Human beings were an insignificant animal for the majority of time. But today they are the ruler of planet Earth, which begs the question, “How did this happen?” How could an animal that was once so insignificant in the food chain that it would have to wait for the bigger and stronger animals to kill their prey and hopefully leave something left for us humans to munch on rule planet Earth? The answer to this question lies in our ability to cooperate flexibly in such large numbers, but this begs another question. Why are we able to cooperate flexibly — by flexibly, I mean willing to change — in large numbers? The answer is because of our imagination.
All humans form a group because it is easier to accomplish something in a group. The problem is that once a particular group reaches a certain threshold of members, that group then begins to socially break down or eventually become dysfunctional. You can begin to understand why this is so if you think about a group you had for a school project or a work assignment. The more people that are added to the group the harder it becomes to communicate with everyone, the harder the group becomes to manage, and the harder it is to meet up and get together with everyone’s busy schedule.
According to Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist from University of Oxford, the limit on the amount of people that one can hold a stable relationship with is 150. This became known as Dunbar’s number. Having a stable relationship with members of a group was much more important a 100,000 years ago because of survival purposes. And for a really long time in human history, especially during our hunter/gatherer days, it is reasonably assumed that when a group of humans exceeded this number of 150, smaller groups within the group started to emerge which caused social dysfunction. It would become very difficult for members of a really large group to all agree on the same things such as: who is going to be the leader, who can hunt where and when, and who gets to mate with who.
Groups of human beings over 150 were very rare once upon a time, but they are very common today. Take a second to think of some groups with people over 150 that exist today. Some that come to my mind are fans of a certain sports team or band, followers of a religion, members of a political party, employees of a company, and members of a state like New York, where I live. So, what happened? How did human beings all of a sudden become able to form such large groups and make it work without causing social dysfunction*? The answer lies in our imagination, and no other animal has this ability to imagine the way a human does. Zoologists have studied chimpanzees and observed that groups consist on average of 20 to 50 and once they get too big the chimpanzees always compete for territory and food.
An animal, such as a chimpanzee, can see an objective reality like a river, mountain, tree, water, or grass. They can observe and communicate with other chimpanzees and point these objective realities out but they don’t have a fictional reality. For example, a chimpanzee can observe a banana and communicate this with a fellow chimpanzee. A chimpanzee can also observe a predator such as a lion and communicate to a fellow chimpanzee to stay away.
A human can do these same things, but a human can also create stories. A human can say to other humans that there is a God above the clouds and if you don’t do what I say then the God above those clouds will punish you. And humans will believe this. But a monkey cannot be convinced that there is a monkey God and a monkey heaven, and that monkey God will not let you into monkey heaven where an infinite number of bananas lie if you don’t follow a certain set of rules. Chimpanzees are just not able to do this because their brains didn’t evolve to develop these abilities unlike their closest cousin today, homo sapiens, and that is a main reason why homo sapiens rule Planet Earth.
How were humans able to create this fictional reality? During the cognitive revolution is where this ability is most likely to have evolved as the human brain went through numerous changes in the way it was wired which allowed it to develop better ways to communicate and think.
Now think about how important fictional stories is to cooperation and organization, especially when groups approach large numbers like 500 or even 5,000. Some of those most fundamental rules or laws of humanity that we follow have developed from the human imagination. The Declaration of Independence, the 10 Commandments, the Code of Hammurabi, the Bill of Rights, and the Magna Carta are some that come to mind. There are also all of the legal documents that lie in an attorney’s office, a company’s code of ethics, and even money which is probably the most powerful form of human imagination in the world today. And all of these have been so vital in helping us cooperate better. It allowed humans to evolve from small groups of less than 150 to empires like Rome to the countries we live in today.
Let’s think about a very important idea of the human imagination right now. That idea is money. Trillions of dollars are transacted annually and most of these transactions are with people that we don’t even know! People who we don’t even know their name and if you buy something online, through Amazon for example, you won’t even know what they look like. Money is a fictional reality that humans created and it allows humans to cooperate so effectively.
And think about this too. What really gives money its value? I mean after all, all it really is is just a piece of paper. The US dollar is one of the most coveted forms of money there is in the world today. Every time there is a major financial crash almost all investor seeks safety and flock to the dollar bill (mostly by buying US treasury bills).
Here is an interesting part of a TED talk from Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind, and the source for the majority of my ideas in this article:
“You take this green piece of paper: the dollar bill. You can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, and you can’t wear it. It has no value, but then come along these master story tellers. The great bankers, the financial ministers, the Prime Minister, the Presidents, and they tell a very convincing story. Look you see this green piece of paper? It is actually worth 10 bananas. Then I believe it and you believe it. Everybody believes it!”
Yuval mentions another interesting part about money. Even Osama Bin Laden, who hated everything about America, was still quite fond of the American dollar.
The US dollar is an idea of the human imagination and we all believe in it because the government and the bankers tell us to trust it. Then there are laws, also an idea of the human imagination, that prevent people from counterfeiting money and laws to keep the markets in balance.
Here is another interesting thought. When one forms a corporation or a company, it is also part of the human imagination. Just as a Catholic priest at mass will say some words and turn bread into the body of Christ, a bunch of lawyers will put together a bunch of documents, have them signed, and then file them and a company will be formed. This company will have a bank account, pay taxes, follow certain laws and operate as a separate entity from its owner(s). Once upon a time hundreds of years ago if you started a company by taking on debt but failed to repay that debt, you became a slave to your creditors. Once a company is magically formed by filing out and filing some paperwork though, you can legally, if set up properly, not pay all of your debts by extinguishing them in court. This has done great wonders for innovation and entrepreneurship in the world today and has led to a lot wealth generation.
And this, along with being the rulers of planet Earth, is all due to our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers thanks to our imagination.
*I’m not saying that groups this large are absent of any social dysfunction. Of course, there is always going to be social dysfunction, but it is manageable due to certain reasons like rules and laws — also a part of the human imagination — so that the overall group can function properly.