Neuroanthropology: from Abassi to Zu
Ultimately, have the storytelling creators of our myths not projected onto gods and heroes those fears, tensions, and aspirations we feel most profoundly? And have these stories themselves not undergone a Darwinian process?–a natural selection in which the themes and ideas that strike the deepest resonance with human minds are propagated, mutated, and selected anew?
In short, our repository of myth is emergent from our psychology; and our psychology–in turn–is emergent from our neurology. Given this trajectory of cause and effect, it seems wholly appropriate…if not obvious…that the wealth of human myth is imbued with clues one might productively excavate as guideposts toward understanding the human brain.
I started reading the Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology (thanks, iPad apps!) precisely out of a raw curiosity I think is derived from the aforementioned logic. The initial effort did not disappoint.
The very first entry is about Abassi–an Efik deity who placed humans on the earth, but feared that they would become wiser than him, so commanded them to neither work nor reproduce. When humans violated these instructions and became industrious and productive, Abassi had his wife give death and discord to human beings, to prevent them from reaching the gods’ stature of wisdom.
The striking parallels with themes from Hebrew myths of creation and fall reinforce for me the idea that somewhere deep within us is embedded an anxiety that we will become too great. This anxiety bubbles up from our psyche and assumes the storied form that someone or someones “out there” are trying to fence in the growth of our wisdom and capacity, and that if we outgrow some assumed parameters for our existence, we will incur their displeasure.
Why is this anxiety of progress so widespread? What is it in our neural system that throws the switch and creates an uneasiness when we dream of embodying superlative capacities? And do we need to rationally attenuate that seed of anxiety as a prerequisite for accessing our ultimate potential?–the “measure of our creation,” if you will? Most immediately I think of transhuman and cosmist visions, in which the preponderance of critique does NOT stem from questions of plausibility, but rather from questions of propriety.
Certainly evolution’s trial-and-error methodology to jury rig a cognitive machine (i.e., the brain) left us with not a few unneeded limitations and quirks. Always the optimist, I’m hopeful that the future concert of neural and mythological understanding will allow us collectively to better “see as we are seen,” and live with increasing adeptness in a universe of which we understand so little.