The last two weeks I’ve been roaming up the East Coast in an RV with my family, which has given me a chance to start digging into a book numerous people have recommended. Bill Gates and Barack Obama cite this book as one we should all read if we want to understand where humanity may be headed.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari walks through the emergence of Homo sapiens from unremarkable creatures in the middle of the food chain to our current position at the top.
What enabled us to climb to dominance?
Like many, perhaps you as well, I assumed our brains were our advantage. We are simply smarter so could design better tools and learn more quickly than those who competed for our food or threatened our safety. The word “sapiens,” after all, derives from the Latin word for “to be wise.”
But I was wrong.
Other species of humans like Neanderthals actually had larger brain capacity. They were also stronger, larger, and better equipped to survive in cold climates.
If our brains didn’t make the difference, what did?
Harari argues it was our language. While other creatures developed descriptive language (“Watch out, there is a lion in the brush!”) we were the first, and still the only, creatures that could use language to describe imaginary things. We could talk about possibilities, create myths, and paint visions of the future.
This ability to describe things that are not (yet) real enabled us to coordinate the efforts of people at a scale no other creatures could. We could evoke gods and destinies that moved masses of people to fight to the death and construct temples or fortresses. While Neanderthals could coordinate a clan of a few dozen, we could round up hundreds and overwhelm our enemies.
It is no surprise, then, that great organizations form behind compelling visions and missions, created and transmitted through language. It is no surprise that humankind’s greatest innovations were driven not by a few geniuses but by the spontaneous coordination of crowds in pursuit of a common goal.
Language creates vision and vision activates action. This is our unique birthright.