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:
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.
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.
We humans also live in an objective reality. In our reality too, there are rivers, and trees, and lions, and elephants. But, on top of this objective reality, we humans have constructed a second layer of fictional reality. A reality consisting of stories, of fictional entities that exist only in our imagination, entities like states, like money, like human rights, like God.
And the amazing thing is, that, as history went along, the fictional reality became more and more powerful. Until today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities.
The very survival of rivers, and trees, and lions, and chimpanzees, today depends on the wishes and decisions of fictional entities like United States, or like Google, or like the World Bank, entities that in fact, exist only in our common imagination.