Human Uniqueness and Symbolization
The following is an excerpted chapter from van Huyssteen’s, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology. The Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh 2004(Wm. Eerdmans 2006)
In earlier chapters my research into evolutionary epistemology (Chapter Two) and paleoanthropology (Chapter Four) yielded not only challenging, but also converging results on the issue of human uniqueness. It seems that both philosophically and scientifically it can be argued that the potential arose in the human mind to create art, to discover the need and ability for religious belief, to invent technologies, and – much later – to undertake science. In my second chapter I argued that what is distinctive about human beings is precisely this evolution of cognition, imagination, and religious awareness. This is the reason why one can argue that human behavior is only imperfectly understood if we do not take into account the very early emergence of religion, and then ask about the plausibility of religious and theological explanations for human nature as such. In an interdisciplinary conversation such as the one before us, theologians especially are challenged to take seriously the fact that our ability to respond religiously to ultimate questions through worship and prayer is indeed deeply embedded in our species’ symbolic, imaginative behavior, and in the cognitively fluid minds that make such behavior possible.
In the second chapter we also saw that the evolutionary epistemologist Franz Wuketits indeed argues that the need for metaphysics, and metaphysical explanations, seems to be a universal characteristic of all humans (cf. Wuketits 1990:117). In the fourth chapter on paleoanthropology we saw that even our earliest ancestors, the Cro-Magnons of the Upper Paleolithic, who were ‘us’ in every anatomical and behavioral way, seem to have had metaphysical systems or first religions, which almost certainly included notions about meaning, survival, beauty, life after death, and the ‘other world’. Evolutionary epistemologists explain the persistence of this kind of religious awareness as the result of the particular interactions between early humans and their external world, and thus as resulting from the specific life conditions in prehistoric times (cf. Wuketits 1990:118). This, however, raises two questions: why should we, so suddenly and only at this point, distrust the phylogenetic memories of our own direct ancestors, and should the emergence of religious consciousness only be explained in terms of specific life conditions in prehistoric times? Might there not be something about being human, something about the human condition itself, that could offer us a slightly different perspective on the enduring need for religious faith?
We also saw that an evolutionary epistemologist like Wuketits, after arguing for the propensity for religious belief in humans, and thus for the naturalness of religion, proceeds reductionistically to classify religious beliefs as giving rise to irrational world views (cf. Wuketits 1999:118). I argued in Chapter Two that this seems to conflict with his own careful distinction between biological and cultural evolution. Wuketits specifically argues, as we saw earlier, that there are indeed biological constraints on cultural evolution, but that culture is not reducible to biology. Cultural evolution, once started, obeys its own principles, giving the evolution of human cognition an entirely new and unprecedented direction (cf. Wuketits 1990:130f.). Wuketits does seem to be inconsistent, therefore, in using evolutionary arguments to curtail the scope of cultural evolution, interpreting all religious beliefs as irrational and determined solely by the way these beliefs are embedded in the way that our prehistoric ancestors coped with their worlds.
Against this background, theologian Tomáš Hančil was correct to use evolutionary epistemology’s own argument (‘instead of asking what kind of mind is required to know the world, we should rather ask what kind of world the world must be to have been able to produce the sort of minds we have’) to expose some of the reductionist and inconsistent anti-realist conclusions often singled out for religious world views only. What also became clear earlier is that a proper theological answer to this kind of reductionism can be very difficult indeed. Hančil was right to argue that this kind of scientism is only possible if one assumes that God does not influence our world in any meaningful way. Hančil was less successful, however, in his attempt to fuse evolutionary epistemology and theology by arguing that if God does influence the world, God’s influence should be part of the data that we work with (cf. Hančil 1999:240). I believe that evolutionary epistemology does challenge theology to take seriously the implications of the biological origins of human cognition and rationality, and of the embodied history of the evolution of this capacity. In the interdisciplinary conversation between theology and the sciences the boundaries between our disciplines and reasoning strategies are indeed porous, but that does not mean that deep theological convictions can be easily transferred to philosophy, or to science, to function as ‘data’ in a foreign system. In the same manner, transversal reasoning does not imply that scientific data, paradigms, or worldviews can be transported into theology to there set the agenda for theological reasoning. Transversal reasoning means that theology and science can indeed share concerns, can converge on commonly identified problems such as the problem of human uniqueness. We will see later that the argument from evolutionary epistemology, when transversally interwoven with the central paleoanthropological argument about human uniqueness, resonates critically with some core theological claims about human uniqueness. In addition I will argue, however, that precisely by also recognizing the limitations of interdisciplinarity, the disciplinary integrity of both theology and the sciences should to be protected. On this view the theologian can caution the scientist to recognize the reductionism of scientistic worldviews, even as the scientist can caution the theologian against constructing esoteric and imperialistic worldviews.
These mutually critical tasks presuppose, however, the richness of the transversal moment in which theology and paleoanthropology can indeed find a plausible interdisciplinary connection on the issue of human uniqueness. In Chapter Three I argued that the most responsible Christian theological way to look at human uniqueness requires, first of all, a move away from esoteric and baroquely abstract notions of human uniqueness, and second, a return to embodied notions of humanness where our embodied sexuality and moral awareness is tied directly to our embodied self-transcendence as believers who are in a relationship with God. In Chapter Four I argued that, from a paleoanthropological point of view, human uniqueness also emerges as a highly contextualized and embodied notion and is directly tied to the embodied, symbolizing minds of our prehistoric ancestors, as materially manifested in the spectacularly painted cave walls of the Upper Paleolithic. This not only opened up the possibility for converging arguments, from both evolutionary epistemology and paleoanthropology, for the presence of religious awareness in our earliest Cro-Magon ancestors, but also for the plausibility of the larger argument: since the very beginning of the emergence of Homo sapiens, the evolution of those characteristics that made humans uniquely different from even their closest sister species, i.e., characteristics like consciousness, language, symbolic minds and symbolic behavior, always included religious awareness and religious behavior.
In this chapter I now want to extend this argument and take a closer look at the symbolizing minds of our Cro-Magnon ancestors. First, I will ask about the role of culture and language in the evolution of symbolic and imaginative human behavior. A discussion of paleoculture will reveal adaptability and versatility as a remarkable human capacity in which the role of symbolic language was a crucial factor. This will reveal the prehistoric material ‘art’ from the Upper Paleolithic as exemplifying a profound dimension of imagination and symbolic meaning, in which the presence of spoken language has to be presupposed. In fact, the painting of images on cave walls could only have emerged in communities with shared systems of meaning, mediated through language. Second, I will focus on some of the current discussions in neuroscience and neuropsychology and explore the possibility of transversal links to paleoanthropological perspectives on the symbolic propensities of the human mind. This will reveal the cave paintings from the Upper-Paleolithic as a reliable window through which we can get a glimpse of the symbolic minds of our prehistoric, Cro-Magnon ancestors. Moreover, a neuroscientific perspective on the embodied human mind and human consciousness will not only yield the possibility of a neurological bridge to the Upper-Paleolithic, but also raises the possibility that our universal human capacity for altered states of consciousness may not only provide a link to the spectacular scope of prehistoric human imagination, but may also reveal a form of shamanism as a plausible interpretation of the earliest forms of religious imagination. Third, religious imagination will emerge as central to any paleoanthropological or theological definition of human uniqueness. This proposal will challenge the ability of neuroscience and cognitive psychology to effectively explain religious experience: although biological origins have directly shaped human origins and human understanding, the genesis of religions, so unique to humans, is not something that we can unproblematically extrapolate from earlier explanations in biology or neuroscience.
Human Uniqueness and Language
In Chapter Four we saw that Steven Mithen has argued that seeds for the cognitive fluidity of the human mind were sown with the increase of brain size that already began around 500,000 years ago. This was directly related to the later evolution of a grammatically complex social language. On Mithen’s more gradualist view, as social language switched to a general-purpose language, individuals acquired an increasing awareness about their own knowledge of the non-social world. Consciousness then adopted the role of a comprehensive, integrating mechanism for knowledge that had previously been ‘trapped’ in separate specialized intelligences (cf. Mithen 1996:194). The first step towards cognitive fluidity appears to have been an integration between social and natural history intelligence in Early Modern Humans around 100,000 years ago. The final step to full cognitive fluidity, the ability to entertain ideas that bring together elements from normally incongruous domains, most probably occurred at different times in different populations between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. This involved an integration of technical intelligence, and led to the cultural explosion we are now calling the appearance of the human mind (cf. Mithen 1996:194). In Chapter Four we also saw clear differences of opinion as scholars in paleoanthropology and archeology approached this rather spectacular emergence of the human mind differently. From a theological perspective, however, irrespective of differences in scientific interpretation and perspectives, it was this important step in the evolution of the human mind that ultimately enabled our species to design complex tools, to create art, and to discover religious belief.
This, of course, leads to the broader question, what can we reconstruct today about the evolution of culture, and any unique cultural capacities, in humans? In his most recent work Rick Potts has discussed this question in depth and pointed out, first of all, that scholars in primatology and paleoanthropology today generally assume that a common ancestry of culture exists among at least the great apes and humans, including the oldest human ancestors (Potts 2004:249; also 1996). What this means, is that the concept of culture, normally exclusively applied to human beings, is now also applied to chimpanzees by primatologists who have demonstrated geographic variation in the behavioral repertoires of these apes. These variations are described as ‘cultural’ because these apes are able to invent new customs and then pass them on independently within different social groups, where neither ecological nor genetic factors can account for the behavioral differences manifested between groups. The most well-known example here is differences in termite feeding: at Gombe, Tanzania, chimpanzees practice termite fishing with slender twigs that are prepared and the inserted into termite nests; by contrast, chimpanzees in Equatorial Guinea practice termite digging, and stout digging sticks are used to break open termite nests (Potts 2004:249).
A very different concept of culture is employed when Paleolithic archeologists and paleoanthropologists speak of culture, which almost always refer to stone tools. Here different artifacts and manufacturing techniques are equated with different, distinct cultures and are considered to indicate cultural change. It is in this sense that archeologists then speak of Oldowan culture, Acheulean culture, and Mousterian culture. In applying these terms, scientists assume that change in toolmaking methods and the proportion of distinct artifact types over time and space reflects the development of new bodies of cultural information, which evolving hominids became capable of inventing and sustaining.
In spite of these differences in using the concept ‘culture’, Rick Potts has argued persuasively that the quest for a common ground between primate culture, hominid culture, and human culture is scientifically sound and defines a way of studying the continuities between human and non-human primate behavior. On this view paleoanthropologists and primatologists share at least four elements of agreement on what constitutes cultural behavior (Potts 2004:251ff):
1. Culture is a system of non-genetic information transfer, which occurs across generations and among individuals of the same generation.
2. Cultural behavior is manifested in discrete forms, i.e., specific activities, implements, or systems of belief.
3. Geographic differentiation in behavior, i.e., differences between separated populations, is an important and distinctive common ground for cultural behavior, and has been well documented in chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans.
4. The potential for change across generations is a final hallmark of primate cultural behavior. In modern humans, cultural variations are cumulative: the inventions of many generations are stockpiled, creating vast repositories of social information. In nonhuman primates there is less evidence for such accumulation.
The really interesting question, of course, is how this shared concept of culture fares when compared to the behavioral deposits, or artifacts, left behind by early humans? Here too Rick Potts’ answer is persuasive and to the point. Potts has argued that the oldest material record of hominid behavior is about 2.5 millions years old and consists of assemblages of precisely and repetitively chipped and battered rocks that define Oldowan toolmaking. It used to be thought that Oldowan cores (the sharp-edged rocks that bear multiple flake scares) represented purposeful tool designs that were in the minds of Homo habilis toolmakers. Detailed studies have now shown, however, that these idealized forms were mainly ‘stopping points’ in a continuous process of knocking sharp flakes from rocks of different original shapes. In fact, over a span of 800 thousand years (from ca. 2.5 to 1.7 million years ago) the Oldowan largely consists of continuously varying artifact forms that resulted from the repetitive process of flaking stone, making sharp edges, and using rounded stones or the cores themselves to hammer and crush other objects (Potts 2004:252f.). The earliest Acheulean, around 1.7 million years ago, reflected an apparent breakthrough in the process of stone flaking. Hominid toolmakers were able, for the first time on a regular basis, to detach very large flakes, and when this was done and the piece then flaked around the perimeter, the first handaxes, or large cutting tools were make. What is important, as well as fascinating, is that the enormous distance between Africa and East Asia did not prohibit or hinder the making of tools very similar to one another, and they certainly point to similar cognitive and technological capabilities on Africa and East Asia. For Rick Potts this clearly implies that even on this large geographic scale, and across long stretches of time, cultural differentiation of hominid populations is not as apparent as once believed (Potts 2004:259f.).
When we now proceed to compare the rich body of archeological evidence to the common ground of modern ape and human culture, intriguing differences become apparent. Potts has argued that over the first two million years of the archeological record, early humans manifested a behavior system that differed from great ape and human culture. Potts has called this a paleocultural system, which was indeed characterized by the transmission of non-genetic information, yet the artifacts and inferred behaviors of early humans, until roughly 500,000 years ago, exhibited continuous variation, which points to ecological factors for an explanation of some of this variation (Potts 2004:260). At the same time, paleolithic toolmaking was also marked by long periods of stasis, hundreds of thousands of years over which stone flaking did not change in any systematic manner. In other words, separation in space and time did not necessarily imply distinct behavioral packages, or ‘cultures’, as the term is used by anthropologists and primatologists. What this means, is that while non-genetic transmission of culture exists in all great apes, other commonalities of ape and human culture are not homologous. Although bonobos and gorillas, for instance, exhibit complex social learning, tool-assisted behavior in the wild and consistent geographic variations in social behavior have yet to be demonstrated in these species. It would still be possible to argue, however, that a greater capacity for innovation and geographic differentiation of discrete behavioral variants emerged independently in chimpanzees and orangutans during the Pleistocene, parallel to the pattern in the human record (Potts 2004:261).
This finally leads us to the crucial question: when was it that modern human cultural behavior emerged, and under what conditions did this process of emergence take place? Potts has argued that vast environmental fluctuations have characterized the past several millions years and provided the critical context in which humans evolved. This is especially true of the past 700,000 years (cf. Potts 1996), which have comprised one of the most turbulent periods of environmental instability in earth’s history. As a consequence, the Pleistocene was a period of high species extinction, and lineages that did not become extinct seemed to have one of two options: either mobility and wide dispersal, which allowed these creatures to keep up with geographic shifts in their preferred climatic zone or food resources, or a greater degree of versatility or adaptability to a wider range of environmental conditions (Potts 2004:261).
It is precisely this capacity for versatility that Potts have identified as the ‘astonishing hallmark of modern humanity’ (Potts 1996; 2004). Never before has a single species of such ecological adaptability evolved, at least among vertebrates. Homo sapiens thus emerged as a result of its ancestral lineage having persisted and changed in the face of dramatic environmental variability. It is in this dynamic prehistoric environment that a suite of anatomical and behavioral shifts occurred: not only did the fastest rate of increase in brain size relative to body size take place over the past 700,000 years, but around 500,000 years ago the stone tools make by early hominids became more diversified with increasingly standardized forms (Potts 2004:262). At the same time social interactions also intensified. Although it has been suggested that home bases existed earlier in time, it was only around 400,000 to 300,000 years ago that the primary signals of modern human home-base behavior, namely hearths and shelters, became apparent in the prehistoric record.
As far as symbolic behavior is concerned, it already became clear earlier that a few artifacts between 250,000 and 70,000 years ago indicated that symbolic behavior began to be reflected in the things hominids made. The presence of pigment at least 230,000 years ago in central Africa suggest decorative capabilities in some early human populations (cf. McBrearty and Brooks 2000:524). However, as we saw in Chapter Four, a tremendous expansion of symbolic behavior occurred 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, manifested in body ornamentation, cave paintings, sculpture, and the first musical instruments (bone flutes). Innovation indeed started to soar, exemplified by the routine use of new materials such as antler and bone, in addition to stone, to create new kinds of implements and aesthetic objects (Potts 2004:263).
Most important for understanding the symbolic minds of these ancestors of ours, however, is language – one of the most elaborate forms of symbolic coding imaginable. Language, and the ability to refer to distant sources of water, food, and other ‘non-visible’ aspects of the natural and social environment (Potts 2004:263f.), may have made the difference between survival and extinction in a challenging environment. Symbolic language enables humans to create complex mental maps, to imagine ‘what if…’, to think in terms of contingencies, and to plan and create strategies for events that have not yet happened. And exactly relevant to this point, Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, in a recent article analyzing the evolution of the language faculty, have argued that the unique ability of recursion lies at the heart of uniquely human language, i.e., the ability to turn a finite set of elements (phonemes, words, syntactical rules, mental activities) into a potentially infinite array of discrete expressions and representations (cf. Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch 2002:1569ff.). Most scholars would also agree that animal systems of communication lack precisely the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language. Against this background Rick Potts has argued that, although it is difficult to see how it might have evolved via habitat-specific, directional selection, this infinitely inventive aspect of language does make sense as an evolved response to the type of complex, inconsistent settings in which Homo sapiens emerged (Potts 2004:261; 1993).
It is clear then, that a highly specific view of human uniqueness thus emerges in the work of Rick Potts. The origin of language, and of cultural capacities so distinctive to living humans greatly enhanced the chances of adapting to environmental instability, and this enhancement decoupled the early modern humans from any single ancestral milieu (Potts 2004:265). Trying to understand humanness from a paleoanthropological and archeological point of view inevitably reveals the overarching influence of symbolic ability, and thus for the means by which humans create meaning. Clearly then, human cultural behavior involves not only the transmission of non-genetic behavior, but also the coding of thoughts, sensations, things, times, and places that are not empirically available or visible. In this way Potts’ work becomes invaluable for an interdisciplinary dialogue with theology, because what we have here is an argument from science that not only the material culture of prehistoric imagery as depicted in the spectacular cave ‘art’ of France and Spain, but the heights of all human imagination, the depths of depravity, moral awareness, and a sense of God, must depend on this human capacity for the symbolic coding of the ‘non-visible’. This ‘coding of the non-visible’ through abstract, symbolic thought, enabled also our early human ancestors to argue and hold beliefs in abstract terms. In fact, the concept of God itself follows from the ability to abstract and conceive of ‘person’ (Potts 2004:265f.).
I believe that Potts has made a convincing argument that this ‘paleocultural system’ of early human behavior would not have made sense as a response to a world of certainty and stability. But it does make sense as a psychological and social response to a world of contingency: the need to create meaning, whether religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, is in fact part of the ‘toolkit’ that Homo sapiens have evolved in its long journey of physical and spiritual survival. However much humans, therefore, share with primate or hominid culture, we cannot avoid acknowledging the emergence of distinctive cultural properties that highlight both the evolutionary continuities and discontinuities in the cultural behavior of Homo sapiens, earlier humans, and other primates. And the most distinctive discontinuity is found in the emergence of language and the symbolic capacity of the human mind. It is language that engages the interactive minds of the social group, and that enables the social world beyond an individual’s own lifetime to be defined symbolically. It is this astonishing dimension of human cultural behavior that is unique to modern humans and that suggests the origins of a spiritual sense. A sense of the ineffable, the sacred, the spiritual, is part and parcel of how humans beings have coped with their personal and social universe (Potts 2004:270), and in this coping process the role of language in the evolution of the uniquely human mind was crucial. Steven Mithen has argued that, as soon as language started acting as a vehicle for delivering information into the mind, carrying with it snippets of non-social information, a rather dramatic transformation of the nature of the mind began (cf. Mithen 1996:208ff.). At that point language switched from a social to a general-purpose function, and consciousness from a means to predict other individuals’ behavior to managing a mental database of information relating to all domains of behavior. Thus, as we saw earlier, a cognitive fluidity arose within the mind, and consequently, a mental transformation occurred, which physiologically implied no increase in brain size. This move, in essence, was the origins of the kind of symbolic capacity that is unique to the human mind.
Consequently, as we saw in Chapter Four, scholars like Steven Mithen, Ian Tattersall and Paul Mellars have all argued that knowing the prehistory of the human mind will provide us with a more profound understanding of what it means to be uniquely human. It certainly helps us to understand a little better the origins of art and of religion, and how these cultural domains are inescapably linked to the ability of the cognitively fluid human mind to develop creatively powerful metaphors by crossing the boundaries of different domains of knowledge. By definition this kind of symbolic language use can arise only within a cognitively fluid mind.
However, Steven Mithen’s archeological perspective on the evolution of language still leaves us with some important questions regarding the symbolic capacities of our human minds. Some of the crucial questions that scholars still wrestle with today are: first, when did modern human language arise, and second, what exactly was its function in an evolutionary context? Here, too, answers are given along the two well-known lines of current evolutionary and paleoanthropological debates: did language arise rather suddenly, in a punctuated leap at the very threshold of modern human existence, perhaps at the Middle to Upper Paleolithic boundary (cf. Lewin 1993:162)? Or did linguistic abilities develop gradually, reaching modern levels not through a sudden advance but through steady, cumulative increments? It is obviously very difficult to address the timing of language origins since language does not fossilize or impress itself directly on the archeological record. Paleontologists, therefore, have to look for indirect products of language capability, or for evidence from the anatomical structures that produce language, namely the brain and the vocal tract (Lewin 1993:163).
What seems to be clear is that the potential for language was fully realized when Upper Paleolithic people for the first time were neurologically equipped for language. An increasing number of scholars have also pointed to various areas of archeological evidence that point, directly or indirectly, to a dramatic enhancement of language abilities that seems to have coincided with the Upper Paleolithic: first, deliberate burial of the dead, which almost certainly, at least in a basic sense, had already begun in Neanderthal times; second, artistic expression, especially bodily adornment and image making (notably the painting of caves), which began only with the Upper Paleolithic; third, a clear and sudden acceleration in the pace of technological innovation and cultural change; fourth, the development of real regional differences in culture, an expression and product of social boundaries; fifth, evidence of long-distance contact and trade; sixth, a significant increase in size of living sites, for which complex language is a prerequisite for planning and coordination; seventh, the movement from the predominant use of stone technology to include other raw materials, such as bone, antler and clay (cf. Lewin 1993:163).
This combination of ‘firsts’ in human activity looks impressive, and seems increasingly to define the uniqueness of Homo sapiens from a paleoanthropological perspective. Although some scholars, of course, question the punctuational appearance of some of these elements, most find the evidence of these historically meaningful shifts persuasive support of the appearance of a complex, fully modern spoken language (cf. Klein 1999:590f.). In the light of the latest evidence, then, it is tempting to infer that the Upper Paleolithic was ushered in by a major enhancement of language abilities. What is most interesting for our purposes, however, is that the same kind of pattern is to be seen in that major area of archeological evidence, namely prehistoric art or imagery. As was argued in Lecture Four, activities such as engraving, sculpting, and especially painting, appear late in the prehistoric record, and coincided with the sudden emergence of innovation and rapid change that defines Upper Paleolithic tool technologies. If the ability to produce representational and symbolic images and decorative objects does relate to language abilities, the evidence of the archeological record would indeed point to dramatic enhancement late in human prehistory (cf. Lewin 1993:166).
It is exactly for this very close link between creative prehistoric imagery and language that scholars like Iain Davidson and William Noble have argued. In his argument for a very direct link between language and symbolic abilities, Davidson takes a comparative approach that juxtaposes data from Europe with that from Australia, and then argues that the similarities in the development of early image making clearly shows the universal use of art to reflect the negotiation of environmental (i.e., both natural and social) relationships. Davidson also argues, rather impressively, that the most significant European influence on the cultural development of modern humans is not to be found in the sculpture of the Classical Greeks, the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, the plays of Shakespeare, or the musical tradition of Mozart and Beethoven, but precisely in the paintings and engravings of the Upper Paleolithic, between 30,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago, in a small region of south western Europe (cf. Davidson 1997:125).
Davidson also argues that early humans worked out their relationship with their environment and with each other through this ‘art’, and sees the burst of image making after 40,000 BP as reflecting the way that these ancestors of ours explored the limits and possibilities of the power of their recently discovered symbolically based communication. Because of this, most scholars in the field would take the Upper Paleolithic as the standard for recognizing symbolism, even if in a sense it is anomalous, because symbolism did not emerge elsewhere in the world populated by Homo sapiens at that time (cf. Davidson 1997:125). For Davidson this symboling power is tied directly to the origins of language: it would have been impossible for creatures without language to hold opinions about the making or marking of surfaces that make them art. For this reason Davidson argues that it is precisely these supremely important artistic artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic that give us unique insights into evolutionary processes, into the evolution of human behavior, and into the very nature of what it might have meant to be a modern human.
Davidson takes as his fundamental assumption throughout that language emerged fairly late in human evolution (cf. Davidson 1997:126; also Noble and Davidson 1996). He recognizes that the vocal apparatus evolved gradually over the course of human evolution, but argues that the actual transition between language absence (although certainly including vocal and other communication) and language use involved the recognition of symbols. What is crucial, is that language is distinguished from other forms of communication not only by the fact of modes of communication like speech, signs, or writing, but by the use of symbols in any or all of these modes of communication (cf. Davidson 1997:126). In this sense the emergence of language goes hand in hand with the recognition of symbols, This does indeed mean that we could not have art without language, but it does not mean that the origins of language can be identified with the origins of art. Davidson has in fact argued that the earliest evidence which requires an interpretation that there were people who already must have had language, is the fact of the colonization of Australia around 60,000 years ago. This seems to be 20,000 years earlier that the Upper Paleolithic of Europe (cf. Davidson 1997:126f.). The important question now is, what does the rather late origin of language mean for our understanding of prehistoric art? For Davidson one of the most distinctive features of language is the arbitrariness of symbols, and how that necessarily results in inherent ambiguity, especially when compared to pre-linguistic communication systems (cf. the complex calls of vervet monkeys) which have no possibility of ambiguity because it has been honed by natural selection. One way to cope with the proliferation of this kind of ambiguous creativity, was to produce emblems or signs which we, even today, can recognize as in some sense iconic. Successful communication, therefore, requires means of identification that the utterances are trustworthy. We should, therefore, not be surprised to find these kinds of emblems among early language users (cf. Davidson 1997:126f.). We should also not be surprised, I think, that we too are still fascinated by the enigmatic character of these symbolic images and signs.
This argument, that paleolithic art is symbolic, not just decorative art, is considerably strengthened by what has already been discussed in Chapter Four, namely Margaret Conkey’s persuasive arguments against trying to capture the generic ‘meaning’ of paleolithic art as a single, inclusive, empirical category or metatheory of our inquiry, and for a more contextual understanding of the ‘meaning’ of this art as enmeshed in the social context of its time. On this view, the original meaning can only be said to exist through the contexts in which it was first produced as individual paintings or parts of paintings (cf. Davidson 1997:128). What this really means is that ‘meaning’ is not a property of paleolithic art in itself, but of the interaction, then and now, between the human agents and the material. We also, in our own relational, interactive interpretations of this art, discover and produce meaning. Therefore, the ‘meaning’ we find in the earliest art produced by people like us clearly is a product of our own interpretative interaction with this art. What again emerges here is an important convergence between theological and paleoanthropological methodology, a truly postfoundationalist argument for meaning that, as I argued in Chapter One, implies that we relate to our world(s) through interpreted experience only.
When viewed like this, the Upper Paleolithic tradition of prehistoric ‘art’ emerges as an evolving tradition (or traditions) that has had, and still has, the capacity to reveal distinct regularities, and not just western European particularities, about the evolution of human behavior (cf. Davidson 1997:133)1. Davidson has also argued that personal ornamentation is earlier in the surviving evidence than the ‘making of places’ (cave paintings). In the evolutionary process of ‘art’ in the Upper Paleolithic era this does not imply that there was an inevitability of ‘progress’ from personal decoration to the painting of the caves. But personal decoration was indeed an early part of the complex of symbolic representation in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe. What Davidson is suggesting, is that, although the earliest language, and hence symbolism, may have left no material trace, on both continents the newly arrived humans had only recently discovered language and its symbolic properties. And in this context they also discovered personal decoration and cave painting (cf. Davidson 1997:138; 147f.).
But what more can be said about language and symbolism in prehistoric cave paintings, that most famous manifestation of Upper Paleolithic ‘art?’ One of the most fascinating examples of the way in which prehistoric cave art reveals some distinct regularities is found in the so-called hand stencils, or hand prints. The earliest images in Upper Paleolithic Cave Art are indeed the famous hand prints, especially those from Gargas in the French Pyrenees, and are now confirmed by the early dates from those in Cosquer, the famous ‘cave beneath the sea’2. The production of hand prints on cave walls is one of the truly universal features of expressive human behavior, produced all over the world and at almost all times since there have been humans (cf. Davidson 1997:148f.). Although Iain Davidson has maintained that we have no way of ever knowing exactly what they meant, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, as we saw in Chapter Four, have now persuasively argued for an interpretation that sees these famous hand prints as shamanistic ‘touchings of the other world’, and thus for an unmistakable ritualistic, religious interpretation of these mysterious, ubiquitous signs.
From a paleoanthropological point of view symbolism should, therefore, be seen as part and parcel of turning communication into language, but the use of symbols separate from language, as in the case of cave paintings and abstract signs, could only have been a product of language (cf. Davidson 1997:153). What this implies is that whatever symbolic, expressive quality those spectacular prehistoric cave painting had in south western France and in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, they could only have had because of the linguistic context in which they must have been created. Hence the imagination, productivity and creativity we associate with humans is very much a product of language, which makes language and symbolic abilities central to a definition of embodied human uniqueness.
In their Human Evolution, Language and Mind (1996), Iain Davidson and William Noble have made an even more detailed case for this close relation between language and prehistoric art. At the heart of this argument is the conviction that the making of images to resemble things can only have emerged historically in communities with shared systems of meanings, and shared systems of meaning are mediated through language. Davidson and Noble’s main argument, however, is that the development of language and the development of image-making are interdependent, each facilitating the other. In this sense representational images in prehistory should actually be seen as the imprint of language in a tangible, material form (cf. also Lewin 1993:166). For Noble and Davidson human ‘mindedness’ and ‘minded’ behavior only arise within the socially constructed context of linguistic communication, which is why the appearance of symbolic behavior like cave paintings is so directly related to language, and why both language and symbolic behavior are very late developments, appearing no more than fifty thousand years ago (cf. Mithen 1997:269ff.).
What I see emerging here is an interpretation of the embodied human mind functioning as a ‘mindedness of behavior in context’, especially in its very specific historical, social, and paleocultural context. Crucial to Noble and Davidson’s argument is how communication between humans came to be unquestionably intentional, and they answer by seeing language as social interaction where those practices which happen to be unique to humans interactively recruit the structures of the brain, rather than just being determined by them. Such practices obviously depend on prior structural evolution, but it is these cultural practices that interact with brain structures (cf. Noble and Davidson 1996:18). It is in this sense that minded human behavior is linguistic and essentially interactive, and that human minds are socially constructed. Against this background it can be argued that in early humans, the physical acts of throwing and pointing actually led to iconic gestures, which in their turn made possible the transformation of communication into language. The fact that a gesture could be a meaningful object for perception, facilitated the remarkable symbolic discovery that one thing can stand for another. This discovery, for Noble and Davidson at least, was an all-or-nothing event which can not be explained in gradualist terms (cf. also Corbey and Roebroeks 1997:917ff.). This radical position leads them to reject a gradualist approach to the evolution of language, and along with that the possibility of ‘protolanguage’: if a form of communication was not language as we actually know it, it would be misleading to refer to it as language at all (cf. Noble and Davidson 1996:8ff.)3.
On this view the discovery or emergence of language was more a matter of behavior than of evolutionary changes in biology alone. Language as a symbolic communication system created mindedness, being aware of experience and knowledge, being able to judge and plan and thus better control the future. This ability finally released early humans partially from the immediate contingencies of a specific natural environment, enabling them to plan logistically in all kinds of environmental settings, to abstract, to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’, to construct notions about the supernatural, and to reflect on past, present, and future (cf. Corbey and Roebroeks 1997:917ff). Noble and Davidson thus effectively argue that Upper Paleolithic tools, art, shelters, burials, and especially also the colonization of islands, are the first valid indicators of the kind of planning that depended on language. This view is consistent with majority views today about the late origin of the modern human adaptation (cf. Parker 1997:579).
By now is should be clear that throughout the history of paleoanthropological research, one of the primary questions has always been, when did humans begin to think, feel, and act like humans? Central to this question has always been the issue of cognition or awareness, and how it might be recognized in its initial stages (cf. Simek 1998:444f.). Steven Mithen’s answer to this question, as saw earlier, was an evolutionary approach to the origins of the human mind, and the development of a three stage typology of cognition that follows the evolution of domains of intelligence from the earliest members of the genus Homo through to their final integration in modern humans. Only in the final phase, in Homo sapiens, do we find a dramatic behavioral break, a ‘big bang’ of cognitive, technical and social innovation with the rise of cognitive fluidity, the final phase of mind development. William Noble and Iain Davidson, on the other hand, see one development, namely language, as pivotal in the evolution of human cognition. Here social context is seen as a primary selective force, and language, symbolization and mind are integrated into an explanatory framework for the evolution of human cognition, centered on the human ability to give meaning to perceptions in a variety of ways. Ultimately Noble and Davidson see language as emerging out of socially defined contexts of communication, encouraged as a more efficient form of gesture, with the selection of language occurring precisely because of its efficiency and flexibility (cf. Simek 1998:444f.).
My discussion in this chapter of the important work of Rick Potts, Steve Mithen, and of William Noble and Iain Davidson, against the background of our earlier analyses of human origins and human uniqueness, has shown how extremely complex and interdisciplinary the field of paleoanthropology has become. For a philosophical theologian like myself, who normally lives and works outside of this field, it has at least become clear that the origin of human consciousness and cognition, like most aspects of human behavior, were part of the complex mosaic of evolution and in fact a convergence of many evolutionary trajectories. Jan F. Simek puts it persuasively: over time elements of the brain itself may have evolved in different ways, and at different rates. Various human behaviors, including the capacity for symboling and communication, also developed in distinctive ways along particular pathways. These pathways were subject to diverse selective forces over time and space, and may ultimately have converged in different areas in different forms. Thus, the Late Pleistocene relationship between biology and behavior in the Near East may well have differed from that in Europe, and art could ‘explode’ in one area and not (yet) in another (cf. Simek 1998:444f.). What should be increasingly clear for the theologian in dialogue with these sciences, is that the diverse, and sometimes conflicting, voices in paleoanthropology are all adding importantly to an emerging mosaic of what it means to be distinctively human.
Human Uniqueness and the Symbolic Mind
The important discussion in paleoanthropology and archeology on language and the symboling mind is enhanced if we transversally connect this dialogue to voices from the neurosciences and neuropsychology, where the focus has quite specifically been on the symbolic propensities of the human mind. A specific focus on the human brain may add different perspectives to this discussion and also the argument that language can be seen as the major cause, not just the consequence, of human brain evolution. Some would see this as indicating a gradual increase in language competence throughout human prehistory (at least post-Homo), which prepared the human brain for the cognitive leap that occurred with the appearance of behaviorally modern humans.
In his The Symbolic Species (1997), Terence Deacon takes up the theme of human uniqueness and quite deliberately links it to the paleoanthropological discussion on the unparalleled cognitive ability of our Cro Magnon ancestors in the Upper Paleolithic. For Deacon it is clear that as humans we think differently from all other creatures on earth, and we can share those thoughts with one another in ways that no other species even approaches. In his own words:
Hundreds of millions of years of evolution have produced hundreds of thousands of species with brains, and tens of thousands with complex behavioral, perceptual, and learning abilities. Only one of these has ever wondered about its place in the world, because only one evolved the ability to do so (Deacon 1997:21).
As humans we very consciously inhabit a world full of abstractions, impossibilities, and paradoxes. We alone brood about what did not happen, and we alone ponder what it will be like not to exist. We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organize our lives. In a very real sense, then, we live our lives in this shared virtual world (cf. Deacon 1997:22). For Deacon this remarkable ability has everything to do with language, and with the absence of language in other species. The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by the evolution of language. The human brain is different, not just in size, but precisely in our unique and complex mode of communication, language. In a very specific sense only humans communicate with language, and this unique form of communication is special and far more precise and rapid than any other kind of communication. No other form of animal communication has the logical structure and open-ended possibilities that language has, and the underlying rules for constructing sentences are so complicated that it is hard to explain how they could ever be learned. Therefore, although other animals communicate with one another, this communication resembles language only in a very superficial way (for example, by using sounds) and there is no evidence that these modes of communication have the equivalent of anything like words, much less nouns, verbs, and sentences (cf. Deacon 1997:12f.). Deacon also investigates how language differs from other forms of communication, and why other species encounter virtually intractable difficulties when it comes to learning even simple language. The human brain, however, has evolved to overcome these difficulties. There is an unbroken continuity between human and nonhuman brains, and yet, at the same time there is a singular discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds, between brains that use this form of communication and brains that do not.
But language is not only a highly unusual from of communication, it is also the outward expression of a highly unusual mode of thought, namely symbolic representation (Deacon: 1997:22). We indeed seem to be the only species that has evolved the ability to communicate symbolically. The questions about human origins that so deeply fascinate us cannot, therefore, be answered only in a paleontological way by inquiring about who were our ancestors, how they came to walk upright, or how they discovered the use of stone tools. For Deacon the broader question should be a neuroscientific one, namely where do human minds come from? Thus, the missing link that we hope to fill in by investigating human origins is not so much a gap in our own family tree, but a gap that separates us from other species in general. Deacon rightly argues that this is a Rubicon crossed at a specific time and within a specific evolutionary context. If we could identify what was different on either side of this divide – differences in ecology, behavior, anatomy, and especially, neuroanatomy – perhaps we could find the critical change that catapulted us into this unprecedented world full of abstractions that we call human (cf. 1997:23).
It is, therefore, not just the origins of our biological species that we are trying to explain, rather, it is especially the origin of our novel form of mind that we are trying to understand. The most critical piece of missing information regarding the origin of humans is exactly the ancestral hominid brain, because the internal microarchitecture of these brains left no fossil trail (cf. 1997:24). Therefore, the point is not that we humans are better or smarter than other species, or that language is impossible for them. It is simply that these differences are not a matter of incommensurate kinds of language, but rather that these nonhuman forms of communication are something quite different from language. In fact, of no other natural form of communication is it legitimate to say that ‘language is a more complicated version of that’. In fact, this kind of analogy would ignore the sophistication and power of animals’ own distinctive nonlinguistic communication. At the same time increased cognitive abilities do not necessarily represent some form of ‘progress’ in evolution. According to Deacon, the idea of progress in evolution is an unnoticed habit left over from a misinformed sense of seeing the history of the living world in terms of design. Evolution certainly is an irreversible process, a process of increasing diversification – but only in this sense does evolution exhibit a consistent direction (1997:29ff.).
The most important issue in defining the difference between language and other modes of communication is actually not the complexity of language as such. The most salient difference between language and non-language communication is the common, everyday miracle of word meaning and reference. This is why it was not grammar, syntax, or vocabulary that have kept other species from evolving languages: it is just the simple problem of figuring out how combinations of words refer to things. This uniquely human from of communication/mode of reference can be called symbolic reference.
Somehow, despite our cognitive limitations, our ancestors found a way to create and reproduce a simple system of symbols, and once available, these symbolic tools quickly became indispensable. Because this novel form of information transmission was partially decoupled from genetic transmission, it sent our lineage of apes down a novel evolutionary path – a path that has continued to diverge from all other species ever since (Deacon 1997:45).
Therefore, if the human predisposition for language has been honed by evolution, then our unique mentality must also be understood in these terms. The implications for brain evolution are profound: the human brain should reflect language in its architecture the way birds reflect the aerodynamics of flight in the shape and movements of their wings. Moreover, what is most unusual about language, i.e., its symbolic basis, should then correspond to that which is most unusual about human brains, i.e., a radical re-engineering of the whole brain, and on a scale that is unprecedented. In the co-evolution of the symbolic brain and language, then, two of the most formidable mysteries of science converge. Basically, though, if symbol-learning is the threshold that separates us from other species, then there most be something unusual about human brains that helped to surmount it. We have to ask, therefore, what other changes in brain organization correlate with this global change in brain size, and what are their functional consequences? (cf. Deacon 1997:148).
On this point Deacon has moved close to Ian Tattersall’s point of view, discussed in Chapter Four, and the statement that we humans are not just more intelligent than other species, we are actually differently intelligent (cf. Tattersall 1998:58ff.). The difference between human and nonhuman brains may be far more complex and multifaceted than simply an increase in extra neurons over and above the average primate or mammal trend (cf. Deacon1997:224). Deacon also closely approaches Steven Mithen’s idea of cognitive fluidity. Individual linguistic symbols are not exactly located anywhere specific in the brain, but the brain structures necessary for their analysis seem to be distributed across many areas. Deacon suggests that the first use of symbolic reference by some distant ancestors changed how natural selection processes have affected hominid brain evolution ever since. In a very real sense this now means that the physical changes that make us human are the incarnations of the process of using words. This is explained further by a subtle modification of the Darwinian theory of natural selection, as outlined more than a century ago by James Mark Baldwin, and often called ‘Baldwinian evolution’, although there is nothing non-Darwinian about the process. Baldwin suggested that learning and behavioral flexibility can play a role in amplifying and biasing natural selection. What Baldwin’s theory explains, then, is how behaviors can affect evolution, which is not the same as the Lamarckian claim that responses to environmental demands acquired during a lifetime could be passed on directly to offspring (cf. Deacon 1997:322).
What this means is that the remarkable expansion of the brain that took place in human evolution was not just the cause of symbolic language but in a sense rather a consequence of it. Each assimilated change enabled even more complex symbol systems to be acquired and used, and in turn selected for greater prefrontalization (cf. 1997:340ff.). More than any other species, then, hominids’ behavioral adaptations have determined the course of their physical evolution, rather than vice versa. For instance, stone and symbolic tools, which were initially acquired with the aid of flexible ape-learning abilities, ultimately turned the tables on their users and forced them to adapt to a new niche opened by these technologies. The point of origin of ‘humanness’ can now be defined as that point in our evolution where these tools became the principal source of selection on our bodies and our brains, and in this sense is the ‘diagnostic trait’ of what Deacon has called Homo symbolicus (Deacon 1997:345). On this view it is clear that the importance of toolmaking as a learned skill, not a physical trait, was passed on not genetically but behaviorally. We cannot, of course, assume that all tool users were our ancestors, but the introduction of stone tools and the ecological adaptation they indicate also marks the presence of a socio-ecological predicament that demanded a symbolic solution. For Deacon stone tools and the use of symbols must both, then, be seen as the architects of the Australopithecus-Homo transition, and not just as its consequences. As a result, the large brains, stone tools, reduction in dentition, better opposability of thumb and fingers, and more complete bipedality found in post-australopithecine hominids van now be seen as the physical echoes of a threshold already crossed (cf. Deacon 1997:348).
What is interesting to observe in this highly plausible argument, is a very clear convergence between Terrence Deacon’s views and the views of evolutionary epistemologist Franz Wuketits on the evolution of human cognition, which we discussed in Chapter Two. For Deacon, as for Wuketits in his hypothetical realist approach to evolutionary epistemology, the evolutionary interactive dynamic between social/environmental and biological processes was the architect of modern human brains. For Deacon it is also the key to understanding the subsequent evolution of an array of unprecedented adaptations for language. Closely echoing Steven Mithen’s views in cognitive fluidity, Deacon can, therefore, conclude that once symbolic communication became essential for one critical social function, it also became available for recruitment to support dozens of other functions as well. And as more functions came to depend on symbolic communication, it would have become an indispensible adaptation (cf. Deacon 1997:352).
However, if the primary mystery of language is the origin of symbolic abilities, the second mystery is how most symbolic communication became dependent on one highly elaborated medium, namely speech (cf. 1997:352f.). For Deacon, what is certain is that the development of skilled vocal ability was almost certainly a protracted process in hominid evolution, not a sudden shift. The incremental increases in brain sizes over the last 2 million year progressively increased cortical control over the larynx, and this was almost certainly both a cause and a consequence of the increasing use of vocal symbolization. In this sense, then, early symbolic communication would not have been just a simpler form of language, it would have been different in many respects as a result of the different state of vocal abilities. On this view it becomes highly plausible to assume that our prehistoric ancestors used languages that we will never hear and communicated with symbols that have not survived the selective sieve of fossilization. And as far as prehistoric ‘art’ goes, Deacon seems to be in complete agreement with Iain Davidson: it is almost certainly a reliable expectation that a society which constructed complex tools and spectacular art also had a correspondingly sophisticated symbolic infrastructure. Moreover, a society that leaves behind evidence of permanent external symbolization in the form of paintings, carvings, and sculpture, most likely also included a social function for this activity. And that is why material archeological artifacts are one of the few windows through which we can glimpse the workings of the ‘mental’ activity of a distant prehistoric society (cf. Deacon 1997:366). And that is why, I would add, the cave paintings of the upper Upper Paleolithic might be the only reliable window through which we can get a glimpse of the minds of our prehistoric, Cro Magnon ancestors. This rather spectacular phase in modern human behavior should, therefore, be seen as a source of evidence for the first use of symbols, the origin of speech, and the origin of religion. And even if scientists differ, sometimes markedly, about the timing, the pace, the impact of the evolution of the human mind, of its symbolic propensities and its close ties to language, as theologians in an interdisciplinary dialogue on human origins we can move beyond the details of the controversies and glean important facts about human uniqueness and the origin of a religious capacity from these diverse sciences. The challenging task will be to identify those shared concerns, and those transversal moments that will enable us to translate from theology to science, and back to theology.
For a neuroscientist like Deacon, then, it is clear that as far as paleolithic art goes, the first cave paintings and carvings that emerged from the Upper Paleolithic period do give us the very first direct expression of the symbolizing human mind. In Deacon’s own words:
They are the first irrefutable expressions of a symbolic process that is capable of conveying a rich cultural heritage of images and probably stories from generation to generation. And they are the first concrete evidence of the storage of such symbolic information outside of a human brain (cf. 1997: 372).
What has now become clear in our discussion of Steven Mithen’s, Ian Tattersall’s, Rick Potts’, William Noble and Iain Davidson’s, and Deacon’s work, is that human mental life includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experiences to spiritual contemplation. The origins of many of these most distinctive human traits are deeply intertwined with the origins of language. Language is without doubt the most distinctive human adaptation. In fact, both the special adaptations for language and language itself have played important roles in the origins of human moral and spiritual capacities (cf. Deacon 2003:504ff.). Assessing the origins of these abilities, however, is complicated by the fact that no direct consequences of language use are preserved in the fossil record. In a recent article, Deacon makes the important point that the spectacular paleolithic art and the burial of the dead, though not final guarantees of shamanistic or religious-like activities, do suggest strongly the existence of sophisticated, symbolic reasoning. And, important for the gradual, piecemeal evolution of human symbolic capacities in Africa that scholars like Rick Potts and David Lewis-Williams have argued for, these earliest examples of expressive symbolism in southwestern Europe can be understood not so much as evidence for the initial evolution of symbolic abilities, but rather for their first expression in durable media. (cf. Deacon 2003).
Like most of the voices from evolutionary epistemology and paleoanthropology I discussed earlier, it is significant that a neuroscientist such as Terrence Deacon can also conclude that the symbolic nature of Homo sapiens explains why mystical or religious inclinations can indeed be regarded as an essentially universal attribute of human culture (cf. Deacon 1997:436). As we saw earlier, there is in fact no culture that lacks a rich mythical, mystical, and religious tradition. The co-evolution of language and brain not only implies, however, that human brains have been reorganized in response to language, but also alerts us to the fact that the consequences of this unprecedented evolutionary transition for human religious and spiritual development must be understood on many levels as well. Deacon argued recently that there are reasons to believe that the way that language can symbolically refer to things provides the crucial catalyst that initiated the transition from species with no inkling of the meaning of life into a species where questions of ultimate meaning have become core organizers of culture and consciousness. It is these symbolic capacities that are ubiquitous for humans, and largely taken for granted when it comes to spiritual and ethical realms. For Deacon this is precisely where crucial differences in ability mark the boundary that distinguishes humans from other species. It is in this sense that one could say that the capacity for spiritual experience itself can be understood and an emergent consequence of the symbolic transfiguration of cognition and emotions (cf. Deacon 2003).
Against this background it again becomes clear why it can be argued that there is in fact no culture that lacks a rich mythical, mystical, and religious tradition, and that mythology and imagination is the mark of the modern human mind, the creation of worlds shared in the medium of language (Lewin 1993:177). The predisposition to religious belief indeed is one of the most complex and powerful forces in the human mind, one of the universals of human behavior. The question, of course, is how this kind of force might spring from the font of consciousness? When humans became aware of themselves as individuals with feelings and motivations, they not only imaginatively attributed similar feelings to other humans, but also to other animals and to inanimate objects of the world. From the moment of consciousness, then, there has been a universal urge to account for the rest of the world, to tell stories of how things came to be, which forces were good, which evil, and how they might be influenced. And with awareness of self comes awareness of death. Therefore, as in the case of the symbolic and enigmatic nature of the cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic, also the practice of burial and the death awareness that must have gone along with it, provide the paleoanthropologist and archeologist with the possibility of gleaning from the past something of the level of conscious imagination in our distant ancestors’ minds (cf. Lewin 1993:177). And it is this conscious imagination that seems to have naturally, and unambiguously, included symbolic, religious imagination.
* * * * * *
Terrence Deacon’s argument that the spectacular cave ‘art’ from the Upper Paleolithic, as well as the burial of the dead that accompanied it strongly suggest shamanistic or religious-like activities (cf. Deacon 2003), resonates remarkably well with Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams’ intriguing proposal for a shamanistic interpretation (cf. Chapter Four) of at least some of the imagery from this important prehistoric period. In his most recent work The Mind in the Cave (2002), David Lewis-Williams has returned to this theme and developed a much stronger argument for seeing neuroscience, as well as neuropsychological research on altered states of consciousness as providing the principal access to what we might know today about the mental and religious life of the humans who lived and painted in western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic. I now will return to this interpretation of Upper Paleolithic imagery and not only argue for the plausibility of this proposal, but also illustrate how it enhances the interpretation of a select number of some of the most famous cave paintings from the Upper paleolithic in Europe. In the process a remarkable consonance with the postfoundationalist methodology I have proposed for interdisciplinary dialogue in Chapters One and Four, will emerge and further solidify my attempt to find transversal connections between paleoanthropology and theology.
As has become abundantly clear by now, in spite of the remarkable progress in paleoanthropology and archeology it often seems that we are still not closer to knowing why the people of the Upper Paleolithic penetrated the deep limestone caves of France and Spain to make spectacular images in total darkness. We still do not really know what the images meant to those who made and to those who viewed them, and the great mystery of how we became human, and in the process began to make art, continues to tantalize us. In spite if this, however, David Lewis-Williams believes that a century of research has indeed given us sufficient data, the ‘material conditions’ to attempt a persuasive, general explanation for a great number of Upper Paleolithic art. Moreover, we are now in a position to explain some hitherto inexplicable features of the imagery and its often bizarre contents. It is in this sense, then, that Lewis-Williams has argued that what is needed is not more data, but rather a radical rethinking of what we already know (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:7f.).
In developing his own methodology for approaching this interdisciplinary problem, David Lewis-Williams, echoing Margaret Conkey’s rejection of metatheories for the interpretation of prehistoric imagery (cf. Chapter Four), shies away from overly generic explanations, while at the same time avoiding the over-contextualization of some relativist forms of interpretation. Lewis-Williams’ sensitivity for contextuality will emerge as a focus on the social and historical context of our ancestors from the Upper-Paleolithic. A keen sense for embodied materiality also drives him to seriously consider the role of intelligence and consciousness in prehistory. He argues that most researchers have consistently ignored the full complexity of human consciousness and have then presented us with a one-sided view of what it is to be an anatomically and cognitively fluid modern human being (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:9). It is against this kind of rich background that he proceeds to examine the interaction of mental activity and social context.
Lewis-Williams has argued that for scientific work to present us with ‘better’ explanations it has to be focused on verifiable, empirical facts, and any hypothesis must relate explicitly to the observable features of specific data. It also has to be internally consistent in that no part of a hypothesis should contradict any another. Most importantly, though, any hypothesis that covers diverse fields of evidence is always more persuasive than one that pertains to only one, narrow type of evidence. In this sense complementary types of evidence that converge to address the complex problems posed by Upper Paleolithic ‘art’ can in fact produce persuasive hypotheses. This points directly, I believe, to the superiority of an interdisciplinary approach to issues in paleoanthropology and, by implication, in theology. It is in this sense too that useful hypotheses have strong heuristic potential, and as such lead to further creative questions and research (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:49). Lewis-Williams also argues that for us to understand the historical trajectory of Upper-Paleolithic research, we have to be especially alert to the social embeddedness of scientific work and research (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:49). I believe this lends strong support to the fact that in our own interactive relationship with paleolithic imagery, even if the ‘original meaning’ of these images are lost forever, a sense of patternedness will emerge that reveals enigmatic narrative structures, even of the original narratives are lost forever,
For David Lewis-Williams, allowing for the effects of social contexts, while at the same time emphasizing a real historical past and the possibility of constructing hypotheses that may approximate this past, now surfaces as a key epistemological principle, and we can now proceed to address the enigma of what happened to the human mind in the caves of Upper Paleolithic western Europe. To try to unlock the enigma of these images, we must therefore look more closely at the human brain, the mind, intelligence, and what Lewis-Williams has called the shifting, mercurial consciousness of human beings (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:68). As a first step, Lewis-Williams wants to distinguish between human intelligence and consciousness and how this distinction may help to clarify what was happening to the Upper-Paleolithic mind in the caves of western Europe. We saw earlier that the amazing behavioral changes that culminated in the Upper Paleolithic, was slowly and sporadically assembled in Africa. This history clearly points to the fact that a kind of human consciousness can be presupposed that was alien to Neanderthals and that quite specifically allowed for symbolic conceptions of an ‘alternate reality’(cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:101). This leads directly to questions as to the evolution of intelligence and the very specific role of human consciousness in this process. For Lewis-Williams this directly implies what I have called a transversal approach to interdisciplinary research, precisely by incorporating ‘strands of evidence’ from neuroscience and neuropsychology into paleoanthropology. This kind of transversality is exemplified by his ‘cabling’ method of weaving together perspectives and arguments from different disciplines so as to sustain a specific hypothesis about the relationship between brain, mind, and the earliest forms of art (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:103).
Lewis-Williams is rightly critical of any over-emphasis on intelligence, and the evolution of intelligence, that has marginalized the importance of the full range of human consciousness in human behavior. This reveals a one-sided focus on a ‘conciousness of rationality and intelligence’, and has marginalized the fuller spectrum of human consciousness by suppressing certain altered states of consciousness as irrational, marginal, abberant, or even pathological. This is especially true of altered states of consciousness, which in science and even within mainstream religion normally has been eliminated from investigations of the deep past. In a move closely reminiscent of Antonio Damasio’s work, Lewis-Williams suggests that we think of consciousness not as a state, but as a continuum, or spectrum of mental states (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:121ff.). Following the work of Colin Martindale (1981) Lewis-Williams first describes the spectrum of states of consciousness that encompasses a trajectory from being fully awake to a state of sleeping. On this trajectory as we drift into sleep we pass through the following six phases:
– waking, problem-oriented thought.
– realistic fantasy
– autistic fantasy
– hypnagogic (falling asleep) states, and
In waking consciousness we are concerned with problem-solving, usually in response to environmental stimuli. We then become disengaged from those stimuli, and different states of consciousness begin to take over. First, in realistic fantasy we are oriented to problem-solving. These realistic fantasies grade into more autistic ones, i.e., one that are less connected to external reality. In this state our thoughts are far less directed, and image follows image in no narrative sequence. These then shade over into hypnagogic states that occur as we fall asleep. Sometimes these hypnagogic imagery is startlingly vivid and leads to what is called hypnagogic hallucinations, where someone would start awake and believe that their imagery is real. These hypnagogic imagery may be both visual and aural. And finally, in dreaming a succession of images appears, at least in recall, as a narrative. Focusing on the first part of this sequence, Lewis-Williams, also speaks of fragmented consciousness: during the course of any day we are repeatedly shifting from outward-directed to inward-directed states (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:123). What this means is that sometimes we are fully attentive to our environment, and at other times we withdraw into contemplation and are less alert to our surroundings.
In addition to this spectrum of consciousness from shifting wakefullness to sleep, Lewis-Williams also suggests another trajectory that passes through the same spectrum but with different effects. He calls this an intensified trajectory of consciousness, and it is more profoundly concerned with inward-direction and fantasy. Lewis-Williams argues that dream-like autistic states may be induced by a wide variety of means other than normal drifting into sleep, for instance, fatigue, pain, fasting, and the ingestion of psychotropic substances are all means of shifting consciousness along the intensified trajectory towards the release of inwardly generated imagery. At the end of this trajectory there emerges pathological states, such as schizophrenia and temporal lobe epilepsy, that take consciousness to the far end of the intensified trajectory. Hallucinations may thus be deliberately sought, or may emerge unsought (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:124). For Lewis-Williams this second trajectory has much in common with the one that takes us into sleep and dreaming, but there are also important differences. Dreaming gives us an idea what hallucinations are like, but the states toward the far end of the intensified trajectory – visions and hallucinations that may occur in any of the five senses – are generally called altered states of consciousness (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:125). Lewis-Williams argues that this phrase can equally be applied to dreaming and to ‘inward’ states on the normal trajectory, even if some prefer to restrict its use to extreme hallucinations and trance states. More importantly, however, this kind of description reveals an essentially Western concept of the ‘consciousness of rationality’, and thus implies that there is an ‘ordinary consciousness’ that is considered genuine and good, and then there are perverted, or ‘altered’ states. For Lewis-Williams less focus on rationality should reveal that all parts of the spectrum of consciousness are equally important, and equally genuine (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:125).
Importantly, all the mental states described here are generated by the neurology of the human nervous system, and they are thus part and parcel of what it is to be fully human. In this sense they are literally ‘wired into the brain’, although we have to remember the mental imagery humans experience in altered states are overwhelmingly, although not entirely, derived from memory and thus culture specific. This is the reason why Inuits will see polar bears in their visions, the San see eland, and Hildegard from Bingen experienced the Christian God (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:126). The spectrum of consciousness, therefore, is indeed wired, but its content is mostly cultural.
For Lewis-Williams the concept of a spectrum of consciousness will ultimately help us to explain many specific features of Upper Paleolithic imagery by linking it directly to shamanistic experiences which is remarkably consonant with experiences along the intensified spectrum of consciousness. In fact, it provides us with a neurological bridge that leads back directly to the Upper Paleolithic, especially if we take a careful look at the visual imagery of the intensified spectrum and see what kinds of percepts (the representation of what is perceived) are experienced as one passes along it. In Chapter Four we saw that Lewis-Williams identifies three stages, each of which is characterized by particular kinds of imagery and experiences (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:126).
– In the first or ‘lightest’ stage people may experience geometric visual percepts that include dots, grids, zigzags, and meandering lines. Moreover, because these percepts are wired into the human nervous system, all humans, no matter what their cultural background, have the potential to experience them. They flicker, scintillate, expand, contract, and combine with one another, and importantly, they are independent of an exterior light source. Lewis-Williams also argues that such percepts cannot be consciously controlled, they seem to have a life of their own. These entopic phenomena (from the Greek ‘within vision’) may originate anywhere between the eye itself and the cortex of the brain. Entopic phenomena should be distinguished from hallucinations, the forms of which have no foundation in the actual structure of the optic system. Unlike neurologically ‘wired’ entopic phenomena, hallucinations include iconic imagery of culturally controlled items such as animals, as well as somatic (bodily), aural (hearing), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell) experiences (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:126f.).
– In stage two of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entopic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms, i.e., into objects that are familiar to them from their daily life. In addition, in altered states of consciousness, the nervous system itself becomes a ‘sixth sense’ that produces a variety of images, including entopic phenomena (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:128).
– As subjects move into stage three, marked changes in imagery may occur. At this point many people experience a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel that seems to surround them and to draw them into its depths. In fact, there is a progressive exclusion of information from the outside as the subject is becoming more and more autistic. This tunnel hallucination is often associated wit near-death experiences, and sometimes a bright light in the center of the field of vision creates this tunnel-like perspective (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:129). In non-Western cultures shamans typically speak of reaching the spirit world via this kind of vortex of hole in the ground. From this Lewis-Williams can conclude that the vortex and the ways in which its imagery is perceived are clearly universal human experiences (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:129). Furthermore, in his third and final stage iconic images derive from memory and are often associated with powerful emotional experiences. In this stage subject may also enter and participate in their own imagery, and it is in this sense that people sometimes feel themselves to be turning into animals and undergoing frightening or exalting transformations.
All anatomically modern people, not only from the Upper-Paleolithic but also from our own time, had, or still have the same nervous system and, therefore, cannot avoid experiencing the full spectrum of human consciousness, refrain from dreaming, or escape the potential to hallucinate (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:130). And exactly because our Paleolithic ancestors were fully human, we can confidently expect that their consciousness were as shifting and fragmented as ours, though the ways in which they regarded and valued various states would have been largely culturally determined, to which David Lewis-Williams strikingly refers to as the ‘domestication of trance’ (cf. 2002:131). These people were, therefore, as capable as we are to move along both trajectories of consciousness as described by Lewis-Williams, although the content of their dream and autistic imagery would have been different. And it is in exactly this sense that Upper Paleolithic, prehistoric imagery becomes accessible to us through this neurological bridge to the Upper Paleolithic.
Various scholars have, therefore, concluded that the capacity to experience altered states of consciousness is a universal psychobiological capacity of our species. The patterning of these altered states of consciousness, however, is always culturally determined, but ecstatic experience is certainly a part of all religions (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:130ff.). Among hunter-gatherer communities this sort of experience is called shamanism. Lewis-Williams uses this controversial term carefully, and argues that shamanism usefully points to a universal in the make-up of the human mind – the need to make sense of shifting consciousness. Using the term ‘shamanism’ need not be a generic label, however, and certainly need not obscure the diversity of worldwide shamanism anymore that ‘Christianity’ obscures theological, ritual and social differences between the Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the many Protestant churches (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:133).
Since the people of the Upper Paleolithic were all hunter-gatherers, Lewis-Williams proceeds to be very specific by what he means by ‘shamanism’ and identifies some of the most important characteristics of shamanism. In all states of ‘deep trance’ shamans are believed to have direct contact with the spiritual realm. But we must beware of stipulating some naively simple altered state of consciousness as the shamanistic state of mind. Lewis-Williams puts it well: the shamanistic mind is a complex interweaving of mental states, visions and emotions (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:135). At the heart of this argument lies the deeper conviction, however, that altered states of consciousness are directly related to the genesis of religion. The practice of shamanism, although we could never prove it today, indeed seems to be related to the very origins of human religious practices and beliefs. James McClenon has also persuasively argued (1997:349; 2002) that shamanism, the result of cultural adaptations to a biologically based capacity for altered states of consciousness, is the origin of all later religious forms. And in this specific sense some have even called it the de facto source of all forms of religious revelation, and thus of all religions (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:135).
What has become clear from this discussion is, that however important human intelligence is, it is in the way in which people understand the rich dimensions of their own forms of shifting consciousness that religious experience, experiences of cosmology, concepts of supernatural realms, and the aesthetic dimensions of art/image-making all come together. This consciousness, however, is always embedded in specific social and historical contexts. As far as the Upper Paleolithic goes, it is clear that the driving mechanism for the so-called ‘creative cultural explosion’ can be found in social diversity and historical change. Against this background Lewis-Williams can then plausibly argue that, even if we know almost nothing about the vanished culture of these distant ancestors of our, Upper Paleolithic communities were clearly history-making people par excellence (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:188). It seems clear to me, therefore, that their ‘art’ in southwestern France and the Basque Country should never be seen as simply an idyllic expression of contentment, or only the efflorescence of some higher esthetic sense, but in a much more comprehensive, holistic sense the spectacular prehistoric cave paintings were the material results of a struggle to find a dimension of meaning in the struggle to survive the challenges of everyday prehistoric life.
To understand how image-making could be born in this historical contextuality of everyday social life, Lewis-Williams develops further his rich notion of human consciousness. This is going to be important as we try to understand why the Cro-Magnon peoples selectively decided to paint certain images only; there must have been some distinct presuppositions in the minds of the people of the Upper Paleolithic, and they were most probably ‘looking for’ certain things and not for others. Lewis-Williams takes this to mean that a vocabulary of motifs must have already existed in people’s minds before they made images (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:185). Moreover, Upper Paleolithic society at large would need to have had some good reasons for wanting to make more images in the various caves, and, closely resembling Iain Davidson’s position on prehistoric art presupposing linguistic capacities as discussed earlier in this chapter, Lewis-Williams now argues that these images would directly flow from a predetermined vocabulary. It follows, then, that the images as we see them today must have had some pre-existing, shared meaning and value for groups of people, first, for them to notice them at all, and secondly, to want to go on making them. In this sense, images of specific sets of animals must have had some a priori value for people to take such an intense interest in them (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:185). This is also Lewis-Williams’ answer to the question ‘how did these prehistoric people invent two-dimensional images?. The people from the Upper Paleolithic did not invent two-dimensional images of things in their material environment; on the contrary, a notion of these images and the vocabulary of specific motifs were part of their experience before they made parietal or portable images (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:185).
This crucial point is explained once more by returning to the spectrum of human consciousness that we discussed before. To deepen his understanding of human consciousness Lewis-Williams follows Gerald Edelman (1992) and moves away sharply form any Cartesian dualism in the understanding of body and consciousness: mind and consciousness are the products of matter, the matter that we call the brain. Consciousness has evolved biologically, but to try to understand human consciousness we have to move beyond Edelman’s focus on only the ‘alert’ end of the spectrum of consciousness, and also focus on ths more autistic end. Edelman’s methodology actually enables us to do this when he himself identifies two kinds of consciousness, namely primary consciousness and higher-order consciousness (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:186). Primary consciousness is experienced to some degree by some animals, such as (almost certainly) chimpanzees, (probably) most mammals, and some birds, but (probably) not reptiles. For Edelman primary consciousness is a state if being aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present, but unaccompanied by any sense of being a person with a past and future. Primary consciousness in this sense is a kind of ‘remembered present’, a mental picture of ongoing events. Creatures with primary consciousness, while possessing mental images, have no capacity to view those images from the vantage point of a socially constructed self (cf. Edelman 1992:117-123).
Humans, however, have higher consciousness, and involves the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts or affections. It embodies a model of the personal, of the past and future, and means that we humans are actually conscious of being conscious. We also have developed symbolic memory, and the long-term storage of symbolic relations is critical to our self-concepts (cf. Edelman 1992:124ff.). Moving close to the views of Antonio Damasio, Lewis-Williams now argues that this higher-order consciousness sits, as it were, on the shoulders of primary consciousness. And this means that we are the only species that can remember better and use that memory to fashion our own individual identities en mental ‘scenes’ of past, present, and future events. This is a crucial point for human consciousness. It also goes without saying that a fully modern language is a sine qua non for higher-order consciousness. And language, of course, makes possible auditory hallucinations: it is only when they have language that ‘inner voices’ can tell people what to do, which gives a whole deeper dimension to visual dimensions, so that not only do shamans ‘see’ their animal spirits, the spirits also ‘talk’ to them (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:188f.).
Lewis-Williams believes that it would be reasonable to assume that higher-order consciousness developed neurologically in Africa before the second wave of emigration to the Middle East en Europe. It is exactly for this reason that the pattern of modern human behavior, made possible by higher-order consciousness, was put together piecemeal and intermittently in Africa. It certainly was impossible to have higher-order consciousness without language (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:189). What this means for the transition from Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic in western Europe, is that the Neanderthals, descendants of the first Out-of-Africa emigration, must have had a form of primary consciousness, while the Homo sapiens communities had higher-order consciousness. Precisely the shift from primary to higher-order consciousness facilitated a different kind of experience and a socially agreed upon apprehension of the spectrum of human consciousness. Improved memory now made possible the long-term recollection of dreams and visions, and the reconstruction of those recollections into a spirit world.
Importantly, for Lewis-Williams the wider range of consciousness also afforded a new instrument for social discrimination that was not tied to either strength or gender, namely shamans, or mystics, that could now explore the autistic end of the spectrum of consciousness and in so doing, setting themselves apart from others (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:189). Thus, not only do we humans socialize our dreaming, and talk about what it might mean, we also have no option but to socialize the autistic end of the spectrum. Humans, then, place value on some of these experiences in accordance with socially constructed notions of dreaming, and of the intensified, induced trajectory, namely visions and hallucinations. Dreams and visions are thus inevitably drawn into the socializing of the self and into concepts of what it is to be human, concepts that change through time. And it is in this sense that the worlds of Homo sapiens were already invested with two-dimensional images, images that were the product of the functioning of the human nervous system in altered states of consciousness and within the context if higher-order consciousness. Lewis-Williams then proceeds to present an intriguing argument: at a given time, and for unknown social reasons, the mentally projected images of altered states at some point were insufficient and prehistoric humans then developed the need to ‘fix’ their visions on cave walls. They reached out to their emotionally charged visions and tried to touch them, to hold them in place. And in this sense that they were not inventing images on cave walls, but that they were painting what was already present in their minds (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:193). Of course, this does not mean that all Upper Paleolithic paintings and engravings are images fixed in altered states of consciousness.
Higher-order consciousness allowed a group of people within a larger community to commandeer the experience of altered consciousness and to thus set themselves apart from those, for whatever reasons, who did not have those experiences. The far end of the intensified spectrum of consciousness in this way became the preserve of those who mastered the techniques necessary to access visions. And it is in this sense that the spectrum of human consciousness became an instrument of social discrimination, and its specific importance lay in the way in which the socializing of the spectrum gave rise to image-making. More important for my own argument, however, is that because image-making was related, at least initially, to the fixing of shamanistic visions, ‘art’ and religion were simultaneously born in this creative process (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:196).
It is important to keep in mind, however, that image-making did not originate in only one specific place and then diffused throughout the world. On the contrary, once higher-order consciousness evolved, it emerged differently in different places in the world. Lewis-Williams, therefore, does not present this shamanistic view of the origins of image-making and religion as a universal explanation for the origins of all human image making. This explanation does highlight, nevertheless, certain universals in human neural morphology, in shifting consciousness, and in the fact that people have no option but to rationalize and socialize the full spectrum of human consciousness (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:203). We should be aware, then, of the ancient, universal, human neurological inheritance that includes the capacity of the nervous system to enter into altered states and the need to make sense of the resultant dreams and hallucinations within a foraging way of life. There seem to be no other explanation for the remarkable similarities between shamanistic traditions worldwide (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:206). In the Upper Paleolithic, it is clear that the socializing of the autistic end of the spectrum of higher-order consciousness certainly seems to have resulted in spectacular image-making.
Within a shamanistic context the Upper Paleolithic subterranean passages and chambers were, therefore, places that uniquely provided the opportunity for close contact with, and even the penetration of a very specific spiritual tier of the cosmos. And this hallucinatory, spiritual world, exemplified by its painted and engraved imagery, was thus invested with materiality and precisely situated cosmologically. It certainly was not a spiritual world that existed merely in human minds: the spiritual world was there, tangible and material, and some could empirically verify it by entering the caves and seeing for themselves the ‘fixed’ visions of the spirit animals that empowered the shamans of the community (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:210). But by entering the caves, the sensory deprivation generated by remote, silent, and totally dark chambers (like deep and remote parts in the caves of Lascaux, Altamira, and the salon noir in Niaux), and by the experiencing of enigmatic painted images on cave walls, could certainly also induce visions and altered states of consciousness. In Lewis-Williams’ own striking words: it is as if the rock surface were a living membrane or veil, and behind the veil lay a realm inhabited by spirit animals and spirits themselves, and the passages and chambers of the caves penetrated deep into that realm (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:214).
Finally, I want to turn to three outstanding examples of prehistoric imagery that, on my view, best exemplifies the profound role of shamanism and altered states of consciousness in the Upper Paleolithic. These are, first, the positive and negative hand prints in the deep caves; second, the ithyphallic ‘Bird Man’ from the Shaft in Lascaux; and, third, the ‘Wounded Men’ from Cougnac and Pech Merle.
1. Hand prints in the deep caves
As we saw in Chapter Four, there are two distinct kinds of handprints: positive prints that were made by placing paint on the palm and fingers and then pressing the hand against the rock wall; and negative prints, which were made by placing the hand against the rock and then blowing paint over the hand and the surrounding rock. In this case an image of the hand remained when the hand was removed. These amazing and ubiquitous hand prints are found in many of the Upper-Paleolithic caves, but some of the most famous prints, and in my own experience the most striking, are found in the caves of Gargas and Pech Merle. While Gargas presents us with some of the oldest prints known today, the six hand prints in Pech Merle are remarkable for being part of the magnificent and mysterious composition of the famous ‘Spotted Horses’ tableau. The challenging question, of course, is why people would have wanted to leave their hand prints in the deep caves? If we take seriously David Lewis-Williams’ proposal for an interpretation of some of the cave imagery as shamanistic, and the resulting tiered cosmos of this prehistoric world revealing an interpretation of the rock wall as a membrane or veil between people and the spirit world, then the answer to this question might have more to do with touching the rock surface than with actual image making (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:217). Touching the rock wall would then literally imply a touching of the veil that separated humans from the spiritual world, and I find it tempting, at least from a contemporary point of view, to see this ritual as a deeply sacramental moment.
The negative hand prints that are part of the ‘Spotted Horses’ tableau in Pech Merle are seen today by scholars to be integrally related to the representational horse images and as such constitutes one of the most stunning and meaningful compositions from Upper Paleolithic (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:219). What is fascinating about this composition is that not only the are hand prints negative, i.e., created by blowing paint onto a hand pressed against the rock surface, but even parts of the horses were made by blowing paint onto the rock. It is clear, then, that in a variety of ways people touched, respected, painted and ritually treated the walls of caves because of what they were and what they believed existed behind their surfaces. The cave walls themselves were never just ‘meaningless support of background’: they were part of a highly charged metaphysical context, a context that provides for us today some of the earliest material evidence available for the origin of the first religion(s) (cf. also Lewis-Williams 2002:220).
We can never reconstruct the rituals that surely must have been performed in the cold, silent and dimly lit passages and chambers, nor can reconstruct the narratives and even tentatively guess what each and every image and geometric sign might have meant to the people who saw them, but we can know that the minds of the people who entered these caves were working with faith and illusion (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:227). Most importantly, though, especially in trying to understand parietal art, we have to go beyond generalities to the very empirical specifics of images and caves, as Margaret Conkey has also argued (cf. Conkey 1997:343ff.). David Lewis-Williams gives us a detailed discussion of how to approach these differences between individual images in individual caves, particularly the caves of Gabillou and Lascaux, which powerfully suggest a shamanistic world. This is especially true of the spectacular Axial Gallery in Lascaux, which was clearly carefully planned and communally executed as a remarkable evocation of the neurological vortex. In fact, for Lewis-Williams the parallelism between the physical entry into the subterranean passages and the psychic entry into deeply altered states of consciousness is nowhere better seen than in the Axial Gallery (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:236-252).
2. The ithyphallic ‘Bird Man’ from the Shaft in Lascaux
The Shaft is the most enigmatic section of Lascaux, and although the human figure in the Shaft was painted in a ‘stick’ style not found elsewhere in the cave, and although the Shaft may originally have been part of another cave that was related to Lascaux, most researchers accept that the Shaft itself, as well as the famous human and ‘wounded bison’ figures, are indeed part of Upper Paleolithic Lascaux. The Shaft is on a markedly lower level than the rest of the cave, and for Lewis-Williams it is hard not to conclude that the Shaft was a special ‘end’ area, a narrow cleft to which people went and where they might have conducted some rituals (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:262).
But it is the images in the Shaft that have been most discussed. On one wall there is the image of a black horse, but opposite this image we find probably the most discussed group of all Upper Paleolithic images: to the left is a rhinoceros with a raised tail, and beneath the tail there are two rows of three black dots each. Beyond a slight curve in the rock wall is the famous man and wounded bison. David Lewis-William describes the image as follows: the bison was drawn around a darker, ochre patch of rock that extends in some places beyond the image. In what happened in so many of the caves, an Upper Paleolithic artist was using a natural rock formation and creating an image around it. The bison’s head is markedly lowered and it seems to be charging, while its tail is raised and bent back over its rump in anger. Furthermore, its entrails seem to be hanging from its belly, and there is what appears to be a spear across its body (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:264).
In front of the bison, drawn in black, is a comparatively crudely drawn ithyphallic man who appears to be lying on the ground, but may actually be falling backwards4. What is truly remarkable about this figure is that it has a bird’s head, and also four-fingered bird-like hands. Some scholars see the replacement of each human hand with a four-fingered bird’s foot as a deliberate and sophisticated ploy of the artist to make the image more bird-like (cf. Davenport and Jochim 1988:560). What is very clear is that the artist has, in fact, portrayed this humanoid figure as half bird and half man, bird from the waist up and man from the waist down. The avian theme is expanded further by what seems to be a staff with an effigy of a bird on its top, which makers it impossible to see these images only as a historical, tragic hunting incident. Moreover, the bird on the staff is virtually identical to the man’s head. Against this background, Davenport and Jochim, following various other scholars including Mircia Eliade, unequivocally see the Lascaux humanoid/bird-man as a shaman. They also suggest that what we have here could be a shaman that is being transformed into the bird-spirit at the moment of death, and that his erect phallus suggests the role that some shamans play in the fertility of their communities (cf. Davenport and Jochim 1988:561). In fact, sexual arousal and penile erections are directly associated with both altered states of consciousness and with sleep, while sexual arousal certainly was a metaphor for altered states of consciousness (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:176;264).
All of this leads David Lewis Williams to put forth an even stronger interpretation based on specific aspects of Upper-Paleolithic art. First of all, the images do not suggest a real-life tragedy, but the image-maker fashioned a spirit bison out of the stain on the rock, thus ‘fixing’ the spirit animal. Secondly, its hooves are shown to be cloven, and the whole position of the animal suggests that it is not standing on the ground in any realistic sense, but is rather ‘floating’ in a spiritual space. Thirdly, Lewis-Williams argues that the man’s erection suggests death in a very specific sense: ‘death’ in shamanistic thought implies traveling to the spirit world in an altered state of consciousness. Fourthly, then, ‘death’ in this sense is seen as a portal to shamanistic status. Shamans are said to die, and to be resurrected with a new persona and a new social role (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:265).
What we have in the Shaft in Lascaux, then, is not a hunting disaster as it was commonly interpreted. Instead we have a remarkable image expressing a transformation by death: the ‘death’ of the man paralleling the ‘death’ of the eviscerated bison. As both ‘die’, the man fuses with one of his spirit helpers, a bird. Lewis-Williams also argues that, as in many shamanistic societies, this kind of symbolic transformation into a shamanistic world would almost certainly have been woven into some mythical narrative or series of myths. And those who descended into the Shaft certainly did not simply view pictures, but they saw real things, real spirit animals and beings, real transformations. Lewis-Williams puts it succinctly: they saw through the membrane and participated in the events of the spirit realm (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:266). In this sense these paintings in the Shaft capture the essence of Lascaux shamanism, and supports arguments for the fact that the roots of Upper Paleolithic cave art in general lie deep in the shamanic tradition (cf. Davenport and Jochim 1988:561). .
3. The ‘Wounded Men from Cougnac and Pech Merle
Although the images in Lascaux that are arguably linked to shamanism are chiefly concerned with visual hallucinations, Lewis-Williams suggests some fascinating examples of parietal art that may clearly indicate that when human consciousness moves to the autistic end of the intensified spectrum, all the senses can hallucinate, not just vision. This is a key element when one is trying to understand the so-called ‘wounded men’ in Upper-Paleolithic imagery, and is most notably in the images found in the caves of Cougnac and Pech Merle. To further this argument, Lewis-Williams focuses on somatic hallucinations, especially sensations of pricking and stabbing (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:270ff.). Somatic hallucinations can occur in various ways and to different degrees, and may be induced by the ingestion of psychotropic drugs, sensory deprivation, or by pathological conditions like temporal lobe epilepsy or schizophrenia. Less painful somatic hallucinations are more common and occur in variously induced altered states, and may include tingling, pricking, and burning sensations. In a fascinating and provoking argument Lewis-Williams points to remarkable contemporary examples of intense, heightened religious experiences in contemporary charismatic Christianity and its experience of ‘showers of blessing’ and other somatic hallucinations, especially including the phenomenon known as glossolalia, or a ‘speaking in tongues’, which is also known among Native American shamans (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:273).
As far as the enigmatic ‘wounded men’ in Upper Paleolithic cave paintings are concerned, it is important to know that Leroi-Gourhan had estimated that there are only 75 anthropomorphic figures in Upper-Paleolithic parietal art, a number that certainly constitutes a very small percentage of the (unknown) total number of images (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:277). Some of the most enigmatic, mysterious images come from the caves of Cougnac and Pech Merle in France, and are known as the ‘wounded men’, although the sex of the figures are fairly undecided. These images are of human figures with three or more lines radiating from their bodies. The Cougnac figure is painted in black and appears to be running towards the right while three lines emanate from its lower back and buttocks. The forward-leaning posture of the figure also gives it a sense of movement, perhaps of fleeing. The second Cougnac figure has seven or eight lines emerging from various parts of its body and has short arms with no hands, and a bird-like head. A third example is from Pech Merle. This ‘wounded man’ is more erect than the others, has nine lines protruding from it, one of which may be a penis. Lewis-Williams suggests that the posture of these figures may represent a physical response to the prickings and contractions induced by some altered states of consciousness (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:279). As in the case of the ‘bird man’ in the Shaft of Lascaux, Lewis-Williams argues against interpeting these figures in any realistic sense. Although most writers accept that the emanating lines of the ‘wounded men’ probably depict spears of some kind, they are most probably not meant realistically. In fact, two key factors, namely the universality of the human nervous system and the shamanistic hunter-gatherer setting, both suggest that the artists who painted the Cougnac and Pech Merle figures probably experienced the pricking sensations of trance and hallucinated them as multiple stabbings with sharp spears. Therefore, although the radiating lines may represent spears, they are not literal spears; the images do not record violent incidents from daily life but should rather be seen as representing spiritual experiences (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:281).
Moreover, a specific context in which piercing is commonly reported is that if shamanistic initiation. As Lewis-Williams puts it, shamans must suffer before they can heal, ‘die’ before they can bring life to their people (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:281). For this reason its seems highly plausible to argue that the ‘wounded men’ represent a form of shamanistic suffering, ‘death’ and initiation, that was closely associated with somatic hallucinations. For Lewis-Williams the neurological and ethnographic evidence suggests that, in these subterranean images, we have an ancient and unusually explicit expression of complex shamanistic experience that was given its primary form by altered states of consciousness. Lewis-Williams goes even further and suggests that the distinctive ‘wounded men’ images were probably also an answer, even a challenge, to the general scarcity of anthropomorphic images in the Upper-Paleolithic parietal art (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:282f.).
* * * * *
There obviously are a number of remarkable images from prehistoric painted caves in southwestern Europe that strongly suggest shamanistic practices, but these three specific examples, on my own view, best exemplify the possible role of shamanism and altered states of consciousness in some of the caves from the Upper Paleolithic era. It also confirms that David Lewis-Williams has successfully and plausibly argued for linking shamanism directly to some of the most well-known Upper Paleolithic cave paintings. In doing so he has not only risen to the methodological challenge that Margaret Conkey has posed for non-generic, highly contextual interpretations of prehistoric imagery, but also made an important contribution to the kind of naturalness of religious imagination that emerged in my dialogue with evolutionary epistemology (Chapter Two). In doing so, Lewis-Williams has not only developed further the depth of the earliest of human propensities for religious imagination, but has also argued forcefully for seeing shamanism as one of the very first, primordial forms of religion.
In an interesting move, Lewis-Williams now also supports his argument by briefly referring to the work of neuroscientists Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg and their attempt to develop a ‘neurotheology’ that would give a neuroscientific explanation of religious experience (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:289f.). ‘Neurotheology’, a term first used by James Ashbrook, is indeed used today in various imaginative, interdisciplinary attempts to integrate neuroscience and theology, and for the search for specific brain structures that correlate with religious or mystical experiences (cf. Oomen 2003:617f.). In their own attempt at a ‘neurotheology’, Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg take precisely the kind of mental features that Lewis-Williams pin-pointed as most typical of shamanism and tries to further the neurology of all religions by explaining that our sense for transcendence and ecstatic, mystical experiences seem to be grounded in the human brain and nervous system. In The Mystical Mind (1999) and Why God won’t go Away (2001) d’Aquili and Newberg have indeed tried to explore what happens in the human brain when people are overcome by the kind of ineffable feelings that they ascribe to mystical or other religious experiences. It is exactly these kinds of experiences that are in effect altered states of consciousness. For Lewis-Williams ‘neurotheology’ may therefore be a valuable tool for understanding the neurological basis of the whole spectrum of religious experience ranging from prehistoric shamanism to what Lewis-Williams has called contemporary ‘urban shamanism’, those kind of dubious attempts that try to resurrect a supposed primordial religiosity through the sentimentality of New Age spirituality or through other bizarre, cultic sectarian movements of our day (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:289).
But how helpful is the neurological work of d’Aquili and Newberg really for Lewis-Williams’ central hypothesis? In their recent work neurobiologists like Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene d’Aquili are indeed exploring what happens in the human brain when people are overcome by intense ineffable feelings that they ascribe to divine visitation or an ecstatic, aesthetic oneness with the universe. These religious experiences are, I believe, correctly seen as altered states of consciousness, and the authors have focused on complex neurobiological processes that evoke these responses. In doing so, d’Aquili and Newberg: have developed a model for religious experiences that involves the entire brain, and is based on non-invasive neuro-imaging of the working brain during actual ritual behavior and meditation. In this process to try to explain how religious mental states, and even God, are experienced by the human brain and mind, their research revealed that during meditation and worship, the level of activity in those parts of the brain that distinguish between the self and the outside world, is radically diminished, or even cut off, in a process they call deafferentation (cf. d’Aquili and Newberg 1999:41f.,165f.).
Presupposed in this attempt to bring all the elements of religion under one rational, neuroscientific explanatory scheme, d’Aquili and Newberg point to our biological necessity to seek out causality, and the fact that our brains function in such a way that it always tries to find the cause of all the things it experiences (cf. views@list+serv.metanexus.net, 12.10.2001). In this context the authors speak of the causal operator that has often led to the development of myth formation and particular, religious beliefs. In this sense, all religions offer an answer to what ultimately causes things to happen in the universe, like natural forces, spiritual powers, and in the higher religions, God. The causal operator is that area of the brain that explains reality for us when our senses cannot. In this sense, then, God, spirits, etc., are automatically ‘generated’ by the propensity of our brains for ultimate explanations. And even if we cognitively reject the existence of God or gods, this neural disposition is still a universal trait in all humans – believers and non-believers alike (cf. d’Aquili and Newberg 1999:150ff.).
Other cognitive operators work in tandem with the causal operator: the holistic operator leads to the development of integrative concepts, like concept of God ; the reductionistic operator involves the primary intuition and existential sense that the whole is made up of the sum of the parts, i.e., an intuition for a deeper underlying reality like transcendence, and as such often combines with the holistic functions of the brain; the quantitative operator quantifies the various objects in the external world; the binary operator allows for opposing concepts like good and evil, justice and injustice, humans and God; the abstract operator creates general concepts from larger groups of objects, especially by using certain specific objects to symbolize certain more abstract concepts (cf. in Christianity the cross, or the eucharist), and, finally, the emotional value operator, which deepens personal religious feelings (cf. d’Aquili and Newberg 1999:166-173). Of these seven cognitive operators, the causal and holistic operators are the most important for understanding religious experiences. Where the causal operator permits reality to be viewed in terms of causal sequences, the holistic operator allows us to view reality as a whole, or as a ‘gestalt’. This operator is, therefore, also involved with the perception of spatial relations. For d’Aquili and Newberg it is ultimately the holistic operator that might allow us to apprehend the unity of God or the oneness of the universe.
For David Lewis-Williams these brain processes or ‘operators’ are especially important for understanding prehistoric forms of shamanism. The ‘causal operator’ helps us to understand that the brain automatically generates concepts of gods, powers, or spirits, in attempts to control the complexity of an often threatening environment. Also, this causal component of religious experience is closely linked to the more holistic and emotional components, where emotional states and altered states of consciousness, for participants at least, verify the existence of spiritual entities that cause things to happen (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:290). It is this sense of transcendence, or ecstatic experience that d’Aquili and Newberg have called the sense of Absolute Unitary Being, and it is in this extreme altered state of consciousness that there is a breakdown of the distinction between the subject and the external world (cf. D’Aquili and Newberg 1999:109ff.).
It thus becomes clear why this neurological approach to religious experience is so attractive for David-Lewis Williams, and it dovetails exactly with his own arguments that the essential elements of religion are thus ‘wired into the brain’ (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:290). Cultural contexts may differ and, therefore, advance or diminish the effect of this neurological bridge to the past. But we modern humans all share this neurological disposition, which is precisely, in d’Aquili and Newberg’s provocative phrase, why ‘God won’t go away’ (Newberg, d’Aquili and Rause 2001), and why the neurology of religious experiences and it’s remarkable persistence directly link the Upper Paleolithic to the present. In both The Mystical Mind and Why God won’t go Away, d’Aquili and Newberg have tried, then, to forge an integrated approach toward understanding religious experience.
David Lewis-Williams has, wisely I believe, not followed the much more problematic and controversial aspects of d’Aquili and Newberg’s proposal. Crucial to their work has been the argument for a neurological account of the nature and origin of religion in terms of each of the cognitive operators. From this, however, they have also deduced a metatheology, and even a megatheology, that is claimed to contain the essence of all religions and theologies (cf. d’Aquili and Newberg 1999:195ff.). d’Aquili and Newberg believe that their neurophysiological, neuropsychological, or neurotheological understanding of religions and theologies can actually bring us to understand all religious experiences in terms of a metatheology and megatheology. Metatheology is seen as that most overarching approach to fundamental reality comprising the general principles that regulate and constrain the construction of any and all specific theologies. Megatheology points to the most overarching content available in terms of current knowledge, derived specifically from neurotheology. This megatheology could be adopted by all the world’s great religions without prejudice to their individual doctrinal content, and the authors’ mystifying conclusion is that not only the general structures of religion, but also the general structures of theology itself necessarily arise from the functioning pf the human brain (cf. D’Aquili and Newberg 1999:207). The confusing notions of meta/mega-theologies are meant to function as overarching approaches that claim to explain the essential features of any theology arising out of any specific religious tradition. Clearly, if this is only meant neurologically, it would be highly reductionist and a rather naive, scientistic violation of the disciplinary boundaries between neuroscience and theology. If it is seriously claimed to be a philosophical position, it would be naively modernist, if not foundationalist, in its disregard for the specificity and integrity of the worlds very diverse religions.
d’Aquili and Newberg’s proposal for a neurological disposition for religious experience in the human brain does give valuable cross-disciplinary support to Lewis-Williams’ hypothesis for seeing certain specific cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic as indicative of shamanism. However, d’Aquili and Newberg’s speculations on the kind of meta- and megatheologies that might be derived from this is bad science as well as bad theology. Ultimately biology or neuroscience cannot explain religious experience completely. It is indeed only the human person experiencing something within a highly specific cultural context, and his or her interpretation or identification of this experience as religious, that qualifies an experience as a religious experience (cf. Proudfoot 2000:1159f.).
In her extensive study Sacred or Neural? Neuroscientific Explanations of Religious Experience5, Anne Runehov reached similar conclusions. Runehov argues persuasively that d’Aquili and Newberg’s goal not only was to develop a neuroscientific theory for understanding religious experiences, but also to push beyond these disciplinary boundaries and draw quite specific implications for theology, philosophy and the sciences. From their studies of meditation techniques Newberg and d’Aquili have concluded that there is an invariant element across all religious, that all experiences are neurologically similar, and that the structure of religious experiences may point to the fact that God(s) exists (cf. Runehov 177ff.). In finally answering her core question, i.e., in what way, and to what extent neuroscientists can explain religious experiences, she has shown that for d’Aquili and Newberg there must be more to religious experiences than can be neurally accounted for. For this reason d’Aquili and Newberg in fact maintain that religious experiences are not illusory, and that God or divine reality actually exists in such a way that religious experiences can be explained in terms of a correlation with specific neural activities. Against this background Runehov correctly argues that the aspects of religious experiences that can be studied by contemporary scientific methods are indeed limited. Moreover, contextualizing religious experiences within very specific religions, doctrines, and traditions, is methodologically of primary importance, and it is exactly these specific contexts that point to dimensions of religious experience that neuroscientific explanations alone cannot reach (cf. Runehov 193ff.). Lifting up the limitations of scientific explanations certainly points directly to the methodological need for a truly interdisciplinary approach for the understanding and explanation of religious experiences.
However, d’Aquili and Newberg initially focused on exploring what happens in the brain when people are overcome by ineffable feelings that they ascribe to mystical, ecstatic religious experiences. These experiences are in effect altered states of consciousness, and an explanation for the sense of transcendence and ecstacy, and for all other mystical experiences, indeed seem to be embedded in the human nervous system. It is for this ‘naturalness of religious imagination’ that I have argued, and transversally intersecting arguments from evolutionary epistemology, paleoanthropology, and now neuroscience, have now shown that the essential elements of religious imagination are thus ‘wired into the brain’. Cultural contexts may advance or diminish their effect, but these elements are always there (cf. Lewis-Williams 2002:291). And it is this fact that has finally provided us with a neurological bridge to the first behaviorally modern humans of the Upper Paleolithic in southwestern Europe.
Human Uniqueness and Religious Imagination
The idea that that religious imagination might not be an isolated faculty of human rationality, but that the predisposition to religious belief, and that mystical or religious inclinations can indeed be regarded as an essentially universal attribute of human mind and human culture, has recently also been taken up in interdisciplinary discussion by some theologians. In a recent paper Niels Gregersen argues that imagination, and also by definition religious imagination, is not an isolated faculty of human rationality, but can be found at the very heart of human rationality. On this view, then, the same ‘naturalness’ of imagination also implies to religious imagination, and religious imagination should not be seen as something esoteric that can be added, or subtracted, from other mental states (cf. Gregersen 2003:1f.). Rather, the process of human imagination opens itself up to more generalized images, some of which might be seen as ‘religious’ according to our current cultural usage.
In fact, as we saw earlier, scholars like Steven Mithen, Ian Tattersall, Jean Clottes, David Lewis-Williams, Rick Potts, and Terence Deacon, have all argued that religious imagination emerged naturally and spontaneously in the course of the evolution of human cognitive systems. This same theme was addressed by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer in his Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001). In this work, however, Boyer presents an openly reductionist application of cognitive psychology for the study of religion, and argues that the human mind receives and processes information through the functioning of innate predispositions (‘modules’) to perceive, feel, think, and act in distinctive ways that have contributed to our adaptive fitness as a species through evolutionary history. These hardwired cognitive abilities are clearly advantageous to our species, but Boyer believes that they also get us into cognitive trouble. Because our powers of social cognition are so strong, we are very quick to see everything in the world in terms of agency and volitional behavior, and sometimes this innate perceptual tendency leads us to make mistakes. Our agency detective systems are biased toward overdetection, and our evolutionary heritage is that of organisms that must deal with both predators and prey. In either situation it is far more advantageous to overdetect agency than to underdetect it. The expense of what Boyer calls ‘false positives’ (seeing agents where there are none) is minimal, if we can abandon these misguided intuitions quickly. In contrast, the cost of not detecting agents when they are actually around (either predator or prey) could be very high (cf. Boyer 2001:145). For Boyer it is clear that although our background as predators and prey is rather remote to most of us today, it still is crucial to understanding some features of how our minds work.
Based on this evolutionary reasoning, Boyer then argues that religion is in effect a cognitive ‘false positive’, i.e., actually a faulty application of our innate mental machinery that produces the unfortunate consequences of leading many humans to believe in the existence of supernatural agents like gods that do not really exist. This also leads Boyer to describe religious concepts as parasitic on ordinary cognitive processes; they are parasitic in the sense that religion uses those mental processes for purposes other than what they were designed by evolution to achieve, and because of this, their successful transmission is greatly enhanced by mental capacities that are there anyway, gods or no gods (cf. Boyer 2001:202). On this view Boyer then judges the puzzling persistence of religion to be a consequence of natural selection designing brains that allowed our prehistoric ancestors to adapt to a world of predators. A brain molded by evolution to be on the constant lookout for hidden predators is likely to develop the habit of looking for all kinds of hidden agencies. And it is just this kind of brain that will eventually start manufacturing images of the concealed actors we normally refer to as ‘gods’. In this sense, then, there is a natural, evolutionary explanation for religion, and we continue to entertain religious ideas simply because of the kinds of brains we have (cf. Haught 2002:12). On this view, the mind it takes to have religion, is the mind that we have.
The argument here is that religious inclinations are more a by-product, rather than a direct consequence of our cognitive evolution, a spin-off from the hard-wired cognitive inference systems characteristic of our species. To inquire into the evolved function of religion is therefore rather quixotic: what we need to be looking for are the deep cognitive processes that have (accidentally, as it were) given rise to religion. In a sense our disposition towards religion is the price we pay for our specific mental architecture6. Even so, Boyer does offer a model for understanding how religious concepts, often amazingly counterintuitive and even baroquely exotic (cf. Boyer 2001:65), have their natural place in the contexts of the ordinary workings of the brain (cf. Gregersen 2002:12). Religious concepts are natural both in the phenomenological sense that they emerge spontaneously and develop effortlessly, and in the natural sense that also religious imagination belongs to the world of nature and are naturally constrained by genes, central nervous systems, and brains (cf. Boyer 2001:3f.).
For most scholars of religion Boyer’s description of religion(s) as counterintuitive and of subjective, existential importance only, could hardly be satisfactory, however, for so are fairytales and science fiction stories (cf. Gregersen 2003:11). Also the fact that religious concepts are distinctively characterized as being about supernatural beings, is equally unsatisfactory, for the distinction ‘natural/supernatural’ is certainly not relevant to all religions. Niels Gregersen has correctly argued that religious faith is not in fact confined to non-observable, supernatural entities, but instead comprehensively redescribes the observable world as well in the light of the particular faith (cf. Gregersen 2003:12). Boyer thus leaves us with a too narrow, and too reductionist a view of religion, but valuably contributes to the idea that religious imagination in fact uses the same inference systems as the human brain and the mind in general. Boyer’s theory also seems to be stuck in examples from so-called primitive societies, and complex and vastly important shifts in religious perception in the different religions of the world as well as specific developments in human cultural evolution, are not reflected in Boyer’s work (cf. Gregersen 2003:15). In fact, Boyer admits that his theory functions at a highly general level and does not explain the particular shape of particular religions (cf. Boyer 2001:319).
Gregersen is correct, therefore, in stating that the evolutionary psychologist, on this point at least, cannot succeed in evaluating or explaining the internal rationality of religious belief. In that sense Boyer’s claim to have ‘explained religion’ is certainly premature, or is at the very least a very limited claim. More importantly, though, a theory about the emergence of religious imagination and religious concepts does not at all answer the philosophical question about the validity of religion, or the even more complex theological question whether, and in what form, religious imagination refers to some form of reality or not. Gregersen phrases it well: as a matter of principle, the reasons that may undergird the unreasonable effectiveness of religious belief and thought may just transcend the scope of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology (cf. Gregersen 2003:16). Boyer has certainly not attempted to answer the theological question of how religious faith could be addressed or explained on its own terms. On Boyers’s view evolution makes all of us likely worshippers in much the same way that it makes all of us likely language-users. We are innately disposed for both, so such disparate religious traditions as Christian theology, Islamic law, and Buddhist metaphysics are merely different forms of baroque ornamentations added on to an evolutionary edifice (cf. Griffiths 2002:54). Boyer, therefore, fails to consider the acceptability or unacceptability of the religious believer’s explanations for his/her religion(s). His attempt, in spite of its rather grand claim to explain religion, offers only a limited explanation for the naturalness of religion in terms of evolutionary psychology.
Pascal Boyer’s work in evolutionary psychology, reminiscent of the work of some contemporary evolutionary epistemologists, on which I focused in Lecture Two, has made a case for explaining the psychological plausibility of religious belief, the naturalness of religious imagination, as well as the ease with which religious ideas are spread socially. However, both evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology cannot explain, or explain away, the rationality or irrationality of religious belief, nor can it discuss the plausibility or implausibility of the reality claims intrinsic to most lived religions. For Niels Gregersen this means that evolutionary psychology, like other sciences, should be seen as neutral to the validity and reality claims of religious belief (cf. Gregersen 2003:20). On a postfoundationalist view I would contextualize this statement and argue that in an interdisciplinary conversation like the one before us, we identify the issues and shared concerns that theology may learn from, but we also may run into the distinct limitations of this specific interdisciplinary conversation. Only in the transversal context of an interdisciplinary conversation does it become clear that explanatory models from the pluralistic network of the sciences, and from philosophy of religion and theology, cannot be reduced to one another. Only in this kind of transversal interaction can we discover where exactly our interests overlap, and where they inevitably are in conflict, or just go their separate ways once the transversal moment of shared interest has passed and the scientist and theologian each must return to the boundaries of their own discipline to consider the interdisciplinary results of the multidisciplinary conversation.
In the specific conversation before us we can at least reach an interdisciplinary agreement that religious imagination and religious concepts should be treated equally with all other sorts of human reflection. In this sense indeed religious imagination is to be treated as an integral part of human cognition, not separable from our other cognitive endeavours (cf. Gregersen 2003:23). Religious imagination can also not be treated as a generic given, however, but can only be discussed and evaluated contextually within the specific context of specific religions. This should in fact be the starting point for a discussion on this difficult interdisciplinary issue.
When discussing the problem of human uniqueness in paleoanthropology, we encountered similar arguments for the naturalness of religion. Various scientists, as became clear, see the cognitively fluid human mind as blending and recombining templates of understanding used for other purposes and domains of cognition as well. Steven Mithen has also argued that there exists no specialized religious module in the human brain, and no distinct borderline between religious and non-religious imagination. The emergence of religion is in fact an intrinsic part of the liberation of human rationality from the constrained and enclosed structure of ‘Roman chapels’ to the open and fluid structures of the Gothic cathedral-like cognitive fluidity. Ian Tattersall has argued that we construct our religious images (also our images of God) in terms of our everyday, human experiences. In this sense, then, religious imaginations are natural phenomena, and are deeply embedded in the brain’s cognitive capacities. The fact of religious imagination is, as we saw, no final argument for its credibility or implausibility as part of the human condition. It neither suggests that there is something true about religious imagination, nor that religion is basically pre-rational and as useful fiction worked well for our ancestors.
In this chapter we have looked at various arguments by Tattersall, Mithen, Noble and Davidson, Potts, Deacon and Lewis-Williams, and in spite of their different, and even opposing, views on human origins and the timing of the evolution of language, they finally do converge in their conclusions on the unique but natural nature of human imagination, consciousness, and our symbolic linguistic abilities. Tattersall, Mithen, Potts, Lewis-Williams and Deacon would also agree with Pascal Boyer on the emergence and naturalness of religious imagination, although they approach the issue very differently. Tattersall, Lewis-Williams, Potts and Deacon in particular are less reductionistic and more open towards the specific emergence, not just of a propensity for religious belief, but of spirituality, and they all seem to leave room for the fact that the symbolic human mind, because if its vast neural complexity, might be an emergence of newly integrated capacities for perception, knowledge and awareness that go beyond the biological nature of the brain. These arguments converge strikingly with those of Holmes Rolston in his Gifford Lectures (1997/1998), published asGenes, Genesis and God (1999). In this work, Rolston has pointed far beyond sociobiological explanations in his argument for gene-culture co-evolution. If human minds are not completely controlled by genes, then a more plausible possibility for gene-mind co-evolution is that a certain kind of mind, produced with certain sets of genomes, will be disposed to certain sorts of cultural practices. But even if we are genetically disposed to certain behaviors, human minds have evolved with amazing flexibility and imagination. Humans, of course, do have behavioral dispositions of some kinds, like fear of snakes, seeking mates, avoiding incest, protecting our children, reciprocating for mutual benefits, obeying parents or following leaders. For sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson, this would clearly reveal that genes hold culture on a leash, even if it is a long leash, so that even if there are many options in culture, genetic constraints always circumscribe and overrule human behavior. Rolston, however, convincingly argues that natural selection is greatly relaxed in great areas of cultural activity. There may, therefore, be numerous non-biological beliefs that are not at all coded into our genes, not even dispositionally, and have to be discovered and constructed in another way (cf. 1999:124).
On this view, then, natural selection clearly is relaxed, even superseded, on a cultural level. And though culture is superimposed on biology, the leash here is not just loose, but there is in fact some release from biological determinism. In a sense then, biological evolution cannot limit what may happen on a cultural level. The leash is broken and biology and culture are two dramatically different events – even though culture is superimposed on and embedded in biology, and even though they can both be subsumed under a formal selection theory. Against this background, then, Rolston can advance the argument, closely resonating with that of Anthony O’Hear (Chapter Two), that science, ethics, and religion importantly transcend their biological frameworks, even as they simultaneously understand and evaluate their biological origins.
This obviously leads to us to the important question, what, for Holmes Rolston, would be a plausible account of the genesis of religion? Can we trace a pathway along which religion might have appeared, especially since its clear that with the emergence of religion something entirely new appeared in the evolutionary process of humankind? For Holmes Rolston the emergence of religion may actually represent the achievement of an entirely new level of insight. The fact that our conceptual and perceptual facilities have evolved does not mean that nothing true appears in them, nor that nothing new can ever arise in them (cf. 1999:293). This leads to a highly intriguing suggestion that goes far beyond Boyer’s ‘explanation’ of religious belief: although biological origins clearly contribute to our human understanding, the genesis of religion, so unique to humans, is not something one can extrapolate from earlier explanations in biology. For Rolston, then, biology does not generate religion; it is the phenomenon of life, rather, that evokes religious response (cf. 1999:294; my italics). And it is exactly this fact that Rolston connects directly to human uniqueness: the real surprise is that human intelligence can be religious and philosophical, something we do not find anywhere else in animal life (1999:299).
I have now woven together in this chapter arguments from evolutionary epistemology, paleoanthropology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, that all support the emergence of the cognitive fluid, symbolic human mind, of imagination and religious awareness, and the crucial role of language in this process. In fact, in many ways language without doubt can be seen as the most distinctive human adaptation. We have also seen arguments for why both the special adaptations for language, and language itself, have played important roles in the origins of human moral and spiritual capacities, and why mystical or religious inclinations can indeed be regarded as an essentially universal attribute of human culture. In fact, for a scientist like Terence Deacon the capacity for spiritual experience itself can be understood as an emergent consequence of the symbolic transfiguration of human cognition and emotions. This has now led to important conclusions for the interdisciplinary dialogue between Christian theology and the sciences.
1. Theologians are now challenged to take seriously the fact that our very human ability to respond religiously to ultimate questions, through various forms of worship and prayer, is indeed deeply embedded in our species’ capacity for symbolic, imaginative behavior, and in the embodied minds that make such behavior possible. This valuable perspective offered by various sciences, converges well with my theological argument earlier in Chapter Three: the most responsible Christian theological perspective on human uniqueness requires, first of all, a distinct move away from esoteric and overly abstract notions of human uniqueness, and second, a return to embodied notions of humanness where our embodied imagination, sexuality, and moral awareness are directly linked to the fully embodied self-transcendence of believers who are in a relationship with God.
2. This strong interdisciplinary convergence between theology and the sciences on human uniqueness presupposes arguments from both evolutionary epistemology and paleoanthropology, for not only the presence of religious awareness in our earliest Cro-Magon ancestors, but also for the plausibility of the larger argument: since the very beginning of the emergence of Homo sapiens, the evolution of those characteristics that made humans uniquely different from even their closest sister species, i.e., characteristics like consciousness, language, symbolic minds and symbolic behavior, always included religious awareness and religious behavior. Presupposed in this argument, however, is the remarkable degree of adaptability and the versatility of our species. Homo sapiens indeed emerged as a result of its ancestral lineage having persisted and changed in the face of dramatic environmental variability. It is this versatility that Rick Potts has called the ‘astonishing hallmark of modern humanity’ (cf. Potts 2004), and which also gives new depth to human symbolic capacities.
3. In fact, not only can the material culture of prehistoric imagery as depicted in the spectacular cave ‘art’ in France and Spain be seen as the first large scale evidence of the storage of symbolic information outside of the human brain, but the heights of all human imagination, the depths of depravity, moral awareness, and the sense for transcendence, all depend on the symbolic ability of humans to ‘code the non-visible’ through abstract thought. The need to create meaning, whether religious, ethical, philosophical, or aesthetic, is part of the mental ‘toolkit’ that Homo sapiens has evolved in its long journey of physical and spiritual survival.
4. It is this mental toolkit that some scientists have helpfully called ‘higher-order consciousness’. Precisely because we humans are conscious of being conscious, we have developed a high degree of self-awareness and symbolic memory. This means that we are probably the only species that has remarkable memory, and that can use that memory to shape our own identities through mental images of past, present, and future events. And at the heart of this is the human capacity for language.
5. Part of the remarkable toolkit of the modern human mind, is what I have called, following Niels Gregersen, the ‘naturalness of religious imagination’: the neurological disposition or capacity for religious awareness and religious experience. The emergence of this capacity, and of the uniquely human ability to exist in a dimension of meaning, has given valuable cross-disciplinary support for David Lewis-Williams’ important hypothesis that certain very specific cave paintings from the Upper Paleolitic strongly suggest shamanistic beliefs and practices. Although the neurological capacity for altered states of consciousness opens the door for regarding early forms of shamanism as the very first forms of human religions, this neurological bridge to our distant prehistoric past does not legitimize complete neurological explanations of contemporary religious experiences and theological convictions. Ultimately the interdisciplinary dialogue with the sciences here runs up against distinct limitations: neither biology nor neuroscience can explain religion or religious experiences adequately. It is only the religious person, experiencing his or her faith within a highly specific cultural context, that can interpret or identify an experience as religious, and that as such qualifies an experience as a religious experience. Such an awareness of the limitations of scientific explanations points directly to the methodological need for an interdisciplinary approach for the understanding and explanation of religion and religious experiences.
6. Because religion and religious faith is not in fact confined to non-observable, ‘supernatural’ entities, it also redescribes the observable world, and our place in it, in the light of a particular faith commitment. For this reason science cannot be expected to successfully explain the internal rationality of religious belief. Only within the transversal context of interdisciplinary dialogue does it become clear that explanatory models from the pluralistic network of the sciences, from philosophy, religion, and theology, cannot be reduced to one another. One of the most remarkable facts about human uniqueness, then, is found in the stunning ability of the embodied human mind to be philosophical and religious.
But what does all of this imply for theology? Our ongoing interdisciplinary conversation about human uniqueness has now pushed the boundaries of theology and leads the interdisciplinary theologian to an enriched appropriation of facts and information about our own origins as humans, and about what humanness may mean today. The important questions that still remain, however, is how theology could possibly be enriched by the insights gained from the sciences on the evolution on human uniqueness, and how these insights will affect the already complex dialogue between these very diverse reasoning strategies? I have argued in the first chapter that there is no clear philosophical blueprint or timeless recipe for relating the bewildering complexity of contemporary theologies to the increasingly complex spectrum of contemporary sciences. This did not mean, as has hopefully become clear now, that we could not develop a focused dialogue between theology and the sciences on issues that are quite specific, and that resonate with both partners in this dialogue. I do believe that the evolution of ‘human uniqueness’, so much highlighted now by the sciences of consciousness, evolutionary biology, and paleoanthropology, has presented us with an outstanding and exciting case study for precisely this kind of interdisciplinary dialogue. In the final chapter I will ask, therefore, what is it about the embodied human mind that we have now encountered in evolutionary epistemology, in paleoanthropology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology, that might actually have a transversal impact on theological anthropology and help us to revision humanness, and ‘human uniqueness’, in theology.
However, what has now also surfaced in this postfoundationalist dialogue between theology and the sciences, are the very specific limitations of interdisciplinary work. Very diverse disciplines like theology and specific sciences indeed converge on, and share creative transversal moments which have the potential to enrich critically both partners in the conversation. Scientists certainly would want to back away from overzealous theologians who might want to uncritically transport scientific facts across disciplinary borders into theological paradigms. However, philosophical theologians have a critical task also: not only to back away from reductionistic explanations in science, but also to critique and expose the philosophical problem behind any kind of reductionist scientism.
The focus on context, so much part of any postfoundationalist approach to interdisciplinary dialogue, should also alert theologians and scientists alike that partners in dialogue on carefully identified shared problems, after initially sharing important research trajectories, can very consciously decide to move beyond these intersecting, interdisciplinary transversal moments to return to their own specific domains of research, now enriched and even changed by the dialogue, and with agreements, conflicts and different world views firmly in place. On a more positive and constructive note, in the dialogue with the sciences an interdisciplinary theologian should ideally make two moves: first, take the interdisciplinary results from specific multidisciplinary conversation back into his or her own intra-disciplinary context to enrich current research in theology; and second, at the same time keep the interdisciplinary conversation going with scientists who are in fact interested in the broader religious, or specific theological perspectives that theology might bring to the table.
* * * * * * * * * * ** * * * *
1 According to French paleoanthopologist, Jean Clottes, the bird-man is clearly falling backwards in a state of hallucinatory ecstacy (Jean Clottes, oral communication, Les Eyzies, France, May 2004).
2 Anne Runehov, Sacred or Neural? Neuroscientific Explanations of Religious Experience: A Philosophical Evaluation. Doctoral Dissertation defended at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, December 2004.
3 cf. David Livingstone Smith in a review of Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained, in Metapsychology Online Book Reviews, Dec. 16, 2002.
4 Cf. Davidson 1997:133: Davidson insists he is not arguing this from a Eurocentric view, but rather from a view that sees Europe as a rather isolated little peninsula far away from the scenes of most of the major events of prehistory. The people in western Europe, though, were indeed subject to the same sorts of evolutionary pressures as other evolving humans elsewhere in the world. The story can be told, then, from the perspective of the spectacular archeological record of western Europe because it is also confirmed by the record of Australian prehistory (cf. 1997:138f.).
5 cf. Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin, The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer, Harry N. Abrams, New York 1996.
6 For a strong and opposing view that argues for the slow, gradualist evolution of human linguistic abilities, cf. Lieberman 1999:549ff..