Gimme some gossip!

This is something I read recently. We have evolved from those primitive Homo sapiens, leaving behind our fellow humans like the Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis in the race to survive. Why did we win such a consequential race? Well because we were better at gossiping.

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? No one knows the answer to that. But what it meant was that we started to use language. Although every animal has some kind of language, some being really sophisticated and complex means of communicating( look at the bees and the whales), ours was better because it was flexible. We can connect and produce infinite number of sounds and communicate infinite number of ideas. Our language has in fact evolved as a means of gossiping. We can do that for hours on end. All of us.

Imagine a band of fifty Homo sapiens, you are one of them. In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1225 one-on-one relationships,

In case you’re wondering why 1225,

n(n+1)/2 where n is 49 because you can have 49 relationships in that band

and countless more complex social combinations. All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively. Since you are a Homo sapien, you would not have a hard time talking behind each other’s backs. It’s a great quality. Your band mates need more information than just knowing where the food is, they need to know who is honest, who can be trusted, who is a cheat, who is sleeping with whom and who’s feeling lonely. This helps in cooperation and maybe allows your band to grow into a bigger and stronger band.

In addition to this, it has allowed us to create myths, legends, gods and religion. We can speak fiction. A horse would never tell its friend that he won’t share his grass with him because an entity in the sky has asked him not to, whereas in reality the horse simply wants more grass to itself. We successfully fool ourselves and others with this crap all the time. But then again, these imagined realities and stories have helped us form huge networks and enable us to work with people we have no intimate relations with because we have some common beliefs.

None of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. That’s some scary shit right there. Telling effective stories is not that difficult, the real challenge lies in convincing people to believe it. They believe it when they see a few sincerely believing it. Most millionaires believe in capitalism, most activists believe in human rights, most leaders believe in democratic institutions and now all of us believe it. We live in it.

If you find this stuff interesting and wish to read more about it, I suggest you Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

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