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The Story of Human Progress

By Johan Norberg
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Open by Johan Norberg

Open (2020) traces the progress of ancient and modern human accomplishments, and reveals that behind all of our major advancements is a policy of openness, tolerance, and free trade. You’ll see how, from the Phoenicians to the Dutch East India Trading Company, the free flow of commerce and ideas has led to wealth, innovation, and problem-solving that would have never been possible otherwise.

Key idea 1 of 9

Cooperation is key to human progress.

There are three things that set human beings apart from other lifeforms on the planet: intelligence, language, and cooperation. This third trait was key to our evolution. Dating back about 3.2 million years ago, the Australopithecus afarensis species was a crucial evolutionary link between humans and our chimpanzee-like ancestors. 

Due to dramatic environmental changes that turned rainforests into savannahs, our ancestors were forced to fend for themselves on dry ground. As a result, Australopithecus afarensis developed unique changes to its hand, wrist, shoulder, and upper arm. The reason? To enable it to throw stones.

Our early ancestors needed to cooperate in order to survive. And once they figured out that coordinated stone-throwing could take down animals far bigger and stronger than they were, there was no turning back. We were on our way to becoming human.

The key message here is: Cooperation is key to human progress.

Psychologist William von Hippel calls the advent of coordinated stone-throwing our “social leap.” Cooperation and the transfer of knowledge and skills among people would continue to be at the heart of human advancement.

Fast forward to around 45,000 years ago. In western Eurasia, the author believes that there was enough of a population build-up that ideas began to merge – and advanced tool-making began to take place. He adds that the knowledge of how to make these tools then spread to Africa and the Middle East, where they were further developed.

In fact, we can see how this spreading of ideas and social openness were deciding factors in human evolution. Around 50,000 years ago is also when the Neanderthals began to die off – or, to put it more accurately, the Neanderthals’ way of life died off, while the lineage of Neanderthals mixed with Homo sapiens

One of the reasons for this was that Homo sapiens traveled and traded, while Neanderthals tended to stay close to home in their chilly Northern European climate. Through their travels and trading, Homo sapiens found value in the division of labor. This means that those who were great at hunting hunted, and those who were skilled at making clothes did just that. Societies began forming, and new levels of prosperity were achieved.

Neanderthals, on the other hand, never flourished like their more open-minded Homo sapiens relatives. Despite having larger brains, their preference for staying put meant they didn’t start dividing up their labor. 

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