Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Role of Gossiping in Human Progress

Depiction of the Stone Age, by Viktor Vasnetsov
Human beings have a natural and unusual ability for making great progress by indulging in acts that are trivial. It is likely that the wheel was invented around 70,000 years ago when a group of children started using a circular piece of wood or stone as their new toy. After years of watching their children play around with circular objects, some of the grownups realized that the wheel could be used to transport heavy loads across large distances.

Boats, bows and arrows, oil lamps, and needles (which are essential for sewing animal skin) were invented during the same period, probably by children looking for new toys, or foolish adults who didn’t have anything better to do other than tinkering with trivial things and ideas. The dogs were first domesticated about 30,000 years ago and in another 15,000 years all human tribes had their dogs. But it is plausible that the dog was first domesticated by a child looking for a companion, or by a foolish adult or an outcast from the tribe. After it became apparent that the dog could be domesticated, the tribal leaders realized that they could use the animal as a hunting partner and for guarding the tribe.

It is the childish and the foolish minds which venture into areas that are ignored by the experienced and successful members of the community.

Yuval Noah Harari, in Chapter 2, “The Tree of Knowledge,” of his book  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, talks about the critical role that gossiping, a “trivial” human habit which is often frowned upon, has played in human progress. He writes: “Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”

According to Harari, language and the human trait of gossiping progressed side-by-side between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. “The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.”

One impact of gossiping was that the size of the average size of the tribes grew to around 150 individuals—this was a fairly large number in that period. Further growth in the size of the tribes happened with the Cognitive Revolution which brought to human beings the power of thinking and talking about things that no one has ever seen, heard, or smelled. When human beings started talking about the supernatural, there was the appearance of legends, myths, gods, and religions. Harari notes that “Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’”

“But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

What sets the human beings apart from other animals on this planet is that for humans the trivial is not trivial—it can be the fountainhead of great progress. The first steps in the advancement of humankind were not taken by the philosophers, scientists, politicians, and businessmen, but by toymakers, gossipers, weavers of myths, and preachers of religion.

(All quotes from Harari’s book that I have used in this article are from Chapter 2, “The Tree of Knowledge”).

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