The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.
The story of organisms is called biology.
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 Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.
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 offspring, called mules, are sterile.
Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera).
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.
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.
In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal.
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.
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.
Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, 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.
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.
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
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 campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.
Just try to imagine how difficult 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.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad.
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 agitated.
A peasant living on the assumption that bad years would not come didn’t live long.
It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into ‘superiors’ and ‘commoners’ is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another?
Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything.
Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, but because they have wings.
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 differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.
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.
Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded.
American teenagers have no genes for pick-up basketball. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about basketball. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game.
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.
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.’
In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology.
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 men’.
Myths and fictions 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.
Some societies tried to solve the problem by establishing a central barter system that collected products from specialist growers and manufacturers and distributed them to those who needed them. The largest and most famous such experiment was conducted in the Soviet Union, and it failed miserably. ‘Everyone would work according to their abilities, and receive according to their needs’ turned out in practice into ‘everyone would work as little as they can get away with, and receive as much as they could grab’.
Money 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.
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.
Trust is the raw material from which all types of money are minted.
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.
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.
The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts.
It is an iron rule of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time. Today is no different. 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?
Cart manufacturers built the same carts from the same materials year in year out. They did not set aside a percentage of their annual profits in order to research and develop new cart models.
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 know.’
The most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans.
This is the fly in the ointment of free-market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner. On the contrary, the craving to increase profits 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.
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).
The flowering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in the awful shade of starvation. In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies).
Today, the earth’s continents are home to billions of 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.
The figures 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.5 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 dealer.
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.