Yuval Harari: Why Did Humans Become The Most Successful Species On Earth? Historian Yuval Harari explains how human imagination powered the growth and spread of homo sapiens around the world.
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Why Did Humans Become The Most Successful Species On Earth?

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Why Did Humans Become The Most Successful Species On Earth?

Why Did Humans Become The Most Successful Species On Earth?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, perhaps the most successful story of something spreading all over the world is us - humans.

YUVAL HARARI: If aliens from outer space arrived on planet Earth a hundred thousand years ago, I don't think they would've had a very good reason to place their bets on humans and not on the elephants or dolphins or whales or whatever.

RAZ: This is Yuval Harari. He's written about why Homo sapiens - us - became the dominant species on the planet, not any other animal, not even any other species of early man, like Neanderthals.

HARARI: In terms of actual accomplishments, there was nothing in the human record a hundred thousand years ago that indicated one of these apes is going to take over the planet.

RAZ: OK so how is it - I mean, how is it that - like, who was the first Homo sapien who was like, OK guys, let's - you know, let's do this thing, let's spread out around the world?

HARARI: This is the big question of history. We see the big change about 70,000 years ago. Seventy thousand, 60,000, 50,000 years ago, you start seeing Homo sapiens doing extremely impressive things. The most impressive thing is that they suddenly spread out of East Africa, and within a couple of thousand years, they colonize most of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and then again, very quickly, they spread to places where no human being has ever reached before - to Australia, and later, to America.

RAZ: And, over time...

HARARI: We start seeing the first evidence for religion, art, for political units that are larger than a single hunter-gatherer band.

RAZ: So how did we go from this unremarkable species to suddenly spreading all over the world and then ruling it? Yuval explains it in his TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARARI: 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. 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. They're cooperation is very rigid. There is basically just one way in which a beehive can function, and if there is a new opportunity or a new danger, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of worker bees. 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 among chimpanzees is based on intimate knowledge, one of the other. The only animals that can combine the two abilities together and cooperate both flexibly and still do so in very large numbers is us, Homo sapiens.

RAZ: OK so if being able to work flexibly in large numbers is our main advantage, what is it that allowed us to do that?

HARARI: The best solution that I can offer is our imagination and the ability not only to imagine things to yourself but to share your fictions, to invent and spread fictional stories. This is why we can cooperate in our billions whereas chimpanzees cannot, and why we have reached the moon and split the atom and deciphered DNA, and they just play with sticks and bananas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARARI: All other animals use their communication system only to describe reality. A chimpanzee may say, look, there is a banana tree over there, let's go and get bananas. Humans, in contrast, use their language not merely to describe reality but also to create new realities, fictional realities. A human can say, look, there is a God above the clouds, and if you all believe these stories that I've invented 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'll go to chimpanzee heaven and you'll receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds, so now give me this banana. Only humans believe such stories.

RAZ: And so what you're saying is that these stories are what allowed us to organize and then spread out.

HARARI: Yes because if you think about any religion, any economic system, any political system, at the basis you will find some fictional story about God, about money, about human rights, about a nation. All these things are fictional stories. They are not a biological reality, but it's a very powerful and convincing and benign fiction that helps us organize our political and legal systems in the modern world. Take, for example, the legal field. Most legal systems today in the world are based on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Take a human being, cut him open, look inside. You will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won't find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they are still just fictional stories that we've invented. The same is true of the economic field. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to the supermarket, give it to a complete stranger whom I have never met before and get, in exchange, real bananas which I can actually eat. Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans because it is the only story everybody believes.

RAZ: If you think about it, right, like, in terms of human expansion - in terms of the way we spread out around the world - I guess you could say that, like, our ability to procreate isn't the most significant part of it. It's our ability to imagine, which is most responsible for why we spread out.

HARARI: Definitely. You can have more babies, more people, but unless you can make all these people cooperate with one another, it will be very difficult to take over the planet or even to feed all these millions. Before the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, the total number of humans on the planet was perhaps five million or six million. This is how much you can support by hunting and gathering. Today, we are approaching eight billion. And to feed all these billions of people, you need extremely sophisticated networks of cooperation - economic cooperation, trades, industry, banking, transportation, communication and so forth. Now, in order to have trade, you need some trust. And you can also look at the world and see how in some cases modern beliefs, like the belief in capitalism and democracy and human rights, spread far more effectively when it's done through trade and through economic relations than when it's done at the point of a bayonet. We humans control the world because we live in a dual reality, and what is amazing 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 the wishes of fictional entities like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank - entities that exist only in our own imagination. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Yuval Harari, he's a professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His book is called "Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind." You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

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