I haven’t finished it, but am enjoying Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper 2015).
One idea that caught my eye is the notion that what distinguishes the Homo sapiens version of the human animal from other versions like Homo neanderthalis and Homo erectus is that we developed the ability to tell stories.
The author uses the word fiction, but not pejoratively. The fiction (and lies) he refers to are the stories and myths that human cultures create to bond people and make them willing to unite for common purposes. These are stores about God, creation, the afterlife, the nation, and so on, and they allow for infinite variety and innovation:
“Thanks to the appearance of fiction, even people with same genetic makeup, who lived under similar ecological conditions, were able to create very different imagined realities, which manifested themselves in different norms and values.”
Rather than being bound by our genetic makeup, human societies can create cultures that act as levers of greater power. What we cannot do alone we might better do together, as long as we can trust and cooperate.
Common fictions (think of electronic "money") allow Homo sapiens to organize economically, politically, and militarily in much larger groups than other human forms. A “normal” effective tribal size is limited to about 150 people, because this is the maximum limit of gossip to deter deleterious behaviors. According to Noah, Homo sapiens can supersede this limit through the effective use of stories and myths. The economies of scale (and economies of scope) story turns out to be quite important to the success of Homo sapiens.
If Harari is correct, literature and the arts, along with religion, history, and other humanities, play an important role in economic development.
Unfortunately, Harari gets his Adam Smith all wrong, arguing that Smith supported the greed is good mantra along with laissez faire. There is much work left to do getting scholars on board!