rljs by sennchi

Timeline of History

Part One The Cognitive Revolution

  • 1 An Animal of No Significance
  • 2 The Tree of Knowledge
  • 3 A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve
  • 4 The Flood

Part Two The Agricultural Revolution

  • 5 History’s Biggest Fraud
  • 6 Building Pyramids
  • 7 Memory Overload
  • 8 There is No Justice in History

Part Three The Unification of Humankind

  • 9 The Arrow of History
  • 10 The Scent of Money
  • 11 Imperial Visions
  • 12 The Law of Religion
  • 13 The Secret of Success

Part Four The Scientific Revolution

  • 14 The Discovery of Ignorance
  • 15 The Marriage of Science and Empire
  • 16 The Capitalist Creed
  • 17 The Wheels of Industry
  • 18 A Permanent Revolution
  • 19 And They Lived Happily Ever After
  • 20 The End of Homo Sapiens

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

An Animal of No Significance

ABOUT 13,5 BILLION YEARS AGO, MATTER, energy, time and space came
into being in what is known as the Big Bang, The story of these
fundamental features of our universe is called physics,
About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to
coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into
molecules, The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called
About 3,8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules
combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called
organisms, The story of organisms is called biology,
About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens
started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures, The
subsequent development of these human cultures is called history,
Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive
Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago, The Agricultural
Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago, The Scienti c Revolution,
which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start
something completely di erent, This book tells the story of how these three
revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms,
There were humans long before there was history, Animals much like
modern humans rst appeared about 2,5 million years ago, But for
countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other
organisms with which they shared their habitats,
On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have
encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling
their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud;
temperamental youths cha ng against the dictates of society and weary
elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to
impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it
all, These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and
competed for status and power – but so did chimpanzees, baboons and
elephants, There was nothing special about them, Nobody, least of all
humans themselves, had any inkling that their descendants would one day
walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write
history books, The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans
is that they were insigni cant animals with no more impact on their
environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish,
Biologists classify organisms into species, Animals are said to belong to
the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile
o spring, Horses and donkeys have a recent common ancestor and share
many physical traits, But they show little sexual interest in one another,
They will mate if induced to do so – but their o spring, called mules, are
sterile, Mutations in donkey DNA can therefore never cross over to horses,
or vice versa, The two types of animals are consequently considered two
distinct species, moving along separate evolutionary paths, By contrast, a
bulldog and a spaniel may look very di erent, but they are members of the
same species, sharing the same DNA pool, They will happily mate and their
puppies will grow up to pair off with other dogs and produce more puppies,
Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under
the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera), Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are
di erent species within the genus Panthera, Biologists label organisms with
a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species, Lions, for example, are
called Panthera leo, the species leo of the genus Panthera, Presumably,
everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens – the species sapiens (wise) of
the genus Homo (man),
Genera in their turn are grouped into families, such as the cats (lions,
cheetahs, house cats), the dogs (wolves, foxes, jackals) and the elephants
(elephants, mammoths, mastodons), All members of a family trace their
lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch, All cats, for example,
from the smallest house kitten to the most ferocious lion, share a common
feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago,
Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family, This banal fact used to be one of
history’s most closely guarded secrets, Homo sapiens long preferred to view
itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings
or cousins, and most importantly, without parents, But that’s just not the
case, Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family
called the great apes, Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees,
gorillas and orang-utans, The chimpanzees are the closest, Just 6 million
years ago, a single female ape had two daughters, One became the ancestor
of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother,
Skeletons in the Closet
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret, Not only do
we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had
quite a few brothers and sisters as well, We are used to thinking about
ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species
has indeed been the only human species around, Yet the real meaning of
the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there
used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens, Moreover,
as we shall see in the last chapter of the book, in the not so distant future
we might again have to contend with non-sapiens humans, To clarify this
point, I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species
Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant
members of the genus Homo,
Humans rst evolved in East Africa about 2,5 million years ago from an
earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’,
About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their
homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe
and Asia, Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required
di erent traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming
jungles, human populations evolved in di erent directions, The result was
several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a
pompous Latin name,
2, Our siblings, according to speculative reconstructions (left to right):
Homo rudolfensis (East Africa); Homo erectus (East Asia); and Homo neanderthalensis (Europe
and western Asia), All are humans,
Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis
(‘Man from the Neander Valley), popularly referred to simply as
‘Neanderthals’, Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens,
were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia, The more
eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’,
who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable
human species ever, This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own
species, It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand
years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league,
On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the
Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics, On another Indonesian
island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of
dwar ng, Humans rst reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally
low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland, When the seas
rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in
resources, Big people, who need a lot of food, died rst, Smaller fellows
survived much better, Over the generations, the people of Flores became
dwarves, This unique species, known by scientists as Homo oresiensis,
reached a maximum height of only one metre and weighed no more than
twenty- ve kilograms, They were nevertheless able to produce stone tools,
and even managed occasionally to hunt down some of the island’s
elephants – though, to be fair, the elephants were a dwarf species as well,
In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientists
excavating the Denisova Cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised nger bone,
Genetic analysis proved that the nger belonged to a previously unknown
human species, which was named Homo denisova, Who knows how many
lost relatives of ours are waiting to be discovered in other caves, on other
islands, and in other climes,
While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East
Africa did not stop, The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous
new species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo
ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve
immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’,
The members of some of these species were massive and others were
dwarves, Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers,
Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents, But
all of them belonged to the genus Homo, They were all human beings,
It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight
line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the
Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us, This linear model
gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type
of human inhabited the earth, and that all earlier species were merely older
models of ourselves, The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until
around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to
several human species, And why not? Today there are many species of
foxes, bears and pigs, The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by
at least six di erent species of man, It’s our current exclusivity, not that
multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating, As we will
shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our
The Cost of Thinking
Despite their many di erences, all human species share several de ning
characteristics, Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains
compared to other animals, Mammals weighing sixty kilograms have an
average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres, The earliest men and women,
2,5 million years ago, had brains of about 600 cubic centimetres, Modern
Sapiens sport a brain averaging 1,200–1,400 cubic centimetres, Neanderthal
brains were even bigger,
That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a
no-brainer, We are so enamoured of our high intelligence that we assume
that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better, But if that were
the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do
calculus, Why is genus Homo the only one in the entire animal kingdom to
have come up with such massive thinking machines?
The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body, It’s not easy
to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull, It’s even
harder to fuel, In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of
total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when
the body is at rest, By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8
per cent of rest-time energy, Archaic humans paid for their large brains in
two ways, Firstly, they spent more time in search of food, Secondly, their
muscles atrophied, Like a government diverting money from defence to
education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons, It’s hardly a
foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the
savannah, A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but
the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll,
Today our big brains pay o nicely, because we can produce cars and
guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from
a safe distance instead of wrestling, But cars and guns are a recent
phenomenon, For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept
growing and growing, but apart from some int knives and pointed sticks,
humans had precious little to show for it, What then drove forward the
evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years?
Frankly, we don’t know,
Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs,
Standing up, it’s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms
that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like
throwing stones or signalling, The more things these hands could do, the
more successful their owners were, so evolutionary pressure brought about
an increasing concentration of nerves and nely tuned muscles in the palms
and ngers, As a result, humans can perform very intricate tasks with their
hands, In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools, The rst
evidence for tool production dates from about 2,5 million years ago, and
the manufacture and use of tools are the criteria by which archaeologists
recognise ancient humans,
Yet walking upright has its downside, The skeleton of our primate
ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked
on all fours and had a relatively small head, Adjusting to an upright
position was quite a challenge, especially when the sca olding had to
support an extra-large cranium, Humankind paid for its lofty vision and
industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks,
Women paid extra, An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting
the birth canal – and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and
bigger, Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females,
Women who gave birth earlier, when the infants brain and head were still
relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children,
Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births, And, indeed,
compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of
their vital systems are still under-developed, A colt can trot shortly after
birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few
weeks old, Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their
elders for sustenance, protection and education,
This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind’s extraordinary
social abilities and to its unique social problems, Lone mothers could hardly
forage enough food for their o spring and themselves with needy children
in tow, Raising children required constant help from other family members
and neighbours, It takes a tribe to raise a human, Evolution thus favoured
those capable of forming strong social ties, In addition, since humans are
born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater
extent than any other animal, Most mammals emerge from the womb like
glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will
scratch or break them, Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass
from a furnace, They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising
degree of freedom, This is why today we can educate our children to
become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-

We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities
and complex social structures are huge advantages, It seems self-evident
that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth, But
humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during
which they remained weak and marginal creatures, Thus humans who lived
a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in
constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly
by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating
the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores,
One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open
bones in order to get to the marrow, Some researchers believe this was our
original niche, Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the
trunks of trees, the rst humans specialised in extracting marrow from
bones, Why marrow? Well, suppose you observe a pride of lions take down
and devour a gira e, You wait patiently until they’re done, But it’s still not
your turn because rst the hyenas and jackals – and you don’t dare
interfere with them scavenge the leftovers, Only then would you and your
band dare approach the carcass, look cautiously left and right – and dig
into the edible tissue that remained,
This is a key to understanding our history and psychology, Genus Homo’s
position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle,
For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what
they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators, It was only
400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on
a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo
sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain,
That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous
consequences, Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and
sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years,
This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent
lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc, As lions became deadlier,
so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and
rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered, In contrast, humankind ascended to
the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust,
Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust, Most top predators of the
planet are majestic creatures, Millions of years of dominion have lled
them with self-con dence, Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana
republic dictator, Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the
savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes
us doubly cruel and dangerous, Many historical calamities, from deadly
wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump,
A Race of Cooks
A signi cant step on the way to the top was the domestication of re, Some
human species may have made occasional use of re as early as 800,000
years ago, By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the
forefathers of Homo sapiens were using re on a daily basis, Humans now
had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against
prowling lions, Not long afterwards, humans may even have started
deliberately to torch their neighbourhoods, A carefully managed re could
turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game,
In addition, once the re died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk
through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and
But the best thing re did was cook, Foods that humans cannot digest in
their natural forms – such as wheat, rice and potatoes – became staples of
our diet thanks to cooking, Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it
changed its biology as well, Cooking killed germs and parasites that
infested food, Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old
favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked,
Whereas chimpanzees spend ve hours a day chewing raw food, a single
hour suffices for people eating cooked food,
The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to
devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter
intestines, Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of
cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal track, and the growth of
the human brain, Since long intestines and large brains are both massive
energy consumers, it’s hard to have both, By shortening the intestines and
decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the
way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens,
Fire also opened the rst signi cant gulf between man and the other
animals, The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the
strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings,
Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control
these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design,
Eagles, for example, identify thermal columns rising from the ground,
spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards, Yet
eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum
carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan,
When humans domesticated re, they gained control of an obedient and
potentially limitless force, Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and
where to ignite a ame, and they were able to exploit re for any number
of tasks, Most importantly, the power of re was not limited by the form,
structure or strength of the human body, A single woman with a int or re
stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours, The
domestication of fire was a sign of things to come,
Our Brothers’ Keepers
Despite the bene ts of re, 150,000 years ago humans were still marginal
creatures, They could now scare away lions, warm themselves during cold
nights, and burn down the occasional forest, Yet counting all species
together, there were still no more than perhaps a million humans living
between the Indonesian archipelago and the Iberian peninsula, a mere blip
on the ecological radar,
Our own species, Homo sapiens, was already present on the world stage,
but so far it was just minding its own business in a corner of Africa, We
don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classi ed as Homo
sapiens rst evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists
agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that
looked just like us, If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local
pathologist would notice nothing peculiar, Thanks to the blessings of re,
they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had
massive brains, equal in size to ours,
Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East
Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly
overran the entire Eurasian landmass,
When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled
by other humans, What happened to them? There are two con icting
theories, The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and
mingling, As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred
with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this
For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they
encountered the Neanderthals, These humans were more muscular than
Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes, They
used tools and re, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their
sick and in rm, (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals
who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that
they were cared for by their relatives,) Neanderthals are often depicted in
caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent
evidence has changed their image,
According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into
Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two
populations merged, If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure
Sapiens, They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals, Similarly, when
Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the
Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus,
The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very di erent
story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide,
According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had di erent
anatomies, and most likely di erent mating habits and even body odours,
They would have had little sexual interest in one another, And even if a
Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce
fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations
was already unbridgeable, The two populations remained completely
distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed o , their genes
died with them, According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous
human populations without merging with them, If that is the case, the
lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to
East Africa, 70,000 years ago, We are all ‘pure Sapiens’,
Map 1, Homo sapiens conquers the globe,
A lot hinges on this debate, From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000
years is a relatively short interval, If the Replacement Theory is correct, all
living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial
distinctions among them are negligible, But if the Interbreeding Theory is
right, there might well be genetic di erences between Africans, Europeans
and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years, This is political
dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories,
In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom
in the eld, It had rmer archaeological backing, and was more politically
correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by
claiming signi cant genetic diversity among modern human populations),
But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year e ort to map the
Neanderthal genome were published, Geneticists were able to collect
enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison
between it and the DNA of contemporary humans, The results stunned the
scientific community,
It turned out that 1–4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern
populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA, That’s not a
huge amount, but it’s significant, A second shock came several months later,
when DNA extracted from the fossilised nger from Denisova was mapped,
The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of
modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA,
If these results are valid – and it’s important to keep in mind that further
research is under way and may either reinforce or modify these conclusions
– the Interbreeders got at least some things right, But that doesn’t mean
that the Replacement Theory is completely wrong, Since Neanderthals and
Denisovans contributed only a small amount of DNA to our present-day
genome, it is impossible to speak of a ‘merger’ between Sapiens and other
human species, Although di erences between them were not large enough
to completely prevent fertile intercourse, they were su cient to make such
contacts very rare,
How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens,
Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely di erent
species like horses and donkeys, On the other hand, they were not just
di erent populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels,
Biological reality is not black and white, There are also important grey
areas, Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as
horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same
species, like bulldogs and spaniels, There must have been a point when the
two populations were already quite di erent from one another, but still
capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile o spring,
Then another mutation severed this last connecting thread, and they went
their separate evolutionary ways,
It seems that about 50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and
Denisovans were at that borderline point, They were almost, but not quite,
entirely separate species, As we shall see in the next chapter, Sapiens were
already very di erent from Neanderthals and Denisovans not only in their
genetic code and physical traits, but also in their cognitive and social
abilities, yet it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a
Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring, So the populations
did not merge, but a few lucky Neanderthal genes did hitch a ride on the
Sapiens Express, It is unsettling – and perhaps thrilling – to think that we
Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a di erent species,
and produce children together,
3, A speculative reconstruction of a Neanderthal child, Genetic evidence hints that at least some
Neanderthals may have had fair skin and hair,
But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t
merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo
sapiens drove them to extinction, Imagine a Sapiens band reaching a Balkan
valley where Neanderthals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years,
The newcomers began to hunt the deer and gather the nuts and berries that
were the Neanderthals’ traditional staples, Sapiens were more pro cient
hunters and gatherers – thanks to better technology and superior social
skills – so they multiplied and spread, The less resourceful Neanderthals
found it increasingly di cult to feed themselves, Their population dwindled
and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who
joined their Sapiens neighbours,
Another possibility is that competition for resources ared up into
violence and genocide, Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark, In modern
times, a small di erence in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough
to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group,
Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely
di erent human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered
Neanderthals, the result was the rst and most signi cant ethnic-cleansing
campaign in history,
Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals (and the other human
species) pose one of history’s great what ifs, Imagine how things might
have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside
Homo sapiens, What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would
have emerged in a world where several di erent human species coexisted?
How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of
Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve,
would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an
have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their
species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions,
or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American
Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members
of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers
of all species to unite?
Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to
being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other
possibility, Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that
we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest
of the animal kingdom, When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens
was just another kind of animal, people were outraged, Even today many
refuse to believe it, Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine
ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors
wiped out the Neanderthals, They were too familiar to ignore, but too
different to tolerate,
Whether Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner had they arrived at a new
location than the native population became extinct, The last remains of
Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago, H om o denisova
disappeared shortly thereafter, Neanderthals made their exit roughly
30,000 years ago, The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island
about 12,000 years ago, They left behind some bones, stone tools, a few
genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions, They also left behind
us, Homo sapiens, the last human species,
What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so
rapidly in so many distant and ecologically di erent habitats? How did we
push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong,
brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate
continues to rage, The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the
debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its
unique language,

2 The Tree of Knowledge

IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER WE SAW THAT although Sapiens had already
populated East Africa 150,000 years ago, they began to overrun the rest of
planet Earth and drive the other human species to extinction only about
70,000 years ago, In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic
Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not
enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce
particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special
In fact, in the rst recorded encounter between Sapiens and
Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won, About 100,000 years ago, some
Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal
territory, but failed to secure a rm footing, It might have been due to
nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites, Whatever
the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as
masters of the Middle East,
This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the
internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably di erent from
ours, They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities – learning,
remembering, communicating – were far more limited, Teaching such an
ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or
getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have
been hopeless undertakings, Conversely, we would have had a very hard
time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking,
But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing
very special things, Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second
time, This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species
not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth, Within a
remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia, About
45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in
Australia – a continent hitherto untouched by humans, The period from
about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention
of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing
warm clothing), The rst objects that can reliably be called art date from
this era (see the Stadel lion-man on this page), as does the rst clear
evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification,
Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were
the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities, They maintain
that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia,
and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as
we are, If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could
learn their language and they ours, We’d be able to explain to them
everything we know – from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the
paradoxes of quantum physics – and they could teach us how their people
view the world,
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between
70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution, What
caused it? We’re not sure, The most commonly believed theory argues that
accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of
Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to
communicate using an altogether new type of language, We might call it
the Tree of Knowledge mutation, Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather
than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we
can tell, But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree
of Knowledge mutation than its causes, What was so special about the new

Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?
It was not the rst language, Every animal has some kind of language,
Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in
sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food,
Neither was it the rst vocal language, Many animals, including all ape and
monkey species, have vocal languages, For example, green monkeys use
calls of various kinds to communicate, Zoologists have identi ed one call
that means, ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly di erent call warns, ‘Careful! A
lion!’ When researchers played a recording of the rst call to a group of
monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards
in fear, When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion
warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree, Sapiens can produce many more
distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally
impressive abilities, A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as
well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens
wailing, Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal,
What, then, is so special about our language?
The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple, We
can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an in nite
number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning, We can thereby ingest,
store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the
surrounding world, A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A
lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the
bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison, She can then
describe the exact location, including the di erent paths leading to the
area, With this information, the members of her band can put their heads
together and discuss whether they ought to approach the river in order to
chase away the lion and hunt the bison,
A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of
sharing information about the world, But the most important information
that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison,
Our language evolved as a way of gossiping, According to this theory Homo
sapiens is primarily a social animal, Social cooperation is our key for
survival and reproduction, It is not enough for individual men and women
to know the whereabouts of lions and bison, It’s much more important for
them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom,
who is honest, and who is a cheat,
4, An ivory figurine of a ‘lion-man’ (or ‘lioness-woman’) from the Stadel Cave in Germany
(c,32,000 years ago), The body is human, but the head is leonine, This is one of the first
indisputable examples of art, and probably of religion, and of the ability of the human mind to
imagine things that do not really exist,
The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to
track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is
staggering, (In a band of fty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one
relationships, and countless more complex social combinations,) All apes
show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble
gossiping e ectively, Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also
had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs – a much maligned
ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers, The new
linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago
enabled them to gossip for hours on end, Reliable information about who
could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands,
and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of
The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support
it, Even today the vast majority of human communication – whether in the
form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns – is gossip, It comes so
naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very
purpose, Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for
World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend
their co ee breaks at scienti c conferences talking about quarks?
Sometimes, But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her
husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and
the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a
Lexus, Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings, Rumour-mongers are the
original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect
it from cheats and freeloaders,
Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river
theory are valid, Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its
ability to transmit information about men and lions, Rather, it’s the ability
to transmit information about things that do not exist at all, As far as we
know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have
never seen, touched or smelled,
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the rst time with the
Cognitive Revolution, Many animals and human species could previously
say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens
acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe,’ This
ability to speak about ctions is the most unique feature of Sapiens
It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about
things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before
breakfast, You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by
promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven, But why is
it important? After all, ction can be dangerously misleading or distracting,
People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to
have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms
and deer, And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits,
aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, ghting and
But ction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so
collectively, We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation
story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist
myths of modern states, Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability
to cooperate exibly in large numbers, Ants and bees can also work
together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only
with close relatives, Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more exibly
than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals
that they know intimately, Sapiens can cooperate in extremely exible
ways with countless numbers of strangers, That’s why Sapiens rule the
world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and
research laboratories,
The Legend of Peugeot
Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen
individuals, They form close friendships, hunt together and ght shoulder
to shoulder against baboons, cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees, Their social
structure tends to be hierarchical, The dominant member, who is almost
always a male, is termed the ‘alpha male’, Other males and females exhibit
their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making
grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king, The
alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop, When two
individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence, Less benevolently,
he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking
males from mating with the females,
When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by
forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from
within the group, Ties between coalition members are based on intimate
daily contact – hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours,
Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands
and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group
spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps, The
alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger,
but because he leads a large and stable coalition, These coalitions play a
central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in
almost all day-to-day activities, Members of a coalition spend more time
together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble,
There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and
maintained in such a way, In order to function, all members of a group
must know each other intimately, Two chimpanzees who have never met,
never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know
whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to
help one another, and which of them ranks higher, Under natural
conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fty
individuals, As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social
order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a
new troop by some of the animals, Only in a handful of cases have
zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred, Separate groups seldom
cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food, Researchers have
documented prolonged warfare between groups, and even one case of
‘genocidal’ activity in which one troop systematically slaughtered most
members of a neighbouring band,
Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans,
including archaic Homo sapiens, Humans, like chimps, have social instincts
that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt
or ght together, However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of
humans were adapted only for small intimate groups, When the group grew
too large, its social order destabilised and the band split, Even if a
particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way
that so many strangers could live together, How could they agree who
should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom?
In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to
form larger and more stable bands, But even gossip has its limits,
Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group
bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals, Most people can neither
intimately know, nor gossip e ectively about, more than 150 human
Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere
around this magic number, Below this threshold, communities, businesses,
social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly
on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering, There is no need for
formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order, A platoon of thirty
soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the
basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline, A well-
respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company and exercise authority
even over commissioned o cers, A small family business can survive and
flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department,
But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer
work that way, You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the
same way you run a platoon, Successful family businesses usually face a
crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel, If they cannot
reinvent themselves, they go bust,
How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually
founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires
ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of
ction, Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing
in common myths,
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval
church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths
that exist only in peoples collective imagination, Churches are rooted in
common religious myths, Two Catholics who have never met can
nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital
because they both believe that God was incarnated in human esh and
allowed Himself to be cruci ed to redeem our sins, States are rooted in
common national myths, Two Serbs who have never met might risk their
lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the
Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian ag, Judicial systems
are rooted in common legal myths, Two lawyers who have never met can
nevertheless combine e orts to defend a complete stranger because they
both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money
paid out in fees,
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and
tell one another, There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money,
no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination
of human beings,
People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by
believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance
together around the camp re, What we fail to appreciate is that our
modern institutions function on exactly the same basis, Take for example
the world of business corporations, Modern business-people and lawyers
are, in fact, powerful sorcerers, The principal di erence between them and
tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales, The legend of
Peugeot affords us a good example,
An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on
cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney, It’s the hood ornament
that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest of
Europe’s carmakers, Peugeot began as a small family business in the village
of Valentigney, just 300 kilometres from the Stadel Cave, Today the
company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are
complete strangers to each other, These strangers cooperate so e ectively
that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1,5 million automobiles, earning
revenues of about 55 billion euros,
In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s o cial name)
exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the
company, Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked
and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear, It would
continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report, The company
owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics,
accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot,
A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to
destroy all of its assembly lines and executive o ces, Even then, the
company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and
buy new machinery, Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither
do they constitute the company, All the managers could be dismissed and
all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact,
5, The Peugeot Lion
It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal, If a judge
were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain
standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would
continue to live – but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish, In short,
Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world,
Does it really exist?
Peugeot is a gment of our collective imagination, Lawyers call this a
‘legal ction’, It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object, But it exists
as a legal entity, Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the
countries in which it operates, It can open a bank account and own
property, It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately
from any of the people who own or work for it,
Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal ctions called ‘limited
liability companies’, The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s
most ingenious inventions, Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without
them, During most of recorded history property could be owned only by
flesh-and-blood humans, the kind that stood on two legs and had big brains,
If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing
workshop, he himself was the business, If a wagon he’d made broke down a
week after purchase, the disgruntled buyer would have sued Jean
personally, If Jean had borrowed 1,000 gold coins to set up his workshop
and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his
private property – his house, his cow, his land, He might even have had to
sell his children into servitude, If he couldn’t cover the debt, he could be
thrown in prison by the state or enslaved by his creditors, He was fully
liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop,
If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice
before you opened an enterprise of your own, And indeed this legal
situation discouraged entrepreneurship, People were afraid to start new
businesses and take economic risks, It hardly seemed worth taking the
chance that their families could end up utterly destitute,
This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited
liability companies, Such companies were legally independent of the people
who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them, Over the
last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the
economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they
exist only in our imagination, In the US, the technical term for a limited
liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term
derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) – the one thing these corporations
lack, Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats
corporations as legal persons, as if they were esh-and-blood human
And so did the French legal system back in 1896, when Armand Peugeot,
who had inherited from his parents a metalworking shop that produced
springs, saws and bicycles, decided to go into the automobile business, To
that end, he set up a limited liability company, He named the company
after himself, but it was independent of him, If one of the cars broke down,
the buyer could sue Peugeot, but not Armand Peugeot, If the company
borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugeot did not
owe its creditors a single franc, The loan, after all, had been given to
Peugeot, the company, not to Armand Peugeot, the Homo sapiens, Armand
Peugeot died in 1915, Peugeot, the company, is still alive and well,
How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the
company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created
gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French
curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches,
It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe
them, In the case of the French curés, the crucial story was that of Christ’s
life and death as told by the Catholic Church, According to this story, if a
Catholic priest dressed in his sacred garments solemnly said the right words
at the right moment, mundane bread and wine turned into God’s esh and
blood, The priest exclaimed ‘Hoc est corpus meum!’ (Latin for ‘This is my
body!’) and hocus pocus – the bread turned into Christ’s esh, Seeing that
the priest had properly and assiduously observed all the procedures,
millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the
consecrated bread and wine,
In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as
written by the French parliament, According to the French legislators, if a
certi ed lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the
required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and
a xed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus
pocus – a new company was incorporated, When in 1896 Armand Peugeot
wanted to create his company, he paid a lawyer to go through all these
sacred procedures, Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and
pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French
citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed,
Telling e ective stories is not easy, The di culty lies not in telling the
story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it, Much of history revolves
around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe
particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet
when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables
millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals, Just try
to imagine how di cult it would have been to create states, or churches, or
legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as
rivers, trees and lions,
Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of
stories, Within this network, ctions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also
accumulate immense power, The kinds of things that people create through
this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘ ctions’, ‘social
constructs’, or ‘imagined realities’, An imagined reality is not a lie, I lie
when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well
that there is no lion there, There is nothing special about lies, Green
monkeys and chimpanzees can lie, A green monkey, for example, has been
observed calling ‘Careful! A lion!’ when there was no lion around, This
alarm conveniently frightened away a fellow monkey who had just found a
banana, leaving the liar all alone to steal the prize for itself,
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in,
and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts
force in the world, The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have
believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit, Some sorcerers are
charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons,
Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited
liability companies, Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the
existence of 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 gments of
our fertile imaginations,
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens has thus been living in a
dual reality, On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and
lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and
corporations, As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more
powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends
on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations and corporations,
Bypassing the Genome
The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large
numbers of strangers to cooperate e ectively, But it also did something
more, Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way
people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling
di erent stories, Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly,
In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in
the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the
sovereignty of the people, Consequently,ever since the Cognitive
Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in
accordance with changing needs, This opened a fast lane of cultural
evolution, bypassing the tra c jams of genetic evolution, Speeding down
this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and
animal species in its ability to cooperate,
The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by
their genes, DNA is not an autocrat, Animal behaviour is also in uenced by
environmental factors and individual quirks, Nevertheless, in a given
environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar
way, Signi cant changes in social behaviour cannot occur, in general,
without genetic mutations, For example, common chimpanzees have a
genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male,
Members of a closely related chimpanzee species, bonobos, usually live in
more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances, Female common
chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a
feminist revolution, Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly
to abolish the o ce of alpha male and declare that from here on out all
chimps are to be treated as equals, Such dramatic changes in behaviour
would occur only if something changed in the chimpanzees’ DNA,
For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions, As
far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new
technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic
mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives,
This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these
steps, Two million years ago, genetic mutations resulted in the appearance
of a new human species called Homo erectus, Its emergence was
accompanied by the development of a new stone tool technology, now
recognised as a de ning feature of this species, As long as Homo erectus did
not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the
same – for close to 2 million years!
In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able
to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future
generations without any need of genetic or environmental change, As a
prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as
the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch
bureaucracies, The existence of such elites goes against the most
fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members
of society willingly give up procreation, Whereas chimpanzee alpha males
use their power to have sex with as many females as possible – and
consequently sire a large proportion of their troop’s young – the Catholic
alpha male abstains completely from sexual intercourse and childcare, This
abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a
severe lack of food or want of potential mates, Nor is it the result of some
quirky genetic mutation, The Catholic Church has survived for centuries,
not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by
passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law,
In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained
xed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social
structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic
activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two, Consider a
resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred,
She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her
adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist
East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reuni ed
Germany, She had managed to be a part of ve very di erent sociopolitical
systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same,
This was the key to Sapiens’ success, In a one-on-one brawl, a
Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens, But in a con ict of
hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance, Neanderthals could share
information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not
tell – and revise – stories about tribal spirits, Without an ability to compose
ction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate e ectively in large numbers,
nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges,
While we can’t get inside a Neanderthal mind to understand how they
thought, we have indirect evidence of the limits to their cognition
compared with their Sapiens rivals, Archaeologists excavating 30,000-year-
old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally nd there seashells
from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, In all likelihood, these shells
got to the continental interior through long-distance trade between
di erent Sapiens bands, Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade,
Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials,
6, The Catholic alpha male abstains from sexual intercourse and childcare, even though there is
no genetic or ecological reason for him to do so,
Another example comes from the South Paci c, Sapiens bands that lived
on the island of New Ireland, north of New Guinea, used a volcanic glass
called obsidian to manufacture particularly strong and sharp tools, New
Ireland, however, has no natural deposits of obsidian, Laboratory tests
revealed that the obsidian they used was brought from deposits on New
Britain, an island 400 kilometres away, Some of the inhabitants of these
islands must have been skilled navigators who traded from island to island
over long distances,
Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no ctive
basis, Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade,
and all the Sapiens trade neworks about which we have detailed evidence
were based on ctions, Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very
di cult to trust strangers, The global trade network of today is based on
our trust in such ctional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank,
and the totemic trademarks of corporations, When two strangers in a tribal
society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a
common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal,
If archaic Sapiens believing in such ctions traded shells and obsidian, it
stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating
a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served
Neanderthals and other archaic humans,
Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these di erences,
Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups, Sapiens, on the other
hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many
dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between di erent bands, One
particularly e ective method was to surround an entire herd of animals,
such as wild horses, then chase them into a narrow gorge, where it was
easy to slaughter them en masse, If all went according to plan, the bands
could harvest tons of meat, fat and animal skins in a single afternoon of
collective e ort, and either consume these riches in a giant potlatch, or dry,
smoke or (in Arctic areas) freeze them for later usage, Archaeologists have
discovered sites where entire herds were butchered annually in such ways,
There are even sites where fences and obstacles were erected in order to
create artificial traps and slaughtering grounds,
We may presume that Neanderthals were not pleased to see their
traditional hunting grounds turned into Sapiens-controlled slaughterhouses,
However, if violence broke out between the two species, Neanderthals were
not much better o than wild horses, Fifty Neanderthals cooperating in
traditional and static patterns were no match for 500 versatile and
innovative Sapiens, And even if the Sapiens lost the rst round, they could
quickly invent new stratagems that would enable them to win the next
What happened in the Cognitive Revolution?
New ability Wider consequences
Planning and carrying out
The ability to transmit larger quantities of
complex actions, such as
information about the world surrounding Homo
avoiding lions and hunting
Larger and more cohesive
The ability to transmit larger quantities of
groups, numbering up to
information about Sapiens social relationships
150 individuals
a, Cooperation between
The ability to transmit information about
very large numbers of
things that do not really exist, such as tribal
spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and
b, Rapid innovation of
human rights
social behaviour
History and Biology
The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the
resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what
we call ‘cultures’, Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and
develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’,
The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared
its independence from biology, Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings
of all human species belonged to the realm of biology, or, if you so prefer,
prehistory (I tend to avoid the term ‘prehistory’, because it wrongly implies
that even before the Cognitive Revolution, humans were in a category of
their own), From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives
replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the
development of Homo sapiens, To understand the rise of Christianity or the
French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes,
hormones and organisms, It is necessary to take into account the
interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well,
This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt
from biological laws, We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and
cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA, Our societies are built from
the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the
more we examine these building blocks – sensations, emotions, family ties –
the less difference we find between us and other apes,
It is, however, a mistake to look for the di erences at the level of the
individual or the family, One on one, even ten on ten, we are
embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees, Signi cant di erences begin to
appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we
reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the di erences are astounding, If you tried
to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall
Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result
would be pandemonium, By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the
thousands in such places, Together, they create orderly patterns – such as
trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions – that they
could never have created in isolation, The real di erence between us and
chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of
individuals, families and groups, This glue has made us the masters of
Of course, we also needed other skills, such as the ability to make and use
tools, Yet tool-making is of little consequence unless it is coupled with the
ability to cooperate with many others, How is it that we now have
intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30,000 years ago
we had only sticks with flint spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no
signi cant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000
years, Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an
ancient hunter-gatherer, However, our capacity to cooperate with large
numbers of strangers has improved dramatically, The ancient int
spearhead was manufactured in minutes by a single person, who relied on
the advice and help of a few intimate friends, The production of a modern
nuclear warhead requires the cooperation of millions of strangers all over
the world – from the workers who mine the uranium ore in the depths of
the earth to theoretical physicists who write long mathematical formulas to
describe the interactions of subatomic particles,
To summarise the relationship between biology and history after the
Cognitive Revolution:
a, Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of
Homo sapiens, The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this
biological arena,
b, However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an
astounding variety of games, Thanks to their ability to invent ction,
Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation
develops and elaborates even further,
c, Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must
describe the historical evolution of their actions, Referring only to our
biological constraints would be like a radio sports-caster who, attending
the World Cup football championships, o ers his listeners a detailed
description of the playing eld rather than an account of what the
players are doing,
What games did our Stone Age ancestors play in the arena of history? As
far as we know, the people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30,000
years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities we
have, What did they do when they woke up in the morning? What did they
eat for breakfast – and lunch? What were their societies like? Did they have
monogamous relationships and nuclear families? Did they have ceremonies,
moral codes, sports contests and religious rituals? Did they ght wars? The
next chapter takes a peek behind the curtain of the ages, examining what
life was like in the millennia separating the Cognitive Revolution from the
Agricultural Revolution,

  • Here and in the following pages, when speaking about Sapiens language, I refer to the basic linguistic
    abilities of our species and not to a particular dialect, English, Hindi and Chinese are all variants of
    Sapiens language, Apparently, even at the time of the Cognitive Revolution, di erent Sapiens groups had
    different dialects,

3 A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

TO UNDERSTAND OUR NATURE, HISTORY and psychology, we must get
inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, For nearly the entire
history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers, The past 200 years, during
which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread
as urban labourers and o ce workers, and the preceding 10,000 years,
during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an
eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors
hunted and gathered,
The ourishing eld of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our
present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this
long pre-agricultural era, Even today, scholars in this eld claim, our brains
and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering, Our eating
habits, our con icts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our
hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial
environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers,
This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than
those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel
alienated, depressed and pressured, To understand why, evolutionary
psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that
shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit,
Why, for example, do people gorge on high-calorie food that is doing
little good to their bodies? Today’s a uent societies are in the throes of a
plague of obesity, which is rapidly spreading to developing countries, It’s a
puzzle why we binge on the sweetest and greasiest food we can nd, until
we consider the eating habits of our forager forebears, In the savannahs
and forests they inhabited, high-calorie sweets were extremely rare and
food in general was in short supply, A typical forager 30,000 years ago had
access to only one type of sweet food – ripe fruit, If a Stone Age woman
came across a tree groaning with gs, the most sensible thing to do was to
eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band
picked the tree bare, The instinct to gorge on high-calorie food was hard-
wired into our genes, Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with
over-stu ed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah,
That’s what makes us spoon down an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s when we
find one in the freezer and wash it down with a jumbo Coke,
This ‘gorging gene’ theory is widely accepted, Other theories are far more
contentious, For example, some evolutionary psychologists argue that
ancient foraging bands were not composed of nuclear families centred on
monogamous couples, Rather, foragers lived in communes devoid of private
property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood, In such a band,
a woman could have sex and form intimate bonds with several men (and
women) simultaneously, and all of the band’s adults cooperated in
parenting its children, Since no man knew de nitively which of the
children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters,
Such a social structure is not an Aquarian utopia, It’s well documented
among animals, notably our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and
bonobos, There are even a number of present-day human cultures in which
collective fatherhood is practised, as for example among the Barí Indians,
According to the beliefs of such societies, a child is not born from the sperm
of a single man, but from the accumulation of sperm in a woman’s womb, A
good mother will make a point of having sex with several di erent men,
especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities
(and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best
storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover, If this
sounds silly, bear in mind that before the development of modern
embryological studies, people had no solid evidence that babies are always
sired by a single father rather than by many,
The proponents of this ‘ancient commune’ theory argue that the frequent
in delities that characterise modern marriages, and the high rates of
divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from
which both children and adults su er, all result from forcing humans to live
in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible
with our biological software,
Many scholars vehemently reject this theory, insisting that both
monogamy and the forming of nuclear families are core human behaviours,
Though ancient hunter-gatherer societies tended to be more communal and
egalitarian than modern societies, these researchers argue, they were
nevertheless comprised of separate cells, each containing a jealous couple
and the children they held in common, This is why today monogamous
relationships and nuclear families are the norm in the vast majority of
cultures, why men and women tend to be very possessive of their partners
and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria
political authority passes from father to son,
In order to resolve this controversy and understand our sexuality, society
and politics, we need to learn something about the living conditions of our
ancestors, to examine how Sapiens lived between the Cognitive Revolution
of 70,000 years ago, and the start of the Agricultural Revolution about
12,000 years ago,
Unfortunately, there are few certainties regarding the lives of our forager
ancestors, The debate between the ‘ancient commune’ and ‘eternal
monogamy schools is based on imsy evidence, We obviously have no
written records from the age of foragers, and the archaeological evidence
consists mainly of fossilised bones and stone tools, Artefacts made of more
perishable materials – such as wood, bamboo or leather – survive only
under unique conditions, The common impression that pre-agricultural
humans lived in an age of stone is a misconception based on this
archaeological bias, The Stone Age should more accurately be called the
Wood Age, because most of the tools used by ancient hunter-gatherers were
made of wood,
Any reconstruction of the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers from the
surviving artefacts is extremely problematic, One of the most glaring
di erences between the ancient foragers and their agricultural and
industrial descendants is that foragers had very few artefacts to begin with,
and these played a comparatively modest role in their lives, Over the course
of his or her life, a typical member of a modern a uent society will own
several million artefacts – from cars and houses to disposable nappies and
milk cartons, There’s hardly an activity, a belief, or even an emotion that is
not mediated by objects of our own devising, Our eating habits are
mediated by a mind-boggling collection of such items, from spoons and
glasses to genetic engineering labs and gigantic ocean-going ships, In play,
we use a plethora of toys, from plastic cards to 100,000-seater stadiums,
Our romantic and sexual relations are accoutred by rings, beds, nice clothes,
sexy underwear, condoms, fashionable restaurants, cheap motels, airport
lounges, wedding halls and catering companies, Religions bring the sacred
into our lives with Gothic churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu ashrams, Torah
scrolls, Tibetan prayer wheels, priestly cassocks, candles, incense, Christmas
trees, matzah balls, tombstones and icons,
We hardly notice how ubiquitous our stu is until we have to move it to a
new house, Foragers moved house every month, every week, and sometimes
even every day, toting whatever they had on their backs, There were no
moving companies, wagons, or even pack animals to share the burden,
They consequently had to make do with only the most essential possessions,
It’s reasonable to presume, then, that the greater part of their mental,
religious and emotional lives was conducted without the help of artefacts,
An archaeologist working 100,000 years from now could piece together a
reasonable picture of Muslim belief and practice from the myriad objects he
unearthed in a ruined mosque, But we are largely at a loss in trying to
comprehend the beliefs and rituals of ancient hunter-gatherers, It’s much
the same dilemma that a future historian would face if he had to depict the
social world of twenty- rst-century teenagers solely on the basis of their
surviving snail mail – since no records will remain of their phone
conversations, emails, blogs and text messages,
A reliance on artefacts will thus bias an account of ancient hunter-
gatherer life, One way to remedy this is to look at modern forager societies,
These can be studied directly, by anthropological observation, But there are
good reasons to be very careful in extrapolating from modern forager
societies to ancient ones,
Firstly, all forager societies that have survived into the modern era have
been in uenced by neighbouring agricultural and industrial societies,
Consequently, it’s risky to assume that what is true of them was also true
tens of thousands of years ago,
Secondly, modern forager societies have survived mainly in areas with
di cult climatic conditions and inhospitable terrain, ill-suited for
agriculture, Societies that have adapted to the extreme conditions of places
such as the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa may well provide a very
misleading model for understanding ancient societies in fertile areas such as
the Yangtze River Valley, In particular, population density in an area like
the Kalahari Desert is far lower than it was around the ancient Yangtze,
and this has far-reaching implications for key questions about the size and
structure of human bands and the relations between them,
Thirdly, the most notable characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies is
how di erent they are one from the other, They di er not only from one
part of the world to another but even in the same region, One good
example is the huge variety the rst European settlers found among the
Aborigine peoples of Australia, Just before the British conquest, between
300,000 and 700,000 hunter-gatherers lived on the continent in 200–600
tribes, each of which was further divided into several bands, Each tribe
had its own language, religion, norms and customs, Living around what is
now Adelaide in southern Australia were several patrilineal clans that
reckoned descent from the father’s side, These clans bonded together into
tribes on a strictly territorial basis, In contrast, some tribes in northern
Australia gave more importance to a person’s maternal ancestry, and a
person’s tribal identity depended on his or her totem rather than his
It stands to reason that the ethnic and cultural variety among ancient
hunter-gatherers was equally impressive, and that the 5 million to 8 million
foragers who populated the world on the eve of the Agricultural Revolution
were divided into thousands of separate tribes with thousands of di erent
languages and cultures, This, after all, was one of the main legacies of the
Cognitive Revolution, Thanks to the appearance of ction, even people
with the same genetic make-up who lived under similar ecological
conditions were able to create very di erent imagined realities, which
manifested themselves in different norms and values,
For example, there’s every reason to believe that a forager band that
lived 30,000 years ago on the spot where Oxford University now stands
would have spoken a di erent language from one living where Cambridge
is now situated, One band might have been belligerent and the other
peaceful, Perhaps the Cambridge band was communal while the one at
Oxford was based on nuclear families, The Cantabrigians might have spent
long hours carving wooden statues of their guardian spirits, whereas the
Oxonians may have worshipped through dance, The former perhaps
believed in reincarnation, while the latter thought this was nonsense, In
one society, homosexual relationships might have been accepted, while in
the other they were taboo,
In other words, while anthropological observations of modern foragers
can help us understand some of the possibilities available to ancient
foragers, the ancient horizon of possibilities was much broader, and most of

it is hidden from our view, The heated debates about Homo sapiens’
‘natural way of life’ miss the main point, Ever since the Cognitive
Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens, There
are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities,
The Original Affluent Society
What generalisations can we make about life in the pre-agricultural world
nevertheless? It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people lived in
small bands numbering several dozen or at most several hundred
individuals, and that all these individuals were humans, It is important to
note this last point, because it is far from obvious, Most members of
agricultural and industrial societies are domesticated animals, They are not
equal to their masters, of course, but they are members all the same, Today,
the society called New Zealand is composed of 4,5 million Sapiens and 50
million sheep,
There was just one exception to this general rule: the dog, The dog was
the rst animal domesticated by Homo sapiens, and this occurred before the
Agricultural Revolution, Experts disagree about the exact date, but we have
incontrovertible evidence of domesticated dogs from about 15,000 years
ago, They may have joined the human pack thousands of years earlier,
Dogs were used for hunting and ghting, and as an alarm system against
wild beasts and human intruders, With the passing of generations, the two
species co-evolved to communicate well with each other, Dogs that were
most attentive to the needs and feelings of their human companions got
extra care and food, and were more likely to survive, Simultaneously, dogs
learned to manipulate people for their own needs, A 15,000-year bond has
yielded a much deeper understanding and a ection between humans and
dogs than between humans and any other animal, In some cases dead dogs
were even buried ceremoniously, much like humans,
Members of a band knew each other very intimately, and were surrounded
throughout their lives by friends and relatives, Loneliness and privacy were
rare, Neighbouring bands probably competed for resources and even fought
one another, but they also had friendly contacts, They exchanged members,
hunted together, traded rare luxuries, cemented political alliances and
celebrated religious festivals, Such cooperation was one of the important
trademarks of Homo sapiens, and gave it a crucial edge over other human
species, Sometimes relations with neighbouring bands were tight enough
that together they constituted a single tribe, sharing a common language,
common myths, and common norms and values,
Yet we should not overestimate the importance of such external relations,
Even if in times of crisis neighbouring bands drew closer together, and even
if they occasionally gathered to hunt or feast together, they still spent the
vast majority of their time in complete isolation and independence, Trade
was mostly limited to prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments,
There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or
that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from
another, Sociopolitical relations, too, tended to be sporadic, The tribe did
not serve as a permanent political framework, and even if it had seasonal
meeting places, there were no permanent towns or institutions, The
average person lived many months without seeing or hearing a human
from outside of her own band, and she encountered throughout her life no
more than a few hundred humans, The Sapiens population was thinly
spread over vast territories, Before the Agricultural Revolution, the human
population of the entire planet was smaller than that of today’s Cairo,
7, First pet? A 12,000-year-old tomb found in northern Israel, It contains the skeleton of a fifty-
year-old woman next to that of a puppy (bottom left corner), The puppy was buried close to the
woman’s head, Her left hand is resting on the dog in a way that might indicate an emotional
connection, There are, of course, other possible explanations, Perhaps, for example, the puppy
was a gift to the gatekeeper of the next world,
Most Sapiens bands lived on the road, roaming from place to place in
search of food, Their movements were in uenced by the changing seasons,
the annual migrations of animals and the growth cycles of plants, They
usually travelled back and forth across the same home territory, an area of
between several dozen and many hundreds of square kilometres,
Occasionally, bands wandered outside their turf and explored new lands,
whether due to natural calamities, violent con icts, demographic pressures
or the initiative of a charismatic leader, These wanderings were the engine
of human worldwide expansion, If a forager band split once every forty
years and its splinter group migrated to a new territory a hundred
kilometres to the east, the distance from East Africa to China would have
been covered in about 10,000 years,
In some exceptional cases, when food sources were particularly rich,
bands settled down in seasonal and even permanent camps, Techniques for
drying, smoking and freezing food also made it possible to stay put for
longer periods, Most importantly, alongside seas and rivers rich in seafood
and waterfowl, humans set up permanent shing villages – the rst
permanent settlements in history, long predating the Agricultural
Revolution, Fishing villages might have appeared on the coasts of
Indonesian islands as early as 45,000 years ago, These may have been the
base from which Homo sapiens launched its rst transoceanic enterprise: the
invasion of Australia,
In most habitats, Sapiens bands fed themselves in an elastic and
opportunistic fashion, They scrounged for termites, picked berries, dug for
roots, stalked rabbits and hunted bison and mammoth, Notwithstanding the
popular image of ‘man the hunter’, gathering was Sapiens’ main activity,
and it provided most of their calories, as well as raw materials such as int,
wood and bamboo,
Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials, They foraged for
knowledge as well, To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their
territory, To maximise the e ciency of their daily search for food, they
required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the
habits of each animal, They needed to know which foods were nourishing,
which made you sick, and how to use others as cures, They needed to know
the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a
thunderstorm or a dry spell, They studied every stream, every walnut tree,
every bear cave, and every int-stone deposit in their vicinity, Each
individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a
torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches,
snakebites or hungry lions, Mastery of each of these many skills required
years of apprenticeship and practice, The average ancient forager could
turn a int stone into a spear point within minutes, When we try to imitate
this feat, we usually fail miserably, Most of us lack expert knowledge of the
aking properties of int and basalt and the ne motor skills needed to
work them precisely,
In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied
knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern
descendants, Today, most people in industrial societies don’t need to know
much about the natural world in order to survive, What do you really need
to know in order to get by as a computer engineer, an insurance agent, a
history teacher or a factory worker? You need to know a lot about your
own tiny eld of expertise, but for the vast majority of life’s necessities you
rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also
limited to a tiny eld of expertise, The human collective knows far more
today than did the ancient bands, But at the individual level, ancient
foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history,
There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has
actually decreased since the age of foraging, Survival in that era required
superb mental abilities from everyone, When agriculture and industry came
along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and
new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up, You could survive and pass your
unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or
an assembly-line worker,
Foragers mastered not only the surrounding world of animals, plants and
objects, but also the internal world of their own bodies and senses, They
listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake
might be lurking there, They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order
to discover fruits, beehives and bird nests, They moved with a minimum of
e ort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and
e cient manner, Varied and constant use of their bodies made them as t
as marathon runners, They had physical dexterity that people today are
unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or t’ai chi,
The hunter-gatherer way of life di ered signi cantly from region to region
and from season to season, but on the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed
a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants,
shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps,
While people in today’s a uent societies work an average of forty to
forty- ve hours a week, and people in the developing world work sixty and
even eighty hours a week, hunter-gatherers living today in the most
inhospitable of habitats – such as the Kalahari Desert work on average for
just thirty- ve to forty- ve hours a week, They hunt only one day out of
three, and gathering takes up just three to six hours daily, In normal times,
this is enough to feed the band, It may well be that ancient hunter-
gatherers living in zones more fertile than the Kalahari spent even less time
obtaining food and raw materials, On top of that, foragers enjoyed a lighter
load of household chores, They had no dishes to wash, no carpets to
vacuum, no floors to polish, no nappies to change and no bills to pay,
The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives
than agriculture or industry do, Today, a Chinese factory hand leaves home
around seven in the morning, makes her way through polluted streets to a
sweatshop, and there operates the same machine, in the same way, day in,
day out, for ten long and mind-numbing hours, returning home around
seven in the evening in order to wash dishes and do the laundry, Thirty
thousand years ago, a Chinese forager might leave camp with her
companions at, say, eight in the morning, They’d roam the nearby forests
and meadows, gathering mushrooms, digging up edible roots, catching
frogs and occasionally running away from tigers, By early afternoon, they
were back at the camp to make lunch, That left them plenty of time to
gossip, tell stories, play with the children and just hang out, Of course the
tigers sometimes caught them, or a snake bit them, but on the other hand
they didn’t have to deal with automobile accidents and industrial pollution,
In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition, That
is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of
thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it, Evidence
from fossilised skeletons indicates that ancient foragers were less likely to
su er from starvation or malnutrition, and were generally taller and
healthier than their peasant descendants, Average life expectancy was
apparently just thirty to forty years, but this was due largely to the high
incidence of child mortality, Children who made it through the perilous rst
years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made
it to their eighties, Among modern foragers, forty- ve-year-old women can
expect to live another twenty years, and about 5–8 per cent of the
population is over sixty,
The foragers’ secret of success, which protected them from starvation and
malnutrition, was their varied diet, Farmers tend to eat a very limited and
unbalanced diet, Especially in premodern times, most of the calories feeding
an agricultural population came from a single crop – such as wheat,
potatoes or rice – that lacks some of the vitamins, minerals and other
nutritional materials humans need, The typical peasant in traditional China
ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner, If she were lucky,
she could expect to eat the same on the following day, By contrast, ancient
foragers regularly ate dozens of di erent foodstu s, The peasant’s ancient
ancestor, the forager, may have eaten berries and mushrooms for breakfast;
fruits, snails and turtle for lunch; and rabbit steak with wild onions for
dinner, Tomorrows menu might have been completely di erent, This
variety ensured that the ancient foragers received all the necessary
Furthermore, by not being dependent on any single kind of food, they
were less liable to su er when one particular food source failed,
Agricultural societies are ravaged by famine when drought, re or
earthquake devastates the annual rice or potato crop, Forager societies
were hardly immune to natural disasters, and su ered from periods of want
and hunger, but they were usually able to deal with such calamities more
easily, If they lost some of their staple foodstu s, they could gather or hunt
other species, or move to a less affected area,
Ancient foragers also su ered less from infectious diseases, Most of the
infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies
(such as smallpox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated
animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural
Revolution, Ancient foragers, who had domesticated only dogs, were free of
these scourges, Moreover, most people in agricultural and industrial
societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements – ideal hotbeds
for disease, Foragers roamed the land in small bands that could not sustain
The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the
rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to de ne pre-agricultural
forager societies as ‘the original a uent societies’, It would be a mistake,
however, to idealise the lives of these ancients, Though they lived better
lives than most people in agricultural and industrial societies, their world
could still be harsh and unforgiving, Periods of want and hardship were not
uncommon, child mortality was high, and an accident which would be
minor today could easily become a death sentence, Most people probably
enjoyed the close intimacy of the roaming band, but those unfortunates
who incurred the hostility or mockery of their fellow band members
probably su ered terribly, Modern foragers occasionally abandon and even
kill old or disabled people who cannot keep up with the band, Unwanted
babies and children may be slain, and there are even cases of religiously
inspired human sacrifice,
The Aché people, hunter-gatherers who lived in the jungles of Paraguay
until the 1960s, o er a glimpse into the darker side of foraging, When a
valued band member died, the Aché customarily killed a little girl and
buried the two together, Anthropologists who interviewed the Aché
recorded a case in which a band abandoned a middle-aged man who fell
sick and was unable to keep up with the others, He was left under a tree,
Vultures perched above him, expecting a hearty meal, But the man
recuperated, and, walking briskly, he managed to rejoin the band, His body
was covered with the birds’ faeces, so he was henceforth nicknamed
‘Vulture Droppings’,
When an old Aché woman became a burden to the rest of the band, one
of the younger men would sneak behind her and kill her with an axe-blow
to the head, An Aché man told the inquisitive anthropologists stories of his
prime years in the jungle, ‘I customarily killed old women, I used to kill my
aunts … The women were afraid of me … Now, here with the whites, I
have become weak,’ Babies born without hair, who were considered
underdeveloped, were killed immediately, One woman recalled that her
rst baby girl was killed because the men in the band did not want another
girl, On another occasion a man killed a small boy because he was ‘in a bad
mood and the child was crying’, Another child was buried alive because ‘it
was funny-looking and the other children laughed at it’,
We should be careful, though, not to judge the Aché too quickly,
Anthropologists who lived with them for years report that violence between
adults was very rare, Both women and men were free to change partners at
will, They smiled and laughed constantly, had no leadership hierarchy, and
generally shunned domineering people, They were extremely generous with
their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth, The
things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-
quality friendships, They viewed the killing of children, sick people and
the elderly as many people today view abortion and euthanasia, It should
also be noted that the Aché were hunted and killed without mercy by
Paraguayan farmers, The need to evade their enemies probably caused the
Aché to adopt an exceptionally harsh attitude towards anyone who might
become a liability to the band,
The truth is that Aché society, like every human society, was very
complex, We should beware of demonising or idealising it on the basis of a
super cial acquaintance, The Aché were neither angels nor ends – they
were humans, So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers,
Talking Ghosts
What can we say about the spiritual and mental life of the ancient hunter-
gatherers? The basics of the forager economy can be reconstructed with
some con dence based on quanti able and objective factors, For example,
we can calculate how many calories per day a person needed in order to
survive, how many calories were obtained from a kilogram of walnuts, and
how many walnuts could be gathered from a square kilometre of forest,
With this data, we can make an educated guess about the relative
importance of walnuts in their diet,
But did they consider walnuts a delicacy or a humdrum staple? Did they
believe that walnut trees were inhabited by spirits? Did they nd walnut
leaves pretty? If a forager boy wanted to take a forager girl to a romantic
spot, did the shade of a walnut tree su ce? The world of thought, belief
and feeling is by definition far more difficult to decipher,
Most scholars agree that animistic beliefs were common among ancient
foragers, Animism (from ‘anima’, ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ in Latin) is the belief that
almost every place, every animal, every plant and every natural
phenomenon has awareness and feelings, and can communicate directly
with humans, Thus, animists may believe that the big rock at the top of the
hill has desires and needs, The rock might be angry about something that
people did and rejoice over some other action, The rock might admonish
people or ask for favours, Humans, for their part, can address the rock, to
mollify or threaten it, Not only the rock, but also the oak tree at the bottom
of the hill is an animated being, and so is the stream owing below the hill,
the spring in the forest clearing, the bushes growing around it, the path to
the clearing, and the eld mice, wolves and crows that drink there, In the
animist world, objects and living things are not the only animated beings,
There are also immaterial entities – the spirits of the dead, and friendly and
malevolent beings, the kind that we today call demons, fairies and angels,
Animists believe that there is no barrier between humans and other
beings, They can all communicate directly through speech, song, dance and
ceremony, A hunter may address a herd of deer and ask that one of them
sacri ce itself, If the hunt succeeds, the hunter may ask the dead animal to
forgive him, When someone falls sick, a shaman can contact the spirit that
caused the sickness and try to pacify it or scare it away, If need be, the
shaman may ask for help from other spirits, What characterises all these
acts of communication is that the entities being addressed are local beings,
They are not universal gods, but rather a particular deer, a particular tree,
a particular stream, a particular ghost,
Just as there is no barrier between humans and other beings, neither is
there a strict hierarchy, Non-human entities do not exist merely to provide
for the needs of man, Nor are they all-powerful gods who run the world as
they wish, The world does not revolve around humans or around any other
particular group of beings,
Animism is not a speci c religion, It is a generic name for thousands of
very di erent religions, cults and beliefs, What makes all of them ‘animist’
is this common approach to the world and to man’s place in it, Saying that
ancient foragers were probably animists is like saying that premodern
agriculturists were mostly theists, Theism (from ‘theos’, ‘god’ in Greek) is the
view that the universal order is based on a hierarchical relationship
between humans and a small group of ethereal entities called gods, It is
certainly true to say that premodern agriculturists tended to be theists, but
it does not teach us much about the particulars, The generic rubric ‘theists’
covers Jewish rabbis from eighteenth-century Poland, witch-burning
Puritans from seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Aztec priests from
fteenth-century Mexico, Su mystics from twelfth-century Iran, tenth-
century Viking warriors, second-century Roman legionnaires, and rst-
century Chinese bureaucrats, Each of these viewed the others’ beliefs and
practices as weird and heretical, The di erences between the beliefs and
practices of groups of ‘animistic’ foragers were probably just as big, Their
religious experience may have been turbulent and lled with controversies,
reforms and revolutions,
But these cautious generalisations are about as far as we can go, Any
attempt to describe the speci cs of archaic spirituality is highly speculative,
as there is next to no evidence to go by and the little evidence we have – a
handful of artefacts and cave paintings – can be interpreted in myriad
ways, The theories of scholars who claim to know what the foragers felt
shed much more light on the prejudices of their authors than on Stone Age
Instead of erecting mountains of theory over a molehill of tomb relics,
cave paintings and bone statuettes, it is better to be frank and admit that
we have only the haziest notions about the religions of ancient foragers,
We assume that they were animists, but that’s not very informative, We
don’t know which spirits they prayed to, which festivals they celebrated, or
which taboos they observed, Most importantly, we don’t know what stories
they told, It’s one of the biggest holes in our understanding of human
The sociopolitical world of the foragers is another area about which we
know next to nothing, As explained above, scholars cannot even agree on
the basics, such as the existence of private property, nuclear families and
monogamous relationships, It’s likely that di erent bands had di erent
structures, Some may have been as hierarchical, tense and violent as the
nastiest chimpanzee group, while others were as laid-back, peaceful and
lascivious as a bunch of bonobos,
8, A painting from Lascaux Cave, c,15,000–20,000 years ago, What exactly do we see, and what is
the painting’s meaning? Some argue that we see a man with the head of a bird and an erect penis,
being killed by a bison, Beneath the man is another bird which might symbolise the soul, released
from the body at the moment of death, If so, the picture depicts not a prosaic hunting accident,
but rather the passage from this world to the next, But we have no way of knowing whether any
of these speculations are true, It’s a Rorschach test that reveals much about the preconceptions
of modern scholars, and little about the beliefs of ancient foragers,
In Sungir, Russia, archaeologists discovered in 1955 a 30,000-year-old
burial site belonging to a mammoth-hunting culture, In one grave they
found the skeleton of a fty-year-old man, covered with strings of
mammoth ivory beads, containing about 3,000 beads in total, On the dead
man’s head was a hat decorated with fox teeth, and on his wrists twenty-
ve ivory bracelets, Other graves from the same site contained far fewer
goods, Scholars deduced that the Sungir mammoth-hunters lived in a
hierarchical society, and that the dead man was perhaps the leader of a
band or of an entire tribe comprising several bands, It is unlikely that a few
dozen members of a single band could have produced so many grave goods
by themselves,
9, Hunter-gatherers made these handprints about 9,000 years ago in the ‘Hands Cave’, in
Argentina, It looks as if these long-dead hands are reaching towards us from within the rock, This
is one of the most moving relics of the ancient forager world – but nobody knows what it means,
Archaeologists then discovered an even more interesting tomb, It
contained two skeletons, buried head to head, One belonged to a boy aged
about twelve or thirteen, and the other to a girl of about nine or ten, The
boy was covered with 5,000 ivory beads, He wore a fox-tooth hat and a belt
with 250 fox teeth (at least sixty foxes had to have their teeth pulled to get
that many), The girl was adorned with 5,250 ivory beads, Both children
were surrounded by statuettes and various ivory objects, A skilled craftsman
(or craftswoman) probably needed about forty- ve minutes to prepare a
single ivory bead, In other words, fashioning the 10,000 ivory beads that
covered the two children, not to mention the other objects, required some
7,500 hours of delicate work, well over three years of labour by an
experienced artisan!
It is highly unlikely that at such a young age the Sungir children had
proved themselves as leaders or mammoth-hunters, Only cultural beliefs
can explain why they received such an extravagant burial, One theory is
that they owed their rank to their parents, Perhaps they were the children
of the leader, in a culture that believed in either family charisma or strict
rules of succession, According to a second theory, the children had been
identi ed at birth as the incarnations of some long-dead spirits, A third
theory argues that the children’s burial re ects the way they died rather
than their status in life, They were ritually sacri ced – perhaps as part of
the burial rites of the leader – and then entombed with pomp and
Whatever the correct answer, the Sungir children are among the best
pieces of evidence that 30,000 years ago Sapiens could invent sociopolitical
codes that went far beyond the dictates of our DNA and the behaviour
patterns of other human and animal species,
Peace or War?
Finally, there’s the thorny question of the role of war in forager societies,
Some scholars imagine ancient hunter-gatherer societies as peaceful
paradises, and argue that war and violence began only with the
Agricultural Revolution, when people started to accumulate private
property, Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers
was exceptionally cruel and violent, Both schools of thought are castles in
the air, connected to the ground by the thin strings of meagre
archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present-day
The anthropological evidence is intriguing but very problematic, Foragers
today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas such as the Arctic or
the Kalahari, where population density is very low and opportunities to
ght other people are limited, Moreover, in recent generations, foragers
have been increasingly subject to the authority of modern states, which
prevent the eruption of large-scale con icts, European scholars have had
only two opportunities to observe large and relatively dense populations of
independent foragers: in north-western North America in the nineteenth
century, and in northern Australia during the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, Both Amerindian and Aboriginal Australian cultures
witnessed frequent armed con icts, It is debatable, however, whether this
represents a ‘timeless’ condition or the impact of European imperialism,
The archaeological ndings are both scarce and opaque, What telltale
clues might remain of any war that took place tens of thousands of years
ago? There were no forti cations and walls back then, no artillery shells or
even swords and shields, An ancient spear point might have been used in
war, but it could have been used in a hunt as well, Fossilised human bones
are no less hard to interpret, A fracture might indicate a war wound or an
accident, Nor is the absence of fractures and cuts on an ancient skeleton
conclusive proof that the person to whom the skeleton belonged did not die
a violent death, Death can be caused by trauma to soft tissues that leaves
no marks on bone, Even more importantly, during pre-industrial warfare
more than 90 per cent of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and
disease rather than by weapons, Imagine that 30,000 years ago one tribe
defeated its neighbour and expelled it from coveted foraging grounds, In
the decisive battle, ten members of the defeated tribe were killed, In the
following year, another hundred members of the losing tribe died from
starvation, cold and disease, Archaeologists who come across these no
skeletons may too easily conclude that most fell victim to some natural
disaster, How would we be able to tell that they were all victims of a
merciless war?
Duly warned, we can now turn to the archaeological ndings, In
Portugal, a survey was made of 400 skeletons from the period immediately
predating the Agricultural Revolution, Only two skeletons showed clear
marks of violence, A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the same period
in Israel discovered a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed
to human violence, A third survey of 400 skeletons from various pre-
agricultural sites in the Danube Valley found evidence of violence on
eighteen skeletons, Eighteen out of 400 may not sound like a lot, but it’s
actually a very high percentage, If all eighteen indeed died violently, it
means that about 4,5 per cent of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were
caused by human violence, Today, the global average is only 1,5 per cent,
taking war and crime together, During the twentieth century, only 5 per
cent of human deaths resulted from human violence – and this in a century
that saw the bloodiest wars and most massive genocides in history, If this
revelation is typical, the ancient Danube Valley was as violent as the

twentieth century,
The depressing ndings from the Danube Valley are supported by a string
of equally depressing ndings from other areas, At Jabl Sahaba in Sudan, a
12,000-year-old cemetery containing fty-nine skeletons was discovered,
Arrowheads and spear points were found embedded in or lying near the
bones of twenty-four skeletons, 40 per cent of the nd, The skeleton of one
woman revealed twelve injuries, In Ofnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists
discovered the remains of thirty-eight foragers, mainly women and
children, who had been thrown into two burial pits, Half the skeletons,
including those of children and babies, bore clear signs of damage by
human weapons such as clubs and knives, The few skeletons belonging to
mature males bore the worst marks of violence, In all probability, an entire
forager band was massacred at Ofnet,
Which better represents the world of the ancient foragers: the peaceful
skeletons from Israel and Portugal, or the abattoirs of Jabl Sahaba and
Ofnet? The answer is neither, Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of
religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a
variety of violence rates, While some areas and some periods of time may
have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious
The Curtain of Silence
If the larger picture of ancient forager life is hard to reconstruct, particular
events are largely irretrievable, When a Sapiens band rst entered a valley
inhabited by Neanderthals, the following years might have witnessed a
breathtaking historical drama, Unfortunately, nothing would have survived
from such an encounter except, at best, a few fossilised bones and a handful
of stone tools that remain mute under the most intense scholarly
inquisitions, We may extract from them information about human anatomy,
human technology, human diet, and perhaps even human social structure,
But they reveal nothing about the political alliance forged between
neighbouring Sapiens bands, about the spirits of the dead that blessed this
alliance, or about the ivory beads secretly given to the local witch doctor in
order to secure the blessing of the spirits,
This curtain of silence shrouds tens of thousands of years of history,
These long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions,
ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories,
incomparable artistic masterpieces, The foragers may have had their all-
conquering Napoleons, who ruled empires half the size of Luxembourg;
gifted Beethovens who lacked symphony orchestras but brought people to
tears with the sound of their bamboo utes; and charismatic prophets who
revealed the words of a local oak tree rather than those of a universal
creator god, But these are all mere guesses, The curtain of silence is so thick
that we cannot even be sure such things occurred – let alone describe them
in detail,
Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect
to answer, Without the discovery of as yet unavailable research tools, we
will probably never know what the ancient foragers believed or what
political dramas they experienced, Yet it is vital to ask questions for which
no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000
of 70,000 years of human history with the excuse that ‘the people who lived
back then did nothing of importance’,
The truth is that they did a lot of important things, In particular, they
shaped the world around us to a much larger degree than most people
realise, Trekkers visiting the Siberian tundra, the deserts of central Australia
and the Amazonian rainforest believe that they have entered pristine
landscapes, virtually untouched by human hands, But that’s an illusion, The
foragers were there before us and they brought about dramatic changes
even in the densest jungles and the most desolate wildernesses, The next
chapter explains how the foragers completely reshaped the ecology of our
planet long before the rst agricultural village was built, The wandering
bands of storytelling Sapiens were the most important and most destructive
force the animal kingdom had ever produced,

  • A ‘horizon of possibilities’ means the entire spectrum of beliefs, practices and experiences that are open
    before a particular society, given its ecological, technological and cultural limitations, Each society and
    each individual usually explore only a tiny fraction of their horizon of possibilities,
  • It might be argued that not all eighteen ancient Danubians actually died from the violence whose marks
    can be seen on their remains, Some were only injured, However, this is probably counterbalanced by
    deaths from trauma to soft tissues and from the invisible deprivations that accompany war,


The Flood
PRIOR TO THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION, humans of all species lived
exclusively on the Afro-Asian landmass, True, they had settled a few islands
by swimming short stretches of water or crossing them on improvised rafts,
Flores, for example, was colonised as far back as 850,000 years ago, Yet
they were unable to venture into the open sea, and none reached America,
Australia, or remote islands such as Madagascar, New Zealand and Hawaii,
The sea barrier prevented not just humans but also many other Afro-
Asian animals and plants from reaching this ‘Outer World’, As a result, the
organisms of distant lands like Australia and Madagascar evolved in
isolation for millions upon millions of years, taking on shapes and natures
very di erent from those of their distant Afro-Asian relatives, Planet Earth
was separated into several distinct ecosystems, each made up of a unique
assembly of animals and plants, Homo sapiens was about to put an end to
this biological exuberance,
Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired the technology, the
organisational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of
Afro-Asia and settle the Outer World, Their rst achievement was the
colonisation of Australia some 45,000 years ago, Experts are hard-pressed
to explain this feat, In order to reach Australia, humans had to cross a
number of sea channels, some more than a hundred kilometres wide, and
upon arrival they had to adapt nearly overnight to a completely new
The most reasonable theory suggests that, about 45,000 years ago, the
Sapiens living in the Indonesian archipelago (a group of islands separated
from Asia and from each other by only narrow straits) developed the rst
seafaring societies, They learned how to build and manoeuvre ocean-going
vessels and became long-distance shermen, traders and explorers, This
would have brought about an unprecedented transformation in human
capabilities and lifestyles, Every other mammal that went to sea – seals, sea
cows, dolphins – had to evolve for aeons to develop specialised organs and
a hydrodynamic body, The Sapiens in Indonesia, descendants of apes who
lived on the African savannah, became Paci c seafarers without growing
ippers and without having to wait for their noses to migrate to the top of
their heads as whales did, Instead, they built boats and learned how to steer
them, And these skills enabled them to reach and settle Australia,
True, archaeologists have yet to unearth rafts, oars or shing villages
that date back as far as 45,000 years ago (they would be di cult to
discover, because rising sea levels have buried the ancient Indonesian
shoreline under a hundred metres of ocean), Nevertheless, there is strong
circumstantial evidence to support this theory, especially the fact that in
the thousands of years following the settlement of Australia, Sapiens
colonised a large number of small and isolated islands to its north, Some,
such as Buka and Manus, were separated from the closest land by 200
kilometres of open water, It’s hard to believe that anyone could have
reached and colonised Manus without sophisticated vessels and sailing
skills, As mentioned earlier, there is also rm evidence for regular sea trade
between some of these islands, such as New Ireland and New Britain,
The journey of the rst humans to Australia is one of the most important
events in history, at least as important as Columbus’ journey to America or
the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon, It was the rst time any human had
managed to leave the Afro-Asian ecological system – indeed, the rst time
any large terrestrial mammal had managed to cross from Afro-Asia to
Australia, Of even greater importance was what the human pioneers did in
this new world, The moment the rst hunter-gatherer set foot on an
Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top
rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the
deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth,
Up until then humans had displayed some innovative adaptations and
behaviours, but their e ect on their environment had been negligible, They
had demonstrated remarkable success in moving into and adjusting to
various habitats, but they did so without drastically changing those
habitats, The settlers of Australia, or more accurately, its conquerors, didn’t
just adapt, they transformed the Australian ecosystem beyond recognition,
The rst human footprint on a sandy Australian beach was immediately
washed away by the waves, Yet when the invaders advanced inland, they
left behind a di erent footprint, one that would never be expunged, As they
pushed on, they encountered a strange universe of unknown creatures that
included a 200-kilogram, two-metre kangaroo, and a marsupial lion, as
massive as a modern tiger, that was the continent’s largest predator, Koalas
far too big to be cuddly and cute rustled in the trees and ightless birds
twice the size of ostriches sprinted on the plains, Dragon-like lizards and
snakes ve metres long slithered through the undergrowth, The giant
diprotodon, a two-and-a-half-ton wombat, roamed the forests, Except for
the birds and reptiles, all these animals were marsupials – like kangaroos,
they gave birth to tiny, helpless, fetus-like young which they then nurtured
with milk in abdominal pouches, Marsupial mammals were almost
unknown in Africa and Asia, but in Australia they reigned supreme,
Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished, Of
the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing fty kilograms or more,
twenty-three became extinct, A large number of smaller species also
disappeared, Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were
broken and rearranged, It was the most important transformation of the
Australian ecosystem for millions of years, Was it all the fault of Homo
Guilty as Charged
Some scholars try to exonerate our species, placing the blame on the
vagaries of the climate (the usual scapegoat in such cases), Yet it is hard to
believe that Homo sapiens was completely innocent, There are three pieces
of evidence that weaken the climate alibi, and implicate our ancestors in
the extinction of the Australian megafauna,
Firstly, even though Australia’s climate changed some 45,000 years ago,
it wasn’t a very remarkable upheaval, It’s hard to see how the new weather
patterns alone could have caused such a massive extinction, It’s common
today to explain anything and everything as the result of climate change,
but the truth is that earth’s climate never rests, It is in constant ux, Every
event in history occurred against the background of some climate change,
In particular, our planet has experienced numerous cycles of cooling and
warming, During the last million years, there has been an ice age on
average every 100,000 years, The last one ran from about 75,000 to 15,000
years ago, Not unusually severe for an ice age, it had twin peaks, the rst
about 70,000 years ago and the second at about 20,000 years ago, The
giant diprotodon appeared in Australia more than 1,5 million years ago and
successfully weathered at least ten previous ice ages, It also survived the
rst peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago, Why, then, did it
disappear 45,000 years ago? Of course, if diprotodons had been the only
large animal to disappear at this time, it might have been just a uke, But
more than 90 per cent of Australia’s megafauna disappeared along with the
diprotodon, The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s hard to imagine that
Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that
all these animals were dropping dead of the chills,
Secondly, when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are
usually hit as hard as land dwellers, Yet there is no evidence of any
signi cant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago, Human
involvement can easily explain why the wave of extinction obliterated the
terrestrial megafauna of Australia while sparing that of the nearby oceans,
Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still
overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace,
Thirdly, mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation
occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia – whenever people
settled another part of the Outer World, In these cases Sapiens guilt is
irrefutable, For example, the megafauna of New Zealand – which had
weathered the alleged ‘climate change’ of c,45,000 years ago without a
scratch – su ered devastating blows immediately after the rst humans set
foot on the islands, The Maoris, New Zealand’s rst Sapiens colonisers,
reached the islands about 800 years ago, Within a couple of centuries, the
majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all
bird species,
A similar fate befell the mammoth population of Wrangel Island in the
Arctic Ocean (200 kilometres north of the Siberian coast), Mammoths had
ourished for millions of years over most of the northern hemisphere, but
as Homo sapiens spread – rst over Eurasia and then over North America –
the mammoths retreated, By 10,000 years ago there was not a single
mammoth to be found in the world, except on a few remote Arctic islands,
most conspicuously Wrangel, The mammoths of Wrangel continued to
prosper for a few more millennia, then suddenly disappeared about 4,000
years ago, just when the first humans reached the island,
Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans
the bene t of the doubt, But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look
like an ecological serial killer,
All the settlers of Australia had at their disposal was Stone Age technology,
How could they cause an ecological disaster? There are three explanations
that mesh quite nicely,
Large animals – the primary victims of the Australian extinction – breed
slowly, Pregnancy is long, o spring per pregnancy are few, and there are
long breaks between pregnancies, Consequently, if humans cut down even
one diprotodon every few months, it would be enough to cause diprotodon
deaths to outnumber births, Within a few thousand years the last, lonesome
diprotodon would pass away, and with her the entire species,
In fact, for all their size, diprotodons and Australia’s other giants
probably wouldn’t have been that hard to hunt because they would have
been taken totally by surprise by their two-legged assailants, Various
human species had been prowling and evolving in Afro-Asia for 2 million
years, They slowly honed their hunting skills, and began going after large
animals around 400,000 years ago, The big beasts of Africa and Asia
learned to avoid humans, so when the new mega-predator – Homo sapiens –
appeared on the Afro-Asian scene, the large animals already knew to keep
their distance from creatures that looked like it, In contrast, the Australian
giants had no time to learn to run away, Humans don’t come across as
particularly dangerous, They don’t have long, sharp teeth or muscular, lithe
bodies, So when a diprotodon, the largest marsupial ever to walk the earth,
set eyes for the rst time on this frail-looking ape, he gave it one glance
and then went back to chewing leaves, These animals had to evolve a fear
of humankind, but before they could do so they were gone,
The second explanation is that by the time Sapiens reached Australia,
they had already mastered re agriculture, Faced with an alien and
threatening environment, they deliberately burned vast areas of impassable
thickets and dense forests to create open grasslands, which attracted more
easily hunted game, and were better suited to their needs, They thereby
completely changed the ecology of large parts of Australia within a few
short millennia,
One body of evidence supporting this view is the fossil plant record,
Eucalyptus trees were rare in Australia 45,000 years ago, But the arrival of
Homo sapiens inaugurated a golden age for the species, Since eucalyptuses
are particularly resistant to re, they spread far and wide while other trees
and shrubs disappeared,
These changes in vegetation in uenced the animals that ate the plants
and the carnivores that ate the vegetarians, Koalas, which subsist
exclusively on eucalyptus leaves, happily munched their way into new
territories, Most other animals su ered greatly, Many Australian food
chains collapsed, driving the weakest links into extinction,
A third explanation agrees that hunting and re agriculture played a
signi cant role in the extinction, but emphasises that we can’t completely
ignore the role of climate, The climate changes that beset Australia about
45,000 years ago destabilised the ecosystem and made it particularly
vulnerable, Under normal circumstances the system would probably have
recuperated, as had happened many times previously, However, humans
appeared on the stage at just this critical juncture and pushed the brittle
ecosystem into the abyss, The combination of climate change and human
hunting is particularly devastating for large animals, since it attacks them
from di erent angles, It is hard to nd a good survival strategy that will
work simultaneously against multiple threats,
Without further evidence, there’s no way of deciding between the three
scenarios, But there are certainly good reasons to believe that if Homo
sapiens had never gone Down Under, it would still be home to marsupial
lions, diprotodons and giant kangaroos,
The End of Sloth
The extinction of the Australian megafauna was probably the rst
signi cant mark Homo sapiens left on our planet, It was followed by an
even larger ecological disaster, this time in America, Homo sapiens was the
rst and only human species to reach the western hemisphere landmass,
arriving about 16,000 years ago, that is in or around 14,000 BC, The rst
Americans arrived on foot, which they could do because, at the time, sea
levels were low enough that a land bridge connected north-eastern Siberia
with north-western Alaska, Not that it was easy – the journey was an
arduous one, perhaps harder than the sea passage to Australia, To make the
crossing, Sapiens rst had to learn how to withstand the extreme Arctic
conditions of northern Siberia, an area on which the sun never shines in
winter, and where temperatures can drop to minus fifty degrees Celsius,
No previous human species had managed to penetrate places like
northern Siberia, Even the cold-adapted Neanderthals restricted themselves
to relatively warmer regions further south, But Homo sapiens, whose body
was adapted to living in the African savannah rather than in the lands of
snow and ice, devised ingenious solutions, When roaming bands of Sapiens
foragers migrated into colder climates, they learned to make snowshoes and
e ective thermal clothing composed of layers of furs and skins, sewn
together tightly with the help of needles, They developed new weapons and
sophisticated hunting techniques that enabled them to track and kill
mammoths and the other big game of the far north, As their thermal
clothing and hunting techniques improved, Sapiens dared to venture deeper
and deeper into the frozen regions, And as they moved north, their clothes,
hunting strategies and other survival skills continued to improve,
But why did they bother? Why banish oneself to Siberia by choice?
Perhaps some bands were driven north by wars, demographic pressures or
natural disasters, Others might have been lured northwards by more
positive reasons, such as animal protein, The Arctic lands were full of large,
juicy animals such as reindeer and mammoths, Every mammoth was a
source of a vast quantity of meat (which, given the frosty temperatures,
could even be frozen for later use), tasty fat, warm fur and valuable ivory,
As the ndings from Sungir testify, mammoth-hunters did not just survive in
the frozen north – they thrived, As time passed, the bands spread far and
wide, pursuing mammoths, mastodons, rhinoceroses and reindeer, Around
14,000 BC, the chase took some of them from north-eastern Siberia to
Alaska, Of course, they didn’t know they were discovering a new world, For
mammoth and man alike, Alaska was a mere extension of Siberia,
At rst, glaciers blocked the way from Alaska to the rest of America,
allowing no more than perhaps a few isolated pioneers to investigate the
lands further south, However, around 12,000 BC global warming melted the
ice and opened an easier passage, Making use of the new corridor, people
moved south en masse, spreading over the entire continent, Though
originally adapted to hunting large game in the Arctic, they soon adjusted
to an amazing variety of climates and ecosystems, Descendants of the
Siberians settled the thick forests of the eastern United States, the swamps
of the Mississippi Delta, the deserts of Mexico and steaming jungles of
Central America, Some made their homes in the river world of the Amazon
basin, others struck roots in Andean mountain valleys or the open pampas
of Argentina, And all this happened in a mere millennium or two! By
10,000 BC, humans already inhabited the most southern point in America,
the island of Tierra del Fuego at the continent’s southern tip, The human
blitzkrieg across America testi es to the incomparable ingenuity and the
unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens, No other animal had ever moved
into such a huge variety of radically di erent habitats so quickly,
everywhere using virtually the same genes,
The settling of America was hardly bloodless, It left behind a long trail of
victims, American fauna 14,000 years ago was far richer than it is today,
When the rst Americans marched south from Alaska into the plains of
Canada and the western United States, they encountered mammoths and
mastodons, rodents the size of bears, herds of horses and camels, oversized
lions and dozens of large species the likes of which are completely
unknown today, among them fearsome sabre-tooth cats and giant ground
sloths that weighed up to eight tons and reached a height of six metres,
South America hosted an even more exotic menagerie of large mammals,
reptiles and birds, The Americas were a great laboratory of evolutionary
experimentation, a place where animals and plants unknown in Africa and
Asia had evolved and thrived,
But no longer, Within 2,000 years of the Sapiens arrival, most of these
unique species were gone, According to current estimates, within that short
interval, North America lost thirty-four out of its forty-seven genera of large
mammals, South America lost fty out of sixty, The sabre-tooth cats, after
ourishing for more than 30 million years, disappeared, and so did the
giant ground sloths, the oversized lions, native American horses, native
American camels, the giant rodents and the mammoths, Thousands of
species of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and even insects and parasites
also became extinct (when the mammoths died out, all species of mammoth
ticks followed them to oblivion),
For decades, palaeontologists and zooarchaeologists – people who search
for and study animal remains – have been combing the plains and
mountains of the Americas in search of the fossilised bones of ancient
camels and the petri ed faeces of giant ground sloths, When they nd what
they seek, the treasures are carefully packed up and sent to laboratories,
where every bone and every coprolite (the technical name for fossilised
turds) is meticulously studied and dated, Time and again, these analyses
yield the same results: the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel
bones date to the period when humans ooded America, that is, between
approximately 12,000 and 9000 BC, Only in one area have scientists
discovered younger dung balls: on several Caribbean islands, in particular
Cuba and Hispaniola, they found petri ed ground-sloth scat dating to about
5000 BC, This is exactly the time when the rst humans managed to cross
the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands,
Again, some scholars try to exonerate Homo sapiens and blame climate
change (which requires them to posit that, for some mysterious reason, the
climate in the Caribbean islands remained static for 7,000 years while the
rest of the western hemisphere warmed), But in America, the dung ball
cannot be dodged, We are the culprits, There is no way around that truth,
Even if climate change abetted us, the human contribution was decisive,
Noah’s Ark
If we combine the mass extinctions in Australia and America, and add the
smaller-scale extinctions that took place as Homo sapiens spread over Afro-
Asia – such as the extinction of all other human species – and the
extinctions that occurred when ancient foragers settled remote islands such
as Cuba, the inevitable conclusion is that the rst wave of Sapiens
colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to
befall the animal kingdom, Hardest hit were the large furry creatures, At
the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200
genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over fty kilograms, At the
time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained, Homo
sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s big beasts long before
humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools,
This ecological tragedy was restaged in miniature countless times after
the Agricultural Revolution, The archaeological record of island after island
tells the same sad story, The tragedy opens with a scene showing a rich and
varied population of large animals, without any trace of humans, In scene
two, Sapiens appear, evidenced by a human bone, a spear point, or
perhaps a potsherd, Scene three quickly follows, in which men and women
occupy centre stage and most large animals, along with many smaller ones,
are gone,
The large island of Madagascar, about 400 kilometres east of the African
mainland, o ers a famous example, Through millions of years of isolation,
a unique collection of animals evolved there, These included the elephant
bird, a ightless creature three metres tall and weighing almost half a ton –
the largest bird in the world – and the giant lemurs, the globe’s largest
primates, The elephant birds and the giant lemurs, along with most of the
other large animals of Madagascar, suddenly vanished about 1,500 years
ago – precisely when the first humans set foot on the island,
10, Reconstructions of two giant ground sloths (Megatherium) and behind them two giant
armadillos (Glyptodon), Now extinct, giant armadillos measured over three metres in length and
weighed up to two tons, whereas giant ground sloths reached heights of up to six metres, and
weighed up to eight tons,
In the Paci c Ocean, the main wave of extinction began in about 1500 BC,
when Polynesian farmers settled the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New
Caledonia, They killed o , directly or indirectly, hundreds of species of
birds, insects, snails and other local inhabitants, From there, the wave of
extinction moved gradually to the east, the south and the north, into the
heart of the Paci c Ocean, obliterating on its way the unique fauna of
Samoa and Tonga (1200 BC); the Marquis Islands (AD 1); Easter Island, the
Cook Islands and Hawaii (AD 500); and finally New Zealand (AD 1200),
Similar ecological disasters occurred on almost every one of the thousands
of islands that pepper the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean and
Mediterranean Sea, Archaeologists have discovered on even the tiniest
islands evidence of the existence of birds, insects and snails that lived there
for countless generations, only to vanish when the rst human farmers
arrived, None but a few extremely remote islands escaped man’s notice until
the modern age, and these islands kept their fauna intact, The Galapagos
Islands, to give one famous example, remained uninhabited by humans
until the nineteenth century, thus preserving their unique menagerie,
including their giant tortoises, which, like the ancient diprotodons, show no
fear of humans,
The First Wave Extinction, which accompanied the spread of the
foragers, was followed by the Second Wave Extinction, which accompanied
the spread of the farmers, and gives us an important perspective on the
Third Wave Extinction, which industrial activity is causing today, Don’t
believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with
nature, Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record
among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their
extinctions, We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species
in the annals of biology,
Perhaps if more people were aware of the First Wave and Second Wave
extinctions, they’d be less nonchalant about the Third Wave they are part
of, If we knew how many species we’ve already eradicated, we might be
more motivated to protect those that still survive, This is especially relevant
to the large animals of the oceans, Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, the
large sea animals su ered relatively little from the Cognitive and
Agricultural Revolutions, But many of them are on the brink of extinction
now as a result of industrial pollution and human overuse of oceanic
resources, If things continue at the present pace, it is likely that whales,
sharks, tuna and dolphins will follow the diprotodons, ground sloths and
mammoths to oblivion, Among all the world’s large creatures, the only
survivors of the human ood will be humans themselves, and the farmyard
animals that serve as galley slaves in Noah’s Ark,
Part Two
The Agricultural Revolution
11, A wall painting from an Egyptian grave, dated to about 3,500 years ago, depicting typical
agricultural scenes,
History’s Biggest Fraud
FOR 2,5 MILLION YEARS HUMANS FED themselves by gathering plants and
hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention, Homo
erectus, Homo ergaster and the Neanderthals plucked wild gs and hunted
wild sheep without deciding where g trees would take root, in which
meadow a herd of sheep should graze, or which billy goat would inseminate
which nanny goat, Homo sapiens spread from East Africa to the Middle East,
to Europe and Asia, and nally to Australia and America – but everywhere
they went, Sapiens too continued to live by gathering wild plants and
hunting wild animals, Why do anything else when your lifestyle feeds you
amply and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and
political dynamics?
All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote
almost all their time and e ort to manipulating the lives of a few animal
and plant species, From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered
plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures,
This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and
meat, It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural
The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill
country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant, It began
slowly and in a restricted geographical area, Wheat and goats were
domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC;
olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC, Some
animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated
even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over, Even
today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the
calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our
ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize
(called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley, No noteworthy plant
or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years, If our minds are
those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers,
Scholars once believed that agriculture spread from a single Middle
Eastern point of origin to the four corners of the world, Today, scholars
agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the
action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely
independently, People in Central America domesticated maize and beans
without knowing anything about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle
East, South Americans learned how to raise potatoes and llamas, unaware
of what was going on in either Mexico or the Levant, Chinas rst
revolutionaries domesticated rice, millet and pigs, North America’s rst
gardeners were those who got tired of combing the undergrowth for edible
gourds and decided to cultivate pumpkins, New Guineans tamed sugar cane
and bananas, while the rst West African farmers made African millet,
African rice, sorghum and wheat conform to their needs, From these initial
focal points, agriculture spread far and wide, By the rst century AD the vast
majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists,
Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and
Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is
simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated, Sapiens
could dig up delicious tru es and hunt down woolly mammoths, but
domesticating either species was out of the question, The fungi were far too
elusive, the giant beasts too ferocious, Of the thousands of species that our
ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for
farming and herding, Those few species lived in particular places, and those
are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred,
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap
forward for humanity, They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain
power, Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people,
Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s
secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat, As soon as this
happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often
spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant,
satiated life of farmers,
Map 2, Locations and dates of agricultural revolutions, The data is contentious, and the map is
constantly being redrawn to incorporate the latest archaeological discoveries,
That tale is a fantasy, There is no evidence that people became more
intelligent with time, Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the
Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate
knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered, Rather
than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left
farmers with lives generally more di cult and less satisfying than those of
foragers, Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied
ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease, The Agricultural
Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of
humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more
leisure, Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered
elites, The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got
a worse diet in return, The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest
Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants, The
culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes,
These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa,
Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint
of wheat, Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of
many, con ned to a small range in the Middle East, Suddenly, within just a
few short millennia, it was growing all over the world, According to the
basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become
one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth, In areas such
as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew
10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of
kilometres without encountering any other plant, Worldwide, wheat covers
about 2,25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times
the size of Britain, How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?
Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage, This ape
had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about
10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more e ort in
cultivating wheat, Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of
the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of
wheat plants, It wasn’t easy, Wheat demanded a lot of them, Wheat didn’t
like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing elds, Wheat
didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men
and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun, Wheat
got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight, Wheat
was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to
locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it, Wheat was
thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it, Its
hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the
ground in which wheat grew,
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks, It was adapted
to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and
carrying water buckets, Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the
price, Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture
brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and
hernias, Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that
people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat elds, This
completely changed their way of life, We did not domesticate wheat, It
domesticated us, The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which
means ‘house’, Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat, It’s the
How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for
a more miserable existence? What did it o er in return? It did not o er a
better diet, Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide
variety of foods, Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet
before the Agricultural Revolution, A diet based on cereals is poor in
minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and
Wheat did not give people economic security, The life of a peasant is less
secure than that of a hunter-gatherer, Foragers relied on dozens of species
to survive, and could therefore weather di cult years even without stocks
of preserved food, If the availability of one species was reduced, they could
gather and hunt more of other species, Farming societies have, until very
recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety
of domesticated plants, In many areas, they relied on just a single staple,
such as wheat, potatoes or rice, If the rains failed or clouds of locusts
arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants
died by the thousands and millions,
Nor could wheat o er security against human violence, The early farmers
were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so, Farmers
had more possessions and needed land for planting, The loss of pasture
land to raiding neighbours could mean the di erence between subsistence
and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise, When a
foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move
on, It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible, When a strong enemy
threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up elds, houses
and granaries, In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation,
Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end,
12, Tribal warfare in New Guinea between two farming communities (1960), Such scenes were
probably widespread in the thousands of years following the Agricultural Revolution,
Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple
agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe,
human violence was responsible for about 15 per cent of deaths, including
25 per cent of male deaths, In contemporary New Guinea, violence accounts
for 30 per cent of male deaths in one agricultural tribal society, the Dani,
and 35 per cent in another, the Enga, In Ecuador, perhaps 50 per cent of
adult Waoranis meet a violent death at the hands of another human! In
time, human violence was brought under control through the development
of larger social frameworks – cities, kingdoms and states, But it took
thousands of years to build such huge and effective political structures,
Village life certainly brought the rst farmers some immediate bene ts,
such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold, Yet for the
average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages,
This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate, Since
we enjoy a uence and security, and since our a uence and security are
built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the
Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement, Yet it is wrong to
judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today, A much
more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from
malnutrition in rst-century China because her father’s crops have failed,
Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people
will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my
suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?
What then did wheat o er agriculturists, including that malnourished
Chinese girl? It o ered nothing for people as individuals, Yet it did bestow
something on Homo sapiens as a species, Cultivating wheat provided much
more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to
multiply exponentially, Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by
gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis
of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a
hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people, Around 8500 BC,
when wild plants gave way to wheat elds, the oasis supported a large but
cramped village of 1,000 people, who su ered far more from disease and
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of
DNA helixes, Just as the economic success of a company is measured only
by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its
employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the
number of copies of its DNA, If no more DNA copies remain, the species is
extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt, If a species boasts
many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species ourishes, From such a
perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies, This is
the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people
alive under worse conditions,
Yet why should individuals care about this evolutionary calculus? Why
would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply
the number of copies of the Homo sapiens genome? Nobody agreed to this
deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap,
The Luxury Trap
The rise of farming was a very gradual a air spread over centuries and
millennia, A band of Homo sapiens gathering mushrooms and nuts and
hunting deer and rabbit did not all of a sudden settle in a permanent
village, ploughing elds, sowing wheat and carrying water from the river,
The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small
alteration in daily life,
Homo sapiens reached the Middle East around 70,000 years ago, For the
next 50,000 years our ancestors ourished there without agriculture, The
natural resources of the area were enough to support its human population,
In times of plenty people had a few more children, and in times of need a
few less, Humans, like many mammals, have hormonal and genetic
mechanisms that help control procreation, In good times females reach
puberty earlier, and their chances of getting pregnant are a bit higher, In
bad times puberty is late and fertility decreases,
To these natural population controls were added cultural mechanisms,
Babies and small children, who move slowly and demand much attention,
were a burden on nomadic foragers, People tried to space their children
three to four years apart, Women did so by nursing their children around
the clock and until a late age (around-the-clock suckling signi cantly
decreases the chances of getting pregnant), Other methods included full or
partial sexual abstinence (backed perhaps by cultural taboos), abortions
and occasionally infanticide,
During these long millennia people occasionally ate wheat grain, but this
was a marginal part of their diet, About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age
gave way to a period of global warming, As temperatures rose, so did
rainfall, The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other
cereals, which multiplied and spread, People began eating more wheat, and
in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth, Since it was impossible to
eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding and cooking them, people
who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites
for processing, Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them
inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost, Over time, more
and more wheat grew along favourite human trails and near campsites,
When humans burned down forests and thickets, this also helped wheat,
Fire cleared away trees and shrubs, allowing wheat and other grasses to
monopolise the sunlight, water and nutrients, Where wheat became
particularly abundant, and game and other food sources were also plentiful,
human bands could gradually give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle
down in seasonal and even permanent camps,
At rst they might have camped for four weeks during the harvest, A
generation later, as wheat plants multiplied and spread, the harvest camp
might have lasted for ve weeks, then six, and nally it became a
permanent village, Evidence of such settlements has been discovered
throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Levant, where the Natu an
culture ourished from 12,500 BC to 9500 BC, The Natu ans were hunter-
gatherers who subsisted on dozens of wild species, but they lived in
permanent villages and devoted much of their time to the intensive
gathering and processing of wild cereals, They built stone houses and
granaries, They stored grain for times of need, They invented new tools
such as stone scythes for harvesting wild wheat, and stone pestles and
mortars to grind it,
In the years following 9500 BC, the descendants of the Natu ans
continued to gather and process cereals, but they also began to cultivate
them in more and more elaborate ways, When gathering wild grains, they
took care to lay aside part of the harvest to sow the fields next season, They
discovered that they could achieve much better results by sowing the grains
deep in the ground rather than haphazardly scattering them on the surface,
So they began to hoe and plough, Gradually they also started to weed the
elds, to guard them against parasites, and to water and fertilise them, As
more e ort was directed towards cereal cultivation, there was less time to
gather and hunt wild species, The foragers became farmers,
No single step separated the woman gathering wild wheat from the
woman farming domesticated wheat, so it’s hard to say exactly when the
decisive transition to agriculture took place, But, by 8500 BC, the Middle East
was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants
spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species,
With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the
population began to grow, Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women
to have a child every year, Babies were weaned at an earlier age – they
could be fed on porridge and gruel, The extra hands were sorely needed in
the elds, But the extra mouths quickly wiped out the food surpluses, so
even more fields had to be planted, As people began living in disease-ridden
settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and
as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings,
child mortality soared, In most agricultural societies at least one out of
every three children died before reaching twenty, Yet the increase in births
still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of
With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome,
Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows,
The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the
average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC, But nobody realised what
was happening, Every generation continued to live like the previous
generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way
things were done, Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which
was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of
these farmers,
Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason
that people throughout history have miscalculated, People were unable to
fathom the full consequences of their decisions, Whenever they decided to
do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the elds instead of scattering seeds on
the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder, But the
harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean
years, Our children will never go to sleep hungry,’ It made sense, If you
worked harder, you would have a better life, That was the plan,
The rst part of the plan went smoothly, People indeed worked harder,
But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase,
meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more
children, Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children
with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune
system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious
diseases, They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a
single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to
the depredations of drought, Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years
their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them
to start building walls and doing guard duty,
Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan back red?
Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and
transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever
lived di erently, And partly because population growth burned humanity’s
boats, If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a
hundred to no, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that
the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back,
The trap snapped shut,
The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the
last time, It happens to us today, How many young college graduates have
taken demanding jobs in high-powered rms, vowing that they will work
hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real
interests when they are thirty- ve? But by the time they reach that age,
they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that
necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth
living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad, What are
they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their
efforts and keep slaving away,
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities
and to spawn new obligations, Once people get used to a certain luxury,
they take it for granted, Then they begin to count on it, Finally they reach
a point where they can’t live without it, Let’s take another familiar example
from our own time, Over the last few decades, we have invented countless
time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing
machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones,
computers, email, Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address
and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox, It took days or weeks,
maybe even months, to get a reply, Nowadays I can dash o an email, send
it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply
a minute later, I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more
relaxed life?
Sadly not, Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters
when they had something important to relate, Rather than writing the rst
thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they
wanted to say and how to phrase it, They expected to receive a similarly
considered answer, Most people wrote and received no more than a handful
of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately, Today I
receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt
reply, We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill
of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and
Here and there a Luddite holdout refuses to open an email account, just
as thousands of years ago some human bands refused to take up farming
and so escaped the luxury trap, But the Agricultural Revolution didn’t need
every band in a given region to join up, It only took one, Once one band
settled down and started tilling, whether in the Middle East or Central
America, agriculture was irresistible, Since farming created the conditions
for swift demographic growth, farmers could usually overcome foragers by
sheer weight of numbers, The foragers could either run away, abandoning
their hunting grounds to eld and pasture, or take up the ploughshare
themselves, Either way, the old life was doomed,
The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson,
Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that
transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted, Nobody
plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal
cultivation, A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at lling a few
stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative e ect of forcing
ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a
scorching sun,
Divine Intervention
The above scenario explains the Agricultural Revolution as a miscalculation,
It’s very plausible, History is full of far more idiotic miscalculations, But
there’s another possibility, Maybe it wasn’t the search for an easier life that
brought about the transformation, Maybe Sapiens had other aspirations,
and were consciously willing to make their lives harder in order to achieve
Scientists usually seek to attribute historical developments to cold
economic and demographic factors, It sits better with their rational and
mathematical methods, In the case of modern history, scholars cannot
avoid taking into account non-material factors such as ideology and culture,
The written evidence forces their hand, We have enough documents, letters
and memoirs to prove that World War Two was not caused by food
shortages or demographic pressures, But we have no documents from the
Natu an culture, so when dealing with ancient periods the materialist
school reigns supreme, It is di cult to prove that preliterate people were
motivated by faith rather than economic necessity,
Yet, in some rare cases, we are lucky enough to nd telltale clues, In
1995 archaeologists began to excavate a site in south-east Turkey called
Göbekli Tepe, In the oldest stratum they discovered no signs of a
settlement, houses or daily activities, They did, however, nd monumental
pillared structures decorated with spectacular engravings, Each stone pillar
weighed up to seven tons and reached a height of ve metres, In a nearby
quarry they found a half-chiselled pillar weighing fty tons, Altogether,
they uncovered more than ten monumental structures, the largest of them
nearly thirty metres across,
Archaeologists are familiar with such monumental structures from sites
around the world – the best-known example is Stonehenge in Britain, Yet as
they studied Göbekli Tepe, they discovered an amazing fact, Stonehenge
dates to 2500 BC, and was built by a developed agricultural society, The
structures at Göbekli Tepe are dated to about 9500 BC, and all available
evidence indicates that they were built by hunter-gatherers, The
archaeological community initially found it di cult to credit these ndings,
but one test after another con rmed both the early date of the structures
and the pre-agricultural society of their builders, The capabilities of ancient
foragers, and the complexity of their cultures, seem to be far more
impressive than was previously suspected,
13, Opposite: The remains of a monumental structure from Göbekli Tepe, Right: One of the
decorated stone pillars (about five metres high),
Why would a foraging society build such structures? They had no obvious
utilitarian purpose, They were neither mammoth slaughterhouses nor
places to shelter from rain or hide from lions, That leaves us with the
theory that they were built for some mysterious cultural purpose that
archaeologists have a hard time deciphering, Whatever it was, the foragers
thought it worth a huge amount of e ort and time, The only way to build
Göbekli Tepe was for thousands of foragers belonging to di erent bands
and tribes to cooperate over an extended period of time, Only a
sophisticated religious or ideological system could sustain such efforts,
Göbekli Tepe held another sensational secret, For many years, geneticists
have been tracing the origins of domesticated wheat, Recent discoveries
indicate that at least one domesticated variant, einkorn wheat, originated
in the Karaçadag Hills – about thirty kilometres from Göbekli Tepe,
This can hardly be a coincidence, It’s likely that the cultural centre of
Göbekli Tepe was somehow connected to the initial domestication of wheat
by humankind and of humankind by wheat, In order to feed the people
who built and used the monumental structures, particularly large quantities
of food were required, It may well be that foragers switched from gathering
wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, not to increase their normal food
supply, but rather to support the building and running of a temple, In the
conventional picture, pioneers rst built a village, and when it prospered,
they set up a temple in the middle, But Göbekli Tepe suggests that the
temple may have been built first, and that a village later grew up around it,
Victims of the Revolution
The Faustian bargain between humans and grains was not the only deal our
species made, Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such
as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, Nomadic bands that stalked wild sheep
gradually altered the constitutions of the herds on which they preyed, This
process probably began with selective hunting, Humans learned that it was
to their advantage to hunt only adult rams and old or sick sheep, They
spared fertile females and young lambs in order to safeguard the long-term
vitality of the local herd, The second step might have been to actively
defend the herd against predators, driving away lions, wolves and rival
human bands, The band might next have corralled the herd into a narrow
gorge in order to better control and defend it, Finally, people began to
make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to
human needs, The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest
resistance to human control, were slaughtered rst, So were the skinniest
and most inquisitive females, (Shepherds are not fond of sheep whose
curiosity takes them far from the herd,) With each passing generation, the
sheep became fatter, more submissive and less curious, Voilà! Mary had a
little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go,
Alternatively, hunters may have caught and adopted’ a lamb, fattening it
during the months of plenty and slaughtering it in the leaner season, At
some stage they began keeping a greater number of such lambs, Some of
these reached puberty and began to procreate, The most aggressive and
unruly lambs were rst to the slaughter, The most submissive, most
appealing lambs were allowed to live longer and procreate, The result was
a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep,
Such domesticated animals – sheep, chickens, donkeys and others –
supplied food (meat, milk, eggs), raw materials (skins, wool), and muscle
power, Transportation, ploughing, grinding and other tasks, hitherto
performed by human sinew, were increasingly carried out by animals, In
most farming societies people focused on plant cultivation; raising animals
was a secondary activity, But a new kind of society also appeared in some
places, based primarily on the exploitation of animals: tribes of pastoralist
As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals,
Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats,
boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches, Today the world
contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and
more than 25 billion chickens, And they are all over the globe, The
domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl ever, Following Homo
sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth
most widespread large mammals in the world, From a narrow evolutionary
perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the
Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and
Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of
success, It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction,
with no regard for individual su ering and happiness, Domesticated
chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are
also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived, The domestication
of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became
crueller with the passing of the centuries,
The natural lifespan of wild chickens is about seven to twelve years, and
of cattle about twenty to twenty- ve years, In the wild, most chickens and
cattle died long before that, but they still had a fair chance of living for a
respectable number of years, In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated
chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and
a few months, because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age
from an economic perspective, (Why keep feeding a cock for three years if
it has already reached its maximum weight after three months?)
Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draught animals are sometimes allowed
to live for many years, But the price is subjugation to a way of life
completely alien to their urges and desires, It’s reasonable to assume, for
example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies
in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and
ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape,
In order to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient draught
animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their
aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement
curtailed, Farmers developed techniques such as locking animals inside pens
and cages, bridling them in harnesses and leashes, training them with
whips and cattle prods, and mutilating them, The process of taming almost
always involves the castration of males, This restrains male aggression and
enables humans selectively to control the herd’s procreation,
14, A painting from an Egyptian grave, c,1200 BC: A pair of oxen ploughing a field, In the wild,
cattle roamed as they pleased in herds with a complex social structure, The castrated and
domesticated ox wasted away his life under the lash and in a narrow pen, labouring alone or in
pairs in a way that suited neither its body nor its social and emotional needs, When an ox could
no longer pull the plough, it was slaughtered, (Note the hunched position of the Egyptian farmer
who, much like the ox, spent his life in hard labour oppressive to his body, his mind and his
social relationships,)
In many New Guinean societies, the wealth of a person has traditionally
been determined by the number of pigs he or she owns, To ensure that the
pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice o a chunk of
each pig’s nose, This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sni ,
Since the pigs cannot nd food or even nd their way around without
sni ng, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human
owners, In another area of New Guinea, it has been customary to gouge out
pigs’ eyes, so that they cannot even see where they’re going,
The dairy industry has its own ways of forcing animals to do its will,
Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after giving birth to calves, kids
and lambs, and only as long as the youngsters are suckling, To continue a
supply of animal milk, a farmer needs to have calves, kids or lambs for
suckling, but must prevent them from monopolising the milk, One common
method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves and kids
shortly after birth, milk the mother for all she was worth, and then get her
pregnant again, This is still a very widespread technique, In many modern
dairy farms a milk cow usually lives for about ve years before being
slaughtered, During these ve years she is almost constantly pregnant, and
is fertilised within 60 to 120 days after giving birth in order to preserve
maximum milk production, Her calves are separated from her shortly after
birth, The females are reared to become the next generation of dairy cows,
whereas the males are handed over to the care of the meat industry,
Another method is to keep the calves and kids near their mothers, but
prevent them by various stratagems from suckling too much milk, The
simplest way to do that is to allow the kid or calf to start suckling, but drive
it away once the milk starts owing, This method usually encounters
resistance from both kid and mother, Some shepherd tribes used to kill the
o spring, eat its esh, and then stu the skin, The stu ed o spring was
then presented to the mother so that its presence would encourage her milk
production, The Nuer tribe in the Sudan went so far as to smear stu ed
animals with their mother’s urine, to give the counterfeit calves a familiar,
live scent, Another Nuer technique was to tie a ring of thorns around a
calf’s mouth, so that it pricks the mother and causes her to resist suckling,
Tuareg camel breeders in the Sahara used to puncture or cut o parts of the
nose and upper lip of young camels in order to make suckling painful,
thereby discouraging them from consuming too much milk,
Not all agricultural societies were this cruel to their farm animals, The lives
of some domesticated animals could be quite good, Sheep raised for wool,
pet dogs and cats, war horses and race horses often enjoyed comfortable
conditions, The Roman emperor Caligula allegedly planned to appoint his
favourite horse, Incitatus, to the consulship, Shepherds and farmers
throughout history showed a ection for their animals and have taken great
care of them, just as many slaveholders felt a ection and concern for their
slaves, It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as
shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to
a shepherd’s care for his flock,
15, A modern calf in an industrial meat farm, Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its
mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body, There the calf
spends its entire life – about four months on average, It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to
play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong, Soft muscles
mean a soft and juicy steak, The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and
touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse, In evolutionary terms, cattle represent
one of the most successful animal species ever to exist, At the same time, they are some of the
most miserable animals on the planet,
Yet from the viewpoint of the herd, rather than that of the shepherd, it’s
hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated
animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe, Their
evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless, A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of
extinction is probably more satis ed than a calf who spends its short life
inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks, The contented rhinoceros
is no less content for being among the last of its kind, The numerical success
of the calf’s species is little consolation for the su ering the individual
This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual su ering is
perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural
Revolution, When we study the narrative of plants such as wheat and
maize, maybe the purely evolutionary perspective makes sense, Yet in the
case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex
world of sensations and emotions, we have to consider how evolutionary
success translates into individual experience, In the following chapters we
will see time and again how a dramatic increase in the collective power and
ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual
Building Pyramids
THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION IS ONE of the most controversial
events in history, Some partisans proclaim that it set humankind on the
road to prosperity and progress, Others insist that it led to perdition, This
was the turning point, they say, where Sapiens cast o its intimate
symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation,
Whichever direction the road led, there was no going back, Farming
enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex
agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting
and gathering, Around 10,000 BC, before the transition to agriculture, earth
was home to about 5–8 million nomadic foragers, By the rst century AD,
only 1–2 million foragers remained (mainly in Australia, America and
Africa), but their numbers were dwarfed by the world’s 250 million
The vast majority of farmers lived in permanent settlements; only a few
were nomadic shepherds, Settling down caused most peoples turf to shrink
dramatically, Ancient hunter-gatherers usually lived in territories covering
many dozens and even hundreds of square kilometres, ‘Home’ was the
entire territory, with its hills, streams, woods and open sky, Peasants, on
the other hand, spent most of their days working a small eld or orchard,
and their domestic lives centred on a cramped structure of wood, stone or
mud, measuring no more than a few dozen metres – the house, The typical
peasant developed a very strong attachment to this structure, This was a
far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as
architectural, Henceforth, attachment to ‘my house’ and separation from
the neighbours became the psychological hallmark of a much more self-
centred creature,
The new agricultural territories were not only far smaller than those of
ancient foragers, but also far more arti cial, Aside from the use of re,
hunter-gatherers made few deliberate changes to the lands in which they
roamed, Farmers, on the other hand, lived in arti cial human islands that
they laboriously carved out of the surrounding wilds, They cut down forests,
dug canals, cleared elds, built houses, ploughed furrows, and planted fruit
trees in tidy rows, The resulting arti cial habitat was meant only for
humans and ‘their’ plants and animals, and was often fenced o by walls
and hedges, Farmer families did all they could to keep out wayward weeds
and wild animals, If such interlopers made their way in, they were driven
out, If they persisted, their human antagonists sought ways to exterminate
them, Particularly strong defences were erected around the home, From the
dawn of agriculture until this very day, billions of humans armed with
branches, swatters, shoes and poison sprays have waged relentless war
against the diligent ants, furtive roaches, adventurous spiders and
misguided beetles that constantly infiltrate the human domicile,
For most of history these man-made enclaves remained very small,
surrounded by expanses of untamed nature, The earth’s surface measures
about 510 million square kilometres, of which 155 million is land, As late as
AD 1400, the vast majority of farmers, along with their plants and animals,
clustered together in an area of just 11 million square kilometres – 2 per
cent of the planet’s surface, Everywhere else was too cold, too hot, too dry,
too wet, or otherwise unsuited for cultivation, This minuscule 2 per cent of
the earth’s surface constituted the stage on which history unfolded,
People found it di cult to leave their arti cial islands, They could not
abandon their houses, elds and granaries without grave risk of loss,
Furthermore, as time went on they accumulated more and more things –
objects, not easily transportable, that tied them down, Ancient farmers
might seem to us dirt poor, but a typical family possessed more artefacts
than an entire forager tribe,
The Coming of the Future
While agricultural space shrank, agricultural time expanded, Foragers
usually didn’t waste much time thinking about next week or next month,
Farmers sailed in their imagination years and decades into the future,
Foragers discounted the future because they lived from hand to mouth
and could only preserve food or accumulate possessions with di culty, Of
course, they clearly engaged in some advanced planning, The creators of
the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira almost certainly
intended them to last for generations, Social alliances and political rivalries
were long-term a airs, It often took years to repay a favour or to avenge a
wrong, Nevertheless, in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering,
there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning, Paradoxically, it
saved foragers a lot of anxieties, There was no sense in worrying about
things that they could not influence,
The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it
had ever been before, Farmers must always keep the future in mind and
must work in its service, The agricultural economy was based on a seasonal
cycle of production, comprising long months of cultivation followed by
short peak periods of harvest, On the night following the end of a plentiful
harvest the peasants might celebrate for all they were worth, but within a
week or so they were again up at dawn for a long day in the eld,
Although there was enough food for today, next week, and even next
month, they had to worry about next year and the year after that,
Concern about the future was rooted not only in seasonal cycles of
production, but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture, Since
most villages lived by cultivating a very limited variety of domesticated
plants and animals, they were at the mercy of droughts, oods and
pestilence, Peasants were obliged to produce more than they consumed so
that they could build up reserves, Without grain in the silo, jars of olive oil
in the cellar, cheese in the pantry and sausages hanging from the rafters,
they would starve in bad years, And bad years were bound to come, sooner
or later, A peasant living on the assumption that bad years would not come
didn’t live long,
Consequently, from the very advent of agriculture, worries about the
future became major players in the theatre of the human mind, Where
farmers depended on rains to water their elds, the onset of the rainy
season meant that each morning the farmers gazed towards the horizon,
sni ng the wind and straining their eyes, Is that a cloud? Would the rains
come on time? Would there be enough? Would violent storms wash the
seeds from the elds and batter down seedlings? Meanwhile, in the valleys
of the Euphrates, Indus and Yellow rivers, other peasants monitored, with
no less trepidation, the height of the water, They needed the rivers to rise
in order to spread the fertile topsoil washed down from the highlands, and
to enable their vast irrigation systems to ll with water, But oods that
surged too high or came at the wrong time could destroy their elds as
much as a drought,
Peasants were worried about the future not just because they had more
cause for worry, but also because they could do something about it, They
could clear another eld, dig another irrigation canal, sow more crops, The
anxious peasant was as frenetic and hardworking as a harvester ant in the
summer, sweating to plant olive trees whose oil would be pressed by his
children and grandchildren, putting o until the winter or the following
year the eating of the food he craved today,
The stress of farming had far-reaching consequences, It was the
foundation of large-scale political and social systems, Sadly, the diligent
peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved
through their hard work in the present, Everywhere, rulers and elites
sprang up, living o the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only
a bare subsistence,
These forfeited food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy,
They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples, Until the late modern
era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each
morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows, The extra they
produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government o cials,
soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who ll the history books, History is
something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was
ploughing fields and carrying water buckets,
An Imagined Order
The food surpluses produced by peasants, coupled with new transportation
technology, eventually enabled more and more people to cram together
rst into large villages, then into towns, and nally into cities, all of them
joined together by new kingdoms and commercial networks,
Yet in order to take advantage of these new opportunities, food surpluses
and improved transportation were not enough, The mere fact that one can
feed a thousand people in the same town or a million people in the same
kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the land and
water, how to settle disputes and con icts, and how to act in times of
drought or war, And if no agreement can be reached, strife spreads, even if
the storehouses are bulging, It was not food shortages that caused most of
history’s wars and revolutions, The French Revolution was spearheaded by
a uent lawyers, not by famished peasants, The Roman Republic reached
the height of its power in the rst century BC, when treasure eets from
throughout the Mediterranean enriched the Romans beyond their ancestors’
wildest dreams, Yet it was at that moment of maximum a uence that the
Roman political order collapsed into a series of deadly civil wars,
Yugoslavia in 1991 had more than enough resources to feed all its
inhabitants, and still disintegrated into a terrible bloodbath,
The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for
millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals, The handful of
millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of
cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for
mass cooperation to evolve,
Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era,
hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths,
However, this cooperation was loose and limited, Every Sapiens band
continued to run its life independently and to provide for most of its own
needs, An archaic sociologist living 20,000 years ago, who had no
knowledge of events following the Agricultural Revolution, might well have
concluded that mythology had a fairly limited scope, Stories about ancestral
spirits and tribal totems were strong enough to enable 500 people to trade
seashells, celebrate the odd festival, and join forces to wipe out a
Neanderthal band, but no more than that, Mythology, the ancient
sociologist would have thought, could not possibly enable millions of
strangers to cooperate on a daily basis,
But that turned out to be wrong, Myths, it transpired, are stronger than
anyone could have imagined, When the Agricultural Revolution opened
opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people
invented stories about great gods, motherlands and joint stock companies to
provide the needed social links, While human evolution was crawling at its
usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding
networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth,
Around 8500 BC the largest settlements in the world were villages such as
Jericho, which contained a few hundred individuals, By 7000 BC the town of
Çatalhöyük in Anatolia numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals, It
may well have been the world’s biggest settlement at the time, During the
fth and fourth millennia BC, cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants
sprouted in the Fertile Crescent, and each of these held sway over many
nearby villages, In 3100 BC the entire lower Nile Valley was united into the
rst Egyptian kingdom, Its pharaohs ruled thousands of square kilometres
and hundreds of thousands of people, Around 2250 BC Sargon the Great
forged the rst empire, the Akkadian, It boasted over a million subjects and
a standing army of 5,400 soldiers, Between 1000 BC and 500 BC, the rst
mega-empires appeared in the Middle East: the Late Assyrian Empire, the
Babylonian Empire, and the Persian Empire, They ruled over many millions
of subjects and commanded tens of thousands of soldiers,
In 221 BC the Qin dynasty united China, and shortly afterwards Rome
united the Mediterranean basin, Taxes levied on 40 million Qin subjects
paid for a standing army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and a
complex bureaucracy that employed more than 100,000 o cials, The
Roman Empire at its zenith collected taxes from up to 100 million subjects,
This revenue nanced a standing army of 250,000–500,000 soldiers, a road
network still in use 1,500 years later, and theatres and amphitheatres that
host spectacles to this day,
16, A stone stela inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, c,1776 BC,
Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass
cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire,
‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom
egalitarian, Most human cooperation networks have been geared towards
oppression and exploitation, The peasants paid for the burgeoning
cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when
the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single
stroke of his imperial pen, The famed Roman amphitheatres were often
built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves
engage in vicious gladiatorial combat, Even prisons and concentration
camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands
of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions,
17, The Declaration of Independence of the United States, signed 4 July 1776,
All these cooperation networks – from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to
the Qin and Roman empires – were ‘imagined orders’, The social norms that
sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal
acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths,
How can myths sustain entire empires? We have already discussed one
such example: Peugeot, Now let’s examine two of the best-known myths of
history: the Code of Hammurabi of c,1776 BC, which served as a cooperation
manual for hundreds of thousands of ancient Babylonians; and the
American Declaration of Independence of 1776 AD, which today still serves
as a cooperation manual for hundreds of millions of modern Americans,
In 1776 BC Babylon was the world’s biggest city, The Babylonian Empire
was probably the world’s largest, with more than a million subjects, It ruled
most of Mesopotamia, including the bulk of modern Iraq and parts of
present-day Syria and Iran, The Babylonian king most famous today was
Hammurabi, His fame is due primarily to the text that bears his name, the
Code of Hammurabi, This was a collection of laws and judicial decisions
whose aim was to present Hammurabi as a role model of a just king, serve
as a basis for a more uniform legal system across the Babylonian Empire,
and teach future generations what justice is and how a just king acts,
Future generations took notice, The intellectual and bureaucratic elite of
ancient Mesopotamia canonised the text, and apprentice scribes continued
to copy it long after Hammurabi died and his empire lay in ruins,
Hammurabi’s Code is therefore a good source for understanding the ancient
Mesopotamians’ ideal of social order,
The text begins by saying that the gods Anu, Enlil and Marduk – the
leading deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon – appointed Hammurabi ‘to
make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to
prevent the strong from oppressing the weak’, It then lists about 300
judgements, given in the set formula ‘If such and such a thing happens,
such is the judgment,’ For example, judgements 196–9 and 209–14 read:
If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they
shall blind his eye,
If he should break the bone of another superior man, they shall
break his bone,
If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a
commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver,
If he should blind the eye of a slave of a superior man or break the
199, bone of a slave of a superior man, he shall weigh and deliver one-
half of the slave’s value (in silver),
If a superior man strikes a woman of superior class and thereby
209, causes her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver ten
shekels of silver for her fetus,
210, If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter,
211, If he should cause a woman of commoner class to miscarry her fetus
by the beating, he shall weigh and deliver five shekels of silver,
If that woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver thirty shekels
of silver,
If he strikes a slave-woman of a superior man and thereby causes
213, her to miscarry her fetus, he shall weigh and deliver two shekels of
If that slave-woman should die, he shall weigh and deliver twenty
214, shekels of silver,
After listing his judgements, Hammurabi again declares that
These are the just decisions which Hammurabi, the able king, has established and thereby has directed the
land along the course of truth and the correct way of life … I am Hammurabi, noble king, I have not been
careless or negligent toward humankind, granted to my care by the god Enlil, and with whose shepherding
the god Marduk charged me,
Hammurabi’s Code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in
universal and eternal principles of justice, dictated by the gods, The
principle of hierarchy is of paramount importance, According to the code,
people are divided into two genders and three classes: superior people,
commoners and slaves, Members of each gender and class have di erent
values, The life of a female commoner is worth thirty silver shekels and
that of a slave-woman twenty silver shekels, whereas the eye of a male
commoner is worth sixty silver shekels,
The code also establishes a strict hierarchy within families, according to
which children are not independent persons, but rather the property of
their parents, Hence, if one superior man kills the daughter of another
superior man, the killer’s daughter is executed in punishment, To us it may
seem strange that the killer remains unharmed whereas his innocent
daughter is killed, but to Hammurabi and the Babylonians this seemed
perfectly just, Hammurabi’s Code was based on the premise that if the
king’s subjects all accepted their positions in the hierarchy and acted
accordingly, the empire’s million inhabitants would be able to cooperate
e ectively, Their society could then produce enough food for its members,
distribute it e ciently, protect itself against its enemies, and expand its
territory so as to acquire more wealth and better security,
About 3,500 years after Hammurabi’s death, the inhabitants of thirteen
British colonies in North America felt that the king of England was treating
them unjustly, Their representatives gathered in the city of Philadelphia,
and on 4 July 1776 the colonies declared that their inhabitants were no
longer subjects of the British Crown, Their Declaration of Independence
proclaimed universal and eternal principles of justice, which, like those of
Hammurabi, were inspired by a divine power, However, the most important
principle dictated by the American god was somewhat di erent from the
principle dictated by the gods of Babylon, The American Declaration of
Independence asserts that:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
Like Hammurabi’s Code, the American founding document promises that if
humans act according to its sacred principles, millions of them would be
able to cooperate e ectively, living safely and peacefully in a just and
prosperous society, Like the Code of Hammurabi, the American Declaration
of Independence was not just a document of its time and place – it was
accepted by future generations as well, For more than 200 years, American
schoolchildren have been copying and learning it by heart,
The two texts present us with an obvious dilemma, Both the Code of
Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline
universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans
all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are
decidedly unequal, The Americans would, of course, say that they are right,
and that Hammurabi is wrong, Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he
is right, and that the Americans are wrong, In fact, they are both wrong,
Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality
governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality
or hierarchy, Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in
the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell
one another, These principles have no objective validity,
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and
commoners’ is a gment of the imagination, Yet the idea that all humans
are equal is also a myth, In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is
there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we
are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically? Let us
try to translate the most famous line of the American Declaration of
Independence into biological terms:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
According to the science of biology, people were not created’, They have
evolved, And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’, The idea of
equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation, The
Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that
every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before
God, However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God,
creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution
is based on di erence, not on equality, Every person carries a somewhat
di erent genetic code, and is exposed from birth to di erent environmental
in uences, This leads to the development of di erent qualities that carry
with them di erent chances of survival, ‘Created equal’ should therefore be
translated into ‘evolved differently’,
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of
biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything, There is
only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the
birth of individuals, ‘Endowed by their creator’ should be translated simply
into ‘born,
Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology, There are only
organs, abilities and characteristics, Birds y not because they have a right
to y, but because they have wings, And it’s not true that these organs,
abilities and characteristics are ‘unalienable’, Many of them undergo
constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time, The ostrich
is a bird that lost its ability to y, So ‘unalienable rights’ should be
translated into ‘mutable characteristics’,
And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly,
But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology, Just like equality, rights and
limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and
that exists only in their imagination, From a biological viewpoint, it is
meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas
humans in dictatorships are unfree, And what about ‘happiness’? So far
biological research has failed to come up with a clear de nition of
happiness or a way to measure it objectively, Most biological studies
acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily de ned
and measured, So ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ should be
translated into ‘life and the pursuit of pleasure’,
So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence
translated into biological terms:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved di erently, that they are born with certain
mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure,
Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of
reasoning, Their response is likely to be, ‘We know that people are not
equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will
enable us to create a stable and prosperous society,’ I have no argument
with that, This is exactly what I mean by ‘imagined order’, We believe in a
particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it
enables us to cooperate e ectively and forge a better society, Imagined
orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages, Rather, they are the only
way large numbers of humans can cooperate e ectively, Bear in mind,
though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy
using the same logic: ‘I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not
inherently di erent kinds of people, But if we believe that they are, it will
enable us to create a stable and prosperous society,’
True Believers
It’s likely that more than a few readers squirmed in their chairs while
reading the preceding paragraphs, Most of us today are educated to react in
such a way, It is easy to accept that Hammurabi’s Code was a myth, but we
do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth, If people realise
that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that
our society will collapse? Voltaire said about God that ‘there is no God, but
don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night’, Hammurabi
would have said the same about his principle of hierarchy, and Thomas
Je erson about human rights, Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as
spiders, hyenas and chimpanzees have no natural rights, But don’t tell that
to our servants, lest they murder us at night,
Such fears are well justi ed, A natural order is a stable order, There is no
chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop
believing in it, In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of
collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people
stop believing in them, In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous
and strenuous e orts are imperative, Some of these e orts take the shape
of violence and coercion, Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are
ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined
order, If an ancient Babylonian blinded his neighbour, some violence was
usually necessary in order to enforce the law of ‘an eye for an eye’, When,
in 1860, a majority of American citizens concluded that African slaves are
human beings and must therefore enjoy the right of liberty, it took a bloody
civil war to make the southern states acquiesce,
However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone, It
requires some true believers as well, Prince Talleyrand, who began his
chameleon-like career under Louis XVI, later served the revolutionary and
Napoleonic regimes, and switched loyalties in time to end his days working
for the restored monarchy, summed up decades of governmental experience
by saying that ‘You can do many things with bayonets, but it is rather
uncomfortable to sit on them,’ A single priest often does the work of a
hundred soldiers far more cheaply and e ectively, Moreover, no matter
how e cient bayonets are, somebody must wield them, Why should the
soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which
they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most
di cult to organise is violence, To say that a social order is maintained by
military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military
order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion, At least some
of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God,
honour, motherland, manhood or money,
An even more interesting question concerns those standing at the top of
the social pyramid, Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if
they themselves don’t believe in it? It is quite common to argue that the
elite may do so out of cynical greed, Yet a cynic who believes in nothing is
unlikely to be greedy, It does not take much to provide the objective
biological needs of Homo sapiens, After those needs are met, more money
can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world,
nancing election campaigns, funding your favourite terrorist organisation,
or investing in the stock market and making yet more money – all of which
are activities that a true cynic would find utterly meaningless, Diogenes, the
Greek philosopher who founded the Cynical school, lived in a barrel, When
Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes as he was relaxing in the sun,
and asked if there were anything he might do for him, the Cynic answered
the all-powerful conqueror, ‘Yes, there is something you can do for me,
Please move a little to the side, You are blocking the sunlight,’
This is why cynics don’t build empires and why an imagined order can be
maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular
large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it,
Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops
and priests failed to believe in Christ, American democracy would not have
lasted 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressmen failed to
believe in human rights, The modern economic system would not have
lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe
in capitalism,
The Prison Walls
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as
Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order
is imagined, You always insist that the order sustaining society is an
objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature, People
are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk
decreed it, People are equal, not because Thomas Je erson said so, but
because God created them that way, Free markets are the best economic
system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the
immutable laws of nature,
You also educate people thoroughly, From the moment they are born,
you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which
are incorporated into anything and everything, They are incorporated into
fairy tales, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda,
architecture, recipes and fashions, For example, today people believe in
equality, so it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans, which were
originally working-class attire, In the Middle Ages people believed in class
divisions, so no young nobleman would have worn a peasant’s smock, Back
then, to be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ was a rare privilege reserved for
the nobility, and often purchased with blood, Today all polite
correspondence, regardless of the recipient, begins with ‘Dear Sir or
The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to
explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of
life, In the limited space at our disposal we can only scratch the surface,
Three main factors prevent people from realising that the order organising
their lives exists only in their imagination:
a, The imagined order is embedded in the material world, Though the
imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material
reality around us, and even set in stone, Most Westerners today believe in
individualism, They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth
does not depend on what other people think of him or her, Each of us has
within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our
lives, In modern Western schools teachers and parents tell children that if
their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it, Only they
themselves, not others, know their true worth,
In modern architecture, this myth leaps out of the imagination to take
shape in stone and mortar, The ideal modern house is divided into many
small rooms so that each child can have a private space, hidden from view,
providing for maximum autonomy, This private room almost invariably has
a door, and in many households it is accepted practice for the child to close,
and perhaps lock, the door, Even parents are forbidden to enter without
knocking and asking permission, The room is decorated as the child sees t,
with rock-star posters on the wall and dirty socks on the oor, Somebody
growing up in such a space cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual’,
his true worth emanating from within rather than from without,
Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism, Someone’s worth
was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other
people said about them, Being laughed at was a horrible indignity,
Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the
cost, Like modern individualism, the medieval value system left the
imagination and was manifested in the stone of medieval castles, The castle
rarely contained private rooms for children (or anyone else, for that
matter), The teenage son of a medieval baron did not have a private room
on the castle’s second oor, with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King
Arthur on the walls and a locked door that his parents were not allowed to
open, He slept alongside many other youths in a large hall, He was always
on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said,
Someone growing up in such conditions naturally concluded that a man’s
true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what
other people said of him,
b, The imagined order shapes our desires, Most people do not wish to
accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every
person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are
shaped from birth by its dominant myths, Our personal desires thereby
become the imagined order’s most important defences,
For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are
shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have
been around for centuries, Friends giving advice often tell each other,
‘Follow your heart,’ But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its
instructions from the dominant myths of the day, and the very
recommendation to ‘Follow your heart’ was implanted in our minds by a
combination of nineteenth-century Romantic myths and twentieth-century
consumerist myths, The Coca-Cola Company, for example, has marketed
Diet Coke around the world under the slogan, ‘Diet Coke, Do what feels
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually
programmed by the imagined order, Let’s consider, for example, the
popular desire to take a holiday abroad, There is nothing natural or obvious
about this, A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power
in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee
band, The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and
having their corpses mummi ed, but none of them thought of going
shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia, People today
spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true
believers in the myths of romantic consumerism,
Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human
potential we must have as many di erent experiences as we can, We must
open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various
kinds of relationships; we must try di erent cuisines; we must learn to
appreciate di erent styles of music, One of the best ways to do all that is to
break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go
travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the
smells, the tastes and the norms of other people, We hear again and again
the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and
changed my life’,
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many
products and services as possible, If we feel that something is missing or not
quite right, then we probably need to buy a product (a car, new clothes,
organic food) or a service (housekeeping, relationship therapy, yoga
classes), Every television commercial is another little legend about how
consuming some product or service will make life better,
Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with
consumerism, Their marriage has given birth to the in nite ‘market of
experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded, The tourism
industry does not sell ight tickets and hotel bedrooms, It sells experiences,
Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the
consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, ful l our human
potential, and make us happier, Consequently, when the relationship
between a millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes
her on an expensive trip to Paris, The trip is not a re ection of some
independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic
consumerism, A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed
of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon,
Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always
18, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The kind of thing rich people in ancient Egypt did with their
Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate
their lives to building pyramids, Only the names, shapes and sizes of these
pyramids change from one culture to the other, They may take the form,
for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen
lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view, Few question the
myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place,
c, The imagined order is inter-subjective, Even if by some superhuman
effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined
order, I am just one person, In order to change the imagined order I must
convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me, For the imagined order
is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an
inter-subjective order, existing in the shared imagination of thousands and
millions of people,
In order to understand this, we need to understand the di erence
between ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, and ‘inter-subjective’,
An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness
and human beliefs, Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth, Radioactive
emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are
dangerous even when people do not believe in them, Marie Curie, one of
the discoverers of radioactivity, did not know, during her long years of
studying radioactive materials, that they could harm her body, While she
did not believe that radioactivity could kill her, she nevertheless died of
aplastic anaemia, a disease caused by overexposure to radioactive
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness
and beliefs of a single individual, It disappears or changes if that particular
individual changes his or her beliefs, Many a child believes in the existence
of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the
world, The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective
consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the
imaginary friend fades away,
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication
network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals, If a single
individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance,
However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the
inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear, Inter-subjective
phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insigni cant charades, They
exist in a di erent way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but
their impact on the world may still be enormous, Many of history’s most
important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations,
Peugeot, for example, is not the imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO, The
company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people, The CEO
believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also
believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby
o ce, the tellers in the bank, the brokers on the stock exchange, and car
dealers from France to Australia, If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop
believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental
hospital and someone else would occupy his office,
Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist
in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten
their existence, If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human
rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter, These imagined
orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must
simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not
easy, A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help
of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological
movement, or a religious cult, However, in order to establish such complex
organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with
one another, And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some
shared myths, It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order,
we must first believe in an alternative imagined order,
In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine
something more powerful, such as the French legal system, In order to
dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even
more powerful, such as the French state, And if we would like to dismantle
that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful,
There is no 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,
Memory Overload
EVOLUTION DID NOT ENDOW HUMANS with the ability to play football,
True, it produced legs for kicking, elbows for fouling and mouths for
cursing, but all that this enables us to do is perhaps practise penalty kicks
by ourselves, To get into a game with the strangers we nd in the
schoolyard on any given afternoon, we not only have to work in concert
with ten teammates we may never have met before, we also need to know
that the eleven players on the opposing team are playing by the same
rules, Other animals that engage strangers in ritualised aggression do so
largely by instinct – puppies throughout the world have the rules for rough-
and-tumble play hard-wired into their genes, But human teenagers have no
genes for football, They can nevertheless play the game with complete
strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about
football, These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them,
we can all play the game,
The same applies, on a larger scale, to kingdoms, churches and trade
networks, with one important di erence, The rules of football are relatively
simple and concise, much like those necessary for cooperation in a forager
band or small village, Each player can easily store them in his brain and
still have room for songs, images and shopping lists, But large systems of
cooperation that involve not twenty-two but thousands or even millions of
humans require the handling and storage of huge amounts of information,
much more than any single human brain can contain and process,
The large societies found in some other species, such as ants and bees, are
stable and resilient because most of the information needed to sustain them
is encoded in the genome, A female honeybee larva can, for example, grow
up to be either a queen or a worker, depending on what food it is fed, Its
DNA programmes the necessary behaviours for whatever role it will ful l in
life, Hives can be very complex social structures, containing many di erent
kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners, But so far
researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees, Bees don’t need lawyers,
because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive
constitution, The queen does not cheat the cleaner bees of their food, and
they never go on strike demanding higher wages,
But humans do such things all the time, Because the Sapiens social order
is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it
simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their
progeny, A conscious e ort has to be made to sustain laws, customs,
procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse,
For example, King Hammurabi decreed that people are divided into
superiors, commoners and slaves, Unlike the beehive class system, this is
not a natural division – there is no trace of it in the human genome, If the
Babylonians could not keep this ‘truth’ in mind, their society would have
ceased to function, Similarly, when Hammurabi passed his DNA to his
o spring, it did not encode his ruling that a superior man who killed a
commoner woman must pay thirty silver shekels, Hammurabi deliberately
had to instruct his sons in the laws of his empire, and his sons and
grandsons had to do the same,
Empires generate huge amounts of information, Beyond laws, empires
have to keep accounts of transactions and taxes, inventories of military
supplies and merchant vessels, and calendars of festivals and victories, For
millions of years people stored information in a single place – their brains,
Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-
sized databases, for three main reasons,
First, its capacity is limited, True, some people have astonishing
memories, and in ancient times there were memory professionals who could
store in their heads the topographies of whole provinces and the law codes
of entire states, Nevertheless, there is a limit that even master mnemonists
cannot transcend, A lawyer might know by heart the entire law code of the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but not the details of every legal
proceeding that took place in Massachusetts from the Salem witch trials
Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them, Any information
stored in a brain will be erased in less than a century, It is, of course,
possible to pass memories from one brain to another, but after a few
transmissions, the information tends to get garbled or lost,
Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store
and process only particular types of information, In order to survive,
ancient hunter-gatherers had to remember the shapes, qualities and
behaviour patterns of thousands of plant and animal species, They had to
remember that a wrinkled yellow mushroom growing in autumn under an
elm tree is most probably poisonous, whereas a similar-looking mushroom
growing in winter under an oak tree is a good stomach-ache remedy,
Hunter-gatherers also had to bear in mind the opinions and relations of
several dozen band members, If Lucy needed a band member’s help to get
John to stop harassing her, it was important for her to remember that John
had fallen out last week with Mary, who would thus be a likely and
enthusiastic ally, Consequently, evolutionary pressures have adapted the
human brain to store immense quantities of botanical, zoological,
topographical and social information,
But when particularly complex societies began to appear in the wake of
the Agricultural Revolution, a completely new type of information became
vital – numbers, Foragers were never obliged to handle large amounts of
mathematical data, No forager needed to remember, say, the number of
fruit on each tree in the forest, So human brains did not adapt to storing
and processing numbers, Yet in order to maintain a large kingdom,
mathematical data was vital, It was never enough to legislate laws and tell
stories about guardian gods, One also had to collect taxes, In order to tax
hundreds of thousands of people, it was imperative to collect data about
peoples incomes and possessions; data about payments made; data about
arrears, debts and nes; data about discounts and exemptions, This added
up to millions of data bits, which had to be stored and processed, Without
this capacity, the state would never know what resources it had and what
further resources it could tap, When confronted with the need to memorise,
recall and handle all these numbers, most human brains overdosed or fell
This mental limitation severely constrained the size and complexity of
human collectives, When the amount of people and property in a particular
society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process
large amounts of mathematical data, Since the human brain could not do it,
the system collapsed, For thousands of years after the Agricultural
Revolution, human social networks remained relatively small and simple,
The rst to overcome the problem were the ancient Sumerians, who lived
in southern Mesopotamia, There, a scorching sun beating upon rich muddy
plains produced plentiful harvests and prosperous towns, As the number of
inhabitants grew, so did the amount of information required to coordinate
their a airs, Between the years 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown
Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information
outside their brains, one that was custom-built to handle large amounts of
mathematical data, The Sumerians thereby released their social order from
the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of
cities, kingdoms and empires, The data-processing system invented by the
Sumerians is called ‘writing’,
Signed, Kushim
Writing is a method for storing information through material signs, The
Sumerian writing system did so by combining two types of signs, which
were pressed in clay tablets, One type of signs represented numbers, There
were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000, (The Sumerians used a
combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems, Their base-6 system
bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day
into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees,) The other type of
signs represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so
forth, By combining both types of signs the Sumerians were able to preserve
far more data than any human brain could remember or any DNA chain
could encode,
19, A clay tablet with an administrative text from the city of Uruk, c,3400–3000 BC, ‘Kushim’ may
be the generic title of an officeholder, or the name of a particular individual, If Kushim was
indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! All the
names applied earlier in human history – the Neanderthals, the Natufians, Chauvet Cave, Göbekli
Tepe – are modern inventions, We have no idea what the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually called
the place, With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its
protagonists, When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted
‘Kushim!’ It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than
a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror,
At this early stage, writing was limited to facts and gures, The great
Sumerian novel, if there ever was one, was never committed to clay tablets,
Writing was time-consuming and the reading public tiny, so no one saw any
reason to use it for anything other than essential record-keeping, If we look
for the rst words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years
ago, we’re in for a big disappointment, The earliest messages our ancestors
have left us read, for example, ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim,’
The most probable reading of this sentence is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures
of barley were received over the course of 37 months, Signed, Kushim,’
Alas, the rst texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry,
legends, laws, or even royal triumphs, They are humdrum economic
documents, recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of debts and
the ownership of property,
Partial script cannot express the entire spectrum of a spoken language, but it can express things
that fall outside the scope of spoken language, Partial scripts such as the Sumerian and
mathematical scripts cannot be used to write poetry, but they can keep tax accounts very
Only one other type of text survived from these ancient days, and it is
even less exciting: lists of words, copied over and over again by apprentice
scribes as training exercises, Even had a bored student wanted to write out
some of his poems instead of copy a bill of sale, he could not have done so,
The earliest Sumerian writing was a partial rather than a full script, Full
script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language
more or less completely, It can therefore express everything people can say,
including poetry, Partial script, on the other hand, is a system of material
signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to
a limited eld of activity, Latin script, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and
Braille are full scripts, You can use them to write tax registers, love poems,
history books, food recipes and business law, In contrast, the earliest
Sumerian script, like modern mathematical symbols and musical notation,
are partial scripts, You can use mathematical script to make calculations,
but you cannot use it to write love poems,
20, A man holding a quipu, as depicted in a Spanish manuscript following the fall of the Inca
It didn’t disturb the Sumerians that their script was ill-suited for writing
poetry, They didn’t invent it in order to copy spoken language, but rather
to do things that spoken language failed at, There were some cultures, such
as those of the pre-Columbian Andes, which used only partial scripts
throughout their entire histories, unfazed by their scripts’ limitations and
feeling no need for a full version, Andean script was very di erent from its
Sumerian counterpart, In fact, it was so di erent that many people would
argue it wasn’t a script at all, It was not written on clay tablets or pieces of
paper, Rather, it was written by tying knots on colourful cords called
quipus, Each quipu consisted of many cords of di erent colours, made of
wool or cotton, On each cord, several knots were tied in di erent places, A
single quipu could contain hundreds of cords and thousands of knots, By
combining di erent knots on di erent cords with di erent colours, it was
possible to record large amounts of mathematical data relating to, for
example, tax collection and property ownership,
For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, quipus were essential to the
business of cities, kingdoms and empires, They reached their full potential
under the Inca Empire, which ruled 10–12 million people and covered
today’s Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as chunks of Chile, Argentina
and Colombia, Thanks to quipus, the Incas could save and process large
amounts of data, without which they would not have been able to maintain
the complex administrative machinery that an empire of that size requires,
In fact, quipus were so e ective and accurate that in the early years
following the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spaniards themselves
employed quipus in the work of administering their new empire, The
problem was that the Spaniards did not themselves know how to record and
read quipus, making them dependent on local professionals, The continent’s
new rulers realised that this placed them in a tenuous position – the native
quipu experts could easily mislead and cheat their overlords, So once
Spain’s dominion was more rmly established, quipus were phased out and
the new empire’s records were kept entirely in Latin script and numerals,
Very few quipus survived the Spanish occupation, and most of those
remaining are undecipherable, since, unfortunately, the art of reading
quipus has been lost,
The Wonders of Bureaucracy
The Mesopotamians eventually started to want to write down things other
than monotonous mathematical data, Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC more
and more signs were added to the Sumerian system, gradually transforming
it into a full script that we today call cuneiform, By 2500 BC, kings were
using cuneiform to issue decrees, priests were using it to record oracles, and
less exalted citizens were using it to write personal letters, At roughly the
same time, Egyptians developed another full script known as hieroglyphics,
Other full scripts were developed in China around 1200 BC and in Central
America around 1000–500 BC,
From these initial centres, full scripts spread far and wide, taking on
various new forms and novel tasks, People began to write poetry, history
books, romances, dramas, prophecies and cookbooks, Yet writing’s most
important task continued to be the storage of reams of mathematical data,
and that task remained the prerogative of partial script, The Hebrew Bible,
the Greek Iliad, the Hindu Mahabharata and the Buddhist Tipitika all began
as oral works, For many generations they were transmitted orally and
would have lived on even had writing never been invented, But tax
registries and complex bureaucracies were born together with partial script,
and the two remain inexorably linked to this day like Siamese twins – think
of the cryptic entries in computerised data bases and spreadsheets,
As more and more things were written, and particularly as administrative
archives grew to huge proportions, new problems appeared, Information
stored in a persons brain is easy to retrieve, My brain stores billions of bits
of data, yet I can quickly, almost instantaneously, recall the name of Italy’s
capital, immediately afterwards recollect what I did on 11 September 2001,
and then reconstruct the route leading from my house to the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem, Exactly how the brain does it remains a mystery,
but we all know that the brain’s retrieval system is amazingly e cient,
except when you are trying to remember where you put your car keys,
How, though, do you nd and retrieve information stored on quipu cords
or clay tablets? If you have just ten tablets or a hundred tablets, it’s not a
problem, But what if you have accumulated thousands of them, as did one
of Hammurabi’s contemporaries, King Zimrilim of Mari?
Imagine for a moment that it’s 1776 BC, Two Marians are quarrelling over
possession of a wheat eld, Jacob insists that he bought the eld from Esau
thirty years ago, Esau retorts that he in fact rented the eld to Jacob for a
term of thirty years, and that now, the term being up, he intends to reclaim
it, They shout and wrangle and start pushing one another before they
realise that they can resolve their dispute by going to the royal archive,
where are housed the deeds and bills of sale that apply to all the kingdom’s
real estate, Upon arriving at the archive they are shuttled from one o cial
to the other, They wait through several herbal tea breaks, are told to come
back tomorrow, and eventually are taken by a grumbling clerk to look for
the relevant clay tablet, The clerk opens a door and leads them into a huge
room lined, oor to ceiling, with thousands of clay tablets, No wonder the
clerk is sour-faced, How is he supposed to locate the deed to the disputed
wheat eld written thirty years ago? Even if he nds it, how will he be able
to cross-check to ensure that the one from thirty years ago is the latest
document relating to the eld in question? If he can’t nd it, does that
prove that Esau never sold or rented out the eld? Or just that the
document got lost, or turned to mush when some rain leaked into the
Clearly, just imprinting a document in clay is not enough to guarantee
e cient, accurate and convenient data processing, That requires methods
of organisation like catalogues, methods of reproduction like photocopy
machines, methods of rapid and accurate retrieval like computer
algorithms, and pedantic (but hopefully cheerful) librarians who know how
to use these tools,
Inventing such methods proved to be far more di cult than inventing
writing, Many writing systems developed independently in cultures distant
in time and place from each other, Every decade archaeologists discover
another few forgotten scripts, Some of them might prove to be even older
than the Sumerian scratches in clay, But most of them remain curiosities
because those who invented them failed to invent e cient ways of
cataloguing and retrieving data, What set apart Sumer, as well as
pharaonic Egypt, ancient China and the Inca Empire, is that these cultures
developed good techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written
records, They also invested in schools for scribes, clerks, librarians and
A writing exercise from a school in ancient Mesopotamia discovered by
modern archaeologists gives us a glimpse into the lives of these students,
some 4,000 years ago:
I went in and sat down, and my teacher read my tablet, He said, ‘There’s something missing!’
And he caned me,
One of the people in charge said, ‘Why did you open your mouth without my permission?’
And he caned me,
The one in charge of rules said, ‘Why did you get up without my permission?’
And he caned me,
The gatekeeper said, ‘Why are you going out without my permission?’ And he caned me,
The keeper of the beer jug said, ‘Why did you get some without my permission?’
And he caned me,

The Sumerian teacher said, ‘Why did you speak Akkadian?’
And he caned me,
My teacher said, ‘Your handwriting is no good!’
And he caned me,
Ancient scribes learned not merely to read and write, but also to use
catalogues, dictionaries, calendars, forms and tables, They studied and
internalised techniques of cataloguing, retrieving and processing
information very di erent from those used by the brain, In the brain, all
data is freely associated, When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage
for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which
reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of
alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the
Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the
Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk, In bureaucracy, things must be
kept apart, There is one drawer for home mortgages, another for marriage
certi cates, a third for tax registers, and a fourth for lawsuits, Otherwise,
how can you nd anything? Things that belong in more than one drawer,
like Wagnerian music dramas (do I le them under ‘music’, ‘theatre’, or
perhaps invent a new category altogether?), are a terrible headache, So
one is forever adding, deleting and rearranging drawers,
In order to function, the people who operate such a system of drawers
must be reprogrammed to stop thinking as humans and to start thinking as
clerks and accountants, As everyone from ancient times till today knows,
clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion, They think like ling
cabinets, This is not their fault, If they don’t think that way their drawers
will all get mixed up and they won’t be able to provide the services their
government, company or organisation requires, The most important impact
of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the
way humans think and view the world, Free association and holistic
thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy,
The Language of Numbers
As the centuries passed, bureaucratic methods of data processing grew ever
more di erent from the way humans naturally think – and ever more
important, A critical step was made sometime before the ninth century AD,
when a new partial script was invented, one that could store and process
mathematical data with unprecedented e ciency, This partial script was
composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9, Confusingly,
these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were rst
invented by the Hindus (even more confusingly, modern Arabs use a set of
digits that look quite di erent from Western ones), But the Arabs get the
credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system,
understood its usefulness, re ned it, and spread it through the Middle East
and then to Europe, When several other signs were later added to the Arab
numerals (such as the signs for addition, subtraction and multiplication),
the basis of modern mathematical notation came into being,
Although this system of writing remains a partial script, it has become
the world’s dominant language, Almost all states, companies, organisations
and institutions – whether they speak Arabic, Hindi, English or Norwegian
– use mathematical script to record and process data, Every piece of
information that can be translated into mathematical script is stored,
spread and processed with mind-boggling speed and efficiency,
A person who wishes to in uence the decisions of governments,
organisations and companies must therefore learn to speak in numbers,
Experts do their best to translate even ideas such as ‘poverty’, ‘happiness’
and ‘honesty’ into numbers (‘the poverty line’, ‘subjective well-being levels’,
‘credit rating’), Entire elds of knowledge, such as physics and engineering,
have already lost almost all touch with the spoken human language, and
are maintained solely by mathematical script,
An equation for calculating the acceleration of mass i under the influence of gravity, according to
the Theory of Relativity, When most laypeople see such an equation, they usually panic and
freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding vehicle, The reaction is quite natural,
and does not betray a lack of intelligence or curiosity, With rare exceptions, human brains are
simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics, Physicists
nevertheless manage to do so, because they set aside the traditional human way of thinking, and
learn to think anew with the help of external data-processing systems, Crucial parts of their
thought process take place not in the head, but inside computers or on classroom blackboards,
More recently, mathematical script has given rise to an even more
revolutionary writing system, a computerised binary script consisting of
only two signs: 0 and 1, The words I am now typing on my keyboard are
written within my computer by different combinations of 0 and 1,
Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is
increasingly becoming its master, Our computers have trouble
understanding how Homo sapiens talks, feels and dreams, So we are
teaching Homo sapiens to talk, feel and dream in the language of numbers,
which can be understood by computers,
And this is not the end of the story, The eld of arti cial intelligence is
seeking to create a new kind of intelligence based solely on the binary
script of computers, Science- ction movies such as The Matrix and The
Terminator tell of a day when the binary script throws o the yoke of
humanity, When humans try to regain control of the rebellious script, it
responds by attempting to wipe out the human race,

  • Even after Akkadian became the spoken language, Sumerian remained the language of administration and
    thus the language recorded with writing, Aspiring scribes thus had to speak Sumerian,
    There is No Justice in History
    UNDERSTANDING HUMAN HISTORY IN THE millennia following the
    Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans
    organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the
    biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is
    that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts, These two
    inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance,
    However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious
    blessing, The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither
    neutral nor fair, They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in
    a hierarchy, The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the
    lower ones su ered from discrimination and oppression, Hammurabi’s
    Code, for example, established a pecking order of superiors, commoners and
    slaves, Superiors got all the good things in life, Commoners got what was
    left, Slaves got a beating if they complained,
    Despite its proclamation of the equality of all men, the imagined order
    established by the Americans in 1776 also established a hierarchy, It
    created a hierarchy between men, who bene ted from it, and women,
    whom it left disempowered, It created a hierarchy between whites, who
    enjoyed liberty, and blacks and American Indians, who were considered
    humans of a lesser type and therefore did not share in the equal rights of
    men, Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were
    slaveholders, They did not release their slaves upon signing the
    Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites, In their view, the
    rights of men had little to do with Negroes,
    The American order also consecrated the hierarchy between rich and
    poor, Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality
    caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses on to their
    children, In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to
    rich and poor, It had nothing to do with unemployment bene ts, integrated
    education or health insurance, Liberty, too, carried very di erent
    connotations than it does today, In 1776, it did not mean that the
    disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women)
    could gain and exercise power, It meant simply that the state could not,
    except in unusual circumstances, con scate a citizen’s private property or
    tell him what to do with it, The American order thereby upheld the
    hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others
    viewed as representing the immutable laws of nature, Nature, it was
    claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalising indolence,
    All the above-mentioned distinctions – between free persons and slaves,
    between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in ctions,
    (The hierarchy of men and women will be discussed later,) Yet it is an iron
    rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its ctional origins
    and claims to be natural and inevitable, For instance, many people who
    have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct
    have argued that slavery is not a human invention, Hammurabi saw it as
    ordained by the gods, Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’
    whereas free people have a ‘free nature’, Their status in society is merely a
    reflection of their innate nature,
    Ask white supremacists about the racial hierarchy, and you are in for a
    pseudoscienti c lecture concerning the biological di erences between the
    races, You are likely to be told that there is something in Caucasian blood
    or genes that makes whites naturally more intelligent, moral and
    hardworking, Ask a diehard capitalist about the hierarchy of wealth, and
    you are likely to hear that it is the inevitable outcome of objective
    di erences in abilities, The rich have more money, in this view, because
    they are more capable and diligent, No one should be bothered, then, if the
    wealthy get better health care, better education and better nutrition, The
    rich richly deserve every perk they enjoy,
    21, A sign on a South African beach from the period of apartheid, restricting its usage to whites’
    only, People with lighter skin colour are typically more in danger of sunburn than people with
    darker skin, Yet there was no biological logic behind the division of South African beaches,
    Beaches reserved for people with lighter skin were not characterised by lower levels of
    ultraviolet radiation,
    Hindus who adhere to the caste system believe that cosmic forces have
    made one caste superior to another, According to a famous Hindu creation
    myth, the gods fashioned the world out of the body of a primeval being, the
    Purusa, The sun was created from the Purusa’s eye, the moon from the
    Purusa’s brain, the Brahmins (priests) from its mouth, the Kshatriyas
    (warriors) from its arms, the Vaishyas (peasants and merchants) from its
    thighs, and the Shudras (servants) from its legs, Accept this explanation
    and the sociopolitical di erences between Brahmins and Shudras are as
    natural and eternal as the di erences between the sun and the moon, The
    ancient Chinese believed that when the goddess Nü Wa created humans
    from earth, she kneaded aristocrats from ne yellow soil, whereas
    commoners were formed from brown mud,
    Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product
    of human imagination, Brahmins and Shudras were not really created by
    the gods from di erent body parts of a primeval being, Instead, the
    distinction between the two castes was created by laws and norms invented
    by humans in northern India about 3,000 years ago, Contrary to Aristotle,
    there is no known biological di erence between slaves and free people,
    Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others
    into masters, Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological
    di erences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that
    the differences extend to intelligence or morality,
    Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while
    those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria, Modern
    Westerners are taught to sco at the idea of racial hierarchy, They are
    shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to
    study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals, But the hierarchy
    of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and
    more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious
    schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped
    facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans, Yet
    it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that
    they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor
    throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family,
    Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined
    hierarchies and unjust discrimination, Of course not all hierarchies are
    morally identical, and some societies su ered from more extreme types of
    discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has
    been able to dispense with discrimination altogether, Time and again
    people have created order in their societies by classifying the population
    into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites
    and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and
    poor, These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans
    by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others,
    Hierarchies serve an important function, They enable complete strangers
    to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy
    needed to become personally acquainted, In George Bernard Shaw’s
    Pygmalion, Henry Higgins doesn’t need to establish an intimate
    acquaintance with Eliza Doolittle in order to understand how he should
    relate to her, Just hearing her talk tells him that she is a member of the
    underclass with whom he can do as he wishes – for example, using her as a
    pawn in his bet to pass o a ower girl as a duchess, A modern Eliza
    working at a orist’s needs to know how much e ort to put into selling
    roses and gladioli to the dozens of people who enter the shop each day, She
    can’t make a detailed enquiry into the tastes and wallets of each individual,
    Instead, she uses social cues – the way the person is dressed, his or her age,
    and if she’s not politically correct his skin colour, That is how she
    immediately distinguishes between the accounting- rm partner who’s likely
    to place a large order for expensive roses, and a messenger boy who can
    only afford a bunch of daisies,
    Of course, di erences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation
    of social distinctions, But such diversities of aptitudes and character are
    usually mediated through imagined hierarchies, This happens in two
    important ways, First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and
    developed, Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent
    will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised, Not all
    people get the same chance to cultivate and re ne their abilities, Whether
    or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place
    within their society’s imagined hierarchy, Harry Potter is a good example,
    Removed from his distinguished wizard family and brought up by ignorant
    muggles, he arrives at Hogwarts without any experience in magic, It takes
    him seven books to gain a rm command of his powers and knowledge of
    his unique abilities,
    Second, even if people belonging to di erent classes develop exactly the
    same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will
    have to play the game by di erent rules, If, in British-ruled India, an
    Untouchable, a Brahmin, a Catholic Irishman and a Protestant Englishman
    had somehow developed exactly the same business acumen, they still would
    not have had the same chance of becoming rich, The economic game was
    rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings,
    The Vicious Circle
    All societies are based on imagined hierarchies, but not necessarily on the
    same hierarchies, What accounts for the di erences? Why did traditional
    Indian society classify people according to caste, Ottoman society according
    to religion, and American society according to race? In most cases the
    hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical
    circumstances and was then perpetuated and re ned over many
    generations as different groups developed vested interests in it,
    For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took
    shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about
    3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population, The invaders established
    a strati ed society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading
    positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and
    slaves, The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their
    privileged status and unique identity, To forestall this danger, they divided
    the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a speci c
    occupation or perform a speci c role in society, Each had di erent legal
    status, privileges and duties, Mixing of castes – social interaction, marriage,
    even the sharing of meals – was prohibited, And the distinctions were not
    just legal – they became an inherent part of religious mythology and
    The rulers argued that the caste system re ected an eternal cosmic reality
    rather than a chance historical development, Concepts of purity and
    impurity were essential elements in Hindu religion, and they were
    harnessed to buttress the social pyramid, Pious Hindus were taught that
    contact with members of a di erent caste could pollute not only them
    personally, but society as a whole, and should therefore be abhorred, Such
    ideas are hardly unique to Hindus, Throughout history, and in almost all
    societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in
    enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by
    numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges, The fear of pollution is
    not a complete fabrication of priests and princes, however, It probably has
    its roots in biological survival mechanisms that make humans feel an
    instinctive revulsion towards potential disease carriers, such as sick persons
    and dead bodies, If you want to keep any human group isolated – women,
    Jews, Roma, gays, blacks – the best way to do it is convince everyone that
    these people are a source of pollution,
    The Hindu caste system and its attendant laws of purity became deeply
    embedded in Indian culture, Long after the Indo-Aryan invasion was
    forgotten, Indians continued to believe in the caste system and to abhor the
    pollution caused by caste mixing, Castes were not immune to change, In
    fact, as time went by, large castes were divided into sub-castes, Eventually
    the original four castes turned into 3,000 di erent groupings called jati
    (literally ‘birth’), But this proliferation of castes did not change the basic
    principle of the system, according to which every person is born into a
    particular rank, and any infringement of its rules pollutes the person and
    society as a whole, A persons jati determines her profession, the food she
    can eat, her place of residence and her eligible marriage partners, Usually a
    person can marry only within his or her caste, and the resulting children
    inherit that status,
    Whenever a new profession developed or a new group of people
    appeared on the scene, they had to be recognised as a caste in order to
    receive a legitimate place within Hindu society, Groups that failed to win
    recognition as a caste were, literally, outcasts – in this strati ed society,
    they did not even occupy the lowest rung, They became known as
    Untouchables, They had to live apart from all other people and scrape
    together a living in humiliating and disgusting ways, such as sifting
    through garbage dumps for scrap material, Even members of the lowest
    caste avoided mingling with them, eating with them, touching them and
    certainly marrying them, In modern India, matters of marriage and work
    are still heavily in uenced by the caste system, despite all attempts by the
    democratic government of India to break down such distinctions and
    convince Hindus that there is nothing polluting in caste mixing,
    Purity in America
    A similar vicious circle perpetuated the racial hierarchy in modern America,
    From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the European conquerors
    imported millions of African slaves to work the mines and plantations of
    America, They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than from Europe
    or East Asia due to three circumstantial factors, Firstly, Africa was closer, so
    it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam,
    Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade
    (exporting slaves mainly to the Middle East), whereas in Europe slavery
    was very rare, It was obviously far easier to buy slaves in an existing
    market than to create a new one from scratch,
    Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations in places such as
    Virginia, Haiti and Brazil were plagued by malaria and yellow fever, which
    had originated in Africa, Africans had acquired over the generations a
    partial genetic immunity to these diseases, whereas Europeans were totally
    defenceless and died in droves, It was consequently wiser for a plantation
    owner to invest his money in an African slave than in a European slave or
    indentured labourer, Paradoxically, genetic superiority (in terms of
    immunity) translated into social inferiority: precisely because Africans were
    tter in tropical climates than Europeans, they ended up as the slaves of
    European masters! Due to these circumstantial factors, the burgeoning new
    societies of America were to be divided into a ruling caste of white
    Europeans and a subjugated caste of black Africans,
    But people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or
    origin simply because it’s economically expedient, Like the Aryan
    conquerors of India, white Europeans in the Americas wanted to be seen
    not only as economically successful but also as pious, just and objective,
    Religious and scienti c myths were pressed into service to justify this
    division, Theologians argued that Africans descend from Ham, son of Noah,
    saddled by his father with a curse that his o spring would be slaves,
    Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral
    sense less developed, Doctors alleged that blacks live in lth and spread
    diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution,
    These myths struck a chord in American culture, and in Western culture
    generally, They continued to exert their in uence long after the conditions
    that created slavery had disappeared, In the early nineteenth century
    imperial Britain outlawed slavery and stopped the Atlantic slave trade, and
    in the decades that followed slavery was gradually outlawed throughout the
    American continent, Notably, this was the first and only time in history that
    slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery, But, even though the
    slaves were freed, the racist myths that justi ed slavery persisted,
    Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social
    The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and e ect, a vicious circle,
    Consider, for example, the southern United States immediately after the
    Civil War, In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution
    outlawed slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment mandated that citizenship
    and the equal protection of the law could not be denied on the basis of race,
    However, two centuries of slavery meant that most black families were far
    poorer and far less educated than most white families, A black person born
    in Alabama in 1865 thus had much less chance of getting a good education
    and a well-paid job than did his white neighbours, His children, born in the
    1880S and 1890s, started life with the same disadvantage – they, too, were
    born to an uneducated, poor family,
    But economic disadvantage was not the whole story, Alabama was also
    home to many poor whites who lacked the opportunities available to their
    better-o racial brothers and sisters, In addition, the Industrial Revolution
    and the waves of immigration made the United States an extremely uid
    society, where rags could quickly turn into riches, If money was all that
    mattered, the sharp divide between the races should soon have blurred, not
    least through intermarriage,
    But that did not happen, By 1865 whites, as well as many blacks, took it
    to be a simple matter of fact that blacks were less intelligent, more violent
    and sexually dissolute, lazier and less concerned about personal cleanliness
    than whites, They were thus the agents of violence, theft, rape and disease
    – in other words, pollution, If a black Alabaman in 1895 miraculously
    managed to get a good education and then applied for a respectable job
    such as a bank teller, his odds of being accepted were far worse than those
    of an equally quali ed white candidate, The stigma that labelled blacks as,
    by nature, unreliable, lazy and less intelligent conspired against him,
    You might think that people would gradually understand that these
    stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over
    time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as
    whites, In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and
    more entrenched as time went by, Since all the best jobs were held by
    whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior, ‘Look,’
    said the average white citizen, ‘blacks have been free for generations, yet
    there are almost no black professors, lawyers, doctors or even bank tellers,
    Isn’t that proof that blacks are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’
    Trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs
    because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority
    was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs,
    The vicious circle did not stop there, As anti-black stigmas grew stronger,
    they were translated into a system of ‘Jim Crow’ laws and norms that were
    meant to safeguard the racial order, Blacks were forbidden to vote in
    elections, to study in white schools, to buy in white stores, to eat in white
    restaurants, to sleep in white hotels, The justi cation for all of this was that
    blacks were foul, slothful and vicious, so whites had to be protected from
    them, Whites did not want to sleep in the same hotel as blacks or to eat in
    the same restaurant, for fear of diseases, They did not want their children
    learning in the same school as black children, for fear of brutality and bad
    in uences, They did not want blacks voting in elections, since blacks were
    ignorant and immoral, These fears were substantiated by scienti c studies
    that ‘proved’ that blacks were indeed less educated, that various diseases
    were more common among them, and that their crime rate was far higher
    (the studies ignored the fact that these ‘facts’ resulted from discrimination
    against blacks),
    By the mid-twentieth century, segregation in the former Confederate
    states was probably worse than in the late nineteenth century, Clennon
    King, a black student who applied to the University of Mississippi in 1958,
    was forcefully committed to a mental asylum, The presiding judge ruled
    that a black person must surely be insane to think that he could be admitted
    to the University of Mississippi,
    The vicious circle: a chance histotical situation is translated into a rigid social system,
    Nothing was as revolting to American southerners (and many
    northerners) as sexual relations and marriage between black men and white
    women, Sex between the races became the greatest taboo and any
    violation, or suspected violation, was viewed as deserving immediate and
    summary punishment in the form of lynching, The Ku Klux Klan, a white
    supremacist secret society, perpetrated many such killings, They could have
    taught the Hindu Brahmins a thing or two about purity laws,
    With time, the racism spread to more and more cultural arenas, American
    aesthetic culture was built around white standards of beauty, The physical
    attributes of the white race – for example light skin, fair and straight hair,
    a small upturned nose – came to be identi ed as beautiful, Typical black
    features – dark skin, dark and bushy hair, a attened nose – were deemed
    ugly, These preconceptions ingrained the imagined hierarchy at an even
    deeper level of human consciousness,
    Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia,
    perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical
    occurrence, Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time,
    Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty, Education comes to
    education, and ignorance to ignorance, Those once victimised by history are
    likely to be victimised yet again, And those whom history has privileged are
    more likely to be privileged again,
    Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are
    nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths, That is
    one good reason to study history, If the division into blacks and whites or
    Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if
    Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be
    su cient for understanding human society, Since the biological distinctions
    between di erent groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology
    can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics,
    We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events,
    circumstances, and power relations that transformed gments of
    imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures,
    He and She
    Di erent societies adopt di erent kinds of imagined hierarchies, Race is
    very important to modern Americans but was relatively insigni cant to
    medieval Muslims, Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India,
    whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent, One hierarchy,
    however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies:
    the hierarchy of gender, People everywhere have divided themselves into
    men and women, And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at
    least since the Agricultural Revolution,
    Some of the earliest Chinese texts are oracle bones, dating to 1200 BC,
    used to divine the future, On one was engraved the question: ‘Will Lady
    Hao’s childbearing be lucky?’ To which was written the reply: ‘If the child is
    born on a ding day, lucky; if on a geng day, vastly auspicious,’ However,
    Lady Hao was to give birth on a jiayin day, The text ends with the morose
    observation: ‘Three weeks and one day later, on jiayin day, the child was
    born, Not lucky, It was a girl,’ More than 3,000 years later, when
    Communist China enacted the ‘one child’ policy, many Chinese families
    continued to regard the birth of a girl as a misfortune, Parents would
    occasionally abandon or murder newborn baby girls in order to have
    another shot at getting a boy,
    In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often
    their fathers, husbands or brothers, Rape, in many legal systems, falls under
    property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was
    raped but the male who owns her, This being the case, the legal remedy
    was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price
    to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s
    property, The Bible decrees that ‘If a man meets a virgin who is not
    betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the
    man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fty
    shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife’ (Deuteronomy 22:28–9), The
    ancient Hebrews considered this a reasonable arrangement,
    Raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a
    crime at all, just as picking up a lost coin on a busy street is not considered
    theft, And if a husband raped his own wife, he had committed no crime, In
    fact, the idea that a husband could rape his wife was an oxymoron, To be a
    husband was to have full control of your wife’s sexuality, To say that a
    husband ‘raped’ his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own
    wallet, Such thinking was not con ned to the ancient Middle East, As of
    2006, there were still fty-three countries where a husband could not be
    prosecuted for the rape of his wife, Even in Germany, rape laws were
    amended only in 1997 to create a legal category of marital rape,
    Is the division into men and women a product of the imagination, like
    the caste system in India and the racial system in America, or is it a natural
    division with deep biological roots? And if it is indeed a natural division,
    are there also biological explanations for the preference given to men over
    Some of the cultural, legal and political disparities between men and
    women re ect the obvious biological di erences between the sexes,
    Childbearing has always been women’s job, because men don’t have
    wombs, Yet around this hard universal kernel, every society accumulated
    layer upon layer of cultural ideas and norms that have little to do with
    biology, Societies associate a host of attributes with masculinity and
    femininity that, for the most part, lack a firm biological basis,
    For instance, in democratic Athens of the fth century BC, an individual
    possessing a womb had no independent legal status and was forbidden to
    participate in popular assemblies or to be a judge, With few exceptions,
    such an individual could not bene t from a good education, nor engage in
    business or in philosophical discourse, None of Athens’ political leaders,
    none of its great philosophers, orators, artists or merchants had a womb,
    Does having a womb make a person un t, biologically, for these
    professions? The ancient Athenians thought so, Modern Athenians disagree,
    In present-day Athens, women vote, are elected to public o ce, make
    speeches, design everything from jewellery to buildings to software, and go
    to university, Their wombs do not keep them from doing any of these
    things as successfully as men do, True, they are still under-represented in
    politics and business – only about 12 per cent of the members of Greece’s
    parliament are women, But there is no legal barrier to their participation in
    politics, and most modern Greeks think it is quite normal for a woman to
    serve in public office,
    Many modern Greeks also think that an integral part of being a man is
    being sexually attracted to women only, and having sexual relations
    exclusively with the opposite sex, They don’t see this as a cultural bias, but
    rather as a biological reality – relations between two people of the opposite
    sex are natural, and between two people of the same sex unnatural, In fact,
    though, Mother Nature does not mind if men are sexually attracted to one
    another, It’s only human mothers steeped in particular cultures who make a
    scene if their son has a ing with the boy next door, The mother’s tantrums
    are not a biological imperative, A signi cant number of human cultures
    have viewed homosexual relations as not only legitimate but even socially
    constructive, ancient Greece being the most notable example, The Iliad does
    not mention that Thetis had any objection to her son Achilles’ relations
    with Patroclus, Queen Olympias of Macedon was one of the most
    temperamental and forceful women of the ancient world, and even had her
    own husband, King Philip, assassinated, Yet she didn’t have a t when her
    son, Alexander the Great, brought his lover Hephaestion home for dinner,
    How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what
    people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb
    is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids,’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very
    wide spectrum of possibilities, It’s culture that obliges people to realise
    some possibilities while forbidding others, Biology enables women to have
    children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility, Biology
    enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to
    realise this possibility,
    Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural, But
    from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural, Whatever is possible is
    by de nition also natural, A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes
    against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no
    prohibition, No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise,
    women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged
    electrons to be attracted to each other,
    In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and unnatural’ are taken not from
    biology, but from Christian theology, The theological meaning of ‘natural’
    is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’,
    Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending
    each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose, If we use our limbs and
    organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity, To
    use them di erently than God intends is unnatural, But evolution has no
    purpose, Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are
    used is in constant ux, There is not a single organ in the human body that
    only does the job its prototype did when it rst appeared hundreds of
    millions of years ago, Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but
    once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well, Mouths, for
    example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a
    way to take nutrients into their bodies, We still use our mouths for that
    purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull
    the pins out of hand grenades, Are any of these uses unnatural simply
    because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those
    things with their mouths?
    Similarly, wings didn’t suddenly appear in all their aerodynamic glory,
    They developed from organs that served another purpose, According to one
    theory, insect wings evolved millions of years ago from body protrusions on
    ightless bugs, Bugs with bumps had a larger surface area than those
    without bumps, and this enabled them to absorb more sunlight and thus
    stay warmer, In a slow evolutionary process, these solar heaters grew
    larger, The same structure that was good for maximum sunlight absorption
    – lots of surface area, little weight – also, by coincidence, gave the insects a
    bit of a lift when they skipped and jumped, Those with bigger protrusions
    could skip and jump farther, Some insects started using the things to glide,
    and from there it was a small step to wings that could actually propel the
    bug through the air, Next time a mosquito buzzes in your ear, accuse her of
    unnatural behaviour, If she were well behaved and content with what God
    gave her, she’d use her wings only as solar panels,
    The same sort of multitasking applies to our sexual organs and behaviour,
    Sex rst evolved for procreation and courtship rituals as a way of sizing up
    the tness of a potential mate, But many animals now put both to use for a
    multitude of social purposes that have little to do with creating little copies
    of themselves, Chimpanzees, for example, use sex to cement political
    alliances, establish intimacy and defuse tensions, Is that unnatural?
    Sex and Gender
    There is little sense, then, in arguing that the natural function of women is
    to give birth, or that homosexuality is unnatural, Most of the laws, norms,
    rights and obligations that de ne manhood and womanhood re ect human
    imagination more than biological reality,
    Biologically, humans are divided into males and females, A male Homo
    sapiens is one who has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome; a female
    is one with two Xs, But ‘man’ and woman’ name social, not biological,
    categories, While in the great majority of cases in most human societies
    men are males and women are females, the social terms carry a lot of
    baggage that has only a tenuous, if any, relationship to the biological
    terms, A man is not a Sapiens with particular biological qualities such as XY
    chromosomes, testicles and lots of testosterone, Rather, he ts into a
    particular slot in his society’s imagined human order, His culture’s myths
    assign him particular masculine roles (like engaging in politics), rights (like
    voting) and duties (like military service), Likewise, a woman is not a
    Sapiens with two X chromosomes, a womb and plenty of oestrogen, Rather,
    she is a female member of an imagined human order, The myths of her
    society assign her unique feminine roles (raising children), rights
    (protection against violence) and duties (obedience to her husband), Since
    myths, rather than biology, de ne the roles, rights and duties of men and
    women, the meaning of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ have varied
    immensely from one society to another,
    22, Eighteenth-century masculinity: an official portrait of King Louis XIV of France, Note the long
    wig, stockings, high-heeled shoes, dancers posture – and huge sword, In contemporary Europe,
    all these (except for the sword) would be considered marks of effeminacy, But in his time Louis
    was a European paragon of manhood and virility,
    23, Twenty-first-century masculinity: an official portrait of Barack Obama, What happened to the
    wig, stockings, high heels – and sword? Dominant men have never looked so dull and dreary as
    they do today, During most of history, dominant men have been colourful and flamboyant, such
    as American Indian chiefs with their feathered headdresses and Hindu maharajas decked out in
    silks and diamonds, Throughout the animal kingdom males tend to be more colourful and
    accessorised than females – think of peacocks’ tails and lions’ manes,
    To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between ‘sex’,
    which is a biological category, and ‘gender’, a cultural category, Sex is
    divided between males and females, and the qualities of this division are
    objective and have remained constant throughout history, Gender is divided
    between men and women (and some cultures recognise other categories),
    So-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities are inter-subjective and
    undergo constant changes, For example, there are far-reaching di erences
    in the behaviour, desires, dress and even body posture expected from
    women in classical Athens and women in modern Athens,
    Sex is child’s play; but gender is serious business, To get to be a member
    of the male sex is the simplest thing in the world, You just need to be born
    with an X and a Y chromosome, To get to be a female is equally simple, A
    pair of X chromosomes will do it, In contrast, becoming a man or a woman
    is a very complicated and demanding undertaking, Since most masculine
    and feminine qualities are cultural rather than biological, no society
    automatically crowns each male a man, or every female a woman, Nor are
    these titles laurels that can be rested on once they are acquired, Males must
    prove their masculinity constantly, throughout their lives, from cradle to
    grave, in an endless series of rites and performances, And a woman’s work
    is never done – she must continually convince herself and others that she is
    feminine enough,
    Success is not guaranteed, Males in particular live in constant dread of
    losing their claim to manhood, Throughout history, males have been willing
    to risk and even sacri ce their lives, just so that people will say ‘He’s a real
    What’s So Good About Men?
    At least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been
    patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women, No matter
    how a society de ned ‘man’ and ‘woman’, to be a man was always better,
    Patriarchal societies educate men to think and act in a masculine way and
    women to think and act in a feminine way, punishing anyone who dares
    cross those boundaries, Yet they do not equally reward those who conform,
    Qualities considered masculine are more valued than those considered
    feminine, and members of a society who personify the feminine ideal get
    less than those who exemplify the masculine ideal, Fewer resources are
    invested in the health and education of women; they have fewer economic
    opportunities, less political power, and less freedom of movement, Gender
    is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal,
    True, a handful of women have made it to the alpha position, such as
    Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China (c, AD 700) and Elizabeth I
    of England, Yet they are the exceptions that prove the rule, Throughout
    Elizabeth’s forty- ve-year reign, all Members of Parliament were men, all
    o cers in the Royal Navy and army were men, all judges and lawyers were
    men, all bishops and archbishops were men, all theologians and priests
    were men, all doctors and surgeons were men, all students and professors in
    all universities and colleges were men, all mayors and sheri s were men,
    and almost all the writers, architects, poets, philosophers, painters,
    musicians and scientists were men,
    Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial
    societies, It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social
    revolutions and economic transformations, Egypt, for example, was
    conquered numerous times over the centuries, Assyrians, Persians,
    Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Mameluks, Turks and British occupied it –
    and its society always remained patriarchal, Egypt was governed by
    pharaonic law, Greek law, Roman law, Muslim law, Ottoman law and
    British law – and they all discriminated against people who were not ‘real
    Since patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious
    circle that was kick-started by a chance occurrence, It is particularly
    noteworthy that even before 1492, most societies in both America and Afro-
    Asia were patriarchal, even though they had been out of contact for
    thousands of years, If patriarchy in Afro-Asia resulted from some chance
    occurrence, why were the Aztecs and Incas patriarchal? It is far more likely
    that even though the precise de nition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies
    between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all
    cultures valued manhood over womanhood, We do not know what this
    reason is, There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing,
    Muscle Power
    The most common theory points to the fact that men are stronger than
    women, and that they have used their greater physical power to force
    women into submission, A more subtle version of this claim argues that
    their strength allows men to monopolise tasks that demand hard manual
    labour, such as ploughing and harvesting, This gives them control of food
    production, which in turn translates into political clout,
    There are two problems with this emphasis on muscle power, First, the
    statement that men are stronger than women’ is true only on average, and
    only with regard to certain types of strength, Women are generally more
    resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men, There are also many
    women who can run faster and lift heavier weights than many men,
    Furthermore, and most problematically for this theory, women have,
    throughout history, been excluded mainly from jobs that require little
    physical e ort (such as the priesthood, law and politics), while engaging in
    hard manual labour in the elds, in crafts and in the household, If social
    power were divided in direct relation to physical strength or stamina,
    women should have got far more of it,
    Even more importantly, there simply is no direct relation between
    physical strength and social power among humans, People in their sixties
    usually exercise power over people in their twenties, even though
    twentysomethings are much stronger than their elders, The typical
    plantation owner in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century could have
    been wrestled to the ground in seconds by any of the slaves cultivating his
    cotton elds, Boxing matches were not used to select Egyptian pharaohs or
    Catholic popes, In forager societies, political dominance generally resides
    with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most
    developed musculature, In organised crime, the big boss is not necessarily
    the strongest man, He is often an older man who very rarely uses his own
    sts; he gets younger and tter men to do the dirty jobs for him, A guy who
    thinks that the way to take over the syndicate is to beat up the don is
    unlikely to live long enough to learn from his mistake, Even among
    chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable
    coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence,
    In fact, human history shows that there is often an inverse relation
    between physical prowess and social power, In most societies, it’s the lower
    classes who do the manual labour, This may re ect Homo sapiens position
    in the food chain, If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Sapiens
    would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder, But their
    mental and social skills placed them at the top, It is therefore only natural
    that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by
    mental and social abilities more than by brute force, It is therefore hard to
    believe that the most in uential and most stable social hierarchy in history
    is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women,
    The Scum of Society
    Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from
    strength but from aggression, Millions of years of evolution have made men
    far more violent than women, Women can match men as far as hatred,
    greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory
    goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence, This is why
    throughout history warfare has been a masculine prerogative,
    In times of war, men’s control of the armed forces has made them the
    masters of civilian society, too, They then used their control of civilian
    society to ght more and more wars, and the greater the number of wars,
    the greater men’s control of society, This feedback loop explains both the
    ubiquity of war and the ubiquity of patriarchy,
    Recent studies of the hormonal and cognitive systems of men and women
    strengthen the assumption that men indeed have more aggressive and
    violent tendencies, and are therefore, on average, better suited to serve as
    common soldiers, Yet granted that the common soldiers are all men, does it
    follow that the ones managing the war and enjoying its fruits must also be
    men? That makes no sense, It’s like assuming that because all the slaves
    cultivating cotton elds are black, plantation owners will be black as well,
    Just as an all-black workforce might be controlled by an all-white
    management, why couldn’t an all-male soldiery be controlled by an all-
    female or at least partly female government? In fact, in numerous societies
    throughout history, the top o cers did not work their way up from the
    rank of private, Aristocrats, the wealthy and the educated were
    automatically assigned officer rank and never served a day in the ranks,
    When the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis, enlisted in the British
    army at the age of eighteen, he was immediately commissioned as an
    o cer, He didn’t think much of the plebeians under his command, ‘We
    have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers,’ he wrote to a
    fellow aristocrat during the wars against France, These common soldiers
    were usually recruited from among the very poorest, or from ethnic
    minorities (such as the Irish Catholics), Their chances of ascending the
    military ranks were negligible, The senior ranks were reserved for dukes,
    princes and kings, But why only for dukes, and not for duchesses?
    The French Empire in Africa was established and defended by the sweat
    and blood of Senegalese, Algerians and working-class Frenchmen, The
    percentage of well-born Frenchmen within the ranks was negligible, Yet the
    percentage of well-born Frenchmen within the small elite that led the
    French army, ruled the empire and enjoyed its fruits was very high, Why
    just Frenchmen, and not French women?
    In China there was a long tradition of subjugating the army to the
    civilian bureaucracy, so mandarins who had never held a sword often ran
    the wars, ‘You do not waste good iron to make nails,’ went a common
    Chinese saying, meaning that really talented people join the civil
    bureaucracy, not the army, Why, then, were all of these mandarins men?
    One can’t reasonably argue that their physical weakness or low
    testosterone levels prevented women from being successful mandarins,
    generals and politicians, In order to manage a war, you surely need
    stamina, but not much physical strength or aggressiveness, Wars are not a
    pub brawl, They are very complex projects that require an extraordinary
    degree of organisation, cooperation and appeasement, The ability to
    maintain peace at home, acquire allies abroad, and understand what goes
    through the minds of other people (particularly your enemies) is usually the
    key to victory, Hence an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a
    war, Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how
    to manipulate and how to see things from di erent perspectives, This is the
    stu empire-builders are made of, The militarily incompetent Augustus
    succeeded in establishing a stable imperial regime, achieving something
    that eluded both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who were much
    better generals, Both his admiring contemporaries and modern historians
    often attribute this feat to his virtue of clementia – mildness and clemency,
    Women are often stereotyped as better manipulators and appeasers than
    men, and are famed for their superior ability to see things from the
    perspective of others, If there’s any truth in these stereotypes, then women
    should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders, leaving the
    dirty work on the battle elds to testosterone-charged but simple-minded
    machos, Popular myths notwithstanding, this rarely happened in the real
    world, It is not at all clear why not,
    Patriarchal Genes
    A third type of biological explanation gives less importance to brute force
    and violence, and suggests that through millions of years of evolution, men
    and women evolved di erent survival and reproduction strategies, As men
    competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile
    women, an individual’s chances of reproduction depended above all on his
    ability to outperform and defeat other men, As time went by, the masculine
    genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most
    ambitious, aggressive and competitive men,
    A woman, on the other hand, had no problem nding a man willing to
    impregnate her, However, if she wanted her children to provide her with
    grandchildren, she needed to carry them in her womb for nine arduous
    months, and then nurture them for years, During that time she had fewer
    opportunities to obtain food, and required a lot of help, She needed a man,
    In order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the
    woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man
    stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden, As
    time went by, the feminine genes that made it to the next generation
    belonged to women who were submissive caretakers, Women who spent too
    much time ghting for power did not leave any of those powerful genes for
    future generations,
    The result of these di erent survival strategies – so the theory goes – is
    that men have been programmed to be ambitious and competitive, and to
    excel in politics and business, whereas women have tended to move out of
    the way and dedicate their lives to raising children,
    But this approach also seems to be belied by the empirical evidence,
    Particularly problematic is the assumption that women’s dependence on
    external help made them dependent on men, rather than on other women,
    and that male competitiveness made men socially dominant, There are
    many species of animals, such as elephants and bonobo chimpanzees, in
    which the dynamics between dependent females and competitive males
    results in a matriarchal society, Since females need external help, they are
    obliged to develop their social skills and learn how to cooperate and
    appease, They construct all-female social networks that help each member
    raise her children, Males, meanwhile, spend their time ghting and
    competing, Their social skills and social bonds remain underdeveloped,
    Bonobo and elephant societies are controlled by strong networks of
    cooperative females, while the self-centred and uncooperative males are
    pushed to the sidelines, Though bonobo females are weaker on average
    than the males, the females often gang up to beat males who overstep their
    If this is possible among bonobos and elephants, why not among Homo
    sapiens? Sapiens are relatively weak animals, whose advantage rests in
    their ability to cooperate in large numbers, If so, we should expect that
    dependent women, even if they are dependent on men, would use their
    superior social skills to cooperate to outmanoeuvre and manipulate
    aggressive, autonomous and self-centred men,
    How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above
    all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men)
    control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At
    present, we have no good answer, Maybe the common assumptions are just
    wrong, Maybe males of the species Homo sapiens are characterised not by
    physical strength, aggressiveness and competitiveness, but rather by
    superior social skills and a greater tendency to cooperate, We just don’t
    What we do know, however, is that during the last century gender roles
    have undergone a tremendous revolution, More and more societies today
    not only give men and women equal legal status, political rights and
    economic opportunities, but also completely rethink their most basic
    conceptions of gender and sexuality, Though the gender gap is still
    signi cant, events have been moving at a breathtaking speed, At the
    beginning of the twentieth century the idea of giving voting rights to
    women was generally seen in the USA as outrageous; the prospect of a
    female cabinet secretary or Supreme Court justice was simply ridiculous;
    whereas homosexuality was such a taboo subject that it could not even be
    openly discussed, At the beginning of the twenty- rst century women’s
    voting rights are taken for granted; female cabinet secretaries are hardly a
    cause for comment; and in 2013 ve US Supreme Court justices, three of
    them women, decided in favour of legalising same-sex marriages
    (overruling the objections of four male justices),
    These dramatic changes are precisely what makes the history of gender
    so bewildering, If, as is being demonstrated today so clearly, the patriarchal
    system has been based on unfounded myths rather than on biological facts,
    what accounts for the universality and stability of this system?

Part Three:The Unification of Humankind

24, Pilgrims circling the Ka’aba in Mecca,

9 The Arrow of History

AFTER THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION, human societies grew ever
larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the
social order also became more elaborate, Myths and ctions accustomed
people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to
behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to
observe certain rules, They thereby created arti cial instincts that enabled
millions of strangers to cooperate e ectively, This network of arti cial
instincts is called culture’,
During the rst half of the twentieth century, scholars taught that every
culture was complete and harmonious, possessing an unchanging essence
that de ned it for all time, Each human group had its own world view and
system of social, legal and political arrangements that ran as smoothly as
the planets going around the sun, In this view, cultures left to their own
devices did not change, They just kept going at the same pace and in the
same direction, Only a force applied from outside could change them,
Anthropologists, historians and politicians thus referred to ‘Samoan Culture’
or ‘Tasmanian Culture’ as if the same beliefs, norms and values had
characterised Samoans and Tasmanians from time immemorial,
Today, most scholars of culture have concluded that the opposite is true,
Every culture has its typical beliefs, norms and values, but these are in
constant ux, The culture may transform itself in response to changes in its
environment or through interaction with neighbouring cultures, But cultures
also undergo transitions due to their own internal dynamics, Even a
completely isolated culture existing in an ecologically stable environment
cannot avoid change, Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of
inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal
contradictions, Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these
contradictions, and this process fuels change,
For instance, in medieval Europe the nobility believed in both
Christianity and chivalry, A typical nobleman went to church in the
morning, and listened as the priest held forth on the lives of the saints,
‘Vanity of vanities,’ said the priest, ‘all is vanity, Riches, lust and honour
are dangerous temptations, You must rise above them, and follow in
Christ’s footsteps, Be meek like Him, avoid violence and extravagance, and
if attacked – just turn the other cheek,’ Returning home in a meek and
pensive mood, the nobleman would change into his best silks and go to a
banquet in his lord’s castle, There the wine owed like water, the minstrel
sang of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the guests exchanged dirty jokes and
bloody war tales, ‘It is better to die,’ declared the barons, ‘than to live with
shame, If someone questions your honour, only blood can wipe out the
insult, And what is better in life than to see your enemies ee before you,
and their pretty daughters tremble at your feet?’
The contradiction was never fully resolved, But as the European nobility,
clergy and commoners grappled with it, their culture changed, One attempt
to gure it out produced the Crusades, On crusade, knights could
demonstrate their military prowess and their religious devotion at one
stroke, The same contradiction produced military orders such as the
Templars and Hospitallers, who tried to mesh Christian and chivalric ideals
even more tightly, It was also responsible for a large part of medieval art
and literature, such as the tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, What
was Camelot but an attempt to prove that a good knight can and should be
a good Christian, and that good Christians make the best knights?
Another example is the modern political order, Ever since the French
Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both
equality and individual freedom as fundamental values, Yet the two values
contradict each other, Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the
freedoms of those who are better o , Guaranteeing that every individual
will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality, The entire
political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts
to reconcile this contradiction,
Anyone who has read a novel by Charles Dickens knows that the liberal
regimes of nineteenth-century Europe gave priority to individual freedom
even if it meant throwing insolvent poor families in prison and giving
orphans little choice but to join schools for pickpockets, Anyone who has
read a novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn knows how Communisms
egalitarian ideal produced brutal tyrannies that tried to control every
aspect of daily life,
Contemporary American politics also revolve around this contradiction,
Democrats want a more equitable society, even if it means raising taxes to
fund programmes to help the poor, elderly and in rm, But that infringes on
the freedom of individuals to spend their money as they wish, Why should
the government force me to buy health insurance if I prefer using the
money to put my kids through college? Republicans, on the other hand,
want to maximise individual freedom, even if it means that the income gap
between rich and poor will grow wider and that many Americans will not
be able to afford health care,
Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with
Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality, But
this is no defect, Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every
human culture, In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the
creativity and dynamism of our species, Just as when two clashing musical
notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our
thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise,
Consistency is the playground of dull minds,
If tensions, con icts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every
culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold
contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values, It’s such an
essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive
dissonance, Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human
psyche, In fact, it is a vital asset, Had people been unable to hold
contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to
establish and maintain any human culture,
If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend
that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values
that every Muslim holds dear, Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s
of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards
scu e, It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two
imperatives that you’ll understand them best,
The Spy Satellite
Human cultures are in constant ux, Is this ux completely random, or does
it have some overall pattern? In other words, does history have a direction?
The answer is yes, Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually
coalesce into bigger and more complex civilisations, so that the world
contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more
complex, This is of course a very crude generalisation, true only at the
macro level, At the micro level, it seems that for every group of cultures
that coalesces into a mega-culture, there’s a mega-culture that breaks up
into pieces, The Mongol Empire expanded to dominate a huge swathe of
Asia and even parts of Europe, only to shatter into fragments, Christianity
converted hundreds of millions of people at the same time that it splintered
into innumerable sects, The Latin language spread through western and
central Europe, then split into local dialects that themselves eventually
became national languages, But these break-ups are temporary reversals in
an inexorable trend towards unity,
Perceiving the direction of history is really a question of vantage point,
When we adopt the proverbial bird’s-eye view of history, which examines
developments in terms of decades or centuries, it’s hard to say whether
history moves in the direction of unity or of diversity, However, to
understand long-term processes the bird’s-eye view is too myopic, We would
do better to adopt instead the viewpoint of a cosmic spy satellite, which
scans millennia rather than centuries, From such a vantage point it
becomes crystal clear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity, The
sectioning of Christianity and the collapse of the Mongol Empire are just
speed bumps on history’s highway,

The best way to appreciate the general direction of history is to count the
number of separate human worlds that coexisted at any given moment on
planet Earth, Today, we are used to thinking about the whole planet as a
single unit, but for most of history, earth was in fact an entire galaxy of
isolated human worlds,
Consider Tasmania, a medium-sized island south of Australia, It was cut
o from the Australian mainland in about 10,000 BC as the end of the Ice
Age caused the sea level to rise, A few thousand hunter-gatherers were left
on the island, and had no contact with any other humans until the arrival
of the Europeans in the nineteenth century, For 12,000 years, nobody else
knew the Tasmanians were there, and they didn’t know that there was
anyone else in the world, They had their wars, political struggles, social
oscillations and cultural developments, Yet as far as the emperors of China
or the rulers of Mesopotamia were concerned, Tasmania could just as well
have been located on one of Jupiter’s moons, The Tasmanians lived in a
world of their own,
America and Europe, too, were separate worlds for most of their histories,
In AD 378, the Roman emperor Valence was defeated and killed by the Goths
at the battle of Adrianople, In the same year, King Chak Tok Ich’aak of
Tikal was defeated and killed by the army of Teotihuacan, (Tikal was an
important Mayan city state, while Teotihuacan was then the largest city in
America, with almost 250,000 inhabitants – of the same order of magnitude
as its contemporary, Rome,) There was absolutely no connection between
the defeat of Rome and the rise of Teotihuacan, Rome might just as well
have been located on Mars, and Teotihuacan on Venus,
How many di erent human worlds coexisted on earth? Around 10,000 BC
our planet contained many thousands of them, By 2000 BC, their numbers
had dwindled to the hundreds, or at most a few thousand, By AD 1450, their
numbers had declined even more drastically, At that time, just prior to the
age of European exploration, earth still contained a signi cant number of
dwarf worlds such as Tasmania, But close to 90 per cent of humans lived in
a single mega-world: the world of Afro-Asia, Most of Asia, most of Europe,
and most of Africa (including substantial chunks of sub-Saharan Africa)
were already connected by significant cultural, political and economic ties,
Most of the remaining tenth of the world’s human population was divided
between four worlds of considerable size and complexity:
1, The Mesoamerican World, which encompassed most of Central America
and parts of North America,
2, The Andean World, which encompassed most of western South America,
3, The Australian World, which encompassed the continent of Australia,
4, The Oceanic World, which encompassed most of the islands of the south-
western Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand,
Over the next 300 years, the Afro-Asian giant swallowed up all the other
worlds, It consumed the Mesoamerican World in 1521, when the Spanish
conquered the Aztec Empire, It took its rst bite out of the Oceanic World at
the same time, during Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe,
and soon after that completed its conquest, The Andean World collapsed in
1532, when Spanish conquistadors crushed the Inca Empire, The rst
European landed on the Australian continent in 1606, and that pristine
world came to an end when British colonisation began in earnest in 1788,
Fifteen years later the Britons established their rst settlement in Tasmania,
thus bringing the last autonomous human world into the Afro-Asian sphere
of influence,
It took the Afro-Asian giant several centuries to digest all that it had
swallowed, but the process was irreversible, Today almost all humans share
the same geopolitical system (the entire planet is divided into
internationally recognised states); the same economic system (capitalist
market forces shape even the remotest corners of the globe); the same legal
system (human rights and international law are valid everywhere, at least
theoretically); and the same scienti c system (experts in Iran, Israel,
Australia and Argentina have exactly the same views about the structure of
atoms or the treatment of tuberculosis),
The single global culture is not homogeneous, Just as a single organic
body contains many di erent kinds of organs and cells, so our single global
culture contains many di erent types of lifestyles and people, from New
York stockbrokers to Afghan shepherds, Yet they are all closely connected
and they in uence one another in myriad ways, They still argue and ght,
but they argue using the same concepts and ght using the same weapons,
A real ‘clash of civilisations’ is like the proverbial dialogue of the deaf,
Nobody can grasp what the other is saying, Today when Iran and the
United States rattle swords at one another, they both speak the language of
nation states, capitalist economies, international rights and nuclear physics,
Map 3, Earth in AD 1450, The named locations within the Afro-Asian World were places visited by
the fourteenth-century Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta, A native of Tangier, in Morocco, Ibn Battuta
visited Timbuktu, Zanzibar, southern Russia, Central Asia, India, China and Indonesia, His travels
illustrate the unity of Afro-Asia on the eve of the modern era,
We still talk a lot about ‘authentic’ cultures, but if by authentic’ we mean
something that developed independently, and that consists of ancient local
traditions free of external in uences, then there are no authentic cultures
left on earth, Over the last few centuries, all cultures were changed almost
beyond recognition by a flood of global influences,
One of the most interesting examples of this globalisation is ‘ethnic’
cuisine, In an Italian restaurant we expect to nd spaghetti in tomato
sauce; in Polish and Irish restaurants lots of potatoes; in an Argentinian
restaurant we can choose between dozens of kinds of beefsteaks; in an
Indian restaurant hot chillies are incorporated into just about everything;
and the highlight at any Swiss café is thick hot chocolate under an alp of
whipped cream, But none of these foods is native to those nations,
Tomatoes, chilli peppers and cocoa are all Mexican in origin; they reached
Europe and Asia only after the Spaniards conquered Mexico, Julius Caesar
and Dante Alighieri never twirled tomato-drenched spaghetti on their forks
(even forks hadn’t been invented yet), William Tell never tasted chocolate,
and Buddha never spiced up his food with chilli, Potatoes reached Poland
and Ireland no more than 400 years ago, The only steak you could obtain
in Argentina in 1492 was from a llama,
Hollywood lms have perpetuated an image of the Plains Indians as
brave horsemen, courageously charging the wagons of European pioneers
to protect the customs of their ancestors, However, these Native American
horsemen were not the defenders of some ancient, authentic culture,
Instead, they were the product of a major military and political revolution
that swept the plains of western North America in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, a consequence of the arrival of European horses, In
1492 there were no horses in America, The culture of the nineteenth-
century Sioux and Apache has many appealing features, but it was a
modern culture – a result of global forces – much more than authentic’,
The Global Vision
From a practical perspective, the most important stage in the process of
global uni cation occurred in the last few centuries, when empires grew
and trade intensi ed, Ever-tightening links were formed between the
people of Afro-Asia, America, Australia and Oceania, Thus Mexican chilli
peppers made it into Indian food and Spanish cattle began grazing in
Argentina, Yet from an ideological perspective, an even more important
development occurred during the rst millennium BC, when the idea of a
universal order took root, For thousands of years previously, history was
already moving slowly in the direction of global unity, but the idea of a
universal order governing the entire world was still alien to most people,
25, Sioux chiefs (1905), Neither the Sioux nor any other Great Plains tribe had horses prior to
Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them, ‘Us’
was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was
everyone else, In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the
entire species to which it belongs, No chimpanzee cares about the interests
of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail
community, no lion alpha male makes a bid for becoming the king of all
lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one nd the slogan: ‘Worker
bees of the world – unite!’
But beginning with the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens became more
and more exceptional in this respect, People began to cooperate on a
regular basis with complete strangers, whom they imagined as ‘brothers’ or
‘friends’, Yet this brotherhood was not universal, Somewhere in the next
valley, or beyond the mountain range, one could still sense ‘them’, When
the rst pharaoh, Menes, united Egypt around 3000 BC, it was clear to the
Egyptians that Egypt had a border, and beyond the border lurked
‘barbarians’, The barbarians were alien, threatening, and interesting only
to the extent that they had land or natural resources that the Egyptians
wanted, All the imagined orders people created tended to ignore a
substantial part of humankind,
The rst millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially
universal orders, whose devotees could for the rst time imagine the entire
world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of
laws, Everyone was ‘us’, at least potentially, There was no longer ‘them’,
The rst universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order, The
second universal order was political: the imperial order, The third universal
order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism,
Christianity and Islam,
Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the rst people who managed
to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs them’, and to foresee
the potential unity of humankind, For the merchants, the entire world was
a single market and all humans were potential customers, They tried to
establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere, For the
conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were
potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth
and all humans were potential believers, They too tried to establish an
order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere,
During the last three millennia, people made more and more ambitious
attempts to realise that global vision, The next three chapters discuss how
money, empires and universal religions spread, and how they laid the
foundation of the united world of today, We begin with the story of the
greatest conqueror in history, a conqueror possessed of extreme tolerance
and adaptability, thereby turning people into ardent disciples, This
conqueror is money, People who do not believe in the same god or obey the
same king are more than willing to use the same money, Osama Bin Laden,
for all his hatred of American culture, American religion and American
politics, was very fond of American dollars, How did money succeed where
gods and kings failed?

10 The Scent of Money

hitherto an isolated human world, The Aztecs, as the people who lived
there called themselves, quickly noticed that the aliens showed an
extraordinary interest in a certain yellow metal, In fact, they never seemed
to stop talking about it, The natives were not unfamiliar with gold – it was
pretty and easy to work, so they used it to make jewellery and statues, and
they occasionally used gold dust as a medium of exchange, But when an
Aztec wanted to buy something, he generally paid in cocoa beans or bolts of
cloth, The Spanish obsession with gold thus seemed inexplicable, What was
so important about a metal that could not be eaten, drunk or woven, and
was too soft to use for tools or weapons? When the natives questioned
Cortés as to why the Spaniards had such a passion for gold, the
conquistador answered, ‘Because I and my companions su er from a disease
of the heart which can be cured only with gold,’
In the Afro-Asian world from which the Spaniards came, the obsession for
gold was indeed an epidemic, Even the bitterest of enemies lusted after the
same useless yellow metal, Three centuries before the conquest of Mexico,
the ancestors of Cortés and his army waged a bloody war of religion
against the Muslim kingdoms in Iberia and North Africa, The followers of
Christ and the followers of Allah killed each other by the thousands,
devastated elds and orchards, and turned prosperous cities into
smouldering ruins – all for the greater glory of Christ or Allah,
As the Christians gradually gained the upper hand, they marked their
victories not only by destroying mosques and building churches,but also by
issuing new gold and silver coins bearing the sign of the cross and thanking
God for His help in combating the in dels, Yet alongside the new currency,
the victors minted another type of coin, called the millares, which carried a
somewhat di erent message, These square coins made by the Christian
conquerors were emblazoned with owing Arabic script that declared:
‘There is no god except Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger,’ Even
the Catholic bishops of Melgueil and Agde issued these faithful copies of
popular Muslim coins, and God-fearing Christians happily used them,
Tolerance ourished on the other side of the hill too, Muslim merchants
in North Africa conducted business using Christian coins such as the
Florentine orin, the Venetian ducat and the Neapolitan gigliato, Even
Muslim rulers who called for jihad against the in del Christians were glad
to receive taxes in coins that invoked Christ and His Virgin Mother,
How Much is It?
Hunter-gatherers had no money, Each band hunted, gathered and
manufactured almost everything it required, from meat to medicine, from
sandals to sorcery, Di erent band members may have specialised in
di erent tasks, but they shared their goods and services through an
economy of favours and obligations, A piece of meat given for free would
carry with it the assumption of reciprocity – say, free medical assistance,
The band was economically independent; only a few rare items that could
not be found locally – seashells, pigments, obsidian and the like – had to be
obtained from strangers, This could usually be done by simple barter: ‘We’ll
give you pretty seashells, and you’ll give us high-quality flint,’
Little of this changed with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution, Most
people continued to live in small, intimate communities, Much like a
hunter-gatherer band, each village was a self-su cient economic unit,
maintained by mutual favours and obligations plus a little barter with
outsiders, One villager may have been particularly adept at making shoes,
another at dispensing medical care, so villagers knew where to turn when
barefoot or sick, But villages were small and their economies limited, so
there could be no full-time shoemakers and doctors,
The rise of cities and kingdoms and the improvement in transport
infrastructure brought about new opportunities for specialisation, Densely
populated cities provided full-time employment not just for professional
shoemakers and doctors, but also for carpenters, priests, soldiers and
lawyers, Villages that gained a reputation for producing really good wine,
olive oil or ceramics discovered that it was worth their while to specialise
nearly exclusively in that product and trade it with other settlements for all
the other goods they needed, This made a lot of sense, Climates and soils
di er, so why drink mediocre wine from your backyard if you can buy a
smoother variety from a place whose soil and climate is much better suited
to grape vines? If the clay in your backyard makes stronger and prettier
pots, then you can make an exchange, Furthermore, full-time specialist
vintners and potters, not to mention doctors and lawyers, can hone their
expertise to the benefit of all, But specialisation created a problem – how do
you manage the exchange of goods between the specialists?
An economy of favours and obligations doesn’t work when large numbers
of strangers try to cooperate, It’s one thing to provide free assistance to a
sister or a neighbour, a very di erent thing to take care of foreigners who
might never reciprocate the favour, One can fall back on barter, But barter
is e ective only when exchanging a limited range of products, It cannot
form the basis for a complex economy,
In order to understand the limitations of barter, imagine that you own an
apple orchard in the hill country that produces the crispest, sweetest apples
in the entire province, You work so hard in your orchard that your shoes
wear out, So you harness up your donkey cart and head to the market town
down by the river, Your neighbour told you that a shoemaker on the south
end of the marketplace made him a really sturdy pair of boots that’s lasted
him through ve seasons, You nd the shoemaker’s shop and o er to barter
some of your apples in exchange for the shoes you need,
The shoemaker hesitates, How many apples should he ask for in
payment? Every day he encounters dozens of customers, a few of whom
bring along sacks of apples, while others carry wheat, goats or cloth – all of
varying quality, Still others o er their expertise in petitioning the king or
curing backaches, The last time the shoemaker exchanged shoes for apples
was three months ago, and back then he asked for three sacks of apples, Or
was it four? But come to think of it, those apples were sour valley apples,
rather than prime hill apples, On the other hand, on that previous
occasion, the apples were given in exchange for small women’s shoes, This
fellow is asking for man-size boots, Besides, in recent weeks a disease has
decimated the ocks around town, and skins are becoming scarce, The
tanners are starting to demand twice as many nished shoes in exchange
for the same quantity of leather, Shouldn’t that be taken into
In a barter economy, every day the shoemaker and the apple grower will
have to learn anew the relative prices of dozens of commodities, If one
hundred di erent commodities are traded in the market, then buyers and
sellers will have to know 4,950 di erent exchange rates, And if 1,000
di erent commodities are traded, buyers and sellers must juggle 499,500
different exchange rates! How do you figure it out?
It gets worse, Even if you manage to calculate how many apples equal
one pair of shoes, barter is not always possible, After all, a trade requires
that each side want what the other has to o er, What happens if the
shoemaker doesn’t like apples and, if at the moment in question, what he
really wants is a divorce? True, the farmer could look for a lawyer who
likes apples and set up a three-way deal, But what if the lawyer is full up
on apples but really needs a haircut?
Some societies tried to solve the problem by establishing a central barter
system that collected products from specialist growers and manufacturers
and distributed them to those who needed them, The largest and most
famous such experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union, and it failed
miserably, ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive
according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work
as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’,
More moderate and more successful experiments were made on other
occasions, for example in the Inca Empire, Yet most societies found a more
easy way to connect large numbers of experts – they developed money,
Shells and Cigarettes
Money was created many times in many places, Its development required
no technological breakthroughs – it was a purely mental revolution, It
involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in
people’s shared imagination,
Money is not coins and banknotes, Money is anything that people are
willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things
for the purpose of exchanging goods and services, Money enables people to
compare quickly and easily the value of di erent commodities (such as
apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and
to store wealth conveniently, There have been many types of money, The
most familiar is the coin, which is a standardised piece of imprinted metal,
Yet money existed long before the invention of coinage, and cultures have
prospered using other things as currency, such as shells, cattle, skins, salt,
grain, beads, cloth and promissory notes, Cowry shells were used as money
for about 4,000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania,
Taxes could still be paid in cowry shells in British Uganda in the early
twentieth century,
26, In ancient Chinese script the cowry-shell sign represented money, in words such as ‘to sell’ or
In modern prisons and POW camps, cigarettes have often served as
money, Even non-smoking prisoners have been willing to accept cigarettes
in payment, and to calculate the value of all other goods and services in
cigarettes, One Auschwitz survivor described the cigarette currency used in
the camp: ‘We had our own currency, whose value no one questioned: the
cigarette, The price of every article was stated in cigarettes … In “normal”
times, that is, when the candidates to the gas chambers were coming in at a
regular pace, a loaf of bread cost twelve cigarettes; a 300-gram package of
margarine, thirty; a watch, eighty to 200; a litre of alcohol, 400
In fact, even today coins and banknotes are a rare form of money, In
2006, the sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum
total of coins and banknotes was less than $6 trillion, More than 90 per
cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts –
exists only on computer servers, Accordingly, most business transactions are
executed by moving electronic data from one computer le to another,
without any exchange of physical cash, Only a criminal buys a house, for
example, by handing over a suitcase full of banknotes, As long as people
are willing to trade goods and services in exchange for electronic data, it’s
even better than shiny coins and crisp banknotes – lighter, less bulky, and
easier to keep track of,
For complex commercial systems to function, some kind of money is
indispensable, A shoemaker in a money economy needs to know only the
prices charged for various kinds of shoes – there is no need to memorise the
exchange rates between shoes and apples or goats, Money also frees apple
experts from the need to search out apple-craving shoemakers, because
everyone always wants money, This is perhaps its most basic quality,
Everyone always wants money because everyone else also always wants
money, which means you can exchange money for whatever you want or
need, The shoemaker will always be happy to take your money, because no
matter what he really wants – apples, goats or a divorce – he can get it in
exchange for money,
Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to
convert almost everything into almost anything else, Brawn gets converted
to brain when a discharged soldier nances his college tuition with his
military bene ts, Land gets converted into loyalty when a baron sells
property to support his retainers, Health is converted to justice when a
physician uses her fees to hire a lawyer – or bribe a judge, It is even
possible to convert sex into salvation, as fteenth-century prostitutes did
when they slept with men for money, which they in turn used to buy
indulgences from the Catholic Church,
Ideal types of money enable people not merely to turn one thing into
another, but to store wealth as well, Many valuables cannot be stored –
such as time or beauty, Some things can be stored only for a short time,
such as strawberries, Other things are more durable, but take up a lot of
space and require expensive facilities and care, Grain, for example, can be
stored for years, but to do so you need to build huge storehouses and guard
against rats, mould, water, re and thieves, Money, whether paper,
computer bits or cowry shells, solves these problems, Cowry shells don’t rot,
are unpalatable to rats, can survive res and are compact enough to be
locked up in a safe,
In order to use wealth it is not enough just to store it, It often needs to be
transported from place to place, Some forms of wealth, such as real estate,
cannot be transported at all, Commodities such as wheat and rice can be
transported only with di culty, Imagine a wealthy farmer living in a
moneyless land who emigrates to a distant province, His wealth consists
mainly of his house and rice paddies, The farmer cannot take with him the
house or the paddies, He might exchange them for tons of rice, but it would
be very burdensome and expensive to transport all that rice, Money solves
these problems, The farmer can sell his property in exchange for a sack of
cowry shells, which he can easily carry wherever he goes,
Because money can convert, store and transport wealth easily and
cheaply, it made a vital contribution to the appearance of complex
commercial networks and dynamic markets, Without money, commercial
networks and markets would have been doomed to remain very limited in
their size, complexity and dynamism,
How Does Money Work?
Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination, Their
worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or
their colour, or their shape, In other words, money isn’t a material reality –
it is a psychological construct, It works by converting matter into mind, But
why does it succeed? Why should anyone be willing to exchange a fertile
rice paddy for a handful of useless cowry shells? Why are you willing to ip
hamburgers, sell health insurance or babysit three obnoxious brats when all
you get for your exertions is a few pieces of coloured paper?
People are willing to do such things when they trust the gments of their
collective imagination, Trust is the raw material from which all types of
money are minted, When a wealthy farmer sold his possessions for a sack
of cowry shells and travelled with them to another province, he trusted that
upon reaching his destination other people would be willing to sell him
rice, houses and elds in exchange for the shells, Money is accordingly a
system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the
most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised,
What created this trust was a very complex and long-term network of
political, social and economic relations, Why do I believe in the cowry shell
or gold coin or dollar bill? Because my neighbours believe in them, And my
neighbours believe in them because I believe in them, And we all believe in
them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes, and
because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes, Take a
dollar bill and look at it carefully, You will see that it is simply a colourful
piece of paper with the signature of the US secretary of the treasury on one
side, and the slogan ‘In God We Trust’ on the other, We accept the dollar in
payment, because we trust in God and the US secretary of the treasury, The
crucial role of trust explains why our nancial systems are so tightly bound
up with our political, social and ideological systems, why nancial crises
are often triggered by political developments, and why the stock market
can rise or fall depending on the way traders feel on a particular morning,
Initially, when the rst versions of money were created, people didn’t
have this sort of trust, so it was necessary to de ne as ‘money’ things that
had real intrinsic value, History’s rst known money Sumerian barley
money – is a good example, It appeared in Sumer around 3000 BC, at the
same time and place, and under the same circumstances, in which writing
appeared, Just as writing developed to answer the needs of intensifying
administrative activities, so barley money developed to answer the needs of
intensifying economic activities,
Barley money was simply barley – xed amounts of barley grains used as
a universal measure for evaluating and exchanging all other goods and
services, The most common measurement was the sila, equivalent to
roughly one litre, Standardised bowls, each capable of containing one sila,
were mass-produced so that whenever people needed to buy or sell
anything, it was easy to measure the necessary amounts of barley, Salaries,
too, were set and paid in silas of barley, A male labourer earned sixty silas
a month, a female labourer thirty silas, A foreman could earn between
1,200 and 5,000 silas, Not even the most ravenous foreman could eat 5,000
litres of barley a month, but he could use the silas he didn’t eat to buy all
sorts of other commodities – oil, goats, slaves, and something else to eat
besides barley,
Even though barley has intrinsic value, it was not easy to convince
people to use it as money rather than as just another commodity, In order to
understand why, just think what would happen if you took a sack full of
barley to your local shopping centre, and tried to buy a shirt or a pizza, The
vendors would probably call security, Still, it was somewhat easier to build
trust in barley as the rst type of money, because barley has an inherent
biological value, Humans can eat it, On the other hand, it was di cult to
store and transport barley, The real breakthrough in monetary history
occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but
was easier to store and transport, Such money appeared in ancient
Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC, This was the silver
The silver shekel was not a coin, but rather 8,33 grams of silver, When
Hammurabi’s Code declared that a superior man who killed a slave woman
must pay her owner twenty silver shekels, it meant that he had to pay 166
grams of silver, not twenty coins, Most monetary terms in the Old
Testament are given in terms of silver rather than coins, Josephs brothers
sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver shekels, or rather 166 grams of
silver (the same price as a slave woman – he was a youth, after all),
Unlike the barley sila, the silver shekel had no inherent value, You
cannot eat, drink or clothe yourself in silver, and it’s too soft for making
useful tools – ploughshares or swords of silver would crumple almost as fast
as ones made out of aluminium foil, When they are used for anything, silver
and gold are made into jewellery, crowns and other status symbols – luxury
goods that members of a particular culture identify with high social status,
Their value is purely cultural,
Set weights of precious metals eventually gave birth to coins, The rst coins
in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western
Anatolia, These coins had a standardised weight of gold or silver, and were
imprinted with an identi cation mark, The mark testi ed to two things,
First, it indicated how much precious metal the coin contained, Second, it
identi ed the authority that issued the coin and that guaranteed its
contents, Almost all coins in use today are descendants of the Lydian coins,
Coins had two important advantages over unmarked metal ingots, First,
the latter had to be weighed for every transaction, Second, weighing the
ingot is not enough, How does the shoemaker know that the silver ingot I
put down for my boots is really made of pure silver, and not of lead covered
on the outside by a thin silver coating? Coins help solve these problems,
The mark imprinted on them testi es to their exact value, so the shoemaker
doesn’t have to keep a scale on his cash register, More importantly, the
mark on the coin is the signature of some political authority that
guarantees the coin’s value,
The shape and size of the mark varied tremendously throughout history,
but the message was always the same: ‘I, the Great King So-And-So, give
you my personal word that this metal disc contains exactly ve grams of
gold, If anyone dares counterfeit this coin, it means he is fabricating my
own signature, which would be a blot on my reputation, I will punish such
a crime with the utmost severity,’ That’s why counterfeiting money has
always been considered a much more serious crime than other acts of
deception, Counterfeiting is not just cheating – it’s a breach of sovereignty,
an act of subversion against the power, privileges and person of the king,
The legal term is lese-majesty (violating majesty), and was typically
punished by torture and death, As long as people trusted the power and
integrity of the king, they trusted his coins, Total strangers could easily
agree on the worth of a Roman denarius coin, because they trusted the
power and integrity of the Roman emperor, whose name and picture
adorned it,
27, One of the earliest coins in history, from Lydia of the seventh century BC,
In turn, the power of the emperor rested on the denarius, Just think how
di cult it would have been to maintain the Roman Empire without coins –
if the emperor had to raise taxes and pay salaries in barley and wheat, It
would have been impossible to collect barley taxes in Syria, transport the
funds to the central treasury in Rome, and transport them again to Britain
in order to pay the legions there, It would have been equally di cult to
maintain the empire if the inhabitants of the city of Rome believed in gold
coins, but the subject populations rejected this belief, putting their trust
instead in cowry shells, ivory beads or rolls of cloth,
The Gospel of Gold
The trust in Rome’s coins was so strong that even outside the empire’s
borders, people were happy to receive payment in denarii, In the rst
century AD, Roman coins were an accepted medium of exchange in the
markets of India, even though the closest Roman legion was thousands of
kilometres away, The Indians had such a strong con dence in the denarius
and the image of the emperor that when local rulers struck coins of their
own they closely imitated the denarius, down to the portrait of the Roman
emperor! The name ‘denarius’ became a generic name for coins, Muslim
caliphs Arabicised this name and issued ‘dinars’, The dinar is still the
o cial name of the currency in Jordan, Iraq, Serbia, Macedonia, Tunisia
and several other countries,
As Lydian-style coinage was spreading from the Mediterranean to the
Indian Ocean, China developed a slightly di erent monetary system, based
on bronze coins and unmarked silver and gold ingots, Yet the two monetary
systems had enough in common (especially the reliance on gold and silver)
that close monetary and commercial relations were established between the
Chinese zone and the Lydian zone, Muslim and European merchants and
conquerors gradually spread the Lydian system and the gospel of gold to
the far corners of the earth, By the late modern era the entire world was a
single monetary zone, relying rst on gold and silver, and later on a few
trusted currencies such as the British pound and the American dollar,
The appearance of a single transnational and transcultural monetary
zone laid the foundation for the uni cation of Afro-Asia, and eventually of
the entire globe, into a single economic and political sphere, People
continued to speak mutually incomprehensible languages, obey di erent
rulers and worship distinct gods, but all believed in gold and silver and in
gold and silver coins, Without this shared belief, global trading networks
would have been virtually impossible, The gold and silver that sixteenth-
century conquistadors found in America enabled European merchants to
buy silk, porcelain and spices in East Asia, thereby moving the wheels of
economic growth in both Europe and East Asia, Most of the gold and silver
mined in Mexico and the Andes slipped through European ngers to nd a
welcome home in the purses of Chinese silk and porcelain manufacturers,
What would have happened to the global economy if the Chinese hadn’t
su ered from the same ‘disease of the heart’ that a icted Cortés and his
companions – and had refused to accept payment in gold and silver?
Yet why should Chinese, Indians, Muslims and Spaniards – who belonged
to very di erent cultures that failed to agree about much of anything –
nevertheless share the belief in gold? Why didn’t it happen that Spaniards
believed in gold, while Muslims believed in barley, Indians in cowry shells,
and Chinese in rolls of silk? Economists have a ready answer, Once trade
connects two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalise the
prices of transportable goods, In order to understand why, consider a
hypothetical case, Assume that when regular trade opened between India
and the Mediterranean, Indians were uninterested in gold, so it was almost
worthless, But in the Mediterranean, gold was a coveted status symbol,
hence its value was high, What would happen next?
Merchants travelling between India and the Mediterranean would notice
the di erence in the value of gold, In order to make a pro t, they would
buy gold cheaply in India and sell it dearly in the Mediterranean,
Consequently, the demand for gold in India would skyrocket, as would its
value, At the same time the Mediterranean would experience an in ux of
gold, whose value would consequently drop, Within a short time the value
of gold in India and the Mediterranean would be quite similar, The mere
fact that Mediterranean people believed in gold would cause Indians to
start believing in it as well, Even if Indians still had no real use for gold,
the fact that Mediterranean people wanted it would be enough to make the
Indians value it,
Similarly, the fact that another person believes in cowry shells, or dollars,
or electronic data, is enough to strengthen our own belief in them, even if
that person is otherwise hated, despised or ridiculed by us, Christians and
Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree
on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in
something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something,
For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have
besmirched money and called it the root of all evil, Be that as it may,
money is also the apogee of human tolerance, Money is more open-minded
than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits,
Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost
any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion,
gender, race, age or sexual orientation, Thanks to money, even people who
don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless
cooperate effectively,
The Price of Money
Money is based on two universal principles:
a, Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn
land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge,
b, Universal trust: with money as a go-between, any two people can
cooperate on any project,
These principles have enabled millions of strangers to cooperate
e ectively in trade and industry, But these seemingly benign principles
have a dark side, When everything is convertible, and when trust depends
on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate
relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply
and demand,
Human communities and families have always been based on belief in
‘priceless’ things, such as honour, loyalty, morality and love, These things
lie outside the domain of the market, and they shouldn’t be bought or sold
for money, Even if the market o ers a good price, certain things just aren’t
done, Parents mustn’t sell their children into slavery; a devout Christian
must not commit a mortal sin; a loyal knight must never betray his lord;
and ancestral tribal lands shall never be sold to foreigners,
Money has always tried to break through these barriers, like water
seeping through cracks in a dam, Parents have been reduced to selling some
of their children into slavery in order to buy food for the others, Devout
Christians have murdered, stolen and cheated – and later used their spoils
to buy forgiveness from the church, Ambitious knights auctioned their
allegiance to the highest bidder, while securing the loyalty of their own
followers by cash payments, Tribal lands were sold to foreigners from the
other side of the world in order to purchase an entry ticket into the global
Money has an even darker side, For although money builds universal
trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities
or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that
back it, We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbour – we trust
the coin they hold, If they run out of coins, we run out of trust, As money
brings down the dams of community, religion and state, the world is in
danger of becoming one big and rather heartless marketplace,
Hence the economic history of humankind is a delicate dance, People rely
on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they’re afraid it will
corrupt human values and intimate relations, With one hand people
willingly destroy the communal dams that held at bay the movement of
money and commerce for so long, Yet with the other hand they build new
dams to protect society, religion and the environment from enslavement to
market forces,
It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and
that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold
back the tides of money, This is naïve, Brutal warriors, religious fanatics
and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating
merchants, and even to reshape the economy, It is therefore impossible to
understand the uni cation of humankind as a purely economic process, In
order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time
to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of
gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel,

II Imperial Visions

THE ANCIENT ROMANS WERE USED TO being defeated, Like the rulers of
most of history’s great empires, they could lose battle after battle but still
win the war, An empire that cannot sustain a blow and remain standing is
not really an empire, Yet even the Romans found it hard to stomach the
news arriving from northern Iberia in the middle of the second century BC, A
small, insigni cant mountain town called Numantia, inhabited by the
peninsula’s native Celts, had dared to throw o the Roman yoke, Rome at
the time was the unquestioned master of the entire Mediterranean basin,
having vanquished the Macedonian and Seleucid empires, subjugated the
proud city states of Greece, and turned Carthage into a smouldering ruin,
The Numantians had nothing on their side but their erce love of freedom
and their inhospitable terrain, Yet they forced legion after legion to
surrender or retreat in shame,
Eventually, in 134 BC, Roman patience snapped, The Senate decided to
send Scipio Aemilianus, Rome’s foremost general and the man who had
levelled Carthage, to take care of the Numantians, He was given a massive
army of more than 30,000 soldiers, Scipio, who respected the ghting spirit
and martial skill of the Numantians, preferred not to waste his soldiers in
unnecessary combat, Instead, he encircled Numantia with a line of
forti cations, blocking the town’s contact with the outside world, Hunger
did his work for him, After more than a year, the food supply ran out,
When the Numantians realised that all hope was lost, they burned down
their town; according to Roman accounts, most of them killed themselves so
as not to become Roman slaves,
Numantia later became a symbol of Spanish independence and courage,
Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, wrote a tragedy called The
Siege of Numantia which ends with the town’s destruction, but also with a
vision of Spain’s future greatness, Poets composed paeans to its erce
defenders and painters committed majestic depictions of the siege to
canvas, In 1882, its ruins were declared a national monument’ and became
a pilgrimage site for Spanish patriots, In the 1950s and 1960s, the most
popular comic books in Spain weren’t about Superman and Spiderman –
they told of the adventures of El Jabato, an imaginary ancient Iberian hero
who fought against the Roman oppressors, The ancient Numantians are to
this day Spain’s paragons of heroism and patriotism, cast as role models for
the country’s young people,
Yet Spanish patriots extol the Numantians in Spanish – a romance
language that is a progeny of Scipio’s Latin, The Numantians spoke a now
dead and lost Celtic language, Cervantes wrote The Siege of Numantia in
Latin script, and the play follows Graeco-Roman artistic models, Numantia
had no theatres, Spanish patriots who admire Numantian heroism tend also
to be loyal followers of the Roman Catholic Church – don’t miss that rst
word – a church whose leader still sits in Rome and whose God prefers to be
addressed in Latin, Similarly, modern Spanish law derives from Roman law;
Spanish politics is built on Roman foundations; and Spanish cuisine and
architecture owe a far greater debt to Roman legacies than to those of the
Celts of Iberia, Nothing is really left of Numantia save ruins, Even its story
has reached us thanks only to the writings of Roman historians, It was
tailored to the tastes of Roman audiences which relished tales of freedom-
loving barbarians, The victory of Rome over Numantia was so complete
that the victors co-opted the very memory of the vanquished,
It’s not our kind of story, We like to see underdogs win, But there is no
justice in history, Most past cultures have sooner or later fallen prey to the
armies of some ruthless empire, which have consigned them to oblivion,
Empires, too, ultimately fall, but they tend to leave behind rich and
enduring legacies, Almost all people in the twenty- rst century are the
offspring of one empire or another,
What is an Empire?
An empire is a political order with two important characteristics, First, to
qualify for that designation you have to rule over a signi cant number of
distinct peoples, each possessing a di erent cultural identity and a separate
territory, How many peoples exactly? Two or three is not su cient, Twenty
or thirty is plenty, The imperial threshold passes somewhere in between,
Second, empires are characterised by exible borders and a potentially
unlimited appetite, They can swallow and digest more and more nations
and territories without altering their basic structure or identity, The British
state of today has fairly clear borders that cannot be exceeded without
altering the fundamental structure and identity of the state, A century ago
almost any place on earth could have become part of the British Empire,
Cultural diversity and territorial exibility give empires not only their
unique character, but also their central role in history, It’s thanks to these
two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic
groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby
fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of
planet Earth,
It should be stressed that an empire is de ned solely by its cultural
diversity and exible borders, rather than by its origins, its form of
government, its territorial extent, or the size of its population, An empire
need not emerge from military conquest, The Athenian Empire began its life
as a voluntary league, and the Habsburg Empire was born in wedlock,
cobbled together by a string of shrewd marriage alliances, Nor must an
empire be ruled by an autocratic emperor, The British Empire, the largest
empire in history, was ruled by a democracy, Other democratic (or at least
republican) empires have included the modern Dutch, French, Belgian and
American empires, as well as the premodern empires of Novgorod, Rome,
Carthage and Athens,
Size, too, does not really matter, Empires can be puny, The Athenian
Empire at its zenith was much smaller in size and population than today’s
Greece, The Aztec Empire was smaller than today’s Mexico, Both were
nevertheless empires, whereas modern Greece and modern Mexico are not,
because the former gradually subdued dozens and even hundreds of
di erent polities while the latter have not, Athens lorded it over more than
a hundred formerly independent city states, whereas the Aztec Empire, if
we can trust its taxation records, ruled 371 different tribes and peoples,
How was it possible to squeeze such a human potpourri into the territory
of a modest modern state? It was possible because in the past there were
many more distinct peoples in the world, each of which had a smaller
population and occupied less territory than today’s typical people, The land
between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which today struggles to
satisfy the ambitions of just two peoples, easily accommodated in biblical
times dozens of nations, tribes, petty kingdoms and city states,
Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human
diversity, The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique
characteristics of numerous peoples (such as the Numantians), forging out
of them new and much larger groups,
Evil Empires?
In our time, ‘imperialist’ ranks second only to ‘fascist’ in the lexicon of
political swear words, The contemporary critique of empires commonly
takes two forms:
1, Empires do not work, In the long run, it is not possible to rule
effectively over a large number of conquered peoples,
2, Even if it can be done, it should not be done, because empires are evil
engines of destruction and exploitation, Every people has a right to self-
determination, and should never be subject to the rule of another,
From a historical perspective, the rst statement is plain nonsense, and
the second is deeply problematic,
The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of
political organisation for the last 2,500 years, Most humans during these
two and a half millennia have lived in empires, Empire is also a very stable
form of government, Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put
down rebellions, In general, they have been toppled only by external
invasion or by a split within the ruling elite, Conversely, conquered peoples
don’t have a very good record of freeing themselves from their imperial
overlords, Most have remained subjugated for hundreds of years, Typically,
they have been slowly digested by the conquering empire, until their
distinct cultures fizzled out,
For example, when the Western Roman Empire nally fell to invading
Germanic tribes in 476 AD, the Numantians, Arverni, Helvetians, Samnites,
Lusitanians, Umbrians, Etruscans and hundreds of other forgotten peoples
whom the Romans conquered centuries earlier did not emerge from the
empires eviscerated carcass like Jonah from the belly of the great sh,
None of them were left, The biological descendants of the people who had
identi ed themselves as members of those nations, who had spoken their
languages, worshipped their gods and told their myths and legends, now
thought, spoke and worshipped as Romans,
In many cases, the destruction of one empire hardly meant independence
for subject peoples, Instead, a new empire stepped into the vacuum created
when the old one collapsed or retreated, Nowhere has this been more
obvious than in the Middle East, The current political constellation in that
region – a balance of power between many independent political entities
with more or less stable borders – is almost without parallel any time in the
last several millennia, The last time the Middle East experienced such a
situation was in the eighth century BC – almost 3,000 years ago! From the
rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the eighth century BC until the collapse of
the British and French empires in the mid-twentieth century AD, the Middle
East passed from the hands of one empire into the hands of another, like a
baton in a relay race, And by the time the British and French nally
dropped the baton, the Aramaeans, the Ammonites, the Phoenicians, the
Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites and the other peoples conquered by
the Assyrians had long disappeared,
True, today’s Jews, Armenians and Georgians claim with some measure of
justice that they are the o spring of ancient Middle Eastern peoples, Yet
these are only exceptions that prove the rule, and even these claims are
somewhat exaggerated, It goes without saying that the political, economic
and social practices of modern Jews, for example, owe far more to the
empires under which they lived during the past two millennia than to the
traditions of the ancient kingdom of Judaea, If King David were to show up
in an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in present-day Jerusalem, he would be
utterly bewildered to nd people dressed in East European clothes,
speaking in a German dialect (Yiddish) and having endless arguments
about the meaning of a Babylonian text (the Talmud), There were neither
synagogues, volumes of Talmud, nor even Torah scrolls in ancient Judaea,
Building and maintaining an empire usually required the vicious slaughter
of large populations and the brutal oppression of everyone who was left,
The standard imperial toolkit included wars, enslavement, deportation and
genocide, When the Romans invaded Scotland in AD 83, they were met by
erce resistance from local Caledonian tribes, and reacted by laying waste
to the country, In reply to Roman peace o ers, the chieftain Calgacus
called the Romans ‘the ru ans of the world’, and said that ‘to plunder,
slaughter and robbery they give the lying name of empire; they make a
desert and call it peace’,
This does not mean, however, that empires leave nothing of value in
their wake, To colour all empires black and to disavow all imperial legacies
is to reject most of human culture, Imperial elites used the pro ts of
conquest to nance not only armies and forts but also philosophy, art,
justice and charity, A signi cant proportion of humanity’s cultural
achievements owe their existence to the exploitation of conquered
populations, The pro ts and prosperity brought by Roman imperialism
provided Cicero, Seneca and St Augustine with the leisure and wherewithal
to think and write; the Taj Mahal could not have been built without the
wealth accumulated by Mughal exploitation of their Indian subjects; and
the Habsburg Empire’s pro ts from its rule over its Slavic, Hungarian and
Romanian-speaking provinces paid Haydn’s salaries and Mozart’s
commissions, No Caledonian writer preserved Calgacus’ speech for
posterity, We know of it thanks to the Roman historian Tacitus, In fact,
Tacitus probably made it up, Most scholars today agree that Tacitus not
only fabricated the speech but invented the character of Calgacus, the
Caledonian chieftain, to serve as a mouthpiece for what he and other
upper-class Romans thought about their own country,
Even if we look beyond elite culture and high art, and focus instead on
the world of common people, we nd imperial legacies in the majority of
modern cultures, Today most of us speak, think and dream in imperial
languages that were forced upon our ancestors by the sword, Most East
Asians speak and dream in the language of the Han Empire, No matter
what their origins, nearly all the inhabitants of the two American
continents, from Alaska’s Barrow Peninsula to the Straits of Magellan,
communicate in one of four imperial languages: Spanish, Portuguese,
French or English, Present-day Egyptians speak Arabic, think of themselves
as Arabs, and identify wholeheartedly with the Arab Empire that conquered
Egypt in the seventh century and crushed with an iron st the repeated
revolts that broke out against its rule, About 10 million Zulus in South
Africa hark back to the Zulu age of glory in the nineteenth century, even
though most of them descend from tribes who fought against the Zulu
Empire, and were incorporated into it only through bloody military
It’s for Your Own Good
The rst empire about which we have de nitive information was the
Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great (c,2250 BC), Sargon began his career
as the king of Kish, a small city state in Mesopotamia, Within a few decades
he managed to conquer not only all other Mesopotamian city states, but
also large territories outside the Mesopotamian heartland, Sargon boasted
that he had conquered the entire world, In reality, his dominion stretched
from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and included most of today’s
Iraq and Syria, along with a few slices of modern Iran and Turkey,
The Akkadian Empire did not last long after its founder’s death, but
Sargon left behind an imperial mantle that seldom remained unclaimed, For
the next 1,700 years, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite kings adopted
Sargon as a role model, boasting that they, too, had conquered the entire
world, Then, around 550 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia came along with an
even more impressive boast,
Map 4, The Akkadian Empire and the Persian Empire,
The kings of Assyria always remained the kings of Assyria, Even when
they claimed to rule the entire world, it was obvious that they were doing it
for the greater glory of Assyria, and they were not apologetic about it,
Cyrus, on the other hand, claimed not merely to rule the whole world, but
to do so for the sake of all people, ‘We are conquering you for your own
bene t,’ said the Persians, Cyrus wanted the peoples he subjected to love
him and to count themselves lucky to be Persian vassals, The most famous
example of Cyrus’ innovative e orts to gain the approbation of a nation
living under the thumb of his empire was his command that the Jewish
exiles in Babylonia be allowed to return to their Judaean homeland and
rebuild their temple, He even o ered them nancial assistance, Cyrus did
not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of
the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare,
The presumption to rule the entire world for the bene t of all its
inhabitants was startling, Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other
social mammals, a xenophobic creature, Sapiens instinctively divide
humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’, We are people like you and me,
who share our language, religion and customs, We are all responsible for
each other, but not responsible for them, We were always distinct from
them, and owe them nothing, We don’t want to see any of them in our
territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory, They
are barely even human, In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan,
‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’, People who are not Dinka are not people,
The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer, What does the word Nuer mean in
Nuer language? It means ‘original people’, Thousands of kilometres from
the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern
Siberia, live the Yupiks, What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It
means ‘real people’,
In contrast with this ethnic exclusiveness, imperial ideology from Cyrus
onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing, Even though it
has often emphasised racial and cultural di erences between rulers and
ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world, the
existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and
the mutual responsibilities of all human beings, Humankind is seen as a
large family: the privileges of the parents go hand in hand with
responsibility for the welfare of the children,
This new imperial vision passed from Cyrus and the Persians to
Alexander the Great, and from him to Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors,
Muslim caliphs, Indian dynasts, and eventually even to Soviet premiers and
American presidents, This benevolent imperial vision has justi ed the
existence of empires, and negated not only attempts by subject peoples to
rebel, but also attempts by independent peoples to resist imperial
Similar imperial visions were developed independently of the Persian
model in other parts of the world, most notably in Central America, in the
Andean region, and in China, According to traditional Chinese political
theory, Heaven (Tian) is the source of all legitimate authority on earth,
Heaven chooses the most worthy person or family and gives them the
Mandate of Heaven, This person or family then rules over All Under
Heaven (Tianxia) for the bene t of all its inhabitants, Thus, a legitimate
authority is – by de nition – universal, If a ruler lacks the Mandate of
Heaven, then he lacks legitimacy to rule even a single city, If a ruler enjoys
the mandate, he is obliged to spread justice and harmony to the entire
world, The Mandate of Heaven could not be given to several candidates
simultaneously, and consequently one could not legitimise the existence of
more than one independent state,
The rst emperor of the united Chinese empire, Qín Shǐ Huángdì, boasted
that ‘throughout the six directions [of the universe] everything belongs to
the emperor … wherever there is a human footprint, there is not one who
did not become a subject [of the emperor] … his kindness reaches even
oxen and horses, There is not one who did not bene t, Every man is safe
under his own roof,’ In Chinese political thinking as well as Chinese
historical memory, imperial periods were henceforth seen as golden ages of
order and justice, In contradiction to the modern Western view that a just
world is composed of separate nation states, in China periods of political
fragmentation were seen as dark ages of chaos and injustice, This
perception has had far-reaching implications for Chinese history, Every
time an empire collapsed, the dominant political theory goaded the powers
that be not to settle for paltry independent principalities, but to attempt
reunification, Sooner or later these attempts always succeeded,
When They Become Us
Empires have played a decisive part in amalgamating many small cultures
into fewer big cultures, Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more
easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented
region, Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately
spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms, One reason was to make life
easier for themselves, It is di cult to rule an empire in which every little
district has its own set of laws, its own form of writing, its own language
and its own money, Standardisation was a boon to emperors,
A second and equally important reason why empires actively spread a
common culture was to gain legitimacy, At least since the days of Cyrus and
Qín Shǐ Huángdì, empires have justi ed their actions – whether road-
building or bloodshed – as necessary to spread a superior culture from
which the conquered benefit even more than the conquerors,
The bene ts were sometimes salient – law enforcement, urban planning,
standardisation of weights and measures – and sometimes questionable –
taxes, conscription, emperor worship, But most imperial elites earnestly
believed that they were working for the general welfare of all the empires
inhabitants, China’s ruling class treated their country’s neighbours and its
foreign subjects as miserable barbarians to whom the empire must bring the
bene ts of culture, The Mandate of Heaven was bestowed upon the
emperor not in order to exploit the world, but in order to educate humanity,
The Romans, too, justi ed their dominion by arguing that they were
endowing the barbarians with peace, justice and re nement, The wild
Germans and painted Gauls had lived in squalor and ignorance until the
Romans tamed them with law, cleaned them up in public bathhouses, and
improved them with philosophy, The Mauryan Empire in the third century
BC took as its mission the dissemination of Buddha’s teachings to an
ignorant world, The Muslim caliphs received a divine mandate to spread
the Prophet’s revelation, peacefully if possible but by the sword if
necessary, The Spanish and Portuguese empires proclaimed that it was not
riches they sought in the Indies and America, but converts to the true faith,
The sun never set on the British mission to spread the twin gospels of
liberalism and free trade, The Soviets felt duty-bound to facilitate the
inexorable historical march from capitalism towards the utopian
dictatorship of the proletariat, Many Americans nowadays maintain that
their government has a moral imperative to bring Third World countries the
bene ts of democracy and human rights, even if these goods are delivered
by cruise missiles and F-16s,
The cultural ideas spread by empire were seldom the exclusive creation of
the ruling elite, Since the imperial vision tends to be universal and
inclusive, it was relatively easy for imperial elites to adopt ideas, norms and
traditions from wherever they found them, rather than to stick fanatically
to a single hidebound tradition, While some emperors sought to purify their
cultures and return to what they viewed as their roots, for the most part
empires have begot hybrid civilisations that absorbed much from their
subject peoples, The imperial culture of Rome was Greek almost as much as
Roman, The imperial Abbasid culture was part Persian, part Greek, part
Arab, Imperial Mongol culture was a Chinese copycat, In the imperial
United States, an American president of Kenyan blood can munch on Italian
pizza while watching his favourite lm, Lawrence of Arabia, a British epic
about the Arab rebellion against the Turks,
Not that this cultural melting pot made the process of cultural
assimilation any easier for the vanquished, The imperial civilisation may
well have absorbed numerous contributions from various conquered
peoples, but the hybrid result was still alien to the vast majority, The
process of assimilation was often painful and traumatic, It is not easy to
give up a familiar and loved local tradition, just as it is di cult and
stressful to understand and adopt a new culture, Worse still, even when
subject peoples were successful in adopting the imperial culture, it could
take decades, if not centuries, until the imperial elite accepted them as part
of ‘us’, The generations between conquest and acceptance were left out in
the cold, They had already lost their beloved local culture, but they were
not allowed to take an equal part in the imperial world, On the contrary,
their adopted culture continued to view them as barbarians,
Imagine an Iberian of good stock living a century after the fall of
Numantia, He speaks his native Celtic dialect with his parents, but has
acquired impeccable Latin, with only a slight accent, because he needs it to
conduct his business and deal with the authorities, He indulges his wife’s
penchant for elaborately ornate baubles, but is a bit embarrassed that she,
like other local women, retains this relic of Celtic taste – he’d rather have
her adopt the clean simplicity of the jewellery worn by the Roman
governor’s wife, He himself wears Roman tunics and, thanks to his success
as a cattle merchant, due in no small part to his expertise in the intricacies
of Roman commercial law, he has been able to build a Roman-style villa,
Yet, even though he can recite Book III of Virgil’s Georgics by heart, the
Romans still treat him as though he’s semi-barbarian, He realises with
frustration that he’ll never get a government appointment, or one of the
really good seats in the amphitheatre,
In the late nineteenth century, many educated Indians were taught the
same lesson by their British masters, One famous anecdote tells of an
ambitious Indian who mastered the intricacies of the English language, took
lessons in Western-style dance, and even became accustomed to eating with
a knife and fork, Equipped with his new manners, he travelled to England,
studied law at University College London, and became a quali ed barrister,
Yet this young man of law, bedecked in suit and tie, was thrown o a train
in the British colony of South Africa for insisting on travelling rst class
instead of settling for third class, where ‘coloured’ men like him were
supposed to ride, His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,
In some cases the processes of acculturation and assimilation eventually
broke down the barriers between the newcomers and the old elite, The
conquered no longer saw the empire as an alien system of occupation, and
the conquerors came to view their subjects as equal to themselves, Rulers
and ruled alike came to see ‘them’ as ‘us’, All the subjects of Rome
eventually, after centuries of imperial rule, were granted Roman
citizenship, Non-Romans rose to occupy the top ranks in the o cer corps of
the Roman legions and were appointed to the Senate, In AD 48 the emperor
Claudius admitted to the Senate several Gallic notables, who, he noted in a
speech, through ‘customs, culture, and the ties of marriage have blended
with ourselves’, Snobbish senators protested introducing these former
enemies into the heart of the Roman political system, Claudius reminded
them of an inconvenient truth, Most of their own senatorial families
descended from Italian tribes who once fought against Rome, and were
later granted Roman citizenship, Indeed, the emperor reminded them, his
own family was of Sabine ancestry,
During the second century AD, Rome was ruled by a line of emperors born
in Iberia, in whose veins probably owed at least a few drops of local
Iberian blood, The reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninius Pius and Marcus
Aurelius are generally thought to constitute the empire’s golden age, After
that, all the ethnic dams were let down, Emperor Septimius Severus (193–

  1. was the scion of a Punic family from Libya, Elagabalus (218–22) was a
    Syrian, Emperor Philip (244–9) was known colloquially as ‘Philip the Arab’,
    The empire’s new citizens adopted Roman imperial culture with such zest
    that, for centuries and even millennia after the empire itself collapsed, they
    continued to speak the empire’s language, to believe in the Christian God
    that the empire had adopted from one of its Levantine provinces, and to
    live by the empire’s laws,
    A similar process occurred in the Arab Empire, When it was established in
    the mid-seventh century AD, it was based on a sharp division between the
    ruling Arab–Muslim elite and the subjugated Egyptians, Syrians, Iranians
    and Berbers, who were neither Arabs nor Muslim, Many of the empire’s
    subjects gradually adopted the Muslim faith, the Arabic language and a
    hybrid imperial culture, The old Arab elite looked upon these parvenus with
    deep hostility, fearing to lose its unique status and identity, The frustrated
    converts clamoured for an equal share within the empire and in the world
    of Islam, Eventually they got their way, Egyptians, Syrians and
    Mesopotamians were increasingly seen as ‘Arabs’, Arabs, in their turn –
    whether authentic’ Arabs from Arabia or newly minted Arabs from Egypt
    and Syria – came to be increasingly dominated by non-Arab Muslims, in
    particular by Iranians, Turks and Berbers, The great success of the Arab
    imperial project was that the imperial culture it created was
    wholeheartedly adopted by numerous non-Arab people, who continued to
    uphold it, develop it and spread it – even after the original empire
    collapsed and the Arabs as an ethnic group lost their dominion,
    In China the success of the imperial project was even more thorough, For
    more than 2,000 years, a welter of ethnic and cultural groups rst termed
    barbarians were successfully integrated into imperial Chinese culture and
    became Han Chinese (so named after the Han Empire that ruled China from
    206 BC to AD 220), The ultimate achievement of the Chinese Empire is that it
    is still alive and kicking, yet it is hard to see it as an empire except in
    outlying areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, More than 90 per cent of the
    population of China are seen by themselves and by others as Han,
    We can understand the decolonisation process of the last few decades in a
    similar way, During the modern era Europeans conquered much of the
    globe under the guise of spreading a superior Western culture, They were so
    successful that billions of people gradually adopted signi cant parts of that
    culture, Indians, Africans, Arabs, Chinese and Maoris learned French,
    English and Spanish, They began to believe in human rights and the
    principle of self-determination, and they adopted Western ideologies such
    as liberalism, capitalism, Communism, feminism and nationalism,
    The Imperial Cycle
    During the twentieth century, local groups that had adopted Western
    values claimed equality with their European conquerors in the name of
    these very values, Many anti-colonial struggles were waged under the
    banners of self-determination, socialism and human rights, all of which are
    Western legacies, Just as Egyptians, Iranians and Turks adopted and
    adapted the imperial culture that they inherited from the original Arab
    conquerors, so today’s Indians, Africans and Chinese have accepted much of
    the imperial culture of their former Western overlords, while seeking to
    mould it in accordance with their needs and traditions,
    Good Guys and Bad Guys in History
    It is tempting to divide history neatly into good guys and bad guys, with all
    empires among the bad guys, For the vast majority of empires were
    founded on blood, and maintained their power through oppression and
    war, Yet most of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies, If empires
    are by definition bad, what does that say about us?
    There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge
    human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure,
    authentic civilisation, untainted by sin, These ideologies are at best naïve;
    at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism
    and bigotry, Perhaps you could make a case that some of the myriad
    cultures that emerged at the dawn of recorded history were pure, untouched
    by sin and unadulterated by other societies, But no culture since that dawn
    can reasonably make that claim, certainly no culture that exists now on
    earth, All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and
    imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the
    imperial legacies without killing the patient,
    Think, for example, about the love-hate relationship between the
    independent Indian republic of today and the British Raj, The British
    conquest and occupation of India cost the lives of millions of Indians, and
    was responsible for the continuous humiliation and exploitation of
    hundreds of millions more, Yet many Indians adopted, with the zest of
    converts, Western ideas such as self-determination and human rights, and
    were dismayed when the British refused to live up to their own declared
    values by granting native Indians either equal rights as British subjects or
    Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire, The
    British killed, injured and persecuted the inhabitants of the subcontinent,
    but they also united a bewildering mosaic of warring kingdoms,
    principalities and tribes, creating a shared national consciousness and a
    country that functioned more or less as a single political unit, They laid the
    foundations of the Indian judicial system, created its administrative
    structure, and built the railroad network that was critical for economic
    integration, Independent India adopted Western democracy, in its British
    incarnation, as its form of government, English is still the subcontinent’s
    lingua franca, a neutral tongue that native speakers of Hindi, Tamil and
    Malayalam can use to communicate, Indians are passionate cricket players
    and chai (tea) drinkers, and both game and beverage are British legacies,
    Commercial tea farming did not exist in India until the mid-nineteenth
    century, when it was introduced by the British East India Company, It was
    the snobbish British sahibs who spread the custom of tea drinking
    throughout the subcontinent,
    28, The Chhatrapati Shivaji train station in Mumbai, It began its life as Victoria Station, Bombay,
    The British built it in the Neo-Gothic style that was popular in late nineteenth-century Britain, A
    Hindu nationalist government changed the names of both city and station, but showed no
    appetite for razing such a magnificent building, even if it was built by foreign oppressors,
    How many Indians today would want to call a vote to divest themselves
    of democracy, English, the railway network, the legal system, cricket and
    tea on the grounds that they are imperial legacies? And if they did,
    wouldn’t the very act of calling a vote to decide the issue demonstrate their
    debt to their former overlords?
    29, The Taj Mahal, An example of ‘authentic’ Indian culture, or the alien creation of Muslim
    Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in
    the hope of reconstructing and safeguarding the ‘authentic’ cultures that
    preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the
    legacy of an older and no less brutal empire, Those who resent the
    mutilation of Indian culture by the British Raj inadvertently sanctify the
    legacies of the Mughal Empire and the conquering sultanate of Delhi, And
    whoever attempts to rescue ‘authentic Indian culture’ from the alien
    in uences of these Muslim empires sancti es the legacies of the Gupta
    Empire, the Kushan Empire and the Maurya Empire, If an extreme Hindu
    nationalist were to destroy all the buildings left by the British conquerors,
    such as Mumbai’s main train station, what about the structures left by
    India’s Muslim conquerors, such as the Taj Mahal?
    Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural
    inheritance, Whatever path we take, the rst step is to acknowledge the
    complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the
    past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere, Unless, of course, we are
    willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys,
    The New Global Empire
    Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires, It seems likely
    that in the future, too, most humans will live in one, But this time the
    empire will be truly global, The imperial vision of dominion over the entire
    world could be imminent,
    As the twenty- rst century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground,
    More and more people believe that all of humankind is the legitimate
    source of political authority, rather than the members of a particular
    nationality, and that safeguarding human rights and protecting the
    interests of the entire human species should be the guiding light of politics,
    If so, having close to 200 independent states is a hindrance rather than a
    help, Since Swedes, Indonesians and Nigerians deserve the same human
    rights, wouldn’t it be simpler for a single global government to safeguard
    The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps,
    nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation
    states, No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its
    own, The Chinese Mandate of Heaven was given by Heaven to solve the
    problems of humankind, The modern Mandate of Heaven will be given by
    humankind to solve the problems of heaven, such as the hole in the ozone
    layer and the accumulation of greenhouse gases, The colour of the global
    empire may well be green,
    As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast
    losing their independence, Not one of them is really able to execute
    independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or
    even to run its own internal a airs as it sees t, States are increasingly
    open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global
    companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and
    the international judicial system, States are obliged to conform to global
    standards of nancial behaviour, environmental policy and justice,
    Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and
    shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of
    The global empire being forged before our eyes is not governed by any
    particular state or ethnic group, Much like the Late Roman Empire, it is
    ruled by a multi-ethnic elite, and is held together by a common culture and
    common interests, Throughout the world, more and more entrepreneurs,
    engineers, experts, scholars, lawyers and managers are called to join the
    empire, They must ponder whether to answer the imperial call or to remain
    loyal to their state and their people, More and more choose the empire,

12 The Law of Religion

IN THE MEDIEVAL MARKET IN SAMARKAND, a city built on a Central
Asian oasis, Syrian merchants ran their hands over ne Chinese silks, erce
tribesmen from the steppes displayed the latest batch of straw-haired slaves
from the far west, and shopkeepers pocketed shiny gold coins imprinted
with exotic scripts and the pro les of unfamiliar kings, Here, at one of that
era’s major crossroads between east and west, north and south, the
uni cation of humankind was an everyday fact, The same process could be
observed at work when Kublai Khan’s army mustered to invade Japan in
1281, Mongol cavalrymen in skins and furs rubbed shoulders with Chinese
foot soldiers in bamboo hats, drunken Korean auxiliaries picked ghts with
tattooed sailors from the South China Sea, engineers from Central Asia
listened with dropping jaws to the tall tales of European adventurers, and
all obeyed the command of a single emperor,
Meanwhile, around the holy Ka’aba in Mecca, human uni cation was
proceeding by other means, Had you been a pilgrim to Mecca, circling
Islam’s holiest shrine in the year 1300, you might have found yourself in
the company of a party from Mesopotamia, their robes floating in the wind,
their eyes blazing with ecstasy, and their mouths repeating one after the
other the ninety-nine names of God, Just ahead you might have seen a
weather-beaten Turkish patriarch from the Asian steppes, hobbling on a
stick and stroking his beard thoughtfully, To one side, gold jewellery
shining against jet-black skin, might have been a group of Muslims from the
African kingdom of Mali, The aroma of clove, turmeric, cardamom and sea
salt would have signalled the presence of brothers from India, or perhaps
from the mysterious spice islands further east,
Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination,
disagreement and disunion, Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great
uni er of humankind, alongside money and empires, Since all social orders
and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the
society, the more fragile it is, The crucial historical role of religion has been
to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures, Religions assert
that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an
absolute and supreme authority, This helps place at least some fundamental
laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability,
Religion can thus be de ned as a system of human norms and values that is
founded on a belief in a superhuman order, This involves two distinct criteria:
1, Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the
product of human whims or agreements, Professional football is not a
religion, because despite its many laws, rites and often bizarre rituals,
everyone knows that human beings invented football themselves, and FIFA
may at any moment enlarge the size of the goal or cancel the offside rule,
2, Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values
that it considers binding, Many Westerners today believe in ghosts, fairies
and reincarnation, but these beliefs are not a source of moral and
behavioural standards, As such, they do not constitute a religion,
Despite their ability to legitimise widespread social and political orders,
not all religions have actuated this potential, In order to unite under its
aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human
beings, a religion must possess two further qualities, First, it must espouse a
universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere, Second, it
must insist on spreading this belief to everyone, In other words, it must be
universal and missionary,
The best-known religions of history, such as Islam and Buddhism, are
universal and missionary, Consequently people tend to believe that all
religions are like them, In fact, the majority of ancient religions were local
and exclusive, Their followers believed in local deities and spirits, and had
no interest in converting the entire human race, As far as we know,
universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the rst
millennium BC, Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions
in history, and made a vital contribution to the uni cation of humankind,
much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money,
Silencing the Lambs
When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values
had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of
other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts, For example, a
forager band in the Ganges Valley may have established a rule forbidding
people to cut down a particularly large g tree, lest the g-tree spirit
become angry and take revenge, Another forager band living in the Indus
Valley may have forbidden people from hunting white-tailed foxes, because
a white-tailed fox once revealed to a wise old woman where the band might
find precious obsidian,
Such religions tended to be very local in outlook, and to emphasise the
unique features of speci c locations, climates and phenomena, Most
foragers spent their entire lives within an area of no more than a thousand
square kilometres, In order to survive, the inhabitants of a particular valley
needed to understand the super-human order that regulated their valley,
and to adjust their behaviour accordingly, It was pointless to try to
convince the inhabitants of some distant valley to follow the same rules,
The people of the Indus did not bother to send missionaries to the Ganges
to convince locals not to hunt white-tailed foxes,
The Agricultural Revolution seems to have been accompanied by a
religious revolution, Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and
animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens, The fact
that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact
that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers, Beings
communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing
their shared habitat, In contrast, farmers owned and manipulated plants
and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with
their possessions, Hence the rst religious e ect of the Agricultural
Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a
spiritual round table into property,
This, however, created a big problem, Farmers may have desired absolute
control of their sheep, but they knew perfectly well that their control was
limited, They could lock the sheep in pens, castrate rams and selectively
breed ewes, yet they could not ensure that the ewes conceived and gave
birth to healthy lambs, nor could they prevent the eruption of deadly
epidemics, How then to safeguard the fecundity of the flocks?
A leading theory about the origin of the gods argues that gods gained
importance because they o ered a solution to this problem, Gods such as
the fertility goddess, the sky god and the god of medicine took centre stage
when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the gods’ main role
was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals, Much of
ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise
everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and
animals – the rst chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example, For
thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, religious liturgy
consisted mainly of humans sacri cing lambs, wine and cakes to divine
powers, who in exchange promised abundant harvests and fecund flocks,
The Agricultural Revolution initially had a far smaller impact on the
status of other members of the animist system, such as rocks, springs, ghosts
and demons, However, these too gradually lost status in favour of the new
gods, As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a
few hundred square kilometres, most of their needs could be met by local
spirits, But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to
contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom
or an entire trade basin,
The attempt to answer these needs led to the appearance of polytheistic
religions (from the Greek: poly = many, theos = god), These religions
understood the world to be controlled by a group of powerful gods, such as
the fertility goddess, the rain god and the war god, Humans could appeal to
these gods and the gods might, if they received devotions and sacri ces,
deign to bring rain, victory and health,
Animism did not entirely disappear at the advent of polytheism, Demons,
fairies, ghosts, holy rocks, holy springs and holy trees remained an integral
part of almost all polytheist religions, These spirits were far less important
than the great gods, but for the mundane needs of many ordinary people,
they were good enough, While the king in his capital city sacri ced dozens
of fat rams to the great war god, praying for victory over the barbarians,
the peasant in his hut lit a candle to the fig-tree fairy, praying that she help
cure his sick son,
Yet the greatest impact of the rise of great gods was not on sheep or
demons, but upon the status of Homo sapiens, Animists thought that humans
were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world, Polytheists, on the
other hand, increasingly saw the world as a re ection of the relationship
between gods and humans, Our prayers, our sacri ces, our sins and our
good deeds determined the fate of the entire ecosystem, A terrible ood
might wipe out billions of ants, grasshoppers, turtles, antelopes, gira es
and elephants, just because a few stupid Sapiens made the gods angry,
Polytheism thereby exalted not only the status of the gods, but also that of
humankind, Less fortunate members of the old animist system lost their
stature and became either extras or silent decor in the great drama of man’s
relationship with the gods,
The Benefits of Idolatry
Two thousand years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most
Westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry, This is an
unjust stereotype, In order to understand the inner logic of polytheism, it is
necessary to grasp the central idea buttressing the belief in many gods,
Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or
law governing the entire universe, In fact, most polytheist and even animist
religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the
di erent gods, demons and holy rocks, In classical Greek polytheism, Zeus,
Hera, Apollo and their colleagues were subject to an omnipotent and all-
encompassing power – Fate (Moira, Ananke), Nordic gods, too, were in
thrall to fate, which doomed them to perish in the cataclysm of Ragnarök
(the Twilight of the Gods), In the polytheistic religion of the Yoruba of
West Africa, all gods were born of the supreme god Olodumare, and
remained subject to him, In Hindu polytheism, a single principle, Atman,
controls the myriad gods and spirits, humankind, and the biological and
physical world, Atman is the eternal essence or soul of the entire universe,
as well as of every individual and every phenomenon,
The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from
monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of
interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane
desires, cares and worries of humans, It’s pointless to ask this power for
victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing
vantage point, it makes no di erence whether a particular kingdom wins or
loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular
person recuperates or dies, The Greeks did not waste any sacri ces on Fate,
and Hindus built no temples to Atman,
The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be
to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good – to
embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death, Thus some Hindus,
known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, devote their lives to uniting with Atman,
thereby achieving enlightenment, They strive to see the world from the
viewpoint of this fundamental principle, to realise that from its eternal
perspective all mundane desires and fears are meaningless and ephemeral
Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus, They are sunk deep in the morass
of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help, For assistance in such
matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers, Precisely
because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as
Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases, Humans can
therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in
order to win wars and recuperate from illness, There are necessarily many
of these smaller powers, since once you start dividing up the all-
encompassing power of a supreme principle, you’ll inevitably end up with
more than one deity, Hence the plurality of gods,
The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance,
Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely
disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased
powers, there is no di culty for the devotees of one god to accept the
existence and e cacy of other gods, Polytheism is inherently open-minded,
and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’,
Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to
convert their subjects, The Egyptians, the Romans and the Aztecs did not
send missionaries to foreign lands to spread the worship of Osiris, Jupiter
or Huitzilopochtli (the chief Aztec god), and they certainly didn’t dispatch
armies for that purpose, Subject peoples throughout the empire were
expected to respect the empire’s gods and rituals, since these gods and
rituals protected and legitimised the empire, Yet they were not required to
give up their local gods and rituals, In the Aztec Empire, subject peoples
were obliged to build temples for Huitzilopochtli, but these temples were
built alongside those of local gods, rather than in their stead, In many cases
the imperial elite itself adopted the gods and rituals of subject people, The
Romans happily added the Asian goddess Cybele and the Egyptian goddess
Isis to their pantheon,
The only god that the Romans long refused to tolerate was the
monotheistic and evangelising god of the Christians, The Roman Empire did
not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did
expect them to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the
divinity of the emperor, This was seen as a declaration of political loyalty,
When the Christians vehemently refused to do so, and went on to reject all
attempts at compromise, the Romans reacted by persecuting what they
understood to be a politically subversive faction, And even this was done
half-heartedly, In the 300 years from the cruci xion of Christ to the
conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated
no more than four general persecutions of Christians, Local administrators
and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own, Still, if we
combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these
three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few
thousand Christians, In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years,
Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly di erent
interpretations of the religion of love and compassion,
The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that swept Europe
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly notorious, All
those involved accepted Christ’s divinity and His gospel of compassion and
love, However, they disagreed about the nature of this love, Protestants
believed that the divine love is so great that God was incarnated in esh
and allowed Himself to be tortured and cruci ed, thereby redeeming the
original sin and opening the gates of heaven to all those who professed
faith in Him, Catholics maintained that faith, while essential, was not
enough, To enter heaven, believers had to participate in church rituals and
do good deeds, Protestants refused to accept this, arguing that this quid pro
quo belittles God’s greatness and love, Whoever thinks that entry to heaven
depends upon his or her own good deeds magni es his own importance,
and implies that Christ’s su ering on the cross and God’s love for
humankind are not enough,
These theological disputes turned so violent that during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, Catholics and Protestants killed each other by the
hundreds of thousands, On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed
the importance of good deeds attacked communities of French Protestants
who highlighted God’s love for humankind, In this attack, the St
Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were
slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours, When the pope in Rome heard
the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organised festive
prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to
decorate one of the Vatican’s rooms with a fresco of the massacre (the room
is currently o -limits to visitors), More Christians were killed by fellow
Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman
Empire throughout its entire existence,
God is One
With time some followers of polytheist gods became so fond of their
particular patron that they drifted away from the basic polytheist insight,
They began to believe that their god was the only god, and that He was in
fact the supreme power of the universe, Yet at the same time they
continued to view Him as possessing interests and biases, and believed that
they could strike deals with Him, Thus were born monotheist religions,
whose followers beseech the supreme power of the universe to help them
recover from illness, win the lottery and gain victory in war,
The rst monotheist religion known to us appeared in Egypt, c,350 BC,
when Pharaoh Akhenaten declared that one of the minor deities of the
Egyptian pantheon, the god Aten, was, in fact, the supreme power ruling
the universe, Akhenaten institutionalised the worship of Aten as the state
religion and tried to check the worship of all other gods, His religious
revolution, however, was unsuccessful, After his death, the worship of Aten
was abandoned in favour of the old pantheon,
Polytheism continued to give birth here and there to other monotheist
religions, but they remained marginal, not least because they failed to
digest their own universal message, Judaism, for example, argued that the
supreme power of the universe has interests and biases, yet His chief
interest is in the tiny Jewish nation and in the obscure land of Israel,
Judaism had little to o er other nations, and throughout most of its
existence it has not been a missionary religion, This stage can be called the
stage of ‘local monotheism’,
The big breakthrough came with Christianity, This faith began as an
esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth
was their long-awaited messiah, However, one of the sect’s rst leaders,
Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has
interests and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the
esh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is
something everyone should hear about, not just Jews, It was thus necessary
to spread the good word – the gospel – about Jesus throughout the world,
Paul’s arguments fell on fertile ground, Christians began organising
widespread missionary activities aimed at all humans, In one of history’s
strangest twists, this esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman
Christian success served as a model for another monotheist religion that
appeared in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century – Islam, Like
Christianity, Islam, too, began as a small sect in a remote corner of the
world, but in an even stranger and swifter historical surprise it managed to
break out of the deserts of Arabia and conquer an immense empire
stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India, Henceforth, the monotheist
idea played a central role in world history,
Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than
polytheists, A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies
either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it
received from God just part of the universal truth, Since monotheists have
usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one
and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions,
Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen
their hand by violently exterminating all competition,
It worked, At the beginning of the rst century AD, there were hardly any
monotheists in the world, Around AD 500, one of the world’s largest empires
– the Roman Empire – was a Christian polity, and missionaries were busy
spreading Christianity to other parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, By the end
of the rst millennium AD, most people in Europe, West Asia and North
Africa were monotheists, and empires from the Atlantic Ocean to the
Himalayas claimed to be ordained by the single great God, By the early
sixteenth century, monotheism dominated most of Afro-Asia, with the
exception of East Asia and the southern parts of Africa, and it began
extending long tentacles towards South Africa, America and Oceania, Today
most people outside East Asia adhere to one monotheist religion or another,
and the global political order is built on monotheistic foundations,
Yet just as animism continued to survive within polytheism, so
polytheism continued to survive within monotheism, In theory, once a
person believes that the supreme power of the universe has interests and
biases, what’s the point in worshipping partial powers? Who would want to
approach a lowly bureaucrat when the president’s o ce is open to you?
Indeed, monotheist theology tends to deny the existence of all gods except
the supreme God, and to pour hell re and brimstone over anyone who
dares worship them,
Map 5, The Spread of Christianity and Islam,
Yet there has always been a chasm between theological theories and
historical realities, Most people have found it di cult to digest the
monotheist idea fully, They have continued to divide the world into ‘we’
and ‘they’, and to see the supreme power of the universe as too distant and
alien for their mundane needs, The monotheist religions expelled the gods
through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in
through the side window, Christianity, for example, developed its own
pantheon of saints, whose cults di ered little from those of the polytheistic
Just as the god Jupiter defended Rome and Huitzilopochtli protected the
Aztec Empire, so every Christian kingdom had its own patron saint who
helped it overcome di culties and win wars, England was protected by St
George, Scotland by St Andrew, Hungary by St Stephen, and France had St
Martin, Cities and towns, professions, and even diseases – each had their
own saint, The city of Milan had St Ambrose, while St Mark watched over
Venice, St Florian protected chimney cleaners, whereas St Mathew lent a
hand to tax collectors in distress, If you su ered from headaches you had to
pray to St Agathius, but if from toothaches, then St Apollonia was a much
better audience,
The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods,
Often they were these very same gods in disguise, For example, the chief
goddess of Celtic Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity was Brigid,
When Ireland was Christianised, Brigid too was baptised, She became St
Brigit, who to this day is the most revered saint in Catholic Ireland,
The Battle of Good and Evil
Polytheism gave birth not merely to monotheist religions, but also to
dualistic ones, Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing
powers: good and evil, Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an
independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it,
Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these
two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the
Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple
answer to the famous Problem of Evil, one of the fundamental concerns of
human thought, ‘Why is there evil in the world? Why is there su ering?
Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Monotheists have to practise
intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and
perfectly good God allows so much su ering in the world, One well-known
explanation is that this is God’s way of allowing for human free will, Were
there no evil, humans could not choose between good and evil, and hence
there would be no free will, This, however, is a non-intuitive answer that
immediately raises a host of new questions, Freedom of will allows humans
to choose evil, Many indeed choose evil and, according to the standard
monotheist account, this choice must bring divine punishment in its wake,
If God knew in advance that a particular person would use her free will to
choose evil, and that as a result she would be punished for this by eternal
tortures in hell, why did God create her? Theologians have written
countless books to answer such questions, Some nd the answers
convincing, Some don’t, What’s undeniable is that monotheists have a hard
time dealing with the Problem of Evil,
For dualists, it’s easy to explain evil, Bad things happen even to good
people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God,
There is an independent evil power loose in the world, The evil power does
bad things,
Dualism has its own drawbacks, While solving the Problem of Evil, it is
unnerved by the Problem of Order, If the world was created by a single
God, it’s clear why it is such an orderly place, where everything obeys the
same laws, But if Good and Evil battle for control of the world, who
enforces the laws governing this cosmic war? Two rival states can ght one
another because both obey the same laws of physics, A missile launched
from Pakistan can hit targets in India because gravity works the same way
in both countries, When Good and Evil ght, what common laws do they
obey, and who decreed these laws?
So, monotheism explains order, but is mysti ed by evil, Dualism explains
evil, but is puzzled by order, There is one logical way of solving the riddle:
to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire
universe – and He’s evil, But nobody in history has had the stomach for
such a belief,
Dualistic religions ourished for more than a thousand years, Sometime
between 1500 BC and 1000 BC a prophet named Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was
active somewhere in Central Asia, His creed passed from generation to
generation until it became the most important of dualistic religions –
Zoroastrianism, Zoroastrians saw the world as a cosmic battle between the
good god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Angra Mainyu, Humans had to
help the good god in this battle, Zoroastrianism was an important religion
during the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BC) and later became the
o cial religion of the Sassanid Persian Empire (AD 224–651), It exerted a
major in uence on almost all subsequent Middle Eastern and Central Asian
religions, and it inspired a number of other dualist religions, such as
Gnosticism and Manichaeanism,
During the third and fourth centuries AD, the Manichaean creed spread
from China to North Africa, and for a moment it appeared that it would
beat Christianity to achieve dominance in the Roman Empire, Yet the
Manichaeans lost the soul of Rome to the Christians, the Zoroastrian
Sassanid Empire was overrun by the monotheistic Muslims, and the dualist
wave subsided, Today only a handful of dualist communities survive in
India and the Middle East,
Nevertheless, the rising tide of monotheism did not really wipe out
dualism, Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism absorbed numerous
dualist beliefs and practices, and some of the most basic ideas of what we
call ‘monotheism’ are, in fact, dualist in origin and spirit, Countless
Christians, Muslims and Jews believe in a powerful evil force – like the one
Christians call the Devil or Satan – who can act independently, ght
against the good God, and wreak havoc without God’s permission,
How can a monotheist adhere to such a dualistic belief (which, by the
way, is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament)? Logically, it is
impossible, Either you believe in a single omnipotent God or you believe in
two opposing powers, neither of which is omnipotent, Still, humans have a
wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions, So it should not come as a
surprise that millions of pious Christians, Muslims and Jews manage to
believe at one and the same time in an omnipotent God and an
independent Devil, Countless Christians, Muslims and Jews have gone so
far as to imagine that the good God even needs our help in its struggle
against the Devil, which inspired among other things the call for jihads and
Another key dualistic concept, particularly in Gnosticism and
Manichaeanism, was the sharp distinction between body and soul, between
matter and spirit, Gnostics and Manichaeans argued that the good god
created the spirit and the soul, whereas matter and bodies are the creation
of the evil god, Man, according to this view, serves as a battleground
between the good soul and the evil body, From a monotheistic perspective,
this is nonsense – why distinguish so sharply between body and soul, or
matter and spirit? And why argue that body and matter are evil? After all,
everything was created by the same good God, But monotheists could not
help but be captivated by dualist dichotomies, precisely because they helped
them address the problem of evil, So such oppositions eventually became
cornerstones of Christian and Muslim thought, Belief in heaven (the realm
of the good god) and hell (the realm of the evil god) was also dualist in
origin, There is no trace of this belief in the Old Testament, which also
never claims that the souls of people continue to live after the death of the
In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of
monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together
under a single divine umbrella, The average Christian believes in the
monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in
animist ghosts, Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous
avowal of di erent and even contradictory ideas and the combination of
rituals and practices taken from di erent sources, It’s called syncretism,
Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion,
The Law of Nature
All the religions we have discussed so far share one important
characteristic: they all focus on a belief in gods and other supernatural
entities, This seems obvious to Westerners, who are familiar mainly with
monotheistic and polytheist creeds, In fact, however, the religious history of
the world does not boil down to the history of gods, During the rst
millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through
Afro-Asia, The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism
and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in
the Mediterranean basin, were characterised by their disregard of gods,
These creeds maintained that the superhuman order governing the world
is the product of natural laws rather than of divine wills and whims, Some
of these natural-law religions continued to espouse the existence of gods,
but their gods were subject to the laws of nature no less than humans,
animals and plants were, Gods had their niche in the ecosystem, just as
elephants and porcupines had theirs, but could no more change the laws of
nature than elephants can, A prime example is Buddhism, the most
important of the ancient natural law religions, which remains one of the
major faiths,
The central gure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being,
Siddhartha Gautama, According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to
a small Himalayan kingdom, sometime around 500 BC, The young prince
was deeply a ected by the su ering evident all around him, He saw that
men and women, children and old people, all su er not just from
occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety,
frustration and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of
the human condition, People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge
and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces,
Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content, Those who live in
poverty dream of riches, Those who have a million want two million, Those
who have two million want 10 million, Even the rich and famous are rarely
satis ed, They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until
sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them, Everything that one
has accumulated vanishes like smoke, Life is a pointless rat race, But how to
escape it?
At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the
middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions, He travelled
as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out
of su ering, He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus but nothing
liberated him entirely – some dissatisfaction always remained, He did not
despair, He resolved to investigate su ering on his own until he found a
method for complete liberation, He spent six years meditating on the
essence, causes and cures for human anguish, In the end he came to the
realisation that su ering is not caused by ill fortune, by social injustice, or
by divine whims, Rather, su ering is caused by the behaviour patterns of
one’s own mind,
Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it
usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction,
When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the
irritation, When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that
the pleasure will remain and will intensify, Therefore, the mind is always
dissatis ed and restless, This is very clear when we experience unpleasant
things, such as pain, As long as the pain continues, we are dissatis ed and
do all we can to avoid it, Yet even when we experience pleasant things we
are never content, We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we
hope that it will intensify, People dream for years about nding love but
are rarely satis ed when they nd it, Some become anxious that their
partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could
have found someone better, And we all know people who manage to do
Map 6, The Spread of Buddhism,
Great gods can send us rain, social institutions can provide justice and
good health care, and lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires, but
none of them can change our basic mental patterns, Hence even the
greatest kings are doomed to live in angst, constantly eeing grief and
anguish, forever chasing after greater pleasures,
Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle, If, when
the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply
understands things as they are, then there is no su ering, If you experience
sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel
sadness but you do not su er from it, There can actually be richness in the
sadness, If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and
intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind,
But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without
craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama
developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience
reality as it is, without craving, These practices train the mind to focus all
its attention on the question, ‘What am I experiencing now?’ rather than on
‘What would I rather be experiencing?’ It is di cult to achieve this state of
mind, but not impossible,
Gautama grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules
meant to make it easier for people to focus on actual experience and to
avoid falling into cravings and fantasies, He instructed his followers to
avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke
the re of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth), When
the ames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of
perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of
which is ‘extinguishing the re’), Those who have attained nirvana are
fully liberated from all su ering, They experience reality with the utmost
clarity, free of fantasies and delusions, While they will most likely still
encounter unpleasantness and pain, such experiences cause them no misery,
A person who does not crave cannot suffer,
According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama himself attained nirvana and
was fully liberated from su ering, Henceforth he was known as ‘Buddha’,
which means ‘The Enlightened One’, Buddha spent the rest of his life
explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could be freed from
su ering, He encapsulated his teachings in a single law: su ering arises
from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from su ering is to be fully
liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to
train the mind to experience reality as it is,
This law, known as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a
universal law of nature, That ‘su ering arises from craving’ is always and
everywhere true, just as in modern physics E always equals mc , Buddhists
are people who believe in this law and make it the fulcrum of all their
activities, Belief in gods, on the other hand, is of minor importance to them,
The rst principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists, What does He want
from me?’ The rst principle of Buddhism is ‘Su ering exists, How do I
escape it?’
Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as
powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no
in uence on the law that su ering arises from craving, If the mind of a
person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable, Conversely,
once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot
save him from suffering,
Yet much like the monotheist religions, premodern natural-law religions
such as Buddhism never really rid themselves of the worship of gods,
Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of
complete liberation from su ering, rather than for stops along the way
such as economic prosperity and political power, However, 99 per cent of
Buddhists did not attain nirvana, and even if they hoped to do so in some
future lifetime, they devoted most of their present lives to the pursuit of
mundane achievements, So they continued to worship various gods, such as
the Hindu gods in India, the Bon gods in Tibet, and the Shinto gods in
Moreover, as time went by several Buddhist sects developed pantheons of
Buddhas and bodhisattvas, These are human and non-human beings with
the capacity to achieve full liberation from su ering but who forego this
liberation out of compassion, in order to help the countless beings still
trapped in the cycle of misery, Instead of worshipping gods, many
Buddhists began worshipping these enlightened beings, asking them for
help not only in attaining nirvana, but also in dealing with mundane
problems, Thus we nd many Buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout East
Asia who spend their time bringing rain, stopping plagues, and even
winning bloody wars – in exchange for prayers, colourful owers, fragrant
incense and gifts of rice and candy,
The Worship of Man
The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism, in
which religions have increasingly lost their importance, If we are talking
about theist religions, this is largely correct, But if we take into
consideration natural-law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age
of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary e orts, and the
bloodiest wars of religion in history, The modern age has witnessed the rise
of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism,
capitalism, nationalism and Nazism, These creeds do not like to be called
religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies, But this is just a semantic
exercise, If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is
founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no
less a religion than Islam,
Islam is of course di erent from Communism, because Islam sees the
superhuman order governing the world as the edict of an omnipotent
creator god, whereas Soviet Communism did not believe in gods, But
Buddhism too gives short shrift to gods, and yet we commonly classify it as
a religion, Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of
natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions, Whereas
Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha
Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by
Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, The similarity does
not end there, Like other religions, Communism too has its holy scripts and
prophetic books, such as Marx’s Das Kapital, which foretold that history
would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat, Communism
had its holidays and festivals, such as the First of May and the anniversary
of the October Revolution, It had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics,
and every unit in the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar, who
monitored the piety of soldiers and o cers, Communism had martyrs, holy
wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism, Soviet Communism was a fanatical
and missionary religion, A devout Communist could not be a Christian or a
Buddhist, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at
the price of his or her life,
Religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order,
The theory of relativity is not a religion, because (at least so far) there are no human norms and
values that are founded on it, Football is not a religion because nobody argues that its rules
reflect superhuman edicts, Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions, because all are
systems of human norms and values that are founded on belief in a superhuman order, (Note the
difference between ‘superhuman’ and ‘supernatural’, The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist
laws of history are superhuman, since they were not legislated by humans, Yet they are not
Some readers may feel very uncomfortable with this line of reasoning, If
it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an
ideology rather than a religion, It makes no di erence, We can divide
creeds into god-centred religions and godless ideologies that claim to be
based on natural laws, But then, to be consistent, we would need to
catalogue at least some Buddhist, Daoist and Stoic sects as ideologies rather
than religions, Conversely, we should note that belief in gods persists
within many modern ideologies, and that some of them, most notably
liberalism, make little sense without this belief,

It would be impossible to survey here the history of all the new modern
creeds, especially because there are no clear boundaries between them,
They are no less syncretic than monotheism and popular Buddhism, Just as
a Buddhist could worship Hindu deities, and just as a monotheist could
believe in the existence of Satan, so the typical American nowadays is
simultaneously a nationalist (she believes in the existence of an American
nation with a special role to play in history), a free-market capitalist (she
believes that open competition and the pursuit of self-interest are the best
ways to create a prosperous society), and a liberal humanist (she believes
that humans have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable
rights), Nationalism will be discussed in Chapter 18, Capitalism – the most
successful of the modern religions – gets a whole chapter, Chapter 16,
which expounds its principal beliefs and rituals, In the remaining pages of
this chapter I will address the humanist religions,
Theist religions focus on the worship of gods, Humanist religions worship
humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens, Humanism is a belief that Homo
sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally di erent
from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena,
Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most
important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything
that happens in the universe, The supreme good is the good of Homo
sapiens, The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the
benefit of this species,
All humanists worship humanity, but they do not agree on its de nition,
Humanism has split into three rival sects that ght over the exact de nition
of ‘humanity’, just as rival Christian sects fought over the exact definition of
God, Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which
believes that ‘humanity’ is a quality of individual humans, and that the
liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct, According to liberals, the
sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo
sapiens, The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world,
and is the source for all ethical and political authority, If we encounter an
ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner
voice – the voice of humanity, The chief commandments of liberal
humanism are meant to protect the liberty of this inner voice against
intrusion or harm, These commandments are collectively known as ‘human
This, for example, is why liberals object to torture and the death penalty,
In early modern Europe, murderers were thought to violate and destabilise
the cosmic order, To bring the cosmos back to balance, it was necessary to
torture and publicly execute the criminal, so that everyone could see the
order re-established, Attending gruesome executions was a favourite
pastime for Londoners and Parisians in the era of Shakespeare and Molière,
In today’s Europe, murder is seen as a violation of the sacred nature of
humanity, In order to restore order, present-day Europeans do not torture
and execute criminals, Instead, they punish a murderer in what they see as
the most ‘humane’ way possible, thus safeguarding and even rebuilding his
human sanctity, By honouring the human nature of the murderer, everyone
is reminded of the sanctity of humanity, and order is restored, By defending
the murderer, we right what the murderer has wronged,
Even though liberal humanism sancti es humans, it does not deny the
existence of God, and is, in fact, founded on monotheist beliefs, The liberal
belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of
the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls, Without
recourse to eternal souls and a Creator God, it becomes embarrassingly
difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual Sapiens,
Another important sect is socialist humanism, Socialists believe that
‘humanity’ is collective rather than individualistic, They hold as sacred not
the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole,
Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual
humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans, According
to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of
humanity, because it privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their
universal essence, For example, when the rich are privileged over the poor,
it means that we value money more than the universal essence of all
humans, which is the same for rich and poor alike,
Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist
foundations, The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of
the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God, The only
humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is
evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives are the Nazis,
What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a di erent
de nition of ‘humanity’, one deeply in uenced by the theory of evolution,
In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not
something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can
evolve or degenerate, Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a
The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect humankind from
degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution, This is why the Nazis
said that the Aryan race, the most advanced form of humanity, had to be
protected and fostered, while degenerate kinds of Homo sapiens like Jews,
Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill had to be quarantined and even
exterminated, The Nazis explained that Homo sapiens itself appeared when
one ‘superior’ population of ancient humans evolved, whereas ‘inferior’
populations such as the Neanderthals became extinct, These di erent
populations were at rst no more than di erent races, but developed
independently along their own evolutionary paths, This might well happen
again, According to the Nazis, Homo sapiens had already divided into
several distinct races, each with its own unique qualities, One of these
races, the Aryan race, had the nest qualities – rationalism, beauty,
integrity, diligence, The Aryan race therefore had the potential to turn man
into superman, Other races, such as Jews and blacks, were today’s
Neanderthals, possessing inferior qualities, If allowed to breed, and in
particular to intermarry with Aryans, they would adulterate all human
populations and doom Homo sapiens to extinction,
Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory, In particular, genetic
research conducted after 1945 has demonstrated that the di erences
between the various human lineages are far smaller than the Nazis
postulated, But these conclusions are relatively new, Given the state of
scienti c knowledge in 1933, Nazi beliefs were hardly outside the pale, The
existence of di erent human races, the superiority of the white race, and
the need to protect and cultivate this superior race were widely held beliefs
among most Western elites, Scholars in the most prestigious Western
universities, using the orthodox scienti c methods of the day, published
studies that allegedly proved that members of the white race were more
intelligent, more ethical and more skilled than Africans or Indians,
Politicians in Washington, London and Canberra took it for granted that it
was their job to prevent the adulteration and degeneration of the white
race, by, for example, restricting immigration from China or even Italy to
‘Aryan’ countries such as the USA and Australia,
Humanist Religions – Religions that Worship Humanity
Liberal humanism Evolutionary humanism
Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature that is fundamentally
different from the nature of all other beings and phenomena, The supreme
good is the good of humanity,
‘Humanity’ is ‘Humanity’ is
‘Humanity’ is a mutable species,
individualistic and collective and
Humans might degenerate into
resides within each resides within the
subhumans or evolve into
individual Homo species Homo
sapiens, sapiens as a whole,
The supreme
The supreme The supreme commandment is
commandment is to
commandment is to protect humankind from
protect the inner core
to protect equality degenerating into subhumans,
and freedom of each
within the species and to encourage its evolution
individual Homo
Homo sapiens, into superhumans,
These positions did not change simply because new scienti c research
was published, Sociological and political developments were far more
powerful engines of change, In this sense, Hitler dug not just his own grave
but that of racism in general, When he launched World War Two, he
compelled his enemies to make clear distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’,
Afterwards, precisely because Nazi ideology was so racist, racism became
discredited in the West, But the change took time, White supremacy
remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the
1960s, The White Australia policy which restricted immigration of non-
white people to Australia remained in force until 1973, Aboriginal
Australians did not receive equal political rights until the 1960s, and most
were prevented from voting in elections because they were deemed un t to
function as citizens,
30, A Nazi propaganda poster showing on the right a ‘racially pure Aryan’ and on the left a ‘cross-
breed’, Nazi admiration for the human body is evident, as is their fear that the lower races might
pollute humanity and cause its degeneration,
The Nazis did not loathe humanity, They fought liberal humanism,
human rights and Communism precisely because they admired humanity
and believed in the great potential of the human species, But following the
logic of Darwinian evolution, they argued that natural selection must be
allowed to weed out un t individuals and leave only the ttest to survive
and reproduce, By succouring the weak, liberalism and Communism not
only allowed un t individuals to survive, they actually gave them the
opportunity to reproduce, thereby undermining natural selection, In such a
world, the ttest humans would inevitably drown in a sea of un t
degenerates, Humankind would become less and less t with each passing
generation – which could lead to its extinction,
31, A Nazi cartoon of 1933, Hitler is presented as a sculptor who creates the superman, A
bespectacled liberal intellectual is appalled by the violence needed to create the superman,
(Note also the erotic glorification of the human body,)
A 1942 German biology textbook explains in the chapter ‘The Laws of
Nature and Mankind’ that the supreme law of nature is that all beings are
locked in a remorseless struggle for survival, After describing how plants
struggle for territory, how beetles struggle to nd mates and so forth, the
textbook concludes that:
The battle for existence is hard and unforgiving, but is the only way to maintain life, This struggle
eliminates everything that is un t for life, and selects everything that is able to survive … These natural
laws are incontrovertible; living creatures demonstrate them by their very survival, They are unforgiving,
Those who resist them will be wiped out, Biology not only tells us about animals and plants, but also
shows us the laws we must follow in our lives, and steels our wills to live and ght according to these
laws, The meaning of life is struggle, Woe to him who sins against these laws,
Then follows a quotation from Mein Kampf: ‘The person who attempts to
ght the iron logic of nature thereby ghts the principles he must thank for
his life as a human being, To ght against nature is to bring about one’s
own destruction,’
At the dawn of the third millennium, the future of evolutionary humanism
is unclear, For sixty years after the end of the war against Hitler it was
taboo to link humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological
methods to upgrade’ Homo sapiens, But today such projects are back in
vogue, No one speaks about exterminating lower races or inferior people,
but many contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology to
create superhumans,
At the same time, a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal
humanism and the latest ndings of the life sciences, a gulf we cannot
ignore much longer, Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded
on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and
immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of
all ethical and political authority, This is a reincarnation of the traditional
Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each
individual, Yet over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly
undermined this belief, Scientists studying the inner workings of the human
organism have found no soul there, They increasingly argue that human
behaviour is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by
free will – the same forces that determine the behaviour of chimpanzees,
wolves, and ants, Our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep
such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet, But in all frankness, how
long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from
the departments of law and political science?

13 The Secret of Success

COMMERCE, EMPIRES AND UNIVERSAL religions eventually brought
virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in
today, Not that this process of expansion and uni cation was linear or
without interruptions, Looking at the bigger picture, though, the transition
from many small cultures to a few large cultures and nally to a single
global society was probably an inevitable result of the dynamics of human
But saying that a global society is inevitable is not the same as saying
that the end result had to be the particular kind of global society we now
have, We can certainly imagine other outcomes, Why is English so
widespread today, and not Danish? Why are there about 2 billion Christians
and 1,25 billion Muslims, but only 150,000 Zoroastrians and no
Manichaeans? If we could go back in time to 10,000 years ago and set the
process going again, time after time, would we always see the rise of
monotheism and the decline of dualism?
We can’t do such an experiment, so we don’t really know, But an
examination of two crucial characteristics of history can provide us with
some clues,
1, The Hindsight Fallacy
Every point in history is a crossroads, A single travelled road leads from the
past to the present, but myriad paths fork o into the future, Some of those
paths are wider, smoother and better marked, and are thus more likely to
be taken, but sometimes history – or the people who make history – takes
unexpected turns,
At the beginning of the fourth century AD, the Roman Empire faced a wide
horizon of religious possibilities, It could have stuck to its traditional and
variegated polytheism, But its emperor, Constantine, looking back on a
fractious century of civil war, seems to have thought that a single religion
with a clear doctrine could help unify his ethnically diverse realm, He could
have chosen any of a number of contemporary cults to be his national faith
– Manichaeism, Mithraism, the cults of Isis or Cybele, Zoroastrianism,
Judaism and even Buddhism were all available options, Why did he opt for
Jesus? Was there something in Christian theology that attracted him
personally, or perhaps an aspect of the faith that made him think it would
be easier to use for his purposes? Did he have a religious experience, or did
some of his advisers suggest that the Christians were quickly gaining
adherents and that it would be best to jump on that wagon? Historians can
speculate, but not provide any de nitive answer, They can describe how
Christianity took over the Roman Empire, but they cannot explain why this
particular possibility was realised,
What is the di erence between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To
describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of speci c events that led
from one point to another, To explain ‘why means to nd causal
connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of
events to the exclusion of all others,
Some scholars do indeed provide deterministic explanations of events
such as the rise of Christianity, They attempt to reduce human history to
the workings of biological, ecological or economic forces, They argue that
there was something about the geography, genetics or economy of the
Roman Mediterranean that made the rise of a monotheist religion
inevitable, Yet most historians tend to be sceptical of such deterministic
theories, This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic
discipline – the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it
becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another, Those
who have only a super cial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus
only on the possibility that was eventually realised, They o er a just-so
story to explain with hindsight why that outcome was inevitable, Those
more deeply informed about the period are much more cognisant of the
roads not taken,
In fact, the people who knew the period best – those alive at the time –
were the most clueless of all, For the average Roman in Constantine’s time,
the future was a fog, It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable
in hindsight was far from obvious at the time, Today is no di erent, Are we
out of the global economic crisis, or is the worst still to come? Will China
continue growing until it becomes the leading superpower? Will the United
States lose its hegemony? Is the upsurge of monotheistic fundamentalism
the wave of the future or a local whirlpool of little long-term signi cance?
Are we heading towards ecological disaster or technological paradise?
There are good arguments to be made for all of these outcomes, but no way
of knowing for sure, In a few decades, people will look back and think that
the answers to all of these questions were obvious,
It is particularly important to stress that possibilities which seem very
unlikely to contemporaries often get realised, When Constantine assumed
the throne in 306, Christianity was little more than an esoteric Eastern sect,
If you were to suggest then that it was about to become the Roman state
religion, you’d have been laughed out of the room just as you would be
today if you were to suggest that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna would be
the state religion of the USA, In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a small
radical Russian faction, No reasonable person would have predicted that
within a mere four years they would take over the country, In AD 600, the
notion that a band of desert-dwelling Arabs would soon conquer an expanse
stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India was even more preposterous,
Indeed, had the Byzantine army been able to repel the initial onslaught,
Islam would probably have remained an obscure cult of which only a
handful of cognoscenti were aware, Scholars would then have a very easy
job explaining why a faith based on a revelation to a middle-aged Meccan
merchant could never have caught on,
Not that everything is possible, Geographical, biological and economic
forces create constraints, Yet these constraints leave ample room for
surprising developments, which do not seem bound by any deterministic
This conclusion disappoints many people, who prefer history to be
deterministic, Determinism is appealing because it implies that our world
and our beliefs are a natural and inevitable product of history, It is natural
and inevitable that we live in nation states, organise our economy along
capitalist principles, and fervently believe in human rights, To acknowledge
that history is not deterministic is to acknowledge that it is just a
coincidence that most people today believe in nationalism, capitalism and
human rights,
History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted
because it is chaotic, So many forces are at work and their interactions are
so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and
the way they interact produce huge di erences in outcomes, Not only that,
but history is what is called a ‘level two’ chaotic system, Chaotic systems
come in two shapes, Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to
predictions about it, The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic
system, Though it is in uenced by myriad factors, we can build computer
models that take more and more of them into consideration, and produce
better and better weather forecasts,
Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore
can never be predicted accurately, Markets, for example, are a level two
chaotic system, What will happen if we develop a computer program that
forecasts with 100 per cent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of
oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to
materialise, If the current price of oil is $90 a barrel, and the infallible
computer program predicts that tomorrow it will be $100, traders will rush
to buy oil so that they can pro t from the predicted price rise, As a result,
the price will shoot up to $100 a barrel today rather than tomorrow, Then
what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows,
Politics, too, is a second-order chaotic system, Many people criticise
Sovietologists for failing to predict the 1989 revolutions and castigate
Middle East experts for not anticipating the Arab Spring revolutions of
2011, This is unfair, Revolutions are, by de nition, unpredictable, A
predictable revolution never erupts,
Why not? Imagine that it’s 2010 and some genius political scientists in
cahoots with a computer wizard have developed an infallible algorithm
that, incorporated into an attractive interface, can be marketed as a
revolution predictor, They o er their services to President Hosni Mubarak
of Egypt and, in return for a generous down payment, tell Mubarak that
according to their forecasts a revolution would certainly break out in Egypt
during the course of the following year, How would Mubarak react? Most
likely, he would immediately lower taxes, distribute billions of dollars in
handouts to the citizenry – and also beef up his secret police force, just in
case, The pre-emptive measures work, The year comes and goes and,
surprise, there is no revolution, Mubarak demands his money back, ‘Your
algorithm is worthless!’ he shouts at the scientists, ‘In the end I could have
built another palace instead of giving all that money away!’ ‘But the reason
the revolution didn’t happen is because we predicted it,’ the scientists say in
their defence, ‘Prophets who predict things that don’t happen?’ Mubarak
remarks as he motions his guards to grab them, ‘I could have picked up a
dozen of those for next to nothing in the Cairo marketplace,’
So why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a
means for making accurate predictions, We study history not to know the
future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is
neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more
possibilities before us than we imagine, For example, studying how
Europeans came to dominate Africans enables us to realise that there is
nothing natural or inevitable about the racial hierarchy, and that the world
might well be arranged differently,
2, Blind Clio
We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say
something very important about them: history’s choices are not made for
the bene t of humans, There is absolutely no proof that human well-being
inevitably improves as history rolls along, There is no proof that cultures
that are bene cial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while
less bene cial cultures disappear, There is no proof that Christianity was a
better choice than Manichaeism, or that the Arab Empire was more
beneficial than that of the Sassanid Persians,
There is no proof that history is working for the bene t of humans
because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such bene t,
Di erent cultures de ne the good di erently, and we have no objective
yardstick by which to judge between them, The victors, of course, always
believe that their de nition is correct, But why should we believe the
victors? Christians believe that the victory of Christianity over Manichaeism
was bene cial to humankind, but if we do not accept the Christian world
view then there is no reason to agree with them, Muslims believe that the
fall of the Sassanid Empire into Muslim hands was bene cial to humankind,
But these bene ts are evident only if we accept the Muslim world view, It
may well be that we’d all be better o if Christianity and Islam had been
forgotten or defeated,
Ever more scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite,
with humans as its unwitting host, Organic parasites, such as viruses, live
inside the body of their hosts, They multiply and spread from one host to
the other, feeding o their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even
killing them, As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the
parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host, In just this fashion,
cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans, They multiply and spread
from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes
even killing them, A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above
the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to
dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death,
The human dies, but the idea spreads, According to this approach, cultures
are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage
of others (as Marxists tend to think), Rather, cultures are mental parasites
that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people
infected by them,
This approach is sometimes called memetics, It assumes that, just as
organic evolution is based on the replication of organic information units
called ‘genes’, so cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural
information units called ‘memes’, Successful cultures are those that excel in
reproducing their memes, irrespective of the costs and bene ts to their
human hosts,
Most scholars in the humanities disdain memetics, seeing it as an
amateurish attempt to explain cultural processes with crude biological
analogies, But many of these same scholars adhere to memetics’ twin sister
– postmodernism, Postmodernist thinkers speak about discourses rather
than memes as the building blocks of culture, Yet they too see cultures as
propagating themselves with little regard for the bene t of humankind, For
example, postmodernist thinkers describe nationalism as a deadly plague
that spread throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
causing wars, oppression, hate and genocide, The moment people in one
country were infected with it, those in neighbouring countries were also
likely to catch the virus, The nationalist virus presented itself as being
beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself,
Similar arguments are common in the social sciences, under the aegis of
game theory, Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and
behaviour patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root
and spread, Arms races are a famous example, Many arms races bankrupt
all those who take part in them, without really changing the military
balance of power, When Pakistan buys advanced aeroplanes, India
responds in kind, When India develops nuclear bombs, Pakistan follows
suit, When Pakistan enlarges its navy, India counters, At the end of the
process, the balance of power may remain much as it was, but meanwhile
billions of dollars that could have been invested in education or health are
spent on weapons, Yet the arms race dynamic is hard to resist, ‘Arms
racing’ is a pattern of behaviour that spreads itself like a virus from one
country to another, harming everyone, but bene ting itself, under the
evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, (Keep in mind that an
arms race, like a gene, has no awareness – it does not consciously seek to
survive and reproduce, Its spread is the unintended result of a powerful
No matter what you call it – game theory, postmodernism or memetics –
the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-
being, There is no basis for thinking that the most successful cultures in
history are necessarily the best ones for Homo sapiens, Like evolution,
history disregards the happiness of individual organisms, And individual
humans, for their part, are usually far too ignorant and weak to in uence
the course of history to their own advantage,
History proceeds from one junction to the next, choosing for some
mysterious reason to follow rst this path, then another, Around AD 1500,
history made its most momentous choice, changing not only the fate of
humankind, but arguably the fate of all life on earth, We call it the
Scienti c Revolution, It began in western Europe, a large peninsula on the
western tip of Afro-Asia, which up till then played no important role in
history, Why did the Scienti c Revolution begin there of all places, and not
in China or India? Why did it begin at the midpoint of the second
millennium AD rather than two centuries before or three centuries later? We
don’t know, Scholars have proposed dozens of theories, but none of them is
particularly convincing,
History has a very wide horizon of possibilities, and many possibilities
are never realised, It is conceivable to imagine history going on for
generations upon generations while bypassing the Scienti c Revolution,
just as it is conceivable to imagine history without Christianity, without a
Roman Empire, and without gold coins,

Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

32, Alamogordo, 16 July 1945, 05:29:53, Eight seconds after the first atomic bomb was
detonated, The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from
the Bhagavadgita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,’

14 The Discovery of Ignorance

WERE, SAY, A SPANISH PEASANT TO HAVE fallen asleep in AD 1000 and
woken up 500 years later, to the din of Columbus’ sailors boarding the Niña,
Pinta and Santa Maria, the world would have seemed to him quite familiar,
Despite many changes in technology, manners and political boundaries,
this medieval Rip Van Winkle would have felt at home, But had one of
Columbus’ sailors fallen into a similar slumber and woken up to the
ringtone of a twenty- rst-century iPhone, he would have found himself in a
world strange beyond comprehension, ‘Is this heaven?’ he might well have
asked himself, ‘Or perhaps – hell?’
The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented
growth in human power, In the year 1500, there were about 500 million
Homo sapiens in the entire world, Today, there are 7 billion, The total
value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is
estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars, Nowadays the value of a year
of human production is close to $60 trillion, In 1500, humanity consumed
about 13 trillion calories of energy per day, Today, we consume 1,500
trillion calories a day, (Take a second look at those gures – human
population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy
consumption 115-fold,)
Suppose a single modern battleship got transported back to Columbus’
time, In a matter of seconds it could make driftwood out of the Niña, Pinta
and Santa Maria and then sink the navies of every great world power of the
time without sustaining a scratch, Five modern freighters could have taken
onboard all the cargo borne by the whole world’s merchant eets, A
modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex
books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare, Any
large bank today holds more money than all the world’s premodern
kingdoms put together,
In 1500, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants, Most buildings
were constructed of mud, wood and straw; a three-storey building was a
skyscraper, The streets were rutted dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy
in winter, plied by pedestrians, horses, goats, chickens and a few carts, The
most common urban noises were human and animal voices, along with the
occasional hammer and saw, At sunset, the cityscape went black, with only
an occasional candle or torch ickering in the gloom, If an inhabitant of
such a city could see modern Tokyo, New York or Mumbai, what would she
Prior to the sixteenth century, no human had circumnavigated the earth,
This changed in 1522, when Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain after a
journey of 72,000 kilometres, It took three years and cost the lives of almost
all the crew members, Magellan included, In 1873, Jules Verne could
imagine that Phileas Fogg, a wealthy British adventurer, might just be able
to make it around the world in eighty days, Today anyone with a middle-
class income can safely and easily circumnavigate the globe in just forty-
eight hours,
In 1500, humans were con ned to the earth’s surface, They could build
towers and climb mountains, but the sky was reserved for birds, angels and
deities, On 20 July 1969 humans landed on the moon, This was not merely
a historical achievement, but an evolutionary and even cosmic feat, During
the previous 4 billion years of evolution, no organism managed even to
leave the earth’s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle
print on the moon,
For most of history, humans knew nothing about 99,99 per cent of the
organisms on the planet – namely, the microorganisms, This was not
because they were of no concern to us, Each of us bears billions of one-
celled creatures within us, and not just as free-riders, They are our best
friends, and deadliest enemies, Some of them digest our food and clean our
guts, while others cause illnesses and epidemics, Yet it was only in 1674
that a human eye rst saw a microorganism, when Anton van
Leeuwenhoek took a peek through his home-made microscope and was
startled to see an entire world of tiny creatures milling about in a drop of
water, During the subsequent 300 years, humans have made the
acquaintance of a huge number of microscopic species, We’ve managed to
defeat most of the deadliest contagious diseases they cause, and have
harnessed microorganisms in the service of medicine and industry, Today
we engineer bacteria to produce medications, manufacture biofuel and kill
But the single most remarkable and de ning moment of the past 500
years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945, At that precise second, American
scientists detonated the rst 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,
The historical process that led to Alamogordo and to the moon is known as
the Scienti c Revolution, During this revolution humankind has obtained
enormous new powers by investing resources in scienti c research, It is a
revolution because, until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted
their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers, While
government and wealthy patrons allocated funds to education and
scholarship, the aim was, in general, to preserve existing capabilities rather
than acquire new ones, The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests,
philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and
maintain the social order, He did not expect them to discover new
medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth,
During the last ve centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that
they could increase their capabilities by investing in scienti c research, This
wasn’t just blind faith – it was repeatedly proven empirically, The more
proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments
were willing to put into science, We would never have been able to walk on
the moon, engineer microorganisms and split the atom without such
investments, The US government, for example, has in recent decades
allocated billions of dollars to the study of nuclear physics, The knowledge
produced by this research has made possible the construction of nuclear
power stations, which provide cheap electricity for American industries,
which pay taxes to the US government, which uses some of these taxes to
finance further research in nuclear physics,
The Scientific Revolution’s feedback loop, Science needs more than just research to make
progress, It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics, Political
and economic institutions provide the resources without which scientific research is almost
impossible, In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used, among other things,
to obtain new resources, some of which are reinvested in research,
Why did modern humans develop a growing belief in their ability to
obtain new powers through research? What forged the bond between
science, politics and economics? This chapter looks at the unique nature of
modern science in order to provide part of the answer, The next two
chapters examine the formation of the alliance between science, the
European empires and the economics of capitalism,
Humans have sought to understand the universe at least since the Cognitive
Revolution, Our ancestors put a great deal of time and e ort into trying to
discover the rules that govern the natural world, But modern science di ers
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 Scienti c Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge, It has
been above all a revolution of ignorance, The great discovery that launched
the Scienti c Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the
answers to their most important questions,
Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism
and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about
the world was already known, The great gods, or the one almighty God, or
the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they
revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions, Ordinary mortals gained
knowledge by delving into these ancient texts and traditions and
understanding them properly, It was inconceivable that the Bible, the
Qur’an or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe – a
secret that might yet be discovered by flesh-and-blood creatures,
Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance,
First, an individual might be ignorant of something important, To obtain the
necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser, There
was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew, For example, if a
peasant in some thirteenth-century Yorkshire village wanted to know how
the human race originated, he assumed that Christian tradition held the
definitive answer, All he had to do was ask the local priest,
Second, an entire tradition might be ignorant of unimportant things, By
de nition, whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past did not
bother to tell us was unimportant, For example, if our Yorkshire peasant
wanted to know how spiders weave their webs, it was pointless to ask the
priest, because there was no answer to this question in any of the Christian
Scriptures, That did not mean, however, that Christianity was de cient,
Rather, it meant that understanding how spiders weave their webs was
unimportant, After all, God knew perfectly well how spiders do it, If this
were a vital piece of information, necessary for human prosperity and
salvation, God would have included a comprehensive explanation in the
Christianity did not forbid people to study spiders, But spider scholars – if
there were any in medieval Europe – had to accept their peripheral role in
society and the irrelevance of their ndings to the eternal truths of
Christianity, No matter what a scholar might discover about spiders or
butter ies or Galapagos nches, that knowledge was little more than trivia,
with no bearing on the fundamental truths of society, politics and
In fact, things were never quite that simple, In every age, even the most
pious and conservative, there were people who argued that there were
important things of which their entire tradition was ignorant, Yet such
people were usually marginalised or persecuted – or else they founded a
new tradition and began arguing that they knew everything there is to
know, For example, the prophet Muhammad began his religious career by
condemning his fellow Arabs for living in ignorance of the divine truth, Yet
Muhammad himself very quickly began to argue that he knew the full truth,
and his followers began calling him ‘The Seal of the Prophets’, Henceforth,
there was no need of revelations beyond those given to Muhammad,
Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it
openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions,
Darwin never argued that he was ‘The Seal of the Biologists’, and that he
had solved the riddle of life once and for all, After centuries of extensive
scienti c research, biologists admit that they still don’t have any good
explanation for how brains produce consciousness, Physicists admit that
they don’t know what caused the Big Bang, or how to reconcile quantum
mechanics with the theory of general relativity,
In other cases, competing scienti c theories are vociferously debated on
the basis of constantly emerging new evidence, A prime example is the
debates about how best to run the economy, Though individual economists
may claim that their method is the best, orthodoxy changes with every
nancial crisis and stock-exchange bubble, and it is generally accepted that
the final word on economics is yet to be said,
In still other cases, particular theories are supported so consistently by
the available evidence, that all alternatives have long since fallen by the
wayside, Such theories are accepted as true – yet everyone agrees that were
new evidence to emerge that contradicts the theory, it would have to be
revised or discarded, Good examples of these are the plate tectonics theory
and the theory of evolution,
The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more
dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge,
This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works
and our ability to invent new technologies, But it presents us with a serious
problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with, Our current
assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge
we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of
strangers to cooperate e ectively, If the evidence shows that many of those
myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our
communities, countries and international system function?
All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no
choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:
a, Take a scienti c theory, and in opposition to common scienti c
practices, declare that it is a nal and absolute truth, This was the method
used by Nazis (who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries
of biological facts) and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin
had divined absolute economic truths that could never be refuted),
b, Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scienti c
absolute truth, This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is
built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human
beings – a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the
scientific study of Homo sapiens,
But that shouldn’t surprise us, Even science itself has to rely on religious
and ideological beliefs to justify and finance its research,
Modern culture has nevertheless been willing to embrace ignorance to a
much greater degree than has any previous culture, One of the things that
has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread
of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scienti c
research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths,
The Scientific Dogma
Modern science has no dogma, Yet it has a common core of research
methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations – those
we can observe with at least one of our senses – and putting them together
with the help of mathematical tools,
People throughout history collected empirical observations, but the
importance of these observations was usually limited, Why waste precious
resources obtaining new observations when we already have all the
answers we need? But as modern people came to admit that they did not
know the answers to some very important questions, they found it
necessary to look for completely new knowledge, Consequently, the
dominant modern research method takes for granted the insufficiency of old
knowledge, Instead of studying old traditions, emphasis is now placed on
new observations and experiments, When present observation collides with
past tradition, we give precedence to the observation, Of course, physicists
analysing the spectra of distant galaxies, archaeologists analysing the nds
from a Bronze Age city, and political scientists studying the emergence of
capitalism do not disregard tradition, They start by studying what the wise
people of the past have said and written, But from their rst year in
college, aspiring physicists, archaeologists and political scientists are taught
that it is their mission to go beyond what Einstein, Heinrich Schliemann
and Max Weber ever knew,
Mere observations, however, are not 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,
There are very few equations, graphs and calculations in the Bible, the
Qur’an, the Vedas or the Confucian classics, When traditional mythologies
and scriptures laid down general laws, these were presented in narrative
rather than mathematical form, Thus a fundamental principle of
Manichaean religion asserted that the world is a battleground between
good and evil, An evil force created matter, while a good force created
spirit, Humans are caught between these two forces, and should choose
good over evil, Yet the prophet Mani made no attempt to o er a
mathematical formula that could be used to predict human choices by
quantifying the respective strength of these two forces, He never calculated
that ‘the force acting on a man is equal to the acceleration of his spirit
divided by the mass of his body’,
This is exactly what scientists seek to accomplish, In 1687, Isaac Newton
published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, arguably the
most important book in modern history, Newton presented a general theory
of movement and change, The greatness of Newton’s theory was its ability
to explain and predict the movements of all bodies in the universe, from
falling apples to shooting stars, using three very simple mathematical laws:
Henceforth, anyone who wished to understand and predict the movement
of a cannonball or a planet simply had to make measurements of the
object’s mass, direction and acceleration, and the forces acting on it, By
inserting these numbers into Newton’s equations, the future position of the
object could be predicted, It worked like magic, Only around the end of the
nineteenth century did scientists come across a few observations that did
not t well with Newton’s laws, and these led to the next revolutions in
physics – the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics,
Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of
mathematics, Some chapters (for example) boil down to a clear-cut
equation; but scholars who attempted to reduce biology, economics and
psychology to neat Newtonian equations have discovered that these elds
have a level of complexity that makes such an aspiration futile, This did not
mean, however, that they gave up on mathematics, A new branch of
mathematics was developed over the last 200 years to deal with the more
complex aspects of reality: statistics,
In 1744, two Presbyterian clergymen in Scotland, Alexander Webster and
Robert Wallace, decided to set up a life-insurance fund that would provide
pensions for the widows and orphans of dead clergymen, They proposed
that each of their church’s ministers would pay a small portion of his
income into the fund, which would invest the money, If a minister died, his
widow would receive dividends on the fund’s pro ts, This would allow her
to live comfortably for the rest of her life, But to determine how much the
ministers had to pay in so that the fund would have enough money to live
up to its obligations, Webster and Wallace had to be able to predict how
many ministers would die each year, how many widows and orphans they
would leave behind, and by how many years the widows would outlive
their husbands,
Take note of what the two churchmen did not do, They did not pray to
God to reveal the answer, Nor did they search for an answer in the Holy
Scriptures or among the works of ancient theologians, Nor did they enter
into an abstract philosophical disputation, Being Scots, they were practical
types, So they contacted a professor of mathematics from the University of
Edinburgh, Colin Maclaurin, The three of them collected data on the ages at
which people died and used these to calculate how many ministers were
likely to pass away in any given year,
Their work was founded on several recent breakthroughs in the elds of
statistics and probability, One of these was Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large
Numbers, Bernoulli had codified the principle that while it might be difficult
to predict with certainty a single event, such as the death of a particular
person, it was possible to predict with great accuracy the average outcome
of many similar events, That is, while Maclaurin could not use maths to
predict whether Webster and Wallace would die next year, he could, given
enough data, tell Webster and Wallace how many Presbyterian ministers in
Scotland would almost certainly die next year, Fortunately, they had ready-
made data that they could use, Actuary tables published fty years
previously by Edmond Halley proved particularly useful, Halley had
analysed records of 1,238 births and 1,174 deaths that he obtained from the
city of Breslau, Germany, Halley’s tables made it possible to see that, for
example, a twenty-year-old person has a 1:100 chance of dying in a given
year, but a fifty-year-old person has a 1:39 chance,
Processing these numbers, Webster and Wallace concluded that, on
average, there would be 930 living Scottish Presbyterian ministers at any
given moment, and an average of twenty-seven ministers would die each
year, eighteen of whom would be survived by widows, Five of those who
did not leave widows would leave orphaned children, and two of those
survived by widows would also be outlived by children from previous
marriages who had not yet reached the age of sixteen, They further
computed how much time was likely to go by before the widows’ death or
remarriage (in both these eventualities, payment of the pension would
cease), These gures enabled Webster and Wallace to determine how much
money the ministers who joined their fund had to pay in order to provide
for their loved ones, By contributing £2 12s, 2d, a year, a minister could
guarantee that his widowed wife would receive at least £10 a year – a hefty
sum in those days, If he thought that was not enough he could choose to
pay in more, up to a level of £6 11s, 3d, a year – which would guarantee
his widow the even more handsome sum of £25 a year,
According to their calculations, by the year 1765 the Fund for a Provision
for the Widows and Children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland
would have capital totalling £58,348, Their calculations proved amazingly
accurate, When that year arrived, the fund’s capital stood at £58,347 – just
£1 less than the prediction! This was even better than the prophecies of
Habakkuk, Jeremiah or St John, Today, Webster and Wallace’s fund, known
simply as Scottish Widows, is one of the largest pension and insurance
companies in the world, With assets worth £100 billion, it insures not only
Scottish widows, but anyone willing to buy its policies,
Probability calculations such as those used by the two Scottish ministers
became the foundation not merely of actuarial science, which is central to
the pension and insurance business, but also of the science of demography
(founded by another clergyman, the Anglican Robert Malthus),
Demography in its turn was the cornerstone on which Charles Darwin (who
almost became an Anglican pastor) built his theory of evolution, While
there are no equations that predict what kind of organism will evolve under
a speci c set of conditions, geneticists use probability calculations to
compute the likelihood that a particular mutation will spread in a given
population, Similar probabilistic models have become central to economics,
sociology, psychology, political science and the other social and natural
sciences, Even physics eventually supplemented Newton’s classical
equations with the probability clouds of quantum mechanics,
We need merely look at the history of education to realise how far this
process has taken us, Throughout most of history, mathematics was an
esoteric eld that even educated people rarely studied seriously, In
medieval Europe, logic, grammar and rhetoric formed the educational core,
while the teaching of mathematics seldom went beyond simple arithmetic
and geometry, Nobody studied statistics, The undisputed monarch of all
sciences was theology,
Today few students study rhetoric; logic is restricted to philosophy
departments, and theology to seminaries, But more and more students are
motivated – or forced – to study mathematics, There is an irresistible drift
towards the exact sciences – de ned as ‘exact’ by their use of mathematical
tools, Even elds of study that were traditionally part of the humanities,
such as the study of human language (linguistics) and the human psyche
(psychology), rely increasingly on mathematics and seek to present
themselves as exact sciences, 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 the course catalogue of the psychology department at my own
university, the rst required course in the curriculum is ‘Introduction to
Statistics and Methodology in Psychological Research’, Second-year
psychology students must take ‘Statistical Methods in Psychological
Research’, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would have been
bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human mind
and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics,
Knowledge is Power
Most people have a hard time digesting modern science because its
mathematical language is di cult for our minds to grasp, and its ndings
often contradict common sense, Out of the 7 billion people in the world,
how many really understand quantum mechanics, cell biology or
macroeconomics? Science nevertheless enjoys immense prestige because of
the new powers it gives us, Presidents and generals may not understand
nuclear physics, but they have a good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do,
In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scienti c 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,
Over the centuries, science has o ered us many new tools, Some are
mental tools, such as those used to predict death rates and economic
growth, Even more important are technological tools, The connection
forged between science and technology is so strong that today people tend
to confuse the two, We often think that it is impossible to develop new
technologies without scienti c research, and that there is little point in
research if it does not result in new technologies,
In fact, the relationship between science and technology is a very recent
phenomenon, Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate
elds, When Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it
was a revolutionary idea, During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
this relationship tightened, but the knot was tied only in the nineteenth
century, Even in 1800, most rulers who wanted a strong army, and most
business magnates who wanted a successful business, did not bother to
finance research in physics, biology or economics,
I don’t mean to claim that there is no exception to this rule, A good
historian can nd precedent for everything, But an even better historian
knows when these precedents are but curiosities that cloud the big picture,
Generally speaking, most premodern rulers and business people did not
nance research about the nature of the universe in order to develop new
technologies, and most thinkers did not try to translate their ndings into
technological gadgets, Rulers nanced educational institutions whose
mandate was to spread traditional knowledge for the purpose of buttressing
the existing order,
Here and there people did develop new technologies, but these were
usually created by uneducated craftsmen using trial and error, not by
scholars pursuing systematic scienti c research, Cart manufacturers built
the same carts from the same materials year in year out, They did not set
aside a percentage of their annual pro ts in order to research and develop
new cart models, Cart design occasionally improved, but it was usually
thanks to the ingenuity of some local carpenter who never set foot in a
university and did not even know how to read,
This was true of the public as well as the private sector, Whereas modern
states call in their scientists to provide solutions in almost every area of
national policy, from energy to health to waste disposal, ancient kingdoms
seldom did so, The contrast between then and now is most pronounced in
weaponry, When outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961 of
the growing power of the military-industrial complex, he left out a part of
the equation, He should have alerted his country to the military-industrial-
scienti c complex, because today’s wars are scienti c productions, The
world’s military forces initiate, fund and steer a large part of humanity’s
scientific research and technological development,
When World War One bogged down into interminable trench warfare,
both sides called in the scientists to break the deadlock and save the nation,
The men in white answered the call, and out of the laboratories rolled a
constant stream of new wonder-weapons: combat aircraft, poison gas,
tanks, submarines and ever more e cient machine guns, artillery pieces,
rifles and bombs,
33, German V-2 rocket ready to launch, It didn’t defeat the Allies, but it kept the Germans hoping
for a technological miracle until the very last days of the war,
Science played an even larger role in World War Two, By late 1944
Germany was losing the war and defeat was imminent, A year earlier, the
Germans’ allies, the Italians, had toppled Mussolini and surrendered to the
Allies, But Germany kept ghting on, even though the British, American
and Soviet armies were closing in, One reason German soldiers and civilians
thought not all was lost was that they believed German scientists were
about to turn the tide with so-called miracle weapons such as the V-2 rocket
and jet-powered aircraft,
While the Germans were working on rockets and jets, the American
Manhattan Project successfully developed atomic bombs, By the time the
bomb was ready, in early August 1945, Germany had already surrendered,
but Japan was ghting on, American forces were poised to invade its home
islands, The Japanese vowed to resist the invasion and ght to the death,
and there was every reason to believe that it was no idle threat, American
generals told President Harry S, Truman that an invasion of Japan would
cost the lives of a million American soldiers and would extend the war well
into 1946, Truman decided to use the new bomb, Two weeks and two atom
bombs later, Japan surrendered unconditionally and the war was over,
But science is not just about o ensive weapons, It plays a major role in
our defences as well, Today many Americans believe that the solution to
terrorism is technological rather than political, Just give millions more to
the nanotechnology industry, they believe, and the United States could send
bionic spy- ies into every Afghan cave, Yemenite redoubt and North
African encampment, Once that’s done, Osama Bin Laden’s heirs will not be
able to make a cup of co ee without a CIA spy- y passing this vital
information back to headquarters in Langley, Allocate millions more to
brain research, and every airport could be equipped with ultra-sophisticated
FMRI scanners that could immediately recognise angry and hateful thoughts
in people’s brains, Will it really work? Who knows, Is it wise to develop
bionic ies and thought-reading scanners? Not necessarily, Be that as it
may, as you read these lines, the US Department of Defense is transferring
millions of dollars to nanotechnology and brain laboratories for work on
these and other such ideas,
This obsession with military technology – from tanks to atom bombs to
spy- ies – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, Up until the nineteenth
century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of
organisational rather than technological changes, When alien civilisations
met for the rst time, technological gaps sometimes played an important
role, But even in such cases, few thought of deliberately creating or
enlarging such gaps, Most empires did not rise thanks to technological
wizardry, and their rulers did not give much thought to technological
improvement, The Arabs did not defeat the Sassanid Empire thanks to
superior bows or swords, the Seljuks had no technological advantage over
the Byzantines, and the Mongols did not conquer China with the help of
some ingenious new weapon, In fact, in all these cases the vanquished
enjoyed superior military and civilian technology,
The Roman army is a particularly good example, It was the best army of
its day, yet technologically speaking, Rome had no edge over Carthage,
Macedonia or the Seleucid Empire, Its advantage rested on e cient
organisation, iron discipline and huge manpower reserves, The Roman
army never set up a research and development department, and its
weapons remained more or less the same for centuries on end, If the legions
of Scipio Aemilianus – the general who levelled Carthage and defeated the
Numantians in the second century BC – had suddenly popped up 500 years
later in the age of Constantine the Great, Scipio would have had a fair
chance of beating Constantine, Now imagine what would happen to a
general from a few centuries back – say Napoleon – if he led his troops
against a modern armoured brigade, Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and
his men were crack professionals, but their skills would be useless in the
face of modern weaponry,
As in Rome, so also in ancient China: most generals and philosophers did
not think it their duty to develop new weapons, The most important
military invention in the history of China was gunpowder, Yet to the best
of our knowledge, gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist
alchemists searching for the elixir of life, Gunpowder’s subsequent career is
even more telling, One might have thought that the Daoist alchemists
would have made China master of the world, In fact, the Chinese used the
new compound mainly for recrackers, Even as the Song Empire collapsed
in the face of a Mongol invasion, no emperor set up a medieval Manhattan
Project to save the empire by inventing a doomsday weapon, Only in the
fteenth century – about 600 years after the invention of gunpowder – did
cannons become a decisive factor on Afro-Asian battle elds, Why did it take
so long for the deadly potential of this substance to be put to military use?
Because it appeared at a time when neither kings, scholars, nor merchants
thought that new military technology could save them or make them rich,
The situation began to change in the fteenth and sixteenth centuries,
but another 200 years went by before most rulers evinced any interest in
nancing the research and development of new weapons, Logistics and
strategy continued to have far greater impact on the outcome of wars than
technology, The Napoleonic military machine that crushed the armies of
the European powers at Austerlitz (1805) was armed with more or less the
same weaponry that the army of Louis XVI had used, Napoleon himself,
despite being an artilleryman, had little interest in new weapons, even
though scientists and inventors tried to persuade him to fund the
development of flying machines, submarines and rockets,
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,
The Ideal of Progress
Until the Scienti c 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, Strict adherence to the wisdom of the
ages might perhaps bring back the good old times, and human ingenuity
might conceivably improve this or that facet of daily life, However, it was
considered impossible for human know-how to overcome the world’s
fundamental problems, If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius –
who knew everything there is to know – were unable to abolish famine,
disease, poverty and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?
Many faiths believed that some day a messiah would appear and end all
wars, famines and even death itself, But the notion that humankind could
do so by discovering new knowledge and inventing new tools was worse
than ludicrous – it was hubris, The story of the Tower of Babel, the story of
Icarus, the story of the Golem and countless other myths taught people that
any attempt to go beyond human limitations would inevitably lead to
disappointment and disaster,
When modern culture admitted that there were many important things
that it still did not know, and when that admission of ignorance was
married to the idea that scienti c discoveries could give us new powers,
people began suspecting that real progress might be possible after all, As
science began to solve one unsolvable problem after another, many became
convinced that humankind could overcome any and every problem by
acquiring and applying new knowledge, Poverty, sickness, wars, famines,
old age and death itself were not the inevitable fate of humankind, They
were simply the fruits of our ignorance,
34, Benjamin Franklin disarming the gods,
A famous example is lightning, Many cultures believed that lightning was
the hammer of an angry god, used to punish sinners, In the middle of the
eighteenth century, in one of the most celebrated experiments in scienti c
history, Benjamin Franklin ew a kite during a lightning storm to test the
hypothesis that lightning is simply an electric current, Franklins empirical
observations, coupled with his knowledge about the qualities of electrical
energy, enabled him to invent the lightning rod and disarm the gods,
Poverty is another case in point, Many cultures have viewed poverty as
an inescapable part of this imperfect world, According to the New
Testament, shortly before the cruci xion a woman anointed Christ with
precious oil worth 300 denarii, Jesus’ disciples scolded the woman for
wasting such a huge sum of money instead of giving it to the poor, but
Jesus defended her, saying that ‘The poor you will always have with you,
and you can help them any time you want, But you will not always have
me’ (Mark 14:7), Today, fewer and fewer people, including fewer and fewer
Christians, agree with Jesus on this matter, Poverty is increasingly seen as
a technical problem amenable to intervention, It’s common wisdom that
policies based on the latest ndings in agronomy, economics, medicine and
sociology can eliminate poverty,
And indeed, many parts of the world have already been freed from the
worst forms of deprivation, Throughout history, societies have su ered
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,
Until recently, most people hovered very close to the biological poverty
line, below which a person lacks enough calories to sustain life for long,
Even small miscalculations or misfortunes could easily push people below
that line, into starvation, Natural disasters and man-made calamities often
plunged entire populations over the abyss, causing the death of millions,
Today most of the world’s people have a safety net stretched below them,
Individuals are protected from personal misfortune by insurance, state-
sponsored social security and a plethora of local and international NGOs,
When calamity strikes an entire region, worldwide relief e orts are usually
successful in preventing the worst, People still su er from numerous
degradations, humiliations and poverty-related illnesses, but in most
countries nobody is starving to death, In fact, in many societies more
people are in danger of dying from obesity than from starvation,
The Gilgamesh Project
Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most
vexing, interesting and important: the problem of death itself, Before the
late modern era, most religions and ideologies took it for granted that death
was our inevitable fate, Moreover, most faiths turned death into the main
source of meaning in life, Try to imagine Islam, Christianity or the ancient
Egyptian religion in a world without death, These creeds taught people that
they must come to terms with death and pin their hopes on the afterlife,
rather than seek to overcome death and live for ever here on earth, The
best minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to escape it,
That is the theme of the most ancient myth to come down to us – the
Gilgamesh myth of ancient Sumer, Its hero is the strongest and most
capable man in the world, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who could defeat
anyone in battle, One day, Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu, died, Gilgamesh
sat by the body and observed it for many days, until he saw a worm
dropping out of his friend’s nostril, At that moment Gilgamesh was gripped
by a terrible horror, and he resolved that he himself would never die, He
would somehow nd a way to defeat death, Gilgamesh then undertook a
journey to the end of the universe, killing lions, battling scorpion-men and
nding his way into the underworld, There he shattered the stone giants of
Urshanabi and the ferryman of the river of the dead, and found
Utnapishtim, the last survivor of the primordial ood, Yet Gilgamesh failed
in his quest, He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with
one new piece of wisdom, When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had
learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to
live with it,
Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude, For men of
science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem,
People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical
failures – a heart attack, cancer, an infection, And every technical problem
has a technical solution, If the heart utters, it can be stimulated by a
pacemaker or replaced by a new heart, If cancer rampages, it can be killed
with drugs or radiation, If bacteria proliferate, they can be subdued with
antibiotics, True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems, But we
are working on them, Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to
give meaning to death, Instead, they are busy investigating the
physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old
age, They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and
arti cial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish
the Grim Reaper himself,
Until recently, you would not have heard scientists, or anyone else, speak
so bluntly, ‘Defeat death?! What nonsense! We are only trying to cure
cancer, tuberculosis and Alzheimer’s disease,’ they insisted, People avoided
the issue of death because the goal seemed too elusive, Why create
unreasonable expectations? We’re now at a point, however, where we can
be frank about it, The leading project of the Scienti c Revolution is to give
humankind eternal life, Even if killing death seems a distant goal, we have
already achieved things that were inconceivable a few centuries ago, In
1199, King Richard the Lionheart was struck by an arrow in his left
shoulder, Today we’d say he incurred a minor injury, But in 1199, in the
absence of antibiotics and e ective sterilisation methods, this minor esh
wound turned infected and gangrene set in, The only way to stop the
spread of gangrene in twelfth-century Europe was to cut o the infected
limb, impossible when the infection was in a shoulder, The gangrene spread
through the Lionheart’s body and no one could help the king, He died in
great agony two weeks later,
As recently as the nineteenth century, the best doctors still did not know
how to prevent infection and stop the putrefaction of tissues, In eld
hospitals doctors routinely cut o the hands and legs of soldiers who
received even minor limb injuries, fearing gangrene, These amputations, as
well as all other medical procedures (such as tooth extraction), were done
without any anaesthetics, The rst anaesthetics – ether, chloroform and
morphine – entered regular usage in Western medicine only in the middle
of the nineteenth century, Before the advent of chloroform, four soldiers
had to hold down a wounded comrade while the doctor sawed o the
injured limb, On the morning after the battle of Waterloo (1815), heaps of
sawn-o hands and legs could be seen adjacent to the eld hospitals, In
those days, 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,
In the two centuries since Waterloo, things have changed beyond
recognition, Pills, injections and sophisticated operations save us from a
spate of illnesses and injuries that once dealt an inescapable death
sentence, They also protect us against countless daily aches and ailments,
which premodern people simply accepted as part of life, The average life
expectancy jumped from around twenty- ve to forty years, to around sixty-
seven in the entire world, and to around eighty years in the developed
Death su ered its worst setbacks in the arena of child mortality, Until the
twentieth century, between a quarter and a third of the children of
agricultural societies never reached adulthood, Most succumbed to
childhood diseases such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox, In
seventeenth-century England, 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during
their rst year, and a third of all children were dead before they reached
fifteen, Today, only ve out of 1,000 English babies die during their rst
year, and only seven out of 1,000 die before age fifteen,
We can better grasp the full impact of these gures by setting aside
statistics and telling some stories, A good example is the family of King
Edward I of England (1237–1307) and his wife, Queen Eleanor (1241–90),
Their children enjoyed the best conditions and the most nurturing
surroundings that could be provided in medieval Europe, They lived in
palaces, ate as much food as they liked, had plenty of warm clothing, well-
stocked replaces, the cleanest water available, an army of servants and
the best doctors, The sources mention sixteen children that Queen Eleanor
bore between 1255 and 1284:
1, An anonymous daughter, born in 1255, died at birth,
2, A daughter, Catherine, died either at age one or age three,
3, A daughter, Joan, died at six months,
4, A son, John, died at age five,
5, A son, Henry, died at age six,
6, A daughter, Eleanor, died at age twenty-nine,
7, An anonymous daughter died at five months,
8, A daughter, Joan, died at age thirty-five,
9, A son, Alphonso, died at age ten,
10, A daughter, Margaret, died at age fifty-eight,
11, A daughter, Berengeria, died at age two,
12, An anonymous daughter died shortly after birth,
13, A daughter, Mary, died at age fifty-three,
14, An anonymous son died shortly after birth,
15, A daughter, Elizabeth, died at age thirty-four,
16, A son, Edward,
The youngest, Edward, was the rst of the boys to survive the dangerous
years of childhood, and at his fathers death he ascended the English throne
as King Edward II, In other words, it took Eleanor sixteen tries to carry out
the most fundamental mission of an English queen – to provide her husband
with a male heir, Edward II’s mother must have been a woman of
exceptional patience and fortitude, Not so the woman Edward chose for his
wife, Isabella of France, She had him murdered when he was forty-three,
To the best of our knowledge, Eleanor and Edward I were a healthy
couple and passed no fatal hereditary illnesses on to their children,
Nevertheless, ten out of the sixteen – 62 per cent – died during childhood,
Only six managed to live beyond the age of eleven, and only three – just 18
per cent – lived beyond the age of forty, In addition to these births, Eleanor
most likely had a number of pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, On
average, Edward and Eleanor lost a child every three years, ten children
one after another, It’s nearly impossible for a parent today to imagine such
How long will the Gilgamesh Project – the quest for immortality – take to
complete? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? When
we recall how little we knew about the human body in 1900, and how
much knowledge we have gained in a single century, there is cause for
optimism, 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, ght viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous
cells and even reverse ageing processes, 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),
Whether or not Project Gilgamesh succeeds, from a historical perspective
it is fascinating to see that most late-modern religions and ideologies have
already taken death and the afterlife out of the equation, Until the
eighteenth century, religions considered death and its aftermath central to
the meaning of life, Beginning in the eighteenth century, religions and
ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism lost all interest in the
afterlife, What, exactly, happens to a Communist after he or she dies? What
happens to a capitalist? What happens to a feminist? It is pointless to look
for the answer in the writings of Marx, Adam Smith or Simone de Beauvoir,
The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is
nationalism, In its more poetic and desperate moments, nationalism
promises that whoever dies for the nation will forever live in its collective
memory, Yet this promise is so fuzzy that even most nationalists do not
really know what to make of it,
The Sugar Daddy of Science
We are living in a technical age, Many are convinced that science and
technology hold the answers to all our problems, We should just let the
scientists and technicians go on with their work, and they will create
heaven here on earth, But science is not an enterprise that takes place on
some superior moral or spiritual plane above the rest of human activity,
Like all other parts of our culture, it is shaped by economic, political and
religious interests,
Science is a very expensive a air, A biologist seeking to understand the
human immune system requires laboratories, test tubes, chemicals and
electron microscopes, not to mention lab assistants, electricians, plumbers
and cleaners, An economist seeking to model credit markets must buy
computers, set up giant databanks and develop complicated data-processing
programs, An archaeologist who wishes to understand the behaviour of
archaic hunter-gatherers must travel to distant lands, excavate ancient ruins
and date fossilised bones and artefacts, All of this costs money,
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 scienti c research, These
billions have done much more to chart the universe, map the planet and
catalogue the animal kingdom than did Galileo Galilei, Christopher
Columbus and Charles Darwin, If these particular geniuses had never been
born, their insights would probably have occurred to others, But if the
proper funding were unavailable, no intellectual brilliance could have
compensated for that, If Darwin had never been born, for example, we’d
today attribute the theory of evolution to Alfred Russel Wallace, who came
up with the idea of evolution via natural selection independently of Darwin
and just a few years later, But if the European powers had not nanced
geographical, zoological and botanical research around the world, neither
Darwin nor Wallace would have had the necessary empirical data to
develop the theory of evolution, It is likely that they would not even have
Why did the billions start owing from government and business co ers
into labs and universities? In academic circles, many are naïve enough to
believe in pure science, They believe that government and business
altruistically give them money to pursue whatever research projects strike
their fancy, But this hardly describes the realities of science funding,
Most scienti c studies are funded because somebody believes they can
help attain some political, economic or religious goal, For example, in the
sixteenth century, kings and bankers channelled enormous resources to
nance geographical expeditions around the world but not a penny for
studying child psychology, This is because kings and bankers surmised that
the discovery of new geographical knowledge would enable them to
conquer new lands and set up trade empires, whereas they couldn’t see any
profit in understanding child psychology,
In the 1940s the governments of America and the Soviet Union
channelled enormous resources to the study of nuclear physics rather than
underwater archaeology, They surmised that studying nuclear physics
would enable them to develop nuclear weapons, whereas underwater
archaeology was unlikely to help win wars, Scientists themselves are not
always aware of the political, economic and religious interests that control
the ow of money; many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual
curiosity, However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda,
Even if we wanted to nance pure science una ected by political,
economic or religious interests, it would probably be impossible, Our
resources are limited, after all, Ask a congressman to allocate an additional
million dollars to the National Science Foundation for basic research, and
he’ll justi ably ask whether that money wouldn’t be better used to fund
teacher training or to give a needed tax break to a troubled factory in his
district, To channel limited resources we must answer questions such as
‘What is more important?’ and ‘What is good?’ And these are not scienti c
questions, Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work,
and what might be in the future, By de nition, it has no pretensions to
knowing what should be in the future, Only religions and ideologies seek to
answer such questions,
Consider the following quandary: two biologists from the same
department, possessing the same professional skills, have both applied for a
million-dollar grant to nance their current research projects, Professor
Slughorn wants to study a disease that infects the udders of cows, causing a
10 per cent decrease in their milk production, Professor Sprout wants to
study whether cows su er mentally when they are separated from their
calves, Assuming that the amount of money is limited, and that it is
impossible to finance both research projects, which one should be funded?
There is no scienti c answer to this question, There are only political,
economic and religious answers, In today’s world, it is obvious that
Slughorn has a better chance of getting the money, Not because udder
diseases are scienti cally more interesting than bovine mentality, but
because the dairy industry, which stands to bene t from the research, has
more political and economic clout than the animal-rights lobby,
Perhaps in a strict Hindu society, where cows are sacred, or in a society
committed to animal rights, Professor Sprout would have a better shot, But
as long as she lives in a society that values the commercial potential of milk
and the health of its human citizens over the feelings of cows, she’d best
write up her research proposal so as to appeal to those assumptions, For
example, she might write that ‘Depression leads to a decrease in milk
production, If we understand the mental world of dairy cows, we could
develop psychiatric medication that will improve their mood, thus raising
milk production by up to 10 per cent, I estimate that there is a global
annual market of $250 million for bovine psychiatric medications,’
Science is unable to set its own priorities, It is also incapable of
determining what to do with its discoveries, For example, from a purely
scienti c viewpoint it is unclear what we should do with our increasing
understanding of genetics, Should we use this knowledge to cure cancer, to
create a race of genetically engineered supermen, or to engineer dairy cows
with super-sized udders? It is obvious that a liberal government, a
Communist government, a Nazi government and a capitalist business
corporation would use the very same scienti c discovery for completely
di erent purposes, and there is no scientific reason to prefer one usage over
In short, scienti c research can ourish only in alliance with some
religion or ideology, The ideology justi es the costs of the research, In
exchange, the ideology in uences the scienti c agenda and determines
what to do with the discoveries, Hence in order to comprehend how
humankind has reached Alamogordo and the moon – rather than any
number of alternative destinations – it is not enough to survey the
achievements of physicists, biologists and sociologists, We have to take into
account the ideological, political and economic forces that shaped physics,
biology and sociology, pushing them in certain directions while neglecting
Two forces in particular deserve our attention: imperialism and
capitalism, The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has
arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years, The following
chapters analyse its workings, First we’ll look at how the twin turbines of
science and empire were latched to one another, and then learn how both
were hitched up to the money pump of capitalism,

15 The Marriage of Science and Empire

HOW FAR IS THE SUN FROM THE EARTH? It’s a question that intrigued
many early modern astronomers, particularly after Copernicus argued that
the sun, rather than the earth, is located at the centre of the universe, A
number of astronomers and mathematicians tried to calculate the distance,
but their methods provided widely varying results, A reliable means of
making the measurement was nally proposed in the middle of the
eighteenth century, Every few years, the planet Venus passes directly
between the sun and the earth, The duration of the transit di ers when
seen from distant points on the earths surface because of the tiny di erence
in the angle at which the observer sees it, If several observations of the
same transit were made from di erent continents, simple trigonometry was
all it would take to calculate our exact distance from the sun,
Astronomers predicted that the next Venus transits would occur in 1761
and 1769, So expeditions were sent from Europe to the four corners of the
world in order to observe the transits from as many distant points as
possible, In 1761 scientists observed the transit from Siberia, North
America, Madagascar and South Africa, As the 1769 transit approached, the
European scienti c community mounted a supreme e ort, and scientists
were dispatched as far as northern Canada and California (which was then
a wilderness), The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural
Knowledge concluded that this was not enough, To obtain the most
accurate results it was imperative to send an astronomer all the way to the
south-western Pacific Ocean,
The Royal Society resolved to send an eminent astronomer, Charles
Green, to Tahiti, and spared neither e ort nor money, But, since it was
funding such an expensive expedition, it hardly made sense to use it to
make just a single astronomical observation, Green was therefore
accompanied by a team of eight other scientists from several disciplines,
headed by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, The team also
included artists assigned to produce drawings of the new lands, plants,
animals and peoples that the scientists would no doubt encounter, Equipped
with the most advanced scienti c instruments that Banks and the Royal
Society could buy, the expedition was placed under the command of
Captain James Cook, an experienced seaman as well as an accomplished
geographer and ethnographer,
The expedition left England in 1768, observed the Venus transit from
Tahiti in 1769, reconnoitred several Paci c islands, visited Australia and
New Zealand, and returned to England in 1771, It brought back enormous
quantities of astronomical, geographical, meteorological, botanical,
zoological and anthropological data, Its ndings made major contributions
to a number of disciplines, sparked the imagination of Europeans with
astonishing tales of the South Paci c, and inspired future generations of
naturalists and astronomers,
One of the elds that bene ted from the Cook expedition was medicine,
At the time, ships that set sail to distant shores knew that more than half
their crew members would die on the journey, The nemesis was not angry
natives, enemy warships or homesickness, It was a mysterious ailment
called scurvy, Men who came down with the disease grew lethargic and
depressed, and their gums and other soft tissues bled, As the disease
progressed, their teeth fell out, open sores appeared and they grew
feverish, jaundiced, and lost control of their limbs, Between the sixteenth
and eighteenth centuries, scurvy is estimated to have claimed the lives of
about 2 million sailors, No one knew what caused it, and no matter what
remedy was tried, sailors continued to die in droves, The turning point
came in 1747, when a British physician, James Lind, conducted a controlled
experiment on sailors who su ered from the disease, He separated them
into several groups and gave each group a di erent treatment, One of the
test groups was instructed to eat citrus fruits, a common folk remedy for
scurvy, The patients in this group promptly recovered, Lind did not know
what the citrus fruits had that the sailors’ bodies lacked, but we now know
that it is vitamin C, A typical shipboard diet at that time was notably
lacking in foods that are rich in this essential nutrient, On long-range
voyages sailors usually subsisted on biscuits and beef jerky, and ate almost
no fruits or vegetables,
The Royal Navy was not convinced by Lind’s experiments, but James
Cook was, He resolved to prove the doctor right, He loaded his boat with a
large quantity of sauerkraut and ordered his sailors to eat lots of fresh fruits
and vegetables whenever the expedition made landfall, Cook did not lose a
single sailor to scurvy, In the following decades, all the world’s navies
adopted Cook’s nautical diet, and the lives of countless sailors and
passengers were saved,
However, the Cook expedition had another, far less benign result, Cook
was not only an experienced seaman and geographer, but also a naval
o cer, The Royal Society nanced a large part of the expedition’s
expenses, but the ship itself was provided by the Royal Navy, The navy also
seconded eighty- ve well-armed sailors and marines, and equipped the ship
with artillery, muskets, gunpowder and other weaponry, Much of the
information collected by the expedition particularly the astronomical,
geographical, meteorological and anthropological data – was of obvious
political and military value, The discovery of an e ective treatment for
scurvy greatly contributed to British control of the world’s oceans and its
ability to send armies to the other side of the world, Cook claimed for
Britain many of the islands and lands he ‘discovered’, most notably
Australia, The Cook expedition laid the foundation for the British
occupation of the south-western Paci c Ocean; for the conquest of
Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand; for the settlement of millions of
Europeans in the new colonies; and for the extermination of their native
cultures and most of their native populations,
In the century following the Cook expedition, the most fertile lands of
Australia and New Zealand were taken from their previous inhabitants by
European settlers, The native population dropped by up to 90 per cent and
the survivors were subjected to a harsh regime of racial oppression, For the
Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand, the Cook expedition
was the beginning of a catastrophe from which they have never recovered,
An even worse fate befell the natives of Tasmania, Having survived for
10,000 years in splendid isolation, they were completely wiped out, to the
last man, woman and child, within a century of Cook’s arrival, European
settlers rst drove them o the richest parts of the island, and then,
coveting even the remaining wilderness, hunted them down and killed them
systematically, The few survivors were hounded into an evangelical
concentration camp, where well-meaning but not particularly open-minded
missionaries tried to indoctrinate them in the ways of the modern world,
The Tasmanians were instructed in reading and writing, Christianity and
various ‘productive skills’ such as sewing clothes and farming, But they
refused to learn, They became ever more melancholic, stopped having
children, lost all interest in life, and nally chose the only escape route
from the modern world of science and progress – death,
Alas, science and progress pursued them even to the afterlife, The corpses
of the last Tasmanians were seized in the name of science by
anthropologists and curators, They were dissected, weighed and measured,
and analysed in learned articles, The skulls and skeletons were then put on
display in museums and anthropological collections, Only in 1976 did the
Tasmanian Museum give up for burial the skeleton of Truganini, the last
native Tasmanian, who had died a hundred years earlier, The English Royal
College of Surgeons held on to samples of her skin and hair until 2002,
Was Cook’s ship a scienti c expedition protected by a military force or a
military expedition with a few scientists tagging along? That’s like asking
whether your petrol tank is half empty or half full, It was both, The
Scienti c Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable, People
such as Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks could hardly
distinguish science from empire, Nor could luckless Truganini,
Why Europe?
The fact that people from a large island in the northern Atlantic conquered
a large island south of Australia is one of history’s more bizarre occurrences,
Not long before Cook’s expedition, 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,
35, Truganini, the last native Tasmanian,
Only at the end of the fteenth 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, The early modern
era was a golden age for the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the
Safavid Empire in Persia, the Mughal Empire in India, and the Chinese
Ming and Qing dynasties, They expanded their territories signi cantly and
enjoyed unprecedented demographic and economic growth, 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 rmly 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, Under the
European aegis a new global order and global culture emerged, Today all
humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit,
European in dress, thought and taste, They may be ercely anti-European
in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics,
medicine, war and economics through European eyes, and listens to music
written in European modes with words in European languages, Even
today’s burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global
primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance,
How did the people of this frigid nger of Eurasia manage to break out of
their remote corner of the globe and conquer the entire world? Europe’s
scientists are often given much of the credit, It’s unquestionable that from
1850 onward European domination rested to a large extent on the military–
industrial–scienti c complex and technological wizardry, All successful late
modern empires cultivated scienti c 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, A
common saying among European soldiers facing African enemies was,
‘Come what may, we have machine guns, and they don’t,’ Civilian
technologies were no less important, Canned food fed soldiers, railroads
and steamships transported soldiers and their provisions, while a new
arsenal of medicines cured soldiers, sailors and locomotive engineers, These
logistical advances played a more signi cant role in the European conquest
of Africa than did the machine gun,
But that wasn’t the case before 1850, The military-industrial-scienti c
complex was still in its infancy; the technological fruits of the Scienti c
Revolution were unripe; and the technological gap between European,
Asiatic and African powers was small, In 1770, James Cook certainly had
far better technology than the Australian Aborigines, but so did the Chinese
and the Ottomans, Why then was Australia explored and colonised by
Captain James Cook and not by Captain Wan Zhengse or Captain Hussein
Pasha? More importantly, if in 1770 Europeans had no signi cant
technological advantage over Muslims, Indians and Chinese, how did they
manage in the following century to open such a gap between themselves
and the rest of the world?
Why did the military-industrial-scienti c complex blossom in Europe
rather than India? When Britain leaped forward, why were France,
Germany and the United States quick to follow, whereas China lagged
behind? When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations
became an obvious economic and political factor, why did Russia, Italy and
Austria succeed in closing it, whereas Persia, Egypt and the Ottoman
Empire failed? After all, the technology of the rst industrial wave was
relatively simple, Was it so hard for Chinese or Ottomans to engineer steam
engines, manufacture machine guns and lay down railroads?
The world’s rst commercial railroad opened for business in 1830, in
Britain, By 1850, Western nations were criss-crossed by almost 40,000
kilometres of railroads – but in the whole of Asia, Africa and Latin America
there were only 4,000 kilometres of tracks, In 1880, the West boasted more
than 350,000 kilometres of railroads, whereas in the rest of the world there
were but 35,000 kilometres of train lines (and most of these were laid by
the British in India), The rst railroad in China opened only in 1876, It
was twenty- ve kilometres long and built by Europeans – the Chinese
government destroyed it the following year, In 1880 the Chinese Empire did
not operate a single railroad, The rst railroad in Persia was built only in
1888, and it connected Tehran with a Muslim holy site about ten kilometres
south of the capital, It was constructed and operated by a Belgian company,
In 1950, the total railway network of Persia still amounted to a meagre
2,500 kilometres, in a country seven times the size of Britain,
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,
This explanation sheds new light on the period from 1500 to 1850,
During this era Europe did not enjoy any obvious technological, political,
military or economic advantage over the Asian powers, yet the continent
built up a unique potential, whose importance suddenly became obvious
around 1850, The apparent equality between Europe, China and the Muslim
world in 1750 was a mirage, Imagine two builders, each busy constructing
very tall towers, One builder uses wood and mud bricks, whereas the other
uses steel and concrete, At rst it seems that there is not much of a
di erence between the two methods, since both towers grow at a similar
pace and reach a similar height, However, once a critical threshold is
crossed, the wood and mud tower cannot stand the strain and collapses,
whereas the steel and concrete tower grows storey by storey, as far as the
eye can see,
What potential did Europe develop in the early modern period that
enabled it to dominate the late modern world? There are two
complementary answers to this question: modern science and capitalism,
Europeans were used to thinking and behaving in a scienti c and capitalist
way even before they enjoyed any signi cant technological advantages,
When the technological bonanza began, Europeans could harness it far
better than anybody else, So it is hardly coincidental that science and
capitalism form the most important legacy that European imperialism has
bequeathed the post-European world of the twenty- rst century, Europe
and Europeans no longer rule the world, but science and capital are
growing ever stronger, The victories of capitalism are examined in the
following chapter, This chapter is dedicated to the love story between
European imperialism and modern science,
The Mentality of Conquest
Modern science ourished in and thanks to European empires, The
discipline obviously owes a huge debt to ancient scienti c traditions, such
as those of classical Greece, China, India and Islam, yet its unique character
began to take shape only in the early modern period, hand in hand with
the imperial expansion of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Russia and the
Netherlands, During the early modern period, Chinese, Indians, Muslims,
Native Americans and Polynesians continued to make important
contributions to the Scientific Revolution, The insights of Muslim economists
were studied by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, treatments pioneered by Native
American doctors found their way into English medical texts and data
extracted from Polynesian informants revolutionised Western anthropology,
But until the mid-twentieth century, the people who collated these myriad
scienti c discoveries, creating scienti c 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,
This does not mean that Europeans have a unique gene for science, or
that they will forever dominate the study of physics and biology, Just as
Islam began as an Arab monopoly but was subsequently taken over by
Turks and Persians, so modern science began as a European speciality, but
is today becoming a multi-ethnic enterprise,
What forged the historical bond between modern science and European
imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited
importance, The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the
colony-seeking naval o cer shared a similar mindset, Both scientist and
conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know
what’s out there,’ They both felt compelled to go out and make new
discoveries, And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would
make them masters of the world,
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
James Cook was not the rst explorer to think this way, The Portuguese
and Spanish voyagers of the fteenth and sixteenth centuries already did,
Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama explored the coasts of
Africa and, while doing so, seized control of islands and harbours,
Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America and immediately claimed
sovereignty over the new lands for the kings of Spain, Ferdinand Magellan
found a way around the world, and simultaneously laid the foundation for
the Spanish conquest of the Philippines,
As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory
became ever more tightly intertwined, 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 ght but to make
scienti c 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,
In 1831, the Royal Navy sent the ship HMS Beagle to map the coasts of
South America, the Falklands Islands and the Galapagos Islands, The navy
needed this knowledge in order to be better prepared in the event of war,
The ship’s captain, who was an amateur scientist, decided to add a
geologist to the expedition to study geological formations they might
encounter on the way, After several professional geologists refused his
invitation, the captain o ered the job to a twenty-two-year-old Cambridge
graduate, Charles Darwin, Darwin had studied to become an Anglican
parson but was far more interested in geology and natural sciences than in
the Bible, He jumped at the opportunity, and the rest is history, The captain
spent his time on the voyage drawing military maps while Darwin collected
the empirical data and formulated the insights that would eventually
become the theory of evolution,
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
‘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,’
Empty Maps
The modern ‘explore and conquer’ mentality is nicely illustrated by the
development of world maps, Many cultures drew world maps long before
the modern age, Obviously, none of them really knew the whole of the
world, No Afro-Asian culture knew about America, and no American culture
knew about Afro-Asia, But unfamiliar areas were simply left out, or lled
with imaginary monsters and wonders, These maps had no empty spaces,
They gave the impression of a familiarity with the entire world,
During the fteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw
world maps with lots of empty spaces – one indication of the development
of the scienti c 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 crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus
sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia, Columbus
still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps, Using them, Columbus
calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west
of Spain, In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown
continent separate East Asia from Spain, On 12 October 1492, at about 2:00
a,m,, Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent, Juan
Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an
island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’
Columbus believed he had reached a small island o the East Asian coast,
He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had
landed in the Indies – what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian
archipelago, Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life, The idea
that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable
for him and for many of his generation, For thousands of years, not only
the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had
known only Europe, Africa and Asia, Could they all have been wrong?
Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its
way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon
circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to
spot, In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man,
He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous
discovery failed to convince him otherwise,
36, A European world map from 1459 (Europe is in the top left corner), The map is filled with
details, even when depicting areas that were completely unfamiliar to Europeans, such as
southern Africa,
The rst modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took
part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504, Between
1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in
Europe, They were attributed to Vespucci, These texts argued that the new
lands discovered by Columbus were not islands o the East Asian coast, but
rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers
and contemporary Europeans, In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a
respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated
world map, the rst to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing
eets had landed as a separate continent, Having drawn it, Waldseemüller
had to give it a name, Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had
been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in
his honour – America, The Waldseemüller map became very popular and
was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given
the new land, There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world,
and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian
whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t
The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scienti c
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,
Henceforth not only European geographers, but European scholars in
almost all other elds of knowledge began to draw maps with spaces left to
ll in, They began to admit that their theories were not perfect and that
there were important things that they did not know,
The Europeans were drawn to the blank spots on the map as if they were
magnets, and promptly started lling them in, During the fteenth and
sixteenth centuries, European expeditions circumnavigated Africa, explored
America, crossed the Paci c and Indian Oceans, and created a network of
bases and colonies all over the world, They established the rst truly global
empires and knitted together the rst global trade network, The European
imperial expeditions transformed the history of the world: from being a
series of histories of isolated peoples and cultures, it became the history of a
single integrated human society,
37, 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,
These European explore-and-conquer expeditions are so familiar to us
that we tend to overlook just how extraordinary they were, Nothing like
them had ever happened before, Long-distance campaigns of conquest are
not a natural undertaking, Throughout history most human societies were
so busy with local con icts and neighbourhood quarrels that they never
considered exploring and conquering distant lands, Most great empires
extended their control only over their immediate neighbourhood – they
reached far- ung 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,
Occasionally an ambitious ruler or adventurer would embark on a long-
range campaign of conquest, but such campaigns usually followed well-
beaten imperial or commercial paths, The campaigns of Alexander the
Great, for example, did not result in the establishment of a new empire, but
rather in the usurpation of an existing empire – that of the Persians, The
closest precedents to the modern European empires were the ancient naval
empires of Athens and Carthage, and the medieval naval empire of
Majapahit, which held sway over much of Indonesia in the fourteenth
century, Yet even these empires rarely ventured into unknown seas – their
naval exploits were local undertakings when compared to the global
ventures of the modern Europeans,
Many scholars argue that the voyages of Admiral Zheng He of the
Chinese Ming dynasty heralded and eclipsed the European voyages of
discovery, Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng led seven huge armadas from
China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, The largest of these
comprised almost 300 ships and carried close to 30,000 people, They
visited Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East
Africa, Chinese ships anchored in Jedda, the main harbour of the Hejaz,
and in Malindi, on the Kenyan coast, Columbus’ eet of 1492 – which
consisted of three small ships manned by 120 sailors – was like a trio of
mosquitoes compared to Zheng He’s drove of dragons,
Yet there was a crucial di erence, Zheng He explored the oceans, and
assisted pro-Chinese rulers, but he did not try to conquer or colonise the
countries he visited, Moreover, the expeditions of Zheng He were not
deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture, When the ruling faction in
Beijing changed during the 1430s, the new overlords abruptly terminated
the operation, The great eet was dismantled, crucial technical and
geographical knowledge was lost, and no explorer of such stature and
means ever set out again from a Chinese port, Chinese rulers in the coming
centuries, like most Chinese rulers in previous centuries, restricted their
interests and ambitions to the Middle Kingdom’s immediate environs,
The Zheng He expeditions prove that Europe did not enjoy an
outstanding technological edge, What made Europeans exceptional was
their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer,
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!’
38, Zheng He’s flagship next to that of Columbus,
Invasion from Outer Space
Around 1517, Spanish colonists in the Caribbean islands began to hear
vague rumours about a powerful empire somewhere in the centre of the
Mexican mainland, A mere four years later, the Aztec capital was a
smouldering ruin, the Aztec Empire was a thing of the past, and Hernán
Cortés lorded over a vast new Spanish Empire in Mexico,
The Spaniards did not stop to congratulate themselves or even to catch
their breath, They immediately commenced explore-and-conquer operations
in all directions, The previous rulers of Central America – the Aztecs, the
Toltecs, the Maya – barely knew South America existed, and never made
any attempt to subjugate it, over the course of 2,000 years, Yet within little
more than ten years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizarro
had discovered the Inca Empire in South America, vanquishing it in 1532,
Had the Aztecs and Incas shown a bit more interest in the world
surrounding them – and had they known what the Spaniards had done to
their neighbours – they might have resisted the Spanish conquest more
keenly and successfully, In the years separating Columbus’ rst journey to
America (1492) from the landing of Cortés in Mexico (1519), the Spaniards
conquered most of the Caribbean islands, setting up a chain of new
colonies, For the subjugated natives, these colonies were hell on earth, They
were ruled with an iron st by greedy and unscrupulous colonists who
enslaved them and set them to work in mines and plantations, killing
anyone who o ered the slightest resistance, Most of the native population
soon died, either because of the harsh working conditions or the virulence
of the diseases that hitch-hiked to America on the conquerors’ sailing ships,
Within twenty years, almost the entire native Caribbean population was
wiped out, The Spanish colonists began importing African slaves to ll the
This genocide took place on the very doorstep of the Aztec Empire, yet
when Cortés landed on the empire’s eastern coast, the Aztecs knew nothing
about it, The coming of the Spaniards was the equivalent of an alien
invasion from outer space, The Aztecs were convinced that they knew the
entire world and that they ruled most of it, To them it was unimaginable
that outside their domain could exist anything like these Spaniards, When
Cortés and his men landed on the sunny beaches of today’s Vera Cruz, it
was the first time the Aztecs encountered a completely unknown people,
The Aztecs did not know how to react, They had trouble deciding what
these strangers were, Unlike all known humans, the aliens had white skins,
They also had lots of facial hair, Some had hair the colour of the sun, They
stank horribly, (Native hygiene was far better than Spanish hygiene, When
the Spaniards rst 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,)
Map 7, The Aztec and Inca empires at the time of the Spanish conquest,
The aliens’ material culture was even more bewildering, They came in
giant ships, the like of which the Aztecs had never imagined, let alone seen,
They rode on the back of huge and terrifying animals, swift as the wind,
They could produce lightning and thunder out of shiny metal sticks, They
had ashing long swords and impenetrable armour, against which the
natives’ wooden swords and flint spears were useless,
Some Aztecs thought these must be gods, Others argued that they were
demons, or the ghosts of the dead, or powerful sorcerers, Instead of
concentrating all available forces and wiping out the Spaniards, the Aztecs
deliberated, dawdled and negotiated, They saw no reason to rush, After all,
Cortés had no more than 550 Spaniards with him, What could 550 men do
to an empire of millions?
Cortés was equally ignorant about the Aztecs, but he and his men held
signi cant advantages over their adversaries, While the Aztecs had no
experience to prepare them for the arrival of these strange-looking and
foul-smelling aliens, the Spaniards knew that the earth was full of unknown
human realms, and no one had greater expertise in invading alien lands
and dealing with situations about which they were utterly ignorant, For the
modern European conqueror, like the modern European scientist, plunging
into the unknown was exhilarating,
So when Cortés anchored o that sunny beach in July 1519, he did not
hesitate to act, Like a science- ction alien emerging from his spaceship, he
declared to the awestruck locals: ‘We come in peace, Take us to your
leader,’ Cortés explained that he was a peaceful emissary from the great
king of Spain, and asked for a diplomatic interview with the Aztec ruler,
Montezuma II, (This was a shameless lie, Cortés led an independent
expedition of greedy adventurers, The king of Spain had never heard of
Cortés, nor of the Aztecs,) Cortés was given guides, food and some military
assistance by local enemies of the Aztecs, He then marched towards the
Aztec capital, the great metropolis of Tenochtitlan,
The Aztecs allowed the aliens to march all the way to the capital, then
respectfully led the aliens’ leader to meet Emperor Montezuma, In the
middle of the interview, Cortés gave a signal, and steel-armed Spaniards
butchered Montezuma’s bodyguards (who were armed only with wooden
clubs, and stone blades), The honoured guest took his host prisoner,
Cortés was now in a very delicate situation, He had captured the
emperor, but was surrounded by tens of thousands of furious enemy
warriors, millions of hostile civilians, and an entire continent about which
he knew practically nothing, He had at his disposal only a few hundred
Spaniards, and the closest Spanish reinforcements were in Cuba, more than
1,500 kilometres away,
Cortés kept Montezuma captive in the palace, making it look as if the
king remained free and in charge and as if the ‘Spanish ambassador’ were
no more than a guest, The Aztec Empire was an extremely centralised
polity, and this unprecedented situation paralysed it, Montezuma continued
to behave as if he ruled the empire, and the Aztec elite continued to obey
him, which meant they obeyed Cortés, This situation lasted for several
months, during which time Cortés interrogated Montezuma and his
attendants, trained translators in a variety of local languages, and sent
small Spanish expeditions in all directions to become familiar with the
Aztec Empire and the various tribes, peoples and cities that it ruled,
The Aztec elite eventually revolted against Cortés and Montezuma,
elected a new emperor, and drove the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan,
However, by now numerous cracks had appeared in the imperial edi ce,
Cortés used the knowledge he had gained to prise the cracks open wider
and split the empire from within, He convinced many of the empire’s
subject peoples to join him against the ruling Aztec elite, The subject
peoples miscalculated badly, They hated the Aztecs, but knew nothing of
Spain or the Caribbean genocide, They assumed that with Spanish help
they could shake o the Aztec yoke, The idea that the Spanish would take
over never occurred to them, They were sure that if Cortés and his few
hundred henchmen caused any trouble, they could easily be overwhelmed,
The rebellious peoples provided Cortés with an army of tens of thousands of
local troops, and with its help Cortés besieged Tenochtitlan and conquered
the city,
At this stage more and more Spanish soldiers and settlers began arriving
in Mexico, some from Cuba, others all the way from Spain, When the local
peoples realised what was happening, it was too late, Within a century of
the landing at Vera Cruz, the native population of the Americas had shrunk
by about 90 per cent, due mainly to unfamiliar diseases that reached
America with the invaders, The survivors found themselves under the
thumb of a greedy and racist regime that was far worse than that of the
Ten years after Cortés landed in Mexico, Pizarro arrived on the shore of
the Inca Empire, He had far fewer soldiers than Cortés – his expedition
numbered just 168 men! Yet Pizarro bene ted from all the knowledge and
experience gained in previous invasions, The Inca, in contrast, knew
nothing about the fate of the Aztecs, Pizarro plagiarised Cortés, He declared
himself a peaceful emissary from the king of Spain, invited the Inca ruler,
Atahualpa, to a diplomatic interview, and then kidnapped him, Pizarro
proceeded to conquer the paralysed empire with the help of local allies, If
the subject peoples of the Inca Empire had known the fate of the
inhabitants of Mexico, they would not have thrown in their lot with the
invaders, But they did not know,
The native peoples of America were not the only ones to pay a heavy price
for their parochial outlook, 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 Paci c,
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 rst 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
o the Alaskan coast, capturing in the process ten US soldiers and a dog,
The Japanese never got any closer to the mainland,
It is hard to argue that the Ottomans or Chinese were too far away, or
that they lacked the technological, economic or military wherewithal, The
resources that sent Zheng He from China to East Africa in the 1420S should
have been enough to reach America, The Chinese just weren’t interested,
The rst Chinese world map to show America was not issued until 1602 –
and then by a European missionary!
For 300 years, Europeans enjoyed undisputed mastery in America and
Oceania, in the Atlantic and the Paci c, The only signi cant struggles in
those regions were between di erent European powers, The wealth and
resources accumulated by the Europeans eventually enabled them to invade
Asia too, defeat its empires, and divide it among themselves, When the
Ottomans, Persians, Indians and Chinese woke up and began paying
attention, it was too late,
Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly
global vision, This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of
European hegemony, Thus in the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62),
Algerian guerrillas defeated a French army with an overwhelming
numerical, technological and economic advantage, The Algerians prevailed
because they were supported by a global anti-colonial network, and because
they worked out how to harness the world’s media to their cause – as well
as public opinion in France itself, The defeat that little North Vietnam
in icted on the American colossus was based on a similar strategy, These
guerrilla forces showed that even superpowers could be defeated if a local
struggle became a global cause, It is interesting to contemplate what might
have happened had Montezuma been able to manipulate public opinion in
Spain and gain assistance from one of Spain’s rivals – Portugal, France or
the Ottoman Empire,
Rare Spiders and Forgotten Scripts
Modern science and modern empires were motivated by the restless feeling
that perhaps something important awaited beyond the horizon – something
they had better explore and master, Yet the connection between science
and empire went much deeper, Not just the motivation, but also the
practices of empire-builders were entangled with those of scientists, For
modern Europeans, building an empire was a scienti c project, while
setting up a scientific discipline was an imperial project,
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 rst 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 butter ies, 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 ourished 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 rst great civilisation of
India, which no Indian had been aware of,
Another telling example of British scienti c curiosity was the deciphering
of cuneiform script, This was the main script used throughout the Middle
East for close to 3,000 years, but the last person able to read it probably
died sometime in the early rst millennium AD, Since then, inhabitants of
the region frequently encountered cuneiform inscriptions on monuments,
steles, ancient ruins and broken pots, But they had no idea how to read the
weird, angular scratches and, as far as we know, they never tried,
Cuneiform came to the attention of Europeans in 1618, when the Spanish
ambassador in Persia went sightseeing in the ruins of ancient Persepolis,
where he saw inscriptions that nobody could explain to him, News of the
unknown script spread among European savants and piqued their curiosity,
In 1657 European scholars published the rst transcription of a cuneiform
text from Persepolis, More and more transcriptions followed, and for close
to two centuries scholars in the West tried to decipher them, None
In the 1830s, a British o cer named Henry Rawlinson was sent to Persia
to help the shah train his army in the European style, In his spare time
Rawlinson travelled around Persia and one day he was led by local guides
to a cli in the Zagros Mountains and shown the huge Behistun Inscription,
About fteen metres high and twenty- ve metres wide, it had been etched
high up on the cli face on the command of King Darius I sometime around
500 BC, It was written in cuneiform script in three languages: Old Persian,
Elamite and Babylonian, The inscription was well known to the local
population, but nobody could read it, Rawlinson became convinced that if
h e could decipher the writing it would enable him and other scholars to
read the numerous inscriptions and texts that were at the time being
discovered all over the Middle East, opening a door into an ancient and
forgotten world,
The rst step in deciphering the lettering was to produce an accurate
transcription that could be sent back to Europe, Rawlinson de ed death to
do so, scaling the steep cli to copy the strange letters, He hired several
locals to help him, most notably a Kurdish boy who climbed to the most
inaccessible parts of the cli in order to copy the upper portion of the
inscription, In 1847 the project was completed, and a full and accurate
copy was sent to Europe,
Rawlinson did not rest on his laurels, As an army o cer, he had military
and political missions to carry out, but whenever he had a spare moment he
puzzled over the secret script, He tried one method after another and finally
managed to decipher the Old Persian part of the inscription, This was
easiest, since Old Persian was not that di erent from modern Persian,
which Rawlinson knew well, An understanding of the Old Persian section
gave him the key he needed to unlock the secrets of the Elamite and
Babylonian sections, The great door swung open, and out came a rush of
ancient but lively voices – the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the
proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats,
Without the e orts of modern European imperialists such as Rawlinson, we
would not have known much about the fate of the ancient Middle Eastern
Another notable imperialist scholar was William Jones, Jones arrived in
India in September 1783 to serve as a judge in the Supreme Court of
Bengal, He was so captivated by the wonders of India that within less than
six months of his arrival he had founded the Asiatic Society, This academic
organisation was devoted to studying the cultures, histories and societies of
Asia, and in particular those of India, Within two years Jones published his
observations on the Sanskrit language, which pioneered the science of
comparative linguistics,
In his publications Jones pointed out surprising similarities between
Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that became the sacred tongue of
Hindu ritual, and the Greek and Latin languages, as well as similarities
between all these languages and Gothic, Celtic, Old Persian, German,
French and English, Thus in Sanskrit, ‘mother’ is ‘matar’, in Latin it is
‘mater’, and in Old Celtic it is ‘mathir’, Jones surmised that all these
languages must share a common origin, developing from a now-forgotten
ancient ancestor, He was thus the rst to identify what later came to be
called the Indo-European family of languages,
Jones’ study was an important milestone not merely due to his bold (and
accurate) hypotheses, but also because of the orderly methodology that he
developed to compare languages, It was adopted by other scholars,
enabling them systematically to study the development of all the world’s
Linguistics received enthusiastic imperial support, The European empires
believed that in order to govern e ectively they must know the languages
and cultures of their subjects, British o cers arriving in India were
supposed to spend up to three years in a Calcutta college, where they
studied Hindu and Muslim law alongside English law; Sanskrit, Urdu and
Persian alongside Greek and Latin; and Tamil, Bengali and Hindustani
culture alongside mathematics, economics and geography, The study of
linguistics provided invaluable help in understanding the structure and
grammar of local languages,
Thanks to the work of people like William Jones and Henry Rawlinson,
the European conquerors knew their empires very well, Far better, indeed,
than any previous conquerors, or even than the native population itself,
Their superior knowledge had obvious practical advantages, 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 o cials, about 40,000–
70,000 British soldiers, and perhaps another 100,000 British business
people, hangers-on, wives and children were su cient to conquer and rule
up to 300 million Indians,
Yet these practical advantages were not the only reason why empires
nanced the study of linguistics, botany, geography and history, No less
important was the fact that science gave the empires ideological
justi cation, Modern Europeans came to believe that acquiring new
knowledge was always good, The fact that the empires produced a constant
stream of new knowledge branded them as progressive and positive
enterprises, Even today, histories of sciences such as geography,
archaeology and botany cannot avoid crediting the European empires, at
least indirectly, Histories of botany have little to say about the su ering of
the Aboriginal Australians, but they usually nd some kind words for James
Cook and Joseph Banks,
Furthermore, the new knowledge accumulated by the empires made it
possible, at least in theory, to bene t the conquered populations and bring
them the bene ts of ‘progress’ – to provide them with medicine and
education, to build railroads and canals, to ensure justice and prosperity,
Imperialists claimed that their empires were not vast enterprises of
exploitation but rather altruistic projects conducted for the sake of the non-
European races – in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘the White Man’s burden’:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child,
Of course, the facts often belied this myth, 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,
In truth, neither the narrative of oppression and exploitation nor that of
‘The White Man’s Burden’ completely matches the facts, The European
empires did so many di erent things on such a large scale, that you can
nd plenty of examples to support whatever you want to say about them,
You think that these empires were evil monstrosities that spread death,
oppression and injustice around the world? You could easily ll an
encyclopedia with their crimes, You want to argue that they in fact
improved the conditions of their subjects with new medicines, better
economic conditions and greater security? You could ll another
encyclopedia with their achievements, Due to their close cooperation with
science, these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to
such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil,
They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in
order to judge them,
But science was also used by imperialists to more sinister ends, Biologists,
anthropologists and even linguists provided scienti c proof that Europeans
are superior to all other races, and consequently have the right (if not
perhaps the duty) to rule over them, After William Jones argued that all
Indo-European languages descend from a single ancient language many
scholars were eager to discover who the speakers of that language had
been, They noticed that the earliest Sanskrit speakers, who had invaded
India from Central Asia more than 3,000 years ago, had called themselves
Arya, The speakers of the earliest Persian language called themselves Airiia,
European scholars consequently surmised that the people who spoke the
primordial language that gave birth to both Sanskrit and Persian (as well as
to Greek, Latin, Gothic and Celtic) must have called themselves Aryans,
Could it be a coincidence that those who founded the magni cent Indian,
Persian, Greek and Roman civilisations were all Aryans?
Next, British, French and German scholars wedded the linguistic theory
about the industrious Aryans to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and
posited that the Aryans were not just a linguistic group but a biological
entity – a race, And not just any race, but a master race of tall, light-haired,
blue-eyed, hard-working, and super-rational humans who emerged from the
mists of the north to lay the foundations of culture throughout the world,
Regrettably, the Aryans who invaded India and Persia intermarried with
the local natives they found in these lands, losing their light complexions
and blond hair, and with them their rationality and diligence, The
civilisations of India and Persia consequently declined, In Europe, on the
other hand, the Aryans preserved their racial purity, This is why Europeans
had managed to conquer the world, and why they were t to rule it –
provided they took precautions not to mix with inferior races,
Such racist theories, prominent and respectable for many decades, have
become anathema among scientists and politicians alike, People continue to
conduct a heroic struggle against racism without noticing that the
battlefront has shifted, and that the place of racism in imperial ideology
has now been replaced by ‘culturism’, There is no such word, but it’s about
time we coined it, Among today’s elites, assertions about the contrasting
merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of
historical di erences between cultures rather than biological di erences
between races, We no longer say, ‘It’s in their blood,’ We say, ‘It’s in their
Thus European right-wing parties which oppose Muslim immigration
usually take care to avoid racial terminology, Marine le Pen’s speechwriters
would have been shown the door on the spot had they suggested that the
leader of the Front National go on television to declare that, ‘We don’t want
those inferior Semites to dilute our Aryan blood and spoil our Aryan
civilisation,’ Instead, the French Front National, the Dutch Party for
Freedom, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and their like tend to argue
that Western culture, as it has evolved in Europe, is characterised by
democratic values, tolerance and gender equality, whereas Muslim culture,
which evolved in the Middle East, is characterised by hierarchical politics,
fanaticism and misogyny, Since the two cultures are so di erent, and since
many Muslim immigrants are unwilling (and perhaps unable) to adopt
Western values, they should not be allowed to enter, lest they foment
internal conflicts and corrode European democracy and liberalism,
Such culturist arguments are fed by scienti c studies in the humanities
and social sciences that highlight the so-called clash of civilisations and the
fundamental di erences between di erent cultures, Not all historians and
anthropologists accept these theories or support their political usages, But
whereas biologists today have an easy time disavowing racism, simply
explaining that the biological di erences between present-day human
populations are trivial, it is harder for historians and anthropologists to
disavow culturism, After all, if the di erences between human cultures are
trivial, why should we pay historians and anthropologists to study them?
Scientists have provided the imperial project with practical knowledge,
ideological justi cation and technological gadgets, Without this
contribution it is highly questionable whether Europeans could have
conquered the world, The conquerors returned the favour by providing
scientists with information and protection, supporting all kinds of strange
and fascinating projects and spreading the scienti c way of thinking to the
far corners of the earth, Without imperial support, it is doubtful whether
modern science would have progressed very far, There are very few
scienti c disciplines that did not begin their lives as servants to imperial
growth and that do not owe a large proportion of their discoveries,
collections, buildings and scholarships to the generous help of army
officers, navy captains and imperial governors,
This is obviously not the whole story, Science was supported by other
institutions, not just by empires, And the European empires rose and
ourished thanks also to factors other than science, Behind the meteoric
rise of both science and empire lurks one particularly important force:
capitalism, Were it not for businessmen seeking to make money, Columbus
would not have reached America, James Cook would not have reached
Australia, and Neil Armstrong would never have taken that small step on
the surface of the moon,

16 The Capitalist Creed

MONEY HAS BEEN ESSENTIAL BOTH FOR building empires and for
promoting science, But is money the ultimate goal of these undertakings, or
perhaps just a dangerous necessity?
It is not easy to grasp the true role of economics in modern history,
Whole volumes have been written about how money founded states and
ruined them, opened new horizons and enslaved millions, moved the
wheels of industry and drove hundreds of species into extinction, Yet to
understand modern economic history, you really need to understand just a
single word, The word is growth, For better or worse, in sickness and in
health, the modern economy has been growing like a hormone-soused
teenager, It eats up everything it can nd and puts on inches faster than
you can count,
For most of history the economy stayed much the same size, Yes, global
production increased, but this was due mostly to demographic expansion
and the settlement of new lands, Per capita production remained static, But
all that changed in the modern age, In 1500, global production of goods
and services was equal to about $250 billion; today it hovers around $60
trillion, More importantly, in 1500, annual per capita production averaged
$550, while today every man, woman and child produces, on the average,
$8,800 a year, What accounts for this stupendous growth?
Economics is a notoriously complicated subject, To make things easier,
let’s imagine a simple example,
Samuel Greedy, a shrewd nancier, founds a bank in El Dorado,
A, A, Stone, an up-and-coming contractor in El Dorado, nishes his rst
big job, receiving payment in cash to the tune of $1 million, He deposits
this sum in Mr Greedy’s bank, The bank now has $1 million in capital,
In the meantime, Jane McDoughnut, an experienced but impecunious El
Dorado chef, thinks she sees a business opportunity – there’s no really good
bakery in her part of town, But she doesn’t have enough money of her own
to buy a proper facility complete with industrial ovens, sinks, knives and
pots, She goes to the bank, presents her business plan to Greedy, and
persuades him that it’s a worthwhile investment, He issues her a $1 million
loan, by crediting her account in the bank with that sum,
McDoughnut now hires Stone, the contractor, to build and furnish her
bakery, His price is $1,000,000,
When she pays him, with a cheque drawn on her account, Stone deposits
it in his account in the Greedy bank,
So how much money does Stone have in his bank account? Right, $2
How much money, cash, is actually located in the bank’s safe? Yes, $1
It doesn’t stop there, As contractors are wont to do, two months into the
job Stone informs McDoughnut that, due to unforeseen problems and
expenses, the bill for constructing the bakery will actually be $2 million,
Mrs McDoughnut is not pleased, but she can hardly stop the job in the
middle, So she pays another visit to the bank, convinces Mr Greedy to give
her an additional loan, and he puts another $1 million in her account, She
transfers the money to the contractor’s account,
How much money does Stone have in his account now? He’s got $3
But how much money is actually sitting in the bank? Still just $1 million,
In fact, the same $1 million that’s been in the bank all along,
Current US banking law permits the bank to repeat this exercise seven
more times, The contractor would eventually have $10 million in his
account, even though the bank still has but $1 million in its vaults, Banks
are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually possess, which means
that 90 per cent of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by
actual coins and notes, If all of the account holders at Barclays Bank
suddenly demand their money, Barclays will promptly collapse (unless the
government steps in to save it), The same is true of Lloyds, Deutsche Bank,
Citibank, and all other banks in the world,
It sounds like a giant Ponzi scheme, doesn’t it? But if it’s a fraud, then the
entire modern economy is a fraud, The fact is, it’s not a deception, but
rather a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination, What
enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and ourish is our
trust in the future, This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in
the world,
In the bakery example, the discrepancy between the contractor’s account
statement and the amount of money actually in the bank is Mrs
McDoughnut’s bakery, Mr Greedy has put the bank’s money into the asset,
trusting that one day it would be pro table, The bakery hasn’t baked a loaf
of bread yet, but McDoughnut and Greedy anticipate that a year hence it
will be selling thousands of loaves, rolls, cakes and cookies each day, at a
handsome pro t, Mrs McDoughnut will then be able to repay her loan, with
interest, If at that point Mr Stone decides to withdraw his savings, Greedy
will be able to come up with the cash, The entire enterprise is thus founded
on trust in an imaginary future – the trust that the entrepreneur and the
banker have in the bakery of their dreams, along with the contractor’s trust
in the future solvency of the bank,
We’ve already seen that money is an astounding thing because it can
represent myriad di erent objects and convert anything into almost
anything else, However, before the modern era this ability was limited, In
most cases, money could represent and convert only things that actually
existed in the present, This imposed a severe limitation on growth, since it
made it very hard to finance new enterprises,
Consider our bakery again, Could McDoughnut get it built if money could
represent only tangible objects? No, In the present, she has a lot of dreams,
but no tangible resources, The only way she could get her bakery built
would be to nd a contractor willing to work today and receive payment in
a few years’ time, if and when the bakery starts making money, Alas, such
contractors are rare breeds, So our entrepreneur is in a bind, Without a
bakery, she can’t bake cakes, Without cakes, she can’t make money,
Without money, she can’t hire a contractor, Without a contractor, she has
no bakery,
Humankind was trapped in this predicament for thousands of years, As a
result, economies remained frozen, The way out of the trap was discovered
only in the modern era, with the appearance of a new system based on
trust in the future, In it, people agreed to represent imaginary goods –
goods that do not exist in the present – with a special kind of money they
called ‘credit’, 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,
If credit is such a wonderful thing, why did nobody think of it earlier? Of
course they did, Credit arrangements of one kind or another have existed in
all known human cultures, going back at least to ancient Sumer, The
problem in previous eras was not that no one had the idea or knew how to
use it, It was that people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they
didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present, They generally
believed that times past had been better than their own times and that the
future would be worse, or at best much the same, To put that in economic
terms, they believed that the total amount of wealth was limited, if not
dwindling, People therefore considered it a bad bet to assume that they
personally, or their kingdom, or the entire world, would be producing more
wealth ten years down the line, Business looked like a zero-sum game, Of
course, the pro ts of one particular bakery might rise, but only at the
expense of the bakery next door, Venice might ourish, but only by
impoverishing Genoa, The king of England might enrich himself, but only
by robbing the king of France, You could cut the pie in many di erent
ways, but it never got any bigger,
That’s why many cultures concluded that making bundles of money was
sinful, As Jesus said, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’ (Matthew
19:24), If the pie is static, and I have a big part of it, then I must have
taken somebody else’s slice, The rich were obliged to do penance for their
evil deeds by giving some of their surplus wealth to charity,
The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma
If the global pie stayed the same size, there was no margin for credit,
Credit is the di erence between today’s pie and tomorrows pie, If the pie
stays the same, why extend credit? It would be an unacceptable risk unless
you believed that the baker or king asking for your money might be able to
steal a slice from a competitor, So it was hard to get a loan in the
premodern world, and when you got one it was usually small, short-term,
and subject to high interest rates, Upstart entrepreneurs thus found it di cult
to open new bakeries and great kings who wanted to build palaces or wage
wars had no choice but to raise the necessary funds through high taxes and
The Magic Circle of the Modern Economy
That was ne for kings (as long as their subjects remained docile), but a
scullery maid who had a great idea for a bakery and wanted to move up in
the world generally could only dream of wealth while scrubbing down the
royal kitchens floors,
It was lose-lose, Because credit was limited, people had trouble nancing
new businesses, Because there were few new businesses, the economy did
not grow, Because it did not grow, people assumed it never would, and
those who had capital were wary of extending credit, The expectation of
stagnation fulfilled itself,
A Growing Pie
Then came the Scienti c 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, New trade routes in the Atlantic could ourish without ruining old
routes in the Indian Ocean, New goods could be produced without reducing
the production of old ones, For instance, one could open a new bakery
specialising in chocolate cakes and croissants without causing bakeries
specialising in bread to go bust, Everybody would simply develop new
tastes and eat more, I can be wealthy without your becoming poor; I can be
obese without your dying of hunger, The entire global pie can grow,
Over the last 500 years the idea of progress convinced people to put more
and more trust in the future, This trust created credit; credit brought real
economic growth; and growth strengthened the trust in the future and
opened the way for even more credit, It didn’t happen overnight – the
economy behaved more like a roller coaster than a balloon, But over the
long run, with the bumps evened out, the general direction was
unmistakable, Today, there is so much credit in the world that
governments, business corporations and private individuals easily obtain
large, long-term and low-interest loans that far exceed current income,
The Economic History of the World in a Nutshell
The belief in the growing global pie eventually turned revolutionary, 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 rst volume, Smith made the following novel argument: when
a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater pro ts than he needs to
maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in
order to further increase his pro ts, The more pro ts he has, the more
assistants he can employ, It follows that an increase in the pro ts of
private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and
This may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a
capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted, We hear
variations on this theme every day in the news, Yet Smith’s claim that the
sel sh human urge to increase private pro ts 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 bene t everybody, not just myself,
Egoism is altruism,
Smith taught people to think about the economy as a ‘win-win situation’,
in which my pro ts are also your pro ts, Not only can we both enjoy a
bigger slice of pie at the same time, but the increase in your slice depends
upon the increase in my slice, If I am poor, you too will be poor since I
cannot buy your products or services, If I am rich, you too will be enriched
since you can now sell me something, Smith denied the traditional
contradiction between wealth and morality, and threw open the gates of
heaven for the rich, Being rich meant being moral, In Smiths story, people
become rich not by despoiling their neighbours, but by increasing the
overall size of the pie, And when the pie grows, everyone bene ts, The rich
are accordingly the most useful and benevolent people in society, because
they turn the wheels of growth for everyone’s advantage,
All this depends, however, on the rich using their pro ts to open new
factories and hire new employees, rather than wasting them on non-
productive activities, Smith therefore repeated like a mantra the maxim
that ‘When pro ts increase, the landlord or weaver will employ more
assistants’ and not ‘When pro ts increase, Scrooge will hoard his money in
a chest and take it out only to count his coins,’ A crucial part of the modern
capitalist economy was the emergence of a new ethic, according to which
pro ts ought to be reinvested in production, This brings about more pro ts,
which are again reinvested in production, which brings more pro ts, et
cetera ad in nitum, Investments can be made in many ways: enlarging the
factory, conducting scienti c research, developing new products, Yet all
these investments must somehow increase production and translate into
larger pro ts, In the new capitalist creed, the rst and most sacred
commandment is: ‘The pro ts of production must be reinvested in
increasing production,’
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 eet 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,
The idea that ‘The pro ts of production must be reinvested in increasing
production’ sounds trivial, Yet it was alien to most people throughout
history, In premodern times, people believed that production was more or
less constant, So why reinvest your pro ts if production won’t increase by
much, no matter what you do? Thus medieval noblemen espoused an ethic
of generosity and conspicuous consumption, They spent their revenues on
tournaments, banquets, palaces and wars, and on charity and monumental
cathedrals, Few tried to reinvest pro ts in increasing their manors’ output,
developing better kinds of wheat, or looking for new markets,
In the modern era, the nobility has been overtaken by a new elite whose
members are true believers in the capitalist creed, The new capitalist elite is
made up not of dukes and marquises, but of board chairmen, stock traders
and industrialists, These magnates are far richer than the medieval nobility,
but they are far less interested in extravagant consumption, and they spend
a much smaller part of their profits on non-productive activities,
Medieval noblemen wore colourful robes of gold and silk, and devoted
much of their time to attending banquets, carnivals and glamorous
tournaments, In comparison, modern CEOs don dreary uniforms called suits
that a ord them all the panache of a ock of crows, and they have little
time for festivities, The typical venture capitalist rushes from one business
meeting to another, trying to gure out where to invest his capital and
following the ups and downs of the stocks and bonds he owns, True, his
suits might be Versace and he might get to travel in a private jet, but these
expenses are nothing compared to what he invests in increasing human
It’s not just Versace-clad business moguls who invest to increase
productivity, Ordinary folk and government agencies think along similar
lines, How many dinner conversations in modest neighbourhoods sooner or
later bog down in interminable debate about whether it is better to invest
one’s savings in the stock market, bonds or property? Governments too
strive to invest their tax revenues in productive enterprises that will
increase future income – for example, building a new port could make it
easier for factories to export their products, enabling them to make more
taxable income, thereby increasing the government’s future revenues,
Another government might prefer to invest in education, on the grounds
that educated people form the basis for the lucrative high-tech industries,
which pay lots of taxes without needing extensive port facilities,
Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions, It was both
descriptive and prescriptive – it o ered an account of how money worked
and promoted the idea that reinvesting pro ts in production leads to fast
economic growth, 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, Ask a capitalist how to bring justice and
political freedom to a place like Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, and you are
likely to get a lecture on how economic a uence and a thriving middle
class are essential for stable democratic institutions, and about the need
therefore to inculcate Afghan tribesmen in the values of free enterprise,
thrift and self-reliance,
This new religion has had a decisive in uence on the development of
modern science, too, Scienti c research is usually funded by either
governments or private businesses, When capitalist governments and
businesses consider investing in a particular scienti c project, the rst
questions are usually, ‘Will this project enable us to increase production and
pro ts? Will it produce economic growth?’ A project that can’t clear these
hurdles has little chance of nding a sponsor, No history of modern science
can leave capitalism out of the picture,
Conversely, the history of capitalism is unintelligible without taking
science into account, Capitalisms belief in perpetual economic growth ies
in the face of almost everything we know about the universe, A society of
wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep
would keep on growing inde nitely, The human economy has nevertheless
managed to grow exponentially throughout the modern era, thanks only to
the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few
years – such as the continent of America, the internal combustion engine, or
genetically engineered sheep, Banks and governments print money, but
ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill,
Over the last few years, banks and governments have been frenziedly
printing money, Everybody is terri ed that the current economic crisis may
stop the growth of the economy, So they are creating trillions of dollars,
euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and
hoping that the scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come
up with something really big, before the bubble bursts, Everything depends
on the people in the labs, New discoveries in elds such as biotechnology
and nanotechnology could create entire new industries, whose pro ts could
back the trillions of make-believe money that the banks and governments
have created since 2008, If the labs do not ful l these expectations before
the bubble bursts, we are heading towards very rough times,
Columbus Searches for an Investor
Capitalism played a decisive role not only in the rise of modern science, but
also in the emergence of European imperialism, And it was European
imperialism that created the capitalist credit system in the rst place, Of
course, credit was not invented in modern Europe, It existed in almost all
agricultural societies, and in the early modern period the emergence of
European capitalism was closely linked to economic developments in Asia,
Remember, too, that until the late eighteenth century, Asia was the world’s
economic powerhouse, meaning that Europeans had far less capital at their
disposal than the Chinese, Muslims or Indians,
However, in the sociopolitical systems of China, India and the Muslim
world, credit played only a secondary role, Merchants and bankers in the
markets of Istanbul, Isfahan, Delhi and Beijing may have thought along
capitalist lines, but the kings and generals in the palaces and forts tended
to despise merchants and mercantile thinking, Most non-European empires
of the early modern era were established by great conquerors such as
Nurhaci and Nader Shah, or by bureaucratic and military elites as in the
Qing and Ottoman empires, Financing wars through taxes and plunder
(without making ne distinctions between the two), they owed little to
credit systems, and they cared even less about the interests of bankers and
In Europe, on the other hand, 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 nanced
through credit rather than taxes, and was increasingly directed by
capitalists whose main ambition was to receive maximum returns on their
investments, The empires built by bankers and merchants in frock coats and
top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes
and shining armour, The mercantile empires were simply much shrewder in
nancing their conquests, Nobody wants to pay taxes, but everyone is
happy to invest,
In 1484 Christopher Columbus approached the king of Portugal with the
proposal that he nance a eet that would sail westward to nd a new
trade route to East Asia, Such explorations were a very risky and costly
business, A lot of money was needed in order to build ships, buy supplies,
and pay sailors and soldiers – and there was no guarantee that the
investment would yield a return, The king of Portugal declined,
Like a present-day start-up entrepreneur, Columbus did not give up, He
pitched his idea to other potential investors in Italy, France, England, and
again in Portugal, Each time he was rejected, He then tried his luck with
Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of newly united Spain, He took on some
experienced lobbyists, and with their help he managed to convince Queen
Isabella to invest, As every school-child knows, Isabella hit the jackpot,
Columbus’ discoveries enabled the Spaniards to conquer America, where
they established gold and silver mines as well as sugar and tobacco
plantations that enriched the Spanish kings, bankers and merchants beyond
their wildest dreams,
A hundred years later, princes and bankers were willing to extend far
more credit to Columbus’ successors, and they had more capital at their
disposal, thanks to the treasures reaped from America, Equally important,
princes and bankers had far more trust in the potential of exploration, and
were more willing to part with their money, This was the magic circle of
imperial capitalism: credit nanced new discoveries; discoveries led to
colonies; colonies provided pro ts; pro ts built trust; and trust translated
into more credit, Nurhaci and Nader Shah ran out of fuel after a few
thousand kilometres, Capitalist entrepreneurs only increased their nancial
momentum from conquest to conquest,
But these expeditions remained chancy a airs, so credit markets
nevertheless remained quite cautious, Many expeditions returned to Europe
empty-handed, having discovered nothing of value, The English, for
instance, wasted a lot of capital in fruitless attempts to discover a north-
western passage to Asia through the Arctic, Many other expeditions didn’t
return at all, 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 pro ts, Even a small
investment in the right ship could turn you into a millionaire,
Decade by decade, western Europe witnessed the development of a
sophisticated nancial system that could raise large amounts of credit on
short notice and put it at the disposal of private entrepreneurs and
governments, This system could nance explorations and conquests far
more e ciently than any kingdom or empire, The new-found power of
credit can be seen in the bitter struggle between Spain and the Netherlands,
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, eets heavy with
American and Asian treasures returned to the ports of Seville and Cadiz,
The Netherlands was a small and windy swamp, devoid of natural
resources, a small corner of the king of Spain’s dominions,
In 1568 the Dutch, who were mainly Protestant, revolted against their
Catholic Spanish overlord, At rst 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 ght the Spanish for
them, The Dutch themselves meanwhile took to the sea in ever-larger eets,
Mercenary armies and cannon-brandishing eets cost a fortune, but the
Dutch were able to nance their military expeditions more easily than the
mighty Spanish Empire because they secured the trust of the burgeoning
European nancial system at a time when the Spanish king was carelessly
eroding its trust in him, Financiers extended the Dutch enough credit to set
up armies and eets, and these armies and eets gave the Dutch control of
world trade routes, which in turn yielded handsome pro ts, The pro ts
allowed the Dutch to repay the loans, which strengthened the trust of the
nanciers, 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 nancial 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,
Imagine that you are the son of a solid family of German nanciers, Your
father sees an opportunity to expand the business by opening branches in
major European cities, He sends you to Amsterdam and your younger
brother to Madrid, giving you each 10,000 gold coins to invest, Your
brother lends his start-up capital at interest to the king of Spain, who needs
it to raise an army to ght the king of France, You decide to lend yours to a
Dutch merchant, who wants to invest in scrubland on the southern end of a
desolate island called Manhattan, certain that property values there will
skyrocket as the Hudson River turns into a major trade artery, Both loans
are to be repaid within a year,
The year passes, The Dutch merchant sells the land he’s bought at a
handsome markup and repays your money with the interest he promised,
Your father is pleased, But your little brother in Madrid is getting nervous,
The war with France ended well for the king of Spain, but he has now
embroiled himself in a con ict with the Turks, He needs every penny to
nance the new war, and thinks this is far more important than repaying
old debts, Your brother sends letters to the palace and asks friends with
connections at court to intercede, but to no avail, Not only has your brother
not earned the promised interest – he’s lost the principal, Your father is not
Now, to make matters worse, the king sends a treasury o cial to your
brother to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he expects to receive
another loan of the same size, forthwith, Your brother has no money to
lend, He writes home to Dad, trying to persuade him that this time the king
will come through, The paterfamilias has a soft spot for his youngest, and
agrees with a heavy heart, Another 10,000 gold coins disappear into the
Spanish treasury, never to be seen again, Meanwhile in Amsterdam, things
are looking bright, You make more and more loans to enterprising Dutch
merchants, who repay them promptly and in full, But your luck does not
hold inde nitely, One of your usual clients has a hunch that wooden clogs
are going to be the next fashion craze in Paris, and asks you for a loan to
set up a footwear emporium in the French capital, You lend him the money,
but unfortunately the clogs don’t catch on with the French ladies, and the
disgruntled merchant refuses to repay the loan,
Your father is furious, and tells both of you it is time to unleash the
lawyers, Your brother les suit in Madrid against the Spanish monarch,
while you le suit in Amsterdam against the erstwhile wooden-shoe wizard,
In Spain, the law courts are subservient to the king – the judges serve at his
pleasure and fear punishment if they do not do his will, In the Netherlands,
the courts are a separate branch of government, not dependent on the
country’s burghers and princes, The court in Madrid throws out your
brother’s suit, while the court in Amsterdam nds in your favour and puts a
lien on the clog-merchant’s assets to force him to pay up, Your father has
learned his lesson, Better to do business with merchants than with kings,
and better to do it in Holland than in Madrid,
And your brother’s travails are not over, The king of Spain desperately
needs more money to pay his army, He’s sure that your father has cash to
spare, So he brings trumped-up treason charges against your brother, If he
doesn’t come up with 20,000 gold coins forthwith, he’ll get cast into a
dungeon and rot there until he dies,
Your father has had enough, He pays the ransom for his beloved son, but
swears never to do business in Spain again, He closes his Madrid branch
and relocates your brother to Rotterdam, Two branches in Holland now
look like a really good idea, He hears that even Spanish capitalists are
smuggling their fortunes out of their country, They, too, realise that if they
want to keep their money and use it to gain more wealth, they are better
o investing it where the rule of law prevails and where private property is
respected – in the Netherlands, for example,
In such ways did the king of Spain squander the trust of investors at the
same time that Dutch merchants gained their con dence, And it was the
Dutch merchants – not the Dutch state – who built the Dutch Empire, The
king of Spain kept on trying to nance and maintain his conquests by
raising unpopular taxes from a disgruntled populace, The Dutch merchants
nanced conquest by getting loans, and increasingly also by selling shares
in their companies that entitled their holders to receive a portion of the
company’s pro ts, Cautious investors who would never have given their
money to the king of Spain, and who would have thought twice before
extending credit to the Dutch government, happily invested fortunes in the
Dutch joint-stock companies that were the mainstay of the new empire,
If you thought a company was going to make a big pro t but it had
already sold all its shares, you could buy some from people who owned
them, probably for a higher price than they originally paid, If you bought
shares and later discovered that the company was in dire straits, you could
try to unload your stock for a lower price, The resulting trade in company
shares led to the establishment in most major European cities of stock
exchanges, places where the shares of companies were traded,
The most famous Dutch joint-stock company, the Vereenigde Oostindische
Compagnie, or VOC for short, was chartered in 1602, just as the Dutch were
throwing o Spanish rule and the boom of Spanish artillery could still be
heard not far from Amsterdam’s ramparts, 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 nanced 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 rst arrived in Indonesia in 1603, their aims were strictly
commercial, However, in order to secure their commercial interests and
maximise the pro ts of the shareholders, VOC merchants began to ght
against local potentates who charged in ated tari s, 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 o -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- rst-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,
As the seventeenth century wound to an end, complacency and costly
continental wars caused the Dutch to lose not only New York, but also their
place as Europe’s nancial and imperial engine, The vacancy was hotly
contested by France and Britain, At rst France seemed to be in a far
stronger position, It was bigger than Britain, richer, more populous, and it
possessed a larger and more experienced army, Yet Britain managed to win
the trust of the nancial system whereas France proved itself unworthy,
The behaviour of the French crown was particularly notorious during what
was called the Mississippi Bubble, the largest nancial crisis of eighteenth-
century Europe, That story also begins with an empire-building joint-stock
In 1717 the Mississippi Company, chartered in France, set out to colonise
the lower Mississippi valley, establishing the city of New Orleans in the
process, To nance its ambitious plans, the company, which had good
connections at the court of King Louis XV, sold shares on the Paris stock
exchange, John Law, the company’s director, was also the governor of the
central bank of France, Furthermore, the king had appointed him
controller-general of nances, an o ce roughly equivalent to that of a
modern nance minister, In 1717 the lower Mississippi valley o ered few
attractions besides swamps and alligators, yet the Mississippi Company
spread tales of fabulous riches and boundless opportunities, French
aristocrats, businessmen and the stolid members of the urban bourgeoisie
fell for these fantasies, and Mississippi share prices skyrocketed, Initially,
shares were o ered at 500 livres apiece, On 1 August 1719, shares traded at
2,750 livres, By 30 August, they were worth 4,100 livres, and on 4
September, they reached 5,000 livres, On 2 December the price of a
Mississippi share crossed the threshold of 10,000 livres, Euphoria swept the
streets of Paris, People sold all their possessions and took huge loans in
order to buy Mississippi shares, Everybody believed they’d discovered the
easy way to riches,
39, New Amsterdam in 1660, at the tip of Manhattan Island, The settlement’s protective wall is
today paved over by Wall Street,
A few days later, the panic began, Some speculators realised that the
share prices were totally unrealistic and unsustainable, They gured that
they had better sell while stock prices were at their peak, As the supply of
shares available rose, their price declined, When other investors saw the
price going down, they also wanted to get out quick, The stock price
plummeted further, setting o an avalanche, In order to stabilise prices, the
central bank of France – at the direction of its governor, John Law – bought
up Mississippi shares, but it could not do so for ever, Eventually it ran out
of money, When this happened, the controller-general of finances, the same
John Law, authorised the printing of more money in order to buy
additional shares, This placed the entire French nancial system inside the
bubble, And not even this nancial wizardry could save the day, The price
of Mississippi shares dropped from 10,000 livres back to 1,000 livres, and
then collapsed completely, and the shares lost every sou of their worth, By
now, the central bank and the royal treasury owned a huge amount of
worthless stock and had no money, The big speculators emerged largely
unscathed – they had sold in time, Small investors lost everything, and
many committed suicide,
The Mississippi Bubble was one of history’s most spectacular nancial
crashes, The royal French nancial system never recuperated fully from the
blow, The way in which the Mississippi Company used its political clout to
manipulate share prices and fuel the buying frenzy caused the public to lose
faith in the French banking system and in the nancial wisdom of the
French king, Louis XV found it more and more di cult to raise credit, This
became one of the chief reasons that the overseas French Empire fell into
British hands, While the British could borrow money easily and at low
interest rates, France had di culties securing loans, and had to pay high
interest on them, In order to nance his growing debts, the king of France
borrowed more and more money at higher and higher interest rates,
Eventually, in the 1780s, Louis XVI, who had ascended to the throne on his
grandfather’s death, realised that half his annual budget was tied to
servicing the interest on his loans, and that he was heading towards
bankruptcy, Reluctantly, in 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General,
the French parliament that had not met for a century and a half, in order to
find a solution to the crisis, Thus began the French Revolution,
While the French overseas empire was crumbling, the British Empire was
expanding rapidly, Like the Dutch Empire before it, the British Empire was
established and run largely by private joint-stock companies based in the
London stock exchange, The first English settlements in North America were
established in the early seventeenth century by joint-stock companies such
as the London Company, the Plymouth Company, the Dorchester Company
and the Massachusetts Company,
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,
In the Name of Capital
The nationalisation of Indonesia by the Dutch crown (1800) and of India by
the British crown (1858) hardly ended the embrace of capitalism and
empire, On the contrary, the connection only grew stronger during the
nineteenth century, Joint-stock companies no longer needed to establish
and govern private colonies – their managers and large shareholders now
pulled the strings of power in London, Amsterdam and Paris, and they
could count on the state to look after their interests, As Marx and other
social critics quipped, Western governments were becoming a capitalist
trade union,
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 rst 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 tra cking, but British drug
merchants simply ignored the law, Chinese authorities began to con scate
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 overcon dent Chinese were no match for Britain’s
new wonder weapons – steamboats, heavy artillery, rockets and rapid- re
ri es, Under the subsequent peace treaty, China agreed not to constrain the
activities of British drug merchants and to compensate them for damages
in icted 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 tra cking (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, rst in order to nance the Suez Canal project, and later to
fund far less successful enterprises, Egyptian debt swelled, and European
creditors increasingly meddled in Egyptian a airs, 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,
These were hardly the only wars fought in the interests of investors, In fact,
war itself could become a commodity, just like opium, In 1821 the Greeks
rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, The uprising aroused great sympathy
in liberal and romantic circles in Britain – Lord Byron, the poet, even went
to Greece to ght alongside the insurgents, But London nanciers saw an
opportunity as well, They proposed to the rebel leaders the issue of tradable
Greek Rebellion Bonds on the London stock exchange, The Greeks would
promise to repay the bonds, plus interest, if and when they won their
independence, Private investors bought bonds to make a pro t, or out of
sympathy for the Greek cause, or both, The value of Greek Rebellion Bonds
rose and fell on the London stock exchange in tempo with military successes
and failures on the battle elds of Hellas, The Turks gradually gained the
upper hand, With a rebel defeat imminent, the bondholders faced the
prospect of losing their trousers, The bondholders’ interest was the national
interest, so the British organised an international eet that, in 1827, sank
the main Ottoman otilla in the Battle of Navarino, After centuries of
subjugation, Greece was nally free, But freedom came with a huge debt
that the new country had no way of repaying, The Greek economy was
mortgaged to British creditors for decades to come,
The bear hug between capital and politics has had far-reaching
implications for the credit market, The amount of credit in an economy is
determined not only by purely economic factors such as the discovery of a
new oil eld or the invention of a new machine, but also by political events
such as regime changes or more ambitious foreign policies, After the Battle
of Navarino, British capitalists were more willing to invest their money in
risky overseas deals, They had seen that if a foreign debtor refused to repay
loans, Her Majesty’s army would get their money back,
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 Cult of the Free Market
Capital and politics in uence each other to such an extent that their
relations are hotly debated by economists, politicians and the general
public alike, Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to
in uence politics, but politics should not be allowed to in uence capital,
They argue that when governments interfere in the markets, political
interests cause them to make unwise investments that result in slower
growth, For example, a government may impose heavy taxation on
industrialists and use the money to give lavish unemployment bene ts,
which are popular with voters, In the view of many business people, it
would be far better if the government left the money with them, They
would use it, they claim, to open new factories and hire the unemployed,
In this view, the wisest economic policy is to keep politics out of the
economy, reduce taxation and government regulation to a minimum, and
allow market forces free rein to take their course, Private investors,
unencumbered by political considerations, will invest their money where
they can get the most pro t, so the way to ensure the most economic
growth – which will bene t everyone, industrialists and workers – is for the
government to do as little as possible, This free-market doctrine is today the
most common and in uential variant of the capitalist creed, The most
enthusiastic advocates of the free market criticise military adventures
abroad with as much zeal as welfare programmes at home, They o er
governments the same advice that Zen masters o er initiates: just do
But in its extreme form, belief in the free market is as naïve as belief in
Santa Claus, There simply is no such thing as a market free of all political
bias, The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this
resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans, Markets by
themselves o er no protection against fraud, theft and violence, It is the
job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against
cheats and to establish and support police forces, courts and jails which will
enforce the law, When kings fail to do their jobs and regulate the markets
properly, it leads to loss of trust, dwindling credit and economic depression,
That was the lesson taught by the Mississippi Bubble of 1719, and anyone
who forgot it was reminded by the US housing bubble of 2007, and the
ensuing credit crunch and recession,
The Capitalist Hell
There is an even more fundamental reason why it’s dangerous to give
markets a completely free rein, Adam Smith taught that the shoemaker
would use his surplus to employ more assistants, This implies that egoistic
greed is bene cial for all, since pro ts are utilised to expand production
and hire more employees,
Yet what happens if the greedy shoemaker increases his profits by paying
employees less and increasing their work hours? The standard answer is
that the free market would protect the employees, If our shoemaker pays
too little and demands too much, the best employees would naturally
abandon him and go to work for his competitors, The tyrant shoemaker
would nd himself left with the worst labourers, or with no labourers at all,
He would have to mend his ways or go out of business, His own greed
would compel him to treat his employees well,
This sounds bulletproof in theory, but in practice the bullets get through
all too easily, In a completely free market, unsupervised by kings and
priests, avaricious capitalists can establish monopolies or collude against
their workforces, If there is a single corporation controlling all shoe
factories in a country, or if all factory owners conspire to reduce wages
simultaneously, then the labourers are no longer able to protect themselves
by switching jobs,
Even worse, greedy bosses might curtail the workers’ freedom of
movement through debt peonage or slavery, 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,
When the Europeans conquered America, they opened gold and silver
mines and established sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations, These mines
and plantations became the mainstay of American production and export,
The sugar plantations were particularly important, In the Middle Ages,
sugar was a rare luxury in Europe, It was imported from the Middle East at
prohibitive prices and used sparingly as a secret ingredient in delicacies and
snake-oil medicines, After large sugar plantations were established in
America, ever-increasing amounts of sugar began to reach Europe, The
price of sugar dropped and Europe developed an insatiable sweet tooth,
Entrepreneurs met this need by producing huge quantities of sweets: cakes,
cookies, chocolate, candy, and sweetened beverages such as cocoa, co ee
and tea, The annual sugar intake of the average Englishman rose from near
zero in the early seventeenth century to around eight kilograms in the early
nineteenth century,
However, growing cane and extracting its sugar was a labour-intensive
business, Few people wanted to work long hours in malaria-infested sugar
elds under a tropical sun, Contract labourers would have produced a
commodity too expensive for mass consumption, Sensitive to market forces,
and greedy for pro ts and economic growth, European plantation owners
switched to slaves,
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 nanced by the free market
according to the laws of supply and demand, Private slave-trading
companies sold shares on the Amsterdam, London and Paris stock
exchanges, Middle-class Europeans looking for a good investment bought
these shares, Relying on this money, the companies bought ships, hired
sailors and soldiers, purchased slaves in Africa, and transported them to
America, There they sold the slaves to the plantation owners, using the
proceeds to purchase plantation products such as sugar, cocoa, co ee,
tobacco, cotton and rum, They returned to Europe, sold the sugar and
cotton for a good price, and then sailed to Africa to begin another round,
The shareholders were very pleased with this arrangement, Throughout the
eighteenth century the yield on slave-trade investments was about 6 per
cent a year – they were extremely pro table, as any modern consultant
would be quick to admit,
This is the y in the ointment of free-market capitalism, It cannot ensure
that pro ts are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner, On the
contrary, the craving to increase pro ts and production blinds people to
anything that might stand in the way, When growth becomes a supreme
good, unrestricted by any other ethical considerations, it can easily lead to
catastrophe, Some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed
millions out of burning hatred, Capitalism has killed millions out of cold
indi erence coupled with greed, The Atlantic slave trade did not stem from
racist hatred towards Africans, The individuals who bought the shares, the
brokers who sold them, and the managers of the slave-trade companies
rarely thought about the Africans, Nor did the owners of the sugar
plantations, Many owners lived far from their plantations, and the only
information they demanded were neat ledgers of profits and losses,
It is important to remember that the Atlantic slave trade was not a single
aberration in an otherwise spotless record, The Great Bengal Famine,
discussed in the previous chapter, was caused by a similar dynamic – the
British East India Company cared more about its profits than about the lives
of 10 million Bengalis, VOC’s military campaigns in Indonesia were
nanced by upstanding Dutch burghers who loved their children, gave to
charity, and enjoyed good music and ne art, but had no regard for the
su ering of the inhabitants of Java, Sumatra and Malacca, Countless other
crimes and misdemeanours accompanied the growth of the modern
economy in other parts of the planet,
The nineteenth century brought no improvement in the ethics of capitalism,
The Industrial Revolution that swept through Europe enriched the bankers
and capital-owners, but condemned millions of workers to a life of abject
poverty, In the European colonies things were even worse, In 1876, King
Leopold II of Belgium set up a nongovernmental humanitarian organisation
with the declared aim of exploring Central Africa and ghting the slave
trade along the Congo River, It was also charged with improving conditions
for the inhabitants of the region by building roads, schools and hospitals, In
1885 the European powers agreed to give this organisation control of 2,3
million square kilometres in the Congo basin, This territory, seventy- ve
times the size of Belgium, was henceforth known as the Congo Free State,
Nobody asked the opinion of the territory’s 20–30 million inhabitants,
Within a short time the humanitarian organisation became a business
enterprise whose real aim was growth and pro t, The schools and hospitals
were forgotten, and the Congo basin was instead lled with mines and
plantations, run by mostly Belgian o cials who ruthlessly exploited the
local population, The rubber industry was particularly notorious, Rubber
was fast becoming an industrial staple, and rubber export was the Congo’s
most important source of income, The African villagers who collected the
rubber were required to provide higher and higher quotas, Those who failed
to deliver their quota were punished brutally for their ‘laziness’, Their arms
were chopped o and occasionally entire villages were massacred,
According to the most moderate estimates, between 1885 and 1908 the
pursuit of growth and pro ts cost the lives of 6 million individuals (at least
20 per cent of the Congo’s population), Some estimates reach up to 10
million deaths,
After 1908, and especially after 1945, capitalist greed was somewhat
reined in, not least due to the fear of Communism, Yet inequities are still
rampant, The economic pie of 2014 is far larger than the pie of 1500, but it
is distributed so unevenly that many African peasants and Indonesian
labourers return home after a hard day’s work with less food than did their
ancestors 500 years ago, Much like the Agricultural Revolution, so too the
growth of the modern economy might turn out to be a colossal fraud, The
human species and the global economy may well keep growing, but many
more individuals may live in hunger and want,
Capitalism has two answers to this criticism, First, capitalism has created
a world that nobody but a capitalist is capable of running, The only serious
attempt to manage the world di erently – Communism – was so much
worse in almost every conceivable way that nobody has the stomach to try
again, In 8500 BC one could cry bitter tears over the Agricultural Revolution,
but it was too late to give up agriculture, Similarly, we may not like
capitalism, but we cannot live without it,
The second answer is that we just need more patience – paradise, the
capitalists promise, is right around the corner, True, mistakes have been
made, such as the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the European
working class, But we have learned our lesson, and if we just wait a little
longer and allow the pie to grow a little bigger, everybody will receive a
fatter slice, The division of spoils will never be equitable, but there will be
enough to satisfy every man, woman and child – even in the Congo,
There are, indeed, some positive signs, At least when we use purely
material criteria – such as life expectancy, child mortality and calorie intake
– the standard of living of the average human in 2014 is signi cantly
higher than it was in 1914, despite the exponential growth in the number
of humans,
Yet can the economic pie grow inde nitely? Every pie requires raw
materials and energy, Prophets of doom warn that sooner or later Homo
sapiens will exhaust the raw materials and energy of planet Earth, And
what will happen then?

17 The Wheels of Industry

THE MODERN ECONOMY GROWS THANKS to our trust in the future and to
the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their pro ts in production, Yet that
does not su ce, Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials,
and these are nite, When and if they run out, the entire system will
But the evidence provided by the past is that they are nite only in
theory, Counter-intuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw
materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amounts available
for our exploitation have actually increased, Whenever a shortage of either
has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have owed into
scienti c and technological research, These have invariably produced not
only more e cient ways of exploiting existing resources, but also
completely new types of energy and materials,
Consider the vehicle industry, Over the last 300 years, humankind has
manufactured billions of vehicles – from carts and wheelbarrows, to trains,
cars, supersonic jets and space shuttles, One might have expected that such
a prodigious e ort would have exhausted the energy sources and raw
materials available for vehicle production, and that today we would be
scraping the bottom of the barrel, Yet the opposite is the case, Whereas in
1700 the global vehicle industry relied overwhelmingly on wood and iron,
today it has at its disposal a cornucopia of new-found materials such as
plastic, rubber, aluminium and titanium, none of which our ancestors even
knew about, Whereas in 1700 carts were built mainly by the muscle power
of carpenters and smiths, today the machines in Toyota and Boeing
factories are powered by petroleum combustion engines and nuclear power
stations, A similar revolution has swept almost all other elds of industry,
We call it the Industrial Revolution,
For millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, humans already knew how
to make use of a large variety of energy sources, They burned wood in
order to smelt iron, heat houses and bake cakes, Sailing ships harnessed
wind power to move around, and watermills captured the ow of rivers to
grind grain, Yet all these had clear limits and problems, Trees were not
available everywhere, the wind didn’t always blow when you needed it,
and water power was only useful if you lived near a river,
An even bigger problem was that people didn’t know how to convert one
type of energy into another, They could harness the movement of wind and
water to sail ships and push millstones, but not to heat water or smelt iron,
Conversely, they could not use the heat energy produced by burning wood
to make a millstone move, Humans had only one machine capable of
performing such energy conversion tricks: the body, In the natural process
of metabolism, the bodies of humans and other animals burn organic fuels
known as food and convert the released energy into the movement of
muscles, Men, women and beasts could consume grain and meat, burn up
their carbohydrates and fats, and use the energy to haul a rickshaw or pull
a plough,
Since human and animal bodies were the only energy conversion device
available, muscle power was the key to almost all human activities, Human
muscles built carts and houses, ox muscles ploughed elds, 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,
Human history was consequently dominated by two main cycles: the
growth cycles of plants and the changing cycles of solar energy (day and
night, summer and winter), When sunlight was scarce and when wheat
elds were still green, humans had little energy, Granaries were empty, tax
collectors were idle, soldiers found it di cult to move and ght, and kings
tended to keep the peace, When the sun shone brightly and the wheat
ripened, peasants harvested the crops and lled the granaries, Tax
collectors hurried to take their share, Soldiers exed their muscles and
sharpened their swords, Kings convened councils and planned their next
campaigns, Everyone was fuelled by solar energy – captured and packaged
in wheat, rice and potatoes,
The Secret in the Kitchen
Throughout these long millennia, day in and day out, people stood face to
face with the most important invention in the history of energy production
– and failed to notice it, It stared them in the eye every time a housewife or
servant put up a kettle to boil water for tea or put a pot full of potatoes on
the stove, The minute the water boiled, the lid of the kettle or the pot
jumped, Heat was being converted to movement, But jumping pot lids were
an annoyance, especially if you forgot the pot on the stove and the water
boiled over, Nobody saw their real potential,
A partial breakthrough in converting heat into movement followed the
invention of gunpowder in ninth-century China, At rst, the idea of using
gunpowder to propel projectiles was so counter-intuitive that for centuries
gunpowder was used primarily to produce re bombs, But eventually –
perhaps after some bomb expert ground gunpowder in a mortar only to
have the pestle shoot out with force – guns made their appearance, About
600 years passed between the invention of gunpowder and the
development of effective artillery,
Even then, the idea of converting heat into motion remained so counter-
intuitive that another three centuries went by before people invented the
next machine that used heat to move things around, The new technology
was born in British coal mines, As the British population swelled, forests
were cut down to fuel the growing economy and make way for houses and
elds, Britain su ered from an increasing shortage of rewood, It began
burning coal as a substitute, Many coal seams were located in waterlogged
areas, and ooding prevented miners from accessing the lower strata of the
mines, It was a problem looking for a solution, Around 1700, a strange
noise began reverberating around British mineshafts, That noise –
harbinger of the Industrial Revolution – was subtle at rst, but it grew
louder and louder with each passing decade until it enveloped the entire
world in a deafening cacophony, It emanated from a steam engine,
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! In eighteenth-
century British coal mines, the piston was connected to a pump that
extracted water from the bottom of the mineshafts, The earliest engines
were incredibly ine cient, You needed to burn a huge load of coal in order
to pump out even a tiny amount of water, But in the mines coal was
plentiful and close at hand, so nobody cared,
In the decades that followed, British entrepreneurs improved the
e ciency of the steam engine, brought it out of the mineshafts, and
connected it to looms and gins, This revolutionised textile production,
making it possible to produce ever-larger quantities of cheap textiles, In the
blink of an eye, Britain became the workshop of the world, But even more
importantly, getting the steam engine out of the mines broke an important
psychological barrier, If you could burn coal in order to move textile looms,
why not use the same method to move other things, such as vehicles?
In 1825, a British engineer connected a steam engine to a train of mine
wagons full of coal, The engine drew the wagons along an iron rail some
twenty kilometres long from the mine to the nearest harbour, This was the
rst steam-powered locomotive in history, Clearly, if steam could be used to
transport coal, why not other goods? And why not even people? On 15
September 1830, the rst commercial railway line was opened, connecting
Liverpool with Manchester, The trains moved under the same steam power
that had previously pumped water and moved textile looms, A mere twenty
years later, Britain had tens of thousands of kilometres of railway tracks,
Henceforth, people became obsessed with the idea that machines and
engines could be used to convert one type of energy into another, Any type
of energy, anywhere in the world, might be harnessed to whatever need we
had, if we could just invent the right machine, For example, when
physicists realised that an immense amount of energy is stored within
atoms, they immediately started thinking about how this energy could be
released and used to make electricity, power submarines and annihilate
cities, 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 = mc 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 ght a war over land, gold, pepper or slaves,
but not oil,
The career of electricity was more startling yet, Two centuries ago
electricity played no role in the economy, and was used at most for arcane
scienti c experiments and cheap magic tricks, A series of inventions turned
it into our universal genie in a lamp, We ick our ngers and it prints
books and sews clothes, keeps our vegetables fresh and our ice cream
frozen, cooks our dinners and executes our criminals, registers our thoughts
and records our smiles, lights up our nights and entertains us with countless
television shows, Few of us understand how electricity does all these things,
but even fewer can imagine life without it,
An Ocean of Energy
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,
Why are so many people afraid that we are running out of energy? Why
do they warn of disaster if we exhaust all available fossil fuels? Clearly the
world does not lack energy, All we lack is the knowledge necessary to
harness and convert it to our needs, The amount of energy stored in all the
fossil fuel on earth is negligible compared to the amount that the sun
dispenses every day, free of charge, Only a tiny proportion of the sun’s
energy reaches us, yet it amounts to 3,766,800 exajoules of energy each
year (a joule is a unit of energy in the metric system, about the amount you
expend to lift a small apple one yard straight up; an exajoule is a billion
billion joules – that’s a lot of apples), All the world’s plants capture only
about 3,000 of those solar exajoules through the process of photosynthesis,
All human activities and industries put together consume about 500
exajoules annually, equivalent to the amount of energy earth receives from
the sun in just ninety minutes, And that’s only solar energy, In addition,
we are surrounded by other enormous sources of energy, such as nuclear
energy and gravitational energy, the latter most evident in the power of
the ocean tides caused by the moon’s pull on the earth,
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the human energy market was almost
completely dependent on plants, People lived alongside a green energy
reservoir carrying 3,000 exajoules a year, and tried to pump as much of its
energy as they could, Yet there was a clear limit to how much they could
extract, During the Industrial Revolution, we came to realise that we are
actually living alongside an enormous ocean of energy, one holding billions
upon billions of exajoules of potential power, All we need to do is invent
better pumps,

Learning how to harness and convert energy e ectively solved the other
problem that slows economic growth – the scarcity of raw materials, As
humans worked out how to harness large quantities of cheap energy, they
could begin exploiting previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials (for
example, mining iron in the Siberian wastelands), or transporting raw
materials from ever more distant locations (for example, supplying a British
textile mill with Australian wool), Simultaneously, scienti c breakthroughs
enabled humankind to invent completely new raw materials, such as
plastic, and discover previously unknown natural materials, such as silicon
and aluminium,
Chemists discovered aluminium only in the 1820s, but separating the
metal from its ore was extremely di cult 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, 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,
Two thousand years ago, when people in the Mediterranean basin
su ered from dry skin they smeared olive oil on their hands, Today, they
open a tube of hand cream, Below is the list of ingredients of a simple
modern hand cream that I bought at a local store:
deionised water, stearic acid, glycerin, caprylic/caprictiglyceride, propylene glycol, isopropyl myristate,
panax ginseng root extract, fragrance, cetyl alcohol, triethanolamine, dimeticone, arctostaphylos uva-ursi
leaf extract, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, imidazolidinyl urea, methyl paraben, camphor, propyl
paraben, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, hydroxyl-citronellal, linalool, butylphenyl
methylproplonal, citronnellol, limonene, geraniol,
Almost all of these ingredients were invented or discovered in the last two
During World War One, Germany was placed under blockade and
su ered severe shortages of raw materials, in particular saltpetre, an
essential ingredient in gunpowder and other explosives, The most
important saltpetre deposits were in Chile and India; there were none at all
in Germany, True, saltpetre could be replaced by ammonia, but that was
expensive to produce as well, Luckily for the Germans, one of their fellow
citizens, a Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber, had discovered in 1908 a
process for producing ammonia literally out of thin air, When war broke
out, the Germans used Haber’s discovery to commence industrial production
of explosives using air as a raw material, Some scholars believe that if it
hadn’t been for Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to
surrender long before November 1918, The discovery won Haber (who
during the war also pioneered the use of poison gas in battle) a Nobel Prize
in 1918, In chemistry, not in peace,
Life on the Conveyor Belt
The Industrial Revolution yielded an unprecedented combination of cheap
and abundant energy and cheap and abundant raw materials, The result
was an explosion in human productivity, The explosion was felt rst and
foremost in agriculture, Usually, when we think of the Industrial
Revolution, we think of an urban landscape of smoking chimneys, or the
plight of exploited coal miners sweating in the bowels of the earth, Yet the
Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution,
During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the
mainstay of agriculture, Machines such as tractors began to undertake tasks
that were previously performed by muscle power, or not performed at all,
Fields and animals became vastly more productive thanks to arti cial
fertilisers, industrial insecticides and an entire arsenal of hormones and
medications, Refrigerators, ships and aeroplanes have made it possible to
store produce for months, and transport it quickly and cheaply to the other
side of the world, Europeans began to dine on fresh Argentinian beef and
Japanese sushi,
Even plants and animals were mechanised, 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 pro ts 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 oor
space of about twenty- ve by twenty-two centimetres, The hens receive
su cient 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
con ne 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 o spring 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,
40, Chicks on a conveyor belt in a commercial hatchery, Male chicks and imperfect female chicks
are picked off the conveyor belt and are then asphyxiated in gas chambers, dropped into
automatic shredders, or simply thrown into the rubbish, where they are crushed to death,
Hundreds of millions of chicks die each year in such hatcheries,
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 indi erence, 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, Those who do think
often argue that such animals are really little di erent from machines,
devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of su ering, Ironically, the
same scienti c disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg
machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals
and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up, They not only
feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress,
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,
What happens if farmers now take a young calf, separate her from her
mother, put her in a closed cage, give her food, water and inoculations
against diseases, and then, when she is old enough, inseminate her with
bull sperm? From an objective perspective, this calf no longer needs either
maternal bonding or playmates in order to survive and reproduce, But from
a subjective perspective, the calf still feels a very strong urge to bond with
her mother and to play with other calves, If these urges are not ful lled,
the calf su ers greatly, This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology:
a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no
longer really necessary for survival and reproduction, The tragedy of
industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of
animals, while neglecting their subjective needs,
The truth of this theory has been known at least since the 1950s, when
the American psychologist Harry Harlow studied the development of
monkeys, Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers several
hours after birth, The monkeys were isolated inside cages, and then raised
by dummy mothers, In each cage, Harlow placed two dummy mothers, One
was made of metal wires, and was tted with a milk bottle from which the
infant monkey could suck, The other was made of wood covered with cloth,
which made it resemble a real monkey mother, but it provided the infant
monkey with no material sustenance whatsoever, It was assumed that the
infants would cling to the nourishing metal mother rather than to the
barren cloth one,
To Harlow’s surprise, the infant monkeys showed a marked preference
for the cloth mother, spending most of their time with her, When the two
mothers were placed in close proximity, the infants held on to the cloth
mother even while they reached over to suck milk from the metal mother,
Harlow suspected that perhaps the infants did so because they were cold, So
he tted an electric bulb inside the wire mother, which now radiated heat,
Most of the monkeys, except for the very young ones, continued to prefer
the cloth mother,
41, One of Harlow’s orphaned monkeys clings to the cloth mother even while sucking milk from
the metal mother,
Follow-up research showed that Harlow’s orphaned monkeys grew up to
be emotionally disturbed even though they had received all the
nourishment they required, They never tted into monkey society, had
di culties communicating with other monkeys, and su ered from high
levels of anxiety and aggression, The conclusion was inescapable: monkeys
must have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material
requirements, and if these are not ful lled, they will su er greatly,
Harlow’s infant monkeys preferred to spend their time in the hands of the
barren cloth mother because they were looking for an emotional bond and
not only for milk, In the following decades, numerous studies showed that
this conclusion applies not only to monkeys, but to other mammals, as well
as birds, At present, millions of farm animals are subjected to the same
conditions as Harlow’s monkeys, as farmers routinely separate calves, kids
and other youngsters from their mothers, to be raised in isolation,
Altogether, tens of billions of farm animals live today as part of a
mechanised assembly line, and about 50 billion of them are slaughtered
annually, These industrial livestock methods have led to a sharp increase in
agricultural production and in human food reserves, Together with the
mechanisation of plant cultivation, industrial animal husbandry is the basis
for the entire modern socio-economic order, Before the industrialisation of
agriculture, most of the food produced in elds and farms was ‘wasted’
feeding peasants and farmyard animals, Only a small percentage was
available to feed artisans, teachers, priests and bureaucrats, Consequently,
in almost all societies peasants comprised more than 90 per cent of the
population, Following the industrialisation of agriculture, a shrinking
number of farmers was enough to feed a growing number of clerks and
factory hands, Today in the United States, only 2 per cent of the population
makes a living from agriculture, yet this 2 per cent produces enough not
only to feed the entire US population, but also to export surpluses to the
rest of the world, Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban
Industrial Revolution could never have taken place – there would not have
been enough hands and brains to staff factories and offices,
As those factories and o ces absorbed the billions of hands and brains
that were released from eldwork, they began pouring out an
unprecedented avalanche of products, Humans now produce far more steel,
manufacture much more clothing, and build many more structures than
ever before, In addition, they produce a mind-boggling array of previously
unimaginable goods, such as light bulbs, mobile phones, cameras and
dishwashers, For the rst time in human history, supply began to outstrip
demand, And an entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all
this stuff?
The Age of Shopping
The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is
to survive, like a shark that must swim or su ocate, 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 stu industry produces, a new
kind of ethic appeared: consumerism,
Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity,
Frugality was thus their watchword, The austere ethics of the Puritans and
Spartans are but two famous examples, A good person avoided luxuries,
never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a
new pair, Only kings and nobles allowed themselves to renounce such
values publicly and conspicuously flaunt their riches,
Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as
a positive thing, It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves,
and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption, Frugality is a disease
to be cured, You don’t have to look far to see the consumer ethic in action –
just read the back of a cereal box, Here’s a quote from a box of one of my
favourite breakfast cereals, produced by an Israeli firm, Telma:
Sometimes you need a treat, Sometimes you need a little extra energy, There are times to watch your
weight and times when you’ve just got to have something … right now! Telma o ers a variety of tasty
cereals just for you – treats without remorse,
The same package sports an ad for another brand of cereal called Health
Health Treats o ers lots of grains, fruits and nuts for an experience that combines taste, pleasure and
health, For an enjoyable treat in the middle of the day, suitable for a healthy lifestyle, A real treat with the
wonderful taste of more [emphasis in the original],
Throughout most of history, people were likely to be have been repelled
rather than attracted by such a text, They would have branded it as sel sh,
decadent and morally corrupt, Consumerism has worked very hard, with
the help of popular psychology (‘Just do it!’) to convince people that
indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression,
It has succeeded, We are all good consumers, We buy countless products
that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed,
Manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new and
unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products that we must
purchase in order to stay ‘in’, Shopping has become a favourite pastime,
and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships
between family members, spouses and friends, 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
The owering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the
food market, Traditional agricultural societies lived in the awful shade of
starvation, In the a uent world of today one of the leading health
problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stu themselves with
hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic
salads and fruit smoothies), Each year the US population spends more
money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in
the rest of the world, Obesity is a double victory for consumerism, Instead
of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too
much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice
How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the
business person, according to which pro ts should not be wasted, and
should instead be reinvested in production? It’s simple, As in previous eras,
there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses, In
medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant
luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny, Today, the
tables have turned, The rich take great care managing their assets and
investments, while the less well heeled go into debt buying cars and
televisions they don’t really need,
The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a
merger of two commandments, The supreme commandment of the rich is
‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect, Most
previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal, They
were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and
tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their sel sh
interests, This was too tough for most, 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 rst religion in history whose followers actually do what
they are asked to do, How, though, do we know that we’ll really get
paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television,

18 A Permanent Revolution

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION OPENED up new ways to convert energy
and to produce goods, largely liberating humankind from its dependence on
the surrounding ecosystem, Humans cut down forests, drained swamps,
dammed rivers, ooded plains, laid down tens of thousands of kilometres of
railroad tracks, and built skyscraping metropolises, As the world was
moulded to t the needs of Homo sapiens, habitats were destroyed and
species went extinct, Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete
and plastic shopping centre,
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, Our children’s books, our iconography and our TV screens are
still full of gira es, wolves and chimpanzees, but the real world has very
few of them left, There are about 80,000 gira es 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,
Ecological degradation is not the same as resource scarcity, As we saw in
the previous chapter, the resources available to humankind are constantly
increasing, and are likely to continue to do so, That’s why doomsday
prophesies of resource scarcity are probably misplaced, In contrast, the fear
of ecological degradation is only too well founded, The future may see
Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy
sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural
habitat and driving most other species to extinction,
In fact, ecological turmoil might endanger the survival of Homo sapiens
itself, Global warming, rising oceans and widespread pollution could make
the earth less hospitable to our kind, and the future might consequently see
a spiralling race between human power and human-induced natural
disasters, As humans use their power to counter the forces of nature and
subjugate the ecosystem to their needs and whims, they might cause more
and more unanticipated and dangerous side e ects, These are likely to be
controllable only by even more drastic manipulations of the ecosystem,
which would result in even worse chaos,
Many call this process ‘the destruction of nature’, But it’s not really
destruction, it’s change, Nature cannot be destroyed, Sixty- ve million years
ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in so doing opened the way
forward for mammals, Today, humankind is driving many species into
extinction and might even annihilate itself, But other organisms are doing
quite well, Rats and cockroaches, for example, are in their heyday, These
tenacious creatures would probably creep out from beneath the smoking
rubble of a nuclear Armageddon, ready and able to spread their DNA,
Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully
on the decimation wrought by humankind, just as we today can thank that
dinosaur-busting asteroid,
Still, the rumours of our own extinction are premature, Since the
Industrial Revolution, the world’s human population has burgeoned as
never before, In 1700 the world was home to some 700 million humans, In
1800 there were 950 million of us, By 1900 we almost doubled our numbers
to 1,6 billion, And by 2000 that quadrupled to 6 billion, Today there are just
shy of 7 billion Sapiens,
Modern Time
While all these Sapiens have grown increasingly impervious to the whims
of nature, they have become ever more subject to the dictates of modern
industry and government, 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,
Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic
growth, Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor
were they terribly interested in doing so, The world went about its business
without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun
and the growth cycles of plants, There was no uniform working day, and all
routines changed drastically from season to season, People knew where the
sun was, and watched anxiously for portents of the rainy season and
harvest time, but they did not know the hour and hardly cared about the
year, If a lost time traveller popped up in a medieval village and asked a
passerby, ‘What year is this?’ the villager would be as bewildered by the
question as by the strangers ridiculous clothing,
In contrast to medieval peasants and shoemakers, modern industry cares
little about the sun or the season, It sancti es precision and uniformity, For
example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe,
from sole to buckle, If one shoemaker was late for work, it did not stall the
others, However, in a modern footwear-factory assembly line, every worker
mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then
passed on to the next machine, If the worker who operates machine no, 5
has overslept, it stalls all the other machines, In order to prevent such
calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable, Each worker
arrives at work at exactly the same time, Everybody takes their lunch break
together, whether they are hungry or not, Everybody goes home when a
whistle announces that the shift is over – not when they have nished their
42, Charlie Chaplin as a simple worker caught in the wheels of the industrial assembly line, from
the film Modern Times (1936),
The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into
a template for almost all human activities, Shortly after factories imposed
their time frames on human behaviour, schools too adopted precise
timetables, followed by hospitals, government o ces and grocery stores,
Even in places devoid of assembly lines and machines, the timetable
became king, If the shift at the factory ends at 5 p,m,, the local pub had
better be open for business by 5:02,
A crucial link in the spreading timetable system was public
transportation, If workers needed to start their shift by 08:00, the train or
bus had to reach the factory gate by 07:55, A few minutes’ delay would
lower production and perhaps even lead to the lay-o s of the unfortunate
latecomers, In 1784 a carriage service with a published schedule began
operating in Britain, Its timetable speci ed only the hour of departure, not
arrival, Back then, each British city and town had its own local time, which
could di er from London time by up to half an hour, When it was 12:00 in
London, it was perhaps 12:20 in Liverpool and 11:50 in Canterbury, Since
there were no telephones, no radio or television, and no fast trains – who
could know, and who cared?
The rst commercial train service began operating between Liverpool
and Manchester in 1830, Ten years later, the rst train timetable was
issued, The trains were much faster than the old carriages, so the quirky
di erences in local hours became a severe nuisance, In 1847, British train
companies put their heads together and agreed that henceforth all train
timetables would be calibrated to Greenwich Observatory time, rather than
the local times of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow, More and more
institutions followed the lead of the train companies, Finally, in 1880, the
British government took the unprecedented step of legislating that all
timetables in Britain must follow Greenwich, For the rst time in history, a
country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live
according to an arti cial clock rather than local ones or sunrise-to-sunset
This modest beginning spawned a global network of timetables,
synchronised down to the tiniest fractions of a second, When the broadcast
media – rst radio, then television – made their debut, they entered a world
of timetables and became its main enforcers and evangelists, Among the
rst things radio stations broadcast were time signals, beeps that enabled
far- ung settlements and ships at sea to set their clocks, Later, radio
stations adopted the custom of broadcasting the news every hour,
Nowadays, the rst item of every news broadcast – more important even
than the outbreak of war – is the time, During World War Two, BBC News
was broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe, 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 di erences in the tone of the broadcast
ding-dongs, This information o ered invaluable help to the Luftwa e,
When the British Secret Service discovered this, they replaced the live
broadcast with a set recording of the famous clock,
In order to run the timetable network, cheap but precise portable clocks
became ubiquitous, In Assyrian, Sassanid or Inca cities there might have
been at most a few sundials, In European medieval cities there was usually
a single clock – a giant machine mounted on top of a high tower in the
town square, These tower clocks were notoriously inaccurate, but since
there were no other clocks in town to contradict them, it hardly made any
di erence, Today, a single a uent family generally has more timepieces at
home than an entire medieval country, You can tell the time by looking at
your wristwatch, glancing at your Android, peering at the alarm clock by
your bed, gazing at the clock on the kitchen wall, staring at the microwave,
catching a glimpse of the TV or DVD, or taking in the taskbar on your
computer out of the corner of your eye, You need to make a conscious e ort
not to know what time it is,
The typical person consults these clocks several dozen times a day,
because almost everything we do has to be done on time, An alarm clock
wakes us up at 7 a,m,, we heat our frozen bagel for exactly fty seconds in
the microwave, brush our teeth for three minutes until the electric
toothbrush beeps, catch the 07:40 train to work, run on the treadmill at the
gym until the beeper announces that half an hour is over, sit down in front
of the TV at 7 p,m, to watch our favourite show, get interrupted at
preordained moments by commercials that cost $1,000 per second, and
eventually unload all our angst on a therapist who restricts our prattle to
the now standard fifty-minute therapy hour,
The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in
human society, Adapting to industrial time is just one of them, Other
notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry,
the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common
person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy,
Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social
revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the
local community and their replacement by the state and the market, As best
we can tell, from the earliest times, more than a million years ago, humans
lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were kin, The
Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that,
They glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities,
kingdoms and empires, but families and communities remained the basic
building blocks of all human societies, The Industrial Revolution, on the
other hand, managed within little more than two centuries to break these
building blocks into atoms, Most of the traditional functions of families and
communities were handed over to states and markets,
The Collapse of the Family and the Community
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its
course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family

and the local intimate community, Most people worked in the family
business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they
worked in their neighbours’ family businesses, The family was also the
welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction
industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the
radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police,
When a person fell sick, the family took care of her, When a person grew
old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund,
When a person died, the family took care of the orphans, If a person
wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand, If a person wanted to open a
business, the family raised the necessary money, If a person wanted to
marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse, If
con ict arose with a neighbour, the family muscled in, But if a person’s
illness was too grave for the family to manage, or a new business
demanded too large an investment, or the neighbourhood quarrel escalated
to the point of violence, the local community came to the rescue,
The community o ered help on the basis of local traditions and an
economy of favours, which often di ered greatly from the supply and
demand laws of the free market, In an old-fashioned medieval community,
when my neighbour was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his
sheep, without expecting any payment in return, When I was in need, my
neighbour returned the favour, At the same time, the local potentate might
have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a
penny, In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and
barbarians, Village life involved many transactions but few payments,
There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited, You could
buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and
doctors, Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services
were bought in the market, Most human needs were taken care of by the
family and the community,
There were also kingdoms and empires that performed important tasks
such as waging wars, building roads and constructing palaces, For these
purposes kings raised taxes and occasionally enlisted soldiers and labourers,
Yet, with few exceptions, they tended to stay out of the daily a airs of
families and communities, Even if they wanted to intervene, most kings
could do so only with di culty, Traditional agricultural economies had few
surpluses with which to feed crowds of government o cials, policemen,
social workers, teachers and doctors, Consequently, most rulers did not
develop mass welfare systems, health-care systems or educational systems,
They left such matters in the hands of families and communities, Even on
rare occasions when rulers tried to intervene more intensively in the daily
lives of the peasantry (as happened, for example, in the Qin Empire in
China), they did so by converting family heads and community elders into
government agents,
Often enough, transportation and communication di culties made it so
di cult to intervene in the a airs of remote communities that many
kingdoms preferred to cede even the most basic royal prerogatives – such as
taxation and violence – to communities, 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 o cials 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 o cials 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
Many kingdoms and empires were in truth little more than large
protection rackets, The king was the capo di tutti capi who collected
protection money, and in return made sure that neighbouring crime
syndicates and local small fry did not harm those under his protection, He
did little else,
Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal, Families
and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do
modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught
with tension and violence – yet people had little choice, A person who lost
her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead, She had no
job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress, Nobody
would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble, There were no
policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education, In order to
survive, such a person quickly had to nd an alternative family or
community, Boys and girls who ran away from home could expect, at best,
to become servants in some new family, At worst, there was the army or
the brothel,
All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries, The Industrial
Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with
new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the
government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social
workers, At rst the market and the state discovered their path blocked by
traditional families and communities who had little love for outside
intervention, Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the
younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems,
conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat,
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 o er 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, If we want to study a profession, the
government’s schools are there to teach us, If we want to open a business,
the bank loans us money, If we want to build a house, a construction
company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases
subsidised or insured by the state, If violence ares up, the police protect
us, If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us, If we
are debilitated for months, social security steps in, If we need around-the-
clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some
stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind
of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children, If we have the
means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home, The tax
authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the
neighbours’ taxes, The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish
us for the crimes of our cousins,
Not only adult men, but also women and children, are recognised as
individuals, Throughout most of history, women were often seen as the
property of family or community, Modern states, on the other hand, see
women as individuals, enjoying economic and legal rights independently of
their family and community, They may hold their own bank accounts,
decide whom to marry, and even choose to divorce or live on their own,
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 testi es better to the awesome power of
The nuclear family did not disappear completely from the modern
landscape, When states and markets took from the family most of its
economic and political roles, they left it some important emotional
functions, The modern family is still supposed to provide for intimate needs,
which state and market are (so far) incapable of providing, Yet even here
the family is subject to increasing interventions, The market shapes to an
ever-greater degree the way people conduct their romantic and sexual lives,
Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it’s the
market that tailors our romantic and sexual preferences, and then lends a
hand in providing for them – for a fat fee, Previously bride and groom met
in the family living room, and money passed from the hands of one father
to another, Today courting is done at bars and cafés, and money passes
from the hands of lovers to waitresses, Even more money is transferred to
the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dieticians,
cosmeticians and plastic surgeons, who help us arrive at the café looking as
similar as possible to the markets ideal of beauty,
Family and community vs, state and market
The state, too, keeps a sharper eye on family relations, especially
between parents and children, Parents are obliged to send their children to
be educated by the state, Parents who are especially abusive or violent with
their children may be restrained by the state, If need be, the state may even
imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families, Until not
long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from
beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand
as ludicrous and unworkable, In most societies parental authority was
sacred, Respect of and obedience to one’s parents were among the most
hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted,
including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying
o daughters to men more than twice their age, Today, parental authority
is in full retreat, Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their
elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life
of their child, Mum and Dad are about as likely to get o in the Freudian
courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial,
Imagined Communities
Like the nuclear family, the community could not completely disappear
from our world without any emotional replacement, Markets and states
today provide most of the material needs once provided by communities,
but they must also supply tribal bonds,
Markets and states do so by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that
contain millions of strangers, and which are tailored to national and
commercial needs, An imagined community is a community of people who
don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do, Such communities
are not a novel invention, Kingdoms, empires and churches functioned for
millennia as imagined communities, In ancient China, tens of millions of
people saw themselves as members of a single family, with the emperor as
its father, In the Middle Ages, millions of devout Muslims imagined that
they were all brothers and sisters in the great community of Islam, Yet
throughout history, such imagined communities played second ddle to
intimate communities of several dozen people who knew each other well,
The intimate communities ful lled the emotional needs of their members
and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare, In the last two
centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined
communities to fill in the emotional vacuum,
The two most important examples for the rise of such imagined
communities are the nation and the consumer tribe, The nation is the
imagined community of the state, The consumer tribe is the imagined
community of the market, Both are imagined communities because it is
impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation
really to know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past,
No German can intimately know the other 80 million members of the
German nation, or the other 500 million customers inhabiting the European
Common Market (which evolved rst into the European Community and
finally became the European Union),
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 sacri ce 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 Middle East provides ample examples, 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,
Saddam Hussein and Hafez el-Asad tried their best to promote and reinforce
their Anglo-French-manufactured national consciousnesses, but their
bombastic speeches about the allegedly eternal Iraqi and Syrian nations had
a hollow ring,
It goes without saying that nations cannot be created from thin air, Those
who worked hard to construct Iraq or Syria made use of real historical,
geographical and cultural raw materials – some of which are centuries and
millennia old, Saddam Hussein co-opted the heritage of the Abbasid
caliphate and the Babylonian Empire, even calling one of his crack
armoured units the Hammurabi Division, Yet that does not turn the Iraqi
nation into an ancient entity, If I bake a cake from our, oil and sugar, all
of which have been sitting in my pantry for the past two months, it does
not mean that the cake itself is two months old,
In recent decades, national communities have been increasingly eclipsed
by tribes of customers who do not know one another intimately but share
the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the
same consumer tribe – and de ne themselves as such, This sounds very
strange, but we are surrounded by examples, Madonna fans, for example,
constitute a consumer tribe, They de ne themselves largely by shopping,
They buy Madonna concert tickets, CDs, posters, shirts and ring tones, and
thereby de ne who they are, Manchester United fans, vegetarians and
environmentalists are other examples, They, too, are de ned above all by
what they consume, It is the keystone of their identity, A German
vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian than a German
Perpetuum Mobile
The revolutions of the last two centuries have been so swift and radical that
they have changed the most fundamental characteristic of the social order,
Traditionally, the social order was hard and rigid, ‘Order’ implied stability
and continuity, Swift social revolutions were exceptional, and most social
transformations resulted from the accumulation of numerous small steps,
Humans tended to assume that the social structure was in exible and
eternal, Families and communities might struggle to change their place
within the order, but the idea that you could change the fundamental
structure of the order was alien, People tended to reconcile themselves to
the status quo, declaring that ‘this is how it always was, and this is how it
always will be’,
Over the last two centuries, the pace of change became so quick that the
social order acquired a dynamic and malleable nature, It now exists in a
state of permanent ux, When we speak of modern revolutions we tend to
think of 1789 (the French Revolution), 1848 (the liberal revolutions) or
1917 (the Russian Revolution), But the fact is that, these days, every year is
revolutionary, Today, even a thirty-year-old can honestly tell disbelieving
teenagers, ‘When I was young, the world was completely di erent,’ The
Internet, for example, came into wide usage only in the early 1990s, hardly
twenty years ago, Today we cannot imagine the world without it,
Hence any attempt to de ne the characteristics of modern society is akin
to de ning the colour of a chameleon, The only characteristic of which we
can be certain is the incessant change, People have become used to this,
and most of us think about the social order as something exible, which we
can engineer and improve at will, The main promise of premodern rulers
was to safeguard the traditional order or even to go back to some lost
golden age, In the last two centuries, the currency of politics is that it
promises to destroy the old world and build a better one in its place, Not
even the most conservative of political parties vows merely to keep things
as they are, Everybody promises social reform, educational reform,
economic reform – and they often fulfil those promises,
Just as geologists expect that tectonic movements will result in earthquakes
and volcanic eruptions, so might we expect that drastic social movements
will result in bloody outbursts of violence, The political history of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries is often told as a series of deadly wars,
holocausts and revolutions, Like a child in new boots leaping from puddle
to puddle, this view sees history as leapfrogging from one bloodbath to the
next, from World War One to World War Two to the Cold War, from the
Armenian genocide to the Jewish genocide to the Rwandan genocide, from
Robespierre to Lenin to Hitler,
There is truth here, but this all too familiar list of calamities is somewhat
misleading, 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,
It is especially true of the seven decades that have elapsed since the end
of World War Two, During this period humankind has for the rst time
faced the possibility of complete self-annihilation and has experienced a
fair number of actual wars and genocides, Yet these decades were also the
most peaceful era in human history – and by a wide margin, This is
surprising because these very same decades experienced more economic,
social and political change than any previous era, The tectonic plates of
history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent,
The new elastic order seems to be able to contain and even initiate radical
structural changes without collapsing into violent conflict,
Peace in Our Time
Most people don’t appreciate just how peaceful an era we live in, None of
us was alive a thousand years ago, so we easily forget how much more
violent the world used to be, And as wars become more rare they attract
more attention, Many more people think about the wars raging today in
Afghanistan and Iraq than about the peace in which most Brazilians and
Indians live,
Even more importantly, it’s easier to relate to the su ering of individuals
than of entire populations, However, in order to understand macro-
historical processes, we need to examine mass statistics rather than
individual stories, In the year 2000, wars caused the deaths of 310,000
individuals, and violent crime killed another 520,000, Each and every
victim is a world destroyed, a family ruined, friends and relatives scarred
for life, Yet from a macro perspective these 830,000 victims comprised only
1,5 per cent of the 56 million people who died in 2000, That year 1,26
million people died in car accidents (2,25 per cent of total mortality) and
815,000 people committed suicide (1,45 per cent),
The gures for 2002 are even more surprising, Out of 57 million dead,
only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 died of violent crime (a total
of 741,000 victims of human violence), In contrast, 873,000 people
committed suicide, It turns out that in the year following the 9/11 attacks,
despite all the talk of terrorism and war, the average person was more
likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a drug
In most parts of the world, people go to sleep without fearing that in the
middle of the night a neighbouring tribe might surround their village and
slaughter everyone, Well-o British subjects travel daily from Nottingham
to London through Sherwood Forest without fear that a gang of merry
green-clad brigands will ambush them and take their money to give to the
poor (or, more likely, murder them and take the money for themselves),
Students brook no canings from their teachers, children need not fear that
they will be sold into slavery when their parents can’t pay their bills, and
women know that the law forbids their husbands from beating them and
forcing them to stay at home, Increasingly, around the world, these
expectations are fulfilled,
The decline of violence is due largely to the rise of the state, Throughout
history, most violence resulted from local feuds between families and
communities, (Even today, as the above gures indicate, local crime is a far
deadlier threat than international wars,) As we have seen, early farmers,
who knew no political organisations larger than the local community,
su ered rampant violence, As kingdoms and empires became stronger,
they reined in communities and the level of violence decreased, In the
decentralised kingdoms of medieval Europe, about twenty to forty people
were murdered each year for every 100,000 inhabitants, In recent decades,
when states and markets have become all-powerful and communities have
vanished, violence rates have dropped even further, Today the global
average is only nine murders a year per 100,000 people, and most of these
murders take place in weak states such as Somalia and Colombia, In the
centralised states of Europe, the average is one murder a year per 100,000
There are certainly cases where states use their power to kill their own
citizens, and these often loom large in our memories and fears, During the
twentieth century, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of people
were killed by the security forces of their own states, Still, from a macro
perspective, state-run courts and police forces have probably increased the
level of security worldwide, Even in oppressive dictatorships, the average
modern person is far less likely to die at the hands of another person than
in premodern societies, In 1964 a military dictatorship was established in
Brazil, It ruled the country until 1985, During these twenty years, several
thousand Brazilians were murdered by the regime, Thousands more were
imprisoned and tortured, Yet even in the worst years, the average Brazilian
in Rio de Janeiro was far less likely to die at human hands than the
average Waorani, Arawete or Yanomamo, The Waorani, Arawete and
Yanomamo are indigenous people who live in the depths of the Amazon
forest, without army, police or prisons, Anthropological studies have
indicated that between a quarter and a half of their menfolk die sooner or
later in violent conflicts over property, women or prestige,
Imperial Retirement
It is perhaps debatable whether violence within states has decreased or
increased since 1945, What nobody can deny is that international violence
has dropped to an all-time low, Perhaps the most obvious example is the
collapse of the European empires, Throughout history empires have crushed
rebellions with an iron st, and when its day came, a sinking empire used
all its might to save itself, usually collapsing into a bloodbath, Its nal
demise generally led to anarchy and wars of succession, Since 1945 most
empires have opted for peaceful early retirement, Their process of collapse
became relatively swift, calm and orderly,
In 1945 Britain ruled a quarter of the globe, Thirty years later it ruled just
a few small islands, In the intervening decades it retreated from most of its
colonies in a peaceful and orderly manner, Though in some places such as
Malaya and Kenya the British tried to hang on by force of arms, in most
places they accepted the end of empire with a sigh rather than with a
temper tantrum, They focused their e orts not on retaining power, but on
transferring it as smoothly as possible, At least some of the praise usually
heaped on Mahatma Gandhi for his non-violent creed is actually owed to
the British Empire, Despite many years of bitter and often violent struggle,
when the end of the Raj came, the Indians did not have to ght the British
in the streets of Delhi and Calcutta, The empire’s place was taken by a slew
of independent states, most of which have since enjoyed stable borders and
have for the most part lived peacefully alongside their neighbours, True,
tens of thousands of people perished at the hands of the threatened British
Empire, and in several hot spots its retreat led to the eruption of ethnic
con icts that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives (particularly in India),
Yet when compared to the long-term historical average, the British
withdrawal was an exemplar of peace and order, The French Empire was
more stubborn, Its collapse involved bloody rearguard actions in Vietnam
and Algeria that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, Yet the French, too,
retreated from the rest of their dominions quickly and peacefully, leaving
behind orderly states rather than a chaotic free-for-all,
The Soviet collapse in 1989 was even more peaceful, despite the eruption
of ethnic con ict in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Never
before has such a mighty empire disappeared so swiftly and so quietly, The
Soviet Empire of 1989 had su ered no military defeat except in
Afghanistan, no external invasions, no rebellions, nor even large-scale
Martin Luther King-style campaigns of civil disobedience, The Soviets still
had millions of soldiers, tens of thousands of tanks and aeroplanes, and
enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the whole of humankind several times
over, The Red Army and the other Warsaw Pact armies remained loyal, Had
the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, given the order, the Red Army
would have opened fire on the subjugated masses,
Yet the Soviet elite, and the Communist regimes through most of eastern
Europe (Romania and Serbia were the exceptions), chose not to use even a
tiny fraction of this military power, When its members realised that
Communism was bankrupt, they renounced force, admitted their failure,
packed their suitcases and went home, Gorbachev and his colleagues gave
up without a struggle not only the Soviet conquests of World War Two, but
also the much older tsarist conquests in the Baltic, the Ukraine, the
Caucasus and Central Asia, It is chilling to contemplate what might have
happened if Gorbachev had behaved like the Serbian leadership – or like
the French in Algeria,
Pax Atomica
The independent states that came after these empires were remarkably
uninterested in war, With very few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer
invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up, Such
conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time
immemorial, It was how most great empires were established, and how
most rulers and populations expected things to stay, But campaigns of
conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take
place today anywhere in the world, Since 1945, no independent country
recognised by the UN has been conquered and wiped o the map, Limited
international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in
wars, but wars are no longer the norm,
Many people believe that the disappearance of international war is
unique to the rich democracies of western Europe, In fact, peace reached
Europe after it prevailed in other parts of the world, Thus the last serious
international wars between South American countries were the Peru-
Ecuador War of 1941 and the Bolivia-Paraguay War of 1932–5, And before
that there hadn’t been a serious war between South American countries
since 1879–84, with Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other,
We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful, Yet only
once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them
mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in
1990), There have been quite a few border clashes (e,g, Syria vs Jordan in
1970), many armed interventions of one in the a airs of another (e,g, Syria
in Lebanon), numerous civil wars (Algeria, Yemen, Libya) and an
abundance of coups and revolts, Yet there have been no full-scale
international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War, Even
widening the scope to include the entire Muslim world adds only one more
example, the Iran-Iraq War, There was no Turkey—Iran War, Pakistan-
Afghanistan War, or Indonesia-Malaysia War,
In Africa things are far less rosy, But even there, most con icts are civil
wars and coups, Since African states won their independence in the 1960s
and 1970s, very few countries have invaded one another in the hope of
There have been periods of relative calm before, as, for example, in
Europe between 1871 and 1914, and they always ended badly, But this time
it is di erent, For real peace is not the mere absence of war, Real peace is
the implausibility of war, There has never been real peace in the world,
Between 1871 and 1914, a European war remained a plausible eventuality,
and the expectation of war dominated the thinking of armies, politicians
and ordinary citizens alike, This foreboding was true for all other peaceful
periods in history, An iron law of international politics decreed, ‘For every
two nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go
to war against one another within one year,’ This law of the jungle was in
force in late nineteenth-century Europe, in medieval Europe, in ancient
China and in classical Greece, If Sparta and Athens were at peace in 450 BC,
there was a plausible scenario that they would be at war by 449 BC,
Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle, There is at last real
peace, and not just absence of war, For most polities, there is no plausible
scenario leading to full-scale con ict within one year, What could lead to
war between Germany and France next year? Or between China and
Japan? Or between Brazil and Argentina? Some minor border clash might
occur, but only a truly apocalyptic scenario could result in an old-fashioned
full-scale war between Brazil and Argentina in 2014, with Argentinian
armoured divisions sweeping to the gates of Rio, and Brazilian carpet-
bombers pulverising the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires, Such wars might
still erupt between several pairs of states, e,g, between Israel and Syria,
Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the USA and Iran, but these are only the exceptions
that prove the rule,
This situation might of course change in the future and, with hindsight,
the world of today might seem incredibly naïve, Yet from a historical
perspective, our very naïvety is fascinating, Never before has peace been so
prevalent that people could not even imagine war,
Scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more books
and articles than you would ever want to read yourself, and they have
identi ed several contributing factors, First and foremost, the price of war
has gone up dramatically, The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes
should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of
the atomic bomb, Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers
into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by
force of arms,
Secondly, while the price of war soared, its pro ts declined, For most of
history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy
territories, Most wealth consisted of elds, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was
easy to loot it or occupy it, Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital,
technical know-how and complex socio-economic structures such as banks,
Consequently it is di cult to carry it o or incorporate it into one’s
Consider California, Its wealth was initially built on gold mines, But
today it is built on silicon and celluloid – Silicon Valley and the celluloid
hills of Hollywood, What would happen if the Chinese were to mount an
armed invasion of California, land a million soldiers on the beaches of San
Francisco and storm inland? They would gain little, There are no silicon
mines in Silicon Valley, The wealth resides in the minds of Google engineers
and Hollywood script doctors, directors and special-e ects wizards, who
would be on the first plane to Bangalore or Mumbai long before the Chinese
tanks rolled into Sunset Boulevard, It is not coincidental that the few full-
scale international wars that still take place in the world, such as the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait, occur in places were wealth is old-fashioned material
wealth, The Kuwaiti sheikhs could ee abroad, but the oil elds stayed put
and were occupied,
43, and 44, Gold miners in California during the Gold Rush, and Facebook’s headquarters near
San Francisco, In 1849 California built its fortunes on gold, Today, California builds its fortunes
on silicon, But whereas in 1849 the gold actually lay there in the Californian soil, the real
treasures of Silicon Valley are locked inside the heads of high-tech employees,
While war became less pro table, peace became more lucrative than
ever, In traditional agricultural economies long-distance trade and foreign
investment were sideshows, Consequently, peace brought little pro t, aside
from avoiding the costs of war, If, say, in 1400 England and France were at
peace, the French did not have to pay heavy war taxes and to su er
destructive English invasions, but otherwise it did not bene t their wallets,
In modern capitalist economies, foreign trade and investments have become
all-important, Peace therefore brings unique dividends, As long as China
and the USA are at peace, the Chinese can prosper by selling products to
the USA, trading in Wall Street and receiving US investments,
Last but not least, a tectonic shift has taken place in global political
culture, Many elites in history – Hun chieftains, Viking noblemen and Aztec
priests, for example – viewed war as a positive good, Others viewed it as
evil, but an inevitable one, which we had better turn to our own advantage,
Ours is the rst time in history that the world is dominated by a peace-
loving elite – politicians, business people, intellectuals and artists who
genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable, (There were paci sts in the
past, such as the early Christians, but in the rare cases that they gained
power, they tended to forget about their requirement to ‘turn the other
There is a positive feedback loop between all these four factors, The
threat of nuclear holocaust fosters paci sm; when paci sm spreads, war
recedes and trade ourishes; and trade increases both the pro ts of peace
and the costs of war, Over time, this feedback loop creates another obstacle
to war, which may ultimately prove the most important of all, The
tightening web of international connections erodes the independence of
most countries, lessening the chance that any one of them might single-
handedly let slip the dogs of war, Most countries no longer engage in full-
scale war for the simple reason that they are no longer independent,
Though citizens in Israel, Italy, Mexico or Thailand may harbour illusions of
independence, the fact is that their governments cannot conduct
independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable
of initiating and conducting full-scale war on their own, As explained in
Chapter 11, we are witnessing the formation of a global empire, Like
previous empires, this one, too, enforces peace within its borders, And since
its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire e ectively enforces
world peace,
So, is the modern era one of mindless slaughter, war and oppression,
typi ed by the trenches of World War One, the nuclear mushroom cloud
over Hiroshima and the gory manias of Hitler and Stalin? Or is it an era of
peace, epitomised by the trenches never dug in South America, the
mushroom clouds that never appeared over Moscow and New York, and the
serene visages of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
The answer is a matter of timing, It is sobering to realise how often our
view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years, If this chapter
had been written in 1945 or 1962, it would probably have been much more
glum, Since it was written in 2014, it takes a relatively buoyant approach
to modern history,
To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that
we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously
between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other, History has
still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might
yet send us rolling in either direction,

  • An ‘intimate community’ is a group of people who know one another well and depend on each other for

19 And They Lived Happily Ever After

THE LAST 500 YEARS HAVE WITNESSED A breathtaking series of
revolutions, The earth has been united into a single ecological and
historical sphere, The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind
today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stu of fairy tales,
Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman
powers and practically limitless energy, The social order has been
completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology,
But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last
ve centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of
inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss?
Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the
Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late
Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon,
happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her
handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of
developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and
Historians seldom ask such questions, They do not ask whether the
citizens of Uruk and Babylon were happier than their foraging ancestors,
whether the rise of Islam made Egyptians more pleased with their lives, or
how the collapse of the European empires in Africa have in uenced the
happiness of countless millions, Yet these are the most important questions
one can ask of history, Most current ideologies and political programmes
are based on rather imsy ideas concerning the real source of human
happiness, Nationalists believe that political self-determination is essential
for our happiness, Communists postulate that everyone would be blissful
under the dictatorship of the proletariat, Capitalists maintain that only the
free market can ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number, by
creating economic growth and material abundance and by teaching people
to be self-reliant and enterprising,
What would happen if serious research were to disprove these
hypotheses? If economic growth and self-reliance do not make people
happier, what’s the bene t of Capitalism? What if it turns out that the
subjects of large empires are generally happier than the citizens of
independent states and that, for example, Algerians were happier under
French rule than under their own? What would that say about the process
of decolonisation and the value of national self-determination?
These are all hypothetical possibilities, because so far historians have
avoided raising these questions – not to mention answering them, They
have researched the history of just about everything politics, society,
economics, gender, diseases, sexuality, food, clothing – yet they have
seldom stopped to ask how these influence human happiness,
Though few have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost
every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it, In one
common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history, Since
humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and ful l
aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than our medieval ancestors,
and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers,
But this progressive account is unconvincing, As we have seen, new
aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life,
When humans learned to farm in the Agricultural Revolution, their
collective power to shape their environment increased, but the lot of many
individual humans grew harsher, Peasants had to work harder than
foragers to eke out less varied and nutritious food, and they were far more
exposed to disease and exploitation, Similarly, the spread of European
empires greatly increased the collective power of humankind, by circulating
ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce, Yet
this was hardly good news for millions of Africans, Native Americans and
Aboriginal Australians, Given the proven human propensity for misusing
power, it seems naïve to believe that the more clout people have, the
happier they will be,
Some challengers of this view take a diametrically opposed position,
They argue for a reverse correlation between human capabilities and
happiness, Power corrupts, they say, and as humankind gained more and
more power, it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our real needs,
Evolution moulded our minds and bodies to the life of hunter-gatherers, The
transition rst to agriculture and then to industry has condemned us to
living unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent
inclinations and instincts, and therefore cannot satisfy our deepest
yearnings, Nothing in the comfortable lives of the urban middle class can
approach the wild excitement and sheer joy experienced by a forager band
on a successful mammoth hunt, Every new invention just puts another mile
between us and the Garden of Eden,
Yet this romantic insistence on seeing a dark shadow behind each
invention is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress,
Perhaps we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all
bad, For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has
decreased child mortality from 33 per cent to less than 5 per cent, Can
anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only
of those children who would otherwise have died, but also of their families
and friends?
A more nuanced position takes the middle road, Until the Scienti c
Revolution there was no clear correlation between power and happiness,
Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-
gatherer forebears, But in the last few centuries humans have learned to use
their capacities more wisely, The triumphs of modern medicine are just one
example, Other unprecedented achievements include the steep drop in
violence, the virtual disappearance of international wars, and the near
elimination of large-scale famines,
Yet this, too, is an oversimpli cation, Firstly, it bases its optimistic
assessment on a very small sample of years, The majority of humans began
to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850, and the drastic
drop in child mortality is a twentieth-century phenomenon, Mass famines
continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the twentieth
century, During Communist Chinas Great Leap Forward of 1958–61,
somewhere between 10 and 50 million human beings starved to death,
International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new
threat of nuclear annihilation, Hence, though the last few decades have
been an unprecedented golden age for humanity, it is too early to know
whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history or an
ephemeral eddy of good fortune, When judging modernity, it is all too
tempting to take the viewpoint of a twenty- rst-century middle-class
Westerner, We must not forget the viewpoints of a nineteenth-century
Welsh coal miner, Chinese opium addict or Tasmanian Aborigine, Truganini
is no less important than Homer Simpson,
Secondly, even the brief golden age of the last half-century may turn out
to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe, Over the last few decades, we
have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in myriad new
ways, with what seem likely to be dire consequences, A lot of evidence
indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an
orgy of reckless consumption,
Finally, we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented
accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate
of all other animals, Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us
from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory
monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens, Over the last two
centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of
industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of
planet Earth, If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are
claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest
crime in history, When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count
the happiness only of the upper classes, of Europeans or of men, Perhaps it
is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans,
Counting Happiness
So far we have discussed happiness as if it were largely a product of
material factors, such as health, diet and wealth, If people are richer and
healthier, then they must also be happier, But is that really so obvious?
Philosophers, priests and poets have brooded over the nature of happiness
for millennia, and many have concluded that social, ethical and spiritual
factors have as great an impact on our happiness as material conditions,
Perhaps people in modern a uent societies su er greatly from alienation
and meaninglessness despite their prosperity, And perhaps our less well-to-
do ancestors found much contentment in community, religion and a bond
with nature,
In recent decades, psychologists and biologists have taken up the
challenge of studying scienti cally what really makes people happy, Is it
money, family, genetics or perhaps virtue? The first step is to define what is
to be measured, The generally accepted de nition of happiness is
‘subjective well-being’, Happiness, according to this view, is something I
feel inside myself, a sense of either immediate pleasure or long-term
contentment with the way my life is going, If it’s something felt inside, how
can it be measured from outside? Presumably, we can do so by asking
people to tell us how they feel, So psychologists or biologists who want to
assess how happy people feel give them questionnaires to ll out and tally
the results,
A typical subjective well-being questionnaire asks interviewees to grade
on a scale of zero to ten their agreement with statements such as ‘I feel
pleased with the way I am’, ‘I feel that life is very rewarding’, ‘I am
optimistic about the future’ and ‘Life is good’, The researcher then adds up
all the answers and calculates the interviewee’s general level of subjective
Such questionnaires are used in order to correlate happiness with various
objective factors, One study might compare a thousand people who earn
$100,000 a year with a thousand people who earn $50,000, If the study
discovers that the rst group has an average subjective well-being level of
8,7, while the latter has an average of only 7,3, the researcher may
reasonably conclude that there is a positive correlation between wealth and
subjective well-being, To put it in simple English, money brings happiness,
The same method can be used to examine whether people living in
democracies are happier than people living in dictatorships, and whether
married people are happier than singles, divorcees or widowers,
This provides a grounding for historians, who can examine wealth,
political freedom and divorce rates in the past, If people are happier in
democracies and married people are happier than divorcees, a historian has
a basis for arguing that the democratisation process of the last few decades
contributed to the happiness of humankind, whereas the growing rates of
divorce indicate an opposite trend,
This way of thinking is not awless, but before pointing out some of the
holes, it is worth considering the findings,
One interesting conclusion is that money does indeed bring happiness,
But only up to a point, and beyond that point it has little signi cance, For
people stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder, more money means
greater happiness, If you are an American single mother earning $12,000 a
year cleaning houses and you suddenly win $500,000 in the lottery, you
will probably experience a signi cant and long-term surge in your
subjective well-being, You’ll be able to feed and clothe your children
without sinking further into debt, However, if you’re a top executive
earning $250,000 a year and you win $1 million in the lottery, or your
company board suddenly decides to double your salary, your surge is likely
to last only a few weeks, According to the empirical ndings, it’s almost
certainly not going to make a big di erence to the way you feel over the
long run, You’ll buy a snazzier car, move into a palatial home, get used to
drinking Chateau Pétrus instead of California Cabernet, but it’ll soon all
seem routine and unexceptional,
Another interesting nding is that illness decreases happiness in the short
term, but is a source of long-term distress only if a person’s condition is
constantly deteriorating or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating
pain, People who are diagnosed with chronic illness such as diabetes are
usually depressed for a while, but if the illness does not get worse they
adjust to their new condition and rate their happiness as highly as healthy
people do, Imagine that Lucy and Luke are middle-class twins, who agree to
take part in a subjective well-being study, On the way back from the
psychology laboratory, Lucy’s car is hit by a bus, leaving Lucy with a
number of broken bones and a permanently lame leg, Just as the rescue
crew is cutting her out of the wreckage, the phone rings and Luke shouts
that he has won the lottery’s $10,000,000 jackpot, Two years later she’ll be
limping and he’ll be a lot richer, but when the psychologist comes around
for a follow-up study, they are both likely to give the same answers they
did on the morning of that fateful day,
Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than
money and health, People with strong families who live in tight-knit and
supportive communities are signi cantly happier than people whose
families are dysfunctional and who have never found (or never sought) a
community to be part of, Marriage is particularly important, Repeated
studies have found that there is a very close correlation between good
marriages and high subjective well-being, and between bad marriages and
misery, This holds true irrespective of economic or even physical conditions,
An impecunious invalid surrounded by a loving spouse, a devoted family
and a warm community may well feel better than an alienated billionaire,
provided that the invalid’s poverty is not too severe and that his illness is
not degenerative or painful,
This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material
conditions over the last two centuries was o set by the collapse of the
family and the community, If so, the average person might well be no
happier today than in 1800, Even the freedom we value so highly may be
working against us, We can choose our spouses, friends and neighbours, but
they can choose to leave us, With the individual wielding unprecedented
power to decide her own path in life, we nd it ever harder to make
commitments, We thus live in an increasingly lonely world of unravelling
communities and families,
But the most important nding of all is that happiness does not really
depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community,
Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and
subjective expectations, If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart,
you are content, If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-
hand Fiat you feel deprived, This is why winning the lottery has, over time,
the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident, When
things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic
improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatis ed, When things
deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness
might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before,
You might say that we didn’t need a bunch of psychologists and their
questionnaires to discover this, Prophets, poets and philosophers realised
thousands of years ago that being satis ed with what you already have is
far more important than getting more of what you want, Still, it’s nice
when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches
the same conclusions the ancients did,
The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications
for understanding the history of happiness, If happiness depended only on
objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would
have been relatively easy to investigate its history, The nding that it
depends on subjective expectations makes the task of historians far harder,
We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our
disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of
inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we
may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did,
It’s hard to accept this line of thinking, The problem is a fallacy of
reasoning embedded deep in our psyches, When we try to guess or imagine
how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we
inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes, But that won’t work because it
pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others, In modern
a uent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes
every day, Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end,
and hardly ever changed their clothes, The very thought of living like that,
lthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us, Yet medieval peasants
seem not to have minded, They were used to the feel and smell of a long-
unlaundered shirt, It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t
get it – they had what they wanted, So, at least as far as clothing goes, they
were content,
That’s not so surprising, when you think of it, After all, our chimpanzee
cousins seldom wash and never change their clothes, Nor are we disgusted
by the fact that our pet dogs and cats don’t shower or change their coats
daily, We pat, hug and kiss them all the same, Small children in a uent
societies often dislike showering, and it takes them years of education and
parental discipline to adopt this supposedly attractive custom, It is all a
matter of expectations,
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society
– mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting
the globe’s reservoirs of contentment, If you were an eighteen-year-old
youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were
good-looking because there were only fty other men in your village and
most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids, But if
you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate, Even
if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself
against them but against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see
all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards,
So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty,
disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to
First World standards, The average Egyptian was far less likely to die from
starvation, plague or violence under Hosni Mubarak than under Ramses II
or Cleopatra, Never had the material condition of most Egyptians been so
good, You’d think they would have been dancing in the streets in 2011,
thanking Allah for their good fortune, Instead they rose up furiously to
overthrow Mubarak, They weren’t comparing themselves to their ancestors
under the pharaohs, but rather to their contemporaries in Obama’s
If that’s the case, even immortality might lead to discontent, Suppose
science comes up with cures for all diseases, e ective anti-ageing therapies
and regenerative treatments that keep people inde nitely young, In all
likelihood, the immediate result will be an unprecedented epidemic of anger
and anxiety,
Those unable to a ord the new miracle treatments – the vast majority of
people – will be beside themselves with rage, Throughout history, the poor
and oppressed comforted themselves with the thought that at least death is
even-handed – that the rich and powerful will also die, The poor will not be
comfortable with the thought that they have to die, while the rich will
remain young and beautiful for ever,
45, In previous eras the standard of beauty was set by the handful of people who lived next door
to you, Today the media and the fashion industry expose us to a totally unrealistic standard of
beauty, They search out the most gorgeous people on the planet, and then parade them
constantly before our eyes, No wonder we are far less happy with the way we look,
But the tiny minority able to a ord the new treatments will not be
euphoric either, They will have much to be anxious about, Although the
new therapies could extend life and youth, they cannot revive corpses, How
dreadful to think that I and my loved ones can live for ever, but only if we
don’t get hit by a truck or blown to smithereens by a terrorist! Potentially a-
mortal people are likely to grow averse to taking even the slightest risk,
and the agony of losing a spouse, child or close friend will be unbearable,
Chemical Happiness
Social scientists distribute subjective well-being questionnaires and correlate
the results with socio-economic factors such as wealth and political
freedom, Biologists use the same questionnaires, but correlate the answers
people give them with biochemical and genetic factors, Their ndings are
Biologists hold that our mental and emotional world is governed by
biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution, Like all
other mental states, our subjective well-being is not determined by external
parameters such as salary, social relations or political rights, Rather, it is
determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various
biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin,
Nobody is ever made happy by winning the lottery, buying a house,
getting a promotion or even nding true love, 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,
Unfortunately for all hopes of creating heaven on earth, our internal
biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels
relatively constant, There’s no natural selection for happiness as such – a
happy hermit’s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious
parents get carried on to the next generation, Happiness and misery play a
role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage
survival and reproduction, Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that evolution
has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy, It enables us to
enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last for
ever, Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations,
For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings as rewards to males
who spread their genes by having sex with fertile females, If sex were not
accompanied by such pleasure, few males would bother, At the same time,
evolution made sure that these pleasant feelings quickly subsided, If
orgasms were to last for ever, the very happy males would die of hunger for
lack of interest in food, and would not take the trouble to look for
additional fertile females,
Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning
system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm,
Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning
system always returns the temperature to the same set point,
Some air-conditioning systems are set at twenty- ve degrees Celsius,
Others are set at twenty degrees, Human happiness conditioning systems
also di er from person to person, On a scale from one to ten, some people
are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to
swing between levels six and ten, stabilising with time at eight, Such a
person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her
money in a stock-exchange crash and is diagnosed with diabetes, Other
people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three
and seven and stabilises at ve, Such an unhappy person remains depressed
even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in
the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete, Indeed, even if our
gloomy friend wins $50,000,000 in the morning, discovers the cure for both
AIDS and cancer by noon, makes peace between Israelis and Palestinians
that afternoon, and then in the evening reunites with her long-lost child
who disappeared years ago – she would still be incapable of experiencing
anything beyond level seven happiness, Her brain is simply not built for
exhilaration, come what may,
Think for a moment of your family and friends, You know some people
who remain relatively joyful, no matter what befalls them, And then there
are those who are always disgruntled, no matter what gifts the world lays
at their feet, We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace,
get married, nish writing that novel, buy a new car or repay the
mortgage, we would be on top of the world, Yet when we get what we
desire we don’t seem to be any happier, Buying cars and writing novels do
not change our biochemistry, They can startle it for a eeting moment, but
it is soon back to its set point,
How can this be squared with the above-mentioned psychological and
sociological ndings that, for example, married people are happier on
average than singles? First, these ndings are correlations – the direction of
causation may be the opposite of what some researchers have assumed, It is
true that married people are happier than singles and divorcees, but that
does not necessarily mean that marriage produces happiness, It could be
that happiness causes marriage, Or more correctly, that serotonin,
dopamine and oxytocin bring about and maintain a marriage, People who
are born with a cheerful biochemistry are generally happy and content,
Such people are more attractive spouses, and consequently they have a
greater chance of getting married, They are also less likely to divorce,
because it is far easier to live with a happy and content spouse than with a
depressed and dissatis ed one, Consequently, it’s true that married people
are happier on average than singles, but a single woman prone to gloom
because of her biochemistry would not necessarily become happier if she
were to hook up with a husband,
In addition, most biologists are not fanatics, They maintain that
happiness is determined mainly by biochemistry, but they agree that
psychological and sociological factors also have their place, Our mental air-
conditioning system has some freedom of movement within predetermined
borders, It is almost impossible to exceed the upper and lower emotional
boundaries, but marriage and divorce can have an impact in the area
between the two, Somebody born with an average of level ve happiness
would never dance wildly in the streets, But a good marriage should enable
her to enjoy level seven from time to time, and to avoid the despondency of
level three,
If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out
to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact
on our biochemistry, History can change the external stimuli that cause
serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin
levels, and hence it cannot make people happier,
Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker, The
peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while
the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest
technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées, Intuitively, we
would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant, However,
mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don’t really determine our
mood, Serotonin does, When the medieval peasant completed the
construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing
it up to level X, When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his
wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin,
bringing it up to a similar level X, It makes no di erence to the brain that
the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut, The only thing
that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X, Consequently the
banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great-
grandfather, the poor medieval peasant,
This is true not only of private lives, but also of great collective events,
Take, for example, the French Revolution, The revolutionaries were busy:
they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of
man, abolished noble privileges and waged war against the whole of
Europe, Yet none of that changed French biochemistry, Consequently,
despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought
about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small, Those
who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy
before the revolution as after, Those with a gloomy biochemistry
complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with
which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette,
If so, what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become
any happier, then what was the point of all that chaos, fear, blood and
war? Biologists would never have stormed the Bastille, People think that
this political revolution or that social reform will make them happy, but
their biochemistry tricks them time and again,
There is only one historical development that has real signi cance,
Today, when we nally realise that the keys to happiness are in the hands
of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and
social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus instead on the only thing
that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry, If we invest
billions in understanding our brain chemistry and developing appropriate
treatments, we can make people far happier than ever before, without any
need of revolutions, Prozac, for example, does not change regimes, but by
raising serotonin levels it lifts people out of their depression,
Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New
Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within,’ Money, social status, plastic surgery,
beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you
happiness, Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and
In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, published in 1932 at
the height of the Great Depression, happiness is the supreme value and
psychiatric drugs replace the police and the ballot as the foundation of
politics, Each day, each person takes a dose of ‘soma’, a synthetic drug
which makes people happy without harming their productivity and
e ciency, The World State that governs the entire globe is never
threatened by wars, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, because all
people are supremely content with their current conditions, whatever they
may be, Huxley’s vision of the future is far more troubling than George
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s world seems monstrous to most
readers, but it is hard to explain why, Everybody is happy all the time –
what could be wrong with that?
The Meaning of Life
Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that
happiness equals pleasure, To be happy is no more and no less than
experiencing pleasant bodily sensations, Since our biochemistry limits the
volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people
experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to
manipulate their biochemical system,
But that de nition of happiness is contested by some scholars, In a
famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics,
asked people to recount a typical work day, going through it episode by
episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment,
He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their
lives, Take the work involved in raising a child, Kahneman found that
when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a
child turns out to be a rather unpleasant a air, It consists largely of
changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums,
which nobody likes to do, Yet most parents declare that their children are
their chief source of happiness, Does it mean that people don’t really know
what’s good for them?
That’s one option, Another is that the ndings demonstrate that
happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments, Rather,
happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and
worthwhile, There is an important cognitive and ethical component to
happiness, Our values make all the di erence to whether we see ourselves
as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’,
As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how,
A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship,
whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it
Though people in all cultures and eras have felt the same type of
pleasures and pains, the meaning they have ascribed to their experiences
has probably varied widely, If so, the history of happiness might have been
far more turbulent than biologists imagine, It’s a conclusion that does not
necessarily favour modernity, Assessing life minute by minute, medieval
people certainly had it rough, However, if they believed the promise of
everlasting bliss in the afterlife, they may well have viewed their lives as
far more meaningful and worthwhile than modern secular people, who in
the long term can expect nothing but complete and meaningless oblivion,
Asked ‘Are you satis ed with your life as a whole?’, people in the Middle
Ages might have scored quite highly in a subjective well-being
So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to
life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes, As long as nobody
punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they? As far as we can tell, from a
purely scienti c viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning, Humans
are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal
or purpose, Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if
planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would
probably keep going about its business as usual, As far as we can tell at this
point, human subjectivity would not be missed, Hence any meaning that
people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion, The other-worldly meanings
medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern
humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people nd, The
scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of
human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful
because he ghts to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who nds
meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their
medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a
crusade or building a new cathedral,
So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of
meaning with the prevailing collective delusions, As long as my personal
narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can
convince myself that my life is meaningful, and nd happiness in that
This is quite a depressing conclusion, Does happiness really depend on
Know Thyself
If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be
happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system, If happiness is
based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we
need to delude ourselves more effectively, Is there a third alternative?
Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of
subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning), and that in order to
judge people’s happiness, all we need to do is ask them how they feel, To
many of us, that seems logical because the dominant religion of our age is
liberalism, Liberalism sancti es the subjective feelings of individuals, It
views these feelings as the supreme source of authority, What is good and
what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what
ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels,
Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there
is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us, Liberal economics is
based on the idea that the customer is always right, Liberal art declares that
beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Students in liberal schools and
universities are taught to think for themselves, Commercials urge us to ‘Just
do it!’ Action lms, stage dramas, soap operas, novels and catchy pop songs
indoctrinate us constantly: ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘Listen to yourself’, ‘Follow
your heart’, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated this view most classically: ‘What
I feel to be good – is good, What I feel to be bad – is bad,’
People who have been raised from infancy on a diet of such slogans are
prone to believe that happiness is a subjective feeling and that each
individual best knows whether she is happy or miserable, Yet this view is
unique to liberalism, Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated
that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how
things ought to be, They were suspicious of the feelings and preferences of
the ordinary person, At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi,
pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: ‘Know thyself!’ The implication
was that the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore

likely to be ignorant of true happiness, Freud would probably concur,
And so would Christian theologians, St Paul and St Augustine knew
perfectly well that if you asked people about it, most of them would prefer
to have sex than pray to God, Does that prove that having sex is the key to
happiness? Not according to Paul and Augustine, It proves only that
humankind is sinful by nature, and that people are easily seduced by Satan,
From a Christian viewpoint, the vast majority of people are in more or less
the same situation as heroin addicts, Imagine that a psychologist embarks
on a study of happiness among drug users, He polls them and nds that
they declare, every single one of them, that they are only happy when they
shoot up, Would the psychologist publish a paper declaring that heroin is
the key to happiness?
The idea that feelings are not to be trusted is not restricted to
Christianity, At least when it comes to the value of feelings, even Darwin
and Dawkins might nd common ground with St Paul and St Augustine,
According to the sel sh gene theory, natural selection makes people, like
other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes,
even if it is bad for them as individuals, Most males spend their lives
toiling, worrying, competing and ghting, instead of enjoying peaceful
bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own sel sh aims, Like
Satan, DNA uses eeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its
Most religions and philosophies have consequently taken a very di erent
approach to happiness than liberalism does, The Buddhist position is
particularly interesting, Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness
more importance than perhaps any other human creed, For 2,500 years,
Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness,
which is why there is a growing interest among the scienti c community
both in their philosophy and their meditation practices,
Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to
happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within
one’s body, and not from events in the outside world, However, starting
from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions,
According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant
feelings, while identifying su ering with unpleasant feelings, People
consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to
experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain, Whatever we do
throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, dgeting slightly in the
chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings,
The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more
than eeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves, If
ve minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone,
and I might well feel sad and dejected, So if I want to experience pleasant
feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the
unpleasant feelings, Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over
again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles,
What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why
struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it
arises? According to Buddhism, the root of su ering is neither the feeling of
pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness, Rather, the real root of
su ering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings,
which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and
dissatisfaction, Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satis ed, Even when
experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might
soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify,
People are liberated from su ering not when they experience this or that
eeting 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 satis ed, 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,
The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in
the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it, It is like a
man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves
and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously
pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him, Day in,
day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this
fruitless exercise, Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the
waves to come and go as they please, How peaceful!
This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New
Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into
liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head, New Age cults frequently
argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions, It depends only
on what we feel inside, People should stop pursuing external achievements
such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings,’ Or
more succinctly, ‘Happiness Begins Within,’ This is exactly what biologists
argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said,
Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that
happiness is independent of external conditions, Yet his more important
and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent
of our inner feelings, Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the
more we crave them, and the more we su er, Buddha’s recommendation
was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the
pursuit of inner feelings,
To sum up, subjective well-being questionnaires identify our well-being with
our subjective feelings, and identify the pursuit of happiness with the
pursuit of particular emotional states, In contrast, for many traditional
philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to
know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are,
Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes
and dislikes, When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry, This is my
anger,’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings
and pursuing others, They never realise that they are not their feelings, and
that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery,
If this is so, then our entire understanding of the history of happiness
might be misguided, Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s
expectations are ful lled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings, The
main question is whether people know the truth about themselves, What
evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better
than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?
Scholars began to study the history of happiness only a few years ago,
and we are still formulating initial hypotheses and searching for
appropriate research methods, It’s much too early to adopt rigid conclusions
and end a debate that’s hardly yet begun, What is important is to get to
know as many di erent approaches as possible and to ask the right
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 in uenced the happiness and su ering
of individuals, This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history,
We had better start filling it,

  • Paradoxically, while psychological studies of subjective well-being rely on people’s ability to diagnose
    their happiness correctly, the basic raison d’être of psychotherapy is that people don’t really know
    themselves and that they sometimes need professional help to free themselves of self-destructive

20 The End of Homo Sapiens

continuum of physics to chemistry to biology, Sapiens are subject to the
same physical forces, chemical reactions and natural-selection processes
that govern all living beings, Natural selection may have provided Homo
sapiens with a much larger playing eld than it has given to any other
organism, but the eld has still had its boundaries, The implication has
been that, no matter what their e orts and achievements, Sapiens are
incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits,
But at the dawn of the twenty- rst century, this is no longer true: Homo
sapiens is transcending those limits, It is now beginning to break the laws of
natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design,
For close to 4 billion years, every single organism on the planet evolved
subject to natural selection, Not even one was designed by an intelligent
creator, The gira e, for example, got its long neck thanks to competition
between archaic gira es rather than to the whims of a super-intelligent
being, Proto-gira es who had longer necks had access to more food and
consequently produced more o spring than did those with shorter necks,
Nobody, certainly not the gira es, said, ‘A long neck would enable gira es
to munch leaves o the treetops, Let’s extend it,’ The beauty of Darwin’s
theory is that it does not need to assume an intelligent designer to explain
how giraffes ended up with long necks,
For billions of years, intelligent design was not even an option, because
there was no intelligence which could design things, Microorganisms, which
until quite recently were the only living things around, are capable of
amazing feats, A microorganism belonging to one species can incorporate
genetic codes from a completely di erent species into its cell and thereby
gain new capabilities, such as resistance to antibiotics, Yet, as best we
know, microorganisms have no consciousness, no aims in life, and no
ability to plan ahead,
At some stage organisms such as gira es, dolphins, chimpanzees and
Neanderthals evolved consciousness and the ability to plan ahead, But even
if a Neanderthal fantasised about fowls so fat and slow-moving that he
could just scoop them up whenever he was hungry, he had no way of
turning that fantasy into reality, He had to hunt the birds that had been
naturally selected,
The rst crack in the old regime appeared 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 o spring would be both fat and slow, If you mated those
o spring 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,
Still, compared to an all-powerful deity, Homo sapiens had limited design
skills, Sapiens could use selective breeding to detour around and accelerate
the natural-selection processes that normally a ected chickens, but they
could not introduce completely new characteristics that were absent from
the genetic pool of wild chickens, In a way, the relationship between Homo
sapiens and chickens was similar to many other symbiotic relationships that
have so often arisen on their own in nature, Sapiens exerted peculiar
selective pressures on chickens that caused the fat and slow ones to
proliferate, just as pollinating bees select owers, causing the bright
colourful ones to proliferate,
Today, the 4-billion-year-old regime of natural selection is facing a
completely di erent 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 uorescent green rabbit, Kac contacted a French
laboratory and o ered it a fee to engineer a radiant bunny according to his
speci cations, The French scientists took a run-of-the-mill white rabbit
embryo, implanted in its DNA a gene taken from a green uorescent
jelly sh, and voilà! One green uorescent rabbit for le monsieur, Kac named
the rabbit Alba,
It is impossible to explain the existence of Alba through the laws of
natural selection, She is the product of intelligent design, She is also a
harbinger of things to come, If the potential Alba signi es is realised in full
– and if humankind doesn’t annihilate itself meanwhile – the Scienti c
Revolution might prove itself far greater than a mere historical revolution,
It may turn out to be the most important biological revolution since the
appearance of life on earth, After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba
stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by
intelligent design, If this happens, the whole of human history up to that
point might, with hindsight, be reinterpreted as a process of
experimentation and apprenticeship that revolutionised the game of life,
Such a process should be understood from a cosmic perspective of billions of
years, rather than from a human perspective of millennia,
Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design
movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools
and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who
thought out all biological details in advance, The biologists are right about
the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right
about the future,
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,
Of Mice and Men
Biological engineering is deliberate human intervention on the biological
level (e,g, implanting a gene) aimed at modifying an organisms shape,
capabilities, needs or desires, in order to realize some preconceived cultural
idea, such as the artistic predilections of Eduardo Kac,
There is nothing new about biological engineering, per se, People have
been using it for millennia in order to reshape themselves and other
organisms, A simple example is castration, Humans have been castrating
bulls for perhaps 10,000 years in order to create oxen, Oxen are less
aggressive, and are thus easier to train to pull ploughs, Humans also
castrated their own young males to create soprano singers with enchanting
voices and eunuchs who could safely be entrusted with overseeing the
sultans harem,
But recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work, down
to the cellular and nuclear levels, have opened up previously unimaginable
possibilities, For instance, we can today not merely castrate a man, but also
change his sex through surgical and hormonal treatments, But that’s not all,
Consider the surprise, disgust and consternation that ensued when, in 1996,
the following photograph appeared in newspapers and on television:
46, A mouse on whose back scientists grew an ‘ear’ made of cattle cartilage cells, It is an eerie
echo of the lion-man statue from the Stadel Cave, Thirty thousand years ago, humans were
already fantasising about combining different species, Today, they can actually produce such
No, Photoshop was not involved, It’s an untouched photo of a real mouse
on whose back scientists implanted cattle cartilage cells, The scientists were
able to control the growth of the new tissue, shaping it in this case into
something that looks like a human ear, The process may soon enable
scientists to manufacture arti cial ears, which could then be implanted in
Even more remarkable wonders can be performed with genetic
engineering, which is why it raises a host of ethical, political and
ideological issues, And it’s not just pious monotheists who object that man
should not usurp God’s role, Many con rmed atheists are no less shocked by
the idea that scientists are stepping into nature’s shoes, Animal-rights
activists decry the su ering caused to lab animals in genetic engineering
experiments, and to the farmyard animals that are engineered in complete
disregard of their needs and desires, Human-rights activists are afraid that
genetic engineering might be used to create supermen who will make serfs
of the rest of us, Jeremiahs o er apocalyptic visions of bio-dictatorships
that will clone fearless soldiers and obedient workers, The prevailing
feeling is that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our
ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise and far-
sighted use of the skill,
The result is that we’re at present using only a fraction of the potential of
genetic engineering, Most of the organisms now being engineered are those
with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects, For
example, lines of E, coli, a bacterium that lives symbiotically in the human
gut (and which makes headlines when it gets out of the gut and causes
deadly infections), have been genetically engineered to produce biofuel, E,
coli and several species of fungi have also been engineered to produce
insulin, thereby lowering the cost of diabetes treatment, A gene extracted
from an Arctic sh has been inserted into potatoes, making the plants more
A few mammals have also been subject to genetic engineering, Every
year the dairy industry su ers billions of dollars in damages due to mastitis,
a disease that strikes dairy-cow udders, Scientists are currently
experimenting with genetically engineered cows whose milk contains
lysostaphin, a biochemical that attacks the bacteria responsible for the
disease, The pork industry, which has su ered 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,
The next generation of genetic engineering will make pigs with good fat
look like child’s play, 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 o from being
able to genetically engineer not only the individual abilities of rodents (and
humans), but also their social structures?
The Return of the Neanderthals
But geneticists do not only want to transform living lineages, They aim to
revive extinct creatures as well, And not just dinosaurs, as in Jurassic Park, A
team of Russian, Japanese and Korean scientists has recently mapped the
genome of ancient mammoths, found frozen in the Siberian ice, They now
plan to take a fertilised egg-cell of a present-day elephant, replace the
elephantine DNA with a reconstructed mammoth DNA, and implant the egg
in the womb of an elephant, After about twenty-two months, they expect
the first mammoth in 5,000 years to be born,
But why stop at mammoths? Professor George Church of Harvard
University recently suggested that, with the completion of the Neanderthal
Genome Project, we can now implant reconstructed Neanderthal DNA into a
Sapiens ovum, thus producing the rst Neanderthal child in 30,000 years,
Church claimed that he could do the job for a paltry $30 million, Several
women have already volunteered to serve as surrogate mothers,
What do we need Neanderthals for? Some argue that if we could study
live Neanderthals, we could answer some of the most nagging questions
about the origins and uniqueness of Homo sapiens, By comparing a
Neanderthal to a Homo sapiens brain, and mapping out where their
structures di er, perhaps we could identify what biological change
produced consciousness as we experience it, There’s an ethical reason, too –
some have argued that if Homo sapiens was responsible for the extinction of
the Neanderthals, it has a moral duty to resurrect them, And having some
Neanderthals around might be useful, Lots of industrialists would be glad to
pay one Neanderthal to do the menial work of two Sapiens,
But why stop even at Neanderthals? Why not go back to God’s drawing
board and design a better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo
sapiens have a genetic basis, and the Sapiens genome is no more complex
than that of voles and mice, (The mouse genome contains about 2,5 billion
nucleobases, the Sapiens genome about 2,9 billion bases – meaning the
latter is only 14 per cent larger,) In the medium range – perhaps in a few
decades – genetic engineering and other forms of biological engineering
might enable us to make far-reaching alterations not only to our
physiology, immune system and life expectancy, but also to our intellectual
and emotional capacities, If genetic engineering can create genius mice,
why not genius humans? If it can create monogamous voles, why not
humans hard-wired to remain faithful to their partners?
The Cognitive Revolution that turned Homo sapiens from an insigni cant
ape into the master of the world did not require any noticeable change in
physiology or even in the size and external shape of the Sapiens brain, It
apparently involved no more than a few small changes to internal brain
structure, Perhaps another small change would be enough to ignite a
Second Cognitive Revolution, create a completely new type of
consciousness, and transform Homo sapiens into something altogether
True, we still don’t have the acumen to achieve this, but there seems to
be no insurmountable technical barrier preventing us from producing
superhumans, The main obstacles are the ethical and political objections
that have slowed down research on humans, And no matter how convincing
the ethical arguments may be, it is hard to see how they can hold back the
next step for long, especially if what is at stake is the possibility of
prolonging human life inde nitely, conquering incurable diseases, and
upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities,
What would happen, for example, if we developed a cure for Alzheimer’s
disease that, as a side bene t, could dramatically improve the memories of
healthy people? Would anyone be able to halt the relevant research? And
when the cure is developed, could any law enforcement agency limit it to
Alzheimer’s patients and prevent healthy people from using it to acquire
It’s unclear whether bioengineering could really resurrect the
Neanderthals, but it would very likely bring down the curtain on Homo
sapiens, Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us, But we might
ddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be
Homo sapiens,
Bionic Life
There is another new technology which could change the laws of life:
cyborg engineering, Cyborgs are beings which combine organic and
inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands, In a sense, nearly all
of us are bionic these days, since our natural senses and functions are
supplemented by devices such as eyeglasses, pacemakers, orthotics, and
even computers and mobile phones (which relieve our brains of some of
their data storage and processing burdens), We stand poised on the brink of
becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable
from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities and
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a US military
research agency, is developing cyborgs out of insects, The idea is to implant
electronic chips, detectors and processors in the body of a y or cockroach,
which will enable either a human or an automatic operator to control the
insect’s movements remotely and to absorb and transmit information, Such
a y could be sitting on the wall at enemy headquarters, eavesdrop on the
most secret conversations, and if it isn’t caught rst by a spider, could
inform us exactly what the enemy is planning, In 2006 the US Naval
Undersea Warfare Center reported its intention to develop cyborg sharks,
declaring, ‘NUWC is developing a sh tag whose goal is behaviour control
of host animals via neural implants,’ The developers hope to identify
underwater electromagnetic elds made by submarines and mines, by
exploiting the natural magnetic detecting capabilities of sharks, which are
superior to those of any man-made detectors,
Sapiens, too, are being turned into cyborgs, The newest generation of
hearing aids are sometimes referred to as ‘bionic ears’, The device consists
of an implant that absorbs sound through a microphone located in the outer
part of the ear, The implant lters the sounds, identi es human voices, and
translates them into electric signals that are sent directly to the central
auditory nerve and from there to the brain,
Retina Implant, a government-sponsored German company, is developing
a retinal prosthesis that may allow blind people to gain partial vision, It
involves implanting a small microchip inside the patient’s eye, Photocells
absorb light falling on the eye and transform it into electrical energy,
which stimulates the intact nerve cells in the retina, The nervous impulses
from these cells stimulate the brain, where they are translated into sight, At
present the technology allows patients to orientate themselves in space,
identify letters, and even recognise faces,
Jesse Sullivan, an American electrician, lost both arms up to the shoulder
in a 2001 accident, Today he uses two bionic arms, courtesy of the
Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, The special feature of Jesse’s new arms
is that they are operated by thought alone, Neural signals arriving from
Jesse’s brain are translated by micro-computers into electrical commands,
and the arms move, When Jesse wants to raise his arm, he does what any
normal person unconsciously does – and the arm rises, These arms can
perform a much more limited range of movements than organic arms, but
they enable Jesse to carry out simple daily functions, A similar bionic arm
has recently been out tted for Claudia Mitchell, an American soldier who
lost her arm in a motorcycle accident, Scientists believe that we will soon
have bionic arms that will not only move when willed to move, but will
also be able to transmit signals back to the brain, thereby enabling
amputees to regain even the sensation of touch!
47, Jesse Sullivan and Claudia Mitchell holding hands, The amazing thing about their bionic arms
is that they are operated by thought,
At present these bionic arms are a poor replacement for our organic
originals, but they have the potential for unlimited development, Bionic
arms, for example, can be made far more powerful than their organic kin,
making even a boxing champion feel like a weakling, Moreover, bionic
arms have the advantage that they can be replaced every few years, or
detached from the body and operated at a distance,
Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina have recently
demonstrated this with rhesus monkeys whose brains have been implanted
with electrodes, The electrodes gather signals from the brain and transmit
them to external devices, The monkeys have been trained to control
detached bionic arms and legs through thought alone, One monkey, named
Aurora, learned to thought-control a detached bionic arm while
simultaneously moving her two organic arms, Like some Hindu goddess,
Aurora now has three arms, and her arms can be located in di erent rooms
– or even cities, She can sit in her North Carolina lab, scratch her back with
one hand, scratch her head with a second hand, and simultaneously steal a
banana in New York (although the ability to eat a purloined fruit at a
distance remains a dream), Another rhesus monkey, Idoya, won world fame
in 2008 when she thought-controlled a pair of bionic legs in Kyoto, Japan,
from her North Carolina chair, The legs were twenty times Idoya’s
Locked-in syndrome is a condition in which a person loses all or nearly
all her ability to move any part of her body, while her cognitive abilities
remain intact, Patients su ering from the syndrome have up till now been
able to communicate with the outside world only through small eye
movements, However, a few patients have had brain-signal-gathering
electrodes implanted in their brains, E orts are being made to translate
such signals not merely into movements but also into words, If the
experiments succeed, locked-in patients could nally speak directly with the
outside world, and we might eventually be able to use the technology to
read other peoples minds,
Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most
revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer
interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human
brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn,
What if such interfaces are used to directly link a brain to the Internet, or to
directly link several brains to each other, thereby creating a sort of Inter-
brain-net? What might happen to human memory, human consciousness
and human identity if the brain has direct access to a collective memory
bank? In such a situation, one cyborg could, for example, retrieve the
memories of another – not hear about them, not read about them in an
autobiography, not imagine them, but directly remember them as if they
were his own, Or her own, What happens to concepts such as the self and
gender identity when minds become collective? How could you know
thyself or follow your dream if the dream is not in your mind but in some
collective reservoir of aspirations?
Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic, It would be
something completely di erent, It would be so fundamentally another kind
of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or
political implications,
Another Life
The third way to change the laws of life is to engineer completely inorganic
beings, The most obvious examples are computer programs and computer
viruses that can undergo independent evolution,
The eld of genetic programming is today one of the most interesting
spots in the computer science world, It tries to emulate the methods of
genetic evolution, Many programmers dream of creating a program that
could learn and evolve completely independently of its creator, In this case,
the programmer would be a primum mobile, a rst mover, but his creation
would be free to evolve in directions neither its maker nor any other human
could ever have envisaged,
A prototype for such a program already exists – it’s called a computer
virus, As it spreads through the Internet, the virus replicates itself millions
upon millions of times, all the while being chased by predatory antivirus
programs and competing with other viruses for a place in cyberspace, One
day when the virus replicates itself a mistake occurs – a computerised
mutation, Perhaps the mutation occurs because the human engineer
programmed the virus to make occasional random replication mistakes,
Perhaps the mutation was due to a random error, If, by chance, the
modi ed virus is better at evading antivirus programs without losing its
ability to invade other computers, it will spread through cyberspace, If so,
the mutants will survive and reproduce, As time goes by, cyberspace would
be full of new viruses that nobody engineered, and that undergo non-
organic evolution,
Are these living creatures? It depends on what you mean by ‘living
creatures’, They have certainly been produced by a new evolutionary
process, completely independent of the laws and limitations of organic
Imagine another possibility – suppose you could back up your brain to a
portable hard drive and then run it on your laptop, Would your laptop be
able to think and feel just like a Sapiens? If so, would it be you or someone
else? What if computer programmers could create an entirely new but
digital mind, composed of computer code, complete with a sense of self,
consciousness and memory? If you ran the program on your computer,
would it be a person? If you deleted it could you be charged with murder?
We might soon have the answer to such questions, 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 arti cial human brain
inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does,
If successful, that would mean that after 4 billion years of milling around
inside the small world of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out
into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond
our wildest dreams, Not all scholars agree that the mind works in a manner
analogous to today’s digital computers – and if it doesn’t, present-day
computers would not be able to simulate it, Yet it would be foolish to
categorically dismiss the possibility before giving it a try, In 2013 the
project received a grant of €1 billion from the European Union,
The Singularity
Presently, only a tiny fraction of these new opportunities have been
realised, Yet the world of 2014 is already a world in which culture is
releasing itself from the shackles of biology, Our ability to engineer not
merely the world around us, but above all the world inside our bodies and
minds, is developing at breakneck speed, More and more spheres of activity
are being shaken out of their complacent ways, Lawyers need to rethink
issues of privacy and identity; governments are faced with rethinking
matters of health care and equality; sports associations and educational
institutions need to rede ne fair play and achievement; pension funds and
labour markets should readjust to a world in which sixty might be the new
thirty, They must all deal with the conundrums of bioengineering, cyborgs
and inorganic life,
Mapping the rst human genome required fteen 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,
However, with improvements in medical knowledge will come new
ethical conundrums, Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with
the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA, Would insurance companies
be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover
a genetic tendency to reckless behaviour? Would we be required to fax our
DNA, rather than our CV, to potential employers? Could an employer
favour a candidate because his DNA looks better? Or could we sue in such
cases for ‘genetic discrimination’? Could a company that develops a new
creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences? It is
obvious that one can own a particular chicken, but can one own an entire
Such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, social and political
implications of the Gilgamesh Project and of our potential new abilities to
create superhumans, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
government medical programmes throughout the world, national health
insurance programmes and national constitutions worldwide recognise that
a humane society ought to give all its members fair medical treatment and
keep them in relatively good health, That was all well and good as long as
medicine was chie y concerned with preventing illness and healing the
sick, 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?
Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the rst time in
history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create
the most unequal of all societies, Throughout history, the upper classes
always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the
underclass, They were usually deluding themselves, A baby born to a poor
peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince, With the
help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might
soon become an objective reality,
This is not science ction, Most science- ction plots describe a world in
which Sapiens – identical to us – enjoy superior technology such as light-
speed spaceships and laser guns, The ethical and political dilemmas central
to these plots are taken from our own world, and they merely recreate our
emotional and social tensions against a futuristic backdrop, Yet the real
potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including
our emotions and desires, and not merely our vehicles and weapons, What
is a spaceship compared to an eternally young cyborg who does not breed
and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings,
whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than
our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that
we cannot begin to imagine?
Science ction rarely describes such a future, because an accurate
description is by de nition incomprehensible, Producing a lm about the
life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of
Neanderthals, Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more
di erent from us than we are from Neanderthals, Whereas we and the
Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike,
Physicists de ne 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 Prophecy
In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who
creates an arti cial being that goes out of control and wreaks havoc, In the
last two centuries, the same story has been told over and over again in
countless versions, It has become a central pillar of our new scienti c
mythology, At rst sight, the Frankenstein story appears to warn us that if
we try to play God and engineer life we will be punished severely, Yet the
story has a deeper meaning,
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 di erent
beings who possess not only di erent physiques, but also very di erent
cognitive and emotional worlds, This is something most Sapiens nd
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,
We somehow nd comfort in the idea that Dr Frankenstein created a
terrible monster, whom we had to destroy in order to save ourselves, We
like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all
beings, that there never was and never will be something better than us,
Any attempt to improve us will inevitably fail, because even if our bodies
might be improved, you cannot touch the human spirit,
We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could
engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr Frankensteins could
therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look at
us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals,
We cannot be certain whether today’s Frankensteins will indeed ful l this
prophecy, The future is unknown, and it would be surprising if the forecasts
of the last few pages were realised in full, History teaches us that what
seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen
barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass,
When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940S, many forecasts were made
about the future nuclear world of the year 2000, When sputnik and Apollo
11 red the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by
the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars
and Pluto, Few of these forecasts came true, On the other hand, nobody
foresaw the Internet,
So don’t go out just yet to buy liability insurance to indemnify you
against lawsuits led by digital beings, The above fantasies – or nightmares
– are just stimulants for your imagination, 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, How
long do we have? No one really knows, As already mentioned, some say
that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal, Less radical forecasts
speak of the next century, or the next millennium, Yet from the perspective
of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia?
If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of
one of its nal generations should devote some time to answering one last
question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as
the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently
preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people, After all,
today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes
will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens, If our successors
indeed function on a di erent level of consciousness (or perhaps possess
something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems
doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their
social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders
could be male or female,
And yet the great debates of history are important because at least the
rst generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their
human designers, Would they be created in the image of capitalism, of
Islam, or of feminism? The answer to this question might send them
careening in entirely different directions,
Most people prefer not to think about it, Even the eld of bioethics
prefers to address another question, ‘What is it forbidden to do?’ Is it
acceptable to carry out genetic experiments on living human beings? On
aborted fetuses? On stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep? And
chimpanzees? And what about humans? All of these are important
questions, but it is naïve to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes
and stop the scienti c projects that are upgrading Homo sapiens into a
di erent kind of being, For these projects are inextricably meshed together
with the Gilgamesh Project, 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 justi cation given,
because nobody can argue with it, This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the
agship of science, It serves to justify everything science does, Dr
Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh, Since it is
impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein,
The only thing we can try to do is to in uence the direction scientists are
taking, Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps
the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What
do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably
haven’t given it enough thought,

Afterword: The Animal that Became a God

SEVENTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, HOMO sapiens was still an insigni cant
animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa, In the following
millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the
terror of the ecosystem, Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god,
poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of
creation and destruction,
Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that
we can be proud of, We have mastered our surroundings, increased food
production, built cities, established empires and created far- ung trade
networks, But did we decrease the amount of su ering 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,
In the last few decades we have at last made some real progress as far as
the human condition is concerned, with the reduction of famine, plague and
war, Yet the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than
ever before, and the improvement in the lot of humanity is too recent and
fragile to be certain of,
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of
doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as
ever, We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space
shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going, We are more powerful
than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power,
Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever, Self-made
gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable
to no one, We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and
on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort
and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction,
Is there anything more dangerous than dissatis ed and irresponsible gods
who don’t know what they want?

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