The “superpower” of our species

Young-jin Choi
7 min readJul 12, 2023


In his seminal book “Sapiens”, Yuval Harari identifies the ability to tell and believe in imaginary stories as the “superpower“ of our species. Early in our history, this unique capability enabled large groups of humans to successfully cooperate in order to solve geographically and temporally constrained coordination problems, such as out-competing rival species, building large settlements, or forging nation-states. For a long time, the cohesive force of tribal, religious or national identities — alongside their identity-forming narratives — used to be sufficiently effective to this end. However, when it comes to non-linear challenges and planet-wide coordination problems, such as the climate crisis, homo sapiens is yet to realize its full potential.

Understanding the urgency behind the climate crisis requires scientific literacy

A major obstacle to that realization is the gap between the sheer temporal and spatial scale of geological real-world dynamics on the one hand and the limitations of ordinary, everyday human life experience on the other. Bridging this gap requires a sufficient degree of scientific literacy, curiosity and intellectual openness. Notwithstanding flaws and imperfections, for which the current practice of academic knowledge production might be rightly criticized (e.g. predatory publishing), these qualities enable a basic confidence in the essential validity of modern climate science. Only then can one begin to comprehend the stakes and the absolute urgency of stabilizing a global climate system that has catastrophically run off the rails.

Not well-informed: the consensus gap between science and the general public

Unfortunately, the transfer of scientific knowledge to the public sphere and the democratic opinion formation process has been severely distorted by the fossil fuel industry. As a result, an astonishing share of today’s population is in a severely misinformed state and absolutely convinced of a worldview, according to which the climate crisis is a fabrication. In a recent poll in Germany, for instance, 22% of adults explicitly stated that they didn’t believe in man-made climate change, while 15% didn’t know or refused to respond. This means that even as climate impacts start to be felt almost everywhere, more than a third of the German voting population is motivated to actively work against a rapid transition. In their worldview, the loss of unsustainable consumption choices, resulting from science-based regulatory measures designed to protect our children’s future, represents an unnecessary, authoritarian restriction of their freedom. If people appear to live in polar opposite subjective realities today, it is because they do.

Contact with a new class of AI

And just at a period in human history when scientifically informed consensus on our shared physical reality and cooperation in good faith — rather than domestic or geopolitical rivalry — is needed more than ever, a new class of generative AI has emerged in the form of large language models. With this historic event — as the makers of “The Social Dilemma“ convincingly present in “The AI-Dilemma” — the former Sapiens “superpower” has taken a huge leap in the process of becoming humanity’s kryptonite, which initially began with the rise of algorithmic social media. Indeed, among the greatest risks of the new AI era is the severe loss of confidence and trust in the scientific understanding of the physical world. As generative AI becomes an increasingly accurate simulation of what seems true, but not of what actually is true, it is set to take the fragmentation of subjective reality perceptions to a new level.

Back in the Middle Ages

With every recorded media, text, voice or video, being possibly deep-faked, most humans will likely learn to either distrust any source of truth other than their own personal experience or become even more vulnerable to pseudoscientific echo-chamber authorities. Epistemically, our civilization has been thrown back into the Middle Ages, where the perceived truths of different social groups were primarily based on eyewitness accounts and personal trustworthiness. It was the time of witch hunts, religious fanaticism and irrational superstition. Without a deep commitment to the primacy of an (always preliminary) scientific truth that constantly needs to be substantiated by an evolving body of evidence and expert consensus, even humans that consider themselves extraordinarily smart and critical thinkers are bound to remain trapped in their native echo chambers.

The under-developed human potential

But we can manage to help at least some of them escape their epistemic prisons, e.g. by virtue of authentic persuasion and by calling in instead of calling out, as Anand Giridharas’ new book illustrates. Fortunately, there is a universal human potential for both empathy and cooperation (as Rutger Bregman shows in his book “humankind”) as well as critical, scientifically grounded thinking, to build upon and develop. A major reason why this potential might appear largely hidden or unrealized to date can be found in the fact that most education systems in modern history simply had not been well designed to realize that potential yet. Modern education systems as we know them may have largely succeeded in training a capable labor force for the knowledge economy, but they haven’t made a substantial effort to date to develop an enlightened, critically thinking and scientifically literate citizenry.

The need for a global identity as Sapiens

To fully close the knowledge-action gap more than scientific literacy and epistemic clarity are likely needed. Considering the failure of now 27 COPs to put the greater good of mankind above national/fossil fuel owners’ near-term interests, there is reason to believe that the formation of the collective willpower needed to rapidly phase out fossil fuel use at a global scale requires a sufficiently strong sense of humanistic self-identity that supersedes national or tribal identities. It takes an intergenerational, cosmopolitan identity as “sapiens” to comprehend our shared inescapable fate as passengers aboard a “spaceship Earth”, and to internalize our shared responsibility as earth system stewards. For social tipping to occur in favor of successful climate crisis management, a critical mass of citizens, influencers and decision-makers needs to be persuaded, inspired and encouraged to think and act as a human species, beyond the boundaries of individual lifetimes or national/cultural borders.

The universality of direct/indirect parenthood and children’s rights

A chink of light is offered by a latent potential for an intergenerational sense of identity that exists by virtue of the bond of direct or indirect parenthood. Once the scale and depth of the self-destructiveness of current fossil fuel dependence are fully understood, it shouldn‘t be too difficult for caring parents, godparents or grandparents of any tribe or nationality to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our young ones over the privilege of a fundamentally unsustainable lifestyle. If there is one force powerful enough to make ordinary humans exceed themselves, it is our love towards children. Just as it is obvious that one person‘s freedom to move his/her arm ends where another person‘s nose begins, it should be obvious that one persons‘ freedom to believe a scientifically inaccurate, poorly justified climate science skeptic worldview — or to burn fossil fuels for seemingly cheap (but socially and environmentally immensely costly) energy — ends where our children’s rights to a habitable planet with a stable climate and a healthy ecosystem begins.

Conclusion: three interdependent crises that need to be solved to solve the climate crisis

In conclusion, there are (at least) three interdependent crises at the heart of humanity’s current inability to get the global economy’s greenhouse gas emissions under control. Each crisis requires different actions to be solved but also represents a contributing factor to solving the others.

1. Solving an epistemic crisis. It is our task to stop and reverse an already ongoing societal descent into a fractured, hyperpolarized state of collective delusion and paranoia, resulting in perceived realities that are out of touch with the thermodynamic actuality of our Earth system. In order to be able to agree on a reasonable approximation of our shared reality as it actually is, we must learn to get our tribal minds under control while cultivating our higher minds’ critical rational thinking and scientific reasoning skills. We need to do so everywhere, at every educational level and age, in school education and adult learning settings. At the same time, the general public needs to be inoculated against misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. AI models must be either forced to adhere to minimum scientific standards of fact-based objectivity or be banned from the public sphere. Their utilization of mass disinformation should be considered a serious international criminal offense, a crime against humanity — especially when it contributes to climate inactivism.

2. Solving an identity crisis. Here, our task is to stop and reverse an already ongoing societal descent into radical nationalism and tribalism, which comes with an increased readiness for violent intergroup conflict. We must find ways to weaken the current dominance of tribal and national identities in favor of a humanistic, intergenerational identity as “sapiens” that compels present humans to deeply care about the fate and living conditions of future humans. Yuval Harari’s “sapienship” represents an exemplary initiative in this regard. What is needed much more than the myopic competition is a foresightful international collaboration, which requires that a large share of political leaders, influencers, voters and advisors alike make decisions that are science-based and responsible, transcending the pursuit of narrow short-term self- or ingroup-interest. (Grand-/God-) Parents need to understand how they can best serve the interests of their (grand-/god-) children whose future well-being is now dependent on their wisdom.

3. Solving a democracy crisis. Our task is to disentangle the law- and policy-making processes in democracies worldwide from excessive industrial lobbyism, corporate capture and direct/ indirect corruption. Most democracies as we know them today are a far cry from being the best possible, uncorrupted versions of themselves. Narrow short-term interests, in particular of the fossil fuel industry, carry greater weight than the broader will of a caring and scientifically literate citizenry. Among the most tragic outcomes is the unsustainable and (considering currently available cleaner alternatives) largely unnecessary fossil fuel use for a short-lived, wasteful energy gain at the peril of our species’ future. We should know and hope that sapiens can do better than what is currently on display, but this requires better-designed incentive structures, rules and regulations, which in turn requires sufficient progress on solving the aforementioned epistemic and identity crises.