My last regular entry was something of a proof of concept — an attempt to see if I could deconstruct the cycle of visions as it exists today and retell the story in terms of only the youngest and most transcendent visions.

I wanted to test an idea that’s been growing on me lately — that the youngest visions are what really drive the cycle, while the mature visions play only a secondary role. I also expected to get hints as to what the cycle might have looked like at the outset, when there were no mature visions, and how it might have evolved from there to the complexity we see today.

The experiment was successful enough that I’ve spent the last several weeks pushing my focus further back in time. I’ve been trying to work out what kind of instinctual and emotional apparatus must have been in place even before the cycle of visions began in order to make the cycle possible.

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I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been trying to pull together all my recent thoughts on the origin of the cycle of visions in a way that holds together and makes sense. But meanwhile, here’s something of interest that Alexei brought to my attention yesterday.

The blogger, Phil Paine, begins by considering the fact that the earliest hominins appear to have lived along riverbanks and lakesides. He notes that these are extremely dangerous environments because they’re where predators come to attack game animals — but also that this offers unique advantages for a clever opportunist.

The oppor­tu­nity I had in mind was theft. What if you could take advan­tage of the fact that game ani­mals will come to the river­side or lake­side, and that preda­tors would follow them and kill them? What would be needed would be some way of dri­ving the preda­tors away after they made their kills, then steal­ing the fresh kills. There had been, even back then, some spec­u­la­tion about early hominins being scav­engers rather than hunters, but I think those who were advanc­ing this idea were think­ing more of the kind of scav­eng­ing that is done by minor car­ni­vores that “clean up” the kills of major preda­tors, who usu­ally leave sig­nif­i­cant amounts of left­overs after they have gorged them­selves on the best bits. This is not what I had in mind. I was think­ing, rather, of hominins divid­ing their atten­tion between gath­er­ing the numerous tid­bits that can be found on river­banks — birds’ eggs, cray­fish, nuts, tubers, small bur­row­ing ani­mals, fruit, berries, frogs, fish — and the theft of fresh kills from preda­tors. How do you steal from a big cat? You let it make its kill, then you drive it away. But, how do you drive it away?

You throw rocks.

The more I looked at the phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes that dis­tin­guished early hominins from their simian rel­a­tives, the more they seemed to me to line up with throw­ing rocks. Chim­panzees reg­u­larly throw things (usu­ally excre­ment, which they fling as a sign of hos­til­ity), but they are not very good at it. Their wrists are not well-shaped for it, their fin­gers are too long, and their arms and shoul­ders don’t have the right con­fig­u­ra­tion for pitch­ing things accu­rately. But it is pre­cisely these fea­tures that are dra­mat­i­cally mod­i­fied in early hominins, and the changes are as dra­matic as those in the lower body and spine that favour bipedal­ism. Human beings, the inher­i­tors of these changes, may not be able to run like a chee­tah, or out­per­form other ani­mals in many tasks, but they are spec­tac­u­larly good at throw­ing things. One has only to look at children play­ing base­ball or cricket to see that humans have evolved phenomenal throwing skills. Early hominins had all these fea­tures — they have remained remarkably sta­ble ever since. They prob­a­bly were as good at throw­ing rocks and hitting the mark as we are.

That was intriguing, but it seemed to refer to a much earlier stage of human evolution than the one I’ve been examining, so I simply filed it away. But just now I was sorting through some old notes and came on a few points I’d jotted down from a book by William H. Calvin titled The Ascent of Mind that was published in 1990.

According to my notes, Calvin hypothesized that throwing things was central to human evolution because it led to the development of sequential skills that required the harmonization of masses of neurons. He further suggested that this was the basis of narrative awareness.

In other words, language, story, and the visions themselves may all have grown out of the throwing ability that we developed long before we started making tools. Now, that’s fascinating — and completely relevant to the scenario I’ve been trying to develop.

Calvin’s book is available online at the above link. The main link for his website is http://williamcalvin.com, and I plan to explore it for clues. He looks like a pretty cool dude.

 

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over what seemed to be two separate questions, one having to do with current events and the other with the framework of the cycle of visions. But now I’m starting to realize they’re aspects of the same thing.

The present-day question is this: I can understand why conservative politicians have gotten so crazy. They’re chasing after the support of libertarians, the religious right, and their billionaire backers, all of whom see government as the enemy and want to elect people who will pledge to tear it down.

But what I can’t understand is the liberals. Why would a supposedly liberal mayor of New York like Bill DeBlasio order the cops to treat protesters as brutally as they ever did under Mayor Bloomberg? Why would President Obama be saying so many of the right things while also pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the face of all evidence that it would harm both workers and consumers?

In the previous entry, I suggested that this behavior by liberal politicians grows out of a desire to prop up the crumbling democracy-and-chaos partnership. But now I’m thinking it’s something simpler and more visceral — a need to maintain social stability at all costs. That’s why leftwing calls for systemic reform are treated as a greater threat than the scattershot violence of gun nuts, sovereign citizens, and other rightwing extremists.

And if we grant that present-day authority figures are ruled by an overriding impulse to preserve stability, the same was almost certainly true in the remote past.

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This seems like an appropriate moment for an entry concerning where things stand right now in terms of the cycle of visions and where they might be headed over the next couple of years.

We’re presently about halfway through a period of accelerated change. Beliefs and attitudes are evolving rapidly and so are the ways people present themselves and interact with the world. But at the same time, not much is actually happening. Battle lines are being drawn, the tension is being ratcheted up, but the last three years have represented something of a pause in the action.

In contrast, 2010 and 2011 were years of major social upheaval, when it seemed as though the sky was about to crack open and allow a new world to emerge. But in the first half of 2012, the lid was clamped back down. The Occupy movement was crushed, Jeremy Hammond was arrested in the Anonymous hack of Stratfor emails, and Julian Assange was forced to hole up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Ever since then, we’ve been in a period of stasis — but two recent developments suggest this may be about to come to an end. One is that public acceptance of the environmental values closely associated with the holism vision has suddenly reached a tipping point. In March, the Bad Astronomy blog at Slate had an entry titled “Unlike Temperatures, Climate Change Deniers Are Falling Fast.” And just a few days ago, Bloomberg News ran an article headlined “Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables.”

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Here’s another current article on the relationship between tool-making and language. Archaeology students were taught how to make hand axes and then presented with questions involving tool-making strategies while brain scans recorded what areas of their brains were activated.

“Greater skill at making tools correlated with greater accuracy on the video quiz for predicting the correct strategy for making a hand axe, which was itself correlated with greater activity in the prefrontal cortex. ‘These data suggest that making an Acheulean hand axe is not simply a rote, auto pilot activity of the brain,’ Stout says. ‘It requires you to engage in some complicated thinking.’

“Most of the hand axes produced by the modern hands and minds of the study subjects would not have cut it in the Stone Age. ‘They weren’t up to the high standards of 500,000 years ago,’ Stout says.

“A previous study by the researchers showed that learning to make stone tools creates structural changes in fiber tracts of the brain connecting the parietal and frontal lobes, and that these brain changes correlated with increases in performance. ‘Something is happening to strengthen this connection,’ Stout says. ‘This adds to evidence of the importance of these brain systems for stone tool making, and also shows how tool making may have shaped the brain evolutionarily.’

“Stout recently launched a major, three-year archeology experiment that will build on these studies and others. Known as the Language of Technology project, the experiment involves 20 subjects who will each devote 100 hours to learning the art of making a Stone Age hand axe, and also undergo a series of MRI scans. The project aims to hone in whether the brain systems involved in putting together a sequence of words to make a meaningful sentence in spoken language overlap with systems involved in putting together a series of physical actions to reach a meaningful goal.”

 

Since last summer, and particularly over the past two months, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the story I’ve been telling about how the cycle of visions might have gotten started has been essentially back-to-front

I’ve assumed there was a crucial turning point some 200,000 years ago, when the first true humans underwent a shift in brain organization that enabled them to see the world in terms of structured relationships. That ability was then applied to various areas of experience, producing the initial set of visions.

However, this scenario never struck me as dynamic enough. It implied that the intellectual aspect of the visions came first and that the deep emotional currents which even now drive the periodic rise and fall of successive visions were tacked on later. But that makes no sense in evolutionary terms.

So I’ve turned things around and begun to envision an extended phase of proto-development during which our ancestors related to the world emotionally rather than intellectually.

My thought now is that the real starting point was what I’ve taken to calling the Vision of Everything, which was not rational and analytical in nature but magical and occult. That primordial vision might go back over a million years, to the common ancestor of ourselves and the Neanderthals — or at the very least 700,000, to the time when the first truly elegant handaxes appeared.

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Juggling Act

on March 4, 2015

Almost two months have gone by since my last entry, but that’s because I’ve been thinking things over and trying to get a sense of the larger picture.

When I stumbled on the cycle of visions back in the 1970s, my first question was whether it really existed or if I was imposing a pattern on events where none existed. I finally concluded that the cycle is real — but I’m still wrestling with the problem of how a recurring sequence of cultural changes can repeat over and over with such precision for tens of thousands of years.

Since starting this blog, I’ve come up with a number of plausible hypotheses, several of them based on the latest archaeology and brain research, but no one of them in isolation is sufficient to explain everything. It seems as though the cycle of visions must exist at the confluence of several different aspects of human nature and represent our best attempt to make them all come out even.

Hypothesis #1: Rules-Based Systems

There is a DNA-like duality to the visions. They offer us instruction in how to live our lives and construct our societies, but they also contain within themselves the necessary information to be self-repairing and self-replicating. Every vision strives to maintain its own identity while simultaneously adapting to neighboring visions within its local ecosystem. This creates a kind of cognitive friction that eventually erodes the vision’s integrity and makes it simplest to just junk it and start over with a fresh replacement.

However, that raises a second point, which is that even though the visions may appear at times as an external force that determines our thoughts and actions, they are ultimately something we create ourselves. Every detail represents a hard-won solution to a specific problem that proved effective enough to be incorporated into either one particular vision or the overall structure of the cycle.

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This article showed up today, nicely confirming one of the suggestions I made in my post two days ago.

“Scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution. . . .

“In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication – versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures – yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste. . . .

“‘If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you,” Morgan said. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do.’ . . .

“‘At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language,’ Morgan said.”

 

Not In the Rules

on January 11, 2015

I’ve had a number of follow-up thoughts since doing the previous entry. One is that the visions must go back much further than I’ve previously dared to imagine.

Based on various lines of evidence, I’ve dated the birth of the spirit vision to around 280,000 years ago, followed by the cosmic order vision and then the aristocracy vision at roughly 100,000 year intervals. This suggests that the kinship vision must predate spirit by at least as much — which would take it back to some 400,000 years ago, when our likely ancestors in the Middle East began showing signs of an enhanced mastery of space and time.

That in turn means the initial Vision of Everything muse be older yet. And because of the air of immemorial antiquity that hangs over it, I would wager it ruled our lives for much longer than a mere hundred thousand years. It could easily date back another 500,000 years or even a million.

HandaxeThis isn’t as weird as it might seem on first glance. As I’ve discussed in the past, even the very earliest handaxes must have been the product of a well-defined algorithm that specified what actions to perform in what order. And the more elegant and symmetrical axes of 700,000 years ago imply a further advance in our ability to define and carry out rules-based processes.

The mental capacity required for tool-making may have prepared our minds for the more elaborate rule-based systems of language. And language in turn would have made more complex tool-making possible, creating a positive feedback loop between the work of our hands and the work of our tongue.

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The Rules of the Game

on December 27, 2014

As I’ve worked with the cycle of visions, I’ve always found the rise and fall of successive visions and the interactions among them fairly easy to identify . The hard part is figuring out the source of this recurring pattern and the mechanisms that keep it going over vast stretches of time and space with an amazing degree of regularity.

I’ve used a variety of analogies to attack this question, but the one that appears most relevant is language.

The central feature of language is that it is rules-based. Toddlers who are just learning to talk string words together loosely, but they don’t produce fully-formed sentences. The complete range of human speech becomes available to them only once they master the detailed grammatical rules that indicate how the elements of a sentence fit together.

Different languages employ different rules but the capacity for creating and learning rules-based systems appears to be innate — and it is not confined to language. It also underlies our love of games. It is the basis of law and government. It plays a role in both art and science.

Rules-based system are naturally coherent because the same rules always apply under similar circumstances. This is why speakers can utter novel sentences and still be understood. It is why judges or gamemasters can hand down decisions and feel confident they will be accepted.

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