‘it’s a curious idea to reproduce when you don’t even like life’. (Michael Houellebecq – Elementary Particles)
I’ve been reading one of the best non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed in a long time this last week. It’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘ by the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. It really is an absorbing read, setting itself the task as it does of describing the entire history (and possible future) of our species in a single text. Not only does it achieve it’s aim in a real page turner of a book, it’s the sort of rare non-fiction work that really does leave you looking a bit different at the world. I had a similar feeling of ‘looking at the world anew’ after reading ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins, and only a handful of other books.
Anyway, one of the most fascinating chapters for me was an attempt to pose the question as to whether undoubted scientific and technological mastery of the world has actually made Homo Sapians any happier. As the author relates, this question hasn’t much been asked by historians in the past, although there is a growing academic discussion or even discipline that is now examining the very subjective nature of what we call happiness and what might bring it about.
The author builds on the point contained in that book by Dawkins, that I read so long ago, that human beings have been blindly designed by their genes for the blind and selfish purposes of replicating those genes. Human pleasures, and happiness itself, are therefore only things that we experience after the result millennia of evolution shuffling those genes that have enabled the carriers of them – us – to reproduce and therefore replicate them through thousands of generations. However, as a book describing the entirety of human history aptly reveals, human living conditions have changed remarkably in that time, and in particular the last 7,000 years or so since the agricultural revolutions, and even more so since the industrial revolution of only two or three hundreds of years ago.
The author’s thesis is that events such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions actually made us on the whole unhappier, despite the increasingly apparent mastery of our environment and planet Earth itself as a species. But now we stand on the cusp of another technological revolution, promising to be far more transformative and radical than any that have gone before in our history. In one of his many brilliant counter-intuitive claims, the author, when discussing the switch to agriculture from hunting and gathering, puts forward the astonishing idea that humans didn’t tame crops such as wheat in the fertile crescent and elsewhere around 5000 B.C. Rather, it was a case of wheat taming us in order to thrive and prosper (to reproduce and replicate). The environment and the random, blind forces of evolution, were still controlling us as much as we were controlling them. Yet now, after our long history, we are indeed finally on the brink of being able to control evolution through science- including that of our own species.
In the final chapters, Harari examines first the nature of happiness, then explores the idea that human beings are not designed to be happy and that both pleasure and suffering as something we can obtain or avoid is something of an illusion. These fleeting sensations are not what we are, and we cannot control them any more than we can hold back the waves of an ocean (an idea found in Buddhism, as well as the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer). The author then suggests that in the next technological revolution, when we effectively have the ability to design ourselves, and even our wants and needs, then we could truly become happy Gods.
In illustrating his thesis, one example that Harari gives is the suffering that male lives have typically underwent through history. Violence and hardship and constant competition with other men, chiefly to attract women. Yet these travails have been directed by the blind needs of our selfish genes to replicate themselves through the act of procreation, rather than something that leads to true happiness. Surely, we men would be better off living a life of peaceful bliss, without the need to painfully chase an end goal – sex – that is merely a trick played by our blind genes, and that in any case does not lead to satisfaction. The author points out, as did Arthur Schopenhauer, that the human orgasm is very brief, in both men and women. Once a man has ejaculated, he may find relief for a little while, but then he wants more sex, and preferably with more women. This is so, because if we had orgasms that lasted days or weeks, the man would not be inclined to have sex again, or chase other women to impregnate.
These thoughts reminded me of the quote by the French author Michael Houllebecq in his famous novel – ‘The Elementary Particles’ (sometimes translated as ‘Atomized’). “It’s a curious idea to reproduce when you don’t even like life“. The goal of life is to reproduce, to bring into existence more lives, but our natures are not designed particularly to enjoy life, with our selfish genes that blindly ‘seek’ replication ‘tricking’ the mind into chasing fleeting pleasures that do not result in permanent satisfaction, such as the male orgasm. And in between those temporary brief moments of when the want is met, the craving satisfied, there is inevitably much suffering, and if not suffering then boredom.
The ultimate striving for men or women is to experience the orgasm, the completion of the sex act, and all the travails and hardships that human life is simply and end to this. Now that we begin to have sufficient scientific understanding for technological mastery of our bodies and even our psychologies, we can change the blind wiring of evolution for our own true happiness rather than the replication needs of our selfish genes. Nature has given us the orgasm, and the thrill of sex as we reach it, as the ultimate reward for completing the act necessary for the replication of our genes. But it tricks us, and gives us only a brief glimpse of heaven, before we return to Earth and have to begin the toil and striving all over again. We will soon be able to change this, and create heaven for an Earth full of Gods.