Last Summer I happened to keep a date with Seton Lake that I had been putting off for days. It was a lovely dry hot day and I figured the water was probably just the right temperature for my rather uninsulated body. I took only my bathing suit, some water, my smokes and a book. The paperback had been picked up at a library sale and contained a set of essays from the 1970’s written by American anthropologist, Jay Gould. They were scholarly to be sure but obviously written for a much wider readership.
After a soul satisfying, spirit bracing quarter hour in the green-glass water, I hauled out like a weary harbor seal and lay down on a Donald Duck towel which boasted of a vacation to the British Virgin Islands by a former employer of my wife. I rolled a smoke and set to reading the last two essays in my book. The entire work was written from a Darwinian viewpoint of evolution and for the first time, I was introduced to some quite interesting questions and possible answers that had been asked in the time since that man’s theory had been introduced to the science community and the world at large.
When I was literally on the last page, a tall young man got up from his blanket where he had been sitting with a woman, I took to be his wife or girlfriend and came over to sit by me. He introduced himself and shook hands. He grasped a small book in his other hand. He said that he had not seen many people reading out doors down by the lake and that was what had gotten his attention about me.
He chatted for some time about himself, his work, his home, his woman and his life experience and inquired about my own reflections in that same pond of information. He was of German/Aboriginal heritage and in my opinion those particular two gene pools had melded wonderfully judging by their expression with which I was now conversing. I spoke of my own genetic omelet, which also included some German.
At length, as the sun dipped behind the mountains to the South and the ground started to give up its easily gotten warmth to the void, people started to fidget and pack up their beach things. My new young friend said he wanted to give me the book he was holding. I laughed and said that I had literally just finished my book as he was crossing the thirty feet of goose droppings to approach me. I added that I would like to trade my book for his, if he wanted.
This brought about a swap and we both smiled when we noticed that both books were collections of essays on anthropological themes. His was by a well lettered Scot still active in the academic world and mine by a well respected American scientist. His was however some thirty years newer and thus likely closer to what is currently being taught in universities by those pursuing this field of study. In other words, it was the perfect companion piece to follow on the heels of what I had just read and my paperback conversely, was the perfect background piece for the other fellow, in order for him to see where the thinking had been focused just prior to his probable time of birth.
We call these things serendipity, synchronicity, happy accidents or coincidences. Personally, I find these types of events so frequently occurring that when they seem to diminish, I experience a sense of being off my proper trail. I haven’t seen the young man since then but I have read the book he gave me.
Just as I was finishing the last chapters, my friend and neighbor acquired a new tiny charcoal gray kitten, which he named Dunbar. Another shred of synchroincidipity, as it turned out, for the book was The Human Story by Robin Dunbar.
Firstly, I will praise its scientific honesty. Secondly, I will praise the style in which it was written which makes it accessible to the widest possible range of readers. Thirdly, I will laud the fact that it quite rightly leaves one with a better set of questions rather than a pocketful of answers waiting to be made obsolete by the next bright light to blaze trails in the discipline of anthropology.
By way of scientific honesty, I mean to say that the author gives sets of facts drawn from known but necessarily incomplete data. These are drawn into visual graphs to underscore the thrust of his personal intuitions as to how we humans came to be what we find ourselves today. The honesty comes from the clear admission that the data is far from satisfactory in its quantity. That said, the reader who ponders Mr. Dunbar’s work is free to speculate a few new trails and this is precisely what gives rise to the great discoveries in the academic disciplines.
In explanation of my second praise of the book, I will say this, I noticed from childhood that short of taking the time and trouble of learning to read at least a modicum of Latin, Greek and Hebrew; that I would be barred from much information that had already been worked out by those intrepid souls who went before burning the mid-night oil over their desks. This has always saddened and angered me by turns. I find it sad that anyone would want to compartmentalize useful information by restricting access to it via use of a language or vocabulary which is unintelligible to the larger part of ones fellows.
I am angered by the divisions, borders and exclusions that this way of gathering, recording and dispensing knowledge generates among the population. Many a bright, inquiring mind is kept in the sandbox of intellectual childhood by such barriers rather than being encouraged to enter the ring and fight a few rounds with the Riddler. Whether this is by design, tradition or accident matters not to me. It holds back our species. I believe in species loyalty.
I have recently seen an illustration of what I’m talking about treated in literature and film. It was the Swede, Jonas Jonasson who brought it out in his novel, The 100 Year Old Man Who Jumped Out The Window And Disappeared. In the book, the main character as a boy plays with explosives with no tutelage or instruction until he becomes quite expert at it. Later in his life, he finds himself serving as a waiter and janitor at Los Alamos for the nuclear physicists assembled there. While handing out mugs of coffee he overhears that they are stymied by the final phase of their atomic bomb project, which is the seemingly insurmountable problem of a safe way to detonate the bomb with accurate timing.
Our Swede walks over to the whiteboard and with a marker shows that simply dividing the charge into two parts and positioning them correctly will yield the results that they have agonized over for weeks. We will not side-track into the morals of this example, although the Swedish author of the work cited does so and quite satisfactorily, in my opinion. But I won’t spoil a good read for those listening who may get his book.
Rather, I mention the above as an example of humanity slowly lifting its gaze from the study of its own shoelaces to peer into the close-set eyes of those who speak strange jargon in learned tones. There is an awkward moment, a patronizing audience is given and then pure astonishment and celebration erupts. If more people around the world simply knew what the hell the experts were talking about in the common speech of current languages; this happy scene would be repeated many times a day. It must be born in mind, that the fire and tool-makers of antiquity did not have any credentials other than a human brain, necessity and opportunity.
My third point of praise for Mr. Dunbar, that of leaving his readers with better questions rather than presuming to provide them answers speaks to me of intellectual honesty, which is the perfect seasoning for the scientific honesty he serves up. When the man who wrote a book tells you what aspects of his field of expertise that he honestly doesn’t know, it serves to encourage anyone with an active brain to take up the challenge and try to move the ball a few yards closer to the goalpost. Conversely, when an author tells you that they definitely know something that is by its nature unknowable, they are revealed as that dominant child in any playground that moves the goalposts around whenever the ball doesn’t cooperate.
What I took away from this book that I hadn’t heard explained before was something the psychological anthropologists define as levels of intent. A major point made by the author was derived from a study of this phenomenon. I will paraphrase what I took the term to mean. It turns out, according to tests conducted on chimps, apes, orangutans and humans, that the mental ability to imagine the intent of another party is limited to a factor of two in other primates and can reach as high as five in humans but usually a human achieves no higher than four.
For simplicity, I will refer to these levels or layers of intent as plies. Mr. Dunbar has studied the skulls that have been unearthed so far from the fossil record and by measuring a hole in the back through which a particular nerve bundle passes to join a specific processing center, as well as the size of the cranium; he has been able to calculate at which point in our long history that we became able to think in this complex manner. He presents some evidence to suggest the possibility that Cro-Magnons made this evolutionary adjustment first and thus were able to outwit, outlast and outplay the Neanderthals they encountered when they spread up through Europe. Despite the fact that Neanderthals had larger brains, he points out that the area of their brains which was larger was that part which processes visual information. Very practical for hunters and gatherers, whereas the abilities of the newcomers was perfect for organizing and managing those activities. Any similarities in this paragraph to the popular show “Survivor” are intentional.
It will be good to add here that, according to science, the size of groups maintained by us humans and various other types of primates relates directly to this ability to think in multiple plies. According to Mr. Dunbar, monkeys, apes and such tend to max out at around a group size of 70, while humans can successfully push that number to more than double that figure. Without stating in concrete terms that other animals are absolutely incapable of this cognitive gamesmanship, I came away from the book with the strong feeling that this was indeed his own conviction.
I couldn’t help at that juncture to think of a mother grouse feigning a broken wing and straggling away from her nest to draw a predator astray of their meal. Also, I immediately saw in my minds eye, a coyote doubling back on its trail so that a person couldn’t make out who was tracking who or in what direction it actually intended to go. Provision was made for swarming bees and wasps, schools of fish, flocks of birds and herds of herbivores to maintain larger groups than humans even though they lacked the same level of intent score that the author attributed to us humans.
The grouse is a good example to illustrate the concept we are dealing with. Let’s say I am walking through the sage one day and happen to come upon a grouse hen several yards off. She begins to drag a wing and make a big show of stumbling in a direction away from her nest, which I do not at this point even see. The grouse mother thinks that I am out to make a meal of her chicks and that if I believe she is wounded I will pursue her instead. She has just demonstrated 2-ply thinking. Now, let’s say a coyote was watching this drama from up the hill where it had been tracking me earlier out of curiosity. If he comes downhill to raid the nest because he thinks I believe the hen’s ruse which is based upon her assumption that I was after the nest myself, he has just demonstrated three-ply thinking. If I spot the coyote just prior to his descent of the hill to raid the nest while I pretend to follow the hen and then turn quickly to land a rock on his flank in order to protect the nest, I have just demonstrated four-ply thinking.
We can see from this that humans capable of five-ply thinking, though in the minority, could keep large numbers of their fellows tied in cognitive knots. As a result, I have to conclude that this adaptation is perhaps a very mixed blessing at best and that the majority may live to rue this ability as employed by the minority possessed of five-ply thinking. Of great interest and placed at the end of the book after the other concepts were covered, was the inclusion of the fact that several of the things currently held by academics to separate our species from all others are talked about and tied together with brain size, group size and levels of intent abilities. The main of these are music, song, speech, written language, literature, laughter and religion.
It turns out that laughter and song is considered a human adaptation of grooming and is effective over a larger group, a wider physical range and requires less time to get the same benefit. The maximum waking time spent grooming by primates according to the scholars is twenty percent. If we sing and joke as we go about our business, we accomplish several important objectives simultaneously.
Some of the other uniquely human things would not be possible without a level of intent beyond two. The author places a rough date on the appearance of those particular items in human culture by pegging them to carbon dated physical evidence which is deemed to be large enough to accommodate the software, if you will allow the term. It is shown statistically that religious individuals and communities enjoy longer healthier lives. It is also shown that the creation of a religion requires a mind capable of the fifth level of intent. Some interesting facts from modern history are presented to illustrate religion by its deeds both beneficent and wicked. You the reader may then extrapolate many interesting side trails of cogitation which I hope will yield you either the fruit of personal discovery or at least the fragrance of the blossoms that grow on those untrodden hills.
One thing that scientists, poets and philosophers all seem to agree upon is that this penchant we have for inquiring into our world, ourselves, our motives, our origins and the seeking of pattern and purpose therein, is a uniquely human trait and ability. In regard to religion, I find that I am in agreement with the statistics cited. Life is much too hard, unpredictable, contrary and at times counter-intuitive to endure without something much larger than ourselves to use as a backdrop, a guide and an explanation.
I taught both my sons this lesson, as most parents the world over have also done. One thing I did differently than is perhaps usual, was that I did not indoctrinate them into any particular faith. While their examples to live by could well be described as Christian and the tenets of that faith were discussed the most, we discussed many other religious modes also. I figure that since, in my own belief and experience, a man has to have a code to live by, it should be the man who chooses that which he shall strive to uphold and will measure himself against when he approaches death. That to me is freedom of religion.
Freedom is a thing not unlike quicksilver. We use the terms freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of choice all the time. When called upon to examine or debate these issues within a political context, they seem to defy our efforts to even define them in a manner satisfactory to an entire group. We, in the West uphold free speech, yet have acquiesced to the censoring of many voices through various means ever since we had that right entrenched in a legal document. History cannot show any examples of freedom being truly bestowed upon one human by another. You may not be given what you already possess. But you may relinquish it in any number of ways for any number of reasons.
Our nature has led us to continue to live in groups of ever larger concentration. We govern and manage these large groups in a variety of ways. The benefit is always greater overall safety and security and the drawback is a corresponding shrinkage of individual liberty and freedom. In that system, upon a time, it was feasible that a man or woman could travel to different countries and find one that matched their own personal tastes and convictions as to customs, religion, rules and regulations, climate, food, culture and such. This could be seen as finding one’s tribe. It was the differences in those diverse places that made this stage of larger human groupings work. It was advances in transportation that made it even possible. I feel that this stage has now passed but like a long freight train at a road crossing, we don’t yet perceive it has passed. As far as we can see in both directions, it curves like a great segmented graffiti covered snake rumbling and hooting as hobos jump off and onto it by turns.
The evidence is in the sameness a traveler today would encounter as opposed to a traveler from a hundred years ago. Yes, there are still some populous destinations which stand out in stark contrast to others but this is diminishing daily and there is a cultural spill-over and blending happening both by accident of technology and by design. Never before has there been so many people on the same page. The sloppy part in our time is that the older models that we have called countries have not been dismantled or fallen to their own ruin in their entirety as yet. We are watching it on the News at night as it happens. Of course, the new baby is a cutie pie and the hope of the future for the gene pool but that cradle she’s sleeping in was carved by Grandpa’s own hands from wood he cut on the mountain he bought after the Civil War with money from the family fortune made by great grandpa’s slaves the in cotton fields after the Indian Wars.
We can be sure that as long as we prefer to let others do the planning, that there will be aspects to what is wrought and how it is fashioned that we may not find palatable on a personal level. Remember that power is never given away and that freedom is inevitably traded for security. By allowing think tanks, associations, governments, movie stars, scientists and CEOs to supervise us from Lincoln Logs to Lego, we are all complicit in what will become our shared fate. I have always felt that the fewer the plies of intent we employ in our interactions with each other and the world, the happier we are and the more honorably we behave. In other words, our evolving brain appears to be sullying some of our most praiseworthy, if antique, human characteristics.
Borders will shift anew, cities will be razed and herds of shivering men, women and children will be re-located. Oil will be drilled and minerals will be dug. It must be remembered by those who live in the nice countries that walls serve not only to keep people out but also to keep people in. Places in the world where the bicycle was king are becoming choked with automobiles and places designed for automobiles are becoming choked by both. Jobs long ago sent overseas from North America may now be returning. But at what rate of pay? The world turns its gaze on the USA wondering how will the Great Experiment deal with these changes? I am very certain that the self-appointed architects of these dramas are four-plies who employ a small army of five-plies. As long as the dominant traditional money systems of this world do not change, those folks are calling the shots.
It is highly ironic to me that in a time of endless rhetoric about sweeping out the old to bring in the new, no one places the private central banking cartel fiat currency manufactured debt system on the table top for a makeover. I see a very strong tradition of not abandoning things that work well doggedly adhered to by the power brokers of the world. While hypocritically pushing, nudging, funding, organizing and advocating that all those who pay the taxes, fight the wars and build the real wealth should change their familiar traditions of marriage, family, gender, education, nutrition, transportation, lifestyle, religion, child rearing and work.
If we are clever enough to manufacture alternative power sources to take everyone off the grid and save the rivers, why haven’t we done so? Because we are human and are waiting for someone else to do it while hoping we have enough Air Miles to fly to Wal-Mart and pick up a set when they go on sale with our puny after tax dollars. The few people that the many have left in charge to manage things, in my opinion, hold the many in somewhat justified contempt while living in fear of them. Recently, a man sent me an article speaking to the oppression suffered by the people of the Baha’i Faith in Iran. It told of their network of offshore educational facilities which germinated to compensate for the local ban on higher education for those individuals in their home country. This is my reply:
“I am sure there will be further book burnings to come in our species not-to-distant future; aimed at the mid-levels, abetted by the lower levels, funded and fueled by the inevitable paranoia of the highest levels. Happily (in my forecast) the very human gifts of our griots, our bards and our keepers of the Winter Counts shall remain in the DNA to regain that which is lost and to surpass it with greater rapidity than any model is likely to show. Like dandelion seeds falling randomly in warm wet earth. Why? The simple answer is: That which serves to liberate and elevate has, in my opinion, a longer, nobler pedigree than that which seeks to control.”
In other words, as far as I can see, we are our own bane and salvation. Perhaps, and this is my hope, if evolution is the mechanism driving our development; we may come to a point where the difference in cleverness and wisdom is so clearly delineated that natural selection may start to favor the propagation of those areas of the human brain that foster the latter, rather than the former. Far from a dumbing down, this would be a wising up. As all the tricks used to manipulate each other have proven through modern history, if something ain’t broke – don’t fix it.
Here we stand in the first few days of the Chinese Lunar Year of The Rooster. I happen to be a Rooster, a Fire Rooster that is and I am held in wonderful balance by my Water Dragon wife. This is the beginning of my sixth time around the sun. I have penned a poem for the occasion and I feel that it bears some pertinence to this essay both in content and by way of explaining why I even bother to write essays.
I Am A Rooster
The buildings of Men collapse without sound
Trees of our Maker spring from the ground
The sun ever shines on both kinds of wood
Rising and setting on Evil and Good
I am a Rooster and therefore I Crow...
I keep both eyes open and aim very straight
At a place beyond Fear and well above Hate
Over the tree line on the Mountain of Life
Dwells the Imposter who hides in plain sight
I am Labuyo and that's why I Fight...
Up toward the peak is where we must strive
Past swamps, along creeks, through forests alive
With Beasts at the bottom and Angels on high
From every direction all Humans must try
I am El Gallo and that's why I Cry...
Main Trails at the Base are Busy and Safe
Conically Converging if Viewed from Space
High Trails are Legion and necessarily so
You are surmounting yourself, didn't you know?
I am Le Coq who lives in your Soul...
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.