Following is the full transcript of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s TEDx Talk titled “Bananas in Heaven” at TEDxJaffa conference.
Listen to the MP3 audio while reading the transcript: Bananas in heaven by Yuval Noah Harari at TEDxJaffa
70,000 years ago, humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing you need to know about our prehistoric ancestors is that they were unimportant animals. Their impact on the world was not greater than that of fireflies, or jellyfish, or woodpeckers.
Today, on the other hand, we control this planet. And what I would like to talk about today is how exactly did we reach 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?
Well usually, when we try to answer this question, we look for the answer on the individual level. We want to believe, I want to believe, that there is something special about me, that there is something special about my body, about my brain, that makes me such a superior creature, to a dog, or a pig, or a chimpanzee.
But the fact is that on the individual level, I’m embarrassingly similar to a chimpanzee. If you put me and a chimpanzee together on a lone island, and we had to struggle for survival, I would definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee, not on myself. And it is not something wrong with me personally. I guess it’s true of you also that if they took anyone of you, almost anyone, and placed you on a lone island with the chimpanzee, the chimpanzee will do better.
The real advantage of humans is in their unique ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. They are the only animals that can do that.
There are some other animals like the social insects, the bees, and the ants that can cooperate also in quite large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. They’re inflexible in the way that they cooperate. If there is a new opportunity, or a new danger, the beehive cannot change overnight its social system, the way that they cooperate, say: “Execute the Queen, and let’s have a Republic of bees.” They can’t do it, they’re rigid in the way that they function.
Though other social animals like wolves, like dolphins, like chimpanzees, are much more flexible in the way that they cooperate, but they can do so only in very small numbers. Because corporation among wolves or among chimpanzees, depends on intimate and personal knowledge, acquaintance, one of the other.
If I’m a chimpanzee, and you’re a chimpanzee, and I want to cooperate with you, I need to know who you are. Are you a good chimpanzee? Are you an evil chimpanzee? Are you reliable? Are you a cheat? If I don’t know you, how can I cooperate with you?
Humans are the only ones that can combine the two abilities together, cooperate very flexibly, much more than chimps, but in very large numbers, especially with large numbers of strangers. One versus one, we may not be superior to chimpanzees. But if you place 1,000 humans and 1,000 chimps together on a lone island and they have to struggle, then the humans will definitely win for the simple reason that 1,000 chimpanzees cannot cooperate at all.
And if you now take 100,000 chimpanzees, and cram these 100,000 chimpanzees into Yankee Stadium, or Wall Street, you will get chaos, complete chaos. But if you take 100,000 humans and cram them together into Wall Street, or into Yankee Stadium, you get amazingly sophisticated networks of cooperation that are the real basis for human dominion on planet Earth.
Take even this talk that I’m now giving in front of you. I don’t know most of you. There are about 200 people now in the auditorium. I know maybe two or three of them really well, all the others are basically strangers to me. I don’t really know the people who organized this event. Yes, I’ve met them once or twice, for rehearsals and so forth, but I can’t say I really know them intimately.
I certainly don’t know the people who invented this microphone, and this computer, and this camera which we are using. I don’t know the persons behind the cameras who are now taking footage of what I say. And I don’t know the people who might be watching this talk over the Internet, somewhere maybe in New Guinea, New Delhi, Buenos Aires or New York.
Yet, all of us strangers cooperate together in a very flexible and sophisticated way to create this global exchange of knowledge. This is something that chimps don’t do. You will never catch a chimpanzee standing in front of an audience of 200 other chimps and giving a talk about bananas, or about humans, or something. Only humans do such things.
It should also be said, however, that chimps not only don’t give talks to strangers but they also don’t have prisons, they don’t have concentration camps, they don’t have slaughterhouses, they don’t have arms factories. Cooperation is not always nice.
Often when we think about cooperation, we think about Sesame Street and teaching children to cooperate together, but all the terrible things that humans have been doing, still are doing in the world, they too are the outcome of this ability to cooperate flexibly in very, very large numbers.
Now, suppose I’ve managed to convince you that the secret of success of our species is this ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.