16. Words and Knowledge

This is the next release of a book which you can read here.

Cooking was the beginning of the end.  It provided us enough power separation that our species would become unstoppable.  The next hack was just a matter of time:  Words.

One day, about 100,000 years ago,[1] we figured them out.  Tim Urban[2] was on the scene and recorded it.

Words were revolutionary – abstract visual imprints on the brain that connected sounds with imagery.  Each word was an empathy container to let the other brain know exactly what we meant.  

It was an energy-saving hack to copy a thought into another human brain.  Words connected people by lighting up the same auditory synaptic pattern in each of the two brains.  They were the original copy-paste, allowing people to comprehend others’ thoughts at a higher resolution of consciousness than ever before.

Thaaaaat’s what he meant. Yep.

Words united people under a common understanding.  To do this, we both had to go along with some arbitrary agreement that we would pretend that THIS SOUND meant THIS THING. It took a lot of cooperation and playing along and agreeing.

This was made possible only by the abundance of food that the human race was experiencing, and trust.  We had the margin to take chances to cooperate.

Words allowed people to share more experiences, be more vulnerable, and relationships did this:[3]

But the system was never perfect.  Words were built on experiences, which invoke feelings.  Bob’s buddy had to UNDERSTAND a need and a feeling before he could know and care to throw Bob a rock. 

Words were also an extension of power, like little microloans of our personal story. Sharing makes us vulnerable.  So words, like friendships, were always built on trust.  Trust that our friend would repay the loan by reciprocating goodness one day.

We trust that the person we’re dealing with isn’t going to take advantage of us.  Words are like a cosigner on a loan that allows people to take risks.  Bob’s friend could have killed him with the rock. Words just made way for a bigger gamble of trust.  They opened the door for us to exchange or trade physical objects, like tools or food – which spiraled into global trade and development.  To date, no other animal on the planet has developed enough trust to begin trading.[4]


Before words, we taught by visual cues, like how a wolf might teach her pups to hunt, or a crow may teach another crow to use a tool.  People died young, and education was sloooooooooooowww.[5]

After language, we could share and adopt increasingly complex information and pass it down to the next generation and all the other tribes around us without everybody having to relearn everything by watching.  All this was based on trust. 

Each generation’s base of knowledge could grow from a new higher starting point because they could make brain copies of what older people told them. [6]

So our knowledge compounded and spiraled.  We shared more, and every tribe grew more powerful.  If one person figured out how to make a spear, they could spread the knowledge everywhere and save the whole species a ton of work. Evolution sped up.   

So we entered this cycle:

By 6,000 B.C., we were engaged in complex bartering across long distances.[7]  The whole species became more efficient, more specialized, and more dependent on each person’s contribution. 

More parental investment evolved into teaching a crap-ton to our kids before letting them out of the nest.  Today, our Tribal Knowledge Growth Curve has been off the charts.   We now spend 25 years with the best education system in history just to learn how to be functioning adult homo sapiens.

Think about it:

Polar bears be like…

Humans? —

We train people by having knowledgeable (Powerful) people give attention to less knowledgeable people, pouring out the golden stream for the next generation to get enough to survive.

Specialized knowledge became our superpower, and we now exhaust ourselves for 25 years transferring our knowledge and skill through a tiny stream of attention to our little humans just to make them successful big humans.  Our kids store up two decades of this knowledge power before they can even become a net positive for our species.[8]

See that dip at age 14?  Those are 8th graders.

This specialized training becomes part of what it means to be a full human.  Knowledge and connection are forms of power rolled into our developing bodies.

Basically an Oyster’s mom leaves it a savings account worth $1 at a 0.000001% APY, and a human leaves their kids with a Power portfolio with CD’s, bonds, stocks, real estate, and options.  As a whole, we evolved to depend on this transfer, and became needy and helpless.

After tens of thousands of years of this cycle, today’s babies require more than ever before. 

We are high maintenance and highly specialized.  We have become helpless surviving alone.[9]  Even if you pit a human against a chimpanzee on a deserted island in a game of Survivor, the chimp wins hands down.  Pit 10 humans against 10 chimps, and the chimps still win.  It’s only when you put 1,000 humans together, that we conquer. 

To thrive, each of us must oversee a super-mega-ultra garden of living relationships that depend on words, commitments, integrity, and trust.

This brain’s just getting started.

The paradox here is that the most civilized human adults on earth are almost as individually helpless as our baby counterparts.

Humans power lies completely in our capability to communicate with large numbers of people very, very efficiently. We’re not oysters, we’re no longer even chimps, and we’re going to need to be able to have next-level connection skills to wield Human-Level-Power.

Give a person a bit of knowledge, and you will feed them for a day.  But give them the ability to acquire knowledge, and you will feed them for a lifetime.  People skills breed success.

You already knew this, right?

Lesson: If we are going to go from zero to advanced calculus in 25 years, we have to get along and develop enormous connection skills.  We can’t get distracted or bitch, moan, and debate every day along the way.

The most advanced humans would need the most advanced connecting skills on the best network of relationships to access the power and cooperation of others.   So evolution worked really hard to arrive here.

Dunbar’s Number

Today – and until we evolve more neurons – we are stuck at around 86 billion.  Impressive, but we still have limits on our social abilities and capacity for trust.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar took the size of our neocortex, and, using fancy math, came up with the now-famous “Dunbar’s Number:” 

[drum roll…]





I know, disappointing.  That’s it. 

That’s how many humans you can stay friends with.  And you kind of knew this.  This is roughly the number of people, who, if you walked into a bar and saw them, you might actually have a drink with. 

Your brain’s relationship garden can only keep 150 plants alive.

[1] VERY blurry timeline on this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_language  But we are definitely sure that it happened basically like Tim’s cartoon depicts.

[2] Waitbutwhy.com, Thanks, Tim. 

[3] These guys and girls came up with an index to measure relationship closeness. I’m betting wildebeests would suck on this scale.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4466912/

[4] Matt Ridley (2013).  When Ideas have Sex, TED 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex/transcript?language=en

[5] Also credit to waitbutwhy for this graph.  Just go read the post.

[6] These also compliments of Tim.  Great job, Tim!

[7] https://www.mint.com/barter-system-history-the-past-and-present#:~:text=Generally%2C%20trading%20in%20this%20manner,Online%20auctions%20and%20swap%20markets.&text=The%20history%20of%20bartering%20dates,various%20other%20cities%20across%20oceans.

[8] Kaplan, H., Hooper, P.L., & Gurven, M. (2009) The evolutionary and ecological roots of human social organization. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2009.0115

[9] Except this guy: The Man of the Hole. Unreal.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_of_the_Hole

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