Orthodoxy and Contrarianism: Two Sides of a Coin

For now, I’ll more or less just state an intuition about the essence of human society.  I need to put it into coherent form first, before trying to justify it and hope to convince anyone.

For about one hundred thousand years, humans in their present form seem to have existed, and for several hundred thousand years, there were very similar beings, with about the same brain size.  Just how different they were from the “final model” of homo sapiens is a mystery which evokes extremely varied speculation.   When modern homo sapiens started fanning out, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, no environmental limitations seemed to constrain them, nor did very substantial bodies of water.  Within a few tens of thousands of years, they settled every inhabitable continent, notably Australia.  In settling Austrailia, they crossed over an approximately 100 million year evolutionary chasm.  Until humans arrived, no other mammalian species crossed between Australian and the rest of the habitable world for about that time — 100 million years, with exception of rats which arrived a million years earlier than humans. A small mystery; we mustn’t ignore exceptions but it seems a pretty isolated exception  All other continents were connected by land bridges, and exchanged mammalian fauna, while Australia’s mammals look like intermediate forms between today’s mammals and something that reproduced by laying eggs.  Humans crossed barriers that had protected Australia’s exotic species for 100,000,000 years.  Humans also, around 20,000 years ago spread from Eurasia to the Americas North and South.

And yet before agriculture, and the new scale of social interaction brought by civilization, and new collective methods of constructing knowledge with heavy reliance on the external and objectified (reified), if any one human could have been transported a few miles or at most a few dozen miles from home, they might well feel there WERE no others like them.  Every human inhabited a very localized cell, for which the New Guinean pidgin word Wantok is a good fit.  Wantok comes from “One talk”, and refers to a few thousand (typically) people who share a language (The New Guinea Highlands are uniquely carved up into little physically separated domains, which has allowed this form of small scale culture to persist into the modern world, but generally, among stone age people, past and present, the scale of a language group is about a few thousand.

Until irreversible changes led to agriculture and civilization, human cognition and culture was in a fairly consistent feedback loop with “the environment”, i.e. some particular environment in which a group of humans lived, and the adaptive benefit of our cognition and culture was to shape and maintain a group, spread out over a few, or a few dozen square miles of humans collectively possessing a language, customs, and world-model conferring excellent survival skills, and especially a repertoire of cooperative strategies for finding, and to some extent accumulating, food.

Modern understandings of the world have a far stronger basis than those of our ur-ancestors.  Modern understandings are supported by texts and institutions, by the historic awareness that we have a strong understanding of the world which is a precious inheritance, and by plans and customary actions for preserving and building upon out understandings of the world.  Paleolithic understandings were maintained by more or less instinctive actions among a few hundreds, or few thousands of members.

understandings of the world == realities

Realities can be rooted in one of two ways (sometimes both):
* An institution for maintaining them (churches, schools, …?)
* Connection to reality:  I.e. it is constructed, and if lost, can be reconstructed, through observations of, and experiments on, the physical world.

“Reality” for our ur-ancestors was a set of social constructs, accumulated over time, of some thousand or so illiterate people for whom the Ur-tribe was the whole thinking world.

The world-model is an amalgam of explanatory understandings of things and rules.  Rules can’t be made without a shared understanding of reality, so the shared understanding is essential for the coherent functioning of the ur-tribe – for successful joint action.

Human beings in the wild are driven to answer many questions that, in practical terms, don’t need answering, and for which no explanation is within reach that would withstand modern scrutiny.

Explanations were cobbled together at some point out of someone’s observations and interactions with the world, and I think the results suggest that any plausible explanation tended to stick; I will predict that in ur-tribal societies, the first explanation is rarely contested.

There appear to be psychic pressures on the members of ur-tribes, that manifest as a set of requirements for a fully fleshed out world view, and some of the requirements may seem odd to us.  Things, including the human world, or the chosen tribe have to have beginnings.  The human mind is exuberant in its construction of a world view, providing answers to all kinds of questions that seemingly needn’t have been asked.

Human societies produce storehouses full of odds and ends that lay around doing nothing until a purpose is found for them.  World views are made from the bricolage that humans, seemingly oblivious to purpose or practicality, stockpile.  You see evidence in what we call the art forms of ur-tribal people.  Body ornamentation; stories about things that never happened.

If these people had appropriate humility (as it may seem to us) about what they were capable of understanding, I suspect they never would have have advanced so far. They had to have explanations of causes of diseases, and procedures for defeating them, even though there would be almost no real understanding, or effective treatments of diseases until the last couple of centuries; mostly the last century, and mostly the last half century.

The same sorts of drives produce explanations of diseases and populations of imaginary supernatural beings, and stories of how the world, or the human part of it was created a few generations before the present one.

Human beings have relentless pressures to know things that are far beyond their capacity to know, and in their quest for “theories of everything”, they incidentally build up a repertoire of solutions to practical problems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *