Sapiens. Chapter four: The Scientific Revolution. Ignorance, the first atomic bomb, clergymen and statistics, animals huge bill, happiness levels and how Sapiens is transcending its biological limits
This is the fourth and last article about Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, the book that I was in love with. Now I pass the love to new readers and I take a break till the next one, Home Deus, by the same author.
Being dense in facts, figures and cross-disciplinary knowledge, I decided to have separate reviews for each chapter. For the first, second and third articles, covering the first three chapters Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution and The Unification of Humankind, please follow link1, link2 and link3.
Chapter four, the Scientific Revolution is the longest and most complex of all. It took me longer to read and digest, therefore the outcome is double versus a regular post on my site. But it is still the shortest way to almost 200 pages:)
Alamogordo, 16 July 1945, 05:29:53, it was eight seconds after the first atomic bomb was detonated. The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” From this point, human had the capacity not only to change the course of history, but even to end it.
The last 500 years represented a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. Human population has increased fourteen fold, production 240-fold and energy consumption 115-fold. If somebody fell asleep in year 1,000 and woke up in year 1,500 he/she would still understand the world. But if the same person went to bed in 1,500 and woke up in 2000 holding an Iphone, the confusion would be huge. The historical process behind Alamogordo or the first moon landing is known as the Scientific Revolution. The modern science differs from all previous knowledge traditions by three things:
- the willingness to admit ignorance
- the centrality of observations and mathematics
- the acquisition of new powers
Here are my learnings on this chapter:
- it is a revolution of ignorance, admitting that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. Modern science does not have either this approach "if I do not have an answer, I will ask somebody wiser who should know" or this approach "whatever the great gods or the wise people of the past did not bother to tell us was unimportant". Modern science follows a particular cycle: research, power, resources.
- modern science does not have any dogma, but empirical observations put together with the help of mathematical tools. While earlier traditions usually formulated their theories in terms of stories, modern science uses mathematics. There are few equations and graphs in the Bible and the Qur’an.Further more, in order to deal with more complex aspects of reality, in the past 200 years a new branch of mathematics was developed: statistics. In 1744 two Presbyterian clergymen in Scotalnd, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace decided to set-up a life insurance fund that would provide pensions for the widows and orphans of dead clergymen. Do you think they prayed to God to reveal how many ministers would die every year, how many widows and orphans would leave behind and how many years their widows would outlive their husbands? No, they used thhe Law of Large Numbers.
- from the Gilgamesh Project to the 2050 a-mortal people death has come a long way. Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk could defend anyone in any battle, but could not defeat the death of his best friend Enkidu. He got terrified by the idea of death, so he undertook a journey to the end of the universe hoping to find a way to kill the death. He discovered that death is an inevitable destiny. But for men of science, this is not true - you die because of a technical problem, a heart attack, cancer, infections. Therefore, our best minds are in search for technical solutions, not for meaning of death. By 2050, it may happen that some humans become a-mortal (not immortal, as they could still die in accidents).
- science created new empires and propelled Europeans on top of the ladder. It started with James Cook expedition to Australia and Pacific Ocean. It is only at the end of 15th century that Europe is showing military, political, economic and cultural developments. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the world’s economy and most of its territory thanks much to the European scientists. The second credit goes to capitalism. Europeans insatiable and unparalleled ambition to explore and conquer made them exceptional. Less numerous and with a diminished hygiene versus locals (native locals in America complained that Europeans stank horribly), they managed to conquer by simply spliting the local empires from within.
- the scientific revolution brought an incredible economic growth - by example, annual per capita production rose from approximately $550 by 1500 to $8,800 nowadays. That was possible due to one simple economic principle: our trust in the future. Before the modern era, money could represent only things that existed in the present, which caused a severe limitation on growth. When credit appeared, a whole new world - followed by financial crises - has bloomed. In the new capitalist creed the first and most sacred rule was: The profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production. No shoes, expensive holidays and new houses! Still, everything depends on the people in the labs and their new scientific discoveries that could back the trillions of make-believe money.
- while nobody wants to pay taxes, everybody is ready to invest and this is how Columbus discovered America. Maybe Queen Isabella was the first official investor, but soon, in order to increase the available funds and limit the risks, Europeans turned to limited liabilities joint-stock companies. This was the time for Netherlands to win the trust of the financial crediting system over Spain. Respected private property rights and a strict mission of repaying loans in time and in full were the two success factors for the Dutch. When you do not have the two you are not trusted to get invetsments. Sounds familiar?
- Most famous Dutch joint-stock company was VOC - Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie - whose money eventually financed the conquest of Indonesia. What about the 21st century corporations, aren’t they accumulating too much power?
- The average annual sugar intake of an Englishman rose from nearly zero in the seventeenth century to around 8 kilograms after America was discovered. Blame Columbus for excessive sugar consumption!
- For long time - long millenia - people stood face to face with the most important invention in energy production - the kettle - and missed it. When the water for the tea was boiled, the lid of the kettle jumped. The heat was being converted to movement ! Bingo, this is how the steam engine was produced, followed by the railway line and the internal combustion engine.
- Who paid the bill for this explosion in economic productivity? Harry Harlow, an American psychologist separated infant monkeys from their mothers several hours after birth. The two dummy mothers were made one of metal and the other one of wood covered in cloth. Even if the metal mother had a milk bottle attached, the monkey sucking the milk would still cling onto the wooden dummy mother, as being closer to the idea of a real mother. That proved his theory that all animals have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material requirements. What happened to these needs when the greedy Sapiens demanded more of them? There are 80,000 giraffes in the world compared to 1,5 billion cattle, 200,000 wolves compared to 400 million domesticated dogs and 250,000 chimpanzees in contrast to billions of humans. Humans conquered the world but at the expense of the entire ecosystem.
- If you complain about today business calendars, blaim the first commercial train service who imposed the first train timetable. Afterwards, the British government enacted that all timetables must follow Greenwich. Today a family has more timepieces than an entire medieval country.
- Consumerism was just a step away! If you are rich, you invest, if you are the rest, you buy.
- Are we happier as humans because of all the changes that the Scientific Revolution brought to us? If we take into account that modern medicine has decreased child mortality from 33% to less than 5%, the violence steep dropped, the international wars virtually disappeared and the large scale famines were eliminated, we should be happier. Think about the children of King Edward I of Englad, he lost a child every three years, ten children one after another, something that no parent today would bear.
- Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health. Illness decreases happiness in the short term, but people diagnosted with chronic diseases such as diabetes are usually depressed for a while, but they adjust to the condition and rate their happiness as healthy people do.
- Happiness is determined by expectations: the average Egyptian was far less likely to die from starvation, plague or violence under Mubarak regime than under Ramses II or Cleopatra. But his reference was to their contemporaries in Obama’s America.
- Our subjective well being is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various chemical substances. However, our internal biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels constant, just like an air-conditioning device keep the constant temperature. The cheerful ones have levels between 6 and 10 and the gloomy ones between 3 and 7. Somebody born with an average of level 5 happiness would never dance wildy in the street.
- Happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. As Nietzche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.
- Sapiens is transcending its biological limits, replacing the laws of nature with the laws of intelligent design. Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian bio-artist created Alba, a fluorescent green rabbit, a product of intelligent design. We speak about the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth, 4 billion years ago.
There are 3 ways of intelligent design:
- biological engineering (human intervention on the biological level, the exemple of the rabbit). Geneticists have managed to isolate the genes responsible for mice monogamy. How long it will take to extend it to humans and therefore influence the social structures? Some speak about the recreation of a Neanderthal child. A future employer will be more than happy to hire a Neanderthal who would work as much as two Sapiens.
- cyborg engineering (beings which combine organic and inorganic parts) Out of all the projects under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signs of a human brain , simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn. Intern-brain-net?
- engineering of in-organic life such as computer programs and computer viruses. The Brain Project, founded in 2005 received a grant of 1 billion from EU in 2013 with the attempt to reacreate the human brain inside a computer. If you want to explore more on the mighty future of technology, just watch Black Mirror series on Netflix.
The conclusion of the whole book:
“Did we decrease the amount of suffering in the world?
Is there anything more dangerous than dissastisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they know?”
The most meaningful story of the book:
During the trainings for the Apollo 11 expedition, one astronaut met a Native American who was living in the area where they had their trainings.
The old man asked him what they were doing and he replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. The man asked them for a favour, saying that the people of his tribe believed that holy spirits live on the moon, so he asked the astronaut to pass a special message. Later on, the astronaut discovered that the undeciperable message from the old man was: Do not believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your land.