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The European Idea Of Progress Supersedes The Axial Age: Part II

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

“New Capacities” under conditions of “Relaxed Selection”

Religion in Human Evolution
has been called “a work of extraordinary ambition”. It is. After prefatory remarks, it opens with the big bang some 13.5 million years ago, gradually taking us to the Axial Age, as the culminating point in the development of new capacities. Bellah gets into the novel features of the first unicellular organisms, prokaryotes, their “incalculable contribution to other forms of life” in creating an oxygen rich atmosphere and recycling nutrients, and the continuing role of such bacterial organisms in aiding digestion. He then outlines how eukaryotes “represent a significant increase not only in size but in complexity compared to prokaryotes,” in having an internal nucleus with DNA and leading to the evolution of the three major divisions of multicellular organisms, fungi, plants, and animals (59-60). He elaborates when he reaches “warm-blooded” mammals and the development of “parental care”, “a capacity that correlates with several other developments that have enormous potentiality” in making possible “increasing intelligence, sociability and the ability to understand the feelings of others” (68).

For Bellah, only those capacities that bespeak of softness, caring, and empathy are worthy of attention, because these capacities are the basis for what will eventually allow humans to reach the beatific thoughts of the Axial Age. It is not that Bellah is unaware of the “darker side of evolution” (competition, jealousy, nastiness). He thinks that parental care, nurturance and emotional care, although adaptive in origins, had the unintended consequence of new possibilities, new behaviors, such as play, cooperative breeding, and family life, which made possible “advanced empathy” among humans, which cannot be seen as merely adaptive, but are practices in which selective pressures are relaxed and other ends, culturally chosen ends, come into play influencing the evolution of humans.

He focuses on the emergence of animal play as an activity that can’t be fully explained in terms of the struggle for existence. Relying on Gordon Burghardt’s book, The Genesis of Animal Play, he observes that the longer period of parental care afforded the young a relaxed period in which they sought some form of expression or occupation to avoid boredom, leading to playful activities [1]. While play involves behaviors directly functional to the pursuit of survival, such as fighting, chasing, and wrestling, play also entails actions and attitudes performed for their own “playful” sake. They are pleasurable activities, spontaneous and voluntary, end in themselves, which animals engage in after they are “adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress” — when the animal is in a relaxed field freed from evolutionary pressures.

Play is also “uniquely egalitarian” in that players try to neutralize inequalities in size and age in order to make it fair (bigger dogs will gnaw and wrestle without hurting smaller dogs), with role reversals being the norm (the squirrel  doing the chasing is then chased, the cat on top is then at the bottom). It brings out a sense of self, an ability to predict and sense what is going on inside the mind of the other players, as well as mutual intentionality insomuch as there can’t be no play unless players voluntarily agree to play (74-83).

Another “major transition with important consequences” was the “emergence of cooperative breeding” among hominids several hundreds of thousands of years ago (85). This is a capacity by infants to connect selflessly with the lives of those around them, rather than paying attention only to their needs and seeing others primarily in terms of their usefulness for survival. Great ape babies exhibit a “capacity for a kind of emotional relation to their mothers”, though this emotional state wears off as they age, and is restricted to the mother-infant relation. By the time we reach Homo sapiens, however, we observe “advanced empathy” expressed in human babies who are not only cared by their mothers but by their grandmothers, aunts, and older female siblings, with babies retaining their emotional attachment into adulthood and beyond their mothers. Children are capable of understanding the feelings of others.

In contrast to apes, who barely apprehend the mental states of other apes, human babies show, in the cited words of Frans de Waal, “a superior grasp of their place in the world and a more accurate appreciation of the lives of those around them” (69, my italics). It was through their parental caring experience and emotional attachments therein that humans developed a capacity to become self-aware of themselves, of their own feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, in relation to the feelings and thoughts of others. The origins of this capacity, as well as the capacity for play, which entails “shared intentionality” and requires voluntary cooperation, were laid down in the parental care first exhibited by mammals.

However, as much as Bellah defends the idea of “new emergent capacities,” he continually tries to reassure his academic audience that he does not believe in “progression from better to worse”. In the first 70 pages, he refers six times (xxii, 58, 59, 63, 66, 67) to Stephen Gould’s “opposition to the idea of progress in evolutionary history and his unhappiness with talk of higher and lower forms of life” (66), agreeing with Gould that bacteria are the most successful beings in the history of evolution. In the concluding pages, Bellah actually begs his readers not to accuse him of being a believer in the idea of progress merely because he writes about “evolution in the sense of increasing capacities” (602) and because he focuses on the new capacities exhibited in the Axial Age, without paying as much attention to pre-Axial cultures. “I did not disparage pre-Axial cultures, but tried to show the inner value and meaning of each of them”, he writes humbly (600), and then dutifully cites, yet again, Gould’s warning against Europeans who think they are better than bacteria.

These acts of subservience are unbecoming. What makes Bellah’s book interesting is precisely its argument that “new capacities” were made possible in the degree to which humans sheltered themselves from selective pressures without behaving like bacteria preoccupied solely with adaptation. This important book challenges the increasingly dominant idea that human behaviour and culture can be accounted for in Darwinian terms. Rather, human culture emerges when we find time to be “relaxed from selection.” Evolutionary psychologists are very good at explaining “cultural universals” — answering why certain cultural practices, patterns, traits, or institutions are common to all cultures. But they can’t explain why humans, once the necessities of survival are met, spend so much time and resources on cultural activities with no overt Darwinian purpose: philosophy, music, and dance.

Europeans choreographed the best mimetic movements in history

Darwinian explanations, it seems to me, become weaker when we examine the highest expressions of these cultural universals, not their common, base levels. Why the Greeks invented true competitive sports, Olympic games, rather than the Egyptians or Mesopotamians? Why are Europeans responsible for the invention of most of the sports we play today? They can only explain in broad strokes the “adaptive” functions of dance and sports, but they don’t have much to say about the evolutionary dimensions of each specific form of dance, and the unparalleled history of Western choreographic notation. The incredible variety of classical compositions, and the fact that Europeans are responsible for all the greatest classical music, cannot be explained in terms of predation and mating needs. Only by reducing art forms to their lowest common denominator, in order thereby to delineate their “adaptive” functions, as Steven Pinker does, can Darwinians handle cultural accomplishments, without knowing why Europeans invented so many dance forms and almost all the schools of painting in history.

Only Europeans were Free to Philosophize

The idea that cultural creativity requires relaxation from the necessities of life is hardly new. It is just that the growing success of Darwinian genetics has made this idea more difficult to sustain. Hegel refers to Aristotle’s observation that humans started to philosophize “when the necessities of life have been met”. He goes on to say that:

Philosophy is a free, not a self-seeking activity — free, because the anxiety of desire is gone; a strengthening, uplifting, and fortifying of the spirit in itself; a sort of luxury, in so far as “luxury” means those enjoyments and occupations which are not part and parcel of external necessity itself [2].

But Hegel does not mean only that philosophy becomes possible the moment humans have the luxury to spend time thinking. More is required, and this is missing in Bellah. Philosophy is only possible when thinking has “vanished” “everything foreign to itself and the spirit is absolutely free” from external necessities, no longer “mixed up with much that is particular and sensuous,” “free from all natural determinants,” “the heart, our impulses, feelings,” and free from “fear” of mysterious, theocratic and despotic rulers [3].

Philosophy’s history begins where thought comes into existence in its freedom, where it tears itself free from its immersion in nature, from its unity with nature, when it constitutes itself in its own eyes, when thinking turns in upon itself and is at home with itself” [4]. 

It was only, and for the first time, in ancient Greece that philosophy became possible. While “the spirit does arise” [5] in the East, it arises intermixed with nature; “the Indians and Egyptians, for example, had in animals their consciousness of the divine. Moreover, they had this consciousness in the sun, the stars…” [6]. Hegel continues:

On the one hand there are natural powers and forces which are personified and worshipped by Eastern peoples; on the other hand, inasmuch as consciousness rises above nature to an infinite being, the chief thing is fear of this power, with the result that the individual knows himself as only accidental in the face of this power [7]. 

When they do not fear these natural powers, and the spirit crystallises itself to a higher degree, it is a spirit characterized by “the emptiest abstraction, pure negativity, nothingness — the sublimity of abandoning everything concrete” [8]. This was particularly the case among Indian mystics who spent “years in expiations…mortifying every pain…contemplating the tip of their nose without locating in this exercise any thoughts or interest in consciousness but simply persisting n this inmost abstraction, this perfect emptiness, this stillness of death” [9].

Where free political institutions do not exist, philosophy cannot emerge. The “emergence of philosophy implies the consciousness of freedom” [10] and the fact that such freedom is recognized beyond the caprices of a despotic ruler. The thinking subject, the individual, has to be a person recognized as free, otherwise the subject is submerged in a state of slavishness and fear. Philosophy begins within the culture of freedom of the Greek city-states. The Greeks were the first who preoccupied themselves with thought itself; the first to apprehend the thinking I, to confront their own thoughts as objects of investigation, and thus to establish a “self-relation” wherein the subject confronted its own thinking as an object of thought, rather than allowing something external, things without reason, to dictate its thinking. It is thought that produces the universal concepts by which nature is comprehended, and these universals do not arise from any outside source but only from thinking itself.

The world of material things is always subject to external necessities, causal relationships; whereas consciousness has the potential to decide what is the essence of things, what is the universal in the particular, and to legislate for itself its own beliefs and actions, and thus become the source of itself rather than a product of something alien. It was only in ancient Greece that thought — consciousness — started to exhibit this potentiality to make itself explicitly the object of its own reflections and its own activity. We will see later that this did not happen in other Axial civilizations. Philosophy, in the Hegelian way I have defined it here, did not emerge in other axial civilizations.

Hegel says that “in development nothing emerges but what was there originally in germ or in-itself” [11]. He agrees with Aristotle that all things are continually striving to express what is highest in them, to make explicit what is implicitly highest in them. The seed for thinking to become free, and for man to apprehend himself as the only being that can become aware of his capacity to self-determine himself, is already there inside man as such. But Hegel knows that this implicit capacity only started to become explicit and actual with the ancient Greeks. It never manifested itself anywhere else. Why?

Hegel senses that it all began in the Western “state of nature,” which he defines as a primordial time when barbarian European aristocrats fought to the death for “pure prestige” in defiance of their Darwinian impulses. The attitude of the individual who risks his life for prestige is that of “being-for-self” or self-assertiveness. But while this attitude, which I identify with the unique culture of Indo-European aristocratic chiefdoms, involves fighting for purely human ends above the appetitive part of the soul, it is not a conceptual attitude, but an attitude rooted in the thymotic part of the soul. This thymotic side of man is the source of anger in the face of dishonour, assertiveness in the face of opposition, rebelliousness in the face of oppression, defiance in the face of despotism. This part reached its highest intensity among Indo-Europeans with their horse-riding, pastoral, dairy-meat diet, and aristocratic obsession with honor as members of a lineage and as individuals. Before the rise of democratic citizenship in ancient Greece, Indo-European societies enjoyed consuls where aristocrats could voice their differences with the leading aristocratic ruler, which was the original ground for the rise of city-states in Greece and republican forms of government thereafter.

In case this Hegelian perspective is misunderstood as pure idealism, Darwinian dynamics are always at play since humans are bodily creatures and the strategies they pursue must have positive evolutionary consequences. But humans are not imprisoned to one cultural strategy; varying cultural options are available in the struggle for life; and, in the case of Indo-Europeans, they opted for an aristocratic lifestyle in the environment of the Pontic steppes, which intensified their thymotic, Faustian souls. This aristocratic man exhibited the primordial attitude of a free spirit, not in the mothering atmosphere Bellah likes, but in its “being-for self,” in its willingness to risk life for the sake of ideals.

[To be continued in parts three and four]


[1] The idea that play is an essential condition of the generation of culture was first articulated, as Bellah acknowledges, by Johan Huizinga in his well known book, Homo Ludens, written in 1938.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Trans by T.M. Knox and A.V. Miller (Clarendon Press, 2003), p. 26.

[3] Ibid, pp. 55-56, 63, 80, 163, 169.

[4] Ibid., p. 164.

[5] Ibid., p. 167.

[6] Ibid., p. 36.

[7] Ibid., p. 170.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 166.

[11] Ibid., p. 72.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
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