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Why did Homo sapiens persist over the stronger Neanderthals? Storytelling, says this anthropologist

Why did Homo sapiens persist over the stronger Neanderthals? Storytelling, says this anthropologist

Professor Yuval Noah Harari meditates for two hours a day and doesn’t own a smartphone. He’s a globally respected writer and thinker, and authored the books Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and most recently, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

He is a much sought-after speaker, but he rejects 99 per cent of interview requests. Earlier this month, however, triple j’s Hack program secured Harari for a podcast interview, in which he discussed his ideas about humanity, biotechnology, and the rise of Homo sapiens.

During the interview, he elaborated on the points he raises in Sapiens about how humans came to dominate the earth and rise to the top of the food chain. How did we outlive the Neanderthals, who boasted such greater physical strength than us?

‘We are the only mammal that can cooperate in very large numbers,’ said Harari. ‘This is something the Neanderthals, or chimpanzees, or dolphins or elephants cannot do. We can cooperate in thousands, millions, and today, billions.’

So what evolutionary trait allows us to cooperate in such a unique way?

‘It’s our imagination. It’s our ability to invent, and believe in fictional stories,’ said Harari.

‘If you examine any large-scale human cooperation system, you will always find, at the basis, a belief in some myth, in some fictional story.’

Harari says the obvious example of this is in religious traditions, but our ability to imagine and tell stories also bands us together around political and economic systems.

‘If you think about the world of today, the most powerful fictional stories are not about gods, they are about fictional entities called corporations and currencies. Google and Toyota don’t exists anywhere except in the stories we invent and tell each other.’

‘A dollar had no intrinsic value. You cannot eat or drink it. But because everybody believes the stories that the bankers and the politicians tell about the dollar, it is very powerful. We can use it to cooperate with complete strangers we have never met before.’

Listen to the fascinating interview here, and find out more about Sapiens here