the plan for the future
The modern economy grows thanks to our trust in the future and the willingness of capitalists to reinvest profits in increasing production. Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials. Many people ask what will happen when the energy sources and raw materials run out? What will happen when there will be no more oil, coal, iron, or copper? This is today central to arguments among the general public, economists, and scientists. When we look back at history over the last three centuries, the danger of humanity running out of energy sources and raw materials is smaller than it seems at first sight.
Over the last three centuries, the amounts of available energy and raw materials just kept growing and growing instead of diminishing as common sense would have us expect. Whenever there was a threat of shortage of either energy or raw materials slowing down the growth of the economy, investments began to flow into scientific and technological research on the relevant subjects. And so far the scientists and engineers, thanks to all this financial support, have always managed to solve the problem and to find more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources or to discover completely new types of energy and raw materials.
Consider for example, the vehicle industry. Over the last 300 years, humankind has manufactured billions of vehicles, carts, waggons, trains, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, ships and space shuttles. One might have expected that such a prodigious effort of building vehicles would exhaust our energy sources and raw materials available for vehicle production, and that today in the 21st century there would be far fewer raw materials and energy sources to produce vehicles than in 1700.
The opposite is the case. Whereas in 1700, the global vehicle industry relied overwhelmingly on wood and iron as raw materials to produce carts and waggons and ships, today it can use many new materials, such as plastic, rubber, aluminium, and titanium, which were simply unknown in 1700. Also, whereas in the 17th or 18th century, carts, waggons and ships were built mainly by the muscle power of carpenters and smiths, today the machines in the factories of Toyota, Mercedes and Boeing produce a cars, airplanes and ships, are powered by by petroleum combustion engines, and nuclear power stations.
A similar revolution of having more and more energy and raw materials has swept almost all other fields of human industry and production. This revolution is called the Industrial Revolution. The most important things that happened in the Industrial Revolution the new understanding of humans that they are surrounded by enormous, almost limitless quantities of energy and raw materials. What is really lacking is not energy but ways to harness it. Over the last two centuries, scientists and engineers have every few decades managed to discover new sources of energy and new raw materials and new ways of harnessing them.
The first important breakthrough that began the Industrial Revolution occurred in British coal mines in the late 17th and early 18th century. During this period, the population of the island of Britain grew at a very fast rate, and forests were cut down in order to fuel the growing economy and to make room for houses, fields and villages. Therefore Britain began to suffer from a shortage of firewood for heating houses in winter or boiling water to make soup or tea. The British began to use coal instead, and more and more coal mines were opened in different parts of Britain to supply coal.
Many of the coal mines were located in water logged areas with swamps and rivers. When the miners began to go more deeply into the mine, they suffered from flooding. To solve this problem, engineers in British coal mines invented the steam engine around the year 1700, the first big invention of the Industrial Revolution. There are all kinds of steam engines, but they all burn some kind of fuel like coal and use the resulting heat to boil water. Boiling water turns into steam that expands, and as the steam expands, it can be used to push a piston that moves anything connected along with it.
The steam engine converts heat energy into movement. It's easy to understand that burning coal can be used for heating, but the idea of burning coal to move something is very counter intuitive. This is why it took thousands of years for people to think about it. In Britain of around the year 1700, the first steam engines were used to pump the water out of the coal mines, so the piston was connected to a pump.
In the decades after its invention, British business people used the steam engine in to factories and began to connect them to all kinds of other things like looms that wove textile. This was the real beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which very quickly turned Britain into the leading industrial nation of the world and the leading economic and political power of the world.
The next stage came in 1825, a British engineer connected the steam engine to a waggon full of coal, and drove it along an iron rail of some 20 kilometres long that connected a coal mine to its nearest harbour. This was the first steam powered locomotive in history. In 1830, the first commercial railway line, that moved not only coal but also all kinds of other goods and people, was open for business. It connected Liverpool to Manchester, two of the earliest centres of the Industrial Revolution. In 1850, Britain already had tens of thousands of kilometres of railroad tracks connecting all the major population centres.
The invention of the steam engine was important, not only in itself, but also because it broke a big psychological barrier. It proved that by inventing the right machine, it is possible to use almost any kind of energy for any purpose. Energy from burning coal could be used to move trains, which was very hard for people to grasp until the steam engine showed how it can work. Once people realised this, they began to invent all kinds of other machines that used various types of energy for various types of purposes.
For example, when in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, physicists realised that immense amounts of energy are stored within atoms, they immediately started thinking about how they might harness this energy in order to produce electricity, to power vehicles, to win wars and annihilate cities. Only 40 years passed from the moment that Einstein determined that E equals mc squared, until the first atomic bombs obliterated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
E equals mc squared, the equation that Einstein discovered, means that any mass of matter can be transformed into immense amounts of energy. This is what the atom bomb does. It releases the energy stored within matter. This energy can be used for other purposes as well. Today there are nuclear power plants all over the world which provide cheap electricity.
Another crucial discovery of the last two centuries was the internal combustion engine. In little more than a generation this invention completely revolutionised transportation. It is the basis for all the cars. The internal combustion engine also turned petroleum into a very important asset that countries fight over. Petroleum had been known to humans for thousands of years. Even the Babylonians and the Assyrians knew about petroleum, but they didn't do, they didn't do anything with it, except using it to waterproof ships and lubricate axles. Until about a century ago, nobody thought that you could do much with petroleum.
Similarly, in 1800 people knew about electricity, but it played no role in the economy. Electricity was used by scientists for all kinds of arcane experiments, and by magicians to perform cheap magic tricks. But over the last two centuries a series of inventions turned electricity into a kind of universal genie in a lamp that do anything we want. We flick our little finger and electricity runs to the ends of the world to fulfil our every wish, like here in the studio all the lights use electricity as well as the cameras and the computers. Most people don't know how electricity works, but few people can even imagine their lives without electricity.
The Industrial Revolution was a revolution of energy. It's underlying meaning is that there is no limit to the amount of energy available, or more precisely, the only limit is set by human ignorance. Every few decades scientists discover a new energy source. The sum total of energy available to humankind keeps growing instead of shrinking. Hence, the common fear that we are running out of energy is probably exaggerated. There is no lack of energy but lack of knowledge necessary to harness and convert the existing energy to human needs.
The amount of energy stored in all the fossil fuels on earth is negligible compared to the amount of energy that the sun releases every day. Only a tiny portion of the energy released by the sun reaches Earth, but even this small bit amounts to 3,766,000 exajoules of energy each year. All the plants on planet Earth capture in the process of photosynthesis only about 3,000 exajoules. All human activities in the industries today on Earth together consume in a year just 500 exajoule. This is equivalent to the amount of energy planet Earth receives from the sun in just 90 minutes.
In addition, there are enormous sources of other kinds of energy, such as nuclear energy in atoms and the gravitational forces of the ocean tides. Prior to the Industrial Revolution the energy for almost everything humans did came from eating plants to fuel their muscles, feet, and hands, or by feeding plants to work animals like horses or donkeys, or by burning plants such as wood in order to heat houses and cook meals.
This meant that throughout most of history, everything humans did, was just based on exploiting these 3,000 exajoules of energy that plants capture every year from solar energy, in the process of photosynthesis. During the Industrial Revolution humans came to realise that there is much more energy out there than the 3,000 exajoules in plants. There are millions of exajoules of potential energy which can be used if scientists invent better machines to harness all that energy.
what about raw materials? Okay. Aren't raw materials such as iron and copper scarce? Won't they eventually be completely used up? Once it is possible to harness large quantities of cheap energy, the problem of raw materials can also be solved. For example, if you have a lot of cheap energy, you can exploit previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials. If there is no more iron in easily accessible mines like Sweden, it is possible to start mining iron on the North Pole. If there is a lot of energy, you can transport raw materials from more distant locations.
For example, in the 19th century British textile manufacturers needed more and more wool. The wool in Britain, Ireland and Spain was not enough, so they began importing wool from Australia and New Zealand. Previously it would have been impossible to import wool from Australia because of the cost of transporting the wool from Australia to Britain. With the invention of steam engines and steam ships, it became cheaper to bring wool from Australia to Britain. And if there is a lot of cheap energy then why not take iron, copper and aluminium from the Moon, the stars or asteroids?
Scientific breakthroughs also enabled human kind to invent completely new materials that didn't exist before, such as plastic, or to discover materials that always existed but people knew nothing about, such as silicon and aluminium. Chemists discovered the metal aluminium only in the 1820s. Separating aluminium from its ore was extremely difficult and costly. For many decades aluminium was more expensive than gold. In the 1860s, the emperor of France, Napoleon III, the nephew of the famous Napoleon, commissioned aluminium forks and knives and plates to use when very distinguished guests were coming for a visit.
At the end of the 19th century, chemists discovered ways to extract immense amounts of aluminium very cheaply, and today the world's mines produce 30 million tonnes of aluminium each year. Napoleon the Third would be very surprised to hear that today aluminium is very cheap and that we use aluminium paper to wrap our sandwich in and then throw it into the garbage.
Another interesting case involved Germany in World War I. Germany was placed under blockade and suffered from severe shortages of raw materials, particularly saltpetre, which is a chemical that is essential for producing gun powder and other explosives. The most important natural deposits of saltpetre in the world were in Chile and India. Germany itself had no natural deposits of saltpetre. By the early 20th century, chemists saltpetre could be replaced in the production of explosives by synthetic ammonia, but ammonia was extremely expensive to produce.
Luckily for the Germans, a Jewish-German chemist called Fritz Haber discovered a process for producing ammonia from thin air in 1908, just before the war. When the war erupted, the Germans pooled money to develop this new discovery of Fritz Haber, and they built huge factories which produced ammonia and explosives. Many historians believe that without the discovery of Fritz Haber, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918 because it would have run out of explosives. This discovery won Fritz Haber the Nobel prize for chemistry in the year 1918.
The Industrial Revolution gave people not only cheap and abundant energy but also cheap and abundant raw materials. We have more and more of them with each passing decade. The result was an explosion in human productivity.
The explosion in human productivity was felt first and foremost in agriculture. Usually the Industrial Revolution is associated with cities, smoking chimneys, and the terrible working conditions of workers in factories like in the novels of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. However, the Industrial Revolution was first and foremost the second agricultural revolution. It first and foremost affected agriculture and the production of food. During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture.
Machines such as tractors replaced the muscle power of humans and animals. Fields and animals became much more productive thanks to the usage of industrial products like fertilisers, insecticides, and an entire arsenal of industrially produced hormones and medications. Refrigerators, airplanes, ships and trucks have made it possible to store agricultural produce like grain, fruits or meat for months or even years, and then to transport it quickly and cheaply to the other side of the world, so Europeans today can eat beef from Argentina or sushi from Japan.
Even the plants and animals themselves were mechanised and turned into machines. According to Professor Harari, farmyard animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead became treated simply as machines for producing food. Today, farmyard animals are often mass produced in factory like facilities. Their bodies are shaped by scientists in accordance with industrial needs. Chickens, cows and pigs pass their entire lives as parts of some giant production line. The conditions of their existence are determined by the profits and losses of corporations that own them.
The industry has no intrinsic interest in the social and psychological needs of the animals except when these have a direct impact on production. For example, egg laying hens have a very complex world of behavioural needs, drives and desires. Hens feel strong urges to walk around, scout their environment, to determine social hierarchies among themselves, to build nests, and to groom themselves as well as other chickens, but the egg industry locks hens inside tiny cages. The hens receive enough food, but they are unable to engage in other natural activities.
Similar things happen in the meat industry. Pigs and sows are routinely confined in very small cages. In industrialised farms, sows are confined into such small cages that they are unable to turn around, let alone walk or forage. The sows are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after they give birth together with their offspring, and after six weeks the small piglets are taken away from the mother to be fattened up and then butchered, whereas the sows are impregnated again with the next bunch of piglets. The sows are stuffed into crates in order to prevent them from accidentally crushing one of the piglets.
In the dairy industry there are similar practises. Many dairy cows live almost all their allotted years inside a small enclosure. They stand and sit and sleep in their own urine and excrement. Machines bring them food and other machines milk the cows every few hours, and in between the cow is treated by the industry as a machine that takes in raw materials and gives out the product milk. Treating living creatures which have complex needs as if they are only machines is likely to cause a lot of physical discomfort, social stress and psychological frustration.
These practises are not caused by any hatred of animals, just as the Atlantic slave trade did not result from hatred towards Africans. It is fuelled mainly by greed and indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat today, rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, the cows and the pigs. Those who do think about such things often argue that these animals are simply machines and have sensations and emotions. The same scientific disciplines that are used in order to shape milk machines and egg machines, have demonstrated that mammals and birds do have a complex sensory and emotional system.
Evolutionary psychology maintains that the emotional and social needs of animals, including farmyard animals, evolved in the wild over millions of years when these needs, desires and emotions were essential for the survival and reproduction of the species. For example, in the wild cows had to know how to form close relations with other cows and bulls. In order to learn the necessary social skills, evolution implanted the young of social mammals with a very strong desire to play. Playing is the way young mammals learn social behaviour. Evolution also implanted calves with a strong desire to bond with their mothers.
This is known at least from the 1950's and 1960's when the American psychologist Harry Harlow studied the development of young mammals. Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers several hours after birth. The monkeys were isolated inside a cage without any other monkey and raised by dummy mothers. In each cage, Harlow placed two two dummy mothers. One dummy mother was made of metal and was fitted with a milk bottle so that the infant monkey could suck and eat. The other dummy was made from wood covered with cloth, which made it resemble a real mum, but it did not provide any food.
Harlow assumed that the infants would cling to the nourishing metal mother, but to his great surprise, the infant monkeys showed a clear preference for the cloth mother. Harlow at first suspected that the infants did so because they were cold, so he fitted an electric bulb inside the metal mother. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the baby monkeys continued to prefer the cloth mother. The conclusion that they reached was that monkeys and other mammals look for something more in their parents than just material needs. They also have very deep important psychological and emotional needs.
Follow-up research showed that Harlow's orphaned monkeys, which did not receive any of their emotional and psychological needs, even though they received all the food, medications, water, and everything else, nevertheless they grew up to be emotional wrecks. They never managed to fit into monkey society. They had difficulty communicating with other monkeys and suffered constantly from very high levels of anxiety and aggression. The conclusion from this and many other experiments was that mammals have psychological and emotional needs and desires, and if these emotional needs and not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly.
Harlow's experiment produced a revolution in the practises of raising human children. In the 1940's and 1950's, psychologists started specialising in children. They thought that children only need material care. For instance, in the orphanages after World War II in Europe, there were hundreds of thousands of orphaned children. In the orphanages, according to the wisdom of those days, they took strong measures to separate the children from each other and from adults, because the big threat for children was the spread of epidemics in these orphanages. The main idea was that children only need food, water and medication.
The result was a high mortality rate, and even the orphans who survived, suffered from all kinds of psychological traumas and problems. What was discovered in the 1950s and 1960s was that mammals, including humans, have emotional needs that can only be provided by close contact with other members of the species. Today the entire logic of how to raise children, including orphans, is just the opposite. They need as much contact as possible with other people. This is now the accepted wisdom but industrial agriculture ignores these findings completely, so industrial agriculture raises a lot of ethical questions.
What cannot be ignored, and this is why it keeps going on, is the immense contribution it made to human productivity. Today, billions of farmyard animals live as part of some kind of mechanised assembly line and are slaughtered in order to support our economy and affluent lifestyle. These industrial methods of agriculture is one of the things that led to a very sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture and in human food reserves. Together with the mechanisation of the cultivation of wheat, potatoes, rice and corn, industrial animal husbandry has been the basis for the entire modern social economic order.
Before the industrialisation of agriculture, most of the food that was produced by farmers was used for feeding the farmers themselves and the farmyard animals. Only a small percentage of the food was available to feed teachers, priests, bureaucrats and workers in the cities. Consequently, in almost all previous societies peasants comprised more than 90% of the population, an this was true until the early 20th century. Only following the industrialisation of agriculture, it was possible for a smaller number of farmers to produce more and more food, in order to feed all the clerks, teachers and factory workers in the cities.
For example, in the United States today, only 2% of the population make their living from agriculture, but these 2% produce enough food with all of the industrial methods of agriculture, to feed not only the other 98% of the population, but also to export surplus food to the rest of the world. The United States is one of the world's biggest exporters of food. Without the industrialisation of agriculture, the urban Industrial Revolution in the cities and factories could never have taken place as there would not have been enough hands and brains to staff all the factories and offices in the cities.
Agriculture enabled more and more people to stop working in the fields and villages and to move to the cities. Factories and offices were able to absorb billions of new workers as clerks, teachers, and so on. They began producing more and more products as a result. Humans today produce a really mind boggling collection of products which previously nobody even imagined, like phones, cameras and dishwashers. For the first time in human history the supply of products began to outstrip demand. This created an entirely new economic problem, the problem of consumption. When there are so many products, who is going to buy all this stuff?
Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity so frugality was a very important part of ethics. People believed that being satisfied with the little that you have is good, and that indulging yourself in luxuries is bad, and that only evil people indulge themselves in luxuries. A good person should avoid luxuries and should never throw away food. And if your trousers get torn, you don't throw them away and buy a new pair, but you mend them. This was a very important part of human morality. Only kings and aristocrats conspicuously flaunted their riches by building palaces and wearing gold and silver.
The Industrial Revolution solved the problem of scarcity and instead created the problem of consumption. The modern capitalist economy must constantly grow and produce more and more in order to survive. However, it's not enough just to produce more and more cars, refrigerators, televisions and clothes, somebody must also buy all these products. If not, the industrialists and the investors will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe, and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared, called consumerism.
The new revolutionary ethic of consumerism sees the consumption of more and more products as a positive thing. Consumerism encourages people to spoil themselves, treat themselves well, and even kill themselves by slowly by eating too much. Instead consumerism sees frugality as a problem. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology and advertisements and the media, to convince people that indulging yourself is good for you, whereas frugality and being satisfied with very little, is self-oppression, and therefore not good.
Consumerism has succeeded in turning people into very good consumers. We buy countless products that we don't really need, and we can't even afford, and that until yesterday, we didn't even know that they existed. Manufacturers actually deliberately design short term goods and invent all kinds of new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products, so we can purchase more and more products every year. Shopping has become a favourite pastime of more and more people, and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses, friends, parents and children.
If you want to express your feelings for someone, you buy something for him or her. Even religious festivals like Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day, which was originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers, is spent by many Americans by going shopping. There are special Memorial Day sales because shop owners know that people have free time during this day, so they attract them to the shops with these Memorial Day sales. Perhaps they think that the fallen soldiers of the United States really wanted us to go shopping to prove that they did not die in vain.
The rise of consumerism is manifested perhaps most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in constant fear of hunger and starvation. Today in the affluent world, one of the leading health problems is obesity, and actually the poor are more in danger than the rich. In the United States, the poor stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas, whereas the rich eat all kinds of organic salads and fruit shakes, so they are less endangered. Each year the population of the United States spends more money on diets than is needed to feed all the hungry people that remain in the world.
This phenomena of eating far too much and then doing all kinds of diets and exercises is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic stagnation, because you don't need all the food that the companies are producing, people eat far too much, and then they buy diet products and go to the gym, and thereby contribute to economic growth a second time. How can we square this consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business people according to which profits should not be wasted but instead be reinvested in production.
As in previous eras, so today there is a division of labour between between the elite and the masses. In mediaeval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on all kinds of luxuries, whereas most of the population lived frugally. Today, those roles have been switched. The rich now take great care managing their assets and investments, whereas the majority of less affluent people, goes into debt buying cars, televisions, refrigerators and holidays abroad. The capitalist and the consumerist ethical principle are therefore two sides of exactly the same coin. They are complimentary, not contradictory.
The rich are are busy investing to produce more and more, and the poor are busy buying all that new stuff. And the new ethic is therefore a double ethic, with two complimentary commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is to invest. The supreme commandment for the rest of the people is to buy. Even if you don't have enough money to buy that car, go to the bank, take a loan, and buy that car. This is your role in the economy.
This new capitalist consumerist double ethic is revolutionary in many respects. Most previous ethical systems in history presented people with a very tough deal. Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism promise people paradise, but only if they cultivate compassion and tolerance, and only if they could overcome their cravings and anger, and only if they restrained their selfish interests. This was too difficult for most people, so the history of ethics for hundreds of years is a very sad history of wonderful ideals that nobody could actually realise.
Most Christians did not imitate Christ. They behaved very differently from Jesus Christ. Most Buddhists failed to follow the recommendations of Buddha of how to live their lives. Most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum if he could see how they are behaving. In contrast, what is revolutionary about the new capitalist consumerist ethic, is that for the first time in history most people actually do what they're asked to do and live up to the expectations.
The new epic promises paradise here on Earth on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend all of their time making more and more and more money, and on condition that the mass of people give freedom to their cravings and passions, and buy more and more stuff. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How can we be sure that we get paradise in return from all our effort? Television promises us that if you buy all that stuff, you will live in paradise. And if you're not in paradise yet, it is because you are still missing the latest model of this or that product.
The Industrial Revolution gave humankind control of enormous sources of energy and raw materials. This liberated humankind from its dependence on the surrounding ecosystem. Humans were able to cut down forests and jungles, drain swamps, down rivers, flood plains, lay down tens of thousands of kilometres of roads and railway tracks, and build new and giant cities. As the world was moulded to fit the needs and whims of Homo Sapiens, habitats were destroyed, and animal and plant species went extinct.
Today, the world harbours almost seven billion humans. If you put them all together on a very large scale, their combined mass would be about 300 million tonnes. If you put all domesticated animals, and placed them on a very big scale, their mass would be about 700 million tonnes. In contrast, the mass of all the surviving big wild animals of the planet, such as penguins, ostriches, lions, crocodiles, whales, and dolphins, is estimated to be less than 100 million tonnes. Less than 10% of the big animals of the world today are wild animals. The vast majority are humans and domesticated animals.
There are very few big wild animals left. There are, for example, just about 80,000 giraffes left in the world compared to 1.5 billion domesticated cattle. There're only 200,000 grey wolves remaining in the world compared to 400 million domesticated dogs. There are only 250,000 chimpanzees compared to 7 billion homo sapiens. So, it's clear that sapiens have taken over the world and control it.
The resources available to human kind are increasing all the time, and they are likely to continue doing so. That's why the doomsday prophecies about humanity running out of resources and energy are probably incorrect. In contrast however, the fear of ecological destruction is far more justified. In the not so distant future, we may have enormous resources at our disposal, but simultaneously most of the natural habitats of the world will be ruined and most of the species of animals and plants may have become extinct. The destruction of habitats and species might endanger even the survival of Homo Sapiens itself.
Global warming and pollution of air, water and earth could turn our planet into a far less hospitable place. The future might consequently see a kind of race between human power and human caused natural disasters. As humans use their power to control the forces of nature and to change the ecosystem to fit their needs and whims, they might be causing more and more unanticipated and dangerous side effects like global warming. In order to control these side effects, humans may have to make even more drastic manipulations of the ecosystem, and this could make matters even worse.
Nature as such cannot be destroyed. It can be changed. 65 million years ago an asteroid hit Earth, completely changing the ecosystem, wiping out the dinosaurs and opening the way for mammals. Today, humankind is doing something similar. It is changing the ecosystem and driving many species to extinction, and it might even annihilate itself. There are however organisms that are having a good time out of all these changes, like rats and cockroaches. Perhaps rats will flourish and evolve to become super intelligent powerful creatures that will control Earth.
At present it is far too early to speak about the extinction of Homo Sapiens. On the contrary, over the last 200 years the human population of the world has only been growing and growing as never before. In the year 1700, before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Earth was home to about 700 million humans. By the year 1900 there were 1.5 billion humans. In the year 2000, there were already 6 billion humans, and today are nearly 7 billion sapiens on Earth. While all these sapiens have grown increasingly free from the forces of nature, they are becoming increasingly subject to the forces of modern industry and government.
We care less about nature and the cycles of rain and sun and the seasons, but government and industry have much more power than ever before to change our lives. The Industrial Revolution opened the way to a long line of changes and experiments in social engineering and also to a long series of unpremeditated changes in the daily life of humans and in human mentality, changes that nobody wanted or predicted, but they simply happened. One very important example of what happened over the last 200 years was 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 did not have clocks and exact timetables. They cared about the natural cycles of day and night, the movement of the sun, the natural cycle of the seasons and the growing of the plants. The routines of humans changed from one season to another. People cared about where the sun was in the sky. They watched anxiously for signs of the changing of the seasons, but they didn't know what hour it was or what year.
In contrast, modern industry cares far less about the sun and the seasons and far more about precise and uniform schedules. To understand why, consider the way in which a mediaeval workshop functioned compared with a modern factory. In a mediaeval Workshop, each shoemaker made the entire shoe. If a shoemaker was late for work, he didn't stall the work of the other shoemakers in the shop. However, in a modern shoe factory with a modern assembly line, every worker does only a very small part of the process of producing the shoe. If in a modern factory a worker comes late, all the other workers are also slowed down or stopped.
In order to prevent such problems, everybody in a modern industrial factory must work according to the same precise timetable. Each worker must arrive at the factory at exactly the same time, when the shift begins. All workers must take their lunch break together. And everybody goes home exactly the same time when the shift is over. The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into the basis for industrial production and into the basis of all other human activity because all other human activities began to copy and to adjust to the technique of the factory.
Shortly after factories began to impose strict timetables, schools also adopted them, because people imported industrial methods of production to schools which were thought of as factories for producing knowledge and factories for producing workers, and also because people thought that young children had to get used to working and living according to schedule because this is what they'll have to do as adults. The same logic entered hospitals, prisons, shops and all other aspects of modern life. Everything runs according to precise schedules.
A very crucial link in this spreading of the time table was public transportation. If workers need to get to the factory and start their shift, then the train or the bus must reach the gate of the factory at least five minutes earlier. Even if there is only a few minutes delay, the result will be that some workers are late for work and production will be lower. One of the things that happened was the appearance of precise timetables in transportation. The first timetable in British history of transportation system was published in 1784. It was the timetable of a carriage service that connected different cities in Britain.
This first timetable specified only the hour of departure, not the hour of arrival, probably because nobody could tell how long the journey will take, but more importantly because each city and town in Britain in those days, like cities and towns in the rest of the world, had its own local time. The local time in Liverpool or Glasgow could be different from the time in London by up to half an hour. Since there were no telephones, radios, televisions and no fast trains and cars, nobody could know that there was a difference between the time in London and Liverpool, and nobody cared.
When trains began to connect the different cities of Britain, it suddenly became a problem that different towns and cities had different times. So in 1847 British train companies met together for a conference and agreed that from that moment onwards all timetables of all trains would be given according to the time in Greenwich Observatory near London, and not according to the local times. In the following years adopted Greenwich time, until finally in the year 1880, the British government took an unprecedented step in the history of humankind, and legislated by law that all timetables in Britain must follow the single time of Greenwich.
It was the first time in history that an entire country adopted a national time and obliged its population to live according to an artificial clock. From this modest beginning, eventually a global network of timetables was created, synchronising all the activities of humans around the world, down to the tiniest fractions of a second. In order to make sure that everybody followed the same timetable, cheap but precise portable clocks became ubiquitous. In ancient cities, there were hardly any clocks at all. In mediaeval European cities, there was usually just a single inaccurate clock in the whole city on the top of a high tower.
Today, a single family usually has more clocks at its disposal at home than an entire mediaeval country. People have watches on their hands, clocks in cellular phones, alarm clocks next to their beds. They have clocks on the walls in the kitchen and the living room. There is a clock inside the microwave, the TV, the DVD, and the computer. It's almost impossible to look anywhere in a modern house without seeing a clock. A typical person consults these clocks several dozen or even several hundred times each day, because precise timetables dictate almost everything we do.
Many people wake up in the morning when an alarm clock beeps at 6:45 AM. They put a precooked breakfast in the microwave for exactly 50 seconds. They brush their teeth for exactly two minutes and then the toothbrush stops. They catch their train which leaves exactly at 7:40 AM. Similarly they go to the gym for an hour. They go home and sit in front of the TV exactly at 7:00 PM in the evening, when their favourite show starts. The entire day is run according to this precise timetable. The revolution in time is one of many revolutions in daily life and human mentality which were brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
The most important upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution is the collapse of the family and and the and the intimate community and the replacement of the family and the intimate community by the state and the market as the main controllers of human life. To the best of our knowledge, from earliest times, humans always lived in small, intimate communities, most of whose members were related to one another by a family ties.
The Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution did not change that. These revolutions glued together families and communities to create tribes, cities, kingdoms, and empires, but all these mergers did not break families and communities, which continued to be the basic building bricks of all human societies. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, managed within little more than two centuries, to break these blocks of families and communities into atoms of individuals. During the last two centuries, most of the traditional functions of families and communities were handed over to the state or the market.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the daily life of most men and women was dominated by the nuclear family, the extended family of aunts and uncles, and their local intimate community. Most people worked in family businesses, such as the family farm or the family workshop. If your family had a shoe workshop then this is where you worked. Alternatively, if your family was poor and did not own a farm or a workshop, you worked in the farm or the workshop of somebody in your community. The family was not only the main provider of work, it was also the welfare system and the health system.
If you fell ill, the family took care of you. If you grew old, the family supported you. Your children were the only pension fund you could have. There were no organised pension funds of the state or the market. And if you died at a young age and left young children behind you, then the family and not the state, took care of the orphans. Similarly, if you wanted to build a house, you went to your cousins and uncles to ask for help. If you wanted to open a business, then the family provided you with the necessary knowledge and money. The family also chose or at least vetted your perspective husband or wife.
If you came into conflict with somebody else, then there usually was no police to handle matters. You had to rely on help from your family. And if the conflict or some other problem could not be handled by the family, then the local community could try to solve it. The community offered people help on the basis of local traditions, and on the basis of an economy of favours, which was very different from the laws of supply and demand that govern the free markets of today.
For example, suppose that in a mediaeval community your neighbour needed somebody to look after his sheep, or he wanted to build a house and needed help. He would come to you and ask for help and you will help him without receiving any payment in return. And after some time, when you need his help, then the neighbour helped you, again without any kind of payment. At the same time, if you lived in a mediaeval village, the local noblemen might have drafted all villagers to construct his castle without paying them. In exchange, the villagers counted on these noblemen to defend them against brigands, robbers, and barbarians.
Village life involved many transactions but very few payments. People did not pay for most of the things they needed. There were some markets in the modern sense of the word, places where you can go and buy stuff from people you didn't know, but very few items were bought in such places. Most of the things people needed for their lives, were manufactured by themselves, neighbours, family members and friends. In markets, people bought perhaps just 10% of their needs, such as rare spices, clothes, tools and the services of lawyers and doctors.
There were kingdoms and empires that performed tasks like waging wars, building roads, and constructing palaces and cathedrals. For these purposes, the kings taxed people and enlisted soldiers and labourers. However, most of the kings, emperors and sultans did not intervene in the daily affairs of families and communities. Even if they wanted to, most kings couldn't because in traditional agricultural economies, there were very few surpluses from which to feed large numbers of government officials, policemen, teachers, doctors, and social workers.
Consequently, most rulers did not have the ability to develop mass welfare systems, mass healthcare systems, educational systems, schools, nurseries, and hospitals. They left all these matters of education, welfare and health in the hands of families and communities. Very often kings lacked not only the money but also the transportation and communication infrastructure to intervene in the affairs of remote communities, so many rulers preferred to give up even the most basic royal prerogative functions such as taxation and violence, and to allow local communities to manage taxation and violence by themselves.
For example, in the Ottoman Empire 200 years ago, family vendettas were used in order to provide justice and law and order instead of maintaining a huge police force and imperial courts. For example, if my cousin murdered somebody, then the family of the murdered person could murdered me in retaliation for what my cousin did. The logic was that because people knew this, each family will take care to control its own members and not allow them murder somebody. This kept violence levels down.
In the Chinese Ming empire that existed from 14th to the 17th century, the population was organised into the Baojia system. Ten families were grouped together in a group called Jia and ten Jia constituted a Bow. When a member of a Bow committed a crime, other Bow members could be punished for it, in particular the Bow elders. This collective punishment gave them an incentive to look after what the people in the community were doing and to prevent them from breaking the law. Taxes were levied on the Bow and not on individuals. It was the responsibility of the Bow elders to determine how much tax each family could pay.
Many kingdoms and empires were no more than a large protection racket like the mafia today. The local mafia is taking protection money people, and the only thing it gives you in return is a promise that they won't kill you and they will protect you from the mafia of the next neighbourhood. This exactly is what kings and emperors throughout history provided. They did not provide education, healthcare or welfare or other things we today expect from the government to do. Life was therefore controlled by families and communities more than by states and markets.
Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than modern states and modern markets, and the internal dynamics of families and communities were often full of tension and violence. But there was no other choice. People could not live outside a family or a community. A person who for any reason lost her family or her community was as good as dead. There was nobody to take care of you. If you needed money, nobody gave you money. If you needed protection, nobody gave you protection. In order to survive, you had to very quickly find yourself an alternative family or community.
Boys and girls who ran away from home could hope at best to become servants in some new family. If nobody would take them, they had only two places to go to. They could join the army or they could become prostitutes and join a brothel. There was no social network of the state to look after them. All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers and it provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, like radio television and railroads.
All the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution enabled governments to start employing an army of teachers, policemen, social workers, tax collectors and bureaucrats. When the market and the state tried to use their growing powers, they discovered that their attempt to start controlling the lives of people were resisted by the power of the families and the communities. The family elders and the leaders of the communities did not like this new outside intervention from the government and the market.
Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation to be indoctrinated by nationalist education in the schools of the state. Similarly the didn't like the idea of giving their children away to be conscripted into armies. And they didn't like the idea of the younger generation leaving the village and migrating to the city to become urban workers. In order to overcome these obstacles, the state and the market tried to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community.
For example, the state sent law enforcement officers to control family vendettas and to stop family and community violence. Similarly, the market started intervening in the affairs of families and communities to convince people to follow the fashions of the market, and not the traditions of their family, their village or their tribe. But this was difficult because the family and the community were very strong. So in order to really break the power of the family in the community, the state and the market needed somebody from inside to help them against the family and the community. And this somebody was the individual.
During the 19th and 20th century, the state and the market approached people with an offer that couldn't be refused. The state and the market came to people and told them that they could become individuals who were free from the power of their parents and community. You can marry whoever you want. You don't have to ask permission from your parents. You can take up whatever kind of job you want, even if your community elders don't like this job. You can do whatever you want. You can live anywhere you want, leave your village and go to the city. You are no longer dependent on your family and community.
So who will take care of you? The state and the market will take care of everything you need. They will provide you with jobs, with education. The state and the market will establish a health system, a welfare system, and an employment system which will provide everything you need. They will even provide you with pensions and insurance so you are not dependent on your family and community. The state and the market became in fact the mother and father of the individual. The individual cannot survive, and couldn't have appeared, without the help of the state and the market.
Today, the market provides individuals with work, insurance, and a pension. If you want to study a profession, you don't have to count on your family anymore. The schools maintained by the government or the colleges maintained by the market will teach you. If you want to open a business, you no longer dependent on your family, the bank will loan you money. If you want to build a house, you don't have to ask your cousins to come and help build it. Instead, you go to a construction company and it builds it for you. And if you don't have money to pay, the construction company then the bank gives you a mortgage.
If there is violence, you don't have to run to your uncle or the community elders to protect you, because there is police. Even if you're threatened by your family, you go to the state and ask protection from the state against your family. Similarly, if you're ill, you're no longer dependent on your family and community. There is a state health system, and there are hospitals and clinics run by the market. If you need somebody to be all the time with you, you no longer have to count on your children. Today you go to the market and you hire a nurse.
Similarly, the tax authorities no longer tax entire communities. They treat us as individuals. Nobody is expected to pay the taxes of his neighbours. The law enforcement system treats us now as individuals. You are not punished for the crimes committed by your cousin. Not only adult men, but also women and children have been increasingly recognised by the state and the market as individuals. For most of history, women were seen as the property of the family of the community. In contrast, modern states and markets increasingly see women as individuals who have independent legal rights and independent economic rights.
The liberation of the individual from the control of family and community made them far more vulnerable to the intervention of the state and of the market. People today are far less constrained by what their father or village elder tells them to do, but they are far more exposed than ever before to the power of the government and big corporations. In traditional societies, the state and the market had difficulty telling people what to do because the family and the community shielded people from these interventions. Now, the state and the market have far more influence because of the weakening of the family and the community.
So was it worth it? Are people today better off than before all these changes? Are people better off when they are free from the control of the families and communities but are simultaneously subject to the increasing power of the state and of the market? It's very hard to say. Different people think very different things. What everybody can agree about, is that it is amazing how fast this transformation happened. For millions of years, humans have been living as members of intimate communities and families, and also for the last few thousand years when all kinds of cities, kingdoms and empires grew.
Within a mere two centuries from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have become alienated individuals living within these states and markets with less and less importance for the families and the communities. Families are still important. When states and markets took away from the family, most of it's economic and political roles, they left the family with some important emotional functions. The modern family is still supposed to provide for our intimate and romantic and sexual needs which the state and the markets still are not capable of providing themselves. Yet, even here the family is subject to increasing interventions.
The market shapes to an ever greater degree the way that people conduct their romantic relationships and their sexual lives. Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it's the market that shapes our romantic and sexual preferences and then helps us to fulfil these sexual and romantic fantasies. In traditional societies the bride and the groom would meet in the living room of one of the families where the parents of each side discuss the possibility of marriage. Today, courting, looking for a mate, is done in the cafes, bars, the Internet, provided by the market.
In the process money passes from the hands of the couple into the hands of the waitresses in the cafe. Even more money is transferred to the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dietitians, cosmeticians, and plastic surgeons, who help us to arrive at our date looking as similar as possible to the ideal of beauty that the market implanted in our heads.
The state too, keeps a much sharper eye on family relations than ever before, especially relations between parents and children. In the modern world, parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the states. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If the need arises the state even has the power and legitimacy to imprison the parents or to take away the children from parents and transfer them to foster families.
Until not very long ago, even the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have sounded ridiculous, because in most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect and obedience to your parents was amongst the most valued principles. In most traditional societies, parents could do almost anything they wanted with their children. If a baby was born and the parents didn't want it, for example because they didn't have money to support it, they could kill it. They could sell the children into slavery or they could marry off their children to whoever they wanted to.
For example, the parents could marry a 12 year old daughter to some 50 year old man whom she never met before because this man gave the parents money or sheep. This was acceptable in traditional societies but today the authority of the parents is diminishing rapidly. The state passed laws that greatly diminished what parents can do with their children. Popular culture similarly sanctifies the freedom of children from their parents in TV shows and movies. Whereas in traditional societies obedience to your parents was the number one value, in the modern society, it has become customary to view parents as the servants of their children.
Communities too, like the families, did not completely disappear. Since humans evolved for millions of years as communal creatures that need to feel part of some tribe, the community could not just disappear completely without something replacing it. In many parts of the world the intimate communities vanished and they were replaced by national and market communities, the communities of the state and the market.
An intimate community is a group of people who you know very well for years. You observed them in all kinds of situations. You know their character. And most importantly, your daily life and your survival depend on them. They are your tribe members. You may not like them, because you can't break your ties with your community. This is very different from the modern use of the term community. These kinds of communities are becoming rare. Instead, the identity of people today is based more on identification with the state and their position in the market.
People in the modern world identify themselves less and less as belonging to a particular family or a particular community but as member of a nation, for example Israel. Even though they never met 99% of the other Israelis, they still imagine of the other Israelis to be part of the same community. Even more remarkable, is our growing identification with our position in the market. People around the world increasingly build their identity as consumers, as belonging to particular consumer tribes. This sounds very strange, but we are surrounded by examples of such consumer tribes.
For example, the fans of Madonna constitute a consumer tribe. They define themselves largely by what they buy and what they consume. They buy tickets to the concerts of Madonna. They buy CD's, posters, shirts, and ringtones, and thereby they define who they are by what they buy and consume. Similarly, Manchester United fans are also a consumer tribe. Vegetarians are a consumer tribe. They define themselves by what they buy and eat or not buy and not eat. And even environmentalists, who all the time are very careful about what they buy, and what they consume, also constitute a consumer tribe.
This market identity can very important to people. A German vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian to a German carnivore, because her identity as a vegetarian, somebody who does not buy and consume meat products, is more important to her than her national identity.
The revolutions of the last two centuries, such as the decline of the family and the community and the rise of the state and the market, have been very swift and very radical. They managed to change the most fundamental aspect of the social order. Traditionally, the social order, no matter how it looked like, was hard and rigid. Order implied stability and continuity. Swift social revolutions were very rare. Most transformations in human society resulted from the accumulation of numerous small steps over decades and centuries. Humans therefore tended to assume that the social structure is inflexible and eternal.
The idea that you could change the structure of the order itself sounded impossible. People tended to reconcile themselves to the status quo and thought this is how it always was, and this is how it always will be. Over the last two centuries, the pace of social change became so rapid, that the character of the social order changed, and the social order became very flexible and dynamic. When we speak about modern revolutions, we tend to think about particular years, such as the French revolution of 1789, the Liberal revolutions of 1848, or the Russian communist revolution of 1917.
But the fact is, that in the last century or two, society kept changing all the time. The only characteristic of modern society is constant change. People have become accustomed to it. Most of us today think about society and social order, as something flexible that can be engineered and improved. People may be worrying about changes as they may be bad, but everybody accepts as fact that society changes all the time. Everybody expects that the world will be very different in 40 years or even 20 years time. The big arguments is about how it should be and whether the coming changes will be good or bad.
Yet, at the same time that the human order has become so volatile, it is also becoming more peaceful than ever before. It could be expected that the more changes and revolutions occur in the world and society, the more violence there will be. But, at least in the last few decades, as the pace of change in the world increased, the world simultaneously became more and more peaceful than ever before. The levels of violence in the world today are lower than in any previous time in history, at least from the Agricultural Revolution onwards, and by a very wide margin.
First of all, the collapse of the family and the community and the rise of the state, caused a decrease in internal levels of violence. This may sound incredible because the news is all the time full of reports about crimes and murders, not to mention wars, and there is indeed a lot of violence in the world today. Despite that, there is less violence than ever before. On average there are fewer cases of murder, today than there were 100, 1000, or 10,000 years ago. For this, we need to look at statistics such as the percentage of violent deaths of the total of death cases in the world.
In the year 2000, wars caused a total of 310,000 deaths while violent crime killed another 520,000, together 830,000 people, which is just 1.5% of deaths in that year, because in the year 2000 a total of 56 million people died around the world from all causes together. To to put things into perspective, note that in the year 2000 about 1,260,000 people died from car accidents while 815,000 people committed suicide. In 2002, a total of 57 million people died that year. Only 172,000 people died in war and 569,000 people died from violent crime, a total of 741,000 people. In contrast, 873,000 people committed suicide.
It turns out, that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, despite all the talk about terrorism and war, the average person was more likely to kill himself than to be killed by a terrorist, a soldier or a some criminal. In most parts of the world, people today enjoy a level of security from human violence that our ancestors could hardly imagine. In most parts of the world, not in all parts, people go to sleep at night without fear that in the middle of the night a neighbouring tribe or village will surround their village and slaughter or kidnap everybody, and travel from place to place without fear of being killed or kidnapped by pirates.
The decline in violence and the rising level of security, is due above all to the rise of the power of the state. Throughout history, most violence resulted from local conflicts between families and communities. Even today, local crime is a far deadlier than international wars. In the year 2002, 172,000 people died in wars between states but 569,000 people died from violent crime. When states did not exist at all, and societies were organised and controlled by families and communities, violence levels were much higher than they are today.
A popular measurement for the level of violence is the number of people murdered in one year for a given population of 100,000 people. Today in places like Western Europe, Australia, and Japan, only one is killed by another human for every 100,000 people on a given year. In New York, the rate is about seven people murdered each year for every 100,000 New Yorkers. In Detroit, the murder capital of the United States, about 50 people are murdered each year for every 100,000 people. And this is considered unacceptable.
In contrast, in ancient societies of simple farmers, who had no political organisation larger than the local community, about 400 individuals were violently killed each year for every 100,000 people. That's eight times the rate of Detroit. As kingdoms and empires became stronger, they gradually restrained local violence, because the kings and emperors didn't like it that local criminals killed their subjects who were supposed to pay taxes to them and to serve in their armies.
When the states and the markets became even more powerful in the modern age, while the local communities and families became weaker, violence rates dropped even more, so that today the average for the entire world, is only nine murders per year for every 100,000 people, and most and these murders take place in places where the state is very weak, such as in Somalia and Afghanistan and parts of Colombia and Mexico.
It is obvious that strong states are not always good. There are quite a few cases in which states used their power to kill their own citizens, and these cases loom large in our fears. During the 20th Century, tens of millions of people were killed by the security forces of their own State. Still, it is still quite obvious that the courts and the police forces of the state increased the level of security and decreased the level of violence, despite these notorious occasions when they are used to kill and to oppress and kill the citizens of the state themselves.
Also the violence between states dropped. At least, since 1945 international violence has dropped even more quickly than internal violence. And today, international violence is at an all-time low. There was never a period in history when the international community was as peaceful as it is today. The decline in international violence manifested itself above all in two fundamental developments. First of all, the relatively quick and peaceful collapse of the European empires, and secondly, the fact that the independent countries that replaced the European empires fight very few major wars.
In 1945, the world was ruled by the empires of a few European nations, most notably, Britain, France and Russia. Within a few decades these empires collapsed and were replaced by independent states. This is not the first time in history that empires collapsed, but it is very unique that the collapse of the European empires was very fast and relatively peaceful and orderly. The collapse of the European empires was the greatest transfer of power in history. Within a few decades, the elites in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Moscow transferred most of their powers into the hands of elites of new independent states.
This transfer of power was on a very massive scale, and done very quickly in just a few decades, and in most cases done in a relatively ordered and peaceful way. Throughout history, empires did not want to give up their powers. When there was rebellion, the empire used all its power to crush the rebellion. Even when the empires became too weak to survive, they still didn't want to give up their power willingly, and their remaining power to hang on to their realm. And when an empire finally collapsed, it was usually replaced by bloody chaos when all kinds of forces struggled for the inheritance of the empire.
For example, when the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker in the fifth century, the Romans did not willingly give up their empire, but they tried to hang on to power until the last minute. And when the Roman Empire finally collapsed, it was replaced by a terrible and bloody struggle for control of the territories that once belonged to the empire. All kinds of peoples, such as Franks, Goths, Huns, Visigoths, and Vandals fought one another ferociously for the Roman inheritance. And this was the usual thing that happened after a big empire collapsed.
However, since 1945 most empires, when they felt that they were becoming too weak to survive, they decided to give up their power relatively peacefully and orderly. The process of imperial collapse became relatively calm and orderly. The British Empire is a good example. In some places the British tried to hang on to their power using their armed forces, and there were places where a lot of violence erupted after the British left, for example in Palestine, Cyprus, and India. But in most cases, the British empire left, and not because of rebellion, but because the rulers of the empire reached the conclusion that they were too weak.
The British deliberately transferred the power to some new local elite and in most cases the British flag was taken down and a new flag of an independent country was hoisted in its place without a bloody war. It didn't happen like this in all cases, but in most cases. There was still a lot of violence when the British empire collapsed, but compared to what usually happened when big empires collapsed in history, the British withdrawal was an exemplar of peacefulness and orderliness.
An even more remarkable example is the collapse of the Soviet Russian empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the eruption of various local conflicts in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, it is be safe to say that never before in history such a mighty empire disappeared so quickly within just two years so quietly and in such an orderly manner. The Soviet Empire in 1989 did not suffer from any military defeat, except for Afghanistan, which was a minor affair. Nobody invaded the Soviet Empire in 1989. There was no serious rebellion against the Soviet Empire.
There was not even a campaign of civil disobedience like what Mahatma Gandhi did in India to the British, except the Solidarity movement in Poland. The Solidarity movement did lead a campaign of civil disobedience in Poland, one of the countries that belonged to the Soviet empire. But this didn't cause the Soviet Empire to collapse. The Soviets in 1989 still controlled the largest and most powerful army in history. They had millions of soldiers, tens of thousands of tanks, airplanes, submarines, ships, and enough nuclear weapons to destroy the whole of humankind several times over.
The Soviet army and the other armies of the communist block remained loyal. If the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, had given the order, the red army would have done whatever he told them to do, even to open fire on civilians or demonstrators. The Soviet elite and the communist regimes throughout most of Eastern Europe, with the exception of Romania and Serbia, chose to dismantle the empire willingly and peacefully when they saw that communism doesn't work. Never before in history had so much power been renounced by so few people.
Not only did they give up the Soviet empire, a relatively new empire that was set up by Stalin after World War II, they also gave up the much older Russian empire, which was set up by the Czars in previous centuries. The empires of the British, the French, the Russians and the other European powers, not only collapsed peacefully in most cases, but they were also replaced, not by chaos, but by dozens of independent states. This could have created numerous new opportunities for wars between all these new states, but most of the new states of the world are remarkably peaceful.
According to professor Harari, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and annex them. Such conquests have been central in political history since time immemorial. This is how most great empires were established, and this is how most rulers and populations expected things to stay. Everybody took it for granted that the king of another kingdom might invade, defeat the army, conquer the territory, enslave them and annex them into his kingdom or empire. This was normal but this just doesn't happen anymore in most parts of the world.
Campaigns of conquests like those of the Romans, or Assyrians, Mongols or Ottomans do not take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognised by the United Nations has been conquered and wiped off the map by some other country. More limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars today, but even such limited wars are no longer the norm, even though they happen in several places and in some periods, but they are not the norm that characterises all the regions of the world. And this is not only true for Western Europe, but many other parts of the world as well.
For example, South America has seen all kinds of juntas and generals who make coups and revolutions and violently take control of the country, but during the 20th century there have been few international wars between South American countries. The last the serious war was the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941. Before that, there was the Bolivia-Paraguay War of 1932 to 1933. And before that, the last serious war took place in 1884 between Chile on one side, and Bolivia and Peru on the other side. There was another famous war in South America, the Falklands War in 1982, which involved a country from outside South America, Britain.
Even if we take the Falklands War into account, there have been only three wars in 130 years in an area as big as South America. This is an amazing achievement. Similarly, the Arab world doesn't seem a particularly peaceful zone in the world. But the fact is, that since the Arab countries won their independence from the European empires, there has been only one occasion in which one Arab country invaded the territory of another Arab country in an attempt to conquer it. This is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
There have been quite a few border clashes between Arab countries, for instance between Syria and Jordan in 1970. There have been many armed interventions of one Arab country in the affairs of another Arab country. For instance, the Syrians intervened in Lebanon for many years. And there have been many civil wars, revolts and revolutions in Arab countries. However, there have been no full scale international wars between Arab states except for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This is amazing compared to how politics in most of the world looked like in most of history until the last few decades.
Even in the entire Muslim world there has been only one more major international war the last few decades, in which one Muslim state tried to conquer a large part of the other. This is the Iran Iraq war in the 1980s. There have been many civil wars and revolutions, but at the level of international politics, the Muslim world of the last few decades has been remarkably peaceful. In Africa things are less rosy. But even in Africa, the vast majority of conflicts are civil wars, revolutions and rebellions. Since African states gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s, very few of them invaded another country in the hope of conquering it.
Surprisingly, when people hear all this wonderful news of the relative peace in the world, many of them react with with disbelief. One common argument is that, maybe there is a period of relative peace in the world in the last few decades, but there have been such periods before. For example, there was a period of relative peace in Europe between 1871 and 1914 with few international wars, and it ended with World War I. All previous periods of peace in history ended in wars so many people think that the next big war, World War III, is just around the corner.
Nobody knows what will happen in the future and nobody can guarantee that World War III will not erupt in 2020 or 2040, but the peace that the world is experiencing today is very different from all the previous peaceful periods in history, because the word peace has two distinct and very different meanings. The first meaning is simply the absence of war. This was the kind of peace that existed in previous periods of history, for example in Europe between 1871 and 1914. This kind of peace is very fragile.
An iron law of international politics throughout history stated that, for every two nearby polities that are at present at peace, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go to war within one year. This law of the jungle existed throughout history. For example, if Germany and France were at peace, there was a plausible scenario for a war between Germany and France a year later. This law was valid in the Middle Ages as well as the 19th century. It was true for ancient China, ancient Greece, ancient Mesopotamia and all other periods in history.
For most countries in the world today, there is no plausible scenario leading to full scale war within one year. There is no plausible scenario for a war in 2014 between France and Germany, Japan and China, or between Brazil and Argentina. There could be a minor border clash, for example the Brazilian border police could fire a few shots at the Argentinean border police because of a misunderstanding, but real war with armoured divisions of the Brazilian army sweeping to the gates of Buenos Aires and Argentinean bombers pulverising entire neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro, is unimaginable in 2014.
People, governments, and businesses run their lives without expecting that such a thing can happen. This is not true for the whole world. There are some pairs of countries like Israel and Syria, or Ethiopia and Eritrea, that can go to war next year. Some people may say that it is very naive to think that the world is in a new era of peace. And indeed, it's impossible to foresee the future, but it is fascinating to see that people, governments and businesses run their lives without even imaging the possibility of a serious war. The fact that people can be so naive is in itself a testimony to how peaceful the world has become.
Scholars have tried to explain this development in many ways. There are a few main theories or main contributing factors to the new era of peace. First and foremost, the price of war has gone up dramatically. It's much more costly today to wage serious war than previously because of the greater damage that war can cause, and above all, the greater damage that nuclear weapons can cause. Nuclear weapons made the cost of war so high that it led to countries not engaging in war, especially major wars between superpowers. Major superpower wars with nuclear weapons turn into collective suicide.
The second reason for the peacefulness of our era is the decline in the profits of war. For most of history, kings, emperors and sultans could enrich themselves by conquering, looting and annexing enemy territories. Most wealth throughout history was material wealth such as fields, cattle, slaves, and gold. Because it was material wealth, it was relatively easy to conquer, loot and occupy it. You could easily conquer a gold mine or a wheat field. Today, wealth consists more and more of human capital, knowledge, and complex social economic structures like banks and corporations. It's very difficult to conquer, loot and to annex.
For example, the State of California is one of the richest states in the world today. The wealth of California is in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Google, Facebook and Microsoft have headquarters there. For the Chinese there would be little gain in invading California and conquering it to enrich themselves. Even if the Chinese succeed, they would gain very little because they cannot conquer the riches of Silicon Valley residing in the minds of the engineers from Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. These people, along with all the actors and directors from Hollywood, will run away from California long before the Chinese can conquer it.
Not all the wealth in the world today is knowledge. There are some places where wealth is still old fashioned wealth consisting of mines and oil fields. And these are exactly the places where serious international wars still take place. For example the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Iraqi invasion of Iran both occurred in an area where wealth is old fashioned material wealth. The Kuwaiti sheikhs could flee abroad when the Iraqi tanks came, but the oil fields could not flee.
The third reason is that peace has become more profitable than ever before. In traditional agricultural economies, long distance trade and foreign investments were not important economically. Consequently, peace between different kingdoms brought with it little profits except for avoiding the cost of war. For example, if England and France were at peace in the Middle Ages, the French profited from this because they didn't have to pay heavy war taxes and didn't suffer from destructive English invasions. But otherwise, peace did not produce any profits of its own.
In contrast, in the modern capitalist economy, foreign trade and foreign investments have become very important to the economy, and therefore peace has its own unique profits. It's profitable to be at peace because you can conduct trade and enjoy international investments. For example, as long as China and the United States are at peace today, the Chinese can prosper by trading with the United States, selling Chinese products to the Americans, making investments in Wall Street, and receiving American investments in China. So this is another good reason to keep the peace. Peace makes you more prosperous.
There is also an important cultural reason for the disappearance of war. Many elites throughout history, such as Hun chieftains, Viking noblemen and Aztec priests, viewed war as something positive. Other elites viewed war as something bad, but inevitable and a natural part of the world. Today, according to Professor Harari, is the first time in history that the world is dominated by a really peaceful elite. Politicians, business people, intellectuals, and artists, genuinely see war as both evil and avoidable. They believe that it is possible to find ways to avoid wars. This indeed works. There are less wars today in the world.
The last explanation for the decline of war is that states are simply losing their independence and therefore cannot wage wars. Most countries today in the world no longer engage in full scale warfare for the simple reason that they are no longer independent. Even though citizens in countries like Italy, Thailand, or Mexico harbour illusions of independence, their governments cannot conduct independent economic or foreign policies, and they are certainly incapable of initiating and conducting full scale war on their own without the approval of the international community and the international elites.
We are witnessing today the formation of a new global empire. Like any previous empire, this global empire too enforces peace within its borders, and since the borders of the global empire cover the entire globe, the global empire effectively enforces world peace. These different explanations are not contradictory but complimentary. Scholars argue about how important each of them is but most scholars agree that all these explanations contribute to understanding the unique peacefulness of the period in which we are fortunate enough to be alive today.
So how can we how can we summarise the characteristic of the modern era. Is it a period of war and slaughter and oppression as manifested in the World Wars? Or is it an era of peace as became more and more common in the world in the last few decades? The answer is a matter of timing. It is actually very sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by the events of the last few years. In 1945, at the end of World War II, or 1962 at the height of the Cold War, the message probably would have been much more glum. But in 2013 our view of history much more cheerful.
The late modern era is characterised not necessarily by violence or peace, but above all by unprecedented dynamism. We are today on the threshold of both heaven and hell. History has still not made up its mind about our destination, and the string of coincidences might still send us in either direction. Furthermore, despite all the amazing revolutions and inventions of the last few centuries, it is still unclear whether the condition of people improved or not, whether people today are happier than people in the 19th century, the Middle Ages, or ancient Egypt.
The last 500 years have witnessed a breathtaking series of changes. The Earth has been united into a single economic and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially. And humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order, politics, daily life and human psychology have been completely transformed. But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last few centuries translate into more happiness?
Are we today happier than the hunter-gatherers that lived tens of thousands of years ago? If not, then what was the point about all these changes? What was the point of inventing and discovering, agriculture, cities, writing, money, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions. They do not ask, for example, whether the citizens of Babylon were happier than the hunter-gatherers that lived in Mesopotamia 20,000 years ago, or whether the rise of Islam made Egyptians more pleased with their lives, or whether the collapse of the European empires made Africans happier or more miserable than they were before.
Yet, these are the most important questions that we can ask about history. For what could be the purpose of economic growth, political freedom, or social equality, if they do not make people happier? Few have studied seriously in a scientific way, the long term history of happiness, but almost every scholar and layman has some vague preconception about the history of happiness. One common view, points out that human capabilities have increased dramatically throughout history, and since humans usually use their power to alleviate miseries and to fulfil their aspirations, it follows that we must be happier.
But this progressive view of the history of happiness is not very convincing. More power and new kinds of behaviours and skills do not necessarily make life better and happier. For example, when humans learned how to farm during the Agricultural Revolution, the collective power of humankind to shape the environment and to control what is happening in the world, definitely increased, but the daily life of individual humans after the Agriculture Revolution, was in many respect worse. Peasants had to work harder than foragers and received in return a less nutritious diet. Peasants were far more exposed to disease and exploitation.
Another example is the rise and spread of the European empires in the modern age. The spread of the European empires certainly increased the collective power of humankind by circulating ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce and industry. Yet, all these developments and changes, and all these growing powers of humanity, were hardly good news for the tens of millions of Africans, Native Americans and aboriginal Australians, who found themselves enslaved by the Europeans.
Given the proven human tendency to misuse power, it seems very naive to believe that there is a direct line leading from power to happiness, and therefore that the increase in human power throughout history, must have been accompanied by an increase in happiness. Some critics of this positive view take actually an opposite position. They argue that there is actually an inverse correlation between power and happiness. Power corrupts. As humankind gained more and more power throughout history, it created a very cold mechanistic world, which is ill-suited for the real needs of Homo Sapiens.
According to this view, evolution shaped our minds and bodies for the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition first to agriculture, and later on to industry, actually condemned human beings to live unnatural lives that cannot give full expression to our inherent instincts and cannot satisfy our deepest needs. Life may be very comfortable today, but nothing in the comfortable life of the urban middle class can approach the wild excitement and the sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt. This is a romantic view of history.
This romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of development in history is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress. Yes, it is true that perhaps today we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but not developments of history are bad. For example, modern medicine has decreased child mortality from about 33% to less than 5% over the last two centuries. Can anyone seriously doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness, not only of chose children who would otherwise have died from diseases, but also to the happiness of their parents, families and friends?
A third position about the long term history of happiness takes a middle road. It argues that until the Scientific Revolution, there was indeed no clear correlation between power and happiness. Mediaeval people may indeed have been more miserable than our hunter-gatherer ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, but according to this position, in the last few centuries humans have finally learned how to use their power more wisely. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example of this. Other unprecedented achievements of humankind are the steep decline in violence and the near elimination of large scale famine.
Yet this too is an oversimplification. First, because this view bases its optimistic assessment of the modern age on a very small sample of years. The majority of humans began to enjoy the successes of modern medicine no earlier then 1850, and the drastic drop in child mortality is a 20th Century phenomenon. Mass famines continued to plague much of humanity until the middle of the 20th Century. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of complete nuclear annihilation. It is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in history or simply a wave of good fortune.
The second problem with this over optimistic view of the modern age is that, even if this brief golden age of the last half-century was very good for us, it may have been at the cost of a future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, humans have been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of Earth in numerous new ways. There is a lot of evidence indicating that we are destroying the very basis for human prosperity in a kind of orgy of reckless consumption. We may be experiencing very good years but we may be paying for them a very high price in the next decades and centuries. Nobody really knows what the consequences will be.
Finally, another reason to be cautious about this overoptimistic view of modernity is that we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Homo Sapiens, only if we completely ignore the fate of other animals. Much of the material wealth that shield us today against disease and famine, was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor belt chickens. Tens of billions of such animals have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.
When we evaluate global happiness, it is wrong to count only the happiness of the upper classes, or only the happiness of Europeans, or only the happiness of men, and not take into account the happiness of workers, women or Africans. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans and forget about the happiness or suffering of other animals.
Another problem with all the views which we have discussed so far, is that they discuss happiness largely as a product of material factors, such as health, diet, and wealth. If people are richer and healthier, according to this approach, then they must also be happier. But is this really so obvious? Philosophers, priests and poets throughout history have thought about the nature of happiness and the causes of happiness, and many of the greatest minds of humankind came to the conclusion that social, ethical, and spiritual factors have as great an impact on our happiness as material conditions.
Nobody could argue with the fact that the material conditions of people, at least today, are much better than in the past. But if happiness depends not only on material conditions, but also on social and spiritual factors, it doesn't necessarily mean that we are happier than our ancestors. Perhaps people in modern affluent societies suffer greatly from alienation and meaninglessness despite their prosperity, and perhaps our less well-to-do ancestors did manage to find a lot of contentment and joy in community relations, religion, or a bond with nature.
The various theories about the history of happiness that have been discussed all have in common the attitude of happiness being a product of material factors like health, diet, and wealth. But this is not obvious. When philosophers, poets, and thinkers throughout history thought about the the causes of happiness, many of them reached the conclusion that material factors are important, but social, ethical and spiritual factors also have a big impact. In recent decades, psychologists, economists and biologists have taken up the challenge of scientifically studying what makes people happy and the dynamics of happiness in society in history.
The first step when trying to study happiness and what causes people to be happy is to define what happiness is, and to find some way of measuring it. Without a definition and a measurement you can't study scientifically. The generally accepted definition of happiness in the social and life sciences is that happiness is subjective well being. Subjective well being, according to this definition, is something that I feel inside myself. It is either a sense of immediate pleasure, or a feeling of long-term contentment with the way that my life is going. How can scientists measure happiness, if it is something that people feel inside?
Scientists can do it by asking a lot of people to tell how they feel using questionnaires in order to build statistics about happiness. A typical subjective well-being questionnaire asks interviewees to grade on a scale of zero to ten their agreement with all kinds of statements like, I feel very pleased with the way I am, I feel that life is rewarding, I am optimistic about the future, and life is good. Researchers add up all your answers to calculate your general level of subjective well being according to the answers that you gave to these questions.
Such questionnaires are used in order to study the relation between happiness or subjective well-being and all kinds of other factors, like wealth, political situation or social situation. For example, if you want to know whether rich people are happier than poor people, you take groups of people with different incomes and give them a questionnaire. If these groups are small then there could be all kinds of statistical problems, but if you give this questionnaire to thousands of people, and if you do the research properly, then, scientists believe it can give you a good indication for the influence of wealth on happiness.
This same method can be used to examine other factors. For example, whether people living in democracies are happier than people living in dictatorship, or whether married people are happier than single people or divorcees or widowers. The most important finding of numerous of such researches done over the last few decades is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of wealth, health or even society, but on the correlation between expectations and conditions. It means that you're not happy because of your objective situation, but you are happy because your expectations, whatever they are, get fulfilled.
If, for example, you dream about getting a bullock cart, and you get a bullock cart, then you are content. If, on the other hand, you dream about having a brand new Ferrari, and you get only a second hand Fiat, then you aren't as satisfied, even though the Fiat car is much faster and much more sophisticated than the waggon. You are not happy with it because you are comparing it, not with the waggon of your great-grandfather, but with the brand new Ferrari about which you're dreaming, and therefore you will be dissatisfied despite the improvement in objective conditions of transportation.
The implication of this a line of thinking is that even dramatic changes in the conditions of human beings in history did not necessarily change their happiness level for better or worse. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations tend to shrink. Therefore even severe deterioration in conditions can leave you as happy as you were before. This implies that, for example, people in the Middle Ages were not necessarily much less happy than people are today because they had different expectations.
It's very hard for many people to accept this line of thinking. When we try to imagine how people in the past felt, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. This is wrong because it forgets to take into account the change in expectations. People in the Middle Ages did not live like us and did not have our expectations. For example, in modern affluent societies, people often take a shower and change their clothes every day. Mediaeval peasants on the other hand, went without washing sometimes for many weeks and months, and hardly ever changed their clothes, because they didn't have many clothes.
Now for us, just thinking about living like that, without washing, without changing clothes, stinking, makes us feel very uncomfortable. But mediaeval peasants did not mind. They were used to the feel and the smell of a dirty shirt and a dirty body. It's not that they wanted to take a shower and change their clothes every day, but couldn't. They had what they wanted and were content with what they had because they didn't expect it to be different. So at least, with regard to showers and clothing, even though mediaeval peasants were far poorer than people today in affluent societies, it doesn't mean that they were much more miserable.
Small children in affluent societies often don't like showering, and it takes sometimes years of education and fighting with their parents, to discipline them, and to make them shower everyday. Now if taking a shower was such a wonderful thing, why would small children object to it? The fact is that taking a shower everyday is not natural to human beings. It's not important for their happiness until they get used to it. Then it becomes an expectation. Once you have this expectation, then if you don't get your shower every day you will feel miserable, at least until you get used to your new condition.
An interesting conclusion from this is that if happiness is indeed determined by expectations, then two of the pillars of modern society, the mass media and the advertising industry, may actually be working to ensure, not necessarily on purpose, that people won't become happier, even if there are huge improvements in their conditions, because the media and the advertising industry all the time exposes us to more and better things, and thus they're working to increase our expectations, and thereby they are preventing an increase in our happiness.
For example, take the issue of how people relate to their bodies. Think, for example, about some 18-year-old teenager in a small village 5,000 years ago. Such a teenager 5,000 years ago probably thought that he looked pretty hot. Because in those times he knew only the other 50 men in his small village. Most of these 50 men were much older or they were scarred or wrinkled or suffered from some disease or they were just small kids. A teenager today is far more likely to feel that he doesn't look good enough, because he is exposed every day to movie stars, athletes and supermodels on television and in giant billboards.
There are lots of studies about it. People are far less satisfied with the way they look today than they were a 100 years ago or a 1,000 years ago. This leads some scholars to argue that the discontent, as we see today in developing countries, is not caused by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression, but perhaps most importantly, simply by their exposure to the standards of the developed world.
For example, the average Egyptian enjoyed much better conditions under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, than under any previous government in the history of Egypt. Still, they were not happy with it and there was a revolution. This was because Egyptians were dissatisfied because they were comparing themselves not to their ancestors, but to their contemporaries in Europe and America. The Egyptians did not expect to live like the Middle Ages to find themselves very happy when the conditions were actually better. They expected to live like the people they see on television in America and they're very dissatisfied.
Happiness depends on expectations, and because expectations adapt to conditions, happiness levels throughout history changed to a smaller degree than we usually think. The question of happiness however has been studied by scholars in other fields, not only in the social sciences like sociology and economy, but also by scholars in the life sciences, like biology and medicine. They reached rather similar conclusions, but from a different perspective.
Biologists argue that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms that were shaped by millions of years of evolution. Our happiness too is not determined by external factors like our salary, our social relations, or the political situation in the country, rather by a complex internal biological system of nerves and neurons and synapses in the brain as well as various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These control our moods. People are made happy by one thing, and this is pleasant sensations in the body.
A person who has just won the lottery or a person who has just met the love of his life, jumps from joy, not because of the money or the new lover, but because he or she is reacting to various hormones that are now going through the bloodstream, and in reacting to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of the brain. Our internal biochemical system is programmed by evolution to keep happiness levels relatively constant. Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage survival and reproduction. Evolution has no inherent interest in happiness as such.
Evolution has shaped us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. Evolution enables us to enjoy momentary rushes of pleasant sensations, but these never last long. For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings of orgasm and other sexual feelings to males and females who spread their genes by having sex. A male who has sex with a fertile female is rewarded by evolution with this pleasant feeling of an orgasm. If it was not so, few males would bother about having it.
At the same time, evolution is not really interested in making these males happier. It's only interested in making them pass their genes onto the next generation, so it tempts them with these pleasant feelings, but these pleasant feelings quickly go away. If evolution really wanted infinite happiness then it would have made orgasms that last forever. Obviously, this is not the case because evolution is interested in survival and reproduction, and if orgasms lasted forever then people who had them would simply die of hunger for lack of interest in looking for food.
As a result, external events such as having sex, winning the lottery, or being hit by a car, can temporarily increase or decrease our happiness, but over the long run, the biochemical system of our body will tend to return us to average, and in any case it will not allow our happiness levels to increase or decrease beyond a certain threshold. The biochemical systems differ from person to person. Some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system. Such a person will be quite happy even if she lives in an alienated big city or loses all her money in a stock market crash. Other people are born with a gloomy biochemical system.
If we accept that happiness is determined by our internal biochemical system, and not by events outside, then history is simply not very important for human happiness, because historical events have very little impact on the structure of the human biochemical system. Compare for example a mediaeval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant, back in the Middle Ages, lived in an unheated mud hut looking upon the local pigsty. In contrast, the modern banker may go home to a splendid penthouse with a wonderful view over the Eiffel Tower.
Most people would expect the modern banker to be much happier than the mediaeval peasant. However, a man's happiness is determined by his brain, and this brain doesn't know anything about mud huts or penthouses or the Champs-Elysees. The only thing the brain knows about is all kinds of chemical substances like serotonin. When the mediaeval peasant completed building his tiny mud hut, brain neurons secreted serotonin bringing happiness up to a certain level. When in 2013, the Parisian banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted serotonin bringing happiness up to a similar level.
This logic is applicable, not only to the lives of individuals, but also to great collective events. For example, the French Revolution changed many things in French society and politics. The revolutionaries executed the king. They gave land to the peasants. They declared the Rights of Man. They abolished noble privileges, and they waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet, none of these actions changed the basic biochemistry of the French brains. Consequently, it is likely that, despite all the political, social and economic upheavals brought about by the French Revolution, its impact on French happiness was very small.
Those with a cheerful biochemical system were just as happy before the revolution as after the revolution, and those who got a gloomy biochemistry complain about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness as they did earlier about Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette. So, what good was the French Revolution, if people did not become any happier as a result of it? What was the point about all the chaos, the fear, the bloodshed, and war?
If you accept the biological approach to happiness, then the conclusion is that it was pointless. People fantasise that this or that political revolution or social reform would make them happier, but the biochemistry tricks them again and again. The political revolution comes, but the biochemistry remains the same, and therefore, the level of happiness remains the same.
According to this view, there is only one historical development that has real significance for the history of happiness is that when humans finally realised that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our internal biochemical system. We can stop wasting our time on politics, social reforms, wars and ideologies. Instead, we should focus on the only thing that can make us truly happy, and this is manipulating our biochemistry. If we invest billions of dollars in cracking the codes of our biochemistry and genetics, and if we use this knowledge to develop better treatments, we can make people far happier than they ever were before.
Prozac and other psychiatric drugs increase your happiness by raising the serotonin level in the brain in an artificial way, and this does manage to lift at least some people out of their depression. Nothing perhaps captures better the biological approach to happiness than the famous new age slogan, happiness begins within. Money, social status, politics, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, none of these things will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness, according to the biological approach, can come only from within yourself, from Serotonin or dopamine, or from other biochemical compounds and systems that are the body.
In his novel, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley back in the 1930s already envisaged a world, in which happiness is the supreme value of society, and psychiatric drugs that control and increase happiness levels replace the police and governments. In the world envisaged by Aldous Huxley, every person in the world takes a dose of soma each day. Soma is a synthetic drug that makes people satisfied with their lives and feel very happy about themselves without harming their productivity and efficiency. The world state that rules the whole world in this novel, is never threatened by any wars, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations.
All people in the world are supremely content and satisfied with the current conditions, no matter what these conditions are, because the system is built on controlling and manipulating the biochemistry inside us, and not the conditions around us. Anything that happens outside doesn't really matter. Many people find this vision of the future far more troubling than for example George Orwell's dystopia, 1984. In Huxley's world, everybody is very happy all the time. So, what could be wrong with it?
The problem with Huxley's Brave New World is that happiness is defined in biological terms, simply as pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than to experience pleasant bodily sensations. Since our normal biochemical system limits the volume and the duration of these pleasant sensations in the body, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time, is to manipulate the biochemical system with the help of drugs and other medical treatments. This indeed is a direction in which our world today is progressing in a very fast rate.
But, the definition of happiness as pleasure, which is common today in science and our society, is not accepted by all scholars and by all people. In a very famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize of Economics, has studied, amongst other things, what causes people's happiness. He asked people to recount a typical work day, to tell what happened to them in that day in great detail, and evaluated how much they enjoyed or dislike each of these moments. He did one of these studies on 900 working class women in Texas.
He asked each of these women to break up her typical day into segments of a few minutes, write what she was doing in those minutes, and also write how much she enjoyed or disliked what she did. It turned out that these women, on average, dislike most taking care of their children. Most of their activities which concerned their children, like changing diapers, preparing food for them, and having to deal with temper tantrums, were rated as the least joyful. He also asked these women to write in general terms, what are the things that contribute most to their happiness. And most of them said that their children are their chief source of happiness.
How to explain this discrepancy? There are two ways in which scholars understand these results. One school of thought is that people just don't really know what's good for them. They think that something is the source of their happiness, perhaps because society told them that this is the source of happiness. When you actually look at events from close up, they don't fulfil these expectations. Another option is that happiness is simply something different from pleasure. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one's life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
There is a very important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make the difference in the way that we see ourselves. Our values make a difference between seeing ourselves as miserable slaves to a baby dictator, and seeing ourselves as lovingly nurturing a new life. Activities in which you find meaning can be extremely satisfying, even if they're not easy, and even if they are not joyful. Whereas a meaningless life, activities in which you don't find any meaning can be a terrible ordeal, even if they are very comfortable, such as sitting on the sofa and watching TV, because happiness isn't comfort.
This approach has important implications for the history of happiness. People in all cultures and eras have probably felt the same type of pleasant and unpleasant sensations in their body, but the meaning that people gave to their experiences might have been very different in different cultures and periods of history. If so, then the history of happiness might have been far more turbulent than what biologists imagine. If meaning has an important impact on happiness, then there could be huge differences between the meanings that people in different cultures find to their lives.
If this is true, then life in the modern age is not necessarily happier than life in previous eras. If you look at life minute-by-minute, activity-by-activity, and judge how hard it is, or how easy it is, then certainly life in the Middle Ages for most people was much more difficult and much less comfortable than life is today for people in affluent societies. However, if happiness depends on meaning, then mediaeval people could have been even happier than people today in affluent societies.
Mediaeval people in Europe could find meaning in the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife, and of them being part of this huge cosmic plan of God. In contrast, modern secular people in affluent societies may have a very comfortable life, but for many of them it's meaningless. In the long run they can expect nothing except complete and meaningless oblivion. There is no heaven, there is no hell, and there is no cosmic plan. Everything that happens is simply unimportant and meaningless. Life today is far more comfortable, but people in the Middle Ages, despite all the difficulties, might have been as happy or even happier.
The problem is that this approach to the history of happiness gives a lot of importance to meaning. From a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. According to science, humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operates without any purpose. According to science, our lives are not part of some divine cosmic plan. If planet Earth would blow up tomorrow then it wouldn't change anything to the universe. According to modern science, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives, their decisions and their actions is simply a delusion.
All these religious meanings that mediaeval people found to their lives were delusions. And similarly, the meaning that modern people try to find to their lives, with humanism, nationalism, or capitalism, are also just delusions. Today scientists may say that my life is meaningful because I increase the store of human knowledge. A soldier may say that my life is meaningful because I fight to defend the homeland. A business person might say that my life is meaningful because I'm building a new and successful company. But these ideas are all delusions.
The conclusion of this line of thinking is, that if the key to happiness is to have meaning in your life, then the real key to happiness is to synchronise your personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. There is no meaning in the world, but as long as my personal story is in line with the stories of the people around me, then I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and thereby find happiness and satisfaction. It implies that happiness depends on self-delusion, and depends on the fact that nobody will come from outside and destroy your delusions.
Is there another way of understanding happiness? One alternative that receives growing attention from scholars of happiness, is the Buddhist view of happiness. Buddhism assigns the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other religion in history. The main question of monotheist religions is, given that God exists, what does he want from me? In contrast, the main question of Buddhism is, given that suffering exists, how do I get liberated from suffering and enjoy happiness? Therefore, for the last 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness.
This is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in Buddhist philosophy and in Buddhist meditation practises. For example, today brain scientists ask Buddhist monks to sit in the laboratory and meditate, and connect them to all kinds of electrodes and brain scanners to see what happens when these monks meditate. Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes within one's body, and not from events happening in the outside world.
However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions. According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with the pleasant sensations and feelings in their body, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel. People crave to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding as much as possible, pain and unpleasant feelings.
The problem according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment like the waves in the ocean. To experience pleasant feelings, people constantly chase them while constantly driving away unpleasant feelings. Even if they succeed, they immediately have to start all over again without ever getting any lasting reward for all my troubles, because these pleasant feelings from a moment ago, are gone. So they have to chase them again, and again, and again. What then, asks Buddhism, is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes?
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is not the feeling of pain or sadness, and not even the feeling of meaninglessness. The real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Because of this pursuit of pleasant feelings, our mind is never satisfied with reality as it is. People are liberated from suffering when they understand the impermanent nature of all of their feelings and stop craving them and chasing them. This is the aim of Buddhist mediation practises.
When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear, and satisfied. All kinds of feelings still go on arising and passing. There's still joy, anger, boredom, and lust. But once you stop craving to have particular feelings, you can accept whatever comes. You can accept whatever feelings that come without losing your head over them. This idea is so alien to modern Western culture, that when Western new-age movements encountered Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and insights, they turned them upside-down.
New Age cults frequently argue that happiness does not depend on external conditions in the outside world, but only on what we feel inside. So people should stop pursuing external achievements, such as wealth, beauty and status, and instead connect with their inner feelings. Or as many Mew Age cults put it in brief, happiness begins within. Now this is exactly what biologists argue, but it is not what Buddha said. Buddha agreed that happiness is independent of external conditions, but even more importantly, true happiness is also independent of inner feelings.
Indeed, the more significance that we give our inner feelings, the more we crave for them and the more we suffer. The basic recommendation of Buddhism is not merely to slow down the pursuit of external achievements, but above all, to slow down the pursuit of inner feelings. If we accept this view of happiness, then our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn't so important whether people enjoy pleasant feelings, and whether people feel that their life has meaning, if the main question is whether people understand the truth about the nature of their feelings.
This is not the time and place to judge all these different approaches to happiness. Scholars began the scientific study of happiness only a few years ago, and are still just formulating initial theories and searching for the appropriate research methods. It's much too early to jump to conclusions. What is important at this stage is to know that there are many different approaches to happiness and to ask the right questions.
Most history books focus on the ideas of the great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, on the charity of saints, or the creativity of artists. Most history books have much to tell us about social structures, the rise and fall of empires, the invention and spread of technologies, but they have much less to tell us about how all this has influenced the suffering and the happiness of individuals. And this is the biggest hole in our understanding of history. We don't really know how all this impacted happiness in the world, and without knowing this, we can't actually understand history.
What is going happen to Homo sapiens in the coming century or two? In all likelihood our species is going to disappear. We're probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. Professor Harari doesn't think that humans will annihilate themselves in a nuclear or environmental catastrophe, rather, humans will disappear because they are going to upgrade themselves into a completely different kind of being. There have already been many far-reaching political, social, cultural and technological revolutions in history, yet, through all these revolutions, humans themselves remained relatively constant.
This is a great constant of history. The sapiens mind and the sapiens body have been the constant base on which all societies, identities, and religions have been founded. Our world today is very different from the world of biblical times, but people in ancient Jerusalem in the time of the Bible had the same basic bodily and mental abilities that we have today. People in the past experienced the world in roughly the same way that we experience it today, and this is why we still find much of interest in the Bible, in the philosophy of Plato, or in the writings of Confucius.
This is about to change. The next big revolution in history will transform the economy, politics and society, but it will also transform our bodies and minds, and it will replace Homo Sapiens with a very different kind of being. When we think about the future, we usually think about a world in which people like you and me will enjoy better technology, such as light speed spaceships, laser guns and intelligent robots. But the truly revolutionary potential of technology is to change people.
At present, there are the three main methods that humans might use in order to upgrade themselves. The first method is biological engineering. The second method is cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts. The third method for upgrading Homo Sapiens is by engineering inorganic life, which is life that is not based on organic parts.
Biological engineering is any deliberate intervention on the biological level, for example implanting a gene or taking some drug which is aimed to modify the shape, capabilities, needs or the desires of an organism. People have been using biological engineering for thousands of years in order to reshape themselves and in order to reshape other organisms, like dogs, cows and horses. A simple example of biological engineering is castration. Humans have castrating bulls for perhaps 10,000 years in order to create oxen. Oxen are less aggressive than bulls and easier to train to make them pull waggons and ploughs.
Humans have similarly used castration on themselves, for example castrating young men or children in order to create soprano singers with wonderful voices or in order to create castrated eunuchs who could safely guard the harem of the sultan or the emperor without any danger that they may do something with the sultan's women. What is new is the abilities of today's biological engineering. Recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work down to the cellular and molecular levels have opened up possibilities for biological engineering which previously were simply unimaginable.
This photograph resembles the lion man statue from Stadel cave. Now, 30,000 years ago, people could imagine such a hybrid creature, but nobody back then knew how to actually produce a living being which is half human and half lion. Today humans are acquiring the ability to produce such beings with the help of sophisticated biological engineering. This mouse is a real combination of parts taken from cattle with the body of a mouse.
Of all the kinds of biological engineering, genetic engineering attracts the most attention. Genetic engineering is taking genes from one organism and implanting them in the DNA of a different organism, for example taking a gene from a jellyfish that glows in a green fluorescent light, and to implant this gene in a rabbit or a monkey, which then also start to glow in a green fluorescent light. It has been done with monkeys. It can be done with humans too. We have now the technology to take this gene from a jellyfish and to implant it in the human DNA so you will get a human that glows in a green fluorescent light.
Another example concerns a genetic engineering of all kinds of micro-organisms. The bacteria E.coli has been genetically engineered by scientists to produce biofuel in order to try and solve the energy problems of the world. The same bacteria E.coli and other micro-organisms and fungi have also been genetically engineered to start producing insulin and thereby lower the cost of diabetes treatment. Another interesting example is that scientists extracted a gene from a kind of arctic fish and inserted this gene into the DNA of potatoes in order to make the potatoes more resistant to cold conditions.
Genetic engineering is used increasingly on mammals. For example, every year the dairy industry suffers billions of dollars of damages due to a disease called mastitis that strikes the udders of dairy cows and causes all kinds of problems there. Scientists are currently experimenting with genetically engineered cows that produce milk containing a biochemical called lysostaphin that attacks the bacteria which cause mastitis. The scientists hope that in this way the problem of mastitis will be solved.
Geneticists have already managed to engineer other mammals like mice and rats. They've managed to engineer genius mice that display not only different physical qualities, but also improved cognitive abilities such as improved memory and improved learning skills. The genetically engineered mouse is able to solve a normal maze much quicker than a normal mouse, and the genetically engineered mouse is able to solve very difficult mazes that normal mice cannot solve. If you can do such things to mice, you can do them to Homo Sapiens as well.
The abilities, needs, and desires of Homo sapiens, just like those of mice, have a genetic basis, and the sapiens DNA is not much more complex than the DNA of mice. So there is no technical reason why we couldn't start engineering superhumans or why we couldn't create entire new species of humans. In the medium range, perhaps in a few decades or a century or two, genetic engineering and other forms of biological engineering might enable us to make far reaching changes, not only in our physiology, immune system and life expectancy, but also major changes to our intellectual and emotional capacities.
If genetic engineering can create genius mice, there is no obvious reason why it couldn't create genius humans. The cognitive revolution turned Homo Sapiens from an insignificant African ape into the master of the world, and it did not require any noticeable change in human physiology. It did not even require a change in the size and external shape of the human brain. Apparently, the cognitive revolution resulted from a few small changes in the internal structure of the sapiens brain.
So perhaps another relatively small change in the human brain brought about by genetic engineering could be enough to ignite the second cognitive revolution to create a completely new kind of consciousness and to transform Homo sapiens into something different from us, just as we are different from the Neanderthals. Now, we are still not there, but there seems to be no insurmountable technical gap separating us from the production of such super humans. The main obstacles are ethical and political objections that slow down the research on humans.
The research on mice is much more advanced than the research on humans because of these ethical and political considerations. And no matter how convincing these ethical and political arguments are, it is very hard to see how they could hold back the next step in the process for very long, especially because what is at stake here is the possibility of prolonging human life indefinitely. What is at stake is conquering all kinds of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. And what is at stake is upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities.
What would happen, for example, if scientists managed to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease that at the same time could also dramatically improve the memories or the cognitive abilities of healthy people. Would any government or any combination of governments would be able to stop the relevant research? And if this cure, this technique is indeed developed, would any government or any police be able to limit the usage of this invention only to cure Alzheimer's patients and to prevent healthy people from using this technology to acquire super memories and all kinds of amazing cognitive abilities? It is unlikely.
Another method to upgrade humans is cyber-engineering. Cyborgs are beings that combine organic and inorganic parts such as a human with bionic hands. In a sense, we are all cyborgs these days since our natural senses and functions are improved by devices such as eye glasses, pace makers and even computers. Computers perform more and more tasks previously done by our organic brains and memories. In the near future we are likely to start having inorganic devices connected directly to our brains and nervous systems. These devices will be inseparable from us and will change our abilities, desires, personalities and identities.
One example is the bionic ear. A bionic ear is an implant that absorbs sound waves through a microphone located on the outer part of the ear. The implant filters these sounds, identifies human voices and other important sounds, and translates these sounds into electric signals the are then sent directly to the central auditory nerve and from there to the brain. The bionic, such a bionic ear, can not only enable deaf people to start hearing, but, it can also enable healthy people to acquire amazing new hearing abilities. The same can be done with bionic eyes, bionic noses and even bionic arms and legs.
At present, these bionic arms are a very poor replacement for the organic originals, but, they have the potential for unlimited technological development. In the near future bionic arms can be made much more powerful than organic arms. Moreover, bionic arms have the very big advantage that they can be replaced every few years whenever a new model appears on the market. We're used to all the parts of our body being connected as part of a single body. But this is just how our organic bodies work.
Once you have organic hands, eyes and ears, there is no reason why they all the time have to be connected and be in the same room, the same city, or even the same continent or planet. Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina have recently implanted electrodes in the brains of rhesus monkeys that were connected to external devices that control arms and legs. The monkeys were trained to control detached bionic arms and legs through thought alone. One monkey learned how to control only with a detached bionic arm with the mind, while simultaneously moving its two organic arms.
Another interesting development concerns the possibility to read the thoughts in the mind of a person. The Locked In Syndrome because is a disease that causes people to gradually lose nearly all of their ability to move parts of their bodies, but the cognitive abilities like feeling and thinking, remain intact. They become locked inside their bodies, unable to do anything. People suffering from this syndrome often communicate only through very small eye movements. There are now studies in which people suffering from this syndrome have electrodes implanted in their brain to capture signals from the brains.
And scientists are making an effort to translate these signals, not only into movements of bionic arms and legs, but also to translate them into words. If the experiments succeed, it means that that people who suffer from Locked In Syndrome would be able to speak directly with the outside world with a computer as a translator. And also, if this succeeds it means that we will have at our disposal the ability to read the thoughts in the mind of another person directly.
Of all the projects currently under development in the field of cyborg engineering, the most revolutionary project is the attempt to create a two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of the human brain while simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can interpret and understand. Such direct interfaces could be used to directly link a brain to the internet, so you can surf the internet just with your consciousness, not with fingers and eyes, or to directly link several brains to the same computer, and thereby linking all of them together in a sort of interbrain net.
What may happen in such a case, one cyborg could, for example, directly retrieve the memories of somebody else as if they were his own or her own. What happens to concepts like gender identity when minds become collective and men can actually remember the memories of a woman, nobody knows. Such cyborgs would no longer be humans. They would not even be organic creatures. They would be so completely different that we cannot even begin to grasp the philosophical, psychological and political implications of such an eventuality.
The third method for creating some kind of new entities that will take our place in the world is by engineering completely non organic beings. Cyborgs still combine organic parts with inorganic parts. The most obvious examples are computer programmes and computer viruses that can undergo independent evolution and can develop and learn new things independently. Computer centres today are trying to create computer programmes that can learn by themselves and can evolve completely independently of the person who initially created this programme.
A prototype of such a programme and of its evolution already exists. It is called a computer virus. As the computer virus spreads through the internet, the virus is replicated millions of times, all the time being chased by predatory anti-virus programmes that try to destroy it, and all the time competing with other programmes in cyber space. Now what happens if one day, when the virus replicates itself, some mistake occurs, a mutation? The mutation could occur by accident or because the human engineer that initially programmed the virus, programmed it to make random replication mistakes now and then.
If by chance the modified version of the virus is better at evading antivirus programmes without losing its ability to invade other computers, then it will spread quickly through cyberspace. And if so, the mutant viruses will survive and reproduce better than the previous versions. And as time goes by, cyberspace will become full of new viruses that no human engineered. Those viruses that undergo non-organic evolution. Is this life? It depends on what you mean by the term life and living creatures, but this is a new evolutionary process, which is completely independent of the organic world.
Suppose you could take your brain and back it up on a computer and then run it on the computer. Would this computer be able to think and to feel like a human? And if so, would it be you, or would it be somebody else? What if computer programmers could create an entirely new, but digital mind composed of computer code with a sense of self and memories. If you ran such a programme on your computer would it be a person? If you delete it, could you be charged with murder? This sounds very hypothetical, but we might have the answer to these questions much sooner than most people realise.
In 2005, scientists launched the Blue Brain Project that hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer with electronic circuits in the computer emulating the neural networks in the brain. The programme's director has claimed that, if the project receives proper funding, that within a decade or two we could have an artificially human brain inside a computer that could talk, feel and behave much as a human does. Not all scholars agree that this is possible, because many scholars argue that the mind works in a manner that is very different from the way that computers work.
Presently, only a tiny fraction of the potential of biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic life, has actually been realised. Yet, already today, we are in the middle of an immense social, political and ethical revolution. Lawyers and judges need to rethink issues of privacy and identity. Governments need to rethink matters of healthcare and equality. Sport associations and educational institutions need to redefine what fair play and achievements means. And pension funds and labour organisations need to readjust to a world in which 60 might well be the new 30.
They must all deal with the ethical and social problems which are raised by bioengineering, by cyborgs and by inorganic life. Take the issue of privacy, for example. Mapping the first human genome took 15 years and $3 billion. Today, you can map your DNA within a few days at the cost of a few hundred dollars. This opens the way to a revolution in medical care. It opens the way to personalised medicine that matches treatment to your own DNA. With these prints of your DNA, the family doctor can tell you with greater certainty than ever before that you face a high risk of liver cancer.
This easy ability to map your DNA may open the way to other things as well. For example, would insurance companies be entitled to ask to see your DNA scan and to raise premiums if they discover that you have a genetic tendency to reckless behaviour? Or, for example, when you apply for a job, could your future employer ask for your DNA? And would the employer be entitled to favour somebody else else, because he likes her DNA more than yours, because you have your some suspicious gene that is often connected with all kinds of problematic behaviour? Could you sue him for genetic discrimination or would this be acceptable?
But such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, the social, and the political implications of the Gilgamesh Project, the project to give humans eternal life, and by the 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, recognised that a good society ought to give all its members good medical treatment, and as far as possible, relatively good health. That was all very good as long as medicine was chiefly concerned with preventing illness and with healing the sick.
What would happen once medicines becomes more and more preoccupied with enhancing human abilities instead of just healing sicknesses and illnesses? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities? Or would there be a new superhuman elite? Our modern world today prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, but we might be poised to create the most unequal society that ever existed on Earth.
Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed that they are smarter, stronger and better than the lower classes, but they were usually just deluding themselves. In the Middle Ages, the kings thought they were superior to the peasants, but a baby born to a poor peasant family could be as intelligent as the crown prince. However, with the help of new medical and scientific capabilities, the pretences of the upper classes might become reality. They might really become smarter, stronger and better than everybody else.
Most science fiction plots describe a world in which sapiens identical to you and me enjoy superior technology, and the ethical and political dilemmas which are central to these science fiction movies and books are concerned with people like you and me. They recreate our social tensions and our emotional dilemmas against a futuristic backdrop. But the real potential of future technology is to change not the spaceships, but Homo sapiens itself, including our emotions, thoughts and desires. Science fiction rarely describes such a future because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible to people today.
Producing a film about the life of some super cyborg in the future is like producing Hamlet to an audience of Neanderthals. They won't be able to understand what's happening. Similarly we can't understand a real story about the future. And what should be emphasised, it is that the future masters of the world if all these predictions come true, will probably be much more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human and organic, these future beings are going to be godlike, and probably inorganic, at least in parts of their bodies.
This is why more and more scholars think that what really awaits us in the future is the singularity. The singularity is a point in which our world of meaning collapses completely. It is a point when everything we know about ourselves and about the world, all our hopes and fears, our very identity, will all become irrelevant. We cannot imagine this point or anything happening after this point. It is singular. It is not comparable to anything else within our field of experience.
The term singularity is taken from physics. Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. The Big Bang was a point when all known natural laws, including space and time, did not exist, and did not function in any way that we can understand using our current models and knowledge. Hence, anything that happened before the Big Bang is also meaningless to us. The very notion of time had no meaning during the Big Bang, so it is meaningless to speak about things happening before the Big Bang because there was no time.
We might fast be approaching another future point of singularity in which our known world of meaning will simply collapse. Everything happening beyond that point is incomprehensible to us, and it's useless to try and imagine it. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, the pace of technological development is so rapid that we will soon come to the point when Homo Sapiens is replaced by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also different cognitive and emotional abilities and experiences. This is something that most people find extremely disconcerting.
It should be emphasised that all this is just speculation. Nobody really knows what will happen in the future. It would be surprising if all those forecasts would be realised in full. History teaches us, again and again, that what seems to be inevitable and just around the corner, may never materialise due to all kinds of unforeseen events, and that other scenarios, which nobody foresaw, will actually happen.
For example, when the nuclear age began in the 1940s with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and later on when the space age began when the Soviets launched Sputnik into space and the Americans landed a man on the moon, then everybody began fantasising and forecasting that in the year 2000, people would live in colonies on Mars and on the moon. There were also all kinds of fantasies and forecasts about the nuclear world of the year 2000. Very few of all these forecasts actually happened. In contrast, nobody in the time of Hiroshima and Sputnik managed to forecast the internet.
What we should take very seriously is not the exact forecasts, but the basic idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental revolutions in human consciousness and human identity, and these revolutions could be so fundamental that they will call into question the very term human. Nobody really knows how long we have until this happens? Some experts say that by the year 2050 there will already be superhumans living on Earth. Less radical forecasts speak about the next century or two.
But, from the perspective of 70,000 years of sapiens history, what are a few centuries? We're very close to the end of Homo Sapiens, to the end of history, and to the beginning of something completely different. Whether it will take a few centuries or a few decades, what's becoming very clear is that humans better start to think about these matters. The most important question facing humankind today is what do we want to become? This question is called the human enhancement question. In what way do we want to enhance humankind?
These questions dwarf all the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, scholars, philosophers and ordinary people. After all, these debates today between various nations, ideologies, religions and classes will disappear, along with Homo Sapiens. If our superhuman successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness, or perhaps will possess something beyond consciousness, then it's very doubtful that they will have any interest in Christianity or Islam, that they will organise themselves in a communist or capitalist way, or even that they will have genders and are males and females.
All this will disappear. Most people prefer simply not to think about this possibility. Even the field of bioethics usually prefers to address the issue of what do we want to become but what should be forbidden to do. For example, is it acceptable to make genetic experiments on living human beings? Is it okay to do experiments on aborted foetuses or on stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep or humans? These questions might be important, but it is naive to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes and stop scientific projects that are upgrading Homo Sapiens into a different kind of being.
It's impossible to completely stop such kind of projects because they're inextricably meshed together with the human quest to overcome disease and to overcome death or the Gilgamesh Project. Ask scientists who are studying the genome, or who try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer, why do you want to do this? Nine out of ten times they will say that they do this in order to cure diseases. This is the standard answer because nobody could really argue with it. This is why the Gilgamesh Project, the attempt to overcome disease, old age and death, is the flagship of science.
It serves to justify everything that science does. This is why we cannot stop the march of science and technology. The only thing we can try to do is to somehow influence the direction they are taking. We should therefore start asking ourselves, not only what is forbidden to do, but also a far more important and difficult question, what do we want to become? We might very soon be able to engineer our desires. We probably haven't given this question enough thought.
The contents of the course A Brief History of Humankind are not the truth. This course is just one possible story about the history of humankind. If you asked ten different historians to give this course, you would most probably get ten very different stories. This course can be seen as an invitation to explore history yourself. Professor Harari's aim in teaching this course was not so much convincing you that this or that particular theory is true, but rather to raise important questions about the past, present, and future of humankind.
For those of you who have completed this journey through the history of humankind, I hope that you have enjoyed the course as much as I did, and that you leave the course with a better understanding of history, of the human species, and perhaps even of yourself personally.
People often ask, what is the purpose of studying history? They sometimes imagine that we study history in order to predict the future, or in order to learn from past mistakes. In my view, we should study history not in order to learn from the past, but in order to be free of it.
Each of us is born into a particular world, governed by a particular system of norms and values, and a particular economic and political order. Since we are born into it, we take the surrounding reality to be natural and inevitable, and we tend to think that the way people today live their lives is the only possible way. We seldom realise that the world we know is the accidental outcome of chance historical events, which condition not only our technology, politics and economics but even the way we think and dream. This is how the past grips us by the back of the head, and turn our eyes towards a single possible future. We have felt the grip of the past from the moment we were born, so we don’t even notice it. The study of history aims to loosen this grip, and to enable us to turn our head around more freely, to think in new ways, and to see many more possible futures.
I hope that by introducing you to the history of humankind, this course has helped loosen the grip of the past.