Why did Homo sapiens diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom and go on to dominate the earth? Communication? Cooperation? According to best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, that barely scratches the surface.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along but rarely. It’s broad, but scientific. It’s written for a popular audience, but never feels dumbed down. It’s new and fresh, but not based on any new primary research. Sapiens is pure synthesis.
Readers will easily recognize the influence of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other similarly broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted Diamond’s contributions to his thinking. Harari says:
It [Guns, Germs, and Steel] made me realize that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.
Harari sought to understand the history of humankind’s domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. He applies ideas from evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics, and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: humankind’s success was due to our ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.
To make the narrative more palatable and sensible, we must take a different perspective. Calling us humans keeps us too close to the story to have an accurate view. We’re not as unique as we would like to believe. In fact, we’re just another animal. We are Homo sapiens. Because of this, our history can be described just like that of any other species. Harari labels us like any other species, calling us “Sapiens” so we can depersonalize things and allow the author the room he needs to make some bold statements about the history of humanity. Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens.
Sapiens existed long before there was recorded history. Biological history is a much longer stretch, beginning millions of years before the evolution of any forbears we can identify. When our earliest known ancestors formed, they were not at the top of the food chain. Rather, they were engaged in an epic battle of trench warfare with the other organisms that shared their habitat.
“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.
For the same reason that our kids can’t imagine a world without Google, Amazon and iPhones, we can’t imagine a world in which have not been a privileged species right from the start. Yet we were just one species of smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, and others, both our progenitors and our contemporaries, all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.
Eventually, things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we don’t know quite why) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make. We began to cooperate flexibly, in large groups, with an extremely complex and versatile language. If there is a secret to our success—and remember, success in nature is survival—It was that our brains developed to communicate.
Welcome to the Cognitive Revolution
Our newfound capacity for language allowed us to develop abilities that couldn’t be found among our cousins, or in any other species from ants to whales.
First, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. We weren’t talking mental models or even gravity. At first, we were probably talking about things for survival. Food. Water. Shelter. It’s possible to imagine making a statement something like this: “I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don’t we ask for help from a neighboring tribe, so we don’t all end up as lion meat?”
Second, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. Before religion, gossip created a social, even environmental pressure to conform to certain norms. Gossip allowed control of the individual for the aid of the group. It wouldn’t take much effort to imagine someone saying, “I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don’t think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter.”
Harari’s insight is that while the abilities to communicate about necessities and to pressure people to conform to social norms were certainly pluses, they were not the great leap. Surprisingly, it’s not our shared language or even our ability to dominate other species that defines us but rather, our shared fictions. The exponential leap happened because we could talk about things that were not real. Harari writes:
As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
Predictably, Harari mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But just as important are fictions like the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human rights, inalienable from birth; and even money itself.
Shared beliefs allow us to do the thing that other species cannot. Because we believe, we can cooperate effectively in large groups toward larger aims. Sure, other animals cooperate. Ants and bees work in large groups with close relatives but in a very rigid manner. Changes in the environment, as we are seeing today, put the rigidity under strain. Apes and wolves cooperate as well, and with more flexibility than ants. But they can’t scale.
If wild animals could have organized in large numbers, you might not be reading this. Our success is intimately linked to scale. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way. As Harari puts it in the quotation at the beginning of this post, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Sapiens diverged when they—or I should say we—hit on the ability of a collective myth to advance us beyond what we could do individually. As long as we shared some beliefs we could work toward something larger than ourselves—itself a shared fiction. With this in mind, there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group.
With that, it becomes easier to understand why we see different results from communication in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobo culture: a shared trust in something outside of ourselves, something larger. And the result can be extreme, lollapalooza even, when a lot of key things converge in one direction, from a combination of critical elements.
Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.
Not only do we believe them individually, but we believe them collectively.
Shared fictions aren’t necessarily lies. Shared fictions can create literal truths. For example, if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. Yet just as you can’t get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can’t get him to accept three apples today with the idea that if he invests them wisely in a chimp business, he’ll get six bananas from it in five years—no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much an imagined reality as religion.
Once you start to see the world as a collection of shared fictions, it never looks the same again.
This leads to the extremely interesting conclusion that comprises the bulk of Harari’s great work: If we collectively decide to alter the myths, we can relatively quickly and dramatically alter behavior.
For instance, we can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide women should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. We can also decide all Sapiens must follow the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.
There is no parallel in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment, or to broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will likely never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and suddenly abolish the idea of an alpha male lion. Their hierarchies are rigid, primal even.
But humans can collectively change the narrative over a short span of time, and begin acting very differently with the same DNA and the same set of physical circumstances. If we all believe in Bitcoin, it becomes real for the same reason that gold becomes real.
Thus, we can conclude that Harari’s Cognitive Revolution is what happens when we decide that, while biology dictates what’s physically possible, we as a species decide norms. This is where biology enables and culture forbids. “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology,” Harari writes. These ever-shifting alliances, beliefs, myths—ultimately, cultures—define what we call human history.
A thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to who we are today.
 It was only when Sapiens acquired weapons, fire, and most importantly a way to communicate so as to share and build knowledge, that we had the asymmetric weaponry necessary to step out of the trenches and dominate, at least for now, the organisms we co-exist with.
 It’s unknown what role ego played, but we can assume people were not asking, “Oh, does this headdress make me look fat?”
 Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Charlie Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants’ rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants starts walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.