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In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.23 Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
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In particular, cyber warfare may destabilise the world by giving even small countries and non-state actors the ability to fight superpowers effectively.
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Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries.25 For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.
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Would we be content merely to count our blessings, keep famine, plague and war at bay, and protect the ecological equilibrium? That might indeed be the wisest course of action, but humankind is unlikely to follow it. Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.
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At the same time, people will not retire at sixty-five and will not make way for the new generation with its novel ideas and aspirations. The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones.
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It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?
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The second half of the twentieth century was a golden age for the USA. Victory in the Second World War, followed by an even more decisive victory in the Cold War, turned it into the leading global superpower. Between 1950 and 2000 American GDP grew from $2 trillion to $12 trillion. Real per capita income doubled. The newly invented contraceptive pill made sex freer than ever. Women, gays, African Americans and other minorities finally got a bigger slice of the American pie. A flood of cheap cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, laundry machines, telephones, televisions and computers changed daily life almost beyond recognition. Yet studies have shown that American subjective well-being levels in the 1990s remained roughly the same as they were in the 1950s.
Note:what are we progressing towards?
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This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.
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Today more than 90 per cent of all large animals are domesticated.
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Because they are following ancient genetic decrees that might be useless and even counterproductive today, but that made good evolutionary sense 70,000 years ago. A young hunter who risked his life chasing a mammoth outshone all his competitors and won the hand of the local beauty, and we are now stuck with his macho genes.11
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Sows locked in gestation crates typically display acute frustration alternating with extreme despair.15
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This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present.
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The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.
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Psychiatric drugs are aimed to induce changes not just in human behaviour, but above all in human feeling. When customers go to a psychiatrist and say, ‘Doctor, give me something that will lift me out of this depression,’ they don’t want a mechanical stimulant that will cause them to flail about while still feeling blue. They want to feel cheerful. Conducting experiments on rats can help corporations develop such a magic pill only if they presuppose that rat behaviour is accompanied by human-like emotions. And indeed, this is a common presupposition in psychiatric laboratories.
Note:We often design lab experiments assuming rats and human have similar mechanisms (biochemically) to feel hope or despair.
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Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well. But if humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms.
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Throughout history, disciplined armies easily routed disorganised hordes, and unified elites dominated the disorderly masses. In 1914, for example, 3 million Russian noblemen, officials and business people lorded it over 180 million peasants and workers. The Russian elite knew how to cooperate in defence of its common interests, whereas the 180 million commoners were incapable of effective mobilisation. Indeed, much of the elite’s efforts focused on ensuring that the 180 million people at the bottom would never learn to cooperate.
Note:Cooperation is key to overcome adversity.
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During the second half of the twentieth century, as the European empires disintegrated and their colonies gained independence, the new countries accepted the colonial borders, fearing that the alternative would be endless wars and conflicts. Many of the difficulties faced by present-day African countries stem from the fact that their borders make little sense. When the written fantasies of European bureaucracies encountered the African reality, reality was forced to surrender.5
Note:The fictitious borders drawn by Europeans with no knowledge of Africa still impact Africa to this day.
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Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.
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It wasn’t very hard to convince individuals to want more. Greed comes easily to humans. The big problem was to convince collective institutions such as states and churches to go along with the new ideal. For millennia, societies strove to curb individual desires and bring them into some kind of balance. It was well known that people wanted more and more for themselves, but when the pie was of a fixed size, social harmony depended on restraint. Avarice was bad. Modernity turned the world upside down. It convinced human collectives that equilibrium is far more frightening than chaos, and because avarice fuels growth, it is a force for good. Modernity accordingly inspired people to want more, and dismantled the age-old disciplines that curbed greed.
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For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts. Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.
Note:on how capitalism has delivered goods beyond eexpectations.
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Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans. God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the secular Netherlands.
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The preceding pages took us on a brief tour of recent scientific discoveries that undermine the liberal philosophy.
Note:the argument seems to be: biochemical processes in our brain dictate our wants, so if we do what we “want” we are just being slaves to that biochemical process. I don’t understand where the conviction comes that we don’t get to shape the biochemical processes through our own will. I don’t see lack of evidence of the mind as equivalent to evidence of no being or mind.
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This in a world where 1 billion people earn less than $1 per day, and another 1.5 billion earn between $1 and $2 a day.
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Consequently by 2070 the poor could very well enjoy much better healthcare than today, but the gap separating them from the rich will nevertheless be much greater.
Note:yet, what is the problem? today, we already have cost prohibitive medicine for all sorts of things. that a few elite have money to enhance themselves more doesnt make it necessary or desirable for everyone. also, government can evolve to ensure fairness across generations.
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Unlike in the twentieth century, when the elite had a stake in fixing the problems of the poor because they were militarily and economically vital, in the twenty-first century the most efficient (albeit ruthless) strategy might be to let go of the useless third-class carriages, and dash forward with the first class only.
Note:this book is filled with sentences like these. some might do something horrible for X or Y reason. yet there’s increasing humanely work happening , charitable approaches, and I think there will still be socioeconomic reasons to do mostly what’s right for broad parts of the population. every empire falls when aristocracies forget the poor.
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The Google and Facebook algorithms not only know exactly how you feel, they also know myriad other things about you that you hardly suspect.
Note:that’s not accurate. These algos just predict based on patterns. they know not much.
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However, once we humans lose our functional importance to the network, we will discover that we are not the apex of creation after all. The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back, humanity will turn out to have been just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.
whether through tech and data or not, i think it’s fair to say that humans will eventually realize that we are just a minuscule part of the world and can easily go extinct