"Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule."
- Friedrich Nietzsche.
Chimpanzees exist in troops of several dozen individuals, led by an alpha male. In order to function properly, the members of the troop must develop and maintain intimate relationships, spending time together, sharing food, and helping each other in times of trouble; two chimpanzees who have never met before will not know whether they can trust one another, and therefore whether they should share food or help each other out (1). The natural constraints imposed by the necessity of intimate relationships limits troop sizes to 50 individuals; beyond this number, the social order breaks down, and the troop splits up.
Around 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (the only still-existing human species - that is, us) developed a superior ability to communicate with each other via the use of their unique language, particularly through the use of gossip. It is thought that gossip allowed the various members of a group of Homo sapiens to discuss important topics in a non-confrontational manner, such as who should be leader, where the good hunting was, and who should mate with whom (1). Gossip allowed Homo sapiens to develop larger and more stable groups of up to 150 individuals, yet gossip also has its constraints; most people cannot gossip about more people than this.
Gossip allowed Homo sapiens to develop larger and more stable groups (this is Gossip by Giovanni Boldini, 1873) (2).
In addition to developing the ability to gossip, Homo sapiens also developed an even more powerful ability that facilitated the ability to bond even larger groups of individuals together - the ability to fervently share common beliefs that somehow seemed "bigger" than any one individual's opinion. The most powerful of these beliefs were myths, fictional stories about surreal characters that subtly (or explicitly) described how the individual members of a group ought to behave. Myths provided a framework that enabled the group's actions to be shape and directed towards large-scale cooperative endeavours that simply would not be possible for smaller groups to achieve. As long as they shared the same myths, large groups of Homo sapiens could work together in relative harmony, even if the individual group members did not know each other.
Out of the dozens of human species that have evolved, only Homo sapiens (far right) remains extant, possibly as a result of the ability to fervently believe in common myths.
Myths still remain vital for developing and maintaining large-scale human cooperative endeavours, including religions, nations, and corporations. Such large-scale endeavours are based upon common myths about the gods, heroes, and leaders that laid down the visionary groundwork for these endeavours, larger-than-life characters that exist only in the collective imagination of the individuals that believe in them (1). Yet these myths are powerful - for example, two people who have never met before, yet share the same myths that underpin their religious beliefs, nationalistic sentiments, or corporate devotions, will willingly cooperate with each other on a variety of large-scale endeavours, trusting each other based on nothing more than their shared beliefs. Moreover, the myth-derived religions, nations, and corporations are also imagined entities, with no basis in reality; if humans ceased to exist, so would they (whereas things that exist in reality, such as clouds, rocks, and trees, would remain just as they are).
It is interesting that many people look down upon "primitive" societies that believe in spirits and demons, which do not have any physical existence in reality. However, many people in "advanced" societies do the same, actually believing that their myth-derived religions, nations, and corporations have any basis in reality outside of their imagination. Remarkably, some people have been (and still are) willing to go to war over these things, even though they only exist in our heads.
Expansion And Extinction
Myths are arguably the most significant human invention of all time, for they allowed the members of Homo sapiens to coalesce into large groups with a collective purpose, which in turn enabled them to expand and conquer the earth.
Shortly after the appearance of myths, Homo sapiens spread from East Africa into the Arabian peninsula, and soon overran all of Eurasia. During this expansion, Homo sapiens encountered the Neanderthals, a hardy human species who had successfully settled Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years (3). Although commonly depicted as brutish cavemen, Neanderthals were probably intelligent and able, with larger brains and more muscular bodies than Homo sapiens. Yet despite these advantages, Homo sapiens continued to expand whilst the Neanderthals diminished. The former used their myths to cooperate en masse. The latter became extinct.
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman.
Around 45,000 years ago, Homo sapiens probably voyaged by boat from Indonesia to Australia, representing the first-ever human departure from the Afro-Eurasian landmass. At the time, Australia boasted a diversity of large animal species, including the giant kangaroo, a marsupial lion, the giant koala, a huge flightless bird that stood 3 meters in height, and the diprotodon (the largest marsupial to have ever lived) (4). Yet shortly after the arrival of Homo Sapiens, who could cooperate and hunt en masse, all of these species vanished (out of all 24 Australian animal species that weighed over 50 kg, 23 are now extinct) (1).
Drawing of Thylacoleo carnifex, the only marsupial lion to arise out of Australia.
Expansion continued as falling sea levels resulted in the appearance of the Bering Land Bridge around 16,000 years ago (14,000 BC), allowing Homo sapiens to cross over to North and South America. At the time, North America contained mammoths, mastodons, native horses and camels, lions, saber-tooth tigers, and giant sloths weighing in at 8 tons (5). South America contained even more large animal species. Yet again, shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens, most of them vanished (North America lost 34 of its 43 large mammal genera, South America 50 of 60) (1).
Restoration of Mammut americanum, also known as the American mastodon.