메인 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
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An Illustrated Theory of Numbers
Book by Martin H. Weissman
An Illustrated Theory of Numbers
Book by Martin H. Weissman
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Image credits 1. © ImageBank/Getty Images Israel. 2. © Visual/Corbis. 3. © Anthropologisches Institut und Museum, Universität Zurich. 4. Photo: Thomas Stephan © Ulmer Museum. 5. © magiccarpics.co.uk. 6. © Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images. 7. Photo: The Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory. 8. © Visual/Corbis. 9. © Visual/Corbis. 10. Poster: Waterhouse Hawkins, c.1862 © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum. 11. © Visual/Corbis. 12. Photo: Karl G. Heider © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, PM# 2006.17.1.89.2 (digital file# 98770053). 13. Photos and © Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. 14. © Visual/Corbis. 15. Photo and © Anonymous for Animal Rights (Israel). 16. © De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/The Bridgeman Art Library. 17. Engraving: William J. Stone, 1823 © The Art Archive/National Archives Washington DC (ref: AA399024). 18. © Adam Jones/Corbis. 19. © The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London, MS 1717. http://www.schoyencollection.com/. 20. Manuscript: History of the Inca Kingdom, Nueva Coronica y buen Gobierno, c.1587, illustrations by Guarnan Poma de Ayala, Peru © The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Gianni Dagli Orti (ref: AA365957). 21. Photo: Guy Tillim/Africa Media Online, 1989 © africanpictures/akg. 22. © Réunion des musées nationaux/Gérard Blot. 23. © Visual/Corbis. 24. © Visual/Corbis. 25. © Universal History Archive/UIG/The Bridgeman Art Library. 26. Illustration based on: Joe Cribb (ed.), Money: From Cowrie Shells to Credit Cards (London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications, 1986), 27. 27. © akg/Bible Land Pictures. 28. © Stuart Black/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images. 29. © The Art Archive/Gianni Dagli Orti (ref: AA423796). 30. Library of Congress, Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum © courtesy of Roland Klemig. 31. Photo: Boaz Neumann. From Kladderadatsch 49 (1933), 7. 32. © Visual/Corbis. 33. © ; Ria Novosti/Science Photo Library. 34. Painting: Franklin’s Experiment, June 1752, published by Currier & Ives © Museum of the City of New York/Corbis. 35. Portrait: C. A. Woolley, 1866, National Library of Australia (ref: an23378504). 36. © British Library Board (shelfmark add. 11267). 37. © Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ms. Laur. Med. Palat. 249 (mappa Salviati). 38. Illustration © Neil Gower. 39. Redraft of the Castello Plan, John Wolcott Adams, 1916 © Collection of the New-York Historical Society/The Bridgeman Art Library. 40. Photo and © Anonymous for Animal Rights (Israel). 41. © Photo Researchers/Visualphotos.com. 42. © Chaplin/United Artists/The Kobal Collection/Max Munn Autrey. 43. Lithograph from a photo by Fishbourne & Gow, San Francisco, 1850s © Corbis. 44. © Proehl Studios/Corbis. 45. Europa Press via Getty Images. 46. Photo and © Charles Vacanti. 47. © ImageBank/Getty Images Israel. Part Four The Scientific Revolution [image: ] 32. Alamogordo, 16 July 1945, 05:29:53. Eight seconds after the first atomic bomb was detonated. The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavadgita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ 5 History’s Biggest Fraud FOR 2.5 MILLION YEARS HUMANS FED themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention. Homo erectus, Homo ergaster and the Neanderthals plucked wild figs and hunted wild sheep without deciding where fig trees would take root, in which meadow a herd of sheep should graze, or which billy goat would inseminate which nanny goat. Homo sapiens spread from East Africa to the Middle East, to Europe and Asia, and finally to Australia and America – but everywhere they went, Sapiens too continued to live by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Why do anything else when your lifestyle feeds you amply and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and political dynamics? All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution. The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. It began slowly and in a restricted geographical area. Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC; olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over. 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. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers. Scholars once believed that agriculture spread from a single Middle Eastern point of origin to the four corners of the world. Today, scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in other parts of the world not by the action of Middle Eastern farmers exporting their revolution but entirely independently. People in Central America domesticated maize and beans without knowing anything about wheat and pea cultivation in the Middle East. South Americans learned how to raise potatoes and llamas, unaware of what was going on in either Mexico or the Levant. Chinas first revolutionaries domesticated rice, millet and pigs. North America’s first gardeners were those who got tired of combing the undergrowth for edible gourds and decided to cultivate pumpkins. New Guineans tamed sugar cane and bananas, while the first West African farmers made African millet, African rice, sorghum and wheat conform to their needs. From these initial focal points, agriculture spread far and wide. By the first century AD the vast majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists. Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question. The fungi were far too elusive, the giant beasts too ferocious. Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred. Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers. [image: ] Map 2. Locations and dates of agricultural revolutions. The data is contentious, and the map is constantly being redrawn to incorporate the latest archaeological discoveries.1 That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. 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.2 Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous? Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and 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. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew. 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. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return? It did not offer a better diet. Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums. Wheat did not give people economic security. The life of a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Foragers relied on dozens of species to survive, and could therefore weather difficult years even without stocks of preserved food. If the availability of one species was reduced, they could gather and hunt more of other species. Farming societies have, until very recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety of domesticated plants. In many areas, they relied on just a single staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting. The loss of pasture land to raiding neighbours could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise. When a foraging band was hard-pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses and granaries. In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation. Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end. [image: ] 12. Tribal warfare in New Guinea between two farming communities (1960). Such scenes were probably widespread in the thousands of years following the Agricultural Revolution. Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15 per cent of deaths, including 25 per cent of male deaths. In contemporary New Guinea, violence accounts for 30 per cent of male deaths in one agricultural tribal society, the Dani, and 35 per cent in another, the Enga. In Ecuador, perhaps 50 per cent of adult Waoranis meet a violent death at the hands of another human!3 In time, human violence was brought under control through the development of larger social frameworks – cities, kingdoms and states. But it took thousands of years to build such huge and effective political structures. Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today. A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’? What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl? 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. Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment. The currency 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. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions. Yet why should individuals care about this evolutionary calculus? Why would any sane person lower his or her standard of living just to multiply the number of copies of the Homo sapiens genome? Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap. The Luxury Trap The rise of farming was a very gradual affair spread over centuries and millennia. A band of Homo sapiens gathering mushrooms and nuts and hunting deer and rabbit did not all of a sudden settle in a permanent village, ploughing fields, sowing wheat and carrying water from the river. The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life. Homo sapiens reached the Middle East around 70,000 years ago. For the next 50,000 years our ancestors flourished there without agriculture. The natural resources of the area were enough to support its human population. In times of plenty people had a few more children, and in times of need a few less. Humans, like many mammals, have hormonal and genetic mechanisms that help control procreation. In good times females reach puberty earlier, and their chances of getting pregnant are a bit higher. In bad times puberty is late and fertility decreases. To these natural population controls were added cultural mechanisms. Babies and small children, who move slowly and demand much attention, were a burden on nomadic foragers. People tried to space their children three to four years apart. Women did so by nursing their children around the clock and until a late age (around-the-clock suckling significantly decreases the chances of getting pregnant). Other methods included full or partial sexual abstinence (backed perhaps by cultural taboos), abortions and occasionally infanticide.4 During these long millennia people occasionally ate wheat grain, but this was a marginal part of their diet. About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age gave way to a period of global warming. As temperatures rose, so did rainfall. The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other cereals, which multiplied and spread. People began eating more wheat, and in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth. Since it was impossible to eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding and cooking them, people who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites for processing. Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost. Over time, more and more wheat grew along favourite human trails and near campsites. When humans burned down forests and thickets, this also helped wheat. Fire cleared away trees and shrubs, allowing wheat and other grasses to monopolise the sunlight, water and nutrients. Where wheat became particularly abundant, and game and other food sources were also plentiful, human bands could gradually give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle down in seasonal and even permanent camps. At first they might have camped for four weeks during the harvest. A generation later, as wheat plants multiplied and spread, the harvest camp might have lasted for five weeks, then six, and finally it became a permanent village. Evidence of such settlements has been discovered throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Levant, where the Natufian culture flourished from 12,500 BC to 9500 BC. The Natufians were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on dozens of wild species, but they lived in permanent villages and devoted much of their time to the intensive gathering and processing of wild cereals. They built stone houses and granaries. They stored grain for times of need. They invented new tools such as stone scythes for harvesting wild wheat, and stone pestles and mortars to grind it. In the years following 9500 BC, the descendants of the Natufians continued to gather and process cereals, but they also began to cultivate them in more and more elaborate ways. When gathering wild grains, they took care to lay aside part of the harvest to sow the fields next season. They discovered that they could achieve much better results by sowing the grains deep in the ground rather than haphazardly scattering them on the surface. So they began to hoe and plough. Gradually they also started to weed the fields, to guard them against parasites, and to water and fertilise them. As more effort was directed towards cereal cultivation, there was less time to gather and hunt wild species. The foragers became farmers. No single step separated the woman gathering wild wheat from the woman farming domesticated wheat, so it’s hard to say exactly when the decisive transition to agriculture took place. But, by 8500 BC, the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species. With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year. Babies were weaned at an earlier age – they could be fed on porridge and gruel. The extra hands were sorely needed in the fields. But the extra mouths quickly wiped out the food surpluses, so even more fields had to be planted. As people began living in disease-ridden settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings, child mortality soared. In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty.5 Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children. With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. 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. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers. Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan. The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared between more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system, and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty. 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. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to no, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut. The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. 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. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life? Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. Here and there a Luddite holdout refuses to open an email account, just as thousands of years ago some human bands refused to take up farming and so escaped the luxury trap. But the Agricultural Revolution didn’t need every band in a given region to join up. It only took one. Once one band settled down and started tilling, whether in the Middle East or Central America, agriculture was irresistible. Since farming created the conditions for swift demographic growth, farmers could usually overcome foragers by sheer weight of numbers. The foragers could either run away, abandoning their hunting grounds to field and pasture, or take up the ploughshare themselves. Either way, the old life was doomed. The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. 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. Divine Intervention The above scenario explains the Agricultural Revolution as a miscalculation. It’s very plausible. History is full of far more idiotic miscalculations. But there’s another possibility. 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 in order to achieve them. Scientists usually seek to attribute historical developments to cold economic and demographic factors. It sits better with their rational and mathematical methods. In the case of modern history, scholars cannot avoid taking into account non-material factors such as ideology and culture. The written evidence forces their hand. We have enough documents, letters and memoirs to prove that World War Two was not caused by food shortages or demographic pressures. But we have no documents from the Natufian culture, so when dealing with ancient periods the materialist school reigns supreme. It is difficult to prove that preliterate people were motivated by faith rather than economic necessity. Yet, in some rare cases, we are lucky enough to find telltale clues. In 1995 archaeologists began to excavate a site in south-east Turkey called Göbekli Tepe. In the oldest stratum they discovered no signs of a settlement, houses or daily activities. They did, however, find monumental pillared structures decorated with spectacular engravings. Each stone pillar weighed up to seven tons and reached a height of five metres. In a nearby quarry they found a half-chiselled pillar weighing fifty tons. Altogether, they uncovered more than ten monumental structures, the largest of them nearly thirty metres across. Archaeologists are familiar with such monumental structures from sites around the world – the best-known example is Stonehenge in Britain. Yet as they studied Göbekli Tepe, they discovered an amazing fact. Stonehenge dates to 2500 BC, and was built by a developed agricultural society. The structures at Göbekli Tepe are dated to about 9500 BC, and all available evidence indicates that they were built by hunter-gatherers. The archaeological community initially found it difficult to credit these findings, but one test after another confirmed both the early date of the structures and the pre-agricultural society of their builders. The capabilities of ancient foragers, and the complexity of their cultures, seem to be far more impressive than was previously suspected. [image: ] 13. Opposite: The remains of a monumental structure from Göbekli Tepe. Right: One of the decorated stone pillars (about five metres high). Why would a foraging society build such structures? They had no obvious utilitarian purpose. They were neither mammoth slaughterhouses nor places to shelter from rain or hide from lions. That leaves us with the theory that they were built for some mysterious cultural purpose that archaeologists have a hard time deciphering. Whatever it was, the foragers thought it worth a huge amount of effort and time. The only way to build Göbekli Tepe 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. Göbekli Tepe held another sensational secret. For many years, geneticists have been tracing the origins of domesticated wheat. Recent discoveries indicate that at least one domesticated variant, einkorn wheat, originated in the Karaçadag Hills – about thirty kilometres from Göbekli Tepe.6 [image: ] This can hardly be a coincidence. It’s likely that the cultural centre of Göbekli Tepe was somehow connected to the initial domestication of wheat by humankind and of humankind by wheat. In order to feed the people who built and used the monumental structures, particularly large quantities of food were required. It may well be that foragers switched from gathering wild wheat to intense wheat cultivation, not to increase their normal food supply, but rather to support the building and running of a temple. In the conventional picture, pioneers first built a village, and when it prospered, they set up a temple in the middle. But Göbekli Tepe suggests that the temple may have been built first, and that a village later grew up around it. Victims of the Revolution The Faustian bargain between humans and grains was not the only deal our species made. Another deal was struck concerning the fate of animals such as sheep, goats, pigs and chickens. Nomadic bands that stalked wild sheep gradually altered the constitutions of the herds on which they preyed. This process probably began with selective hunting. Humans learned that it was to their advantage to hunt only adult rams and old or sick sheep. They spared fertile females and young lambs in order to safeguard the long-term vitality of the local herd. The second step might have been to actively defend the herd against predators, driving away lions, wolves and rival human bands. The band might next have corralled the herd into a narrow gorge in order to better control and defend it. Finally, people began to make a more careful selection among the sheep in order to tailor them to human needs. The most aggressive rams, those that showed the greatest resistance to human control, were slaughtered first. So were the skinniest and most inquisitive females. (Shepherds are not fond of sheep whose curiosity takes them far from the herd.) With each passing generation, the sheep became fatter, more submissive and less curious. Voilà! Mary had a little lamb and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go. Alternatively, hunters may have caught and adopted’ a lamb, fattening it during the months of plenty and slaughtering it in the leaner season. At some stage they began keeping a greater number of such lambs. Some of these reached puberty and began to procreate. The most aggressive and unruly lambs were first to the slaughter. The most submissive, most appealing lambs were allowed to live longer and procreate. The result was a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep. Such domesticated animals – sheep, chickens, donkeys and others – supplied food (meat, milk, eggs), raw materials (skins, wool), and muscle power. Transportation, ploughing, grinding and other tasks, hitherto performed by human sinew, were increasingly carried out by animals. In most farming societies people focused on plant cultivation; raising animals was a secondary activity. But a new kind of society also appeared in some places, based primarily on the exploitation of animals: tribes of pastoralist herders. As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals. Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches. Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens. And they are all over the globe. The domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl ever. Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world. From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep. Unfortunately, the 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. Domesticated chickens and cattle may well be an evolutionary success story, but they are also among the most miserable creatures that ever lived. The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueller with the passing of the centuries. The natural lifespan of wild chickens is about seven to twelve years, and of cattle about twenty to twenty-five years. In the wild, most chickens and cattle died long before that, but they still had a fair chance of living for a respectable number of years. In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated chickens and cattle are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months, because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age from an economic perspective. (Why keep feeding a cock for three years if it has already reached its maximum weight after three months?) Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draught animals are sometimes allowed to live for many years. But the price is subjugation to a way of life completely alien to their urges and desires. It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape. In order to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient draught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed. Farmers developed techniques such as locking animals inside pens and cages, bridling them in harnesses and leashes, training them with whips and cattle prods, and mutilating them. The process of taming almost always involves the castration of males. This restrains male aggression and enables humans selectively to control the herd’s procreation. [image: ] 14. A painting from an Egyptian grave, c.1200 BC: A pair of oxen ploughing a field. In the wild, cattle roamed as they pleased in herds with a complex social structure. The castrated and domesticated ox wasted away his life under the lash and in a narrow pen, labouring alone or in pairs in a way that suited neither its body nor its social and emotional needs. When an ox could no longer pull the plough, it was slaughtered. (Note the hunched position of the Egyptian farmer who, much like the ox, spent his life in hard labour oppressive to his body, his mind and his social relationships.) In many New Guinean societies, the wealth of a person has traditionally been determined by the number of pigs he or she owns. To ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice off a chunk of each pig’s nose. This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sniff. Since the pigs cannot find food or even find their way around without sniffing, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human owners. In another area of New Guinea, it has been customary to gouge out pigs’ eyes, so that they cannot even see where they’re going.7 The dairy industry has its own ways of forcing animals to do its will. Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after giving birth to calves, kids and lambs, and only as long as the youngsters are suckling. To continue a supply of animal milk, a farmer needs to have calves, kids or lambs for suckling, but must prevent them from monopolising the milk. One common method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves and kids shortly after birth, milk the mother for all she was worth, and then get her pregnant again. This is still a very widespread technique. In many modern dairy farms a milk cow usually lives for about five years before being slaughtered. During these five years she is almost constantly pregnant, and is fertilised within 60 to 120 days after giving birth in order to preserve maximum milk production. Her calves are separated from her shortly after birth. The females are reared to become the next generation of dairy cows, whereas the males are handed over to the care of the meat industry.8 Another method is to keep the calves and kids near their mothers, but prevent them by various stratagems from suckling too much milk. The simplest way to do that is to allow the kid or calf to start suckling, but drive it away once the milk starts flowing. This method usually encounters resistance from both kid and mother. Some shepherd tribes used to kill the offspring, eat its flesh, and then stuff the skin. The stuffed offspring was then presented to the mother so that its presence would encourage her milk production. The Nuer tribe in the Sudan went so far as to smear stuffed animals with their mother’s urine, to give the counterfeit calves a familiar, live scent. Another Nuer technique was to tie a ring of thorns around a calf’s mouth, so that it pricks the mother and causes her to resist suckling.9 Tuareg camel breeders in the Sahara used to puncture or cut off parts of the nose and upper lip of young camels in order to make suckling painful, thereby discouraging them from consuming too much milk.10 Not all agricultural societies were this cruel to their farm animals. The lives of some domesticated animals could be quite good. Sheep raised for wool, pet dogs and cats, war horses and race horses often enjoyed comfortable conditions. The Roman emperor Caligula allegedly planned to appoint his favourite horse, Incitatus, to the consulship. Shepherds and farmers throughout history showed affection for their animals and have taken great care of them, just as many slaveholders felt affection and concern for their slaves. It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock. [image: ] 15. A modern calf in an industrial meat farm. Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body. There the calf spends its entire life – about four months on average. It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong. Soft muscles mean a soft and juicy steak. The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet. Yet from the viewpoint of the herd, rather than that of the shepherd, it’s hard to avoid the impression that for the vast majority of domesticated animals, the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their evolutionary ‘success’ is meaningless. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks. The contented rhinoceros is no less content for being among the last of its kind. The numerical success of the calf’s species is little consolation for the suffering the individual endures. This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution. When we study the narrative of plants such as wheat and maize, maybe the purely evolutionary perspective makes sense. Yet in the case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience. In the following chapters we will see time and again how a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering. 20 The End of Homo Sapiens THIS BOOK BEGAN BY PRESENTING HISTORY as the next stage in the continuum of physics to chemistry to biology. Sapiens are subject to the same physical forces, chemical reactions and natural-selection processes that govern all living beings. Natural selection may have provided Homo sapiens with a much larger playing field than it has given to any other organism, but the field has still had its boundaries. The implication has been that, no matter what their efforts and achievements, Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this is no longer true: Homo sapiens is transcending those limits. It is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. For close to 4 billion years, every single organism on the planet evolved subject to natural selection. Not even one was designed by an intelligent creator. The giraffe, for example, got its long neck thanks to competition between archaic giraffes rather than to the whims of a super-intelligent being. Proto-giraffes who had longer necks had access to more food and consequently produced more offspring than did those with shorter necks. Nobody, certainly not the giraffes, said, ‘A long neck would enable giraffes to munch leaves off the treetops. Let’s extend it.’ The beauty of Darwin’s theory is that it does not need to assume an intelligent designer to explain how giraffes ended up with long necks. For billions of years, intelligent design was not even an option, because there was no intelligence which could design things. Microorganisms, which until quite recently were the only living things around, are capable of amazing feats. A microorganism belonging to one species can incorporate genetic codes from a completely different species into its cell and thereby gain new capabilities, such as resistance to antibiotics. Yet, as best we know, microorganisms have no consciousness, no aims in life, and no ability to plan ahead. At some stage organisms such as giraffes, dolphins, chimpanzees and Neanderthals evolved consciousness and the ability to plan ahead. But even if a Neanderthal fantasised about fowls so fat and slow-moving that he could just scoop them up whenever he was hungry, he had no way of turning that fantasy into reality. He had to hunt the birds that had been naturally selected. The first crack in the old regime appeared about 10,000 years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution. Sapiens who dreamed of fat, slow-moving chickens discovered that if they mated the fattest hen with the slowest cock, some of their offspring would be both fat and slow. If you mated those offspring with each other, you could produce a line of fat, slow birds. It was a race of chickens unknown to nature, produced by the intelligent design not of a god but of a human. Still, compared to an all-powerful deity, Homo sapiens had limited design skills. Sapiens could use selective breeding to detour around and accelerate the natural-selection processes that normally affected chickens, but they could not introduce completely new characteristics that were absent from the genetic pool of wild chickens. In a way, the relationship between Homo sapiens and chickens was similar to many other symbiotic relationships that have so often arisen on their own in nature. Sapiens exerted peculiar selective pressures on chickens that caused the fat and slow ones to proliferate, just as pollinating bees select flowers, causing the bright colourful ones to proliferate. Today, the 4-billion-year-old regime of natural selection is facing a completely different challenge. In laboratories throughout the world, scientists are engineering living beings. They break the laws of natural selection with impunity, unbridled even by an organisms original characteristics. Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian bio-artist, decided in 2000 to create a new work of art: a fluorescent green rabbit. Kac contacted a French laboratory and offered it a fee to engineer a radiant bunny according to his specifications. The French scientists took a run-of-the-mill white rabbit embryo, implanted in its DNA a gene taken from a green fluorescent jellyfish, and voilà! One green fluorescent rabbit for le monsieur. Kac named the rabbit Alba. It is impossible to explain the existence of Alba through the laws of natural selection. She is the product of intelligent design. She is also a harbinger of things to come. If the potential Alba signifies is realised in full – and if humankind doesn’t annihilate itself meanwhile – the Scientific Revolution might prove itself far greater than a mere historical revolution. It may turn out to be the most important biological revolution since the appearance of life on earth. After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design. If this happens, the whole of human history up to that point might, with hindsight, be reinterpreted as a process of experimentation and apprenticeship that revolutionised the game of life. Such a process should be understood from a cosmic perspective of billions of years, rather than from a human perspective of millennia. Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future. At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings that combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of inorganic life. Of Mice and Men Biological engineering is deliberate human intervention on the biological level (e.g. implanting a gene) aimed at modifying an organisms shape, capabilities, needs or desires, in order to realize some preconceived cultural idea, such as the artistic predilections of Eduardo Kac. There is nothing new about biological engineering, per se. People have been using it for millennia in order to reshape themselves and other organisms. A simple example is castration. Humans have been castrating bulls for perhaps 10,000 years in order to create oxen. Oxen are less aggressive, and are thus easier to train to pull ploughs. Humans also castrated their own young males to create soprano singers with enchanting voices and eunuchs who could safely be entrusted with overseeing the sultans harem. But recent advances in our understanding of how organisms work, down to the cellular and nuclear levels, have opened up previously unimaginable possibilities. For instance, we can today not merely castrate a man, but also change his sex through surgical and hormonal treatments. But that’s not all. Consider the surprise, disgust and consternation that ensued when, in 1996, the following photograph appeared in newspapers and on television: [image: ] 46. A mouse on whose back scientists grew an ‘ear’ made of cattle cartilage cells. It is an eerie echo of the lion-man statue from the Stadel Cave. Thirty thousand years ago, humans were already fantasising about combining different species. Today, they can actually produce such chimeras. No, Photoshop was not involved. It’s an untouched photo of a real mouse on whose back scientists implanted cattle cartilage cells. The scientists were able to control the growth of the new tissue, shaping it in this case into something that looks like a human ear. The process may soon enable scientists to manufacture artificial ears, which could then be implanted in humans.1 Even more remarkable wonders can be performed with genetic engineering, which is why it raises a host of ethical, political and ideological issues. And it’s not just pious monotheists who object that man should not usurp God’s role. Many confirmed atheists are no less shocked by the idea that scientists are stepping into nature’s shoes. Animal-rights activists decry the suffering caused to lab animals in genetic engineering experiments, and to the farmyard animals that are engineered in complete disregard of their needs and desires. Human-rights activists are afraid that genetic engineering might be used to create supermen who will make serfs of the rest of us. Jeremiahs offer apocalyptic visions of bio-dictatorships that will clone fearless soldiers and obedient workers. The prevailing feeling is that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise and far-sighted use of the skill. The result is that we’re at present using only a fraction of the potential of genetic engineering. Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects. For example, lines of E. coli, a bacterium that lives symbiotically in the human gut (and which makes headlines when it gets out of the gut and causes deadly infections), have been genetically engineered to produce biofuel.2 E. coli and several species of fungi have also been engineered to produce insulin, thereby lowering the cost of diabetes treatment.3 A gene extracted from an Arctic fish has been inserted into potatoes, making the plants more frost-resistant.4 A few mammals have also been subject to genetic engineering. Every year the dairy industry suffers billions of dollars in damages due to mastitis, a disease that strikes dairy-cow udders. Scientists are currently experimenting with genetically engineered cows whose milk contains lysostaphin, a biochemical that attacks the bacteria responsible for the disease.5 The pork industry, which has suffered from falling sales because consumers are wary of the unhealthy fats in ham and bacon, has hopes for a still-experimental line of pigs implanted with genetic material from a worm. The new genes cause the pigs to turn bad omega 6 fatty acid into its healthy cousin, omega 3.6 The next generation of genetic engineering will make pigs with good fat look like child’s play. Geneticists have managed not merely to extend sixfold the average life expectancy of worms, but also to engineer genius mice that display much-improved memory and learning skills.7 Voles are small, stout rodents resembling mice, and most varieties of voles are promiscuous. But there is one species in which boy and girl voles form lasting and monogamous relationships. Geneticists claim to have isolated the genes responsible for vole monogamy. If the addition of a gene can turn a vole Don Juan into a loyal and loving husband, are we far off from being able to genetically engineer not only the individual abilities of rodents (and humans), but also their social structures?8 The Return of the Neanderthals But geneticists do not only want to transform living lineages. They aim to revive extinct creatures as well. And not just dinosaurs, as in Jurassic Park. A team of Russian, Japanese and Korean scientists has recently mapped the genome of ancient mammoths, found frozen in the Siberian ice. They now plan to take a fertilised egg-cell of a present-day elephant, replace the elephantine DNA with a reconstructed mammoth DNA, and implant the egg in the womb of an elephant. After about twenty-two months, they expect the first mammoth in 5,000 years to be born.9 But why stop at mammoths? Professor George Church of Harvard University recently suggested that, with the completion of the Neanderthal Genome Project, we can now implant reconstructed Neanderthal DNA into a Sapiens ovum, thus producing the first Neanderthal child in 30,000 years. Church claimed that he could do the job for a paltry $30 million. Several women have already volunteered to serve as surrogate mothers.10 What do we need Neanderthals for? Some argue that if we could study live Neanderthals, we could answer some of the most nagging questions about the origins and uniqueness of Homo sapiens. By comparing a Neanderthal to a Homo sapiens brain, and mapping out where their structures differ, perhaps we could identify what biological change produced consciousness as we experience it. There’s an ethical reason, too – some have argued that if Homo sapiens was responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals, it has a moral duty to resurrect them. And having some Neanderthals around might be useful. Lots of industrialists would be glad to pay one Neanderthal to do the menial work of two Sapiens. But why stop even at Neanderthals? Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design a better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis, and the Sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice. (The mouse genome contains about 2.5 billion nucleobases, the Sapiens genome about 2.9 billion bases – meaning the latter is only 14 per cent larger.)11 In the medium range – perhaps in a few decades – genetic engineering and other forms of biological engineering might enable us to make far-reaching alterations not only to our physiology, immune system and life expectancy, but also to our intellectual and emotional capacities. If genetic engineering can create genius mice, why not genius humans? If it can create monogamous voles, why not humans hard-wired to remain faithful to their partners? The Cognitive Revolution that turned Homo sapiens from an insignificant ape into the master of the world did not require any noticeable change in physiology or even in the size and external shape of the Sapiens brain. It apparently involved no more than a few small changes to internal brain structure. Perhaps another small change would be enough to ignite a Second Cognitive Revolution, create a completely new type of consciousness, and transform Homo sapiens into something altogether different. True, we still don’t have the acumen to achieve this, but there seems to be no insurmountable technical barrier preventing us from producing superhumans. The main obstacles are the ethical and political objections that have slowed down research on humans. And no matter how convincing the ethical arguments may be, it is hard to see how they can hold back the next step for long, especially if what is at stake is the possibility of prolonging human life indefinitely, conquering incurable diseases, and upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities. What would happen, for example, if we developed a cure for Alzheimer’s disease that, as a side benefit, could dramatically improve the memories of healthy people? Would anyone be able to halt the relevant research? And when the cure is developed, could any law enforcement agency limit it to Alzheimer’s patients and prevent healthy people from using it to acquire super-memories? It’s unclear whether bioengineering could really resurrect the Neanderthals, but it would very likely bring down the curtain on Homo sapiens. Tinkering with our genes won’t necessarily kill us. But we might fiddle with Homo sapiens to such an extent that we would no longer be Homo sapiens. Bionic Life There is another new technology which could change the laws of life: cyborg engineering. Cyborgs are beings which combine organic and inorganic parts, such as a human with bionic hands. In a sense, nearly all of us are bionic these days, since our natural senses and functions are supplemented by devices such as eyeglasses, pacemakers, orthotics, and even computers and mobile phones (which relieve our brains of some of their data storage and processing burdens). We stand poised on the brink of becoming true cyborgs, of having inorganic features that are inseparable from our bodies, features that modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a US military research agency, is developing cyborgs out of insects. The idea is to implant electronic chips, detectors and processors in the body of a fly or cockroach, which will enable either a human or an automatic operator to control the insect’s movements remotely and to absorb and transmit information. Such a fly could be sitting on the wall at enemy headquarters, eavesdrop on the most secret conversations, and if it isn’t caught first by a spider, could inform us exactly what the enemy is planning.12 In 2006 the US Naval Undersea Warfare Center reported its intention to develop cyborg sharks, declaring, ‘NUWC is developing a fish tag whose goal is behaviour control of host animals via neural implants.’ The developers hope to identify underwater electromagnetic fields made by submarines and mines, by exploiting the natural magnetic detecting capabilities of sharks, which are superior to those of any man-made detectors.13 Sapiens, too, are being turned into cyborgs. The newest generation of hearing aids are sometimes referred to as ‘bionic ears’. The device consists of an implant that absorbs sound through a microphone located in the outer part of the ear. The implant filters the sounds, identifies human voices, and translates them into electric signals that are sent directly to the central auditory nerve and from there to the brain.14 Retina Implant, a government-sponsored German company, is developing a retinal prosthesis that may allow blind people to gain partial vision. It involves implanting a small microchip inside the patient’s eye. Photocells absorb light falling on the eye and transform it into electrical energy, which stimulates the intact nerve cells in the retina. The nervous impulses from these cells stimulate the brain, where they are translated into sight. At present the technology allows patients to orientate themselves in space, identify letters, and even recognise faces.15 Jesse Sullivan, an American electrician, lost both arms up to the shoulder in a 2001 accident. Today he uses two bionic arms, courtesy of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The special feature of Jesse’s new arms is that they are operated by thought alone. Neural signals arriving from Jesse’s brain are translated by micro-computers into electrical commands, and the arms move. When Jesse wants to raise his arm, he does what any normal person unconsciously does – and the arm rises. These arms can perform a much more limited range of movements than organic arms, but they enable Jesse to carry out simple daily functions. A similar bionic arm has recently been outfitted for Claudia Mitchell, an American soldier who lost her arm in a motorcycle accident. Scientists believe that we will soon have bionic arms that will not only move when willed to move, but will also be able to transmit signals back to the brain, thereby enabling amputees to regain even the sensation of touch!16 [image: ] 47. Jesse Sullivan and Claudia Mitchell holding hands. The amazing thing about their bionic arms is that they are operated by thought. At present these bionic arms are a poor replacement for our organic originals, but they have the potential for unlimited development. Bionic arms, for example, can be made far more powerful than their organic kin, making even a boxing champion feel like a weakling. Moreover, bionic arms have the advantage that they can be replaced every few years, or detached from the body and operated at a distance. Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina have recently demonstrated this with rhesus monkeys whose brains have been implanted with electrodes. The electrodes gather signals from the brain and transmit them to external devices. The monkeys have been trained to control detached bionic arms and legs through thought alone. One monkey, named Aurora, learned to thought-control a detached bionic arm while simultaneously moving her two organic arms. Like some Hindu goddess, Aurora now has three arms, and her arms can be located in different rooms – or even cities. She can sit in her North Carolina lab, scratch her back with one hand, scratch her head with a second hand, and simultaneously steal a banana in New York (although the ability to eat a purloined fruit at a distance remains a dream). Another rhesus monkey, Idoya, won world fame in 2008 when she thought-controlled a pair of bionic legs in Kyoto, Japan, from her North Carolina chair. The legs were twenty times Idoya’s weight.17 Locked-in syndrome is a condition in which a person loses all or nearly all her ability to move any part of her body, while her cognitive abilities remain intact. Patients suffering from the syndrome have up till now been able to communicate with the outside world only through small eye movements. However, a few patients have had brain-signal-gathering electrodes implanted in their brains. Efforts are being made to translate such signals not merely into movements but also into words. If the experiments succeed, locked-in patients could finally speak directly with the outside world, and we might eventually be able to use the technology to read other peoples minds.18 Yet of all the projects currently 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 signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn. What if such interfaces are used to directly link a brain to the Internet, or to directly link several brains to each other, thereby creating a sort of Inter-brain-net? What might happen to human memory, human consciousness and human identity if the brain has direct access to a collective memory bank? In such a situation, one cyborg could, for example, retrieve the memories of another – not hear about them, not read about them in an autobiography, not imagine them, but directly remember them as if they were his own. Or her own. What happens to concepts such as the self and gender identity when minds become collective? How could you know thyself or follow your dream if the dream is not in your mind but in some collective reservoir of aspirations? Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic. It would be something completely different. It would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications. Another Life The third way to change the laws of life is to engineer completely inorganic beings. The most obvious examples are computer programs and computer viruses that can undergo independent evolution. The field of genetic programming is today one of the most interesting spots in the computer science world. It tries to emulate the methods of genetic evolution. Many programmers dream of creating a program that could learn and evolve completely independently of its creator. In this case, the programmer would be a primum mobile, a first mover, but his creation would be free to evolve in directions neither its maker nor any other human could ever have envisaged. A prototype for such a program already exists – it’s called a computer virus. As it spreads through the Internet, the virus replicates itself millions upon millions of times, all the while being chased by predatory antivirus programs and competing with other viruses for a place in cyberspace. One day when the virus replicates itself a mistake occurs – a computerised mutation. Perhaps the mutation occurs because the human engineer programmed the virus to make occasional random replication mistakes. Perhaps the mutation was due to a random error. If, by chance, the modified virus is better at evading antivirus programs without losing its ability to invade other computers, it will spread through cyberspace. If so, the mutants will survive and reproduce. As time goes by, cyberspace would be full of new viruses that nobody engineered, and that undergo non-organic evolution. Are these living creatures? It depends on what you mean by ‘living creatures’. They have certainly been produced by a new evolutionary process, completely independent of the laws and limitations of organic evolution. Imagine another possibility – suppose you could back up your brain to a portable hard drive and then run it on your laptop. Would your laptop be able to think and feel just like a Sapiens? If so, would it be you or someone else? What if computer programmers could create an entirely new but digital mind, composed of computer code, complete with a sense of self, consciousness and memory? If you ran the program on your computer, would it be a person? If you deleted it could you be charged with murder? We might soon have the answer to such questions. The Human Brain Project, founded in 2005, hopes to recreate a complete human brain inside a computer, with electronic circuits in the computer emulating neural networks in the brain. The projects director has claimed that, if funded properly, within a decade or two we could have an artificial human brain inside a computer that could talk and behave very much as a human does. If successful, that would mean that after 4 billion years of milling around inside the small world of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond our wildest dreams. Not all scholars agree that the mind works in a manner analogous to today’s digital computers – and if it doesn’t, present-day computers would not be able to simulate it. Yet it would be foolish to categorically dismiss the possibility before giving it a try. In 2013 the project received a grant of €1 billion from the European Union.19 The Singularity Presently, only a tiny fraction of these new opportunities have been realised. Yet the world of 2014 is already a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology. Our ability to engineer not merely the world around us, but above all the world inside our bodies and minds, is developing at breakneck speed. More and more spheres of activity are being shaken out of their complacent ways. Lawyers need to rethink issues of privacy and identity; governments are faced with rethinking matters of health care and equality; sports associations and educational institutions need to redefine fair play and achievement; pension funds and labour markets should readjust to a world in which sixty might be the new thirty. They must all deal with the conundrums of bioengineering, cyborgs and inorganic life. Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.20 The era of personalized medicine – medicine that matches treatment to DNA – has begun. The family doctor could soon tell you with greater certainty that you face high risks of liver cancer, whereas you needn’t worry too much about heart attacks. She could determine that a popular medication that helps 92 per cent of people is useless to you, and you should instead take another pill, fatal to many people but just right for you. The road to near-perfect medicine stands before us. However, with improvements in medical knowledge will come new ethical conundrums. Ethicists and legal experts are already wrestling with the thorny issue of privacy as it relates to DNA. Would insurance companies be entitled to ask for our DNA scans and to raise premiums if they discover a genetic tendency to reckless behaviour? Would we be required to fax our DNA, rather than our CV, to potential employers? Could an employer favour a candidate because his DNA looks better? Or could we sue in such cases for ‘genetic discrimination’? Could a company that develops a new creature or a new organ register a patent on its DNA sequences? It is obvious that one can own a particular chicken, but can one own an entire species? Such dilemmas are dwarfed by the ethical, social and political implications of the Gilgamesh Project and of our 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 recognise that a humane society ought to give all its members fair medical treatment and keep them in relatively good health. That was all well and good as long as medicine was chiefly concerned with preventing illness and healing the sick. What might happen once medicine becomes preoccupied with enhancing human abilities? Would all humans be entitled to such enhanced abilities, or would there be a new superhuman elite? Our late modern world prides itself on recognising, for the first time in history, the basic equality of all humans, yet it might be poised to create the most unequal of all societies. Throughout history, the upper classes always claimed to be smarter, stronger and generally better than the underclass. They were usually deluding themselves. A baby born to a poor peasant family was likely to be as intelligent as the crown prince. With the help of new medical capabilities, the pretensions of the upper classes might soon become an objective reality. This is not science fiction. Most science-fiction plots describe a world in which Sapiens – identical to us – enjoy superior technology such as light-speed spaceships and laser guns. The ethical and political dilemmas central to these plots are taken from our own world, and they merely recreate our emotional and social tensions against a futuristic backdrop. Yet the real potential of future technologies is to change Homo sapiens itself, including our emotions and desires, and not merely our vehicles and weapons. What is a spaceship compared to an eternally young cyborg who does not breed and has no sexuality, who can share thoughts directly with other beings, whose abilities to focus and remember are a thousand times greater than our own, and who is never angry or sad, but has emotions and desires that we cannot begin to imagine? Science fiction rarely describes such a future, because an accurate description is by definition incomprehensible. Producing a film about the life of some super-cyborg is akin to producing Hamlet for an audience of Neanderthals. Indeed, the future masters of the world will probably be more different from us than we are from Neanderthals. Whereas we and the Neanderthals are at least human, our inheritors will be godlike. Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed ‘before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world – me, you, men, women, love and hate – will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us. The Frankenstein Prophecy In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who creates an artificial being that goes out of control and wreaks havoc. In the last two centuries, the same story has been told over and over again in countless versions. It has become a central pillar of our new scientific mythology. At first sight, the Frankenstein story appears to warn us that if we try to play God and engineer life we will be punished severely. Yet the story has a deeper meaning. The Frankenstein myth confronts Homo sapiens with the fact that the last days are fast approaching. Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe intervenes, so goes the story, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds. This is something most Sapiens find extremely disconcerting. We like to believe that in the future people just like us will travel from planet to planet in fast spaceships. We don’t like to contemplate the possibility that in the future, beings with emotions and identities like ours will no longer exist, and our place will be taken by alien life forms whose abilities dwarf our own. We somehow find comfort in the idea that Dr Frankenstein created a terrible monster, whom we had to destroy in order to save ourselves. We like to tell the story that way because it implies that we are the best of all beings, that there never was and never will be something better than us. Any attempt to improve us will inevitably fail, because even if our bodies might be improved, you cannot touch the human spirit. We would have a hard time swallowing the fact that scientists could engineer spirits as well as bodies, and that future Dr Frankensteins could therefore create something truly superior to us, something that will look at us as condescendingly as we look at the Neanderthals. We cannot be certain whether today’s Frankensteins will indeed fulfil this prophecy. The future is unknown, and it would be surprising if the forecasts of the last few pages were realised in full. History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940S, many forecasts were made about the future nuclear world of the year 2000. When sputnik and Apollo 11 fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet. So don’t go out just yet to buy liability insurance to indemnify you against lawsuits filed by digital beings. The above fantasies – or nightmares – are just stimulants for your imagination. What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. As already mentioned, some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia? If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people. After all, today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens. If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female. And yet the great debates of history are important because at least the first generation of these gods would be shaped by the cultural ideas of their human designers. Would they be created in the image of capitalism, of Islam, or of feminism? The answer to this question might send them careening in entirely different directions. Most people prefer not to think about it. Even the field of bioethics prefers to address another question, ‘What is it forbidden to do?’ Is it acceptable to carry out genetic experiments on living human beings? On aborted fetuses? On stem cells? Is it ethical to clone sheep? And chimpanzees? And what about humans? All of these are important questions, but it is naïve to imagine that we might simply hit the brakes and stop the scientific projects that are upgrading Homo sapiens into a different kind of being. For these projects are inextricably meshed together with the Gilgamesh Project. 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. This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein. The only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. Since we might soon be able to engineer our desires too, perhaps the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?’, but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought. 2 The Tree of Knowledge IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER WE SAW THAT although Sapiens had already populated East Africa 150,000 years ago, they began to overrun the rest of planet Earth and drive the other human species to extinction only about 70,000 years ago. In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats. In fact, in the first recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About 100,000 years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a firm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites. Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East. This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities – learning, remembering, communicating – were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings. Conversely, we would have had a very hard time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking. But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia – a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man on this page), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification. Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. We’d be able to explain to them everything we know – from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics – and they could teach us how their people view the world. The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?* It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means, ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly different call warns, ‘Careful! A lion!’ When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree. Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally impressive abilities. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal. What, then, is so special about our language? The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they ought to approach the river in order to chase away the lion and hunt the bison. A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat. [image: ] 4. An ivory figurine of a ‘lion-man’ (or ‘lioness-woman’) from the Stadel Cave in Germany (c.32,000 years ago). The body is human, but the head is leonine. This is one of the first indisputable examples of art, and probably of religion, and of the ability of the human mind to imagine things that do not really exist. The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations.) All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively. Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs – a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.1 The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication – whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns – is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for World War One when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders. Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language. It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating? But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories. The Legend of Peugeot Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. They form close friendships, hunt together and fight shoulder to shoulder against baboons, cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees. Their social structure tends to be hierarchical. The dominant member, who is almost always a male, is termed the ‘alpha male’. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king. The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop. When two individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females. When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact – hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble. There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher. Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food. Researchers have documented prolonged warfare between groups, and even one case of ‘genocidal’ activity in which one troop systematically slaughtered most members of a neighbouring band.2 Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, including archaic Homo sapiens. Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or fight together. However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom? In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings. Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order.3 A platoon of thirty soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline. A well-respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company and exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive and flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department. But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust. How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in peoples collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example. An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney. It’s the hood ornament that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest of Europe’s carmakers. Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just 300 kilometres from the Stadel Cave. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion euros. In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact. [image: ] 5. The Peugeot Lion It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live – but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist? Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it. Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. During most of recorded history property could be owned only by flesh-and-blood humans, the kind that stood on two legs and had big brains. If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing workshop, he himself was the business. If a wagon he’d made broke down a week after purchase, the disgruntled buyer would have sued Jean personally. If Jean had borrowed 1,000 gold coins to set up his workshop and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his private property – his house, his cow, his land. He might even have had to sell his children into servitude. If he couldn’t cover the debt, he could be thrown in prison by the state or enslaved by his creditors. He was fully liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop. If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice before you opened an enterprise of your own. And indeed this legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. People were afraid to start new businesses and take economic risks. It hardly seemed worth taking the chance that their families could end up utterly destitute. This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies.