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Cognitive Revolution

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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There are three complementary theories about what exactly happened in the Cognitive Revolution, 70,000 ya. They enrich one another, rather than contradicting one another.

These three theories explain what makes our language unique. The "lion in the river" theory and the "gossip" theory only gives us part of the answer about what makes our language, our species, so remarkable. There is something more remarkable than the ability to broadcast warnings or transmit gossip. One thing that is important about language is ability to transmit info about outside world like danger, water, etc. Also it's unique in that it can tramsit lots ofinfo about fellow people. But what makes it unique is that it can transmit info about things that do not exist at all.


Information theory

People could share more info about outside world and transmit large quantities of info about lions and rivers and whatnot, important to survival and reproduction and plan and carryout complex interactions like hunting bisons or avoiding predators.

Gossip theory

Cognitive revolution is ability to transmit large amounts of info not about outside world but about fellow Sapiens and interactions between Sapiens. This was important because Sapiens could live in larger and more cohesive groups numbering up to about 150 individuals.

Fiction theory

Fiction and fictive language. According to this theory, a very importnat ability appearing in cognitive revoltuion is ability to transmit large quantities of info about things that do not exist at all like gods, spriits, LLCs, etc. This was veyr important because this opened cooperation between enormous numbers of individuals who could never know each other and also allowed that cooperation to change very quickly by changing the stories.

Our language was not the first nor the only language, vocal or otherwise.

Most animals, even insects, have some kind of language. Ants use chemical signals and bees use dances to transmit detailed information about whereabouts of food, flowers, enemies and so forth. It is also incorrect that our language was the first vocal language. There were many vocal languages before and after. Recordings were made of green monkey noises, which sounded like nonsense to humans. Computer analysis found that there were specific patterns, and that certain calls ("words") carried distinct meanings. These recordings could be replayed and the green monkeys would understand. A particular danger call not only frightened the monkeys but made them climb up trees and begin looking left and right, as though searching for a lion. A different danger call frightened the monkeys and made them look up, as though they were on alert for eagles overhead (one of the main predators of these petite monkeys).

Our vocal ability was not unique.

Furthermore, our vocal ability is not uniquely remarkable and advanced. We have more vocal ability than most other animals, but whales and elephants have even more remarkable abilities. Elephants communicate over dozens of kilometers; whales do so over hundreds. They use intricate sound wave patterns that scientists still have not fully deciphered. Also, a parrots can repeat anything said by Albert Einstein; whatever advantage Einstein has over parrots is not in vocal ability.

Information theory

Our language can make infinite meanings from limited sounds.

Our language is amazingly complex in how it can transmit information about the world. We can use a limited number of sounds -- the number of sounds is not important -- what's important is that we can connect them into sentences. Each sentence has a different meaning. Thanks to this ability, sapiens can store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world.

Green monkeys can says "careful there's a lion" but that's about it. A sapiens that sees a lion hunting a herd of bison, can communicate that there is a lion hunting her band's herd of bison and the members of the band can decide whether to stay away or protect the herd from the lion.

Gossip theory

Our language does not just communicate information about rivers, lions and bison, but also information about fellow humans. We gossip

We communicate social information. Social information is very valuable. We gossip. While we tend to view gossip as a frivolous and bad habit, it is very beneficial. Other social animals like chimpanzees are very keen on knowing and very aware of social information, though they cannot gossip effectively. It is crucial to know who is honest, unreliable, etc. You must know who is likely to run away or stay together while hunting and encounter a dangerous predator. Further, if two people are fighting then you need to know whether to help one or the other or do nothing at all. Perhaps one person is related to a dominant member of the band. In order to reach a decision, you must know their individual character and how they relate to the band. In a band of fifty people there about 1,225 one-on-one relationships. If you take into account that there are more complex relationships between two, three and more persons, then even in relatively societies there is a tremendous amount of information to be aware of.

There is evidence about the dominant significance of gossip in our language.

What do people talk about today? most human communication of any and all kinds is gossip. It's not necessarily about personal friends and family, but about politicians, celebrities and other figureheads. The topic of most interest to all people in all cutlures is gossip. Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings, on brekaing social norms, beause it serves as a kind of police tens of thousands of years ago when there were no police. People talked about other people in the band brekaing the norm, doing what thye shouldn't do. People were frightened of breaking rules for fear that they would become the focus of gossip and nobody wanted to be their friend and cooperate with them. If that happened to you then you were as good as dead.

Social information is crucial to non-human societies that are likely similar to those of archaic humans.

There are two species of chimpanzee: Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee (chimp); and Pan paniscus, the pygmy chimpanzee (bonobo). Both species live in small troops of several dozen individuals, between thirty and sixty. Common chimps live in a male-dominated hierarchy. At the top is a single alpha male, and under him are various lower ranks of males. All the band members bow and make grunting sounds to the alpha male. The alpha male generally has first access to the best food harvested by the troop, and tends to prevent lower-ranking males from mating with fertile females. But becoming the alpha male is not determined only by muscular strength or exercising violence; any male who relied solely on these tactics would face a coalition and either change his ways or flee. In fact, the alpha male strives to maintain social harmony within his troop, often intervening in fights to resolve conflicts. To become the alpha male, the chimp must forge an extensive coalition of males and females within the group. Chimpanzee societies often have an alpha male who is relatively weak physically, but who had a stronger coalition than more muscular rivals. Bonobos live in relatively egalitarian troops dominated by a female coalition; the males are less powerful. In both cases, dominance is not just an issue of physical strength. It is about leading a bigger and more stable coalition because in a fight, supporters will often come and give assistance.

Chimpanzees form coalitions through intimate daily firsthand interactions. Hugging, kissing, grooming, picking fleas and tics, doing mutual favors. This is just like human politicians that go around, shake hands, make deals, kiss babies. They give more food to their supporters, and in exchange expect that in a confrontation these supporters will come and help them. Coalitions dominate not just the competitions for dominance, but also daily activities like when chimps find good leaves or fruits, they will share this will members of close friends and their coalition. Different coalitions usually have fairly good relationships for safety reasons when defending together against dangers, but it's still clear that some chimps are closer to their coalition.

Two chimpanzees that have never met before,never kissed, mutually groomed, never hugged, will not know the personality and history of the other, if the other is trustworhy, worthwhile to help, ranking -- thye don't know how to treat one another. This is why as the number of chimpanzees in a group increases, the social order destabilizes and ruptures, resulting in a new chimpanzee group forming from a splinter in the initial group. A group that contains more than several dozen individuals tends to suffer from instability, and only in very rare cases have groups with more than one hundreed been observed. With more than one hundred, they do not know each other well enough and wind up forming different groups. Separate groups do not cooperate, but compete for territory and food and even enter periods of prolonged warfare. Therehave even been famous cases of one chimpanzee group systematically killing all or most of hte members of a neighboring band.

Larger, intimate societies

Gossip enables humans to form larger informal social structures than if they only depended on firsthand interaction like chimpanzees do.

It is estimated that 100,000 years ago before the cognitive revolution, that spaiens and neanderthals were veyr interested in social information about their band members but could not gossip and this made it difficult for them to live in large bands and communicate effectively with large numbers of individuals. The new sapiens language that began to appear about 70,000 years ago allowed sapiens to gossip for hours and hours on end about what other people were doing. This gave sapiens reliable information about other people in society. This enabled bands to grow larger and larger, and develop tighter and more sophisticated ways of interacting with other people because we could gather more information about them.

But the natural maximum size of a group bound only by gossip is only about 150 individuals.

The natural maximum size of a gorup bound only by gossip is only about 150 individuals. It is not possible to gossip effectively about more than 150 human beings, to inimately know more than 150 human beings. The magic number in organizational structures usually falls within th range of 150 individuals. The human organizational abilities undergo a major transformation above this number. Below this number, business, organizations, military inits, etc can usually remain organized based on personal, intimate interactions; there is no absolute need for formal ranks, organizations, titles, nobles. In armies, a platoon of thirty soldiers or a company of a hundred solders can function very well solely based on intimate relations with no absolute need for discipline, regulations, ranks, etc; even if there are, they behave in a different way. The regulation might say the mst important person in the company is the lieutenant or capain of the company, but a well-respected sergeant who eveyrbody knows can become king of the company and exercise authority even or the captain or lieutenant. Similarly, in economics, a small family business of parents, children and a few helpers cna survive and flourish without a baord of directors, CEO, accounting dept, etc but once there are more than 150 individuals it can no longer work solely on the basis of informal arrangements and intimate knowledge. A successful family business that grows and grows often endangers its own survival by becoming bigger. If they cannot reinvent themselves and begin functioning in a more formal and hierarchical way, then they fial. Informal knowledge does not work with that many people.

Gossip allowed us to establish larger hierarchies without spendind all day just awtching everyone around. if something important happened, you would know it.

You cannot gossip about thousands, let alone millions.

But the relationships built by our gossiping was probaly similar before and after the cognitive reovlution. This probably was similar to our archaic Homo sapiens before hte cognitive revolution. Lives of ancient humans were adapted for small, intimate groups and when the group became too large the social order grew unstable and splintered. Even in a hbaitat that could support hundreds, it was impossible for hundreds to know each other well enough: mates, relationships, etc. How did Homo sapiens cross this threshold and begin establishing cities, kingdoms and empires with thousands and millions of people cooperating in a shared social order? The secret that enabled Sapiens to go ebyond the 150 individuals marka dn establish these cities and kingdoms and empires and churches is fictive language.

Fiction theory

What is most remarkable about our language is that it is a fictive language

So far as we know, no other species has a fictive language, a language that can communicate fiction. Other species could transmit info about danger, but what's unique about people is that we can say "lion is guardian spirit of our tribe" and this ability to speak f fictions is most unqieu feature of our language. You can never convince a monkey to give you its banana and for that good deed it will get into monkey-banana heaven. You can not get any other animal to fall for this trick, to give you a bone, just to promise that after death there will be a redemptive heaven for goodness. Sapiens is the only animals that communicates and believes these stories. After all, fiction and other myths can be dangerously misleading and destructive. Time spent praying/wrshipping couldbe spent preparing food and having sex. But rather than being a disadvantage, the fictive language is a huge advanage.

Fictive language not only allows to imagine things individually, but imagine things collectively.

Commong legend, myths and stories can be shared. Religious and nationalist myths give us the unprecedented ability to communicate in large numbers. This is the key to our success:: the ability to cooperate flexibly with large numbers of people. Other species of animals can cooperate with large numbers of individuals, like ants and bees. Thousands and tens of thousands of ants can live together very effectively. They cooperate effectively with large numbers of strangers. However, they do not have much flexibility in how they cooperate. Their cooperation is based on their genetic code, with very little flexibility. The beehive cannot easily adapt to new challenges or opportunities. CHimps and elephants, on the other hand, are very flexible. They change the way their society faces threats and opportunities. However, chimpanzees, wolves, dolphins and so forth solved the problem of flexibility but cannot cooperate in very large numbers. They only do so in small numbers of individuals that know ech other intimately. Their society is base don intimate familiarity of their band-members, so their band members must be small.

The unique feature of sapeisn language and cognition is that we can speak about things that do not really exist and thereby forge cooperation between large numbers of strangers. What is the unique feature of Homo sapiens language and cognition? It is our ability to speak about things that don't really exist and forge flexible cooperation with large numbes of strangers.

We developed imagined realities.

Massive, flexible societies

Tge ability to speak of things that do't really exist, A shared mythos allows Sapiens the unique ability to cooperate flexibly, in large numbers that surpass any other species.

Homo sapiens is the only species that can cooperate in extremely flexible ways, even more so than chimpanzees, with enormous numbers of strangers. We cooperate in millions, more than events, more than ants. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate effectively with common myth, stories, gods, etc. Any large-scale organization in the world, whether an ancient city, large tribe, church or other entitity is rooted in common fictions/stories that exist only in the imaginations of their members. For example, churches enable two catholics who have never met, hugged nor kissed can go together on crusade or donate to build a hospital, both share a belief in a shared story that enables them to cooperate. States are also rooted in common national myth. Two Japanese who have never met may save one another because of a shared belief in the Japanese nation. Two employees at the same company can nonetheless join forces and come together to develop a game because they both believe in the existence of their company, and both beleive in the existence of the dollars in which they are beig paid. People get loans from other people because they both believe in the same economic story. There are no gods, money, corporations, human rights, laws, none of these exist outside our common, shared imagination. People easily udnerstand that primitive tribes cement their social order by believing n ghosts, spirits and gathering every full moon to dance. But we fail to appreciate is that courts, corporations, churches and more operate on the same basis. Modern businesspeople and lawyers are powerful sorceres; the principal difference between moderna nd ancient sorcerers is that modern lawyers tell stranger stories than ancient sshamans. Ancient shamans said stories that we should behave a certian way or the ghosts of our ancestors will be displeased. A ghost is the existence after death of someone. A lawyer says that we should behave a certain way or Google, Microsoft or UN will become angry and punish us. This story is strange because it's more difficult to understand -- we know what a ghost is, it's eays to understand, but what is a corporation?

Since large scale cooperation among Sapiens is so flexible, the way we cooperate cna change and rather quickly/dramatically.

In 1799 the french population swtiched almost overnight in believing in story of divie right of kings to believing in story of sovereignty of the people. THis was the French Revolution, a change in thesource of power in politics. Homo sapiens has throughout history been able to change its common myths very rapdily, opening a fast change in cultural revolution and bypass traffic jams of genetic revolution. It takes tens of thousnads millions of years to change behavior of animals. Speeidn along fast lane of cultural evoltuion we soon outstripped all other animal species in terms of ability to cooperate and accumulate power.

This is all cultural change, not genetic change.

But since 70tya Homo sapiens have been able to iniate enormous cultural changes and propagate them to their descendants as well. We can do all this culturally, no geneticlaly. We far surpass the pace of genetic evolution. Therefore we study history, culture is what defines our species as much as genetics/biology. The existence of childless elites like buddhist monks go agaist fundamental principles of natural selection. These society members willingly give up procreation, while alpha males use their position to have sex with as many females as possible, but in Catholic society the Catholic alpha male the pope abstains completely from sexual intercouse and child care. How did the Catholic priesthood survive and gather so much power? It was not by passing on any genes. It was by passing on stories of the New Testament and the stories of Catholic Law and stories of saints from one generation ot the next.

WHile behavior of archaic humans was fixed for tens and even hundreds of thousands of years, Homo sapiens could change social structures, economic activities, politics, etc, change these within decades or less by transmitting stories or changing stories, without changing genetic information. A woman living in Germany from 1900 to 2000 began in the second reich of some dynasty, then in 1918 was german revolution due to WWI defeat and until 1933 so far was in the Venmar Republic or something and stories were now very different. THen in 1933 a bunch of new stories rose to power with the Nazi Revolution. Stories which were told changed, what people are, what is society, what is good, what is bad, all this changed for next twelve years. People lived in Berlin according to the Nazi story. Then cam 1945 with the defeat in WWII and the Russians were coming. Now communist East Germany came and was in a fourth regime, a compeltely different economic-socio-political system. THen in 1989 the fall of the communist bloc cme and germnay was reunified. And fort he fifth time she was in a different human society, democratic liberal reuited Germany and lived last decade of her life as a citizen of a democratic liberal reunified Gerergmany.
Second Reich
1918 Wimar Republic
1933 Nazi Germany
1945 Communsit east germany
1989 unified democratic germany
WIth different demands and differnet beliefs and different behavior patterns, her DNA always remained the same.

Chimpanzee cousins are very intelligent, resourceful, but almost never able to truly revolutionize their societies and the way in which they cooperate and behave.

There are in fact two species of chimps, each with two social systems. The different social structures of common chimps and bonobos reflect differences in their DNA. Of course DNA is not the only factor, it is not an autocrat. Behavior is influenced by environment factors and particular quirks of personalities in chimps and bonobos. They can transmit entirely new ways of behavior, like the famous story of Japanese macaque monkeys were in 1950s they were studied. Islands of Kushima in forest and studiers wanted to see them in open, so placed sweet potatoes on shores of sea or lake not sure where in sand to see them in moneky. But sweet potatoes were full of sand and the monkeys tried to clean the sweet potatoes. Eventually one macaque monkey called Emu, she found a way to quickly/effectively clean sweet potatoes. She simply washed sweet potatoe in water and ate it. At first only Emu knew it, but then others imitated her and then even after Emu died young macaque monkeys continued to imitate elders and now sixty years after Emu's discovers macaque monekys can now wash not only sweet potatoes but all kinds of other things. Macaques can learn new tricks and pass them from one to the other without changing their DNA. But this can usually only happen with minor behaviors like washing potatoes. Fundamental behaviors like social patterns only change with changes in DNA or drastic environmental changes.

Female common chimps cannot take lessons from bonobos and stage a feminist revolution. Common chimp males cnanot abolish the alpha male position and structure society of equal rights. They cannotdo it, they cannot stage revolutions, because fundamental aspects of their behavior and social structures are hardwired.

Archaic humans likley did not initiate any social or political or cultural revolutions. So far as we can tell, changes in social aptterns, invention of new technologies, settlement in new/alien habitats only arose from genetic mutations or strong environemntal changes/presssures. THey did not initiate from cultural revolutions. It took humans hundreds of thousands of years to begin cultural revolutions. Homo erectus was the longest species in terms of how many years it survived, 1.5my. So far as we know, Homo erectus society remained the same for these 1.5my. We have tools from Homo erectus 100,000ya and 1.5mya and they're the same tools. No significant changes occurred in Homo erectus technology. There was no revolution in technology and likely non in politics nor society either.

This massive flexible cooperation was our advantage over other species.

A neanderthal would have defeated a Homo sapiens one-on-one, not much different in sophistication and much stronger. BUt in massive numbers, the neanderthals did not stand a chance. Neanderthals could shar einformation with one another baout lions and rivers and so forth, but not tell and revise stories about gods and tribal spirits and whanot. Without ability t compose fiction thye could not cooperate effectively in large numbers and adapt social behavior to rapidly changing ocnditions and challenges. Sapiens could. One on one the Neanderthal might win. But 1,000 humans against 100 neanderthals would win. Ancient neanderthal sites have never found any evidence of trade beteen different neanderthal bands. But archaeologist excavating Homo sapiens sites from 30-40,000ya found clear evidence of trade between different bands. Sites in middle of EUropeancontinent found seashells that originated in mediterranean or atlantic coast. Sapiens living in HUngary likely did not go to coast and back, but traded with neighboring bands which traded with further neighbors and thereby seashells from mediterranean reached middle of European continent. If Spaiens traded in seashells, it stands to reason they could have traded info and creating a dense/wide network of info about world than network of info harnessed by Neanderthals.

We have clear evidence that Spaiens could hunt, not alwys but could, in large bands. But Neanderthals usually hunted inidvidually or just rhee or four at a time. Sapeins could arrange dozens and even hundreds of people to go on a hunting expedition. We have archaeological evidence of Sapiens being able to surroud and buthcer large herds of animals, but Sapiens 30,000ya also constructed sophisticated traps. They spent days and weeks building ditches and fences to block escape routes and then one day a large number of Sapeins bands would drive herds of animals like horses or bison into the trap and push them into a gorge or over a cliff and be able to in one afternoon to massacre dozens and even more than a hundred animals and gain an enormous amount of flesh, bones and skin. This was based on cooperation between large nhumbers of individuals over quite a long time. These abilities to cooperate with large numbers over a long time not onl served sapeins to hunt herds of horses but also with Neanderthals. If Neanderthals were upset over invading Spaiens taking all the goods, then fifty Neanderthals were no match for 500 Sapiens especially as Sapeisn enjoyed not only advantage of numbers but also advantage of being far more versatile and innovative. Even if Sapiens lost the first confrontatino, they could quickly develop tricks to wina nother conflict.

Biology versus history

Cognitive revolution allowd humans to conquer th world and dividing line btween biology on one hand and history on the other. Up to that point, biological models explained humans the same way as chimps etc. But after the cognitive revolution, bio models are no longer sufficient. We must construct historical narratives and not just biological models to account for what our species was and is doing.

How would we expalin french revolution? Biological models are good to know to explain french revolution. kidneys, livers, dietary needs, sexuality, but we would still have difficulty explaining french revolution beecause french revlution did not result from mutation in French people's DNA at the end of the 18th century but resulted from social political and cultural dynamics. So not only take into account DNA and body but also the stories that people invent and believe. What is true of French Revolution is true of event 70,000 years ago. People then arleady thought and felt like us, were as creative/imaginative as we are. ANd had whole world open before them with immense new opportunities opened. WHat to do with all that potential? How did life look at that time? What did our ancestors in the stone age do when they woke? Ate for meals? WHat were their societies like? Did they have onogamy? Nuclear families? Ceremonies? Sports contents? Religious rituals? Fight wrs and have revolutions? We will try to answer these questions in the next leson. What was daily life like in the stone age?

In the previous lessons we asked what ws the Sapiens secre to success and it was ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. THis wa related to ability to talk abut things that don't exist and create common stories and common rlaities. Not only ability to adapt to diff environments but create artifiical manmade environments. Our imaginations are used to adapt to world as it is, and also to create new worlds.