I don’t mean to get super deep here or anything. You’re theoretically alive and reading this and human and you have day-to-day responsibilities and people you interact with and friends and family. Most people don’t think about it much deeper than that, right? Do your thing, chase your dream, build your company, raise your family, etc. People come in and out of your life, and some losses are harder; some are barely felt. This is, broadly speaking, the way of humanity.
But sometimes it’s interesting to stop and reflect on what exactly makes us human, and why humanity became the dominant frontier of the last few thousand years … as opposed to, say, a colony of lions running the world, or even a colony of arts.
The real difference between us and other animals is on the collective level. Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you?
Now consider this:
Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us. But pit 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.
This article goes a little off the rails after this, although it’s still accurate: it talks about how a lot of things in human society are underscored by fictional stories, or, at the very least — stories we can’t be sure are true. Consider: God, religion, human rights. (Human rights is a belief, but it’s inherently fictional in a way; there’s no “set of rights” in human tissue or anything.)
About this first part that I paraphrased above, though: this is interesting from a work context, no? We’re the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, and that’s assured that we inherited the Earth. Yet in cubicles world-wide, we have severe problems continuing to do that.
It’s almost as if we can operate at a macro base-line of “Well, societally this can hold us together!” but at a micro work-level, that doesn’t happen.
The most logical reason for this is that beyond the fact that you’re probably capable of cooperating in flexible ways with other humans, you’re also probably a creature of emotion. Work is set up around logical (or presumably logical) parameters, often known as process. Creatures of emotion in logical set-ups don’t always work out. You throw “the desire for money” into that equation and it’s totally out of whack. That’s one reason — just a small one — why it’s hard to compare elements of a marriage to elements of a work dynamic, even though everyone tries all the time.
But stop and think about this every once in a while: the exact thing that made you get to this point — that made it so that your ancestors survived, both distant and recent — is the exact thing we go into an office every day and don’t really do. If we pause and reflect on our place in the broader universe, however briefly, maybe we could start coming back to equilibrium on that a bit.