For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.4 In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
In most areas wars became rarer than ever. Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality.
In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.23 Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing.
This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them.
What are the projects that will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda in the twenty-first century?
the modern economy needs constant and indefinite growth in order to survive. If growth ever stops, the economy won’t settle down to some cosy equilibrium; it will fall to pieces.
No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm.
Even if famine, plague and war become less prevalent, billions of humans in developing countries and seedy neighbour-hoods will continue to deal with poverty, illness and violence even as the elites are already reaching for eternal youth and godlike powers.
Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.
In 1016 it was relatively easy to predict how Europe would look in 1050. Sure, dynasties might fall, unknown raiders might invade, and natural disasters might strike; yet it was clear that in 1050 Europe would still be ruled by kings and priests, that it would be an agricultural society, that most of its inhabitants would be peasants, and that it would continue to suffer greatly from famines, plagues and wars. In contrast, in 2016 we have no idea how Europe will look in 2050. We cannot say what kind of political system it will have, how its job market will be structured, or even what kind of bodies its inhabitants will possess.
Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.
The same technologies that can upgrade humans into gods might also make humans irrelevant. For example, computers powerful enough to understand and overcome the mechanisms of ageing and death will probably also be powerful enough to replace humans in any and all tasks.
People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes.
In the Garden of Eden myth, humans are punished for their curiosity and for their wish to gain knowledge. God expels them from Paradise. In the Garden of Woolsthorpe myth, nobody punishes Newton – just the opposite. Thanks to his curiosity humankind gains a better understanding of the universe, becomes more powerful and takes another step towards the technological paradise.
Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe.
As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behaviour of strangers and to organise mass-cooperation networks. Sapiens often use visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’. Our chimpanzee cousins cannot invent and spread such stories, which is why they cannot cooperate in large numbers.
Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality. When official reports collided with objective reality, it was often reality that had to give way. Anyone who has ever dealt with the tax authorities, the education system or any other complex bureaucracy knows that the truth hardly matters. What’s written on your form is far more important.
Defining religion as ‘belief in gods’ is also problematic. We tend to say that a devout Christian is religious because she believes in God, whereas a fervent communist isn’t religious because communism has no gods. However, religion is created by humans rather than by gods, and it is defined by its social function rather than by the existence of deities. Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.
Most capitalists would probably dislike the label of religion, but as religions go capitalism can at least hold its head high. Unlike other religions that promise us pie in the sky, capitalism promises miracles here on earth – and sometimes even delivers. Much of the credit for overcoming famine and plague belongs to the ardent capitalist faith in growth.
The traditional view of the world as a pie of a fixed size presupposes that there are only two kinds of resources in the world: raw materials and energy. But in truth there are three kinds of resources: raw materials, energy and knowledge.
If I invest $100 million searching for oil in Alaska and I find it, then I now have more oil, but my grandchildren will have less of it. In contrast, if I invest $100 million researching solar energy, and I find a new and more efficient way of harnessing it, then both I and my grandchildren will have more energy.
With each passing generation science helped discover fresh sources of energy, new kinds of raw material, better machinery and novel production methods. Consequently, in 2016 humankind commands far more energy and raw materials than ever before, and production skyrockets. Inventions such as the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the computer have created whole new industries from scratch. As we look twenty years into the future, we confidently expect to produce and consume far more in 2036 than we do today. We trust nanotechnology, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence to revolutionise production yet again, and to open whole new sections in our ever-expanding supermarkets.
Listen, for example, to Professor Leif Andersson from the University of Uppsala. He specialises in the genetic enhancement of farm animals in order to create faster-growing pigs, cows that produce more milk, and chickens with extra meat on their bones. In an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, reporter Naomi Darom confronted Andersson with the fact that such genetic manipulations might cause much suffering to the animals. Already today ‘enhanced’ dairy cows have such heavy udders that they can barely walk, while ‘upgraded’ chickens cannot even stand up. Professor Andersson had a firm answer: ‘Everything comes back to the individual customer and to the question of how much the customer is willing to pay for meat … we must remember that it would be impossible to maintain current levels of global meat consumption without the [enhanced] modern chicken … if customers ask us only for the cheapest meat possible – that’s what the customers will get … Customers need to decide what is most important to them – price, or something else.’3
What exactly are ‘experiences’? They are not empirical data. An experience is not made of atoms, electromagnetic waves, proteins or numbers. Rather, an experience is a subjective phenomenon made up of three main ingredients: sensations, emotions and thoughts.
And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Second, allowing these sensations, emotions and thoughts to influence me. Granted, I shouldn’t allow every passing breeze to sweep me away. Yet I should be open to new experiences and permit them to change my views, my behaviour and even my personality.
Experiences and sensitivity build up one another in a never-ending cycle. I cannot experience anything if I have no sensitivity, and I cannot develop sensitivity unless I undergo a variety of experiences. Sensitivity is not an abstract aptitude that can be developed by reading books or listening to lectures. It is a practical skill that can ripen and mature only by applying it in practice.
The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.
In the early nineteenth century Wilhelm von Humboldt – one of the chief architects of the modern education system – said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’. He also wrote that ‘there is only one summit in life – to have taken the measure in feeling of everything human’.4 This could well be the humanist motto.
Religion and technology always dance a delicate tango. They push one another, depend on one another and cannot stray too far away from one another.
If by ‘free will’ we mean the ability to act according to our desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act upon their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.
We experience hunger differently when we fast during Ramadan, when we fast in preparation for a medical examination, and when we don’t eat because we have no money. The different meanings ascribed to our hunger by the narrating self create very different actual experiences.
Furthermore, the experiencing self is often strong enough to sabotage the best-laid plans of the narrating self. I might, for instance, make a New Year’s resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. Such grand decisions are the monopoly of the narrating self. But the following week when it’s gym time, the experiencing self takes over. I don’t feel like going to the gym, and instead I order pizza, sit on the sofa and turn on the TV. Nevertheless, most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head, not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo.
Since we do not know what the job market will look like in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.
From a liberal perspective, it is perfectly all right that one person is a billionaire living in a sumptuous chateau, whereas another is a poor peasant living in a straw hut. For according to liberalism, the peasant’s unique experiences are still just as valuable as the billionaire’s. That’s why liberal authors write long novels about the experiences of poor peasants – and why even billionaires avidly read such books. If you go to see Les Misérables in Broadway or Covent Garden, you will find that good seats can cost hundreds of dollars, and the audience’s combined wealth probably runs into the billions, yet they still sympathise with Jean Valjean who served nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephews.
The liberal solution for social inequality is to give equal value to different human experiences, instead of trying to create the same experiences for everyone. However, will this solution still work once rich and poor are separated not merely by wealth, but also by real biological gaps?
Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.
Consequently by 2070 the poor could very well enjoy much better healthcare than today, but the gap separating them from the rich will nevertheless be much greater.
Sapiens used their advantage in data processing to overrun the entire world. However, as they spread into different lands and climates they lost touch with one another and underwent diverse cultural transformations. The result was an immense variety of human cultures, each with its own lifestyle, behaviour patterns and world view.