There was a fascinating paragraph in Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind about how humans went on to rule the world. Humans evolved from apes and chimpanzees and they were never the fastest, biggest, or most aggressive of all of the animals in the jungle. Lions are bigger and more aggressive, bears are bigger, and cheetahs are much faster. For tens of thousands of years, humans became exceptionally well at cracking the bones of animals and eating the marrow because this is where they fell on the food chain. They weren't at the top, but somewhere in the middle. After all of the animals higher up in the food chain, like the lion, got the good meat to eat, humans got what they could to survive.
But what was it that caused human beings to rise so fast to the top of the animal kingdom, a position that they still hold today? It boils down to two abilities. There ability to cooperate flexibly and to cooperate in large numbers. No other animal can cooperate flexibly and in large numbers at the same time.
But there's more to this. Why can a human being cooperate efficiently in large numbers and flexibly, but no other animal can? I recently found a great TED talk by Yuval Noah Harai called Bananas in Heaven where he focuses on this idea and goes into detail on what actually allowed humans to have the ability to cooperate like this despite no other animal being able to do so.
Read the transcript that I created below with some slight editing to make it easier to read or watch the TED Talk video at the bottom of this post to find out why. I'll give you a hint, it lies in our imagination.
"Seventy thousand years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing you need to know about our prehistoric ancestors is that they were unimportant animals. Their impact on the world was not greater than that of fireflies of jellyfish or woodpeckers. Today, on the other hand, we control this planet and what I would like to talk about today is how exactly did we reach from there to here. How did we turn ourselves from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa into the rulers of Planet Earth?
Now usually when we try to answer this question, we look for the answer on the individual level. I want to believe that there is something special about me. I want to believe that there is something special about my body, about my brain that makes me such a superior creature to a dog or a pig or a chimpanzee, but the fact is that on the individual level, I am embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee.
If you put me and a chimpanzee together on an island and we had to struggle for survival, I would definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee. I wouldn’t place my bet on myself, but it is not something wrong with me personally. I guess it's true of you also that if they took any one of you in the audience, almost anyone of you, and placed yourself on a long island with a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee will do better.
The real advantage of humans is in their unique ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. Humans are the only animals that can do that. There are some other animals like the social insects. The bees and the ants can cooperate also in quite large numbers but they do so in a very rigid way. They're inflexible in the way that they cooperate. If there is a new opportunity or a new danger, the beehive cannot change overnight. It’s a social system. The way that they cooperate, for example: execute the Queen and create a republic of bees, they can't do it because they're rigid in the way that they function.
There are other social animals like wolves, dolphins, and chimpanzees which are much more flexible in the way that they cooperate, but they can do so only in very small numbers. This is because cooperation among wolves or among chimpanzees depends on intimate and personal knowledge. If I'm a chimpanzee and you're a chimpanzee and I want to cooperate with you, I need to know who you are. Are you a good chimpanzee or are you an evil chimpanzee? Are you reliable? Are you a cheat? If I don't know you, how can I cooperate with you?
Humans are the only ones that can combine the two abilities together. Cooperate very flexibly in large numbers, and especially with large numbers of strangers. One versus one we may not be superior to chimpanzees, but if you place a thousand humans and a thousand chimps together on an island and they have to struggle, then the humans will definitely win for the simple reason that a thousand chimpanzees cannot cooperate at all. And if you take 100,000 chimpanzees and cram these 100,000 chimpanzees into Yankee Stadium or Wall Street, you will get chaos. Complete chaos! But if you take a hundred thousand humans and cram them together into Wall Street or into Yankee Stadium, you get amazingly sophisticated networks of cooperation that are the real basis for human domination on planet earth.
Take even this talk that I'm now giving in front of you. I don't know most of you. There are about 200 people now in the auditorium. I know maybe two or three of them really well. All the others are basically strangers to me. I don't really know the people who organized this event. Yes, I've met them once or twice for rehearsal and so forth, but I can't say I really know them intimately. I certainly don't know the people who invented this microphone and this computer and this camera which we are using. I don't know the people behind the cameras which are now taking footage of what I say and I don't know the people who might be watching this talk over the internet somewhere. They may be watching it in New Guinea or New Delhi or Buenos Aires or New York. Yet all of us strangers cooperate together in a very flexible and sophisticated way to create this global exchange of knowledge.
This is something that chimps don't do. You will never catch a chimpanzee standing in front of an audience of 200 other chimps and giving a talk about bananas or about humans or something. Only humans do such things. It should also be said however, that chimps not only don't give talks to strangers, they also don't have prisons. They don't have concentration camps. They don't have slaughterhouses. They don't have arms factories. Cooperation is not always nice. Often when we think about cooperation we think about Sesame Street and in teaching children to cooperate together, but all the terrible things that humans have been doing, still are doing, in the world, they too are the outcome of this ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers.
Now suppose I've managed to convince you that the secret of success of our species is this ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The next question that immediately arises in the mind of an acquisitive person is how exactly humans do it? What give us this ability to do something no other animal can do? The answer is our imagination. Humans cooperate flexibly in large numbers because humans can create imagined realities. All other animals use their communication system in order to describe reality.
A chimpanzee can say, “Look there's a lion, run away!” or “Look there's a banana, let's take it!” Humans can use their language not only to describe reality, but also to create new realities. They can use it to create fiction. A human can say, “Look there's a lion or look a banana!” but the human can also say, “Look there is a God above the clouds and if you don't do what I tell you to do, God will punish you!” and if you believe this fictional story then you will do what you are told to do.
And this is the secret behind large-scale human cooperation as long as everybody believes in the same fictional stories. Everybody obeys the same laws and the same rules and the same norms and this is something that only humans can do. You can never convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by telling him, “Look if you do what I tell you to do, you know what will happen, after you die? You'll go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on earth.” No chimpanzee will ever believe such a story. No chimpanzee will ever be willing to do anything for you in exchange for such promises. Only humans can believe such fictions and this is why humans control the world whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Now you may find it possible to accept that in the religious field, cooperation is based on fiction. That a lot of strangers come together to build a cathedral or a synagogue or a mosque or go on crusades together because they all believe the same stories about God and heaven and hell and so forth, but what I want to emphasize is that exactly the same thing happens in all other fields of human cooperation. In the legal field, the political field, and the economic field as well.
Take the legal field as an example today. In the world, most legal systems are based on this idea: a belief in human rights. But human rights, and just like heaven and like God, it's just a fictional story that we've invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story, it may be a very attractive story. We want to believe it, but it's just a story. It's not a reality, it is not a biological reality, just as jellyfish and woodpeckers and ostriches have no rights, Homo Sapiens have no rights also. Take a Human, cut him open, look inside, you find their blood, and you find the heart, and lungs and kidneys, but you don't find any rights there. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around.
And the same thing is also true in the political field. States and nations are also like human rights, and like God, and like heaven. They too are just stories. A mountain is a reality. You can see it, you can touch it, can even smell it, but Israel or the United States are just stories. Just very powerful stories. Stories we might want to believe very much, but still they are just stories. You can't really see the United States, you cannot touch it. You cannot smell it either but the most successful story of all probably is the story of money which is one of the main foundations of our economic system.
What is money? 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!
And as long as everybody believes it, it works. It really works! It enables us to construct extremely sophisticated networks of economic cooperation which as I said, gave us and not the chimpanzees domination over the world. And money is really the most successful story out of all because it's the only story everybody believes.
Everybody doesn’t believe in God. Everybody doesn’t believe in human rights. Everybody doesn’t believe in the United States. But everybody believes in money, and everybody believes in the dollar bill. Even Osama bin Laden believes in the dollar bill! He hated American politics, he hated American religion, he hated American Culture, but he had nothing against American dollars. He was quite fond of American dollars. This is the most successful story ever told.
To conclude, humans control the world and no other animal because humans live in a different type of reality than all other animals. They live in an objective reality just like animals. This reality consists of objective entities like rivers, mountains, trees, lions and elephants. But we humans also live in an objective reality in our reality. There are rivers, trees, lions, and elephants but on top of this objective reality, we humans have constructed a second layer of fictional reality. A reality consisting of stories, of fictional entities that exist only in our imagination. Entities like states, like money, like human rights, like gods, and the amazing thing is that as history went along, the fictional reality became more and more powerful until today. The most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. The very survival of rivers and trees and lions and chimpanzees today depends on the wishes and decisions of fictional entities like the United States, or like Google, or like the World Bank, entities that in fact exist only in our common imagination.