May 17, 2010

Towards a Harmony of the Hemispheres

Posted in Book/article Reviews, consciousness, Pfc tyranny: overview tagged , , , at 3:53 pm by Jeremy

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist

New Haven: Yale University Press.  2009.

In this blog, I’ve been piecing together what I call a “cognitive history” of human cultural evolution: tracing when, how and where we’ve constructed the thought patterns and underlying worldview that most of take for granted in our daily affairs.  It’s a fairly new approach to understanding our history, so I was intrigued to come across Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary, which offers a cognitive history (although he doesn’t use that phrase) of the Western world from the perspective of the conflict between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain.

I stumbled across McGilchrist’s book in a New Scientist review written by Oliver Flanagan, a philosopher whose writings I’ve enjoyed and respected.  My pulse quickened a little, as I dove into the article.  What new perspectives would enlighten my mind?  To my surprise and disappointment, the piece read more like an attempted character assassination than a serious review.  Flanagan was so dismissive of McGilchrist’s approach that he seemed to feel that scorn and sarcasm was sufficient for his critique.  For me, this only deepened the mystery.  What had gotten Flanagan so upset?  Was it the contents of the book?  Or was it the approach, the attempt to link neuroscience and history in what I call “cognitive history”?  Not surprisingly, I went straight to Amazon and ordered the book so I could see for myself.

Well, my first takeaway was that McGilchrist had accomplished an extensively researched and impressive analysis which deserved far more respect than the scorn Flanagan had piled on.  (I hope I never get a review from Flanagan when my own book gets published!)  Whatever your viewpoint on McGilchrist’s thesis, I think he shows tremendous intellectual courage in combining the disciplines of neuroscience, history and literature in a unique way, offering perspectives that would not be available through one discipline alone.

So what is McGilchrist’s thesis?  The foundation of his approach is the well-documented difference in the characteristics of the two hemispheres of the human brain.  The left brain is more rational, linear, detail- and narrative-oriented; the right brain is more integrative, fuzzier, emotional and holistic.  This distinction has been noted for a long time, and evidenced by studies of split-brain patients who respond differently to things depending on whether it’s seen by their right or left hemispheres.  It’s also led to a lot of New Age clichés about “right-brain” versus “left-brain” thinking, which may explain part of Flanagan’s scorn and certainly says something for McGilchrist’s courage in attempting a rigorous, intellectual approach to a potentially toxic subject.

McGilchrist interprets this right/left hemisphere distinction as “two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience” each of which is “of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world.”  But most importantly, he believes that, although the hemispheres “need to co-operate,” they are in fact “involved in a sort of power struggle” which explains “many aspects of contemporary Western culture.”  This struggle, in McGilchrist’s view, has already been decided and the left hemisphere has won hands down, which is the reason why we live in a society dominated by left-hemisphere values such as systematic and linear thinking, competitiveness and power.  Or, as McGilchrist himself puts it:

An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere…

For McGilchrist, it’s pretty clear: the bad things we experience in our modern world can be traced to the dominance of the left hemisphere.  Although McGilchrist disavows the simplistic stereotyping of the New Age right/left hemisphere distinctions, there are times when I feel his contrasts are equally black and white, leaving no room for the complex grays in between that ultimately make our reality so rich when we recognize them.  For example, here’s how he summarizes the right/left contrast:

The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.  The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care.

So what side would you choose to be on?  Fixed, static, manipulative and lifeless, or evolving, living and caring?  But of course it’s not as simple as that.  For one thing, greater activation of the left hemisphere is associated with more positive affect, leading to an overall sense of happiness.[1] McGilchrist interprets this as inappropriate optimism in a world that’s careening out of control, but I think there’s much more to it than that.  For example, in a detailed review of the neuroscience of meditation, the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex is seen to be more heavily activated by experienced meditators and its greater activation has even been correlated with a better immune response to influenza vaccines.[2]

But in spite of McGilchrist’s tendency to see things in stark opposition, I think his overall argument is convincing and compelling, and I fundamentally agree with an underlying current in his thesis: that an ever-increasing imbalance in our collective human consciousness has led to an acceleration of forces that are rapidly driving our world out of control.

Which led me to an interesting internal debate as I read McGilchrist’s book.  (Interesting to me, at least!)  As any casual reader of my blog will know, my own thesis is that the increased domination of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) over our consciousness has led to what I call a “tyranny of the pfc,” with the consequent dire results of our unbalanced global civilization.  Well, doesn’t that sound suspiciously like McGilchrist’s own thesis… just substitute “pfc” for “left hemisphere”?  So, assuming one agrees that a dangerous disequilibrium has arisen in our collective psyche, which is it?  Left hemisphere or pfc?

To a large degree, I have come to believe that the answer is… both.  For example, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, in what is perhaps the most celebrated thesis of left-hemisphere function, describes the left-hemisphere as the “interpreter,” which “creates order out of chaos, and creates a narrative of and explanation for our actions, emotions, thoughts, memories, and dreams.”[3] Now, Gazzaniga’s not talking about the whole left hemisphere, he’s really focusing on the left side of the pfc.  As Goel et al. describe in a 2007 paper:

In terms of hemispheric lateralization, it is widely accepted that the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) has a critical—even dominant (Gazzaniga)—role to play in knowledge-intensive reasoning and decision-making processes.[4]

So the question of pfc vs. left hemisphere is not one of “either/or.”  Instead, it becomes a far more interesting question of how these two different sets of neurological dynamics interact with each other.  How do pfc characteristics relate to right/left hemisphere characteristics?

McGilchrist and I have briefly exchanged e-mails on the subject, in which he agrees with this approach and offers a neuroanatomical explanation, that “the right hemisphere is better connected with, and takes better account of, the subcortical/limbic structures than the left,” and that as a result “the left hemisphere ends up doing the main work for the ‘detached’ aspects of frontal function.”

But how did it get that way?  One way to think about it is that the unprecedented growth of the pfc in human evolution was a major driver of human uniqueness, while the left hemisphere dominance was one of the forms that this dynamic took.  By way of analogy, think of a car driving down the freeway.  Now supposing the driver has his foot down hard on the gas while he’s turning the steering wheel to the left.  Clearly he’s heading for a crash.  But what’s causing the crash… the accelerating engine or the steering?  Both.  If he took his foot off the gas but kept turning sharply, he’d still careen out of control.  If he tried straightening up while still wildly accelerating, he’d still be heading for a crash.  In this analogy, I see the pfc as the car’s engine and the left-hemisphere domination as the steering.  The only hope for the driver is to harmonize his activities, gradually decelerate and straighten out.

Which leads me to something I felt was missing in McGilchrist’s book: a roadmap for getting our cognitive vehicle out of its crash trajectory.  At the very end of the book, McGilchrist touches on a couple of themes that I believe are critical: he mentions that there may be things we can learn “from the East… if we can do so before its cultures are Westernised beyond redemption.”  And he calls for scientific discourse to move “as far as possible” away from “the worn-out mode of scientific materialism with its reductive language.”  I agree wholeheartedly with both of these directions, but I think we have to go deeper to get to the source of our problem.

In fact, I believe that as long as we maintain a dichotomy of values between right and left orientations, we might be continuing to move in the wrong direction.  If our global culture is to move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness,” I think we may have to turn our attention to approaches that harmonize the different aspects of our consciousness rather than exacerbate the conflict.  In this view, it’s not about right hemisphere versus left hemisphere – it’s about integration rather than conflict between the hemispheres.  It’s not about the pfc’s conceptual consciousness versus animate consciousness – it’s about harmonizing our conceptual and our animate experience of ourselves into one whole.

McGilchrist might respond to this view by pointing to the fact that the right-hemisphere is characterized by its integrative function, and that this is why he’s arguing for a greater role in right-hemisphere thinking.  Well, that may be true in itself, but I’m proposing a different level of harmonization, one that integrates analytical thought with holistic thought, an approach that I explore in my other blog, Finding the Li.

That may be the reason why those experienced meditators I mentioned earlier showed increased activation of their left-hemisphere pfc.  They’re permitting their entire consciousness to take control of their narrative.  To continue the political analogy, what leads to a stronger, healthier government in the long-term: a well-functioning, harmonious democracy or a tyranny?  The tyranny may appear, temporarily, to be stronger.  Until, that is, it topples.  So if, in our collective consciousness, we are experiencing a tyranny of the left pfc, perhaps the solution is not to fight back with the right hemisphere, but to use the powerful, narrative, cohering function of the left hemisphere to focus our attention better on those other, feeling-laden, instinctual aspects of our being, and learn how to integrate them into a harmony of the hemispheres: a democracy of consciousness.


[1] For example, see Urry, H. L., Nitschke, J. B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D. C., Dalton, K. M., Mueller, C. J., Rosenkranz, M. A., Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., and Davidson, R. J. (2004). “Making a Life Worth Living: Neural Correlates of Well-Being.” Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.

[2] Lutz, A., Dunne, J. D., and Davidson, R. J. (2007). “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness”, in P. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson, (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Gazzaniga, M. S. (2000). “Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: Does the corpus callosum enable the human condition?” Brain, 123(7), 1293-1326.

[4] Goel, V., Tierney, M., Sheesley, L., Bartolo, A., Vartanian, O., and Grafman, J. (2006). “Hemispheric Specialization in Human Prefrontal Cortex for Resolving Certain and Uncertain Inferences.” Cerebral Cortex, 17(October 2007), 2245-2250.

March 31, 2010

Avatar: A 21st century aspirational cosmology

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Infinition tagged , , , , at 3:01 pm by Jeremy

In most of the world, seeing Avatar in 3D is a recent phenomenon.  But in India, Avatar’s already been around in 3D for about three thousand years.  What I’m referring to, of course, is the original word “avatar”, which meant the manifestation of God in a material form that humans could see and hear.  In a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita, prince Arjuna is leading his army, lined up and ready for battle, when he suddenly loses his nerve and asks his charioteer, Krishna, what to do.  But Krishna is no ordinary charioteer.  He is actually an avatar of Vishnu, come to earth to teach Arjuna the nature of the Supreme Being.

Mohini, female avatar of Vishnu... Note the resemblance to the Na’vi?

At first sight, this might seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with James Cameron’s megahit movie.  After all, we all know that an avatar in today’s parlance is just your online persona, how you choose to be seen in the virtual world.  But Cameron takes the technology notion and twists and bends it as far as it will go without breaking, pulling it into a metaphysical world which is strikingly similar to the cosmology of the Jains and Hindus of India.

Even that might not seem particularly noteworthy, until you consider the massive popularity that Avatar has commanded.  I suggest that, in addition to the beautiful 3D effects and the uplifting Pocahontas-style storyline, one of the subliminally powerful attractions of Avatar is that it appeals to an unresolved desire of our generation for the kind of mystical cosmology that’s been on offer in India for millennia.   Only in Avatar’s cosmology, the path to eternal salvation doesn’t require meditation or renunciation, just a plugging into the high tech, organic network of the planet Pandora.  It’s an aspirational cosmology of the 21st century.

Critic Daniel Mendelsohn has written an insightful article in The New York Review of Books where he sees the techno-organic abilities of the Na’vi – the native people of Pandora with “their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself” – as the “ultimate expression” of James Cameron’s “career-long striving to make flesh mechanical.”  Mendelsohn sees in all this “something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself.”  Now personally, I don’t care too much about James Cameron’s psyche.  But what I want to explore is whether Avatar’s phenomenal success is partially driven by something “disturbingly unresolved” in the psyche of our modern world.  Something that harkens back to the original meaning of that word avatar, to the roots of an ancient cosmology that lives on to this very day in the longings of our modern soul.

An increasing number of Americans are having mystical experiences.

How could this be?  We typically think of the United States as an overwhelmingly Christian nation.  But a recent Pew survey shows that, in addition to their traditional Christian faith, “significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs.”  For example, 24% of the public, and 22% of professed Christians, say they believe in reincarnation.  And three out of ten Americans have “felt in touch with someone who has already died.”   Half of those surveyed (49%) say they have had a religious or mystical experience, and about a quarter (26% of public, 23% of Christians) believe that spiritual energy exists in natural objects such as trees.

It’s this yearning for something beyond either pure science or traditional Christianity that I believe Avatar has tapped into.  It’s a cosmology ancient in its origins but updated by Cameron to the 21st century.  The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the central metaphor of the world of Pandora, the flower pistil-like appendage sported by the native Na’vi that critic Caleb Crain has dubbed a “ponytail-USB port.” At the end of the movie, the flesh-and-blood human hero, Jake, permanently crippled in an accident back on the “home planet,” is plugged in to the all-pervading animist spirit of the planet, named Eywa, and his consciousness transferred to what was previously just his avatar.  Through the mystical powers of Pandora’s world-spirit, Jake has transcended his earthly incarnation.  As Crain amusingly described it:

on Cameron’s Pandora … the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, “The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Crain is mocking the same cosmological commingling of themes that leads Mendelsohn to see something “disturbingly unresolved” in Cameron.  But in their critiques, I think they’re glossing over some fascinating cosmological implications of this central metaphor that achieves a fusion of technological motifs (Internet, electricity grid, data transfer) ecological themes (interconnectedness of nature) and spiritual aspiration (immortality).

In our western monotheistic tradition, the absolute duality of body and soul doesn’t permit the kind of metaphorical fusion that Cameron accomplishes in Avatar.  Souls are immaterial and eternal.  God is infinite and separate from the changing world.  We humans are a schizophrenic creation with both bodies and souls.  “With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin,” said St. Paul in a foundational statement of Western dualism.[1]

In contrast, the same Indian tradition that gave us the word “avatar” offers a different take on hard-core body/soul Western dualism.  Hindu and Jain cosmology posits a soul or jiva that’s more like the electricity that runs through the grid.  Here’s how the great classical Indian scholar, Heinrich Zimmer, describes it:

Jainism regards the life-monad (jiva) as pervading the whole organism; the body constitutes, as it were, its garb; the life-monad is the body’s animating principle.  And the subtle substance of this life-monad is mingled with particles of karma, like water with milk, or like fire with iron in a red-hot, glowing iron ball.[2]

Unlike the abstract Christian soul (inherited from Platonic dualism), the Jain/Hindu jiva (which comes from the same Indo-European root as the Latin word vivus “alive”) is what makes dead matter come alive.  What’s more, this life-principle jiva pervades the whole cosmos:

According to Jaina cosmology, the universe is a living organism, made animate throughout by life-monads which circulate through its limbs and spheres; and this organism will never die.  We ourselves, furthermore – i.e., the life-monads contained within and constituting the very substance of the imperishable great body – are imperishable too…[3]

Now is this beginning to sound more and more like the world of Pandora?  For the Jains, Indian scholar Arthur Basham tells us, “every plant is the home of a soul or a colony of souls and, moreover, there are souls in rocks, water, and air.”[4] As the avatar Krishna tells Arjuna on the battlefield, “I pervade the entire universe in my unmanifested form.  All creatures find their existence in me, but I am not limited by them.  Behold my divine mystery!”[5]

Now, in the traditional world that sourced these ideas, it wasn’t too easy for a regular guy to gain access to this transcendent world.  “Every being dwells on the very brink of the infinite ocean of the force of life,” Zimmer tells us, but diving off that brink required a lifetime of devotion to the intense spiritual practices of traditional yoga.  The Katha Upanishad gives a sense of how difficult this journey could be:

The Self is not to be sought through the senses… This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing… Not by speech, not by mind, not by sight can it be apprehended.  There the eye goes not, nor the mind; we know not, we understand not how one can teach this…

When the five senses, together with the mind, cease from their normal activities and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state… This they consider to be Yoga, the steady control of the senses….[6]

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very appealing journey to our 21st century mindset, does it?  After all, for us moderns, instant convenience is the gold standard of value.  And that’s where Cameron swoops in to perform his technological wizardry, substituting arduous Yogic austerity and self-discipline with the wonders of the pistil-like USB port.  Wouldn’t that be so great, if technology could do for transcendence and immortality what it’s already done for calculations, picture-taking and music?

The thing is, there are people out there who really believe this notion of immortality through technology.  Futurist Raymond Kurzweil longs for the “singularity,” when artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the human variety.[7] Danielle Egan reports from a convention of so-called “transhumanists,” who “plan to bypass death” through technology, “eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal.”[8] Respected biologist Lynn Margulis, a leader in proposing the theory of endosymbiosis – which tells us that every cell in our bodies evolved from a fusion of different single-celled entities – speculates about a future “superhuman” organism:

individual humans should not be surprised if the aggregate of planetary humanity shows unexpected, emergent, seemingly purposeful behaviors.  If brainless bacteria merged into fused protists, which cloned and changed themselves over evolutionary time into civilization, what spectacle will emerge from human beings in global aggregation?[9]

But wait a minute… Let’s get back to that “disturbingly unresolved” issue that Mendelsohn mentioned.  This is our world we’re talking about now, not the world of Pandora.  A world that’s digging deeper for the last of the oil, that’s turning rainforests into palm plantations, that’s emptying the oceans of fish, that’s on an unsustainable, accelerating collision course with environmental disaster.  How can that be resolved with the notion of technology as spiritual salvation?

Plastic rulers bend… but they can also sometimes snap.

Remember those flexible plastic rulers we used back at high school?  Some of them were bendy enough that you could take one end and bring it round to touch the other end.  But occasionally, one would be made of a more brittle plastic, and if you tried that maneuver, the ruler would snap into two parts.  In a sense, Avatar offers us a vision of a world where the two poles of technological progress and spiritual transcendence bend around and meet each other, closing the circle.  But is our world flexible enough that this could in fact be achieved?  Or will the center snap while we’re putting all our energy into bending the ends together?  Avatar may offer an aspirational cosmology for the 21st century, but whether our world will actually get there without the center snapping may turn out to be the biggest question facing humanity in this century and beyond.  No wonder Avatar beat all the box office records.


[1] Romans 7:25.

[2] Zimmer, H. (1951/1989). Philosophies of India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 227-9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Basham, A. L. (1989). The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, New York: Oxford University Press, 127.

[5] Easwaran, E. ed. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita, E. Easwaran, translator, Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 132.

[6] Cited in: McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press, 190-192.

[7] Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near, New York: Penguin Books.

[8] Egan, D. (2007).  “Death Special: The Plan for Eternal Life”, New Scientist, 13 October 2007.

[9] Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 235.

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 4, 2010

Monotheism By Numbers?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , , , , , , , at 7:15 pm by Jeremy

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottéro

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001

Elsewhere on this blog, I argue that dualism and monotheism have caused a profound change in our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years.  Underlying the monotheistic/dualistic thought pattern is the notion that two different dimensions exist: a worldly dimension of the body, and an eternal dimension of the soul.  If my argument is correct, then prior to the advent of Platonic dualism and Judeo-Christian monotheism, people around the world must have viewed their cosmos with blurrier distinctions, not conceiving of two utterly different dimensions.

Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is an authoritative but accessible assessment of one of the major worldviews that existed before the advent of dualism and monotheism.  Bottéro is “one of the world’s foremost experts on Assyriology,” having studied it for over fifty years and the book certainly delivers on its title, reviewing Mesopotamian religion from the perspectives of religious sentiments, conceptual representations, and behaviors.

So, does Bottéro’s review support my position?  I think it does, especially when you compare some of the themes he describes in Mesopotamia to the contemporary religious worldview in Ancient Egypt.  Although these two civilizations come from very different traditions, it’s fascinating to see how some of the underlying structural aspects of their worldviews are at the same time so similar to each other, and so fundamentally different from the later monotheism of Christianity.

One of the intriguing dynamics shared by both Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tendency to pray to a particular god as if he or she were the only god, or at least the only god that mattered.  This is known either as “monolatry” (from the Greek “single worship”) or “henotheism” (from the Greek “one god”).  Bottéro describes it as “a profound tendency… to encapsulate all sacred potential into the particular divine personality whom [the Mesopotamians] were addressing at a given moment.” He gives a few examples:

Anu was ‘the prince of the gods,’ but so was Sîn.  The ‘Word’ of each god was ‘preponderant’ and ‘was to be taken above those of the other gods,’ who were subjected to it, ‘trembling.’  Each god was ‘the ruler of Heaven and Earth,’ ‘sublime throughout the universe,’ supreme and ‘unequaled’.

Over in Egypt, they were doing just the same thing.  Egyptian scholar Erik Hornung describes how, “in the act of worship, whether it be in prayer, hymn of praise, or ethical attachment and obligation, the Egyptians single out one god, who for them at that moment signifies everything.”[1]

At first sight, this seems like a form of proto-monotheism, but Bottéro takes pains to deny that, asserting that “contrary to what has sometimes been believed… a true monotheism could scarcely be born out of this religion, which assuredly never ceased to intelligently rationalize and organize its polytheism, and which, in truth… never departed from it.”

One of the crucial ways in which Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies – indeed the cosmologies of every historic polytheistic culture worldwide – differed from monotheism was their acceptance of the gods of other cultures.  This goes beyond the notion of religious tolerance.  It was inconceivable to either the Mesopotamians or Egyptians to question the existence of another region’s gods.  Gods presided over specific areas, so it was quite consistent with polytheistic beliefs to worship your own gods even while your neighbors – and perhaps your enemies – were worshiping theirs.  Bottéro gives a helpful analogy, comparing this view to how we might think of political offices in the modern world:

The foreign pantheons were tacitly considered as what they were: the product of different cultures, with their members playing a role analogous to that played by the indigenous gods of Mesopotamia.  It was as if, on the supernatural level, they had recognized the existence of a certain number of divine functions, of which the titularies bore, depending on the lands and the cultures, different names and personalities – a bit like political offices, which were pretty much the same everywhere; only their names were different, as were those of the individuals who held the offices.

With this analogy, we can see how denying the existence of another region’s gods would be as nonsensical as Hillary Clinton traveling to China and denying that they have a Communist party.  Again, the Egyptians shared the same mindset.  Egyptian scholar Jan Assmann tells us how:

The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship.  The distinction I am speaking of [monotheistic true/false] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.[2]

Perhaps the most subtle yet profound disconnect between early polytheistic worldviews and monotheism was their lack of sharp distinctions between the realms of human and divine.  Gilgamesh was a mortal, an ancient king of Mesopotamia, and yet his parents, Lugalbanda and Ninsuna, were semi-divine.  The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “two-thirds of him is god; one-third of him is human,” leading Bottéro to conclude that “the notion of ‘divinity’ was somewhat ‘elastic.’”  Once again, over in Egypt, Assmann tells us, we see an “interpenetration of the cosmic, the sociopolitical, and the individual,” such that “the Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature.”

If monotheism represents such a vast disconnect from previous polytheistic thought, it’s reasonable to ask what were the underlying factors that led to this great shift.  My proposal is that certain functions mediated by the human prefrontal cortex – the capacity for abstraction and symbolization – gained increased prominence in our collective consciousness until they became values in themselves: the pure abstraction of an eternal, infinite God.  Interestingly, Bottéro identifies the seeds of this transformation in Mesopotamian culture: not in their polytheism, but rather in their attribution of divine value to their number system.

Bottéro notes how the number 60, the “supreme round number” (the Babylonians used the decimo-sexagesimal system), was attributed to Anu, “the supreme chief of the divine dynasty”, and 30 to Sîn, the moon god.  He explains how they were evaluating the divine nature of the gods by “assigning them the most immaterial and abstract concepts, the least ‘tangible’ they had available – numbers – as if they knew that to speak righteously of the gods it was necessary, insofar as was possible, to go beyond the material and carnal reality of humans.”

This “attempt to stress both the transcendence and the mystery of the supernatural world” might possibly be seen as a precursor to the Pythagorean assignment of transcendent meaning to numbers, which became a foundation for Plato’s dualistic worldview.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


[1] Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

January 4, 2010

The Bible Unearthed

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged at 7:30 pm by Jeremy

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts,

By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

New York: Touchstone, 2002

Despite (or perhaps because of) the tremendous power and influence of the Bible in shaping our Western cultural tradition, it’s only been in recent decades that archeologists have made much progress in answering basic questions about it: Who wrote it? When did they write it?  How much of it is true?  The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman does a powerful and effective job in putting together recent findings to create a satisfyingly credible narrative.

The book’s main theme is that “much of the biblical narrative is a product of the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE.”  We see how the events described in the Bible close to that time are borne out to a large extent by archeological findings, but as you go further back into the past, there’s not much to validate the literal veracity of the biblical stories.    As the authors put it:

Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history – the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon – are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age.

A theme I believe is important in the rise of monotheistic religion is the natural linkage to monotheism of both authoritarianism and intolerance.  In Finkelstein and Silberman’s narrative, this linkage becomes very clear.  They see the adoption of monotheism by the kingdom of Judah as being driven in large part by the need for a centralized and unified political authority.  Prior to this time, Judah was like any other place in the ancient world, where “religious ideas were diverse and dispersed,” with countless fertility and ancestor cults in the countryside” and “the widespread mixing of the worship of YHWH with that of other gods.”  However, after the fall of Samaria, the centralized authority in Jerusalem had a “new political and territorial agenda: the unification of all Israel.”

Unfortunately, this “extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology” introduced the same monotheistic intolerance that our modern world continues to suffer from.  As Finkelstein & Silberman describe it, “in order to effect a thorough cleansing of the cult of YHWH, Josiah launched the most intense puritan reform in the history of Judah.”  They quote from 2 Kings to show how zealously Josiah established his new centralized dogma — and sadly this is one of the more believable parts of the Bible because of the proximity of the events to the time of writing:

The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah… to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. 5He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained… He brought out the image of* Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people… He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

With a beginning like this, is it any wonder that Jerusalem is still one of the centers of global intolerance and hatred?

Finkelstein & Silberman go to great pains, however, to try to offer a balanced perspective on the moral implications of their findings.  Clearly, they don’t want the scientific rigor of their analysis to be colored by the emotions from all sides of the religious debate.  They point out that the book of Deuteronomy, written for the most part by Josiah’s reformers, “contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible” and calls for “the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we would call today human rights and human dignity.”

On the other hand, we see similar drives for social equity in other groundbreaking traditions of the time, such as Solon’s reforms in Athens, and the old Akkadian notions of andurarum (“freedom”) and misharum (“equity”) which appear as loan words in the Old Testament and may have been the source of Josiah’s ethics.[1] Somehow, though, the Greeks and the Mesopotamians managed to get their ideas across without resort to the intolerance of monotheism.

It would be nice to think that detailed, rigorous studies such as this book could have an impact on the fundamentalist tides surging through our modern world.  It may not stop any raging preacher calling on his flock to fulfill “God’s commandments,” but at least it offers an accessible and authentic account of the source of the Old Testament for those who take the effort to try to sort things out for themselves.


[1] For a full discussion of these Akkadian concepts, see Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. (2000). “The Near Eastern ‘Breakout’ and the Mesopotamian Social Contract”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 13-24.

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.

November 24, 2009

Where did our “sacred time” go?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Language and Myth tagged , at 3:19 pm by Jeremy

The Myth of the Eternal Return

By Mircea Eliade

Princeton: Princeton University Press

You can’t explore early cosmological thought without very soon tripping over the theories of Mircea Eliade.  He’s been criticized by some modern scholars for being too sweeping in his generalizations and occasionally getting some facts wrong, but his influence can be found in so many authoritative studies of early thought that I felt a compulsion to see for myself what he has to say.

Perhaps because I’d already seen him quoted so often, his ideas in The Myth of the Eternal Return didn’t surprise me, but they did consolidate an important theme contrasting early societies and our modern worldview.  That theme has to do with Time.  Specifically, the difference between what Eliade calls “sacred” and “profane” time.  And the contrasting views of time lead to contrasting views of the significance of your actions, and just about everything else in your life.

Eliade describes how “archaic man” (his words) felt himself “indissolubly connected with the Cosmos” and as a result “lived in harmony with the cosmic rhythms; we could even say that he entered into these rhythms.”  This is a theme near and dear to my “pfc thesis”, which argues that in the early days of human consciousness, the pfc interacted more in harmony with our animate consciousness.  What were these cosmic rhythms?  The natural rhythms that all creatures adapt to and live by: the seasons, the moon’s phases, day and night, procreation and birth, maturity and death.  Eliade notes how, in ancient China, even sexual habits, from emperor down to common folk, were seen as synchronizing with the correct season:

In China, young couples went out in spring and united on the grass in order to stimulate ‘cosmic regeneration’ and ‘universal germination.’  In fact, every human union has its model and its justification in the hierogamy, the cosmic union of the elements.  Book IV of the Li Chi, the ‘Yüeh Ling’ (book of monthly regulations), specifies that his wives must present themselves to the emperor to cohabit with him in the first month of spring, when thunder is heard.  Thus the cosmic example is followed by the sovereign and the whole people.  Marital union is a rite integrated with the cosmic rhythm and validated by that integration.

“Sacred time”, then, is the time spent in synchrony with those cosmic rhythms, a synchrony that repeats and imitates the original actions of the gods and/or the ancestors.  “We must do what the gods did in the beginning,” Eliade quotes from the Satapatha Brahmana[1].  “All religious acts,” he tells us, “are held to have been founded by gods, civilizing heroes, or mythical ancestors.”

The fundamental point is that “sacred time” wasn’t just the time when you were taking part in a religious ritual.  On the contrary, most of the activities that make up a person’s life exist within sacred time, that time “when the individual is truly himself.”   Eliade gives us a brief list: “alimentation, generation, ceremonies, hunting, fishing, war, work.”  In modern verbiage: eating, having sex, working and group activities.  The rest of your time (what little there is that doesn’t fit into sacred time) is viewed as “profane”, without any meaning.

There’s an interesting possible linkage with a description by Jan Assmann of the ancient Egyptian conception of two different forms of time: neheh-time and djet-time.[2] As Assmann describes it, neheh-time is a “coming, coming” kind of time “an incessantly pulsating stream of days, months, seasons, and years.”  Sound familiar?  That would potentially match up with Eliade’s “profane” time, the kind of time that we modern folk tend to live in: alarm clocks, news updates, deadlines, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, etc. etc.  By contrast, djet-time, in Assmann’s words, “remains, lasts and endures.”  It’s that Ecclesiastes kind of time: for everything there is a season, or as Assmann says, “the enduring continuation of that which, acting and changing, has been completed in time.”  Although this may not be a perfect match with Eliade’s “sacred time”, my guess is that they’re talking about essentially the same thing. [If any reader has any views on this, I’d like to hear your comments.]

So what happened to the “sacred time” that used to resonate through people’s lives?  In Eliade’s view, the cyclical view of time was demolished by the linear conception of time imposed by Christian thought.  As he puts it (quoting Henri-Charles Puech):

… for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning – the Redemption.  ‘A straight line traces the course of humanity from initial Fall to final Redemption.  And the meaning of this history is unique, because the Incarnation is a unique fact. … Consequently the destiny of all mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all, in a concrete and irreplaceable time which is that of history and life.’”

Along with the Christian transformation of time came the invalidation of the sacred cosmic cycles.  Now, a new form of “sacred” arose.  As Eliade describes it, “what is called ‘faith’ in the Judaeo-Christian sense differs, regarded structurally, from other archaic religious experiences.”  For the new monotheistic religions, “faith is due to a new theophany [manifestation of God], a new revelation, which, for the respective elites, annuls the validity of other hierophanies [sacred revelations.]”

According to my pfc-based timeline of human history, this shift to monotheism is one of the major stages representing the ascendance of the pfc to greater control over our human consciousness.  Ever since that time, the term “religious” is reserved for specifically defined spaces that connect with what’s transcendent: church, prayer, priests.  The natural world and its cycles have lost their sacred resonance: they’ve now been demoted into the profane, which becomes a catch-all for just about everything related to our material world.

Eliade presents a powerful thesis, which remains relevant and meaningful.  If you’re serious about understanding some of the ways the conception of the universe differed between earlier cultures and our own “profane” culture, Eliade’s may  not be the first book you should read[3], but you’d be rewarded to pick it up at some point in your explorations.

 

 


[1] One of the early Vedic scriptures, dated to the first half of the 1st millennium BCE.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press,pp. 74-6.

[3] My recommendation for a broad but in-depth review of early cultures would be Bruce Trigger’s Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, (2003).  (A big book, but well worth it.)

November 10, 2009

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , at 5:27 pm by Jeremy

More Than Human Cover - SmallestMore Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

By Ramez Naam

New York: Broadway Books

Johnny Ray was a healthy Vietnam vet who, one day, suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him from the neck down.  In More Than Human, Ramez Naam describes the miraculous intervention of technology, whereby Ray, in 1998, received a neural implant, permitting him to move a cursor on a computer monitor using nothing but his own thoughts, imagining he was moving his hand.  As time went on, Ray stopped having to even think about his hands: he simply willed the cursor to move, and it moved.  As Naam describes it, “In some sense, the computer had become a part of him.”

This, to me, is the crux of Naam’s book about the promise of re-engineering the human organism.  Who could possibly deny someone like Johnny Ray the ability to regain some small part of his existence?  But then, where does the line get drawn?  The unthinkable possibilities of one generation become the avant-garde of the next, and the mundane realities of the generations to follow.  As Naam would have it, this is a good thing.  A very good thing.  In fact, he sees future biological enhancements as the next step in the great human tradition of using technology to improve our lives, from the Stone Age onwards.

In a recent post, I’ve traced the near-mystical vision those who believe in the benefits of a merged cyber-human future, back to the mind-body dualism of Plato and his followers.  Naam is clearly in this camp, but he deserves a considered hearing.  He writes his book with humanity and sensitivity.  He’s interested in the improvement of people’s real human condition in the here-and-now, and believes he’s simply exploring the path that we’re destined to take to a benevolent future.

But what a future!  Naam describes in some detail a sci-fi type of scenario where getting a neural implant becomes the de rigeur activity of the time, a bit like getting a smartphone in 2009.  The neural implant essentially puts your conscious mind on steroids, improving your power over your own bodily drives in addition to turning you into a power-web surfer simply by thinking your queries.  But then, when you and your implant communicate with other equally-empowered individuals, you’re in a whole new world.  In just the way that the network of the Internet transformed the power of an individual computer, so neural-implant communication with others would transform the very definition of being a human.  As Naam puts it:

You routinely trade memories and experiences with other implanted humans.  You learn to view the world through other people’s eyes.  You let others see through yours… You can no longer imagine a disconnected life.

What I find most fascinating in this discussion is that it’s really the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) and its “conceptual consciousness” that’s being enhanced.  (You can see the pfc’s unique attributes summarized in another post.)  Ever since the rise of what neuroscientist Merlin Donald describes as “external symbolic storage”[1] – humanity’s entire collection of symbolic constructs ranging from cave art and necklaces to writing and computer code – each individual consciousness is structured from birth by what I can the “external pfc”.  In Naam’s future, this external pfc breaks down the barrier between external and internal and begins to morph into a gigantic superorganism.  Here’s how Naam describes it:

We individuals are, in a sense, like neurons in a global brain – a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and innovations.  The more power we gain to communicate with one another, the more integrated that aggregate brain becomes.  In the last few centuries, we’ve taken tremendous steps, from small isolated pockets of computation in individual tribes and civilizations to the World Wide Web… The next step is the integration of our biological brains: unlocking the inner ideas and experiences we have, and allowing us to share them with one another, to weave them together into thoughts in a world wide mind.

The pfc’s “tyranny” over our consciousness transforms, in this scenario, into utter domination.  “L’état, c’est moi,” in the immortal words of Sun King Louis XIV – “The state?  It is me.”

To me, what’s most interesting is to see how people like Naam eliminate the distinction between our humanity and the attributes of the pfc.  If you think of yourself as a pfc housed in a body, then of course you’ll be delighted to consider a future world where your pfc is enhanced.  To understand what I mean, consider this passage, where Naam quotes from bio-ethicist Leon Kass:

The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some conditions, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life.  Our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us.

Here, Kass is describing “our soul” purely in terms of pfc-mediated functions: forward planning, aspirations, abstractions.  This is to be expected, since our Western notion of “soul” is so closely interlinked with the Cartesian, dualistic notion of “mind” (as described in another post.)

But now let’s see where Naam takes this idea:

This hunger, this reach that exceeds our grasp, this aspiration to attain something ‘which cannot be attained in earthly life’ is the force that has built our world.  It has produced our art, our music, our philosophy.  It has built our deepest understanding of the mysteries of the universe.  Never to say enough, always to want more – that is what it means to be human. (My italics.)

Now, here’s where I profoundly disagree with Naam.  What he’s describing is not “our humanity”; it’s one of the consequences of the dominance of the pfc in our human consciousness.  As I’ve argued in another post, even this seemingly defining human characteristic, roughly comparable to what the Buddhist name dukkha, may have emerged in its current form only with the development of sedentism, agriculture, and the consequent rise of the notion of private property and hierarchy.

Have you ever experienced moments when everything seemed just right?  After making love, perhaps, or in the middle of playing sports, or hiking in the countryside?  Have you ever looked at a sunset and lost yourself in its beauty?  Did you stop being human during those moments?  Or did you, perhaps, experience the sensation of what life feels like when the never-ending grasp of our pfc quiets itself, and harmonizes with the rest of our consciousness?

I would argue that our humanity is, in fact, the result of the dynamic interaction between our animate and conceptual consciousness.  When we’re taking a piss or enjoying a meal, we’re still human.  These are just aspects of our humanity that our pfc-dominated culture tends to ignore, because they’re, well, like all the other animals.  What’s going on is that Naam – along with most people in Western culture – has conflated the features that make humans unique among animals with the definition of our humanity.  And those things that make humans unique are, by and large, incorporated in our conceptual consciousness, the attributes of the pfc.  The result of this conflation is that humanity becomes defined by the pfc.  And if we humans are our pfc, then what’s wrong with biological enhancement, neural implants, and the full-blast acceleration to cyber- immortality that (in another post) I’ve called “infinition”?

Naam chose an interesting title to his book: More Than Human.  If you think about it, it gives the game away.  Our humanity is implicitly defined as a collection of attributes that differentiate us from our animate consciousness: our rationality, our will-power, our intelligence.  Therefore, permitting technology to enhance those attributes makes us “more than human.”  But if, in fact, our humanity also incorporates our animate consciousness, then what do these enhancements make us?  Less than human?  Dehumanized? New form of human?  Human 2.0?  This, I think, it the crucial issue we need to delve into as we debate the implications of biological enhancement.  Are we as a species making ourselves extinct in paving the way for Ramez Naam’s future?  And if so, is that a good or a bad thing?


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

 

October 29, 2009

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , at 6:01 pm by Jeremy

Hornung - Conceptions of GodConceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

By Erik Hornung

New York: Cornell University Press

 

Erik Hornung is one of the great modern Egyptologists, and this book is probably his most important.  However, it’s a fairly dense read, and I would recommend Jan Assmann’s The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, (written around the same time in the early 1980’s), as a more accessible in-depth view into ancient Egyptian thought.

Still, Hornung is clearly expert in his knowledge and applies it with a subtle mind.  His primary purpose seems to be to argue against previous generations of Egyptologists who thought they saw a monotheistic cognitive framework in ancient Egyptian thought.  Hornung’s argument is that, in fact, Egyptian cosmological thinking was polytheistic in its very essence.  He believes that it’s easy to misinterpret many Egyptian invocations to gods that, in effect, flatter the god in question by asserting that he’s “the only one.”  It’s a little like someone saying to his/her lover “To me, you’re everything.”  That’s not a statement you’re meant to take literally, but it can still be true on a different level.

Hornung, however, goes well beyond that particular point.  He describes Egyptian thought as pre-logical, a mode of cognition where if something is a, that doesn’t mean that it’s not also b.  This, he argues, is a mode of thought that’s virtually unattainable for Western minds brought up on Aristotelian logic.  If we could get there, he claims,

we shall be able to comprehend the one and the many as complementary propositions, whose truth values within a many-valued logic are not mutually exclusive, but contribute together to the whole truth: god is a unity in worship and revelation, and multiple in nature and manifestation.

That is, a god can be the only one in the cosmos, and at the same time be one of many.  Consequently, Hornung sees monotheism, not as a stage along a continuum from polytheism, but as a “transformation”, accompanying the cognitive revolution to Aristotelian-style logic, a world of binary opposites, where the answer can be “yes” or “no” but not “yes and no.”

Although Assmann states that he disagrees with Hornung’s view of Egyptian polytheistic thought, I see their views as largely compatible.  They both discuss the Akhenaten revolution – the short-lived imposition of true monotheistic worship on Egypt – as a hiatus utterly incompatible with the Egyptian worldview.  But more than that, I think Hornung’s view of monotheism as a “conceptual transformation” fits in with Assmann’s view of the transition in Egypt’s history towards a kind of “cognitive dissonance”, with a “pantheistic theology of transcendence” which set the stage for later monotheistic thought.  Under Assmann’s model, we’re still looking at a complete transformation between polytheism and monotheism  – Assmann, in my view, goes further than Hornung by describing the transformative phase of post-Amarna Egyptian cosmology.

The most valuable take-away I get from Hornung is his emphasis on seeing the shift from polytheism to monotheism as a transformative stage in human consciousness.  As he says, “Both of these worlds are consistent within their own terms of reference, but neither transcends historical space or can claim absolute validity.”  I think this is an important frame of reference, which I elsewhere categorize by stages of the pfc’s advance in its power over human consciousness.  In my categorization, there’s another shift from monotheism to scientific method, which has taken place over the past few hundred years.  And most importantly, I think our world is ready for the next stage in the development of our global consciousness.  But, that’s all material for another post…

 

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