Why only a story can change someone’s mind.
Think back to high school, specifically to your high school classrooms. Odds are that on some wall in some class was some version of a poster called the Ascent of Man. Even if there wasn’t, I’m sure you’ve seen it… From left to right it depicts a hunched over chimpanzee, then some other kind of ape walking on two legs, then some kind of missing link walking erect, followed by beings that look more and more human, culminating in the image, at far right, of some walking White guy. It’s the story of human evolution, in pictures, and it’s one we all know. The only problem is, it’s bullshit.
The truth, as described in Yuval Noah Harari’s breakthrough book Sapiens, was nowhere near as linear. For millions of years, in fact, multiple sub-species of proto-humans walked the Earth, from Homo Naledi in southern Africa to Homo Neanderthalis in Northern Europe to Homo Florensiensis in Indonesia. Each was specialized to the region it emerged in, and each did pretty well in their own hood until one sub-species showed up and ruined the party. That guy was our shared ancestor Home Sapiens, and he changed everything.
Homo Sapiens would float into some corner of the Earth already populated by successful human sub-species, and in a geological eye-blink, wipe em out. Sapiens was so successful he not only cleared his direct human competition, but all the large predatory mammals as well, driving those from the fearsome saber-toothed tiger to the imposing Woolly Mammoth literally off the face of the Earth. No single animal has ever been so successful, and the first question I have for you is simple, but profound…
What was it — specifically — about Homo Sapiens that enabled him to not only to dominate the planet, but succeed to the point where the biggest threats we now face as a species are the consequences of our own planetary dominance?
The answer is not physical strength, brain size, or language. Other sub-species had equivalent or in some cases more developed forms of each. The answer — what made us truly special, even in competition with our fellow proto-humans — was the ability to tell stories.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Your average group of Chimpanzees can signal to each other there’s a lion. “OOOO OOO OOO AAAA! AAAH!” or something is chimpanzee for “Lion!” and that makes the other chimps in the pod climb for the trees.
But only we can say, “The Lion is the spirit animal of our tribe.” We can think and communicate conceptually, sharing stories that become myths over time, and build a common understanding of the world.
Now, when I say myths, I mean it in the broadest possible sense. Zeus is a myth, of course, but so are Star Wars, so is Iron Man. Religion is a myth in this sense as well, a story — without passing judgement on whether it’s true or not — that helps us understand where we come from, and why we’re here. America is a story we’re hotly debating the meaning of right now, as is Love, and even money. When people ask how real Bitcoin is, I tell them it’s as real as a dollar, in the sense that both are dependent on a shared belief in value that comes from a shared story.
Stories bind us together, they enable collective action on a scale unmatched in the natural world. The maximum number of chimps that can coordinate their activities is about 45, and that’s the largest the pods can get. But millions of Homo Sapiens will give their lives in an argument about whether the American story or the Nazi story is the one we should organize our world around. That is what makes us human, and what has enabled us to dominate this planet, like no species before or since.
My second question is this:
Why would you not use the mode of communication that defines our humanity in trying to change the world in the way you think it needs changing?
Any movement that matters, that really touches enough people to effect change — whether it’s a cultural phenomenon, a political point-of-view, or even a transformative startup — is a kind of collective action. If you want it to spread, don’t spend your time gathering data, quoting experts, or making graphs. Tell a story, well enough to be heard, good enough to remember, and simple enough for your audience to pass along themselves. That will change everything, and it’s the only thing that can because of the way we’re wired as Homo Sapiens, right to this very day.
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” said Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship award winning author Richard Powers. “The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
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