edgecase
Author: StJohn Piano
Published: 2020-07-25
Datafeed Article 157
This article has been digitally signed by Edgecase Datafeed.
6177 words - 1521 lines - 39 pages









[excerpt: page 88]


Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC - wheat, rice, maize (called 'corn' in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years.

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[excerpt: page 94]


The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes.

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[excerpt: page 123]


Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination.

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[excerpt: page 125]


A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence.

[...]

It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

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Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths.

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[excerpt: page 139]


It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror. *

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[excerpt: page 147]


With rare exceptions, human brains are simply incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics. Physicists nevertheless manage to do so, because they set aside the traditional human way of thinking, and learn to think anew with the help of external data-processing systems. Crucial parts of their thought process take place not in the head, but inside computers or on classroom blackboards.

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Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.

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[excerpt: page 181]


After the agricultural revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called 'culture'.

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[excerpt: page 182]


Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.

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[excerpt: page 183]


Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

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[excerpt: pages 183-184]


Just as medieval culture did not manage to square chivalry with Christianity, so the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture's engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It's such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn't look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It's at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you'll understand them best.

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A real 'clash of civilisations' is like the proverbial dialogue of the deaf. Nobody can grasp what the other is saying.

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[excerpt: pages 195-196]


An economy of favours and obligations doesn't work when large numbers of strangers try to cooperate. It's one thing to provide free assistance to a sister or a neighbour, a very different thing to take care of foreigners who might never reciprocate the favour. One can fall back on barter. But barter is effective only when exchanging a limited range of products. It cannot form the basis for a complex economy. *

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[excerpt: pages 197-198]


Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. There have been many types of money. The most familiar is the coin, which is a standardised piece of imprinted metal. Yet money existed long before the invention of coinage, and cultures have prospered using other things as currency, such as shells, cattle, skins, salt, grain, beads, cloth and promissory notes. Cowry shells were used as money for about 4,000 years all over Africa, South Asia, East Asia and Oceania. Taxes could still be paid in cowry shells in British Uganda in the early twentieth century.

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[excerpt: pages 200-201]


Cowry shells and dollars have value only in our common imagination. Their worth is not inherent in the chemical structure of the shells and paper, or their colour, or their shape. In other words, money isn't a material reality - it is a psychological construct.

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Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust, and not just any system of mutual trust: money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

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[excerpt: page 202]


The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel.

The silver shekel was not a coin, but rather 8.33 grams of silver.

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[excerpt: page 203]


Coins had two important advantages over unmarked metal ingots. First, the latter had to be weighed for every transaction. Second, weighing the ingot is not enough. How does the shoemaker know that the silver ingot I put down for my boots is really made of pure silver, and not of lead covered on the outside by a thin silver coating? Coins help solve these problems. The mark imprinted on them testifies to their exact value, so the shoemaker doesn't have to keep a scale on his cash register. More importantly, the mark on the coin is the signature of some political authority that guarantees the coin's value.

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[excerpt: page 205]


By the late modern era the entire world was a single monetary zone, relying first on gold and silver, and later on a few trusted currencies such as the British pound and the American dollar.

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[excerpt: page 207]


Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don't know each other and don't trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

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[excerpt: pages 208-209]


The economic history of humankind is a delicate dance. People rely on money to facilitate cooperation with strangers, but they're afraid it will corrupt human values and intimate relations.

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[excerpt: page 209]


It is common nowadays to believe that the market always prevails, and that the dams erected by kings, priests and communities cannot long hold back the tides of money. This is naive. Brutal warriors, religious fanatics and concerned citizens have repeatedly managed to trounce calculating merchants, and even to reshape the economy. It is therefore impossible to understand the unification of humankind as a purely economic process. In order to understand how thousands of isolated cultures coalesced over time to form the global village of today, we must take into account the role of gold and silver, but we cannot disregard the equally crucial role of steel.

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The ancient Romans were used to being defeated. Like the rulers of most of history's great empires, they could lose battle after battle but still win the war. An empire that cannot sustain a blow and remain standing is not really an empire.

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[excerpt: page 214]


The truth is that empire has been the world's most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. In general, they have been toppled only by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite.

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[excerpt: pages 234-235]


Today religion is often considered a source of discrimination, disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.

Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order. This involves two distinct criteria:

1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order, which is not the product of human whims or agreements. Professional football is not a religion, because despite its many laws, rites and often bizarre rituals, everyone knows that human beings invented football themselves, and FIFA may at any moment enlarge the size of the goal or cancel the offside rule.

2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding. Many Westerners today believe in ghosts, fairies and reincarnation, but these beliefs are not a source of moral and behavioural standards. As such, they do not constitute a religion.

Despite their ability to legitimise widespread social and political orders, not all religions have actuated this potential. In order to unite under its aegis a large expanse of territory inhabited by disparate groups of human beings, a religion must possess two further qualities. First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere. Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone. In other words, it must be universal and missionary.

The best-known religions of history, such as Islam and Buddhism, are universal and missionary. Consequently people tend to believe that all religions are like them. In fact, the majority of ancient religions were local and exclusive. Their followers believed in local deities and spirits, and had no interest in converting the entire human race. As far as we know, universal and missionary religions began to appear only in the first millennium BC. Their emergence was one of the most important revolutions in history, and made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind, much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money.

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[excerpt: page 237]


As long as people lived their entire lives within limited territories of a few hundred square kilometres, most of their needs could be met by local spirits. But once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin.

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[excerpt: pages 238-239]


Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe. In fact, most polytheist and even animist religions recognised such a supreme power that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks. In classical Greek polytheism, Zeus, Hera, Apollo and their colleagues were subject to an omnipotent and all-encompassing power - Fate (Moira, Ananke). Nordic gods, too, were in thrall to Fate, which doomed them to perish in the cataclysm of Ragnarök (the Twilight of the Gods). In the polytheistic religion of the Yoruba of West Africa, all gods were born of the supreme god Olodumare, and remained subject to him. In Hindu polytheism, a single principle, Atman, controls the myriad gods and spirits, humankind, and the biological and physical world. Atman is the eternal essence or soul of the entire universe, as well as of every individual and every phenomenon.

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It's pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and Hindus built no temples to Atman.

The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good - to embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus, known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment. They strive to see the world from the viewpoint of this fundamental principle, to realise that from its eternal perspective all mundane desires and fears are meaningless and ephemeral phenomena.

Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness. There are necessarily many of these smaller powers, since once you start dividing up the all-encompassing power of a supreme principle, you'll inevitably end up with more than one deity. Hence the plurality of gods.

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods.

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Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, neither created by the good God, nor subordinate to it. Dualism explains that the entire universe is a battleground between these two forces, and that everything that happens in the world is part of the struggle.

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous Problem of Evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought. 'Why is there evil in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?'

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For dualists, it's easy to explain evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed single-handedly by a good God. There is an independent evil power loose in the world. The evil power does bad things.

Dualism has its own drawbacks. While solving the Problem of Evil, it is unnerved by the Problem of Order. If the world was created by a single God, it's clear why it is such an orderly place, where everything obeys the same laws. But if Good and Evil battle for control of the world, who enforces the laws governing this cosmic war? Two rival states can fight one another because both obey the same laws of physics. A missile launched from Pakistan can hit targets in India because gravity works the same way in both countries. When Good and Evil fight, what common laws do they obey, and who decreed these laws?

So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe - and He's evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

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The first principle of monotheist religions is 'God exists. What does He want from me?'. The first principle of Buddhism is 'Suffering exists. How do I escape it?'.

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The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions, and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.

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Theist religions focus on the worship of gods. Humanist religions worship humanity, or more correctly, Homo sapiens. Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species.

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Our liberal political and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the world, and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides within each individual.

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This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline - the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another.

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History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes.

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Why study history? Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

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We cannot explain the choices that history makes, but we can say something very important about them: history's choices are not made for the benefit of humans.

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Game theory explains how in multi-player systems, views and behaviour patterns that harm all players nevertheless manage to take root and spread.

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History has a very wide horizon of possibilities, and many possibilities are never realised. It is conceivable to imagine history going on for generations upon generations while bypassing the Scientific Revolution, just as it is conceivable to imagine history without Christianity, without a Roman Empire, and without gold coins.

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[excerpt: pages 282-283]


The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies. But it presents us with a serious problem that most of our ancestors did not have to cope with. Our current assumption that we do not know everything, and that even the knowledge we possess is tentative, extends to the shared myths that enable millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. If the evidence shows that many of those myths are doubtful, how can we hold society together? How can our communities, countries and international system function?

All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods:

a. Take a scientific theory, and in opposition to common scientific practices, declare that it is a final and absolute truth. This was the method used by Nazis (who claimed that their racial policies were the corollaries of biological facts) and Communists (who claimed that Marx and Lenin had divined absolute economic truths that could never be refuted).

b. Leave science out of it and live in accordance with a non-scientific absolute truth. This has been the strategy of liberal humanism, which is built on a dogmatic belief in the unique worth and rights of human beings - a doctrine which has embarrassingly little in common with the scientific study of Homo sapiens.

But that shouldn't surprise us. Even science itself has to rely on religious and ideological beliefs to justify and finance its research.

Modern culture has nevertheless been willing to embrace ignorance to a much greater degree than has any previous culture. One of the things that has made it possible for modern social orders to hold together is the spread of an almost religious belief in technology and in the methods of scientific research, which have replaced to some extent the belief in absolute truths.

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Mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories. Modern science uses mathematics.

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Newton showed that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. Some chapters (for example) boil down to a clear-cut equation; but scholars who attempted to reduce biology, economics and psychology to neat Newtonian equations have discovered that these fields have a level of complexity that makes such an aspiration futile. This did not mean, however, that they gave up on mathematics. A new branch of mathematics was developed over the last 200 years to deal with the more complex aspects of reality: statistics.

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Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would have been bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human mind and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics.

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In 1620 Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto titled The New Instrument. In it he argued that 'knowledge is power'. The real test of 'knowledge' is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.

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Most empires did not rise thanks to technological wizardry, and their rulers did not give much thought to technological improvement.

[...]

The Roman army is a particularly good example. It was the best army of its day, yet technologically speaking, Rome had no edge over Carthage, Macedonia or the Seleucid Empire. Its advantage rested on efficient organisation, iron discipline and huge manpower reserves. The Roman army never set up a research and development department, and its weapons remained more or less the same for centuries on end.

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To the best of our knowledge, gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist alchemists searching for the elixir of life.

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Gilgamesh failed in his quest. He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with one new piece of wisdom. When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man's inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.

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Until the eighteenth century, religions considered death and its aftermath central to the meaning of life. Beginning in the eighteenth century, religions and ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism lost all interest in the afterlife. What, exactly, happens to a Communist after he or she dies? What happens to a capitalist? What happens to a feminist? It is pointless to look for the answer in the writings of Marx, Adam Smith or Simone de Beauvoir. The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. In its more poetic and desperate moments, nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will forever live in its collective memory. Yet this promise is so fuzzy that even most nationalists do not really know what to make of it.

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To channel limited resources we must answer questions such as 'What is more important?' and 'What is good?'. And these are not scientific questions. Science can explain what exists in the world, how things work, and what might be in the future. By definition, it has no pretensions to knowing what should be in the future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.

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Science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries.

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In 1775 Asia accounted for 80 per cent of the world economy. The combined economies of India and China alone represented two-thirds of global production. In comparison, Europe was an economic dwarf. * The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the world's economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the United States together accounted for more than half of global production, whereas China's portion had been reduced to 5 per cent. **

Under the European aegis a new global order and global culture emerged. Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste. They may be fiercely anti-European in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes, and listens to music written in European modes with words in European languages. Even today's burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance.

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[excerpt: page 317]


European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history. Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. Conquest merely utilised and spread their view of the world. The Arabs, to name one example, did not conquer Egypt, Spain or India in order to discover something they did not know. The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth - not of knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.

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Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony.

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[excerpt: pages 346-347]


The idea of progress is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest resources in research, things can improve.

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[excerpt: page 347]


Whoever believes in progress believes that geographical discoveries, technological inventions and organisational developments can increase the sum total of human production, trade and wealth.

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Capitalism distinguishes 'capital' from mere 'wealth'. Capital consists of money, goods and resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is buried in the ground or wasted on unproductive activities.

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Capitalism began as a theory about how the economy functions. It was both descriptive and prescriptive - it offered an account of how money worked and promoted the idea that reinvesting profits in production leads to fast economic growth. But capitalism gradually became far more than just an economic doctrine. It now encompasses an ethic - a set of teachings about how people should behave, educate their children and even think. Its principal tenet is that economic growth is the supreme good, or at least a proxy for the supreme good, because justice, freedom and even happiness all depend on economic growth. Ask a capitalist how to bring justice and political freedom to a place like Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, and you are likely to get a lecture on how economic affluence and a thriving middle class are essential for stable democratic institutions, and about the need therefore to inculcate Afghan tribesmen in the values of free enterprise, thrift and self-reliance.

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When VOC merchants first arrived in Indonesia in 1603, their aims were strictly commercial. However, in order to secure their commercial interests and maximise the profits of the shareholders, VOC merchants began to fight against local potentates who charged inflated tariffs, as well as against European competitors. VOC armed its merchant ships with cannons; it recruited European, Japanese, Indian and Indonesian mercenaries; and it built forts and conducted full-scale battles and sieges. This enterprise may sound a little strange to us, but in the early modern age it was common for private companies to hire not only soldiers, but also generals and admirals, cannons and ships, and even entire off-the-shelf armies. The international community took this for granted and didn't raise an eyebrow when a private company established an empire.

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Around the time that Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.

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This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.

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[excerpt: page 398]


The Industrial Revolution brought about dozens of major upheavals in human society. Adapting to industrial time is just one of them. Other notable examples include urbanisation, the disappearance of the peasantry, the rise of the industrial proletariat, the empowerment of the common person, democratisation, youth culture and the disintegration of patriarchy.

Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.

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[excerpt: page 402]


Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them.

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[excerpt: page 403]


The liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.

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[excerpt: page 417]


For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of fields, cattle, slaves and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital, technical know-how and complex socio-economic structures such as banks. Consequently it is difficult to carry it off or incorporate it into one's territory.

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[excerpt: page 420]


It is sobering to realise how often our view of the past is distorted by events of the last few years.

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[excerpt: pages 430-431]


Even immortality might lead to discontent. Suppose science comes up with cures for all diseases, effective anti-ageing therapies and regenerative treatments that keep people indefinitely young. In all likelihood, the immediate result will be an unprecedented epidemic of anger and anxiety.

Those unable to afford the new miracle treatments - the vast majority of people - will be beside themselves with rage. Throughout history, the poor and oppressed comforted themselves with the thought that at least death is even-handed - that the rich and powerful will also die. The poor will not be comfortable with the thought that they have to die, while the rich will remain young and beautiful for ever.

But the tiny minority able to afford the new treatments will not be euphoric either. They will have much to be anxious about. Although the new therapies could extend life and youth, they cannot revive corpses. How dreadful to think that I and my loved ones can live for ever, but only if we don't get hit by a truck or blown to smithereens by a terrorist! Potentially a-mortal people are likely to grow averse to taking even the slightest risk, and the agony of losing a spouse, child or close friend will be unbearable.

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[excerpt: page 436]


In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World, published in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, happiness is the supreme value and psychiatric drugs replace the police and the ballot as the foundation of politics. Each day, each person takes a dose of 'soma', a synthetic drug which makes people happy without harming their productivity and efficiency. The World State that governs the entire globe is never threatened by wars, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, because all people are supremely content with their current conditions, whatever they may be. Huxley's vision of the future is far more troubling than George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley's world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why. Everybody is happy all the time - what could be wrong with that?

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[excerpt: page 438]


The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find. The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.

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[excerpt: page 439]


The dominant religion of our age is liberalism. Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority. What is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels.

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[excerpt: page 442]


People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing - joy, anger, boredom, lust - but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.

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[excerpt: page 443]


The more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha's recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.

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[excerpt: page 464]


Ask scientists why they study the genome, or try to connect a brain to a computer, or try to create a mind inside a computer. Nine out of ten times you'll get the same standard answer: we are doing it to cure diseases and save human lives. Even though the implications of creating a mind inside a computer are far more dramatic than curing psychiatric illnesses, this is the standard justification given, because nobody can argue with it.

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I have a paper copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind in my possession. I have marked various excerpts in it.

Details from the first few pages:
- Copyright © Yuval Noah Harari 2011
- Translated by the author, with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman
- First published in Vintage in 2015
- First published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir

I was able to find the full text on this page:
silo.pub/qdownload/sapiens-a-brief-history-of-humankind.html

I selected the marked excerpts and cleaned / prepared the text.


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[0]
Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995), 63; Hans J. Nissen, Peter Damerow and Robert K. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping: Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East (Chicago London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 36.

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[1]
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011).

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[2]
Mark, Origins of the Modern World, 81.

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[3]
Christian, Maps of Time, 436.

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