American culture has made a fetish out of the rights and aspirations of the individual — hence at our head we have gathered an ineffectual assembly of dunces in the United States Capitol. But as Yuval Noah Harari points out, our human potential expresses itself much less in what we accomplish individually than in what we do together.
70,000 years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers or bumblebees.
Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?
We often look for the difference between us and other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about the human body or human brain that makes each individual human vastly superior to a dog, or a pig, or a chimpanzee. But the fact is that one-on-one, humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. If you place me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island, to see who survives better, I would definitely place my bets on the chimp.
The real difference between us and other animals is on the collective level. [Continue reading…]