Tag Archives: ancient history

The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe

17 May

I realize that I read more science fiction and fantasy than is probably healthy for an individual, but even so, I think I have yet a modicum of intelligence and reason left in my head–which is why I gaped in shock and horror to find a copy of Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet in the back seat of my father’s car when we went to breakfast this morning.

For those of you who don’t know, The 12th Planet (1977) is the first installation of Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles,” a seven-part series in which he attempts to prove that we are not alone in the universe:

Basically, all those Old Testament stories people have passed off as myths are really, literally true.  Fear our celestial overlords!  The Nefilim built the pyramids, and they can tear them down too.  (Note that Sitchin has collected indisputable proof.)

Oy vey.

The book has received some attention recently, probably because the final volume of the Earth Chronicles, The End of Days, was released just a few years ago–and what better to do in our last year of existence (or last week, if you expect to be taken up in the Rapture this Saturday) than read the “nonfiction” ravings of a crackpot writer?

I’m sorry, that’s unfair.  Zecharia Sitchin is a reasearcher, of sorts.  He is proficient in multiple ancient languages, Sumerian cuneiform purportedly among them.  He claims that his assertions in The 12th Planet are based on textual analysis of the original texts–the Hebrew OT, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, those mysterious cuneiform tablets, etc., et al.  Of course, the more *respectable* scientists and academics reject Sitchin’s hypotheses as the work of faulty interpretation of ancient texts and flawed astronomical information.  Personally, I think he simply suffers from an overactive X-Files Mentality.  In other words, he wants to believe.

I don’t.

That back cover blurb alone should be enough to make a reader with the barest amount of sense laugh out loud.  Until she realizes that the book is being sold as nonfiction, and that there are those (including the author) who believe every word.  Then the reading experience just gets sad–and more than a little creepy.

There are a number of problems with The 12th Planet:

1. Not only does Sitchin employ (more than) questionable methodology in fashioning his claims, believing those claims requires us the readers to shunt aside all sorts of scientific explanations of phenomena for which there is actual evidence.  Oh, like human evolution.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“The unanswered question is: Why–why did civilization come about at all?  For, as most scholars now admit in frustration, by all data Man should still be without civilization.  There is no obvious reason that we should be any more civilized than the primitive tribes of the Amazon jungles…

But, we are told, these tribesmen still live as if in the Stone Age because they have been isolated.  But isolated from what?  If they have been living on the same Earth as we, why have they not acquired the same knowledge of sciences and technologies on their own as we supposedly have?”

How about we read this instead, okay?

Astonishing!  I don’t think anyone has ever tried to answer that question before.  Except Jared Diamond.  Ever heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel?  Yeah, it’s that one that won the Pulitzer some years back.  Sorry, Zeke.

I won’t even get into that second part, in which Sitchin seems to imply that scientific knowledge is just chillin’ in the aether somewhere, waiting for some “primitive bushman” to pick it out of the air.  That’s for another paragraph.  What’s truly astonishing is where Sitchin goes from here.

One of the plethora of Discovery Channel conspiracy theory programs will attempt to raise questions about the origins of civilization–did space aliens give us knowledge and sink Atlantis in their rage, or something?  Sitchin says yes, the evolution of human civilization is actually extraterrestrial in origin.  And, he adds, modern man did not really evolve from the primordial ooze.  Male and female the aliens created them, because it would take too long to make apes talk.

That seems to me a total non sequitur, but it’s not like I can read cuneiform.  I bet those evolutionary biologists can’t either–so there!

2.  The second major problem I have with the whole “ancient astronauts” thing goes beyond Sitchin’s book.  My question is: Why is it so hard to believe that humans, with their own minds and their own contemporary technology, could have built the pyramids?  Because it’s always about the pyramids.  “They’re so geometrically perfect,” a Sitchinite might exclaim, “and how could they move those big rocks?”  There are a number of construction method hypotheses, all of them more plausible than the one that requires alien overlords cracking the whip.

Perhaps more disturbingly is the underlying racial prejudices inherent in this argument.  I had a professor of archaeology my freshman year who worked on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  He seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Mayans.  Why does everyone think the Mayans are so mysterious? he asked, multiple times during the semester.  He was a scientist, and had all sorts of perfectly reasonable (and more than that–empirical) explanations for the mysteries of the Maya.  And yet, the dilettantes of pseudoscience and pseudohistory seemed unable to resist groping for the mystical.

Because, of course, indigenous peoples of non-European origin must be primitive bushmen, right?

If it isn’t apparent by now that I’m intensely annoyed by The 12th Planet, let me be clear:

Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles Series ranks among the very worst of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical “nonfiction.”  It may be some people read books like his for entertainment, or because they have a case of the X-Files, but I for one think something like The 12th Planet cannot go without even this meager rebuttal.  Zecharia Sitchin’s books feed into the worst popular conceptions of ancient civilization, and commit an unforgivable crime: they rape history, underestimating and belittling the fully human people who lived before us.

That’s not okay.  And I sincerely hope my father was reading it as a joke.

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Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 2 of 2

1 Apr

While king, Chandra Gupta II used marriage as a tool to expand his territory and consolidate control over an increasingly far-flung empire.  Marrying his daughter Prabhavati to King Rudrasena II of the Vakataka, “Chandra Gupta II extended the influence of his empire south of the Vindhyas” (Wolpert 91), expanding his political influence deep into the Deccan Plateau of the Indian subcontinent.

Additionally, Chandra Gupta II’s own marriage to Kuvera, queen of the Nagas, allows him to look eastward and further reinforce his territory through another marital alliance.  But though this strategy of consolidation and expansion through marriage evidences a shrewd and highly tactical mind, Chandra Gupta II’s political gains yet overlay a deeper spiritual foundation: under his reign, both Brahmanism and Buddhism flourished.

The consolidation of power that this Classical ruler’s marital alliances allowed brought peace and such abundance of wealth “that hospitals were provided free of charge, to which the poor of all countries, the destitute, crippled, and diseased may repair,” even as the social order was maintained by “untouchables hovering beyond the pale of Hindu society, carrying gongs to warn passing upper-class people of their polluting presence” (Wolpert 91).

Of course, the peace and affluence of the Gupta state, as described in accounts of Chandra Gupta II’s time, could not have been possible without first unifying North India—a task begun by Chandra Gupta II’s grandfather, Chandra Gupta I, who used similar tactics of marriage to integrate his conquests.

Securing as a bride the daughter of the king of the ancient Lichavi clan, Chandra Gupta not only legitimated his rule by associating his new state with a primordial, time-tested power, but also locked “his grip on the river Ganga… that vital Gangetic artery, which carried the major flow of North Indian commerce” (Wolpert 89).  With one wedding, Chandra Gupta managed to expand his territory and secure a source of wealth that his grandson would later use to fulfill the dharma and obligations of a ruler to his people.

This pattern extends even further back in Indian history—to the first imperial unification under the Mauryan Empire, from 326 to 184 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya and his successors, rulers of the kingdom of Magadha, which had “emerged as first among many competing kingdoms and confederacies of the Gangetic plain” (Wolpert 55), succeeded in unifying North India shortly after Alexander the Great’s 326 BCE incursion into India.

In a treaty with “Seleucus Nikator, Alexander’s Greek heir to western Asia,” Chandragupta: fixed the western border at the Hindu Kush mountains, secured the withdrawal of Greek forces with an offering of five hundred war elephants, and exchanged ambassadors with the Greeks (Wolpert 59).

Most interesting, however, is the treaty’s mysterious “marriage clause,” which may reference a daughter of Seleucus Nikator coming to the Mauryan court as a bride for Chandragupta—if true, such an arrangement would date marriage politics in international relations back to the very earliest emergence of a unified Indian state.

Dharma as a political concept, as well, can be tracked back at least this far—Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka is immortalized in stone, his extant rock edicts exemplifying the use moral advice as a form of state propaganda.  One “key admonition… is Dharma, that unique word which means religion, law, duty, and responsibility” (Wolpert 66), a term used most often of all others in the rock edicts of Ashoka.

The entrenchment of dharma as a focus of Indian marriage patterns can be seen in its applicability even to non-Indians, and in the marital “alliances” of non-elites.

While the political marriages of royalty and nobility often had far-reaching geopolitical consequences, even common people planned their daughters’ marriages with careful consideration of personal politics and economics.

Abraham bin Yiju, a 12th-century merchant in the Indian spice trade, provides a classic case study: a Tunisian Jew, bin Yiju engaged in commerce from India’s southwestern port of Mangalore, a “heterogeneous community of Arabs, Gujaratis, Tamils, Jews, and others” (Gordon 77).

While calculated marriages among traders such as bin Yiju might not have built an empire, they did help to strengthen and extend business and commercial networks in this world in which “trade and family were closely related” (Gordon 86).  For this reason, the successful merchant bin Yiju is highly selective in accepting or rejecting marriage proposals for his only daughter—ultimately, a match with his nephew by an elder brother proves a practical choice, allowing the father to “keep Abraham bin Yiju’s wealth in the family, provide for the impoverished relatives, and place the daughter in the community” (Gordon 94) of Tunisian Jews so important for trade contacts.

And yet, despite the care he takes when it comes to the marriage of his daughter, Abraham bin Yiju’s own choice of a wife dramatically upsets the social order of the Mangalore community he has joined.

Buying, freeing, and marrying a slave would be bad enough—but bin Yiju’s bride Ashu is a Nair, who, “along with Brahmins, were generally the elite of Malabar” (Gordon 91).

A warrior class, the Nairs paralleled the traditional kshatriya role, occasionally serving as wife-givers to the Brahman class.  Because of her high status, “if [Ashu] formed a liaison with… men outside her lineage, or a man of lower caste, the family was deeply shamed” (Gordon 91)—the result being Ashu sold into slavery, from which bin Yiju, fortunately, rescued her.

Even the Jewish Abraham, however, a non-Hindu and non-Indian, cannot escape the consequences of the age-old taboo against hypogamy: “his partners disapproved, and signaled… that such a wife would never be welcome in Aden or Cairo” (Gordon 90), the larger centers of the spice trade.

This example of bin Yiju only serves to reinforce others throughout Indian history and literature—Chandragupta Maurya and his later namesakes, Ashoka, Kalidassa and Shrudaka—all of whom acted out their commercial, political, and personal motives in a theater shaped by Vedic law.

The injunctions, regulations, duties and obligations of dharma, “the foundation of the universe,” thus also formed the foundation of Indian political history, and in particular the structure and consequences of marital alliances from the time of the earliest Indian unification to the Classical Age and beyond.

The result?

A society in which smoothly-running social order was enforced by deeply-entrenched ideology, singular in its ability to cut across both ethnic and class lines.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ course at the University of Alabama.  Please remember that all plagiarists go to hell, and in Alabama, they get stoned.

Works Cited:

de Bary, Theodore. Sources of Indian Tradition. Introduction to Oriental Civilizations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Gordon, Stewart. When Asia Was The World. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Kalidassa, Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works. Arthur W. Ryder. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1914.

Shrudaka, The Little Clay Cart. Harvard Oriental Series. Volume Nine, Arthur W. Ryder. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1905.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 1 of 2

1 Apr

Marriage as a tool of statecraft represents one of the oldest means of legitimating rule or conquest—in myth or history.

In the Sanskrit epic of the Mahabharata, “whose core probably reflects Indian life at about 1000 B.C.” (Wolpert 37), for example, marriage surfaces as a metaphor for the Aryan penetration of the Gangetic plain in the first millennium BCE: the great tale begins with the story of King Santanu and his abiding love for the personified river, the goddess Ganga.

The other major epic of ancient India, the Ramayana, similarly reflects the maneuvering and stratagems of Aryan marital alliances, with the king’s politicking three wives each plotting for the accession of her own son to the throne.

But most significantly, the Ramayana hints at the ever-present religious climate within which these machinations take place: “we see how powerful a force religious law, or dharma, has become in dictating ‘proper’ behavior, even for a monarch” (Wolpert 40).  This enduring concept of social or religious duty throws a singular cast over Indian marriage arrangements—even a match made with the most realpolitik of considerations in mind necessarily occurs against this backdrop of dharma, the “all-comprehensive” (de Bary 218) and universal law.

As dharma’s macrocosmic scope encompasses and forms “the foundation of the universe” (de Bary 220); on the microcosmic level, marriage and the ashrama or life stage of the Householder is the foundation of society, the family, and when used for political purposes, the state.

In this worldview, the codification of marriage practices, rules, duties, and obligations in Sacred Law—smriti, human tradition—ensures the smooth functioning of society.  Central to this is the strictly-regulated caste system: proper behavior of the four primary varnas—the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra—frames the “essence of all dharma… for the sake of solidarity and progress of society as a whole” (de Bary 224).

Because of the centrality of the householder’s role, with this “second stage of life often characterized as the basis and support of the other three” (de Bary 230), smriti laboriously categorizes marriages within and among the Indian castes.

Taking into consideration the children of mixed marriages, their offspring, and so on, the superficially simple structure of four classes breaks down into “more than three-thousand real castes, subcastes, mixed castes, and exterior (untouchable) castes” (de Bary 226), a veritable labyrinth of genealogy which is, nevertheless, systematized in Sacred Law.

Classifications pivot on the concept of hypergamy, in which the husband belongs to a higher class than the wife, and the taboo against hypogamy, in which a wife’s status ranks higher.

While man and wife from within a single caste join in a so-called “unblemished marriage” (de Bary 227), and most hypergamous unions prove acceptable, children resulting from hypogamous marriages occupy the very lowest positions in society—the Candala, offspring of a Brahman woman and Shudra man, for example, are so despised as to be “excluded from all considerations of dharma” (de Bary 227).

A clear breach of proper social order, Candala and other low castes—such as the Parasava children of a Brahman man and Shudra woman—represent an analogous rift in the religious order as well, and so are divorced entirely from both spheres.

“Since the Aryans brought with their Caucasian genes a new language, Sanskrit, and a new pantheon of gods, as well as the patriarchal, patrilineal family and three-class structure of priests, warriors, and commoners” (Wolpert 26), institutions of social cohesion that facilitated political and cultural dominance began enter India before 1000 BCE, but endure and continue to exercise cultural influence well into the Classical Age, ca. 320 to 700 CE.

Mrichakatika, or “Little Clay Cart,” a play written by King Shudraka—contemporary of Kalidassa, known as the “Shakespeare of India” for his secular literature—relates the story of an hypogamous union between Carudatta, an impoverished Brahman man, and Vasantasena, the courtesan with whom he falls incurably in love.

Strangled for her violation of the social order, Vasantasena’s body is found by another mournful courtier who had admired her as well, and laments that her social status could not have matched her high moral distinction:

When thou, sweet maid, art born again,

be not a courtesan reborn,

but in a house which sinless men,

and virtuous, and good, adorn (Shrudaka 128)

The social significance of even supposedly private and personal feelings is further highlighted in “Little Clay Cart,” as the play is “the only Sanskrit drama to include a legal trial scene” (Wolpert 92).

But smriti pertains to the form of marriage as well as the agents within it—eight distinct types of marital arrangements are described in the Asvalayana Grhya Sutra, along with the corresponding social and religious value applicable to each.

The Brahma form of marriage, for instance, consists of a father giving away his daughter “after decking her with ornaments and having first offered a libation of water”; after consummation, “a son born to her after such a marriage purifies twelve descendants and twelve ancestors on both her husband’s and her own sides” (de Bary 231).

Ritual offerings and requirements lessen down the line of marriage categories, as does the commensurate spiritual merit.

A Prajapatya marriage, for example, purifies only eight descendents and ancestors, and requires just the injunction to the bride and groom to “Practice dharma together” (de Bary 231)—indicating that though the ceremony is simpler and the participants perhaps of lower status, the union still falls within the bounds of the universal social order.

Again, Classical literature illustrates the dangers of a “love-match,” a coupling outside of the traditional forms and structure.  Kalidassa’s Shakuntala follows the story of the titular forest nymph and the king who falls in love with her—performing the simple Gandharva rite, or “love-match” (de Bary 231) agreement between man and woman, the mis-matched lovers wed.

When the nymph’s “‘bewitching youth’ so enthralls the king that he forgets his wife and courtly responsibilities entirely” (Wolpert 91), Kalidassa depicts the tragic consequences of abandoning duty and dharma: heartbroken when the king ultimately returns to his monarchical obligations and promptly forgets her, Shakuntala:

tossed her arms, bemoaned her plight,

accused her crushing fate

Before our eyes a heavenly light

in woman’s form, but shining bright,

seized her and vanished straight” (Kalidassa 61)

But duties to provide for and protect wives also accompany the obligation of a woman not to transgress social boundaries—“the highest dharma of all four classes,” the Manu Smrti asserts, is that “husbands, though weak, must strive to protect their wives” (de Bary 233).

A man who neglects this duty could prove as contemptible—and meet as unfortunate a fate—as the brazen Vasantasena or Shakuntala, even at the highest levels of society.

The historical drama Devicandragupta, or “The Queen and Chandra Gupta,” describes just such an incident in the court of Chandra Gupta II, who ruled from CE 375 to 415.

Inheriting the throne as the eldest son, Chandra Gupta’s brother Rama subsequently “proves himself weak and treacherous by promising to surrender his wife to a barbaric Shaka ruler who had defeated him in battle” (Wolpert 90), a breach of the dharma which required he protect and care for his wife.

Recognizing this transgression and the unworthiness of his brother, Chandra Gupta supposedly dresses as a woman, takes the queen’s place, and murders the Shaka king in his harem—returning to court to kill Rama as well, and marry the widow he saved.  Though the popular tale may be apocryphal, it reveals the value Chandra Gupta attached to dharma at his court, particularly in marital alliances, of which he arranged many during his reign.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ course at the University of Alabama.  Please remember that all plagiarists go to hell, and in Alabama, they get stoned.

Works Cited:

de Bary, Theodore. Sources of Indian Tradition. Introduction to Oriental Civilizations.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Gordon, Stewart. When Asia Was The World. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Kalidassa, Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works. Arthur W. Ryder. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1914.

Shrudaka, The Little Clay Cart. Harvard Oriental Series. Volume Nine, Arthur W. Ryder. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1905.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


The Singularity is Near — Again

28 Jan

(or, what in the world nanorobots have to do with 10,000 BC)

Sentient computers and chimerical cyborgs sound far-fetched, but if inventor Ray Kurzweil is right, the future’s going to be even weirder—and isn’t as far away as we imagine.

Kurzweil is an accomplished inventor, entrepreneur, and author, praised by Forbes magazine as “the ultimate thinking machine.”  A high compliment, really, considering what Kurzweil sees thinking machines becoming after the “Technological Singularity” he predicts.

The Singularity, according to Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near, is a transition stage in human history—it’s the point where we “transcend the limitations of our bodies and brains.”  More than that:

We will gain power over our fates.  Our mortality will be in our own hands.  We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).  We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend it’s reach.  By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.

(And this circa 2005.)

It’s practically a truism today that your new laptop’s practically outdated the day you buy it (hey, maybe we’ll all have iPads tomorrow); but however lightly we make those comments, the real truth is that the rate of change, the acceleration of technological advancements, is kind of frightening. This is the basis of the concept of the Singularity: observation of accelerating technology.

If we tried to plot technological advances on a chart, even just intuitively, we’d probably get a pretty steep incline.  The problem, Kurzweil sees, is that our line would likely be straight.  However steep it is, a straight line assumes a constant slope—in other words, technology keeps marching forward, but the rate of that change remains constant over time.  If the rate of change itself is increasing, we won’t get a straight line but an exponential curve, in which, at a certain point, this conceptual curve shoots up to be almost completely vertical.

Recall that this theoretical curve doesn’t show how advanced our technology is, but how fast it’s advancing, which is a rather more shocking thought.  And that, friends, is how we get to the Singularity.

Kurzweil discussed this much, much better in his 2001 essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns“:

When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace, so the intuitive view is that the pace will continue at the current rate. Even for those of us who have been around long enough to experience how the pace increases over time, our unexamined intuition nonetheless provides the impression that progress changes at the rate that we have experienced recently. From the mathematician’s perspective, a primary reason for this is that an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration.

So maybe explanation of the mechanics of the Singularity needs a mathematician, but Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near also waxes a little poetic himself when describing what happens after we get past that “knee-bend” in the curve (which is the next few decades, quoth our futurist):

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but transcends our biological roots.  There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.  If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend it’s physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.

At least for me, this is thrilling, chilling, mind-boggling, and vaguely horrifying, all at once.  It’s a world I’m going to leave to Charles Stross and David Louis Edelman to describe for now, until it comes around outside the realm of science fiction.

Because I’m pretty convinced it is.

Now I’m not any sort of scientist, and math majors terrify me, but I do know a little bit about history, and I can say this much—this won’t be humanity’s first Technological Singularity.

We are the species that inherently seeks to extend it’s physical and mental reach, Kurzweil asserts, and he’s absolutely right—human beings need technology to survive, a fact that’s been true well into prehistory.  We don’t have deadly claws, warm pelts, or species-wide instincts to help us survive; we can’t photosynthesize when we’re hungry.  What we do have, and have always had, however, is a reasoning mind; and what we do do, and always have done, is use that to make the things we need but didn’t have the good fortune to be born with—stone choppers and spears, atlatls, the Amazon Kindle.

And in about 10,000 BCE, the sudden explosion of this early human innovation resulted in the birth of what we call “civilization”—agriculture, written language, cities.  And it happened, mysteriously, after roughly hundreds of thousands of years of seeming stasis.  Our brains—human hardware, so to speak—were anatomically modern, but for whatever reason, it appears that we spent over 100 millennia just hanging out on the savannah waiting for that “great leap forward.”  (And if anyone comments that it was the aliens or Atlanteans, so help me God I will start a flame war.)

Key words here: hundreds of thousands years of seeming stasis.

The metaphor I like best is that of a snowball.  You start small, with just a handful, which grows as it rolls along, perhaps down a hill.  As it rolls, it picks up more snow, but also more speed, so that before you know it there’s an avalanche running down the other kids at the bottom of the hill.

Remember that the early stages of even an exponential curve start slowly, an incremental increase that gradually builds until that knee-bend moment when the rate of change shoots up into the sky.  I think 10,000 BCE was that bend in the curve.

Human beings weren’t doing nothing out on the savannah all those millennia—they were building up the rudimentary foundations necessary for “civilization” to emerge.  Cities doesn’t just sprout up overnight.

– 2.5 million years ago, we began to use stone scrapers to butcher dead animals we scavenged.

– 1.6 million years ago saw the development of the first hand axes.

– 1.5 million years ago, homo erectus began to manipulate fire (we’re not even at anatomically modern humans yet)

And then, in 10,000 BCE, we came to the Neolithic Revolution, with the development of agriculture.  Only a few thousand years later (and that’s a very short period of time considering the millions between changes in stone tool technology) brought the earliest written languages.

In other words, 10,000 BCE began humanity’s First Singularity.

So it’s not cyborgs.  Still, Kurzweil defines the Singularity as the merge of human and artificial, of “biological thinking and existence with our technology.”

With the development of agriculture, people could generate surplus food and have some protection from the vicissitudes of hunting and gathering—but it also tied early humans to certain land, to certain methods of production, to a lifestyle in which they “existed with their technology” to an unprecedented extend.

The decline of hunting and gathering meant the settlement of large groups of people together—thousands—rather than small nomadic bands or family groups.  Permanent houses and community structures were erected, meaning that in these first cities, we literally lived in our technology.

With writing, how we interacted with each other (trade) and even how we thought (religious or political use) was shaped by it.

10,000 BCE is exactly what Kurzweil describes—“civilization,” as opposed to nature, after all, is the human constructs that humans live in.  It’s existence within our technology—a merge unprecedented in human (pre)history.

For that, I’m inclined to believe that Kurzweil’s right about a modern technological snowball leading to a radical paradigm shift.  It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

Wheels within Wheels: Strange Lights in Norway and Ezekiel

10 Dec

Thousands of Norwegians witnessed a bizarre spiral of light in the sky on the morning of November 9.  Still, take a look:

(Read the original article and see more photographs at The Sun)

Update: 12/11 — Looks like the word is in, and the mysterious light show was a Russian missile launch after all.

Still, for what it’s worth, my first thought back on the 9th, after I snapped my gaping jaw shut and got over the initial shock, was that the images from Norway bore  a striking resemblance to what some researchers have pointed to as a description of UFOs in the Bible.

Ezekiel 1:16 (New American Standard Bible)

The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like sparkling beryl, and all four of them had the same form, their appearance and workmanship being as if one wheel were within another.

“Beryl,” notably, is transparent mineral often of a blue or green color (much like in the pictures of the spiral over Norway).

The similarity of the spiral seen to the description of “wheels within wheels,” I think, needs little explanation.

What I love most (even in my awe– in the traditional definition of wonder and fear) is that this suggests, if nothing else, that modern analysis of early texts might want to give a little more credit to the historiography of ancient people.  Now I’m not saying that the spiraling light was the fiery chariot of cherubim; that’s probably less likely than an alien invasion.  But it is interesting to consider that, if this fiery wheel does turn out to have been a natural “astral phenomenon” as some were claiming earlier, it may have been seen sometime in the distant past as well.

We’re all quick and willing to apply “to err is human” to people of earlier centuries (how much more so for millennia?) without considering that we ourselves could be lacking vital information.  Human eyewitness accounts haven’t changed so much since biblical times, even if the equipment to capture something as bizarre as a fiery “wheel within a wheel” is now available.  After all, a number of Norwegians, grasping for words, compared the sight to a “Catherine wheel.”

Just a thought.

Why bad things happen to ambitious people

12 Jun

How many myths and legends from antiquity tell us that mankind’s greatest curse is ambition?

Prometheus: disemboweled over and over (and over and over) for bringing fire to human beings

The Tower of Babel: we attempt to build a tower to the sky and into Heaven, and are smote (smitten?) with, to dramatically understate the event, “communication difficulties”

Phaeton: incinerated when trying to fly the chariot of the sun

Icarus: drowns in the Mediterranean Sea after soaring too close to the sun (what I don’t understand about that one is why, if he and his father were imprisoned, they had access to such large quantities of wax)

Arachne: transformed into a spider when she attempts to challenge a goddess at weaving– and wins

Even Satan’s fall from heaven has a similar element to it: “Lucifer,” after all, means “light-bearer”

But the most potent example has to be the story of Adam and Eve

Tempted by the serpent, their sin is said to be disobedience of God’s explicit wishes, but their motivations were hardly malicious—they aspired to knowledge of good and evil, and were punished for this first striving toward reason.  They were too much like God.

The doctrine of Original Sin, holding that all people inherit this depravity or weakness (reason!), carries from early history to the modern world the idea that the human mind is evil, that reaching for higher ability or knowledge is unacceptable, and that choosing the dictates of one’s own mind above the strictures of authority is a sin.  And not only is use of (or desire to use) the mind a sin: the penalty is the “curse” of labor.  But work, our productive effort and creative capacity, is only another way we reflect the biblical idea of God (who kind of liked making things himself…).

And there’s another story that tracks this connection between knowledge and divinity even further.  Ancient Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of human civilization, and The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the first works of human literature.  But let us consider this: when Enkidu, a savage man raised in the wilderness, has sexual intercourse with a woman and gains knowledge and understanding, she tells him:

“Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a God!” 

Human happiness, it seems, and human reason, are the prerogatives of the gods.  And if we’re very lucky, and very very good, we might get a taste of it in the afterlife.  Ambition, after all, is the curse of mankind.

But does that really hold?  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

If our curse really was pride rather than timidity, passivity, or stark naked terror, why would that strike so true?

Too Old to Be Living with Mother (Earth)

19 May

Personifying nature and our lovely little blue planet as “Mother Earth” is an old, old metaphor– perhaps as old as humanity itself, at least if the prehistoric existence of the Earth Mother or Mother Goddess concept is any indication.

The Venus of Willendorf statuette, carved over 20,000 years ago (Upper Paleolithic era)

The Venus of Willendorf statuette, carved over 20,000 years ago (Upper Paleolithic era)

If Rhea of the Greeks or Isis of the Egyptians seem to track the archetype into antiquity, just consider the “Venus of Willendorf” statuette, carved somewhere between 22,000 and 24,000 BC (that’s 10,000 years before the famous Lascaux, France cave paintings were created, by the way).  Nude, with exaggerated breasts and hips, the image seems to be a celebration of motherhood or child-bearing traits.

And the image of the Magna Mater (Great Mother, for the Romans) remained, seemingly burned on the human psyche throughout history.

(Proof of that can be found, if nowhere else, in the extensive space early Christian leader St. Augustine devotes to condemnation of her worship in The City of God Against the Pagans.)

Maybe gilded shrines to the Earth Mother aren’t constructed with regularity in modern America, but don’t imagine Augustine eradicated the image for good: contemporary environmentalism and concern for the welfare of the planet seems to recall something of the ancient Mother Goddess…

What’s the foundation of contemporary environmentalism?  It seems to me that there’s an underlying argument that Nature has rights of it (her?) own– humans are participants in, not the center of, the ecosystem, and shouldn’t sacrifice the health of the planet for industrial or other aims.

If that’s not personification of the planet, I don’t know what is.

But if we’re going to stick with the Mother Earth metaphor– and I don’t see why not, considering thousands of years of civilization rising and falling haven’t done much to shake the imagery– then why not extrapolate from it further?

If the planet Earth is a mother, then we, as her children, will necessarily continue to grow.  Like any mother, she’ll provide us food, shelter clothing, all the basic necessities of life– for a while.  After all, every child– if it survives long enough– becomes independent.  That’s the point of parenthood, isn’t it?  To raise autonomous, self-sufficient children.

Well, humans as a species are growing in that direction– what Mother Earth once gave us (food, shelter, clothing) naturally, we’re learning to develop ourselves: horticulture, genetic engineering, synthetic materials.  We’re quickly becoming self-sufficient.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve yet become entirely independent: humanity is still (metaphorically) living with mom.  Like a grown adult living at home could fast become a drain on his or her parents–taking from good-natured mom and dad long after it’s strictly necessary for survival– we as a species might be outstaying our welcome.  It seems to be the belief held by the environmentalist movement, at least– considering our use of natural resources as parasitic.

Maybe it’s time to consider that humanity needs to move out of mom’s house.

As was pointed out to me by Dr. John Bossard (of BSRD LLC), the word “environmentalism” is a derivative of “environ”– in Old French, to turn (virer) inward (en):

Turning inward towards a mother figure is what a young child does for nourishment, for protection, for comfort.  Turning outward is what we do when we’re grown, independent, moving out of the security of the house we’ve always known.

At this point in human history, when an increasing number of people seem to recognize the danger to Mother Earth, what needs to be done is not to limit the industry and technology which allows us to become more independent of reliance on depleted natural resources, but to give wider scope to what Dr. Bossard termed “exvironmentalism”: turning outward– beyond this planet and into space.

I can’t see another way to both continue to grow and develop without turning into a true parasite on our Mother Earth.

Dr. Bossard’s blog, the Plasma Wind, which focuses on propulsion, space exploration, and energy: http://plasmawind.typepad.com/plasma_wind/

For information on the “Venus of Willendorf” carving as well as women in prehistory generally: http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfdiscovery.html