient food, but they are unable to claim a territory, build a nest or engage in other natural activities. Indeed, the cage is so small that hens are often unable even to flap their wings or stand fully erect.”

“Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second perhaps only to the great apes. Yet industrialised pig farms routinely confine nursing sows inside such small crates that they are literally unable to turn around (not to mention walk or forage). The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after giving birth. Their offspring are then taken away to be fattened up and the sows are impregnated with the next litter of piglets.”

“Many dairy cows live almost all their allotted years inside a small enclosure; standing, sitting and sleeping in their own urine and excrement. They receive their measure of food, hormones and medications from one set of machines, and get milked every few hours by another set of machines. The cow in the middle is treated as little more than a mouth that takes in raw materials and an udder that produces a commodity.”

“Treating living creatures possessing complex emotional worlds as if they were machines is likely to cause them not only physical discomfort, but also much social stress and psychological frustration.”

“Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fuelled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. ”

“Evolutionary psychology maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction. For example, a wild cow had to know how to form close relations with other cows and bulls, or else she could not survive and reproduce. In order to learn the necessary skills, evolution implanted in calves – as in the young of all other social mammals – a strong desire to play (playing is the mammalian way of learning social behaviour). And it implanted in them an even stronger desire to bond with their mothers, whose milk and care were essential for survival.”

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

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

“Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day – originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers – is now an occasion for special sales. Most people mark this day by going shopping, perhaps to prove that the defenders of freedom did not die in vain.”

“In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care managing their assets and investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need.”

“The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!”

“The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.”

“In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do.”

“Today, the earths continents are home to almost 7 billion Sapiens. If you took all these people and put them on a large set of scales, their combined mass would be about 300 million tons. If you then took all our domesticated farmyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep and chickens – and placed them on an even larger set of scales, their mass would amount to about 700 million tons. In contrast, the combined mass of all surviving large wild animals – from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales – is less than 100 million tons. ”

“There are about 80,000 giraffes in the world, compared to 1.5 billion cattle; only 200,000 wolves, compared to 400 million domesticated dogs; only 250,000 chimpanzees – in contrast to billions of humans. Humankind really has taken over the world.”

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

“in 1880, the British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich. For the first time in history, a country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset cycles.”

“When the broadcast media – first radio, then television – made their debut, they entered a world of timetables and became its main enforcers and evangelists. Among the first things radio stations broadcast were time signals, beeps that enabled far-flung settlements and ships at sea to set their clocks. Later, radio stations adopted the custom of broadcasting the news every hour. ”

“Each news programme opened with a live broadcast of Big Ben tolling the hour – the magical sound of freedom. Ingenious German physicists found a way to determine the weather conditions in London based on tiny differences in the tone of the broadcast ding-dongs. This information offered invaluable help to the Luftwaffe. When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock.”

“the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”

“The Ottoman Empire, for instance, allowed family vendettas to mete out justice, rather than supporting a large imperial police force. If my cousin killed somebody, the victim’s brother might kill me in sanctioned revenge. The sultan in Istanbul or even the provincial pasha did not intervene in such clashes, as long as violence remained within acceptable limits.”

“In the Chinese Ming Empire (1368–1644), the population was organised into the baojia system. Ten families were grouped to form a jia, and ten jia constituted a bao. When a member of a bao commited a crime, other bao members could be punished for it, in particular the bao elders. Taxes too were levied on the bao, and it was the responsibility of the bao elders rather than of the state officials to assess the situation of each family and determine the amount of tax it should pay. From the empire’s perspective, this system had a huge advantage. Instead of maintaining thousands of revenue officials and tax collectors, who would have to monitor the earnings and expenses of every family, these tasks were left to the community elders. The elders knew how much each villager was worth and they could usually enforce tax payments without involving the imperial army.”

“Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.”

“The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.”

“Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. ”

“But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbours in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?”

“The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.”

“Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination. Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense. As long as millions of Germans believe in the existence of a German nation, get excited at the sight of German national symbols, retell German national myths, and are willing to sacrifice money, time and limbs for the German nation, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world.”

“The nation does its best to hide its imagined character. Most nations argue that they are a natural and eternal entity, created in some primordial epoch by mixing the soil of the motherland with the blood of the people. Yet such claims are usually exaggerated. Nations existed in the distant past, but their importance was much smaller than today because the importance of the state was much smaller. A resident of medieval Nuremberg might have felt some loyalty towards the German nation, but she felt far more loyalty towards her family and local community, which took care of most of her needs. Moreover, whatever importance ancient nations may have had, few of them survived. Most existing nations evolved only after the Industrial Revolution.”

“The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy. These diplomats determined in 1918 that the people of Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra would henceforth be ‘Iraqis’. It was primarily the French who decided who would be Syrian and who Lebanese.”

“We focus too much on the puddles and forget about the dry land separating them. The late modern era has seen unprecedented levels not only of violence and horror, but also of peace and tranquillity. Charles Dickens wrote of the French Revolution that ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This may be true not only of the French Revolution, but of the entire era it heralded.”

“Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map… wars are no longer the norm”

“People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies. A person who just won the lottery or found new love and jumps from joy is not really reacting to the money or the lover. She is reacting to various hormones coursing through her bloodstream, and to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of her brain.”

“Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.”

“People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.”

“Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it.”

“(about 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution) Sapiens who dreamed of fat, slow-moving chickens discovered that if they mated the fattest hen with the slowest cock, some of their offspring would be both fat and slow. If you mated those offspring with each other, you could produce a line of fat, slow birds. It was a race of chickens unknown to nature, produced by the intelligent design not of a god but of a human.”

“Today, the 4-billion-year-old regime of natural selection is facing a completely different challenge. In laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. They break the laws of natural selection with impunity, unbridled even by an organisms original characteristics. Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian bio-artist, decided in 2000 to create a new work of art: a fluorescent green rabbit. Kac contacted a French laboratory and offered it a fee to engineer a radiant bunny according to his specifications. The French scientists took a run-of-the-mill white rabbit embryo, implanted in its DNA a gene taken from a green fluorescent jellyfish, and voilà! One green fluorescent rabbit for le monsieur. Kac named the rabbit Alba.”

“At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life.”

“A gene extracted from an Arctic fish has been inserted into potatoes, making the plants more frost-resistant.”

“The pork industry, which has suffered from falling sales because consumers are wary of the unhealthy fats in ham and bacon, has hopes for a still-experimental line of pigs implanted with genetic material from a worm. The new genes cause the pigs to turn bad omega 6 fatty acid into its healthy cousin, omega 3.”

“Geneticists have managed not merely to extend sixfold the average life expectancy of worms, but also to engineer genius mice that display much-improved memory and learning skills.”

“Voles are small, stout rodents resembling mice, and most varieties of voles are promiscuous. But there is one species in which boy and girl voles form lasting and monogamous relationships. Geneticists claim to have isolated the genes responsible for vole monogamy. If the addition of a gene can turn a vole Don Juan into a loyal and loving husband, are we far off from being able to genetically engineer not only the individual abilities of rodents (and humans), but also their social structures?”

“The Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain. The projects director has claimed that, if funded properly, within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does.”

“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 era of personalized medicine – medicine that matches treatment to DNA – has begun. The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn’t worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 per cent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us.”

“What might happen once medicine becomes preoccupied with enhancing human abilities? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities, or would there be a new superhuman elite?”

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

“The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds. This is something most Sapiens find extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own.”

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

“Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you’ll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. ”

“We have mastered our surroundings, increased food production, built cities, established empires and created far-flung trade networks. But did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world? Time and again, massive increases in human power did not necessarily improve the well-being of individual Sapiens, and usually caused immense misery to other animals.”

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


Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

My previous newsletters are here: https://isaiahlim.wordpress.com/category/isaiahlim_newsletter/

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