Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ancient Rumblings

Here is an intriguing article about sin and salvation by the author of The Evolution of God, a book I would really like to read. It posits that our evolitionarily useful sense of guilt was developed by religion into the concept of sin. The need for salvation is a consequence of this, and the author implies what I have always believed - that whether or not God exists in the way that perceive or believe her or him to, the drive for salvation is a useful human urge. Therefore the belief in God is more practically useful on a general plane than not believing in God. Of course there are drastic exceptions on both sides - deeply moral atheists and unabashedly hypocritical believers.

I am reading another book right now called The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, by Leonard Shlain, which covers similar ground for different reasons. The section on human evolution is particularly fascinating. The hunter/gatherer stage lasted around 2,990,000 years (!), and so many if not all of what feel like natural human instincts were developed during this time. The right and left sides of the brain developed different tasks during this time, and this in turn was caused by the development of an opposable thumb to climb trees, a heel when the trees in the jungle parted, and then the consequent mastery of throwing things, which led to the particularly hominid means of hunting from a distance. But as hominid brains got bigger, the size of the brain was limited by the circumference of the female pelvis, which led to babies born without being fully developed, as other animals are. You then have a baby who cannot walk or even lift its head at birth and thus requires a type of nurturing that is unique among the species. Human brains continue to develop for twenty years, which necessitates a division of labor as females care for babies who cannot care for themselves or even cling properly to their mothers.

So, Shlain argues, this accounts for the division of labor in primitive societies, and the differences in the brain, which cause a huge psychological rift between men and women. Hunters survive by being analytical, thinking in a linear way, concentrating with a single-minded focus. Mothers, on the other hand, need more peripheral vision (which they have, since they have more rods in their eyes than men), to be able to care for children while simultaneously gathering subsistence food. The other duality that comes into play here is between relationship to others (gathering) and survival (hunting), which in many ways contradict each other. Survival necessitates an us vs. them mentality, leading eventually to the particularly human act of murder, even of the family. The resultant dualities in the brain (since men and women all contain all of these elements) is the split that has caused much confusion and anxiety, as well much of the ability to recognize the beauty and fragility of the world.

Shlain's thesis is that these hunter/gatherer societies were the most egalitarian in history, as well as the best balance in the brain hemispheres. But with the domestication of crops and animals, hunting was no longer necessary, and so the outlet for male aggression, previously so vital for survival, was diminished to almost nothing. This is when the era of human sacrifice began, as well as sports, battles, and wars. But where he's headed with the book is how the development of the alphabet made the left brain dominant, though it was the younger twin. Like Jacob to Esau, the younger twin supplanted the elder, which is a theme throughout the bible and all the religions and philosophies of the Axial Age. In the Hebrew Bible, true human nature begins with the murder of Abel by Cain, and Genesis is not complete until the younger brother (Joseph) not only supplants but finally learns to forgive his brothers. But that imbalance, between the twin hemispheres struggling for dominance, is what we are left struggling with today.

Of course, we have moved beyond the agrarian society (almost none of us have any real idea how out food makes it to our plates), but we are left with 10,000 years of patriarchal instincts, on top of and often in conflict with 2,990,000 years of hunter/gatherer ones. No wonder we feel alienated and confused!

I am just beginning to process a lot of this (I am familiar with most of the theories from Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology, a true masterwork on the topic), but I hope to write more about it, since it fascinates me so deeply and has for so many years. We have shifted so much to the left brain, with its surgical spotlight focus, but you can tell by the insistence of religion in spite of scientific evidence, by the persistence of art despite the dominance of cheap commercialism, and by the hunger for mythology as evidenced by the Harry Potter and Twilight phenomena, that the older twin is beginning to demand her birthright once again. Deep in the recesses of the psyche, the goddess is beginning to stir once again.

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