The Power of Stories
How humans climbed to the top of the food chain
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Growing up, Catholicism was the glue that held my family together. Then it almost ripped us apart.
Over time, I realized that nobody is born Catholic. Instead, it was like an exclusive club. The Catholic Club.
The Catholic Club teaches that once a human dies, they have a court date that determines their fate for eternity. If the judge determines you were a good member of The Catholic Club, you will be given eternal entry to the most lavish resort in history - Heaven.
Meanwhile, if the judge decides you were not a good member of The Catholic Club, you would be eternally banished to the shittiest place ever - Hell.
As an eight year old, having to spend eternity in the shittiest place ever didn't sound very fun. So I decided to do my best to become a member of The Catholic Club.
To gain entry, I had to hold certain beliefs and follow specific rules like participating in a sacred ceremony each week, giving away 10% of my earnings, and not getting divorced. The rules seemed reasonable so I tried my best to follow them.
But as I got older, things stopped making sense.
One time, my friend at school said he was part of a different club. The Jewish Club. Like The Catholic Club, he said that anybody that wasn't a part of The Jewish Club would also be eternally banished to the shittiest place ever.
We began arguing until the teacher put us both in timeout.
When I got home, I was pissed. So I went online and found that there were thousands of different clubs saying a similar thing.
What the fuck. They couldn't all be right. Somebody was lying.
Over the next few years, I wasn't sure what to believe. Then, something rocked my world.
During the summer after my junior year of college, my younger brother gathered the family together for a meeting in the living room. With tears streaming down his face, he let out a quiet "I'm gay".
On one hand, this was a big no-no for The Catholic Club. But on the other hand, this was my little bro. Even though we got in fights, I always wanted to be there for him.
In that moment, I saw a human who was scared to be authentic with the people who loved him most. Our entire lives we were led to believe that what he was feeling was wrong.
To this day, it's one of the most courageous things I've seen someone do. He trusted his internal truth over what he was being told by The Catholic Club. As a family, we showered him with love and support. Today, we are stronger than ever.
But from then on, I wanted to understand why these clubs had these rules.
Over time, I began to believe that the clubs were built on stories. Stories created by humans to enable cooperation, safety, and control.
Turns out, stories like religion, money, and politics are a key reason why humans went from the middle of the food chain to the undisputed kings of the jungle.
But these stories become dangerous when people blindly believe them without developing their own internal sense of truth.
So I started asking questions like:
"Why are stories so powerful?"
"How do stories drive human behavior?"
"How do we decide which stories to believe and which are bullshit?"
By understanding how stories work, we begin to take control of our lives. Otherwise, stories can become like mental parasites. Infecting us by controlling our behavior.
In part one of this series, we will explore why stories are so powerful.
Why are stories so powerful?
For most of history, humans were at the middle of the food chain.
During this time, whoever could enforce the most physical violence was in charge. Think dinosaurs, lions, and bears.
But around 70,000 years ago, everything changed.
From 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens (the species of humans that exist today) exterminated all other human species. They migrated from Africa to East Asia, Europe, and Australia (which was previously uninhabited). In this time, Sapiens also invented boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, art, religion, commerce, and complex social structures.
So what the hell happened?
Most researchers agree that Sapiens somehow evolved a genetic mutation that bred advanced cognitive abilities. It was like we unlocked a secret cheat code in the video game of life.
As a result, we developed new mental skills like self-awareness, reasoning, and imagination.
Oddly enough, nobody knows what exactly caused this genetic mutation. My favorite theory is that our ancestors tripped on a shit ton of psilocybin mushrooms.
But the cause of this evolution isn't as important as the effect. The biggest of which was a change in how Sapiens communicated.
All animals can communicate and some even have complex communication protocols. But one key difference with Sapiens is that we can communicate about things we have never experienced and assign meaning to them.
In the epic history book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harrari says:
"Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time during this time period. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to these new cognitive abilities, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language."
The ability to tell stories about imaginary things is important because, for the first time, it enabled a species to cooperate flexibly in large groups.
For comparison, chimpanzee tribes typically can’t function beyond a few dozen members. To build trust among members, chimpanzees require intimate social interactions like hugging, touching, grooming, etc. But as chimpanzee tribes get larger, they break off into smaller groups to maintain stronger bonds.
Early human tribes were maximally effective around 150 members for similar reasons.
However, this changed once Sapiens developed the ability to believe in things that didn't exist in the material world. These stories were powerful because they helped humans trust each other.
Imagine two neighbouring hunter gatherer tribes. For generations, they would compete for resources and fight one another.
The survivors would gain some extra resources like food or stone tools, but they'd still live roughly the same lifestyle.
But one day, two tribes tried something new.
They experimented with working together. Turns out, this became the evolutionary strategy that helped Sapiens begin climbing the food chain.
Yuval Noah Harari explains this transition:
"They exchanged members, hunted together, traded rare luxuries, celebrated religious festivals and joined forces against foreigners. Such cooperation was one of the important trademarks of Homo sapiens, and gave it a crucial edge over other human species. Sometimes relations with neighbouring bands were tight enough that together they constituted a single tribe, sharing a common language, common myths, and common norms and values."
In forager societies, tribes were limited in size, but these complex sociopolitical structures sowed the seeds for Sapiens' dominance.
These sociopolitical structures were driven by a shared belief in stories like what gods to worship and how to punish bad behavior.
Let's call this the Book of Beliefs.
Every tribe had their own Book of Beliefs . Each chapter included guidelines on spirituality, politics, and tribal traditions.
By agreeing on the same Book of Beliefs, tribes could now trust each other to cooperate. If a band of Sapiens did not cooperate, they were coerced through violence. And if they did cooperate, they gained protection which increased their chances of survival.
As a result, Sapiens went on to develop the technology, organisational skills, and vision needed to migrate from Afro-Asia to the rest of the world.
Eventually, humans began domesticating crops like wheat and peas in The Middle East, maize and beans in Central America, and rice and pigs in China.
The food surpluses led to more people cramming into villages, then into towns, and finally into cities. All connected together by kingdoms and commercial networks. In biological terms, humans climbed from the middle of the food chain to the top in the blink of an eye.
To capitalize, rulers and elites sprang up left and right touting their own books of belief. For example, the Code of Hammurabi was the Book of Belief that sustained the Babylonian Empire. The Code claimed to be rooted in eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. Yet, it imposed a strict hierarchy that divided people into three classes - superiors, commoners, and slaves.
Throughout history, the stories behind politics, religions, and financial systems have tended to favor those in power at the expense of others. From the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, to Wall Street today.
The stories powering these institutions don't need to be true or even what's best for society. They just need to be believed by enough people. Unlike natural laws like physics and chemistry, beliefs are unstable. Because of their inherent instability, stories tend to gain power through fear and influence.
Fear is instilled with the aid of armies, police officers, courts, and prisons. Influence is held by politicians, investors, wealthy individuals, priests, the media and celebrities. Together, they are able to convince the masses to fervently believe in a particular story.
Stories aren’t all crazy conspiracies meant to harm society. They just tend to get perverted over time by those in control. Given that, it’s important to understand how stories work so we can consciously decide which are valuable (e.g., human rights) and which are destructive.
Today, there are many destructive stories threatening to rip apart the fabric of society. For example, racism driven by inequitable laws and generations of bias. Hyperconsumerism driven by incessant ads and social media. And divisive politics driven by flamboyant politicians and traditional media.
In the next part of this series, we will look at how stories propagate throughout society and how they impact our behavior. Instead of blindly believing the stories passed down to us, we will learn how to become astute editors for the stories in our own Book of Belief.
Every week I publish an essay exploring how the mind works. Each essay dives into the most important ideas across psychology, philosophy, and performance. Sign up below for weekly essays right in your inbox.