Empathy

Empathy is an interesting thing. It causes me to behave in a way that seems at first glance to be against my own self interest. But it is?

I have been pondering this. Empathy is at the core of what makes us human. We are so social, as social as any creature on the planet. And we are fairly unique in having empathy.

One guy I love to listen to is Jeremy Rifkin, who talks about empathy a lot. As Rifkin points out, empathy is something we are quite selective about. We tend to have more empathy for some folks than others. In the beginning, humans really only had empathy for their own family group, and regarded all other humans as hostile. (Paleolithic humans still live in pretty much this same way today.) These humans had tremendous empathy for their own family members. But for others, not so much.

Enter religion. As Rifkin points out, religion gave humans a way to expand their empathy set: By identifying another creature as being part of my religious group, I get to have more empathy for that person. I have seen this play out in my own life and the life of my family. For example, there was recently a flood in our area, and some folks we knew lost everything. My wife and I know these people because of religious affiliations from the past. As a result, we gave them clothes, food, etc. Another family down the street who was not in our religious group, we did not even care to look in on them.

So, this family is inside our empathy set, which is defined, at least in part, by religion.

Given that empathy causes me to give away things I need and make other sacrifices, the question is: How did empathy arise in human consciousness? I think I have an answer for that one.

Assume a proto-humanoid male is in the rain forest in some ancient time. He has an interesting mutation: He has developed what Rifkin calls “mirror neurons”. That is, when he sees another creature who he identifies as being like him who is having some kind of experience (say intense pain), his neurons light up in exactly the same manner as the creature who is suffering. In this way, this individual experiences (to a certain extent) the suffering of the other creature.

This causes our male humanoid (we will call him Lim) to suffer more than other humans around him. But he is also able to relate to the experiences of other humans better.

One day he comes upon a female. She is badly hurt! Her ankle is seriously twisted and bruised. She cannot walk at all. Worse, she has been stranded here for some time. She is very hungry, thirsty, and tired.

He finds that he feels some of her distress as well. He ponders what he has done when he has been in a similar situation. Suddenly, he has a remarkable idea. He will bring her food! So he goes to a place where he knows there are some ripe berries, and uses a large leaf to carry a bunch of these back to the female. She hungrily devours them with great joy.

Then he goes to the river and after some fumbling finds a hollow gourd that he fills with water. Again, she receives the water gratefully.

Finally, he lies down beside her and cuddles with her for warmth. In this manner, they fall asleep together.

The next day, she is feeling much better. She finds that she likes him, so they have sex. She continues to enjoy his company, so she stays with him, and they have several children, which inherit this odd mutation. Because these young children are able to exercise this new-found ability to form empathetic bonds, they make exceptionally good mates, and they easily find a partner, and in turn reproduce again.

And so on and so forth, until the entire human race runs on empathy.

Remember this, please: Evolution encourages one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Whatever improves the chances of reproduction (including the rearing of competent, viable adult offspring who can in turn reproduce) will be selected by evolution. Thus, although empathy seems to be against my best interests (in the sense of material belongings, time, etc.) it dramatically improves my chances of reproducing. In this way, the development of empathy is fairly obvious.

More later.

Evolving Culture

I have been kicking around the question of how culture evolved. Near as I can tell, this is the mechanism, but please let me know if you have another view.

Basically, human beings are general purpose computing machines. I have pointed this out previously. That distinguishes us from other species on the planet, for sure. No other species is even remotely close to us in terms of demonstrated abilities to solve problems.

We refer to this as human consciousness. Our ability to think, reason, debate, justify, rationalize and so forth. I call this the Human Consciousness Program (HCP), which I liken to a piece of software.

Turns out other organisms on this planet are running bits of genetic software too. Take for example the worms that infect the brains of ants. These nasty little buggers manipulate the ants’ thinking patterns, and basically force them to imitate a berry. This in the hope that birds will eat these poor ants, become infected with the worms themselves, and allow the worms to complete the next phase of their life cycle.

While all this is incredibly bizarre, it points out that the ant is simply running a piece of software, which the worm has cleverly learned to hack. (I say cleverly in slight jest, because calling these particular organisms worms is rather charitable: They don’t even have a brain.)

So, assume for the moment that all of the various organisms on this planet (especially the ones that tend to move around and do stuff) are simply running bits and pieces of software of varying levels of complexity and sophistication. Thus, a lobster has (likely) a bit less in terms of software than a dog. Each of these bits of software lets the organism do what it needs to survive and reproduce. Otherwise, of course, that software wouldn’t be there. Because, again, evolution only promotes one thing: Reproduction. Thus, the lobster is very good at doing all of the things a lobster needs to do in order to eat, excrete, rest, defend itself, and find a mate. It has all of the software it needs to do so, and so does the dog.

Now, with humans, the organism took an interesting direction. We have the ability to find food, and adapt our eating patterns to exploit that food, in virtually every single environment on this planet. Thus, the Inuit are a paleolithic hunter/gatherer culture that exists to this day in places like the Alaska North Slope, deep into the Arctic. The Inuit survive almost entirely on things like whale blubber. Likewise, the Khoisan live in places like the Kalahari Desert in Sub-Saharan Africa. These two environments are as different as is possible on this planet while still being above the ocean’s surface, and yet human life has managed to thrive in both of these locations.

How is this possible? No other species has achieved even remotely so great a penetration of this planet. The answer, I believe, is that human consciousness allowed us as an organism to problem solve in each potential location. To figure out through a process of intelligence how to take the organisms that live in that space, exploit them, make them edible, and survive in that place.

This is what we call cuisine: The use of locally-appropriate ingredients to make food that humans can enjoy and thrive on. We have many regional cuisines, and they are each appropriate and adapted to the local conditions of that area (assuming they have not been wildly distorted by modern processed foods).

Thus a form of culture (cuisine) is what we have used to become the dominant species on this planet, at least in terms of dietary choices. Culture is the key: Through the use of culture (and that includes things like modern technology), we have managed to exploit the resources of this world.

Now, follow me here. Assume there is a general purpose organism loose on this world. This organism has the ability to exploit pretty much any environment on the planet. It simply figures out how to live in that area, using locally available resources. In this way, this organism spreads and thrives everywhere. Would this not become the dominant species on the planet?

More later.

Rethinking How We Think

Human consciousness is a piece of software. Highly evolved, messy, counter-intuitive, massively patched, and so forth, yes. But still a piece of software nonetheless. I have observed this before, but as I decompile the HCP (Human Consciousness Program, please keep up), and as I figure out more and more about it, the more interesting this idea becomes to me.

Take inebriation. I have been an alcoholic during several periods of my life. Now, I barely touch the stuff and it does not appeal to me. Largely eliminating alcohol from my lifestyle has had huge health benefits for me. I have lost around 90 pounds, and many of my chronic health care problems have simply resolved since I made this simple lifestyle change. Which leads to the question: Why does mankind consume alcohol since it is obviously harmful to our health?

Simple: The force of evolution favors one thing, and one thing only: Reproduction. Inebriation leads to sexual activity, which leads to reproduction. Hence, mankind loves alcohol, marijuana, opiates and all the rest. Anything that makes us less inhibited, more inclined to relax, that will be preferred in evolutionary terms, because those who get inebriated will breed the teetotalers out of existence.

It gets gnarly when you talk about things like marijuana and opiates. Marijuana is also referred to as cannibis, and we actually have physical structures in our brains called canniboid recepters. These puppies receive the THC released by marijuana and causes the effects of marijuana which we experience: Increased sensory sensation, euphoria and all the rest. That same thing is true with opiates: We have opioid receptors in our brains as well.

So, obvious question: Why do we have these structures at all? I mean, again, inebriation is harmful, right?

Wrong: Inebriation using marijuana definitely increases sexual activity. So do opiates. Given two proto-humanoid primate family groups, one with canniboid receptors and the other without, assuming that both have access to cannibis, the group with canniboid receptors will breed the other group into oblivion.

Hence: Evolution favors anything that increases reproduction. Nothing more.

Which leads to my original thesis: The HCP is a piece of software. That piece of software includes features like inebriation, all of which got built in for various reasons, all related to enhancing chances for reproduction. Survival at least until successful reproduction, and rearing of viable offspring.

Here’s the problem: The HCP is based upon incorrect assumptions. Like any piece of software that becomes obsolete over time, it needs to be fundamentally rewritten. The assumptions of the HCP are the ancestral environment: Paleolithic, pre-agricultural man. Hunter gathers, in other words. We are about as far away from that as you can possibly imagine.

It reminds me of the Chicago project. During the mid-1990s, Microsoft launched a project they called Chicago. At that time, Microsoft was one of the largest and most successful businesses in the history of planet Earth, largely based upon the success of one product: Windows. Despite this, Microsoft made the odd, counter-intuitive decision to completely rewrite Windows from scratch, starting with a relatively clean slate. In the process, Microsoft somewhat trashed the work they had done before on the existing version of Windows.

The result of the Chicago project was Windows NT, which eventually led to Windows 2000, and ultimately the versions of Windows we have now. This was the most successful and profitable software project in the history of Microsoft, and maybe the entire world. But it was based upon one simple reality: Windows was dying. It was crippled by an obsolete architecture based upon assumptions that were no longer correct: Memory was scarse and expensive, networks were slow and tiny, disk space was cramped, CPUs were terribly slow, and so forth. The IT industry even has a word for this type of software: They call it “crufty”. Crufty means a piece of software that is old, obsolete, difficult to rewrite, and just needs to be scrapped.

The HCP is crufty. We need to rewrite it.

More later.

Eden

Many human myths contain the story of an ancient garden, among them the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden described in the Book of Revelation from the Hebrew and Christian bibles. Many other ancient religions contain similar stories, leading to one of two conclusions:

  • The story is true
  • Something else is going on here

Since I am fairly sure that Satan did not literally appear to a woman named Eve in the form of a snake in order to tempt Eve into rebelling against God’s first law, I suspect that something else is going on here. This article tends to confirm what I suspect: The Garden of Eden myth is an echo of our ancient lives as paleolithic humans. While life as a paleolithic hunter gather would have been harder than our current lives in some respects (shelter from the weather, for example), in many ways, paleolithic life was pretty idyllic. Once the agricultural revolution occurred (about 15,000 BC), for humans that embraced agriculture, life became much, much harder: Death rates from disease soared and lifespan plummeted. Although human numbers increased hugely, the quality of life of early neolithic humans was terrible. Thus, early neolithic humans (especially those displaced and enslaved by early neolithic empires like Sumeria, Accadia, Egypt, and, later, the Roman Empire) would have looked back upon the days of paleolithic life with incredible longing and nostalgia. This is the basic idea behind the Shadow World series of posts I have been writing. There is no doubt that paleolithic humans survived in large number into the time of the Roman Empire. (They still survive to this day in some areas like Australia.) Many of the “barbarians” displaced and enslaved by the Romans were paleolithic hunter-gather cultures which have disappeared today.

One such group that has always fascinated me is the Faerie. Yes, there actually were people known as the Faeries. They were described in detail by the American writer Parke Godwin in his exception book Firelord, no longer available in print, unfortunately. The Faerie were likely the original human inhabitants of the British Isles, and were still extent at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The movie The Eagle (an excellent film which is annoyingly not available on any digital form I have found) shows the collision between paleolithic humans in far northern Britain and the Roman Empire. I suspect they had the Faerie in mind when they made this film, although the race portrayed in the film is not a pygmy race, as the Faerie apparently were. Arthur was supposedly the child of a Faerie queen (Igraine) and a Roman centurion (Uther Pendragon).

The Faerie were regarded as magical. They lived in holes in the ground, had amazing woodcraft, herbology and the like, and were adamantly opposed to agriculture. They worshipped a Goddess named Lugh who was represented as the Earth. When someone plowed a field, the Faerie regarded it as wounding their Goddess. Also, the term “beyond the pale” refers to the circle of metal spikes that Roman folks would place around their villages to keep out the Faerie, who feared and avoided metal.

The fate of the Faerie was annoyingly typical: They were wiped out. Their genetics still survive in the descendants of Romans whose children were stolen and replaced by Faerie babies, a term known at the time as fostering (from which we get the term foster child). Since the Faerie were remarkable as midwives, the Roman women who lived in the British Ilses would often use them for helping with child birth. In lean years, the Faerie midwives would secretly kill the Roman baby and replace it with one of their own, knowing that the Romans would raise the child and feed it. Arthur’s mother, Igraine, was supposedly one of these foster children. Other than that, though, the Faerie, like most paleolithic cultures in the world, are all gone.

More later.

Lopo

Lopo was old. He felt his years. They were beyond count. His village had little use for an amount that large: They simply called it “many”. He had lived for many years, and he knew it. He squatted before his fire pit, stirring the thin soup he had made with the squirrel Hana had brought him. Poor enough gift it was! He was hungry, and this squirrel was small. Still, it was something. And she was so grateful when he gave her son back to her, fully healed.

He was a Shaman. It had not always been so. Before, he had been one of the Young Men, hunting and chasing girls. That was how he met Lelu, his Other, curse her! She had become his Other, and born him six sons and four daughters. But when the village chose him as the Shaman, she became angry, and she left. She thought the village had little need of two shamans. And so she took her brood, and moved up the hill. She hated him now, may the Goddess curse her!

When he became an older man, but younger than he was now, Lelu and he had been happy together. He had been one of the Elders, and he sat in the Place of Meeting each night. When they could find the Sacred Herb, they burned the flowers and inhaled the smoke. Otherwise, they drank the Water of Life until they became stupid. Sometimes they would laugh so hard! The Water of Life was strong medicine! But not as strong as Sacred Herb. The smoke of the Sacred Herb burned, but it awakened the True Self, and touched the Real World.

And that was how it happened. He was at the tent of meeting, and Ralo had told them that the Water of Life that he was fermenting was ruined. Some monkeys had gotten into it, and broken the skin. Now it would be many days before they could drink the Water of Life again. Lopo had thought hard upon this. He asked this question: “Shouldn’t we then seek the Sacred Herb? Since the Water of Life is denied us, why not inhale the smoke of the Sacred Herb?”

After a shocked silence, the Elders had begun debating this question: Could they actually use the Sacred Herb without the Water of Life? They did not remember any time in the past when they had had one without the other. The Water of Life was such a daily part of their lives, that it was many days since anyone could remember being without it.

In the end, they decided to search for the Sacred Herb. Lopo was proud: His question had led the Elders to a new Path! This was the first time that he could remember them taking anything he had said seriously.

He knew where there was a patch of Sacred Herb, but it was beyond their range, and into the area that was used by their rival village: The Punta. For many days, the People and the Punta had lived in peace, but occasionally Lopo would venture onto the lands blessed by the Spirits of the Puntas and take Sacred Herb, possom, squirrels or some other food. He knew this was wrong, but since no one else knew about what he was doing, he did not care.

He found the patch. The Sacred Herb was there! It was flowering! He began to pick the flowers and stuff them into his loincloth.

He felt the spear hit his head behind his right ear. He did not know it then, but it pierced the hard part of his head, and his True Self began to leak out onto the ground. The Punta hunter who had attacked him ran away. He knew that the Punta would be very afraid of a blood feud if Lopo died. When the People found him, he was senseless and raving.

For weeks he hovered between the Shadow World and the Real World. He wandered on many strange paths and saw many visions. The People were afraid of his strange and delerious cries. After a while, he got better, although his eyes did not work anymore. Instead of seeing the things in the Shadow World, he simply saw a grey mist, and occasionally he had more visions.

Ultimately, the village Elders met and decided that there was nothing to be done except to make him a shaman. He was useless for anything else now. So they threw him out and made him live in the cave in the hillside overlooking their spring campsite. And then they began to bring him patients who they expected him to heal.

At first, he was completely useless: How ashamed he had been when he had failed to heal Shiro! The poor child simply had a case of pox. He knew how to heal that now, but at the time he had been completely stupid. Shiro’s mother Lina had come to him after Shiro died and had thrown dung at him. How his face had burned! She had walked up to him in tears and had struck him across the face. He stood and wept with her, feeling her loss, and knowing that he was the cause of it. He was ashamed.

It took a long time, but finally they had brought more patients, and he had improved. Now he was as good a shaman as Lelu, and maybe better. But Lelu still hated him for taking her place, and he doubted she would ever forgive him.

For now, life was good and the forest gave everything he needed. His People gave him their respect. He knew that he had a place with them, even if he was forever an outcast.

More later.

Ti

Ti walked silently through the forest. The Great Light shown his face upon the forest floor, dappling Ti’s surroundings with brilliant light. Everywhere Ti looked, he saw the Spirits of the Real World. He knew the world he touched, hunted and moved in was merely a Shadow World. The Spirit World, that was the Reality. He greeted the Great Rock Spirit as he moved past the diving cliff. He looked down upon the River Spirit, which was one of his best friends: River provided him and his village with the blessings of fish and water. He knew that his village would be hurting right now without the gifts of the River Spirit. The Winter Spirit was upon the Shadow World, and food was scarce. Although it was eternal spring in the Real World, the evil Winter Spirit came and waged war against the forest. Only the Spring Spirit could defeat Winter. He longed for Spring to come again and bring life back to the Shadow World.

He thought about Chana, and his love for her. He wanted her again, although he knew that The Gift was still inside her. He hoped that she would conceive this time. Although only 13 summers had touched her dark skin, he knew that she would bear him many sons. Since the day that he had first touched her, his love for her had grown. It was a powerful thing: This love. It touched him deeply, and he knew that it was a gift of The Goddess.

His entire life was flooded and pregnant with spiritual power: Everything he touched, saw, smelled, tasted and heard spoke to him of one absolute reality. He was as sure of this as anything else in his life. He knew that the Real World was a more powerful reality than the Shadow World. He knew that his True Self lived within the Real World, and that he could feel the presence of his True Self, even if he could not always see him. He could sometimes actually speak to his True Self when he went on his vision quests.

His Spirit Guide could help him to contact his True Self. His Spirit Guide was a wolf named Allepo. Sometimes when he drank the juice that Lopo provided him, he would enter into Allepo, and for a time he could run and hunt with the wolf’s swift, fleet legs. How good it felt to run with the Air Spirit through the forest! Lopo was old and bleary with his eyes dark from the years. Yet he was a powerful shaman, and his potions were strong. Ti knew that Lopo was crazy: Who wouldn’t be? After all, Lopo was always dwelling with the Real World. As his eyes dimmed to this World of Shadow, the Real World became stronger to him. Now he was always talking and muttering to the spirits. He could be frightening! Yet Ti longed to run again as the wolf.

As Ti approached the village he heard the sounds of laughter. His entire life was bound up in this village: He had never seen another person other than those who dwelt in the village. Everyone he knew, everyone he had ever known, was a member of his own family. He did not think of himself as One. No. Rather, he thought of himself as The Village. It was the gift from The Goddess to his family.

His friend and brother Rox approached him, and told him excitedly: “You need to come now. We are going on a hunt!”

More later.

Chana

Chana stooped down at the pool and looked into the eyes of her True Self. Softly, her True Self touched her cheek just as she did so. She wondered how her True Self knew everything that she did before she did it. She knew that her True Self was a prisoner of the Air Spirit, because when the Air Spirit stirred the water, her True Self stirred as well. If only the Air Spirit would set her True Self free! Then they would play and be friends forever, and her True Self would help her find food. Playfully, although she knew she shouldn’t, she reached down into the pool and splashed the water so that her True Self would disappear. Her Other had told her that if her True Self decided not to come back, that she would die. But she didn’t care. The True Self had always come back. She believed that her True Self loved her, and she could see the love in her eyes as the True Self returned.

He was near. She could feel his heat and smell his scent. He was possessed by the Male Spirit. The Male Spirit had traveled from the Real World and was now living inside her Other.

His name was Ti. She knew this well, but she always called him her Other. He was also part of the Shadow World, but when the Male Spirit came upon him, he was fierce. He frightened her, but she also loved him. She knew that the Male Spirit within him would awaken her Womb Spirit. She feared this, but she knew she could never merge with her True Self unless she received The Gift from him.

Kiri had received The Gift from her Other, and had conceived. At the time, Kiri had been happy. Yet when The Pains came upon her, she could not bear them and she died. Chana knew she could die as well. The Death was a thing to be feared. It haunted her, the look on Kiri’s eyes when her True Self left her and she returned to the Real World. Although she knew that Kiri was happier, she could not help but wonder what fate awaited her in the Real World. Was she ready to look The Goddess in the face, eye to eye?

She ran. He pursued. She knew that he would catch her. He was swifter than she was, no matter how hard she tried. When he caught her, she fought him. She scratched and she bit. Yet he held her close. She felt the gentleness of his touch. It softened her, and she relaxed. At that moment, she felt the Womb Spirit enter her, and her frenzy began.

As he gave her The Gift, she entered the Real World, if only for a moment. She knew it would not last. It never did. Yet, when they were Together as One, the Womb Spirit transported her, and she saw The Goddess.

As she looked deeply into the eyes of The Goddess, she knew. The Goddess called her name. She blessed her and her Other with a new name. At that moment, she knew that her daughter would come.

Move later.