Today’s idea comes from Yuval Harari in his book, Sapiens. Among other great concepts in the book is that of how shared myths helped humanity grow into what it is today. As with many other ideas, I doubt this originated with Mr. Harari, but he communicated it very well in a book that became immensely popular, so we’re going to go with his version of this.
What is a shared myth? Put simply, it’s something that isn’t fundamentally true, yet we all share our belief in it. Harari uses the example of money. As Harari puts it, humans willingly swap a dollar bill for a banana without even thinking twice about it. Yet if you were to try to do the same exchange with a gorilla, he’d probably think you were mad! Gorillas obviously don’t have the same shared myths that we do, and as such would see the dollar as the sheet of paper that it is.
These shared myths hold immense value to us as a species though. Religions are among the most enduring, but much of what we’ve established is based on our uniquely human ability to buy into an idea that isn’t conclusively true or obvious. But money and much of our modern economies and governments are based on similar myths – e.g. the concept of “human rights”, which Harari cites in his most recent book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Human rights may feel real to us and we all buy into them (minus arguments about what exactly is included), but this is precisely because it isn’t a “real” thing – it’s a myth, albeit a helpful one.
Of course, the flip side of humans being able to collectively buy into myths is why we have superstitions, conspiracy theories, cults, and other maladaptive myths that still pervade society. While these myths cause some harm, it’s obviously outweighed by the benefits that we’ve accrued.
Even so, as the world has become more complex, we now need to rely on shared myths more than ever in order to keep advancing. With that, we do run the risk of the downsides of shared myths becoming more acute. Indeed, a lot of the collective uncertainty and unease we see now is because people don’t know which shared myths they should turn to.
And given this increased complexity, it is more important than ever to see shared myths for what they are. This may sound like a post-modernist claim, but as I note in discussing cultural relativism, certain ideas are more accurate representations and create reliably better results. As such, we can say that money has been a good myth, while the random voodoo death cult very likely is not.