“You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson. A Few Good Men (1992). Do you recall the power in that line? Spit out by Nicholson after courtroom badgering by the character played by Tom Cruise? Then, Nicholson goes on to talk about living in a world with walls, walls which need defending. “We use words like honour, code, loyalty,” Nicholson says, like Cruise has no clue about such things.
These words – “honour, code, loyalty” – are expensive. They cost lives, as happened in A Few Good Men, as has happened down through human history. The walls we defend always feel real. And bound by truth. But are they? Can anyone, in this whole wide world of 7 billion plus people, handle the truth? Do you know, that if we lived strictly by the truth, by fact, firmly entrenched in reality – as I always thought I was growing up – it’s doubtful we humans would be here at this time, in this abundant capacity, altering Nature to suit our every whim?
I’m reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I just watched his TED Talk too, What explains the rise of humans? Harari makes the case, as do other Big History historians, that it is our ability to imagine, collectively, that has given us the keys to the planet. “We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story,” says Harari, “the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.” Bees and ants work together in large numbers, but do so rigidly. Wolves and chimpanzees are more flexible than ants, but can only work with individuals they know well. Harari reiterates, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”
Examples of some fictions we hold as truths each and every day? In the legal field, there’s human rights. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While this statement is positive and good, allowing us to cooperate effectively with one another, Harari points out it is not biological fact. In the political field, there are lines on the globe dividing continents into countries, countries into states or provinces, etc. A mountain is most certainly real. Canada, the US, Mexico? Stories. In the economic field? Google, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s? We talk about these familiar corporations as though they are real, but actually they are a figment of our collective imaginations. “Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’,” says Harari. “It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity.”
The biggest fairy tale ever told? Says Harari, “Money, in fact, is the most successful story ever told by humans because it is the only story everybody believes.” Not everyone believes in God, or human rights, or Coke, but without money, how do you get by in the world today? You’ll never convince our closest animal relative, a chimp, to trade a banana for a small metal disc, a rectangular piece of paper, or a plastic card, but humans must embrace this widespread fiction to survive.
“We are still animals,” says Harari, “and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA. Our societies are built from the same building blocks as Neanderthal or chimpanzee societies, and the more we examine these building blocks – sensations, emotions, family ties – the less difference we find between us and other apes.”
So, what is the big difference between us? We can’t handle the truth! We prefer fiction. “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups,” says Harari. “This glue has made us masters of creation.”
Unlike our animal cousins, we find ourselves living in a dual reality, which consists of objective reality and a second layer of fictional reality that has become more and more powerful. Harari notes that we created a fiction so strong, so believable, that now the very survival of our objective reality – mountains, trees and lions – depends on it. I mean, with Earth being somewhat finite, how many more Sapiens can it possibly house, while also entertaining all of our legal fictions, which are constantly on the hunt for more market share?
Earth has been around a long time: 4.6 billion years. Under our feet the eras pile up: Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. A couple of big extinctions are buried down there. Earth seems to be quite resilient to her myriad creations and how she’s let them enjoy her. How resilient are we? Us Homo sapiens, here a mere 6 million years? We’re pretty darn smart. We work really well in large numbers. So, we should be able to figure this thing out. Maybe it’s time we tried handling the truth? Even if it’s inconvenient, as in the title of that documentary with Al Gore from 10 years ago?