The Cognitive Revolution

This article is about the Cognitive Revolution. After reading this article I hope you will agree that this revolution was one of the most important and profound changes in the way humans thought and organized during the two million years of our existence. My take on the Cognitive Revolution is similar to that of the book Sapiens written by Yuval Noah Harari, who provides “a brief summary of humankind”. My sister wrote her own takeaways from the book that you can check out here. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the cognitive revolution marks the beginning of humans imagining things unseen. For the first time, we began to create fairy tales and create customs that had previously not existed. The unique ability of humans to create and share imagined stories and customs made it possible for humans to coordinate in larger numbers than our close circle of trusted friends and family. This ultimately led humans to dominate the earth. Now that you are thoroughly on the edge of your seat...let's dive into...The Cognitive Revolution.


Before the Cognitive Revolution, humans were essentially no different from other mammals. We still are a lot like other mammals, but we have one thing that monkeys don’t that has made all the difference. We have that ability to coordinate beyond those we know personally. When a monkey comes across another monkey in the jungle that they do not know they react with what is called the fight or flight response. They have no way of knowing if the monkey they encounter is going to try to kill them or just passing by. Humans were the same way during the first two million years of evolution from monkeys. We still carry the fight or flight instinct to this day. But we no longer become terrified when we encounter someone on the street that we have never met. The reason is because of the Cognitive Revolution.


So what is the Cognitive Revolution? The Cognitive Revolution occurred around 50,000 years ago. It was an evolutionary trait that allowed human brains to imagine. For the first time people were able to make up fictional stories, imagine new ways to do and make things, create games and customs without historical precedent. For example, suppose that a group of hunter gatherers imagined a new custom where they all create hats using bird feathers. This may seem like a silly thing to do, but these hats create a shared custom that allows all others in the tribe to easily signal their allegiance. Now when others in the tribe see someone wearing one of these hats they no longer need to respond with fight or flight and can instead trust in the shared custom to replace a personal relationship.


Why is this so important? Because any given human is only capable of having perhaps 100 personal relationships at any given time. That is why human bands of hunter gatherers could not grow in size beyond this number. Monkeys are the same way to this day, because they lack the ability to create these shared stories or creative customs. The specific nature of the stories and customs mattered little. All that mattered was that they provided a way to signal that one was part of the same tribe, allowing tribes to grow to many thousands of people. This helped humans to coordinate at a level that was previously impossible to imagine, because we had no imaginations. Ever wonder why Monkeys don’t build Pyramids? Maybe if they saw a small Pyramid they may try to build one, but without an example they can’t imagine one. Even if they did have an example, how could thousands of monkeys coordinate to create something so massive? They can’t because they don’t have shared fictional stories like that of the Ancient Egyptians and their stories of the afterlife.


Shared stories and customs allowed some tribes to grow to enormous sizes and coordinate. Tribes that lacked these abilities were doomed to be destroyed by those that did because they were simply too small to survive. As a result it probably did not take long for tribes with shared fictional stories and imagined customs to take over. This is an example of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is where people were able to invent or find a better way of doing, or making something. By perhaps 20,000 years ago the planet was dominated by larger human tribes held together by their shared fictional stories and customs. These larger tribes now faced a new challenge...how to feed so many tribe members. This challenge led to the next major revolution … the Agricultural Revolution which my sister wrote an article about that you can check out here.


To conclude, here are three takeaways from this article. First, before the Cognitive Revolution humans were not so different from other mammals because we could not imagine things. We were only in tribes up to about 100 to 120 people. Second, once the Cognitive Revolution occurred people were able to imagine things which led to tribes getting larger and larger and then those tribes started dominating and taking over. Lastly, the Cognitive Revolution led into the agricultural revolution because once tribes started to get bigger and bigger tribes needed more food to feed the people. This article was about before the Cognitive Revolution, what the Cognitive Revolution is, and why it is important. I hope you enjoyed it!