The ability to share myths and beliefs, as a group, moved us past other homo (mankind) species
After several years of recommendations, I finally picked up Sapiens, A brief history of humanity, by Yuval Noah Harari. The book is remarkable in its wide-ranging point of view and the quality of the writing and research. But early on in it I read a theory that stopped me in my tracks as a writer, specifically a writer of fiction. The book explores that point in evolution where homo sapiens started evolving much faster than other homo (man) groups of the species. There were two factors that gave us the ability to leap forward from stone age tool development, which had been stalled for millions of years, and the relatively sudden leap to creating collective cultures. Those tools were the development of language and the ability it gave us to collectively imagine and believe in stories, regardless of whether they were real. Our ability to share stories made us what we are.
The rise of artificial constructs
Harari cites an interesting example, the development of artificial legal entities known as corporations. Corporations are legal constructs designed to protect individual business owners from personal liability issues associated with the business. They were made possible by a societal agreement, codified by law, that agreed that a corporation could be treated as a legal entity with its own rights and liabilities, without passing risks to its founders and owners.
When you think about it, corporations and the societal agreements that make them work are fabrications, non-existent thought exercises that take on power because society has collectively agreed that they ‘exist’. A fiction in other words. Other fictions include myths, that can become religions, and the idea that one Sapien group is superior to another, which leads to racism, war, and conflict in general. All of these things start as stories.
Stories gave us the ability to unite and work towards a greater goal with a longer term perspective
So, how did this accelerate evolution? It changed us from a society of small, inefficient bands staying together to survive, to collectives who distribute work and share resources. These collectives are able to work on longer term goals and projects as their united efforts free up resources previously required for day to day survival. This, in turn, means better nutrition, safer lives, and more time to pursue new ideas. We learned to share a story and then collectively work to make it a reality, just as scientists and inventors today theorize and then seek to prove their theory is a reality.
Nothing has changed, stories are even more powerful today
I’ve always known stories were powerful. After all the Avengers movie released this weekend (End Game) took in $1.2 billion in just three days and represents the culmination of 20+ stories taking place over many years of filmmaking (storytelling). Star Wars represents an even more evolved form of contemporary mythology, because it, from the first picture, introduced a philosophy (The Force) that could easily be adopted by fans, even if they collectively knew it was made up. It’s quite possible there are fans who are close to actually believing its definition of the universe and how it works.
Stories are ambivalent about truth, good and evil, or even legality, but we still believe
Stories also lead to things like the rise of fascism, racial supremacy memes, participation in Ponzi schemes, and all sorts of human behavior that make no logical sense. As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by the sense of mystery that can lie at the edge of things, that ineffable idea that though reality seems real, there are aspects of it that cannot be explained. Writers work in those regions, whether they exploring emotional interiors or fantasizing about collective new realities. Now it turns out that we may be hard-wired by evolution to create and use stories as a means to evolve further.
Highly recommend reading Sapiens. It’s entertaining, thought-provoking, and enlightening.
There are no affiliate links in this article.