Sapiens: How Shared Myths Change the World

I recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens and loved it. In additional to fascinating and disturbing details about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens and a wonderful account of human history, he has a really interesting way of talking about the cognitive abilities that make humans distinct from other species. I’ll dive right into this latter topic in this post.

Imagine two people in a prisoner’s dilemma. To try to make it relevant to our ancestral environment, let’s say that they are strangers running into one another, and each see that the other has some resources. There are four possible outcomes. First, they could both cooperate and team up to catch some food that neither would be able to get on their own, and then share the food. Second, they could both defect, attacking each other and both walking away badly injured. And third and fourth, one could cooperate while the other defects, corresponding to one of them stabbing the other in the back and taking their resources. (Let’s suppose that each of the two are currently holding resources of more value than they could obtain by teaming up and hunting.)

Now, the problem is that on standard accounts of rational decision making, the decision that maximizes expected reward for each individual is to defect. That’s bad! The best outcome for everybody is that the two team up and share the loot, and neither walks away injured!

You might just respond “Well, who cares about what our theory of rational decision making says? Humans aren’t rational.” We’ll come back to this in a bit. But for now I’ll say that the problem is not just that our theory of rationality says that we should defect. It’s that this line of reasoning implies that cooperating is an unstable strategy. Imagine a society fully populated with cooperators. Now suppose an individual appears with a mutation that causes them to defect. This defector outperforms the cooperators, because they get to keep stabbing people in the back and stealing their loot and never have to worry about anybody doing the same to them. The result is then that the “gene for defecting” (speaking very metaphorically at this point; the behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be transmitted genetically) spreads like a virus through the population, eventually transforming our society of cooperators to a society of defectors. And everybody’s worse off.

One the other hand, imagine a society full of defectors. What if a cooperator is born into this society? Well, they pretty much right away get stabbed in the back and die out. So a society of defectors stays a society of defectors, and a society of cooperators degenerates into a society of defectors. The technical way of speaking about this is to say that in prisoner’s dilemmas, cooperation is not a Nash equilibrium – a strategy that is stable against mutations when universally adopted. The only Nash equilibrium is universal defection.

Okay, so this is all bad news. We have good game theoretic reasons to expect society to degenerate into a bunch of people stabbing each other in the back. But mysteriously, the record of history has humans coming together to form larger and larger cooperative institutions. What Yuval Noah Harari and many others argue is that the distinctively human force that saves us from these game theoretic traps and creates civilizations is the power of shared myths.

For instance, suppose that the two strangers happened to share a belief in a powerful all-knowing God that punishes defectors in the afterlife and rewards cooperators. Think about how this shifts the reasoning. Now each person thinks “Even if I successfully defect and loot this other person’s resources, I still will have hell to pay in the afterlife. It’s just not worth it to risk incurring God’s wrath! I’ll cooperate.” And thus we get a cooperative equilibrium!

Still you might object “Okay, but what if an atheist is born into this society of God-fearing cooperative people? They’ll begin defecting and successfully spread through the population, right? And then so much for your cooperative equilibrium.”

The superbly powerful thing about these shared myths is the way in which they can restructure society around them. So for instance, it would make sense for a society with the cooperator-punishing God myth to develop social norms around punishing defectors. The mythical punishment becomes an actual real-world punishment by the myth’s adherents. And this is enough to tilt the game-theoretic balance even for atheists.

The point being: The spreading of a powerful shared myth can shift the game theoretic structure of the world, altering the landscape of possible social structures. What’s more, such myths can increase the overall fitness of a society. And we need not rely on group selection arguments here; the presence of the shared myth increases the fitness of every individual.

A deeper point is that the specific way in which the landscape is altered depends on the details of the shared myth. So if we contrast the God myth above to a God that punishes defectors but also punishes mortals who punish defectors, we lose the stability property that we sought. The suggestion being: different ideas alter the game theoretic balance of the world in different ways, and sometimes subtle differences can be hugely important.

Another take-away from this simple example is that shared myths can become embodied within us, both in our behavior and in our physiology. Thus we come back to the “humans aren’t rational” point: The cooperator equilibrium becomes more stable if the God myth somehow becomes hardwired into our brains. These ideas take hold of us and shape us in their image.

Let’s go further into this. In our sophisticated secular society, it’s not too controversial to refer to the belief in all-good and all-knowing gods as a myth. But Yuval Noah Harari goes further. To him, the concept of the shared myth goes much deeper than just our ideas about the supernatural. In fact, most of our native way of viewing the world consists of a network of shared myths and stories that we tell one another.

After all, the universe is just physics. We’re atoms bumping into one another. There are no particles of fairness or human rights, no quantum fields for human meaning or karmic debts. These are all shared myths. Economic systems consist of mostly shared stories that we tell each other, stories about how much a dollar bill is worth and what the stock price of Amazon is. None of these things are really out there in the world. They are in our brains, and they are there for an important reason: they open up the possibility for societal structures that would otherwise be completely impossible. Imagine having a global trade network without the shared myth of the value of money. Or a group of millions of humans living packed together in a city that didn’t all on some level believe in the myths of human value and respect.

Just think about this for a minute. Humans have this remarkable ability to radically change our way of interacting with one another and our environments by just changing the stories that we tell one another. We are able to do this because of two features of our brains. First, we are extraordinarily creative. We can come up with ideas like money and God and law and democracy and whole-heartedly believe in them, to the point that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for them. Second, we are able to communicate these ideas to one another. This allows the ideas to spread and become shared myths. And most remarkably, all of these ideas (capitalism and communism, democracy and fascism) are running on essentially the same hardware! In Harari’s words:

While the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunited Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

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