It’s amazing that we get along as well as we do. I recently read “A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, in which he points out the truly unique thing about human beings–the thing that distinguishes us from the family pet and other animals–is our ability to have a commonly held belief about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated at all. At a given time of day, you cannot convince a dog it is not time to eat or go for a walk.
Dr. Harari says “The truly unique feature of Homo Sapiens language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.”
Before the Cognitive Revolution, many animal and human species could say “Careful! A lion!” Later they acquired the ability to say “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This is about the time that legends, myths gods and religions appeared for the first time.
The Carnarvon cave paintings at Queensland, Australia
Aboriginal cave paintings whether in Australia, France or the United States, depict the common beliefs of the people living there at that time.
It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. Why is it important? Because fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting.
Any large-scale human cooperation is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. States are rooted in common national myths.
We seem to gather into ‘silos’ of common belief, clearly demonstrated in the presidential performances here in the United States. One of the most interesting beliefs is that of Donald Trump, who has convinced himself, though not any of the people who supposedly would know, that ‘thousands and thousands of people danced and cheered in the streets of New Jersey, as the World Trade Centers were blown down.
This is reminiscent of the aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, or the Loch Ness monster in Scotland who pops up for air every few years. Bigfoot I could believe—maybe.
But the truth is our own, and thank whoever or whatever, that we can cherish our own beliefs.