In the beginning we were the children who refused to grow up. We would keep our small face and big eyes for life. Better still, we would see ourselves reflected in natural phenomena and report our imaginary findings to our companions in a code our parents couldn’t fathom.
With its spherical dome and reduced brow and jaw, the oldest known skull bearing modern features dates to about 195,000 years ago. What’s striking is how closely it resembles the childhood skull of our African ancestral species, archaic Homo sapiens. This suggests that our defining feature, mental self-awareness, originated as a juvenile trait. If so, the tendency of the archaic mind was to withdraw from self-directed play to a kind of lifelong senescence, every thought following from environmental cues or random mental outcroppings.
If dusk arrived in the mind of old Homo sapiens as childhood gave way to maturity, the pioneers of modern humankind somehow stopped the sunset. All the lifelong we have a light in here, in our mind, and we perceive the acts of thinking and feeling, of recalling and desiring, the way animals perceive changes in the wind or drops of rain.
Maybe, just shy of 2000 centuries ago, a group of kids began to speak according to a system of subject-verb sentences. The duplication of world as word would have provided the anchor that held the mind’s interest in itself despite the long-established tendency to revert, at the onset of adulthood, to animal-like sensorial existence rich with thought and emotion but not consciously directed and certainly not linguistically mediated.
When the mind itself is an object of perception, the rule of instinct is checked by the powers of reflective reasoning and judgment. Given the standard assumption that the supreme good is progress, why didn’t the birth of our subspecies unleash sustained technological development? Why did the human toolkit continue adhering to long established standards, occasionally drifting this way and that, for more than 120,000 years? The first generation of our kind — and the 5000 or so that followed — seem to have experienced something we can hardly imagine today: they were contented and felt no need to innovate. When you live in harmony with nature, when the work of finding food and making shelter is both fulfilling and well within your abilities, why seek progress? Despite the danger of predator attack, most people lived past 60 in excellent health.
Between that time and now, something went horribly wrong. How did the human race go from a life of freedom and mutual respect to the nightmare we call history?
The best clue we have is a lake on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. What, you might ask, is so special about this lake? Well, 72,000 years ago it wasn’t a lake. It was a billion tons of rock. They say the Toba event was the biggest volcanic eruption in 400 million years. Instead of a plume of lava gracefully arcing skyward, the entire mountain exploded, triggering worldwide six-year volcanic winter — this in the midst of an ice age. Many human populations expired. Those that survived were not the same.
Though Africa was spared the worst of it, the archaeological record is unambiguous regarding changes in human lifestyle after the incineration of Mt Toba. For instance, people began “farming by fire” alongside the Klasies River, causing an eightfold increase in underground potato-like bulbs that provided a stable source of food during peak ice age conditions. Alongside this adaptation came our first significant technological innovations, the composite tool and a new system of making blades. For the first time people traveled to distant locales to find just the right stone for their tools. Whereas earlier peoples hunted only occasionally and opportunistically, mostly relying on scavenged meat, the post-Toba era saw the first systematic efforts to kill prey. It’s hard to believe that humans, naturally a prey species, had always been welcome at the local watering hole. Now animals feared our scent and scattered at our approach.
Though necessary in abruptly harsher conditions, systematic exploitation of natural plenitude soon surpassed its expiration date. As Kirkpatrick Sale explains in After Eden, we became a species at odds with the rest of nature, the exceptional species if you will, which could live by its own rules and impose itself onto other races at will.
The trouble with aggressively exploiting nature is that its bounty is reduced with each generation, necessitating migration. By 60,000 years ago post-Toban peoples were on the march into Eurasia and Australia, disrupting ecosystems and devastating herds along the way with large-scale hunting and burning. In Europe the Neanderthal branch of old Homo sapiens never stood a chance against people who mapped areas for resources to exploit and lay in wait for herds to arrive at narrow mountain passes so as to maximize the killing. All those vaunted cave paintings of animals? Most likely a form of magic to capture prey first in image and then in reality.
According to Sale, magic is a way of psychologically separating from nature in order to dominate it. On the heels of cave art came burial of high status individuals with ornaments and useful artifacts. Nothing better indicates separation from nature than denial of death.
By 15,00 years ago newly developed weapons like the spear-thrower and the bow and arrow enabled people to kill from a distance, stressing prey populations and fueling conflicts between competing tribes. Before long the weapons we developed against animals were turned on each other, as revealed by cave paintings in southwest France of people with spears cut through them. The earliest evidence of mass murder comes from the Sudan around 13,000 years ago. The emergence of war as a human institution soon followed. From war comes patriarchy and class divide with the warriors at the top of the heap.
Domestication of animals and plants, possibly originating from necessity during times of deprivation, soon became a source of wealth for the privileged few. The enslaving of conquered peoples followed logically from the enslaving of pigs and goats. Before long, impoverished cities surrounded by despoiled lands spurred tyrants to embark on campaigns of human slaughter so as to extend their empires. By the time the Jews escaped Egypt, the Fall was complete.
You can point to your brother, but you can’t point to his name. Only when she realized water is both a thing and a word did Helen Keller transition from animal-like to human, from biological to biographical, for she too had a name, a self-identity. Though commonly interpreted in terms of the creation of the physical world, the Book of Genesis, says Caryl Johnston, concerns the emergence of the symbolic world and how it set the stage for our fall from grace.
Author of Consecrated Venom, Johnston places Genesis in a rational context. The story of God is the story of the human mind. The rejection of gods in favor of God follows from the fact that consciousness is singular. I have a name; therefore I am. Though Johnston doesn’t go quite this far, in my view “God” is the name we have for this ability to think ourselves into being, to name both self and other.
The basic idea of Genesis, writes Johnston, is that God wants our thinking to be grounded in the real, that is, in the body and the tangible world. Adam represents our power to make distinctions and establish facts, to name names. Above the ribs is the symbolic body: the eyes and ears, the brain, the vocal cords. Eve comes from something deeper, from the sleep of Adam when his rib is removed. Eve represents the mind’s equivalent of the digestive and reproductive faculties, our ability to assimilate facts, to relate them to each other and reproduce them in the form of coherent meaning. Facts alone do not constitute understanding. For that we need context. Adam and Eve are the two sides of human cognition.
Eden, the original field of human thought, contains two fruit-bearing trees. One brings life and the other brings death. One fruit is digested and the other gets caught in the throat. The temptation is to become all-knowing, to become gods, but it’s too much to swallow. We can attain a simulacrum of knowledge, a set of disembodied abstractions, but the result is to confuse the world with our symbols of it, as if the act of manipulating them allows us to redefine reality itself. This is the fruit of the tree of unlimited knowledge, the knowledge of everything from good to evil, from that which serves us to that which impedes us.
Expulsion from Eden represents the loss of the natural human mind, of serenity and effortless joy, and its replacement with a self-perpetuating cycle of exploitation and suffering. The apple is caught in the throat. Absent genuine fulfillment, the fallen mind doesn’t take things in their own right but only in terms of their utility. The deep reflective work of Eve disconnects from the symbolizing executive mind of Adam. Intelligent thought, writes Johnston, gets ensnared in the umbilical region. We shun the art of relating — through thinking, listening, tending, waiting — in favor of acquisition and domination. No longer nourished by the fruit of the tree of life, we are hijacked by our own “digestive organism of attention.”
Cain is not only a name but a word meaning to possess or acquire. The mark on his brow symbolizes a scheming mind. Abel is also a word, and it means exhalation, the breath that vanishes. The murder of Abel is the triumph of intellect over spirit, of calculation over compassion. Cain snuffs out Abel in the world’s first fit of narcissistic rage, jealous that God prefers Abel’s offering to his own. An agriculturalist, he has separated from nature as well as his fellow man. The benign self-identity of Edenic mind has become the malignant self-delusion of ego-mind.
If God is our ability to think ourselves into being, Lucifer is our ability to think ourselves into insanity. God wants us to be real. Knowledge must be embodied, rooted in our senses and verified by our hands. This, according to Johnston, is why God demands a blood sacrifice from Abraham. Even if not his son, Abraham must sacrifice something real in exchange for God’s guidance through the hell of our own making. So long as we are one with nature, eating from the tree of life, reality is paradise. But if we separate from nature and each other, living for ourselves and not for the whole of life, reality is punishment. Either way God keeps it real. The modern world, with its delights and conveniences, can be seen as an attempt to bring back paradise without going to the trouble of returning to our natural state of mind. Therein lies another fall, worse than the first.
Like the serpent in the garden promised, we became powerful, godlike. We’ve also split from nature to the point where the growth on which our economy depends is threatening the ecology on which our survival depends. So long as we confuse tangible value with money, a mere symbol, how can we address actual problems?
The fall from grace actualized the potential for misperception inherent in a mind aware of its capacity to imagine. We’d always had a symbolic world; we just hadn’t fallen in. The word “religion” expresses our need to “link back” to something real, to pull us back from the brink of a bottomless pit of abstraction. Johnston emphasizes that religion is a link, not a lock. If you think your religious beliefs provide you with a lock on the truth, you’ve already fallen into the pit. Absolute truth cannot be squeezed into a thought or a set of words. The only fully realized truth is reality itself, that which exists regardless of what we think about it.
The literal reading of Genesis goes back to St Augustine. It’s an odd mistake. According to Genesis I, God creates the heavens and the earth, then the various forms of life, and tops it off with humankind. This may indeed have been an attempt to describe what really happened. But Genesis II takes it in a completely different direction. In this chapter, God creates heaven and earth and then skips ahead to Adam. Other forms of life are introduced so as to give Adam some friends. Clearly both chapters cannot be right — unless, that is, the second chapter is about the creation of the symbolic world of the human mind. Bird, for instance, is not only a class of organism but a word. As far as symbolic imagination is concerned, birds and elephants and serpents had no existence until they were named. The remainder of Genesis follows from the second chapter, not the first. After Augustine, Genesis ceased to function as religious text and devolved into superstition.
As Augustine erred by reading Genesis literally, St Paul erred by separating spirit from flesh, as if spirit could have any meaning outside the context of living things. Dismissing the need for actual circumcision, Paul urged Gentiles to “circumcise the heart,” to trade in flesh sacrifices for “sacrifices of praises.” Sounds progressive of course, but it also removes the reminder that reality has primacy over symbol.
The most bedeviling symbol of all is I. Just stands there, solitary, independent. But we all need that person who taps the message into our palm. Like Helen Keller, you didn’t think of naming on your own. You simply found you had one and could name others and even rename yourself. No one becomes human on their own. Community is implicit in every one of us. Same goes at the species level. Without a web of life from bacterial to mammalian, we are nothing.
Only the hardening of self-identity into a false sense of separateness can account for the advent of the landfill, whereby nature is refashioned as a great maw into which we thoughtlessly shovel our waste. Even our own body, severed from the conscious self, becomes a receptacle for junk food. So long as the tongue likes it, who cares how it impacts our cells and organs?
Under the spell of consumer capitalism, that “digestive organism of attention,” we’re cooking the biosphere. More than 90% of greenhouse gases released so far from burning fossil fuel has been absorbed by the ocean, temporarily staving off the worst effects of global warming. Basically the ocean bought us the 21st century. Thanks, ocean! Have another helping of heated, irradiated water from a nuclear plant built in a tsunami zone.
Accustomed to a background of general insanity, why should we be surprised when it pops up in split screen on our television? Of the two media-sanctioned nominees for president, one ignores climate change while the other says America is not only great but good. That’s right, we’re good, she says, because of how we treat people. Does that include the people of Iraq, Libya, Honduras, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Detroit? Guess not. Are we seriously supposed to vote for Clinton because Trump is irresponsible? What do you call arming terrorists in Syria to overthrow an inconvenient government that also happens to be backed by nuclear armed-to-the-teeth Russia, which is dedicated not only to defending that government but fighting the terrorists?
Given the reality of Gangster America, you’ll wind up with blood on your hands whichever of these clowns you vote for. Yet the vast majority of voters will indeed cast their ballot for one or the other. As unhinged as this campaign has been, the 2016 election is just another quadrennial recapitulation of the famed Milgram experiments, demonstrating once more that a clear majority of people will kill a complete stranger for no apparent reason so long as it’s on the command of Authority. Originally democracy was unnecessary. Now it doesn’t work, not with the human race divided between those who expect automatic compliance and those unable to imagine not giving it.
When I was almost 20 — a little before the modern, updated version of lifelong senescence typically sets in — an esteemed teacher from Korea gave me a piece of advice. I’d been overheating my first morning at the Zen retreat: faint, dizzy and very hot but only in my head. He had a good chuckle at that. This one’s aggressive, he said, always thinking and devising plans. There was no judgment in this. It wasn’t a bad thing, just how I’d come into the world. Best of all, he had a remedy: put your mind in your belly.
Sit up straight but otherwise relaxed. Let your gaze fall to the floor. Rest your hands with palms facing up, open to creation. And just stay like that. Of course, in your mind all kinds of things are buzzing about, but in terms of actuality, you’re just breathing.
For several months after that retreat, I frequently sensed the same heat during meditation but now in my belly. Often it felt like I was peeing fire through a point just below my bellybutton. Only on occasion did the heat reconstitute in my head, reminding me to return my focus to belly and breath.
The point is to let the mind settle, to reduce the racket of symbols begetting abstractions begetting insinuations. Only perceive. Inhale and exhale. The discriminating mind carries on but no longer dominates. Over time prelapsarian consciousness, or at least a semblance of it, is restored.
While there’s no “spiritual” shortcut for a century’s worth of economic and political organization, extracting ourselves from the hall of mirrors is the first step on the path to an old way of thought and a new way of life.
This is our choice. Either restore the umbilical link to nature or get ready for Fall 2.0.
Ted Dace is author of Escape from Quantopia, Iff Books, 2014. His essay on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God was published by Skeptical about Skeptics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.