It’s no secret that my initial goal with this blog is to create a broad and diverse “base”, from which we can follow the millions of emerging threads and cover… Well, just about everything. So besides philosophy and psychology, I thought it’s time we scheduled a bit of history as well. In doing so, we are both following the advice given in Flow and also continuing the line of historical examples from 48 laws. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that this particular book is recommended practically everywhere.

But first, let me go on the record: personally, I’ve always openly and loudly hated history as a subject in school. To be fair, I didn’t “love” anything else beyond the maths + English (as a foreign language) + computer science triumvirate, but history stood out even from the rest. I honestly want to reexamine this prejudice of mine, though. What if my hating it was more the school system’s fault – or my immature, idiot little head’s – and not history’s? After all, I didn’t have a much better opinion of philosophy either until Marcus Aurelius fundamentally changed my attitude…

So it was in this mood, and with a forcefully open mind, that I started reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and boy was it worth it. It’s a huge improvement in itself that I don’t have to write a who-what-when fact checking test afterwards, true; but what really counts is the abstract, elevated perspective of events and the exploration of background connections. The topic we cover is nothing less than the entire evolution of the human race, which we trace back to the effects of 3 great revolutions:

  1. The cognitive revolution – or how we went from animals to cavemen;
  2. The agricultural revolution – or how we went from cavemen to “modern” humans;
    • A bonus 2.5th section is the unification of humanity – or how we went from many isolated groups of people to one big, global nation; and finally
  3. The scientific revolution – or how went from mere humans to actual gods.

All the while, we discover trends, get to know ourselves better and, hopefully, learn from our mistakes.

The cognitive revolution

At the beginning, Homo Sapiens wasn’t a particularly big deal. Our brains were grossly large – triple the size of other animals already, which have since doubled – but that alone is not a guaranteed survival strategy.

A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Our other specialty is walking on two legs, which might be good for the development of our hands – and the resulting use of tools – but it’s less fortunate for our spines. And for women, it’s especially wonderful that their pelvis is shrinking just when their children’s head sizes are growing along with their brains. No surprise, then, that we’re born relatively “premature” and that there’s so much emphasis on socializing to care for helpless children.

But despite all this, for 2 million years or so we’ve been stuck in the middle of the food chain, and even harnessing fire hasn’t significantly dislodged us. Yet, something very fishy must have started around 70,000 years ago, because during the following 60,000 years, all other humanoid species became extinct. Some would explain this by mergers or other unrelated factors, but let’s look in the mirror, people:

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.

Harari posits that our sudden singularity is due to a “cognitive explosion”: our linguistic abilities have simply outstripped the competition over time. The greater expressive power allowed for a more precise flow of information for one, and the social “gossip” factor that held groups together also made a big difference. But the most important part was fiction – the ability to talk about (and believe in) things that didn’t actually exist!

The emergence of shared beliefs allowed larger and larger masses of people to work together. And we aren’t necessarily talking about religion here – just think of concepts like nationalities, laws, money, or human rights.

No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

It’s an interesting contrast that modernity views Druids who gather for a full moon séance as primitive idiots, without realizing that the institutions of the modern world operate on exactly the same principle. A successful businessman is actually a shaman, only he says even weirder things. Strangers could easily cooperate through imaginary myths, and this opened up a “cultural fast lane” where we could overtake those who were moving at a slow, evolutionary pace. The chimps can’t just switch to democracy after unseating the current alpha male… But we can.

It’s difficult to say anything concrete about the lifestyle of this era without actual evidence, but it is worth trying on some level, because underneath the thin layer of civilization, the same software is still running in our heads today. Food hoarders, for example, instinctively gorged themselves if they had the opportunity, because who knew how long it would last; no wonder we need to diet so much in the age of plenty. Family and sexuality tended to be more communal things, in an “everybody with/for everybody” kind of way; so no wonder that we need so many psychologists in the age of monogamy.

Groups of a few dozen to a few hundred enabled close cooperation, and frequent migrations were necessary for gathering. Instead of specialization, general knowledge – and considerable physical fitness – was needed to survive. In terms of religion, animism was predominant, i.e., roughly everything had a soul, there was no hierarchy in the world, and communication was free-flowing. Theories more detailed than this are mostly just trying to inject our own, current views into the very little evidence.

Another major breakthrough of the era was that we were finally able to leave the Afro-Asian continent. First we spread to Australia, then – via Siberia, on foot – to the Americas, and then, one after the other, we reached about every nook and cranny of the world, using the same playbook each time. Evolution failed to keep up with us, so we could upset the local ecosystems and drive half the flora and fauna to extinction. This was the first extermination, which we’ve already repeated since with the domestications of the agricultural revolution. If people were more acutely aware of this, they might give more of a fuck about the third round, which we are performing right now.

The agricultural revolution

Hunting and gathering was “in vogue” until about 10,000 years ago, which is when we started to focus a lot of our attention on just a few select plants and animals. We still don’t really understand the ecological context of the world today – let alone back then – but sure, let’s just mess with stuff. What could go wrong?

It’s a common story that man, as he became more intelligent, finally conquered nature to make a better life for himself. To be fair, this change really did make more food available to mankind as a species. But at the same time, the average farmer worked harder and ate worse in return. Umm… What?!

These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.

The negatives could go on and on: these plants needed a proper environment, weeding, nutrients, irrigation, and protection; they didn’t make our diet better in any sense; cultivating them was bad for our physique; they didn’t give us more security (in fact, they just made us more dependent on something); and they didn’t give us more protection against aggression either (in fact, private property just made it potentially worse). Yet the only positive we can list is that they allowed more human specimens to exist at the same time. Period.

Of course, individuals wouldn’t have gone along with this change just because it was “good” for the species. But, unfortunately for us, every step on the road to this point seemed like a good idea in itself at the time.

  • Wheat is part of our diet, so we bring it back to the camp to process ⇒ Whoops, some seeds fall off, and next year there’s wheat on the trail.

  • Well then, why don’t we just spread it where we want it? ⇒ Next year there’s even more wheat, but there’s still plenty of other food as well.

  • So why don’t we spend some time here every year for harvesting? ⇒ There’s more and more wheat, but now time becomes the bottleneck.

  • So why don’t we settle here permanently? ⇒ There’s even more wheat, but not much else now.

  • Well then, why don’t we save some of it, so that we can sow better next year ⇒ There’ll be more.

  • Well then, why don’t we improve our techniques (deep sowing, weeding, tools, etc.) ⇒ There’ll be more.

  • Well then, why not have more children if there is enough food ⇒ we quickly use up the food surplus, and now we need even more food!

  • Well then, let’s work and build walls so that others don’t take our wheat from us ⇒ Even more work for even more of us!

By the time we realized that this was a shitty deal, it was too late.

For one, we didn’t even remember how it used to be in the hunting/gathering days by this time. Also, there were already too many of us to make the old ways work, even if we’d remembered them. Anyone who might be starting to suspect that we’re committing the exact same mistake today has gained a very depressing realization: yes, we are committing the exact same mistake today. We invent a lot of things to save time, and still end up with less time… Genius!

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

This has been accompanied by a psychological revolution, where “our territory” has increasingly become “my house” and we’ve turned from the present more towards the future. However, long-term planning rarely worked out well for the peasants, as an “elite class” always coalesced who then skimmed off the surplus so that they can freely play at politics, wage wars, make art or philosophize. And for the ever greater cooperation, shared myths became increasingly more important. Of course, let’s not forget that “cooperation” was also the end justifying slavery as a means.

As an example, we compare Hammurabi’s Code with the American Declaration of Independence. To say that they have quite a different approach to human rights is an understatement, but nevertheless, they both claim to contain general, universal truths. Resolving the apparent contradiction is awkward, but simple: neither of them contains universal truths. Both are just stories we tell ourselves.

But if we want people to believe in an imaginary system, rule one is probably not mentioning that the system is imaginary in the first place! If we keep our mouths shut, however, then even society will help us instill the system in newcomers. In principle, our desires and tastes are shaped by the dominant beliefs of the time (there is nothing natural about, for example, holidaying abroad). Such imaginary systems are inter-subjective, that is, they exist solely because many people believe in them. And the only way to overturn one is to put something else – something stronger – in its place.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Since almost everything we do is based on imaginary stories, it wouldn’t hurt to actually remember them – which is not scalable after a while. The evolution of our brains has been about observing plants, animals, our environment, and social relationships. Raw data storage, essential for serious cooperation, is not in our genetic wheelhouse – which is why the larger systems have all collapsed. This was the case until 5,000 years ago, when the Sumerians discovered a fantastic, brain-expanding data storage system: writing.

True, we had to modify our human, “holistic”, free-association thinking to make it a bit more “mechanical”, but it was the right way for recording transactions, taxes and such. It also paved the way for Arabic numerals, which, together with a few operation signs, gave us a very expressive and logical language. Of these, only 0 and 1 matter most today, but they basically turned out to be more important than anything else.

Hierarchical constraints always appear in society, just always in a different way – which shows that there is nothing “natural” about them, they’re just what people came up with at the time. Maybe it’s not fashionable today to restrict by race, e.g., “a black person can’t live here”… But interestingly enough, we don’t find it strange that there are neighborhoods where “only rich people can live”. In any case, we always seem to need social cues in big collaborations to quickly judge how to treat someone, who is where in the hierarchy, etc.

Let’s just be careful to keep the “we just made it up like this” part well hidden from public view, lest the servants accidentally slit our throats at night. The American slaves traders, for example, had a perfectly logical, economic explanation as to why it was worthwhile to “import” from Africa, but they also wanted to wash their hands of any moral consequence. So they made up a lot of nonsense about “negroes” not being intelligent or moral, unclean, spreading diseases, coming from a different religious lineage, being cursed with this fate, etc. And these “fairy tales”, unfortunately, persisted in people’s minds long after slavery was abolished.

This is how these un-heart-warming vicious cycles develop – like when you don’t get a respectable job because you belong to a despised social class; and your social class is looked down upon because almost no one from that class has a respectable job… This is by no means a unique case: the power relations created by random historical events often lead to an unjust world order that becomes self-reinforcing over time. This is one of the reasons why history is worth studying, because pure biology can’t explain the huge gaps between groups of people.

A good rule of thumb for discovering such a social delusion is to remember: “biology enables, culture disables”. In the vernacular, we interpret “natural” in terms of culture, which is why we can talk so much about what is not natural – like in the old days, whether it was natural to allow a woman to vote. Interestingly, no culture forbids us to photosynthesize… Now that would be unnatural, but, therefore, it is also impossible.

The unification of humanity

The post-agricultural revolution phase is the scene of ever larger crowds and ever more complex cohesive narratives. Interestingly, though, these tales are full of internal contradictions. For example, since the French Revolution, the main values in much of the world have been freedom and equality, which are already in opposition. Liberals chase freedom so hard that they trample on equality – just ask Dickens. And the communist pursuit of equality couldn’t give two shits about freedom – just ask Solzhenitsyn.

But it’s okay, it’s these cognitive dissonances that drive the world forward. And yes, there is such a thing as “forward”, because we are undeniably moving towards unity. And the three main drivers are money, empire, and religion:

  • Traders believe that the whole world is a market and everyone is a potential buyer;
  • Conquerors believe that the whole world is one nation and everyone is a potential subject; and
  • Prophets believe that the whole world shares one truth, and everyone is a potential believer.

Money has seamlessly connected groups of people even when they were on different sides of a conquest or a religious divide, so in some ways it’s the most powerful of the three. To see why it came about at all, we need to understand that the growing masses and the specialization necessary for their continued development meant that barter was simply no longer good enough. Not only should we have known the exchange rates of everything to everything – which would’ve already been a deal breaker – but for exchange to be possible in the first place, it wouldn’t hurt if both parties actually wanted it. Now, if you’re peddling apples, you want shoes in return, and the shoemaker hates apples, then you’re fucked.

So people invented the concept of money, which is basically a universal medium of exchange, and even a convenient store of wealth. Without it, economies of this size, complexity and dynamism couldn’t have been created. It is based on trust – another inter-subjective imaginary system – so people had to be trained for a long time by tying money to objects of real value, until we finally got to the unbacked scraps of paper we use today. Yet it crosses cultural boundaries relatively easily because it’s not us that have to believe in something. It’s enough just to believe that the other party believes.

But pure money is not enough, because if someone was tough enough, they could still use force to upset the balance, so let’s look at our second unification factor, the lust for empire. Its most significant role is really the “grinding together” of more and more ethnically and culturally diverse regions. You could say that it’s a melting pot, and once it absorbs a group of people, they are unlikely to come out again. I mean, the empire will collapse sooner or later, of course, but the national identity that was annexed will have disappeared by then, and only the inhabitants of the ex-empire will remain – who often already have their new empire candidate waiting for them.

There is a big difference between the early conquering kings and the “emperors”, though. Whereas the king thinks only of his own kingdom and makes no secret of this, the emperor thinks that the conquered are now his subjects and therefore he should care about them. We could say that he subjugates them “for their own good”. Sort of like a parent’s responsibility to a child – even if they are not on the same shelf, so to speak. Empires have an important legacy of standardization and have also had an large role in policing and maintaining infrastructure.

So just as they are obviously not purely “good guys” (conquering, taxes, forced recruitment), to label empires as clearly “bad guys” would be equally incorrect. They left behind a lot of legacy that could not be “cut out” today – and the old oppressed probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

[…] no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.

Our challenge today is likely to be the emergence of a truly global empire. On the way to this goal, “independent” nations are also becoming less independent and increasingly influenced by global opinions and trends. But that’s OK, because individually, we would be powerless to solve truly global problems.

Even though religion is best known nowadays for its divisiveness and disagreement, it is actually the third most important unifying factor in history after money and empires. Its purpose is to give some semblance of divinity to the current imaginary order, (so at least a part of it isn’t contested) and thus to promote communal cooperation. If, in addition, it is universal and missionary – that is, the belief applies to everyone, and they’re also trying to inform everyone about it – then there we have our new great consolidation tool.

The animism we mentioned for caveman is inherently local. If there was a “sacred tree” in one group’s valley, it wasn’t evangelized to other groups… Who gives a fuck about their tree! Animism also treated man as an equal to his environment. The agricultural revolution has made a nice little hierarchy out of this, because man should obviously be above his flock now. And if the animals and plants are below us, surely we won’t want to talk to them anymore… But then who do we ask for a decent harvest? And so it was that we created God(s).

According to the polytheistic attitude, there is a “main” force, but it is impartial and doesn’t care what the Earthly situation is – let’s call it “fate”. That’s why we needed other, limited sub-gods to bargain with. It was an inherently open mindset, and they don’t chase non-believers around shouting heresy. Over time, however, some people began to proclaim their favorite as “the one”. And here is where tolerance began to weaken, because if someone else’s god is the real one but tells them things contrary to what ours tells us, then that implies we don’t know everything and ours is not “omnipotent”. And our usual, elegant proposition to resolve this deep-rooted contradiction was hitting each other with sharp sticks!

[…] over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

Of course, along with the great formal conversion to monotheism, we still retained much of the polytheistic line, only now we called them “saints” so that we could still pray to someone for specialized help when the big boss was busy. But there was also the dualistic influence of the Devil and his entourage – which makes no sense next to an all-powerful God whatsoever, but that didn’t stop us. That’s what the literature calls “syncretism”, which is the simultaneous acceptance of conflicting beliefs (doublethink, anyone?). If we think about it, syncretism is the real big world religion, where everyone can believe whatever is currently convenient.

It’s important to note, though, that we don’t necessarily need gods to have a religion. Communism, liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, fascism, etc., which we call “ideologies” in modern parlance, are also “religions”. And if this is so, then religions have not only not lost their importance in modern times, but have in fact become more totally imposed on us than ever before.

In any case, it’s safe to say that history has moved us towards something like unity. But why have things turned out exactly the way they have? We don’t know. Of course, some people claim that “so and so” makes it obvious that it had to be this way, but that’s just the “hindsight is 20-20” effect. Usually, the more we delve into the history of a specific period, the muddier the waters become, because we see what else could just as easily have been.

The lesson is that studying history is not about predicting the future. It is, however, an opportunity to recognize that what has happened so far is neither “natural”, nor necessarily in our best interests, nor even inevitable. Armed with this knowledge, we will hopefully be able to deal with the present more wisely and with a broader perspective.

The scientific revolution

If we had skipped 500 years between 1000 and 1500, we wouldn’t have missed that much. But if we’d done the same between 1500 and 2000, we’d have been scared shitless about where we’d ended up! Humanity has moved at an unprecedented pace since we realized that science is not only good for maintaining world order, but also for moving it forward.

It wasn’t a great revolution of knowledge, but rather one of ignorance. We were finally willing to admit that we simply don’t know everything; indeed, even what we thought we knew might be wrong. Since then, we’ve been relying on objective observations and trying to combine them into theories through mathematical methods.

For a long time, there were only two kinds of ignorance:

  • Individual ignorance about something important ⇒ ask the priest, he knows – because we already know everything that is important; and

  • Collective ignorance about something irrelevant ⇒ nobody knows, but we don’t give a fuck either.

In contrast, the big breakthroughs that have happened recently have come about precisely because we’ve finally admitted that there are important things that we collectively don’t know!

We used to believe that our golden age was in the past; the best we can do is hold that level, but nothing more is possible. The Icarus story is also very much about “getting off the high horse”, if I may mix some metaphors. Then, gradually, science began to solve problems that had seemed unsolvable until then, so we began to rethink some things. As a result, we’re now getting to the point where we can almost compete with death itself! It has been central to all religions and philosophies as an inevitable part of human life so far. But in more modern ideologies, it’s almost absent, because although we have not yet won the battle, we at least started believing that it can be won.

Science itself is amoral and impotent. Without money, it doesn’t matter if you are a genius; and with enough money, even geniuses can be replaced. But money can only be acquired with the right political, economic or religious background. So, in the final analysis, here we have the reappearance of the money/conquest/religion trio again, only after the revolution of ignorance – and in reverse order. And we are almost done with the foremost one, because instead of our “myths” that used to sustain the social order, we have increasingly come to believe in science itself, almost on a religious level.

The plethora of new technology didn’t hurt from the empire’s perspective, either; especially if it was coupled with the right attitude. This is where Europe first started to really pull away from the pack, because although the inventions were easy to copy, the attitude was not. The rest of the world thought they already knew it all, while the European “proud ignorance” movement gave us a generous boost. Neither can we call the spirit of discovery and conquest “universal”, even though it was the hallmark of the era. Elsewhere, conquests only reached as far as the neighbors, and the exploration was half-hearted at best. In Europe, on the other hand, people crossed the sea immediately, and quickly claimed everything in the name of their king! And this wasn’t “disputed” for so long by anyone from Asia, which had enjoyed almost exclusive dominance until then, that they ended up being left behind.

During the conquests, we also asked about things that even the locals didn’t give a shit about. So we deciphered dead languages, old cultures, etc. And with this ironic “home court advantage”, very few of us were enough to overwhelm very many; all the while, of course, projecting the image that we were just helping them in their development. But let’s not forget the empire-related lesson of the previous section: here, too, we can’t say that what happened was good or bad, because it simply transformed everything to such an extent that the effects can’t be separated from the culture of our time – including the ideologies and values by which we would judge them.

In a word, science has helped the empire-ification a great deal, as without it, we couldn’t have conquered the world the way we have. But in return, the conquerors also helped science a lot, because without their support, this way of thinking would not have spread and the results wouldn’t have been possible.

Let’s not forget about the money bankrolling both of the above, though. And what allowed the money to flow more freely was the belief in a greater future… and credit. The stagnation up to then was a self-fulfilling prophecy, too: no money, therefore no bakery, therefore no growth in the economy, therefore no confidence in the future, therefore no credit to open a bakery. But the scientific revolution gave us confidence in the future, and with the same self-fulfillment (only in reverse), development could take off at breakneck speeds.

The other obstacle in the way was the belief that we could only be rich at the expense of others. We thought that the size of the cake doesn’t change, so if we have more, someone else must have less. But that was also “luckily” solved because Adam Smith came along and (in very simplified terms) said that if he had more profit, he could employ more workers, which would make everyone better off, thereby increasing the whole cake. In doing so, he magically made wealth moral – if (!) profits are really used to increase production. This tiny niche view, called capitalism, started out as an economic trend, but has since become so intertwined with our notions of justice, freedom and even happiness, that it’s more of an overarching worldview now. The only good thing for our decidedly finite reality is that we haven’t yet had to face the impossibility of infinite growth – because there has always been some scientific breakthrough that “foots the bill”.

Alongside science, conquests have increasingly been financed by bankers. And because money preferred to flow to competent bankers rather than to the lavish treasuries of royalty, the world gradually moved from kings to joint stock companies. Over time, these companies grew so powerful that they became increasingly involved in running the state. And since they thought that the free market would correct itself anyway, naturally they wanted as little government intervention as possible.

What this view forgets is that the whole market and credit system is based on trust in a better future, which would be pretty hard in a lawless society. And enforcing said laws is the job of the state. Also, capitalism will not just regulate itself, whatever anyone thinks. We’ve seen a lot of inhumanity driven by profit before, not necessarily just by royalty or religion. And I’m not sure the oppressed will appreciate the nuance if we stomp on them because of “cold capitalist calculation” instead of “burning Christian or fascist hatred”.

Let’s turn for a moment to how the modern coexistence of the religion-empire-money trio (“scientific global capitalism”TM) has changed our everyday lives. Regarding energy, for example, it just keep supplying us with new tools. Beforehand, we could only use natural sources for their primary purpose – take wind, which was good for propelling boats, but not for heating them. Then we learned to convert energy: gunpowder, steam, internal combustion engines, electricity. And as our knowledge grows, so do we begin to see even more options available. Just the sun alone could supply the annual energy needs of the human race in 90 minutes, and then there’s gravity, wind, the atom, etc. So our power usage itself would be fine – if we didn’t destroy the planet in the process.

Thanks to tech this advanced, even 2% of the population can feed the rest of us so we can go and work next to the assembly lines. And the sudden influx of labor, in line with capitalist principles, has boosted production so much that nowadays the problem is more about sufficient demand instead of supply. Thus evolved a consumption-based society, where it’s not just permissible, but straight up ethical to give in to desire, and thrift is self-repression! It’s no different with food: the US spends more on dieting than it needs to feed the world’s hungry. But the battle cry is capitalism, where eating little is 0 part profit, while eating too much and then having to diet creates opportunity for 2 parts profit. And 2 is greater than 0. Do the math, it really checks out!

Our social systems aren’t left un-fucked-with either, of course. The natural rhythm has been taken over by industrial precision, while urbanization and democratization have increasingly broken our communal and “tribal” threads. Family used to mean jobs, health insurance, entertainment, law and order, education, etc. It wasn’t always convenient, of course, but it worked; the king was paid nothing more than glorified “protection money” in the form of taxes. If someone broke out of this family circle, they were either dead soon, became a servant, or could go into the military / whore trade.

Today, individuality is completely the norm and we can do whatever we want, even if the family doesn’t like it; we are simply not dependent on them. Of course, the maximum individuality of young people doesn’t absolve parents of responsibility, it just makes it a bit harder for them.

Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial.

In exchange, we are all the more dependent on the state (providing protection, health insurance, education) and the market (providing food, jobs, etc). In addition, the void created by the disappearance of actual communities had to be filled, bringing imagined communities more and more to the foreground. There were state and religion before, but now they have been replaced by nationality and consumer tribes.

Today’s social order is in a constant state of flux, something that (apart from revolutions) would have been unimaginable in the past. Striving to find a better place in the system has always been commonplace, but to think that the system itself can be different?! Yet today, even the most conservative candidates are campaigning on the platform of how much better it will be, reform after reform. We tend to emphasize the negatives of all this change in history – uprisings, genocides, dictators – but if we look at it closely, by many measures, this is the most peaceful period for the human race since the 2nd world war (and by no small margin). And it’s different from a simple pause between wars, because our attitudes are also increasingly leaning towards peace. The truth is that in the modern world, there is more and more profit in peaceful trade than in wars where the spoils are not so great anymore. Just to say something positive for once!

OK, so what does all this mean for our collective happiness? Because the current ideologies are working with pretty flimsy notions of happiness. And historians not only don’t have the answers, they’ve barely even asked the question yet. Because of the subjective nature of happiness, initial attempts have used questionnaires and compared the responses considering various criteria. Early findings, for example, show that money matters only to a certain extent, or that the social factor (especially marriage) matters much more than having a lot of money or even poor health. But the biggest finding remains consistent with ancient philosophy: it is our expectations that are the problem. If we are content with what we have, we will be happier. Cough, Marcus Aurelius, cough!

On a scientific basis, human life seems to make no sense, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t just imagine whatever meaning we want. We should just be aware that, for example, a scientist who sees the meaning of his life in increasing the knowledge of mankind is no less “delusional” than the medieval peasant for whom the afterlife gave meaning. But if they really believe in it, it’s all the same in the end; their delusion affects their happiness precisely because they believe in it.

To conclude, let’s turn our attention towards the future for a bit. So far, the basic assumption has always been that man has to play within the rules of biology, even if he’s been given a bigger playground than the other species. But lately, we are crossing all previous boundaries.

Regarding biology, we are tampering with genes, and sooner or later we will tamper with Sapiens itself until the end result is no longer a Sapiens. In terms of cyborgs, we already use corrective lenses and hearing aids, but there will also come a time of sensitive artificial limbs and direct brain-machine interfaces. And in non-organic design, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence could even lead to a digitally replicated brain.

All these raise lots of questions that, for the moment, either sound absurd or are – with our current level of understanding – unanswerable. Soon, however, we may spawn “descendants” who will answer them; and to them we might be less than what the Neanderthals are to us. In any case, these are only fantasies, and the future may hold something quite different. When space travel started, for example, everyone was fantasizing about Martian colonies (which still haven’t happened), but nobody expected the internet (without which we could no longer live).

In fact, we should be “proud” because practically we are already gods. But let’s be aware of a little flaw, though: despite our growing power, we, as a species, still don’t have a clue what we really want. So we’d better exercise some caution along that pride, because there are few things more dangerous than disgruntled and irresponsible godlings who don’t even know what they want…


Isn’t it fun to breeze through the entire history of the world in about half an hour? Especially since it’s (in my opinion) more useful than 12 years’ worth of school classes combined… But for a blog post, even this much is still pretty damn long, so let me just very briefly summarize the most important lesson from each section:

  • The cognitive revolution has shown us that it’s our “delusions” that really elevate us above the animals ⇒ so if we want a better life, we should just tell ourselves “better stories”;

  • The agricultural revolution has shown us that in the long run, “improvements” can turn out spectacularly shitty, even if they seemed like good ideas at the time ⇒ so let’s be very careful about how we measure the quality of our lives;

  • The unification of mankind has shown us that, despite our perceived differences, we are all still mostly alike ⇒ so perhaps it would be worth focusing on our similarities instead; and finally

  • The scientific revolution has shown us that the fastest way to progress is to realize what we don’t know ⇒ so… I don’t know… Maybe we should read more?