From the very first spear to nuclear bombs, deadly weapons have directed the course of our cultural evolution
IT’S about 2 metres long, made of tough spruce wood and carved into a sharp point at one end. The widest part, and hence its centre of gravity, is in the front third, suggesting it was thrown like a javelin. At 400,000 years old, this is the world’s oldest spear. And, according to a provocative theory, on its carved length rests nothing less than the foundation of human civilisation as we know it, including democracy, class divisions and the modern nation state.
At the heart of this theory is a simple idea: the invention of weapons that could kill at a distance meant that power became uncoupled from physical strength. Even the puniest subordinate could now kill an alpha male, with the right weapon and a reasonable aim. Those who wanted power were forced to obtain it by other means – persuasion, cunning, charm – and so began the drive for the cognitive attributes that make us human. “In short, 400,000 years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to Homo sapiens,” says Herbert Gintis, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who studies the evolution of social complexity and cooperation.
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For several years now, systemic racism has been among the most frequently mentioned concepts in American discourse. The term and its equivalents — including “structural” and “institutional” racism — appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post roughly 10 times more often in 2019 than they did in 2013, and have greatly proliferated since then. The topic is now the subject of countless college courses, classroom discussions, books, articles, media programming, political speeches, and formal and informal conversations. It is safe to say that today, systemic racism has acquired the status of a cultural meme.
Beginning a few decades ago, world politics started to experience a dramatic transformation. From the early 1970s to the first decade of this century, the number of electoral democracies increased from about 35 to more than 110. Over the same period, the world’s output of goods and services quadrupled, and growth extended to virtually every region of the world. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty plummeted, dropping from 42 percent of the global population in 1993 to 18 percent in 2008.
In 2015, Amazon.com Inc. began quietly evaluating a startup called Elemental Technologies, a potential acquisition to help with a major expansion of its streaming video service, known today as Amazon Prime Video. Based in Portland, Ore., Elemental made software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices. Its technology had helped stream the Olympic Games online, communicate with the International Space Station, and funnel drone footage to the Central Intelligence Agency. Elemental’s national security contracts weren’t the main reason for the proposed acquisition, but they fit nicely with Amazon’s government businesses, such as the highly secure cloud that Amazon Web Services (AWS) was building for the CIA.
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