We humans

Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species.

Sep 7, 2018 /

Shared fictions — in the form of news, religions, novels, sports, money, even brands — fill our lives, but that’s OK. It’s these shared beliefs that have helped humans cooperate and conquer the planet, explains historian Yuval Harari.

We are repeatedly told these days that we have entered the terrifying new era of post-truth, in which not just particular facts but entire histories might be faked. But if this is the era of post-truth, when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? And what triggered our transition to the post-truth era? The internet? Social media? The rise of Putin and Trump?

A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new. In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, who conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws and can thereby cooperate effectively.

Please note that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion — just the opposite. Fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit.

Centuries ago, millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran. We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries a Dalit — yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years.

Some fake news lasts forever.

I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).

Please note that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion — just the opposite. For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Much of the Bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions and can still encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous, and creative— just like other great works of fiction, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace and the Harry Potter books.

Again, some people might be offended by my comparison of the Bible to Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically minded Christian, you might argue that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of the Harry Potter stories too?

Ancient religions have not been the only ones to use fiction to cement cooperation. More recently, each nation has created its own national mythology.

Of course, not all religious myths have been beneficent. On August 29, 1255, the body of a nine-year-old English boy called Hugh was found in a well in the town of Lincoln. Rumor quickly spread that Hugh had been ritually murdered by the local Jews. The story only grew with retelling, and one of the most renowned English chroniclers of the day, Matthew Paris, provided a detailed and gory description of how prominent Jews from throughout England gathered in Lincoln to fatten up, torture, and finally crucify the abandoned child. Nineteen Jews were tried and executed for the alleged murder. Similar blood libels became popular in other English towns, leading to a series of pogroms in which whole Jewish communities were massacred. Eventually, in 1290, the entire Jewish population of England was expelled.

The story doesn’t end there. A century after the expulsion of the Jews, Geoffrey Chaucer included a blood libel modeled on the story of Hugh of Lincoln in the Canterbury Tales (“The Prioress’s Tale”). The tale culminates with the hanging of the Jews. Similar blood libels subsequently became a staple of every anti-Semitic movement from late medieval Spain to modern Russia.

Hugh of Lincoln was buried in Lincoln Cathedral and venerated as a saint. He was reputed to perform various miracles, and his tomb continued to draw pilgrims even centuries after the expulsion of all Jews from England. Only in 1955 — ten years after the Holocaust — did Lincoln Cathedral repudiate the blood libel story, placing a plaque near Hugh’s tomb that reads:

“Trumped-up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255. Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom.”

Well, some fake news only lasts seven hundred years.

Ancient religions have not been the only ones to use fiction to cement cooperation. In more recent times, each nation has created its own national mythology, while movements such as communism, fascism and liberalism fashioned elaborate self-reinforcing credos. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro, allegedly explained his method thus: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Can any present-day fake-news peddler improve on that?

The truth is, truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.

Commercial firms also rely on fiction and fake news. Branding often involves retelling the same fictional story again and again, until people become convinced it is the truth. What images come to mind when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think about healthy young people engaging in sports and having fun together? Or do you think about overweight diabetes patients lying in a hospital bed? Drinking lots of Coca-Cola will not make you young, will not make you healthy, and will not make you athletic — rather, it will increase your chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes. Yet for decades Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health, and sports — and billions of humans subconsciously believe in this linkage.

The truth is, truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. If the chief says the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, only true loyalists will clap their hands. Similarly, if all your neighbors believe the same outrageous tale, you can count on them to stand together in times of crisis. If they are willing to believe only accredited facts, what does that prove?

You might argue that in some cases it is possible to organize people effectively through consensual agreement rather than through fictions. In the economic sphere, money and corporations bind people together far more effectively than any god or holy book, even though they are just a human convention. In the case of a holy book, a true believer would say, “I believe that the book is sacred,” while in the case of the dollar, a true believer would say only, “I believe that other people believe that the dollar is valuable.” It is obvious that the dollar is just a human creation, yet people all over the world respect it. If so, why can’t humans abandon all myths and fictions and organize themselves on the basis of consensual conventions such as the dollar?

Yet the difference between holy books and money is far smaller than it might seem. When most people see a dollar bill, they forget that it is just a human convention. As they see the green piece of paper with the picture of the dead white man, they see it as something valuable in and of itself. They hardly ever remind themselves, “Actually, this is a worthless piece of paper, but because other people view it as valuable, I can make use of it.” If you observed a human brain in an fMRI scanner, you would see that as someone is presented with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills, the parts of the brain that start buzzing with excitement are not the skeptical parts but the greedy parts. Conversely, in the vast majority of cases people begin to sanctify the Bible or the Vedas only after long and repeated exposure to others who view it as sacred. We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect paper currency.

You cannot play games or read novels unless you suspend disbelief. To enjoy soccer, you have to forget for at least ninety minutes that its rules are merely human inventions.

For this reason there is no strict division in practice between knowing that something is just a human convention and believing that something is inherently valuable. In many cases, people are ambiguous or forgetful about this division. To give another example, in a deep philosophical discussion about it, almost everybody would agree that corporations are fictional stories created by human beings. Microsoft isn’t the buildings it owns, the people it employs, or the shareholders it serves — rather, it is an intricate legal fiction woven by lawmakers and lawyers. Yet 99 percent of the time, we aren’t engaged in deep philosophical discussions, and we treat corporations as if they are real entities, just like tigers or humans.

Blurring the line between fiction and reality can be done for many purposes, starting with “having fun” and going all the way to “survival.” You cannot play games or read novels unless you suspend disbelief. To really enjoy soccer, you have to accept the rules and forget for at least ninety minutes that they are merely human inventions. If you don’t, you will think it utterly ridiculous for 22 people to go running after a ball. Soccer might begin with just having fun, but it can become far more serious stuff, as any English hooligan or Argentinian nationalist will attest. Soccer can help formulate personal identities, it can cement large-scale communities, and it can even provide reasons for violence.

Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it. If you really focus, you realize that money is fiction. But you usually don’t think about it. If you are asked about it, you know that soccer is a human invention. But in the heat of a match, nobody asks. If you devote the time and energy, you can discover that nations are elaborate yarns. But in the midst of a war, you don’t have the time and energy.

Scholars throughout history have faced this dilemma: Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity?

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things — for example, about the sources of your own power — that will anger allies, dishearten followers, or undermine social harmony.

Scholars throughout history have faced this dilemma: Do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? The most powerful scholarly establishments — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.

As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it — and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. If you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better to try your luck with chimps.

Excerpted with permission from the new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari, published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Yuval Noah Harari.