Fire Hackers and Cosmic Dreamers

on May 21, 2013

In the last several entries, I’ve been trying to solve the riddle of why the cycle of visions always follows an identical pattern, even though each individual vision is a unique expression of higher knowledge. The answer appears to lie in the demands of ordinary life, which put severe constraints on when we have access to higher knowledge and how far we are able to pursue it.

One effect of those constraints is that even though every vision starts off as a bridge between what is and what might be, its practical side gradually gains dominance over the mystical. Eventually, the vision becomes entirely pragmatic, no longer performs its original function, and can only be replaced.

Another is that this process is not continuous but proceeds in sudden bursts. These occur mainly during times of crisis, when entire societies briefly adopt a more flexible and intuitive style of functioning that greatly enhances their receptivity to higher knowledge.

The third, and most subtle, is that these periods of openness have two contradictory outcomes. They give many people the courage to give up on their failing institutions and turn for guidance to the most mature of the emerging visions. But at the same time, a relative few realize that popular acceptance of the vision is draining it of transcendence and start to pursue alternatives.

The recognition that a vision is beyond repair is not arrived at lightly or without emotional turmoil. But eventually it become undeniable — and that happened for the first time in a transition that began around 170,000 years ago.

By then, the crisis sparked by the onset of the ice age had been going on long enough for people to have tried and failed to overcome it using the old, instinctual ways, grown increasingly desperate, and turned as a last resort to the scientific expertise of the transformation vision. And the followers of that vision had responded with technological marvels that brought the human community back from the brink of extinction.

The most important of those marvels almost certainly involved the control of fire. There is a great deal of uncertainty about when our ancestors began using fire, but it is generally accepted that the archaic humans who preceded us had already discovered its advantages for staying warm and keeping wild animals at bay. However, that can’t be the whole story, or there wouldn’t be a worldwide distribution of myths that insist the people of the Dreamtime lacked fire until the trickster stole it for them.

Either way, we can assume that the earliest uses of fire were crude and unsophisticated and that its more subtle properties started to be discovered only when the transformation vision took on outsider status — say around 250,000 years ago.

For a long time, experiments in the possibilities of fire-hacking were carried out mainly by geeks messing around for the hell of it, but there was also a utopian element, a dream of humans mastering nature instead of being at its mercy. And when the ice age came along and the geeks began to be taken seriously, their experiments started to produce amazing results.

For example, the fire hackers might have discovered that food could be cooked to increase its digestibility and available nutritional value. Or that rocks could be fire-treated to turn ordinary stone into superior material for tool-making. Or that it was possible to brew an artificial glue for attaching stone points to wooden hafts when naturally sticky tar (which was used by Neanderthals for that purpose) became unavailable.

These achievements would have required not just new technologies but also new character traits. They demanded an almost superhuman degree of patience and attentiveness to make sure that the fire maintained a steady temperature and didn’t either gutter out or flare up and burn the dinner. Before our ancestors could transform the world, they first had to transform themselves.

But as wonderful as these accomplishments were, they also crowded out the mystical side of the transformation vision by placing the focus on controlling nature rather than savoring its mysteries. As a result, even though most of the human community was caught up in practical problem-solving, a few diehards were already searching for a transcendent alternative. They found it in the heavens, the one aspect of nature that remained utterly untouchable and mysterious.

People must have been tracking the movements of the sun, moon, and stars for a very long time, because it was an eminently practical method of predicting when berries would ripen or birds lay their eggs. But it also had an element of irreducible mystery about it. It demonstrated the existence of a universe vaster and stranger than the world we know — and when the present world ceased to be perceived as a place of wonder, conditions were ripe for a sudden shift in the perceived locus of higher reality.

In the newborn cosmic order vision, the heavens were regarded as a realm of transcendent perfection. They lay beyond the reach of corruption and decay, and their motions never deviated, even when the seasons on earth failed or were distorted beyond recognition. Out of that perception would eventually come a belief that heaven was the true reality, the source of all order and purpose, and the earth only an imperfect copy.

However, the general enthusiasm for practical problem-solving did not only involve the transformation vision. It also began to engulf the next vision in line, the kinship vision, as it became apparent that the ice age had created social problems which could not be resolved through technological expertise alone.

Although we humans are capable of responding with remarkable generosity during sudden disasters, any period of extended deprivation tends to bring out the worst in us. We become greedy and violent and often revert to a chimpanzee-style level of social organization in which only the strong prevail and the bonds of reciprocal obligation are shattered.

When that happens, bullying becomes the norm of society. The most aggressive men monopolize the best of everything — food, material goods, even women, who are subjected to sexual exploitation and brutalization. The stabilizing institutions of marriage and child-rearing are undermined, along with the ties they create between families. The powerful and the powerless alike become harsh and uncaring.

If a social breakdown of that sort did occur at the height of the ice age, the obvious answer would have been to turn to the kinship vision to make things right.

When I wrote about the kinship vision last fall, I suggested that it was originally developed to maintain the unity of a human community that had expanded to a point where it was impossible for everyone to be personally acquainted with everyone else. The mystical ideal of kinship addressed this problem through myths that spoke of a common First Ancestor and norms which mandated that even strangers should be treated as kin and granted the same degree of respect one would give one’s own immediate family.

It was only much later that the kinship vision gave rise to elaborate systems of rules which applied even to family and friends and which laid out the acceptable forms of relationships, mutual obligations, and channels of sexual expression. That shift in function would have been a long, gradual process, but it almost certainly started early in the ice age, at the same time as the transformation vision was making its own commitment to practical problem-solving.

The application of kinship to the regulation of society would have initially been quite tentative — much like the environmental movement in the 1970s . It was probably even set aside for a time once the ice age eased and it seemed that life was getting back to normal without any need for radical changes.

But before that happened, there had been a period of perhaps 30,000 years when the kinship vision appeared to be in imminent danger of being overloaded with rules and categories and nit-picky taboos and losing its transcendence. And that presented a problem for anyone who relied on it to foster a sense of mystical engagement.

Kinship was not yet as lost to practicality as the transformation vision. It did not need to be abandoned and replaced. Instead it must have generated a series of disillusioned romantics who were determined to haul it back to its roots — the prehistoric equivalents of Earth First! founder Dave Foreman or free software advocate Richard Stallman.

That was when the vision began to be split between pragmatists and mystics — two factions that still agreed on a common set of premises but were diverging wildly in matters of interpretation.

Going by the example of recent visions, their differences would have largely boiled down to an argument about the purpose of human existence. Is our objective to make life more secure and comfortable for everyone, with well-defined roles and reliable expectations? Or are we answerable to transcendent values that look beyond comfort to a higher order of fulfillment?

Even today, arguments of that sort are often couched in the language of mythic story-telling, and that would have been even more true 150,000 years ago. On one side, there were the old familiar tales about a First Ancestor who was both trickster and culture-bringer and who established the immutable patterns of human existence.

But on the other, there were disquieting new myths, grounded in the assumptions of cosmic order and romantic kinship. Those stories told of a Sky-Father who made all things back in the Dreamtime but then took offense at some human lapse and retreated to the heavens, cutting off easy access and leaving the earth poorer for his absence.

And with those tales of the Fall, the human adventure was properly launched.

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