September 9, 2012
Last month, I gave a presentation at the World History Association conference in Grand Rapids, MI, called Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature, which is now up on YouTube. The presentation explains the power of metaphor in human cognition, and shows how humanity’s metaphors of Nature have changed as we transitioned through different stages of our history. It also looks at current metaphors of nature proposed in response to global climate change, and some of their disturbing entailments.
Click here to watch the 20 minute presentation.
August 15, 2012
In early August, I presented some of the ideas of this blog at two connected conferences in Grand Rapids, Michigan:
At the International Big History Association conference, I gave a presentation on the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex. Here is a pdf of what I presented.
At the Midwest branch of the World History Association, I gave a presentation on Humanity’s Changing Metaphors of Nature. This presentation explains the power of metaphor in human cognition, and shows how humanity’s metaphors of Nature have changed as we transitioned through different stages of our history. It also looks at current metaphors of nature proposed in response to global climate change, and some of their disturbing entailments.
Click on the picture below to open up a pdf of the presentation.
Here’s the abstract:
This presentation employs the emerging discipline of cognitive history, tracing humanity’s changing conceptual metaphors of nature throughout history. It examines how each predominant metaphor evolved at a different stage of human development, framing humanity’s behavior towards – and impact on – the natural world. The four primary stages identified are: hunter-gatherer, agriculture, monotheism and the current scientific age.
The paramount hunter-gatherer metaphor of nature, arising from a foraging, nomadic lifestyle, was GIVING PARENT. With the rise of agriculture, increasingly hierarchical societies became vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature, leading to increased cosmic anxiety and a transformed metaphor of nature as DIVINITY TO BE PROPITIATED. With the advent of monotheism, humanity was given a special dominant place in the divine order resulting in a new metaphor of nature as SUBJECT OF MAN’S DOMINION. Finally, the scientific revolution of the early 17th century introduced the modern predominant metaphor of nature as a desacralized MATERIAL RESOURCE to be subdued and exploited.
This current metaphor of nature underlies our global materialist culture and drives our unsustainable trajectory towards ever-increasing economic growth while plundering the earth’s dwindling resources. A new primary metaphor is required to achieve sustainable living on the earth, but what? Current leading alternative metaphors, all of which are well-intentioned but contain dangerous entailments, are: PROPERTY FOR STEWARDSHIP; SOURCE OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES; and SUBJECT FOR BIO-ENGINEERING EXPERIMENTATION. An alternative metaphor is offered – FRACTALLY CONNECTED ORGANISM – based on the principles and findings of systems biology and complexity theory.
June 29, 2012
This section of my book begins an examination of shamanism. It kicks off by defining it, looking at its worldwide reach and asking why shamanism got to be so global…
The worldwide reach of shamanism
Shamanism is one of those controversial terms that can spark innumerable debates among both academics and spiritual seekers, such as whether it should be identified with a specific region, how old it is, and even how it should be defined. For our purposes, a shaman can be understood as a particular person within a hunter-gatherer society who is believed to have the ability to mediate between the everyday world and the spirit worlds (of which there are frequently two: an upper world in the sky and a lower world beneath the earth).*
This mediation generally takes the form of a journey, in which the shaman’s spirit leaves his regular body to visit the other worlds. In order to embark on this journey, the shaman needs to get himself into a kind of ecstatic trance, something he does through a combination of different kinds of activities: chanting, fasting, hyperventilating, prolonged rhythmic dancing, and frequently ingesting intoxicating or hallucinogenic substances. Often, this initiation of the journey is a community event, in which others join in the chanting or dancing, but it can also be a solitary experience for the shaman. While he’s on the journey, the shaman’s body will sometimes be seen to be shaking and “talking in tongues,” while the shaman’s spirit may be taking the form of another animal. Once he’s in one of the spirit worlds, the shaman will engage in the (oftentimes terrifying) experience of communicating with the spirits, usually with the goal of accomplishing a specific need of the community, which might include healing, controlling the activities of the wild animals or possibly influencing the weather.
Shamanism was first by observed by Western travelers in Siberia and Central Asia and the word originated from the Tungusic tribes of Eastern Siberia where the central figure of the community was called the saman. Because of this, some purists have insisted that the term should be reserved only for the specific kind of shamanism practiced in Siberia and Central Asia.
At the other extreme, various post-modernists have argued that although something like shamanism may exist around the world, no meaningful generalizations can be made about its different forms, and each variety should be understood separately, within its own context. However, other studies of shamanism around the world have produced overwhelmingly convincing evidence showing a pattern of the type of shamanistic practices described above in the vast majority of forager cultures worldwide, leading to the reasonable conclusion that shamanism is in fact a universal hunter-gatherer practice and there is “every reason to study them together with Siberian shamanism.”
Just as important as the worldwide reach of shamanism is its continued influence on major cultural traditions that evolved well beyond shamanism’s hunter-gatherer origins. For example, significant shamanistic influences have been identified in the practices of traditional Indian Yoga, in some of the underlying practices of ancient Chinese culture, and in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica.*
Why would shamanism be so prevalent all around the world? There are two possible explanations for this. One theory postulates shamanism as a tradition practiced in the earliest days of modern humans, back in the time when the first epic journey was being taken out of Africa. Under this “diffusion” hypothesis, the original Upper Paleolithic immigrants to Europe brought shamanistic beliefs with them, as did their fellow travelers who migrated throughout Asia. Some of those Asian settlers then crossed the Bering Straits around thirteen thousand years ago, making it all the way down to the southern part of South America within a couple of thousand years, along with their shamanistic practices. This theory thus sees shamanism as “a very ancient mythological base that was shared by Asia and America on a Paleolithic level.” The other theory asserts that shamanism is “the consequence of independent inventions, or derivations, from a common neuropsychology” of human beings, and would therefore be expected to emerge in different hunter-gatherer societies worldwide independent of any diffusion. Importantly, these two theories are not mutually exclusive: shamanism could be an expected result of the underlying hunter-gatherer worldview as described earlier, as well as having diffused historically from the original “out of Africa” migration.* In this case, shamanism should have been an integral part of the early human “mythic consciousness” discussed in the previous chapter, and its reliance on altered states of consciousness might tell us something about the evolving role of the pfc in the human mind.
 See Eliade, M. (1964/2004). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, chapter 8, “Shamanism and Cosmology”, 259-287. While shamanism is sometimes viewed as existing in both hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, Winkelman has argued convincingly that the socio-cognitive shifts caused by agriculture lead to a “transformation of the shaman into other types of magico-religious healing practitioners,” and that true shamanism is in fact limited to forager societies. This issue, however, does not affect the discussion of shamanism as a hunter-gatherer phenomenon presented here. See Winkelman, M. J. (1990). “Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of Their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations.” Ethos, 18(3), 308-352.
 For summary descriptions and definitions of shaman practices, see Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 133; Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101; Winkelman, M. (1990) op. cit.; Grosman, L., Munro, N. D., and Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). “A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel).” PNAS, 105(46), 17665-17669; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., passim.
 Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4.
 See discussions of this issue in Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Wright (2009) op. cit., 490-91n; D.S. Whitley in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.
 Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 4. Also, see Winkelman (1990) op. cit. and Lewis-Williams (2002) op. cit.
 In the case of Yoga, Feuerstein describes “many aspects and motifs of Shamanism” including the “yogin’s ecstatic introversion and mystical ascent,” a number of the yogic postures including the cross-legged sitting and the tradition of tapas or asceticism. See Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 94-5. In the case of Chinese culture, Chang describes the “close relationship with shamanism” of ancient Chinese civilization in Chang, K.-C. (2000). “Ancient China and Its Anthropological Significance”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 1-11; Creel describes the early Chinese tradition of “wu, often called ‘shamans,’ who held séances with spirits and were believed able to heal the sick” in Creel, H. G. (1970). What Is Taoism? and Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 11-12; and Eliade notes the “presence of a considerable number of shamanic techniques throughout the course of Chinese history,” in Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 456-7. Chang (2000) op. cit. notes the shamanistic sources of Mayan and Aztec practices, referring to the research of Peter T. Furst.
 Willey, G. R. (2000). “Ancient Chinese, New World, and Near Eastern Ideological Traditions: Some Observations”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Monographs, pp. 25-36. See also Jean Clottes in Winkelman (2002) op. cit.; Winkelman (1990) op. cit.; Eliade (1964/2004) op. cit., 333.
 Winkelman (2002) op. cit.
 In his argument for a “common neuropsychology,” Winkelman points out that “one must ask why shamanic practices should maintain such similarity across time and societies, while the language and other social variables such as marriage patterns, family organization, marital residence, and kinship terminology should acquire such divergent patterns.” He concludes that “even if the present distribution of shamanism can be attributed to diffusion from an original common source, it would not have persisted if it were based merely upon a diffused system of belief and not also upon some other objective features that made it an adaptive response.” – Winkelman (1990) op. cit.
June 8, 2012
In this section of my book, I explore some of the core hunter-gatherer perceptions of the natural world. To the early hunter-gatherers, which is how our ancestors lived for 99% of our human history, the earth was a giving environment. It was also in a state of continual transformation…
The giving earth
If everything is connected in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems to be the earth that forms the hub of this web of connectivity. As the aboriginal man Hobbles Danaiyarri describes it, “Everything come up out of ground – language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass.” In the aboriginal Dreamtime, certain places have a special connection to one or another manifestation of the creative ancestors. “Our country,” explains Nganyintja Ilyatjari, “is full of sacred places. The kangaroo Dreaming has been there since the beginning, the wild fig Dreaming has been there since the beginning, many other women’s Dreamings are also there.” The earth is seen as not only where we come from, but also where we go back to when we die. “Variously known as spirits, dead bodies, the old people, or the ancestors, the people who belonged to country in life continue to belong to it in death.”
This idea has a far more tangible and immediate presence to it than the modern version of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” For example, many aboriginal groups in Australia speak directly to the “old people” when they go out into the bush. They call or sing out loud to the country, the Dreamings, the other living beings and the ancestors, treating them as though they’re fully living members of an extended family. Sometimes, they will use a visit to “country” (as they call their ancestral land) as an opportunity to introduce new arrivals such as youngsters or newly married spouses to the “old people”. This intimate connection of the earth to the ancestors also informs aboriginal land management practices. The Yanyuwa, for example, see the burning of country as “an important way of demonstrating a continuity with the people who have died, their ancestors.” Until quite recently, after burning a section of “country,” they would leave it for several days “so the spirits of the deceased could hunt first.”
The close linkage of earth, spirits and family is shared by hunter-gatherer societies across the world. In the forested Gir Valley in the Nilgiri region of South India, the Nayaka foragers “periodically invite local devaru [spirits] to visit them and share with them.” The Nayaka “appreciate that they share the local environment with some of these beings” and view them as an integral part of the family. In fact, they call them nama sonta, “our relatives,” and refer to specific devaru as “grandmother,” or “grandfather,” and even sometimes “big mother and father.” Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Ojibwa Indians refer to the natural spirits as “our grandfathers.”
Nurit Bird-David, an anthropologist who has studied the Nayaka extensively, has proposed that this linkage of nature and family is a manifestation of what she calls a “root metaphor” of FOREST AS PARENT. Referring to George Lakoff’s ground-breaking insights into our pervasive use of metaphor to build abstract meaning from the scaffolding of the tangible world, she argues that such a root metaphor not only offers a “means of ‘seeing’ the world” but also governs “everyday functioning down to the most mundane details.” She explains that the “Nayaka look on the forest as they do on a mother or father. For them, it is not something ‘out there’ that responds mechanically or passively but like a parent, it provides food unconditionally to its children.” This root metaphor leads to a relationship of trust with the natural environment rather than one characterized primarily by anxiety or fear. Bird-David explains that, just as a Nayaka parent may punish a misbehaving child with a spanking but would never dream of withholding food, so the spirits of the forest may inflict aches and pains on an errant Nayaka, but would still provide them with their means of nourishment. Following on from this metaphor of FOREST AS PARENT, the Nayaka refer to all social groupings outside of the immediate family unit as sonta, which means “something like an aggregate of relatives as close as siblings.” It is on account of this root metaphor, Bird-David believes, that the Nayaka view their world as a “giving environment.” This would also account for the respectful but intimate way that hunter-gatherers tend to communicate with their spirits. “Hunters don’t worship gods,” writes one observer, “they converse with local, earth- and sea-bound spirit persons without adoring them.”*
An important characteristic of a root metaphor, such as the one described by Bird-David, is that it can become so embedded in the collective consciousness of a culture that it’s not even viewed as a metaphor but as reality. Generally, when we hear a metaphor, our capability for counterfactual thought reminds us that it’s not the real thing. When we hear that “stocks are falling,” we don’t listen out for the sound of them hitting the floor. But for most hunter-gatherer cultures, as anthropologist Graeme Barker points out, “non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons.” As a result, “their environment is a treasure house of ‘personages’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus the Jivaroan people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plants as ‘person’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry.”
This view is understandable in light of the evolutionary development of mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter. Recall the observation of Pascal Boyer that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind,” a phenomenon that derives from the central importance of theory of mind in the evolution of human consciousness. The attribution of mind to all other natural entities leads to a dynamic where an entity’s spirit or mind might remain stable but its outward bodily manifestations are capable of total transformation. For example, as Barker explains, “as the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation.” This is the reason why many hunter-gatherers have detailed sacred rituals around hunting animals, believing that although the flesh of the animal has been made available to them, the spirit of the animal remains sentient and needs to be treated with due respect and appreciation.
The ability for sentience to shift from one form to another leads to a world without the sharp dividing lines between categories that we’re used to in our modern consciousness. Rather, everything has the potential for transformation. Hallowell, describing the Ojibwa worldview, notes that “the world of myth is not categorically distinct from the world as experienced by human beings in everyday life. In the latter, as well as the former, no sharp lines can be drawn dividing living beings of the animate class because metamorphosis is possible.” Here’s how an Inuit woman living in the early 20th century, Nalungiaq, described her people’s beliefs in the original transformative capabilities of both humans and animals:
In the very earliest time when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.
Nalungiaq seems to be narrating some version of a creation myth, remarkably similar in essence to the Aboriginal Dreamtime. But virtually every hunter-gatherer culture also sees such transformations as something happening, not just in the past, but within its own society. Most people are not considered capable of managing this metamorphosis of themselves at will, but in each society, specific individuals are believed to have the power to journey to a world where direct communication with the spirits is possible. These individuals are generally known as shamans and the set of beliefs and practices around their spirit journeys goes by the name of shamanism.
 Rose (1996) op. cit., 9.
 Ibid., 27-8.
 Ibid., 71.
 Bradley, J. (1995) “Fire: emotion and politics; A Yanyuwa case study”, Country in Flames; Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia, D Rose (ed.), pp 25-31. Cited by Rose (1996).
 Bird-David, N. (2002). “‘Animism’ revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 72-105.
 Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum.
 See Chapter 3, page 41, “The metaphoric threshold.”
 Bird-David, N. (1990). “The Giving Environment: Another Perspective on the Economic System of Gatherer-Hunters.” Current Anthropology, 31(2), 189-196.
 Calvin Luther Martin, quoted in Barker (2009) op. cit., 409. See also Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 69, for a description of the African Ituri pygmies’ perception that the forest “looks after” them.
 Barker (2009) op. cit.
 See Chapter 4, “Religion as a spandrel”, page 51.
 Barker (2009), op. cit., 59.
 Hallowell (1960/2002) op. cit., 34.
 Reported by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, quoted by Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Random House, 87.
May 31, 2012
This section of my book on the hunter-gatherer worldview discusses its most important underlying assumption: that everything is connected. At the end of the section, I speculate that the connectivity of this worldview and the intrinsic connectivity of language (through recursion) is not coincidental, but arises from the fact that both conceptual systems emerge from the unique connectivity and patterning instinct of the human prefrontal cortex (pfc).
Everything is connected
Of all the underlying patterns of the hunter-gatherer worldview, there is probably none so pervasive as the implicit belief that all aspects of the world – humans, animals, ancestors, spirits, trees, rocks and rivers – are interrelated parts of a dynamic, integrated whole. In the words of one anthropologist, “hunter-gatherers think about the world in a highly integrated fashion, with an interpenetration of the natural and social in a single integrated environment, and an ideology encompassing humans, animals, and plants in a living nature.” The natural environment is, for hunter-gatherers, most definitely alive. Anthropologist Richard Nelson writes evocatively about the sentient natural world perceived by the Koyukon people of Alaska’s boreal forest:
Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect. All things in nature have a special kind of life… All that exists in nature is imbued with awareness and power; all events in nature are potentially manifestations of this power; all actions toward nature are mediated by consideration of its consciousness and sensitivity.
This sentience of nature is frequently manifested in the spirits that are perceived to exist all around. To call these spirits “supernatural” would be a serious misconception, applying another modern viewpoint anachronistically to the hunter-gatherer cosmology.
These spirits are an integral part of the natural world just as much as humans and other animals. As Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote about the spirits of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indians, “they are a part of the natural order of the universe no less than man himself, whom they resemble in the possession of intelligence and emotions. Like man, too, they are male or female, and in some cases at least may even have families of their own. Some are tied down to definite localities, some move from place to place at will; some are friendly to Indians, other hostile.”
Just as the spirits are integrally connected to the natural world, so those aspects of life that we define as “religion” permeate all the normal, daily activities of the hunter-gatherer. As Wright puts it, “one of the more ironic properties of hunter-gatherer religion: it doesn’t exist. That is, if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.”
One forager tradition that powerfully demonstrates the interconnectedness of each of the dimensions of life that we tend to keep separate is the Aboriginal Dreamtime. As described by researcher Deborah Bird Rose, “in Aboriginal Australia, the living world is a created world, brought into being as a world of form, difference, and connection by creative beings called Dreamings.” Rose goes on to describe the Aboriginal creation myth of the Dreamtime:
The Australian continent is crisscrossed with the tracks of the Dreamings: walking, slithering, crawling, flying, chasing, hunting, weeping, dying, birthing. They were performing rituals, distributing the plants, making the landforms and water, establishing things in their own places, making the relationships between one place and another. They left parts of themselves, looked back and looked ahead, and still traveled, changing languages, changing songs, changing skin. They were changing shape from animal to human and back to animal and human again, becoming ancestral to particular animals and humans. Through their creative actions they demarcated a world of difference and of relationships that crosscut difference.
Through the Dreamtime, Australian Aboriginals integrate not only the human, natural and spiritual domains, but also the past, present and future. We are used to creation myths describing events that occurred long ago, but for the Aboriginals the Dreamtime exists in the present as much as in the past.
In the words of one observer, “it exists as a kind of metaphysical now, … a spiritual yet nonetheless real dimension of time and space somehow interpenetrating and concurrent with our own.” The creative ancestors may connect with humans in dreams, but also in other ways. For example, in a phenomenon known as “conception Dreaming,” it’s believed that the spirit of the place where a woman initially conceives a baby enters the fetus there, and remains a part of the infant when she’s born. As Rose describes it, there is “thus a web of relatedness in which everything is connected to something that is connected to something, and so forth.” Here is the same idea expressed in the more concrete words of an elderly aboriginal lady, Daisy Utemorrah:
All these things, the plants and the trees, the mountains and the hills and the stars and the clouds, we represent them. You see these trees over there? We represent them. I might represent that tree there. Might be my name there, in that tree. Yes, and the reeds, too, in the waters… the frogs and the tadpoles and the fish… even the crickets… all kinds of things… we represent them.
This integration of meaning, where “nothing is without connection,” is intriguingly reminiscent of the inherent structure of language as described earlier. In language, the power of recursion can be viewed as a “magical weave,” permitting the connection of previously separate modules of the brain in order to create new meaning. Just as in language a symbolic network permits emergent meaning to arise from its connectivity, so in the hunter-gatherer worldview, all aspects of life participate in a conceptual system which “links species, places, and regions, and leaves no region, place, species, or individual standing outside creation, life processes, and responsibilities.” I suggest that this similarity between the structure of language and the forager worldview is not coincidental, but rather arises from the fact that both conceptual systems are created by the innate connectivity and patterning instinct of the pfc.
 Winkelman, M. (2002). “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 12(1), 71-101.
 Nelson, R. K. (2002). “The watchful world”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 343-364.
 Cited in Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966). The Savage Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
 Wright (2009) op. cit., 19-20.
 Rose, D. B. (2002). “Sacred site, ancestral clearing, and environmental ethics”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, pp. 319-342.
 Arden, H. (1994). Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia, New York: HarperCollins, 3-4.
 Rose, D. B. (1996). Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 39-40.
 Rose (2002) op. cit.
 Arden (1994) op. cit., 23.
 Rose (2002) op. cit.
 See Chapter 3, “What’s special about language?”, page 29.
May 25, 2012
Here’s a video of the presentation I gave at the conference Towards A Science of Consciousness in April.
It’s called the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex and summarizes what this blog is all about, and a major theme of my book Liology: Towards A Science of Consciousness.
I hope you’ll find it a worthwhile twenty minutes.
May 22, 2012
I’m going to resume posting on this blog sections of the book I’m writing entitled Liology: Towards an Integration of Science and Meaning. Last year, I posted in this blog the first four chapters of the book. Today, I’m beginning with the first section of my chapter on the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, entitled “The Giving Environment: The World of the Hunter-Gatherers.” It will examine their lifestyle and cosmology, and identify their values which are in many ways so fundamentally different from our own.
The first section, below, is called “Where am I? Among what do I move?” is about some of the conceptual issues arising from any serious study of hunter-gatherer cosmology:
- the common error of applying anachronistic viewpoints and values to hunter-gatherers;
- the question whether any universal values can actually be applied to such a diverse group;
- how valid is it to use observations about contemporary hunter-gatherer groups to understand those from our distant past.
As always, please feel free to leave me any constructive comments or thoughts.
‘Where am I? Among what do I move?”
Modern political commentators frequently like to use the example of hunter-gatherers to make their point about our underlying human nature, as if to show that their position is unassailably correct. It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, famously wrote that “the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all,” leading to “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” as a result of which the life of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In the turning intellectual tides of the following century, the diametrically opposed romantic myth of the “noble savage,” associated with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, took hold of the European imagination.* Nowadays, the references are more sophisticated but the underlying themes remain. Liberal commentators like to emphasize the group-oriented, sharing mentality of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (also sometimes referred to as “foragers”), while their conservative opponents continue the Hobbesian line, pointing to the endemic warfare of many pre-civilized cultures.
In reality, any attempt to understand the hunter-gatherer worldview through the lens of our modern value system is doomed to draw a distorted and inaccurate picture. Such perspectives are by their very nature anachronistic, using conceptual structures that developed many thousands of years after the patterns of thought evolved that infuse hunter-gatherer cognition. Therefore, this chapter attempts the daunting challenge of painting an impression of the hunter-gatherer worldview without applying modern values to the picture. The approach is first to identify the underpinnings of how foragers made sense of their world, then to relate this to the mythic consciousness described in the previous chapter, and finally to trace how certain core values characteristic to hunter-gatherers arose from this worldview.
But first, another potential conceptual stumbling block has to be resolved. A chapter on the “hunter-gatherer worldview” implicitly assumes that there is, in fact, a unitary worldview of hunter-gatherers that can be described. How can that be? How can a group of forest-dwellers deep in the heart of the Amazon see the world in the same way as a community of Inuit up in the Arctic circle? For that matter, since hunter-gatherers have been around since time immemorial, who’s to say if their worldview today has any similarity to that of their ancestors in past millennia? There is some truth in these objections. The languages and the specific attributes of the environment differ drastically for different hunter-gatherer cultures. One culture may be oriented around a river, another around the migration of a particular animal. In fact, the differences between various cultures are some of the marvels of our world and are justifiably celebrated as such. But over many decades of anthropological research, there has been an increasing realization of what the prominent anthropologist Bruce Trigger calls “certain cross-cultural uniformities in human behavior.” These uniformities tend to exist under the surface of the specific beliefs and practices of different forager groups, leading to underlying patterns of thought that are remarkably similar across cultures even while the manifestations of those patterns are delightfully unique for each culture. These underlying patterns relate to what’s been described as “that organization of ideas which answers to a man the questions: Where am I? Among what do I move? What are my relations to these things?” They are the underlying structures of the hunter-gatherer’s “cognitive orientation in a cosmos.” In the words of anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, “there are basic premises and principles implied, even if these do not happen to be consciously formulated and articulated by the people themselves.” In short, they form the infrastructure of the hunter-gatherer worldview, and it’s this chapter’s mission to try to describe them.
Given the earlier warning about anachronisms, it’s important to spend a moment on another potential source of controversy in understanding hunter-gatherer cultures: whether or not it’s valid to use contemporary observations made by anthropologists to impute the primordial hunter-gatherer worldview all the way back to Upper Paleolithic days.
The 19th century archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, who first coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic, kicked off this tradition, writing a bestseller called Pre-historic Times in which he considered the foragers of his era as “the living representatives of the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic.” We’ve come a long way since then, and modern theorists warn that it’s “unreliable to generalize from the ethnographic present to the paleolithic past without explicit supporting evidence.” After all, not only is there the question of how hunter-gatherer cosmology may have evolved on its own accord, but there’s also the inevitable influence from agricultural communities surrounding those few hunter-gatherer societies that still remain. Nevertheless, in the words of modern scholar Robert Wright, “they’re the best clues we’ll ever have to generic religious beliefs circa 12,000 BCE, before the invention of agriculture. Cave paintings are attractive, but they don’t talk.”* Given our search for underlying uniformities in the hunter-gatherer worldview, it seems reasonable to apply the general principle that the more you see a structural pattern in different contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, the more confidently you can apply this pattern to the past.
 Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, London: Andrew Crooke, Chapter XIII.
 See Keeley, L. H. (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, New York: Oxford University Press, 5-8, for a detailed summary of the Hobbes versus Rousseau debate. However, it should be noted that Rousseau, although an ardent critic of Hobbes, in fact never used the “noble savage” phrase, which was coined by the English poet John Dryden in 1672 in the poem “The Conquest of Granada.”
 Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 683.
 Redfield, R. (1952). “The Primitive World View”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96, 30-36.
 Hallowell, A. I. (1960/2002). “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view”, in G. Harvey, (ed.), Readings in Indigenous Religions. New York: Continuum, 19-20.
 Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 152.
 Ibid., 118-19.
 Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group, 17. His view is echoed by renowned archaeologist Graeme Barker who writes “… although there is today, and has been in the recent past, considerable variability in forager societies, much more striking are the similarities that can be discerned in the economic, organizational, and ideational or cognitive solutions that most of them have developed for living as they do. For all the difficulties of using ethnographic material, the behaviours of recent and present-day foragers remain an invaluable resource for helping us reflect on the likely characteristics of forager behaviours before farming.” See Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 44.
April 20, 2012
Last week, I gave my presentation on the “Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex” at the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, Arizona. I’m glad to say it was very well received, and an interesting and wide ranging set of questions ensued.
Here are a couple of pictures of me at the podium.
I’m working on editing a video of the presentation, which I’ll post on this blog as soon as it comes available. Meanwhile, you can click here to download a pdf version of the presentation.
January 13, 2012
I’m pleased to tell you that I’ve been invited to present at the biennial conference Towards a Science of Consciousness to be held in Tucson, Arizona on April 9-14, 2012.
Here’s how the conference describes itself:
Known for rigorous and leading edge approaches to all aspects of the study of conscious experience, TSC includes neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, neurobiology, medicine, quantum physics and cosmology as well as art, mind technology and experiential and contemplative approaches. TSC is the largest interdisciplinary gathering probing fundamental questions related to conscious experience. An estimated 500 scientists, philosophers, psychologists, experientialists, artists and students from over 60 countries are due to take part.
I’ll be presenting a talk on the subject covered by this blog: the Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex. Here’s the abstract:
The human prefrontal cortex (pfc) is widely recognized as mediating the executive function: our ability to plan, conceptualize abstractions, make rules, and impose meaning on experience. It controls our physiological drives and turns basic feelings into complex emotions. This paper asserts that the effect of the pfc on other aspects of human consciousness has become so overbearing that it may be analogized more accurately as a tyranny than an executive function.
The unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually. Collectively, this imbalance manifests in the extreme characteristics of our global society, such as our unsustainable use of natural resources to fuel exponentially accelerating material growth. Individually, this tyranny refers to our unreflective absorption of fundamental values that prioritize pfc-mediated abstractions at the expense of other aspects of human experience.
The paper introduces the discipline of “cognitive history,” tracing the steps whereby the pfc gradually gained dominance in the human collective consciousness. With the evolution of early humans, the pfc mediated the sense of self, theory of mind and a concept of past and future. The resulting enhanced ability for symbolic thought led ultimately to the development of language and a mythic consciousness among hunter-gatherers manifested through shamanism. The next phase in the pfc’s rise to dominance was the emergence of agriculture, bringing with it a sense of separation from and partial control over the natural world, along with new core human values such as ownership, hierarchy and patriarchy. The next major transition took the form of the extreme version of dualism that emerged in ancient Greece, whereby pfc-mediated abstractions – the deification of reason, the notion of an eternal, immaterial soul – became the foundation for the monotheistic-based Western mentality that separates reason from emotion, mind and soul from the body. This in turn engendered the scientific revolution that forms the basis of the current worldview which ultimately drives the unsustainable trajectory of our global civilization.
Acknowledging this tyranny and understanding its dynamic is the first necessary step towards achieving re-harmonization within our individual and collective consciousness. Another step involves exploring alternative root metaphors for the pfc’s role in human consciousness, such as “conductor” in an orchestra, or an executive serving for the benefit of the complete human mind/body organism rather than in service of externally imposed cultural values. The Taoist notion of wu-wei (non-purposive action as opposed to pfc-driven goal-oriented action) and the Buddhist conception of the self as a dynamically interactive process rather than a fixed entity, offer potential paths for unseating the “tyranny of the pfc” and achieving a “democracy of consciousness,” both in individual and collective cognition. These may be integrated with recent theoretical progress in systems biology and the investigation of self-organization in complex living systems, to offer an alternative, scientifically valid, approach to meaning that could supersede the current pfc-centered dualistic tyranny.
I look forward to seeing you there in Tucson in April!
May 23, 2011
This blog describes how our current state of consciousness may be viewed as a “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex.“ Sounds a little extreme, perhaps? Well, hopefully browsing the pages of this blog will persuade you. But, if you have a desire to place this view in the context of some highly respected academic viewpoints, look no further than the celebrated cognitive neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, who describes this very tyranny with reference to what he calls “Big Brother culture.” Or check out the equally respected anthropologist/neurosocientist, Terrence Deacon, who describes how our “symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web.”
This last section of my chapter on the “Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Liology: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, pulls together my concept of the external pfc with the viewpoints of these two other luminaries.
“Ensnared in an inescapable web”
How much are we in control of our own constructions of meaning that we apply to the world around us? To what extent has our culture’s external pfc shaped our minds so that we can only think in the patterns we’ve inherited from the past? Merlin Donald warns us that the external pfc has “assumed a certain autonomy” and in many ways acts like an organism with its own volition. He makes his point with some hard-hitting words:
Our cultures invade us and set our agendas. Once we have internalized the symbolic conventions of a culture, we can never again be truly alone in semantic space, even if we were to withdraw to a hermitage or spend the rest of our lives in solitary confinement. Big Brother culture owns us because it gets to us early. As a result, we internalize its norms and habits at a very basic level. We have no choice in this. Culture influences what moves us, what we look for, and how we think for as long as we live. We work out the vectors of our lives in a space that is defined culturally. In some cases, this process involves a hierarchy of influences that are normally invisible to us.
Like an alien force from an old Star Trek re-run, the external pfc maintains its existence outside any one of us, and yet at the same time pervades our minds. In Deacon’s description, it’s “not bounded within a mind or body, and derives its existence from outside – from other minds and other times. It is implicitly part of a larger whole, and … is virtually present independent of the existence of the particular brain and body that support it.” But as Deacon points out, it is most certainly not virtual in its impact on the tangible world around us. The abstract conceptions created by the external pfc – whether it’s Valhalla, Olympus, Heaven, Hell or God – “have been among the most powerful tools for shaping historical changes. These abstract representations have physical efficacy. They can and do change the world. They are as real and concrete as the force of gravity or the impact of a projectile.” The generation that witnessed the tragic events of September 11, 2001 needs no reminder of the concrete consequences of abstract symbols.
This is the source of the power that has led in modern times to what I refer to as the tyranny of the pfc. As Donald describes it, “we have created a collective organism that appears ominous at times. Our interlinked nervous systems, newly powerful in their electronic extensions, are now challenging the supremacy of the natural world.” Deacon, perhaps even more chillingly, compares it to a “mind virus” that’s out of control:
The symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web. Like a ‘mind virus’, the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously propagates itself throughout the world.
It should be emphasized that this view of the external pfc’s power over our minds is no mere intellectual exercise. It has real and tangible implications for the future of the human race and the planet on which we reside. It has led, as Deacon puts it, to “a new phase of cultural evolution – one that is much more independent of individual human brains and speech, and one that has led to a modern runaway process which may very well prove to be unsustainable into the distant future.” Other tyrannies in history have eventually come undone through the will of brave individuals who have refused to surrender their fate to an external authority. But in this case it’s our own minds that are subject to the tyranny. We’re dealing with “a gigantic cognitive web, defining and constraining the parameters of memory, knowledge, and thought in its members, both as individuals and as a group,” a web which can “threaten our intellectual autonomy… rob us of the freedom to think certain kinds of thoughts.”
When one first realizes the immense power that our culture has had over shaping the very structures of our minds, it’s tempting to surrender to it, to abdicate responsibility for trying to disentangle oneself from the “inescapable web.” However, daunting as the task may be, it’s not impossible to regain at least some autonomy from the grasp of the external pfc. Even our brains themselves, sculpted from infancy by our cultural influences, can literally be reshaped to a certain degree. As will be discussed later in this book, modern neuroscience has demonstrated that even an adult brain remains plastic, thus permitting us the power to consciously re-sculpt some of the structures of our thought that the external pfc had shaped in us from infancy. If we go back to the analogy of the brain’s neuronal organization as a field of tall grass, where paths have been created over time from frequent usage, it’s also possible to find new ways through the bush, even after the main thoroughfares have been laid down. Finding a different pathway through the tall grass can be inconvenient, messy and even scary, so it’s clearly something you’d do only if you discover that the old paths lead you to places you don’t want to go.
This book is dedicated to identifying some of the foundational structures of thought that have shaped our own cultural patterning, and examining how they may be taking our civilization to places where we don’t want to go. I believe that it is only through a clear identification of these underlying structures that we are able perceive them in our own minds and thereby gain some freedom to disentangle ourselves from the “inescapable web,” to undo the tyranny of the pfc within ourselves and ultimately, perhaps, to influence the shape of the external pfc that will sculpt the minds of future generations.
We’ve seen in this chapter how the underlying cognitive foundations of social intelligence, theory of mind and linguistic capability created the groundwork for the pfc to construct meaning in our world, and how the intrinsic “patterning instinct” of the pfc led inevitably to the formation of mythic consciousness as the backdrop of the modern human mind. Now the time has come to turn our attention to the specifics of the “comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe” that infused the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose way of living was the only one we humans ever knew for ninety-five percent of our history.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 298-99.
 Deacon (1997) op. cit., 452-3.
 Donald (2001) op. cit., 300.
 Deacon (1997) op. cit., 436.
 Ibid., 375.
 Donald (2001) op. cit., xiv.
 Part III, Chapter __. For an overview of modern neuroscientific findings on the plasticity of the adult brain, see Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, New York: Ballantine Books.