Book mentioned: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
We know from anthropological evidence that biological humans have existed in some shape or form for hundreds of thousands of years (or even millions depending on the level of abstraction). However, sophisticated societies with trade, religions, tools and technology have only existed for tens of thousands of years.
What changed in that time?
A major part of the answer is the ability of Homo Sapiens to believe in shared fictions, a quality that set us apart from Neanderthals and other species that did not survive to the present day. In "Sapiens", Yuval Noah Harari suggests that since the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago), humans have been living in a dual reality:
- The objective reality of physical and observable items – animals, trees, land, sea.
- An imagined reality of things that only exist because we all collectively believe in them – gods, nations, corporations.
Shared fiction: An imaginary concept that actually holds power because society at large believes in it.
Examples of shared fictions
Think of something like money. The £20 note in your hand inherently has very little value. You could burn the paper for some warmth, or perhaps write on it. Unless other people collectively accept a social construct – that these notes represent resources / value – your money is useless. In fact, your note will usually have a promise from the state treasury that it will pay the note bearer 20 pounds – even the note doesn't claim itself to be the "20 pounds" that you think it is! It is a shared fiction that only has power because a critical mass of people believes in it.
What about corporations? Take Apple Inc. Where does it actually exist? You see the Apple logo on phones and laptops everywhere, but they're not collectively the company. If they all disappeared tomorrow, the company would still exist and continue making phones. Same thing if all its factories and offices disappeared. Or if the CEO disappeared.
The company is a "legal fiction" that exists in law, but is not tied to anything physical. It only exists within a world where we collectively believe in the existence of limited liability companies. This was a revolutionary concept, because prior to its existence, enterprises were largely limited to the influence of one person / family. However, the concept of having a company that exists in law separate from it's owner(s) creates a level of abstraction that allows it to grow far beyond that limit.
Society depends on shared fictions
What else can you think of that only exists because other people also believe in it? Nations, commerce, religious structures – building blocks of modern society all stem from the concept of shared fictions.
I was personally fascinated by this idea. We're born into a society that has been in the making for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Yet because we only experience a short sliver of it, it's difficult to appreciate just how fundamental certain aspects of it are.
If you found this interesting, I'd recommend picking up Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (~15 hour read) to learn more about other developments in the history of our species.