May 31, 2010

The Strain Toward Transcendence: Axial Age Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 3:04 pm by Jeremy

In the span of just a few short centuries, between roughly 750-350 BCE, human society in Europe and Asia was transformed by an array of original thinkers and new systems of thought never seen before in history.  The list is astonishing: Lao Tzu[1] and Confucius in China; the Buddha and the Upanishads in India; Zoroaster and the Old Testament in the Middle East; and Plato, Sophocles and so many other great minds in Ancient Greece.

Confucius: just one of the foundational philosophers of the Axial Age.

The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, was the first to remark on this phenomenon in his book, The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1949.  He called it the Axial Age, because as he saw it, this period was like a great axis, when  “we meet with the most deep cut dividing line in history.  Man, as we know him today, came into being.”[2] Since then, the Axial Age has been a favorite subject of books and symposiums, with scholars trying to figure out exactly what was happening during those times, and why.

A general consensus has evolved that the new systematic ideologies that arose, speculating on mankind’s place in the cosmos and offering new sets of values for how we should interact with each other, were a result of the greater size and complexity of society.  Cities were getting bigger; empires covered vast tracts of land, incorporating multiple diverse cultures.  Author Robert Wright offers a good summary of some of these changes:

Certainly [the first millennium BCE] is a millennium of great material change.  Coins are invented, and appear in China, India, and the Middle East.  Commercial roads grow, crossing political bounds.  In the course of this millennium, markets… supplant state-controlled economies.  Cities get accordingly big and vibrant and, in many cases, more ethnically diverse… [M]ore and more people found themselves in an environment radically unlike the environment natural selection had ‘designed’ people for.[3]

But in fact, as I’ve described in a previous post on agricultural values, people had already evolved new sets of values for thousands of years that separated them from the hunter-gatherer values we’d been selected for by evolution.  So to be precise, the Axial Age, in my view, represents a second step away from that original value-constellation.

Why did Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia get bypassed by the Axial Age?

But there’s a big issue that’s not explained by the simple theory of society getting bigger and more complex.  The Axial Age revolution didn’t happen in all the great civilizations of Eurasia.  In fact, it completely bypassed the two civilizations that were among the greatest of them all: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, as has been noticed by classical scholar Benjamin Schwartz among others.[4] Why was that?

My own theory is that Mesopotamia and Egypt were simply too stable and monolithic.  Things generally worked there.  Sure, there were all kinds of crises and invasions, famines and catastrophes.  But through all their dynastic turbulence, the fact remains that both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization and culture continued in a fairly stable form for thousands of years.  Meanwhile, in each of the areas where Axial Age values did erupt, societies were enduring centuries of social and political instability and political fragmentation.

In China, Lao Tzu and Confucius emerged during an era known as the Warring States Period, when regional warlords were continually jostling for power with each other.  This only ended with the unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.

Not too much is known about the political structure in Northeast India at the time that produced the Upanishads and the Buddha, but the celebrated German Indologist Hermann Kulke describes it as a time when Aryan settlers from the northwest were bringing their ancient Brahmanical traditions into contact with the indigenous populations.  As he describes it:

Nowhere in the whole of Northern India the contrast and even opposition between Brahmanical and monarchical institutions on the one side and indigenous and heterodox cults and pre-monarchical institutions on the other side seem to have been more striking than in the eastern countries.[5]

And once again, politically, the area was fragmented into a collection of “strong chieftaincies and small kingdoms.”

Exile to Babylon: one of the many catastrophes that led to the rise of Axial Age values.

The picture of instability and fragmentation is the same when you consider the Hebrew experience of constant invasions, destruction of their temple, and exile to Babylon.  And finally, while the Greeks were fortunate to avoid the catastrophes of the Hebrews, their culture was highly fragmented politically, with their city-states constantly at war with one another, uniting only temporarily to face the Persian threat from the east.

It took the existential angst of seeing communities continually beset by war and uncertainty, along with a lack of a central, unifying socio-cultural force, to generate the intellectual ferment that could give rise to the great breakthroughs of thought characterizing the Axial Age.  So what were these breakthroughs?  And did they share any common features, or where they all unique?

Probably the most important feature shared by all these Axial Age breakthroughs in thought was what Benjamin Schwartz has  called a “strain toward transcendence.”  Here’s how he describes it:

If there is nevertheless some common underlying impulse in all these “axial” movements, it might be called the strain toward transcendence… a kind of standing back and looking beyond – a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.[6]

Following Schwartz, we can think of Axial Age philosophers observing the catastrophes occurring in their societies as a result of people following the primary values of the agricultural age, which I refer to as the Age of Anxiety.  These values extolled wealth and social hierarchies, glorified destruction of enemy nations, and emphasized propitiation of local, ancestral gods as a means to success.  Perhaps each of the foundational philosophers asked themselves how to transcend these destructive values, how to find a system of thought that could provide greater meaning and fulfillment to their communities.

If this was their aim, they seem to have succeeded, for in each Axial Age breakthrough we see a universalization of cosmological explanations and a broadening of the moral community to extend beyond the borders of a particular nation or empire.  As the philosopher of comparative religions, Huston Smith, has noted, each Axial Age breakthrough system established a form of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would want them to do to you.  In his view, “these counsels of concern for the well-being of others were one of the glories of religion during its Axial period.”[7]

While each Axial Age breakthrough had this transcendent characteristic in common, their other notable element was how unique each new systematic philosophy was.  For the first time in history, different cultures established their own intellectual foundations for a worldview and began to evolve their thought traditions accordingly.  In China, India and the Eastern Mediterranean, three very different traditions evolved, each of which would affect the future course of their region’s history.

In China, the Taoist and Confucian traditions agreed on the underlying nature of the Tao as an intrinsic, dynamic force that harmonized heaven and earth.  They disagreed on how to interpret this force, whether to emphasize individual fulfillment or social harmony as a way to live one’s life, but they didn’t question the underlying cosmology.

The Buddha: his philosophy was in opposition to the prevailing Upanishadic doctrines.

In India, the Upanishads began to develop a systematic interpretation of the cosmos, linking the individual’s soul, or atman, with the universal being, or Brahman, and describing a spiritual path whereby a person could unlearn the habits of the mundane world and realize this universal linkage between himself and the universe.  The Buddha’s philosophy was, in some senses, in radical opposition to the Upanishadic doctrines, emphasizing a middle way between the alternatives of holy asceticism and worldly suffering.  However, even this radical departure continued to accept some underlying cosmological foundations of the Upanishads, specifically the belief in the soul’s reincarnation and the ultimate goal of release from the continual cycle of rebirths.[8]

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the two major Axial breakthroughs of Hebrew monotheism and Greek rationalism at first seem very different.  They do, however, share a structural element that underlies both the Christian and Islamic cosmologies, forming the foundation of the monotheistic worldview that has since dominated vast regions of the world.  This structural element can be summarized as the world’s first truly dualistic worldview, a universe comprised of two utterly different dimensions: an eternal dimension that is sacred, immaterial and unchanging; and a worldly dimension that is profane, material and mortal.  This same dualism is applied to both the external world and to the internal world of human nature, splitting the human being into two: a body and a soul.

This extreme dualism[9] is so pervasive in our modern world that many of us just take it for granted without even questioning its origins.  But in fact, it’s unique in the history of human thought, and following the conquests by Christian and Islamic powers over so much of the world,  it’s had a powerful effect on billions of lives and the direction of our entire world.  The next post will examine the sources and implications of this relatively new and powerful layer of human values.


[1] In fact, most scholars nowadays believe that Lao Tzu was not a real person, but that the Tao Te Ching was a compilation from multiple authors.

[2] Cited by Watson, P. (2005). Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, New York: HarperCollins.

[3] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 238-9.

[4] Schwartz, B. I. (1975). “The Age of Transcendence.” Dædalus, 104(2), 1-7.

[5] Kulke, H. (1986). “The Historical Background of India’s Axial Age”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[6] Schwartz, op. cit.

[7] Smith, H. (1982/2003). Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

[8] Whether the Buddha himself accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, or whether his followers infused the Buddha’s original ideas with some of the trappings of the contemporary cosmological speculations, remains a controversial topic.  See Batchelor S. (2010). Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

[9] I call it “extreme dualism” to differentiate it from a fuzzier kind of “dualism” intrinsic to human thought, whereby a certain “essence” or “spirit” is seen to exist separately from the material body.  However, in earlier forms of “dualism,” the spirit is still thought to have a material existence, frequently associated with the breath, the wind, or something with a much finer essence than the body.

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May 25, 2010

The Age of Anxiety: An Exploration of Agricultural Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 9:34 pm by Jeremy

Consider this as a movie plot: man finds a way to get ahead; accumulates tons of wealth and power; gets increasingly anxious about losing it all; starts acting weird to try to keep real and imagined threats at bay.  Sounds familiar?  It’s a classic story which has created some of the greatest movies of our time, such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, Part II.   It’s also the story of mankind, as the first generations of agriculturalists, whose ancestors had forever been hunter-gatherers, found themselves taking up new habits and getting themselves embroiled in a new set of values that had never before been part of the human experience.

Citizen Kane: power – and agriculture – can do funny things to your mind.

The shift to agriculture is viewed by many anthropologists as “the most profound revolution in human history,”[1] one which established “the ultimate economic foundation for the past 10,000 years of population growth amongst the human population, indeed for the phenomenon of civilization as we know it.”[2] It began with the simple, but powerful, realization that if you did certain things to crops and animals, they produced more.  If you collected seeds from this year’s harvest of wheat and planted them, then more wheat would grow next year in the same place.  If you captured that baby goat and fed it your scraps, then it would produce milk for your family and could eventually be killed for meat.

These new techniques led to something that had never occurred before in human history: surplus.   And over many generations and thousands of years, this simple change in home economics led to the development of vast civilizations that stretched around the world, a process described here by archaeologist Graeme Barker:

The ability to produce food and other products from domesticated plants and animals surplus to immediate subsistence requirements also opened up new pathways to economic and social complexity: farming could mean new resources for barter, payment of tax or tribute, for sale in a market; it could mean food for non-food producers such as specialist craft-workers, priests, warriors, lords, and kings.  Thus farming was the precondition for the development of the first great urban civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, the Americas, and Africa, and has been for all later states up to the present day.[3]

The thing about a surplus is that it changes how you live your life.  If you were smart or lucky enough to collect a whole lot more wheat than your family really needs, this is something you have to deal with.  First, you need to protect it, so no-one takes it away from you.  Then, you can use it, trading it for something valuable someone else has.  And if that other guy wants your wheat but doesn’t have anything to trade, well, how about trading his labor instead?  “The way is open,” writes archaeologist Colin Renfrew, “to the appropriation of property and to differentiation in terms of property: the roots of inequality.”[4] And if you’ve spent your life accumulating more than those around you, then it’s natural to want to pass it on to your kids.  As a result, “social reproduction takes on new forms.  The children will wish to secure ‘their’ land and ‘their’ cattle from appropriation by outsiders, and rules will have to be established to determine which children have the right to which land.”[5]

Before too long, a new value constellation has arisen that no hunter-gatherer community would ever have conceived of: property, wealth, hierarchy, gender inequality and power.  “Nothing in the development of human society,” Renfrew believes, “appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value to material goods and to commodities.”[6]

Was agriculture responsible for the emergence of monogamous marriage?

In the view of some scholars, this agricultural value constellation was the cause of some things that we generally view as part of human nature: the urge to compete, even the institution of monogamous marriage.  “The propensity to compete,” in the view of Egyptologist Barry Kemp, “and thereby to disturb the equilibrium appears to be inherent within those societies which settle and create an agricultural base.”[7] And in a recently published article, anthropologists Fortunato & Archetti argue that “monogamous marriage emerged in Eurasia following the adoption of intensive agriculture, as ownership of land became critical to productive and reproductive success.”[8]

As ownership and hierarchies became more established, the boundaries of group identity expanded.  An individual hunter-gatherer identified with his extended family, or clan.  But as agriculture’s surplus permitted increasing social stratification and complexity, the organizational group also began to grow, first to the size of a tribe, then to a chiefdom, and as the millennia unfolded, some of the great early civilizations, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, began to form.

Unfortunately, group identities weren’t the only thing to increase in scale.  As we all know, the more you have, the more you have to lose.  And as the boundaries of agricultural communities expanded along with their populations, the desire for power, wealth and security played itself out over the millennia in the form of ever-increasing scales of warfare.  Here’s how anthropologist Brian Ferguson describes what happened:

War emerged when humans shifted from a nomadic existence to a settled one and was commonly tied to agriculture.  With a vested interest in their lands, food stores and especially rich fishing sites, people could no longer walk away from trouble.[9]

That seems to be the reason why, around the 5th millennium BCE in Europe, (what’s referred to as the late Mesolithic era), “warfare had become a common reality,” according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe.  He tells us how “forty-four per cent of the burials found in Denmark displayed evidence of traumatic injuries on their skulls.”[10] And if you read the heroic literature from the civilizations that arose thousands of years later, you can see that the slaughter of your enemies had become something to be immensely proud of, as in the words of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad around 800 BC:

Thirteen thousand of their warriors I cut down with the sword.  Their blood like the waters of a stream I caused to run through the squares of their city.  The corpses of their soldiers I piled in heaps… The city I destroyed, I devastated, I burnt with fire, and I… laid claim to the whole of the country under the ancient title of “King of Sumer and Akkad.”[11]

Assyrian king Shamshi Adad: proud of his devastation.

This was, of course, no isolated example.  Homer’s Odysseus was proud to describe how, in his sack of Ismarus, where he “destroyed the menfolk, we divided the women and the vast plunder that we took from the town so that no one, as far as I could help it, should go short of his proper share.”[12]

Nice guys, both of them.  But of course, things didn’t always go as well as they did for Shamshi-Adad and Odysseus.  And that’s why, perhaps the greatest new human experience that agriculture and its surplus brought to the human race was anxiety.

I’m not talking about a simple moment of anxiety, such as “will I be hungry today?” or “will I get laid tonight?”  I mean a profound, cosmic anxiety shared by agricultural civilizations across the world, described by historian Calvin Martin as “the anxiety over cosmic disorder that seems to lie at the core of all the agrarian religions.”[13] The more complex, grand and ordered early civilizations became, the more concerned they were about the forces of chaos that might destroy them.

In another post I’ve described how, for hunter-gatherers, Nature appeared as a giving, nurturing parent.  Not anymore.  Once you’re committed to agriculture, you become utterly dependent on the whims of the seasons.  If the rains don’t come; if the freeze lasts too long; if the floods are too intense… then all collapses around you.  And so, in a strange and inexorable evolution, Nature becomes more distant, more irascible, more unpredictable.  It’s no longer regarded as the parent, but is increasingly associated with the more distant ancestors.  Everywhere around the world, from China to Mesopotamia, Egypt to Mesoamerica, worship of the ancestors becomes predominant.[14]

With agriculture, ancestor worship became predominant across the world.

The increasingly hierarchical structures and market economies that characterized agricultural societies also infused the worship of those ancestors, who were believed to only give their wealth “in return for favours rendered.”[15] Archaeologist Jacques Cauvin describes how “the theme of the ‘supplicant’ introduces an entirely new relationship between god and man… a new distinction at the heart of the human imagination between an ‘above’ and a ‘below’, between an order of a divine force, personified and dominant, and that of an everyday humanity.”[16] The gods were just as likely to be threatening as they were to be benign, so you’d better treat them with the same respect you’d show to the king.

Just as the gods were becoming more separate from the humans who worshiped them, so nature was also becoming more distant.  Barker describes the modern view of the cognitive shift that occurred from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural idea of nature:

Prehistoric foragers probably saw themselves as part of the cosmos, along with the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  …[O]nce people became farmers, their cognitive world had to shift profoundly from a sense of belonging to and being part of the wild to ‘acculturating’ it as it became something to control and appropriate rather than be part of.[17]

But no matter how distant the gods and the natural world became, they were always seen as sharing the same cosmos that the people inhabited.  There were no sharp distinctions between humans, ancestors and gods.  Instead, the borderlines between all these categories were blurred in what one scholar has called an “ontological continuum … a natural, organic connection between man, gods, and nature, all of which are formed from the same substance and governed by the same causal framework.”[18] This continuum between humans and the gods existed in all early civilizations and agricultural communities around the world.  Whether for the Aztecs, the Yoruba, the Egyptians or the Chinese, it was “possible for humans to become deities, as well as for deities to be woven into human history.”[19]

While we might think this cosmic continuum offered a sense of comfort that’s missing from our denatured modern world, it also brought with it a momentous weight of responsibility.  Anthropologist Anthony Aveni, for example, describes how the Maya “believed they were active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama.”  They had to participate in rituals to help the gods “carry their burdens along their arduous course,” because “without their life’s work the universe could not function properly.”[20] And strangely, as the gods became ever more distant and threatening, so the actions that needed to be taken to propitiate them became ever more extreme.  In the case of the Aztecs, that sense of active participation led to their infamous blood sacrifices.  “Only by supplying the sun with life’s vital fluid,” Aveni tells us, “could they hold it on its course in the present age.”[21]

Aztec human sacrifice: needed to keep the cosmos going.

Blood sacrifice to keep the gods propitiated?  Not even Citizen Kane went that far… But the parallels are, I believe, instructive.  We have agriculture to thank for so many of the comforts that we take for granted, but also for many of the values that – for good and bad – structure our lives.  It’s interesting to see how some of those values have become embedded deep into our collective psyche, while others have been layered over and have virtually vanished from view.

Let’s take a final look at that value constellation:

  • Ownership, property, wealth, social hierarchy are all new good things in agricultural society.
  • Demolishing your enemies and stealing their women and possessions are virtuous acts.
  • Propitiating the ancestral gods, and treating them with abundant fear and respect, are essential behavior if you hope for a long, happy life.
  • Even more important is participating with the rest of the community in the ritual requirements necessary to keep the cosmos ordered and chaos at bay.

These values developed over thousands of years, and it’s striking how, even though the outward manifestations were so different from one civilization to the next, the underlying values were shared by each of the civilizations.  But then, beginning around 1,000 BCE, some of these civilizations entered what’s become known as the Axial Age, a period when new value systems appeared in China, India, Greece and the Middle East , systems that were as different from each other as they were from anything that had gone before.  And that Axial Age is what we’ll be exploring in the next post.


[1] Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.

[2] Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 14.

[3] Barker, op. cit. 1-2.

[4] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 135.

[7] Kemp, B. J. (1991). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, New York: Routledge, 35.

[8] Fortunato, L., and Archetti, M. (2010). “Evolution of monogamous marriage by maximization of inclusive fitness.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 149-156.

[9] Quoted in Horgan, J. (2009). “The end of war.” New Scientist(4 July ), 39-41.

[10] Cunliffe, B. (2008). Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[11] Cited by Dilworth, C. (2010). Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 282.

[12] Cited by Dilworth, op. cit. 307.

[13] Quoted by Barker, op. cit., 410.

[14] Barker, ibid.

[15] Barker, op. cit., 414.

[16] Cauvin, J. (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, T. Watkins, translator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 69-70.

[17] Barker, op. cit., 38.

[18] Uffenheimer, B. (1986). “Myth and Reality in Ancient Israel”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[19] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 421.

[20] Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 223.

[21] Ibid., 241.

March 17, 2010

“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Emergence in self-organized systems, Language and Myth, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 5:00 pm by Jeremy

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s the abstract to the paper:

The theory of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Eldredge and Gould is conceived as a special case applied to the field of paleobiology of the more general dynamic of emergence in self-organized adaptive systems.  “Punctuated equilibria” has been sporadically applied as a descriptor of change in social systems, and elsewhere the underlying methodological linkage to emergence has been noted.   However, it is proposed that a more formal application of emergence theory to changes in human social systems offers the potential for new insight.  The distinction between “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence is discussed and the key concept of “reciprocal causality” introduced.  Documented examples of ontological emergence in animal and ecological self-organization are reviewed.  A theoretical framework is then applied, for illustrative purposes, to three cases of pre-historical and historical emergence in human social systems – language, agriculture and the scientific/industrial revolution.  The framework is then applied to potential phase transitions in the current human system.

Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper.  Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.

March 4, 2010

Towards a “Phase Transition” in Anthropology?

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , , , at 6:25 pm by Jeremy

Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations

By Norman Yoffee.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Casual readers beware!  The “myths” of the archaic state in Norman Yoffee’s title are not the original myths of the early civilizations.  Rather, Yoffee is referring to academic “myths” of traditional scholarship that his book aims to debunk.  This means that his work is targeted mainly for those already steeped in the theory of anthropology rather than those wanting to learn about the ancient civilizations themselves.

That said, there’s plenty of intriguing material about daily life in Mesopotamia in particular that will reward careful reading.  Yoffee’s approach emphasizes the dynamics of social roles and power dynamics in early civilizations, and as such he offers unusually detailed analyses of real world activities.  For example, a particularly memorable section is entitled “Imagining Sex in an Early State”, and describes how the Assyrian word for prostitute, kezertu, was derived from the verb kezeru, which means “to curl the hair.”

Fascinating as that is, the most notable aspect of Yoffee’s book for me is his application of complexity theory to understanding the major transitions in early human history.  Theories of complexity and self-organization are gaining increasing acceptance in biological specializations such as collective animal behavior or cellular dynamics, but it’s still rare for these approaches to be applied in disciplines that deal with the collective behavior of that rather strange animal called “the human.”

Yoffee first lays his theoretical foundation, describing a complex adaptive system as one that “cannot be reduced to the ‘sum of its parts’ because the action of some parts is always affecting the action of other parts, so that equilibrium of the entire system is never reached or maintained for very long.”  He then clenches his proverbial teeth and takes the plunge, stating:

I mean to show … that not only are ancient states and civilizations complex systems …, but so are all human societies playgrounds for social negotiation and for the empowerment of the few, and their parts remain far from some equilibrium with each other and their environment… the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex…

On this basis, Yoffee borrows some of the “concepts and terminology from research on ‘complex adaptive systems” to show how minor perturbations in a social organization can occasionally lead to extremely rapid and dramatic change.

In taking this approach, Yoffee becomes a pioneer in an intellectual movement that I believe will have sweeping consequences in the years to come.  He’s not the first prominent anthropologist to undertake this intellectual journey.  For example, twenty years ago, Gregory Possehl, in writing about the Harappan civilization, made the following observation:

Thinking systematically, we see that virtually all parts (institutions and individuals) of the vast interconnected, largely seamless web of sociocultural systems are surely involved in the dynamic of change, as agents of both effect and affect… [N]either our anthropological vocabulary nor our discipline’s conceptual apparatus facilitates expression of the complex, subtle notion involved here… Once change has started there occurs a kind of “domino effect,” … a complex set of positive and negative “feedback” exchanges that sustain the process…[1]

However, while Possehl identified the same dynamic, he seemed well aware that he lacked the theoretical language to be able to apply it systematically to his subject.  Yoffee, by contrast, explicitly describes the rapid evolution of city-states in the late 3000s-early 2000s BC as a “phase transition” from “one state of being to another,” and compares it to the classic example from physics of hot water transitioning to boiling only at the point where it’s heated to 100˚ Celsius.

In another section, Yoffee uses the complexity theory concept of “emergent properties” to delve into the dynamics that transformed hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.  In this case, he goes beyond the usual analysis of how humans transformed crops and animals by considering the reciprocal effects of domesticated plants on human activity.  He describes how people needed to spend an increasing amount of time and energy looking after the crops and animals that were gradually becoming tamer and less able to compete in the wild, so that “people also become dependent on domesticants,” their movement restricted by the requirement to tend their new assets.

I believe that Yoffee’s pioneering approach is taking anthropology in a fertile direction, but I think these are only the first, tentative steps in a long journey.  I wonder if a breakthrough available to Yoffee and others in the field might be to join the concept of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould with the “phase transition” dynamics of complexity theory.  Yoffee mentions Gould in passing in his book, but only in reference to the work of another anthropologist.

In their foundational 1977 paper on punctuated equilibria in speciation, Gould and Eldredge suggested that “a general theory of punctuational change is broadly, though by no means exclusively, valid throughout biology.”[2] Just as complexity theory is now increasingly being applied beyond biology to the arena of social sciences, the same case might be made for punctuated equilibria.  In fact, an argument could be made that Gould & Eldredge’s application of their theory to evolutionary speciation may be one particular applied case of the more general rule of emergence in complex dynamic systems.

Gould himself, a few years later, speculated on some of the wider implications of his theory, stating:

In the largest sense, this debate is but one small aspect of a broader discussion about the nature of change: Is our world … primarily one of constant change (with structure as a mere incarnation of the moment), or is structure primary and constraining, with change as a “difficult” phenomenon, usually accomplished rapidly when a stable structure is stressed beyond its buffering capacity to resist and absorb.[3]

Here, by way of comparison, is Yoffee’s summary description of the sudden shift from village communities to city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, which seems to fit Gould’s characterization:

In Mesopotamia, villages that were centers of production and exchange, that were located on trade routes and/or rivers, that lay near great agricultural land, seats of temples and regional worship, and that were defensible locations from attacks by neighbors – for hundreds or thousands of years – suddenly became cities, as people from the countryside increasingly moved into them.

The concept of punctuated equilibria has already been applied by leading thinkers in other disciplines within the social sciences.  For example, Richard Klein refers to it in characterizing his view of the pattern of human evolution;[4] Quentin Atkinson et. al. see it as a model for the evolution and divergence of languages;[5] and Joel Mokyr sees it as a “paradigm for technological history” in analyzing the phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution.[6]

At first glance, the very term “punctuated equilibrium” seems incompatible with the general rule of complex dynamics systems existing “far from equilibrium.”  However, I believe this may be a problem with Gould & Eldredge’s choice of terminology rather than the underlying dynamics they are describing.  If you consider the paradigmatic example of water coming to the boil, it may appear at equilibrium at the surface, but underneath there is an increasing flow of currents as the water gets ever closer to a phase transition.  Similarly, in Yoffee’s example of Mesopotamian urbanization, the forces affecting village dynamics would have been slowly building even while, at the surface, the village appeared stable.  Perhaps a more apt name for Gould & Eldredge’s dynamic might be “punctuated continuum,” suggesting a relatively stable, gradually changing continuum suddenly entering a phase transition of rapid transformation.

There is some theoretical underpinning for this linkage of the two concepts in the writings of Per Bak and Kim Sneppen, the two physicists who first coined the term “self-organized criticality.”  In two different papers they write about the two sets of phenomena as one dynamic:

The model self-organizes into a critical steady state with intermittent coevolutionary avalanches of all size; i.e. it exhibits ‘punctuated equilibrium’ behavior… this behavior indicates that the ecology of interacting species has evolved to a self-organized critical state…

Gould and Eldredge have coined the term punctuated equilibrium to describe the intermittent behavior of the evolution of single species.[7]

The implications of this approach in analyzing the major changes in early human society are widespread.  Once you accept, as Yoffee has, that “the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex,” then there is a profound impact on methodology.  Instead of trying to identify a major cause or causes for a phase transition, the focus shifts to understanding how the different factors interacted with each other, and perhaps even more consequentially, how the larger social pattern then effected downward causation on the original factors, thus leading to the “reciprocal causality” characteristic of true emergence.

Thompson & Varela, two leading theoreticians in the study of complex systems, describe this self-organizing confluence of both “upward” and “downward” causation:

Emergence through self-organization has two directions.  First, there is local-to-global determination or ‘upward causation’, as a result of which novel processes emerge that have their own features, lifetimes and domains of interaction.  Second, there is global-to-local determination, often called ‘downward causation’, whereby global characteristics of a system govern or constrain local interactions.  This aspect of emergence is less frequently discussed, but has long been noted by researchers in the field of complex dynamical systems.  It is central to some views about consciousness and the brain…[8]

Let us hope that Yoffee’s pioneering efforts in this area have begun their own pattern of emergence, whereby his approach, along with others, initiate the beginnings of some “downward causation” in their field, leading perhaps to a “phase transition” in methodological approaches throughout the social sciences.


[1] Possehl, G. L. (1990). “Revolution in the Urban Revolution: The Emergence of Indus Urbanization.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 261-282.

[2] Gould, S. J., and Eldredge, N. (1977). “Puctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered.” Paleobiology, 3(2 [Spring 1977]), 115-151.

[3] Gould, S. J. (1982). “Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory.” Science, 216(4544:April 23), 380-387.

[4] Klein, R. G. (2000). “Archeology and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(1), 17-36.

[5] Atkinson, Q. D., et. al. (2008). “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts.” Science, 588.

[6] Mokyr, J. (1990). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Bak, P., and Sneppen, K. (1993). “Punctuated Equilibrium and Criticality in a Simple Model of Evolution.” Physical Review Letters, 71(24), 4083-4086.  Also: Sneppen, K., Bak, P., Flyvbjerg, H., and Jensen, M. H. (1995). “Evolution as a self-organized critical phenomenon.” PNAS, 92(May 1995), 5209-5213.

[8] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.


[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

December 24, 2009

Rooting for the Rhizome

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , , at 6:18 pm by Jeremy

Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality

By Morris Berman

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000

In four years of research, I’ve rarely come across a book with a thesis so similar to my theory of the “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc)” than Morris Berman’s Wandering God.  So why did I find the book so difficult to read at times?  Maybe it’s because I’m in such strong agreement with much of what Berman writes that the disagreements become all the more painful.

Let me begin with the points of agreement.   Berman’s main thesis is that in our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and beyond, humanity has entered into a mode of thinking that he calls the “sacred authority complex” (SAC).  This mode emphasizes transcendence – rising above the here-and-now to a realm of spiritual heights, immortality, wealth and authority – and in doing so, it leaves behind the quality of existing fully in the present, material world.  This matches closely with my own view of the pfc’s rise to power in our consciousness manifested in the agricultural-based values which then developed into Platonic dualism.

When Berman contrasts the hunter-gatherer (HG) mode of consciousness favorably with our SAC mode, it sounds a lot like the “democracy of consciousness” that I believe we need to move towards, as in the following:

HG life was more congruent with the multiple aspects of human Being – spiritual, political, somatic, environmental, and sexual (and perhaps even intellectual) – than the civilized form of life that followed it.  The irony of civilization is that the SAC promises a better life yet delivers one that is probably worse.

Much of Berman’s book is spent tracing the steps in which the SAC took over from HG consciousness, and again I find myself in agreement with many of his interpretations.  He emphasizes, for example, that it was the shift from nomadic to sedentary hunter-gatherer culture that was the most significant step, even more than the shift to agriculture.  That’s because, once you’re sedentary, you begin to accumulate possessions, stake out land, and initiate the cycle of ownership, desire and power that leads inevitably to the SAC culture.

Berman shows how early civilizations merged notions of power, fertility and agriculture into a gigantic thought constellation, quoting powerfully from the Mesopotamian poem, The Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, where the bride, Inanna astonishingly asks:

As for me, my vulva, …
Me – the maid, who will plow it for me?
My vulva, the watered ground – for me,
Me the Queen, who will station the ox there?

Also, I’m in complete agreement with Berman when he sees Zoroaster as an important source in the universalization of concepts of good and evil, describing how “the moral dualism of the Gathas is in fact the universalization of a concrete political and social situation… The entire cosmos is now seen as defined by the conflict between the True and the False.”

I part company with Berman in a couple of interpretive areas, such as his attacks on Mircea Eliade (see my recent review of Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return) and on the “Kurgan hypothesis” for the source of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language.  But my problem with Berman in these areas is not just a difference in interpretation, but rather the vehemence with which he goes after his prey, calling Eliade’s methodology “flawed to the core.”  Here’s another example:

To my mind, writers such as Jung, Campbell, and Eliade are themselves exemplars of Neolithic distortion, in which what is simply naturalistic and secular has to be inflated with vertical sacrality so that they can feel life is meaningful.  That life might be meaningful without all of this symbolic hoopla appears to have escaped their understanding.

I think that Berman, in his sarcasm, rides roughshod over a subtle, but important, point.  I’m sure it’s true that early humans felt life was meaningful without making a fuss about it.  I’m certain that no early tribesman said to himself “It’s time to act out the myth of the eternal return now.”  But we modern humans no longer have access to that way of thinking, and at times it may take some “symbolic hoopla” to try to re-conceive in modern language what an early human perceived without a moment’s self-consciousness.  Even though Berman may be correct in pointing out some factual errors in Eliade’s scholarship, that doesn’t invalidate the attempts by him and his co-thinkers to try to recreate some of the underlying constructs of thought in bygone cultures.

Similarly, on the controversial issue of the source of PIE language, I think Berman does a disservice to the subject by claiming that the “Kurgan hypothesis”, with which he disagrees, “has fallen apart under closer scrutiny”, and calling the respected PIE scholar J.P. Mallory a “disciple” of Marija Gimbutas.   Personally, I support the “Kurgan hypothesis” (see my review of Mallory’s book), but the point is, well-respected scholars support both viewpoints, both of which have difficulties, but neither of which has been invalidated.  It wouldn’t hurt Berman’s arguments to allow some respect to his opponents’ positions.

These are, for the most part, technical or tonal issues.  But I have a much bigger problem with Berman’s position when he comes out swinging against the modern systems approach to science:

That branch of holistic thinking known as systems theory … is really an attempt to dress up what Aldous Huxley called the ‘perennial philosophy’ in a kind of scientific garb, to sneak religion (or self-transcendence) in through the back door, as it were, which is why its proponents are typically zealots and why the theory … is heavily caught up in a game of smoke and mirrors.

Systems theory is a very big field, spanning decades of research and thousands of books.  To dismiss it in this way is especially unfortunate since I believe, if Berman were to open up to some of the best writers in this area, he might find that his own views are well represented.[1] For example, I think he’s utterly wrong to link systems theory with self-transcendence.  I do agree with him that Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” is all about self-transcendence, but I believe that systems theory leads one inexorably to a realization of immanence rather than transcendence.

Berman comes close to this place himself when he offers the metaphor of the rhizome for “nomadic thinking”, contrasting it with the SAC “oak tree” metaphor:

The oak tree, of course, conjures up grand images; it is heroic.  Rhizomes, with their lateral and circular taproot systems, are a lot less romantic: potatoes, weeds, crabgrass.  But their power lies precisely in being anti-Platonic, anti-Jungian, nontranscendent, for the heart of rhizomatic patterning is immediate interconnection and heterogeneity…  And whereas the tree, which has dominated Western thought, is about transcendence, the rhizome, the steppe, is about immanence.

Just like the rhizome metaphor, systems theory at its best offers a worldview composed of patterns, interconnections and dynamic relationships, eschewing the hierarchical, dualistic approaches provided by traditional Western thought.

Assuming you follow Berman’s arguments to the very end, I’m afraid he leaves you hanging there.  Yes, I agree that the HG, nomadic thought pattern was desirable in many ways.  But we’re not hunter-gatherers, and we can’t simply shed our SAC thought constructs and become nomadic thinkers again.

There are, however, paths we can follow to undo what I call the “tyranny” that the pfc-mediated thought traditions have imposed on our consciousness.  In my view, the traditions of Taoism and Buddhism offer us productive avenues, which naturally link up with some of the thought patterns arising from the systems theories that Berman dismisses.[2] Berman is rightly suspicious of faddish “Big Ideas” to fix the problems of our civilization, writing:

As long as political hierarchy or ‘religious’ tendencies are present… we move within the orbit of power, and this will perpetuate the same mindset and structures of agricultural civilization.  There also has to be an avoidance of large-scale organization, the sort of bureaucratization that encourages vertical outlooks.

I agree with him entirely, but so do many other people who have chosen, for example, to explore Buddhist practices in response to the hierarchies of consciousness that are instilled into our Western minds.  Berman does offer a partial solution to our current mindset, writing:

On the individual level, there are two things that strike me as integral to HG civilization that we moderns can adopt, though the process of making these things a part of our lives would be a slow and difficult one.  The first is the cultivation of silent spaces; the second, the radical acceptance of death.

He then describes a beautiful epiphany he experienced while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.  But how many of us in the modern world have the luxury to spend more than a moment in that place, even if we’re lucky enough ever to get there?

On the other hand, meditation practices offer anyone the opportunity to cultivate the most important silent space that exists: the one that’s within you.  Which is why, I guess, I found Berman’s book so difficult to read at times, even while I profoundly agree with so much of it.  I felt that it arrives at a dead end, leaving the reader with an unnecessarily negative outlook on our modern predicament.

Berman has spent decades offering unique and radical insights into our Western ways of thinking, and has clearly explored many different paths to arrive at his own assessment of our human condition.  His book ends with a challenge: “Somebody has to live the message; maybe – you?” Perhaps Berman believes the only valid way for someone to reach the “nomadic” mindset is to arrive there yourself, rather than being told how to get there.  And perhaps he’s right.  But I do think there are thought traditions available to us that can make these explorations easier, and I guess that’s what I found missing from Berman’s otherwise brilliant book.


[1] For an excellent exploration of some of the philosophical implications of systems theory, see Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.

[2] Please see my sister blog, Finding the Li, for my exploration of some of these avenues.

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December 16, 2009

“Might is Right”: A Proto-Indo-European Legacy

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , at 6:09 pm by Jeremy

In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth

By J. P. Mallory

London: Thames and Hudson 1989

Have you ever noticed how the English word “right” holds a strange combination of meanings?  Its opposite can be either “left” or “wrong.”  The source – and underlying significance – of this confluence of meaning is one of the many insights you can gain from an understanding of our cultural ancestors, the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Back in 1786, Sir William Jones, a linguist who’d spent three years as judge on the Supreme Court of Bengal, kicked off over two hundred years of rich controversy when he announced to the Asiatic Society of Bengal that he had noticed “a stronger affinity” between Greek and Sanskrit “than could possibly have been produced by accident.”   This, he said, led him to believe that both languages have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”

Sir William had stumbled upon the notion of what’s now known as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) hypothesis: the theory that at some time in the distant past a language existed that was the ultimate source of a vast array of languages now spoken by the majority of the world’s inhabitants, including Russian, Hindi, Persian and virtually every modern European language.  After two hundred painstaking years, linguists have reconstructed enough of this original language that there are even PIE dictionaries, even though the language itself has long ceased to exist and is only known by its relics surviving in dozens of more recent languages.

The PIE language and culture may be long dead, but the controversies it has left in its wake are alive and kicking.  Everyone agrees that there was, in fact, a PIE language or language group.  The main sources of disagreement are over the timing and – even more vehemently – its location.

Currently, there are two main competing hypotheses: the Anatolia hypothesis, championed by archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew, states that Anatolian farmers initially brought the PIE language with them as they fanned out through Europe and Asia beginning around 7000 BCE, soon after the beginnings of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.  The more traditionally accepted Kurgan hypothesis argues that the PIE language was originally spoken by horse-riding pastoralists in the steppes north of the Black Sea, who expanded with their horse-driven wagons south into the Indus Valley and West into Europe in waves between around 4000 and 2000 BCE.

Mallory’s book is a rigorous and learned exposition of the Kurgan view, and he has no compunctions about taking off his gloves in attacking Renfrew’s Anatolia hypothesis.  To prove his point, Mallory needs to rely on a subtle intertwining of both archaeological and linguistic evidence, and in doing so, he shows the power of applying interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems.

I find Mallory’s arguments convincing (especially in conjunction with a more recent, complementary study by David Anthony entitled The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.) Mallory creates a picture of a patrilineal culture, valuing property and power, gradually extending their reach into Anatolia, Greece, the Indus Valley and Central Europe.  Mallory puts his weight behind the theory (also somewhat controversial) that the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley was probably destroyed by the PIE invaders around 1500 BCE.

He also gives general support to the theories of Marija Gimbutas, who argued in a series of books beginning in the 1970’s that a matriarchal, relatively peaceful society dominated Southeastern Europe from around 4000-2500 BCE, until it was overcome by the PIE advance of what Mallory describes as “the Kurgan warriors whose religious attention was more attracted to warlike sky-gods and sun worship.”

You can begin to put the pieces together to create an image of a happy, peaceful, early agricultural world, from the Indus Valley to Europe, whose harmony gets shattered by the violent incursions of a horse-riding, wagon-driving gang of macho PIE warriors.  Of course, this image easily degenerates into a caricature, and Gimbutas’ theories have been severely criticized for just this reason.  But underneath the caricature, some elements of truth probably do exist.

The nature and influence of PIE culture is a crucial element of my own research into the source of the “tyranny of the pfc” in our Western consciousness.  As I see it, the cultural stew that produced Western monotheistic and scientific thought had three main ingredients: Egyptian, Mesopotamian and PIE traditions.  Each of these added their own unique nutrients to the stew.  The PIE flavor seems to revolve around a constellation of ideas linking power, morality and right.

Which leads us back to the strange combination of meanings for our English word “right”.  This word comes from a PIE root-word *reg-, which is the same root for the Latin rex, or our word “regal”.  Here’s how Mallory describes it:

Linguists have argued that the root of the noun is *reg which provides such meanings as stretch, draw out in a straight line, and straighten.  Our English word right is a reflex of this root, and the same opposition which we employ between what is straight or right and what is bent or crooked, that is, dishonest or wrong, is encountered throughout the Indo-European languages.

Mallory cites two other PIE scholars on the etymology of this root:

[Jan] Gonda suggested that the word [*reg-] meant one who stretches or reaches out, a metaphor for the formal activities of a king who is often depicted in Indo-European tradition as fulfilling his duties with outstretched arms.  [Emile] Benveniste argued that the fundamental meaning [of *reg-] was ‘one who determined what was right.’

So, here you have a profound underlying notion of “might is right.”  If you’re king, you’re the one who determines what’s right and what’s wrong.  And what’s right is also straight.  So, if you don’t fit into our straight lines, you’re bent, crooked and dishonest.  It’s notable that, in Latin, the word for “left” is sinister.

This is just one of several central themes that I believe PIE culture added to the foundations of Western thought.  I don’t think it’s possible to really understand where our ideas come from without getting a feel for PIE culture, and in my view, Mallory’s book is a great place to begin, with a more recent follow-up in David Anthony’s book (mentioned above) strongly recommended.

October 21, 2009

The Rise of Dualism

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture at 12:43 am by Jeremy

In some earlier posts, I’ve looked back into prehistory to see how the pfc’s influence within human consciousness gradually began to increase through the development of language, agriculture and writing.  Writing, in particular, as a particularly powerful form of what Merlin Donald calls “external symbolic storage”[1], began to create a force external to the individual human brain but one that was increasingly influential in directing the development of those brains: what I call an “external pfc”.

But it was in the world of ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE that the external pfc began to take a bizarre, new form that has remained with us ever since.

It didn’t happen at the outset of Greek classical civilization.  As classical historian Kitto describes it:

The sharp distinction which the Christian and the Oriental world has normally drawn between the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual, was foreign to the Greek – at least until the time of Socrates and Plato.

For a couple of hundred years during what’s known as the Attic Period of classical Greece  (around 600-400 BCE), speculative philosophers began to think in new ways about the world around them.  But their speculations, unique as they were in world history, still rose from a shared shamanistic and animistic background from which other early cultures took their own traditions.  There are elements in the ever-changing cosmos of Heraclitus that can be found in early Buddhist thought, and the expansion and contraction of Empedocles’ cosmos finds echoes in Chinese theories of yin and yang.[2]

Attic red-figure kylix

Attic red-figure kylix

However, with the works of Plato in the early 4th century BCE, something truly astounding occurred: Plato’s cosmology constructed the world in the image of the pfc’s capability for abstraction.  Plato devised a strange new dualism dividing body from soul, with the immortal soul linked inextricably with universality and abstraction – the hallmark of the pfc’s unique form of conceptual thought.

Plato’s ideas have been so influential in Western thought that the European philosophical tradition has been famously described as “a series of footnotes to Plato”.[3] The fundamental element of Plato’s philosophy was a division between an abstract world of Ideas and the ever-changing, material world in which we live.  In Plato’s view, there are countless chairs in this world, but there is only one Idea of a chair, existing in an immutable dimension, of which every material chair is an imperfect replica.  The same is true for concepts such as Beauty or Goodness.  And the way in which we humans can try to make contact with this immutable, perfect world of Ideas is through our faculty of reason, the purest aspect of our mind.[4]

The ideal universe, in Plato’s conception, was a mathematical, geometric abstraction, and only through applying one’s mind to these abstractions could we ever understand it.  Above the entrance of Plato’s Academy were the words: “Let no-one enter here who does not know geometry.”

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

And for Plato, humans were constructed just like the rest of the universe, with an ideal and a material dimension.  The material aspect was our body.  The ideal part, containing our immortal soul, was the mind.  And not the whole mind.  Not the part that feels or thinks about what to do next.  The part of the mind that comprehends the ideal rather than the material, that lives in the world of abstraction.

This part of the mind is one of the defining characteristics of the pfc.  Plato had separated the pfc’s capability for abstraction from all other aspects of our human consciousness and called it immortal.  In the words of the great Greek scholar Francis Cornford:  “The world of the body is a prison, or a tomb; that other world of the soul and of Ideas is the realm of true life and reality, in which all worth resides… the intellect had become a deity.”[5]

Tomb

The body: "tomb of the soul"

Plato had carried out a radical reconstruction of the cosmos that has affected Western views of our external world and our internal nature ever since.  Initially, his dualistic construct led to the Neoplatonic tradition, identified with thinkers such as Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) and Plotinus (ca. 204-270), who took Plato’s dualistic split of body and soul to even greater excesses.

For Philo, “’there are no two things so utterly opposed as knowledge and pleasure of the flesh.’  The great impediment to the good is ‘passions pricking and wounding the soul’”.[6] Plotinus, meanwhile, “could hardly bear the thought that his soul was trapped in so base a thing as his body, which he sometimes called a ‘detestable vessel’, one which acted as an obstacle to spiritual development.  He insisted that ‘to rise up to very truth is altogether to depart from bodies.  Corporeality is contrary to soul and essentially opposed to soul’”.[7]

Most importantly, Plato’s body/soul dualism was picked up by the early fathers of Christianity, and became deeply embedded in the fundamental forms of thought we’ve all inherited.  Perhaps most of us “no longer ‘think the soul’, we no longer argue about it,” states French philosopher François Jullien, “but we inevitably… still think along the lines it laid down long ago.  It belongs to an older, ‘archaeological’ stratum of our mental landscape, and acts as a controlling idea that defines our epistemic axioms.”[8]

And this elevation of the pfc’s capacity for abstraction to an eternal status separate from the changing, feeling world of our bodies, has had profound implications for our view of ourselves.  In the words of philosopher Chad Hansen:

Ancient Greek humanism took the … road of elevating humans out of nature into the intellectual realm.  It placed us in a hybrid tension between the physical world of common sense and experience and an intellectual, rational world of meaning, knowledge, and value.  We are neither of this world nor free from it (until we die).  The identification of human worth with the impulse to transcendence has a flip side, since we accordingly devalue the physical, the material.  To be free is for our reasoning faculty to control us.  We detach ourselves from mere bodily, physical determination…

In my next post, I’ll look more closely at how – in the form of monotheism – the pfc performed the coup which gave it nearly unfettered power over our consciousness.


[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[2] Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.

[3] Whitehead, A.N., (1979) Process and Reality, Free Press.

[4] Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing

[5] Cornford, F.M., (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. New York: Dover Publications.

[6] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group.

[7] Pollard, J., and Reid, H. (2006). The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, New York: Viking Penguin.

[8] Jullien, F. (2007). Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness, New York: Zone Books.

October 20, 2009

Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture tagged , at 1:35 am by Jeremy

In my previous post, I discussed the stirrings of the pfc’s power during human prehistory in the form of language and myth.  As noted in that post, we see mythic symbols first appearing in the archeological record by around 30-40,000 years ago.

But it was about 10,000 years ago that an equally important revolution occurred in the pfc’s transformation of our human experience: the rise of agriculture.  Many anthropologists view the domestication of animals and plants as inextricably linked with what they call “a revolution of symbols” creating the “alienated sense of self … necessary for agriculture.” [1] Humans began to see themselves as agents separate from nature, who could plan, control and transform the plants and animals around them for their own purpose.  This was the beginning of the “domination and exploitation of the environment… the very foundations of our culture and mentality.” [2]

An important pfc function – long-term planning – became a key characteristic of agricultural society.  No longer could you just take what Nature offered.  You had to plan for the future, store seeds away for next year’s planting even if your family was hungry now.  And along with this new structure of society arose a whole host of pfc-mediated concepts that have become an integral part of our human consciousness: ownership, complex hierarchies and specialization of labor.

The gains from our transition to agriculture are self-evident: reliability of housing, food and clothing … the list goes on and on.  But something else we gained – something less beneficial – may be gleaned by Captain Cook’s description of the hunter-gatherer Tasmanian islanders he came across on his travels:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc… In short they seem’d to set no value upon any thing we gave them… they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.”[3]

There’s a highly politicized debate ongoing about hunter-gatherer culture: were they in fact “happier” and “more affluent” than humans became once we got “trapped” by the requirements of agriculture?  This debate usually tells us more about the political biases of the debaters than the realities of hunter-gatherer societies (i.e. “hunter-gatherers were happy because they had no possessions” versus “hunter-gatherers were warlike because they lacked civilization”).

In another post, I plan to explore that issue further, but for now there’s  something important (and non-political) that I’d like to focus on: something the Tasmanian islanders and other forager cultures didn’t have that we do have in plenty.  It’s summed up by the Buddhist term dukkha – the suffering that arises from clinging to things, possessions, desires, plans.  In short, I suggest that the pfc-mediated concepts that accompanied the rise of agriculture gave dukkha to human society in addition to its other gifts.

Perhaps even more important than agriculture in the pfc’s ascendancy to power was the rise of what Merlin Donald calls “external symbolic storage” – the complete set of symbols created by society on walls, papyrus, stone or clay and passed down from one generation to another.[4]

The rise of “external symbolic storage” began as early as Upper Paleolithic times, attested to most recently by the spectacular finds at Hohle Fels cave in Germany.  Now, the pfc had a means of transmitting its concepts that was even more powerful than language.  Ideas could be fixed and instilled into the pfcs of each new generation, automatically shaping each developing mind to view the world based on a previously created construct.

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Early external pfc: Writing tablet from Uruk, Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

But following the rise of agriculture, and the resultant specialization of human activities, came a new, potent form of external symbolic storage: writing.   The advent of writing made symbol transmission even more powerful, creating what we might think of as an “external pfc” – a detailed symbolic construct of the world built up over millennia, outliving its human creators, shaping the mind of each new generation.

In my next post, I’m going to look at a strange, new development in human thought that began in the first millennium BCE and has profoundly affected our Western way of thinking ever since: the rise of dualism.


[1] Hodder, I.: Cauvin, J., (2001 11:1). ‘Review Feature: The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture’. Cambridge Archaeological Journal:105-121.

[2] Cauvin, J., (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Quoted in: Bellwood, P., (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

[4] Donald, M., (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.