Learning vs. knowing: Is one of my favorite #Success stories a lie?

Cave Dweller to Counsellor? Oh, the Stories We Tell!


In this edition of Marginalia, we’ll be digging into some of the lessons – and mysteries – from our earliest ancestors as they developed the ability to tell stories. And consider how that evolution may guide us in telling our own stories about ourselves and our businesses.



My scribbled thoughts and questions this time were prompted by the fascinating and provocative Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I've only read my way into Part Two of the book, so I suspect there will be another post or two down the road, possibly even updates to this one.

But I couldn't wait to share some of the insights and ideas that intrigued me from Harari's Part One: The Cognitive Revolution.


The first two thousand millennia

Harari's treatment of the 2 million years or so before our species, sapiens, emerged from the evolutionary stream is relatively brief. Of necessity. Because, as he admits on behalf of science, much of what we can say about humans during that long history of our genus, Homo, is pretty sketchy and speculative.

But we do know one thing that prompted my first marginal note:

" 'we' were not alone."

My reaction followed his description of how many other species of humans (genus Homo) that we've discovered solid evidence for: erectus, soloensis, neanderthalis, floresiensis, denisova, rudolphensis, egaster. And his reminder:

"It's a common fallacy to envision these species as arranged in a straight line of descent, with Egraster begetting Erectus, Erectus begetting the Neanderthals, and the Neanderthals evolving into us. This linear model gives the mistaken impression that at any particular moment only one type of human inhabited the earth . . ."

Here's the part that I had never fully understood:

"The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species."

What perhaps surprised me most as I digested that statement was my memory that Neanderthals were extinct by at least 30,000 years ago. It turns out we have another cousin species, Homo floresiensis, who evolved to a dwarf size on a single Indonesian island (as far as we know) and continued there until at least 12,000 years ago.

While the other human species were evolving in various parts of the earth over those millions of years, the earliest we can identify our sapiens species emerging in East Africa is around 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals had been living for a long time already in Europe and the Middle East, dating back over 400,000 years ago. 

By 150,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had populated a large area of East Africa, but for long after that other humans continued to thrive around the world. As Harari puts it:

"The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man."

The story of how sapiens spread around the globe and became the last human species standing (so far) is subject to both speculation and dispute, possibly even some guilt. Harari delves into the possibilities, but here I want to focus on what must certainly be a contributing factor. What Harari calls the Cognitive Revolution.


The "Tree of Knowledge" mutation

From the evidence we have available, sapiens was just another human species for more than the first 200,000 years of our existence. The evidence we have suggests that we

"did not enjoy any marked advantage over other human species, did not produce particularly sophisticated tools, and did not accomplish any other special feats."

And Harari points out that our entire genus Homo over the previous millions of years was "an animal of no significance"!

Something changed around 70,000 years ago.

The change is evidenced by what sapiens started doing, migrating out of Africa in large numbers, moving throughout Eurasia, and about 45,000 years ago crossing open sea to settle in Australia. By 30,000 years ago, we'd begun leaving art objects behind. 

In that span of about 40,000 years, our species went on a binge of invention.

"The period ... witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce, and social stratification."

What enabled sapiens to do such things, leaping ahead from what our species had been doing for hundreds of thousands of years?

Harari explains:

"Scholars speculate that the internal structure of the brains of these [earlier] Sapiens was probably different from ours. They looked like us, but their cognitive abilities – learning, remembering, communicating – were far more limited."

Critically, this theory asserts that whatever language abilities they had were fundamentally different. They could not have learned modern languages, nor would we have an easy time learning theirs or understanding how they thought.

Speculating further, to explain what changed 70,000 years ago:

"Most researchers believe ... [there was] a revolution in Sapiens' cognitive abilities ... [making them] as intelligent, creative, and sensitive as we are. If we were to come across the artists of the Stadel Cave [from c. 32,000 years ago], we could learn their language and they ours."

The Cognitive Revolution. As to its cause, cautioning again that "we're not sure," he adds:

"The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language."


It's not what we (can) say

You'll likely be quick to note that lots of animals have language abilities. Harari does, too. He goes so far as to write:

"Every animal has some type of language. Even insects, such as bees and ants, know how to communicate in sophisticated ways. ... For example, green monkeys use calls of various kinds to communicate. Zoologists have identified one call that means, 'Careful! An eagle!' A slightly different call warns, 'Careful! A lion!' ... A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming, and sirens wailing."

What makes our "newly" acquired language abilities unique? Harari notes the fact that we've developed our ability to use our relatively limited number of sounds and symbols to produce an infinite number of meanings. He offers this example:

"A green monkey can yell to its comrades, 'Careful! A lion!' But a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison."

Beyond the complex information carrying capacity of this advance in language ability, Harari points out that others emphasize a subset of information about other humans: gossip.

They contend that it's the ability to convey and remember information about the relationships in their groups, who can be trusted, who influences whom, and so on, that enabled us to cooperate in ever larger groups and emerge as the dominant species on the planet.

But Harari argues that these are not the most important language capabilities our mutant brains developed. He explains:

"[T]he truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled."

I wrote next to that:

"Fiction is what makes our 'language' unique!"


Fiction enables flexible cooperation at scale

Again, we know that other species cooperate and some do so in large numbers, e.g., ants and bees. But Harari reminds us that ants and bees only cooperate among the offspring of their queens. And other species, like wolves, only do so in relatively small packs where the individuals know each other intimately.

"But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively."

We can imagine and then tell others stories about our past, our beliefs, our values, and our mission. We can adopt sets of those stories as a group.

With our language abilities, we can spread a story far and wide, to people who have never met – or even lived in the same time as – the person who first imagined it.

As Harari explains, this ability sets sapiens apart from the way small, but highly social groups of chimpazees and likely other species of humans operate. They engage in complex social behaviors, form hierarchies, and cooperate well.

But the social structures of such groups depend on knowing and interacting with each other directly. And their size seems to be limited by Dunbar's number, the observation that such social groups can't function well much beyond 150 individuals.

Our species, of course, found a way around that barrier. We built cities, armies, nations with thousands and even millions of individuals. Most members of such groups never meet or know much about most of the other members.

How did we do so? Harari's answer:

"The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believeing in common myths."

Which brings us to blaming the lawyers.


The legal fictions we inhabit

I don't know Harari, but I got the sense that he enjoyed pinning much of the blame for how things are today on lawyers – or credit, I suppose, depending on how you think our evolution is going.

He starts by noting:

"Any large-scale human cooperation ... is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination."

Among his examples, he states:

"Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees."

Staying with the legal fiction theme, he contrasts what we view as primitive cultures:

"People easily recognize that 'primitives' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits ... [but] fail to appreciate that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations."

His next lines drive home my suspicion that he was having a lot of fun writing this part:

"Modern business people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales."

From there he recounts what he calls "the legend of Peugeot," showing how the company, Peugeot SA, was formed by having lawyers put the correct (magic?) words on paper and file them with the correct government officials. He shows how that legal entity exists completely separate from the cars it builds, factories it owns, and people it employs – even from the people who own it! 

"In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist?"

After reviewing some history of limited liability companies, calling them one of our "most ingenious inventions," he gets to the point about why legal fictions like this are important to our ability to function and cooperate in large numbers:

"Once the lawyer had performed all the rites and rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if  the Peugeot company really existed."


Imagined reality vs. lying

We need to examine the crucial distinction Harari draws between collective imagined realities and lies.

A lie is when someone tells another that some fact is true, knowing it is false. Even green monkeys and champanzees can lie, as in Harari's example of a green monkey making the sounds for, "Careful! A lion!" when no lion was nearby, to frighten a group of monkeys away from a banana one had found, so that the liar could steal it.

He goes on:

"Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world."

To illustrate the distinction, he offers this example:

"Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya, and human rights are all figments of our fertile imaginations."

And the forces that our imagined realities exert can become more powerful than physical reality. As Harari warns:

"[T]oday the very survival of rivers, trees, and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google."


The stories we tell

All this got me thinking about the popular advice to small business owners to tell their "stories." When we think about the aspects of our business life that go into such stories, we quickly go from the objective reality of events in our past to the conceptual or imagined realities of how those events shape our purpose, values, mission, and so on.

As Harari observes about the larger stories behind nations and multi-national corporations:

"Telling effective stories is not easy. ... Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince ... people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables ... strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals."

He also notes that:

"Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations."

Once we settle on what story to tell about ourselves and our business, we must start immediately to "behave as if" the story is real, if we're not already fully doing so.

We must share it with others and if it succeeds, they will find it appealing and accept it as part of their reality.

And to keep our dual reality balanced, we must get to work filling in our story with real objects, people, and results.

When we can do all that, the collective imagined reality in our part of the universe becomes powerful, indeed.