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.
The next question that immediately arises in the mind of an inquisitive person is how exactly humans do it? What gives us this ability to do something no other animal can do? And the answer is our imagination. Humans cooperate flexibly in large numbers because humans can create imagined realities together. All other animals use their communication system in order to describe reality.
A chimpanzee can say, “Look there is a lion! Run away!” or “Look, there is a banana, let’s take it!”
Humans can use their language not only to describe reality but also to create new realities, to create fiction. A human can say: “Look there is a lion!” or “Look, there is a banana!” but the human can also say, “Look there is a God above the clouds, and if you don’t do what they tell you to do, God will punish you.” And if you believe this fictional story, then you will do what you are told to do.
And this is the secret behind large-scale human corporation. As long as everybody believes in the same fictional stories, everybody obeys the same laws, the same rules, and the same norms. And this is something that only humans can do.
You can never convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by telling him: “Look if you do what I tell you to do, you know what will happen? After you die, you’ll go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on Earth. So now do what I tell you to do.”
No chimpanzee will ever believe such a story, no chimpanzee will ever be willing to do anything for you in exchange for such promises. Only humans can believe such fictions. And this is why humans control the world, whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
Now, you may find it possible to accept that, in the religious field, cooperation is based on fiction, that a lot of people, a lot of strangers, come together to build a cathedral, or a synagogue, or a mosque, or go on crusades together, because they all believe the same stories about God, Heaven, and Hell, and so forth.
But what I want to emphasize, it is exactly the same thing happens in all other fields of human corporation: in the legal field, in the political field, in the economic field as well.
Take the legal field as an example. Today in the world, many, maybe most legal systems are based on this idea, this belief, in human rights. But human rights are just like Heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we’ve invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story, it may be a very attractive story, you want to believe it, but it’s just a story. It’s not a reality. It is not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish, and woodpeckers, and ostriches have no rights, Home Sapiens have no rights also.
Take a human, cut him open, look inside, you find there blood, and you find the heart, and lungs, and kidneys, but you don’t find there any rights. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around.
And the same thing is also true in the political field. States and nations are also like human rights, and like God, and like heaven, they too are just stories.
A mountain is a reality. You can see it, you can touch it, and even smell it, but Israel, or United States, they are just stories, very powerful stories, stories we might want to believe very much, but still they are just stories. You can’t really see the United States, you cannot touch it, you cannot smell it.
But the most successful story of all probably, is the story of money, which is one of the main foundations of our economic system. What is money? You take this green piece of paper, say the dollar bill. You can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t wear it. It has no value.
But then come along these master storytellers, the great bankers, the financial ministers, the Prime Ministers, the Presidents, and they tell a very convincing story: “Look! You see this green piece of paper? It is actually worth 10 bananas.” And I believe it, and you believe it, everybody believes it.
And as long as everybody believes it, it works. It really works! It enables us to construct extremely sophisticated networks of economic cooperation, which, as I said, gave us, and not the chimps, dominion over the world.
And money is really the most successful story of all, because it’s the only story everybody believes. Not everybody believes in God, not everybody believes in human rights, not everybody believes in the United States, but everybody believes in money. And everybody believes in the dollar bill. Even Osama bin Laden: he hated American politics, he hated American religion, he hated American culture, but he had nothing against American dollars. He was quite fond of American dollars. This is the most successful story ever told.
To conclude then, humans control the world and not any other animal because humans live in a dual reality. All other animals – they live in an objective reality. Their reality consists of objective entities like rivers, and mountains, and trees, and lions, and elephants.