Monday, March 8, 2010

The Paleolithic Mind

I went to a meditation retreat this week with the Red Cedar Zen community in Bellingham. It was a good experience. Staring at a wall from 6 am to 9 pm for a few days gives you the opportunity to learn a few things about your mind. Some of these are things you already know on some level, but you just need to have them reinforced. For example, the weight of psychological stress that we carry in modern societies like the US. It's only when it goes away for a while that you can see how heavy it was.

I'm totally ignorant of the scientific literature on this, but the way I see it, there are at least two main sources of psychological stress in the modern world for which we aren't well equipped as human beings:
  • Being eternally and inescapably subordinate in a large social structure
  • Having too many responsibilities such as possessions and obligations
I recently read an excellent article by Michael Finkel in National Geographic magazine on the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group living in a way that may resemble how our ancestors lived for most of the last million years. Here are a few characteristics of the Hadza lifestyle as described by the author:
The Hadza do not engage in warfare [although they do have homicide]. They've never lived densely enough to be seriously threatened by an infectious outbreak. They have no known history of famine; rather, there is evidence of people from a farming group coming to live with them during a time of crop failure. The Hadza diet remains even today more stable and varied than that of most of the world's citizens. They enjoy an extraordinary amount of leisure time. Anthropologists have estimated that they "work"—actively pursue food—four to six hours a day. And over all these thousands of years, they've left hardly more than a footprint on the land.
This isn't intended to idealize their lifestyle, but to point out that being a hunter-gatherer has its advantages. One of these is a minimal social structure in which each person is has full authority over himself:
The Hadza recognize no official leaders. Camps are tra­ditionally named after a senior male (hence, Onwas's camp), but this honor does not confer any particular power. Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza. No Hadza adult has authority over any other. None has more wealth; or, rather, they all have no wealth. There are few social obligations—no birthdays, no religious holidays, no anniversaries.
Even "marriage" doesn't carry much obligation. The author describes the Hadza as "serial monogamists". The idea of an eternal bond between two individuals doesn't exist. Women are not subordinate to men:
Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment. Among the Hadza, women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup—woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly. In Onwas's camp, some of the loudest, brashest members were women.
Contrast this with modern civilizations in which everyone has a boss-- whether it's at a job, in a marriage or under your country's legal system. I think this feeling of perpetual subordination is destructive to an animal such as ourselves, that has spent so much of its existence mostly free of these pressures.

The author says this about their possessions:
Traditional Hadza, like Onwas and his camp mates, live almost entirely free of possessions. The things they own—a cooking pot, a water container, an ax—can be wrapped in a blanket and carried over a shoulder.
This resembles other African hunter-gatherer groups that have few and simple tools. From the book The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society:
!Kung tools are few in number, lightweight, made from locally available materials, and multipurpose.
Again, this is in sharp contrast to the modern world, where we have so many belongings it's impossible to keep track of them all. We have giant houses that we "need" to store all these things, and still it doesn't seem like enough. Many of our possessions are indispensable if we want to fit in to society. We need (or feel we need) clothes, cookware, identification, money, transportation, furniture, tools, sports gear, et cetera. Having to be responsible for this extraordinary quantity of possessions (by evolutionary standards) is a heavy weight on our minds.

Unfortunately, we have more than just possessions on our minds. To live in the modern world is to be pricked to death by a thousand small responsibilities. Remember to make your lunch. Remember to make a doctor's appointment, shop for groceries, tie your shoes, get your oil changed, send that e-mail, make dinner, go for a jog, vacuum the floor, take a shower, pick up the kids-- the list is endless. Are our memories as defective as we think they are, or are we simply not designed to keep track of so many details?

In hunter-gatherer times, we had stress. Homicide, accidents, infectious disease and predation were always stalking us. But did we have a constant flow of obligations clogging the paths of our minds?

Those times are gone for us, but perhaps keeping them in mind can help us live more constructively in the modern world. I find that meditation helps keep the thousand pricks of modern life in perspective, perhaps bringing my mind closer to the paleolithic state.


Chris said...

Thanks Stephan. I read the same article and found it very inspiring.

Did you read my recent interview with keith Thomas? He takes in some ways a similarly thoughtful approach.

toddhargrove said...


Thanks for raising this issue. I think the "paleo mind" might be just as important a determinant of health and happiness as the paleo diet. I have often thought that one of the major differences between the modern and paleo mind is the amount of mental attention to sense experience versus abstract thought and planning. A hunter gatherer would spend many hours a day paying close attention to the environment through sense experience. Modern humans spend very little time with this, but instead focus on abstract thoughts such as planning for the future. This means using the mind in a completely different way than is "natural". Various experiments on buddhist monk meditators show that different forms of meditation (many of which involve simply placing attention on sensory experience such as breathing) cause objective changes in brain activity which can be correlated with positive emotional states.
I would imagine that the reason many people enjoy activities such as hiking, surfing, rock climbing, fishing, and hunting is that these all require prolonged mental focus on sensory experience.

Daryl said...

Interesting post. I'm in the middle of reading some really good books you might want to take a look at.

On the Border with Crook by John Gregory Bourke

Adventures In Mexico and The Rocky Mountains by George Ruxton

These are great first hand of accounts of life among the Native Americans, written by highly educated, relatively sympathetic observers.

guyberliner said...

The "paleo mind" kinda reminds me of the expression in Buddhism, "original mind", which actually makes a lot of sense! Buddhist teachings emphasize "nonattachment", whether to possessions or abstract ideas. Returning to an experience of the immediate present can be very joyful. Maybe it is precisely in the relief from this constant "civilized" anxiety that we derive the biggest benefits from meditation.

Mike said...

There's more than a whiff of fantasy about much of this.

What some writers seem to do is take the particular wishes, aspirations, and prejudices of modern Western society and project them onto people remote in time or place. (Those remote people would, doubtless, be bemused by many of them could they hear them.) Margaret Mead is an obvious, but hardly the only, example of the latter. As for the former, one recalls what was said about the Maya or the people whom Arthur Evans dubbed the "Minoans". Only the evidence uncovered by actual excavation put an end to the fantasizing in those cases.

To assume that the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers must in every way resemble our ancestors is a huge leap in any case. For a start, these would seem to be people who've been pushed into areas no-one else wants (or wanted at the time). The Bushmen, for example, really are the world's poor, struggling on marginal land and effectively powerless in face of arbitrary arrest, eviction, and bruality. They don't go in for warfare and haven't for a very long time: they'd better not; for they'd lose. The same would go for the Hadza. According to Oxfam, "The [Hadza are] ... under threat from commercial extinction of the resources [much of their land] has been converted into farms and conservation areas". They might mind: they're not in a position to resist.

But by contrast one only has to go to the ethnographic sources to find that not every hunting people avoids conflict. For Plains Indians warfare was the highest activity of man and a kind of outdoor sport. To be sure it was a ritualized activity but real for all that. Catlin mentions several tribes who were in a fair way to getting themselves wiped out, because they were so aggressive they simply would not leave more numerous (and equally aggressive) neighbours alone. This was one reason for for polygamy among some North American Indians: it made provision for women, because so many men were killed off.

This comment about the Hadza is quoted: "None has more wealth; or, rather, they all have no wealth." That's not surprising: they're living on marginal land. Then we're told: "No Hadza adult has authority over any other". But, again, even if this is true, there's no reason to believe all hunter-gatherers lived in the same way -- and a large body of evidence that gives the lie to any claim that they would have. As for "gender [sic] roles" ... what can one say? Any even slight aqcuaintance with the ethnographic literature would leave this one limping. Samuel Hearne, for example, travelled with hunters (Chippewa) who regarded women primarily as workhorses. They also took wives from weaker men; they took any possessions they wished for from any man they came across who couldn't hold onto them. They also raped any unaccompanied woman they came upon. To cap it off, they surprised and massacred a camp of Eskimo, tortured an old blind woman they'd trapped by the falls, and then celebrated their achievement with a dance:

A few (dubious) claims people have made about the few remaining bands of hunter-gatherers only go so far.

shell_piece said...

Great article Stephan, thanks! I'm trying to practice more minimal living myself. I find Leo Babauta's minimalist blog to be very enjoyable. I also find using EFT daily really helps in taking care of life's little worries and stresses.

Gyan said...

Hadza may represent falling-off from a richer ancestral culture Notice that their population is reduced and also their range must have been reduced.

Tami said...

Great post, Stephan. Same moment I clicked your bookmark I´d some thought about stress induced health issues. I think there is a huge connection between stress/high cortisol and weight problems. Especially to lose some fat. It´s also an explanation why such things like good sleep, moderate alcohol, some activities aso are so succesful in weight management. Be happy to be able doing some meditations. I´m so jittery I couldn´t sit still.

John Rosevear said...

I think there's a lot of congruence between paleo and the state of nondual awareness -- what some teachers refer to as "the natural state". When I was slogging up that particular hill I found Zen to be a tool of limited utility -- I suggest reading any of Adyashanti's (a former Zen monk who, after being given dharma transmission, chose to teach from outside of the Zen paradigm) books for a decidedly non-mystic approach you might find useful.

Josh said...

Most of us can certainly agree that there is a desperate need to integrate some of the Hadza cultural principles into our own lives. I'm of the mind that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget all we've learned in modern society, but I do believe that a hard assessment of our possessions, responsibilities, and treatment of our sisters and brothers is absolutely paramount. You've struck gold, here.

Melissa said...

Zen/meditation are agrarian forms of spirituality and while I'm sure they have their benefits, I don't think much of them for emulating our paleolithic minds. In the yogic tradition it's particularly stark given that paleolithic foods and desires are considered rajastic/over-stimulating/unspiritual.

I also think that paleolithic people would have had a huge diversity of cultures and mindsets. While I used to be anarcho primativist, I bow to the strong evidence for warfare going back quite some time. When we find "nice" cultures like the Hadza, I think they are nice because of culture rather than because of being hunter-gatherers.

I coincidentally spent some time on a Chippewa/Ojibwe reservation are found their sweatlodges more mentally invigorating than anything else I'd ever done. There is a palatable difference between the little bits of non-agrarian spirituality left in this world and the major dominant agrarian religions. The sweatlodge was a strange place of unmaking and making, the meditation room a place of trying to put a preconceived notion of "nothingness " and pure being into your mind, though I'm sure that it varies based on type of meditation.

rps said...

This is a good place to go for anybody who wants to be introduced to meditation. They offer 10-day intensive Vipassana meditation retreats at no charge (though there is a donation table at the end). There's no cult-like aspect - I did one 2 years ago and the only attempts they've made to contact me have been to send me a newsletter. They have 10 centers in North America so there's probably one reasonably close to anyone reading this.

Doing something like that feels qualitatively different than meditating for 30 minutes at home. It's worth doing at least once in your life.

Jack Christopher said...

A lot of hunter-gatherer culture is worth emulating. We'd be happier if we restructured society as similarly as we could.

Here's another article on the Hadza by James Woodburn:

H-G Antropology Wiki:

Tom Garnett said...

Melissa wrote,” Zen/meditation are agrarian forms of spirituality and while I'm sure they have their benefits, I don't think much of them for emulating our Paleolithic minds.” I agree that Zen meditation is a form that developed in agrarian societies. That is why there was a need for “emulating” paleo mind. I also think a similar argument could be made for some tantric Buddhist forms of meditation. Ways humans in agriculture-based societies found to connect to the true wilderness.

Tom Garnett said...

I really appreciated this posting, Stephan but I question the point about responsibilities. Are we to believe that Paleolithic hunter gatherers parents did not feel responsibility for their children? The extremely long required period of child-rearing that humans have is not just some cultural artifact but is “built in.” A parent looking for the next big herbivore when his/her child is hungry and the game is scarce – if that isn’t responsibility I don’t know what is. As for your point about details – could it not be that it’s different kinds of details – the movement of the starts and cycle of the moon, the changing wind, the grasses and bushes that support certain animals of interest, the plants that reduce fever, etc. I am assuming there was and is a lot of empirical know-how embedded in hunter gatherer societies. Becoming a functioning adult required mastering it. That said – I suspect the type of details were more sensory-based and less abstract than fretting over collateralized debt obligations for GDP.

Stephan said...

Hi Chris,

Yes, I read your interview of Keith Thomas and enjoyed it. I don't really feel the need to see my life through the lens of a HG all the time, but it can be informative at certain times.

Hi Mike,

Yes, there was warfare in some hunter-gatherer societies, although it was a very different kind of warfare than we have now. As for the examples of cruelty you mentioned, I think cherry picking incidents like that has limited utility unless you can show that it was a regular and widespread occurrence in hunter-gatherer cultures. If you're trying to show that bad things happened in HG societies sometimes, I agree. If you're trying to show that HG societies were generally cruel, I think you're going to have a hard time proving it.

Hi Tom,

I didn't say they have no responsibilities, only that they have fewer. Even child rearing is very different. Children are raised communally, distributing the burden. The fact that they had hours of leisure time each day speaks to the fact that they had fewer responsibility and more unstructured time. You might interpret some of their leisure time as "work" I suppose, since they would have been swapping information and monitoring their environment (indirectly related to food procurement), but chatting with family/friends and keeping your eyes open hardly feels like work.

AngloAmerikan said...

I think people lose sight of how wonderful the world is that we live now - the great cities, airliners, technology, clothes, sports gear, mobile phones, television and so on. The car, for instance, is a fantastic piece of equipment, transporting us around in air-conditioned comfort – it’s amazing how jaded people seem to get about such wonders. The computer and Internet with all the world’s information just a few key strokes away is just an unbelievably cool invention. They’ll take my computer away over my dead body! There's no reason why we can’t enjoy the best of a Paleo diet and exercise regime and the best of the modern world.

Richard Nikoley said...

Wow Stephan, you've just laid out many of the reasons I consider myself anarchist, "politically," if one can even consider HGs to practice "politics" in the way modern societies do.

I've often said that we evolved to account for the values and actions of about 30 individuals or so and that each person is integral to the whole group and not merely a cog in the machine. Each individual has real influence over others.

Of course, I choose to live in modern society and submit to the diktats of the Nomenclatura, but it certainly helps to understand the source of the stress it causes.

Accordingly, "The Paleolithic Mind" is an excellent choice for a title, I think.

Some practical ways that I escape some of the stress of being subservient to the mass collective:

- I don't vote, guiltlessly and proudly so. Not interested in getting my 1/270 millionth say in my own affairs.

- I never seek out "the news" on TV, radio or in print. The most I do is listen to NPR now and then because of their deeper exploration of the issues they cover.

On the latter point, this has been a huge daily benefit for the last couple of years. I used to be a full time options trader (from home) and was literally glued to the international political and business news 24/7. If I woke up at 3am I would just HAVE to come fire up the computer to check international markets in order to get a bead on the trading day to come.

It was an awful life, I realized I was killing myself, and well, the rest is history.

Don said...

Hi Stephan,

I also do meditation, including some Zen retreats. I agree completely that doing such retreats allows me to touch that quietude I think H-Gs experienced just sitting in the wilderness, waiting for the game or watching the sunset. I also agree that modern disease has emotional stress roots. In Chinese medicine, we have a saying that "all diseases arise from excesses of the 7 emotions." The key is excesses. Anger is okay if it comes and passes circumstantially; but if it persists, it will afflict liver function, digestion, etc. The chemicals we produce under the influence of emotions are very powerful, and can do a lot of damage if prolonged exposure occurs.

To Melissa,

I partly disagree with your evaluation of Zen. I agree that it arose within agriculture, but not as an expression of agricultural mindset. Just as the agricultural diet gave rise to the professions of medicine and dentistry to remedy the damage caused by the ag diet, the emotional stress cause by agricultural social structure gave rise to therapies for stress, and to people who opted out (monks, nuns, hermits) or developed therapeutic practices to counter the mental dis-ease created by that social structure. In agricultural societies, one way to opt out of the rat race was to become a monk or nun or hermit (if you couldn't just leave for the frontier).

I would agree that dogma-based religions (Judeao-Christian, Islam, to some extent Hinduism, Greek Pantheon, etc.), based on worship o a deity, represent an idealisation of agricultural hierarchy. But originally what we today call Buddhism (not Tibetan, that's different) arose from a rejection of authority (albeit somewhat incomplete) and does not involve worshipping any deity or accepting any dogma or 'story' about the world. On the contrary, it involves rejecting stories and going for direct experience. I would say Zen in particular as a practice arose as a medicine for agricultural people.

BTW, my first master's thesis was on Buddhist philosophy so I have some expertise here. Zen in particular arose as a synthesis of Indian Madhyamika Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. Both iconoclastic and definitely antiestablishment. Both basically reject authority in favor of direct personal experience of truth/reality.

Which brings me to your comment:

"The sweatlodge was a strange place of unmaking and making, the meditation room a place of trying to put a preconceived notion of "nothingness " and pure being into your mind, though I'm sure that it varies based on type of meditation."

Zen in particular does NOT involve putting any preconcieved notion of nothingness or pure being into your mind. On the contrary, it involves recognizing all your thoughts as "just thoughts", discarding preconceived notions, and distentangling your awareness of reality from your thoughts about reality (learning how to separate them) so that you can experience reality directly, less filtered or unfiltered by your preconceptions. The meditation room is just a quiet place where you let the noise in your mind settle so that you can see/feel/hear things freshly, and learn to distiguish between reality (which includes thoughts) and what you think about reality (your preferences, etc.). When done with a group, the mutual support (everyone doing the same thing) usually will enable you to go quieter, just as when you exercise with a group, you usually can perform better.

Ned Kock said...

Very interesting post Stephan.

Some colleagues and I conducted a study of professionals in Spain, New Zealand and the USA. (Reference and PDF below.) The study built on a previous one that identified information overload as a major source of stress.

What we found was paradoxical. Information overload seemed to be much more strongly influenced by power distance (how autocratic a person’s working environment is) than by the amount of information processed on a daily basis by a person.

I believe that perceptions of power distance can be modified internally, by meditation, but our study suggests that a person’s cultural environment is a big factor. New Zealand had the lowest information overload and power distance scores, and Spain the highest.

As you say, we cannot go back to a H-G existence (perhaps), but we can move to New Zealand ;-)

Reference and PDF:

Kock, N., Del Aguila-Obra, A.R. and Padilla-Meléndez, A. (2009), The Information Overload Paradox: A Structural Equation Modeling Analysis of Data from New Zealand, Spain and the U.S.A., Journal of Global Information Management, V.17, No.3, pp. 1-17.

Don said...


You got it. Meditation, especially on retreats, gives you an opportunity to focus on experience broadly with less focus or no focus on mental activity, whereas life in agricultural society urges us to pay more attention to our mental activity than to our direct experience.

Stephan said...

Hi Richard,

Interesting. I see where you're coming from.

Hi Don,

Thanks. I enjoyed your description of Zen meditation; it's clear that you have a good (experiential) understanding of it.

Hi Ned,

I'm always amazed at how accomplished the people are who read this blog! I'm going to have to take a look at your paper, it sounds really interesting.

Joel said...

It seems that the hunter gather societies with the least constant stress would be the ones we are most likely to see today, because they'd be most likely to survive (more stress probably means more things to be afraid of killing you), so I'm not sure how accurate examining modern H-G tribes in search of a "paleo mindset" is.

Still, I think the psychological literature backs up the idea that lowering stress is more healthy. Perhaps Buddhism developed partly as a recoil against the rise of agrarian culture.

Mike said...

"If you're trying to show that HG societies were generally cruel, I think you're going to have a hard time proving it."

I'm not trying to "prove" anything. I think you're fantasizing, as I explained.

bobbejaan22 said...

check this out:

for those who dont have access to it i'll paste it here:

Fat rats skew research results

Overfed lab animals make poor subjects for experiments.

Daniel Cressey

Failure to recognize that many laboratory animals live unhealthy lives may be leading researchers to misinterpret their findings, potentially misdirecting efforts to develop theraputic drugs.

The problem, reports a group at the US National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, is that many rats and mice used in experiments are so overweight that they are glucose intolerant and heading for an early death (B. Martin et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA doi:10.1073/pnas.0912955107; 2010). As a result, data from the animals — about, for example, the effects of an anti-cancer drug — may not apply to normal-weight animals.

"The vast majority of investigators who use rats and mice don't recognize that their normal conditions are relatively unhealthy," says Mark Mattson, chief of the National Institute on Aging's Laboratory of Neurosciences and a co-author on the paper. "The most logical way to extrapolate is to say any data we obtain in the animal model would be more relevant to overweight, sedentary humans than normal-weight, active individuals."

Mattson and his colleagues note that the standard lab practice of allowing rats and mice continuous access to food without much opportunity to exercise can cause some to balloon in weight to up to 1 kilogram. Beneficial effects of a potential drug or behaviour could simply result from its effect on the consequences of an animal's unhealthy lifestyle, they say, and studies showing that caloric restriction can extend lifespan may have to be reinterpreted. "A major reason the lifespan of rats and mice is extended by caloric restriction is they started from an unhealthy baseline," argues Mattson. He and his co-workers identify areas as diverse as immune function, cancer and neurological disorders that could be affected by the problem.

Mattson says that including running wheels in cages and feeding only on alternate days could solve the 'fat rat' problem, adding that the institutional committees that oversee and approve such experiments should encourage researchers to tackle the problem.

The fat-rat hypothesis is certainly credible, says Robin Franklin, a neuroscientist and director of research at the Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge, UK. "But I suspect it's one of many factors that are responsible for the difference between animal models and human diseases," he says, adding that the problem has not been apparent in his research.

Still, Mattson and his colleagues have penned "hundreds of papers using rodent models and are widely known in their field", says Christian Newcomer, executive director of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, a non-profit organization based in Frederick, Maryland, that accredits animal use in many laboratories, including those of the US National Institutes of Health. "I think [the paper] is going to carry a lot of weight."

Helen said...

Awesome article!

Where do I sign up to join the Hadza?

Stephan, I totally agree with you. Primates who are in subordinate positions experience higher levels of cortisol and signs of what would be called depression in humans. In humans, being in a lower socioeconomic, gender, or racial/ethnic group generally is correlated with poorer health outcomes. (One exception may be women vs. men. I believe that this may because women in our society provide each other with more mutual support, which could offset some of the stresses of subordinate status.)

I agree that there is nothing natural about our hierarchical social organization and that our post-agrarian, late-industrial, information-age lifestyle is far too busy, fractured, and full of obligations, while also tending toward social isolation, another huge stressor.

Something else that's been on my mind reading this and other blogs that compare different cultural groups' diet and health is the issue of air pollution. Indoor cooking fires and poor quality (or no) stoves are a huge health issue worldwide. Some groups that may have a decent diet might have greatly damaged health due to the inhalation of smoke from these fires. Some of the increase in heart disease and cancer seen in industrial societies is attributable to air pollution as well. I'd love to see you, in particular, parse this issue, Stephan. It could help unlock some of the mysteries of why this group and not that has X, Y, or Z health issue.

zach said...

Great article.
I was born a radical libertarian, and so now I must dodge the "news" and try to ignore the state at every possible juncture. I can't fly because the TSA gestappo literally gives me palpiations I get so pissed off. It's like 1984. People like me in the future will probably have to go live with the Hazda if we want to keep our sanity!

AngloAmerikan said...

I live in New Zealand and I agree with Mike, everyone is fantasizing.

The Hunter Gatherers living in New Zealand were weighed down with superstition and in a state of constant war. Cannibalism wasn't a necessity it was a way of life, even a spiritual thing and children were considered the tastiest. One tribe decided to give up war and cannibalism and they were annihilated and eaten.
The real hunter gatherer life was a nightmare of ignorance and fear - you wouldn't want to go there for five minutes.
We have to move forward. It is knowledge combined with technology that will set us free.

Stephan said...

Hi Mike,

I see, so quoting modern, reliable firsthand accounts of hunter-gatherer cultures is fantasizing? While the anecdotes you related from Samuel Hearne, unconfirmed by other witnesses, from a man apparently notorious for his inaccurate descriptions of natural features, constitute solid evidence? How exactly would you define "not fantasizing"?

Hi Ned,

I took a look at your paper. Let me see if I understand. The strongest predictor of information overload was the degree to which employees felt their employers/supervisors had power over them. Another significant predictor was the number of information transactions. And finally, the more knowledgeable they were about how to go about their jobs, the less they felt overloaded.

Ms. X said...

@Mike-I agree with your assessment. Not that Stephen is fantasizing, but that modern perspectives on older (and ancient) cultures largely and erroneously seek to paint them with an idealistic brush. Certainly our museums (Smithsonian) are filled with artifacts that reflect the violence that permeated our Early American Indian cultures. Maybe there are some societies around the world that didn't engage in the violence that has consumed humanity since the dawn of life, but I think they are the exception, or the revision.

Tuck said...

Ah, the eternal appeal of the Noble Savage.

Valtsu said...

Thanks for this interesting article! Seems to fit to my life as I'm having really awful problems due to psychological stress because of exams and some other things in my young life...

I also checked the link to meditation article and tried meditation. I was positively surprised of how I was relaxed after sitting 10 minutes cross-legged! Gotta do that more often.

Clayd said...

"the eternal appeal of the Noble Savage."

The world was a nicer place for life in general prior to civilization. Here is an excellent, objective essay on the subject.

Life was certainly shorter. But quality of life was far from as bad as it is in modern times for most people the Third World. And even in the Western world, depression is on the rise. There is a general believe in the reign of quantity ; i.e that material wealth automatically improves well being. This in spite of the fact that depressive disorders and even suicide are more common amongst us than among our underprivileged ancestors.

The mere fact that the human population was much smaller and remained stable made conflicts rarer and less serious than they are now. Yes, the (Western) world today is more or less in peace. But I doubt this peace will last forever. It may last 100 years, or even 500 (which would be amazing), but eventually overpopulation and exhaustion of resources will lead to conflicts of a dimension much worse than anything known in the premodern past. Progress is a beautiful thing, but it is sustained by extremely hard work and will eventually grind to a halt. This is a pretty much a mathematical certainty.

switters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
switters said...


Thanks for sharing your firsthand account of your recent meditation retreat.

I discovered meditation practice about 18 years ago, and started formal Zen practice 10 years ago. I can't imagine where I'd be without it.

Re: some of the comments, it's always humorous to hear people who have no experience with Zen and have never done any regular meditation analyze them from afar.

Reminds me of one of my favorite Zen stories:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."

Don said...


Glad you thought of that! Right on. I always liked that story also. Applies to anything. As Shuryu Suzuki said: "In the beginner's mind, many possibilities exist; in the expert's mind few." Keeping a beginner's mind is best for learning, and staying humble.

skylertanner said...

It's not zen and it's not meditation, but I took away a very similar message from "The Blue Zones." The lack of time urgency and a close knit family (both friends and family) seems to help these people age the way they do.


Jeffrey of Troy said...

Clayd: "quality of life was far from as bad as it is in modern times for most people the Third World. And even in the Western world, depression is on the rise. There is a general believe in the reign of quantity ; i.e that material wealth automatically improves well being. This in spite of the fact that depressive disorders and even suicide are more common amongst us than among our underprivileged ancestors."

The U.S. as a country has a ton of money, but most U.S. citizens have less $ and other material resources than necessary to meet their needs (and increasingly seeing no hope for the future, which is certainly depressing). The liberals say race and gender discrimination, the conservatives say type of degree and hours worked, but that's all about the bottom 99%; the wealth is super-concentrated in the top 1% - they're not suicidally depressed and stressed.

see and be sure to click "zoom out" a couple times...

Geoff said...

Some reflections on modern hunter gatherers and consciousness -

Can't recall all the details but about 8 years ago I went to a talk by a member of an indigenous tribal group from West Papua. He had come to England to raise awareness about the occupation of ancestral land by the Indonesian army and energy corporations (Asian and Western and the role of the British military/SAS).

He was physically very strong in appearance and spoke about the situation as he/his tribe perceived it. He commented on how unstable he felt peoples moods were in England - that in the forest on his island he may come across someone from another forest village once or twice in a month and they would freely greet each other, share food and move on and that they would were always contented and relaxed. Yet here people seemed anxious and their moods were highly changable.
Similarly he said that everything he did here was dependent on money - to move, to eat, to be warm.
He said that this was unnatural for him and he would not want to live in modern society as people seemed discontented.

The little material I have seen and read about West Papua since then contains some evidence of pathological patriarchal relationships and inter tribal violence. Without investigating this I can't say how much is a result of the resource war/exploitation/forced re-location of the indigenous peoples of West Papua and how much is historic.

With time I suspect all hunter-gatherers who may or may not represent aspects of their paleolithic ancestors will be forced to adapt to modern social conditions. This will be great loss.

Re health and environment - I caught a few seconds of a radio program today which was discussing the impact of lead munitions from
WW2 in the English countryside (Kent) and possible damage to soil and vegetation. The conversation went onto Vietnam, Agent Orange and then onto the possible consequences of lead in automobile petrol prior the introduction of unleaded fuels. The ban was implemented partly as result of the public health issue of stunting childrens mental and physical development. I'm wondering whether any research has been done on lead and its continuity in the ingested environment.

Ned Kock said...

Yes Stephan, that is a good summary of the findings. The main predictor, power distance, was manipulated through the collection of data from three different countries with different power distance scores based on a model (known as Hofstede's model).

pyker said...

I think the Hadza are completely fabricated as part of a clever viral marketing campaign for Avatar.

Have you read any of Robert Sapolsky's work on stress? E.g. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers? Really interesting stuff on stress & modern humans.

Gabriella Kadar said...


i've read Sapolsky's book re: why zebras don't get ulcers.

It's an unfortunate title.

What sort of ulcer?

The chapter about baboons is excellent. Maybe the Hadza are the human hunter-gatherer equivalents of Sapolsky's baboons.

I saw him on and his long curly hair seems to require continous manual rearrangement and his other repetitive mannerisms took much away from my ability to focus on his actual lecture.

I couldn't help but laugh because all that 'unconscious grooming activity' needs to be mindfully studied.



Tuck said...

"The world was a nicer place for life in general prior to civilization." There's no way to know that, because prior to civilization, no one left any notes. Anything else is pure speculation.

I've long considered the 80%. From what I've read, in most pre-modern societies 80% die before they're five years old (this is what bring the average life down).

A lot of us would have been in that 80%. I would have. For us, the paleo world would not have been that great.

For all you folks who idealize the paleo world, odds are you also would be in the 80%.

To Stephan's final sentence, we can't go back. But, we can certainly learn where we've gone wrong since then.

madmax said...

Best comments so far were made by AngloAmerikan and Mike.

This is what I find irritating about the Paleo community: the Noble Savage nonsense. Its the worship of the primitive.

Kurt G. Harris MD said...

I have dabbled in all the flavors of buddhism, esp. soto Zen and Vippassana. I have had an on-and-off sitting practice for over 15 years.

Stephan, what did you eat at this Sesshin? I find it hard to imagine one where a carnivore like me would feel comfortable, let alone welcome.

For those who want to learn about meditation free of some of the authoritarianism and inscrutability of Zen (come on Don, it's japanese! the Rinzai guys whack you with sticks!) the nonsense about reincarnation and the fantasies of veganism, I highly recommend this audio tape series by Shinzen Young. It is worth every penny - I have listened to it 4 or 5 times- it is like a unified field theorem of rational enlightenment.

If, like me, you are a materialist to the core ( I mean like Dennet and Dawkins - not like the way I accumulate guitars), Young will be right up your alley. He explains eastern concepts using western mathematical metaphors in a unique way, drawing from Vipassana, Vajrayana and Korean Zen teachings in a non-metaphysical way very accessible to those of a scientific bent (Chris H - you would love it, I think)

I should add that I actually like a lot of the metaphorical imagery in Tibetan buddhism, they have a colorful science of mind and some very useful therapeutic techniques for dealing with difficult emotions.

I like this book by Tsultrim Allione a lot:

I also highly recommend John Tarrant.

I should say my only qualification other than meditating is that I have read over 100 books on buddhism.

Todd Hargrove said...


I'd be very interested in finding out how someone could be a fan of Dennett and buddhism at the same time. Thanks for the reference to the lectures, I will give those a listen.

switters said...

Zen is not a static teaching. It was never meant to be "imported" or "passed down" in a codified form that makes it irrelevant to the lives of practitioners. It's primarily a way of relating to ourselves and the world around us, and that requires presence (in every sense of the word) more than anything else.

There are several lineages of Zen in the US that have left much of the Japanese cultural ritual and many aspects of the traditional practice (like smacking sleeping meditators with the stick!) behind.

Joko Beck and the Ordinary Mind school come immediately to mind. Her book Nothing Special: Living Zen is one of the best contemporary books on Zen practice I've read. Everyday Zen: Love & Work is another favorite.

For anyone interested in Zen practice that is dealing with chronic pain or illness, I would highly recommend a book by my teacher, Darlene Cohen, called Turning Suffering Inside Out.

Andrew S said...

Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Workweek addresses some of this -- get rid of the extra crap in your life and find yourself with more time, less stress, and a better mood.

I took a two-month ski vacation a few years ago, bringing clothes, ski gear, and my computer, and it cured me of the desire to build an awesome DVD collection, fancy kitchen, or complete home workshop.

Don said...

"the Rinzai guys whack you with sticks!"

But the Soto guys (also Japanese) do not. That's not the essence of zen, it is just rinzai ritualism.

Moreover, I was speaking of it from a philosophical perspective, the essence, my understanding from actual practice and tracing the roots and development. Indian Madhyamika buddhism is the root in India, and it is essentially a skeptical epistemology. That school used a four-fold logic of reduction to absurdity to show that all metaphysical claims are false.

I've sat with zen groups for years and never had anyone discuss reincarnation. In the oldest suttas, the (I think mythical) Buddha himself is depicted as refusing to talk about reincarnation. The obsession with that lies in Tibetan buddhism, not zen or even orginal indian buddhism.

Chris said...

Kurt - thanks I check it out

TedHutchinson said...

@ Helen Re Air Pollution
Urban Tropospheric Ozone Increases the Prevalence of Vitamin D Deficiency
Air pollution is one of the reasons 25(OH)D levels are dropping globally.

Ms. X said...

Another old text, "Our Wild Indians" by Col. Richard Irving Dodge was published almost 100 years after Hearne's death, yet shares many similar observations to what Mike wrote. If paleo societies have changed that much (from Dodge and Hearne's accounts to the modern observations) in a mere 100 years, I think it is a silly mistake to assume ancient paleo societes were more like modern paleo societies.

Rather, based on Dodge and Hearne's (and museum archive evidence) those hunter gatherers were in fact not much different from us at all, they merely operated on different scales and with slightly different standards (cannibalism and scalping have fallen out of practice in modern times).

Eric said...

You've hit the jackpot for me with this article Stephan. I am as much a fan of sociology (my first undergrad) as I am of nutrition and exercise science! With regards to modern stresses, I've always wondered: could it be that we live in a society where everything is forever "compartmentalized": work, socializing, raising our children, leisure time and of course, doing all of one's daily tasks like cooking and cleaning, all these being distinct from one another, all done separately and individually (or in the best case scenario in today's world, as a couple)? Compare this to most of human history, where all of these "separate" activities would have been amalgamated together, families (many generations living under one household) and small groups living together, socializing while raising children in a communal setting and going about daily tasks, many of them physical too (so no need to save time to "go work out"). How then can we replicate those times???? How can we learn from this... I think this is a very interesting topic. Compare hunting or gathering food as a group, and then preparing that food (work, socializing, physical activity, probably accompanied by the kids) to each individual in a couple driving to their office, taking the kids to school/daycare, and then on top of this, finding time to socialize, prepare foods, partake in one's physical activity, etc. Technology's initial claim to fame has always been that it would allow us more leisure/free time but quite to the contrary, we notice an increasing trend towards the latter taking MORE (I'm thinking for example of Mark's article on social networking...).

antispirit said...

Normally, I tend to lurk on blogs. But I guess I can't resist when my two favorite subjects (anthropology and Zen-type stuff) intersect.
There are a few points that I think we need to keep in mind:

1. The social system that this tribe obviously works for them. There is nothing stopping you from emulating it. Yes, there are cultures that have unsavory customs. There's on Amazonian tribe that has the unfortunate tendency of allowing full-on gang rape of their female members. There's another (a close neighbor, I *think*) that sacrifices children by burying them alive. But I seriously doubt that those customs are cultural cornerstones. In other words, if your social role models are perfect except for their puppy kicking tendencies, then just don't kick the puppies.

2. Zen is fickle stuff. I like Brad Warner's (hardcorezen.blogspot...) perspective on the whole mess. I think that this subject could also benefit from the "just don't kick the puppies if you don't want to" philosophy.
What I would like to see is some sort of juxtaposition of Zen retreats with some sort of secular, intentional community. I say this because I wonder as to the effect that sort of ad hoc community has on a Zen Sitter. Does that make sense? That's kind of an awkward sentence. Is it the sense of quiet community that causes the positive changes or is it the staring at the wall? Would Zazen qualify as a sort of "paleo" exercise for your brain? A sort of modern approximation a la "MoveNat"?
Ultimately, I think that the paleolithic mind would be *similar* to Zazen, but not in an overt way... if that makes sense. I think that the sense of immediacy that you gain from Zen would be present, just like anything that requires active attention (hunting, war, basketball, etc.). But that would be where the two perspectives diverge, I think. I feel like each mystical practice informs the practitioner in a different way. Zen "enlightenment" (speaking hypothetically... let's not go there) would be different from the Tantric idea of enlightenment. I think it's important to conceive of those states as belonging to the mythos of the practice and not the ...I dunno... empirical (?) part of it.
I'll stop here, because I'm sure that half of this isn't ordered or understandable. Suffice it to say that I think that the "paleo prescription" for our minds is to do things that require protracted periods of active attention. Meditation seems to be a pretty direct way of accomplishing that.. but it's like asking "what exercises should I do to prepare for sprinting/running?"
Just run.

Tom Garnett said...

In response to Dr. Harris,
I have been reading your blog for quite a while. How delightful to find you practice meditation. I have been dharma-brined for the past 40 years in Tibetan and Zen traditions. I don't know if I am "materialist to the core" but I certainly appreciate Richard Dawkins’ work and can't find any conflicts with the path. I agree Shinzen Young is good.

Have you read Austin's book "Zen and the Brain?" Austin is a neurologist and Zen student. Very provoking stuff though his discussions about the history and lineage of Zen are not very skeptical and have been overturned by more recent scholarship. The stories the lineage tells about itself often have little relationship to what I would call history.

Another text in this vein is "The Embodied Mind" by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Elinor Rosch. This was done in the early 90s so some of the science has been superseded but the framework is still good.

and lastly,"A Universe of Consciousness; how matter becomes imagination" by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi. Edelman was a prominent immunologist before he moved to brain study.

Don said...

Did anyone here see this?

Zen meditation fends off pain

"People can reduce their sensitivity to pain by thickening their brain, according to a new study published in a special issue of the American Psychological Association journal, Emotion. Researchers from the Université de Montréal made their discovery by comparing the grey matter thickness of Zen meditators and non-meditators. They found evidence that practicing the centuries-old discipline of Zen can reinforce a central brain region (anterior cingulate) that regulates pain."

"According to MRI results, central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators."

olddude said...

It's been said that the buddha didnt teach buddhism but rather the way our experience of the world works.All the bells and whistles that various cultures have added to his teachings tend to confuse the fact that he had an incredibly ordered and scientific mind.I'm fascinated by the evolution of mental processes from the trelobites to where I sit and contemplate today. The buddha does a great job of examining the journey of sense interaction through perception,conciousness, and ultimately the creation of our experience. All part of metabolism!

antispirit said...

I read somewhere that the prefrontal cortex has something to do with "metacognition". I wonder if they're talking about the same center.

Benpercent said...

Interesting, but I think you're stepping out of your specialization here. Biology and nutrition can explain a lot, but not that which is within the jurisdiction of philosophy (ethics) and psychology (emotional health).

In truth I believe the stress of modern living is not caused by modern living itself, but rather irrational ideas regarding modern living. To take your example about people being stressed by being subordinate to other people, emotions are such an individual experience that we cannot generalize from any one instance. A person who hates his job and resents his boss will necessarily feel stressed as a result and will probably suffer negative physiological effects, but the exact opposite would be true for the person that loves his job and values his boss. In the former case we cannot blame modern living for the person's stress, but rather his ideas.

It is irrational ideas, not modern living, that causes the stress.

P.S. Is there a glitch in Blogger that prevents long comments from being posted? I originally wanted to post a much longer comment, but it would not accept it even as I got it under the defined character limit.

Kurt G. Harris MD said...


I was just yanking your chain. I am more than familiar with the diffferences between Soto and Rinzai. I must say I disagree with your statement that reincarnation is somehow unique to Tibetan schools. The doctrine pre-dates buddhism in india and was only incorporated into it.


As I don't believe in anything metaphysical, it's easy to see the psychological and therapeutic value in attention without being distracted by the santa claus fluff. The fact that mind is a function of brain diminishes the beauty of it no more than that music is a function of musical instruments interacting with our brain physiology.


I agree with all your comments - makes perfect sense to me


Yes I have Zen and the Brain - thank for the links!


"It is irrational ideas, not modern living, that causes the stress."

There is a fascinating school of thought called ACT or acceptance and commitment therapy - this is an extension of cognitive behavioral therapy that incorporates the "technology" of mindfulness and attention into a understanding that what causes stress and mental disease in modern man is cognitive constructions that we percieve as real, but are not. This is the achilles heel of the human mind's ability to abstract - and attention and it's cultivation through meditation- are the solution.

The problem is that we react the same way to tigers in our head the same as the real ones in the jungle. This is how recognizing thoughts as not real - with 2500 year old - (actually older in the form of shamanism) technology of the mind.

Stephan said...

Hi Kurt,

Nice to see that there's been some convergence of the minds on meditation practice.

The food served at the retreat was basically low-fat vegan. You would have hated it, haha. It was unsoaked brown rice, lentils, potatoes, millet etc. They passed around dairy as a condiment for most meals. The dairy at least was full-fat.

I don't mind eating like that for a few days, although it's not how I prefer to eat at home. But if you had wanted to attend the retreat, you could have brought your own food and eaten it at breaks. I'm sure that wouldn't have been a problem at all. I took a break one day, walked up the street to a grocery store and bought a giant piece of chicken. I think my eyes were bigger than my stomach but I managed to get it down.

Richard Nikoley said...

Kurt, Don, Et al:

How about an Eastern mystic endeavoring to integrate some of Ayn Rand's objectivist ideas (particularly epistemology) with eastern mysticism?

I've know of the guy for a long time and corresponded with him a couple of years back when a mutual friend was killed.

A Utube.

I have the Rudolf Steiner book he refers to, but have yet to read it.

Richard Nikoley said...

Oh, Kurt, a quick question.

As a materialist (me too), where do you place "free will?"

Kurt G. Harris MD said...


If I could chug-a-lug whole milk and butter my rice a little I could live like that for a few days : ) I hope the zendo would be well-ventilated, though!


I'll check out those links

Free will?

I guess, following Rorty, I would look at that pragmatically. Rorty imagines a race of beings that had no concept of "mind" and more or less proves that there is no negative consequence of such a way of life. I view free will as similar to "mind" and "god" - they are useful only as functional definitions and need not denote actual things, so we can mostly do without them.

So free will (outside of a negative political definition like free of coercion) is either a description of behavior and therefore unnecessary, or if it denotes something metaphysical, does not exist (like God).

Now you can see why although I sympathize with objectivism socially and politically, I could never really be an objectivist, as in my world there are too many metaphysical concepts in any such philosophical "system".

Richard Nikoley said...


I think free will is essential to any argument for freedom. After all, if we're just software, on what basis does or should anyone care about anything?

Free to do what, exactly (if your will is not free and you're just fooling yourself)? And who cares?

So as a materialist this is something I had to reconcile. Well, what about values? No question that humans go for wildly divergent values. Does that transcend free will?

Or, what if there really is no such thing? But is believing you have free will tantamount to free will -- like a robot run amok for whatever reason?

And, what's the difference between software so comlex as to simulate free will per our primitive understanding, and free will?

As far as objectivism goes, me either. I've read it all. Most notable, for me is her book on epistemology. For anoyne serious about understanding how we know what we think we know I think it's essential.

"Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology"

Richard Nikoley said...

One more for Kurt & Don, since I find myself so aligned with the both of them politically. I've dabbled in the Eastern, but not anywhere near their level (to say the least). But, I have studied Western/Nellenic philosophy.

Dualism? Seems to be a core to me of not only western phil, but perhaps even moreso of eastern.

And I think it's BS. Mind and body are inexorably one. Any separation, ethically and especially politically strikes me as a situation ripe for manipulation.

And guess what?

Don said...


Re reincarnation, I agree, it started in Hindu culture and got incorporated into some strains of Buddhism, but if you read the oldest suttas, it played no important role as a dogma in the original teachings. The only sutta that comes to mind is the flame analogy, but the (mythical) Buddha is depicted as teaching monks to forget about reincarnation and metaphysical questions because the dogmas can't end suffering. Yes it got attached and traveled with it, but I have only seen it emphasized in Tibetan Buddhism. BTW without endorsing it, one can see it as a type of conservation law applied to personality, i.e. personality is neither created nor destroyed but undergoes transformations. Again, I don't endorse it, just suggesting that one can look at it as an attempt to explain things using a type of conservation principle.

Don said...

@ Richard,

You will find in Asia all the same metaphysical isms as in western philosophy: materialism, dualism, idealism.

But you will find one approach, the one I favor, that is I think unknown in western philosophy: non-dualism.

It really is an epistemology-phenomenology, not a metaphysics. Non-dualists do not agree with monists (materialists or idealists), nor with dualists.

Non-dualists (Sankara, Nagarjuna, Chuang Tse) state that mind and body are neither absolutely identical (the position of monists), nor absolutely different (the position of dualists), and that this is evident in direct experience.

All phenomena occur in space or time.

What we call matter occurs in space and time, i.e. you can give a (relative) spatial or temporal coordinate for anything material. for example, I could say that my brain is presently about three feet from the wall, in Phoenix, and this is intersubjectively verifiable.

However, thoughts (for example) only occur in time. If I ask you to think of a pink elephant, and you do, the image definitely exists as an object of awareness. And you could reasonably say that it existed from 8:25 to 8:26 PM pacific time or as long as you sustained it. But you could not give it a spatial location. "My image of a pink elephant lies in space 3 feet from the wall" is not intersubjectively verifiable. This means that mental objects are not identical to physical (material) objects (if two things are identical, every statement true about one will also be true about the other). You can directly verify this for yourself. I am not offering this as a dogma, but as an empirical claim. If you find that I am wrong, and do find a thought, memory, or image that occupies space and has physical dimensions, please put it in an envelope and send it to me, as I would love to see it!

Non-dualism is an attempt to stick to the directly verifiable phenomenological facts.

Next, we have awareness. Both physical and mental objects occur as objects of awareness. We rely on awareness to confirm the existence of objects. You can doubt my claim that I have a red car, you can have a cloudy memory and doubt your thoughts, but you can't doubt that you are aware. No one can truthfully say "I am not aware." And so far as I can see, awareness has no spatial or temporal location. Body and mind have locations, but that which witnesses body and mind does not. It seems to me that to disprove this one must produce a bit of awareness with some dimensions in space or time. Put a chunk of awareness on the table, or make awareness an object of awareness (a thought is NOT awareness, a thought is an object of awareness). if you find such a chunk of awareness, please put some in an envelope and send it to me, as again I would love to see it.

Now a non-dualist will say this:

Awareness is neither aboslutely identical to nor absolutely different from objects. If absolutely different, then awareness could have no relation to objects, but it has a relation, therefore not absolutely different (monism refuted).

If absolutely identical, then every statement true about objects would also be true about awareness. Further, if awareness were absolutely identical to objects, then there would be no difference between them at all. But since we can and do distinguish between objects and awareness (between witness and objects witnessed), we do experience differences between awareness and objects, therefore they aren't identical. Further, the fact that we experience a relationship between awareness and objects also proves that awareness and objects are not identical, since a thing can't have a relationship with itself.

Hence, non-dualism (which is also non-monism): Mind is not absolutely identical to body, nor are they absolutely different. Awareness is not absolutely identical to objects, nor absolutely different from them. In short, monism and dualism both go beyond the facts, and I prefer to stay with the facts.

Todd Hargrove said...


I have no problem with the mind being fully controlled by the brain, makes sense to me. I just have a problem when people say the mind doesn't exist. Isn't that what Dennett says, consciousness is an illusion, there is no hard problem of consciousness, etc? Or maybe I am mistaken. I have only heard a few interviews with him and I was puzzled. Weird to ask these questions on a nutrition blog but I just happened to be thinking about Dennett today ...

Ray Sawhill said...

Just to add to the fun a little ... Big fan of Buddhism here, but I've actually come to prefer something known as Vedanta, basically a nondualist philosophical wing of Hinduism. I find it like Buddhism only sexier, and I marvel that it isn't better known in the US than it is. A good place to begin exploring Vedanta is here:

Don said...


Regarding reincarnation, I forgot to mention, Buddhism maintains the basic doctrine of anatta, or no self: the human has no self or soul. Therefore, the Buddhist conception of reincarnation does not posit the transmission of a "soul" or "self" or personality from one body to another. Rather, it posits a conservation and transmission of mental energy from one body to another.

I don't see this as any fantastic hypothesis. We have all around us mechanisms which receive and transmit invisible energy, namely cell phones, radios, televisions, etc. If the human body is a type of receiver and/or transmitter of a distinct type of energy not adequately studied by modern science (mental energy), then I find the idea that at the moment of death the energy previously received by one body (the dying one) gets picked up by another, similar mechanism possible if not currently plausible given our present state of knowldege. It would be just like one radio dying, followed by a new radio picking it up. When one radio stops working, we don't feel surprised when we find that a new radio can pick up the same stream of energy that we used to receive on the broken one.

Whether this is now or ever will be empirically testable I will not venture at this moment. I personally don't "believe" in reincarnation at this moment, but I consider it a possible phenomenon. If in 1850 you had told the best scientists that someday we would hold little boxes (cell phones) in our hands and transmit voice over long distances, I think most if not all would have laughed at you. But today we know how to make it happen. Our ignorance is always greater than our knowledge so who knows what we will discover in the future?

olddude said...

It is important to be clear on what we mean by awareness and conciousness.Bhuddists would say that consiouness arises from contact and not that we have this thing called conciousness that walks around looking for things to be concious of.It is the result of a chain of events. From these almost infinite number of conciouness events arises a sense of solidity or our concept of self.Conciousness is only one of the factors which create self. Awareness is another factor of metabolism as is perception. We know and we know that we know.

Kurt G. Harris MD said...


Again, although I haven't elaborated on my understanding on this blog enough in order to demonstrate it, I am well aware of all the doctrinal nuance you describe as I have been reading on it and maintaining a sitting practice for over 15 years.

I would indeed describe a phenomenon of energy that is by definition unmeasurable transmitting from one being to the next at the moment of death as "a fantastic hypothesis". What you have stated is just as unfalsifiable and really, useless as having a concept of a god we cannot detect, whose existence would also explain nothing.

But that is what makes me a materialist who meditates rather than a doctrinal buddhist, (although according to some strains of zen, I suppose I could still call myself a buddhist.)

I tend to follow Young, Tarrant and Batchelor, as I said.

I buy none of the metaphysics, but I do find a vipassana-style sitting practice very useful.

Kurt G. Harris MD said...

@ Don

I didn't see your first comment about reincarnation. I agree that Tibetans emphasize it more and most western sanghas will welcome those who are skeptical of it with no problem. It's not like transubstantiation and the catholic church for instance. I was just making clear I don't buy any of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of buddhism and using that as the best example.


The mind does not exist other than as a function of the brain and is not conceivable without physical brains that function. My own metaphor for this is music. We all agree there is such a thing as music, but where does it obtain? Is it notes on a sheet? Is it the sound made by an instrument? Is is a tune you imagine in your head? Is it the feeling we get when we hear it? We can use the term "music" legitimately for all these things as a functional definition. But to say that music exists somewhere "out there" as a thing in itself that is independent of humans is nonsense -it would make as much sense to say that electric golf carts "existed" in the paleolithic but just were not yet physically manifest.

So that is my metaphor for the ontological status of "mind". Mind is a function of brain that we observe, but if we want it to mean it has some independent existence, then there is no such thing. So we can either limit the definitionof mind to function or we can admit that this limited definition may be redundant to other descriptions that are not commonly taken to be supernatural (the cartesian ones) and just say there is no such thing.

That is what Dennet means and what Rorty implies.

@ All

Traditions mean many different things by "dualism' - subject/object mind/matter good/evil. They are all just modes of thinking more or less useful or misguided.

As a pragmatist, I tend to look at such things as useful or accurate vs misleading or inaccurate, rather than as metaphysical conundrums to be "solved".

I highly recommend "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" by Richard Rorty to those who can't understand how I could say that. You will see why I think the special label of "philosopher" is ridiculous, as we are either all philosophers with a small "p". or it is the equivalent of some kind of high priest.

Philosophy is not a special area of knowledge that lords it above all the rest. Neither is Science.

olddude said...

Can anyone make suggestions on some good sources that discuss timelines and the evolution of the human brain with some emphasis on mental skills? I'm fairly certain that the Indians who camped and hunted buffalo 20,000 years ago on the land where I now live were essentially the same as me.100,000 years ago etc? The paleo model re metabolic processes and therefore how they could see the world must have some best guess estimates. I need to fill in some gaps. Maybe Cognitive and Metabolic Evolution for Dummies?Thanks

Dave Lull said...

Raymond Tallis, ". . . a philosopher, poet, novelist and cultural critic and . . . until recently a physician and clinical scientist,"* in a recent article in the New Scientist** ("You won't find consciousness in the brain"), presents an argument ". . . about the deep philosophical confusion embedded in the assumption that if you can correlate neural activity with consciousness, then you have demonstrated they are one and the same thing, and that a physical science such as neurophysiology is able to show what consciousness truly is."

Some might find it worth considering.



Tom Garnett said...

In response to olddude’s question, viz. “Can anyone make suggestions on some good sources that discuss timelines and the evolution of the human brain with some emphasis on mental skills?”

On Deep History and the Brain by David Lord Small

The Mind in the Cave; Consciousness and the Origins of Art by J. David Lewis-Williams

Both books are speculative, IMHO, but worthy of serious consideration. I seriously question J. David Lewis-Williams chronology but his approach is the right kind of way to approach the issue.

O brave new world! That has such people in't!

Richard Nikoley said...

@ Don

Thanks for all that Don. Quite a whirlwind tour. I'm left with the impression that when you write:

"Awareness is not absolutely identical to objects, nor absolutely different from them"

You're referring to what I call "concepts" (as differentiated from sensory data or percepts. Perhaps you'd like to furthur differentiate.

Of course, a concept is not equivalent to a thing, nor is is absolutely different, given that the concet refers to the thing, but with "measurements" eliminated.

Thus, the concept for "table" refers to all sorts of tables of all sorts of design and measurement. The concept is not actually a table, yet it is related.

I draw much of my understanding of this stuff from Rand's old "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology." Ever read it?

Another book I found amazingly insightful was by a now deceased Princeton psychologist, Julian Jaynes:

"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the BiCameral mind."

It kinda makes the case that some few thousand years ago humans were very literal (no use of metaphor, and he goes into lots of examples of early writing to show this), almost schizophrenic, i.e., a real left/right brain dichotomy.

Way too much to go into, but since some of you guys are such voracious readers, thought I'd toss those titles out.

Here's an essay concerning that last one.

Todd Hargrove said...


I don’t deny that the mind is completely controlled by and dependent on the brain. That doesn’t mean that the mind doesn’t exist. And it doesn't mean the mind is redundant either. Someday we may build a computer that is as complex a decision maker as the brain. Would the computer be a zombie, or would it have subjective experience, qualia, mind, consciousness? There's a difference. (And I would guess it would be impossible for us to know the difference.)

Dennett seems to deny that consciousness exists. If there is one thing that I can be certain exists, its that I am conscious, that I have subjective experience, thoughts, perceptions. To quote John Searles - "where consciousness is concerned, the existence of the appearance is the reality."

Kurt G. Harris MD said...


I read Jaynes' book over 20 years ago. A fascinating work.


We are not so much disagreeing as just playing a different language game.( WIttgenstein has been a big influence on me as well.)

Suffice to say that issues like whether certain things "really exist" or are just useful concepts to use when we communicate with each other, are not really that interesting to me. They used to be very, very interesting, to the point where I was actually obsessed with such things for many years and read many books that were"philosophical".

Then I read Rorty's magnum opus and my quest for philosophical grounding and certainty completely ceased.

Todd Hargrove said...


I also lost interest in philosophy after reading a little Wittgenstein, and 90% agree with your points. But that consciousness doesn't exist idea just gets me going for some reason.

Dave Lull said...

Hi Kurt,

Have you seen Stephen Batchelor's new book _Confession of a Buddhist Atheist_?:


Kurt G. Harris MD said...


Thanks, I'll check that out.

Jason said...

Stephan, while I disagree with your positive views of the hunter-gatherer type of society completely (in terms of fundamentals), it is nice to see a person who takes ideas seriously, which you clearly do.

1st of 2 part comment:

I'll explain a major negative psychological aspect of such a society that is terrifying and false (not based on reality)--the terror is anything other than productive achievement being the central value in life to man. As you say, in such a society, "Most days were leisurely, with plenty of time for gossiping, staring at the clouds and dozing off". Even if man could put up with a lack of luxuries or technological advances or somehow avoid disease, potential war, and homicide (which he could not)--I would still find such a society horrifying, and I think it is an incorrect view of what man's life can be and should be like.

Using one's mind is both man's means of survival and his means of achieving happiness (long term non-contradictory joy). Producing values, especially material things, from computers to buildings to plumbing to utensils to guns to surgical procedures to novels to music to all art to maintaining a park or beach to theoretical science to philosophy to analyzing history to toilets to chicken tenders to fine dining--is primarily how man achieves happiness.

Man is the rational (i.e. conceptual) being, which is why the activity that makes the most use of his mind (productive achievement) is his main means of achieving happiness. [By conceptual and rational, I am referring to reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses].

The other crucial top general value in life is romantic love, in which one admires the productiveness, integrity, purposefulness, active-mindedness, intellectual seriousness, honesty, etc of another human being--the best romantic partner, or friend, is another human who shares one's "sense of life", one's emotional subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence, which means such a person is a concrete form of oneself. One finds great pleasure in seeing a concrete form of their ideals, of having another person whose mind operates the same way. Romantic love means sharing a similar consciousness to that of another human being--it is a conceptual valuation, just like productive achievement.

(I shall attempt to immediately publish the second part of my comment, as it was too many characters to fit in one piece).


Jason said...

2nd part of comment:

Today's culture is indeed stress-inducing, but the cause is the dominant intellectual trends, ideas, and philosophies (philosophy means a basic view of reality and man's relationship to it, including a theory of knowledge and a moral code of values) that share their disdain for reason, self-esteem, self-interest, productive achievement, long range thinking, and man's mind. Such philosophies, whether religious or subjectivist, whether based on faith, immediate desires, or the short range "pragmatic" "whatever works now" approach, whether based on floating abstractions or the animal-like concrete bound perceptual level--are all opposed to man's nature as a conceptual being. No amount of technological primitivism, hedonism, leisure, or self-sacrifice will fulfill man's conceptual needs--only productive achievement can.

To the extent that work is hell today, which much of it is, it is only so because of mindless (or genuinely confused) people one has to deal with, government regulations and wealth redistribution restricting one's ability to act on his ideas, lack of private ownership of the means of production, and a collectivist culture of feelings, non-conceptual action, and self-sacrifice.

A culture permeated by a philosophy of reason and the morality of self-interest, and the social system of laissez-faire capitalism (where all the government essentially does is protect one's life, property and the products of one's mind from criminals--the initiation of physical force would be banned) are the answer. In such a culture, work and people would be great values to even the manual laborer, garbage man, or fast food restaurant manager. Intellectually serious and simultaneously dramatic novels and TV dramas/movies would be the norm, businesses and schools would be free to act on their values (which would make the work immensely enjoyable), and the great majority of people would be active-minded, focused, laughing in the face of evil and despair, and excited to discuss ideas.

And to wrap up my original point, besides leading to physical death in the long run, a life in which the primary value is leisure (or anything other than productive achievement) will lead to stress from the lack of using one's mind and rational judgment, and ultimately would lead to unhappiness. Man in such a society can either turn to mindless violent irrational outbursts, or mindless purposeless drifting and eventual lack of serious valuing of anything at all.

Proper recreation is indeed a value to man's life, including listening to music, golfing, simply going for a walk and holding hands with a person one loves (i.e. who one values for their productiveness and purposefulness, amongst other rational virtues), leisurely discussing ideas, having a football catch, or just resting on a couch or under a tree. But recreation (i.e. leisure) is a rest from productive work; only a person who has chosen to use his mind to its full, proper potential (in terms of essentials) can truly appreciate leisure. To gain the self-esteem needed to appreciate other values, and to be able to judge and discover the proper values (man has free will; his values are not automatic or pre-programmed like those of animals), one must be a producer.

For those interested in learning about the philosophy of reason and morality of rational self-interest, I refer you to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, particularly her novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", in which she portrays her view of man as he "might be and ought to be" in dramatic, stylized, essentials in the form of a gripping story.


Don said...


I am not talking about the concept of awareness vs. awareness. I am reporting, when I attend to my own experience, I can distinguish between awareness (the observer) and objects (the observed), and two very different types of objects, namely "mental" (having temporal but not spatial coordinates) and "physical" (having both temporal and spatial coordinates). The fact that I witness objects as distinct from awareness (i.e. not self), indicates that as awareness (the witness) I am not identical to objects. Yet the fact that I (as awareness) witness objects means awareness has some relation with objects, therefore awareness and objects apparently may have something in common.

I maintain that it is this experience common to all of us that gives rise to questions like "how do the mind (thoughts, etc) and body relate?" If we did not recognize the differences between observer and observed, or psychical and physical objects, then the question of how they relate would not even arise.

I don’t believe we can solve this problem (what is the relationship between awareness and objects of awareness) by theorizing such as imagining that we can “reduce” one to the other. This is an empirical problem, requiring direct study of both mind (thoughts etc) and body. Study of the brain is NOT study of the mind, it is study of physical objects. Study of the mind means studying thought, emotion, volition, images, memory, etc. directly i.e. in direct experience. Such study is phenomenology.

I find the music analogy offered by Kurt unsatisfactory, i.e. it does not describe reality accurately. It sugggests that mind is a so-called epiphenomenon of brain, the "music" created by the body (instrument, brain processes).

However, I have never seen music play the instrument, whereas I have the constant direct experience of witnessing thoughts "play" the body, such as right this moment I see my thoughts/intentions directing my choice of words and directing my fingers to punch selected keys on my keyboard in a particular sequence.

Raymond Tallis, referred to by David Lull, appears to emphasize the same thing. In general, as I also believe Nassim Talib to be saying, we have a tendency to confuse our explanations with our experience. Some believe that because we can offer an explanation for some of the characteristics of rocks in terms of atomic composition, rocks are reducible to or “nothing but” atoms of elements. But I disagree. Since there are numerous things we can intelligently and truthfully say about rocks that we do not apply to their claimed constituents (e.g. the rock may have a red color), we can’t conclude that rocks are “nothing but” those colorless atomic particles. It seems to me this is what Tallis is saying also.

Reductionism leads to the idea that I can’t trust my direct experience, that my direct experience is an illusion, so, actually, I can’t trust myself to know reality. If I can't trust my direct experience, how can I trust myself to make decisions about action? I seem to remember some other doctrine that told me that I couldn't trust my direct experience. You can decide what implications that has in terms of social power and control.

Tom Garnett said...

Partially in response to Jason
You wrote
I would still find such a society horrifying, and I think it is an incorrect view of what man's life can be and should be like……
Man is the rational (i.e. conceptual) being, which is why the activity that makes the most use of his mind (productive achievement) is his main means of achieving happiness. [By conceptual and rational, I am referring to reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses].
…..But recreation (i.e. leisure) is a rest from productive work; only a person who has chosen to use his mind to its full, proper potential (in terms of essentials) can truly appreciate leisure. To gain the self-esteem needed to appreciate other values, and to be able to judge and discover the proper values (man has free will; his values are not automatic or pre-programmed like those of animals), one must be a producer.

Dear Jason,
Forgive me for cherry picking from your posting. I am glad you did it as it provides a way to, perhaps, find some understanding. Why do you place a higher value on “rational (i.e. conceptual) being” over the wisdom embedded in our genes? I am not saying our genetic wisdom has priority either. Is it because it distinguishes us from “mere” animals? Why this conceptual stuff rather than our bidepalism? Really on what basis do you assert this is the “main means of achieving happiness?” This is not a rhetorical question.

AngloAmerikan said...

I agree with Jason. Consciousness has expanded with the accumulation of knowledge and understanding. We are aware of the rings around Saturn for instance and the cause of disease - most of us no longer attribute it to witchcraft. We understand and can visualize the workings of the Universe better than ever before. An increase in daily stress has possibly occurred although I doubt it and anyway it is a price well worth paying. During the entire period known as the Paleolithic human consciousness evolved – I doubt that it just popped into existence. I’m sure that no one is seriously wanting to return to pre-homo sapien levels of intellect and consciousness (Neanderthals were Paleolithic). Even late Paleolithic consciousness is characterised by ignorance and limited thinking as they lacked the wide range of tools, both physical and mental, that we possess today. We are now free to expand our horizons almost without restriction which makes 21st Century man very blessed indeed – especially educated, free-thinking, Western Atheists. Wanting to return to the Paleolithic mind set would be similar to wanting a lobotomy imho. Horrifying indeed.

Tom Garnett said...

AngloAmerican writes
“Consciousness has expanded with the accumulation of knowledge and understanding. We are aware of the rings around Saturn for instance and the cause of disease - most of us no longer attribute it to witchcraft.”

Maybe it’s terminology but I don’t see the knowledge of Saturn’s rings or the role of pathogenic microbes in infectious disease as necessarily implying an expansion of “consciousness.” We know more. That’s a good thing. Whether that implies an expanded consciousness is a different question.

You also write, “Paleolithic consciousness is characterised by ignorance and limited thinking as they lacked the wide range of tools, both physical and mental, that we possess today.”

How do you know that? I am sure you are correct on the ignorance about many things. But limited thinking? Given what knowledge they had (both knowledge “about” and knowledge “how to”) how can you be so certain they had limited thinking? On what basis do you assert that?

You also write, “We are now free to expand our horizons almost without restriction which makes 21st Century man very blessed indeed.” I am skeptical that we are so “without restriction” as you think. Hidden zeitgeist bias bites many of us.

That said, I am not pushing any return to living in caves or ceasing to learn from our accumulated cultural and scientific memory.

AngloAmerikan said...

Maybe it’s terminology but I don’t see the knowledge of Saturn’s rings or the role of pathogenic microbes in infectious disease as necessarily implying an expansion of “consciousness.”

I'm conscious of the rings of Saturn and of pathogens, Paleoliths were not therefore my consciousness is the greater. I can see deeper into the Cosmos.

how can you be so certain they had limited thinking? On what basis do you assert that?

They had limited language skills. Language evolved from simple to complex. Like in Orwell's 1984 if you don't have the vocabulary you don't have the ability to commit 'thoughtcrime'. They probably expressed themselves by grunting for 90% of the Paleolithic era.

I will say I subscribe to very Alan Turing view of consciousness. I think we will one day build our successors. Forget all this nonsense about disembodied consciousness and just face reality I say – consciousness is a reflection of complexity.

Tom Garnett said...

In response toAngloAmerican
“I'm conscious of the rings of Saturn and of pathogens, Paleoliths were not therefore my consciousness is the greater. I can see deeper into the Cosmos.”

You and I are using the word “consciousness” differently. So, perhaps, there is not a disagreement. And since, “consciousness” is a slippery term, this not a surprise. Where you say “I’m conscious of the rings of Saturn,” I might say, “I know Saturn has rings.”

“They had limited language skills. Language evolved from simple to complex. Like in Orwell's 1984 if you don't have the vocabulary you don't have the ability to commit 'thoughtcrime'. They probably expressed themselves by grunting for 90% of the Paleolithic era.”

On what basis you assert Paleolithic homo sapiens had limited language skills? Sure they lacked the vocabulary to describe the insides of a computer but I suspect that you and most of us who are not field biologists of lack the vocabulary to accurately describe the visible biota in our own locale, viz. the names and characteristics of the birds, grasses, shrubs, trees, mammals, fish, worms etc. Does that mean we have limited language skills?

“I will say I subscribe to very Alan Turing view of consciousness. I think we will one day build our successors. Forget all this nonsense about disembodied consciousness and just face reality I say – consciousness is a reflection of complexity.”

I did not write or imply anything about “disembodied consciousness.” I am highly skeptical of such an idea.

Don said...

To anyone interested,

When you say:

"I know Saturn has rings."

To what do you refer with the word "I"?

WHO knows? WHAT knows?

You can't answer this question by theory. It is an empirical/phenomenological question, similar to "who took out the garbage?"

To answer it you have to investigate your own experience. You won't find the knower among the objects that make up the world that the knower knows.

AngloAmerikan said...

On what basis you assert Paleolithic homo sapiens had limited language skills?

I'm using my advanced and accurate imagination. I reiterate, the odds are consciousness evolved and didn't just pop out of thin air. A million years or more of stone tools before the first object of art emerged implies that I am right. The ability to use metaphors had to develop before human consciousness could be observable and pass the Turing test.

I mentioned dis-embodied consciousness just to let other people know that I am a materialist and not inclined to believe the mumbo-jumbo of the upper Paleolithic.

Tom Garnett said...

In response to AngloAmerican,
You wrote, “A million years or more of stone tools.” I don’t know where you get your estimates for the age of Homo sapiens. I have never read any source claiming there were Homo sapiens a million years ago. We are a very recent species. 190-250,000 years. It seems you are comparing apples and oranges, e.g. Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. I also suspect you may be conflating very different senses of the word, “evolution.” The sense in which “consciousness” (however defined) “evolves” may or may not be anything like the way organisms evolve in the Darwinian sense. If you claim it is, please make this clear.

As for using your “advanced and accurate imagination,” why is yours any worthier than anyone else’s? It quite likely better than mine but still I need either logic or evidence.

olddude said...

A fascinating discussion but probably futile if you are looking for consensus on the specific capabilities of the paleolithic mind.As a species in 2010 there are~ 8 billion of us. How many are operating at a level that is that much different that paleoman?We are a primitive species capable of the occassional extraordinary thing. My dog strikes me as pretty smart sometimes and then will go and piss on my shoes.Next time you're at the mall try to guess home many of your fellow shoppers could give you a lecture on saturn's rings.

Jason said...

I'll give a brief explanation of why man's rational faculty is the his means of producing values and achieving happiness, and then recommend some reading material with the fuller ideas if you're interested.

Man has a mind and a body, and they are integrated. But it is only by using his mind that he can discover and produce the rational values that will bring him happiness. We first crawl as babies, then we learn to walk and fall many times in the process, and then we don't even have to think about coordinating our leg movements--we just walk wherever we choose, and focus our consciousness on greater goals.

But where we choose to walk, when we choose to walk, what productive goals we set, whether we value productive achievement or leisure (or whatever else) as the central value in life--these physical actions are not automatic, they are directed by one's mind. And to the extent that one acts on bodily urges without using reason--destruction, despair, and boredom will ensue (over the long run).

Take food for example. Our stomachs growl when we are hungry, but that body signal does not tell you what food is good for you or how to produce such food. If one accepts popular opinion, grabs whatever is nearest (which is determined by others who must choose what to produce and sell), or automatically follows the advice or decrees of an authority figure (i.e. USDA Food Pyramid), he will eat mostly unhealthy grains, sugars, carbs, and not enough meat. If he takes a "balanced" "mixed" approach he will eat lots of unhealthy grains, sugars, and carbs, and not enough meat. If he just eats ice cream and candy all day, he might get a stomach ache, but that ache will not tell him what the right food is. The Paleo diet of primarily fat and protein, through mostly meat, and some vegetables, fruit, nuts, etc can only be discovered by using reason.

I recommend reading "The Virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand (it's about 150 pages; consists of short essays), where she explains her view of concepts such as value, reason, consciousness, subconscious, emotion, volition, percept, concept, etc--and how they pertain to man's life from both a philosophical and psychological perspective. A lot of it is available for free on the Ayn Rand Lexicon (, an encyclopedia of her definitions, ideas, etc.

For the deeper metaphysical explanation of the Objectivist view of consciousness in relation to reality and of concept-formation, there is no substitute for Leonard Peikoff's book "Objectvism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand".


AngloAmerikan said...

Homo Erectus lived in the lower Paleolithic thus possessed a Paleolithic mind.

Anyway we have evidence of tool use over a million years but the first objects of art emerge around 40,000 years ago.

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Tom Garnett said...

You write, “Homo Erectus lived in the lower Paleolithic thus possessed a Paleolithic mind.” Earlier you referred to the “mumbo-jumbo of the upper Paleolithic.” Homo sapiens is a different species from Homo erectus. Home sapiens from the Paleolithic were anatomically the same as us. While, as is true of any species population there has been genetic change through time (e.g. amylase gene, lactase persistence, etc) we might have some chance of reconstructing what early Homo sapiens were like. It would be speculative, of course, but at least based on something we do know, viz. what Homo sapiens are like now. That exercise is much more difficult for a different species that does not now exist. In such a case we are closer to “mumbo jumbo” land, which is why I am surprised you chose to bring it up. As another example referring to your remarks about language skills, we know a good deal about human language. We know next to nothing about the language skills of Homo erectus. And, the way in which language “evolves,” if it does at all among human populations, is not the same phenomenon as the way the hominidae populations evolved.

AngloAmerikan said...

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Matthew 7:16

Tom, you seem to believe that language doesn’t evolve. Even though we have seen it ‘evolve’ in our own lifetimes. Language development is subject to mutation (mispronunciation/Anglicisation etc), selection and then replication. Modern humans have greatly sped up this process but the underlying principle is the same for biology, language, art, music, technology, religion and so on.

I attribute this to the fact that humans have, inside their heads, a very accurate and malleable virtual world or even worlds where evolutionary processes almost run amok. These worlds are reflections of the real world but not exact analogies and are prone to being influenced by many agents but with the net result of the fantastic world of technology that we have today.

The above quote refers to the evidence we have collected of the activities of the genus homo. The first stone tools date back to 2.6 million years with wooden ones probably older. Fire began to be used for cooking about 450,000 years ago and objects of art emerged about 40,000 years ago. These bits of evidence tell us something about the beings that produced them. They are the physical manifestations of the workings of their minds or virtual worlds. We can clearly deduce an evolving complexity here that fits in well with all our theories of evolutionary development. The pace of the development seems to be just about right. The early homos were pretty stupid by the standards of modern man although no doubt well suited to their environment. If it is true that hunting and gathering only took up four hours a day then over two million years they had available an awful lot of spare time to occupy their ‘minds’. However we have not been able to find much evidence of intellectual activity leading me to the conclusion that they were inferior, intellectually, to modern man. It is just common sense really. In much the same way we can deduce that humans are intellectually superior to dolphins, by the fruits of their labour.

Tukki said...

Coming in late to this fascinating discussion, but wanted to leave one comment.

What most of the HG ethnography makes explicit is that survival is a group affair, and thus social ties (kinship, power relationships, reciprocity, aggression, etc.) are biological expressions of the survival instinct. (Why are we a social species at all? Because we survive better in close-knit groups with cultural norms that enhance the wellbeing of the group.)

So I think perhaps what plagues modern humans in Western cultures is the lack of stable, appropriately-sized, social groups.

It's interesting, if you read something like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' books about the !Kung you see that they expressed a lot of anxiety about sharing, which itself was regulated by a lot of 'rules.' Anxiety was reduced when the social rules were followed to everybody's satisfaction.

So maybe it's not the issue of where on the social power hierarchy one falls so much as we lack stable social structures at all. We are lost individuals and lost nuclear families (or parts of nuclear families) in search of a tribe.


Stephan said...

Hi Tukki,

Good point. After I wrote the post, I decided I had left that aspect out and I should have included it. I may edit the post at some point.

arnoud said...


traditional Japanese society is another great example of very intense, stable, closely knit, smaller social networks with extensive rules that are highly valued in every aspect of daily live.

And we all know life expectancy in Japan leads the charts.

AngloAmerikan said...

Yet people associated with ‘tribes’ today appear to suffer greatly with alcoholism, poverty, crime and a host of other maladies like child abuse etc. Think of the Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, Canadian Indians…
The Japanese too are number five on the list of countries by suicide rate.
Tribal life, in reality, is horrific for most modern men.