Friday, April 07, 2017

Imaginary Realities

And as imagination bodies forth. The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name....Midsummer Night's Dream Act V, Scene 1.

A few years ago I took a history of mankind course online from Yuval Noah Harari. His course was closely related to his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which at the time was only available in Hebrew and German.

I recently bought the English version, and have started reading it. Harari is not afraid to challenge popular opinion or dogma. He refers to gods, nations, religions, human rights and corporations as imaginary entities. Not that he thinks there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary, he believes that the "cognitive revolution" that separated us from our neandertal, denisovan, erectus and other brother species of Homo extant 70,000 years ago began with our ability to create such cultural constructs as tribes, tribal totems, and tribal spirits as well as related narratives. These "imaginary realities" allowed sapiens to cooperate in larger groups. Moreover, because of their plasticity, these fictions are able to adjust to changing situations much more rapidly than any genetically based device.

Of course there is ample evidence of such cultural constructs in modern times - he picks Peugeot and the Catholic Church as illustration. It's equally obvious that we don't know much about the basis of cooperation 70,000 years ago but we do know that sapiens had already begun to cooperate in groups larger than the neandertals, so their is at least a plausibility argument that that large group cooperation was what allowed our ancestors to sweep away neandertals and all our our brother species of Homo.