Gossip and Myth: Pillars of Civilization

These are two of my favorite takeaways from Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind.

On Gossip:

...the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. In other words, It's much more important ... to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom , who is honest and who is a cheat. Harari lays out this conjecture in such logical terms that it is hard to refute him. It may even provide a framework in which to view today's social media maelstrom as a kind of sorting process. But he doesn't really go there, so I digress.

On Myth:

Still, Harari claims, gossip is really only operative as a cohering principle in groups under 150. Beyond that critical threshhold, you need fiction. You need myth. Any large-scale human cooperation, Harari argues, is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Religion, states, judicial systems, and "ocracies" of all kinds, are all products of the human imagination. Human willingness to believe.

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 is an heretical statement in today's liberal democracies, and it can be hard to wrap one's head around it, and yet, when you do, you see the reality of it. We are what we believe. And when we cease to believe? What then?

There's a lot of food for thought in this book, including some bits I found hard to swallow (I'm rather fond of the agricultural revolution, seeing as how it led to Shakespeare and Doctor Who), but I'll pin my endorsement on the two revolutionary ideas he introduces above.

Gossip and Myth. We couldn't have gotten this far without them.