“There’s No Natural Selection For Happiness”

“Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms” (243) writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari takes us through early human history to note its indifference to personal well-being and its drive toward population growth—two features that also mark the forward motion of evolution. It is only in the modern era, he believes, that civilization may be doing more for individual happiness, and the price we pay for that shift may be to leave nature further behind.

It’s a provocative view. Most people carry around a vague but positive sense of the progress of history. After all, I’m sitting here with my computer, with food and water in the kitchen, in a peaceful town. Many others are not so fortunate, but that’s the task for the future, not a sign we have misread the past, as Harari argues.

He looks at three revolutions. By 70,000 years ago, after the Cognitive Revolution, we Sapiens could talk and think as well as we do today. Ten thousand years ago, during the Agricultural Revolution, we began growing food instead of just gathering it. The last 500 years has been the Scientific Revolution.

In between the Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural one, intelligent, food-gathering Sapiens led healthy, mobile, and interesting communal lives. Their diet was varied, work was not arduous. But when they took up growing a few crops, raising animals, and settling down, they left the mobile community behind in exchange for towns, cities, and elites. The food supply and the farmers themselves became susceptible to drought and disease, and labor became exhausting and monotonous. Agriculture produced larger populations but not happier ones. And it did so in small steps, as each new luxury—food storage, land ownership, cities—became a necessity that no one wanted to give up.



This process—small steps, no going backward, and a growing population—is also the footprint of  evolution. The right genetic change means a human who is a slightly better fit for the environment along with children who inherit the benefit. Happiness is not one of the steps, however. “There’s no natural selection for happiness” (386).

Since the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the ambivalence of cultural progress has deepened. Sapiens, Harari writes, have attained more control over nature while destroying a growing number of species. We have reduced extreme poverty and illness and raised global population numbers, but we’ve also raised expectations about a better life and in so doing have raised discontents as well. We may be progressing towards god-like abilities to prolong and even design life itself, yet we remain in the dark about what we want to become.

As we modify the human body more drastically through surgery and genetics, will we even remain human? The “Brief History” in Harari’s title refers not only to the book but also to a question about the duration of Sapiens as a species.

I found the first half of Sapiens, about the foraging era and the Agricultural Revolution, more convincing than the second part about the present. I’m skeptical that we Sapiens have ever been very good judges of the era we are living in or of what our future will look like. But warnings, disillusionments about our past, new angles of vision—all of which this book provides—are valuable and often fascinating.

I’ll conclude by letting Harari speak for himself, especially about language, the growing power of human “fictions,” social groups, and the foraging and agricultural cultures.

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…. 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….Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution….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 in large numbers. (21-25)

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals….Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering….But language enables us to create fictions, myths that could unite hundred of millions of people….Churches…States…Judicial systems are rooted in common myths….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… [So-called “primitive” people] cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. (26-28)

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. (32)

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximize the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal….Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites,or hungry lions….The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. (48)

On the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps. …The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do….In most places at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition… The foragers‘ secret of success , which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet….Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution….Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty or forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. (51)

[About 10,000 years ago,] Sapiens began devoting 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 group and led sheep to prime pastures.…  Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fueled 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 Agicultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of 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….The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (79)


Breath: Divine Gas in a Smart Body

We use the word breath most often to refer to the air we pull in to and pump out of our lungs (or to the action of doing so) as in “Take a deep breath.” But we also give the same word loftier qualities in phrases such as “the breath of life” and in practices like yoga that emphasize breath awareness as a source of health and peace. Other traditions and languages have similar words for breath in both these ordinary and spiritual senses, such as Latin spiritus, Hebrew ruach, and Chinese qi.

breath spirit (soundofheart.org)


But what about the breathing body itself? Unless we are wheezing or short of breath and a doctor checks us out, we usually take the smooth coordination of our lungs, diaphragm, membranes, blood cells, as unremarkable compared to the loftier significance of breath that we might hear about in yoga class or worship service.

We might refocus our wonderment for a moment. The air is, when you come down to it, just a mix of gasses, but our body’s ingenious respiration of them is something to appreciate.

We breathe in air because, as we know, it contains one gas that we must have: oxygen. Less familiar, though, is the step-down system that has evolved to make the most of the fact that, like all gasses, oxygen spreads out from wherever it is most densely packed to where it is less so. Thanks to the step-down process and our blood stream, we move oxygen from the air outside of us to everywhere it has to go inside us, which is to our several trillion—that’s 000,000,000,000—cells.

Why oxygen? Its electrons are arranged in such a way that it interacts eagerly and often with other elements. It’s a potent extrovert. Our cells may get their nourishment from the food molecules they take in but not unless they also have oxygen handy to break the food molecules down. That would be like our eating dinner without having any stomach acid to digest it. No nourishment. Without oxygen, cells go hungry.

But a little oxygen goes a long way. That helps make the step-down process possible. The numbers surprised me. For starters, only about twenty percent of the air that we breathe is oxygen. The rest is nitrogen and a percent or two of other gasses. And of that oxygen that we do take into our lungs, we actually use only about a quarter of it. The rest goes out again when we exhale.

Once it is in our lungs, oxygen must get across the thin lung membrane to the blood stream that will move it around the body. The oxygen in the lung is much denser than whatever oxygen is left in the blood that is returning from the cells through the veins. So the new oxygen spreads easily across the membrane—stepping down—to the oxygen-depleted blood where it hooks up with empty hemoglobin molecules in the blood cells.

As this convoy of oxygenated blood flows near, say, our fingers, the oxygen detaches from the hemoglobin, steps down across the membrane of the cell itself (because there is less oxygen inside), and goes to work on the food particles.

In the process, extrovert that it is, oxygen combines with the unusable carbon dioxide, crosses the cell membrane back out to some empty passing hemoglobin, gets off at the lungs, and then back out to air. Like taking the empty bus back home at the end of a long day.

I argue for the wonderment of a distribution system that pulls in air-borne oxygen in an endless rhythm and is arranged so that the oxygen disperses itself across strategic membranes and loads itself on to the blood for transport to a million million cells that it will help nourish, after which it returns the way it came in. Our stunning respiration makes oxygen look good—even divine.


Survivors and the Terminator

The story of biological evolution recounts the ways that most plants and animals have changed over time as small bodily variations improved their odds of survival. But what about those species, fitted successfully to stable environments early on, that have changed very little? Are any such ancient species (besides the microbes) still around today?

Yes. In Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey tracks down some present-day creatures that look much like their fossilizeds ancestors from millions of years ago. Oddly, their stories of sameness impress me with as strong a sense of evolution’s power as the stories of other species, including ours., that have changed to adapt.

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach. (delaware-surf-fishing.com)

Horseshoe crabs, after half a billion years, still crowd the beach.

In the opening chapter, Fortey is on a beach in Delaware on the night of the annual horseshoe crab orgy, when thousands of male horseshoe crabs come ashore to clamber on top of the females. Horseshoe crabs have  been scrambling up beaches for 500 million years.

In the darkness along Delaware Bay the scratching percussion of the crabs provides an unmusical accompaniment on an imaginary journey backwards in time: to an era well before mammals and flowering plants; a time before the acme of giant reptiles, long before Tyrannosaurus; backwards again through an extinction event 250,000,000 years ago that wiped nine-tenths of life from the earth; and then back still further, before a time of lush coal forests to a stage in the earth’s history when the land was stark and life was cradled in the sea.

firmoss (newfs.s3.amazonaws.com)

Four hundred mya, plants like this Norwegian Huperzia moved from the water to land and were among the first to acquire the crucial, stiffened water-conducting tubes that enabled them to stand upright and compete for light.

In the other chapters, Fortey describes the velvet worm in New Zealand, the lovely Norwegian fir moss, the not-so-lovely lungfish. The photo captions here mention their particular keys to adaptive success.

It helps that their environments have changed very little. “Survival is about endurance of habitat.” One habitat that endures is the tidal flat, where the shallow sea meets the muddy shore. Organisms here can burrow, find oxygen in the water and air, find food through filtering or scavenging. Here are horseshoe crabs, snails, small fish, many plants. “This habitat does seem like a good place to be for an organism with conservative tendencies. If its own place survives, then so will the beast. It is the right place to weather mass extinctions that affect many other environments more severely.…Stick-in-the-muds last longest.”

As for the durable species themselves, a few characteristics recur. “Many…seem to have long life spans.” Horseshoe crabs take a decade to mature. And some enduring animals invest more resources in fewer progeny by producing “relatively large eggs or few offspring.” But there are no fool-proof formulae. “[T]he luck for old timers will eventually run out. It always does.”

lungfish (media-web.britannica.com)

In Australia, Fortey finds the lungfish that dates back 400 mya, “the great survivor among the vertebrates, the animals with backbones.” With lungs, these sea creatures, in the transition to the land, can gulp air when the river runs low on oxygen.

What about humans? When will our time run out? Fortey doesn’t make guesses, but he has a hard label for us.

[Early man] may have hunted edible mammals and birds to the point of obliteration even in his earliest days; he was the first species that deserves to be called the Terminator….The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species. There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘snowball earth,’ just us, prospering at the expense of other species.

He is confident about the survival of only one type of organism. “I am not worried about the survival of bacteria. They will be there to rot down the last bodies of the last humans, and then the wheel of life will have turned full circle.” So ends the book.