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The Bible was written to unite man under common law. So too was the Koran and many other religious texts. The goal was to hold land, wealth and status, not in the name of a patriarch who could falter or fall, but in the name of God. Rulers built exorbitant churches and temples to prove their seriousness to faith. And in exchange, monkeys handed over their lives, their land and their cultures to the church. All through fear of one well-told story.

Today our most advanced nations are skeptical of religious stories to say the least. In Scandinavia, the Netherlands and East Asia, atheists and the nonreligious are the majority. These same nations have gone on to become world leaders in education, female rights and child rearing. In 2015, East Asian nations took out the top four spots in the education sector. South Korea topped the rankings, followed by Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. This same year United Nations voted Scandinavian nation Norway overall best country to live in for the 12th year in a row. And the US News and World Report survey named the Scandinavian nations, Denmark, best country in the world for women, and Sweden, best country in the world for raising children.

Yet, the importance of stories and storytelling has never ceased. These nations simply replaced religious stories with alternatives. In the case of Eastern Asian nations, religious stories were replaced by stories of honour, status and legacy. And, in the case of Scandinavia, stories of equality, democracy and liberty.

Today we are fed stories about side projects that lead to early retirements, social media followings that lead to multimillion-dollar book deals, and tiny homes that lead to true happiness. And for the most part, these stories work. With enough people onboard we can afford to build entire systems around these core ideas of effort and reward. The problem is we are perpetually distracted by interconnecting stories. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. It seems the same stories that get us out of bed in the morning are the ones that keep us awake at night.

So, what was life like before fiction?

 

Yuval Harari, Sapiens

Under natural conditions, a typical chimpanzee troupe consists of about 20 to 50 individuals. As the number of chimpanzees in a troupe increases, the social order destabilizes, eventually leading to a rupture and the formation of a new troupe by some of the animals. Even if a particularly fertile valley could feed 500 archaic sapiens, there was no way so many strangers could live together. How could they agree who should be leader, who should hunt where or who should mate with who?

In the wake of the cognitive revolution, gossip helped homosapians to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum natural size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organisation falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mostly on intimate acquaintances and rumour-mongering. There is no need for formal ranks, titles and law books to keep order. A platoon of 30 soldiers, or even a company of 100 soldiers, can function well on the basis of intimate relations with the minimum of formal discipline. A well-respected sergeant can become king of the company, and exercise authority even over commissioned officers. A small family business can survive and thrive without a board of directors, a CEO or an accounting department. But once the threshold of 150 individuals is crossed, things can no longer work that way. You cannot run a division with thousands of soldiers the same way you run a platoon. Successful family businesses usually face a crisis when they grow larger and hire more personnel. If they cannot reinvent themselves then they go bust.

How did homosapians manage to cross this typical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants, and empires ruling hundreds of millions?

The secret was probably in the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human operation whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe, is rooted in common myths existing only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights and the money paid out in fees. Yet none of these things exist outside the stories people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.