Archive for September, 2012

In the previous entry, I laid out a scenario which carried human history back to the point when ancient geeks began gazing up at the stars and dreaming of a world more perfect and eternal than their earthly reality of hunger and sex, birth and death.

At that moment, which might have been as much as 150,000 years ago, the original harmony among the transformation, kinship, and spirit visions was broken and history as we know it began.

But what was going on before then? When and how did those three visions come into being, and what was life like when they ruled unchallenged?

That’s not an easy question to address, since even our most ancient stories are more recent than that. Those stories tell of the first ancestors, of the days when the world was filled with animal-people instead of people-people, and of a fall from grace and the disasters that followed. But even if they contain some nuggets of truth, they give little hint as to what actually happened at the start of all things back in the Dreamtime.

However, there is one human endowment even older than story, and that is language.

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In my two most recent entries, I discussed how the cycle of visions has operated over the last 150 years and then traced that same pattern back to the late Paleolithic. But the question that really preoccupies me is what happened before then — where the cycle of visions came from and how it got established in its present form.

The mechanisms that maintain the cycle are extraordinarily complex. I’ve previously compared them to a Rube Goldberg device, where one small shift in the relationship among the visions provokes another shift and then another, in a remarkably precise manner that keeps the the rise and fall of successive worldviews precisely on track. But how could that sort of complexity have arisen out of nowhere?

This question is essentially the same as the question of evolution in general — and our society offers two very different answers. The intelligent design folks argue that you can’t have watches without watchmakers and that the presence of design implies a Designer. The evolutionists counter that nature is self-organizing and that complex innovations can arise through a series of simple adaptations, each of which has its own immediate utility.

When it comes to the cycle of visions, I’m willing to admit a pinch of intelligent design — with the proviso that we humans are ourselves the designers. It is, after all, part of our endowment to have dreamed ourselves into being at every step of the way, starting when the first proto-shamans awakened to their own nature on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago and began to reshape the world.

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In the previous entry, I presented an overview of the last 150 years as a series of discrete eras — each one shaped by a distinctive worldview — that are set off from one another by periods of political and intellectual turmoil. That same pattern holds true at earlier times, as well, except that as you go back in history, the length of each era stretches out from decades to centuries and even millennia.

Over and over, we see an extended period of cultural stability that eventually dissolves into fragmentation and upheaval. And just as regularly, we see each period of upheaval ending with the construction of a new worldview and the dawning of a new cultural era.

There are strong indications that this pattern was already present in prehistory. The final part of the Paleolithic, for example, seems to have been a period of prolonged cultural stability, which came to an end at the conclusion of the Ice Age, when abrupt climate change and widespread flooding initiated a period of rapid cultural and technological innovation.

That period of turmoil concluded with the development of fully agricultural societies around 7000 BC, inaugurating a new era of stability. Neolithic culture then lasted until about 3200 BC, when a brief but acute deterioration in the climate threw the most advanced societies into crisis and triggered the transition to what we know as civilization.

The next thousand years were characterized by radical uncertainty mingled with great accomplishments. New political and religious systems developed with lightning speed, and dazzling cultural moments, like the Pyramid Age of Egypt, arose seemingly out of nowhere and just as quickly fell back into decadence and confusion.

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