‘Wise Man’, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – Dr Yuval Noah Harari.

Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

From about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together. Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. As we will see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

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.

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one.

Us, Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, consumerism and the pursuit of happiness? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our beliefs, our actions, our power and our future.

About the Author

“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.”

Dr Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in History from the University of Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in World History. His research focuses on broad questions, such as:

What is the relation between history and biology? Is there justice in history? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

65,000 people have signed up to Harari’s online course, A Brief History of Humankind. Sapiens is an international bestseller and is published in more than 20 languages worldwide. In 2012 Harari was awarded the annual Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanistic Disciplines.

PART ONE

The Cognitive Revolution

1. An Animal of No Significance

ABOUT 13.5 BILLION YEARS ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8 billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different.

This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats.

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. 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 that 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.

Biologists classify organisms into species. Animals are said to belong to the same species if they tend to mate with each other, giving birth to fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys have a recent common ancestor and share many physical traits. But they show little sexual interest in one another. They will mate if induced to do so but their offspring, called mules, are sterile. Mutations in donkey DNA can therefore never cross over to horses, or vice versa. The two types of animals are consequently considered two distinct species, moving along separate evolutionary paths. By contrast, a bulldog and a spaniel may look very different, but they are members of the same species, sharing the same DNA pool. They will happily mate and their puppies will grow up to pair off with other dogs and produce more puppies.

Species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading ‘genus’ (plural genera). Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera. Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species. Lions, for example, are called Panthera Leo, the species leo of the genus Panthera. Presumably, everyone reading this book is a Homo sapiens the species sapiens (wise) of the genus Homo (man).

Genera in their turn are grouped into families, such as the cats (lions, Cheetahs, house cats), the dogs (wolves, foxes, jackals) and the elephants (elephants, mammoths, mastodons). All members of a family trace their lineage back to a founding matriarch or patriarch. All cats, for example, from the smallest house kitten to the most ferocious lion, share a common feline ancestor who lived about 25 million years ago.

Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and, most importantly, without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

Skeletons in the Closet

Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens. Moreover, as we shall see in the last chapter of the book, in the not-so-distant future we might again have to contend with non-sapiens humans. To clarify this point, I will often use the term ‘Sapiens’ to denote members of the species Homo sapiens, while reserving the term ‘human’ to refer to all extant members of the genus Homo.

Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia. Since survival in the snowy forests of northern Europe required different traits than those needed to stay alive in Indonesia’s steaming jungles, human populations evolved in different directions. The result was several distinct species, to each of which scientists have assigned a pompous Latin name.

Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley’), popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. This record is unlikely to be broken even by our own species. It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now, so 2 million years is really out of our league.

On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island the small island of Flores archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland. When the seas rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources. Big people, who need a lot of food, died first. Smaller fellows survived much better. Over the generations, the people of Flores became dwarves. This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only one metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. They were nevertheless able to produce stone tools, and even managed occasionally to hunt down some of the island’s elephants though, to be fair, the elephants were a dwarf species as well.

In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientists excavating the Denisova Cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. Who knows how many lost relatives of ours are waiting to be discovered in other caves, on other islands, and in other climes?

While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new Species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.

The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on a single island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.

It’s a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Ergaster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth, and that all earlier species were merely older models of ourselves.

The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

The Cost of Thinking

Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing sixty kilograms have an average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres. The earliest men and women, 2.5 million years ago, had brains of about 600 cubic centimetres. Modern Sapiens sport a brain averaging 1,200-1,400 cubic centimetres. Neanderthal brains were even bigger.

That evolution should select for larger brains may seem to us like, well, a no-brainer. We are so enamoured of our high intelligence that we assume that when it comes to cerebral power, more must be better. But if that were the case, the feline family would also have produced cats who could do calculus, and frogs would by now have launched their own space programme. Why are giant brains so rare in the animal kingdom?

The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2-3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy.

Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. Like a government diverting money from defence to education, humans diverted energy from biceps to neurons. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion that this is a good strategy for survival on the savannah. A chimpanzee can’t win an argument with a Homo sapiens, but the ape can rip the man apart like a rag doll.

Today our big brains pay off nicely, because we can produce cars and guns that enable us to move much faster than chimps, and shoot them from a safe distance instead of wrestling. But cars and guns are a recent phenomenon. For more than 2 million years, human neural networks kept growing and growing, but apart from some flint knives and pointed sticks, humans had precious little to show for it.

What then drove forward the evolution of the massive human brain during those 2 million years? Frankly, we don’t know.

Another singular human trait is that we walk upright on two legs. Standing up, it’s easier to scan the savannah for game or enemies, and arms that are unnecessary for locomotion are freed for other purposes, like throwing stones or signalling. The more things these hands could do, the more successful their owners were, so evolutionary pressure brought about an increasing concentration of nerves and finely tuned muscles in the palms and fingers. As a result, humans can perform very intricate tasks with their hands. In particular, they can produce and use sophisticated tools. The first evidence for tool production dates from about 2.5 million years ago, and the manufacture and use of tools are the criteria by which archaeologists recognise ancient humans.

Yet walking upright has its downside. The skeleton of our primate ancestors developed for millions of years to support a creature that walked on all fours and had a relatively small head. Adjusting to an upright position was quite a challenge, especially when the scaffolding had to support an extra-large cranium. Humankind paid for its lofty vision and industrious hands with backaches and stiff necks.

Women paid extra. An upright gait required narrower hips, constricting the birth canal and this just when babies’ heads were getting bigger and bigger. Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still underdeveloped. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.

This fact has contributed greatly both to humankind’s extraordinary social abilities and to its unique social problems. Lone mothers could hardly forage enough food for their offspring and themselves with needy children in tow. Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours.

It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties.

In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln, any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace-loving.

We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. It seems selfevident that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures. Thus humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.

One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones. Why marrow? Well, suppose you observe a pride of lions take down and devour a giraffe. You wait patiently until they’re done. But it’s still not your turn because first the hyenas and jackals and you don’t dare interfere with them scavenge the leftovers. Only then would you and your band dare approach the carcass, look cautiously left and right and dig into the edible tissue that remained.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years with the rise of Homo sapiens that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more badtempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

A Race of Cooks

A significant step on the way to the top was the domestication of fire. Some human species may have made occasional use of fire as early as 800,000 years ago. By about 300,000 years ago, Homo erectus, Neanderthals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens were using fire on a daily basis. Humans now had a dependable source of light and warmth, and a deadly weapon against prowling lions. Not long aftenwards, humans may even have started deliberately to torch their neighbourhoods. A carefully managed fire could turn impassable barren thickets into prime grasslands teeming with game. In addition, once the fire died down, Stone Age entrepreneurs could walk through the smoking remains and harvest charcoaled animals, nuts and tubers.

But the best thing fire did was cook. Foods that humans cannot digest in their natural forms such as wheat, rice and potatoes became staples of our diet thanks to cooking. Fire not only changed food’s chemistry, it changed its biology as well. Cooking killed germs and parasites that infested food. Humans also had a far easier time chewing and digesting old favourites such as fruits, nuts, insects and carrion if they were cooked. Whereas chimpanzees spend five hours a day chewing raw food, a single hour suffices for people eating cooked food.

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the human intestinal tract, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both. By shortening the intestines and decreasing their energy consumption, cooking inadvertently opened the way to the jumbo brains of Neanderthals and Sapiens.

Fire also opened the first significant gulf between man and the other animals. The power of almost all animals depends on their bodies: the strength of their muscles, the size of their teeth, the breadth of their wings. Though they may harness winds and currents, they are unable to control these natural forces, and are always constrained by their physical design. Eagles, for example, identify thermal columns rising from the ground, spread their giant wings and allow the hot air to lift them upwards. Yet eagles cannot control the location of the columns, and their maximum carrying capacity is strictly proportional to their wingspan.

When humans domesticated fire, they gained control of an obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike eagles, humans could choose when and where to ignite a flame, and they were able to exploit fire for any number of tasks. Most importantly, the power of fire was not limited by the form, structure or strength of the human body. A single woman with a flint or fire stick could burn down an entire forest in a matter of hours. The domestication of fire was a sign of things to come.

Our Brothers’ Keepers

Despite the benefits of fire, 150,000 years ago humans were still marginal creatures. They could now scare away lions, warm themselves during cold nights, and burn down the occasional forest. Yet counting all species together, there were still no more than perhaps a million humans living between the Indonesian archipelago and the Iberian peninsula, a mere blip on the ecological radar.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, was already present on the world stage, but so far it was just minding its own business in a corner of Africa. We don’t know exactly where and when animals that can be classified as Homo sapiens first evolved from some earlier type of humans, but most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us. If one of them turned up in a modern morgue, the local pathologist would notice nothing peculiar. Thanks to the blessings of fire, they had smaller teeth and jaws than their ancestors, whereas they had massive brains, equal in size to ours.

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story, one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

If these results are valid, and it’s important to keep in mind that further research is under way and may either reinforce or modify these conclusions, the Interbreeders got at least some things right. But that doesn’t mean that the Replacement Theory is completely wrong. Since Neanderthals and Denisovans contributed only a small amount of DNA to our present-day genome, it is impossible to speak of a ‘merger’ between Sapiens and other human species. Although differences between them were not large enough to completely prevent fertile intercourse, they were sufficient to make such contacts very rare.

How then should we understand the biological relatedness of Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans? Clearly, they were not completely different species like horses and donkeys. On the other hand, they were not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. Biological reality is not black and white. There are also important grey areas. Every two species that evolved from a common ancestor, such as horses and donkeys, were at one time just two populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels. There must have been a point when the two populations were already quite different from one another, but still capable on rare occasions of having sex and producing fertile offspring. Then another mutation severed this last connecting thread, and they went their separate evolutionary ways.

It seems that about 50,000 years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans were at that borderline point. They were almost, but not quite, entirely separate species. As we shall see in the next chapter, Sapiens were already very different from Neanderthals and Denisovans, not only in their genetic code and physical traits, but also in their cognitive and social abilities, yet it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring. So the populations did not merge, but a few lucky Neanderthal genes did hitch a ride on the Sapiens Express.

It is unsettling and perhaps thrilling to think that we Sapiens could at one time have sex with an animal from a different species, and produce children together.

But if the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human species didn’t merge with Sapiens, why did they vanish? One possibility is that Homo sapiens drove them to extinction. Imagine a Sapiens band reaching a Balkan valley where Neanderthals had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. The newcomers began to hunt the deer and gather the nuts and berries that were the Neanderthals’ traditional staples. Sapiens were more proficient hunters and gatherers thanks to better technology and superior social skills so they multiplied and spread. The less resourceful Neanderthals found it increasingly difficult to feed themselves. Their population dwindled and they slowly died out, except perhaps for one or two members who joined their Sapiens neighbours.

Another possibility is that competition for resources flared up into violence and genocide.

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.

Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals, and the other human species, pose one of history’s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?

Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Whether Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner had they arrived at a new location than the native population became extinct. The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals made their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago. They left behind some bones, stone tools, a few genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions. They also left behind us, Homo sapiens, the last human specks.

What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

2. The Tree of Knowledge

IN THE PREVIOUS chapter we saw that although Sapiens had already populated East Africa 150,000 years ago, they began to overrun the rest of planet Earth and drive the other human species to extinction only about 70,000 years ago. In the intervening millennia, even though these archaic Sapiens looked just like us and their brains were as big as ours, they did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats.

In fact, in the first recorded encounter between Sapiens and Neanderthals, the Neanderthals won. About 100,000 years ago, some Sapiens groups migrated north to the Levant, which was Neanderthal territory, but failed to secure a firm footing. It might have been due to nasty natives, an inclement climate, or unfamiliar local parasites. Whatever the reason, the Sapiens eventually retreated, leaving the Neanderthals as masters of the Middle East.

This poor record of achievement has led scholars to speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities, learning, remembering, communicating were far more limited. Teaching such an ancient Sapiens English, persuading him of the truth of Christian dogma, or getting him to understand the theory of evolution would probably have been hopeless undertakings. Conversely, we would have had a very hard time learning his language and understanding his way of thinking.

But then, beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started doing very special things. Around that date Sapiens bands left Africa for a second time. This time they drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stadel lion-man hem), as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification.

Most researchers believe that these unprecedented accomplishments were the product of a revolution in Sapiens’ cognitive abilities. They maintain that the people who drove the Neanderthals to extinction, settled Australia, and carved the Stadel lion-man were as intelligent, creative and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave, we could learn their language and they ours. We’d be able to explain to them everything we know from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland to the paradoxes of quantum physics and they could teach us how their people view the world.

The Cognitive Revolution

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation.

Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes. What was so special about the new Sapiens language that it enabled us to conquer the world?

It was not the first language. Every animal has some kind of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways, informing one another of the whereabouts of food. Neither was it the first vocal language. Many animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages. For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means ‘Careful! An eagle!’ A slightly different call warns ‘Careful! A lion!’ When researchers played a recording of the first call to a group of monkeys, the monkeys stopped what they were doing and looked upwards in fear. When the same group heard a recording of the second call, the lion warning, they quickly scrambled up a tree.

Sapiens can produce many more distinct sounds than green monkeys, but whales and elephants have equally impressive abilities. A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal. What, then, is so special about our language?

The most common answer is that our language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning. We can thereby ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world. A green monkey can yell to its comrades, ‘Careful! A lion!’ But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison.

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.

According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships, and countless more complex social combinations.) All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively.

Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs, a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

The gossip theory might sound like a joke, but numerous studies support it. Even today the vast majority of human communication whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns is gossip. It comes so naturally to us that it seems as if our language evolved for this very purpose. Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for the First World War when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.

Most likely, both the gossip theory and the there-is-a-lion-near-the-river theory are valid. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.

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.

It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.

People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating?

But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. 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.

The Legend of Peugeot

Our chimpanzee cousins usually live in small troops of several dozen individuals. They form close friendships, hunt together and fight shoulder to shoulder against baboons, Cheetahs and enemy chimpanzees. Their social structure tends to be hierarchical. The dominant member, who is almost always a male, is termed the ‘alpha male’. Other males and females exhibit their submission to the alpha male by bowing before him while making grunting sounds, not unlike human subjects kowtowing before a king. The alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop. When two individuals fight, he will intervene and stop the violence. Less benevolently, he might monopolise particularly coveted foods and prevent lower-ranking males from mating with the females.

When two males are contesting the alpha position, they usually do so by forming extensive coalitions of supporters, both male and female, from within the group. Ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Just as human politicians on election campaigns go around shaking hands and kissing babies, so aspirants to the top position in a chimpanzee group spend much time hugging, back-slapping and kissing baby chimps. The alpha male usually wins his position not because he is physically stronger, but because he leads a large and stable coalition. These coalitions play a central part not only during overt struggles for the alpha position, but in almost all day-to-day activities. Members of a coalition spend more time together, share food, and help one another in times of trouble.

There are clear limits to the size of groups that can be formed and maintained in such a way. In order to function, all members of a group must know each other intimately. Two chimpanzees who have never met, never fought, and never engaged in mutual grooming will not know whether they can trust one another, whether it would be worthwhile to help one another, and which of them ranks higher. Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troop consists of about twenty to fifty individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troop increases, the social order destabilises, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troop by some of the animals. Only in a handful of cases have zoologists observed groups larger than a hundred. Separate groups seldom cooperate, and tend to compete for territory and food. Researchers have documented prolonged warfare between groups, and even one case of ‘genocidal’ activity in which one troop systematically slaughtered most members of a neighbouring band.

Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, including archaic Homo sapiens. Humans, like chimps, have social instincts that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies, and to hunt or fight together. However, like the social instincts of chimps, those of humans were adapted only for small intimate groups. When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic Sapiens, there was no way that so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where, or who should mate with whom?

In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order. A platoon of thirty soldiers or even a company of a hundred soldiers can function well on the basis of intimate relations, with a minimum of formal discipline. A well-respected sergeant can become ‘king of the company’ and exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive and flourish without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department.

But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves, they go bust.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

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 that 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 the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales. The legend of Peugeot affords us a good example.

An icon that somewhat resembles the Stadel lion-man appears today on cars, trucks and motorcycles from Paris to Sydney. It’s the hood ornament that adorns vehicles made by Peugeot, one of the oldest and largest of Europe’s carmakers. Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney, just 300 kilometres from the Stadel Cave. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about 55 billion euros.

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact.

It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist?

Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. During most of recorded history property could be owned only by flesh-and-blood humans, the kind that stood on two legs and had big brains. If in thirteenth-century France Jean set up a wagon-manufacturing workshop, he himself was the business. If a wagon he’d made broke down a week after purchase, the disgruntled buyer would have sued Jean personally. If Jean had borrowed 1,000 gold coins to set up his workshop and the business failed, he would have had to repay the loan by selling his private property his house, his cow, his land. He might even have had to sell his children into servitude. If he couldn’t cover the debt, he could be thrown in prison by the state or enslaved by his creditors. He was fully liable, without limit, for all obligations incurred by his workshop.

If you had lived back then, you would probably have thought twice before you opened an enterprise of your own. And indeed this legal situation discouraged entrepreneurship. People were afraid to start new businesses and take economic risks. It hardly seemed worth taking the chance that their families could end up utterly destitute.

This is why people began collectively to imagine the existence of limited liability companies. Such companies were legally independent of the people who set them up, or invested money in them, or managed them. Over the last few centuries such companies have become the main players in the economic arena, and we have grown so used to them that we forget they exist only in our imagination. In the US, the technical term for a limited liability company is a ‘corporation’, which is ironic, because the term derives from ‘corpus’ (‘body’ in Latin) the one thing these corporations lack. Despite their having no real bodies, the American legal system treats corporations as legal persons, as if they were flesh-and-blood human beings.

And so did the French legal system back in 1896, when Armand Peugeot, who had inherited from his parents a metalworking shop that produced springs, saws and bicycles, decided to go into the automobile business. To that end, he set up a limited liability company. He named the company after himself, but it was independent of him. If one of the cars broke down, the buyer could sue Peugeot, but not Armand Peugeot. If the company borrowed millions of francs and then went bust, Armand Peugeot did not owe its creditors a single franc. The loan, after all, had been given to Peugeot, the company, not to Armand Peugeot, the Homo sapiens. Armand Peugeot died in 1915. Peugeot, the company, is still alive and well.

How exactly did Armand Peugeot, the man, create Peugeot, the company? In much the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history, and in which thousands of French curés were still creating Christ’s body every Sunday in the parish churches. It all revolved around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them. In the case of the French curés, the crucial story was that of Christ’s life and death as told by the Catholic Church. According to this story, if a Catholic priest dressed in his sacred garments solemnly, said the right words at the right moment, mundane bread and wine turned into God’s flesh and blood. The priest exclaimed, ‘Hoc est corpus meum!’ (Latin for ‘This is my body!’) and hocus pocus the bread turned into Christ’s flesh. Seeing that the priest had properly and assiduously observed all the procedures, millions of devout French Catholics behaved as if God really existed in the consecrated bread and wine.

In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus a new company was incorporated. When in 1896 Armand Peugeot wanted to create his company, he paid a lawyer to go through all these sacred procedures. Once the lawyer had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs’ or ‘imagined realities’. An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there. There is nothing special about lies. Green monkeys and chimpanzees can lie. A green monkey, for example, has been observed calling ‘Careful! A lion!’ when there was no lion around. This alarm conveniently frightened away a fellow monkey who had just found a banana, leaving the liar all alone to steal the prize for itself.

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are Charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Bypassing the Genome

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths, by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people.

Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.

The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes. DNA is not an autocrat. Animal behaviour is also influenced by environmental factors and individual quirks. Nevertheless, in a given environment, animals of the same species will tend to behave in a similar way. Significant changes in social behaviour cannot occur, in general, without genetic mutations. For example, common chimpanzees have a genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male. Members of a closely related chimpanzee species, bonobos, usually live in more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances. Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly to abolish the office of alpha male and declare that from here on out all chimps are to be treated as equals. Such dramatic changes in behaviour would occur only if something changed in the chimpanzees’ DNA.

For similar reasons, archaic humans did not initiate any revolutions. As far as we can tell, changes in social patterns, the invention of new technologies and the settlement of alien habitats resulted from genetic mutations and environmental pressures more than from cultural initiatives. This is why it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to make these steps. Two million years ago, genetic mutations resulted in the appearance of a new human species called Homo erectus. Its emergence was accompanied by the development of a new stone tool technology, now recognised as a defining feature of this species. As long as Homo erectus did not undergo further genetic alterations, its stone tools remained roughly the same for close to 2 million years!

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change. As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation. Whereas chimpanzee alpha males use their power to have sex with as many females as possible and consequently sire a large proportion of their troop’s young the Catholic alpha male abstains completely from sexual intercourse and childcare. This abstinence does not result from unique environmental conditions such as a severe lack of food or want of potential mates. Nor is it the result of some quirky genetic mutation. The Catholic Church has survived for centuries, not by passing on a ‘celibacy gene’ from one pope to the next, but by passing on the stories of the New Testament and of Catholic canon law.

In other words, while the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm ll; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunified Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

This was the key to Sapiens’ success. In a one-on-one brawl, a Neanderthal would probably have beaten a Sapiens. But in a conflict of hundreds, Neanderthals wouldn’t stand a chance. Neanderthals could share information about the whereabouts of lions, but they probably could not tell and revise stories about tribal spirits. Without an ability to compose fiction, Neanderthals were unable to cooperate effectively in large numbers, nor could they adapt their social behaviour to rapidly changing challenges.

While we can’t get inside a Neanderthal mind to understand how they thought, we have indirect evidence of the limits to their cognition compared with their Sapiens rivals. Archaeologists excavating 30,000 year old Sapiens sites in the European heartland occasionally find there seashells from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. In all likelihood, these shells got to the continental interior through long distance trade between different Sapiens bands. Neanderthal sites lack any evidence of such trade. Each group manufactured its own tools from local materials.

Another example comes from the South Pacific. Sapiens bands that lived on the island of New Ireland, north of New Guinea, used a volcanic glass called obsidian to manufacture particularly strong and sharp tools. New Ireland, however, has no natural deposits of obsidian. Laboratory tests revealed that the obsidian they used was brought from deposits on New Britain, an island 400 kilometres away. Some of the inhabitants of these islands must have been skilled navigators who traded from island to island over long distances.

Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations. When two strangers in a tribal society want to trade, they will often establish trust by appealing to a common god, mythical ancestor or totem animal.

If archaic Sapiens believing in such fictions traded shells and obsidian, it stands to reason that they could also have traded information, thus creating a much denser and wider knowledge network than the one that served Neanderthals and other archaic humans.

Hunting techniques provide another illustration of these differences. Neanderthals usually hunted alone or in small groups. Sapiens, on the other hand, developed techniques that relied on cooperation between many dozens of individuals, and perhaps even between different bands. One particularly effective method was to surround an entire herd of animals, such as wild horses, then chase them into a narrow gorge, where it was easy to slaughter them en masse. If all went according to plan, the bands could harvest tons of meat, fat and animal skins in a single afternoon of collective effort, and either consume these riches in a giant potlatch, or dry, smoke or (in Arctic areas) freeze them for later usage. Archaeologists have discovered sites where entire herds were butchered annually in such ways. There are even sites where fences and obstacles were erected in order to create artificial traps and slaughtering grounds.

We may presume that Neanderthals were not pleased to see their traditional hunting grounds turned into Sapiens controlled slaughterhouses. However, if violence broke out between the two species, Neanderthals were not much better off than wild horses. Fifty Neanderthals cooperating in traditional and static patterns were no match for 500 versatile and innovative Sapiens. And even if the Sapiens lost the first round, they could quickly invent new stratagems that would enable them to win the next time.

What happened in the Cognitive Revolution?

The immense diversity of imagined realities that Sapiens invented, and the resulting diversity of behaviour patterns, are the main components of what we call ‘cultures’. Once cultures appeared, they never ceased to change and develop, and these unstoppable alterations are what we call ‘history’.

The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology. Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology, or, if you so prefer, prehistory (I tend to avoid the term ‘prehistory’, because it wrongly implies that even before the Cognitive Revolution, humans were in a category of their own). From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens. To understand the rise of Christianity or the French Revolution, it is not enough to comprehend the interaction of genes, hormones and organisms. It is necessary to take into account the interaction of ideas, images and fantasies as well.

This does not mean that Homo sapiens and human culture became exempt from biological laws. We are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks, sensations, emotions, family ties, the less difference we find between us and other apes.

It is, however, a mistake to look for the differences at the level of the individual or the family. One on one, even ten on ten, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000-2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions that they could never have created in isolation. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups. This glue has made us the masters of creation.

Of course, we also needed other skills, such as the ability to make and use tools. Yet tool-making is of little consequence unless it is coupled with the ability to cooperate with many others. How is it that we now have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads, whereas 30,000 years ago we had only sticks with flint spearheads? Physiologically, there has been no significant improvement in our tool-making capacity over the last 30,000 years. Albert Einstein was far less dexterous with his hands than was an ancient hunter-gatherer. However, our capacity to cooperate with large numbers of strangers has improved dramatically. The ancient flint spearhead was manufactured in minutes by a single person, who relied on the advice and help of a few intimate friends. The production of a modern nuclear warhead requires the cooperation of millions of strangers all over the world from the workers who mine the uranium ore in the depths of the earth to theoretical physicists who write long mathematical formulae to describe the interactions of subatomic particles.

To summarise the relationship between biology and history after the Cognitive Revolution:

1. Biology sets the basic parameters for the behaviour and capacities of Homo sapiens. The whole of history takes place within the bounds of this biological arena.

2. However, this arena is extraordinarily large, allowing Sapiens to play an astounding variety of games. Thanks to their ability to invent fiction, Sapiens create more and more complex games, which each generation develops and elaborates even further.

3. Consequently, in order to understand how Sapiens behave, we must describe the historical evolution of their actions. Referring only to our biological constraints would be like a radio sportscaster who, attending the World Cup football championships, offers his listeners a detailed description of the playing field rather than an account of what the players are doing.

What games did our Stone Age ancestors play in the arena of history? As far as we know, the people who carved the Stadel lion-man some 30,000 years ago had the same physical, emotional and intellectual abilities we have. What did they do when they woke up in the morning? What did they eat for breakfast and lunch? What were their societies like? Did they have monogamous relationships and nuclear families? Did they have ceremonies, moral codes, sports contests and religious rituals? Did they fight wars? The next chapter takes a peek behind the curtain of the ages, examining what life was like in the millennia separating the Cognitive Revolution from the Agricultural Revolution.

3. A Day in the Life of Adam and Eve

TO UNDERSTAND OUR nature, history and psychology, we must get inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For nearly the entire history of our species, Sapiens lived as foragers. The past 200 years, during which ever increasing numbers of Sapiens have obtained their daily bread as urban labourers and office workers, and the preceding 10,000 years, during which most Sapiens lived as farmers and herders, are the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years during which our ancestors hunted and gathered.

The flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long preagricultural era. Even today, scholars in this field claim, our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

*

from

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

get it at Amazon.com

One thought on “‘Wise Man’, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – Dr Yuval Noah Harari.”

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