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  • Seventy-thousand years ago, our ancestors were insignificant animals.

  • The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans

  • is that they were unimportant.

  • Their impact on the world was not much greater than that of jellyfish

  • or fireflies or woodpeckers.

  • Today, in contrast, we control this planet.

  • And the question is:

  • How did we come from there to here?

  • How did we turn ourselves from insignificant apes,

  • minding their own business in a corner of Africa,

  • into the rulers of planet Earth?

  • Usually, we look for the difference between us and all the other animals

  • on the individual level.

  • We want to believe -- I want to believe --

  • that there is something special about me,

  • about my body, about my brain,

  • that makes me so superior to a dog or a pig, or a chimpanzee.

  • But the truth is that, on the individual level,

  • I'm embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee.

  • And if you take me and a chimpanzee and put us together on some lonely island,

  • and we had to struggle for survival to see who survives better,

  • I would definitely place my bet on the chimpanzee, not on myself.

  • And this is not something wrong with me personally.

  • I guess if they took almost any one of you, and placed you alone

  • with a chimpanzee on some island,

  • the chimpanzee would do much better.

  • 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.

  • Now, there are other animals --

  • like the social insects, the bees, the ants --

  • that can cooperate in large numbers, but they don't do so flexibly.

  • Their cooperation is very rigid.

  • There is basically just one way in which a beehive can function.

  • And if there's a new opportunity or a new danger,

  • the bees cannot reinvent the social system overnight.

  • They cannot, for example, execute the queen

  • and establish a republic of bees,

  • or a communist dictatorship of worker bees.

  • Other animals, like the social mammals --

  • the wolves, the elephants, the dolphins, the chimpanzees --

  • they can cooperate much more flexibly,

  • but they do so only in small numbers,

  • because cooperation among chimpanzees

  • is based on intimate knowledge, one of the other.

  • I'm a chimpanzee and you're a chimpanzee,

  • and I want to cooperate with you.

  • I need to know you personally.

  • What kind of chimpanzee are you?

  • Are you a nice chimpanzee?

  • Are you an evil chimpanzee?

  • Are you trustworthy?

  • If I don't know you, how can I cooperate with you?

  • The only animal that can combine the two abilities together

  • and cooperate both flexibly and still do so in very large numbers

  • is us, Homo sapiens.

  • One versus one, or even 10 versus 10,

  • chimpanzees might be better than us.

  • But, if you pit 1,000 humans against 1,000 chimpanzees,

  • the humans will win easily, for the simple reason

  • that a thousand chimpanzees cannot cooperate at all.

  • And if you now try to cram 100,000 chimpanzees

  • into Oxford Street, or into Wembley Stadium,

  • or Tienanmen Square or the Vatican,

  • you will get chaos, complete chaos.

  • Just imagine Wembley Stadium with 100,000 chimpanzees.

  • Complete madness.

  • In contrast, humans normally gather there in tens of thousands,

  • and what we get is not chaos, usually.

  • What we get is extremely sophisticated and effective networks of cooperation.

  • All the huge achievements of humankind throughout history,

  • whether it's building the pyramids or flying to the moon,

  • have been based not on individual abilities,

  • but on this ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

  • Think even about this very talk that I'm giving now:

  • I'm standing here in front of an audience of about 300 or 400 people,

  • most of you are complete strangers to me.

  • Similarly, I don't really know all the people who have organized

  • and worked on this event.

  • I don't know the pilot and the crew members of the plane

  • that brought me over here, yesterday, to London.

  • I don't know the people who invented and manufactured

  • this microphone and these cameras, which are recording what I'm saying.

  • I don't know the people who wrote all the books and articles

  • that I read in preparation for this talk.

  • And I certainly don't know all the people

  • who might be watching this talk over the Internet,

  • somewhere in Buenos Aires or in New Delhi.

  • Nevertheless, even though we don't know each other,

  • we can work together to create this global exchange of ideas.

  • This is something chimpanzees cannot do.

  • They communicate, of course,

  • but you will never catch a chimpanzee traveling to some distant chimpanzee band

  • to give them a talk about bananas or about elephants,

  • or anything else that might interest chimpanzees.

  • Now cooperation is, of course, not always nice;

  • all the horrible things humans have been doing throughout history --

  • and we have been doing some very horrible things --

  • all those things are also based on large-scale cooperation.

  • Prisons are a system of cooperation;

  • slaughterhouses are a system of cooperation;

  • concentration camps are a system of cooperation.

  • Chimpanzees don't have slaughterhouses and prisons and concentration camps.

  • Now suppose I've managed to convince you perhaps that yes,

  • we control the world because we can cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

  • The next question that immediately arises

  • in the mind of an inquisitive listener is:

  • How, exactly, do we do it?

  • 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 system

  • only to describe reality.

  • A chimpanzee may say, "Look! There's a lion, let's run away!"

  • Or, "Look! There's a banana tree over there! Let's go and get bananas!"

  • Humans, in contrast, use their language not merely to describe reality,

  • but also to create new realities, fictional realities.

  • A human can say, "Look, there is a god above the clouds!

  • And if you don't do what I tell you to do,

  • when you die, God will punish you and send you to hell."

  • And if you all believe this story that I've invented,

  • then you will follow the same norms and laws and values,

  • and you can cooperate.

  • This is something only humans can do.

  • You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana

  • by promising him, "... after you die, you'll go to chimpanzee heaven ..."

  • (Laughter)

  • "... and you'll receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds.

  • So now give me this banana."

  • No chimpanzee will ever believe such a story.

  • Only humans believe such stories,

  • which is why we control the world,

  • whereas the chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

  • Now you may find it acceptable that yes,

  • in the religious field, humans cooperate by believing in the same fictions.

  • Millions of people come together to build a cathedral or a mosque

  • or fight in a crusade or a jihad, because they all believe in the same stories

  • about God and heaven and hell.

  • But what I want to emphasize is that exactly the same mechanism

  • underlies all other forms of mass-scale human cooperation,

  • not only in the religious field.

  • Take, for example, the legal field.

  • Most legal systems today in the world are based on a belief in human rights.

  • But what are human rights?

  • Human rights, just like God and heaven, are just a story that we've invented.

  • They are not an objective reality;

  • they are not some biological effect about homo sapiens.

  • Take a human being, cut him open, look inside,

  • you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA,

  • but you won't find any rights.

  • The only place you find rights are in the stories

  • that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries.

  • They may be very positive stories, very good stories,

  • but they're still just fictional stories that we've invented.

  • The same is true of the political field.

  • The most important factors in modern politics are states and nations.

  • But what are states and nations?

  • They are not an objective reality.

  • A mountain is an objective reality.

  • You can see it, you can touch it, you can ever smell it.

  • But a nation or a state,

  • like Israel or Iran or France or Germany,

  • this is just a story that we've invented

  • and became extremely attached to.

  • The same is true of the economic field.

  • The most important actors today in the global economy

  • are companies and corporations.

  • Many of you today, perhaps, work for a corporation,

  • like Google or Toyota or McDonald's.

  • What exactly are these things?

  • They are what lawyers call legal fictions.

  • They are stories invented and maintained

  • by the powerful wizards we call lawyers.

  • (Laughter)

  • And what do corporations do all day?

  • Mostly, they try to make money.

  • Yet, what is money?

  • Again, money is not an objective reality; it has no objective value.

  • Take this green piece of paper, the dollar bill.

  • Look at it -- it has no value.

  • You cannot eat it, you cannot drink it,

  • you cannot wear it.

  • But then came along these master storytellers --

  • the big bankers,

  • the finance ministers,

  • the prime ministers --

  • and they tell us a very convincing story:

  • "Look, you see this green piece of paper?

  • It is actually worth 10 bananas."

  • And if I believe it, and you believe it,

  • and everybody believes it,

  • it actually works.

  • I can take this worthless piece of paper,

  • go to the supermarket,

  • give it to a complete stranger whom I've never met before,

  • and get, in exchange, real bananas which I can actually eat.

  • This is something amazing.

  • You could never do it with chimpanzees.

  • Chimpanzees trade, of course:

  • "Yes, you give me a coconut, I'll give you a banana."

  • That can work.

  • But, you give me a worthless piece of paper

  • and you except me to give you a banana?

  • No way!

  • What do you think I am, a human?

  • (Laughter)

  • Money, in fact, is the most successful story

  • ever invented and told by humans,

  • because it is the only story everybody believes.

  • Not everybody believes in God,

  • not everybody believes in human rights,

  • not everybody believes in nationalism,

  • but everybody believes in money, and in the dollar bill.

  • Take, even, Osama Bin Laden.

  • He hated American politics and American religion

  • and American culture,

  • but he had no objection to American dollars.

  • He was quite fond of them, actually.

  • (Laughter)

  • To conclude, then:

  • 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.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • Bruno Giussani: Yuval, you have a new book out.

  • After Sapiens, you wrote another one,

  • and it's out in Hebrew, but not yet translated into ...

  • Yuval Noah Harari: I'm working on the translation as we speak.

  • BG: In the book, if I understand it correctly,

  • you argue that the amazing breakthroughs that we are experiencing right now