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Building Pyramids


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For millions of years, humans lived in intimate bands of no more than a few dozen individuals. Our biological instincts are adapted to this way of life. Humans are consequently ill-equipped to cooperate with large numbers of strangers and yet shortly after the Agricultural Revolution humans established cities, kingdoms, and huge empires. In this week’s lectures from  Dr. Yuval Noah Harari we started looking at how they did it and how millions of strangers agreed on shared laws, norms and values.

These are my course notes from the coursera course – A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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The most important impact of the Agricultural Revolution was the appearance of far more complex human societies than ever before. People started to live in villages and towns of hundreds or even thousands of people. In time they established large cities, kingdoms, and empires in which millions of people cooperated on a daily basis towards common goals.

One reason for this was that agriculture produced a lot more food per given territory than hunting and gathering had. This is only part of the story. The mere fact that you can feed 10,000 people in the same town or a million people in the same kingdom does not guarantee that they can agree how to divide the food, or the land and water, how to settle disputes and conflict or how to act in times of crisis. If people cannot reach agreement about such things then conflict spreads even if the storehouses and granaries are full of food. It wasn’t food shortages that caused most of the big wars and revolutions in history like The French Revolution, World War I and World War II or the civil war in Yugoslavia they all began because of disagreement about other things.

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Today in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River,  some people call Israel and others call Palestine. This area has not known even a single day of peace for many years even though there is enough food to feed all the Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. There is no way that these people can agree about things like politics and religion and so forth. That is why it’s very difficult to create a stable social and political order there.

The root of such wars and calamities is that Sapiens simply have no natural instincts for cooperating with large numbers of strangers. Humans evolved for millions of years living in small bands. The handful of millennium separating the agricultural revolution from the appearance of cities and empires were simply not enough to allow for mass cooperation instincts to evolve by natural selection.

Imagined order

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Instead of instinct Sapiens had to rely on inventing stories, new imagined realities, that could regulate cooperation on such a huge scale. Foragers created and told stories about things like ancestral spirits, and tribal totems. These stories enabled maybe 500 people to trade seashells, celebrate festivals or join forces to fight. The farmers used the same trick, but on a much larger scale. Farmers began to weave stories that eventually enabled millions of strangers to operate together.

At around 8500 BC the largest settlements in the world were villages such as Jericho which contained a few hundred individuals at most. By 3000 B.C., there were tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. By the first millennium B.C., there were empires, like the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean region, and the Han Empire in China with tens of millions of people. These societies were based on belief in common emergent realities and therefore the order that maintained them in existence can be called, an imagined order. Imagined order, means that the social and legal norms that sustained these societies and kept them stable, were based not on natural instincts or personal acquaintance but on belief in shared stories, in shared imagined realities.

How stories and imagination sustained huge empires like the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, or the Chinese empire we discussed when we looked at the Peugeot Company. To examine two further examples we will compare two of the best known stories or myths in history, and see how they were fundamental for the establishment and maintenance of large social order. The first story is the Code of Hammurabi which was written around 1776 BC and which formed a basis for the social order of the ancient empire of Babylon, the second is the American Declaration of Independence from 1776 AD, which today is still the basis for the social order of the modern USA, and hundreds of millions of Americans.

The Code of Hammurabi

Code of Hammurabi (Credit – Wikimedia)

In 1776 BC, Babylon was the biggest city in the world and the Babylonian Empire was probably the largest political entity on the globe. Its king ruled more than one million subjects. It controlled most of Mesopotamia, what is today Iraq, including  huge areas of what is now  Iran,  Syria, and Turkey. It was ruled by King Hammurabi who wrote this collection of laws and judicial decisions. The aims of the text were to present Hammurabi as a role model of a just king, to serve as a basis for a more uniform legal system across the Babylonian empire and to teach future generations what justice is and how a just king behaves. This was quite successful because for generations and centuries, the intellectual and bureaucratic elites of ancient Mesopotamia canonized this text and Babylonian students continued to copy this text long after Hammurabi died.

Hammurabi’s code is, therefore, a very good source for trying to understand, how the ancient Babylonians understood social order and injustice. The text begins by saying that the gods Anu, Enlil and Marduk, the leading gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon appointed Hammurabi

 “to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil and to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak”.

It then lists about 300 examples of Hammurabi’s justice. All according to a set formula that if this thing happened, then that is what should be done.

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Here are some examples relating to a ‘Superior man’

If he should:-

– blind the eye of another superior man, they should blind his eye.

– break the bone of another superior man, they should break his bone.

–  blind the eye, or break the bone of a commoner, he should pay 60 shekels of silver in compensation.

– blind the eye of a slave or break the bone slave, he should pay the owner one half of the slave value.

– strike a woman of a superior class, and thereby causes her to miscarry her foetus, he should pay 10 silver shackles for her foetus. If that woman should die, they shall kill his daughter.

– cause a woman of common class to miscarry her foetus by beating, he should pay five silver shekels in compensation. If that common woman should die, he should pay a compensation of 30 silver shekels.

– strike a slave woman and thereby causes her to miscarry her foetus he should pay two silver shekels in compensation. If that slave woman should die, he should pay in compensation 20 silver shekels to her owner.

After listing all the judgements, Hammurabi declared that these were the just decisions which he had established and thereby

30 silver sheckles (Credit genedaustin.com)

had directed the land along the course of truth and the correct way of life.

” I, Hammurabi, noble king have not been careless or negligent towards human kind granted to me by the great god Emliel, and with whose shepherding the god Marduk charged me.”

Hammurabi’s code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in the universal and eternal principle of justice dictated by the gods. The most important of all these principles is that of hierarchy. According to the Code people are divided into two genders, and three classes. There are superior people, commoners and slaves. Each of these categories is divided into men and women and members of each gender and class have a different value. The life of a female commoner is worth 30 silver shekels and the life of a female slave is worth only 20 silver shekels. The eye of a male commoner is worth 60 silver shekels, equivalent to two common women or three slave women.

This code also established a very strict hierarchy within families. Children were not independent people, but simply the property of their parents. This is why if one superior man kills the daughter of another superior man, the punishment is to execute the daughter of the killer. To us it sounds incredible that the killer remains completely unharmed, whereas his innocent daughter is killed as punishment. For Hammurabi and the Babylonians, this seemed perfectly just.

The Hammurabi code was established on the assumption that if the king’s subjects  accepted the principal of hierarchy and their position within it and acted accordingly then the million inhabitants that empire would be able to cooperate effectively and their society would prosper. The Empire could produce enough food for everyone, it could distribute it effectively, it could protect itself against enemies, and it could even expand its territories and acquire more and more wealth and better security.

The American Declaration of Independence

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About 3,500 years after King Hammurabi  died, in North America there were 13 British colonies, which were part of the dominions of the King of England. These colonies felt that the King of England was treating them unjustly. The representatives gathered together in the city of Philadelphia, and on the 4th of July, 1776 A.D. these colonies declared that their inhabitants were no longer subjects of the British Crown. Their Declaration of Independence further proclaimed universal and eternal principles of justice, which, like those of King Hammurabi were supposed to be inspired by a divine power and were supposed to serve as the basis for a new country, the independent United States.

What is peculiar and important is that the most basic principle, which was dictated by the god of the Americans, for how people should behave justly, was exactly the opposite to the principle which was dictated by the old gods of Babylon. Whereas the Babylonian gods supported the principle of hierarchy, the American Declaration of Independence’s most famous sentence says that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights with among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This was the basic principle which the creator, God of the Americans dictated to them. Like the Code of Hammurabi the American Declaration of Independence also promises that if humans act according to its sacred principles, then millions of them would be able to live together, to cooperate effectively, and to create a safe and peaceful and prosperous society. Also like the code of Hammurabi, the American

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Declaration of Independence was accepted by future generations and even today more than 200 years after this declaration was made American school children are still copying and learning this text by heart.

We have here two texts which suggest how humans should organize themselves and layout the basic principles of justice in society. But these two texts present us with an obvious dilemma. Both of them claim to outline universal eternal and divine principles of justice, but the principles are opposite. According to the Americans, all people are equal, but according to the Babylonian’s, people are not equal there is hierarchy. Somebody must have got it wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, (Credit – Wikimedia)

If you ask historians, they are both wrong. Both Hammurabi and Thomas Jefferson, and the American founding fathers, all imagined, a human reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality over hierarchy. The only place in which such universal principles of justice exist, the only place in which justice exists is in the fertile imagination of Homo sapiens and the stories that humans invent and tell one another and believe.

There is no objective justice and there are no objective principles of justice, which are true everywhere for everybody. It is easy for us to accept the division of people into superiors, commoners and slaves as just a story that the Babylonians invented, there is no such division in actuality. However, the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth, just a story,  that Thomas Jefferson and the Americans invented, and which many of us today happen to believe. In what sense do all humans really equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in our stories, in which we can say that all humans are truly equal?

Let’s try to translate the most famous line of the American Declaration of Independence into biological terms and see what the science of biology has to say about it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

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According to the science of biology people were not created but evolved, and they certainly did not evolve to be equal. The idea of equality is inextricably linked with the idea of creation. The Americans got to the idea of the equality of all humans from Christianity which argues that every person has a divinely created soul and that all souls are equal before God. However, if you believe biologists and you don’t believe in the Christian myth about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are equal? Evolution, as we know from biology, is based on difference. Every person carries in his DNA a somewhat different genetic code, and every person is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that people carry with them. These qualities mean different chances of survival in reproduction. Even identical twins are not really identical in the biological sense because they have different pressures from the environment during their lifetime. If we want to be true to what we know of biology we should translate “created equal” into “evolved differently”.

Just as people were never created, according to the science of Biology, there is no creator who endows them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process which has no purposes and no meaning, and this is what leads to the birth of individuals. Therefore, “endowed by their creator”, should be translated simply into “born”.

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Another key term in the Declaration of Independence is “rights”. There is no such thing as ‘rights’ in biology. In the natural world animals have organs, abilities and traits, they don’t have rights. Birds for example fly not because they have a right but because they have wings. These organs, abilities and traits aren’t unalienable. Unalienable means that you cannot take it away, you cannot change it. Many of the organs and qualities of animals including humans, undergo constant mutation, this is the process of evolution. Some of these organs and qualities may be completely lost over time. The ostrich lost its ability to fly, for example. The declaration speaks of unalienable rights but in biology, we should speak about mutable traits. What are the traits that evolved in humans? Certainly life, but what about liberty? The declaration says life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is no such thing as liberty in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies; liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in the stories that they tell one another.

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The third right is “the pursuit of happiness”. So far, biological research has failed to come up with any clear definition of happiness or any way of measuring happiness objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge the existence of pleasure. It is much easier to define and measure pleasure. If you take this key concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and try to translate it into biological terms, what you get, is “life and the pursuit of pleasure”.  Here is this famous line translated into scientific, biological terms.

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men evolved different that they are born with certain mutable traits that among these are life, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Advocates of equality, human rights and democracy may be outraged by this line of reasoning. The response is likely to be something like, we know that people are not equal biologically, but if we believe that all humans are equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society, so we had better believe it, even though it’s not a biological fact. This is exactly what scholars mean when they speak about imagined realities, or imagined orders. We believe in a particular order in a way that society should behave, not because it is objectively true, not because it’s a scientific fact, but because, by believing in this imagined story it enables us to cooperate effectively, and to forge a stable society. They are the only way that large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. They are necessary, but it doesn’t mean that they are objectively true. Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using exactly the same logic. If the social order as we see it now is based on stories and imaginary realities, how can we prevent it from crumbling?

Is there a danger that the social order will collapse.

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The answer is that there is indeed such a danger. This is exactly why the social order of humans is far, far less stable than the social order of chimpanzees, wolves, or ants and why we humans have so many revolutions and upheavals in history. The social order cannot be changing all the time otherwise you could not build huge societies. Humans invest a lot of time, effort and money in stabilizing the social order and the stories that uphold it. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order. However, an imagined order cannot be sustained only by violence; it also requires some true believers.

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A single priest often does the work of 100 soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. The priest convinces you to really believe this story, and then you don’t need all the soldiers and police to keep you in order. This was the key for really creating stable social orders. Christianity, for example, would not have lasted for 2000 years just by violence and coercion. Christianity managed to last for quite a long time because most bishops, most priests, most popes, really believed in the stories of the bible and Jesus. Similarly, American democracy would not have lasted for 250 years, unless most of the presidents, senators, and party leaders, really believed in equality and human rights, and things like that. There are political leaders in the USA that just act as if they believe, even though they don’t, but this is the exception, most of them really believe it otherwise, democracy would have crumbled long ago. Similarly, when we look at economics, the capitalist system would have crumbled unless bankers, freelancers, and heads of large corporations really believed in the stories of capitalism.

Why do people believe?

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How exactly do you cause people to really believe in an imagined order, such as Christianity or democracy, or capitalism? This is the main aim of education and socialization. From the moment we are born until the moment we die we are constantly being told the basic stories of our societies. We hear these stories in words, in fairy tales, as drama, as songs, as political propaganda. We also see, touch, smell, and taste these fundamental stories in paintings, architecture, food fashion and in clothing fashions. For example, people today, at least in the western countries believe in equality. It’s fashionable for the rich to wear jeans, which were originally clothing of the working class.  A professor at a university when he is lecturing doesn’t need jeans he doesn’t do anything dangerous or hard. By wearing jeans he’s conveying the message that he believes in equality. In the middle ages people did not believe in equality, they believed in hierarchy. You would never catch a nobleman wearing the working clothes of the peasant.

Much of what professors of history, sociology, anthropology, the humanities and the social sciences do is to study how the imagined order, the stories in which we believe, are woven into every aspect of daily life, such as the clothes that we wear. This course can’t go deeply into this subject due to time constraint,s it can only say a few general words. Dr Harari focused on the three main factors that prevent people from realizing that the order which organizes their lives and their society exists only in their imagination.

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Firstly, even though the imagined order exists only in our minds society tries as much as possible to link it with material reality. In order to be really powerful and influential the stories must leave the sphere of the mind and begin to shape the material world.  Most westerners, for example,  believe in individualism. They believe that every human being is an individual whose true value, does not depend on his or her position in the social hierarchy nor what other people think. The main idea of individualism is that each person has some inner light that gives value and meaning to their lives. In modern schools  we tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should just ignore it, their classmates don’t really know who they are, only the individual knows their own true value. This story of individualism has had immense impact on modern architecture. The ideal modern house is divided into small rooms so that each child can have a private space hidden from view, providing the child maximum autonomy. This private room very often has a door which can be locked by the child. Parents must knock to enter the room. Often children have a lot of autonomy in their rooms about how to decorate it for example. They can put up posters of singers or football players, they decide how their private space is going to look. This reflects the ideal of individualism. Somebody who grows up in such a private and closed space cannot but imagine themselves to be an individual whose true worth, or true value emanates from within.

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In the Middle Ages noblemen and women did not believe in individualism. The medieval nobility believed that the true value of a person was determined by their place in the social hierarchy and by what other people were saying and thinking about them. For a nobleman to be laughed at by other people, even children, was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name in society even at the price of their lives. A nobleman father would tell his or her daughter, if other children laugh at you, then you must protect your honour, your true value does not come from inside, it comes from what other people think and say about you. The medieval value system did not remain just in the mind; it had a huge impact on the world around, on architecture. The home of a medieval nobleman, the castle, rarely had private rooms for individual children. The teenage son of a medieval baron, did not have a room of his own with a door that he could lock, he could not decorate the rooms the way he liked, putting posters of famous knights on the walls or swords and axes. He slept and grew up in big halls. Sleeping and eating in the constant presence of other people taught him that his true worth depended on what others were saying and thinking about him.

This is the first way imagined order is stabilized, we turn the stories into houses, and then we live in them, and they shape our minds, and make it easier to believe in these particular stories.

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The second thing that helps to stabilize the imagined order is that this order shapes our deepest desires and wishes. Most people don’t wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary because it’s the imaginary order that controls and shapes their most fundamental wishes. Even what people take to be the most egoistic the most personal desires are usually programmed or determined by the imagined order of the society. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire today to take a vacation abroad, to France or India, or wherever. Many people today dream about going on vacation to some other country. But, there is nothing natural or obvious about this desire. A chimpanzee alpha male would never even dream of utilizing his power in the chimpanzee band in order to go on vacation to the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. Similarly, the elites of many human societies, say the elite of ancient Egypt, they spent their fortunes building huge pyramids and having their corpses mummified. None of the rich people of ancient Egypt thought about travelling for a summer sailing holiday in Babylon or travelling for a ski vacation in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of time and effort, and money on vacations abroad. Not because it’s natural to want such things, but because they have been programmed by the stories of their societies to want such things. People today are true believers in the stories of what scholars call romantic consumerism.

Romantic Consumerism

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Romantic consumerism is one of the most powerful stories today in the world. It is a combination between two of the dominant late modern ideologies: romanticism and consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of life and human potential,  you must have as many different experiences as you can. You must open yourself to a wide spectrum of emotions and sample various kinds of relationships, try all kinds of different foods, learn to appreciate all kinds of different musical and artistic styles. According to romanticism the way to do that is to break free from your daily routine, leave behind your familiar environment and travel to a distant land where you can experience the culture, smells, tastes, norms and values of other people. We hear again and again the romantic story about how a new experience “opened my eyes and changed my life“.

Consumerism, the other important ideology, tells us that in order to be happy you must consume as many products and services as possible. If you feel that something is missing in your life or something is not quite right, then you probably need to buy a new product or service. Maybe you need relationship therapy or yoga classes. But you need to buy something to be really happy. Every television commercial is another little legend about how consuming some product or some service will make your life better.

(Credit - docstoc.com)

(Credit – docstoc.com)

Romanticism combines perfectly with consumerism. The marriage between them is what gave birth to the infinite market of experiences on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry is one of the biggest industries in the world. It does not sell you flight tickets or hotel bedrooms, it sells you experiences. Paris is not really a city, in terms of tourism, Paris is  an experience. India is not a country, India is simply another kind of experience. Skiing in the Alps is not a sport, but a third kind of experience. People do it because they want the experience. The consumption of all these experiences is supposed to widen our horizons, to fulfil our own potential, and to make us happier. When a multimillionaire and his wife quarrel he may seek to patch things up by taking her on expensive vacation to Paris. This is not a reflection of some natural and independent desire; it is a reflection of an ardent belief in the story of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man of ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis with his wife by taking her on vacation to Babylon. He might have tried to patch things up by agreeing to build the sumptuous tomb that she always dreamed about, or agreed to mummify her body after she dies.

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Like the elites of ancient Egypt, most people throughout  history have been very busy pursuing projects to build pyramids. Only the names and sizes, and shapes of these pyramids changed from one society to the other. For example, these pyramids may take the form of a penthouse overlooking Fifth Avenue in New York, or a suburban villa with a big swimming pool and lots of rooms and three cars, and so forth. People are so busy pursuing these fantasies that they seldom stop to ask themselves why they believe in them in the first place.

The third thing that stabilizes the imagined order is that it is embedded not only in the desires of a single person, but of countless people. Even if by some superhuman effort you manage to free yourself from the desire to go abroad or have a big house, you’re just one person. In order to really change society you have to convince millions of strangers to behave like you and to cooperate with you. The imagined reality, the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in the imagination of only one person it is an inter-subjective order that exists in the shared imagination of thousands, and even millions of people. In order to understand what this means, we should say something about the difference between objective, subjective, and inter-subjective. The difference between them is actually one of the most important messages.

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Objective is something that exists independently of human consciousness, and of what humans believe, invent, and tell one another. A good example of something that has an objective existence, of an objective reality, is radio activity. Radioactivity is not a story that people invented and tell one another. Radioactivity existed and influenced people long before anybody knew about it. It exists and influences even people who don’t believe in it. The first scholars who studied or discovered radioactivity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, did not understand what they were dealing with. Very often they did not take any precautions, and therefore some of them, like Marie Curie, died as a result of being exposed to radioactivity without taking precautions.

Subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual, and it will disappear or change if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. For example, many children believe in the existence of an imaginary friend that only the child himself or herself can see and can talk to. As the child grows up, they stop believing and the imaginary friend disappears. An imaginary friend is a kind of subjective entity, it exists only in the imagination of a single child.

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Inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network that links the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, then the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate and change, or completely disappear. Many if not most of history’s most important players are inter-subjective entities, gods, nations, human rights, money, corporations and so forth, are all inter-subjective entities. They are not imaginary friends of a single individual, but they are not objective entities and forces like radioactivity. Take Peugeot Company again as an example. Peugeot company is not is subjective entity. It is not the imaginary friend of the CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions upon millions of people. The board of directors, the lawyers, secretaries, employees of the company, the managers and the CEO’s mother, father and friends all believe that Peugeot exist. If only the CEO stopped believing in the existence of Peugeot Company they would put him in the nearest mental hospital and appoint somebody else. Peugeot does not depend on the belief of a single person.

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Similarly, things like the U.S. dollar, human rights, or even the United States of America itself, exist as inter-subjective realities within the shared imagination of millions upon millions of individuals. No single individual can threaten their  existence by changing his or her beliefs. In order to really change them, you would have to change the beliefs of hundreds of millions of different individuals. Obviously, it’s not easy to accomplish such a huge change. To change the consciousness of hundreds of millions of people simultaneously you would usually need the help of some big organization such as a political party, or a religion or a theological movement. In order to establish such complex organizations you would need to convince millions of strangers to cooperate with one another and to believe in some other shared myth. In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative one. To dismantle Peugeot Company you first need to imagine something more powerful like the French legal system. If you want to change the French legal system, you would have to believe in the existence something even more powerful such as the French nation.  There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down the prison walls of one imagined order and we think that we are running toward freedom we are running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison. The only way to stop believing in one big story is to start believing in an even greater and more complicated story.

The exercise yard at the Central California Women’s Facility. Photo courtesy Central California Women’s Facility

This then is how you build an effective imagined order in which millions of people might believe for decades and centuries and millenium. You embed it in the material environment that surrounds the people in the deepest beliefs and desires of millions upon millions of people. If you can do that then you could create a successful society. Without it you cannot create a stable society, even if you have all the food in the world. Social order will crumble no matter how much food you have in your possession. Even if you have these two conditions it is still not enough to construct really big cities, kingdoms, empires, and states. You still need a third ingredient.

The final ingredient

Up to the end of the Agricultural Revolution all the information needed in order to run human societies was stored and processed in the human brain. This worked pretty well for tens of thousands of years. After the Agricultural Revolution, as human societies began to grow larger and larger, the amounts of necessary information also grew. To run a town of 5,000 people you need a lot more information than to run a small foraging band, so much information that most human brains are simply incapable of handling it all. Even more importantly you need to store and process not only larger amounts of information but also completely new kinds of information, for which the average human brain is ill-adapted. This new kind of information is monotonous, mathematical data, or more simply numbers. Ancient foragers had very little use for numbers. To survive a forager needed to remember the shapes, qualities, behaviour patterns of thousands of species of plants and animals and also needed to remember the qualities, character, and the relations of several dozen band members. Evolutionary pressures for generations had adapted the human brain for storing and analyzing immense quantities of botanical information about plants, zoological information about animals, topographical information, and social information about humans. Foragers were never obliged to handle large amounts of mathematical data.

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In order to maintain a large kingdom, numbers and mathematical data is vital. It isn’t enough to legislate and to tell stories about gods. If somebody like Hammurabi wanted to maintain an empire, he also needed to collect taxes from hundreds of thousands of people. For this he had to collect data about the income and possessions of all these people. He needed data about payments which were already made, debts and fines, discounts and exemptions. This adds up to millions and millions of data bits, which have to be stored and processed. Without this capacity, King Hammurabi, or any other state would not know what resources they had at their disposal. The problem was and still is, that collecting, storing, and processing large amounts of data is something that the vast majority of human brains are incapable of doing. This mental limitation severely constrained the size and the complexity of human collectives after the Agricultural Revolution. When the amount of people and property in a particular society grew too big and nobody could do the maths the system collapsed.

For thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution human social networks remained relatively small and simple. The first that managed to overcome this problem, were the ancient Sumerians, who lived in Southern Mesopotamia, what is today Southern Iraq. Large towns and even kingdoms began to grow around the year 4000 BC there. Sometime between 3500 BC and 3000 BC, some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a new system for storing and processing information outside the brain. This new system was custom-built to handle large amounts of numbers of mathematical data. In this way the Sumerian’s released their social order from the limitations of the human brain and opened the way for the appearance of larger societies. This data processing system that the Sumerian’s invented is called of course writing. Writing is a method for storing and processing information by using material signs rather than neurons. Writing wasn’t invented to write poetry or philosophy, or history, this could and was done without writing. If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors 5,000 years ago we are in for a disappointment. If you’re thinking that the first words of wisdom written by human kind is some kind of big philosophical idea or some kind of wonderful poem or story then think again.

(Credit -beer-studies.com)

The image on the left is a clay tablet from the city of Uruk in Southern Mesopotamia, which carries on it one of the first texts in history. As far as we can understand this tablet says,  “29,086 measures, barley, 37 months Kushim”. The most probable meaning of this text is that 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months, signed Kushim.  We are not sure what Kushim means, it could be either the title of an office holder, or the name of a person. If Kushim was the name of a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us. All the earlier names like the Neanderthals, or Gobekli Tepe are modern inventions. With the appearance of writing we begin to hear history through the ears of its heroes of its protagonists. It is telling that the first recorded name in human history does not belong to a prophet, a poet, a philosopher or a great king, but to an accountant. The first texts of history contained no philosophical insights or poetry or laws of some royal triumphs. The first texts of history were quite boring economic documents recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of property, and the ownership of property.

With the passing of the centuries, writing became more and more sophisticated, and people began to write not only tax and property lists but also poetry, philosophy, laws and sacred scriptures. Even today, however, the most basic function of writing is to store administrative information and mathematical data which cannot be stored and processed in the human brain. Today the dominant language of the entire world is the language of numbers. Almost all states, companies, organizations, and institutions, no matter if they speak English, Arabic, Hindi, or Norwegian all use the same language of numbers to record and process data. Every piece of information that can be translated into numbers is stored, spread and processed with amazing speed and efficiency. Information that for some reason cannot be translated into the language of numbers is often either ignored or forgotten. A person who really wishes to influence the decisions of governments, international organizations and companies must learn to speak not English or Chinese, they must learn to speak in numbers.

(Credit – stemcp.com)

There are entire fields of knowledge, such as physics and engineering that have already lost almost all connection with the spoken human language, and are maintained almost entirely by mathematical script. Look  at this frightening equation.  When most people see such an equation, they usually panic.  This reaction is quite natural, and it is not a result of lack of intelligence or curiosity. It is simply that with rare exceptions, human brains are incapable of thinking through concepts like relativity or quantum mechanics. Physicists never the less managed to engage with all these ideas and theories because physicists learned to set aside the traditional human way of thinking. They learned instead to think with the help of external data processing systems like writing, equations, and computers. Crucial counts of the third process in physics, take place not in the head of the physicist, but inside computers or on the blackboards of classrooms or on paper where you do all these equations because you can’t do it in your head, it’s not built for it.

(Credit – pstcc.edu)

More recently, mathematical scripts and language of numbers has given rise to an even more revolutionary writing system, the computerized binary script, which consists of only two signs, zero and one. The videos for this course are in English but the words are recorded and transmitted coded into zeros and ones inside computers. Even this is not the end of the story of what evolved, what happened with writing. Today scientists are trying to create completely artificial intelligence which will be based only on the binary script of computers. If they succeed, we will have an intelligence that speaks and thinks only in numbers. If this happens then writing which was first invented five thousand years ago as a way to help the human brain may eventually replace the human brain completely. But this is the future. We still first need to understand the past.

That is the end of my lecture notes. I have a few questions about this part of the course. Tally Sticks have been found dating back to the Palaeolithic era which suggests that mathematics, if only in small amounts, was used at that time.  There is also evidence from the poets that their brains were used before writing to calculates sums.  The Iliad, for example, has a whole chapter called The Catalogue of Ships. This is a story that was told and not written down and read.  I believe that even foragers would have done some basic calculations like “do I have enough nuts for everyone?” I wonder how much of mathematics is just a different way of teaching the brain to do things rather than something we could evolve. Some people are evidently excellent at it even now, without the evolution Dr Harari suggests we require.  This is my opinion. Feel free to disagree.

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  1. This is super cool. Bonus points for nice, illustrative pictures.

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