History Book Summaries

Chapter 2: The Tree of Knowledge (Sapiens)

Our ability to communicate effectively made us superior to other animals. All animals can communicate with each other, and in very sophisticated ways, but they cannot describe things in great detail, they cannot spread information about each other, and they cannot collectively believe in fictions.

1) Precision: We can describe with more detail what’s happening

For one thing, we could describe with much more detail what is happening. Imagine a villager who had just seen a lion in a nearby riverbank. Armed with language, she could communicate exactly how far the lion is, at what moment she saw it, how large it was, and whether it was alone. The precision and richness with which we can communicate information to each other allowed us to retain what he had learned in a very useful way.

2) Gossip: Find out who’s freeloading or untrustworthy

Gossip comes so naturally to us that we don’t even think about it. We don’t realize how dominant it is in our daily lives. Newspapers and magazines are filled with gossip. Nuclear physicists may sometimes discuss their work when they meet, but more likely, they’re talking about who slept with who, and who said what to who.

There is a lot of research that supports the idea that the development of language came from our need to gossip. And it is important to understand that gossip has an important function – not that it is just an entertaining vain pastime. It allows members within a group to figure out who’s trustworthy and who isn’t, it allows them to isolate liars and cheats. A group that gossips efficiently has an immense survivalist advantage.

3) Stories: Legal, Religious, National, Financial – to tie large groups of people together

But Harari points out that gossip and vivid descriptions can only go so far when it comes to fostering group unity. In fact, after around 150 people, it becomes very difficult to keep track of the individuals within the group. That is, the group becomes too large to function as a cohesive whole. In which case, something else is required to band people together, and that is why fiction is so important.

Our ability to imagine things that do not exist is precisely what has made us so much powerful than the rest of the animals on earth. We can, for example, believe in religious and nationalistic stories – this allows us to cooperate with millions of strangers for a common good. We can believe in legal and financial fictions, and these allow us to engage in trade – in other words, to trust each other.

This is the central point of the chapter. Since direct communication becomes ineffective past a certain number, and since we have very good reason to be distrustful of one another, we need a powerful fiction that we all believe in to unite us.

In chimps, the alpha male makes sure that the inferior chimps don’t fight, but the alpha male also prevents lower ranking males from mating. Female chimps gather around the alpha chimp and grunt, while the alpha chimp caresses baby chimps to establish their leadership within the troop. We may think we are much different as humans, but not really. Leading politicians kiss babies and take pictures with them to establish popularity within the group, they also go out of their way to prevent infighting.

In short, we are just sophisticated versions of our cousins. What has allowed us to be sophisticated is the creative ways in which we have managed to manipulate language.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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