Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Evolution for Mystics

If you look at the miniscule amount of DNA that differs between chimps and humans, the part that has changed the most since our species went their separate ways is that which codes the development of neural structures in the human brain. The hominid family of species - the Erectii, the Ergasters, the Neaderthales, the Rhodesienses, and our very own little clan, Sapiens Sapiens (which as far as I can tell translates as: I know! I know!) - embarked on a little evolutionary experiment about 6 million years ago. That was when hominids and chimps went their separate ways and today the biggest difference between our species lies in the development of the frontal lobe.

Scientists have shown that the frontal lobe governs the conscious control of emotion, abstract thought, the appreciation of humor, the awareness of past and future time, and the ability to imagine the mental processes of other beings. The frontal lobe allows us to wax nostalgic about what might have been and use the subjunctive past perfect to communicate that nostalgia to our friends - “If I had gone to New York that summer, I would have been able to shed my mediocre suburban existence and write that gritty novel about struggling artists and rent control!” - then laugh about the whole thing and write the novel anyway.

If you read the literature on the frontal lobe in neuroscience texts, you’ll hear a lot about how this lobe makes humans unique and extra-super special among living things. In other words, the frontal lobe contains the current wunderkind abilities that we are using to console ourselves for being so separate from the rest of creation. In fact, it’s the abilities of the frontal lobe that allow us to imagine we are separate in the first place.

In Jewish and Christian myth, this process is described as a fall from grace. The feeling of separateness is understood as being kicked out of a garden. Because they ate the apple of knowledge, Adam and Eve now have to work for a living. And that’s an interesting way of looking at things because we wouldn’t be slaving in the fields all day if we couldn’t plan for the future in the first place.

But more often in creation myths, we find that the development of frontal lobe abilities is seen as a way humans have been gifted to talk with the gods. In Greek myth, we have Prometheus coming down from Olympus bringing fire and foresight. Sure, Zeus was angry, until the laws of ritual sacrifice were laid out and a means of relating to the gods was established for humans. In Chinese myth, Nuwa created humans because she wanted someone to talk to.

These creation myths are a certain kind of description of something that is biologically real. (Which is not the same thing as saying that myths aren’t true. All myths are perfectly true. They just aren’t centered in Malkuth. Myths interact with the biological in some way that mystics come to understand and devout atheists continue to deny.) When we started developing the neural structures in the frontal lobe, we hominids starting going where no one had gone before: deep into our own personal existences.

For some reason, our species embarked on a path that has brought us a lot of interesting times. Knowledge has certainly brought us some wonderful things, but the level or horribleness we’ve been able to achieve has led us to rationalize our evolution as a break with the divine. We came up with the Golden Rule and the Inquisition. Martin Luther King and his assassination. We can now build a fire to cook our food and burn our witches. Our ability to gather and retain knowledge sets us apart, and in that separateness we can do amazing and horrific things because now we can imagine that the person lying next to us is not actually having our experience, but their own, and we can’t ever know exactly what that is. Sure, we can always talk to them and try to learn something about it, but they could lie, or not want to talk and then what’ll we do?

Welcome to divinity.

[What's your favorite creation myth?]


suz said...

i just love this blog! i never have any clue where you're going to come arrowing in from next.
i have problems with sin being equated with 'bad, awful, terrible, something we must try to shuck' when i look at Original Sin just the way you describe here....our deliberate decision to view ourselves as 'other' in order to experience ourselves more deeply. it is 'separation from God' in a sense, but not in the way i was taught as a young mormon.
i'm struggling with malkuth at the moment. i was pretty dang comfty with malkuth as 'this', this kingdom, this glorious experience of incarnation, with the smell of coffee on weekend mornings, and the feel of my ponies' velvety muzzles, and orgasms. but i keep running into teachings (including those of my own Order) that say no, malkuth and indeed the entire tree are *above* this existence. it feels to me as if that's denial of the wonder of this-ness, but i think that's my own egginess talking.
just when i think i'm getting somewhere, i get cast back into the abyss of my own fathomless ignorance.
which IS kinda fun, when i've got my sense of humor up and running anyway.
ever read 'snow queen' by joan d. vinge? it's set on the planet tiamat, capital city carbuncle. it's a luvly novel if you like sci fi.

Yvonne Rathbone said...

Oh, in my world, petting velvety pony muzzles is a sacred act of worship.

That sin thing, that's a doozy. But, generally speaking, I find that if you want to be a more loving person, it really helps to be a heretic.

I will have to check out the Vinge. Thanks for the tip (and yes, I love sci-fi!)