Archive for January, 2011

I’ve been thinking over my previous entry, in which I suggested that the imposition of group identity towards the end of the ice age resulted in a devastating loss of individual potential. That may be true, but it’s still only half the story — because at the same time as the social outlook was contracting, the scientific outlook was expanding wildly, culminating in the domestication of plants and animals.

In terms of the theory of historical visions that I’ve been laying out, this kind of seesaw effect is typical of the final stages of any dominant partnership. By 20,000 years ago, the ancient transformative-and-kinship partnership was nearing the end of its useful lifespan, and the kinship vision in particular was showing the strain. Where it had once been inclusive — a means of extending people’s sense of relatedness beyond the immediate family — it had become exclusive and xenophobic. Where it had previously made possible new forms of thought and behavior, it had been turned into a means of social control.

The kinship vision at that point might be compared to the democracy vision in the 1950’s, when it had lost much of its earlier idealism and had been reduced to serving as an ideological basis for the Cold War and a means of keeping a lid on political discontent. What was freshest and most exciting in those years came out of the science vision, which was enjoying its last burst of creativity as it helped usher into being the brave new world of television, computers, and space travel.

In much the same way, the transformative vision went through a final phase of visionary potential at the end of the ice age. By then, it had grown far beyond its original geeky focus on throwing rocks in the fire to see what would happen and had become capable of imagining a complete transformation of the natural world.

And just as that final flare-up of the science vision was most intensely realized in the United States, the climax of the transformative vision was strongest in Southeast Asia, where agriculture began.

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One of the great mysteries of the past is that there seems to be a strange kind of event horizon at the end of the ice age. Every historical stage since then is still represented by one present-day culture or another, but there is no society to which we can point and say with confidence, “This is what the Late Paleolithic looked like.”

In my entries here, I’ve attempted to identify certain cultural elements as probable Paleolithic survivals — but that can only get you so far. The art of the European caves, for example, appears to have employed a consistent symbolic system which has never been deciphered.

But the greatest mystery isn’t what things were like back then so much as how and why they changed. Was there an abrupt phase-shift around 11,000 years ago or merely a gradual accumulation of small adjustments? And either way, should the end result be taken as a leap or a fall?

The version of the story that we were all taught in school presents the so-called “Neolithic Revolution” as a major advance that brought us from a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one involving a far greater degree of knowledge and control.

But there are also indications that the development of agriculture had less to do with “progress” than with a response to crisis which left us working harder just to keep up. And there’s even a persistent “Atlantean” strain in present-day thought which argues that important aspects of knowledge and self-awareness were lost in the transition.

I definitely have a leaning towards this second attitude. I don’t for a moment buy the idea that something resembling modern technology was present back in the Old Stone Age — but I do believe there was both a fall and a great forgetting.

So what might have been the nature of that fall? What was lost then and what has been forgotten?

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When I began working on the previous entry, I intended to discuss a number of ways in which the holism vision is overturning the old concept of the autonomous individual. But I wound up focusing entirely on recent developments in biology — and that tells only half the story. The other half has to do with the emerging concept of a global community of mind in which every one of us participates — what is coming to be known as the hivemind.

The idea of the hivemind is not new. It has been associated with the holism vision since the 1920’s, when the South African writer Eugene Marais theorized that every termite nest functions essentially as a single organism. Marais’ ideas were plagiarized by the prominent Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck in his enormously influential The Life of the White Ant (1926), and from there they quickly passed into science fiction.

Initially, any speculation that human beings might have hiveminds of their own was treated as a grounds for almost Lovecraftian horror. David H. Keller’s trail-blazing The Human Termites (1929), for example, begins by hypothesizing that wars occur because nation-states are “really collections of human beings organized as the termites are, each under the control of a Supreme Intelligence” — but it soon veers off into nightmarish fantasies about human-termite crossbreeds and giant insects destroying New York City.

Even 25 years later, J.R.R. Tolkien could use a grotesque image drawn directly from Maeterlinck to describe the effect on the armies of Mordor of the destruction of Sauron’s Ring: “As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless.”

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