Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg


Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

“First came the temple, then the city.”

“Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.”
~Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Sense of place. This place I live in is my home, where I spent much of my childhood. No matter how far I stray, I’ve always returned here. It’s the place I know. In fact, I know it so well that I can conjure images in my mind of buildings, fountains, and streets that no longer exist and, in some cases, disappeared long before I was born (via the magic of old photographs I’ve come across). The human world is built out of memory, personal and shared.

This is easy to forget, at least for many of us in modern society. We are constantly on the move. I lived in four states before I even made it to high school and this is not unusual for an American. It was all the leaving and returning that more fully imprinted this place onto my brain matter, seeping deep down into my sense of self. That is what makes me different than so many others. I daily see the haunts of my childhood and regularly visit with my childhood friend, a rare experience in an era when few people live in the communities in which they grew up.

For all of that, my sense of place is superficial. Many indigenous societies have a profound grounding in and knowledge of the world around them. In some cases, this communal experience goes back millennia. There are indigenous people who are still telling stories that accurately describe what their immediate environment looked like during the Ice Age. Now that is a sense of place, a collective memory more ancient than even the most faint traces of Western Civilization.

Lynne Kelly, maybe more than any other author I’ve recently read, has provoked my intellect and imagination. I first came across her in reading Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. It’s about mnemonic traditions in indigenous cultures, which she initially explored through her study of Australian Aborigines. I’ve yet to finish it, as it is one of those books that is so interesting that I keep going back to it, sampling passages as they catch my fancy. She has a more recent book on the topic, The Memory Code, where she gives more detail about how these mnemonic systems work and she further delves into their significance.

It is fascinating, to say the least. What is shown in those two books explains so much about what it means to be human in the world, not just what it means to live in an indigenous tribe. And various aspects resonate far and wide, not just landscape and sense of place but: the city as social construction, temples as mnemonic devices, songlines as symbolic conflation, state-dependent and context-dependent memory, revolution of mind preceding revolution of social order, radical imagination and moral imagination, embodied experience and extended mind, etc. It speaks to the interconnection of natural resources and hunting techniques, tool-making and structure-building, relations and culture, mythology and rituals, language and symbolism, song and dance, space and accoustics, knowledge and history, astronomical observation and astrotheology, calendars and and natural cycles, and much else.

Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.

Let me explain the quote used in the title of this post: “First came the temple, then the city.” It comes from Klaus Schmidt who led the excavation of Göbekli Tepe. The discovery of this archaeological site has overturned prior assumptions about the archaic human societies. It’s the earliest known example of permanent structures and they were built before the development of agriculture. That requires some explaining. The only domesticated animal these people had was the dog and so they had no beasts of burden to help haul the large stones. They hadn’t even yet developed the making of pottery. Their tool use and technical skills were limited with no prior stone masonry and probably not much specialization. These structures seem to have come out of nowhere.

Most perplexing is that there is a telling lack of evidence that this was a human settlement. It appears to have been a meeting place. Schmidt theorized that it was for communal rituals and so would have been the first temple complex. Julian Jaynes made similar arguments about early societies, in speculating that the first houses were built for the gods. This would have meant a place to store the mummified corpse or skull of a once revered leader, either having been considered divine during his life or having become deified in death, the worship of the leader maintained through visceral memory of his voice, at least until that memory faded. Only later did humans settle down to build their own houses and from this formed a priestly class. That then required the development of farming to support the population.

In whatever variation of this theory, civilization as settled lifestyle began from ancestral worship and a cult of the dead. This interpretation is supported by the dead buried under floor/benches in Jericho and Catal Hayak and cremated human remains at Stonehenge. Further excavation needs to be done at Göbekli Tepe, but some evidence already points in this direction. The temple complex has prominent vulture images and headless human figures, both associated with death in early cultures. For example, there was the archaic practice of removing skull for veneration and so the relevance of portrayals of the headless. Humans have long been obsessed with death. Elders were those who carried and passed on cultural knowledge, those who embodied and gave voice to gods, spirits, and ancestors. They were accordingly revered. In shared memory, their knowledge and voice lived on.

That is how authority operated long ago, by what an individual embodied and represented. Both Jaynes and Kelly see ancient authority as having originally been less hierarchical or else based on different forms of power, such as voices and knowledge. What makes knowledge into power isn’t just that it is information controlled by the few but because it is knowledge given form and voice through the force of personal presence. Ancient knowledge systems were visceral, not abstract, although incipient forms of abstraction had emerged, such as how physical mnemonics once learned could be accessed in the mind without the external triggers.

In these societies, the individual is so fully enmeshed within the world that the world is exists within the individual. These aren’t just systems of memory and knowledge. They are entire lived and embodied worldviews. The person is inseparble from the place. Everything would be integrated in such a community: tradition, knowledge, language, culture, ritual, religion, worldview, environment, etc.

It’s hard to know what that would have meant. The still existing societies with this kind of system have been in contact with modern societies for generations or centuries. In some cases such as the Australian Aborigines, they’ve taken the lessons learned in dealing with white Westerners and incorporated them as songs into their cultural knowledge. We have no way of being able to observe a society prior to contact and contact inevitably brings changes. Sometimes changes come far in advance of direct contact by way of intermediary tribes and environmental alterations. We can only guess at what is indicated from limited evidence.

I become aware of this difficulty sometimes while reading books like that written by Lynne Kelly. There is often the assumption that people in other societies are basically like us with the differences being mostly superficial. So, for example, behaviors and motivations are interpreted according to modern Western experience. But we know from research, that WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) subjects are among the least representative populations in the world, which is problematic as they are the most commonly used in scientific studies.

Related to this is when Lynne Kelly discusses the power held by those who control knowledge in indigenous societies, It occurs to me that this is very much a WEIRD way of understanding human nature. That is projecting an intention onto others that she cannot possibly know. She is arguing, so it seems, that they lack sincerity in performing their ritual. But maybe sincerity and insincerity is not a standard framework for the oral cultures of indigenous tribes.

John Beebe defines sincerity as the aspiration toward integrity, by which he means that you can only aspire toward what you lack. In that case, sincerity and hence insincerity can only exist among those who have lost the ancient inheritance of an integrated worldview (i.e., integrity). This would make sense, if indigenous mnemonics actually is an inseparable structure to a cultural experience of reality, rather than being a mere memory technique. That is what the Australian Aborigines appear to be claiming when they state that they sing the world into existence.

This is not to romanticize tribal people, but it is a serious consideration of the possibility that we modern Westerners would not recognize full integrity if we saw it. If anything, this is to counter the romanticized ideal of integrity that sincerity evokes, as differentiated from the lived experience of integrity. A number of thinkers have seen an opposition between cultures of ritual and cultures of sincerity, sometimes used to contrast Catholicism and Protestantism but maybe it goes much deeper when considering societies where ritual is entirely dominant. It’s just something to keep in mind as a possible point of misunderstanding.

This leads to a stumbling block for many in imagining the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes describes. From the modern Western experience, such a mindset seems absurd or impossible. But it might be more plausible within a worldview of ritual and integrity.

If songlines originally were an expression of bicameralism or else something similar, each song would be a distinct voice (or set of voices). These songs would express the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors as passed down by the song teachers across the generations. The songs would invoke not just landscapes but also narratized worlds with specific worldviews, mindsets, personalities, and histories. This internalized public space would be the precursor for the post-bicameral interiorizing of private space, both being metaphorical but the former connecting the individual to the concrete and the latter freeing the individual through increasing abstraction.

In building structures in the world, what if early humans were building structures in their minds? Creating a radically different mindset might have offered greater survival value than even building a permanent house to live in. An entire world would have been formed where new possibilities were made available. Maybe humans had to change their way of thinking before they could imagine civilization into existence.

* * * *

Making Gods, Making Individuals
Building and Battling in Ancient Europe
Music and Dance on the Mind
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Development of Language and Music
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 441-464

Knowledge is power

Or so it used to be. Australian Aboriginal cultures in their traditional state, American Indian cultures resisting the influence of the colonisers and African cultures still practising their ancient knowledge systems all provide ample examples of the way in which those who controlled the knowledge also controlled society. The role of knowledge in the exercise of power is underrepresented in archaeological interpretation of prehistoric social structures.

Mike Parker Pearson, the British Neolithic archaeologist, and Ramilisonina wrote:

We employ cross-cultural generalizations as a means of assessing the likelihood of certain aspects of social organization being shared between different cultural contexts. We may define these generalisations as probability analogies since they work on the principle that, if a certain relationship is found amongst most traditional societies today, then there is a probability that this relationship probably obtained in most societies in the past (1998a, p. 309).

Archaeologists describe monument building eras, such as the British Neolithic, the Archaic of the American Southeast and the Ancestral Puebloan era of the American Southwest, as showing no signs of a wealthy elite, no physical signs of a hierarchy. Yet, to build such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon there must have been an organising hierarchy. It is this feature which leads to the first, and the most definitive, of the ten indicators of a mnemonic monument described below. I propose that, as in contemporary Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures and Pueblo sedentary societies, the power granted to elders in these cultures was based on their access to knowledge.

I acknowledge that, as Renfrew says, ‘Modern hunter-gatherer societies are the product of forty centuries of sapient evolution, just as much as urban ones. They should not be regarded as living representatives of the Palaeolithic past’ (1998, p. 4). Methods found in contemporary Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems can be traced back for over 40,000 years (Haynes 2000, p. 53). Hence, it is considered justified to propose that the generalisations about oral knowledge systems can be translated into prehistory, as archaeologists currently transfer generalisations about human physical attributes and needs. It would be highly speculative to transfer the beliefs of any contemporary culture into the prehistoric era. However, it is logical to consider that the technologies by which they formally taught and painstakingly memorised their knowledge might have analogies in the more distant past. A deeper appreciation of the demands of knowledge retention and transmission in oral cultures opens up possibilities for radical reinterpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts globally.

Kindle Locations 4906-4927

The organisation of labour, degree of planning, structuring of space and caches of exotic materials all point to a complex Chacoan political authority over a large region over a long span of time (Lekson 1999, p. 48; Sebastian 1992, p. 57). It is generally agreed that the time of great house construction in Chaco Canyon itself was a time of low violence; coercive force was not an integral part of Chacoan society (Frazier 2005, pp. 2, 74– 82; Mahoney 2000, p. 16). Pueblo Bonito has disproportionately few infants in the burial sample (Saitta 1997, p. 15), as would be expected if the privilege of burial at Chaco was awarded to members of the knowledge elite.

Social inequalities increased between ritual leaders in the great houses of Chaco Canyon and the other Ancestral Puebloans over the course of the tenth century (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 98– 101). During the latter half of the eleventh century, some elite burials occurred at Pueblo Bonito, in rooms that were nearly 200 years old at the time (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 121– 2). In Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, two males were interred with thousands of turquoise pieces (Saitta 1997, p. 15). However, the number of burials in great houses is so small that some researchers question that much can be concluded from their context (Saitta 1997, p. 5; Sebastian 1992, p. 51). Nevertheless, analysis of those interred in the great houses indicated that they had a better level of nourishment than those in the villages (Saitta 1997, pp. 14– 15; Van Dyke 2007, p. 3).

It can therefore be stated fairly reliably that there was an elite with power in Chaco Canyon during the Classic Bonito phase, but that there is minimal, if any, sign of individual wealth or coercion. This chapter argues that power was due to control of knowledge, and the centre of the knowledge was Chaco Canyon. Knowledge specialists from the outliers would have come regularly to the canyon to maintain existing, or gain new, knowledge from the elite in the great houses. The implementation of knowledge spaces was also localised in each outlier. Control of esoteric knowledge is so integral to the power structure in contemporary Pueblo society that Sebastian argues that ‘it would be surprising if such control were not a component of ancestral Puebloan societies as well’ (2004, p. 95).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten. Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place. In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person. The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.

By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years. Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.

Kindle Locations 231-241

In oral traditions, dance acts as a complementary memory cue to the sung narratives. Not only do the dances entertain but information can also be encoded in dance that defies clear expression in words. As a natural history writer, I doubt I could accurately describe details of the movement of a kangaroo—the flick of an ear, the subtle change in stance as it detects an approaching human—despite having observed them for most of my life. Australian Aboriginal dancers can represent this behaviour in a matter of moments.

Rituals performed before a hunt are often referred to as ‘hunting magic’, the word ‘magic’ implying that they are simply superstitious acts performed in the belief that they increase the fortune of the hunt through a call to supernatural beings. A little more investigation shows otherwise. Many of the songs reinforce details of animal behaviour, such as indicators that the animal may be aware of the hunters, or the way in which a mob of animals may disperse in fleeing. These rituals confirm planned hunting strategies and so, exactly as claimed, enhance the likely success of the hunt. When I discussed ‘hunting magic’ informally with Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans, they indicated that they were well aware of this rational link. The songs, for them, combine practical and magical aspects.

Kindle Locations 376-390

I found the concept of singing the road map, with paintings and sand drawings to help visualise it, mightily impressive, but I had yet to glimpse the power of the songlines. They were so much more than navigational tools. At each sacred place along the route, songs were sung and rituals performed. Rituals, by definition, are simply acts that are repeatedly performed. Those performances include the songs and dances that encode knowledge of a wide range of the practical subjects I was exploring, not just the navigational routes. What intrigued me was the way the songlines acted as an organiser, a table of contents to so much of the knowledge.

Each location acted as a subheading for the knowledge encoded in the ritual performed at that location. Vivid stories at each of these sacred sites told of the mythological ancestors who created the landscape, the animals, plants and everything in Country. Everything was linked. Everything had a place and was named and known. The traditional Aboriginal landscape is a memory space on a grand scale.

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of placenames, a seemingly unemotional task. Within the singer’s mind are all the associated stories. I have set up a series of ‘songlines’, a few kilometres of locations to which I have encoded information such as countries of the world, history and families of birds. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extraordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embedded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense.

Kindle Locations 484-495

Mythology certainly reflects spiritual beliefs, but what is pertinent to the story being told in this book is that it also encodes a vast store of practical information and rational knowledge of the world. Mythology, in this context, is an incredibly effective memory aid.

If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant, for example, then the plant will often be cast as an animated character. The plant-character will have human-style adventures and experiences, setbacks, difficulties and successes, acting as a metaphor for the events of a normal life. The character or personality of a medicinal plant, say, will be easily remembered while often telling a moral tale as well. If a plant is poisonous, then the story will involve its deathly quality. Realising that mythological stories are memory aids is not a revelation from Western researchers. Non-literate people are well aware of the role of story. […] Traditional peoples would not have survived had they been, as so often portrayed, living in a fog of superstition and irrational thinking.

Kindle Locations 515-522

One problem with trying to understand something as critical as the wangarr is that we have no equivalent in Western culture and no appropriate words to describe the concept. A viewer who watches the three long films, a number of short films and listens to the narrative about the Djungguwan learns that there is nothing in the wangarr that can be called a god. The mythological ancestors are not worshipped nor are they the objects of prayers. Their stories are told and through those stories cultural knowledge is imparted and cultural values sustained. It is simplest to accept the term and describe, granted in simplistic terms, that the wangarr are those who travelled through the land, creating the landscape, plants, animals and people. The wangarr gave the Yolngu languages, ceremonies, sacred designs and laws and, critically, the songs, dances and stories that encode all the knowledge and beliefs of the culture.

Kindle Locations 1355-1365

Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe was labelled a temple by Schmidt and everyone discussing it since has used the term, leading to the assumption that it was primarily a religious building.2 With no sign of habitation, it was not domestic. Situated on what was a forested plateau, but is now desert, there was no nearby water. There are no burials and no sign of a wealthy hierarchy. However, there are signs of feasting, public and restricted performance spaces, and stone pillars in clear sequences. Göbekli Tepe has all the indicators of a memory space.

Göbekli Tepe was built by non-farming people. It has long been assumed that to build monuments, people needed to be farming to free the time for such labour-intensive activities. I believe that in order to settle, it was essential that indigenous peoples found some way to create a local memory space. This would gradually replace the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. Any strongly sequenced set of objects, such as standing stones or posts, could be used to replicate the locations along the songline or pilgrimage trail. The fact that many of these monuments are circular is indicative of the way time is cyclic for indigenous cultures when they talk of resource management and agriculture. The monuments need to represent the landscape locations while also providing both public and restricted performance spaces.

Kindle Locations 1812-1815

All these theories are consistent with the concept that Stonehenge was primarily a knowledge space, and that death rites, astronomical observations, timekeeping and healing were all part of the complexity that is seen in historical indigenous knowledge systems.

Kindle Locations 3398-3403

This monument was built by hunter-gatherers, as was the far more sophisticated Louisiana site of Poverty Point, which emerged nearly 2000 years later. Poverty Point was the centre of a hunter-gatherer culture spreading over nearly 2000 square kilometres. It demonstrated that a large complex monument could be created by hunter-gatherers.4 The fact that these sites were built without any sign of agriculture challenges accepted wisdom that communities needed to settle and farm in order to free up the time required to build monuments. I believe that the reverse is true: people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle.

Kindle Locations 3488-3491

The archaeology of the Poverty Point monuments demonstrates that essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherers attained levels of organisation and integration once only attributed to advanced farming cultures. Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

A Million Years of Music
by Gary Tomlinson
Kindle Locations 4252-4272

From the recent end of the timescale also there are indications that the institutionalization of ritual power may extend back into the Paleolithic, even in monumentally structured ways. The excavations since the 1990s of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a project of staggering scope of stone quarrying, carving, and building that resulted in a long-lasting center of activity starting about 11,000 years ago. With little sign of on-site habitation yet found, Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist, and others posit this as a sacred locale for groups of foragers in the surrounding areas, periodically gathering to celebrate essential rituals. It is, to say the least, not the kind of project hunter-gatherers have usually been thought to mount. For Schmidt it points to a new, ideological stimulus for the beginnings of the transition to sedentism: religious ritual and institution. In this view it is metaphysics that drove settlement patterns and eventually brought about farming, not the reverse.

A recent revisionist account has taken issue with this interpretation, seeing in it an anachronistic distinction of shrine from house and envisioning Göbekli Tepe as a sacred settlement, along the lines archaeologists have now and then perceived elsewhere. 7 (Inca Cuzco is a much more recent example.) This new interpretation suggests that the real message of Göbekli Tepe might instead be that what counted most for early Neolithic humans was life integrated with incipient ritual, not separated from it. It is hard not to imagine this as a repeating of earlier, Paleolithic lifeways.

Whatever our interpretation of the site, however, we are left with the construction of a special center, built and used across centuries and involving daunting technological challenges— all some seven millennia before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. We must contemplate that arresting date in prospect, so to speak, from the vantage of Paleolithic developments, not merely in retrospect. It places the earliest monumental construction at Göbekli Tepe closer in time to the painting of Lascaux than to the building of the pyramids. The famous decorated caves from the end of the Paleolithic propose themselves to us as ritual spaces just as eloquently as Göbekli Tepe does; this similarity is inescapable. To entertain it is, however, to locate Göbekli Tepe in a history of the making and use of such sites reaching far back into the Paleolithic period, if on smaller scales. This history includes not only Lascaux, Altamira, and many other sites from after the Last Glacial Maximum but Chauvet also, painted much earlier, in Gravettian or even Aurignacian times; and it includes many open-air and enclosed sites of rock painting and sculpture from Africa, the immense antiquity of which has only recently begun to be appreciated.

Inside the Neolithic Mind
by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce
Kindle Locations 544-587

Most sensationally, Schmidt found that the pillars had images carved on them (Pls 2, 3, 4; Fig. 6). They include wild boar, gazelles, wild cattle, foxes, snakes and birds – no domesticated animals. Nor is there sign of any domesticated plants or animals in the deposits. These people were hunters and gatherers, albeit socially and economically complex.38 One pillar appears to have a human arm carved on it, and this feature, seen in association with the armed pillar at Nevali Çori, seems to confirm the impression that the stone columns are all somewhat anthropomorphic. Here was an early Neolithic, pre-farming community that, like their Upper Palaeolithic predecessors in Europe, most definitely had image-making as a practice that went beyond practical matters of making a daily living – though such a distinction is probably ours rather than one made by the people themselves.

The pillars came from a quarry about 91 m (300 ft) away. There, the limestone bedrock was cut and the pillars shaped, at least to some extent. One pillar still in place in the quarry would, had it been removed, have been as much as 6 m (20 ft) long and would have weighed 50 tons. What drove the people of Göbekli Tepe to make these pillars, to drag them to the rock-cut structures, to embellish them with images and to raise them up?

Schmidt has found no traces of early Neolithic houses nearby. He therefore concludes that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre to which Neolithic people came for religious purposes. It may have been a site of intense religious experiences that reinforced beliefs and social networks. Perhaps ‘pilgrims’ came regularly from as much as 100 km (62 miles) away, from a site known as Jerf el Ahmar, where there are comparable round structures with benches and also images of animals, but no rock-cut structures with stone pillars.

While contemplating Göbekli Tepe, the English archaeologist Steven Mithen had an idea that supports what one of us had previously advanced for the domestication of cattle at Çatalhöyük and which, in general terms, followed in Cauvin’s footsteps.39 Mithen concluded that the religious beliefs embodied in the massive stone structures and associated carvings came before and eventually led to agriculture. How could this inversion of the sort of scenario that Childe would have recognized have happened?

Schmidt pointed out to Mithen some hills about 30 km (18.6 miles) to the south. These are known as Karacadag (‘Black Mountains’). Phylogenetic DNA studies had shown that this area was the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat. To put the matter more forcefully, Karacadag was the place of origin of domesticated grain and therefore the origin of the Neolithic.40 Mithen suggests that the switch to domestication came about as a result of frequent ritual and construction activities that took place at Göbekli Tepe, in our terms, religious practice. Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds, would have been needed to make the Göbekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated. Mithen concludes that a drier climatic spell may not have been the trigger that set off Neolithic agriculture, as many researchers believe: ‘It may have been a by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop in southern Turkey.’41

The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself. In addition to seashells and shiny obsidian that we know Neolithic people traded, the first domesticated strains of grain may also have spread across the Near East. Indeed, there is more obsidian at Jericho than one would expect for a town of that size; it may therefore have been a trading centre and one of its commodities may have been the Neolithic itself.

More than environment: preternatural seeing

The rock-cut structures and carvings at Göbekli Tepe and the highlighted eyes of the Jericho skulls point to an unavoidable part of human life, one that Childe, as a Marxist, and more recent environmentalist archaeologists have tended to ignore, or, at any rate, to deprive of any causal influence. We suggest that ‘conversion’ from one belief system to another means accepting new understandings of the functioning of the human brain and the mental states that it produces (though, of course, the people themselves do not see it that way). What were once regarded as aberrant, meaningless mental states may, with a change in religious perspective, become central divine intimations. In short, we need to examine human consciousness, not just in the alert, problem-solving state that we cultivate today, but also in the more mysterious states that, in some circumstances, become the essence of religion.

Kindle Locations 2948-2951

we note the significance of stones as oracles: they link the initiate to supernaturally vouchsafed information about cosmology. One of the stones is like a mouth and has a hollow in it. We recall the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe, ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites. Working in west European Neolithic tombs, Aaron Watson, an archaeologist at Reading University, found that ritually produced sounds can ‘induce enormous stones to appear to shake and become alive’.41

Places of the Heart
by Colin Ellard
pp. 14-15

The business of designing environments that affect human feeling and action is so ancient that it actually predates any other aspect of human civilization, including written communication, the design of cities and settlements, and even the birth of agriculture, which is traditionally considered to be the seminal event that set into play most of the other forces that shaped modern humanity. The roots of such endeavors lie in southern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, at the ancient ruins of Göbekli Tepe. This structure, more than eleven thousand years old, consists of a series of walls and pillars constructed of stone slabs, some weighing more than ten tons.1 As architecture, the site represents the oldest building, other than simple dwellings, that we know to have been built by human beings. Indeed, the construction of Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by about as much time as separates the origin of the Stonehenge from the present day. As artifact, Göbekli Tepe is even more important than this. It turns on their heads long-held truths about the origins of architecture. Before Göbekli Tepe, the conventional wisdom was that it was domestication, settlement, and agriculture that spurred the development of architectural practices, and eventually cities. Now it’s clear that this story drives the cart before the horse. These stones must have been laid down by hunter–gatherers who lived by killing and eating prey animals rather than by farmers living in settled groups. The walls that have been unearthed here may well be the first ever constructed for a purpose other than to shield the contents of one’s possessions and one’s family from enemies, the elements, and the prying eyes of neighbors.

Over such a long reach of human history, it is almost impossible to know what purpose the massive columns and walls of Göbekli Tepe might have served for their builders, but the scant evidence of human activity found at the site—the bones of animals and the remains of fireplaces along with the iconography of human figures and large birds, snakes, and carnivorous mammals carved into the columns—suggests that the place served as a kind of religious sanctuary, and most likely, a site of pilgrimage that was visited, modified, built, and rebuilt over a span of hundreds of years. What is clear is that nobody actually lived at Göbekli Tepe. It was a place to visit, perhaps to encourage thought and worship. Possibly, the carvings of the fearsome creatures found there were meant as totems to help manage the fears of the terrible dangers that their designers faced in their day-to-day lives as hunters. It’s also possible that, like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe was built as a healing place—an indication that one of the earliest human drives that led to building was a response to our awareness of our own finitude and that these early structures represent a nascent struggle against mortality. In some ways, much of the history of architecture, but especially religious architecture, can be seen as a concerted effort to find a way to cheat death—prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of the built structure to influence feelings.

Regardless of what can be known about the thinking that lay behind the careful construction of Göbekli Tepe, six thousand years before the invention of the written word, one thing is clear—what happened there may represent the very beginning of what has now become a defining characteristic, perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases, to make money. We see examples of this everywhere, scattered through the length and breadth of human history.

Big Gods
by Ara Norenzayan
pp. 118-121

Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s importance is magnified by the fact that no evidence of settled agriculture has been found so far. This could be explained by the fact that Göbekli Tepe is old enough to have been one of the world’s earliest temples built by hunter-gatherers. If true, it may hold clues to one of the deepest puzzles of our time, the question of how the Neolithic Revolution got off the ground, and gave rise to the origins of human civilization itself.2

Who built these structures, and how did they do it? The sheer scale of the operation must have been unprecedented—the stones in the Göbekli site weigh between 7 and 10 tons each, located on a site far away from any other known settlements, at a time when sedentary life, and its benefits, was still nonexistent—there were as yet no writing, masonry, metal tools, and domesticated animals to carry loads. And for what purpose would these hunter-gatherers—if indeed they were that—have built these monuments, which must have incurred spectacular costs in calories, time, and effort?

There are many puzzles and unanswered questions about this ancient site that will wait for more evidence and will be debated for a long time. The current picture that this site paints is incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps these were agricultural peoples, and it will take time to find evidence of domesticated plants and animals in Göbekli. To add to the mystery, the reasons behind the transition from hunting game and gathering wild foods to domestication of grains and animals remain somewhat puzzling and are hotly debated by archeologists. Unlike the more reliable supply of daily calories from hunting and gathering, domestication is a long-term affair fraught with risk. The diet of early agricultural peoples was poorer in protein content than the diet of hunter-gatherers. Evidence from prehistoric human remains suggests that early farmers were less healthy and less well fed than were hunter-gatherers.3 Despite negative effects on health and diet, early agriculture had one advantage over hunting and gathering: in the long run it could feed more mouths and sustain larger populations.

What we do know, with some confidence, is that in the cradle of agriculture that is the Middle East, not far from Göbekli Tepe, clear evidence of this transition is found to be about 11,000 years old. We also know that this transition coincided with population explosions. However, in more than 15 years of careful excavation, archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first discovered these stone structures on top of a mound buried in earth, and others who have worked there since then, have not found any in Göbekli. If the builders and early worshippers of Göbekli Tepe were indeed hunter-gatherers, then we face the intriguing possibility that early forms of organized religious activity predated the agricultural revolution and the massive cultural transformations it ushered. This scenario, if confirmed, would turn on its head the conventional wisdom that organized religion, with priesthood classes, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices to powerful Big Gods, was a mere consequence of the transition to agricultural societies.

Göbekli Tepe suggests the idea that early stirrings to worship Big Gods motivated people to take up early forms of farming, and not the other way around.4 An analysis of the blades made of volcanic ash found on the site suggests that it attracted pilgrims from a wide range of locations. This raises the possibility that the temple was an early cosmopolitan center.5 Schmidt argues that the initial religious impulse to periodically congregate and worship among at least some hunter-gatherer groups in the Middle East might have led to semipermanent settlements around the sacred area. People likely continued to lead a hunter-gatherer existence, possibly for a long time. Eventually, however, settlements swelled. Hunting and gathering cannot feed large populations. This might have created the impetus for experimentation with an agricultural lifestyle in addition to hunting. Animal and plant domestication, in turn, would have led to food surpluses, and larger population sizes. In turn, this demographic growth, along with conquest or absorption of smaller groups, would have facilitated the cultural spread of these peculiar religious beliefs.

This hypothesis, which sees prosocial religions with Big Gods as a contributing factor (rather than merely as a side-effect of settled agriculture), fits better with the other observations discussed in this book. It is consistent with the psychological evidence that supernatural monitoring, and credible displays of faith to watchful deities, encourage cooperation, contribute to trust, and enable collective action among groups of strangers. It is also consistent with the historical evidence from the written record pointing to the role that these belief-ritual religious complexes played in the establishment of long-distance trade. This hypothesis accounts for the cultural spread of prosocial religions at the dawn of the agricultural revolution by assuming that, at the very least, Big Gods were one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture. It would also explain the glaring absence of evidence for domesticated grains and animals in Göbekli Tepe.

The Well-Tempered City
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Kindle Locations 974-984

These early settlements also required a new degree of large-scale cooperative behavior. Although they were built by hunter-gatherers, there was something different in their culture that brought them to work together at a scale never before achieved in human history. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia proposed that the transformation came with the emergence of a new belief system, one he called “big gods.” Prior to that time, humans believed in gods who created the universe, or local spirits, who had little interest in people’s behavior. In small-scale societies, cooperative behaviors were monitored by the group. Free riders were expelled from the community. But larger groups are harder to monitor, and to get to cooperate. Norenzayan believes that the belief in judgmental deities, or “big gods,” provided the cooperative glue necessary to build places such as Göbekli Tepe. A watchful, punishing god or gods proved to be a very good monitor of behavior, particularly if the god had authority over your after- or future life. “Big gods” tempered human behavior.

Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver, observed that all-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.”

Birth of the moralizing gods
by Lizzie Wade

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without largescale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.

A case in point, they say, is Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Huge stone obelisks carved with evocative half-human, half-animal figures dot the 11,500-year-old site, which the late Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who excavated there, called “the first manmade holy place” (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). Moving and decorating the great obelisks must have required a huge community effort. But signs of agriculture don’t appear nearby until 500 years later, meaning that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were likely hunter-gatherers who had come together to practice shared religious beliefs, Slingerland says. As Schmidt has said, “First came the temple, then the city.”

by Peter Turchin
pp. 10-11

Like the creators of Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe left no written explanation of their motives. But, as the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon Magazine, “a consensus is emerging among archaeologists that this was a hugely significant ritual center: not a permanent home but a sacred place where people gathered at special times.” The “Göbeklians” did not live on, or near, the hill; instead they traveled to it from many semi-permanent settlements within a large area, some coming from 100–200km (roughly 100 miles) away. We know this because archaeologists find the same kinds of symbolic objects from widely dispersed sites, from the T-shaped pillars, so characteristic of Göbekli Tepe temples, to peculiar-looking scepters.6

The Göbeklians carved T-shaped pillars from the side of the hill (a few of them are still there, unfinished), then transported them to a circular enclosure and installed them in carefully excavated rectangular pits. A typical temple has a dozen T-shaped pillars, with the two largest placed in the center, surrounded by the rest, almost like a group of people standing around two leaders. In fact, the pillars are clearly meant to represent people (or perhaps gods). The T-part looks like a head. Many pillars have arms carved into their sides and a loincloth in front.

Once the job of the construction was over, the fun part began. Göbeklians feasted on roasted gazelles and aurochs and drank copious amounts of beer. During their excavation of the site, the archaeologists Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and their colleagues found large numbers of burned bones. They also found many large barrel-like and trough-like vessels, carved from limestone, with dark grayish residue coating the sides. Chemical analysis indicated the presence of oxalate, which precipitates during the fermentation of mashed barley (remember, this was not a cultivated cereal). Some of these vessels could hold 160 liters (40 gallons) of beer, or almost three kegs. Quite a party! A carved stone cup, found in the nearby site of Nevali Çori, depicts two people with raised arms, dancing. Between them cavorts a fantastic turtle-like creature, which Dietrich and colleagues think “might well hint at the dancers’ altered state of conscious.”

The archaeologists aren’t sure how long each temple was in use. At some point, however, the Göbeklians destroyed their temples by burying the monoliths in rubble. Clearly, the purpose was not to create a monument that would last forever; everything was in the service of the ritual.

Perhaps all the megalith-building cultures felt the same way. A retired carpenter and construction worker named Gordon Pipes recently recruited a team of volunteers to help him demonstrate how a small group of people could have moved the Stonehenge megaliths.7 Pipes estimates that 40-ton stones can be erected using Stone Age technology with fewer than 25 people. Placing lintels on top could require no more than a dozen workers. But such calculations and experiments seem to miss the point. At least as far as Göbekli’s temples were concerned, the idea wasn’t about erecting monuments in the most efficient manner, with the fewest possible workers—that’s the rationalistic thinking of a 21st-century engineer. The purpose was to bring people together.

This is an argument put forward by Jens Notroff and colleagues in an article titled “Building Monuments, Creating Communities.”8 These archaeologists look to recent ethnographic accounts of monument-building, such as the construction of megalithic tombs on the Indonesian island of Nias. There, a crowd of 500–600 share the work, hauling the megaliths—which are a bit smaller than the Göbekli pillars—using Stone Age technology (with a wooden sledge, rollers, and ropes made from lianas). It takes three days to move the stones a distance of 3km (two miles) to their destination. Many more people participate than is necessary. But it’s not about efficiency. It’s about having fun. And then, after the monoliths have been installed, everybody has a party with lots of food and (of course) beer. The tangible result—the monument—is not important. The intangible but lasting feeling of community and cooperation is what the whole thing is about.

pp. 171-172

Bringing together the various strands of the argument, I see the following sequence of events leading to the despotic archaic states. With the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer and, more important, much less variable. Human populations began to increase everywhere. Migrations and colonization peopled new areas as they became habitable, and over the next few thousand years, the Earth’s landscapes filled up with foraging bands. Eventually, few places suitable for human habitation remained unoccupied. Areas where people were already present in substantial numbers during the last Ice Age, such as the Near East, filled up first.

According to the standard archaeological model, this is what happened next. Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started to domesticate plants and animals. This allowed them to increase production of food dramatically, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary ways of life, villages—and then cities, complex societies, states, writing—in a word, civilization. The adoption of agriculture, then, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated a “surplus” capable of supporting craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage the economy, others focusing on warfare, and still others stressing the role of ritual and religious specialists. Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one for the rise of complex societies.

I call this the “bottom-up” theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of “superstructure” on the material resource base. In other words, if you stir enough resources into your evolutionary pot, social complexity will inevitably bubble up.

The problem with the bottom-up theory is that in several places where we can date the key stages in this process, we see a different sequence of events. The two sites with early monumental architecture that we discussed in Chapter 1, Göbekli Tepe and Poverty Point, arose before agriculture.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Only later comes agriculture. Has the standard theory reversed cause and effect?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
pp. 143-151

This was a paradigm of what was to happen in the next eight millennia. The king dead is a living god. The king’s tomb is the god’s house, the beginning of the elaborate god-house or temples which we shall look at in the next chapter. Even the two-tiered formation of its structure is prescient of the multitiered ziggurats, of the temples built on temples, as at Eridu, or the gigantic pyramids by the Nile that time in its majesty will in several thousand years unfold.

We should not leave Eynan without at least mentioning the difficult problem of succession. Of course, we have next to nothing to go on in Eynan. But the fact that the royal tomb contained previous burials that had been pushed aside for the dead king and his wife suggests that its former occupants may have been earlier kings. And the further fact that beside the hearth on the second tier above the propped-up king was still another skull suggests that it may have belonged to the first king’s successor, and that gradually the hallucinated voice of the old king became fused with that of the new. The Osiris myth that was the power behind the majestic dynasties of Egypt had perhaps begun.

The king’s tomb as the god’s house continues through the millennia as a feature of many civilizations, particularly in Egypt. But, more often, the king’s-tomb part of the designation withers away. This occurs as soon as a successor to a king continues to hear the hallucinated voice of his predecessor during his reign, and designates himself as the dead king’s priest or servant, a pattern that is followed throughout Mesopotamia. In place of the tomb is simply a temple. And in place of the corpse is a statue, enjoying even more service and reverence, since it does not decompose. […]

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an
hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

From Jericho to Ur

With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses. In the earliest villages,1 such as the excavated level of Jericho corresponding to the ninth millennium B.C., such a plan is not entirely clear and is perhaps debatable. But the larger god-house at Jericho, surrounded by what were lesser dwellings, at a level corresponding to the seventh millennium B.C., with its perhaps columned porchway
leading into a room with niches and curvilinear annexes, defies doubt as to its purpose. It is no longer the tomb of a dead king whose corpse is propped up on stones. The niches housed nearly life-sized effigies, heads modeled naturalistically in clay and set on canes or bundles of reeds and painted red. Of similar hallucinogenic function may have been the ten human skulls, perhaps of dead kings, found at the same site, with features realistically modeled in plaster and white cowrie shells inserted for eyes. And the Hacilar culture in Anatolia of about 7000 B.C. also had human crania set up on floors, suggesting similar bicameral control to hold the members of the culture together in their food-producing and protection enterprise.

Göbekli Tepe
by Wikipedia

Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere.[8][32] Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.[33]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls.[8] Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.[34] Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”.[35]

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic.[36] It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favor of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.[8][37][38] Expanding on Schmidt’s interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu’s semiotic interpretation reads Göbekli Tepe’s iconography as a cosmogonic map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.”.[39]

Cathedrals Built on Water: An Institutional View of Religion, Scholastic Discipline, and Civilization
by Robert Wyllie

Civilization involves a widespread belief in ideas, and is actualized through effective discipline. Nietzsche called this ideal basis of Roman civilization, for example, a Begriffsdome or “concept-cathedral” constructed “upon a moving foundation, as it were, on flowing water.”[5] In the less poetical terms of modern sociology, civilization is a social imaginary, broadly including the “images, stories, and legends” shared by large groups of people.[6] The temple typically comes before the city because disciplining a population with a social imaginary drastically lowers the costs of extending and maintaining power. […]

The lesson of Göbekli Tepe is that civilization is cheaper than we once thought. Even without a substantive economic base, or the perfect environmental conditions, a foundationless religious idea is enough to launch a civilizational project. Modern nomads, from sixteenth-century Calvinist radicals with their pamphlets, to twenty-first-century militant Islamists on YouTube and social media, have done the same. Civilizations emerge in effective discipline, which we see in the Reformed consistories’ emphasis on compulsory schooling and the emphasis on new strict school curricula by the Islamic State.

What we see on the news from Syria and Iraq is neither anomalous nor retrograde in any “grand scheme.” To the contrary, it seems possible that Western political tendencies to either underestimate radical Islam (usually on the Left) or essentialize it as Other (usually on the Right) might be related to an inability to understand the religious origins of Western civilization.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones were also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.

The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe
by Bryce Haymond

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation. In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else. The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship. This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind. The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C. But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple”6. The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city”7. I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument. Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8. It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture. Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area. We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples. People always ascended to their sanctuaries. As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Nephi was caught away to a high mountain. The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2). So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site. Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed.10

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters”12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13. Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14. While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15. Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill”16. Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains”17.

Uncovering Civilization’s Roots
by Andrew Lawler

Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

The Beginning of the End for Hunter-Gatherers
by Graham Chandler

Traditionally, theories of the origins of food production have been based on human need: response to population pressures or other causes of resource imbalances. But as studies have advanced, no evidence of resource stress or malnutrition has been found in places where farming has bloomed, fueling new theories and debates.

But there’s little debate that the Neolithic period was truly a time of revolutionary change for humankind, not only in technology and ways of life, but religiously and spiritually. Jacques Cauvin, the late director emeritus of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, a leading scholar of the early Neolithic period in the Near East, called it a complete restructuring of human mentality, expressed in new religious ideas and symbols. Göbekli Tepe was front and center in that timeline.

The Neolithic revolution saw both highly developed religious ideology and mixed farming take a firm hold throughout the Middle East. Cauvin viewed the finds at Göbekli Tepe and the later sites of Çayönü and Nevali Çori as evidence of rooted communities with a religious bent. “We encounter for the first time simultaneous evidence for public buildings and for the collective ceremonies of a religious character that took place in them. These must have served as a strong cement for the psychological cohesion of these sedentary human groups,” he wrote in The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. “It is also quite probable that they were addressing … a personal divinity.”

As agriculture took root, it had a powerful impact on these religious themes. “It seems probable that at sites such as Göbekli Tepe and ‘Ain Ghazal [an early Neolithic village in Jordan], myths featured protagonists who mediated the hunting/farming dichotomy…,” write David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

The switch from pure hunting and gathering to farming was surely a profound change. Says another Neolithic researcher, Peter Bellwood of Australian National University, “There are obviously many aspects of mobile hunter-gatherer society that are antithetical to adoption of the sedentary lifestyle of the cultivator. On top of this, we have the attitudes of the farming and pastoralist societies themselves, often ranked and status-conscious, with whom some of the ethnographic hunter-gatherers have come into contact and by whom many have eventually been encapsulated.”

First came the temple, then the city
by Christopher Seddon

Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

All Mixed Up?
by Andy Ornberg

I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind
by Merlijn de Smit

More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind – or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering – and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the “smoking gun” for Jaynes’ hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the “bicameral” mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett’s account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes’ thesis.

Mythologizing Landscape
by Andrea Green

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” – a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape.

Songlines in the City? Hearing the spirit dimension
by Lloyd Fell

Songs and singing are a combination of words and melody – that which separates and that which draws together. Zuckerkandl regarded folk songs and chanting as the most fundamental forms of music because they blend word and tone to integrate our rational and emotional aspects. Purce claimed that using the voice and listening to the sound at the same time enables us to ‘go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world.’

Jaynes (1990) developed a provocative explanation that consciousness actually originated in ‘the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ which refers to a stage in the evolution of the human brain when the two hemispheres performed distinctly different functions. One side, usually the right hemisphere, produced voices, which directed the other side that controlled speech and conscious thoughts. These were interpreted as voices of the Gods and only as their influence waned did the human responsibility of decision making and reflection that we know as consciousness develop. He argued that the vestiges of this are evident today in the considerable number of people who do hear voices at certain times, in schizophrenia and in the ‘quest for authorisation’ which manifests itself in both religion and science today.

It is widely accepted that brain function is lateralised in that the so-called dominant hemisphere mainly controls speech and rational, linear, thought whereas the other hemisphere is more concerned with creativity, intuition, holistic perception and music. Many anthropologists think that song came before speech in our evolution and Jaynes reviewed evidence that very early poetry (and the voices of the bicameral mind) were invariably sung. There is good evidence that singing requires the opposite brain hemisphere to speaking and that listening to music is also highly lateralised. People with brain lesions that prevent speech can often sing. Jaynes argued that the experience of music is a vestigial operation of the bicameral mind therefore stemming from our historical belief in the sacred Muses.

Musical performance often occurs in groups, sometimes in an improvisatory manner. Improvisation in musical performance has been described as not so much a skill to be developed as ‘the unlearning of habitual patterns of nonawareness and disconnectedness’ (Borgo 1997). The skill of music improvisation is an apt metaphor for the awareness of holonomy in everyday living

Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

Recent articles I’ve read point toward a typical confusion about authoritarianism, what it is and what causes it. The confusion seems built into the way we frame and measure authoritarianism, in particular as seen in the earliest research. Some social scientists speak of ideological mindsets and personality traits in the way that race realists talk about races, such that there are ‘authoritarians’ and ‘non-authoritarians’ as clearly defined and demarcated types of people. But it’s beginning to occur to some of them that this is inadequate.

Maybe unintentionally, Amanda Taub gets at this point in her Vox piece, The Rise of American authoritarianism. She states that, “Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” This is based on “researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.”

It’s interesting research and I’ve read many of the scholarly writings on this and so I’m already familiar with what Taub is discussing, but my understanding of such things has shifted these past years. When we label something, we tend to reify the underlying concepts and forget that they are social constructs we project onto the data (and hence onto the world) in trying to make sense of complexity, which then can lead to increasing simplification as the reified concepts are fed back into further research design and analysis.

The quote above about ‘non-authoritarians’ gets at this. If non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians, then maybe there is no such thing as authoritarians and non-authoritarians. Instead, a more reasonable conclusion is that all people possess within their common humanity a wide variety of potentials for psychological traits, social behaviors, and ideological tendencies. If so, it wouldn’t be helpful then to speak of subsets and subgroups as if that adds further clarity and insight. To be fair, Taub touches upon the issue rather directly, albeit briefly:

“More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)”

Immediately after that, Taub goes right back to the assumption that authoritarianism is an inherent “psychological profile” that can get activated. From this view, seeming non-authoritarians don’t become authoritarian but were secretly authoritarian all along, just waiting for the right conditions to make their true nature manifest. Sleeper agents of societal madness ready to be unleashed on the naively innocent, Manchurian candidates waiting for a trigger from an evolutionary demiurge lurking in human synapses. At any moment, so goes the dark fantasy, alt-right trolls could transform into goosestepping Nazis who will suddenly take over the country. But in reality that isn’t how it ever works, as these things gradually build up over time and involve the entire society. Authoritarianism is far from being a strange relic of abnormal psychology and social deviants, like an infectious Darwinian maladaptation that must be quarantined and studied by the intellectual elite standing above it all. Even if we were to think of it as a mind virus, the greater threat would be those intellectual elites becoming carriers and spreading it into polite society, as has happened throughout history.

Projecting authoritarianism onto individuals or narrow groups is the opposite of helpful. It’s a way for people like Taub to maintain their belief that authoritarianism is something that only involves those other people, not good liberals like herself. Here is the problem. Taub is a Democrat and has strongly supported Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign has shown how strong the authoritarian tendencies are built into the Democratic Party. In supporting corrupt oligarchs like Clinton, Taub demonstrates how easily supposed non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians and defend authoritarianism. It does appear that authoritarianism closely tracks with social conservatism, but social conservatism comes in many forms. Democrats, for example, can be extremely socially conservative in their defense of the status quo, no matter how ‘liberal’-sounding is their empty rhetoric.

The reality is that no individual is an authoritarian. Rather, it’s social systems that are authoritarian, whether we are talking about organizations or movements or parties. In the US, the two-party system has long had an authoritarian streak. Both parties create the conditions for increasing neoliberalism and neoconservatism, increasing inequality and police-surveillance state. And those conditions in turn create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that, for the general public, elicits authoritarianism. It’s a great means of ensuring submission and social control. Social dominance orientation types, such as the lesser evils of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then attempt to use that to their advantage. If you’re looking for the least authoritarian Americans, you’d need to look entirely outside of the two-party system.

In a fairly authoritarian society such as ours built on a long history of oppression, it is meaningless to talk about ‘authoritarians’ as if they were a distinct group of people. Nor does it help to blame it all on a single issue like racism, as a way of dismissing the larger context of authoritarianism. Obviously, as Taub explains, various forms of bigotry and other factors can elicit and activate authoritarianism. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to separate out all of the tangled threads of dysfunction.

Let me return to the significance of the racial order. It is true that, as we live in an authoritarian society, we also live in a racist society. Both authoritarianism and racism become internalized by everyone within this society, even if normally these remain hidden. It’s there in the background, shaping and informing our worldview. Research shows that it’s easy to find racial biases in almost anyone, but more than that it is how racism is woven into the social structures and institutions we are part of. Not as much research of this sort has been done on underlying authoritarianism, but it has become more of a focus and it would be expected to operate in a similar way. There is pervasive racism with a rather small minority of overt racists, and so it should be unsurprising that there can be pervasive authoritarianism that is not primarily dependent on the authoritarianism of individuals. The continuation of systemic problems don’t require vocal, active support since silent, passive complicity can be so much more powerful.

This is hard for people to grasp. We can’t see clearly the society we are inseparably a part of, that defines our entire sense of identity and experience of reality. This makes it difficult for researchers who are trying to understand the very problems they are implicated in, as members of the society under scrutiny. Many researchers, as with many journalists like Taub, are good liberals which creates another bias. Obviously, authoritarianism will operate differently among liberals than among conservatives or right-wing reactionaries. Yet we know from history that authoritarians often come to power when good liberals, out of fear, turn to authoritarian leaders. Clinton in calling her enemies deplorables (just like she did when calling young blacks ‘superpredators’) was intentionally provoking an authoritarian response of fear from her followers, framing the other side as an existential threat to the ‘liberal’ way of life… and it worked, even though it turned out that her establishment authoritarianism was less effective as she lacks charisma and raw force of personality.

It’s not hard, though, to understand the likely reasons for authoritarianism manifesting differently throughout the social order. Growing inequality (of wealth and opportunity, of power and influence) inevitably will lead to authoritarianism, but that authoritarianism will be expressed in disparate ways according to demographics and the historical legacies that they represent; lower classes or upper classes; or if middle class, downwardly mobile lower middle class or stable upper middle class; populations with high or low rates of unemployment, food deserts, incarceration, and lead toxicity; those directly impacted or not by the numerous negative externalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; et cetera.

The liberal class tends to be relatively more economically secure and comfortable, and so authoritarianism is less often to be seen in overt ways on the personal level. Instead, good liberals will support the authoritarianism of the system that their lifestyle is dependent on. That way, their hands are kept clean. They let the professionals like the Clinton New Democrats do the dirty work of forcing punishment on minorities through racialized tough-on-crime laws, drug wars, and mass incarceration… through corporatism that maintains the class system and keeps the poor in their place… through war-mongering, CIA interventions, and neoliberal foreign policies that ensures the American Empire runs smoothly.

In basic ways, the liberal class even on the lower end of the economic spectrum are protected from what the rest of the country experiences. The greatest of privileges is never having to acknowledge one’s privilege. It is all taken for granted, not just as a privilege but a right — if required, to be protected from the dirty masses that demand to be treated with equality and fairness. When that privilege is challenged, the authoritarianism of good liberals becomes very much overt. It’s just that in recent history good liberals have been kept comfortable and content while the lower classes have been kept disempowered and silenced, but that has begun to change and so we are beginning to hear authoritarian rhetoric from establishment Democrats, in their fear of the coming backlash of righteous justice, outraged vengeance, and populist unrest. Status quo Democrats know that they have been on the wrong side of history and this all-encompassing anxiety has led them to lash out blindly, making them a dangerous animal (e.g., their paranoid conspiracy theorizing and war-mongering about Russia that could initiate World War III).

Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Major figures such as President Jimmy Carter have voiced concern that the United States has become a banana republic and, based on the overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to argue against those concerns. In Taub’s article, she discusses this as if the conditions of authoritarianism are new, but the reality is that they’ve been building for decades and generations. Democrats have done little if anything to stop this, often promoting policies that make it worse. Both parties have embraced a corporatism that somehow balances the requirements of an oligarchic police state and the demands of plutocratic inverted totalitarianism, all the while maintaining the endless spectacle of a banana republic.

What motivates supposed liberals to promote the policies that undermine liberal-mindedness and strengthen authoritarianism? That isn’t to scapegoat liberals, in opposition to those who would like to scapegoat some other group, but obviously many who sound liberal-like aren’t the enemies of authoritarianism that they pretend to be. This faux liberalism is what one would expect in an authoritarian society born out of classical liberalism. Most people on all sides don’t understand the kind of society they are in or how it shapes them. As with faux liberals, Trump’s followers and his election to the presidency are symptoms, not the disease. No single group can be blamed for what has become of this society. All of it has to be taken as a whole, including the role of good liberals and every other sector of society. It is the society that is authoritarian. In a non-authoritarian society, individual authoritarians would be powerless and insignificant. The source of of the problem is systemic and institutional.

There is no inborn psychological profile of authoritarians, just as I’d argue that there are no genetic-based personality traits of addictiveness, neuroticism, etc. There are simply authoritarian conditions, no different than there are conditions for other mindsets and behaviors. Authoritarianism along with so much else is latent in everyone, as a potential within a shared human nature.

I’ve long been fascinated by personality traits/types and other areas of social science. Myers-Briggs personality theory was what initially drew me toward using web searches to find info. The first website I ever became an active member of was a Myers-Briggs discussion forum, although such things as trait theory was also regularly discussed. Most fascinating of all was the research and the many correlations shown, but over time I’ve grown more circumspect.

These days, I feel less certain about what correlations might (or might not) indicate. It partly comes from years of seeing how research can be misused by race realists, but that is only possible because much of the research itself is problematic. Correlations are dime a dozen, whereas proving causation is often near impossible. It’s not easy to determine that a correlation is not spurious, that it is significant and meaningful, and then articulating a falsifiable hypothesis that leads to useful results that don’t merely confirm one’s biases and expectations.

My interest here goes far beyond only authoritarianism. This involves my growing appreciation for the power of all kinds of environmental influences. Not just influences, though. To be more accurate, we are environmental creatures to the core of our being. We are inseparable from our environments, both physical and social. This has become a major theme of my writing. It comes out in my discussions of race realism and capitalist realism, of rat parks and high inequality, of toxo plasmosis and lead toxicity, WEIRD research and ancient societies.

Authoritarianism is yet another lens through which to peer into the social nature of humans. Living in this society, all of us are products of our environment while also being participants in the social order. What if studying authoritarians holds up a mirror to our own psyche, individual and collective? What does this say about us?

* * *

Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Dark Matter of the Mind
Investing in Violence and Death
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
America Is Not Great For Most Americans
The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable
Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology
Bias About Bias

Inequality leads to authoritarianism: Why Trump is acting like “a generalissimo with a giant brass eagle on his hat”
by Edward McClelland

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable
by Tom Pepinsky

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism
Frederick Solt

Authoritarianism’s Hidden Root Cause
by Matthew Wills

The Rise of the Servant Society
by Michael J. Thompson

Authoritarian capitalism in modern times
by Peter Bloom

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism
by Henry Giroux

Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism
by Riad Azar

Inequality causes rise of authoritarian leaders
by Hamid Ansari

The Preschooler’s Empathy Void
by Alia Wong

People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently
by Cari Romm

Creative people physically see and process the world differently
by Alice Klein

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.

The Sting of the Scorpion

There is continuous failure in American society, continuous for my entire life. This past campaign season and election has been a wake up call for me, even as others continue to sleep and dream. I’ve been shocked by how so many people, especially among the well educated, don’t seem to grasp what is going on. No matter how bad it gets, they always find new ways to rationalize it and make themselves further complicit in making it worse. They can’t see what has been happening, what has caused it, and where it is heading.

It isn’t a refusal but an inability to understand. They just don’t get it. I doubt they will ever get it, at least not until it’s too late to doing anything about it. That might be intentional on an unconscious level. These people realize they aren’t capable of the changes that are necessary, that must and will happen. Repressed desires can get expressed in odd ways, oftentimes in the form of resistance and fear that makes the desired outcome inevitable. I’ve previously observed this pattern in human behavior. Sometimes people know a change needs to happen. But on a conscious level they can’t take responsibility for making the change happen. So they create situations that will force the change to happen.

An example of this is people who obviously don’t like a job. They have the skills to work other jobs and there are other jobs available. Yet they won’t quit the job they have, instead acting in ways that will get them fired. To an outside perspective, it is clear the person is trying to get fired. It is what they want, even if it isn’t what they can admit to wanting.

Trump’s election is like that. On a conscious level, Democrats didn’t want a crazy demagogue Republican as president. Even so, everything they’ve done has created the conditions to put Trump into power, even going so far as the DNC promoting him into the Republican nomination. Trump will force the changes to happen, good or bad, and so force us all to take action. He will accomplish for Democrats what no establishment Democrat ever could. Democrats needed to make manifest the unseen, to exacerbate and exaggerate the situation so that it would be so overwhelming as to not be denied. Trump is playing the role required of him, a role taken to the extreme of caricature.

Arnold Mindell has a theory about this. If something goes unclaimed in the collective psyche, it must find a way to manifest in our collective experience. It’s similar to the process of a patient’s transference and a pscyhotherapists countertransference, but on a larger scale of our shared humanity — a group dynamic. This sometimes means an individual person needs to embody the issue that the group needs to confront. Trump has taken all of the problems we are facing and made them visible and visceral, made them concretely and personally real. That is what was needed. All our problems are now unavoidable. Trump is in power because, as a society, we didn’t know how to face our problems in a different way. Trump is holding a mirror up for Americans to see themselves.

As with Trump, Democrats, the liberal class, and the mainstream media are also playing roles. Few of them understand this. But that is irrelevant. For those of us who do understand, it is our responsibility to act accordingly and to treat them accordingly.

Consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river. Even though knowing scorpions are dangerous, the frog thought he was safe because he assumed the scorpion wouldn’t sting him while carrying him across. He was wrong and the scorpion did sting him. As the frog faced the reality that they both would drown, he asked the scorpion why he did it. The scorpion said because it was in his nature.

Like the scorpion, those in power and their minions on the pseudo-left can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature or, rather, it’s in the role they are playing. They’ve become fully identified with that role with its scripted behavior. But like the frog, the rest of us have a choice. There is nothing forcing us to carry the scorpion on our backs. It would be the wise thing to do keep as far away from the scorpion as possible. We already know how that story ends.

That leaves us in a situation of uncertainty. Those of us who saw it all coming didn’t chose this fate. But it is the shared fate that has chosen us, by default of being part of the same society that includes those who did make that choice. It is irrelevant what we’d prefer. We have to deal with what is before us. Knowing the nature of those involved, knowing the roles that are being played, how do we respond? What do we do?

It does no good to blame the scorpion. The scorpion simply acts in the way any scorpion would act, as scorpions have always acted since time immemorial. The scorpion isn’t evil. Likewise, we know that it is in the nature of pseudo-liberal Democrats to betray us when it matters most. It is simply what they do. They can’t be trusted any more than a scorpion. But they aren’t evil. It’s just a role they’ve taken on and the script they are playing out.

It is up to us to understand our own nature. No one can do that for us. We have to choose our own role and take responsibility for what it entails. Anger, outrage, frustration, and even hatred are normal human responses. It’s fine to feel the full range of your humanity, including that of hope and longing. The issue we face is how might we act, rather than merely react. In this scenario, what role is being ignored and is demanding to be fulfilled. What might that role represent? And are we capable of playing it?

If it turns out we don’t like any of the roles on offer, that takes us down another level deeper. The roles available are based on the story we are collectively living and manifesting. Every story has a particular ending. To change the ending, we’d have to change the story. In telling a new story, we would have different roles to choose from. And in choosing some other role, we’d enact a worldview that would displace what came before. Enough people do the same and all of society will follow.

You can listen to the stories told to you. Or you can tell your own story.

A Neverending Revolution of the Mind

In a recent book, Juliet Barker offers new perspective about an old event (1381: The Year of the Peasant’s Revolt, Kindle Locations 41-48):

“In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners— most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle— whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.”

Our understanding of the origins of modernity keep being pushed back. It used to be thought that the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. But it was preceded by generations of revolts against colonial elite. And before that was the English Civil War, which increasingly is seen as the first modern revolution. We might have to push it even further back to the Peasant’s Revolt.

It makes sense when you know some of the historical background. England had become a major center of wool production. This unintentionally undermined the feudal order. The reason is that an entire community of feudal peasants isn’t necessary for herding sheep, in the way it had been for traditional agriculture. So, by the time the Peasant’s Revolt came around, there had already been several centuries of increasing irrelevance for much of the peasant population. This would continue on into the Enlightenment Age when the enclosure movement took hold and masses of landless peasants flooded into the cities.

It’s interesting that the pressure on the social order was already being felt that far back, almost jumpstarting the modern revolutionary era four centuries earlier. Those commoners were already beginning to think of themselves as more than mere cogs in the machinery of feudalism. They anticipated the possibility of becoming agents of their own fate. It was the origins of modern class identity and class war, at least for Anglo-American society.

There were other changes happening around then. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. This brought ancient Greek philosophy, science, and politics back into Western thought. The new old ideas were quickly spread through the invention of the movable type printing press and increasing use of vernacular language. And that directly made the Enlightenment possible.

The Italian city-states and colonial empires were becoming greater influences, bringing with them new economic systems of capitalism and corporatism. The Italian city-states, in the High Middle Ages, also initiated advocacy of anti-monarchialism and liberty-oriented republicanism. Related to this, humanism became a major concern, as taught by the ancient Sophists with Protagoras famously stating that “Man is the measure of all things.” And with this came early developments in psychological thought, such as the radical notion that everyone had the same basic human nature. Diverse societies had growing contact and so cultural differences became an issue, provoking difficult questions and adding to a sense of uncertainty and doubt.

Individual identity and social relationships were being transformed, in a way not seen since the Axial Age. Proto-feudalism developed in the Roman empire. Once established, feudalism lasted for more than a millennia. It wasn’t just a social order but an entire worldview, a way of being in and part of a shared world. Every aspect of life was structured by it. The slow unraveling inevitably led to increasing radicalism, as what it meant to be human was redefined and re-envisioned.

My thoughts continuously return to these historical changes. I can’t shake the feeling that we are living through another such period of societal transformation. But as during any major shift in consciousness, the outward results are hard to understand or sometimes hard to even notice, at least in terms of their ultimate consequences. That is until they result in an uprising of the masses and sometimes a complete overthrow of established power. Considering that everpresent possibility and looming threat, it might be wise to question how stable is our present social order and the human identity it is based upon.

These thoughts are inspired by other books I’ve been reading. The ideas I regularly return to is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism and the related speculations of those who were inspired by him, such as Iain McGilchrist. Most recently, I found useful insight from two books whose authors were new to me: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Those authors offer overviews that question and criticize many common views, specifically that of the Enlightenment ideal of individuality, in considering issues of embodiment and affect, extended self and bundled self. These aren’t just new theories that academics preoccupy themselves for reasons of entertainment and job security. They are ideas that have much earlier origins and, dismissed for so long because they didn’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, they are only now being taken seriously. The past century led to an onslaught of research findings that continuously challenged what we thought we knew.

This shift is in some ways a return to a different tradition of radical thought. John Locke was radical enough for his day, although his radicalism was hidden behind pieties. Even more radical was a possible influence on Locke, Wim Klever going so far as seeing crypto-quotations of Baruch Spinoza in Locke’s writings. Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker who focused not just on what it meant to be human but a human in the world. What kind of world is this? Unlike Locke, his writings weren’t as narrowly focused on politics, governments, constitutions, etc. Even so, Matthew Stewart argues that through Locke’s writings Spinozism was a hidden impulse that fueled the fires of the American Revolution, taking form and force through a working class radicalism as described in Nature’s God.

Spinozism has been revived in many areas of study, such as the growing body of work about affect. Never fully appreciated in his lifetime, his radicalism continues to inform and inspire innovative thinking. As Renaissance ideas took centuries to finally displace what came before, Spinoza’s ideas are slowly but powerfully helping to remake the modern mind. I’d like to believe that a remaking of the modern world will follow.

I just started an even more interesting book, Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman. She does briefly discuss Spinoza, but her framing concern is the the relationship “between the humanities and the sciences (particularly the life, neurological and psychological sciences).” She looks at the more recent developments of thought, including that of Jaynes and McGilchrist. Specifically, she unpacks the ideological self-identity we’ve inherited.

To argue for or to simply assume a particular social construct about our humanity is to defend a particular social order and thus to enforce a particular social control. She makes a compelling case for viewing neoliberalism as more than a mere economic and political system. The greatest form of control isn’t only controlling how people are allowed to act and relate but, first and foremost, how they are able to think about themselves and the world around them. In speaking about neoliberalism, she quotes Fernando Vidal (Kindle Locations 3979-3981):

“The individualism characteristic of western and westernized societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brain-hood ideology and reproduced by neurocultural discourses.”

Along with mentioning Spinoza, Blackman does give some historical background, such as in the following. And as a bonus, it is placed in the even larger context of Jaynes’ thought. She writes (Kindle Locations 3712-3724):

“Dennett, along with other scientists interested in the problem of consciousness (see Kuijsten, 2006), has identified Jaynes’s thesis as providing a bridge between matter and inwardness, or what I would prefer to term the material and immaterial. Dennett equates this to the difference between a brick and a bricklayer, where agency and sentience are only accorded to the bricklayer and never to the brick. For Dennett, under certain conditions we might have some sense of what it means to be a bricklayer, but it is doubtful, within the specificities of consciousness as we currently know and understand it, that we could ever know what it might mean to be a brick. This argument might be more usefully extended within the humanities by considering the difference between understanding the body as an entity and as a process. The concept of the body as having a ‘thing-like’ quality, where the body is reconceived as a form of property, is one that has taken on a truth status since at least its incorporation into the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (see Cohen, 2009). As Cohen (2009: 81) suggests, ‘determining the body as the legal location of the person radically reimagines both the ontological and political basis of person-hood’. This act conceives the body as an object possessed or owned by individuals, what Cohen (2009) terms a form of ‘biopolitical individualization’. Within this normative conception of corporeality bodies are primarily material objects that can be studied in terms of their physicochemical processes, and are objects owned by individuals who can maintain and work upon them in order to increase the individual’s physical and cultural capital.”

In her epilogue, she presents a question by Catherine Malabou (Kindle Locations 4014-4015): “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” The context changes as the social order changes, from feudalism to colonialism and now capitalism. But phrased in various ways, it is the same question that has been asked for centuries.

Another interesting question to ask is, by what right? It is more than a question. It is a demand to prove the authority of an action. And relevant to my thoughts here, it has historical roots in feudalism. It’s like asking someone, who do you think you are to tell me what to do? Inherent in this inquiry is one’s position in the prevailing social order, whether feudal lords challenging the kings authority or peasants challenging those feudal lords. The issue isn’t only who we are and what we are allowed to do based on that but who or what gets to define who we are, our human nature and social identity.

Such questions always have a tinge of the revolutionary, even if only in potential. Once people begin questioning, established attitudes and identities have already become unmoored and are drifting. The act of questioning is itself radical, no matter what the eventual answers. The doubting mind is ever poised on a knife edge.

The increasing pressure put on peasants, especially once they became landless, let loose individuals and identities. This incited radical new thought and action. As a yet another underclass forms, that of the imprisoned and permanently unemployed that even now forms a tenth of the population, what will this lead to? Throwing people into desperation with few opportunities and lots of time on their hands tends to lead to disruptive outcomes, sometimes even revolution.

Radicalism means to go to the root and there is nothing more radical than going to the root of our shared humanity. In questions being asked, those in power won’t be happy with the answers found. But at this point, it is already too late to stop what will follow. We are on our way.

Bias About Bias

A common and contentious issue is accusations of bias, often in the media but more interestingly in science. But those making perceiving bias can’t agree what they are. Some even see biases in how biases are understood. An example of this is how ideologies are labeled, defined, framed, and measured. I’m specifically thinking in terms of opinion polling and social science research.

A certain kind of liberal oddly agrees with conservatives about many criticisms of liberalism. I can be that kind of odd liberal in some ways, as complaining about liberals is one of my favorite activities and I do so very much from a liberal perspective. But there are two areas where I disagree with liberals who critique their fellow liberals.

First, I don’t see a liberal bias in the social sciences or whatever else, at least not in the way it is often argued. And second, I don’t see human nature as being biased toward conservatism (nor, as Jonathan Haidt concludes, that conservatives are more broadly representative and better understanding of human nature).

* * *

Let me begin with the first.

I agree in one sense, from a larger perspective, and I could go even further. There is a liberal bias in our entire society and in all of modern Western civilization. Liberalism is the dominant paradigm.

As far as that goes, even conservatives today have a liberal bias, which is obvious when one considers how most of conservatism is defined by the liberalism of the past and often not even that far into the past. Conservatives in the modern West are more liberal than liberals used to be — not just more liberal in a vague relative sense, as contemporary conservatives in historical terms are amazingly liberal (politically, socially, and psychologically). Beyond comparisons to the past, the majority who identify as conservative even hold largely liberal positions in terms of present-day standard liberalism.

Being in a society that has been more or less liberal for centuries has a way of making nearly everyone in that society liberal to varying degrees. Our short lives don’t allow us the perspective to be shocked by how liberal we’ve all become. This shows how much Western society has embraced the liberal paradigm. Even the most reactionary politics ends up being defined and shaped by liberalism. We live in a liberal world and, to that extent, we are all liberals in the broad sense.

But this gets into what we even mean by the words we use. A not insignificant issue.

This insight about the relativity of liberalism has been driven home for me. In the context of our present society, using the general population as the measure, those who identify as and are perceived as liberals (specifically in mainstream politics and mainstream media) are really moderate-to-center-right. Sure, the average ‘liberal’ is to the left of the political right, by definition. Then again, the average ‘liberal’ is far to the right of most of the political left (or at least this is true for the liberal class that dominates). Those who supposedly represent liberalism are often neither strongly nor consistently liberal, and so I wonder: In what sense are they liberal? Well, beyond the general fact of their living in a liberal society during a liberal age.

This watered-down liberalism defined by the status quo skewed rightward becomes the defining context of everything in our society (and, assuming the so-called liberals are somewhere in the moderate middle, that still leaves unresolved the issue of what exactly they are in the middle of — middle of elite-promoted mainstream thought? middle of the professional middle-to-upper class?). If social science has a liberal bias, it is this bias of this ‘moderate middle’ or rather what gets portrayed as such. And put that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a bias as described, other than the bias of ideological confusion and self-confirmation, but certainly not a bias toward the political left. As far as leftists go, this supposed liberalism is already pretty far right in its embrace or at least tolerance of neoliberal corporatism and neocon oligarchy. Certainly, the ‘liberals’ of the Democratic Party are in many ways to the right of the American public, with nearly half of the latter not voting (and so we aren’t talking about a ‘liberalism’ that is in the middle of majority opinion).

The question isn’t just what words mean but who gets to define words and who has the power to enforce their definitions onto the rest of society. Liberalism ends up being a boundary, a last line of defense. This far left and no further. Meanwhile, there seems to be no limit to how far our society is allowed to drift right, often with the cooperation of ‘liberal’ New Democrats, until we teeter on the edge of authoritarianism and fascism, although always with liberal rhetoric playing in our ears. The liberal paradigm so dominates our imaginations that we can’t see the illiberal all around us. So, liberalism dominates, even as it doesn’t rule, at least not in a direct and simplistic sense.

With all this in mind, the mainstream may have a ‘liberal’ bias in this way. But it obviously doesn’t have a leftist bias. There is the problem. Leftism has been largely ignored, except for its usefulness as a bogeyman since the Cold War. Mainstream liberalism is as far (maybe further) away from leftism as it is from conservatism. And yet to mainstream thought, leftism isn’t allowed to have an independent identity outside of liberalism, besides when a scapegoat is needed. Ignored in all this is how far leftist is the American public, the silenced majority — an important detail, one might think.

Social scientists, political scientists, and pollsters all the time include nuanced categories for the political right, distinguishing conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and reactionaries. But what about nuanced categories for the political left? They don’t exist, at least not within mainstream thought. There is little if any research and data about American social democrats, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, left-libertarians, etc; as if such people either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s only been in recent years that pollsters even bothered to ask Americans about some of this, discovering that the majority of certain demographics (younger generations, minorities, etc) do lean left, including about the terms and labels they favor, such as seeing ‘socialism’ in a positive light.

In social science, we know so little about the political left. The research simply isn’t there. Social science researchers may be ‘liberal’, however we wish to define that, but one gets the sense that few social science researchers are left-liberals and fewer still are leftists. It would be hard for radical left-wingers (or those who are perceived as such within the mainstream) to get into and remain within academia, to get hired and get tenure and then to do social science research. As hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions often run on a business model and increasingly privately funded, present day universities aren’t as welcoming to the most liberal-minded leftist ideologies.

Anarchists, in particular, are practically invisible to social science research. Just as invisible are left-libertarians (many being anarcho-syndicalists), as it is assumed in the mainstream that libertarian is by definition right-wing, despite the fact that even right-libertarians tend to be rather liberal-minded (more liberal-minded than mainstream liberals in many ways). It’s almost impossible to find any social science research on these ideologies and what mindsets might underlie them.

Let’s at least acknowledge our ignorance and not pretend to know more than we do.

* * *

This brings me to the second thing.

Among some liberals (e.g., Jonathan Haidt), it’s assumed that human nature is inherently conservative. What is interesting is that this is, of course, a standard conservative argument. But you never hear the opposite, conservatives arguing human nature is liberal.

The very notion of a singular human nature is itself a conservative worldview. A more liberal-minded view is that human nature either doesn’t exist, not in a monolithic sense at least, or else that human nature is fluid, malleable, and shaped by the environment. The latter view is becoming the dominant view in the social sciences, although there are some holdouts like Haidt.

Mainstream thought changes slowly. The idea of a singular human nature was primarily held by the liberal-minded in centuries past. This is because it was used to defend universal human rights and civil rights, often in terms of inborn natural rights. The Enlightenment thinkers and later revolutionary pamphleteers helped spread the notion that everyone had a human nature and that it was basically the same, no matter if European or otherwise, rich or poor, free or slave, civilized or savage.

As opposed to today, the conservative-minded of that earlier era weren’t open to such thinking. Now conservatives have embraced this former ideologically and psychologically liberal position. Classical liberalism, radical in its opposition to the traditionalism of its day, is now seen by even conservatives as the bedrock tradition of our liberal society.

The very notion of a human nature is the product of civilization, not of a supposed human nature. Prior to the Axial Age, no one talked about a human nature nor is it obvious that they ever acted based on the assumption that such a thing existed. The invention of the idea of a ‘human nature’ was itself a radical act, a reconception of what it means to be human. All of post-Axial Age civilization is built on this earliest of radical visions that was further radicalized during the Enlightenment. Without the Axial Age (and one might argue the breakdown of the bicameral mind that made it possible), there would have been no Greco-Roman democracy, republicanism, philosophy, and science; and so no Renaissance that would have helped inspire the European Enlightenment.

The question isn’t just what is human nature, such as conservative or liberal, individualistic or social, etc. First and foremost, we must ask if such a thing exists. If so, what exactly does it even mean to speak of a ‘human nature’? Those are the kinds of questions that are more likely to be considered by the most liberal-minded, at least in the context of present Western society.

When certain liberals argue for a conservative human nature, I suspect an ulterior motive. The implication seems to be that conservatism is the most primitive and base, uncultured and uncivilized layer of the human psyche. As liberals we must contend with this conservatism and so let’s throw the conservative wolf a bone in hopes of domesticating it into a dog that can be house-broken and house-trained.

This could be seen as turning liberalism into an advanced achievement of modern civilization that transcends beyond a base and primal human nature, as if the difficulties and weaknesses of liberalism prove its worth. Sure, conservatism may be the foundation, but liberalism is the penthouse on the upper floors decked out with the finest of modern conveniences. Liberalism is to conservatism, from this perspective, in the way modern civilization is to ancient tribalism. Whatever one may argue about those earlier societies in relation to human nature, I doubt many want to return to that kind of social order, not even among the most nostalgic of reactionaries.

This is an argument made by Jonathan Haidt in promoting a Whiggish narrative of capitalism, despite his at other times bending over backwards to praise conservatism. Using conservatism as a broad base upon which to build the progressive liberal dream is not exactly what conservatives are hoping for from their ideological movement. This is why Haidt doesn’t grasp that most conservatives don’t want to just get along, for egalitarian tolerance isn’t a conservative-minded attitude.

One might suspect that calling human nature fundamentally conservative is a bit of a backhanded compliment. A wary conservative likely would assume a hidden condescension or else an attempt to butter them up for some ulterior motive. Even with the best of intentions, this seems like a wrong way to think about the ideological situation.

Here is a central problem. Anthropological accounts of tribal societies, I’d argue, don’t confirm the hypothesis of a conservative human nature. Outside of the modern Westernized world, I doubt it makes much sense to use a modern Westernized frame like liberal vs conservative. The approach used by theorists of Darwinian psychology has too many pitfalls, misguiding us with cultural biases and leading to deeply unfalsifiable just-so stories. As John Gray stated so clearly, in The Knowns and the Unknowns (New Republic):

“There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

“Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all.”

For example, in thinking about the Pirahã, I don’t see them as being fundamentally conservative, at least as Daniel Everett portrays them. It appears they don’t particularly care about or, in some cases, even comprehend the worldview of what we call conservatism: need for control and closure, ideological dogmatism and rigid belief systems, natural law and universal morality, family values and the sanctity of marriage, organized religion and religiosity (much less literalism and fundamentalism), rituals and traditions, law and order, social roles and authority figures, overtly enforced social norms and community-sanctioned punishments, public shaming and harsh judgment, disciplinarian parenting and indoctrination of children, strict morality and sexual prudery, disgust about uncleanliness and protection against contagion, worry about injury and death, fear-ridden anxiety and heightened threat perception, dislike toward a lack of orderliness and clear guidelines, etc.

Within their society, they don’t have any kind of hierarchies or privileged positions. They have no chiefs, respected committee of elders, governing body, or political system. Any person could be a temporary leader for a particular activity, but the need for a leader is merely pragmatic and rare. Their society is loosely organized with no formal or traditional roles, such as shaman or medicine man. They lack anything resembling a social institution or social structure. They don’t even have such things as initiations into adulthood, traditions of storytelling, etc. The communal aspects of their tribalism are quite basic and mostly in the background. What holds their society together is simply a cultural identity and personal relationships, not outward rules and forms.

Their way of relating to the larger world is casual as well. They don’t have an inordinate amount of worries and concerns about outsiders or hatred and aggression toward them. They don’t seem to obsess about perceived enemies nor foster a worldview of conflict and danger. The worst that they do is complain about those they think treated them unfairly, such as trade deals and land usage, but even that is talked about in a personal way between individuals. Otherwise, their attitude toward non-Pirahã is mostly a casual indifference and the tolerant acceptance that follows from it.

In some key ways, the Pirahã are less conservative-minded and authoritarian than Western liberals. On the other hand, their society is basically conformist and ethnocentric in a typical tribalistic fashion. And they do have some gender role patterns, including in their language. But their pedophilia is gender neutral, not privileging men, as everyone is permitted to participate in sexual play.

Even within the conformity of their group identity, they strongly disapprove of one individual telling another individual what to do. No Pirahã will tell another Pirahã how to be a Pirahã. And if a Pirahã was unhappy being a Pirahã, I doubt another Pirahã would be bothered or try to stop them from leaving. They appear to have a rather live and let live philosophy.

Pointing out a specific area of social science research, I’m not sure how boundary types would be applied to the Pirahã, in that they don’t think about boundaries as modern Westerners do. They live in such a small world that what exists outside of the boundaries of their experience is simply irrelevant, such that they wouldn’t even recognize a boundary as such. Where their experience of the world stops, that is the edge of their world. There is just what they personally know and then there is everything else. Boundaries are explicitly acknowledged liminal spaces and so extremely fuzzy in their worldview, including boundaries of consciousness and identity. The worldviews of either individuality or group-mindedness would likely seem meaningless to them.

Even pointing out the few areas that could be interpreted as ‘conservative’, I wouldn’t think that would be all that helpful. It doesn’t really say much about human nature in a broad sense. What anthropology shows us, more than anything, is that human societies are diverse and human nature contains immense potential.

Consider all of this from the perspective of the outsider.

Jonathan Haidt came to his understanding partly because of an early experience among another traditional culture, India with its ancient Hinduism and caste system. That gave him a contrast to his liberal view of individualism and convinced him that individualism was lacking in something key to human nature.

I agree, as far as that goes. But I’d simply point out that in the United States the political right is often more obsessed with individualism than is the political left.

It’s American liberals who go on and on about community, the commons, social capital, social responsibility, concern for future generations, externalized costs, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, public parks, public good, public welfare, universal healthcare, universal education, child protection, worker protection, labor unions, public infrastructure, collective governance, group rights, defense of minority cultures, Native American tribal autonomy, etc. And a typical response by American conservatives is to accuse progressive liberals of being collectivists (maybe they’re right about this) while declaring the abstract rights and simplistic individualism of classical liberalism, often mixing this up with fundamentalist religion as though the Christian soul was the basis of Enlightenment individualism and the Biblical God the inspiration for the American Revolution.

Ironically, it is liberals in promoting tolerance who so often end up defending traditional religions and cultures against the attacks by modern-minded conservatives. The latter group, through internalizing libertarian and Objectivist ideologies, have become the fiercest advocates of classical liberalism and hyper-individualism.

Comparison between societies doesn’t necessarily tell us much about comparisons of ideologies within a society. If Haidt had instead spent that time in the Amazon with the Pirahã, he probably would have come to very different views. Plus, it always depends on your starting point, the biases you bring with you. Daniel Everett, who did spend years with the Pirahã, was coming from a different place and so ended up with a different view. Everett was a conservative missionary seeking to convert the natives, but instead they deconverted him and he became an atheist. My sense is that meeting a traditional society left Everett way more liberal than he began, causing him to embrace an attitude of cultural relativism, as inspired by the epistemological relativism of the Pirahã.

What Haidt misses is that Western religious conservatives, especially in the United States, tend to be individualistic Protestants (even American Catholics are strongly individualistic). It’s not that Everett necessarily lost his Evangelical individualism in being deconverted for the traditional society that he met was in some ways even more individualistic, even as it was less individualistic in other ways. The fundamental conflict had little to do with individualism at all. A religious conservative like Everett had been lost in abstractions, based on an abstract religious tradition, but he was blind to these abstractions until he met the Pirahã who found his abstractions to be useless and irritating.

American conservatism, religious and otherwise, can tell us nothing about traditional societies. As Corey Robin convincingly argues, modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists. Modern conservatism was created in response to the failure of the ancien régime. Conservatives came to power not to revive the old order but to create a new and improved order. It wasn’t a movement to conserve but a reaction to what had already been lost. This was clear even early on, as observed by the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre when he pointed out that people identifying as conservatives only appeared after revolution had largely destroyed what came before.

Also, keep in mind that individualism and liberalism didn’t appear out of nowhere. Incipient forms of both, as I pointed out earlier, came on the scene back in the Axial Age. Even the India Haidt visited was a fully modern society that had seen millennia of change and progress. Hinduism had long ago fallen under the sway of varying forms of influence from the Axial Age to British Imperialism. And if we are to speculate a bit by considering Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, even the hierarchical social orders of recent civilizations were late on the scene in the longer view of vast societal development beginning with agriculture and the first settled communities.

To claim we know the ideological substructure of our humanity is to overlook so many complicating factors, some of which we know but most of which we don’t.

This has been a difficulty in our attempt to understand our own psychological makeup, in how our minds and societies operate. The ultimate bias isn’t political but cultural. Most social science research has been done on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic), primarily white middle class college students. It turns out that very different results are found when other populations are studied, not just countries like India but also tribes like the Pirahã. What we know about ideological groupings, as with human nature, might look far different if we did equally large numbers of studies on the poor, minorities, non-Westerners, independent societies, etc.

It’s not just a matter of what kind of human nature we might be talking about. More importantly, the question is exactly whose human nature are we talking about and who is doing the questioning. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects will lead to WEIRD results and conclusions. That is not exactly helpful. And it is even worse than that, as the biases go deep. Our very approach to human nature, identity, and the mind are shaped by our culture. In a WEIRD culture, that has tended to mean the assumption of an autonomous, bounded individual. As Robert Burton explained it (A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, pp. 107-108):

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

“The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

The very belief that the mind can be explained by the mind is a particular worldview. In the context of WEIRD populations being biased toward such a belief, Burton brought up an interesting point (pp. 50-51):

“If each of us has his/ her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers. Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature. (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors’ behavior would be to fall into the same trap.)

“Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind. One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation. The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/ she sees the same red that you do. The degree and nature of neuroscientists’ causal conclusions about the mind are as idiosyncratic as their experience of love, a sunset, or a piece of music.

“There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual’s involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual’s belief that the mind can explain itself. Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.”

* * *

Here are some further thoughts about liberalism and such.

Maybe our very view of liberal bias has been biased by the ‘liberal class’ that dominates, defines, and studies liberalism. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of biases related to our living in a modern liberal society as part of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But this bias might be wider, deeper, and more complex than we realize.

This class issue has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in a class-obsessed society. Sure, we obsess about class differently than the Indian caste system, but in some ways we are even more obsessed by caste for the very reason that it stands in for so much else, such as how castes include factors of ethnicity, religion and social roles. Class, in American society, has to do so much more ideological work to accomplish the same ends of maintaining a social hierarchy.

Maybe this is why class ideology gets conflated with political ideology, in a way that wouldn’t be seen in a different kind of society. Calling oneself a liberal in our society only indirectly has anything to do with liberal politics and a liberal mentality, as many who identify as liberal aren’t strongly liberal-minded about politics while many who are strongly liberal-minded about politics don’t identify as liberals.

The word ‘liberal’ doesn’t actually mean what we think it means. The same goes for ‘conservative’. These words are proxies for other things. To be called liberal in America most likely means you are part of the broad liberal class, which typically means you’re a well-educated middle-to-upper class professional, no matter that your politics might be moderate-to-conservative in many ways. A poor person who is liberal across the board, however, will unlikely identify as a liberal because they aren’t part of the liberal class. This is why rhetoric about the liberal elite has such currency in our society, even as this so-called liberal elite can be surprisingly more conservative than the general public on a wide variety of key issues.

What we forget is that our society is highly unusual and not representative of human nature, not in the slightest. The American liberal class is the product of a society that is based on Social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy, late capitalism, plutocratic cronyism, and neoliberal corporatism. As I argued earlier, even American universities are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. And the Ivy League colleges still use class-based legacy privileges, which is important for maintaining the American social order as most politicians are Ivy League graduates as are many who are recruited by alphabet soup agencies (e.g., CIA). The larger history of Western universities precedes Enlightenment liberalism by centuries, not having been designed with leftist ideologies in mind.

Yet we consider universities to be refuges for the intellectual elite of the liberal class. That is only true in terms of the class social order. The majority of the liberal-minded, of the socially and politically liberal won’t find a refuge in such a place. In fact, the most strongly liberal-minded would rarely fit into the stultifying regimented lifestyle of a university. To be successful in a university career would require some strong personality traits of conservative-mindedness, although some have argued that was less true decades ago.

As such, liberalism in the United States has taken on so much meaning that has directly nothing to do with liberalism itself, specifically when talking about the role of liberalism within human nature. Consider other societies. In feudal Europe or the slave American South, being liberal (psychologically, socially, and politically) would have had nothing whatsoever to do with class; and if anything, being too liberal in such societies would have been harmful to your class status and class aspirations.

During the American Revolution, it was actually among the lower classes that were found the most liberal-minded radicals and rabblerousers. Thomas Paine, a self-taught working class bloke and often dirt poor, was on of the more liberal-minded among the so-called founding fathers. The more elite founding fathers were too invested in the status quo to go very far in embracing liberalism and many of them became or always were reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The working class revolutionaries who fought for liberalism didn’t tend to bode well, either before or after the revolutionary era. It took many more generations before a liberal class began to develop and, even then, the most strongly and radically liberal would often be excluded.

This is the point. A liberal class hasn’t always existed, despite liberal-minded traits having been part of human nature for longer than civilization has existed. The status quo ‘liberalism’ of the liberal class in a modern capitalism of the West is the product of specific conditions. It’s a social construct, as is ‘conservatism’. The entire framework of liberal vs conservative is a social construct that makes no sense outside of the specific society that formed it.

Environments are powerful shapers of the psyche, of attitudes and behavior, of worldviews and politics. All of Western civilization has become increasingly liberal and large part of that has to do with improved conditions for larger parts of the population, such as improved health and education even for the poor. In direct correlation with rising IQ, there is increasing liberalism. How class plays into this is that the upper classes see the improvements before the lower classes, but eventually the improvements trickle down or that is what has happened so far. The average working class American today is healthier, smarter, better educated, and more liberal than the middle class was in centuries past.

So, even class can only be spoken of as a comparative status at any given point in history because it isn’t an objective reality. The liberalism of the American liberal class, as such, can only be meaningfully discussed within the context of its time and place. This is more about a social order than about political ideologies, per se. That is most obvious in how conservatives embrace the liberalism of the past, for conservative and liberal have no objective meaning and there is no objective way to measure them.

Environments effect us in ways that involve confounding factors, and most of us inherit our environments along with other factors from our parents (epigenetics connecting environmental influences to new generations, even if a child was raised in another environment). Think about cats. For whatever reason, cat ownership is much more common in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States. And as these are colder regions, people are more likely to keep cats inside. But this habit of having cats as indoor pets is a recent development. It has led to a rise in toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection — as I’ve discussed before in terms of psychology and ideology:

“When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?”

Are New Englanders a particular kind of liberal simply because that is the way they are? Or if we corrected for the confounding factor of cats and toxoplasmosis, would we find for example that there is no causal relation between liberalism and neuroticism?

Environments aren’t always inherited, as it can change quite easily. Will a New England family that moved to the South still show increased rates of neurotic liberalism several generations later? Probably not. Most of this isn’t intentional and parents are often perplexed about why their children turn out differently, oblivious to the larger conditions that shape individuals.

My conservative parents raised me in a liberal church and in some liberal towns. And maybe more importantly, they raised me with cats in the house. It wasn’t genetic determinism and inborn nature that made me into a neurotic liberal. Still, the potential for neuroticism and liberalism had to be within me for environmental conditions to make it manifest. And indeed I can see how my neurotic liberalism is just an exaggerated variation of personality traits I did inherit from my conservative parents who are mildly liberal-minded.

Then again, I did inherit much of my broader environment from my parents: born in the United States, spent my formative years in the Midwest, grew up during the Cold War, went to public schools, encouraged to respect education from a young age, my entire life shaped by Western culture and capitalism, etc. So, my parents’ conservatism and my liberalism probably has more in common than not, as compared to the rest of the world’s population and as compared to past societies. Parents and their children share a social order and the way that social order shapes not just people but all the world around them. And in many cases, parents and their children will share the same basic position or place in society.

That is the case with my family, as contact with the broad liberal class has influenced my conservative parents as much as it has influenced me. The same goes for the Midwestern sensibility I share with my parents. My parents’ Midwestern conservatism seemed liberal when our family moved South. And my liberalism is far different than what goes for liberalism in the South. Had various lines of my family remained outside of the Midwest, the following generations would probably have been far different. Choices to move that were made by previous generations of non-Midwesterners led to my parents and I being born as Midwesterners.

Then, even later on living in the South, my parents and I couldn’t shake how growing up in the Midwest had permanently altered us, more powerfully than any political ideology (although less so for my dad, maybe because his mother was a Southerner). This is why it is often easier for me to talk with my conservative parents or to conservative Iowans than to talk to the liberals of the liberal class from other parts of the country.

Context is everything. And this gets me wondering. If all confounding factors were controlled for, what would be left that could be fairly and usefully identified as political ideology?

When feudalism was the dominant paradigm and ruling social order, it simply seemed like reality itself. It was assumed that social and class position were built into human nature. This is one of the earliest sources of racial thinking. The aristocracy and monarchy assumed (based on pseudo-scientific theories and observations of class, ethnicity, and animal husbandry) that feudal serfs were a separate race, i.e., a sub-species. It turns out that they were wrong. But if they had had the ability to measure various factors (from personality to ideology, from physiology to health), they would have noted consistent patterns that supported the belief that the social order was based on a natural order. It was a dogmatic ideology that was systematically enforced and so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if our own society operates in a similar way? Class-based opportunities and disadvantages, privileges and punishments socially and physically construct a shared experience of reality. A cultural worldview then rationalizes and encloses this in a mythos of ideological realism. The sense of identity is framed by this and those who inquire into human nature already have their sense of human nature constrained accordingly. Unless they are confronted by a truly foreign society, their worldview will remain hermetically sealed.

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How many in our society, even among the well-educated, ever manage to escape from this blindered habitus? Not many. Only as the culture itself shifts will more people within the culture be able to explore new undestandings. This will then lead to new biases, but one could hope those biases will be more expansive and flexible.

Bias is inevitable. But we have the added problem of being biased in our perception of bias. It’s impossible to fully discern one’s own biases while under their influence, although we can gain the awareness of our predicament. The fact that we are beginning to question the biases of our culture indicates that we are beginning to shift outside of them. It will take at least a few more generations, though, before we can understand this shift and what it means.

Give it some time and liberalism will mean something entirely new. And the conservatives of the future will embrace the liberalism of our present. Some of what we now consider radical or even unimaginable will eventually be normal and commonplace. There will be different sets of biases framed in a different worldview and dominated by a different paradigm.

Most people in the future likely won’t even notice that a shift happened, as it likely will be gradual. They’ll assume that the world they know is in some sense how the world has always been. That assumption will shape their sense of human nature, how they think about it and study it, probably in ways that would surprise us. But one thing is for sure. They’ll look back on our debates about ideological natures and biases in the way we look back on the simplistic and misguided rhetoric of feudalism that defined the classes as separate races.

One thing that is safe to assume is that our society is wrong about most things we’ve taken as obvious truth. The realization of such uncertainty is a step toward new understanding.