The Interesting Ways Misery Made the Modern World


The role of happiness and prosperity has been well documented in our history. Misery, however, only shows up in the records as an anomaly, even if it’s still quite widespread across the world. While there’s no doubt that there are still many countries living in the most peaceful times of their history, there still seems to be more misery around than should be normal. Despite having progressed enough to develop modern ideas of human rights, democracy and liberty for all, for some reason, deprivation and hardship are still a regular part of life for many people.

The reason for that isn’t that we’re unable to eradicate misery, but that it’s an irreplaceable part of our story. It has shaped up our civilization and evolution in more ways than most other factors in our history, some of which may not be that obvious to most of us. 

7. Viral Infections Helped Us Evolve Faster

The current Covid-19 pandemic may have caught most people off-guard, though that’s only because none of us alive today have seen anything like it before. Our ancestors, however, weren’t so lucky, as plagues and epidemics have always been a regular part of our history, only less frequent nowadays thanks to our modern hygiene practices. The history of viruses is so intertwined with that of ours that according to one study, they are one of the primary drivers of evolution in human cells. 

Whenever a particular group of people gets afflicted with a new type of virus, it either goes extinct (obviously), or evolves in response to that threat. The researchers found that our genes carry signs of numerous such response mutations, proving that viruses drive crucial changes in our cells that help us fight off future strains of the same species. It’s not the same with other harmful microbes, as viruses are special in the way that they target almost every function of the living cell, causing much larger and more permanent changes to the genome that other diseases. 

6. Carrying Rocks Helped Our Arms Evolve For Balance

If you notice the way we walk, you’d see that it’s not straightforward. We don’t actually walk in a straight line – the circular motion generated by our hips and feet propels us forward. If it was a moving machine, it would be a pretty efficient one. In fact, many of our actual machine parts replicate that same motion to move.

To counteract that, our arms have an inbuilt swinging mechanism to not throw us off balance. As some scientists discovered, that motion actually takes heavy load into account. Because of years of hard labor and carrying rocks for survival – which was a big part of our lives until fairly recently in history – our arms have evolved to be a bit shorter than our early ancestors so as to keep some wiggle room in case we have to use our arms to carry something. That’s why we don’t fall off balance if we carry a box or two around the house, which wouldn’t have been possible if our arms were still long enough to precisely counteract the weight of the legs. 

5. The Brutality Of The World Wars Gave Us The Nation State

Most of us assume that the modern ideas of human rights and liberalism are natural products of our times. After all, it’s 2020! However, just one look at the history of any period before the 20th century would tell you that we’re the exception. It’s only now that we take the state’s protection of individual rights as a given. For most of history, people – especially civilians – were merely a part of a territory or an empire, and only a select few individuals in a given kingdom ever enjoyed the same universal protections as anyone living in a modern nation state. So, when did it all change?

In case you didn’t read the title of the entry: yup, we can thank the World Wars for that. By far the two biggest wars in history, both of the ‘Great Wars’ – as they were fondly known at the time – were unparalleled in terms of scale and brutality, as well as their impact on the largely liberal and democratic world of today. 

WW1 was instrumental in establishing the sovereignty of nations, as it saw the end of four of the biggest and most successful empires in history: Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Ottoman. As empires were falling on one hand, newly-independent populations across the world suddenly had territory and identity of their own, as they eventually solidified into all the nations of today.

WW2, on the other hand, did the same, except for people instead of countries. Thanks to the grave abuses of human rights in the second world war by all sides, the aftermath of WW2 was when everyone got together and decided that maybe we shouldn’t let that happen again. It was the Second World War that gave us our modern codes of wartime conduct, the idea of the universality of human rights, as well as the formal establishment of the United Nations, among many others. 

4. The Mongols Made The European Technological Revolution Possible

The technological revolution in Europe gave way to some of the most pivotal moments in history, like the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Powered by new technologies the likes of which we had never seen before, the scientific progress made in Europe at that time made everything we see around us possible. 

Many historians agree that we owe quite a bit of that to China, as many of those technologies – such as the printing press, gunpowder, steam, etc. – had roots in China. Though it was neither China nor Europe that was responsible for this transfer of ideas. Instead, we can thank the Mongol Empire for that. By uniting all the various kingdoms between China and Europe – including China itself – the Mongols successfully created a two-way link between the East and West, even if briefly. The Silk Route was opened for the first time during Mongol rule in China since the Roman times, as traders could now journey to China via land instead of having to go through a complicated sea route.

3. Why Do We Still Abuse Power?

People in power abusing it to benefit themselves has been an irreplaceable part of almost all human societies in history. It’s a tough situation to be in for the rest of us, as they also happen to be the same people with any real authority to bring about change. It’s almost as if – contrary to common wisdom – power and influence automatically make people more immune to mass suffering, and ultimately less empathetic.

According to studies, that’s absolutely correct. Power does lower a person’s empathy, a fact that has been proven by multiple researchers. One neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada even found that power fundamentally changes the structure of the brain, making us more and more separated from everyday issues. Evolutionarily, that makes sense, as a leader would have had to be a bit cold and unsympathetic to be able to survive in the wild. That feature, however, doesn’t do much in the modern world built on mutual cooperation, leading to all of the excesses of power we see around us today. 

2. Hunger Drove Our Evolution

Common wisdom would suggest that the abundance of a particular food source would have been better for our species, as it stands to reason that as long as we’re not hungry, we can focus on building more complex tools and technologies. In reality, though, it’s the exact opposite of how it works. Scarcity of food has been instrumental in driving us to develop more complex and advanced technologies, and there’s a good chance that we would still have been a primitive hominid species if it wasn’t for depleting food sources. 

Take the homo erectus – the direct ancestors of homo sapiens – as an example. The species existed for nearly a million years without much evolution or technological progress, except that their brains kept getting bigger. They survived on a diet of elephants to sustain the size of their brains, which was rather useless as they never had to use them to their full extent due to the abundance of elephants around the world. 

That lasted until about 400,000 years ago, when the elephants started going extinct. Surprisingly, one recent study suggests that this was also when the first modern humans showed up. As the big, blunt tools of before were useless against new, more agile prey of the time, we had to adapt with even better tools and technologies; a process that has essentially been going on ever since. In short, a severe, existential scarcity of food that completely wiped out another branch of hominids was the driving force behind our evolution.

1. Violence Is So Prevalent Because It’s Beneficial

Even if many parts of the world now live in more peaceful conditions than they ever did in human history, violence is still an undeniable part of life on Earth. Many regions around the world – especially in the global south – are still going through some type of violence, whether it’s war, petty crime, honor killings, political assassinations, and so on. For a species as morally and socially advanced as ours, it stands out as a sore anomaly, as well as begs the question: are we just hardwired to be a violent species? Is it just anatomically impossible to come together and collectively get rid of something that’s so detrimental to our progress?

Simple answer, no it’s not; violence is just too evolutionarily profitable to get rid of. While it’s true that violence can be genetic, that’s only an effect rather than the cause. Evolutionarily, we’re designed to be aggressive towards others to survive in a world of limited resources, and it always works well. Our understanding of ancient weapons and fighting techniques developed our tool-making skills in other areas. Even today, some of our most ingenious inventions come from times of war and conflict, which may just be one of the reasons war still exists, too.

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