Our Human Superpower

In his 2015 bestseller SAPIENS, historian Yuval Noah Harari recounts how, 70,000 years ago, our ancestors migrated out of Africa and took over the world. He notes that there were already multiple human species established in Europe and Asia (Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc.), and yet Homo Sapiens quickly (in relative terms) supplanted them. The secret to our ancestors’ success, according to Harari, was the ability to communicate in language in a way that no others ever had.

As far as we know, only Homo Sapiens can talk about things we have never seen, touched or smelled. This enables us to create fantasies, legends, myths, religions—whole possible futures—in our speaking. Which allows greater and greater numbers of people to share common beliefs and to collaborate together. For example, among all animals, only humans conduct trade.

Ever since this “Cognitive Revolution,” as Harari calls it, humans have viewed reality through two lenses: the present physical reality and the possible one that lives in our imagination. We use language to describe the current reality, but the possible reality exists entirely in language—which gives us the power to transform it.

We can change our reality by changing the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell each other. If you think about it, we humans have done it many times. It’s our superpower.


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