Monday, May 28, 2007

Ishmael the gorilla, Don Juan the sorcerer, Anne the Australian, Biological determinism, and me

According to Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, and other historians and anthropologists, 'modern-day' humans and their recent evolutionary ancestors existed for almost 3 million years prior to commencement of the event that has come to be known as the agricultural revolution. Quinn claims that prior to this momentous and still ongoing event, humans lived 'in the hands of the gods', or, in other words, lived at the mercy of the world. A simplified way of stating the same is to say that prior to the agricultural revolution humans lived without trying to control - in the dominating, mastering sense of the word - the world around them and its course, but, for the most part, existed as any other organism on the planet, ie by following the same biological/ecological rules, particularly those concerned with competition between species.

The agriculture revolution has now persisted for several thousand years - since approximately 900 BC, a small fraction of the time humans and their ancestors existed on the planet without its associated concepts or the practice of tilling the earth. The agricultural revolution clearly involved not only technological changes for humans but also moral and ethical, social and cultural, and religious and philosophical shifts as well. A deeply important potentially far reaching aspect of these changes lies in the power of control, or the illusion of the power of control.

For hunter-gatherer groups, those Quinn calls Leavers, prior to the birth of agriculture, 'living at the mercy of the world' often meant having little or no control over food supply and availability. Food, while often plentiful, could almost certainly be encountered each day but one had no ability to predict the type or the amount, nor the ability to store/preserve any excess food that was hunted or gathered. Naturally such a limitation would create a situation in which one was forced to take only what one needed for oneself and one's immediate community, and no more. The crucial aspect of this situation to remember, however, is that because food was often so plentiful, it made no difference that storage or production of an excess was impossible. There was, at least for the 3 million year majority of human history on the planet, simply no drive or incentive for technology such as agriculture, most likely because of the abundance of food available for a top-of-the-food-chain omnivore like a human creature.

Thus the point I am driving at: control of the world around us or the illusion of such control. Being able to produce and store certain types of food in quantities that exceed necessity essentially puts our species' fate and survival directly in the apparent power and mastery of humans, creating a sense that we control our world and our place in it, and, as Quinn says, taking us out of the hands of the gods. In other words, the dawn of agriculture marked the moment when humans no longer lived at the mercy of the world, but began to believe that they could make the world live at the mercy of humans. I don't remember if these words are Quinn's or my own.

This idea, that of perceiving to have the ability to control the world and our own lives, was most likely instrumental in the early days of the agriculture revolution, and as this time seems also to hold the birth of much of the culture of the first world today, it is not surprising that the concept of control over our selves and the world is now entrenched so deeply into almost all aspects of that culture. Self-help guides entitled 'Control Your Own Destiny' have never sold so well as today, but I'm willing to bet most of the consumers of such guides don't think of the agricultural revolution as they stand in the line next to the check-out counter. The idea that the ability to control our lives - and the microcosm of the world in which we revolve - might be an illusion may seem preposterous, but such incredulity may only be a testament to the depth of saturation that that idea has reached in our system of beliefs.

Three different things have come to convince me that the concept of controlling ones' self and the world is indeed almost entirely an illusion: Australians, my own experiences, and biological determinism. While my own accounts are by no means conclusive evidence of the notion that humans should perhaps live like other species at the mercy of the world, these personal testimonies provide a convenient stage on which to discuss the recent findings in neurological research that lend strength to the proponents of biological determinism.

I spent one year immediately after graduating from college traveling outside of and often far from home, following a bird on its migration route through Canada, Europe, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. An inexperienced traveler at the outset, I attempted to plan in advance and control all aspects of my journey in my first few months on the road - transportation, lodging, where I'd eat, what I'd do, every hour of every day used to maximum efficiency - and the stress of it nearly left me with a broken body, mind, and spirit. I discovered, to use Quinn's words once more, that living outside of the hands of the gods - continually fighting to shape the world to meet my preconceived expectations and destiny as I moved from place to place - was not only unnatural but destructive and painful. It took an unexpectedly serious conservation on a long train ride through the Moroccan desert with an Australian girl who had been alone on the road for months to reveal the error of my traveling ways, namely that I trusted too little, feared too much, and tried to control all steps of the way.

In all the countries I've visited, I've encountered more Australian travelers than wanderers from any other place, and incredibly, each of them, without exception, has possessed a profound depth of character with regards to one particular trait: their open outlook of joy at the wonder of the world - dark and light - is unflaggingly strong. They greet the world each day, waiting eagerly for the blinds to be yanked open and her colors and secrets revealed, with no thoughts of the future and its pitfalls; they seem to go almost childlike to the unknown, with an awe-inspiring, near-inconcievable, boundless faith that everything really will be all right - no matter where they are (potentially dangerous) or what they are doing (potentially foolish).

Perhaps more amazing to me, as I've found ever since the train ride in Morocco, when I really began to let my own constructs fall, is the degree to which the Australians have been justified: even when attempts at total control are almost entirely abandoned in exchange for traveling at the mercy of the world, everything usually does turn out all right. Of course, any one who manages to free themselves from our culture's demand that we master our daily lives and all the possibilities those lives might face tomorrow won't be surprised at all that the zen-like unflappable characteristic of the Australians is hardly ever flouted by reality. It only seems so unreal and inconcievable to those who have taken the lesson of control to heart as much as it seems I did.

My path recently merged with an older Australian woman, also traveling alone, who had taken a month off from her elementary school teacher position, left her two teenage daughters behind, and set out on a three month jaunt across North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, then down to Florida and beyond. For several days, our routes along the south coast of Nova Scotia were perfectly and unintentionally in synch and when we found ourselves in the same hostel again in the town of Yarmouth, we laughed aloud, again, and then went out for a drink at the local brew-pub. On the walk to the bar, she talked breathlessly about her adventures and travels, and I saw immediately that she possessed the same approach to the world as her all her fellow countrymen and -women. She paused then, and said something that struck me. When I travel, she said, I live in the embrace of the universe. I didn't have to ask her what she meant, as I'd seen it countless times before. That moment, however, was the first instant when I had heard an Australian verbalizing so clearly what they all seem to hold in common.

In anticipation of an argument that may arise here, I must make an additional point. Living at the mercy of the world does not mean to live in a state of unimaginative, uncritical apathy. The individual relinquishing control over the creation of the path followed must still be an active participant in the moment or the immediate future as it is presented to that individual by the universe. The individual must always work to know its self and be prepared to be open wide to the world as the world continually opens up to the individual.

The reason that it can feel so natural and invigorating to relinquish attempts to control all aspects of our surroundings and our relation to those surroundings might be because natural is exactly what such renunciation is. A highly controversial theory called biological determinism has persisted in the fields of neuroscience and psychology for some time. The idea behind biological determinism is that higher systems of morality and law do not actually exist, and that seemingly complex ethical choices made by individuals are no more than simple, predictable, chemical processes (or biological faults in processes) in certain parts of the brain. According to a radio program I recently heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, recent findings in neurological studies seem to be offer more and more support to the theory of biological determinism.

In one such study, it appears that researchers have isolated that portion of the brain which is associated with morality and ethical decisions. This study involved several groups of participants. One group was made up of individuals who had at some point in their lives had received injuries to a specific fraction of their frontal lobe, that portion of the brain directly behind the eyes. The frontal lobes of another group - the control group - were intact and uninhibited. The groups were presented with several situations that involved difficult moral choices and then asked to respond. In one situation, the participant is told that an oncoming train is going to hit and kill 5 people on the track unless the participant chooses to throw a switch, diverting the train to a new track, where it will only hit and kill 1 person. The second situation is outwardly similar: an oncoming train once again is on a collision course with 5 people trapped on the track. This time, however, the participant can only save the 5 people by actively pushing 1 person in front of the train, causing the conductor to slow down and stop before the 5 are reached.

In the latter of the two situations, the hesitation and/or inability by the control group to conclude that they would indeed feel compelled to actively push a person in front of the train represented a moral dilemma completely un-faced by the group who had received prior injuries to a section of their frontal lobes. In this and other tests, the group with slightly damaged brains showed a complete absence of any kind of complex system of morals whatsoever.

It seems clear why such findings would meet with heavy resistance. We as human beings have spent the last several thousand years - again since the birth of agriculture - convincing ourselves that as beings in total control of our fate and future and that of the world, we have a choice in everything we do, we have the final say in creating ethical creeds, in raising them to their seats atop marble pedestals, and in ensuring that every man, woman, and child follows them, under even penalty of death. To even begin to consider that we are essentially the same creatures that existed for almost 3 million years before the agriculture revolution began - biological entities with no rigid, sanctified, holy writ of morals ruling our minds, guiding our actions, and setting us apart from the other beings on the planet, but simply with the ability to imagine and believe in such an illusion - would be an unthinkable admission, one that our culture does not allow.

At some point in Ishmael, it becomes clear that the book is about how humans are meant to live, and all the deepest implications and facets of this seemingly simple clause. The clause refers of course not just to the mechanical process of survival every human undergoes on a daily basis to ensure the presence of food, water, and shelter, but also to the more profound concept of by what rules or systems should humans be guided in their development and behavior and thinking and relation to the rest of the world. Carlos Castaneda, early in his story, "The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge", quotes the diablero don Juan as urging the young anthropologist Carlos to see that his teachings of knowledge and an alternative life style to that offered by first world culture are about discovering how humans are meant to live. In many ways, Castaneda's depictions of don Juan's world begin to create a possible diametrical opposite to Quinn's Mother Culture of the Takers, an opposite that starts to reflect Quinn's conception of the story of the Leavers.

It appears that answers to the question of how humans are meant to live seek to take shape not only in these two stories and other tales, but also in the continually developing world of science and the study of the human brain, psyche, and system of behavior. Schrodinger predicted at one point that "all science is liable to do violence to common sense". If one sees common sense as those aspects of our belief system that have persisted for long enough to be ingrained in almost all individuals adhering to that culture, then his portentous statement, in light of this discussion, gains more solid form. If findings in the scientific communities do systematically break down the notion that human beings are higher entities worlds apart from the rest of the organisms on the planet, perhaps then, to end with the words of Daniel Quinn, humans can begin to enact a completely different story, and the next chapter in evolution will unfold.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm really interested in the cognitive theory that relates to this article of yours. In my reading for my thesis, I engrossed myself for a while in Daniel Dennett (cognitive theorist from Bostonia). I definitely recommend your reading "Consciousness Explained." One point Dennett made was that as humans we like to consider consciousness something "apart" from the animals - when in actuality, the consciousness we know is really only what animals have combined with a kind of verbal narrative / memory function that gives us the illusion of something separate. We define ourselves by these self-narratives.