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.