II: Before we set out

To those who may be receiving one of these post-notifications for the first time: This is not a blog; it’s actually part of a book, and will make little sense to you without knowledge of what has come before—which you can easily obtain, along with a goodly amount of satirical theatre as matters progress, by simply entering ttgftyri.org into your web browser, opening the menu, and starting at page one. J.J.

Several generations ago, toward the end of his long career, German philologist, orientalist, and lifelong student of world religion Max Mueller (1823-1900) dared to proclaim, “There never was a false religion, unless you consider a child a false person.”

With that somewhat inflammatory statement in mind—indeed, for more than a few, perhaps requiring some reasonable explanation—we shall briefly pause before picking up the trail of Stone Age art to take note of a couple of undisputed facts.

First of all, in the modern laboratory our genes and those of the four hundred pound African gorilla—so heavy that ape or no ape, it can no longer live in the trees, but was long ago forced to move to the ground, save only that its lighter females and their young may still climb about the stouter, lower branches—turn out to be 97.1 percent the same.

And second, while the chimpanzee, also notably of Africa, shares 98.1 percent of the gorilla’s genes, it turns out to share 98.4 of ours—making it our closest living relative.

Not that we descended from either, of course; but only that we three—along with a few other relatively heavy primates, all of whom can stand upright down here and will readily do so, such as when they might need to peer over tall vegetation, and may even walk that way, if only for a short distance, should they need to carry something—are believed to have descended from the same genetic stock.

All of which brings us to something most significant about a long-extinct primate that was first discovered back in 1924 during mining operations in South Africa. Promptly given the scientific name, Australopithecus africanus—Latin for ‘Africa’s southern ape’—the name has since turned out to be rather unfortunate; for hundreds of other Australopithecene remains found to date reveal that this creature, about the size of a modern chimpanzee, actually inhabited many parts of Africa.

1. Australopithecus africanus

Australopithecus, who appears to have lived from some four million years ago to about a million, is the earliest known upright-walking primate for which science has yet turned up complete skulls; and their cranial portion indicate an average brain size of some four hundred cubic centimeters—about the modern chimp’s max—while their overall contour points to an expansion of the cerebrum or ‘forebrain’: in all creatures, the area devoted to reasoning.

* * *

Which brings us about to our own genus of primate, Homo—already common enough in Africa, say, two and a half million years ago. Homo may or may not have descended from Australopithecus; but in any case, the two are found to have initially been about the same size, to have ranged over the same territory, and to have competed for the same food, water and so forth—right up to the ultimate disappearance of the Australopithecenes from the fossil record a million years ago.

2. Homo rudolphensis

There were several species of Homo; while the cranial capacity of one of the earliest, Homo rudolphensis, exceeded five hundred c.c.’s—again, with a noticeable increase in the area of the forebrain.

* * *

3. H. habilis

H. habilis, a somewhat smaller, pygmy like species, is known to have reached seven hundred fifty.

* * *

4. H. ergaster

H. ergaster, a five foot tall, hundred forty pound species whose remains indicate that it evolved in Africa soon afterward with an early cranial capacity of eight hundred fifty, appears to have been the first primate to consider making its home in caves, to conceive of fashioning stone tools and weapons, and perhaps of greatest importance to a refugee from the trees who hoped to spend not only its days, but its nights safely on the ground, to think of using fire for protection; while it must have developed into a formidable species indeed, since some of its 1.8-million year old remains, with a cranial capacity exceeding a full thousand c.c.’s, have been found as far away as Southeast Asia.

* * *

5. H. heidelbergensis

H. heidelbergensis attained twelve hundred, as typified by this three hundred thousand year old specimen from Greece.

* * *

6: H. neanderthalensis

H. neanderthalensis, which left behind many skulls in the sixteen hundred range, appears to have developed the biggest primate brain of all before its ultimate extinction some thirty-five thousand years ago. This specmen from Israel, with a cranial capacity of 1740cc, has the largest Neanderthal cranium yet to be found.

* * *

So now on to the species that succeeded them: our own H. sapiens, with an average cranial capacity of only thirteen fifty or so—granted that we’ve occasionally been known to exceed two thousand!

7. H. sapiens

Our brain might not seem very big compared to the Neanderthals; but then, consider that ours has to wait until it has left the relative security of the womb just to finish growing—if all goes well, a full year later—lest our steadily expanding cranium reach a point where we might no longer make it through the mother’s birth canal!

And after all, our brain still turns out to be plenty big where it counts: in that area specially given over to reasoning—with no other creature even approaching ours in that regard.

* * *

So what has all this got to do with the evolution of religion?

Well, our grand premise as we begin our journey through history is that our brain was once much smaller and less complex than it is now; that forty thousand years ago, far from having yet developed the neurological complexity that would eventually make it possible for our brain to turn inward on itself and perform self-criticism, our brain was only aware of things in a cursory, sensory way—like an animal—rather than yet being able to think about life very much; that the male of our species, especially, didn’t know very much about it—nor yet pretend to—and finally, that all of our current beliefs about life have arisen in a perfectly logical manner from that earlier, primitive cerebral state.

Having examined the fossil record up to this point, we might pause now, well, to watch a movie—or actually, a kind of cartoon that would dramatize and ultimately re-create, in a fittingly lighthearted manner given the paucity of hard evidence and thus the need for a certain amount of speculation if one is to get anywhere, the perfectly logical step-by-step evolution of religious thought from early Stone Age times up to the present.

ACT ONE: in which thinking creatures first rise to power in the world and soon discoverer that they really don’t know very much about it.

Scene 1

He’s born in some tree—and almost immediately given to a cry of panic; for the objective end of his umbilical cord now just dangles there, no longer attached to a sustaining other in the general scheme of things!

But then, at the sound, the one to whom it has been attached quickly lifts him onto her bosom and presses him against one of her waiting nipples—where he feels so much better.

“Indeed, it would appear to me,” he muses as he begins to suckle her, “that none of this is going to be very complicated.”

Scene 2

And well, as he subsequently passes on to more-independent days, he certainly doesn’t notice anything about it all that might have been expected to bring him to a different opinion!

He discovers that he has four limbs of his own for getting about, and is soon scampering at will all about his tree and blithely leaping or swinging on to the next.

He encounters more of his kind everywhere, and is enthusiastically welcomed by everyone.

He feeds with them on fruits and nuts until it seems there can scarcely be any more, yet there always is.

True, there are all these other creatures constantly scrambling and flitting about, typically trying to cut in on his feeding action; but they’re little bother, since no one in all the trees is quite as big as his own kind!

And indeed, generation by generation, his own kind is still growing—apparently, on without end.

Scene 3

However, as he approaches adulthood, he finds himself developing a problem. “Why I’m growing so big, he notices, “that I’m beginning to have some trouble getting about!”

For suddenly whenever he scampers along the branches, all but the very stoutest bend low with his increasing weight and ultimately dump him off; and when he attempts to swing from one place to the next, he often fails to reach his destination altogether, but instead goes crashing to the ground.

And so one day his mother comes upon him sitting on the ground, staring straight ahead although apparently not looking at anything.

“What’s the matter,” she asks, “have you hurt yourself?”

“I was just thinking that maybe I should move down here,” he tells his mother, “where I notice there are many other creatures already pursuing the good life and seemingly getting about with ease.”

“Oh my, for as long as I can remember, our kind has lived in the trees,” his mother frowns, “—if only because there are a lot of big predators down here forever seeking to devour those like us!”

“I see,” he swallows. “Still,” he continues brightly after a moment, “I myself am now so big that surely I needn’t be afraid.”

“Then perhaps you should consider how lonely you’d be down here,” his mother counters quickly, “—since I sure can’t imagine any of our kind caring to move down here with you!”

“Oh I don’t know,” he argues, “—amongst my own generation there are quite a few about my size, and I figure some of them just might like to join me in such an adventure.”

“Very well, do what you think best,” his mother sighs, and springs alone back up to the traditional security of the trees, “—I just hope it turns out well for you.”

* * *

And so he remains on the ground—where sure enough, he’s soon joined by several more of his generation, along with a few older individuals.

“Now then,” he gazes all about this new crowd with much satisfaction—and no little relief—”let’s find out just what we’ve got down here.”

Scene 4

Then he begins to reconnoiter the ground—at first, just routinely moving about down there in the same manner that he’d formerly moved about the trees: on all four limbs.

Although, when he stops to think it over, he figures there’s no reason—given the reputation of his new environment—to be fanatical about it! After all, should he want to, say, obtain a better view of his surroundings, he can stand quite well on his hind limbs alone—and in fact, when so disposed, will even walk a little on this pair—while at the moment, he’s disposed to rise up that way often and remain up for as long as he, well, can ‘stand it’.

“Okay, let’s stay on our toes!” he calls out nervously to everyone. “I mean, we obviously don’t have the fine view of everything down here that we had up in the trees, but we can still hold our head up as possible, the better to watch for trouble.”

“But we can hardly remain up like this foever!” someone soon cries. “I mean, we’re naturally four-legged; trying to go about on only two is only going to ruin our joints and probably leave us with a permanent back problem!”

“It does hurt,” someone else allows, “I feel like my own backbone will never again straighten itself out.”

“Oh, piss on all this,” one of the older males suddenly snorts, while rubbing hard at his own backbone, “—I’m going back up in the trees, where our kind belongs!” And he immediately departs—hastily followed by a few other disenchanted individuals—while those who remain merely take some youthful pride in learning this new way to walk!

Scene 5

“Now then, I’d say we’re going to do just fine down here,” he who’d led them all to the ground in the first place addresses his remaining followers after awhile as they pause to rest, “—granted that we’re certainly going to have to keep our wits about us.

“And I mean, we’re especially going to have to be careful,” he points out, “when some sly, roaring predator is trying to scare us out of them! Because we’re obviously no match for these wretched beasts claw for claw and tooth for tooth—while at least for the moment, they can get about down here a lot more agiley and quickly than we can.”

“Maybe we should learn to fly,” someone offers after a brief silence.

But someone else retorts, “Oh don’t be silly, we’re already too big for that.”

“So maybe we should just keep on growing,” another puts in, “—until we might become forbiddenly huge, like some of those other behemoths down here.”

“Or at least grow bigger nails, or teeth—or something,” still another sighs.

“Shit, if only we hadn’t grown so big in the first place,” yet another snaps tensely, “we’d all still fit up in the trees—like in the good old days. I mean, if you ask me, what we should be doing right now is trying to figure out how to reverse this whole mess!”

* * *

But their leader only shakes his head impatiently at all this.

“Need I remind you of just how we managed to grow so big in the first place?” he dares to scold everyone gently. “I mean, wasn’t it precisely because over the generations we learned to rely on our wits against all those other arboreal bozos, and in the process actually grew a bigger forebrain or cerebrum; and in particular, a more substantial cerebral cortex—which is where all of us creatures reason, and of course seek to out-reason, or ‘out-wit’ each other?

“And so I figure if we’ll just keep faith with all that now,” he gazes adamantly about at everyone, “we’ll continue to grow that way—until in time, we’ll take over this whole terrestrial place too and ultimately put a real life together for ourselves down here! Now what do you say?”

“Let others sharpen their claws and whatnot, we émigrés from the trees will just sharpen our wits!” someone finally gulps.

“That’s the spirit!” their leader beams at last.

Scene 6

And before the morning is over, one of them indeed spots a big predator moving through some distant shadows in the forest. “I just saw one!” the spotter shouts wildly.

And everyone scrambles frantically back up the nearest tree.

“So point the beast out to us,” someone else pants as they cling once more to the swaying branches; for now everyone is anxious to know just which beast is threatening them, while they’ve always regarding pointing as the natural way of denoting things.

However, there’s now so much foliage in the way, the other can no longer find it.

“So alright, just describe it to us,” another calls out impatiently.

“Uh, well, it was one of those big furry things that goes Graaow!” the first replies, straining hard to imitate it.

“Damn, can’t you do a little better than that?” the impatient one shrieks. “I mean, if you don’t mind, the rest of us would like to know just what’s lurking out there!”

“But what more might I say?” the first mumbles helplessly.

“You know, if we should somehow manage to make it through this moment,” he who’d led them all to the ground in the first place groans following this whole exchange, “I’d say it’s time we got a little more organized around here.”

* * *

And he proposes that they give every creature some name, that they might talk about them more easily. “Okay, let’s work out some names—and use them,” he directs everyone. “And in fact, should you ever again see someone go to point, slap them smartly on the paw to remind them that pointing is now considered rude—and even ignorant!”

And so now they take up this new way of communicating too—although before long, it occurrs to someone that they might have overlooked one rather important creature. “Aren’t we forgetting something?” someone soon nudges he who’d led them all to the ground, etc. “I mean, what if we cerebral ones should want to talk about ourselves sometime; shouldn’t we too have a name?”

“Oh, absolutely!” their leader quickly nods. “So now let’s see: why don’t we call ourselves people? And I myself shall be known as First Person.”

“‘People'”, the other tries the sound of it. “Why yes, that’s really quite charming!”

And thus they come to know themselves.

Scene 7

“Now then, our next big problem,” First Person soon stands shaking one of his now- idle forepaws at everyone for attention, “is to figure out just how we might hold some ground of our own down here against all these predatory types. Because we can’t just go fleeing up a tree every time some impressive set of fangs hoves into view, or we’ll never amount to more than a mere tresspasser down here!”

But while his companions agree that this is certainly a problem, most are inclined to wait for their leader himself to come up with a solution.

And sure enough, as First Person begins straining his own brain now regarding this important new matter—vigorously scratching his head as he seeks some answer—he suddenly finds himself turning to stare at his idle forepaws with renewed interest!

For just as people have long been able to walk on their hind legs when so inclined, they’ve also used their forepaws for a lot more than just getting about! In fact, as with most tree-dwelling creatures, millions of years of moving about the branches and needing to maintain a firm grip on them has left them with opposable thumbs, which they routinely use for holding twigs steady while they chew off their berries, pulling fruit clean off the branches and stuffing it into their mouth, and even for hurling half-eaten morsels at approaching food-rivals—often followed by whatever else that they might find lying about—and then perhaps not least, for actually carrying things, if only choice food items or nesting materials from one place to another.

“Okay, everybody gather ’round,” First Person finally calls out.

And when they’ve gathered, he announces, “I want everyone to find themselves a big stick and carry it everywhere, for beating these butchers off.”

* * *

So now everyone finds themselves a big stick—typically one long enough to afford them a safe grip, slender enough to whip about the air, and strong enough not to break at the first hard impact—and around midday, they actually manage to drive off a pack of wild dogs with it!

“Hah, did you see the look on those assholes when they realized that we were actually carrying these sticks just ready and waiting for them?” someone cries out with much mirth and relief, afterward.

“Hardly to mention their yelps of pain and surprise every time that we brought them down on their miserable body!” someone chuckles loudly in response. “Oh, I’d say they’ll take their impudent hunger somewhere else from now on!”

* * *

But First Person isn’t quite satisfied. “I must admit that I was impressed by their sharp fangs,” he winces, meanwhile rubbing at some deep scratches, “—and so now I’m thinking that if only we too had something sharp, these monsters might remain at a more respectable distance.”

“You mean you want us to find ourselves a stick with a sharp end?” someone nearby immediately responds.

“Oh, I guess that sounds reasonable enough,” First Person allows,”—except, I was thinking that we might find ourselves some jagged stone and simply carve the stick that we already have to a sharp end.”

And after a long moment, another cries out, “What an astounding idea!”

“Or if it would seem worth the effort,” First Person quickly continues, “I thought we might even affix some sharp stone itself to our sticks, using some vine. Here, let me show you what I mean.”

And seeking out these materials, he promptly assembles this more sophisticated weapon.

“Now then, you should hold it like this,” he subsequently shows them with both hands gripping the formidable looking weapon at his waist and one foot planted firmly before the other, “—with the sharp tip pointed at your assailant. And then should you see the other go to reach out a paw or so much as twitch a paw or a whisker, jab out hard with it—until in the end, even the dimmest beast should realize that to approach any further would surely mean but to impale itself.”

Scene 8

And later that day, a disdainful, charging lion indeed becomes impaled on people’s crude spear; and the disbelieving lion, crawling away from them with the spear still imbedded in its body, soon lies motionless.

“The lion is dead?” people cry with surprise as they come to realize it. “But surely we didn’t do that.”

“I don’t doubt that having a spear imbedded in one’s body is quite irritating and even painful,” someone reckons aloud as they gaze upon the remains of their late enemy, “but it’s not exactly as though we ate the thing!”

“Hm, look at all this blood,” First Person points to the big red stain now lying all about them on the ground. “Do you suppose that the lion simply ran out of life when it ran out of blood?”

“You know, I think you might be onto something,” someone else nods, squatting low to get a better look. “So what is this ‘blood’ stuff, anyway?”

“Oh my, I believe I’m going to faint,” still someone else swoons dizzily, “—I mean, are you sure we’re supposed to see this?”

“I admit that I myself can barely take my eyes off it,” yet someone else stares hypnotically at the growing stain, “—granted that the understanding of it would certainly seem to be beyond even our cerebral reach.”

“So what should we do now?” another asks.

“Now we must find out all that we can about this whole affair,” First Person answers quickly, “—because who knows when we might want to do away with one of these troublesome beasts again.”

* * *

And taking up a long, sharp stone, he fashions a knife and straightaway cuts open the lion’s carcass—until soon, he finds himself gazing upon some of its more vulnerable arteries and even tracing them to a central, important- looking organ deep in its chest.

And then rising above the gore, he declares, “Well now, it’s a new day: for now we people know how to kill those would prey upon us!

“Scarcely to mention those,” he added after a moment, suddenly breathing harder with the excitement of his new power, “who would simply get in our way.”

* * *

And indeed, as the day wears on, people notice that no creature now dares to remain anywhere in their path—until finally, with the sun rapidly slipping below the horizon and the moon beginning to rise, First Person assembles everyone for sleep.

Scene 9

“Now then, should any of our old, bloodthirsty friends still have the temerity to approach us tonight,” he carefully instructs the armed guard whom he subsequently leaves posted out on their perimeter, “just kill them.”

However, shortly after dusk, a prowling leopard who can see much better than people by the lesser light of the moon creeps toward their camp, drags their wide-eyed guard off into the brush, and there soon reduces the latter to only a meal—while everyone else, hearing the dying one’s piercing screams, stumble blindly this way and that and then that and ultimately flee once more up into the trees, where they huddle helplessly in terror until daylight.

“Hm, I’d say we’re going to have to come up with some special defense against these night-hunters,” First Person observes grimly shortly after sunup, as everyone else turns away from what remains of their unfortunate guard and grip their own spears tightly to steady themselves, “—although I sure don’t know how we might be expected to defend ourselves,” he sighs with great exasperation and scratches his head hard, “against what we can’t even see!”

Scene 10

And well, scratch though he might for the rest of the morning and deep into the afternoon, First Person can’t seem to come up with any solution to this new problem—while wouldn’t you know it, he’s soon presented with another.

“I’m afraid I lost my spearheaded in all that commotion last night,” someone informs him in a worried tone along about sundown, “—and now with darkness again coming on, I can’t seem to find a suitable replacement!”

So of course, he offers to help—and for the first time, happens to notice that many of the stones found lying about are after all, just bits and pieces of others.

Hm, I wonder whether I might simply ‘make’ a spearhead, he reasons silently, by striking two stones together until a suitable fragment should fall.

And so he tries it—but alas, after several attempts with various stones, his most impressive result is a shower of sparks that soon set a nearby pile of dry brush aflame!

“Run, run!” First Person shouts in alarm to everyone; for as with all the other creatures, people have always been deeply afraid of fire.

Nonetheless, as the one clearly responsible for this one, he himself pauses for as long as he might dare to throw big sticks, stones, and even whole handfuls of dirt at the steadily creeping flame, hoping to at least hold it at bay while the others make their escape—and is surprised to see it quickly die out!

And staring at where the fearful but ever so bright thing had just been, he finds himself thinking, I just wonder whether we people could make ourselves a modest fire every evening—and manage to keep it from burning us all to death before morning?

* * *

“Well, what do you think?” First Person asks everyone later that evening, as people gather around their very own fire for the first time and scarcely know whether to stare or flee.

“I don’t know, it’s awfully hot,” someone responds after a moment, “—I mean, I’d sure hate for it to touch me!”

“And so bright!” someone else notes. “How are we supposed to get to sleep around it—should we even dare try.”

“Okay, okay, I guess we might make it a bit smaller,” First Person allows. “But the point is, now we will dare go to sleep around here, knowing that our guard will be able to see what’s going on all around us.”

And indeed that very night, when a salivating panther as black as the night itself tries to sneak up on people anyway as they sleep, their alert guard grabs up nothing less than a flaming stick—and has only to brandish it in the terrified beast’s face to send the other scurrying away, astonished and finally defeated.

Scene 11

“Aha, what did I tell you?” First Person walks about nudging everyone with great satisfaction next evening as here and there, his followers are busy finding themselves a comfortable sleeping place by the fire and wishing each other a good night after an altogether uneventful day. “Our wits have finally seen us through—until now, why, I doubt that there’s a beast anywhere who might still hope to keep up with us in all this!

“I mean, let the others have their old claws and fangs—or even wings—for now we people have the greatest reasoning faculty in the whole forest!”

* * *

“Hm, I wonder what it would have been like to grow wings,” someone sighs dreamily after a moment.

“Now cut that out!” First Person snaps at the other with unusual sharpness. “I mean, what we already are, we are—true? In fact, I think that from now on,” he continues hastily, we should carefully distinguish between ourselves and all those other, less cerebral critters. Let the rest become collectively known then—for all their merely brute ways,” he sniffed—”as but the animals.”

Scene 12

“And now on with the party,” someone calls out impatiently—clearing tired of all this heavy talk. “I mean, now it only remains for us people to enjoy the food, diddle each other till we’re sore, and maybe chase a predator once in awhile for excitement, you know?

“And I for one know of no reason why we shouldn’t just continue this way forever!” someone else quickly joins in.

But another isn’t so sure. “Listen, I don’t want to sound cynical,” someone sitting across the way clears their throat quietly, “but as I recall, it wasn’t too long ago that we thought we had it made up in the trees—in time, only to find ourselves overtaken by the problem that ultimately drove us down here. So why should we assume now that something else won’t soon come along?”

“Oh, you worry too much,” anither promptly scoffs . “I mean, unless we might all fall victim to some misfortune—”

“Hah, just think of all the misfortune lurking about out there,” the cynic interrupts: predators, wildfire, storms, disease—you name it.”

“Ah, but if anyone can figure out how to overcome all of them,” First Person suddenly re-enters the whole conversation, “we can. I mean, just think about it: we’re not some animal, but people; figuring out things is what we do!”

And then rising before the others, he declares earnestly, “My friends, I’d say that if we people will really apply ourselves to it, we stand an excellent chance—and in fact, probably the only real chance, alone among all the creatures—of simply going on forever!”

And then he releases some of his own excess energy by beating vigorously on his own chest and shouting the word ‘forever’ into the shadowy forest.

Because he just knows that he can figure out anything.


Photo Credits

1: Michigan State University http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/hominidfossils/items/show/38

2: Smithsonian Institution humanorigins.si.edu

3: Smithsonian Institution humanorigins.si.edu

4: Australian Museum http://australianmuseum.net.au

5: Smithsonian Institution humanorigins.si.edu

6: Michigan State University http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/hominidfossils/items/show/74

7: Smithsonian Institution humanorigins.si.edu

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