Forks in the Road: history.exe v2.314 min read

I’m interesting in the question how we got here.

That’s not much of a surprise.

Which means I’m looking into the very broad strokes of what got us from there to here. Broadly remembered points where if you were to time travel and alter it, a radically different future would emerge.

I understand people will quibble about details. Some, for example, insist that the invention of abstract thought, like a law of gravity, inexorably leads a species towards its ultimate demise. I’m afraid I’m not that pessimistic. Personally, I started this adventure reading the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn and believing farming was the source of all evil. I’ve modified that, though, over time, understanding that while that time was a turning point, it wasn’t as simple as picking up a hoe damning the human race.

My current list of what makes us ‘us’ runs like this:

  1. Commensal Ectosymbiosis by Fire (Birth of the Family of Man)
  2. Mutualistic Ectosymbiosis (Coevolution) with Wolves (Birth of Homo Sapiens and the rise of Tribes)
  3. Parasitic Endosymbiosis by Grass (Post traumatic creation of Homo Civitatis)
  4. Vector-Trasmitted Parasitism (The Rise of ‘Science’ / Industrial Revolution, Homo Civitatis Terminal Phase / birth of an E.L.E.-Extinction Level Event)

Points 1 and 3 on the list recognize that two powerful forces (fire and grass) shaped their respective points in history outside of human control. Without their input, Genera Homo or Homo Civitatis could not exist. The other two turning points mirror each other: the inclusion of a strong relationship (with wolves) and the deliberate exclusion of a set of relationships (with Science).

A brief overview… and a definition

When folks teach kids about what it means to be human, it’s often simplified down to “the two-legged animal who’s smart”. Dig in a little harder and you might even get the myth that we’re weak compared to other animals. And it was sheer luck we survived long enough for our big brains to master the hostile environment so we could prosper.

It’s a very convenient narrative and fundamentally wrong.

We now know that it’s group coordination and persistence that allowed us to prosper even before we could rightfully be called human. And being a clever ape wasn’t enough to get us here. Instead it was our relationship with fire, which unlocked nutrients we couldn’t access, that permanently changed us.

Even then, our impact would have been minimal had it not been a star-crossed partnership with another species. In a time of plentiful meat, where we could eat part and wolves could eat another, both sides made a truce that benefitted everyone. This lead to the finetuning of working with mysterious others. That process directly led to the invention of tribes, a cultural unit dedicated to preserving memes. And that facilitated an intimate relationship with a local environment that couldn’t be accomplished before.

That’s where we left off with the last part of the series. No longer Homo Sapiens, we split into thousands of seed units that became fundamentally different once interacting with different biomes. Homo Morrigu, Homo Ymir, thousands of others.

The Oceans That Are Us

Before this story continues, we need to peek under the hood. What makes a clever brain? It takes a few odd glitches, working together: a hyper-vigilance to details, a relationship to those details that removes them from the immediate now, and a need to persistently follow up on those details. In brief, a clever brain is a brain that makes up stories.

For a unique flow to maintain its integrity, they must first offer up resistance to the greater flow. For motile life that we identify with, it began with a chemical process. Lipids stuck together as a cell wall, providing a barrier against the environment outside. From there, blueprints evolved–DNA–so that the process could be repeated.

While the deep trenches of DNA are very useful, they tend to fail when environmental changes move outside of a recognized tolerance. To deal with this, DNA evolved a supplementary source of information through what we call epigenetics. Epigenetics are what folks used to call ‘junk DNA’. It’s a massive collection of DNA strands that, at first glance, seem to be nothing but a drain or glitch in DNA, maintained by the system but not actually doing anything.

However, the beauty of epigenetics is that these strands respond to stress. Parts of them turn on and stay on if needed and this trait passes along to offspring. It’s like, instead of a blueprint, each cell contains a limited library. The evolution of sensory organs provide the data needed to inform this elegant system as to which part of the library needs to be accessed.

The next step up was a fascinating one. A set of interlinked nerves and fascia retained the sequence of powerful triggers that had a system-wide impact. They would then preserve that knowledge so if the host encountered the start of the sequence again, they could pre-emptively act, preferably to protect the integrity of the organism.

This was the birth of emotions.

The Storied Brain

For the vast amount of life as we know it, that’s where it ends. There are the deep trenches of DNA, the deep currents of epigenetics and an ocean of emotion. That’s enough to take an organism through life and prosper in its environment. And it’s flexible enough to allow those same organisms to move from place to place, adapt and evolve.

Add into the mix, an ape which had to be patient enough to wait out its turn for sex and used a similar ability to read faces to facilitate relationships. When they started interacting with fire, they gained access to food sources normally only open to specialized groups. In turn, when those brains started to grow, the parts that originally facilitated that success bloomed first, overgrowing their original function.

Walking and patience gave way to persistence hunting, a technique where the apes empathized with their prey so intimately, they could single out specific animals and pursue it to exhaustion. More protein, unlocked by fire to feed hungry brains, reinforcing those emotional segments and the our sense of timing.

Until ultimately those patterns popped and formed something new. An imaginary landscape, untouched by cycles. Something a person could visit again and again. Emotions no longer tied to triggers in the actual environment but instead to an internal process.

The beginning of time.

Metaphorically, it’s the shallowest and most dangerous of our functions. The waves and surface currents on the ocean of being. Shallow, ephemeral, but no less important than the rest of our systems.

With intelligence, an issue.

This is a long-winded way of explaining the importance of these divisions. DNA takes away the immediacy of having to react to a problem and gives a replicatable solution. Epigenetics allows an organism to respond to a problem that happened before but hasn’t happened in a while. Emotions let you recognize and deal with an issue that hasn’t happened yet.

And intelligence lets you create a simulation of issues that have not, are not, or will not happen.

It’s that last part that becomes an issue.

We, like all complex life, are intimately honed to respond to stimuli. At the same point, these are all stimuli that are actually happening. However, intelligence allows us to examine stimuli that aren’t happening. But the body doesn’t make that distinction. Stress is stress to all the parts not connected to intelligence.

Ramifications of this fall under post-traumatic stress disorder. For humans, typically this can occur under the following situations. Either you:

  • Directly experienced an event that could or did result in death, violence, or serious injury.
  • Witnessed, in person, this occurring to others
  • Learned someone close to you experienced or was threatened by the traumatic event
  • Are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of traumatic events

PTSD manifests mostly in four ways: intrusive memories (re-experiencing the event), avoidance (of things even tangentially related to the event), significant negative changes to perceptual systems (thinking and emotions), and changes to the way you react (cognitively or emotionally).

There are definitely ways to deal with it individually, from group-healing to medicines from (safe space) stress-inducers like sweat lodges. It takes time and effort but it’s do-able.

But what happens when PTSD happens to an entire culture?

Climate Change: a Lesson from History

We can argue that the basal form for humanity coming from the flowering of our species after our domestication by fire. Rapid increases in nutrition and exposure to phytochemicals previously inaccessible led to a clever, two-legged ape, enduring and passionate. This basal form was shaped by the Quarternary glaciation period, with occasional interglacial (overall warmer) periods that allowed for temporary expansion.

It was when we teamed up with wolves that humanity’s success shifted from epigenetic to memetic, allows rapid and intimate connection to the environment in which we live. In a healthy system, humans observed that what they eat becomes a part of them. This leads to a strong connection to the land because what you put back in–your dead–actively becomes part of that land.

In some systems, this is codified as the idea that your ancestors provide an incremental step in linking up to larger, more primal forces. In modern parlance that would mark these ancestors as “minor gods” (this becomes relevant later). This belief also appears in some fundamental wording regarding tending your food.

Garden vs. Farm

The term garden comes from the same root as “to guard”. It’s the idea that you have something precious, like family, that you guard. In return, this family takes care of you. On the opposite end, the term “farm” comes from a term that means ‘paying an obligation’. Instead of loving the earth, this is the belief that it owes you.

In Christian myths, we became too smart (eating the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and lost any hope of divine help (Eden). Instead, we were left to fend for ourselves, using only those new smarts to survive.

In scientific myths, the climate stabilized about 10,000 years ago and, using our smarts, we starting farming. Giving up these older beliefs in being dependent on the gods, we started on a journey that led us from the first cities in Sumeria to the modern megalopoli of today.

Both narratives obscure a sadder and darker story.

The Times They Were a Changing

Did you know that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was identified? There’s a religious group in Upper Mesopotamia called the Yazidi and they believe the fruit refers to the fruit of wheat. Interesting, because later on, Caine the wheat farmer kills his brother Abel, the hunter.

There’s no question that a number of folks started crops around that time, and that sedentary living became a thing. However, if the crops were root- or tree- based, often the cultures never became expansionist in the way Sumeria became. And other systems were complex enough it’s hard to tell if they were farming or gardening.

We know sedentary living isn’t the healthiest choice for human beings, but the disasterous consequences that followed usually are placed squarely at the foot of Sumeria. There, climate change was devestating a healthy human population that was living in a food- and resource- rich delta.

This cycle of flooding and death was happening often enough that it was unearthing the dead. We can tell this because in the Sumerian myths, they talk about the younger gods murdered by elder ones (Tiamat and Apsu). This kind of story drift occurs when the narrator knows that his culture equates ancestors with newly “born” gods but doesn’t bother to work that into the narrative for a wider audience.

Rise the Abuser

The strength of the human seeds, as I’ve said many times above, is their power to link to a landscape, to personify it. To watch everything you hold dear hurt again and again and again, verges on an abusive relationship and that’s what happened here. While most of Sumerian culture was simply enduring it, the architect Anu came up with the technique to end the abuse and he did this by becoming an abuser.

Anu tore drainage ditches into the earth, destroying the viability of the delta. However, he offered a food replacement with a crop that he knew grew easily during flooding seasons: wheat. Wheat serves as an annual crop and requires a damaged landscape to regrow, locking the culture into a cycle of violence to maintain their food base. Anu supplemented his endeavors through enslaving another tribe.

Wheat’s unique among the edible grains in that it contains exorphins, phytochemicals that mimic endorphins in the human nervous system. In small amounts, this makes no difference. In larger amounts? There is a low level narcotic affect and, if you’re miserable enough, even the potential for addiction.

Add on to that, Beer is made from wheat.

The Way the Cycle Worked

There was no way to determine how long the climate was to remain how it was. The cycle of flooding and death had traumatized generations. Now, Anu and his descendants were offering payback. The land would be tamed and forced into giving them what they were owed — food and sustenance — and people — not Anu’s people, of course — would be forced into helping Sumeria achieve its goals.

Plagues? Infestations? Starvation? That was only an indication that they would have to work harder, making the cycle of abuse perpetual. And what were its rewards? A food which eased the pain a little. A drink that would let you forget for a time how miserable things were. And once people leaned into this concept wholly?

The first city. A place where the inhabitants could be richly rewarded by the spoils of things grown elsewhere. The ultimate expression of the concept: “We cannot trust the landscape. So we have made our own.”

That’s the key to the difference between a city and a town. Cities cannot be maintained without excessive external inputs. By design, they will inevitably explode into violence if resources become scarce. Violence possesses value because the system relies on abuse to survive.

This is Homo Civitas. The people of the Cities.

Wait… but what about wheat?

When I started this entry, I promised to talk about parasitism by wheat.

Grains are great enablers. Once the technology matures, people can grow wheat in distressed areas. They can provide portable calories that are easy to carry around. People can ferment them into a go-to drink. However, they are also nutrient poor and with that comes a whole host of medical issues.

Wheat helped give Homo Civitas an edge because it contained exorphins. This plus stress brought down the onset of puberty during different eras leading to neotenous changes persisting into adulthood. Specifically, the gut became more porous and that ultimately led to one variety of lactose tolerance (there are actually several; homo civitas was not the sole human branch who learned how to drink milk) and the widespread adoption among Homo Civitas of livestock.

Ok… I know I have to back up. Here’s a quick mammal update. Mother’s milk contains a bunch of endorphins. It’s what keeps a baby happy and secure while nursing and the mom gets a kickback from the production as well. However, around the time of weaning, the gut hardens and the baby no longer gets the same kick from the endorphins. Milk is not as interesting as, say, that rash of bacon cooking on the fire.

When a population is under stress, they tend to mature earlier. That’s to make sure the species has a chance to breed before whatever is stressing them out kills them. This sped-up process can result in glitches, like the gut not fully maturing. For those folks, bread and milk has a distinct impact on their cognition and health.

Wheat, as Enabler

Wheat, as a type of grass, pushes to propogate in disturbed areas. Homo Civitas reinforces that narrative by disturbing systems and then pushing through the pain until they reach some sort of balance. Floods of pseudo-opiates from wheat and milk support this and that little reward is enough for this branch of human to perpetuate their unique style of abuse again and again and again.

As this PTSD continued, those humans under its sway began to codify this cycle. People believed rewards were not bound to earthly existence and instead occurred post-harvest (i.e. death). Faith, tied to observations of larger forces at work in one’s environment, became de-coupled and imaginary. Paganism (polytheistic worshipers of supernatural events) as opposed to animism (appreciation and ritualization of larger-than-normal forces).

This, sadly, led to a psychotic break in civilized culture, which is what we’ll cover next.

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