“Seventy-thousand years ago, our ancestors were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was not much greater than that of jellyfish or fireflies or woodpeckers. Today, in contrast, we control this planet. And the question is: How did we come from there to here?”
How are we superior to other animal species on Earth? This is the question the Israeli historian Yuval Harari asks himself, and the answers that he offers us are really interesting.
“The real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level; it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.”
We are not the only cooperative animals: social insects (bees, ants) have created an organizational system with admirable ingenuity and efficiency. However, they cooperate only in rigidly predefined forms.
Other animals, like the social mammals (wolves, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees) can cooperate much more flexibly, but they do so only in small numbers, because their cooperation is based on an intimate knowledge of one another. The only animal that can combine these two abilities together, i.e. cooperate flexibly and to do so in very large numbers, is the Homo Sapiens.
Hence there is an ability, an aptitude that differentiates us from other mammals: it is the ability to work together, even if we do not know each another and are thousands of kilometers apart. This characteristic that we possess is at the root of all great human enterprises – and also the cause of the worst things that have happened throughout history, reports Harari.
However, Harari still asks himself, how do we do it? His answer is unsettling: we manage to do it because we have that great thing that is called imagination. We alone, of all the animals on the planet, can create and believe in fiction, in imaginary stories.
The ability to learn and to communicate through stories, to imagine alternative worlds and scenes makes us what we are. And Harari points out that this phenomenon does not only concern fields like religion or artistic expression, but also very specific aspects of civilization and our daily lives, such as the laws that regulate a country or the economy. Right through to money, the “imaginary” tool that dominates our lives, “the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes”.
An objective reality and an imaginary reality co-exist in the world we live in, made up of narrative fiction:
“And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities, like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination”.