A Clash of InstinctsCory Panshin on June 24, 2015
My last regular entry was something of a proof of concept — an attempt to see if I could deconstruct the cycle of visions as it exists today and retell the story in terms of only the youngest and most transcendent visions.
I wanted to test an idea that’s been growing on me lately — that the youngest visions are what really drive the cycle, while the mature visions play only a secondary role. I also expected to get hints as to what the cycle might have looked like at the outset, when there were no mature visions, and how it might have evolved from there to the complexity we see today.
The experiment was successful enough that I’ve spent the last several weeks pushing my focus further back in time. I’ve been trying to work out what kind of instinctual and emotional apparatus must have been in place even before the cycle of visions began in order to make the cycle possible.
I’ve always known that the cycle has a strong instinctual dynamic. The first indication I had of its existence was my recognition of a periodic alternation between clothing styles that emphasize mature sexuality — ample hips and bosoms for women, broad shoulders for men — and those that suppress the natural lines of the body.
I quickly found that this alternation could be further broken down into a series of recurring phases, each with its own distinctive fashions and cultural moods. But although I spent the next several years identifying these phases in various historical eras and confirming to my own satisfaction that they were real, I had no explanation for why such long-term patterns would exist or how they could be maintained.
As a result, I increasingly turned my attention towards the intellectual aspects of the cycle. I’d already noticed that each complete alternation was marked by a characteristic worldview and that these corresponded to the conventional divisions found in our history books, such as the Middle Ages or the Victorian period. But now I began to focus more closely on these worldviews and particularly on the transitions between them.
As I did, I discovered that the worldviews could be analyzed into separate strands, each of which grows out of a distinctive vision of the nature of existence. These visions rise and fall over long periods of time and interact with one another through the course of a series of worldviews.
At that point, I decided that I could stop worrying about all the messy instinctual and emotional stuff, because it would eventually turn out to be a mere by-product of the visions.
Only that never happened, and now as I look into the depths of human history, it seems to me that the deep emotional tides of the cycle are largely independent of the interplay of the visions. The ebb and flow of those tides is what keeps the cycle moving, while the visions only surf the waves.
For example, the last six years have been an emotional roller coaster, with wild swings between hope and despair, idealism and cynicism. They’ve also witnessed significant changes in the status of the visions, with the older democracy and chaos visions being discredited and the younger holism and horizontalism visions developing rapidly and taking center stage.
However, the sequence of moods was much the same during previous eras of accelerated change, such as the 1960s or the 1910s, even though the historical details and the visions involved were very different. That strongly suggests to me that the changes in the visions are the product of the fluctuating moods and not their source.
So if the deep-seated instinctual dynamic of the cycle does not grow out of the visions, what is its source? In the light of recent scientific discoveries it seems a lot more possible to find an answer to that question now than it was in the 1970s.
In my recent entries, I’ve identified three specific elements whose interactions appear to underlie the emotional progressions of the cycle. Each of these dates to a different point in our evolutionary history, but all remain part of our makeup today.
- The ape-like dominance system of our earliest Australopithecine ancestors, in which males compete for preferential access to sexually responsive females.
- A major change in brain size, body configuration, and social organization that occurred around 1.8 million years ago when we left the trees for good. This brought with it the beginnings of sequential thinking, as well as a recognizably human system of pair-bonding and cooperative child-rearing based on mutual sexual attraction.
- A more vaguely defined shift perhaps 800,000 years ago that built upon the one before. This was characterized by a further expansion in brain size, the start of language, and the emergence of what I have been calling the Vision of Everything.
That was not the end of the human evolutionary journey. There were two additional leaps, one prior to 400,000 years ago, when we became capable of organizing our thoughts in terms of time and space and causality, and another around 300,000 years ago when we became more intuitive. But although these shifts created the philosophical and mystical basis for the visions, they did not alter the instinctual rhythms of the cycle itself.
The most fundamental of those rhythms grows out of an unresolved tension between the ape-like dominance system we have never fully left behind and the more sensitive and nurturing instincts we developed nearly two million years ago .
Our primitive instincts continue to fascinate and horrify us even today. They are central to fictions like Game of Thrones and Mad Max: Fury Road in which human relationships are dominated by raw force and sexual exploitation. They even pop up in real life whenever social order breaks down, as we have recently seen in the horrors perpetuated by Boko Haram and the Islamic State.
The earliest alternative to these crude, dominance-based systems was a uniquely human form of pair-bonding in which men had to prove their reliability as husbands and fathers to gain sexual access to women. That setup has been enormously successful in a long-term evolutionary sense. It has enabled us to out-breed, out-compete, and out-survive our ape cousins.
But it’s also very fragile. It depends on a tacit bargain in which everyone agrees to play nice, think of the children, and not rock the boat — and that isn’t always easy to maintain. Not only do violence and aggression remain part of our nature, but there’s also a built-in Catch-22, since the sexualization of our bodies and faces that evolved to promote long-term pair-bounding can also disrupt it. And the more ruthlessly we crack down on violations of the social order, the more oppressive and alienating that order becomes.
That’s where the visions come in as an alternative way of maintaining social stability. A few entries back, I suggested that the kinship vision, which laid down explicit rules for marriage and family relationships, represented the first attempt to override human instincts through an appeal to transcendent values. But I’m thinking now that the much older Vision of Everything would have done the same thing, only on a non-rational basis.
It’s hard to say what that most ancient of all visions would have been like at the start. But its final stages were still active in the late Paleolithic and early Neolithic, and at that time it was built around the principle of Big Momma.
That principle is represented by fertility figures like the Venus figurines of Ice Age Europe, and the message is always the same: Female fertility, along with pregnancy and motherhood, is sacred. It is the source of life and is essential to human survival. Violence against women is the ultimate crime. The Earth is the mother of us all and must be revered and protected as well.
If the lives of our prehuman ancestors were subject to a periodic alternation between times of violent breakdown and times of enforced social conformity, the Vision of Everything would have taken the edge off both. It would have put a damper on the most extreme outbursts of sexual violence and it would have added a transcendent element to celebrations of family and community.
That is still true even today, but with one crucial difference. On the instinctual level, the cycles represent a closed loop, an endless bouncing back and forth between two poles. But on the intellectual and philosophical level, each period of social breakdown provides an opening for the rapid development of the youngest visions and the birth of a new vision to address the problems that confront us as a species.
I’m reminded of Isaac Asimov’s story “Nightfall.” It is set on a world of many suns where night falls only once every 2049 years. When it does, the sight of the stars drives the inhabitants mad, and they fall into a dark age of looting and violence. And by the time the madness passes, they have forgotten everything, which leaves them no hope of release from this unending cycle.
But this time things may be different. An interdisciplinary group of scientists has pieced together the story of their past and has prepared a refuge where a group of dedicated individuals will preserve their precious scientific data. The hope is that “the next cycle will start off with the truth, and when the next eclipse comes, mankind will at last be ready for it.”
That is also our own story. Our problem is how to escape from the alternation between bland complacency and violent crashout. And the answer is to use our uniquely human capacity for objective fact-finding and integration of data to arrive at the truth about our situation and thus transcend it.Read the Previous Entry: The Importance of Stone-Throwing
Read the Next Entry: The Birth of Romance