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What’s the point?

We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but are we much happier? It doesn’t seem so. Compared to what most people in history dreamt about, we may be living in paradise. But for some reason, we don’t feel the part.

One explanation is that happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before.

A second explanation is that both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our internal biochemical system. And our biochemical system has no real interest in happiness. It was shaped by evolution to increase our chances of survival and reproduction, and evolution has made sure that no matter what we achieve, we remain dissatisfied, forever grasping for more.

A third explanation is that humans simply don’t understand what happiness is. We are like a driver in a car who pushes the fuel pedal for all he is worth, but the gear is still in neutral. No wonder that we are producing a lot of noise and energy, but we aren’t really getting anywhere.


Who domesticated humans?

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 grueling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

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.

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.

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Religion without God

We often assume that religions and gods go hand in hand. This seems obvious to Westerners, who are familiar mainly with monotheistic and polytheist creeds. Yet the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. During the first millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin, were characterized by their disregard of gods.

These creeds maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws rather than of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural-law religions continued to espouse the existence of gods, but their gods were subject to the laws of nature no less than humans, animals, and plants were. Gods had their niche in the ecosystem, just as elephants and porcupines had theirs, but could no more change the laws of nature than elephants can. A prime example is Buddhism, the most important of the ancient natural law religions, which remains one of the major faiths.

The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, some time around 500 BC. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering he saw all around him. He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration, and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want ten. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age, and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?

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