The Cognitive Revolution.

The Cognitive Revolution.

70,000 years ago something happened that changed the world – humans underwent a cognitive revolution.
It was a change that led directly to the huge success of Homo sapiens, its dramatic increase in numbers, the extinction of all the world’s megafauna and the extinction of all other species of Homo.
At one time, during the early part of our mere 200,000 year history, we shared the planet with at least three other species of humans. The likelihood is that we wiped them out.
So how is this great success possible? What separated us from both our tool-making, fire-using, intelligent and linguistically dextrous fellow species of humans as well as our direct ancestors?
The answer is the development of cognitive ability – the ability to invent and believe in things that do not exist.
That is our forte.
Whereas Neanderthals, who had bigger brains than us, probably talked about lions, food, water and landscape – things that were real, we sapiens started talking about gods, supreme leaders, nations and money – none of which were real.
The significance of this is that it unified us, enabled us to trust each other and to trade.
The group size for chimps, gorillas and early humans was a maximum of 55. Beyond that size the group disintegrates. Cohesion is brought about through grooming, mating and constant social interaction that maintains a clear hierarchy and social structure. When the group size exceeds 55 the constant interaction necessary to maintain this cohesion breaks down.
But Homo sapiens were able to maintain cohesion in larger groups due to their collective belief in a common fiction.
That fiction might be a belief in gods, with all the associated rituals, a belief in the divine right of a leader, the belief in a supertribe, to which they belong, or the belief in the worth and value of sheels or beads which can be used for trading.
This made us mighty.
We were no longer dependent on grooming and intense social interaction to create our unity. We could now operate in large collective groups. We could hunt with large cooperative groups that could stampede herds over cliffs or into canyons for mass slaughter. We could gang up to hunt megafauna which we rapidly drove to extinction. Other species of humans could not compete. From applied, violent racism and genocide, like the megafauna before them, they were eradicated.
We began our reign. Within the blink of an eye we wiped out the entire range of megafauna and are now working our way through the rest of the species, wiped out all other humans and increased in numbers to 8 Billion.
With our shared fictions of religion, supreme leaders, nations, money, political dogma, corporations and brands, none of which have any basis in reality – we rule the world.
If tomorrow we all stopped believing in the myths, stories and fictions that hold us together Homo sapiens would fall apart, anarchy would result and we would become, once more, the tribal animals we would be without our stories. Our success would disintegrate.
We Homo sapiens are only as powerful as the fictional narratives that bind us. For instance – if Americans stop believing in the dollar, the USA, God and the President, there would be no cohesion and the country would fall apart. If they decided that a dollar bill was merely a piece of paper of no value, that there was no special attachment to one bit of land over another, that they were not doing god’s will, had no allegiance to flags or pledges and thought the President was no more special than their next-door neighbour, the world would end.
Fortunately our newfound cognitive ability enables us to firmly believe in myths, fantasies and things that have no substance.

20 thoughts on “The Cognitive Revolution.

  1. The advanced narration began far later than you are suggesting coinciding with the development of agriculture and civilization about 10 000 years ago.
    Belief in the dollar is not voluntary because it is the only thing the government will accept for the payment of taxes. And by making it legal tender anyone can force you to settle for compensation in dollars no matter what the nature of the debt!

    1. Thanks for that Robert – but I think that the change in neuronal wiring that occurred in the Homo sapiens brain occurred long before the development of agriculture – though agriculture, towns and cities came out of it – and was directly responsible for the eradication of both megafauna and other species of humans. Why do you think it was later?

      1. Yes it does appear that we Europeans have some Neanderthal genes. That is a bit of a quandary isn’t it? If we were different species then producing fertile offspring would not be possible.
        Harari, in his book Sapiens, makes a compelling case fot neuronal changes. After long periods of time (both sapiens and other species of human) of tool making and fire-using in small bands, things suddenly changed. We superseded our 55 member troupes and developed different behaviour. Our increased numbers enabled us to develop into formidable hunters that drove many animals to extinction. Eventually it also led to agriculture, religion and cities.

    1. It appears that way Cheryl. We put our faith in the supreme nature of the fictions we create. If nobody took any notice of him he would be powerless. If nobody used dollars but chose to barter the dollar would be worthless – it’s happened with other currencies – in Germany after the war with the Mark. You needed a wheelbarrow of notes to buy a loaf.

  2. The linguist Derek Bickerton postulates that the advent of proto-language (with syntax!) about 50,000 – 70,000 ya vert rapidly enabled the improved communication and larger groupings. He figures it had to be only one or two genes that did it.

    1. Bumba – it is quite likely that language developed prior to that though. Harari makes a case for the social grouping size being dependent on grooming. I find that compelling.

  3. Interesting but my intuition and used in my novel is that we lost a deep connection to the natural world and were then able to exploit it and not live in a more balanced way as perhaps the North American Indians. Also farming ensured we fought against nature with deforestation and battling with the intrusions of wildlife. And within the last 150 years we have furthered that through more ‘scientific’ farming and the rest. Yes, there is a part of our brain that wants to belong so we create our beliefs, kill wolves and keep dogs!

    1. Georgina – I think that is partially right but Harari points to a couple of disturbing things. The hunter gatherers were also sullied by that same destructive nature that subsequent human societies are prone to. Where-ever man went the rapid destruction of the megafauna followed – South America, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and island after island. The hunters delighted in mass slaughter driving animals off cliffs and into specially constructed slaughter corrals. They killed far more than was necessary. They also wiped out all other species of humans. It is not quite the image of the wise ecologically-minded mankind at one with the environment.

      1. I’ve always respected the hunter-gatherers of North America, South America and Australia and thought their sustainable lifestyle was pretty ideal – I’m not quite so sure now. Yes – feeding frenzies!!

  4. I believe it is more simple than finding a cohesive fiction. Homosapians “want”.
    Maybe it is a survival instinct buried deep within us, to want more and more. However, there does not seem to be a point of satiation within our history, and I for one do not believe we will ever find one. There is always more to be discovered, had, taken, found, destroyed. Like a snake slowly eating its own tail.

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