Did you know there is a simple graph that explains 99% of the problems of 99% of people in the world?
Yes, that probably includes you, unique snowflake though you may be.
Here it is:
Feeling a bit underwhelmed? OK, let’s try to understand what we’re seeing here.
- The X-axis (horizontal) shows Time and covers the entire history of our species, Homo Sapiens, from about 200,000 years ago, all the way to the left, to the present day, all the way to the right.
We could have started it even further leftwards – at the beginnings of the Homo genus 2 million years ago, or the beginnings of the Mammalia class 200 million years ago, or even the beginnings of the Animalia kingdom 650 million years ago – but we wouldn’t really see any change in the graph. The reason we have chosen that starting point is because that is the generally-accepted point in history when a slight mutation took place in the DNA of an otherwise inconsequential hominid, giving rise to Homo Sapiens and thus kicking off the whole human party. What the graph shows is that, like all parties, at first it took a little while for things to warm up and then it quickly got completely out of hand.
- The Y-axis (vertical) shows our Progress. In other words, any form of impact, development or power that humans have ever had, you name it, energy consumption, number of individuals, GDP per capita, land occupied, Earth’s resources consumed, animal species driven to extinction, hours wasted playing Minecraft or uncovering koalas.
So if we add some labels, the graph looks like this:
At this point you might be thinking: “That’s all fascinating, but what difference does it make to MY life and MY problems?” We’ll get to that, but bear with it for a just a little bit longer because we need to explain a few things first.
The reason why we are looking at this graph is because, if we wish to change anything whatsoever, we first need to understand it. So if we want to solve any of those 99% of problems that we mentioned earlier, we first need to understand where they came from, and this graph holds the key.
Don’t panic, we won’t be looking in detail at all those 2,000 centuries. For now, all you need to know is that the reason why only we, Homo Sapiens, out of the roughly 1 trillion different species of living creatures that have ever existed on Earth, have been able to bend that initially horizontal line into a vertical one is because of our brains. The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe and it has allowed us to develop technologies capable of harnessing the Sun’s energy and exploiting the Earth’s resources. But just like every Yin has a Yang, every Jekyll has a Hyde and every Disney film has a shitty sequel/remake, the brain also has a dark side.
Our current brain was not created by design, starting from scratch. Instead, it has been shaped by evolution by gradually tacking new and increasingly complex layers on to previous, more basic versions, but those primitive structures are still there, right at the core of each human brain and very much active. That is why we are not perfectly rational thinking machines, but also have instinctive, primitive reactions and feelings that we have trouble understanding, let alone controlling.
If you want to know more about the brain and are not intimidated by a little bit of science, you’ll be glad to know that we are working on a full article just on that (link to article).
Implications of the graph
Now that you know about the engine driving our progress, let’s have a closer look at the path followed by that progress.
Going back to the graph, since the red line represents the ENTIRE history of humanity, what can we learn from it?
There are three key ideas that we can extract:
1) We are still just a bunch of apes
To begin with, the flat part on the left part of the curve shows that, for the vast majority of human history, there wasn’t an awful lot going on. Pretty little, if anything at all, changed from one generation to the next and most of our species’ history has remained practically the same.
We have no record whatsoever of what happened for 97.5% of our history, including the lives of 99% of humans who have ever lived. But then, it’s not really a big loss because they didn’t do anything that was particularly significant or even any different from everyone else.
For that very long, very horizontal period, we were just another species of ape, slowly expanding our territory, increasing in numbers, hunting larger prey, but still with no particularly remarkable impact on the world.
In case you are more visually oriented, here are two images:
(the blue square and the coin contain ALL of recorded history)
From another perspective, if the entire history of our species were condensed into a 1-hour documentary, it would be an extremely boring one: over 59 minutes would be just Homo Sapiens leading lives that were practically indistinguishable from those of other large apes, scampering around the savannah looking for a mate, hunting and gathering, and then, all of a sudden, EVERYTHING that you ever studied in History class would whoosh by in less than a minute.
If we tried to make it into a really long book (say 1,000 pages, like Lord of the Rings or Shōgun or War & Peace) we wouldn’t even be able to divide it into sensible chapters, because it would start on Page 1 with “Urg’s cub had a genetic mutation; it was the first member of a new species” and then nothing much until, on Page 950, you could write “Grok noticed that small shoots seemed to grow from grains and realised that, if he planted a few, he would know where to find them next season” and then another 40 pages of nothing particularly interesting. It wouldn’t really pick up until the last couple of pages. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’ll see that in the next section.
For now, we’re just trying to illustrate the key point that WE haven’t changed. Our DNA knows no calendars; both our bodies and the brains they ferry around were designed to live in the African plains. Our internal organism has remained the same for the last 200,000 years because that is just a heartbeat in evolutionary terms.
Let’s put it another way: if we could go back in time 200,000 years, grab a new-born human baby and bring him back to the present, we could have him raised by any average family and he would be completely indistinguishable from any other kid in the school, just as likely to pick his nose, prefer sweets to veggies, dream about becoming a rock/sports/movie star, waste his time playing Minecraft or uncovering koalas and eventually become a perfectly normal member of society. And of course, that fun experiment would work both ways; if you could travel back in time to a Homo Sapiens’ cave and swap your cousin’s new-born baby for one of theirs, each family would raise the other’s kid and nobody would ever notice any difference.
Please take a minute to let that sink in properly.
And now try to keep it in mind as you carry on reading.
If you think that early Homo Sapiens started out as dumb animals and we then somehow became smart, then you are wrong, because we remain exactly the same. In fact, it’s not just a little bit wrong, it’s completely wrong, because although we could think about it as “Early Homo Sapiens weren’t dumb, they were just as smart as modern humans”, it is far more accurate to turn it around into “Modern humans aren’t smart, we are just as dumb as early Homo Sapiens”.
At this point you may be thinking “If we are dumb apes, how come I am reading this on a digital tablet instead of a clay tablet?” and that leads us to the next point:
2) We have great, and increasing, power
Going back to our graph, the sudden spike on the right part of the curve shows that, in terms of our power to change the world, we have flipped the almost horizontal line into an almost vertical one and are living through an absolutely unprecedented time.
If you recall that 1,000-page history of Homo Sapiens we mentioned earlier, the last we had seen were 999 pages of very little and very slow progress. But then we reach the last page and the next thing you know is that, in just a few paragraphs, humans have taken over the planet, driven most other species to extinction, built highways all over the place and are now wasting their time playing Minecraft and uncovering koalas.
But how on Earth (see what I did there?) did that happen so quickly?!
Well, it’s for the same reason that we tend to think ourselves smarter than our ancestors; because we forget that the only difference between us and early Homo Sapiens is that nowadays we are benefiting from the accumulated knowledge of 200,000 years of human experience.
It all began when we got better brains which were capable of developing first language and later writing. This enabled us to communicate and preserve any useful knowledge gained, so each generation got a head start and, in turn, was able to take the entire species a little bit further.
So, although humans have not changed internally and each one of us is still a dumb ape (OK, in your particular case, a unique snowflake of a dumb ape), our collective knowledge as a species has grown exponentially.
If you are not quite sure what “exponential” means, don’t worry because here’s a nice explanation for you. If you understand it just fine, feel free to skip it.
START OF EXPONENTIAL GROWTH SECTION
To keep it extremely simple, linear growth means that action X produces effect Y and that relationship always remains the same, whereas in exponential growth, that relationship is not constant; as factor X increases, effect Y increases much more, each time.
For example, in a linear world, moving 1 meter requires 1 step, so to move 10 meters you need to walk 10 steps, to move 100 meters 100 steps, etc.
However, in an exponential world, you would move 1 meter with 1 step, but to cover 10 meters you would only need 4 steps and to cover 100 metres just 6½ steps.
And then at higher numbers things get completely trippy: in 28 steps you would get to the Moon and you couldn’t even take 100 exponential steps because after just 90 you would have crossed the entire Universe…
As you can probably see, because we live in a linear world, this kind of relationship is extremely unintuitive for us humans. Nothing in our environment, timeframe or scale is exponential, so our brains have a really tough time grasping it, so don’t feel bad if you don’t quite get it. (but if really you want to learn more about it, we are working on a full article just on that)
END OF EXPONENTIAL GROWTH SECTION
This accelerating pace of change is the reason why, while several authors have made convincing cases of armies separated by millennia being relatively matched (Julius Caesar vs William the Conqueror, +1,000 years, and even Alexander the Great vs Napoleon, +2,150 years) because their technologies weren’t wildly different, it is undeniable that any army entering WW1 would be completely obliterated in minutes by one from WW2, just 25 years later. (insert references)
As you can see, we have gained incredible and unexpected superpowers very suddenly, just like characters in fantasy stories; think Aladdin chancing upon a magic lamp housing a genie, comic book superheroes doing scientific experiments without adequate safety precautions or Harry Truman being told that Roosevelt had died and now he had to decide what to do with the deadliest weapon ever created.
The key point here is that technology has only amplified our external power, but it hasn’t changed our internal nature. And since it doesn’t change WHO we are, it doesn’t determine WHAT we do, only how WELL we can do it (i.e. it doesn’t change the direction of the human progress vector, only its magnitude). Going back to the fantasy story analogy, simply acquiring superpowers doesn’t guarantee that a given individual will use them for good; that will depend on his specific personality. In fact, as a species, we’re still at the stage of noticing that we’ve gotten some amazing superpowers and wondering what we should do with them, so technically it’s still not clear whether we will turn out to be superheroes or supervillains.
But there is one thing that is extremely clear, which takes us to the last, and perhaps most important, point:
3) We are not yet used to that power
In terms of addressing those 99% of problems we talked about at the beginning, the key part of the graph is one that is not shown, so let’s try having a look at it now. First you need to know that natural evolution is a VERY slow process; its normal rate is a very gentle, linear slope.
Living organisms evolve veeeeery slowly because evolution is the product of adaptation to the environment, which changes even mooooore slowly. But in the case of our species, instead of undergoing a slow and gradual change, we have walked through a magic wardrobe, fallen down a rabbit hole, gone for a ride in Doc’s DeLorean, crossed a wormhole, call it what you will, and found ourselves in Narnia, Wonderland, 2015 Hill Valley, where no hominid has gone before, call it what you will, in the blink of an evolutionary eye. We just don’t bear this situation in mind during our everyday lives because, although our individual lifespans are less than a blip in planetary terms, they seem pretty long to us. That’s normal; it’s all that we have ever known.
But herein lies the problem: we take for granted the world that we have grown in, forgetting that it is an artificial environment and completely different from the natural one in which our species evolved.
Let’s put it another way:
We’ve all had a laugh at some point at the expense of an animal doing something funny because a human put it into a situation that it couldn’t possibly comprehend (and if you haven’t then take five minutes of your day to look up “cat cucumber” on YouTube. Trust me, you won’t regret it).
- Donkeys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTpT4vcncAs
- Monkeys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jBgo7UipqY
- Dogs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Jl2t0gnWzs
- Squirrels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfHu-UJaK0Q
- Cats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVJvrliCffY
Oh aren’t we just the smartest and funniest…
But the joke is on us, because the same technological development that produced YouTube is also doing a number on OUR brains since, as just explained, we are no better equipped to deal with it than animals are to deal with our world. Just think of any films in which a character from an archaic society is brought to our present day: Les Visiteurs, Encino Man, Kate and Leopold. There’s a reason why these films are comedies; because society has changed so fast that those ancient characters cannot possibly hope to understand anything in our modern world, so that leads to plenty of funny situations. (UPLOAD CLIPS & add link)
But here’s the thing, ALL OF US are those same confused characters.
The only reason why we know to pee in a toilet instead of drink from it is because someone explained it to us when we were kids, not because we are inherently smarter in any kind of way.
This extends to the entire societies that we have created and live in. As a result of technological progress, our environments are increasingly removed from the ones in which our species evolved.
But the problem is that, while the world around us has changed radically, Homo Sapiens has remained fundamentally the same. Even though we have smartphones that connect to a network of orbiting satellites and then guide our steps to the closest store so we can buy blueberries instead of having to forage for them, we still need to eat the same blueberries as our ancestors because our organisms haven’t changed at all in the past quarter million years. As far as our brains and bodies are concerned, we are still living in the left end of the graph, i.e. in the African savannah of 200,000 years ago, and therefore, we are increasingly ill-suited to navigate or even live in the current world we have created at the right end.
To drive the point home, here are just three examples of how poorly adapted we are to the societies that we have created; we’ll call them the three deadly “Sins” (to help you remember them, you dumb ape):
Sitting is the new smoking. If you think about it, for most of our history, we’ve spent most of our time moving. If we wanted something to eat, we had to get up and gather or hunt it and if we wanted to go somewhere, we had to get there one step at a time. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to give us an enormous freedom of movement, so our health requires plenty of activity. Conversely, when we don’t get enough exercise, our physiology starts to break down.
Prolonged sitting has been linked to higher rates of obesity, back and/or neck pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. The World Health Organization ranks physical inactivity (i.e. sitting too much) as the 4th main cause of preventable deaths. And it doesn’t end there, another three items in the top five are related to/worsened by sitting:
- High blood pressure (Related)
- Tobacco use
- High blood glucose (Related)
- Physical inactivity
- Overweight and obesity (Related)
Unfortunately, modern lifestyles have become almost completely sedentary. The average person in a developed country spends most of their day in a sitting position. If that seems like a lot, just take a minute to think about (or even better, write it down, you’ll probably be surprised) how many hours you spend sitting while doing the following: eating (x3-4 meals daily), commuting (x2 daily), working, leisure (TV, computer, reading, cinema, socialising). Even when we go to the gym to be active, we often sit on exercise bikes!
The good news is that this problem is quite simple to fix: all we need to do is sit a bit less and move a bit more.
(If you want to know more about the negative effects of sitting and some possible solutions, you’re in luck ‘cos we are working on a full article just on that). (link to article)
When we say “sugar” we aren’t just referring to sucrose, the main component of white sugar, but to a very broad category of molecules, carbohydrates, which includes almost all sweeteners, dextrose, fructose, glucose, syrups, honey, lactose, maltose, molasses and several others.
Our bodies use these sugars as fuel, but when we consume large amounts they store the excess for later use, in the form of fat. These reserves were invaluable for our ancestors, as they allowed them to survive common periods of scarcity.
But, as we’ve seen, our environment has changed and nowadays sugars are always available. In fact, they are present in practically ALL processed foods because each molecule has different properties, so they are used not only for their highly addictive flavour, but also for preservation, binding, texture, colour, etc. Just check the labels in your fridge and pantry – you will be surprised where they sneak it in.
The result is that we are constantly consuming sugar, so we never need to use our stores. Instead, we are continuously adding more and more fat to our bodies. Eventually, this results in obesity and insulin resistance, which increase the risk of several other diseases, including diabetes, heart and kidney disease, depression, arthritis and cancer. Again, here are the top five causes of preventable deaths:
- High blood pressure
- Tobacco use
- High blood glucose
- Physical inactivity
- Overweight and obesity
For 99% of our history, our main problem was finding enough food to sustain us, but nowadays we are seeing a global epidemic of obesity because we eat too much and usually of the wrong stuff.
The good news is that this problem is also quite simple to fix: all we need to do is eat a bit less, especially sugars.
(If you want to know more about the negative effects of sugar and some possible solutions, you’re in luck ‘cos we are working on a full article just on that). (link to article)
Like all other apes and most mammals, humans are social animals. Our ancestors were born into a small tribe and stayed with it all their lives because at the time it was almost impossible to get by alone so this was, by far, the most important determinant of survival. Thus, millions of years of evolution have made our brains extremely good at recognizing the feelings of other humans, because forming and maintaining close social bonds with each other were vital to keep the tribe together.
This social aspect has become essential to our natural biology and psychology and many of our hormonal mechanisms require social interactions to work properly.
Conversely, lack of social contact harms our bodies and minds. Science has shown that chronic loneliness is among the unhealthiest experiences for a Homo Sapiens and has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease (29%) and stroke (32%), as well as higher prevalence of smoking. To put this in perspective, those effects are similar to high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking. Remember this list?:
- High blood pressure
- Tobacco use
- High blood glucose
- Physical inactivity
- Overweight and obesity
Once again, the problem is that we have completely deviated from the natural environment in which we evolved. Our modern lives are increasingly busy and methods of transportation have reduced travel times, so we commute long distances for work or leisure, leaving our real social networks behind.
We tend to think this is not a big deal because our methods of communication have also progressed and it is easy to keep in touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But unfortunately, this is not true. Studies have found that only in-person contact causes our organism to release the neurotransmitters that act like a vaccine against stress. Chat apps and social media just fool us into thinking that we are keeping in touch but we are analogue social animals, so digital communication doesn’t work for us. Every animal gets what it needs from its natural environment and we are no exception; we get what we need from each other because our natural environment is the tribes we evolved in.
Once again, the good news is that this problem can be fixed relatively easily: we need to put our phones away whenever possible and replace superficial social media with real social contact.
(If you want to know more about the negative effects of solitude and some possible solutions, you’re in luck ‘cos we are working on a full article just on that). (link to article)
So let’s do a quick recap. We have learned that 1) We are still just a bunch of apes, 2) We have great, and increasing, power and 3) We are not yet used to that power. Now let’s look at what that means.
As we can see, the factors driving the three Sins are not inherently negative, they are simply the result of combining ancient biology with modern technology. Progress has reduced individual suffering and is clearly a net positive for the species (and if anyone says otherwise, just tell them to forego anaesthetics next time they visit the dentist), but that doesn’t mean that it is completely free from drawbacks and pitfalls. It’s all about finding the right balance in order to live better lives.
This may not be easy but it IS possible. For example, dispersed around the world there are five regions known as Blue Zones whose inhabitants live significantly longer and healthier lives than the rest of us. Researchers have studied their lifestyles and identified several traits that are common to all of those communities and, guess what? All of these communities get plenty of exercise, consume a frugal diet composed mainly of plants and maintain very tight social bonds.
The crux is that technology is simply a tool so, just like all other tools, when used correctly it solves problems, but if used incorrectly, it creates bigger problems.
And this finally brings us back full circle to what we started out talking about, solving 99% of our problems. If we want to change anything about ourselves, rather than around ourselves, we will need to understand the principles that have always guided the behaviour of Homo Sapiens, in 2,021 AD just as in 200,021 BC.
And that is what this webbook aims to do, provide information and advice. Because it is first and foremost for myself, it will only offer REAL solutions to REAL problems. Practical and research-based advice, because if anyone wanted to waste their time, they could just go play Minecraft or uncover some koalas.
Hopefully by now you are convinced that we are just a bunch of trousered apes living in a world that, although made by us, was not made for us. The good news is that the lock to this prison is on the inside and here we will learn how to pick it.
Before we start with that, one important warning: understand that this will be a difficult process. Change is not easy. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Per aspera ad astra. But if there is any aspect of your life that you wish to improve and you are prepared to take on that challenge, then we invite you to come along with us and take the first step.
 I.e. The moment when we became a separate species. In other words, every Homo Sapiens born after that day has been anatomically the same as every other member of the species, including the 7+ billion of us living on the planet today.
 There’s a story I love that illustrates the importance of understanding a problem before you can solve it. A businessman was driving through Nowhereville when his car broke down. Luckily, there was a garage in town, so he asked the mechanic to check it. The guy looked around the engine for a few minutes and said “It’s just a loose screw, I can have you back on the road in 10 minutes. It’ll be $100.” The businessman was shocked by that “One hundred dollars for tightening a screw?! That’s daylight robbery! How can you possibly justify that?!” To which the mechanic calmly replied “Oh it’s only $10 for doing the screw, but $90 for knowing which screw to tighten”.
(Don’t you just love stories about arrogant businessmen getting screwed [see what I did there?] by simple folk?)
 That is, if you respect a linear Time axis. Otherwise, you can make some pretty fascinating videos, like these:
- History of the entire world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuCn8ux2gbs
- The history of the world. Every Year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6Wu0Q7x5D0
- The history of our world in 18 minutes: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history
- History of the Universe in 13,799 dominoes: https://youtu.be/ObngtuPFI8A
 I know this for a fact because, when I was living in halls of residence in university, we once received some visiting students from a certain third-world country who had never seen shower plates or toilets before, back home they just had a hose and a hole, and so one day we walked into the shared bathrooms and, well, you get the picture…