The Cognitive Revolution

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #2: The Cognitive Revolution

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding.)

Cognitive Revolution: the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Around 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens first tried to migrate to Middle East from East Africa but they were driven away by Neanderthals.

70,000 years ago, however, Homo sapiens tried again, and this time they were successful, driving away other human species in the process. 60,000 years ago, they reached China and Korea. 45,000 year ago, they crossed open sea, and landed in Australia (first time for a human species). Later they reached America about 15,000 years ago, again, first time for a human species. They reached America from Siberian Alaska, which would have required them to adapt and survive extreme cold temperatures within a remarkably short span of time.

Signs that something special had happened:

* Humans spread throughout the world and adapted to new ecological conditions very quickly.
* Appearance of new technologies and innovation of existing ones:
Boats or rafts, which allowed them to reach Australia by crossing the sea
Needles: this allowed humans to sew things together, making new clothes, boots, tents, etc. This made it possible for them to endure extreme cold climates.
Oil lamps: this allowed them to explore caves and produce cave art
Constant innovation of spear points and knives (which had prior had been consistently the same)
First evidence for art, religion, trade and complex societies.

Most likely there was some small change in the internal structure of the brain with remarkable results.

Human language was not the first language. Animals had languages before. Nor was it the first vocal languages. Those also existed prior. It is also not the most vocally sophisticated language. So what is special about it?

1) Our language is immensely complex in terms of information transmission. We have ability to take limited number of sounds to produce infinite meaningful sentence.

2) A theory suggests that the vast information capacity of human language evolved so that we could talk about other humans (i.e. gossip). Gossip plays a very important role, as without it it is very difficult to live in a large group and to cooperate effectively with other people. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. The ability to gossip allowed us to do that. Even today, the majority of human communication in the world is gossip. Gossip focuses on the wrong-doings, on breaking of norms. It acts as a sort of police, and was especially important in the establishment of early complex societies when there was no police as such.

3) The most unique feature of human language, however, is to transmit information about things that don't exist at all. Legends, myths, gods, religions. Human language is fictive language. It enables us to imagine collectively and weave common legends.

The ability to create well-functioning groups on the basis of gossip ranges up to about 150 individuals. The secret which enabled humans to cross the critical threshold of 150 individuals to create immensely large and complex societies is fictive language. A large number of humans can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Complete strangers who are Christians can cooperate to go on a crusade because they believe in the same God. States are based on national myths, the judicial system on legal myths, economic system on the myth of money, all of which do not exist outside the common imagination of humans.

Take Peugeot, a huge company that employs thousands of complete strangers who work efficiently to produce millions of cars around the world. What is Peugeot? Is it the cars? No. Is it the factories? No. Is it the employees? No. Is it the management or stock-holders? No. The company is a story, a particular sort of fiction. It belongs to a fiction we call 'limited liability companies'. Limited liability company is a company which is collectively imagined to be legally independent of the people who set them up, of the people who invested money in them and of the people who manage them. So if the company takes a loan, it is not the owner or the manager who is responsible for the loan; it is 'the company'. And if the company cannot repay the debt, it is the not the owner or the manager who will go bankrupt, but the company. This was not the case earlier in history, when no such limited liability existed. We have become so accustomed to such companies that we forget that we invented them ourselves and that they exist only in our imagination. The ritual involved in their creation is also not much different from the rituals of shamans. A shaman would do particular actions and cast forth particular spells to call forth a spirit, and here the lawyer and owner wrote the particular 'spells' on a particular paper and once they were signed, hocus pocus, Peugeot was created. The spirit is as real to someone who believes in shaman's magic as Peugeot is real to someone who believes in business laws. Both are, in fact, imagined realities. They are products of common belief, and as long as this common belief persists, it is a real force in the world. It is this power of common belief that allowed Homo sapiens to work together flexibly and effectively in very large groups, and this is something that other human species were unable to accomplish.

Creating large shared stories in this manner also makes cultural evolution possible. In certain conditions, humans can change stories, resulting in rapid innovation of social behavior, without any underlying genetic change. This can happen within decades, unparalleled in the biological world. Female chimpanzees, for instance, cannot stage a feminist revolution to overthrow the alpha-male, unless there is a radical change in their genetics, but because humans possess the power to create and change fictions, women can, and have, remarkably changed the gender roles and relations in human society. Same applies to all the other social and cultural changes that we see in history. From this point onwards, to make sense of the human history, we need to make sense of the shared stories and collective fictions.


Matt said…
I've been following the course. It's brilliant. Thank you for your time and passion.
Anonymous said…

I have not been so fortunate as to follow the course.

I write, however, to strongly recommend Dr. Harari's book - Sapiens.

An outstanding scholar and writer the book is in my opinion brilliant and a must read.