.... but humans can take heart, because despite it all, we are still here!
A long, long time ago, as the sun rose across the great river valleys and plains of Ethiopia, a young ape was lounging in a tree.
We can’t know what she was thinking or doing that day. Probably she was pondering finding something to eat, or finding a mate, or perhaps checking out the next tree over to see if it was a better tree. She certainly didn’t know that the events of that day would make her the most famous member of her species ever—even if you could somehow tell her, the concept of fame wouldn’t make any sense to her. She also didn’t know that she was in Ethiopia, because this was millions of years before anybody had the bright idea of drawing lines on a map and giving the shapes names that we could have wars about.
She and her kin were slightly different to the other apes that lived at the same time: there was something unusual about their hips and legs that let them move in a novel way. These apes were beginning their descent from the trees, and starting to walk upright across the savannahs: the initial change that, in time, would lead to you and me and every other person on this planet. The ape didn’t know it, but she was living near the beginning of one of the most remarkable stories ever. This was the dawn of the great human journey.
Then she fell out of the tree and died.
Roughly 3.2 million years later, a different group of apes—some of them now in possession of PhDs—would dig up her fossilised bones. Because this was the 1960s, and they were listening to a popular song by a group of extremely high Liverpudlians at the time, they decided to call her Lucy. She was a brand-new species—what we now call an Australopithecus afarensis—and she was hailed as the ‘missing link’ between humans and apes. Lucy’s discovery would captivate the world: she became a household name, her skeleton would be taken on a multi-year tour of the USA, and she’s now the star attraction in the National Museum in Addis Ababa.
And yet the only reason we know about her is because, bluntly, she fucked up. Which in retrospect set a pretty clear template for how things were going to play out from that point onwards.
This is a book about humans, and our remarkable capacity for fucking things up. About why for every accomplishment that makes you proud to be human (art, science, pubs) there’s always something else that makes you shake your head in bafflement and despair (war, pollution, pubs in airports).
It’s quite likely that—regardless of your personal opinions or political persuasion—at some point in recent times you’ve looked around at the state of the world and thought to yourself: oh shit, what have we done?
This book is here to provide a tiny, hollow grain of comfort: don’t worry, we’ve always been like this. And hey, we’re still here!
(Granted, at the time of writing this, we’re a few weeks away from a nuclear summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, which may or may not actually happen, and may or may not go well. Unfortunately, the final deadline for the text comes before we find out if we’re all going to die. I’m going to work on the assumption that if you are in fact reading this book, then we made it to late July at the very least.)
There are lots of books about humanity’s finest achievements; the great leaders, the genius inventors, the indomitable human spirit. There are also lots of books about mistakes we’ve made: both individual screw-ups and society-wide errors. But there aren’t quite so many about how we manage to get things profoundly, catastrophically wrong over and over again.
In one of those ironies that the universe seems to really enjoy, the reasons we cock it up on such a vast scale are often the exact same things that set us apart from our fellow animals and allow us to achieve greatness. Humans see patterns in the world, we can communicate this to other humans, and we have the capacity to imagine futures that don’t yet exist: how if we just changed this thing, then that thing would happen, and the world would be a slightly better place.
The only trouble is … well, we’re not terribly good at any of those things. Any honest assessment of humanity’s previous performance on those fronts reads like a particularly brutal annual review from a boss who hates you. We imagine patterns where they don’t exist. Our communication skills are, uh, sometimes lacking. And we have an extraordinarily poor track record of failing to realise that changing this thing will also lead to the other thing, and that even worse thing, and oh God no now this thing is happening how do we stop it.
No matter how high humanity rises, no matter how many challenges we conquer, catastrophe is always lurking just around the corner. To pick a historical example: one moment you are Sigurd the Mighty (a ninth-century Norse Earl of Orkney), riding home in triumph from battle with the head of your slain enemy, Máel Brigte the Bucktooth, dangling from your saddle.
The next moment, you are … well, you’re Sigurd the Mighty a couple of days later, dying from an infection caused when the protruding buck tooth of Máel Brigte the Bucktooth’s disembodied head grazed your leg while you were riding home in triumph.
That’s right: Sigurd the Mighty holds the dubious distinction in military history of being killed by an enemy he’d already decapitated several hours earlier. Which teaches us important lessons about (a) hubris, and (b) the importance of choosing enemies who have high-quality dental care. It’s hubris and its subsequent downfalls that will be the major focus of this book. Fans of historical dentistry standards, by contrast, may be sadly disappointed.
Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips