Picking Things Apart

on April 7, 2015

Since last summer, and particularly over the past two months, I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the story I’ve been telling about how the cycle of visions might have gotten started has been essentially back-to-front

I’ve assumed there was a crucial turning point some 200,000 years ago, when the first true humans underwent a shift in brain organization that enabled them to see the world in terms of structured relationships. That ability was then applied to various areas of experience, producing the initial set of visions.

However, this scenario never struck me as dynamic enough. It implied that the intellectual aspect of the visions came first and that the deep emotional currents which even now drive the periodic rise and fall of successive visions were tacked on later. But that makes no sense in evolutionary terms.

So I’ve turned things around and begun to envision an extended phase of proto-development during which our ancestors related to the world emotionally rather than intellectually.

My thought now is that the real starting point was what I’ve taken to calling the Vision of Everything, which was not rational and analytical in nature but magical and occult. That primordial vision might go back over a million years, to the common ancestor of ourselves and the Neanderthals — or at the very least 700,000, to the time when the first truly elegant handaxes appeared.

I’ve also concluded on the basis of recent archaeological finds that the crucial change in brain organization must have begun no later than 400,000 years ago, and that it inspired the precursors of our own line to start picking the Vision of Everything apart and fiddling with the bits and pieces as a way of gaining greater control over their lives.

That fiddling has been our chief method of operating ever since. It changed us from being proto-human to being fully human. It enabled us to invent agriculture and civilization and our present-day technological society. And yet we still carry within ourselves a deep nostalgia for the days before we began to think analytically, when our lives were ruled by a sense of belonging, of magical surprises, and of a world that was simultaneously nourishing and terrifying.

The tension between the two is why no vision is ever fully satisfying. It is why every one of them is born with high expectations and ends in disillusionment and failure.

As I would tell the story now, the Vision of Everything marked a transitional stage between the instinctual thinking of our most distant forebears and our present-day analytical approach. It represented our first attempt to identify the natural phenomena that impacted our lives, but it cast them as the product of supernatural forces beyond our understanding or control.

Even the technologies that we ourselves had invented were treated as magic and not as science. The algorithms for tool-making and knot-tying, for the use of fire and the hunting of fearsome beasts, all involved a rigid sequence of steps that had to be followed exactly or risk catastrophic failure. That allowed them to be passed along through direct imitation at a time when language was still rudimentary, but it also meant that the procedures themselves might scarcely vary for a hundred thousand years.

We ourselves often still rely on this kind of formulaic thinking for things like cooking a meal or balancing a checkbook. But at a certain point, it became possible to view the ancient recipes as malleable, to pry them apart and figure out how they did what they did, and to approach them as hackers rather than as magicians.

The findings at Qesem Cave in Israel suggest that the people living there 400,000 years ago had already developed an enhanced ability to organize their perceptions in terms of space, time, and causality. That suggests they were able to perceive things as happening for a reason and to speculate on what that reason might be. They could analyze the series of steps used to turn out a particular tool and make them more efficient. They could come up with new uses for fire beyond merely keeping warm and scaring the wild beasts away.

And they could have applied that same capacity to the most pressing problem of all — how to handle the endless complications that had arisen when human sexuality was retooled to provide for more effective child-rearing.

There are two striking differences between our own sexuality and that of chimps and bonobos. One is that we’re able to have babies every couple of years, while for the apes it’s more like every four to six. The other is that somewhere along the line we invented fatherhood, which made our higher fertility rate possible by relieving women of the sole burden of parenting. However, that invention came at the cost of serious social discord.

The problem is that we humans are neither wildly promiscuous nor monogamous by nature. Men and women form long-term bonds for purposes of child-rearing, but at the same time they may reserve the right to keep messing around on the side. That creates endless opportunities for jealousy, violence, and soap opera, all of which disrupt group harmony.

Kinship systems of the sort found in all archaic societies appear to represent the earliest solution to this problem. These systems minimize conflict by laying out explicit rules for who can have sex with whom — or, at the very least, who will be the officially designated father.

Maintaining a system like that requires a high intellectual capacity. You have to keep track of both the rules themselves and where everybody fits into them. You have to be aware not only of how you personally relate to everyone in the group but also of how each of them relates to all the others.

That would have created significant evolutionary pressure for larger and more complexly organized brains, while at the same time it provided the greater nutritional abundance and social stability needed to raise and educate bigger-brained offspring. And so a positive feedback loop was established.

But a kinship system alone doesn’t amount to a vision of existence. It’s purely pragmatic and lacks the mystical component that’s part of every vision. That component would have appeared a bit later — perhaps around 340,000 years ago, when an ice age ended and the first proto-humans were free to spread out in the world.

As the human community became more far-flung, the kinship system would have taken on the supplementary role of making it possible to interact peacefully with strangers by identifying them as kin. That would have allowed for the creation of extended social networks with a strong tradition of mutual support.

But to believe that someone you’ve never met is actually your distant cousin requires both an act of the imagination and a mystical perception of humankind as one extended family. And at that point, when imagination and mysticism entered the picture, kinship ceased to be merely a practical system of relationships and became a vision of transcendence.

However, it would have soon became apparent that the basic premises of the newborn kinship vision were at odds with the assumptions of the Vision of Everything. And that set off a long process of the new vision chipping away at the older one to bring it into line.

The final lingering remnants of the original Vision of Everything that survived into early historical times suggest it was founded on the single overriding concept of motherhood. Motherhood was not only the sole source of birth and growth but was also associated with death and decay and the return of all things to the Earth.

In kinship systems, however, relationships are calculated through both the mother and the father, and with the birth of the kinship vision, that symmetry would have taken on intensely mystical qualities. So any attempt to view the materials of the Vision of Everything through the lens of kinship would have required splitting existence down the middle.

Instead of being a unified whole, the world began to be seen as the product of tension between a variety of female-male opposites: night and day, dark and light, cold and hot, water and fire, wet and dry, life and death. Science and philosophy were both born out of that system of dualities, which dominated human thought for untold eons.

A stubborn belief in gender-based dualities has not lost its influence even in our own culture. In 1995, for example, Pope John Paul II stated, “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization.”

Language was simpler 300,000 years ago, and I doubt that people back then had a word for “ontological.” However, they would surely have agreed with the pope that the female-male duality is not merely a human contrivance but is woven into the very fabric of being. And of course they would have been wrong.

These sorts of holdovers can be frustrating. Individual visions may rise and fall, but the philosophical systems established to reconcile pairs of visions seem to go on forever. Their ghosts continue to hang around and have no reticence about barging into the middle of present-day political disputes. If for that reason alone, a healthy skepticism towards the stuff we pulled out of our asses in some long-ago era would seem to be warranted.

But the more serious problem with these reconciliations is that they tend to intellectualize both visions involved. This is especially apparent in the case of the older vision, but even the younger one suffers a dilution of its original purity and intensity. And just that quickly, the need for an even newer and purer vision arises.

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