3 surprising ways Fiction actually changed the course of humanity (it’s not what you think)

This post is something different from our usual escapade as it has to do with a non-fiction book. Shock and horror! It’s true that fiction does come first, but it was my birthday recently and I got given the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (which I thought would be a fast and flashy read due to his surname rhyming with the word Ferrari – turns out you can’t judge a book by a surname, who knew?).

One of the first few chapters in the book discusses a topic that I wasn’t expecting to come up in a book on human evolution but now that I have read about it, I can’t possibly imagine humanity having adapted any other way. It’s the interesting concept that all non-human creatures are only able to communicate in a way that is directly influenced by their immediate surroundings. For example, monkeys have different calls to communicate with other mates, to indicate food and shelter, or to indicate danger. Yet they, along with all other animals, do not have the ability to tell their children a fictional bed-time story. The closest recordings in ethological research of an animal being able to tell a fictional story is a monkey calling out that a lion was nearby so that he could collect all of the fruit on the ground while the other monkeys scrambled up the trees in fear.

This, however, does not come close to the fictional stories we tell ourselves about us identifying with a certain tribe due to imaginary boundaries, state lines, racial or social difference, or even religious and cultural differences. This is the first type of fiction that changed humanity: the stories we tell ourselves in order to create an “us” and “them” mentality. In reality, we’re all just a bunch of blokes on a spinning planet trying to not have a terrible day. While doing that, we get societal influences from every side telling us where we do and don’t belong. My opinion is that we all perfectly do as well as don’t belong everywhere all at once. It’s when chaos harmoniously meets order that we find a place of intrinsic peace. If you’re looking for another great non-fiction source on this topic, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life hits that nail on the head.

The second type of fiction that changed the course of our ancestors was their ability to come up with organisational communities and groupings through tales of social hierarchy. Now nature has a very clear outline of hierarchy: you move up the ladder due to physiological traits, winning battles, having the most mates or having the largest territory. This doesn’t always apply to humankind. Your boss may just be the most below-average individual on the planet, but we exist in a world where it’s possible for him to still be the boss (or her – calm down, feminists). We often see this presented in social cliques and clubs, where they are often asserted a certain level of status and ranking for no apparent reason at all. However, everybody in a set community will often go along with this notion if the story surrounding their status is convincing enough. This is how humanity was able to create such large communities where there are towns and cities of thousands of occupants, yet they manage to retain civility and order. We respect and respond to authority through the stories we’ve been told our entire lives by everybody we have ever known. This is called social conditioning. It’s these stories that allow us to establish laws, rules and ethical codes of conduct that leads to our universal cooperation. It’s these stories that divide us up into manageable groupings and divisions that can be controlled and conducted like an orchestra, all moving their appendages and instruments at exactly the right timing to create the most lovely sounding melody.

The last bit of fiction to influence life as we know it was the creation of arbitrary value on essentially meaningless material items as a means of developing a trading system. We started placing value based on aesthetics (shells), or on certain foods and spices due to taste (which varies person to person), to eventually the creation of a global value trading system of currency. However, here comes the catch: when this currency isn’t backed by anything of actual intrinsic value, it just becomes a story that we tell ourselves. In other words, it only works if everybody believes in it. If you want to buy a lamp but the shop owner doesn’t believe that the money you’re offering equates in value to the value of the lamp, then essentially, the system falls apart. If you believe that your brand of jacket is of a higher quality than the brand of another jacket, that story has convinced you to be willing to purchase it at a greater value, regardless of whether the material and design is identical or not.

Without these stories to establish and continuously re-establish these systems of co-operation, who knows where the human race might be. But fortunately, these fictional stories are often powerful enough to change not only the world, but the entire course of humanity. They’re convincing enough to instill pride and patriotism into random lines on a map known as country boundaries. They’re strong enough to make millions of people hate another group or sacrifice their own life for an ideology. Be careful of the stories you tell yourself, and pass on to others. You never know: a story you tell could end up changing the fate of your species.

5 thoughts on “3 surprising ways Fiction actually changed the course of humanity (it’s not what you think)

  1. So much truth in this essay. We need more stories that unite humanity. Today is another sad day as we mourn with those in Christchurch where lives were lost to maniacal tribalism. 😢


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