June 8, 2012

The hunter-gatherer view of the natural world

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:08 pm by Jeremy

In this section of my book, I explore some of the core hunter-gatherer perceptions of the natural world.  To the early hunter-gatherers, which is how our ancestors lived for 99% of our human history, the earth was a giving environment.  It was also in a state of continual transformation…

[Previous section: Everything is connected]

The giving earth

If everything is connected in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems to be the earth that forms the hub of this web of connectivity.  As the aboriginal man Hobbles Danaiyarri describes it, “Everything come up out of ground – language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.”[1]  In the aboriginal Dreamtime, certain places have a special connection to one or another manifestation of the creative ancestors.  “Our country,” explains Nganyintja Ilyatjari, “is full of sacred places. The kangaroo Dreaming has been there since the beginning, the wild fig Dreaming has been there since the beginning, many other women’s Dreamings are also there.”[2]  The earth is seen as not only where we come from, but also where we go back to when we die.  “Variously known as spirits, dead bodies, the old people, or the ancestors, the people who belonged to country in life continue to belong to it in death.”[3]

Aboriginals sing out loud to the country when they go into the bush

This idea has a far more tangible and immediate presence to it than the modern version of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  For example, many aboriginal groups in Australia speak directly to the “old people” when they go out into the bush.  They call or sing out loud to the country, the Dreamings, the other living beings and the ancestors, treating them as though they’re fully living members of an extended family.  Sometimes, they will use a visit to “country” (as they call their ancestral land) as an opportunity to introduce new arrivals such as youngsters or newly married spouses to the “old people”.[4]  This intimate connection of the earth to the ancestors also informs aboriginal land management practices.  The Yanyuwa, for example, see the burning of country as “an important way of demonstrating a continuity with the people who have died, their ancestors.”  Until quite recently, after burning a section of “country,” they would leave it for several days “so the spirits of the deceased could hunt first.”[5]

The close linkage of earth, spirits and family is shared by hunter-gatherer societies across the world.  In the forested Gir Valley in the Nilgiri region of South India, the Nayaka foragers “periodically invite local devaru [spirits] to visit them and share with them.”  The Nayaka “appreciate that they share the local environment with some of these beings” and view them as an integral part of the family.  In fact, they call them nama sonta, “our relatives,” and refer to specific devaru as “grandmother,” or “grandfather,” and even sometimes “big mother and father.”[6]  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Ojibwa Indians refer to the natural spirits as “our grandfathers.”[7]

The Nayaka look on nature as their mother-and-father

Nurit Bird-David, an anthropologist who has studied the Nayaka extensively, has proposed that this linkage of nature and family is a manifestation of what she calls a “root metaphor” of FOREST AS PARENT.   Referring to George Lakoff’s ground-breaking insights into our pervasive use of metaphor to build abstract meaning from the scaffolding of the tangible world,[8] she argues that such a root metaphor not only offers a “means of ‘seeing’ the world” but also governs “everyday functioning down to the most mundane details.”  She explains that the “Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father.  For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children.”  This root metaphor leads to a relationship of trust with the natural environment rather than one characterized primarily by anxiety or fear.  Bird-David explains that, just as a Nayaka parent may punish a misbehaving child with a spanking but would never dream of withholding food, so the spirits of the forest may inflict aches and pains on an errant Nayaka, but would still provide them with their means of nourishment.  Following on from this metaphor of FOREST AS PARENT, the Nayaka  refer to all social groupings outside of the immediate family unit as sonta, which means “something like an aggregate of relatives as close as siblings.”  It is on account of this root metaphor, Bird-David believes, that the Nayaka view their world as a “giving environment.”[9]  This would also account for the respectful but intimate way that hunter-gatherers tend to communicate with their spirits.  “Hunters don’t worship gods,” writes one observer, “they converse with local, earth- and sea-bound spirit persons without adoring them.”[10]*

Continual transformation

An important characteristic of a root metaphor, such as the one described by Bird-David, is that it can become so embedded in the collective consciousness of a culture that it’s not even viewed as a metaphor but as reality.  Generally, when we hear a metaphor, our capability for counterfactual thought reminds us that it’s not the real thing.  When we hear that “stocks are falling,” we don’t listen out for the sound of them hitting the floor.  But for most hunter-gatherer cultures, as anthropologist Graeme Barker points out, “non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.” As a result, “their environment is a treasure house of ‘personages’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant.  Thus the Jivaroan people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as ‘person’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry.”[11]

This view is understandable in light of the evolutionary development of mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter.  Recall the observation of Pascal Boyer that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind,” a phenomenon that derives from the central importance of theory of mind in the evolution of human consciousness.[12]  The attribution of mind to all other natural entities leads to a dynamic where an entity’s spirit or mind might remain stable but its outward bodily manifestations are capable of total transformation.  For example, as Barker explains, “as the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation.”  This is the reason why many hunter-gatherers have detailed sacred rituals around hunting animals, believing that although the flesh of the animal has been made available to them, the spirit of the animal remains sentient and needs to be treated with due respect and appreciation.[13]

The ability for sentience to shift from one form to another leads to a world without the sharp dividing lines between categories that we’re used to in our modern consciousness.  Rather, everything has the potential for transformation.  Hallowell, describing the Ojibwa worldview, notes that “the world of myth is not categorically distinct from the world as experienced by human beings in everyday life.  In the latter, as well as the former, no sharp lines can be drawn dividing living beings of the animate class because metamorphosis is possible.”[14]  Here’s how an Inuit woman living in the early 20th century, Nalungiaq, described her people’s beliefs in the original transformative capabilities of both humans and animals:

In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.[15]

The Inuit creation myth is remarkably similar to that of the Aboriginal dreamtime

Nalungiaq seems to be narrating some version of a creation myth, remarkably similar in essence to the Aboriginal Dreamtime.  But virtually every hunter-gatherer culture also sees such transformations as something happening, not just in the past, but within its own society.  Most people are not considered capable of managing this metamorphosis of themselves at will, but in each society, specific individuals are believed to have the power to journey to a world where direct communication with the spirits is possible.  These individuals are generally known as shamans and the set of beliefs and practices around their spirit journeys goes by the name of shamanism.

[Next post: The worldwide reach of shamanism]

[1] Rose (1996) op. cit., 9.

[2] Ibid., 27-8.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bradley, J. (1995) “Fire: emotion and politics; A Yanyuwa case study”, Country in Flames; Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia, D Rose (ed.), pp 25-31.  Cited by Rose (1996).

[6] Bird-David, N. (2002). “‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 72-105.

[7] Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum.

[8] See Chapter 3, page 41, “The metaphoric threshold.”

[9] Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.

[10] Calvin Luther Martin, quoted in Barker (2009) op. cit., 409.  See also Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 69, for a description of the African Ituri pygmies’ perception that the forest “looks after” them.

[11] Barker (2009) op. cit.

[12] See Chapter 4, “Religion as a spandrel”, page 51.

[13] Barker (2009), op. cit., 59.

[14] Hallowell (1960/2002) op. cit., 34.

[15] Reported by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, quoted by Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Random House, 87.

November 28, 2010

The patterning instinct

Posted in Hunter-gatherers, Language and Myth tagged , , , , at 12:11 am by Jeremy

The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) instills in us a patterning instinct that shapes patterns of meaning to make sense of our world.  This section from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness explains how this patterning instinct forms the essence of our mythic consciousness that is the source of religious thought.  It then begins to explore the question of how an infant’s pfc first begins to lock into the patterns of meaning of its specific culture.


The patterning instinct

The !Kung Bushmen possess one of the most ancient unbroken cultural traditions in the world.  As noted earlier, they belong genetically to one of the earliest lineages of the human race, dating back to before the takeover by the L3 lineage which now dominates the globe.  Their technology, “if uncovered by an archeologist and taken in isolation, would place them in the late Stone Age.”  Not surprisingly, anthropologists have been drawn to study them to gain insights into the earliest forms of human cognition.  Merlin Donald describes how “myth and religion permeate every activity” of their daily lives from the way they hunt wild animals to the celebration of a girl’s first menstruation.  The !Kung take their beliefs so seriously that they will rarely even discuss them; when they do, it’s only with hushed voices, and they’re afraid even to utter the names of their gods.  Donald summarizes their mythical thought  as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” He sees their sophisticated and complex ritual and myth as a paradigmatic example of how the human mind “has expanded its reach … to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”[1]

!Kung Bushmen: their mythic consciousness arises from the patterning instinct of the pfc

This is the essence of the mythic consciousness that arose with the Upper Paleolithic revolution, and it’s one that Donald relates closely to the development of fully modern language.  Modern language was first used, he proposes, “to construct conceptual models of the human universe.  Its function was evidently tied to the development of integrative thought – to the grand unifying synthesis of formerly disconnected, time-bound snippets of information.”  The pre-eminence of myth in early human society, Donald argues, is “testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought,” which involved the “first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe.”[2] This is why, as Boyer has put it, “religion as we know it probably appeared with the modern mind.”[3]

In the previous chapter, we discussed how the pfc’s patterning instinct works to mold the young infant’s brain by picking up patterns in the voices she hears around her until she locks into those sounds that match her particular language, ignoring those that don’t fit.[4] Similarly, we now see the pfc honing into patterns of meaning to make sense of the everyday world, to create Donald’s “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe.”  Crucially, the way the pfc applies meaning is to use the same symbolic behavior that it had developed for its social and linguistic capabilities.  As Deacon describes it, “the symbolic capacity seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what it models.”  Deacon compares the pfc’s symbolic predisposition to the relentlessly focused perceptions of an autistic savant.  The savant, he writes, “instead of seeing a field of wildflowers, sees 247 flowers.  Similarly, we don’t just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing organisms, and biological information processors churning out complex plans, desires, and needs.  Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator, and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of evil.”  This is the inevitable and all-embracing power of the mythic consciousness.  “Wherever we look, we expect to find purpose.  All things can be seen as signs and symbols of an all-knowing consciousness at work… We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.”[5]

It’s only in recent years that advances in cognitive neuroscience have enabled the linkage of our symbolic drive for meaning with the physiology of the pfc.  However, earlier observers have at times noticed the same unyielding drive for meaning in the human condition without the explicit attribution to the pfc.  The father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, saw this “craving to understand” as a natural consequence of human cognition, writing that “as soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”[6] The influential 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz saw something similar, describing a human as a “symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal,” whose “drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs.”  Geertz sees religion, art and ideology – the products of mythic consciousness – as “attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.”[7] More recently, other observers have arrived at similar conceptions to the pfc’s patterning instinct, one group describing a “cognitive imperative” for humans to “construct myths to explain their world,” and another researcher summarizing it as a “narrative drive” to “create meaning to our world.”[8]

Clifford Geertz: saw a human as a "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animal"

Powerful as this patterning instinct of the pfc appears to be, we would severely understate the overwhelming force of its influence in molding our human consciousness unless we look more closely at the process of how the molding and patterning takes place in an infant’s developing mind.  Just as language “warps the perception” of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, to the extent that a grown Japanese person can’t distinguish between the sounds /r/ and /l/, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child’s pfc constructs meaning in her world.  It’s as though there is an external pfc created by the cumulative symbolic constructions of generations of minds gone before, which has already assembled the comprehensive mythological structures of thought that will be inherited by the new generation.  How this “external pfc” molds each individual’s own pfc as they grow up in their culture is what we’ll now examine.

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 213-16, 267.  Donald cites an earlier study of the !Kung Bushmen in his evaluation of their cultural traditions: Lee, R.B. and De Vore, I. (1976).  Kalahari hunter-gatherers: Studies of the !Kung Sang and their neighbors. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Boyer (2001) op. cit., 323.

[4] Chapter 3, page 39.

[5] Deacon (1997) op. cit., 435.

[6] Cited from Darwin, C. (1871)The Descent of Man by Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

[7] Cited by Guthrie (1993) op. cit., 32.

[8] d’Aquili, E., and Newberg, A. B. (1999). The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 86; Sjöblom (2007) op. cit.

November 12, 2010

Religion as a spandrel

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , at 11:20 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness”, examines the emerging view held by cognitive anthropologists of religion as a “spandrel” or a superfluous by-product of the structure of the human mind.  While this view yields some compelling results, I suggest that in fact religion, as a product of mythic consciousness, is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the prefrontal cortex.  The chapter is taken from the book I’m writing entitled Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


Religion as a spandrel

Evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin once kicked off a deservedly famous paper by describing the great central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.  There are beautiful mosaics covering not just the central circles of the dome but also the arches holding it up, along with the triangular spaces formed where two arches meet each other at right angles.  These spaces are called spandrels, and Gould and Lewontin used them to illustrate a hugely influential evolutionary theory.  A spandrel doesn’t, by itself, serve any purpose.  It simply exists as an architectural by-product of the arches which of course serve a crucial purpose, holding up the dome.  But if someone looked at the beautifully decorated spandrels without knowing anything about architecture, they would see them as an integral part of the architectural design.  The living world, Gould and Lewontin argued, is full of evolutionary spandrels, features or functions that seem to have evolved for a specific purpose but which, on closer evaluation, turn out to have been a superfluous by-product of something else.[1]

A spandrel in St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice: is religion another spandrel?

For some cognitive anthropologists, religion is a spandrel.  To understand how religion evolved, they believe that you need to look, not just at religion itself, but at some of the key cognitive functions of the modern human mind, and what you find is that religion developed as a by-product or side-effect of those functions.  “Religion ensues,” writes Scott Atran, “from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love.”[2] It’s a “converging by-product of several cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved for mundane adaptive tasks.”[3]

These cognitive mechanisms are ones that we’re already familiar with from what we know about the workings of the pfc.  They include the all-important theory of mind,  along with our ability for thinking about people even though they’re distant from us in space and time, known as “displacement,” as well as our power to hold “counterfactuals” in our mind: things that we can consider even though we know them not to be true, such as “if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated…”[4] Without attempting a complete review of how these cognitive mechanisms engendered religion, we’ll examine some of the more important examples to get an idea for how the process is seen to work.

One of the most widespread aspects of religious thought worldwide and throughout history is the belief that a spirit exists separately from a body.  In order to see how this might relate to the pfc, consider the underlying process that leads to our capability for displacement.  As young infants, we quickly learn that people can apparently disappear and then reappear, sometimes minutes, hours or even days later.  A realization that consequently occurs to us is the continued existence of that person even while she has disappeared.  This continued existence of someone who’s left our immediate vicinity soon becomes an essential ingredient of our social intelligence, allowing us to think, for example, about what the other person would feel or think if they were there.  It is a relatively simple step for the same practice of displacement to apply to the thoughts and feelings of a dead person.  In one study showing our “natural disposition toward afterlife beliefs,” some kindergarten-age children were presented with a puppet show, where an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator.  When the children were asked about the biological aspects of the dead mouse, such as whether he still needed to eat or relieve himself, they were clear that this was no longer the case.  Yet when they were asked whether the dead mouse was still thinking or feeling, most children answered yes.  These beliefs could not be attributed to cultural indoctrination, because when older children were asked the same questions, they were less likely to attribute continued thoughts and feelings to the dead mouse.  These results led the researchers to suggest that the belief that a dead person still exists in some form may actually be our “default cognitive stance,” part of our “intuitive pattern of reasoning.”[5]

This makes even more sense when we remember, as noted in Chapter 2, that the same part of the pfc – the medial prefrontal cortex – is activated when we think about others and when we exercise self-awareness to think about ourselves.[6] As a result of our self-awareness, we tend to “feel our ‘self’ to be the owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies.”[7]*  It doesn’t take too much of a mental leap to view others in the same way, and therefore assume that when their bodies die, their “selves” continue to exist, especially since we can still think about them, talk about them, and imagine what they would be feeling about something.  As one researcher puts it, “social-intelligence systems do not ‘shut off’ with death; indeed most people still have thoughts and feelings about the recently dead.”[8] Given our social intelligence as the source of our unique cognition, it’s much easier for our minds to think of someone still existing but not being there in person, than it is to conceive of them ceasing to exist altogether.

Besides naturally believing in spirits, little children also intuitively believe that everything exists for a purpose, a viewpoint known as teleology, and one that is inextricably intertwined with religious thought.  Psychologist Deborah Kelemen has conducted a number of studies of children’s beliefs with some intriguing results.  When American 7- and 8-year olds were asked why prehistoric rocks were pointy, they rejected physical explanations like “bits of stuff piled up for a long period of time” for teleological explanations such as “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them” or “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy.”  Similarly, the children explained that “clouds are for raining” and rejected more physical reasons even when told that adults explained them this way.  Similar results were found in British children, who are raised in a culture markedly less religious-oriented than that of the United States.  Kelemen explains these findings as “side effects of a socially intelligent mind that is naturally inclined to privilege intentional explanation and is, therefore, oriented toward explanations characterizing nature as an intentionally designed artifact.”[9]*

Pointy rocks: 7-year-olds think they have a teleological explanation

As we get older, we may accept other reasons for pointy rocks, but we can never really overcome the powerful drive in our minds to assign agency to inanimate objects and actions.  If we’re home alone on a dark, stormy night and we hear a door creaking open in the other room, our first reaction is fear that it might be an intruder, not that it’s just the wind blowing the door open.  We have, as Atran puts it, “a naturally selected cognitive mechanism for detecting agents – such as predators, protectors, and prey,” and this mechanism is “trip-wired to attribute agency to virtually any action that mimics the stimulus conditions of natural agents: faces on clouds, voices in the wind, shadow figures, the intentions of cars or computers, and so on.”[10] It’s clear how these “agency detector” systems have served a powerful evolutionary purpose: if it was in fact just the wind blowing the door, there’s no harm in making a mistake other than a brief surge of adrenaline; if however, it really was an intruder in your house but you assumed it was just the wind, the mistake you made could possibly cost you your life.

More generally, the heightened risk of not identifying when another person is the cause of something has led to our universal tendency towards rampant anthropomorphism.  Stewart Guthrie, author of a book aptly named Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, argues that “anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see: what may affect us for better or worse.”  Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, “we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.”[11]

When our anthropomorphic tendency is applied to religious thought, what’s notable is that it’s the human mind, rather than any other aspect of humans, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods.  Anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”[12] This, of course, makes sense in light of the evolutionary development of theory of mind as a core underpinning of our social intelligence.[13] This is the first time that we see a dynamic (which we will see again later in this book) of the human mind imputing its own pfc-mediated capabilities into external constructs of its own creation.  In this case, it is the power of symbolic thought that is assigned to the gods, as Guthrie describes:

How religion differs from other anthropomorphism is that it attributes the most distinctive feature of humans, a capacity for language and related symbolism, to the world.  Gods are persons in large part because they have this capacity.  Gods may have other important features, such as emotions, forethought, or a moral sense, but these are made possible, and made known to humans, by symbolic action.[14]

The approach to understanding religion as a spandrel clearly yields some compelling results, and casts a spotlight on how the pfc’s evolved capabilities can lead to consequences far removed from the original evolutionary causes of its powers.   There are, it should be noted, other theories of the rise of religion which, while not contradictory to the spandrel approach, emphasize very different factors, such as the role of religion in maintaining social and moral cohesion in increasingly large and complex societies.  However, the spandrel explanation, attractive as it is, tends to lead to a conclusion that religious thought of some kind is a likely, but not an essential part of human cognition.  In Boyer’s words, it suggests “a picture of religion as a probable, although by no means inevitable by-product of the normal operation of human cognition.” [15]

In contrast to this view, I would propose that underlying the cognitive structure of religious thought is a mythic consciousness that is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the pfc.  We saw in the previous chapter that what has been conventionally termed a “language instinct” is really a more fundamental “patterning instinct” of the pfc.[16] Similarly here, as we look for the underlying driver of religious thought, we will see that the pfc’s “patterning instinct” leads as inevitably to a mythic consciousness as it does to language itself.


[1] Gould, S. J., and Lewontin, R. C. (1979). “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biological Sciences. City, pp. 581-598.

[2] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[3] Atran, S., and Norenzayan, A. (2004). “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(6), 713-730.

[4] See Chapter 3, page 32 for a discussion of these abilities with respect to language.

[5] Bering, J. M. (2006). “The folk psychology of souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(5), 453-498.

[6] Chapter 2, page 20.

[7] Pyysiäinen, I., and Hauser, M. (2010). “The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 104-109, citing Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human, Basic Books.  This sense of a “self” distinct from the body  is discussed in more detail in Part II of this book.

[8] Boyer, P. (2003). “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3: March 2003), 119-124.

[9] Kelemen, D. (2004). “Are Children “Intuitive Theists”?: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301; Kelemen, D., and Rosset, E. (2009). “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition, 111, 138-143.  Her view is supported by Michael Tomasello who believes that “human causal understanding… evolved first in the social domain to comprehend others as intentional agents,” thus allowing our hominid ancestors to predict and explain the behavior of others in their social group.”  See Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 23-5.

[10] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[11] Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 82-3, 187.  Italics in original.

[12] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 144-5.  Italics in original.

[13] See Chapter 2, page 19.

[14] Guthrie, op. cit., 198.

[15] Boyer (2003) op. cit.

[16] Chapter 3, “The ‘language instinct'”, pages 38-40.

November 6, 2010

The tragedy of cognition

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 11:04 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, looks at the theory that fear of death was responsible for the original rise of religion.


The tragedy of cognition

We’ve already had plenty of reasons to be impressed by the power of the pfc’s capabilities, even by this early stage in human history.  The unique connectivity of the pfc was responsible for our developing theory of mind, thus seeing others as independent agents; for creating hierarchies of thoughts, leading to complex tools and the recursion of language; and for crossing the metaphoric threshold that permitted us to think and communicate abstract thoughts, possibly leading to us becoming the only hominid species still around today.  But all these powers came at a terrible cost, something that one researcher has aptly described as the “tragedy of cognition.”[1]

Once you understand that those around you are thinking and feeling people just like you, a disturbing crescendo of connections will happen in your mind when one of those people dies.  It’s very clear to you that the mind and life force that previously animated that dead person have vanished.  And if that’s what happens to those around you, then by applying your pfc-mediated power to project future scenarios, you soon realize that this will eventually be your own fate.  Coursing along the pfc’s connections to the emotional centers of our brain, this realization quickly merges with the powerful evolutionary drive to live and becomes a terrible, profound dread at the inevitable future reality of our own death.  Terrence Deacon expresses well the inextricable linkage between our symbolic powers and the dread of death:

Knowledge of death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is a datum that only symbolic representation can impart.  Other species may experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual (at least for the moment) relationship, there can be no emotional connection to one’s own future death.[2]

Early human burial remains: humans began burying their dead well before the Upper Paleolithic revolution

It seems reasonable to assume that there’s some connection between the emergence of that dread of death and the earliest signs of our ancestors burying their dead.  The first deliberate burials yet discovered date back to about ninety-five thousand years ago, before even the cross-hatched ochre from Blombos Cave, and there’s clear evidence that the Neanderthals also buried their dead.  So this tragedy of cognition seems to date back to a relatively early phase in the rise of our symbolic powers which has been searingly described by one archaeologist as “the birth of metaphysical anguish.”[3]

Not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition implicating this fear of death in the emergence of religious thought.  For example, the famed 20th century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, theorized that “strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man’s calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief.”  For Malinowski, religion is the “affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal, [and] arises out of a deep need to deny personal destruction.”  Following his theme, a school of thought has since arisen called “terror management theory,” which posits that “spiritual beliefs serve the function of helping humans deny the finality of death.”  In this theory, just as an infant gains comfort and security from the authority of her parents, so as she grows up and becomes aware of death, she is comforted by the notion of deities who are frequently seen as patriarchal or matriarchal figures.

This all makes sense, as far as it goes.  However, it seems noteworthy that the fear of death extended all the way back to Neanderthals and other pre-humans, so it doesn’t seem like quite enough to account for all the complexity of religious thought.  Was there perhaps something in the cognitive breakthrough that caused the Upper Paleolithic revolution that was also responsible for the emergence of religious thought as we now know it?  Several cognitive anthropologists have recently proposed that this is, indeed, the case.


[1] Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust, New York: Oxford University Press, 66-67.

[2] Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 436-7.

[3] Culotta, E. (2009). “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, 326(6 November 2009), 784-787, quoting Henry de Lumley; Sjöblom, T. (2007). “Spandrels, Gazelles and Flying Buttresses: Religion as Adaptation or as a By-Product.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7(3-4), 293-312.

October 25, 2010

The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , at 11:14 pm by Jeremy

This chapter from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, investigates the rise of the mythic and religious form of consciousness in human evolution, beginning with the first symbolic expressions around 70,000-40,000 years ago.  It examines recent anthropological interpretations of the cognitive drivers of religion, and proposes a way to understand these drivers within the context of the “patterning instinct” of the prefrontal cortex (pfc).  The chapter goes to explain the rise of the “external pfc,” the powerful set of symbolic structures created by cultural traditions, expressed in tangible symbolic forms that Merlin Donald has called “external symbolic storage.”  The overwhelming power of the external pfc is contrasted with our individual minds, showing how we are all “ensnared in an inescapable web” of other people’s symbols, in the memorable words of Terrence Deacon.


Chapter 4: The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

The Great Leap Forward

In  September 1940, in Lascaux, France, four boys entered a cave their dog had discovered some days earlier, and stumbled upon what turned out to be the most dramatic spectacle of Paleolithic cave art in the world.  The cave, along with several hundred others scattered around Europe, contains over six hundred magnificent paintings of aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), horses and deer, some as big as fifteen feet long.  More astonishing than the size and number of paintings, though, is their breathtaking sophistication and beauty.  This is no mere “primitive” or “prototype” art, but an expression of the power and mystery of the natural world that awes us today as much as the greatest art of more recent times.[1]

Aurochs from Lascaux cave" a powerful expression of the mystery of the natural world

In this chapter, we’ll see how these early flowerings of the new mythic consciousness relate to the rise of homo sapiens, and examine the implications for how our early human ancestors began to seek meaning in their world.  We’ll place these developments in their historical context as one of the most important stages in all of human history, and investigate how it both originated from the pfc’s evolved functions and fuelled the rise of the pfc’s power within human consciousness ever since.

Female figurine from Hohle Fels Cave

The cave paintings of Lascaux have been dated to approximately seventeen thousand years ago which means that, ancient as they are, they’re actually part of a tradition that had already been flourishing in Europe for over fifteen thousand years.  In recent times, a cave site named Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany has been yielding a slew of magnificent carved ivory specimens, dating as far back as thirty-five thousand years ago, including a figurine of a bird, a “Venus” figure with huge breasts and carefully carved genitalia, three “lion-men” with human bodies and lion heads, and the world’s earliest known musical instrument: a bone flute complete with well-spaced holes.[2] These beautiful objects are constructed with just as much aesthetic sophistication as the Lascaux paintings, powerfully demonstrating, in the words of one archaeologist, that “instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists.”[3]

Lion man from Hohle Fehls Cave

When you look at these intense expressions of artistic vision, it’s easy to understand what archaeologists mean when they say this was the time that humans achieved “cultural modernity.”[4] We may not understand what the precise symbolic significance was of the Venus or the Lion-man, but there’s no doubt that they held symbolic meaning to their makers.  This revolution in symbolic thought didn’t just occur in these carvings, but in virtually every aspect of “the entire amazing behavioral panoply that characterizes symbolic Homo sapiens worldwide today.”[5] For the first time, humans were “finely sewing garments using tiny eyed bone needles;” they were “baking ceramic figures in simple but remarkably effective kilns,” using complex tools with multiple components and devising “elaborate notation systems.” They were engaging in long-distance trade, utilizing storage facilities, and organizing their homes just like we do today, with different spaces for kitchens, sleeping areas, and eating.[6] This is why, in the view of archaeologist Paul Mellars, “to describe the Upper Paleolithic revolution in Europe as … an explosion in explicitly symbolic behavior and expression is in no sense an exaggeration.”[7] Or in the words of Peter Conard, the archaeologist responsible for many of the stunning findings at Hohle Fels, this is the “point in human evolution when people became like us.”[8]

It’s an impressive moment in human history.  However, some archaeologists have recently had the temerity to look past the great accomplishments achieved in that period and ask “why didn’t it happen sooner?”  Why did it take so long for symbolic thinking to really get going?  It’s generally agreed that humans were anatomically modern by about 150,000 years ago or earlier.  And as you’ll recall from the previous chapter, even the proponents of the “late and sudden” emergence of language, Noble and Davidson, argue that it emerged sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.[9] So what were our ancestors doing for fifty thousand or so years before they finally began acting in ways that we can call culturally modern?  “Why the long delay,” asks Merlin Donald, “before this cultural potential was realized?”[10] This rather awkward question was first framed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew who referred to it as the “sapient paradox.”[11]*


[1] Bahn, P. (2007).  Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.  See also Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 55.

[2] Sinclair, A. (2003). “Art of the ancients.” Nature, 426(18/25 December 2003), 774-5; Mellars, P. (2009). “Origins of the female image.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 176-177; Conard, N. J. (2009). “A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 248-252; Adler, D. S. (2009). “The earliest musical tradition.” Nature, 460(6 August 2009), 695-696.

[3] Sinclair, A., op. cit.

[4] Conard, N. J. (2010). “Cultural modernity: Consensus or conundrum?” PNAS, 107(17), 7621-7622.

[5] Tattersall, I. (2008). “An Evolutionary Framework for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens.” Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 99-114.

[6] Tattersall, op. cit.; Mellars, P. (2005). “The Impossible Coincidence. A Single-Species Model for the Origins of Modern Human Behavior in Europe.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 14(1), 12-27; Bar-Yosef, O. (2002). “The Upper Paleolithic Revolution.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002(31), 363-93.

[7] Mellars (2005), op. cit.

[8] Conard, op. cit.

[9] See Chapter 3, page 37.

[10] Donald, M. (2008). “The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?” Brain(December 2, 2008).

[11] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House.  Renfrew’s original framing of the question dealt not just with the time-lag between anatomical modernity and the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but also the ensuing time-lag until the rise of agriculture, some thirty thousand years later.

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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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.)

October 17, 2009

The Stirrings of Power: Language and Myth

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , at 12:39 am by Jeremy

In my last blog post, I introduced the idea that our modern human consciousness is under the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”).  In this post, I’m going to discuss the first stirrings of the pfc’s power, in the form of language and myth.

The experts disagree widely as to when language first developed, ranging from fifty thousand to a million years ago.  They disagree whether it’s a human instinct or a learned capability.  But no-one questions that it’s a hallmark of human beings.  Chimpanzees and bonobos can string a few words together, but not even their greatest supporters would argue that they speak like humans.  In the words of noted anthropologists Noble & Davidson, “language… underpins all modern human behavior.” [1]

But it’s not language itself that characterizes us.  It’s the capability underlying language: the ability to see things in terms of symbols and – most importantly – to string those different symbols together to create meaning.  Although language processing is centered in two areas in the brain’s left hemisphere[2], the ability to comprehend individual words as symbols and link these together so that each symbol has meaning within a complex web of other symbols – that’s the pfc’s first major step in establishing control, both in a two-year old infant and in the infancy of our human race.

However, this gift of meaning wasn’t free.  It came at a terrible cost.   The pfc’s ability to see ourselves as separate beings and to project out into the future caused perhaps the greatest ever trauma to our human consciousness: the knowledge and fear of death.  All animals instinctively fear harm.  But as far as we know, only humans can use the pfc’s powers of self-awareness and future scenarios to see a dead body and realize that they themselves will one day turn into a lifeless corpse.[3] “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me” said scientist/theologian Blaise Pascal,[4] giving voice to the fear that all of us have felt since the pfc first evolved in our early ancestors.

Female figurine - Conard, Hohle Fells Cave

Female figurine dated 30-40,000 years ago, from Hohle Fell Cave, Germany

To alleviate the pain arising from this metaphysical terror, the pfc came up with one of its most important instruments: mythology.  The pfc had already mastered the function of assigning meaning to symbols: an animal footprint in the earth meant dinner was close by; a sound from a fellow tribesman meant “go hunting”.  Now it began to link all the different aspects of existence – birth and death; animals and weather; food and shelter – and structure a pattern of myth around them to make meaning of the whole thing; what psychologist Merlin Donald calls a “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe”[5].  As biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon puts it: “We are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events; all the universe has become a symbol.” [6]

35,000 year old flute, Hohle Fels Cave - Conard

35,000 year old flute from Hohle Fels Cave, Germany

Although the rise of myth probably happened earlier, we see its first expressions most clearly in the archaeological record in the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian culture.  Two recent dramatic findings of a female figurine and a flute date from at least 35,000 years ago, and offer evidence that by this time our ancestors were fully embedded in mythological and symbolic thinking.

Check out my next post, where I’ll be talking about the pfc’s ascendancy to power… along with agriculture.

[1] Noble, W. and Davidson, I., (1991). ‘The Evolutionary Emergence of Modern Human Behaviour: Language and its Archaeology’. Man, 26 (2):223-253.


[2] Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

[3] Elephants are the only other mammals known to be apparently aware of the dead bones of their herd and to spend hours passing these bones to each other in what we humans would think of as a respectful ritual.

[4] Pascal, B.  Pensées, 1670

[5] Donald, M., (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: Norton.

[6] Deacon, T.W., (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton.