“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Outside of insects, and I don’t know enough to write any thoughts on insects, it is rare to see any animals cooperating in large groups of more than a few dozen individuals. There is evidence that ancient human tribes used to consist of upwards of 150 to 250 individuals, and those large tribes were outliers within the animal world. Few animals cooperate in large groups, and outside humans (and those insects I don’t understand) no animals effectively cooperate across millions or billions of individuals. Many animals migrate together and schools of fish will swim together, but they seem to largely be moving and reacting to the world around them as a pack, and not deliberately coordinating their efforts and actions in a social manner.
As social beings, humans have figured out how to coordinate actions and lives together between huge numbers of individuals. As Harari’s quote suggests, we have done this largely through the invention of myths. The myths which hold us together come in a lot of varieties. We have had myths about deities, myths about certain family lineages, and myths about special objects that can be used as trade. Myths create stories that we can build upon to form trust between each other. They help us establish institutions that can be used as the foundation for modern societies. Myths allow us to invent something that didn’t exist before, doesn’t truly exist in the real world, and make it real across the minds of billions of people so that we can orient ourselves and our action accordingly.
The kinds of myths that Harari discusses, and that I reference above, are not just myths about gods and creators of the universe. Those myths exist and can clearly give humans the feeling that they have a reason for existing, but we also have more tangible myths that drive our society. Harari compares modern corporations, humans rights, and nations, and currencies to myths. The company you work for isn’t a real thing, it is just an organization that we agree exists because it has a name and because some employees come together to organize their efforts under that name. The organization pays you money that isn’t tangible. Even if you take physical money out of the bank, that money isn’t useful on its own. We rely on and believe in myths about corporations and currencies, and those myths consequentially help us live in a complex world. Going even further, Harari explains that even nations are little more than myths. There is no clear reason why the United States has to exist between what we call Canada and what we call Mexico. We all agree that it does exist, but only because history has decided it does. And if you take an American, who has human rights that the government and society has decided exist, and autopsy them, you won’t find human rights. They don’t exist the way a stomach or liver exist, they are myths that help us organize our society.
Humans have large brains and create myths. Because we do, we are able to live in huge numbers, coordinating the actions, movements, and behaviors of humans across the globe. Myths are in some ways a super power that has allowed humans to become the most powerful species on the planet.