What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Carl Sagan, from the Cosmos episode “The Persistence of Memory”
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… If you can wait and not be tired by waiting… If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim… If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species.
You can never, for example, convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by promising that, “Look, after you die, you will go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on earth, so now do what I tell you to do.”
But humans do believe such stories and this is the basic reason why we control the world whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.