Book Summaries History

Chapter 14: The Discovery of Ignorance (Sapiens)

For most of history, we knew nothing about 99.99 percent of the organisms in the planet – namely, microorganisms. Not because they didn’t matter to us. We all carry billions of single-celled creatures within us. They are our best friends and deadliest enemies. Some digest food and clean our gut, others make us sick.

We found out about them in 1674 for the first time, when Anton can Leeuwenhoek spotted them through his microscope at home. During the next 300 years, we’ve become more familiar with them. We have defeated the deadliest diseases they cause and use microorganisms in the service of medicine and industry.

Science has advanced a lot in the last few centuries, but the most defining moment in the last 500 years occurred in July 1945, when American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb in New Mexico. From then on, humans have had the ability to not only change history, but to end it.

Traditionally, when you were ignorant about something, all you had to do was ask someone wiser. There was no need for anyone to discover anything that was unknown. A thousand years ago, a peasant didn’t have to look further than his local priest to discover the story of how the universe began. Further, if a tradition was ignorant about something, then that something was not important. If the Bible didn’t have any information about spider webs, then spider webs were simply not very important, otherwise, an explanation would have been found in the Bible.

Science changed this. Modern-day science openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions. Scientists admit that we do not know how brains produce consciousness or what caused the Big Bang. Instead of studying old traditions, science looks at new observations and experiments for answers.

But simple observations are not enough. Earlier they were described through theories in the form of stories. Today, modern science uses mathematics.

Statistics was a new branch of mathematics that was developed in the last 200 years by two clergymen in Scotland, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace. They had to set up a life-insurance fund, but to do so they had to look at some numbers. How long would wives outlive their husbands? And how many ministers would die each year?

They did not pray to God for the answer, and they didn’t get into philosophical argumentation – they were practical. They contacted a mathematics professor, and the three of them collected the data they needed to make their predictions. Their work was based on Bernoulli’s equations and other breakthroughs in statistics. Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers states that while it may be hard to predict the death of  a single person, it is possible to accurately predict the average number of people that would die over a given period.

According to their calculations, by the year 1765 the Fund for a Provision for the Widows and Children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland would have capital totalling £58,348. Their calculations proved amazingly accurate. When that year arrived, the fund’s capital stood at £58,347 – just £1 less than the prediction! This was even better than the prophecies of Habakkuk, Jeremiah or St John. Today, Webster and Wallace’s fund, known simply as Scottish Widows, is one of the largest pension and insurance companies in the world. With assets worth £100 billion, it insures not only Scottish widows, but anyone willing to buy its policies.

Yuval Harari, Sapiens

Mathematics used to be a field that educated people did not take seriously. If you wanted a proper education in medieval Europe, you studied logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

Today, almost all subjects involve mathematics. Even the social sciences require you to take statistics courses.

In 1620, Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto called The New Instrument. In it he argued that knowledge is power because it empowers us, not because it is true. Scientists don’t assume their theories are 100 percent correct – truth is a poor test of knowledge anyway. The real test is how useful the knowledge is. A theory that help you do new things constitutes knowledge.

World War One was decided not by the best soldiers, but the most dangerous scientists. Combat aircraft, poison gas, tanks, submarines and ever more efficient machine guns, artillery pieces, rifles and bombs were the real stars of war.

Science was even more important in World War Two. The Germans were nearly defeated until the promise of the V-2 rocket and jet-powered aircraft brought new hope that things may turn around. But during the same time, the Manhattan project by the U.S produced the atomic bomb. By the time the atomic bomb was ready, Germany had surrendered.

But Japan, Germany’s ally at the time refused to surrender. A U.S invasion of Japan would cost the U.S millions of lives and a lot of time and resources. Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb twice in two weeks. The Japanese then surrendered, and the war was over.

In the past, we thought that poverty, and death were facts of life. Today, scientists think of these things as technical problems.

Poverty is increasingly seen as a technical problem amenable to intervention. It’s common wisdom that policies based on the latest findings in agronomy, economics, medicine and sociology can eliminate poverty.

Yuval Harari, Sapiens

The Epic of Gilgamesh shows how a man’s quest to defeat death, that included many battles, across the world, yielded nothing but the realization that man was created to die. But the disciples of progress do not agree. To them, death happens because we don’t know enough. If organs fail, machines can be used to augment them, or to replace them. While not all biological problems can be solved today, we have made a lot of progress since Gilgamesh.

Genetic engineers have recently managed to double the average life expectancy of Caenorhabditis elegans worms. Could they do the same for Homo sapiens? Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells and even reverse ageing processes. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).

Yuval Harari, Sapiens

Central to our pursuit of progress, is financing. Without money, Darwin, Columbus, and Galilei would not have accomplished what they did. Brilliant minds are not enough. And science cannot set its priorities, there needs to be commercial reasons to invest in one thing and not another. For science to advance – politics, finance, and ideology must be combined towards the same goals.

Read Sapiens 

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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