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The innovation show with aidAn mccullen – Act one

Clearly, we humans are radically different from the other creatures on this planet. But why? Where are the Bronze Age beavers? The Iron Age iguanas? In this interview with Aiden McCullen on The Innovation Show, Byron argues that we humans owe our special status to our ability to imagine the future and recall the past, escaping the perpetual present that all other living creatures are trapped in.   

Envisioning human history as the development of a societal superorganism he names Agora, Byron shows us how this escape enabled us to share knowledge on an unprecedented scale, and predict—and eventually master—the future.

“even today, our primary use of stories is still mental. We use them to plan for the future, from the next few minutes, to years or even decades. But that raises an interesting question. How do we know what will happen in the future? Sure, we have the ability to imagine what might happen. But how do you know what will actually happen? As Aristotle writes,” you tell us, “nobody can erase what has not yet happened.” But you ask, “or can they?”


Aidan McCullen  [00:00]: The Innovation Show is proudly brought to you by Zai, boldly transforming the future of financial services with a suite of embedded products and services, enabling businesses to manage multiple payment workflows, and transfer funds with ease. You can check out Zai at In today’s episode, our guest argues that we humans owe our special status to our ability to imagine the future and recall the past, escaping the perpetual present that all other animals live in. Today is act one of a three act show, and in act one will discover the awakening, where humans had this dawn of cognitive ability that gave us the ability to mentally time travel. It is a great pleasure to welcome back friend of the Innovation Show and the author of Stories, Dice, and Rocks That Think – Byron Reese. Welcome to the show.

Byron Reese [01:03]: Thanks for having me, I’m so glad to be here.

Aidan [01:05]: It’s great to have you back. And you’ll see I have the Reese library behind me, the ones that I have, I have three copies of this brilliant book there’s advanced reader copies. That means there’s two up for grabs for our audience, just sign up to newsletter and watch out for the clips that we share on LinkedIn. Behind me I have there as well, The Fourth Age, we’ve done that in the past, I had hoped to do a part two with Byron. And then he goes and he writes this other book. And he’s put it right on my list again. So, an absolutely brilliant book, I’m so happy to bring it to the show.

Byron [01:38]: That’s very kind to say that, thank you.

Aidan [01:40]: I absolutely mean it and I love your storytelling, I love the tongue in cheek humor, you bring us on a great journey, you tell great stories. And it’s fun along the way as we educate ourselves. So I wanted to start with a term that I loved that you mention in the book, “the perpetual present” I mentioned in the introduction that is enjoyed by other earthly creatures. And I thought we would set context for the book with a quote you have from the book from Borges who said, “except for man, all creatures are immortal, and they are ignorant of death.”  I thought that was a good way to start and give context to this great book.

Byron [02:22]: Thank you very much for that. I mean, it’s a controversial idea. I’ll start with that, which is that animals don’t know that there’s a future and a past. And if you think about it, why should they? They’re not real things, there’s no such thing as the future or the past. Like they’re not anything that really exists, their mental constructs we have. I spent a lot of time in the book making the case that they don’t, because what I’m trying to figure out in the book is what makes us different. And so that’s what I’m looking for, ways we’re different from animals. Because in one sense, we’re very much like them, right? We have these animal bodies, and we’ll have that. But in another sense, we’re not at all, we’re almost like aliens, because we have cities and literature and all this stuff, and they don’t. The question of whether animals are, in fact, stuck in time has been well studied. And it appears, I think to be true, you can find exceptions, maybe to the tune of a few hours, like creatures that can plan for a few hours in the future, maybe. But you’re not going to sell any of them a 401K – or I guess that’s not an Irish thing – you’re going to sell them an investment vehicle for retirement. Because they don’t, they don’t think like that. And so here we are, these creatures that can think about the future and the past. And I think that’s made all the difference.

Aidan [03:45]: And you do a great job in the book of explaining that, because we’ve had brilliant guests on the show in the past, like Franz DeWalt, who talked about animals and the intelligence of animals. Also, it’s not that that’s in dispute in the book, and I want to make sure that it’s clear for our audience. It’s not that you’re trying to debunk in any way, but you’re just trying to paint that something happened to us, we had this great awakening. And that’s what the difference was, it wasn’t aliens coming along to earth as you also explore at a very high level. It wasn’t that either. And we’ll get to that in a little while, but I thought we’d start with some of the questions you pose right at the start of the book, because as I mentioned in the introduction, the book is broken into three parts. I’m hoping we’ll have three acts together as well for the show.

We’ll definitely do two parts. But the first act started 2 million years ago and brings us right up to 50,000 years ago. And to ignite us here to fire and kindle our minds you pose the following questions: How did we come to think about the future? What made us different? How did we have this ability to recall the past and think about the future? How did we start thinking in language and then vocalizing what we thought? And how did we develop mental stories that enabled us to imagine multiple different futures? The answers to these you tell us is the tale of how we came into being, how we came to be something very different from the other animals and creatures on this planet. So maybe we’ll start there with Homo Erectus, and as you pronounce in the book, you graciously give me the pronunciation here, the Acheulean hand axe.

Byron [05:39]: That’s because I had to, like, watch a bunch of videos to find out how to pronounce it… I write my books, I think my readers are very much like me. That’s why I’m always imagining my readers as a person, I would love to go have coffee with and hang out with. And I like to be able to say, guess what I’ve learned, like, guess what I figured out lately. And then hear the same thing from them. And so I very much want to write the books like I went and did a bunch of this like research, and I’ve tried to put it together for you in a way, and I had to figure out how to pronounce it. And I love this story. I have a wonderful editor. And I told her the story about the Acheulean hand axes. And then a month later, I mentioned it, and she said, “There’s not a day that has gone by that I have not thought about that.” And the story is this. There were these creatures, Homo Erectus, who lived about a million and a half years, 1.6 million years. And they are said to be our forebears. We are said to descend from them. And they were highly successful creatures, right? They lived a long time. And they were all over three continents, Africa, Asia, and Europe. And they had one tool, it’s called the Acheulean hand axe. And it looks like a big arrowhead. But kind of in a teardrop shape, you’d hold it in your hand, and you could do things with it. And by the way, there are so many of them. Because they were around for 80,000 generations, there’s so many of them that you can buy one on eBay, a real tool used a million years ago, for something like $100.

Aidan [05:51]: If I really had my game on, I told you about wearing the pin, I have one here of a book. And if I really had my game on, I would have had an axe man I would have had it on.

Byron [07:32]: So the story is, over that 80,000 generations these tools didn’t ever change. And that’s weird for three reasons. One, you would think as they spread around the world, they would change because the climate is different, right? And two, you would think they would change because they’re getting smarter. And they look at it and go, this would work better if… but even if that weren’t true, you would think it would change because even if every erectus copied their parents handaxe they would drift, like the telephone game where it just gets a little different each time. But if I were to show you two Acheulean hand axes made a million years apart and say which is older, it would be hard to tell. Experts only date them within 500,000 years.

So what does that tell you? I think it means this object was not a technological object, it was not a cultural object – it was a genetic object. And what that means is, the way a bird will build the same nest, wherever you release it, Africa, Asia, or Europe it’s going to go build the same nest, and his children are going to build the same nest and their children are going to build the same nest. And the beavers, beaver dams, they’re going to build the same ones. It’s hard coded in them. And that’s what I think it was with the hand  axe. Because how else do you you explain 80,000 generations of no change in this thing, because you think about us, we went from, the first heavier than air flight and Kittyhawk to the moon in three generations, we went from, from the very first writing to Shakespeare in 125, we went from the very first coin to our financial system, our world in 250 generations, they went 80,000 generations and never changed it. And so that’s kind of the lead into the book, it says, those things weren’t anything like us. Those were beavers and birds, those were animals in a literal sense, in a way we aren’t. So what happened to us? And that’s the setup in chapter one.

Aidan [09:43]: And you set it up beautifully and just to give it more credit than the story here does, you go into all the research and the stories you mentioned the nest there as well, that really made it clear to me and I’m going to give you feedback as we go because that really, really helped. And I’m sure that’s why your editor said it really helped her. Because thinking about it as a genetic part of you makes it go, ah, now I get it. So thank you for that. That was really helpful. But another thing you talk about then. So jumping forward to only 50,000 years ago, we had another great awakening, which was, well, just like the Axe was used, all of a sudden, there were paintings everywhere in different disparate parts of the planet. What the heck happened there?

Byron [10:31]: Yeah, that’s a strange one, isn’t it? Because imagine you went 1.8 million years, and these tools had never changed. And then one day the archaeological evidence stops showing those 200,000 years ago when erectus died out they’re gone. And then about 50,000 years ago, just to choose a number, you start getting cave art. And if you were to ask, like, what do you suppose the first cave art looked like? I would have said, well, I bet it was stick figures. And then after some amount of time, they drew a triangle on one for a dress or something, I don’t know, but very primitive. And then eventually… But that isn’t what we see at all. What we see in places like the caves of Chauvet, which are among the oldest cave art we have, we have beautiful cave paintings. And I don’t mean beautiful in the context of the time. I mean, they’re beautiful, they’re just really beautiful. I hate to just use that word over and over. And then you say, well, they weren’t pretty, they actually had technical expertise about them, for instance, the painters in Chauvet needed black, and of course, they have charcoal in abundance, you can just pick up burnt wood and use it. But it was like, no that’s not black enough for us. So they used a mineral called housemite which you have to heat at 1600 degrees to get it to turn into a black pigment. And the closest sorts of it was 140 miles away, then they would take that and they would make paint and then they would mix animal fat in it, so it stuck better, then they would mix talc in it. So they could extend it and make it more than they clearly had to build scaffolding because some of these are way up high. And they incorporated them in the contours of the rock to give it depth. They painted the animals around the walls with eight legs.

Four were vivid, and four were shadowy, so that in the flickering of the light, the animals were seemingly running. And all of that was the first art. And then boy, we found that cave – I like to say we like I was in on it – Humans found that cave Chauvet and his friends found that cave and it had been sealed off by an avalanche. And you can still see the footprints and the dust of the people that lived there. Like you could look and see them and like, and at that same time, that same time period, we find the first musical instruments, flutes, which is a complex thing. With seven-note scales that can play music written by both Chopin and Taylor Swift, two names you seldom hear used together. And then at that exact same time, we find figurative art for the first time, art that represents something else as opposed to just circles or squiggles, we start finding that. So somehow, none of these things have precursors. None of them had things that were like, early form, somehow we just emerged on the scene like this. And you think about that and compare that to erectus making the same tool for 80,000 generations. And you say, aha, that’s a different sort of thing. And so you ask the question, what happened? It’s widely believed. It isn’t my thing that there was an event that caused us to have the superpowers, where it happened exactly, it goes by a lot of different names. Harare writes about it, Jared Diamond writes about it, and a lot of people have written about it.

There’s a dispute about like, where exactly it happened and was it 50,000 years ago or 70 or 100 or whatever, but something happened. I’m of the opinion that it happened… I think its distinctive characteristic was likely speech. And I’ll mention that again in a minute. Speech, unfortunately, is not something that leaves fossils. What we have to do is look around and say, well, there are these creatures, and they’re explaining why they have to go 140 miles to get housemite burn at 1600 degrees and then mix it talc and then build scaffolding. They have to have language, right? Like they don’t have to, but I mean, I think that and then like what is that? It’s a flute. Oh, look, I can play music. What is that? Oh, I carved it. To do all of that and not have a language… and so a lot of people associate it with the creation of language. And what you hinted at, and I’ll pause for a breath here, what you hinted at is that we, when we got language, the main purpose of language isn’t communication. That’s what we use it for, we think, but its real main purpose is that it is the stuff of thoughts. Imagine trying to think without the formality of a language without that construct, you would essentially be an animal. And that isn’t speculation. I include a quote from Helen Keller, where she talks about what her life was like what her inner life was, like, before her teacher came and taught her to communicate, blind, unable to hear, and unable to speak at that point. She said I did not realize I was a thing that was different than the universe. Like I didn’t realize I was me and it was it, I actually didn’t have a concept that there was something called time, I didn’t know like this is soon and this is… and then I learned to communicate. And then at that moment, I became conscious. Like, those are the words she uses. And it’s just wonderful. And I think what happened is we got this language. And one of the incredible things about language is – I’ll go down this rabbit hole very quickly, which is, we know a lot of different languages 8000 give or take. And they all have certain things in common. You could argue that they all descended from one language, I would probably bet on that, or multiple times, I mean, it’s not that important. But they all have these certain characteristics, even languages that have as few as 300 words, 300-400 words, it’s a whole language, they all have these characteristics. You have to be able to refer to things in the future and in the past, they all do that. And you can refer to things that aren’t present, that are distant. And so I think, not only did we get language and the ability to think, but that rewired our brains. And now all of a sudden, everything that’s implicit in a language we were able to do in our minds. And that’s where I think we started thinking about the future and the past.

Aidan [17:22]: Loads of thoughts, loads of stories going on in my head here. I’m thinking in stories. One, one was, and I will just say this to our audience, is next time you’re going through the fridge, or maybe it’s the tree cabinet, where you’ve hidden the chocolate. Think, think of the story you’re thinking about, should I, should I not? What would happen, oh, the beach is coming up, what will they do on the beach? What will I do with that swimsuit, et cetera? That’s what Byron’s talking about. We think in stories, we create these stories. And as we’ll get to later on, they have a profound impact on everything from society, the superorganism of the agora, etc, that we’ll get to. So I just want to plant that little seed there. The second was when you mentioned the depth of the darkness, it’s like, these primitive humans, standing around in a cave, I can imagine, like, ones down there, like, no, it’s not black enough. We need a blacker black, it doesn’t capture the contours of the shadow. Like, that’s what happened…

Byron [18:30]: It was like 140 miles away. It’s like, all right…

Aidan [18:33]: Do it. Do it. Steve Jobs. So I’ll tell you up here for the next part. Because you say that, and this is again, it’s how it’s concurrent. It’s across the planet at the same time in disparate parts, although people will say it is so fascinating. And by the way, I lived in the SouthWest of France for a year when I was 21 near the Basque Country. And they would challenge that their language is like no other…

Byron [19:06]: Did I mention them in the book?

Aidan [19:07]: You did.

Byron [19:09]: Yeah, they have a language, which famously has no antecedents. They may or may not be the originators of the negative blood type, as a person with a negative blood type. I don’t know why I happen to know that. And some people believe that maybe they’re part of the descendants of Neanderthals. But their language is so old, that their word for a hammer or something like that is rock. Like, even after all these years, like, the hammer is… go and fetch me the rock. Because it’s like, that is how long it has been.

Aidan [19:49]: By the way, I was on the side of western France playing professional rugby. I played with a few basque and some of them look like Neanderthals. As did I back then; I’ve matured a little bit now. But I’ll tell you what because this next part is beautiful: a quote I pulled was, again this like sudden awakening across the planet, you say “concurrent with the emergence of music and art, there was also rapid technological innovation, new techniques were used to make tools. And the tools themselves became more specialized, antler, ivory, and bone were increasingly used to make evermore sophisticated tools and jewelry. We frequently find artifacts from this period constructed from multiple materials sourced from widely separated locations executed with multiple technologies, the fact that technology all came along at once and that the arts emerged fully formed suggests something dramatic happened.” And it wasn’t, as you say, as Terence McKenna said, some mushrooms that grew out of some dung.

Byron [20:56]: I had somebody ask me about that yesterday about the so-called stone date theory. So to touch on a lot of that, like the story you told just now about how when you go to the tree cabinet, and you’re trying to remember whether when you go into the tree cabinet, and then you’re running these scenarios in your head, those are the stories that they don’t seem like stories, but that’s how it all started. And what’s important about them is not only are you thinking about the future, but you’re doing it by calling upon memories of specific events, which animals don’t do, either. It’s called episodic memory. And your dog, like if you teach it to sit does not remember, all the times you like said sit and gave a treat. It has what’s known as procedural memory, it knows how to do it, but it doesn’t remember these specific things in the past. And then you talked about the concurrent nature of it. And that’s a big mystery. So we find far more painted caves and older ones in Western Europe than anywhere. And for the longest time, that’s all we had.

And so it seemed reasonable to assume that maybe that’s where this happened. But then lo and behold, Europe has two things going for it one, a lot of the areas back then would have not been underwater, it’s mountainous enough that there are still lots of areas that would have been above the water 50,000 years ago. So they still remain. But second, there was just more archaeology done there. And so now we’ve started finding caves in other places that are contemporary, within a couple of 1000 years. And we’re going to find more. And so it appears this happened all over the world at once. Maybe it didn’t, maybe what happened is somebody had this mutation, and they got speech, and they got the ability to plan for the future and all of that. And for a long time, they didn’t have anybody to talk to right. They were the only ones with it. So all they could do was think like, huh, but then three generations later, their band of 120 can now all have it. And boy, they are super powerful. Like they could do something. And maybe they just spread very quickly, like in 2000 years, maybe they just went everywhere. And who knows where they began? We don’t know. We don’t know. Something happened, it was dramatic. I think it probably happened to one person, maybe it didn’t. And if you brought those people forward in time to today, they would function perfectly fine in society whereas if you brought an erectus forward yeah, it’d just be sitting around making that hand axe all day long every day. You get home from work, and it’s just made another hand axe. Okay, good job.

Aidan [23:57]: It’s better than your one yesterday…

Byron [23:59]: It isn’t, that’s the problem. It isn’t any better than the one yesterday, and the one tomorrow won’t be any better. I didn’t put this in the book. But we think that if you were to sit down and try to make a hand axe, and you’re working on it the way they would have, it’s the same region of your brain that musicians use today. Like the percussion and the hitting and the rhythm and this and that. And so it might be that that’s a little bit of a genetic artifact leftover in us from our Acheulean hand axe-making days.

Aidan [24:37]: Brilliant. I love it, man. And this is what this book will give you. And it’s peppered with research, many papers, that Byron studies as well. So it brings you in all kinds of directions on our great journey. But I thought we’d come back to the primary reason why we developed language. It was communication in our own heads first and this is an extremely important point of Act One. And I thought we’d go a little bit deeper on that if you wouldn’t mind.

Byron [25:06]: It’s funny when I finished Act One. So the book is 80,000 words, but I finished Act One at 50,000 words. So 20,000 words had come out of it that are like sitting on my hard drive. Every one of them’s like a drop of my blood. It’s like, ugh, it’s killing me here. So sometimes I might go back and forth between things that are in the book and things that aren’t. And that’s why. You’re right, we get language. It’s this mental construct that allows us to think, it gives us displacement to think about things far away, it gives us a future and a past in a way to think about that.

Aidan [25:17]: So I thought where we’d go would be where you talk about the link between language, superorganisms, beehives, and emergence. I love that part of the book. And I thought that our audience would love to hear about this.

Byron [26:00]: The next book is all about that, the next book is about Agora. That’s the one I’m working on right now. But it’s introduced in this book. And so yeah, let’s start, like, imagine you’ve got five people who now have this capacity for speech, and their whole group does. And so they can talk to each other. And imagine that’s five people, and they decide they want mammoths for dinner. They’re going to take down a mammoth. So they get together and they go, okay, how are we going to do this? And one of them says, Well, I tell you what, you climb the tree, and you two hide behind those bushes and, and you go and distract the mammoth, and then we do this and that. And then as the plan starts to unfold, they’re yelling at each other: “no, no, go over there, faster, faster” or “no, no, he’s getting away, he’s getting away.” Right? Now, what the Mammoth is fighting is not five people. From the mammoth’s point of view, it is one creature that has 10 arms, and 10 legs, but one brain. I mean, like, just think about that. Like, it’s functioning like a single creature with a brain that has a plan, and to the mammoth that’s terrifying, because it’s not a contiguous creature, it’s like part of the creature is there and part is there and part is there, but it’s just one thing.

That is kind of like well, I think it’s what we call a super organism. So super organisms are a well-established thing that people generally agree exists but have varying opinions about what they are in the end. So you think about a bee, the example you gave, bees get together in groups, beehives of 40,000 bees. When I was a kid, I used to raise bees. Did I put that in the book, by the way? Yeah, I gotta tell this story. It’s a good story. So I was a boy scout. And I was a nerd. And I went to Boy Scout camp. And when you’re at boy scout camp, you take merit badge classes, to learn Woodcraft, and then you get your merit badge. And I’m reading down the list of merit badges, and I come to one nerd merit badge, they offer a merit badge on bookkeeping. And I think, man, what a nerd I am. I come to Boy Scout camp and I’m gonna go get a bookkeeping merit badge and so I show up, and there are five other nerdy boy scouts there. We’re all ready to learn bookkeeping when we are told it was a misprint, and we are all enrolled in beekeeping. It’s a true story, like every word of it. So I fell in love with beekeeping. I came home and got a beehive and started raising bees. The other kind of super organism is ants. And had there been a merit badge that was misprinted I don’t know what it would be anatomy or something. And it was and I would have signed up.

Aidan [29:15]: Ants collection.

Byron [29:31]: Misprint of that one, but I didn’t. So I know less about ants than I know about bees. So the bees come together in this hive. And the hive is thought of as a superorganism. It’s thought of as one creature. Like just think about that for a minute. There’s a lot of old lore around that; if the beekeeper dies, for instance, somebody’s supposed to go outside and tell the bees like the beekeeper’s dead, you won’t see him anymore. And you’re supposed to drape the beehive with black cloth and all that because the beehive is like, where’s the keeper? Like somehow it knows. Now what’s important about a super organism is it takes on abilities that none of the components have. That’s called emergence. And I’ll talk about that in a minute. But it’s a really fascinating thing because bees are cold-blooded animals, they cannot regulate their own body temperature. You could go out in cold weather and pick them all up and bring them in the house. And when they warmed up, they would be fine. Now beehives, on the other hand, are warm-blooded. They regulate their own temperature to 37 Celsius, to us. But it’s a coincidence. If the beehive is too hot, they cool it down, they fly off and get some water and they spread it around and it evaporates and cools it down. If it’s too hot, they start flapping their wings and getting air to circulate. And the fascinating thing about how it self regulates and this is like I’m deep in the whole book, like, well, how does the hive do that? If all the individual bees are pretty dumb and operating alone? How do they do that?

And what happens is, that every bee has a slightly different tolerance for heat. So the temperature in the hive goes up just a little bit, and there’s only one bee going “it’s hot in here.” All the other bees are like, yeah, I’m fine. “No, no, I’m hot.” And so he starts flapping her wings to get and then some other bees are like, it is kind of hot in here. And they join in, and then some more bees, and then it cools down, and then these bees are like, eh it’s not that hot anymore. And that’s how they do it, like no bees in charge. Nobody’s saying okay, you three, just because bees have different preferences for temperature. So the hive has, one of the earmarks of a superorganism, is the individual parts can’t survive on their own anymore. If you take a bee out of a hive, it can’t live on its own. You, by the way, are very similar to a superorganism. If I took you apart a cell at a time, your cells have lost their ability largely to live on their own. But it’s interesting to use the beehive analogy. If I took all the bees out of the hive, there’s no beehives anymore, right? If I took you a part of a cell at a time as I can still point to all of your cells. But the creature that was you, vanishes, like maybe it wasn’t even there to begin with, like, what was it? It’s not anything real. It’s something that happened because all these parts got together. And that’s what the hive is, it’s something that happens because all the parts get together. So all of this is based on the notion of something called emergence. Emergence is like, the coolest idea, in simple English, it’s when a whole take on characteristics different than his parts. People often say it’s sort of a two plus two equals five, but it isn’t, it’s nothing like that. It’s a two plus two equals something completely different. It’s not that you get a benefit by adding two plus two, a little bonus. And it can do more because it’s like no, if it gets different characteristics, it changes. And every level of complexity you have, sitting on another level, new complexity emerges and a new superorganism is created. So presumably 10,000 beehives in a field would be something different.

Byron [33:44]: So you are, a bunch of cells that came together and made you, a bunch of people can get together and make a city. A city is a kind of like a super organism, right? Like, nobody decides how many groceries to bring in. There’s nobody in charge of the city like every restaurant reorders, and every grocery store reorders, and nobody decides where the Ubers and the taxi cabs need to be. Individually everybody’s doing their thing, but the city takes on characteristics that no people have. And that’s what a super organism is. I think that what happened is when we got speech, humanity that communicated with each other became a super organism like those, those five people trying to take down that mammoth, they became a single entity, and I call it Agora. Agora is an old Greek word for like the town square where everybody got together and did all the commerce and sued everybody and argued about everything and is just like, energy and buzz of being human were placed on the Agora and that’s the super organism. And what I tried to do in this book is introduce it and talk about how it was born, and how the stories that it can tell itself changed as humanity matured. And the next book is asking, can you understand human history better? If you start by saying “we aren’t cells,” I mean, we aren’t individual autonomous agents from cells and something else, either metaphorically or literally, you can choose either one. But it says things like, well, people don’t like war, but there always seems to be war, like somehow we don’t want it but does Agora want it for some reason? And that’s what the next book tries to answer. That’s Agora. And then I’ll say, if you want me to, we can talk about things like those early stories and the constellation, the bear with the tail, and all of that.

Aidan [35:57]: Yeah, let’s come to that, if you wouldn’t mind, we’ll build towards it, because I love the build-up to it as well, which is fantastic. But, just to say about Terence McKenna and Paul Stamets about mushrooms as well, because I’ve read their work. And one of the things they both said was that like, Stamet’s book is fantastic on psilocybin and mushrooms, essentially. And he says that they are our elders, they have survived on this planet much, much longer than us, and that we share so much DNA as well. But I wanted to first think of that and then go well ants as well or beehives, they are, as you say, in the book, they’ve taught us, or they’ve created agriculture, but they’ve also created it in a way, there are so many lessons in that and we have the great Geoffrey West, former director of the Santa Fe Institute on the show for a multi part episode like today as well. And that whole idea of emergence and complexity; there’s so much to be learned from the animals around us.

One of the things I wanted to share with you because it sparked into my memory was when you said there, but one small change has a dramatic effect across complexity, etc. Outside my house, I have planted these Rhododendron plants, and the greenfly, ants and aphids love Rhododendron, so they were riddled with these. And then all of a sudden, after ant day every time every year, there were ants everywhere, and the ants farm the aphids, so what they do is they start to ward off anything that tries to come near the aphids, including the humans, when I tried to come there, they’re stinging you because it’s their cattle. And I was like going, this is just incredible. And the only way to actually get rid of the aphids was actually to either spray and kill the colonies, etc or else block up the colonies. And therefore I was thinking, well, that’s going to have an effect somewhere else in the complexity of things. And I just thought that that was absolutely fascinating that there’s so much to be learned from nature in itself. And perhaps you have some thoughts on that because I’m sure it’s connected to the Agora and the superorganism.

Byron [38:20]: Yeah, like, I don’t even know where to start with it, there’s so much, I was reading about one stump in the Amazon rainforest that researchers came and they just decided they were going to find everything living on the stump, they found 46 species of ant more ant varieties than in all the British Isles, right there on one stump. And you’re entirely right like we don’t even know… The fascinating thing about super organisms is they don’t know what they’re doing. Right? The parts are like simple bots, simple little robots that maybe know how to do 10 or 20 things. Like if a group of let’s say there’s a bunch of ants, and they’re one colony, and they’re split up into three jobs, there are ants that go forage, and there are ants that guard and there are ants that do something else. And then, what happens is every ant that meets another ant, when they’re walking, rub antennae, basically to say, “what’s your job?” And the other one answers and says, “what’s your job?” And the answer and they have something in them that if they go too long without meeting an ant with one of those jobs, they just start doing it.

Like the level gets too low and they go “okay, that’s what I’m doing.” In beehives, a bee lives for eight weeks, and the first two weeks they have a certain set of jobs, and the next few weeks they have different ones, the next ones, they have different ones and they age very quickly through them, they get these organs that vanish because they don’t need them anymore. If you go into the beehive and you steal all the young ones, the old ones get young again, and they go back to those jobs. And then they age out again. And so they’re all these little robots. And like your cells, none of your cells know they’re part of you, right? Like, they’re not like “ugh, I even got his finger, platelets go clog that cut,” like nothing, they’re just living their lives, marrying and being given into marriage and having families, and then they don’t even know you’re there. And that’s the mystery, how do dumb things interact with each other with simple rules, and form complexity? And that’s, I don’t know, that’s what the next book is about.

Aidan [40:51]: Beautiful, man. I’m looking forward to it already. Awesome.

Byron [40:54]: You and me both. I keep getting up and walking downstairs and saying to my wife, “I’m never writing another book,” like “I’m going to finish this book, and never doing this again. Like I’m never doing it again. It’s just killing me.” Of course, she just smiles.

Aidan [41:12]: But I think it’s so useful to think about the planet as a hive. Or that, one of the beautiful theories I love is Spaceship Earth theory that we’re on this spaceship, which is Earth, plowing through the universe and everybody on it should be crew, not passengers, there’s nobody taken advantage of. And unfortunately, when I thought about the hive, I was like well, the hive starts to disintegrate once you have enough bad actors who changed the goal of the hive, etcetera. And I just wanted to connect it to a great article I mentioned that I interviewed Ian McGilchrist yesterday about the left and right hemispheres. And one of the theories is that unfortunately, we’re becoming more and more mechanistic. And to your point there, there is no robot inside our head. I used to think about this as a child. And I think it was a cartoon I saw as a child, where it was like, a robot is inside your head deciding what to do. And it was a French cartoon. And anyway, yeah, so I think that’s one of the hopes, we’re waking up to that. And hopefully, it’s not too late and we haven’t already destroyed the hive.

Byron [42:22]: Are you a Gaia Hypothesis aficionado?

Aidan [42:28]: So Lovelock… I’ve been trying to get him for the show, man.

Byron [42:34]: I send him a birthday card every year. Well, I mean, I don’t know him. But yeah. Like, I was, like, he’s 99, now he’s like 100. And that’s like, I know how old he is because I try to send him a card every year. Yeah, he’s amazing. Amazing. So the Gaia hypothesis, like in one sentence says that the Earth behaves like a self-regulating organism that holds itself conducive. It says things like, somehow there was 21% of oxygen in the air, and it doesn’t ever seem to change. And the oceans have maintained a certain level of solidity all this time. And that doesn’t seem to be changing. And the sun is changing in size, but the Earth’s climate doesn’t seem to, and somehow the earth is self-regulating. And what’s interesting about it is, that’s how most people think of the theory, and all that’s true. But the real way, I think, kind of to think about it is that Gaia makes life, and life, in turn, makes Gaia, if you took all the life off Earth, it would stop raining, like there wouldn’t be rain anymore. Life on the planet has changed it and it, in turn, supports life which in turn changes it. It’s like some insect that only feeds off one flower and the flower needs the insect pollinated and the insect needs the flower. And you can think of that insect on that flower as just one creature. It’s distributed, but it’s really just one creature. One kind of self-contained unit of functionality. And that’s what we are with Earth, according to the Gaia hypothesis is we are part of it. It’s not like we were kind of living here but we are part of what makes Earth, Earth. I’m passionate but I’m writing a book about super organisms. So obviously I’m reading about it, but it’s the kind of thing you just have to just think about for a long time. Like, how could that be?

Aidan [44:46]: And by the way, another great man who passed away last December was E. O. Wilson. He was due to come on the show, that’s how I found out, he passed away, and his book Emergence – unbelievable books.

Byron [45:00]: Oh, I agree. Yeah, I kind of wish. I don’t know if at his funeral if his pallbearers were dressed like ants, how they carry their ants out. I didn’t know if he put something in there like – I want to be…

Aidan [45:17]: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. His books are just wonderful. But one of my favorite Alan Watts quotes is about the transactional nature of the organism and the environment. And I have it here in front of me, he said “the relationship between the organism and the environment is transactional. The environment grows the organism, and the organism creates the environment.” One of my favorite quotes, and it counts for any environment. But anyway, man, we’d be talking forever. I want to get back to the narrative of your brilliant book this one, not that not the next one. I’m like one of the ants kind of going, “Hey, let’s go down here.” They actually release a pheromone to go, “this area’s been explored already. Don’t waste your energy.” And it informs the rest of the other ants as well. 

Byron [46:15]: They don’t know what they’re doing. That’s the smart thing.

Aidan [46:17]: Amazing. So let’s get back, because there’s a couple of things. One of the ones I thought about was how, through these fortunate events for us, for humanity, and where we are and why we’re the Alpha animal if you want to call it that. And I thought about the movie The Planet Of The Apes. And I was kind of going, that’s kind of what that’s about. It wasn’t us. It was this other species of ape, we went down one of those pheromone paths with the ants. And there’s a smell in the air that you’ve done enough here, right? So one of the things we talked about there was how ants and other animals invented so much of agriculture that we eventually learned about later on. But you talk about not only the synchronicity of language, and art and music all across the planet, but also it happened for agriculture. I thought this was interesting as well because agriculture is essentially a technology. We all learned that at the same time.

Byron [47:22]: Yes, we all did. 1000 years ago, call it some people say we started growing grain not for bread, but for beer. And that that’s what made us settle down was not the normal narrative. It was like, Okay, we want this, this is good stuff. And like, we’re going to grow big fields, we’re going to make a lot of this. And you’re right, that happened all over the world, we don’t know if knowledge of it spread. There are a lot of things like that, we don’t know if knowledge of them spread very quickly, or if they were developed independently, writing systems look like they were developed independently, because they’re so different, like some of them use symbols to represent sounds. And other ones use symbols to represent entire words. And they’re very different. Like, so it doesn’t look like those coming from the same thing. The way that you mentioned cognates, a minute ago, the way cognates might have all come from the same spoken word language, but when you have to sit down, okay, now I’ve got to write this down, you may come up with completely different ways to do it. I think the fascinating thing about the cognate thing. So cognates are words that are the same in multiple languages or are similar in multiple languages, you can tell they’re kind of related. Maybe you’ve noticed that most cultures’ words for mother begin with the letter “M”. So the idea behind cognates is that you can kind of see the language forming and spreading. And the thesis is that if you knew every cognate, let’s say, for instance, you found that the word cat was the same in all kinds of languages. And the word dog was different in all languages, then you would say, well, obviously, the original language was in a place that had cats and no dogs, and it isn’t just cats and dogs, they like figure out windows, roofs, shores, lakes, oceans, trees, you study every one of those words, figure out which ones of the cognates exist for and which ones they don’t. And you can pick maybe the place and a lot of people have done it and you don’t get down to like a city block. It’s not GPS or anything, but usually, it works out to be like the steps of the caucus in that area, which might be where this all happened because presumably whoever awoke and could paint those walls and all of that also started speaking eventually. And that was the mother tongue.

Aidan [50:12]: One of the things that you sparked for me was you made me remember something. So when I was a kid, my mom said to me, “Aiden, you know, when you have an idea, you have to act on it, because it’s been dropped into the universe. And lots of other people are having that same idea. And it’s about the person who actually does something about it.” And I’m not as proficient as you as a writer, I’ve written one book, but I have loads of other ideas for others. And I keep kind of going like the Sands of Time are running out, somebody else is going to write my book. And you talked about an amazing paper called ‘Are our inventions inevitable?’ And a tract from 1922, lists out 148 major inventions and discoveries that happened at the same time around the world. And these include, for example, two men filing for a telephone patent, just three hours apart. I thought that was absolutely fascinating stuff.

Byron [51:09]: I love that, especially that it’s a 100-year-old paper. I love finding stuff like that, that is just almost lost to the mists of time and being able to because the ideas are still amazing. I don’t have an opinion on that, like, I wish I did. How does that happen? Or you could say it’s part of the superorganism thinking, or, I mean, there’s a lot of people who’ve tried to explain it, and I don’t actually have an explanation for it.

Aidan [51:43]: It was only a comment, it was only a comment. But let’s move on to the stories we tell ourselves. And at this point in the book, in our narrative of the book, we have language, but we do not have stories yet. Okay. And you say “stories are a narrative construct in which sequences of meaningfully related events unfold through time, those stories are built out of language and languages are required for stories.” Earlier, we looked at how the primary purpose of language was not communication but thought. Stories are the same way, and you distinguish here between told stories, and the stories in our minds, this distinction is extremely important for building this story.

Byron [52:24]: I was afraid when I talked about a book about stories, the mental image, people would get us around the campfire. And of course, we do want to eventually get there. But that isn’t where they started. But very quickly, it looks like we started telling stories, the book gives 20 purposes of told stories, between you and me, there’s a secret 21st one in the epilogue. The 20 purposes of stories, the spoken stories, well, actually, I do want to actually tell that story now of the Ket language and the constellation. So when you think about the first stories we told, it would be hard to know what they were. There are linguists who are able to look at words used in them. What they do, very clever, they find different versions of stories around the world. And then they look at what they have in common and then figure out how old the story is. It’s really a genetic technique where you could take two creatures and look at how similar their DNA is. And the closer their DNA is, the closer they are related. And the same thing with stories and they’ve been able to go back 5000-6000 years and they say, the Devil in the Smith. It’s a Faustian tale. Jack and the Beanstalk is probably 5000 years old, and so forth. But when you really want to get back, 5000 years is kind of nothing, like if we’ve been speaking for 50,000. Like, that’s just kind of like, what was on TV last week or something. But how far back can they go? And one of my favorite tales from the book is about the constellation the Big Dipper. And what it looks like it’s kind of four, four stars that form the ladle, and then there’s three for the handle.

Aidan [54:33]: I’ll show it for those of you who are watching it. I’ll drop it in here so you can see it right now.

Byron [54:40]: All over the world, this is seen as a bear with a long tail. And very unusual. This is even in places that don’t have bears. And it’s very strange because bears don’t have long tails. Like why in the world, would you say it’s a long-tailed bear? So that’s kind of the Western European tradition, is it’s a bear with a long tail. Up in Siberia there, I think the Ket people, and they see bears like, and they look up at that constellation, they still see a bear. But they say, “No, it’s a bear being chased by three hunters.” And then if you look at the middle Hunter, there’s a little faint star next to it, you have to squint to see. And they say, “Oh, that’s a bird showing the hunters where the bear is,” it’s a helper bird. Okay, all good. Then 70,000 years ago, give or take, a land bridge formed between Siberia and Alaska. And we think only 70 people came across, like ever maybe 70 people crossed. And again, you can look at the genetic diversity of people, pre-1492. And you can say, well, how closely are they all related? And so then those 70 people crossed, they populated the Americas. And in multiple traditions, if you say, what is that constellation? They say “that’s a bear.” And then they say, “but it’s being chased by three hunters. And that middle star is a helper bird showing them where the bear is.”

And so it’s like, wow, not only are there words in Navajo that are the same and Ket like cognates, you actually can say words out loud that you can be confident were said 15,000 years ago, but if that story had come over in 1492, they would say “it’s a long-tailed bear,” don’t know why, but it’s a long tail bear. But they didn’t, they said some bear being chased by hunters. And so we know that to be like a 15,000 year old story. And then we can even go back further, like all the way back, we think 50-70,000 years ago, when when they would count stars, they would see a different number of them, because they’ve slightly changed orientation in that amount of time. So we even go back that far and see more of these stories kind of in their earliest days. And so what I started doing in the book was saying, I guess it kind of makes sense, if there is Agora. Again, it’s a metaphor or a literal thing. 50,000 years ago, it woke up. It was no longer an Erectus, it was like this thing like us. And what was the first thing that would have noticed it would have laid on its back at night and looked up at the sky and seen that, 4000 stars in the Milky Way, and started making up stories about them like, of course you would. And that’s why I think all of our very oldest stories are about stars, and the sky, because that was like the first thing. And then later, later we start living in cities. And that requires different kinds of rules to get along with. Brand new rules. And then we live at times where there are strangers. And the strangers are like, you’re not used to seeing strangers, you’re used to being around 120 people. Now, you regularly see people you don’t know and that brings about additional stories, and so forth. So you can actually kind of look at the litany of stories we tell ourselves for 50,000 years and say that’s sort of the story of Agora.

Aidan [58:31]: And it brought back memories just like you with the serendipitous beekeeping elements. And you even said about for example, growing up on a farm and being chased by the bull and all this understanding of tenses we’ll come to in a second, but the one that came back to me, similar thing. I did French in college, and we studied old nursery rhymes, and I remember actually being in class going, “oh man, when is this ever going to be relevant?” And the ways these things become relevant in your future is just incredible. And one of the ones for me was the Petit Chaperon Rouge, which is Little Red Riding Hood, the multitude of versions of that, and it was to scare little girls, like you said, away from don’t go off into the woods, it’s dangerous in there. And why I share all that is the importance of stories because they create, they warn you or they create culture, as you said, for this superorganism; it’s so important. And that’s why we started to tell these stories and pass them on to each other, etcetera. I’m throwing loads in here, and feel free to grab on to anything. One of the things I loved that you talked about was the monarch butterfly, and how it travels around the world. And I thought about this almost like a relay race of passing the story from one to the next, generation to generation. So in the absence of written words, this was extremely important.

Byron [59:56]: There’s a whole lot there. So the monarch migrates from Canada to Mexico, but it takes four generations to get there. So some monarch flies and then lays some eggs, and those hatch into caterpillars and become butterflies and they keep going. And they keep going. The fourth generation lives like five times longer than either of the other three. And so it’s like, well, first of all, how? And then, second, we don’t even know… When the caterpillar becomes goo it does not stay a caterpillar in that cocoon, it becomes goo, and then the goo reforms into a butterfly. How does it remember all that stuff? Like it seems to retain memories, till it makes it all the way there to Mexico? And then it flies back. And it’ll stop at the same milkweed plants that it hit going now. And I don’t know how they do that. Like, I don’t know. I mean, it’s well studied. I mean it must be written somewhere inside of them, in a way we don’t know. It’s really humbling. Because what it suggests… We kind of think everything relating to cognition that goes on in us is in our head, is in our brain. And I don’t think I believe that anymore. Like I think, there’s cellular memory. I think there’s epigenetics. I think all kinds of stuff gets written into our DNA that we don’t know anything about, we don’t understand. I think there are all different ways that the body’s like, storing information and retrieving it that we haven’t even begun to scratch.

And it’s not just like, all in our head. I never miss an opportunity to mention the monarch. We plant milkweed in our backyard for them, because I don’t know. Like you said, the generation that lives longer, the fourth generation that lives so much longer. They think it may be being signaled by the height, the sun comes to an horizon to tell it, okay, it’s late in the year, and therefore, something tweaked in it, and it lives much longer. It’s amazing, because our closest genetic relative is the chimpanzee. And they are very similar to us. And yet, think about how different we are, first of all, our lifespans are twice as long. So you tweak one or two little genes some way and we live twice as long. And they’re like, massively stronger than we are right? Like, I don’t want to get into a fight with a chimp, they are like all muscle. And obviously, mentally, we’re very different, like all that, from these little tweaks of these little small, genetic things. When you read the pieces of trivia that say you share 50% of your DNA with a mushroom? That’s largely true, like you can take that largely at face value. The coolest thing I know is that all life on this planet, this is a Matt Ridley quote, “All life is one. Everything is evidently descended from this one Luca, the last universal common ancestor.” And so you have a cousin who’s a cactus in Bethesda, Maryland, and you have another cousin who’s a worm in the South of France, and you have another cousin, who’s a mushroom in Finland. And it’s all your relatives.

Aidan [1:03:40]: People will think I’m weird, we’ll see half our audience disappearing. I live that way, I see wonder in most of these things, because it changes how you attend to the world. It really does. For example, as you say in the book, a snail trail that’s communicating, that’s the communication of snails. Or, for example, the ants, as I talked about around the area or the tree, they’re all playing a role. But also, then you take that into your fellow human, and you tend  to treat people better, because it’s going to reflect back on you, in some way it’s going to affect you. And one of the things you mentioned there was about, for example, epigenetics, etc. We had Bruce Lipton on the show, we had the brilliant Robert Sapolsky. And he said something that was absolutely amazing is that if you come from an area that experienced pestilence in the past, you’re going to be more xenophobic and less tolerant of outsiders because it’s in your genes. It’s been passed on from generation to generation, just be careful. And when you understand that, it gives you so much more empathy, and where I’m going with this. Empathy is a huge part of stories, because there’s three main components you tell us about here that we need to think about when we’re talking about creating a story. One is tenses, the other is understanding the mind of the other, and the final one, then that we’ll talk about is also causal chains. I’ll throw them all in a bucket. And please take it whichever way you like.

Byron [1:05:18]: You know the basics of Jack and the Beanstalk. I assume everybody knows, they’re broke, they send Jack to go trade the family cow, he meets somebody who gives him five magic beans for the cow then the parents throw the beans out the window, and it grows into a stock and he climbs it. And what’s fascinating about it is I don’t know the last time I read that story, or even heard it. And yet, the series of events is like, we’re just kind of uniquely suited to remember things like that, like oh, ‘A leads to B leads to C leads to D leads to E.’ And that is part of that, seeing the future and remembering the past. And that’s this big part of the nature of stories themselves. I’m trying to think about all the things that got cut out of that I had all this stuff about the Greek gods. And did people actually believe those stories? Like, did they actually believe those gods were in existence? I had all this stuff about the Hays Code, which is the idea that if you tell stories that are violent, and all of that, does that make people more violent and all these things trying to understand the impact that these stories have on us. There are these famous studies they did when the different villages in India got cable TV. And because of that, little places got like city programming. And so they could see daytime shows that had women in leadership roles. And then they looked at it, they would go back and three years later talk to those women about whether they want boys more than girls and all these things and their attitudes had changed. In that case, for the better towards equality. And so it’s like, every story you hear is going to affect you somehow. And that’s a pretty worrisome thing to think about and an empowering thing as well that you kind of like we’re so tuned for them, we take them with us. And then I don’t know if you remember the part about flashbulb moments?

Aidan [1:07:40]: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I have it here, actually. I was gonna tee you up. So I’ll actually just quickly mention it. So I love this. So thank you, this story from 9/11. But the one study that found that three years after the 1986 Challenger explosion, not one of the 42 people being studied, remember the event the same way they had earlier on I thought of it, you know when you’re like, maybe on a road trip with your friends, and somebody says, “Hey, you remember the time..?” and you’re like, that’s not how it happened. And you often think maybe they’re lying, or they’re exaggerating in some way. But you describe no, no this is a human bias.

Byron [1:08:20]: I wrote it. But even when I was writing it, it was like, I know where I was in 1986 when the Challenger exploded, like I know it. And I know it. I mean, I know who I looked at, I know the words that came out of my mouth. I know what he said, I went to my chemistry class. She didn’t believe it. I had to go to the library to get the TV. So we could all watch it, I mean, like I remember it. And then this is saying no I probably actually don’t. And so the way the setup is, is supposedly things like flashbulb moments where there are events that happened to you that are so dramatic, you remember them forever, like you’ll never forget it. And then there are of course, ones at a societal level that presumably, we all remember. I mean, this has been studied for a long time, as far back as Pearl Harbor, so you think of the United States, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it was a surprise, and everybody remembered where they were when they heard about the attack. And then you get the Kennedy assassination, and then, one after the other. And what we would find is that when you go back, people change their stories about where they were. But then, when 9/11 happened, there were some researchers at an American University who were like, you know what, we have a chance to actually study this unreal thing. So the next day, they gathered up students and said, “tell us everything that happened to you.. Tell us everything that you can remember,” and then they write it all down and then they go back to them. I’m going to get the times wrong but they would go back to one group a week later, one group a month later and one group a year later, or something like that. And they found that they have different accounts. And what’s interesting is the accounts, it doesn’t really matter how far out it is. When you ask them, like, it almost changes immediately. But what happens is, the closer you are to the event, the more confident you are that you remember it correctly. Like, you hear me saying, I know where I was in ’86. I know it. I mean, I’m sure, a month after that I would have been like, I bet my life on it. And even to this day, I wrote that, like I read that I believe it. But I can’t internalize that and tell myself I’m wrong about what I remember about 1986.

Aidan [1:10:51]: You know, it also reminds me of jury duty. I talked about the Shawshank Redemption, and there have been real stories of people who’ve been put away. And when you see this happens, juries all the time as well, like, it’s scary, really scary. But the positive side and one of the reasons, I write a weekly article and write for a few reasons. One is to absorb and ferment and marinade information in my own way as much as possible. But the other then is to reframe stories that I hear. And I think that’s the basis of NLP Neuro Linguistic Programming is, the best way to deal with a traumatic event or an event that wasn’t, didn’t go your way is to reframe it, and I think that’s why it’s so important for us to tell stories, but also to our children, how you frame things, how you question, how you invite their curiosity, and query, etc, is just so important. And you give the list of 21. I’ll look out for number 21, and 21 reasons why stories exist in the first place. And I’d love your thoughts on this. But I thought we’d do this as a final piece. I’m going to play now for a moment, the sound of a campfire. Because this is so important for humans, and I’m going to show on the screen a burning fire as well. And for those of you watching this on YouTube, you’ll see that this is so important. This again, it felt to me, this was like our inbuilt nest building or axe building, that this is part of who we are. And as you said, it makes you think that the material you consume is really important. You have to be careful what you let in, how you surround yourself, who you surround yourself with, and where you work, all these things have a dramatic effect on you, your own superorganism.

Byron [1:12:56]: Yeah, I’m going to back the real way up. Because you were just talking about eyewitness things. Have you seen the little video where there are two groups of basketball players, ones with dark shirts, and ones with light shirts, and I think the light shirts are passing the basketball among themselves and then at the end of it, you’re supposed to count how many times they passed the ball. And then at the end of it, they ask a question – I don’t want to spoil it – but people tend to get wrong. And it’s really humbling, a really humbling thing. What you’re talking about is some research that I don’t know, it’s kind of cool. Not only was I a Boy Scout, learning bookkeeping, but I camped a lot. I love campfires, and there’s something about when you build a campfire, it illuminates a certain radius. And then it’s like there’s a canopy of black that you can’t see outside of it. So you’re in this little bubble of light and warmth. And you’re connected to other people. I know where you’re going and I’ll get to that really quickly. There have been some really good studies done about societies that have a lot of like communal gathering, how the stories changed that they’ve held throughout the day. And so during the day, you tell very pragmatic stories about the price of corn and where the good fishing is or whatever, but at night, you tell very different stories and they are about the past and legends, and tall tales and the history of your people and all of that. But if that weren’t enough, physiologically, your blood pressure goes down, your heart slows, and you relax. And I think the reason you’re going to play the video is there was a guy who was like, I wonder if you really have to be by the campfire? Could you just watch a video of the campfire? And then for that matter, why not just listen to the sound of the campfire? And what he found was that it still conveyed a benefit, but a declining one, like the closer you are to the real fire, the better. And what moved you about that? Because that’s the setup. What was it about that that really caught your eye?

Aidan [1:15:40]: There’s a couple of things. So firstly, Byron has four kids, and you were telling me about how you encourage them and how you lean into their curiosities, etc. So one of the things I think that’s so important in the world if we’re thinking of ourselves as like beehives is how we encourage and listen to, and in a way, like you talk about, socially program, those people who are responsible for like our children, so important, and we were often so busy trying to go out and get some honey on the table, that we forget about that. And it’s one of the things and I don’t want to make anybody feel guilty about that. That’s just, it’s a belief of mine. But one of the things I do with my kids is I bring them to the area where I grew up, and we have a fire and we just light a fire and I see them and they just stare in the fire. And I just, it’s like a moment, it’s like meditation, I just see them go into trances and think, and I just let them alone and stuff like that. So when you spoke about that, in the book it brought all that rushing back to me and because Act One is about stories, I just think it’s so important. The stories we tell ourselves, the programming we’re telling ourselves, the writing of our own story, where we are the actual star of our own story, but also how we’re building the stories of those people around us. It’s just such an important thing. It’s one of the gifts of being a writer, and hopefully with this podcast is one of the reasons I share great writers all the time.

Byron [1:17:19]: You know, I didn’t write any stories. People are very nice because they say I love the storytelling in the book. And then I think to myself, I actually didn’t put any stories in the book, I really wanted to, but when I’m having to cut out a bunch of stuff, they all went because I got really interested in old stories and folktales and the oldest ones and getting books and reading them. They’re so readable. And if it’s okay, I’m going to tell one I’ve never done this before. And I’m not even sure I can recall it. It’s the one I wanted to put in the book. And I don’t even know why. It’s just, I like it.

Aidan [1:17:55]: We’re honored, thank you.

Byron [1:17:55]: I’ve never done this. So I’m not going to like ham it up. Don’t worry. Once upon a time, there was this guy. And he was married, he went to his wife and he said, “I want to go on a quest.” And she said, “what is it you’re questing for?” And he said, “I want to find Truth,” [capital T]. And she said, “and when will you be back?” And he said, “I will be back in one year and one day.” And she says “and if you don’t return?” He goes, “I have already made a will. And I have left everything to you.” And she’s like, “knock yourself out you go do that. I’ll see you in a year and a day.” So he gets his walking stick and he starts walking village to village and he meets people and he says “I am looking for Truth.” And he finally finds this old guy who says “you know I actually know where she is. Truth lives up in a cave, you go to this next town and then there’s mountain and you go the mountain up in the cave. And you go into the cave and she’s in the back and she’ll see you.” And he says “Well, thank you.” So he goes to the next town, he climbs the hill, he goes in there. And sure enough, he walks in and there’s this woman who’s like, so old, like, wrinkled like enough skin for two women, she’s just like one woman, and she’s got like one tooth left. And she’s bent over and he said, “are you Truth?” And she says “yes I am.” And he said, “I would like to know everything you know.” And she said, “well, I’ll tell you what. You can stay here and I’ll teach you what I know.” So he spent months with her and she taught him everything. And as he’s leaving he turns to and he says, “I don’t know how to thank you. Is there anything I can do for you in return?” And she said, she thought about it? And she said, “yeah, yeah, if you meet anybody who asks about me, tell them I’m young and beautiful.”

Aidan [1:19:52]: I love it, man, I love it. Unfortunately, it’s like so many espoused values we see in society today and in organizations ‘we’re a great place for innovation and leadership and looking after our people,’ except when things get tough. Thank you for sharing that story. I’m going to tell my kids and go, what’s wrong with that tonight? That’s my story for tonight. So that’s the gift I’m going to pass on like the monarch from one to the next.

Byron [1:20:23]: One more quick thing. Let’s queue up, why do stories lead to dice? Gotta leave the people with a little teaser, get them to come back next week.

Aidan [1:20:34]: Exactly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing a good job as storytellers. So what I have here is a quote from towards the end of Act One to tea us up for part two, as a teaser, you say “even today, our primary use of stories is still mental. We use them to plan for the future, from the next few minutes to years or even decades. But that raises an interesting question. How do we know what will happen in the future? Sure, we have the ability to imagine what might happen. But how do you know what will actually happen? As Aristotle writes,” you tell us, “nobody can erase what has not yet happened.” But you ask, “or can they?”

Byron [1:21:20]: So the next section is called dice. And I use it, I’m not going to launch into it. This is 30-45 seconds. I use dice to represent probability. And the reason I picked dice out of everything else that I could is that dice are prehistoric, they predate writing. And so they’re prehistoric. And that means you remember why they have pips on them instead of numbers? Oh, you haven’t gotten to that part. So the reason they have dots on them, instead of having numbers on them, is because they were invented before we had numbers. Isn’t that something? And there’s going to be a visual aid next week. And maybe you’ve seen one of these: it’s called a Galton Board. And the idea, I’m about to flip it, and there’s a bunch of beedies, little pieces of metal here, and they’re gonna start falling. And what happens is they can fall and they’re going to hit a piece of plastic and then go to the left or the right, and then they’re going to hit another one, and they go to the left or the right. And what happens is, every time you flip this thing, you get a normal curve in the middle. And you can do this every day of your life. And if you don’t get that the universe is about to end because the world does not work like that. And that is the basis for how you predict the future, is understanding what randomness is.

Aidan [1:22:47]: I’m absolutely intrigued. I hope you are too. It’s a great book. By the way, I just want to make this clear, for those of you who may not think you need to buy it, you do because we touched a tiny bit of it, maybe 5%. It’s out in August. So we’ll be publishing this in July. So it’s not out and I don’t know when in Europe, actually Byron, is it August as well? I have, as I said, two advance copies there that I’m very, very happy to share that Byron kindly gave us. Byron, for people who want to find out more about you and find out more about your other books, The Fourth Age is a cracking book as well. We only did an hour on that. And we could have done 40, where can they find you?

Byron [1:23:29]: I’m easy to find. I’m Byron Reese, everywhere; if you want to email me and You can preorder them, it’s a shame, people don’t preorder books a lot, but the preorders are used by the publisher as a signal to how much to promote it. So they really mean a lot to me. And those things you’re away. The publishers don’t give us but like 100 of them. So I don’t know how you managed to get three but that’s something else, so hold on to that. I plan to amount to something someday and it may be worth something.

Aidan [1:24:05]: One is for me, man, and one is for me. I’ve NFT’d it already. I’ve mentioned it. But it’s been an absolute joy speaking to you. Sorry for bringing us down in so many ant cul de sacs etc. It’s a pleasure to talk to you about anything. Author of Stories, Dice and Rocks That Think: How Humans Learned to See the Future and Shape it. Friend of the show Byron Reese, thank you for joining us for Act One.

Byron [1:24:34]: Thank you.

Aidan [1:24:35]: The innovation show is proudly brought to you by Zai boldly transforming the future of financial services with a suite of embedded products and services enabling businesses to manage multiple payment workflows and move funds with ease. Check out Zai at: and I’ll see you very soon for Act Two of Stories, Dice and Rocks That Think with Byron Reese.

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Stories, Dice, and Rocks That Think: How Humans Learned to See the Future — and Shape it. What makes the human mind so unique? And how did we get this way?

Podcast and Radio Interviews

Mobile Presence Podcast

Best-Selling Author And Futurist Byron Reese On The Power Of Brand Storytelling

As humans, we are hard-wired to tell and share stories. We also gravitate to brands that tell a compelling story that connects with us on an emotional level. So, how do marketers shape narratives that resonate with their audiences? In episode #471, our host Peggy Anne Salz talks with Byron Reese, author of the upcoming book Stories, Dice, and Rocks That Think. He shares insight into how stories have driven the growth and development of human culture, and he outlines tips on how you can tell stories that persuade your customers to take action.

Byron Reese podcast interview on AI, NICKSAV Film & Music SHOW

An Interview on discussing how artificial intelligence affects our lives, the difference between narrow AI and general AI,  whether being human is something more than a machine,  challenges and philosophical questions raised by advancements in AI, why optimism matters and can make all the difference, and how AI might redefine creative work  LISTEN


Everyday MBA

An Interview with Kevin Craine on Every Day MBA discussing “The Fourth Age”, how AI makes humans smarter, and how AI will change the job market.  LISTEN


Nonprophets [Super] Forecasting Podcast

An interview with Atief, Robert, and Scott on the NonProphets podcast discussing “The Fourth age”, the skills necessary for an AI filled future, where the fear of what AI will do comes from, and thoughts about consciousness and free will and the implications for robots and AI.  LISTEN

Association Forum

An Interview with Michelle Mason on Association Forum discussing “The Fourth Age”, technologies effect on the future of work, the difference between narrow and general AI, and the need to be constantly learning. LISTEN


An Interview with Carla and Tom on Robopsych Podcast discussing “The Fourth Age”, the anxiety of technological change, and what makes us human and comparing and contrasting with what AI could be.  LISTEN

The Bad Crypto Podcast

An Interview with Joel and Travis on The Bad Crypto Podcast discussing “The Fourth Age”, what is AI and what will it do to our jobs, how will AI and robots be used for war, and how will AI and robots effect our dignity.  LISTEN

Tech it Out with Mark Saltzman

An Interview with Marc Saltzman on Tech It Out discussing “The Fourth Age”, what makes us human, and where technology could take us.   LISTEN

The Hoomanist

 An Interview with Simone Salis on The Hoomanist discussing “The Fourth Age”, technology multiplying human ability, can AI be creative, and how jobs will shift.  LISTEN

Radio New Zealand

An Interview on Radio New Zealand discussing “The Fourth Age”, what we think of ourselves as humans and what that implies for AI, the concept of emergence, and the economic opportunity of AI.  LISTEN

An Interview with James Kotecki on the Kotecki on Tech, discussing “The Fourth Age”, the inevitability of technological progress, technological optimism vs pessimism, the disruption of jobs, and conscious computers.  LISTEN

New Books Network

An Interview with Carrie Lynn Evans on the New Books Network, discussing Byron’s book “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity.” LISTEN


An Interview on DojoLIVE! by Nearsoft, discussing Byron’s book “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity.” WATCH


An Interview on WorkMinus, discussing Byron’s thoughts on technology removing dehumanizing jobs, amplifying human productivity and other ideas from Byron’s book “The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity.” LISTEN

DM Radio

DM Radio and Host Eric Kavanagh – Narrow AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work – Original Air Date: November 29, 2018 The Guests Stefan Groschupf, SalesHero Faisal Abid, Byron Reese, Gigaom Micah Hollingworth,   About the Discussion Hollywood has it all wrong with respect to Artificial Intelligence (AI), at least for now.  LISTEN NOW



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