Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

A brief, and mad, history of our species

I'm going to southern France on Tuesday, and the big book I'm going to read is Steve Mithen's 'After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC' I hope to go to see the cave art at Lascaux while I am down there.

Mithen is my favourite paleontologist. The best book on early human cultural development that I have read is his Prehistory of the mind. The argument he sets out there has changed my view of the human mind, and what it is to be human.

So that this post doesn't get too long, I'll just have to set out his ideas baldly, which means they might not be convincing. I thought you might be interested in them anyway.

His argument is that modern culture has its origin in a mental breakdown. Those affected by this condition, which is passed on genetically, inappropriately project human attributes onto non-human creatures and things. They think there are ghosts. They feel there are spirits in the woods. They think the moon has a human face on it. They paint animals on cave walls. They ask the gods to help them.

Although it made people think in an illogical way, this mental disorder proved adaptive. It allowed the powerful primate social intelligence, which had evolved over millions of years, to be applied to non-social arena. The different mental tools that primates have developed bled into each other, and augmented each other. The early humans affected by this condition were much brainier and more creative than everyone else. In the end the descendants of this family, with their odd mental condition, replaced all the other people on the earth (about 20,000 bc).

And that's us. We are the people with the mental breakdown. Because we are all partly insane, we don't even notice it. We don't have a name for the mental condition that affects humanity, because we all have it. In every human society people believe in ghosts, and aliens, and read stories that aren't true, and fall in love with fictional characters, and kill each other for religion, and so on. The idea that the market is an invisible parental hand is another exampe of the same insanity.

But this very insanity is our strength. I suppose the key is to balance the disordered, creative, irrational powerhouse of the mind, with a firm rationality: but without stifling the mad cave person who gives us all our good ideas.
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