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 must 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.

So my thought at this point is that the first of the visions might be dated to the appearance about 1.3 million years ago of Homo heidelbergensis — who had a brain nearly as large as our own and was the common ancestor of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and ourselves.

Of course, that earliest vision of being was not highly intellectualized in the way that later visions have been, and as long as it stood alone, we remained one with nature in an undifferentiated state of belonging. That only changed with the appearance, late in the H. heidelbergensis era, of people who were more like ourselves and possessed a growing sense of self-awareness.

One effect of that new self-consciousness was that the original vision of the natural world started to become more regularized and rules-based. Another was the birth of the kinship vision — a completely separate system with its own rules for sorting out the intricacies of human sexuality and dominance and allocating the responsibilities of child-rearing.

And the impact of both was such that the unity of existence began to fragment. Nature was perceived more scientifically and less mystically. Human culture became alienated from nature. And though it was possible to reconcile the old vision and the new one on an intellectual basis, something irretrievable had been lost.

The key organizing principle of the reconciliation was a series of dualities based on the distinction between male and female. That distinction was central to the kinship vision, in which relationships were calculated in terms of mother and father, sister and brother, aunt and uncle — but it came to be applied to the natural world as well. Day was seen as the opposite of night, hot as the opposite of cold, sun as the opposite of moon, death as the opposite of life.

The effect of dividing the world up in this manner was a further falling away from primal wholeness, which may have sparked the sense of profound loss that appears in our oldest stories of the Dreamtime. For us Westerners, that theme is familiar through the Garden of Eden story, which associates the Fall with the “knowledge of good and evil” — a concept which originally had nothing to do with moral distinctions but referred more generally to the division of existence into pairs of opposites.

Even 400,000 later, we appear to retain a bone-deep memory of the idyllic simplicity of our prehuman past and a longing for its return. I’ve suggested in previous entries that the shadowy counterpoint to the visions which I’ve labeled the “underground stream” is partially based on such longings: For a hands-on engagement with the natural world and the physical materials of our tools. For the simplicity of a small community of closely related nuclear families. For direct encounters with our own inner experience, unmediated by the abstractions of art and philosophy.

It’s even possible that the fundamental dynamic behind the cycle of visions is the unresolved tension between our desire to return to that undifferentiated state and the imperatives of our nature to expand our sphere of knowledge, master the world around us, and constantly refine our algorithmic processes. Each new vision is born out of nostalgia for what once was, and each one ultimately leaves us dissatisfied and cynical as it grows subtle and complex and loses its original simplicity.

The spirit vision itself may have represented the earliest and most powerful response to that dissatisfaction, since it appeared at precisely the point when both nature and human society had been drained of their original transcendence.

In the previous entry, I began sketching out an evolutionary scenario in which the human brain took a final leap in size around 300,000 years ago and gained more processing power but also became less stable. That caused people to begin seeing visions and hearing voices, and the spirit vision was invented as a means of explaining and regulating those experiences.

This scenario is probably accurate as far as it goes, but the spirit vision didn’t only serve to rationalize inner experiences. Its broader purpose was to put magic back into both the natural world and human society.

That desire to re-enchant the world is true of each new vision, but it appears most clearly in the case of inner experience visions. The creative imagination vision, for example, was born in the late 1960s and early 70s out of an intense craving for true magic. And as it emerged during the peak countercultural years of 1968-71, the two preceding visions also became more magical under its influence.

That was when the ecological concerns that were central to the holism vision stopped being narrowly scientific and ventured into nature worship, neo-paganism, and deep ecology. It was also when the horizontalism vision moved beyond progressive support for civil rights and the interests of third world nations and began to incorporate elements of shamanism and indigenous spirituality.

Something similar happened in the early 18th century, when seemingly rational Europeans became fascinated by fairy tales and Arabian Nights stories and the cast-off superstitions of the Middle Ages. The chaos vision, which emphasized the irrational side of human nature, was born of that fascination. And chaos in turn prompted an enthusiasm for the wildest and most untamed aspects of nature, along with a sympathy for the virtues of “noble savages” which fed into the emerging democracy vision.

I believe this recurring sequence of events is based on a template that goes back to the birth of the spirit vision some 280,000 years ago. But the events of the 20th and 18th centuries can be only a faint reflection of that first and most intense occurrence of the pattern.

And one other crucial aspect of the cycle would also have occurred then for the very first time.

I’ve written in the past about how a newborn vision not only influences the two visions that precede it in the sequence but brings them together to form a “transcendent triad.” Such a triad consists of one vision of each type — scientific, social, and inner experience — and when all three work in harmony, it takes us as close as we can get to the original unified Vision of Everything.

At present, the initial flowering of such a triad doesn’t last very long before it is disrupted by the creation of a new dominant partnership, consisting of two older and more established visions that predate the triad. Once that happens, the members of the triad are partly coopted and partly suppressed — and that sets off a train of events that will ultimately lead to the failure of the partnership and the birth of a new vision.

But when the first transcendent triad appeared, there were no mature visions. There was only the triad itself. It’s oldest member was the transformation vision — which was the form taken by the remnants of the original Vision of Everything once it had been cut back to its core aspects, rationalized by its contact with the kinship vision, and then made magical again by the pixie dust of spirit. Kinship and spirit were the other two members, and those three in concert formed a tight-knit bond that could theoretically have gone on forever.

In fact, it did persist until the present day among the San people of southern Africa, who are genetically, linguistically, and culturally the most ancient members of our species. Until the modern world moved in on them, their lives continued to be guided by an unmatched knowledge of their local environment, a fairly relaxed kinship system, and a simple form of shamanism based on communal rituals that induce a trance state in which the shamans carry out healing and rain-making.

But the greater part of humanity is descended from ancestors who didn’t stick with the original triad but went on to invent additional visions as they ventured out to explore the world. And the real question of human history appears to be one I first posed two years ago — that it’s not why things have stayed the same for the San but why they have changed over and over for the rest of us.

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Read the Previous Entry: The Rules of the Game
Read the Next Entry: “Earliest Known Stone Tools Planted the Seeds of Communication and Language”

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