The days grow noticeably shorter in the northern hemisphere. Sunlight drains from the emerald stream and streambank, leaving the water and foliage in shadow as the sun descends below the tree line.
It's hot, and there aren't many birds around. But I watch a woodpecker hunt for insects on a slender tree, spot a couple of jays, and hear a single cry of a woodland hawk.
After the better part of an hour allowing the senses to harmonize and grow acute, the flame of attention spontaneously ignites and thought yields to non-volitional attentiveness.
Psychological time ends. There is only the languid movement of the stream, the changing light, the sounds of the water and birds, and an occasional vehicle passing by on a nearby road. With the ending of time, one drops into the infinite dimension of death without fear. Death is as close as the exhalation of our breath.
Why does the flame of attention go out, and have to be relit with meditation? Why does the brain return to symbol and memory? Is it fear, habit, self-concern, or all of the above?
Obviously the human brain has been swimming in a sea of symbols and memories for a very long time. A sentence jumped out at me in my readings today: "Archaeologists debate whether, and to what degree, Neanderthals were symbolic beings."
The implication is that humans, as the dominant species Earth, are proudly symbolic beings, and that it is a good thing. We want to include Neanderthals in our special class of hominids, though only Homo sapiens drew cave paintings in Europe 40,000 years ago when the Neanderthals were still around.
Excavating a cave on the coast of South Africa a few years ago, archeologists unearthed an abalone shell dated to about 100,000 years that contained dried paint made from charcoal, crushed animal bones, iron-rich rock and an unknown liquid.
That's clear evidence that people 100 millennia ago were painting themselves and their surroundings. That also means, "People at the time were capable of abstract thinking, innovation and planning for the future."
Flash forward to the present, and paleoanthropologists - scientists who study fossil hominids - are fighting over the claim that a species of primate, nicknamed Toumai and discovered in Chad, walked upright and is the oldest member of the human family. Man is decimating the Earth, and these guys are arguing over whether some extinct ape was bipedal 7 million years ago.
The paleo-anthropological field, which I studied in college as a young man, has always been prone to petty squabbles. It's also been prone to drawing conclusions in line with the prevailing ideas of the day. When I was in college, Raymond Dart's notions of man as a "Killer Ape" still held sway.
Nowadays, with 'inclusion' in fashion, the tendency is to blur distinctions as much as possible, such as the distinction between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and even between man the separating and fragmenting primate and the rest of nature.
But perhaps our self-understanding is growing. "Many anthropologists now agree that modern cognition was probably in place when Homo sapiens emerged," and that "the origins of modern human behavior, the full assembly of modern uniqueness, had to occur at the origin point of the lineage."
I've been writing for nearly 40 years that "symbolic thinking was a crucial change in the evolution of the human mind," permitting the development of complex languages and technologies, and eventually high science. It's good to see paleo-anthropology catching up to philosophy.
However the field, and for that matter philosophy, is still not addressing the core questions: What is the relationship between symbolic thinking and man's fragmenting tendencies, which have inwardly brought the human species to an implacable crisis of consciousness, and outwardly to the climate crisis and the Sixth Extinction?
Symbolic thought is inherently separative. Because its rightful place has not been insightfully understood and kept in check by attention, so the mind is quiet except when thought is needed, the human mind has been generating increasing alienation, fragmentation and darkness. A transmutation in the brain is urgently necessary.
Whenever symbolic thinking and expanded memory capacity evolved in the human brain, the mistake of psychological separation and fragmentation was passed on from generation to generation. Rather than excavating the past with the implicit assumption of how great Homo sapiens is, shouldn't we be asking: What needs to occur to enable us to live harmoniously on this beautiful planet before man utterly destroys it?
Clearly the evolution of symbolic thought did not carry with it the intelligence to use it fittingly and wisely. That requires another leap, from the Cognitive Revolution that ushered in modern humans, to an Insight Revolution that ushers in the human being in basic harmony with the Earth and each other.
Fortunately, the human brain is exapted for insight, and not just adapted for fragmentation. To release this latent capacity however, diligent self-knowing is required.
Link: Smithsonian Magazine, "When did the human mind evolve to what it is today?":
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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