The Real Story of What Got Us to the Top of the Food Chain

Natural "narrative selection" was key to turning insignificant apes (who had tools for 2 million years) into the species that now dominates the bio-sphere. 

The Real Story of What Got Us to the Top of the Food Chain


1. What got us to the top of the food chain? Yuval Harari says it wasn’t bigger brains and tools. His view of what mattered will surprise fans of evolution’s red-in-tooth-and-claw story.

2. Going from “stone-tipped spears to… spaceships” took us ~20,000 years; meanwhile, our brains have shrunk ~10% (note: Neanderthal brains were bigger).

3. But we’ve had tools for ~2 million years (intelligently designed tools have long shaped our genes).

4. Harari says the “crucial factor” was our unique capacity “to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.”

5. Cooperation is critical for both types of what biologist E. O. Wilson calls “the social conquest of Earth.” Humans and social insects dominate the biosphere (because, organized groups can always outperform individuals, in combat, and in peacetime productivity).

6. Ants and bees were doing large-scale cooperation millions of years before us. But their cooperation is kin-based and inflexible (adapting genetically = slowly).

7. David Sloan Wilson calls teamwork humanity’s “signature adaptation,” but Harari describes how scaling beyond team-level cooperation was key.  

8. This “large-scale human cooperation” requires shared stories, because “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor." Stories transmit what matters in a culture, and configure our “emotional grammar” (aside: Harari usefully calls emotions “biochemical algorithms”).

10. We live in a “web of stories” about what matters. In that sense artists and “storytellers run the world,” and a culture’s storytelling resources shape its politics and moralities (Alasdair MacIntyre).

11. Languages, stories, the arts, religions, moralities, politics, and economics are all social tools for organizing cooperation.

12. We’d be wiser to call ourselves “Homo Storius” or “Homo Narratus” or "Homo Socius" rather than Homo Sapiens (sapiens derives from judgement or taste). Our wisdom is story-driven and deeply social. 

13. Stories, like all meaning, are relational (intrinsically social, not individual). We’re likely the most other-dependent species ever (inalienably self-deficient by nature). Those with life-structuring stories that are fittest for cooperation, win.

14. Our innate story-hunger enables what Rebecca Goldstein calls our “mattering instinct.” We’re driven to connect to cooperative projects greater than ourselves. If a community’s life-shaping stories don’t connect mattering to collective survival (and related needs), that community, and those stories, won’t survive.

15. The story that evolution is all about competition, overlooks widespread cooperation. Symbiosis isn’t rare, it’s the rule. Every “selfish gene” must cooperate. Every animal cooperates with billions of microbiome mates. Trees run redistributive social safety nets.

16. These cooperation-and-competition-mixing strategies face natural selection, and the most sustainably productive wins. Internal competition that hinders sustainable cooperation becomes self-defeating. Humans are how evolution exceeds the limits of individual competition and slow-changing genes.

17. A narrative-level natural selection is at work. Communities with story norms that help suppress destructive internal competition, survive better. History shows victory goes to those who “cooperated better.”

18. It’s clear we can’t live without tools. But it also took large teams and large tales to enable our cooperative survival and dominance. That’s the bigger story. That’s what matters.

 

-- 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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