In his text, Harari claims that major scientific discoveries and technological developments do not come to fruition in a vacuum. Rather, they stem from politics and money working in tandem to accomplish some sort of goal (Harari, 2015, pg. 272-273). Research requires funding, and unfortunately for scientists, curiosity for curiosity’s sake rarely interests governing bodies. As such, leaders typically won’t invest in research that is of no use to them. A good example of this idea in action is the use of gunpowder. Many scientific discoveries happen by accident, and gunpowder is no exception. The alchemists of ancient China did not intentionally discover the explosive substance, rather it was a by-product of their religious inquiries (pg. 263). Even then, as Harari explains, the Chinese didn’t immediately utilize gunpowder for military purposes. Rather their leaders seemed content with using it strictly for fireworks. This was due to the fact that, culturally speaking, China simply saw no reason to develop gunpowder-based weaponry. In fact, it took nearly a century before the first fire lance (the earliest known firearm) came into existence (Mandal, 2016). Staying on the subject of China, an interesting example of science, politics, and unregulated capitalism intersecting may very well be the First Opium War, a conflict which would prove detrimental to the Chinese (pg. 325-326). In the early 1800s, Britain had opened a prolific market in China for opium. Though business boomed, it was at the expense of Chinese civilians. With an increasing fraction of its people being crippled by addiction, China tried to ban the drug before things worsened. This didn’t sit well with the British, who promptly declared war on the Asian empire. Sadly for the Chinese, the British had managed to turn the discovery of gunpowder against them with powerful firearms, and quickly dominated.
Harari proposes that people’s views on life had to change before scientific inquiry could ever take place. In other words, we had to think we could progress before “progression” could actually be made (Harari, 2015, pg. 264). This change was slow because of two distinct reasons. One, ancient people collectively believed their gods or god provided anything and everything human beings ever needed to know. There’s no need to prod if everything’s already been explained. Two, with poverty and disease running rampant for most of human (agricultural) history, it only made sense that any attempt to improve our existence would be in vain. The world can only get worse from here, so why bother trying? You’d be better off plowing your fields yourself than trying to build a plow that does the work for you. Going back to last week’s readings, this idea seems to be compounding on Harari’s concept of “imagined orders”. Personally, I find it a very reasonable observation. We see this concept of “mind over matter” on the individual level, especially as it pertains to specialized skills. As someone who draws, I’ve heard from many people that they can’t draw so much as a stick figure. They lack the talent, so to speak. To this, I must stress that while raw talent can certainly give a person an advantage, even a genius cannot ride on talent alone. Mind you, I’m hardly a master of my craft, but I can still create a decent picture simply because I’ve practiced for many years. And the reason I practiced in the first place was because I thought I could get better. In contrast, I struggle with mathematics whenever I’m presented with a problem above basic operations. Logically, I probably could improve if I convinced myself. But more often than not, I make the excuse of being “math-dumb” and carry on without ever trying to learn beyond my limited scope of knowledge. Given my stance on artistic ability, I understand this behavior is hypocritical, but I’d be a liar if I said self-doubt has never gotten to me. One has to believe in concept of self-improvement in order to improve, much like how society as a whole had to believe it could improve for scientific advancements to be made.
Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: Harper Perennial.
Mandal, D. (2016, July 28). 5 Gunpowder Weapons From History You May Not Have Known About. Retrieved September 23, 2018, from https://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/07/28/5-gunpowder-weapons-history/