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On Communion

November 5, 2010

I must begin with a confession: I am chronically religious. If religion is indeed a disorder, then I have a severe case.

Let me explain.

There are amazing moments in my life when I vibrate at the core with wonderment for this mysterious universe in which we live. The intricacies of its systems graced by the elegance of its functionality–all of it leaves me, at times, emotionally breathless. And I am so delighted by the universe–by the fact of reality–that there are instances in which I want to explode…perhaps literally…into a supernova of praise and adulation and become forever absorbed by an oneness with the universe. (Wipes entrails off screen.) Nothing I know expresses an exuberance for the totality of it all quite like religion does for me. That highest yearning for communion and the loftiest reaching for a cosmic tao–I relish the Bronze Age striving for something bigger than the metalworking–for a connectedness that is transcendent of our day-to-day manipulation and immediacy.

We have been in the pursuit of communion for a very, very long time. But it has been a treacherous odyssey. From the first happenstance micelles undergoing primordial replication, to impassioned Tea Partiers marching in droves–there is a streak of separatist tendencies and protectivism that started first as an emergent physical property before it became enshrined as an ideal. The haphazard fusion of lipid membranes and the spilling out of nascent organelles and–SPLAT–no more functional complexity. No more systemic mobility, and no more life. Each cell of necessity emerged as its own sovereignty.

And yet the fact *of * our heads itself symbolizes a competing journey for our species–one that creates a tension with and leads us away from the individualization bequeathed through the primal realities of survival-demands. Indeed, our noggins are very inconvenient evolutionary accessories! Any woman who has given birth can tell you that it is ardor and blood to bring these big ol’ heads of ours out into the world. The historical mortality rates of the females of our species during birth itself punctuates the fact that there is something dramatically valuable about our evolutionarily expanding head diameter, enough so to offset the grievous costs incurred at their expense.

Our ginormous heads are so problematic, in fact, that we are born at a point in our gestation that would be horrifying to any other species. You watch a video of a giraffe giving birth (which–by the way–still doesn’t look any fun) and BOOM the baby hits the ground walking around. It takes months before the neck muscles of our babies are even strong enough to hold up our bobble heads, to say nothing of the enormous tracts of time required before we achieve individual mobility or survival abilities.

And yet there they are. These bulky barrels of brain balancing on top of our bipedal bodies.

Dunbar’s number is something that I have written about in the past. In short, it is the realization that brain size in primates is directly proportional to the size of our social grouping. We’re starting to get somewhere when we realize this relationship. Convincingly, it was the drive toward a larger social group that geared us toward these overtly cumbersome head sizes. In other words, all of the costs in energy and lives and delayed individual independence for the young of our species–all of this Darwinian backwardness is offset by the drive to be in community. Large community. What a premium that places on our abilities for self-transcendence. There is something supremely special about this precession toward expanding community–special enough that the cold machinations of the evolutionary system allowed us to pass this way in our epic exploration of the possibilities of existence.

Community. Communion. Co-participation in the processes of life and the complex functionality of the physical universe. Our bodies are walking temples that enthrone the specialness of these principles. Indeed, what purer way to express this than to say we bear the image of God?

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2 Comments
  1. davidwlocke permalink

    Maybe our neck isn’t the real reason we are born at that point. Maybe the point is nurture. “Hey, Mom get to work.” In a book whose title I can’t recall, Autism is said to be due to the lack of interactions with babies. Maybe it’s our brains that must be stronger. And, there are those bonding hormones that hopefully kick in on time within mom–another opportunity for evolution to cull, unfortunately. Nature still has work to do, but it needs nurture’s help.

  2. michael@positiveneuro.com permalink

    DWL–re: autism, the hypothesis that maternal neglect is somehow causal in the development of the disease is–I think–a dangerous one on two counts: 1) if sufficiently debunked (which I think it has been) it is a red herring that seduces us away from exploring other root factors; and 2) it creates an enormous amount of needless guilt in mothers who would easily absorb the false responsibility for their child’s condition. I’d recommend the section on the “refrigerator mother” theory in Offit’s book ‘Autism’s False Prophets’:

    http://www.amazon.com/Autisms-False-Prophets-Science-Medicine/dp/0231146361

    Your general point on nurture is a good one, though, in connecting the dots between the dependency of human babies and the consequential emotional bonding with parents. It serves as a sort of positive feedback loop toward the endgame of communal relating.

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