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Sapiens 2: The Cognitive Revolution

Page history last edited by Ian Kimber 6 years, 7 months ago



Lecture 2 The Cognitive Revolution


This section of the course contains the first full explanation of one of the most important concepts in Noah's approach to the development of humankind.     

That is the ability of humankind to discuss and believe in "fictions"  that hold unifying concepts.  These ideas become working fictions because of common acceptance of the story in the group.

The common acceptance of these concepts within the group enable larger groups than extended family groups to form and work together with common goals,  thus triggering the formation of tribes, towns, cities, nations and eventually empires.

This allowed Homo Sapiens to dominate all other Homo Species and the whole animal kingdom.  This in its turn started the Anthropocene age with a mass extinction of large herbivores and the carnivores that previously fed on them.  The new rapid evolutionary concept of "sentience" That is creatures that can fully communicate comes into existence.

The lectures go on to show that many of the unifying concepts in modern economics and law are in fact developments of these original "fictions" that were frequently referred to as 
faiths or religions.


Segment 1   3 - 1 - Lesson 2- The Cognitive Revolution - 1st Segment [22_17].mp4

Homo Sapiens were not using different or better tools.  They were essentially identical to modern sapiens in all respects There is evidence that Sapiens came out 100,000 years ago and failed in Europe due to the Neanderthals.  30,000 years later 70,000 years ago they tried again and succeeded.   What enabled this?   They managed to get to Australia across open sea 45,000 years ago and America  15,000 years ago  coping with vastly different climates and conditions to cross over from Siberia and Alaska. 


This is incredibly quick for physical evolution.  Far too quick.  New technology like boats and the needle which allowed the crossing of water and protective clothing to be made helped.  Neanderthals did not get far north but Sapiens managed it.  They also made lamps and could go into caves.  Much better tools knives, spear points and rapid improvements of technology developments and improvements visible in artefacts.  Art jewellery and images of imaginative objects not existing in nature made.  There were also signs of religion in objects.  There was also evidence of trade across large areas rather than locally.  History really begins with this cognitive revolution.  However the brain is very similar in overall size and structure.   This suggests a small evolutionary change enabled the new cognition no clear answer yet it was probably some form of combining what were originally separated mental skills.


Language was a vital part of this sapiens developed a language capable of communicating complex concepts and designs rather than simple facts. What was so special about this new language and how is it different from other animals?  This will be the topic of the remaining segments of this lecture.  to do this it will be important to illustrate them with concepts from the modern world as well as the stone age.


Segment 2    3 - 2 - Lesson 2-The Cognitive Revolution - 2nd Segment [19_16].mp4


Language is an iportant feature of the rapid development of humankind.


Almost all animals have a language to transmit information between members of their species. these can involve things other than the sound that we use, for example insects use chemical signals and many animals use visual things like "body language".  apes and monkeys use sounds and these have been observed and analysed


Human languages are  not even the most complex vocally.  Whales, dolphins and elephants have complex languages that communicate over vast distances and Parrots have a much wider range and capability than humans.  However human language does use a limited range of sounds to communicate a very wide range of information including complex social information among members of a group.  Human language is structured and coded in words and sentences.  It can also communicate abstract ideas and tell fictional stories rather than be solidly grounded in the immediate present needs of the group.  


Human language allows general conversation and gossip is an important factor in forming bonds and communication in much larger groups than a simple extended family.  This allows people to know a much larger number of people and understand how they interact with each other and in groups.  Much of human conversation is in fact gossipy about other people and their activities, likes, dislikes and friends etc.


Segment 3  3 - 3 - Lesson 2- The Cognitive Revolution - 3rd Segment [30_41].mp4


The communication of abstract ideas is a very important feature of human language.  Legends stories and myth is a vital part of language.  Storytelling is an important feature of all primitive societies.   Stories are a way of propagating wisdom through the society but other fictional ideas can be even more useful.  Fictional ideas are vital it allows the creation of “gods” . Why is this so vital?  It allows a collective myth to be created and acted upon.  This is vital tool to allow us to co-operate in very large groups in a very flexible way to cope with change.


Examples of co-operation in the animal kingdom are considered.  Ants and bees co-operate in very large numbers in a fixed and inflexible way.  apes can cooperate in  large family groups quite flexibly but cannot form towns or cities.


Consider detailed comparisons between human and chimpanzee behaviour.  The alpha male of a chimpanzee group is not necessarily the biggest and strongest, it is arrived at by the group by socialisation and making friends with others but this is limited by the number of people you can know well and socialise with.  Social groups also exist within the main group.   The size of these groups is however limited to members who have met and know each other.    If a group gets too large it will fragment into smaller groups.  For chimpanzees this is in the range 20-50 individuals.  Separate groups are more likely to compete and wage war against each other if they are adjacent to each other.  


Human groups are larger but limited at about 150 by by social interactions.  This is well observed in human organisations.  For larger groups than this you need a hierarchy and an identity.


The crossing of this critical threshold is a vital part of this story.   The belief in group fictions are a vital part of this.  The first of these was probably religions and then states or nations,  legal codes and eventually large businesses and companies.  All our structure is based on a common belief in these fictions!


Segment 4  3 - 4 - Lesson 2- The Cognitive Revolution - 4th Segment [23_25].mp4


This segment looks at the modern use of myth as a unifying tool.  It does this by considering the Peugeot company.

The company is more than its product or its factories or even its people and shareholders bankers etc.  all of which are individually or collectively disposable and interchangeable.  However it could be completely destroyed by a judge declaring that the company did not exist any more because of some misdemeanour.   Peugeot is a limited liability company.  In the past buisinessmen who manufactured things were fully liable for their products.  However as manufacturing groups the concept of limiting personal liabilities grew.   A limited liability company is an entity in its own right and is a myth that enables large complex companies to exist.   It also enables innovation and risk taking.  The creation of a limited liability company requires the creation of a fictitious story that others will believe in and support. How are these Myths or “imagined realities” created?   It is necessesary to convince many other people to accept these ideas as practical liability. This then enables large scale co-operation. These “imagined realities” happen gradually and are built into. “Normal Life” as part of our collective reality.


Segment 5  3 - 5 - Lesson 2- The Cognitive Revolution - 5th Segment [27_46].mp4


In the French Revolution the population rapidly changed their minds from having a king with divine absolute authority to believing in the collective sovreinity of the people.  This shows that human society can “evolve” rapidly as a result of its collective imagined reality.


Chimpanzees and Bonobos are genetically very similar species but have very different social structures that are defined by their genes.  Chimpanzees are alpha male dominated  Bonobos are dominated by a group of females but these are fixed and inflexible structures and not easily changed.  They involve individual characters and learning like new ideas being propagated by observing others but not the complex ideas in humans.


All the other homo species exhibited similar very small and slow changes until Sapiens came along.


Stories can also change social and economic behaviour of societies.  In effect by bypassing conventional genetic revolution to adapt to changing circumstances. Example a woman born in Germany in 1900 and living until 2000 would have lived in five very different social structures and belief systems during her lifetime. 


There’s is no evidence of trading among early hominids.  On the other hand Sapiens tradedef with neighbours.   Trade as an example of creating movements of interesting objects all the way across Europe for example sea shells to Central Europe.  Sapiens also hunted in very large groups to kill herds of animals.  This involves fences and traps and large numbers to herd the animals into the traps.  This outcompeted other homo species. The sapiens people who conquered the world though exactly like us.


Summing up these ideas are allowing the rapid progress of humankind.  This means that we need to take stories like this into the history of human evolution. What was human life like? Did the changes always improve the lives of those who experienced them?


Return to  1 Index page Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind

Comments (6)

Ian Kimber said

at 12:09 pm on Oct 23, 2017

I have now completed the revised notes and will post the next lesson as soon as I can after I return to base.

Olive Esther Davies said

at 3:03 pm on Oct 10, 2017

No Ian, I haven't been watching the videos. I will buy a copy of the book soon.

Ian Kimber said

at 10:38 am on Oct 10, 2017

Olive are you watching the videos as well? My writings are a very considerable précis of the text. The lectures were when I got them available in a full text format but I did not think to download that.

The book however has far more information in it than even the lecture text. It is available in paperback now from amazon at £4 and in a kindle edition for £5.49

There is also a follow on book developing his final lecture about the future of mankind. It is called Homo Deus and available at a similar price in paperback and Kindle. The Hardback costs £14.85

Apparently they are both Million copy bestsellers.

Olive Esther Davies said

at 9:21 am on Oct 10, 2017

Thank you, Ian, I am enjoying reading these lectures. I will be away for a few days from 23 October but hope to catch up with the programme.

Ian Kimber said

at 8:17 am on Oct 10, 2017

There is an interesting program on radio 4 coming up shortly that has a direct relationship with the ideas presented in this lecture. That is the origins and effect of religious concepts and religion on the development of humankind. It was announced on the Today programme this morning I think it starts around the 23rd October I will give more details as I find it out.

Miall James said

at 3:43 pm on Oct 6, 2017

Just listened to Segment 4 of Lesson 2, comparing the modern Limited Liability Company witrh the Church. Fascinating, and thought-provoking.

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