Here is the thing.
Writing a ‘long-story-short’ version of all of human history is a fascinating challenge in itself. That coupled with plenty of events and intricacies, wars and conquests, causal events, coincidences, and theories – some complicated, some confounded, some unfounded, and some yet to be dissected, is a daunting task to do. Bearing in mind that I am just an enthusiast and not a historian by any means (not even remotely), I will try my best to narrate from whatever I have been able to learn till now. So, here we go!
Whenever we talk about human history, it is often easier to talk in terms of a few groundbreaking milestones to trace the overall journey.
And usually, three revolutions are often attributed as the most influential in driving human history to what it is today.
- Agriculture Revolution
- Scientific Revolution
- Industrial Revolution
Agricultural Revolution led to humans being able to have a surplus of food and resources, which signified two key matters. First, people didn’t have to roam around like the early hunters/foragers and could settle in a permanent place. Second, not everyone had to work all the time in the search for resources. This led to the diversification of human roles, the need for efficient resource management, and the idea of a permanent home, creation of civilizations, societies, priests, religions, kings, states, and eventually empires.
Scientific Revolution meant people for the first time could look beyond god or some supernatural in answering the questions surrounding the world. The realization that it was not gods responsible for rain, drought, disease or famine meant people could pursue realities driven by science, leading to the birth of pure sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology.
The birth of the Scientific Revolution meant the birth of ideas, inventions, and innovation, and the start of industrial revolution. People could create advanced machineries to not only aid their daily work but to control the world in a manner never seen before.
And if we are to look at the present, it seems like we are in the cusp of yet another important revolution – the Artificial Intelligence Revolution.
But, what led to these otherwise average in size and strength animals in the food chain to take control over the earth and bring about all these revolutions? Why aren’t other animals – some massive in size and some far more ferocious in nature – controlling the humans and assuming the main roles in the world?
And not just these animals, why were other human species not able to drive all these agriculture, scientific, industrial, and possibly artificial intelligence revolution?
The answer to these lies in yet another revolution, known as the Cognitive Revolution.
But before we go into the Cognitive Revolution, let us take ourselves even further back in time and talk about another important milestone – the discovery of fire. Early humans before the discovery of fire had to undergo daunting adversities just for their survival from other animals and retrieval of food resources. So the discovery of fire, some 800,000 years ago, was pivotal for the survival of the human race. When the fire was domesticated, it helped the early humans in two other ways apart being a reliable source of energy for light and warmth. First, domestication of fire meant they could now easily destroy or at least isolate themselves from their enemies, giving them a solid defense approach and protection. Second, it also meant they could cook their food which not only reduced their food consumption time but also greatly increased their range of consumable food resources. It also increased their metabolism since the cooked food was easier to digest, and also devoid of germs and parasites.
Still, the discovery of fire wasn’t the groundbreaking breakthrough that enabled humans to usurp everyone in the hierarchy. And as the fire was discovered long before the Sapiens had emerged, it is not that Sapiens alone enjoyed any unique advantage over other human species because of fire. So, what made the Sapiens unique over others, who were otherwise confined to East Africa 150,000 years ago, in the last 70,000 years?
This is where the idea of the Cognitive Revolution comes in.
Cognitive Revolution is the theory that introduces the idea that some accidental genetic mutations must have changed the inner wirings of the brains of the Sapiens – somewhere between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago – which enabled them to think intelligently, and communicate with each other using languages far richer than any other at the time or still prevalent among other animals.
The invention of complex human languages is considered by some as the greatest invention of all. With a limited number of sounds and symbols, humans were able to create languages that enabled them to share information in a detailed and enormous amount. And this is where I was intrigued and awestruck by the idea of a unique human weapon put forward by Yuval Noah Harrari in his book called Sapiens. This human weapon enabled humans to create civilizations, states, empires, and law and order, and is only realizable because of far more complex human languages.
The weapon is our human ability to create myth, to create fiction.
And these fictions, when believed by a large number, become sort of like a given fact or reality; this fictional reality subsequently enabling humans to work and cooperate flexibility in large numbers, and to believe in a world that in reality exists only on ideas and papers.
Think of the world around us. Almost everything that we believe in, and base our life upon, everything that feels so real and almost natural, is actually a fiction. Concepts like country, law, money, and religion, which are all human creations, feel more real to us than real things like rock, river, trees, and mountains, purely because these fictional concepts are more central to our daily lives, and it is these concepts that drive us.
The way these fictions shape the way we think and live, we don’t even have to wait for significant genetic alteration (which would take thousands of years) to react in a different way. Almost overnight, two families living side by side all their lives can become even more connected to each other legally by establishing a company (a fiction), or can turn into overnight enemies because of some rift in their religious values (a fiction), or can even turn into citizens of two enemy states due to some new demarcation of a boundary line (another fiction).
So, these fictions have enabled us to bypass the genetic alteration all together to think, act, and live differently. That’s why it is no wonder that ever since this weapon of creating fiction was first unleashed, human history has been far more volatile and tumultuous, and is often a tale of both wonder and horror, assimilation and genocide, wars and conquests, and above all the inventions, innovations and law and order that have blended together to give rise to the modern world that we see today.
The two fictions that have shaped human history the most and the ones that feel almost real and universal to us are Religion and Money. If you think about it, most of our actions from the moment we wake up – be it our morning prayers or the job we do, conversations we have or the rituals we perform – most of our actions are shaped, one way or another, by Religion and Money. In fact, it is not just our actions, but also our thoughts – from what we think to how we think about things in general – that are shaped by these two. Therefore, it is no coincidence that if our human story on earth were to be turned into a two hour movie, Religion and Money would be the two central characters.
Therefore, in our next few articles, we will try to trace our human story with the aid of our two central characters. And it is our first character, Religion, that we will look into first.
Next up, the Origin of Religion on Earth.