Research shows 99.9% of our genetic information is common to all human beings. This means all the differences between you, me, and anyone else come from differences in just 0.01% of our DNA.
Our hair, eye, and skin color, our height, our blood type. Each one of these differences arises within the 0.01% of DNA which differs in every one of us. Biologically, we’re really not very different from each other at all. We’re not even far removed from other mammals.
A 2005 study found we’re 96% genetically similar to chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives. Apparently, we’re about 90% genetically similar to the Abyssinian domestic cat, 80% similar to cows, and 61% similar to a fruit fly.We like to think we’re ‘special’; more intelligent than other animals. That may be the case, but not radically so. 70,000 years ago, our ancestors were pretty insignificant. Their impact on the planet wasn’t much greater than that of a jellyfish, or a woodpecker. So if it’s not our biology that’s radically different, what is it that’s allowed us humans to come to rule the planet in a way that no other species on Earth has?
What are the human characteristics that have allowed us to take complete control, and how can we each use these traits to improve our own lives on an individual level?
What Makes Humans so Special?
The reason why this question has proved so difficult to answer is, we’re looking through an individual lens. We’ve been searching for genetic explanations; studying the biological differences between individual humans and individual animals, only to find — there aren’t many.
The reason why this approach hasn’t worked is because the traits that have propelled humans to world domination can only be observed in groups. They’re not obvious on the individual level.
According to Prof. Harari, there are two characteristics that differentiate humans from all other species; two traits glued together by one unique human ability. These are, our ability to (i) cooperate collectively, and (ii) flexibly; two things we can do thanks to our (iii) imagination.
Insects such as ants and bees can cooperate collectively, but not very flexibly. The worker bees in a hive couldn’t stage a coup against the queen bee and overthrow her from the throne to create a republic of bees. Other mammals like wolves, dolphins, and elephants can operate in groups, and do so more flexibly, but only in small numbers. The reason being, their cooperation relies on in-depth personal knowledge of one another.
Humans, on the other hand, can cooperate with people they don’t know. I can happily work on a laptop made by a random-techy-stranger and accept my mail from an unknown man in a red uniform; attend events organized by a group of people I’ve never seen or heard of and empathize with a character in a film that doesn’t even exist. I’m that good.
And the main reason why we can be flexible, where other species can’t, is because we have imagination. Prof. Harari explains how we’ve created a parallel reality to other species. We inhabit the same planet, but our reality isn’t the same as theirs.
Other species base their existence on objective truths. They exist in the physical world. We exist in an imaginary world. They see trees, mountains, rivers. They can’t see human rights or nations.
If you could look inside a human, you’d find lungs, a heart, a brain; you wouldn’t find human rights. And yet, we all have them. Without a map or a physical boundary, you wouldn’t be able to identify the border between two countries. These are social constructs. Things we choose to believe in so we can live in harmony (supposedly) in huge groups.
Businesses are another good example. They’re legal fictions; real to the extent that we collectively believe in a legal system. The very thing businesses work for — money — is another social construct. It’s only valuable because we all decide to believe in its worth.
Leveraging Cooperation, Flexibility, and Imagination
This concept could arguably work both ways.
If the things that make society tick are our ability to (i) cooperate collectively, and (ii) flexibly; thanks to the unique human power of (iii) imagination, we can accept these pillars uphold the reality in which we live. In theory, then, mastering these qualities as individuals would make us better prepared to live in harmony in this society. They should make our lives easier; allow us to swim with the current as opposed to against it like a mama salmon.
In the days before we lived in a society, these characteristics wouldn’t have mattered much. Drop me and a chimp on a desert island and watch us struggle for survival — I can assure you my social skills, my flexibility, and my imagination wouldn’t get me much further than socializing with a volleyball got Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
However, now that we do live in a society, these unique human qualities are the lifeboat that can get us to where we want to be.
Cooperation is often taken to mean ‘having to do what other people want’, when the truth is, it’s often the only way to get what you want. Take this example:
No company will be willing to spend millions of dollars to buy another company unless it has enough information to determine whether it’s a good purchase. This is what warranties in a share sale contract are for.
They’re statements the seller makes to the buyer to provide the buyer with more information. If these statements turn out to be false, the buyer can sue the seller for breach of warranty.
No buyer will be willing to spend millions of dollars to buy a company, only to find it actually had a bunch of problems the seller knew about. So, it’s not unreasonable for a buyer to expect warranties from the seller. The inverse is however unreasonable.
I was in a meeting with a client who was selling his company. Except he stubbornly refused to include any warranties in the contract.
It’s the legal equivalent of saying “I want 100 million dollars and John Krasinski for a Boyfriend; nothing in exchange, thanks!”
This stubborn unwillingness to view the deal as a potential win-win, and blindly look out for his own best interest only wasted more time, money, and lead to the only interested buyer walking away from the deal.
Even if you’re a complete recluse, cooperation is the way to get things done in this world. It’s safe to buy into it.
By flexibility, I mean the ability to adapt to a new environment, and to be tolerant of other people.
I know a few people who are prone to dangling from a conversation like a toddler yanking at his mother’s top mid-tantrum. Dinner-party-poopers who refuse to listen to another person’s opinion.
There are also the people whose attention span shrinks and causes them to tap out of the conversation the second it doesn’t align with their beliefs or interests.
I guess I’m lucky in this sense. Blocking out people who are different from me isn’t compatible with my levels of needy. The more the merrier when it comes to human interactions. So, I’m now the proud owner of a weird and wonderful collection of scattered friends who have few things except me in common.
Tolerance is underrated. Turning distrust into acceptance is one of the best ways to learn and open the door to new opportunities.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — I spontaneously laugh at my thoughts all the time, and my family always calls me out. I’d spontaneously burst out laughing in the middle of spinning classes and send my sister west.
I can’t help it; vivid imagination. It’s also my excuse for being scared of any TV show that surpasses the CSI threshold of tense. Comedies, come my way.
In all seriousness though, imagination is more important than you might think. It’s sometimes associated with ‘pointless fiction’ or ‘fairy-tales’. But imagination is so much more than that.
It’s the unique human quality that lets us recognize the existence of certain things that don’t exist in the physical world. Laws, values, religions, governments. The things other animals can’t see.
Not to mention it’s foundational to empathy. How can I empathize with an actor in a film? I can imagine what they must be feeling. Why? Because a talented screenwriter imagined a script, a director imagined the scene, an actor imagined a character.
It’s this same imagination that allows us to empathize with our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, and family.
It’s the thing that enables us to cooperate flexibly; the glue that holds the other two human pillars up.
The thing that makes our fictional society a reality.
On an individual level, these qualities are currencies that can enable each of us to navigate through life with greater ease. They’re the rules of the societal game in which we all exist. The better you understand them, the better you can play.