“The real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level; it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.
What enables us alone, of all the animals, to cooperate in such a way? The answer is our imagination. We can cooperate flexibly with countless numbers of strangers because we alone, of all the animals on the planet, can create and believe fictions, fictional stories. And as long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values. All other animals use their communication systems only to describe reality.”
Splendid TED talk from historian Yuval Noah Harari on how our ability to collectively imagine, believe, and act upon our shared fictions through flexible mass-scale cooperation has enabled humans to control the world. As Harari notes, this mass-scale cooperation has been the source of both our greatest and our darkest achievements. How might we harness the public life of the imagination for positive changes over time?
“We humans control the world because we live in a dual reality. All other animals live in an objective reality. Their reality consists of objective entities like rivers and trees and lions and elephants. We humans, we also live in an objective reality. In our world too there are rivers and trees and lions and elephants. But over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations. And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank–entities that exist only in our own imagination.”