Eggs Before Chickens

on September 22, 2010

At this point, I’ve said pretty much everything I feel a need to say about the sequence of visions over the last few hundred years. My immediate plans are to pick up where I left off a year ago with the development of the earliest visions, interspersed with entries on the latest intellectual, social, and political developments.

But there’s one big question I’m still wrestling with. That’s the matter of those mysterious “shadow” visions that seem to parallel and influence the normal visions without ever losing their separate identity.

Like the ordinary visions, the shadow visions come in three flavors — scientific, social, and inner experience — and a new one pops up whenever a normal vision of the same type starts to falter. For that reason, I originally took them to be offshoots of the normal visions — but I’ve gradually come to the conclusion they form a continuing stream of their own, one that may even be older than the ordinary visions.

There is something very primal about the shadow visions. They appeal more to the emotions than to the intellect. They invoke the symbology of blood and sex, and though they can release powerful positive aspirations, they can equally well inspire destruction and terror.

They also seem to lack any firm philosophical or moral basis. In fictional terms — and at times in actuality — they are represented by the mad scientists, bomb-throwing anarchists, and occult secret masters who aim to revolutionize the world without much thought as to what comes after.

The shadow visions owe part of their archetypal quality to the fact that their premises remain very consistent from one to the next. They don’t make wild leaps between competing intellectual models the way the ordinary visions do. Occultists in particular have been known to describe their core beliefs as “the perennial philosophy” — but the central attitudes of every technological revolution and every social upheaval are just as enduring.

But if the shadow visions really are older and more primitive than the ordinary visions, just when and how did they originate?

That question baffled me the last time I raised the subject — but as I was working on the previous entry, a major piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Back in August, New Scientist ran an interview with Timothy Taylor, author of The Artificial Ape, about what he describes as “the smart biped paradox.” And though it took a few weeks for the implications of his theory to sink in, it finally dawned on me that the first technological revolution to transform the conditions of human existence was not the Neolithic. It was the even more profound revolution that began millions of years ago with the making of stone tools.

“Once you are an upright ape, all natural selection pressures should be in favour of retaining a small cranium,” Taylor explained to the interviewer. “That’s because walking upright means having a narrower pelvis, capping babies’ head size, and a shorter digestive tract, making it harder to support big, energy-hungry brains. Clearly our big brains did evolve, but I think Darwin had the wrong mechanism. I believe it was technology. We were never fully biological entities. We are and always have been artificial apes.”

The strongest piece of evidence for Taylor’s ideas is that the earliest known stone tools go back at least 2.5 million years, to a time before there were any members of our own genus around to make them. “Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo,” he states. “I’m trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence. The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.”

Taylor’s theory appears to be reinforced by a study released last month which concluded from an examination of hack marks on fossilized animal bones that members of the small-brained species Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) were already using stone tools as early as 3.4 million years ago.

Taylor’s most intriguing conclusion, however, is that the real impact of stone tools came from their use to make baby carriers out of animal tissue. “Once you have slings to carry babies,” he observes, “you have broken a glass ceiling — it doesn’t matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb.”

But if the first technological revolution involved the making of stone tools and baby carriers, then the first social revolution would presumably have occurred about 1.8 million years ago with the leap from Australopithecines to Homo erectus — which I believe was sparked by the invention of the nuclear family. Having two parents to share the responsibilities of child-rearing made it possible to nurture even bigger-brained offspring through an extended period of education — and that, in turn, made it possible to transmit more sophisticated technological knowledge.

The next evolutionary leap involved the transition around 700,000 years ago from Homo erectus to archaic Homo sapiens — the ancestor of both the Neanderthals and ourselves — and there are good reasons to identify it as an evolution in consciousness. It was marked not only by a rapid growth in brain size to just short of the modern range, but also by the appearance of handaxes which were not merely functional but also genuinely beautiful.

Looking at a picture of one of those axes, it seems undeniable that our very concept of beauty — which is founded to a great extent on an appreciation of abstract geometrical form — must go back to those ancient stone-knappers. But there may also have been something else in play — an ability to feel the subtle balances and symmetries within the rock.

Adrian Gray is a present-day artist whose art consists of balancing large rocks on top of other large rocks without anything to hold them in place except gravity and friction. The Daily Mail did an article on Gray last week which explained that “by very carefully ‘feeling’ the balancing point of each rock he handles — a process that requires awesome skill and patience — Gray is able to arrange them in ways that seem incredible. … There is no trickery involved. Only patience, dexterity and what Gray calls ‘listening with my fingers’.”

Archaic Homo sapiens must also have developed the art of listening with their fingers to an extraordinary degree. But even that may not be the whole story.

When I was first mapping out the visions, I couldn’t decide where to assign the universal human inclination to believe in spirits, demons, and monsters. For a time, I thought it must have been the very first of the visions — but it doesn’t have the intellectual structure of a true vision and it doesn’t play a role in the most ancient myths. It seems more like something that is hard-wired into our perceptions.

I couldn’t resolve the dilemma then, but now I’m starting to suspect that a tendency to see and hear alien presences — especially when out hunting in the wilderness — was already a hallmark of our archaic ancestors.

The next evolutionary leap, however, involved the appearance of our own species about 200,000 years ago, and at that point we do reach the true visions. I’ve previously suggested that the first true science-based vision emerged at that time, followed perhaps 120,000 years ago by the first socially-based vision and then some 80,000 years ago by the first inner experience-based vision.

Those three visions brought about a dramatic transformation from an instinctual awareness of the world to a conscious attempt to impose intellectual structure on that awareness. But although the emphasis on order and purpose was new, there was also a remarkable degree of consistency between the subject matter of the first true visions and the materials of the shadow visions.

The first scientific vision, as I suggested a year ago, was focused on metaphors of growth and change derived from stone tools, the use of string and netting, and female reproduction — essentially the same three elements singled out by Taylor.

The first social vision took the implicit awareness of “family” and extended it into an elaborate system of kinship that was capable of handling ever more remote forms of relationship within a far-flung tribe.

And the first inner experience vision built upon the simple perception of beauty to create art, and upon hallucinatory glimpses of spirit-beings to formulate elaborate theories of the interaction between the spiritual and material realms.

Since that time, the succession of true visions has been the dynamo that drives human creativity. That dynamism is why we’re still here while the Neanderthals are long gone. And yet the shadow visions themselves have not vanished. They remain as much a part of who we are as our higher intellectual functions.

What’s more, the shadow visions seem to provide an essential wellspring of rejuvenation for the ordinary visions. Precisely because of their intellectual nature, every ordinary vision eventually falls out of touch with both practical experience and mystical intimations and degenerates into rigid theory and elite ideology. And when that happens, it is the deep wisdom of the shadow visions that regrounds us and keeps the cycle going.

That, I believe, is the true source of the “romantic” aspect of the romantic break — its appeal to everything in us that is transformative, revolutionary, and hallucinogenic.

As a result, within every true vision can be found a bright spark of the corresponding shadow vision. At the heart of democracy is an urge to return to the freedom and equality that existed before society. At the heart of chaos is an impulse to reconnect with the primitive and unconscious. And at the heart of holism is a desire to return to nature.

We can never truly go back, of course. But it is by looking back that we become able to go forward.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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