Humans clearly play the dominant role in the animal kingdom.
There are many fascinating species on Earth, but we often overlook our own mammal attributes. You might be surprised to find the reason why humans dominate this planet – it’s the language you and I speak every day.
According to Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, humans conquered the world as a result of our “unique” language, one that carries a series of attributes that cannot be mimicked by other animal languages.
These attributes include the ability to give detailed accounts of events – I saw a tiger in the jungle two days back with a friend near the river bank and I think they were hunting us – or even good old-fashioned gossip – I noticed Ted and Norman haven’t contributed to the hunting or gathering in a few weeks, let’s cut them off from the supply.
Harari writes that language also allowed humans to talk about things such as legends, myths, and gods:
Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’… 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…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.
It’s these “collected fictions” that makes humans so unique–the concept of corporation, nation-state, inalienable rights, and currency.
The inventions of these concepts allowed humans to do what other species cannot do: to cooperate effectively and flexibly in large groups. Harari continues:
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 and 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.
According to Harari, this ability to cooperate on a large scale is rooted in common myths that exist in people’s collective imagination, such as religious myths used by the Church, national myths used by the State, or even legal myths used by the judicial system.
“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 money paid out in fees,” Harari explains, pointing that these “myths’ are not necessarily lies because we collectively believe in them and therefore have made it a literal truth for humanity.
Over time, these myths change and dramatically alter society’s behavior in only a matter of years.
Examples include change in believes that women should be allowed to vote, or that representative democracy is more desirable than a monarchy. Meanwhile, behavior changes in animals result solely from their immediate environment of evolution over time.
When looking at the bigger picture, this should not be so surprising. We credit some of the greatest minds in history with inventions that have allowed humans to communicate farther and faster–Johannes Guttenberg with the printing press, Samuel Morse with the telegraph, and Steve Jobs with the iPhone.
And, between the rise of the Internet and accessibility to smartphones, language is quickly evolving into short phrases and acronyms developed to serve us more conveniently.