The principal insight of Yuval Noah Harari’s book on the history of humanity, Sapiens, is that ‘we control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers.’ Like most individual social circles, modern hunter-gatherer societies averaged around 150 people. Yet Homo Sapiens became adept at creating fictions that could motivate people in their thousands, tens of thousands and eventually millions. This is a uniquely human characteristic; you can’t motivate a chimp with promises of imaginary bananas in heaven. Homo Sapiens invented fictions like money, religions and laws and used them to build massive collaborative projects, wage war and reshape the earth. How many of history’s most spectacular monuments are dedicated to gods? Indeed, it has been our evolutionary trump card, catapulting us from a modest spot around the middle of the food-chain to a position of unquestioned global dominance over all other species.
Thus believing in a common fiction that forms a solid social group has been evolutionarily much more important than any objective truth or reality. That’s echoed in this Atlantic article: ‘Having social support, from an evolutionary standpoint, is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life.’ This great New Yorker article also explains how our intrinsic sociability leads to biases: ‘Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective’.
When applied to the spread of ‘fake news’, it therefore makes perfect sense that people will be more inclined to click on and share news that reinforces their identities within their own social group, almost irrespective of its accuracy. Social media literally attaches your name directly to a story and broadcasts it to your friends! As author Farhad Manjoo says ‘it’s not just that I’m reading news that confirms my beliefs, but I’m sharing it and friending other people, and that affects their media. I think it’s less important what a news story says than what your friend says about the news story.’ People sharing obviously false stories aren’t necessarily being willfully ignorant, it’s just that signaling a common identity to their group is far more important. The size of the internet also makes it easier to find people who corroborate your beliefs and form a social group: ‘If you encounter 10 people who seem to have roughly the same idea, then it fools your system into thinking that it must be a probable idea because lots of people agree with it.’
This leads to the situation where preserving your social identity is considerably more powerful in determining your position than the objective merits of any individual political policy. In the sobering book Democracy for Realists, Achen & Bartels argue that ‘voters, even the most informed voters, typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are — their social identities. In turn, those social identities shape how they think, what they think, and where they belong in the party system.’ Despite what you might expect, intelligence doesn’t guarantee immunity against the adoption of fictions. Achen & Bartels found that ‘well-informed citizens are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people do, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalizations are better rehearsed.’ The Atlantic concurs that ‘being intelligent and informed can often make the problem worse. The higher someone’s IQ, the better they are at coming up with arguments to support a position — but only a position they already agree with.’
So how can we test our own beliefs to tell what’s fiction and what’s reality? Harari’s question is “can it suffer?” As he puts it: ‘There are several tests to tell the difference between fiction and reality. The simplest one, the best one that I can say in short, is the test of suffering. If it can suffer, it’s real. If it can’t suffer, it’s not real. A nation cannot suffer… Germans can suffer, yes, but Germany cannot.’ Strength of your emotional response is also a good indicator to watch. If a debate makes you angry, is it because you are so passionate about the facts or because you feel your identity being threatened? The hot-button issues of our times, such as evolution and climate change, also tend to also have strong links to religious and political identities.
In a fantastic essay, Paul Graham argues that the right question to ask is “what can’t we say?” Do you have any opinions you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? ‘If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.’ There’s a ludicrously small probability that our generation is the first to get everything exactly right, especially on moral issues. ‘It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.’ Galileo was absolutely factually right about the Earth orbiting the Sun, but that belief conflicted with the dominant religious fictions that led to him being imprisoned until his death. The idea is therefore to examine our current taboos for signs of truth. ‘Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It’s so simple. Why didn’t anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious. Darwin himself was careful to tiptoe around the implications of his theory. He wanted to spend his time thinking about biology, not arguing with people who accused him of being an atheist.’
Sadly, history is littered with the worst-case outcomes of social group formation. We moved from the middle of the food-chain to the top so rapidly, that Harari claims we still retained the insecurities of a more precarious position. Thus he thinks we are a uniquely paranoid and insecure species, and yet incredibly powerful; ‘sheep with nuclear weapons’. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has argued ‘there’s a flip side of this drive to come together. Because for every in-group there are outsiders. And the consequences of that can be very dark.’ In this Intelligence Squared podcast Eagleman claims that in some cases even a single sentence emphasizing someone’s difference was enough to materially alter the way they were subsequently treated. The most effective propaganda thus makes the boldest out-group distinction: that the other side isn’t even part of the human race. There has therefore been a long history of often arbitrary distinctions leading to de-humanization and genocide; from the Stanford Prison Experiment to Nazi Germany and Rwanda.
Moreover, dominant ideologies can change radically and quickly. In the 20th century alone, a citizen of Leipzig would have experienced 5 completely different regimes: the Kaiser, Weimar, Nazism, Communism and Capitalism. ‘We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.’- George Orwell
In When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism, Jonathan Haidt argues that the current global rise in authoritarianism is closely linked to defending a perceived national group from external threats. ‘Authoritarians are not being selfish. They are not trying to protect their wallets or even their families. They are trying to protect their group or society. Some authoritarians see their race or bloodline as the thing to be protected, and these people make up the deeply racist subset of right-wing populist movements, including the fringe that is sometimes attracted to neo-Nazism. They would not even accept immigrants who fully assimilated to the culture. But more typically, in modern Europe and America, it is the nation and its culture that nationalists want to preserve.’ The sense of threat from alternative religions or cultures leads to a visceral social reaction. Globalization has made these perceived external threats more obvious, while increased travel and immigration has placed more varied cultures into direct contact and conflict.
In The Authoritarian Dynamic Karen Stenner describes a controversial, yet intuitive approach to tackling the problem of rising authoritarianism. ‘All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference — the hallmarks of liberal democracy — are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness.’
Our reward for diminishing social barriers is not just less conflict but also a wider network across which to share the ideas that have led to our species’ dominance. Progress results from combining existing tools and ideas to make better ones. Economist Paul Romer argues real sustainable economic growth doesn’t stem from new resources but from existing resources that are rearranged to make them more valuable. The freest flow of knowledge across the largest possible network should result in the most rapid human progress. Harari gets the last word: ‘Over those 20,000 years humankind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dexterous hands or bigger brains (our brains today seem actually to be smaller). Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another.’