Yuval Harari is a pretty cool guy.
But he’s most known for this thing:
People are totally obsessed with his book
And in this one famous book is one big main idea about the ONE MAIN THING that makes humans different from other species. And that thing is…
The ability to cooperate flexibly and in large numbers!
If I understand the concept right (more reliably explained in Harari’s TED talk) - early Homo Sapiens were just a regular variety of ape.
Like, if aliens came down from space and made an ‘earth zoo’ a couple thousand years ago, early humans wouldn’t have got their own special section.
But when humans got the super cool brain ability to start imagining things that weren’t real, we started becoming able organising ‘flexibly and in large numbers’. And that’s when humans started to become less insignificant and more crazy-dominating.
So what does ‘flexibly and in large numbers’ actually mean?
Flexible cooperation, if I understand right, means being able to work together effectively with lots of individual freedom to do different stuff depending on the context. Like improv.
Lots of other animals can do this in their own ways, for example lions in a group can make a little plan to hunt together as a group of lion friends. But generally everyone in the group has to kind of know everyone else in the group for this to work, which keeps numbers low. We don’t see groups of 2000 lions coordinating to take down a whole herd of wildebeest (Lion King sequel idea??).
The only animals we know of (besides us) that cooperate in groups bigger than about 150 members have strict, limited rules programmed into their biology to tell them exactly how to cooperate. As individual little creatures they don’t have a lot of personal freedom in choosing how to do stuff together (so not very flexible).
How did humans break this 150-member interaction cap?
Like bees, we also use structures or ‘rules’ that govern our interactions, even interactions between strangers.
But, unlike bees, these rules aren’t programmed into us - we just make them up. We invent them, communicate them and then kind of all agree to act like they’re totally real.
These fictional structures or ‘myths’, as Harari calls them, are basically wonderful mentally-experienced structures that help humans to act together, with a common purpose, even if they don’t know each other.
Human royalty is totally a thing that only exists because we all agree it does. Crowns and things are little physical symbols to demonstrate that we all still agree on this.
Human sports really don’t make a lot of sense at all without their stories.
And the most successful myth, says Harari, is money. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you get to pretend that paper bank notes mean something and you are guaranteed that almost everyone else in the whole world will pretend right along with you.
The reason we can follow rules and still have flexible cooperation between strangers is that we can just make as many myths as we like (imagination yay!), and apply lots of different ones in lots of different contexts.
In fact not only can we believe in an ever-growing number of different myths at the same time, we can even believe in myths that totally oppose each other!
And that special process was the main thing that got us to the point where humans would, maybe, now, get their own special section in an alien exhibit of earth.
Ok bye see you next week!
Harari and his amazing brain and ideas
Will, Alex, Otto and all the other people who told me to read the book
The Aliens for their amazing museum displays