Archive for November, 2010

Ever since I started working with the visions, I’ve been wondering how such an elaborate, recurring cycle could have gotten started.

A year ago, I compared the dance of the visions to a Rube Goldberg machine, because it has something of that quality of disparate elements zooming around and banging into one another in ways that trigger new flurries of activity. But unlike Rube Goldberg’s ingenious devices, the cycle of visions is circular and self-sustaining. New visions emerge to take on the roles formerly held by older ones, and the same sequence of events keeps repeating over and over.

In recent entries, I’ve suggested that the three original visions — the transformative, kinship, and spirit visions — might have arisen out of attempts by the first modern humans to reflect upon and systematize their own scientific, social, and inner experiences.

And I’ve speculated that after perhaps a hundred thousand years of gradual development, a desire for even greater systematization might have brought the transformative and kinship visions into a secure intellectual partnership, which was also able to encompass at least part of the spirit vision.

That urge towards systematization may be key. If we assume that the evolutionary leap which produced us modern humans resulted in a raging desire to make sense of the world, it would go a long way towards explaining the creation of the first three visions and the first dominant partnership. It would also indicate why new visions should have continued to appear as new information and new experiences rendered the old ones inadequate.

If that was all there was to it, though, the new visions ought to click into place as smoothly as software upgrades — slide the old one out, slide the new one in, no fuss, no bother. But that isn’t what happens at all.

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Tens of thousands of years have passed since the first cultural visions were deployed, and most components of those early visions have long since been superseded, discarded, and all but forgotten. If it were not for the few archaic peoples who still maintain their ancient kinship systems, for example, we would have no notion of the elaborate social constructs which once governed every detail of our ancestors’ lives.

But certain aspects of those visions have proved far more durable. The practical knowledge of how to chip a stone axe or seek the approval of a potential mother-in-law may have faded, but the philosophical structures established in those long-ago times are still with us.

I suggested some while back that every partnership between two dominant visions gives rise to a philosophical system that integrates elements of both in an intellectually compelling synthesis. This kind of tight integration is particularly apparent in partnerships between a scientific and a social vision, which draw upon the ordered structures that humans build into their societies as a model to explain the natural world.

In the mid-20th century, for example, the emphasis that had always been placed by the democracy vision on “government of laws and not of men” was projected outward onto the cosmos, and the universe came to be seen as ruled by simple scientific laws that were even-handed and allowed of no exceptions.

The equivalent philosophical synthesis of 80,000 years ago appears to have been based on interpreting the natural word as the manifestation of a system of simple dualities, all ultimately arising out of the dichotomy between male and female: hot-cold, dry-wet, day-night, sun-moon, fire-water, and so forth.

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The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has been a beacon of sanity for many of us over the last decade, but since his official Rally to Restore Sanity two weeks ago, some of the luster seems to have worn off.

Last Thursday, Stewart appeared with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to explain why he had concluded the rally by characterizing MSNBC as the liberal equivalent of the far-right wingnuts at Fox News. I didn’t watch the interview, however.

I had been more than a bit disheartened that instead of the rally achieving mythic reconciliation with Stephen Colbert’s simultaneous March to Keep Fear Alive, as I had hoped, it had simply turned Colbert into a cardboard villain and melted him. That unconvincing triumph over the shadow self was what led up to Stewart delivering the plea for civility and moderation that included a false equivalence between MSNBC and Fox.

In the aftermath, I agreed with those who described the rally as no more than an extended episode of The Daily Show — the comedic equivalent of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Or perhaps not even that good, because it seemed as though Stewart had missed a crucial opportunity to take on a larger cultural role and there would be no second chance to get it right with his own Wrath of Khan.

I would discover, however, that Stewart had not merely missed the chance but had actively avoided it.

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As anybody who’s been following this blog will be aware, I’ve been gradually laying out a theory of human history as driven by a succession of differing visions of the nature and meaning of existence.

Each of these visions appears to arise out of a fusion of practical knowledge derived from one area of human experience with intimations of higher oneness underlying the flux and seeming randomness of everyday life. And every vision has its time of burgeoning, then enjoys a period of cultural dominance, and eventually becomes unable to respond to changing circumstances and is discarded.

The three most ancient visions that emerged before modern humans left Africa all drew upon millions of years of practical experience — enhanced by a new capacity for keeping track of fine details — but they were also inspired by a determination to penetrate the underlying structure and meaning of that experience.

In the scientifically-based transformative vision, a growing expertise in modifying stone and plant materials through the alchemical use of fire and water became the basis of a general theory of existence as an unending series of transformations. This philosophical understanding was then extended to encompass the great mysteries of birth and death, growth and decay.

In the socially-based kinship vision, the ability to keep track of not only immediate family members but also more distant cousins was elaborated into a complex set of social rules and relationships that eventually came to govern every aspect of life.

And in the inner experience-based spirit vision, the shamanistic use of trance and dream as a source of knowledge and healing was interpreted as reflecting a spiritual power that pervades all of existence.

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The expansion of modern humans into Europe and central Asia began only about 50,000 years ago, when the last ice age hit a warm patch and people from the Middle East started spreading out in all directions. That makes it relatively simple to reconstruct. But the arrival of modern humans in East Asia goes back considerably further and is a lot harder to figure out.

Some aspects of that story are reasonably clear. It seems well-established, for example, that by 80,000 years ago there were people living in India who were making tools similar to those made by early modern humans in Africa, and both genetics and linguistics suggest that around 70,000 years ago they began moving further east.

The most recent ice age was under way by then, and sea levels had dropped far enough that southeast Asia and the islands of Indonesia were united in a single land mass known to archaeologists as Sunda. Australia and New Guinea were also connected, and it is believed that the present-day Aborigines and Papuans arrived in their present locations, perhaps 60,000 years ago, by traveling down the west coast of Sunda and then doing some fairly modest island-hopping

Both of those peoples have marked physical similarities to early human remains from east Africa and Israel, and a recent study of the DNA of traditional tribes in India found that “several of the Indians studied had two regions of their mitochondrial DNA that were identical to those found in modern day Australian Aboriginal people.”

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