📖 Sapiens

6M years ago — Our last common grandmother

We are members of a large and noisy family called the great apes. 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our grandmother.

Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species: families > genus > spices.

  • Spices: share same DNA pool and when they mate with each other they produce fertile offspring — i.e. bulldogs and spaniels.
  • Genus: species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading 'genus' (plural genera). They show little sexual interest in each other and their offspring will be infertile. Hence their DNA will always move along through separate evolutionary paths — i.e. horses and donkeys produce mules, which are sterile.
  • Families: trace their lineage back to a founding patriarch.

For example, lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera.

2.5M years ago — The genus Homo

The genus Homo evolved from an earlier genus of Apes called Australopithecus. However, prehistoric humans were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.

Humans had extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Modern Homo sapiens sport a brain averaging 80 cubic inches, but Neanderthal's brains were even bigger and also more muscular — which disproves that natural selection favored intelligence.

It did, though, favor earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely. Raising children required constant help from other members. Evolution thus also favored those capable of forming strong social ties.

  • 2.5M years ago, animals much like modern humans first appeared, but for countless generations, they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms that populated the planet.
  • 400K years ago, we start hunting large game.
  • 300K years ago, generalized use of fire.
  • 200K years ago, Homo sapiens that looked just like us first evolve in East Africa.
  • 100K years ago, humans quickly jumped from the middle to the top of the food chain.
  • 70K years ago, Homo sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. For some reason, our dominance as the only human species starts here.
  • 10K years ago, Homo sapiens remains mostly the exclusive human species around.

From about 2.5M years ago until around 10K years ago, the world was home to several human species. Very much like today, there are many species of bears: brown bears, black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears.

We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, but there were up to 6 different Homos for a long time — all of them human.

The question is: why? There are two competing theories:

  • Replacement Theory: a story about genocide and different mating habits between species; implies that all living Homo sapiens have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible.
  • Interbreeding Theory: a story about attraction and sex, implies that there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans, and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

It turns out we share a small percentage of genetic code with Neanderthals and Denisovans, which suggests that both theories could be right. 50k years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans were almost the same species. We were not completely different species, like horses and donkeys; but also, not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels.

❓ "The" question: what would have happened — from a societal point of view — if other human species were still around?

70K years ago — The Cognitive Revolution

The sum of cultures becomes history and brings along new ways of thinking and communicating.

History declares its independence from biology.

It's not just our biology that brought us where we are today: the ability to rapidly change behavior opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution — transmitting new behaviors without any need of genetic or environmental change.

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70K years ago to 30K years ago constitutes the Cognitive Revolution, and witnessed:

  • Invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and needles.
  • Evidence for religion, art, commerce, and social stratification.
  • Fiction, gossip, cooperate together in common myths.
    • Ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.
    • Gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands up to 150.

Language evolved as a way of gossiping. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. This has made us the masters of creation.

There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

The secret to cross the 150 mark was the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths — such as stories about gods, nations, or LLCs. Since then, Homo sapiens have been living in a dual reality.

Our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Post-industrial environments gives us more material resources and longer lives, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

  • 45K years ago, appearance of the firsts permanent fishing villages.
    • We colonized Australia. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly using the same genes.
  • 15K years ago we domesticated the firsts dogs.
    • The human population was smaller than that of today's Cairo.

The size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging: the human collective now knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Today, most people in industrial societies don't need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life's necessities you rely on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise.

They were also more fit: varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.

When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new 'niches for imbeciles' were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.

Foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed. The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.

In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. That is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it. A varied diet protected them from starvation and malnutrition.

The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as 'the original affluent societies'.

15K years ago — The Agricultural Revolution

Following the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens acquired the technology, the organizational skills, and perhaps even the vision necessary to break out of Afro-Asia and settle the Outer World.

The Sapiens became Pacific seafarers without a "physiologic upgrade". Instead, they built boats and learned how to steer them. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats using the same genes.

Their first achievement was the colonization of Australia some 45.000 years ago. At that moment Homo sapiens climbed to the top of the food chain and became the deadliest species ever on Earth. The settlers didn’t just adapt, but transformed the ecosystem beyond recognition.

The big beasts of Africa and Asia learned to avoid humans, however, when the Australian fauna set eyes for the first time on us, they probably gave it one glance and then went back to chewing leaves.

At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over 100 pounds. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about 100 remained. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.

Enslaved by wheat

Today, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9.500 and 3.500 BC. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2.000 years.

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.

The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. [...] We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.

Homo sapiens had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10.000 years ago, but then began to invest more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants.

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price.

A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and bad for teeth and gums. Also, the early farmers were as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting.

The currency of evolution

It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially.

The currency — and success — of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA.

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from this period.

But nobody realised what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work, we reasoned ourselves into a better life. That was the plan.

Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently.

It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs to retire at their 30s? But by the time they reach that age, they have built a lifestyle full of luxuries that needs to be maintained. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted and can’t live without it.

Evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success. It judges everything by the criteria of survival and reproduction, with no regard for individual suffering and happiness.

Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.

The same goes for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep. For them, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon. However, only the most submissive, weak, and less curious livestock were allowed to live longer and procreate. Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived.

But there might be an alternative explanation.

Maybe it wasn't the search for an easier life that brought about the transformation. Maybe Sapiens had other aspirations, and were consciously willing to make their lives harder to achieve it.

Think of temples and religious venues: why would a foraging society build such structures? They had no utilitarian purpose. Whatever it was, the foragers thought it was worth the effort and time. The only way to build such structures was for thousands of foragers belonging to different bands and tribes to cooperate over an extended period of time. Only a sophisticated religious or ideological system could sustain such efforts.

Making history

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

This was a far-reaching revolution, whose impact was psychological as much as architectural that brought along many side effects:

  • A disconnection between evolutionary success and well being.
  • The idea of attachment to "home" and the accumulation of things and properties.
  • A separation from neighbors and the rise of a more self-centred creature.
  • The idea of "future" and anxiety about it.

The Agricultural Revolution made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Farmers must always keep the future in mind and must work in its service.

More than 90% of humans were peasants who rose each morning to work the land. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites — who fill the history books. It was the foundation of large-scale political and social systems. Peasants' surplus food fuelled politics, wars, arts, and philosophy.

An imagined order

The fact that we were able to cram together the first large villages and cities created the challenge to coordinate and rule over such communities — food surplus and advances in transportation were not enough. Despite we lacked such biological instincts we were able to cooperate thanks to the development of shared myths.

Human imagination evolved faster than evolution did — it enabled millions of people to cooperate together.

However, across cultures, these principles seem to conflict one with another. This is because they have no objective nor biological validity and the only place they exist is in the imagination of human minds. They not need to be true, its purpose is solely to cooperate and create a stable and prosperous society.

There is no God, but don't tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.

—— Voltaire

Unlike a natural order, Homo sapiens have no natural rights. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function, even if people stop believing in it. An imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them.

How do you maintain it?

  • Always insist that it is an objective reality created by the great Gods or by the laws of nature.
  • Educate people from the get-go: to nurture equality, it’s fashionable for rich kids to wear jeans.
  • Embed the imagined order in the material world.

Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Take the desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday.

Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.

Maintaining order

Unfortunately, the human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases. When the amount of people and property in a particular society crossed a critical threshold, it became necessary to store and process large amounts of mathematical data.

  • 3.500 BC and 3.000 BC: Sumerian invented a system for storing and processing information, we called it ‘writing’.
  • 3.000 BC and 2.500 BC: more signs were added to the Sumerian system, transforming it into a full script, we call cuneiform.
  • 2.500 BC and 1.200 BC: Egyptians, Chinese, and the Incas developed another full script, as well as techniques of archiving, cataloguing and retrieving written records.
  • 900 AD: a partial script composed of ten signs was invented, representing the numbers from 0 to 9.

Unlike other spices, such as ants and bees — which are stable and resilient because most of the information needed to sustain them is encoded in the genome — the Sapiens social order is imagined. Then humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of their DNA and passing these on to their progeny.

The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings. Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.

They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression. Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.

On top of that, when such orders get abolished, things can get even worse. Because the starting point of each group is already set and the perpetuation of their situation is inevitable. However, in theory, the playing field is "fair", and the upper class has now an excuse to justify the believes in which the order was based in the first place.

Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.

Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender.

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.

In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.

In contrast, becoming a man or a woman is a very complicated and demanding undertaking. Since most masculine and feminine qualities are cultural rather than biological, no society automatically crowns each male a man, or every female a woman. Nor are these titles laurels that can be rested on once they are acquired.

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 the engines of cultural development, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.

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.

Part Three: The Unification of Humankind

Culture = Cognitive dissonance (engine for growth). Don't look to another culture expecting a pristine set of values.

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Part Four: The Scientific Revolution

At 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge.

The Napoleonic military machine that crushed the armies of the European powers at Austerlitz (1805) was armed with more or less the same weaponry that the army of Louis XVI had used.

A-Mortal: 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. Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem. And every technical problem has a technical solution.

Science is unable to set its own priorities. It is also incapable of determining what to do with its discoveries. For example, from a purely scientific viewpoint it is unclear what we should do with our increasing understanding of genetics.

Scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with the discoveries.


The discovery of an effective treatment for scurvy greatly contributed to British control of the world’s oceans and its ability to send armies to the other side of the world.

The Scientific Revolution and modern imperialism were inseparable. People such as Captain James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks could hardly distinguish science from empire.

Europe domination: in 1775 Europe was an economic dwarf, but between 1500 and 1750, western Europe gained momentum and became master of the ‘Outer World’, meaning the two American continents and the oceans. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the world’s economy and most of its territory.

The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines (which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly.

Previous seekers of empire tended to assume that they already understood the world. European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.

For most of history the economy stayed much the same size. Per capita production remained static. But all that changed in the modern age.


Random Data and Ideas

  • In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest.
  • Women who gave birth earlier fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed.
  • Dual reality: the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.
  • Francis Bacon connected the fields of science and technology.
  • Gunpowder was invented accidentally, by Daoist alchemists searching for the elixir of life.
  • 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.