Humans: The only storytellers

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About a month ago I got a chance to read a very interesting book called Sapiens. It was written by a historian and it was one of the most thought provoking books I have had a chance to read. I rarely read non-fiction but history interests me somewhat. This book was more of a mashup between human history and psychology. It’s goal in a way was to write an unbiased history of the Homo genus, more specifically the Homo sapiens species. That, btw, is modern human beings

What really caught my attention was a very obscure fact. The brain matter of another human species, Neanderthals, was bigger than homo sapiens. Yet that specie died out and never developed civilization and sophisticated tools etc. For all of my life, I had assumed that humans are special because we have more brain matter. However I was clearly wrong.

The other interesting that I always thought of history or evolution was that it was a gradually improving process. We must have slowly become intelligent, and more intelligent, and slowly grew into massive civilizations. However humans (sapiens) had been around for more than 150,000-200,000 years. Yet until 70,000 years ago we were similar to other animals like apes and chimps. There was no difference in our intelligence, if you will. And then it suddenly exploded.

Scientists often call this change, cognitive revolution. We do not really understand what exactly happened 70K years ago. But some change in our brain wiring suddenly allowed homo sapiens to think in new ways which kickstarted our ability to do new things and interact with our surroundings in new ways. It was what we would call the building block of our intelligence.

As part of this change, something very interesting happened, we were now able to imagine new ideas and worlds in our head. We could create imagined worlds and communicate it to other members using stories. This ability to tell stories is what makes us who we are. By telling these stories, humans could share these imagined worlds. More and more homo sapiens could be brought together due to their belief in these imagined worlds.

No other animal on the planet can co-operate in such large numbers. Most chimpanzees can co-ordinate in groups of 100-125 members but no more. They need to know each member personally for them to trust these members. This is not feasible in large groups. However due to our ability to tell stories and convince unknown people in common imagined worlds, we allowed ourselves to trust people without knowing them personally and hence co-operate in larger numbers.

But what allowed large number of people to trust so many other people without knowing them personally? The stories. What stories? Well religion and money are the 2 most common ones. Let’s talk about money since religion can be a touchy subject. Where does money exist? Do any animals understand the $ or pound or euro? Nope.

Money allowed us to trade across the planet. But the whole existence of money is in an imaginary but shared belief of its value. People all over the world believe that 1 US dollar represents value. There is no (or minimal) physical value of the note (or the bits of data representing your bank balance electronically) or the small coin. However all over the world we share the belief of an imaginary world where the US dollar has intrinsic value. If we were to remove all US dollars in the world, or all the money from the world, the world can still go on. No physical laws would be violated. However we all now believe in the value of money. This allowed us to trade and represent value of products and hence allowed humans to co-operate across the 7 billion people on this planet.

Religion is a very similar thing. If we were to remove all religion, no physical laws are violated and world still goes on. However due to common imagined beliefs, a Christian guy from USA would be able to share some bond and trust with a Christian woman from Zanzibar.

The ability to tell stories of imagined worlds, and believe in them allowed us to trust more people than we can know personally and formed the basis of our global civilization. This is what allowed us to form nations and cults and professions.

However I now wonder if this idea of shared imaginary worlds would now be taken to more extremes where we stop believing completely in people who do not share common stories and beliefs. The same idea that allowed us to co-operate at such large numbers now threaten to break down this co-operation and take us back to animal like behavior of only trusting people whom we know personally and share common beliefs with.

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