Skip to main content

words by Yuval Noah Harari

70,000 years ago our ancestors were insignificant animals.

Today, in contrast, we control this planet. And the question is , How did we turn ourselves from insignificant apes into the rulers of planet Earth?

Usually, we look for the difference between us and all the other animals on the individual level. I want to believe that there is something special about me that makes me so superior to a dog, or a pig, or a chimpanzee. But the truth is that if you take me and a chimpanzee and put us together on some lonely island and we had to struggle for survival, I would definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee.

The real difference between humans and all other animals is on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.

Now there are other animals like the social insects - the bees, the ants - that can cooperate in large numbers but they don’t do so flexibly.

Other animals, like the social mammals, the wolves, the elephants, the dolphins, the chimpanzees, they can cooperate much more flexibly, but they do so only in small numbers because cooperation is based on intimate knowledge of the other.

All of the huge achievements of human kind throughout history (moon, pyramids) have been based not on individual abilities, but on this ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

What enables us alone of all the animals to cooperate in such a way? The answer is our imagination.

All the other animals use their communication system only to describe reality. A chimpanzee may say, look, there is a lion, let’s run away. Or look, there is a banana tree over there, let’s go get a banana. Humans in contrast use their language not merely to describe reality, but also to create fictional realities.

A human can say, look, there is a God above the clouds. And if you don’t do what I tell you to do, after you die, God will punish you and send you to hell. And if you all believe this story, then you will follow the same norms and laws and values and you can cooperate.

This is something only humans can do. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after you die, you will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and you’ll receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds, so now give me this banana. No chimpanzee will ever believe such a story.

I want to emphasize is that exactly the same mechanism underlies all other forms of mass-scale human cooperation.

The most important factors in modern politics are states and nations. But what are states and nations? They are not an objective reality. A mountain is an objective reality. You can see it. You can touch it. You can even smell it. But a nation or a state like Israel or Iran or France or Germany, this is just a story that we’ve invented and become extremely attached to.

The same is true of the economic field. The most important actors today in the global economy are corporations. What exactly are these things? They are what lawyers call “legal fictions.” They are stories that invented and maintained by the powerful wizards we call lawyers. And what do corporations do all day? Mostly, they try to make money.

Yet, what is money? Money is not an objective reality. It has no objective value. You cannot eat it. You cannot drink it. You cannot wear it. But then come along these master storytellers, and tell us a very convincing story. Look, you see this green piece of paper? It is actually worth ten bananas. And if I believe it, and you believe it, and everybody believes it, it actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to the supermarket, give it to a complete stranger who I have never met before and get in exchange real bananas which I can actually eat. This is something amazing. You could never do it with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees trade of course, you give me a coconut, I will give you a banana, that can work. But you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? No way! What do you think I am, a human?

We humans control the world because we live in a dual reality. All other animals live in an objective reality. Their reality consists of objective entities like rivers and trees and lions and elephants. We humans, we also live in an objective reality. In our world too there are rivers and trees and elephants and lions. But over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality, a second layer of fictional reality made of fictional entities like nations, like Gods, like money, like corporations.

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 depend on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities that exist only in our own imagination.