Sapiens: The Cognitive Revolution

In the last summary, we explored how our cognitive abilities gave us some advantages in adapting and surviving in the savannah scene. This, however, begs the question of how it was that we proceeded from there to being the dominant creature on the planet. The core idea, which happens to be a running theme throughout human history, is of collective myths.

This is an idea, as far as I can tell, that was branded in Sapiens and pretty much serves as its main contributing thesis. That is, Yuval Noah Harari’s arguments almost all boil down to some variant of “humanity’s progress through such and such a revolution was the result of some idea being propagated in the collective consciousness, which was enabled by our ability to manipulate and trust collective myths.”

Take a step back, it seems pretty necessary to explore what these collective myths are, i.e. some examples thereof, and how they emerged, i.e. what is it that made them useful to the extent that it survived in the evolution of humanity. Collective myths are ideas that hold truth if they are believed by a sufficiently large group of people. Note: This is the definition in my wording. Breaking this down further, a collective myth relies on the individual believing it, for if that is not true, having a group of people believe it is practically impossible. It, however, additionally gains some sense of truth if there are enough people who believe and trust it. This notion may seem abstract for now, but they will become more clear as we delve into examples. Harari argues that collective myths basically entail everything we know and believe to be fundamentally true or real in the world. The clearest example is of money, but some other ideas are laws and class hierarchy.

There are two ideas that are related but different from collective myths. The first is natural truths. These are facts of the natural world that exist regardless of our acceptance or belief in them. Such examples are typically what are associated with the study of natural sciences and math. Gravity, for example, will not cease to run its course if all of humanity somehow simultaneously denied its existence — it existed far before, and will continue to exist far beyond, humanity’s existence. In contrast, if people were all convinced simultaneously that money has no inherent value and that everyone else thought similarly, the concept of money being traded in markets would completely dissolve.

In the opposite light, there is the notion of falsehoods and lies. This is simply when a notion is advocated despite the sayer knowing or believing the opposite. A lie is always associated to an objective truth, i.e. some fact as we referred to it above. An example is, “There is a lion on the east side of the bank,” when in fact no such lion exists.

The main distinguishing factor is that humans are able to communicate and believe these collective myths that transcend the realm of truths. This is possible due to the arbitrary complexity of ideas that can be communicated in our languages, i.e. communicating an infinite number of ideas with a finite set of phenomes. While many animals possess ways of communicating with one another, they are all related to concrete facts. After all, discussion of the meaning of life or benefits of stoicism seems to have little in the way of providing a competitive advantage in survival.

This, however, is in fact what gave humans the competitive advantage. By being able to communicate abstract thoughts and notions, people were able to collect into larger groups than any group in the animal kingdom. Groups of animals, unless governed by the same patterns of nature, will likely never take a cumulative action beyond a small nuclear family. Humans, in contrast, are able to organize into massive groups that remain together simply in belief of a common myth, such as the belief that all people should have economic freedom or the belief that The United States is an entity.

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