Full text of history professor Yuval Noah Harari, on why humans run the world at TED conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Why Humans Run the World by Yuval Noah Harari at TED Talks
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. If 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.