This is a guest post by Paula Hay
Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.
My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.
Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?
Civilizations rise and fall not in isolation, but as complexes. They follow the outbreak of certain memes, as evidenced by the archaeological record, in clusters of time and geography. In the West we humans do civilization not only because of what we think, but because we think our thoughts in a specific kind of way. It makes sense then that the narrative arc should begin with the emergence of our specific kind of thinking.
Anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson is best known in academic circles for pioneering what’s known as “visual anthropology”: the use of non-dialectic observational techniques in the field of anthropology, most often through the use of film. Academics are, however, notorious for missing the forest for the trees; Sorenson’s real contribution came as a result of his techniques.
Visual anthropology made it possible for Sorenson to identify patterns of behavior inherent across isolated, unrelated, primitive tribes. Underlying these behavioral patterns is a type of mindset which Sorenson calls “pre-conquest consciousness,” which he describes thus:
Most of us know about subliminal awareness—the type of awareness lurking below actual consciousness that powerfully influences behavior. Freud brought it into the mainstream of Western thought through exhaustively detailed revelations of its effects on behavior. But few, including Freud, have spoken of liminal consciousness, which is therefore rarely recognized in modern scholarship as a separate type of awareness. Nonetheless, liminal awareness was the principal focus of mentality in the preconquest cultures contacted, whereas a supraliminal type that focuses logic on symbolic entities is the dominant form in postconquest societies.
. . .
From the Latin language underlying our Western heritage we can understand that liminal awareness, by definition, occurs on the threshold of consciousness. This concept, though abstract, provides a useful term. In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on
which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. Where deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.
Where consciousness is focused within a flux of ongoing sentient awareness, experience cannot be clearly subdivided into separable components. With no clear elements to which logic can be applied, experience remains immune to syntax and formal logic within a kaleidoscopic sanctuary of non-discreteness. Nonetheless, preconquest life was reckoned sensibly—though seemingly intuitively.
Given the widespread nature of Sorenson’s findings, and the almost complete absence of supraliminal symbology in any given culture’s archaeological record prior to its own Neolithic Revolution, it would appear that this liminal consciousness is the default psychology of anatomically modern humans. “Pre-conquest” peoples do not have the capacity for intellectual abstraction, not because they are less intelligent — the homo sapiens sapiens brain has not changed physically for something like 200,000 years — but because their mental capabilities are focused entirely on the here and now. Gods and goddesses, writing, numbers and the like cannot exist in the “complex flux of collective sentient immediacy” because they have no physicality with which to be either sentient or immediate. Such things exist entirely in the abstract. They are, for all intents and purposes, not real.
If liminality is the default mode of consciousness for pre-civilized humans, animism is the default context which liminal consciousness observes. Animism is not a religion — liminality affords no intellectual soil for such a thing — but is rather a comprehensive weltanschauung based entirely on the observable immediate.
The most concise definition of animism I can find at the moment comes from a (probably less than reliable) website called themystica.com:
The term animism is derived from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul. The belief of animism is probably one of man’s oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely dating to the Paleolithic age. From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.
We Westerners are inclined to view such things as childish. But ecological philosopher David Abram, in his amazing book The Spell of the Sensuous, makes the animist worldview more apprehensible:
The next morning I finished the sliced fruit, waited for my hostess to come by for the empty bowl, then quietly headed back behind the buildings. Two fresh palm-leaf offerings sat at the same spots where the others had been the day before. These were filled with rice. Yet as I gazed at one of these offerings, I abruptly realized, with a start, that one of the rice kernels was actually moving.
Only when I knelt down to look more closely did I notice a line of tiny black ants winding through the dirt to the offering. . . The line of ants seemed to emerge from a thick clump of grass around a nearby palm tree. I walked over to the other offerings and discovered another line of ants dragging away the white kernels. . . There was an offering on the ground by a corner of my building as well, and a nearly identical line of ants. I walked into my room chuckling to myself: the Balian and his wife had gone to so much trouble to placate the household spirits with gifts, only to have their offerings stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned on me: what if the ants were the very “household spirits” to whom the offerings were being made?
I soon began to discern the logic of this. . . The daily gifts of rice kept the ant colonies occupied — and, presumably, satisfied. Placed in regular, repeated locations at the corners of various structures around the compound, the offerings seemed to establish certain boundaries between the human and the ant communities; by honoring this boundary with gifts, the humans apparently hoped to persuade the insects to respect the boundary and not enter the buildings.
Yet I remained puzzled to my hostess’s assertion that these were gifts “for the spirits.”… While the notion of “spirit” has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the “spirits” of indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.
It is probably impossible for someone acculturated to Western thought to truly grasp an animist worldview. But from what I have learned, animism seems to be the way in which liminal consciousness interacts with its environment. The “complex flux of collective sentient immediacy” in which liminality occurs cannot be separated out of its surroundings — therefore everything is part of the sentient collective, including trees, rocks, animals, rain, natural phenomenon such as thunder, and ants. Liminality perceives consciousness in everything because in the absence of abstract logic — or even the ability to conceive of abstract things — universal consciousness is really and truly what is observable.
The Tigris-Euphrates River Valley
We’ve all grown up hearing that the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, located in what is now Iraq, is the “cradle of civilization.” In fact, it is the cradle of only one: Western civilization, and the long line of civilizations that rose and fell along our cultural family tree.
The time frame in question is approximately 15,000-10,000 years ago. As far as I have been able to determine, the West’s pre-civilized, cultural ancestors lived at this time with the same liminal-animist psychology as hunter-forager peoples everywhere. The archaeological record demonstrates no compelling reason to conclude otherwise.
The climate during this time experienced three major fluctuations. The Older Dryas stadial saw a cooling that lasted about 400 years, from 14,000-13,600 years ago. The climate then warmed for about 700 years during the Allerød interstadial, which lasted from about 13,600-12,900 years ago. Then came the Younger Dryas stadial, when the climate cooled again for approximately 1,260 years, from 12,900-11,640 years ago (or 10,900-9,640 BC).
The end of the Younger Dryas stadial coincides with the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley. The currently prevailing theory is that as the Younger Dryas took hold in southwest Asia, hunter-foragers were forced into a more settled, horticultural lifestyle in response to thinning animal herds and vegetation upon which they previously depended. When the climate again warmed, this horticultural adaptation blossomed into full-blown agriculture, which subsequently made larger settlements, cities, and eventual empires possible.
But correlation is not causation. To our cause-and-effect psychology, it makes sense that a climate shift cause would precede an agricultural effect. This may or may not be accurate. Archaeology, geology, climatology and paleoanthropology can offer measurements from which we infer a storyline; but as science goes, that storyline is ever-changing as new measurements come to light, and these changes themselves also may or may not be factually accurate. With science, “facts” of history — especially prehistory — change rather frequently, and result in a permanent state of never-quite-sure.
If only there was some record of what people living at the time of the Neolithic Revolution were actually thinking.
The much-reviled political philosopher Leo Strauss pointed out that Western societies are descended from two parents, Athens and Jerusalem. In my quest for understanding this subject, I came to see that while Athenian science and logic can provide a what, they cannot provide the why. That why, for Western seekers anyway, lies in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem’s contribution to the West is Judeo-Christian mythology, codified in the Bible. And to be clear: when I use the term “mythology,” I do not mean “fiction.” I mean a stable, apprehensible narrative by which an entire culture — or in this case, multiple very large cultures spanning thousands of years — can orient itself in the universe temporally, spatially, and spiritually. A myth’s power lies not in its objective “truth,” “accuracy,” or some such thing, but rather in its ability to reflect a shared psychology back to its collective adherents. In the West, our scientific “truths” still follow the same basic pattern of Judeo-Christian mythology and are subject to its cognitive structure. Psychology constructs myth, and myth constructs reality. Myth trumps measurement, regardless of whether or not anyone notices.
Genesis is the first book in the Bible. It is comparable to other early Mesopotamian writings in that many aspects are paralleled in the texts of the Sumerians and Akkadians. Genesis, however, is a profoundly Jewish work and offers unique criticisms that, as far as I am aware, do not exist in contemporaneous literature.
The literary content of Genesis spans a vast amount of time prior to the advent of writing. This content presumably has its roots in the oral traditions of those hunting-foraging forerunners of the ancient Hebrews. These traditions, as recorded in Genesis, begin in pre-literate, liminal-animist Paleolithic psychology, bridge the advent of supraliminal Neolithic psychology, and continue on in (sometimes violent) tension between the two. With the advent of writing, the traditional stories were written down, carefully guarded, and passed on through generations by ancient scribes (though the earliest known manuscripts date no earlier than 150 BCE), eventually becoming the foundation of the West’s most revered holy book.
We forget, or perhaps cannot fathom, that the stories of Genesis were produced by a mindset completely alien to our own. Religious literalists think Genesis is a moment-by-moment, play-by-play account, like a sporting event. Others consider it so old as to be irrelevant; still others dismiss it outright, mistaking “myth” for “fiction.”
In fact, Genesis is more relevant to the West than almost anyone has noticed. Its ancient stories of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and Cain and Abel trace the cognitive development of Western civilization more concisely and accurately than I would have thought possible. The trick is to approach the stories on their own terms; to set aside our own supraliminal psychology and unpack these stories into a liminal-animist headspace.
Evidence Of Cultural Memories?
The main concern of Genesis is the Fall and its consequences, and how these drove the birth of the ancient Hebrew culture. The creation account and life in the Garden of Eden are presented almost as backstory, but this backstory is where the fascination begins.
Genesis 2:8 tells us casually, as if in passing, that “[T]he LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” The implication is that “the man” was originally located to the west: had he been located to the north, the garden would have been in the south; had he been to the east, the garden would have been in the west, and so forth.
About 50,000–70,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans began a wave of migration out of Africa. Some crossed the Red Sea, greatly reduced in width due to increased glaciation, then continued migrating along the southern coasts of Asia, eventually landing on the Australian continent. Others crossed the Sinai Peninsula and settled in the Levant — the western portion of the inverted boomerang known as the “fertile crescent.” It is not much of a stretch to imagine that some of this population also traveled a few hundred miles due east to the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.
By way of another example, Genesis 2:19–2:20 states, “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.”
One of the prevailing theories of language evolution is called monogenesis, meaning that all human languages trace their origins to a single common linguistic ancestor dubbed “Proto-Human.” No one knows for sure where languages come from, but if Proto-Human ever existed, it would have arisen sometime after the first known anatomically modern human, about 200,000 years ago, and could have survived until 50,000 years ago, when the emergence of complex language would have made it obsolete.
Does Genesis actually record cultural memories of such great age? Can we really consider these things to be a kind of cognitive fossil? These are only two examples, but they offer synchronicity enough to give pause.
More importantly, these two snippets provide a kind of primer for translating the ancient texts from liminal-animist to supraliminal. Certainly it is not literally true that God planted a garden in the east and placed man there. This understanding is based in the animist worldview of a universal spirit giving rise to all other spirits, i.e., the flora and fauna of a rich river valley, and all action, i.e., migration to an eastern garden. In the liminal-animist oral tradition of our cultural ancestors, this story is literarily accurate.
In the same way, surely no God literally brought all the wild animals and the birds of the sky to a single man to be named. Rather, the development of complex language occurred in “that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy,” which included both the animals in question and, again, the universal spirit. Like the previous example, this one, too, is literarily accurate.
This literary accuracy is the method by which pre-literate cultures preserve themselves. Their myths, legends and stories do not add up in the logical, cause-and-effect way Western minds are accustomed to. But this doesn’t mean they are inaccurate; it simply means we don’t understand their accuracy unless we try.
The Fall Of Man
The most pressing story in Genesis, its very raison d’être, is the Fall of Man. No other story has had as profound an effect on Western psychology as this; there is something wrong with us and we know it, and this is the only extant explanation of what the problem might be.
But I’m convinced that no interpretation to date captures either the point of the story or its gravity. Whereas the Fall narrative is abstract and symbolic, it originated from what I strongly believe to have been real events that took place, possibly over the course of several generations, in the liminal-animist’s “complex flux.” The story is utterly nonsensical without that context.
Here is the full text of the Fall of Man story, from Genesis 2:25 – 3:24:
 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,  but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”
 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.
 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.  And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.  After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
The mythology here is quite mysterious until one considers that it is an account of the shift from liminal-animist to supraliminal cognition among our cultural forebears. And far from being an evolutionary step forward, our mythology tells us that it was an unmitigated disaster, a corruption so vile that God threw us out of the garden nixed our access to the Tree of Life — that is, continuity across time, or sustainability.
The story also describes the exact nature of this transition. It was, first and foremost, a voluntary transgression against the only existing taboo in the garden. “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was, quite explicitly, a different cognitive-psychological way of knowing that was not to be brought into the “complex flux” of liminal awareness. Doing so would, and did, result in death (more on this in a moment).
Curiously, the immediate aftermath of Adam and Eve’s transgression was, shall we say, something of an anticlimax. One might expect fire and brimstone to rain down from the heavens, but instead, they simply “realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” This hardly seems the stuff of eternal damnation. What gives?
Everyone has had the experience of dreaming oneself naked in public. The dream is distressing precisely because we are surrounded by others. Yet when we’re alone with a lover, we feel no shame because we are physically united — or in Biblical poetry, we are “one flesh.”
The Fall story opens with Adam and Eve standing shamelessly naked in the garden. They perceived no “others” from whom to hide their nakedness, for all are one in the “complex flux” that arises from the universal spirit. The very first effect of the Fall — that is, the shift from liminal to supraliminal consciousness — was the perception of “others” in the environment where there had previously been none.
But even the change of perception from a world unified by one universal spirit into one separated into self/other is still not the same as knowledge of good and evil. Or is it?
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is surrounded by dualism from its first mention. Everything in the garden was allowed, except this tree, which was not-allowed. At the tree we discover the serpent, the first symbolic not-God. The serpent introduces the concept of not-true, which had evidently never before occurred to anyone — something Sorenson demonstrated in his field work among pre-conquest cultures. And upon eating the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve suddenly perceive others, or not-selves, surrounding them in the garden.
I propose that what was unleashed that day in the garden was, in effect, cognitive binary signal processing: the ontological 0 was born into the human psyche where previously only 1 had ever existed. Suddenly, everything perceivable now has an infinite number of not- counterparts. The horror paleolithic people must have experienced upon stumbling into such an awareness is difficult to fathom. Knowledge of good and evil, indeed.
This shattering of the unary whole into infinitude is the basis of what we call information. Prior to the shift from liminal to supraliminal, there was only very limited information because, as Sorenson points out, “With no clear elements to which logic can be applied, experience remains immune to syntax and formal logic.”
Once our cultural ancestors had information with which to contend, they had no choice but to start classifying and indexing everything, lest the universe remain illegible. Thus the archaeological record demonstrates a veritable explosion of symbols — everything from pictographs, to numbers, to gods and goddesses, abstract concepts like rulership, wealth, and servitude, and all the rest.
Driving the deluge of information was the existential 0 threatening to annihilate anything anyone discovered or created that might be considered 1. The only defense against 0 was, and remains, more1 — the problem, however, is that just as 0 = not-1, so too 1 = not-0. Not– permeates everything; annihilation is not only inevitable, it is already done. The more 1 we think we create, the more annihilation we introduce into the complex flux that continues to exist outside our awareness.
Westerners are obsessed with apocalypse for exactly this reason. The ancient myth of Genesis states very clearly that crossing the threshold from liminal to supraliminal would result in certain death — and this is no fiction, for we contend with death on countless levels, from our smallest spiritual micro lives to the largest physical macro ecosystems, every single day. Every step we take to stave off death for ourselves introduces it somewhere else, making our own continuance even less likely.
Our 1s and 0s will not save us. I hold out hope that someone wise will discover a cognitive signal processing in which 1 annihilates 0, or perhaps subsumes it, but so far the glimmers of such that I’ve seen have fallen on infertile soil. I am open to any and all suggestions.