Geeks, Rebels, and Weirdos

on September 30, 2015

I’ve spent the almost two months since I last posted trying to figure out the birth of the spirit vision — and it’s been slow going.

It’s easy to see how the kinship vision would have been a useful supplement to the original “vision of everything.” If the impulse “to explore strange new worlds” was a defining characteristic of our own species from the very start — as opposed to the more stay-at-home Neanderthals — those early explorers would have needed a framework within which they could interact peacefully with any strangers they encountered. And the simplest way to accomplish that would have been a mutual understanding that we are all ultimately kin, descended from the same long-ago ancestors.

This extension of kinship beyond the limits of motherhood and grandmotherhood would also have proven useful back home. It would have given fathers more of a stake in raising their children. It would have provided the basis for the complex networks of reciprocal obligations among in-laws that typify fully-developed kinship systems. It would have enabled humans to interact more productively with other humans in both good times and bad.

But what would have been the utility of the spirit vision that arose out of the hallucinatory experiences of the first proto-shamans? That’s where I got stuck until I realized that I was looking at things backwards.

The essential fact is that none of the visions have practical applications at the start. They all originate with people who are just trying to make sense of their own experiences. And because the people who most need to do that are the misfits and outsiders who don’t match the standard expectations of society, the visions themselves start off as quirky and obsessive as their makers. It’s only eventually that they get tidied up and set to more practical purposes.

This also means that the visions themselves can have very different focuses, because misfits are not all of a single type. I think of this as the “Breakfest Club” model of human evolution. On one side there are the jocks and the princesses — the conventionally masculine men and feminine women who match the ordinary expectations of human society and see no need for change. And on the other, there are three categories of outsiders — the geeks, the rebels, and the weirdos.

The inability of outsiders to ever fit in, together with the fact that every vision they invent is eventually taken over by the pretty people, may explain why the cycle of visions keeps turning endlessly. And the three-way division among outsiders may be why there are also three distinct types of visions: scientifically-based, socially-based, and inner experience-based.

The initial hints of outsiderness probably appeared as a source of evolutionary adaptability long before we became fully human. Outsiders made the first tools — and then the first tools that were beautiful as well as practical. Outsiders invented the original vision of everything.

But until half a million years ago, the outsider tendency was relatively rare. It might have been present among a certain number of adolescents, but most of them would have grown out of it as they took on adult responsibilities and lost their mental flexibility.

However, at a certain point, outsiders not only became more common but began to be differentiated into three distinct subtypes: The geeks, whose brains are wired for abstract thought and problem-solving. The rebels, who have difficulty obeying authority figures. And the weirdos — the introverts and dreamers and hypersensitive ones who obsess endlessly over the oddities of their own nature.

The geek tendency may go back a couple of million years, to the time when our prehuman ancestors were first discovering the advantages of their larger brains and more skillful fingers. Rebels probably came along a while later, when we had acquired the strength and the weapons to send out small hunting parties and expect them to survive on their own and bring back something useful.

Geeks and rebels both lack conventional social skills and may not cope well on a day-to-day basis, but they also have an openness to new ways of proceeding that can prove valuable in meeting unprecedented challenges. That is why they have persisted in the human gene pool, despite being maladapted under normal circumstances.

However, the weirdos were even more of a wild card. They weren’t good at inventing stuff or killing things. They were often shy and reclusive and inclined to sneak off and daydream or watch the clouds roll by rather than being of any practical help. They were probably considered a drain on society. But eventually they found their niche — and I can see several factors that may have contributed to the change.

One was that following the appearance of the kinship vision, human society became more secure and mutually supportive and more willing to devote resources to the upkeep of somebody’s slacker cousin or nephew.

A second was that at the same time, our brains were undergoing a final growth spurt and reorganization to meet the demands of our increasingly memory-intensive lifestyle. This had the effect of making us more intuitive and behaviorally flexible but also more inclined to mental instability. That meant more weirdos — enough for them to meet up with one another and develop a sense of their own unique identity. However, it also meant there was growing pressure on them to contribute in some way to society.

And a third factor, which formed a complex feedback loop with the other two, was a great flowering of our capacity for language. Vocabularies expanded, as did the subtleties of meaning that could be conveyed in words. And the exploration of the potentials of language was the natural domain of the oddballs. They became the tellers of tales and the singers of songs, and they imparted their own skewed perspectives to both.

Recent studies have shown that stories of a particularly phantasmagorical sort can temporarily enhance the pattern-recognition abilities of their audience — presumably by short-circuiting their conventional expectations and prompting them to focus on tiny clues and unexpected affinities. So listening to a round of bizarre tales before bedtime might have provided a welcome boost the next day to the skills of both hunters and foragers.

Of course, that alone didn’t amount to a new vision of existence. The whacked-out storytellers would have to pass through many phases over tens of thousands of years before that point was reached.

The first step was when the alliance between the vision of everything and the kinship vision started to get boring. That alliance had been enormously effective at stabilizing society. It had made humans the masters of their environment to an extent that had never previously been possible. But it was also taking the adventure out of life, and that created the conditions for a romantic break.

In the previous entry, I suggested that each romantic break begins with “the youngest visions pushing back against an established order that has started to become hidebound.” But that can’t be right, because at that point the youngest visions are still supporting the established order. The real starting point has to be a longing for romance and adventure that gradually shakes everything else loose.

The first effect of that longing is to transform the image of outsiders in general from willful troublemakers to heroic examples of resistance to conformity. But it has the greatest impact on whichever group is not associated with either of the two youngest visions.

Around 300,000 years ago, the geeks were associated with the vision of everything and the rebels with the kinship vision, and that gave both groups a stake in society. But the eccentrics and oddballs and people who had hallucinatory encounters out in the wilderness had no attachment to any vision, and that gave them an unusual degree of power..

One thing that happened as a result was that the proto-shamans were emboldened to reveal their full inner strangeness and make their tales even more bizarre and dreamlike. Another was that this hallucinatory quality began to spill over into the vision of everything and alter perceptions of the natural world.

I have a strong suspicion that stories of the type now described as urban legends go back to that time. These are the kinds of stories Boy Scouts tell around the campfire. Accounts of chance-met companions who reveal their supernatural nature when they abruptly vanish. Of young couples who sneak off together in violation of the norms of the kinship system and are waylaid by lurking monsters or madmen. Of giant spiders in the food supply or people unwittingly hauling around their dead grandmothers.

Stories like that are designed to make the listener jump, look nervously behind them, and inch a bit closer to the fire. The most implausible can easily be laughed off in the next morning’s light, but often it’s not that easy.

For our remote ancestors, these tales would have transformed the natural world into a place of wonder and terror. It restored the sense of the uncanny that we had lost once we no longer had to worry about predators lying in wait behind every bush. And as is true of horror stories even today, the change would have been welcomed by some as making ordinary life more vibrant and meaningful.

But for others, the result was an intolerable level of fear. That is the pattern of every romantic break. Those who embrace it feel empowered and liberated while those who reject it are merely terrified. They strike out at whatever and whoever scares them. And eventually fear wins out and the romantic impulse subsides — though only for a time.

Read the Previous Entry: The Birth of Romance
Read the Next Entry: An Age of Magic

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