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General · 24th October 2015
Ray Grigg
The Cognitive Revolution began, writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, at “the point when history declared its independence from biology. Until the Cognitive Revolution, the doings of all human species belonged to the realm of biology... . From the Cognitive Revolution onwards, historical narratives replace biological theories as our primary means of explaining the development of Homo sapiens.”

To more fully understand this remarkable idea and its implications, Harari returns us to the time of primitive humans before the organizational power of the Cognitive Revolution.

The size and complexity of early hominid societies, like current chimpanzee groups, was determined solely by the extent of their physical bonding. With little advanced communication techniques, their social cohesion was determined by hugging, grooming, sharing and sexual interaction. The limitations imposed by this physical bonding meant that groups rarely extended beyond about 50 individuals. Everyone else was alien, suspect and a potential enemy.

With the development of early language — so-called Gossip Theory — more information could be shared and the bonding process expanded to about 150 individuals. Their shared communication would comprise simple observations, direct instructions and immediate feelings, somewhat like the social dynamics occurring among very young children with elementary language skills. As Harari notes from modern sociological studies, “Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 people.”

This limitation ended with the Cognitive Revolution which began about 70,000 years ago, perhaps when stories started to suggest concepts that were beyond the physical and immediate. “The kind of things people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as 'fictions', 'social constructs' or 'imagined realities'.” But, as Harari explains, “An imaged reality is not a lie.” It is “something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief system persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.”

Significantly, a shared “imagined reality” allowed people to bond together in groups of thousands or even billions. It's a device Sapiens has used for organizing itself into everything from complex belief, political and economic systems to hockey teams and chess clubs. Everyone sharing the same “imagined reality” belongs.

This, then, is the place where “historical narratives replace biological theories” in understanding human behaviour. “Imagined reality” allows cultures to supersede genetics, enabling us to become entirely different from other animal species.

And so, concludes Harari, “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens has thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as gods, nations and corporations.”

Harari comes remarkably close to identifying the deepest source of our present environmental predicament. Our “imagined reality” has become so disconnected from our physical reality that both are now in imminent danger. Our urgent and monumental task is to reconcile these two realities — one, the fanciful inventions of thinking; the other, the dispassionate laws of nature.