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Neuroanthropology: from Abassi to Zu

April 19, 2011

The human proclivity toward myth fascinates me. The tendency to both generate and consume stories intended to orient our existence into the context of a higher pattern is stunningly ubiquitous.

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.

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  1. Carl Youngblood permalink

    Thanks for these thoughts, Michael.

    Perhaps part of this fear of transcendence comes from our experience with past failures. Aim too high and you are liable to fail, not necessarily because the goal was not worthwhile, but perhaps because you lacked the maturity necessary to handle the more complex situations that you would be presented with at that new stage of development. Add to this our desperate need for explanations and you can see how people might arrive at hasty assumptions about inherent human limitations. It seems like we have a history of biting off more than we can chew. But I think we still learn valuable lessons in the process.

    I am reminded of the Babel myth. In a sense the people of Babel were pursuing an inappropriate goal, though not necessarily for the reasons given in scripture. They were making too many assumptions before verifying. Their endeavor was doomed to failure, either through an inadequate understanding of architecture, physics, astronomy or even of God. All we’re left with, though, is the biblical explanation for their failure, which many people probably take too literally.

    • Martin L Kokol permalink

      I really like the richness of this entire post, Michael. I mean, every sentence is not just measured (as in polished) but rich (as in flavorful). You are truly showing us who teach and write for a living how to bring creativity and structure to the very apogee of our attempted constellation! I especially found your last sentence to be quite the bullseye. Now, if I can just be motivated in this concrete jungle to find my intellectual voice once again. . . But, ah, first things first 🙂

  2. . . . and our neurology is emergent from our anatomic evolution, which in turn is emergent from our environmental evolution, which (if we in the future probably will create many worlds like our own) is emergent from posthuman communal selection. Unless we probably will go extinct before becoming posthumans, our mythology was seeded by gods like whom we may become. It may be that the only way for a creator to transcend herself is to relinquish her creations through a process of evolutionary engineering.

    Enjoyed the post, Michael! If you haven’t read Joseph Campbell, I recommend him.

    • permalink

      We should discuss this, Lincoln. I especially appreciated the comment you made at one point that we are ‘prosthetics of our environment’, i.e., in a non-trivial way, the universe is conscious, because *we* are conscious.

      I love Joseph Campbell. Would that ‘Teachings of Joseph Campbell’ were added to the CES curricula. 😉

  3. Brian permalink

    I find this post interesting in that you seem to be arguing about scale. The scale of neuropsychology being minute but having ramifications at larger scales such as the scale of culture. Levi-Strauss’ work in anthropology might be interesting for you…..especially his structural analysis of myth cross-culturally. Very thoughtful piece and it has made me think about projections of space in a different manner (my work focuses on space). Many thanks!

    • permalink

      Very nice, Brian. I will definitely look with into the work of Levi-Strauss. My initial wikipedia search on him revealed that he and I share the same birthday–that’s a quick way to endear to him. 🙂

      Please keep me posted on further insights you may have as you contemplation the implications on projections of space–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      Kind regards.

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