Myths trace human migration

 

Ever since we came out of Africa, humans have carried myths to every corner of the globe. Cultural anthropologist Julien d’Huy traces their journey.

Cosmic Hunt as drawn 6,000 years ago in Spain

One myth, which d’Huy calls the Cosmic Hunt tells of a hunter who pursues an animal, which then turns into a constellation.

“As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major (Scientific American, December, 2016).”

Early humans from Asia carried the myth of the Cosmic Hunt across the Bering Strait to North America 28,000 and 13,000 years ago.

In turn, Asians got the myth from Europeans. In the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, a bison appears to be rising into the heavens. Black stains on the ground under the bison suggest the bloodstained autumn leaves of the hunted animal.

From Europe, the Cosmic Hunt traces back to Africa. While the story line is the same, the animal changes. In some parts of Africa it is a camel; in other parts a zebra, pig, or ungulate.

In another, the Polyphemus myth, a man gets trapped in a monster’s cave and escapes by hiding among the monster’s herd of animals.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the monster of the Polyphemus myth is one-eyed. Odysseus and his men are trapped in a cave by the monster and escape by clinging to the underbellies of the monster’s sheep which the monster has let out of the cave to graze.

The Polyphemus myth even traces the transition of humans to an agricultural way of life. Hunter-gatherers of Europe told the Polyphemus myth as a one-eyed dwarf monster, the master of beasts on a mountain.  After the ice age pushed humans into the Mediterranean 21,000 years ago, the one-eyed monster now lives in a shelter rather than in the wild.

In another French cave, the Polyphemus myth looks like humans are escaping the monster by hiding the anus of a bison rather than clinging to its underbelly. This is a similar version of the myth as told by some North American indigenous people.

I can’t help but wonder what myths survived from my indigenous European ancestors. Perhaps it’s this:

In the Greek telling of yet another cultural myth, Pygmalion makes an ivory statue of a woman and dresses her in fancy clothes and jewellery. After praying at the temple of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, he returns home to find that his ideal mate has been brought to life.

On CBC Radio’s Spark, Matt McMullen explained how his company is making hyper-realistic, anatomically-correct, poseable silicone sex dolls. Sexy robots have been turning up in our pop-culture, from Ex-Machina to Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, and the HBO series Westworld.

The myth of an ideal mate, crafted to specification by men and made possible by technology, persists.

 

 

 

Online dating and racism

When my wife died, I considered online dating as way of meeting people. Hadiya Roderique’s shares her experience with online dating in Walrus magazine (March, 2017).

    Hadiya Roderique on cover of Walrus magazine

I was searching for a committed relationship with a supportive partner, someone I could love deeply and who shared my values and goals,” she wrote.

There are reasons why our online dating experiences would be different. I am in my mid-seventies and she’s in her mid-thirties. I am retired and Hadiya is a lawyer working on a PhD. I look white and she looks black.

I say “look” because skin colour is a fluke of ancestry. I’m the descendant of Scottish, English, and French ancestors. Hadiya’s father is white and her mother is Caribbean and East Indian.

One thing we both share is a white Canadian culture.

“Certainly, I am black to the white world. And as someone who travels in personal and professional environments that are predominantly white—the legal profession, Ultimate Frisbee, graduate school—the majority of my friends, including my single girlfriends, are white.”

Hadiya liked the online dating site OkCupid. She had a high match with a large number of men but she was troubled by the response she received.

“But almost immediately, I began to notice peculiarities about my experience. Among my single friends, and even in the conversations I overheard between strangers in coffee shops, women using dating sites described being ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘flooded’ with communication. On the day I completed my profile, I received one message; four more appeared over the next two days.”

Friends suggested that maybe the limited response was due to an intimidation factor because she was a lawyer. At this point, Hadiya didn’t think that skin colour was a factor.

“As a Torontonian, I optimistically thought race wouldn’t matter much. One of the defining principles of our culture is, after all, multiculturalism. There is a widespread perception that the tensions and cultural politics of race are milder in Canada than in the US—we represent a “mosaic” rather than a melting pot—with an openness to experiences that all that implies, including interracial dating.”

To test skin colour as a factor, she posted a picture of her white friend Jessica in the same clothes and the same written profile. The “White Hadiya” received nine times the messages as the black Hadiya.

Still unconvinced, Hadiya thought it was because Jessica was more attractive. As a final experiment, Hadiya became white. She had her photo taken in a blond wig and photoshopped her skin to white, her eyes to blue.

Responses were even greater than the White Hadiya. She even heard back from people who had not responded when she sent messages to them as black.

The experience confirmed the disheartening truth about online dating.

“Online dating dehumanizes me and other people of colour. On the other hand, maybe online dating dehumanizes everyone.”

Hadiya gave up online dating and has since found a boyfriend through mutual acquaintances.

I have heard of life-long relationships that developed online. But not for me. Based on Hadiya’s black and white experience, I think that I would be judged by the way I look.

Canada is a young country. Or I’m old.

Canada is 150 years old this year. Since I’m one-half that age, Canada must be a young country. Or I’m old. It must be the former.

canada-150-horizontal-colour

We had humble beginnings, Canada and I. I was born in Jasper Place, now part of Edmonton but in 1941 it was a rudimentary town. We had no water or sewer. The bucket in the indoor toilet had to be emptied regularly to the outhouse in the back. The honey wagon would clean it out once in a while. Water was delivered by a truck to a cistern in the basement. A hand-operated pump supplied water to the kitchen. Milk was delivered by a horse-drawn cart.

Canada was born with only four provinces at confederation. Like Jasper Place, it lay outside the huge territory it would eventually encompass.

Canada was rebranded as much as it was born in 1876. John Ralston Saul, author of A Fair Nation, argues that Canada had already been a federation for 250 years before that. We are a Métis nation, comprised of indigenous people, English and French. Before 1876 our federation comprised mostly of indigenous people, numbering one-half million.

By 1947 we moved to a suburb of Edmonton called Bonnie Doon, Scottish for “pleasant, rolling countryside.” We lived only one block away from Saint-Jean College where Catholic priests taught students who were about to enter the clergy. Now it’s the only francophone University west of Manitoba, a campus of the University of Alberta. The college allowed neighbourhood kids to use their outdoor rink when they weren’t playing hockey. That’s where I learned to skate.

The broken hockey sticks made fine bows as long as they had a straight grain. We carved them with a draw knife and used them to hunt rabbits with bows and arrows in the nearby Mill Creek. The rabbits didn’t have much to worry about because of the thick bush and our poor aim. I wore horsehide moccasins in the winter which warm even on the coldest days. We would often spend entire winter days sledding on the hills in the ravine.

By the time Canada was officially born, our indigenous people had been decimated by disease which they had no resistance to, and by conflict with their European guests.

However, the 250 years of gestation of Canada left its imprint on the fledgling nation. Canada is not just a collection of its people; it is a product of our collective consciousness. John Belshaw, former Thompson Rivers University professor, puts it this way:

“Scholars draw a distinction between historical consciousness and collective memory. The former is something on which we reflect but often forget. History as a discipline consists of facts – – objective and recitable. Collective memory, on the other hand, is an ongoing process that builds a shared and more nuanced understanding of the past, (Walrus magazine).”

While not exactly a Baby Boomer, I identified with the Hippy Movement. I smoked my first joint in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the birthplace of the counterculture movement. I naively believed John Lennon when he implored the world to “give peace a chance.”

We have done OK, Canada and I, but we’re still young and have a lot to learn. Happy sesquicentennial, Canada!

Kick the bucket list

Bucket lists have a grim quality about them. Once they’re completed, what else is there to live for? They nag at you. Even if life gets in the way of completion, they sit impatiently to be done. They are potentially dangerous; things you always wanted in your youth might now be dangerous or foolhardy in later years. They represent delayed gratification; a future reward for living the right life now –a bit like heaven.

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Retirement planers like bucket lists because they provide a reason why you to employ them. You’ve probably seen the ads. Buy that sailboat you always wanted and sail to Australia. Scale that mountain you only saw from a distance when young. You, too, can realize the dreams of your youthful-you in your new “mature” body.

There’s nothing wrong with lists. I make them all the time: things around the house that need fixing like the front door hinge. There’s nothing wrong with hopes and goals. The difference between those and a bucket list is that hopes and goals are a dynamic process, a direction, whereas bucket-list items are mere markers along that path.

Andrew Stark finds bucket lists a bit strange (Globe and Mail, December 30, 2016). “And so, as we spy the tip of the reaper’s cowl poking up over the horizon, we begin to write bucket lists. Lists full of concrete, vivid experiences that we hope to enjoy and savour for themselves, and vague status-oriented goals so empty of specificity that we couldn’t possibly value them for themselves.

“Bucket lists typically feature two kinds of items. First are desires, before the end comes, to experience the kinds of moments that bucket-listers tend to find valuable, pleasurable or enjoyable in and of themselves. Typical examples: ‘Swim naked in the Caribbean.’ ‘Be at Chichen Itza on December 12, 2020.’”

The trouble with concrete items is that we confuse specific tasks for the real goals we aim for. Climbing a mountain is part of a longing to enjoy the outdoors and remain fit. The things you might do to achieve those goals are a series, none of them worth listing. You no sooner finish one and the next becomes apparent.

“The second kind of item is the kind of thing that will bring success, status or money, such as ‘write a book,’ or “break or set a world record.’”

These things on a bucket list are more aspirational than concrete. We may want to “complete a great painting.” What we really long for is artistic expression. A friend of mine who calls himself a “tin-basher (heating and air conditioner contractor)” remarked with satisfaction on the completion duct work he completed; already realizing the art of a job creatively done.

Aspirational and concrete things on a bucket list are mere clues to a deeper understanding of what we long for.

“The bucket list is a recent innovation,” adds Stark. “The human psychology it lays bare –our tendency to conceive of things we value for themselves in concrete, particular terms. . .”

Sense and consciousness

Consciousness is at once mundane and profound. It’s mundane because it’s as common as the air we breathe. It’s profound because it shapes our view of the spiritual world.

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

Consciousness is by nature non-physical. For most of us, it seems to be “centred just behind my eyes, right in the middle of my head,” says Jay Ingram in his book Theatre of the Mind – Raising the Curtain on Consciousness. That’s not the case for everyone. Some locate consciousness in the back of the head, or even the throat or heart.

Sometimes consciousness seems not to be in the body at all, as when you think of the last time you were on the beach; you might see yourself from behind, from above or just about anywhere except inside your head.

Consciousness leads us to imagine beings without bodies. The existence of ghosts, gods, angels, devils seems perfectly plausible. If gods exist, then religions are a natural consequence.

The speculation is endless. If our minds are as separate from material bodies, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that we continue to exist after we die. And maybe those non-physical beings materialize in the bodies others as in reincarnation.

There are some indisputable qualities of consciousness. John Searle, in his book The Mystery of Consciousness lists them. For one, consciousness is completely subjective: it’s all about us. Another is its singular nature. Despite drawing from widely different senses, it presents us with one view. The pain of stubbing your toe occupies the same world as what you are reading.

However, the impression that consciousness is non-material is wrong. It seems to me that the mind and body are one and that dualism, the so-called mind-body problem, is a consequence of the misunderstanding of consciousness. That would explain why mental illness can be treated through chemicals or through the mind. George Johnson explains:

“Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain (Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2016, Magic in the machine)”

The two treatments only seem different if we are convinced that the mind and brain are separate.

Just what consciousness is remains a mystery but here are four explanations from the most plausible to least.

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself, similar to a dream. Consciousness is simulation of the workings of the brain –the firing of neurons and synapses. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it.”

Along the same lines, Jay Ingram suggests that consciousness is a story that our brains tell ourselves: “consciousness is a highly processed and abstracted version of the world outside the head, an invention more than an impression… (p.27).”

John Searle: “In my view we have to abandon dualism and start with the assumption that consciousness is an ordinary biological phenomenon comparable to growth, digestion, and the production of bile (p.6).”

And lastly, consciousness is built into everything including molecules and atoms. Called panpsychism, advocates see themselves as minds in a world of minds.

Truth in a post-factual world

We live in a world in what’s true is a question of opinion, not a matter of fact. Imagine his guy, his father, and girlfriend sitting around a campfire drinking a few brews near Brockville, Ontario. She says the Earth is flat. The father insists that it’s round. Tempers rise and the father starts throwing things into the fire, including a propane bottle. Firefighters arrive on the scene and police charge the father with mischief.

truth

Wasn’t the fact of a round Earth determined long ago? Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, wonders how anyone can dispute centuries of scientific knowledge based on Pythagoras and Galileo.

“It can seem as if we are living in a world where fact, truth, and evidence no longer exert the rational pull they once did. Our landscape of fake news sites, junk science, politicians blithely dismissive of fact-check, and Google searches that appear to make us dumber, renders truth redundant. We are rudderless on a dark sea where, as Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations (Globe and Mail, June 19, 2016)”

Truth has evolved over time. Philosophers used to believe in an absolute truth.  Now they offer a more pragmatic version: those that are empirical and falsifiable. If you want to know if the Earth is flat, travel in one direction and see if you fall off the edge.

The Bush era ushered in a new kind of truth, one based on hunches such as “Iraq processes weapons of mass destruction.”

Bush aide Karl Rove explained the new truth to writer Ron Suskind. Rove told the writer he was part of a deluded group, a “reality-based community, who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove explained. “We create our own reality,”  “We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”

Truth continues to evolve with Donald Trump. He makes President Bush look good.

“The cynical, political aides of George W. Bush argued that they created reality out of power. That position was doctoral-quality compared to the haphazard, say-anything approach of the new Republican regime.”

Bush’s reality was, at least, sensitive to rebuttal. The world according to Trump sees rebuttal as an opportunity to double-down. Correction used to cause shame and confusion. No more.

When Trump arrived in Scotland, it didn’t bother him at all that Scotland hadn’t voted to leave the European Union. Instead, Trump tweeted “Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!”

Shame and confusion are not part of Trump’s repertoire. When a reporter with a deformed hand questioned Trump, he mocked the reporter’s deformity rather than answering the question. “Now, the poor guy,” he said, “you’ve got to see this guy.” Trump curled his arms to mock the reporter.

Conspiracy theories are regarded as sophisticated in the post-factual world. Trump claims to have seen news reports from 9/11 that show “thousands and thousands” of Jersey City residents of Middle-Eastern descent cheering when the Twin Towers fell. Those reports do not exist.

Animal speech

I know that animals vocalize but do they have an internal language? Something like what you experience now as you read this? Since animals don’t write articles in which they wonder about speech in humans, we can only infer from observation.

Koko jas sign language

Koko has sign language

Getting inside the heads of animals requires time and patience. Francine “Penny” Patterson has spent years in a California zoo teaching Koko, a gorilla, sign language. Koko can name hundreds of objects.

Still, gorillas don’t talk to each other. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth notes: “Gorillas grumble in the presence of large amounts of food, they grunt as they approach one another or separate from their young, they make copulatory grunts, and they chuckle when they play (Scientific American January 1, 2016).” The vocalizations that gorillas make are no more complex than their visual displays. They telegraph social status and possible behavior, but that is all.

Vervet monkeys do better. They make distinct predator alarm calls for “eagle,” “snake” and “leopard.” Unlike Koko, no human taught Vervets these “words.”   Even then, Vervets don’t have conversations about the big snake they saw yesterday.

Animals appear to lack abstract reasoning: the ability to transfer knowledge from a one situation to one that hasn’t yet happened.

Crows seem to have abstract reasoning. They will drop walnuts to a hard surface and crack them open. They seem to be thinking “if I drop this nut from high enough to the hard concrete sidewalk, it will break open.”

A more likely explanation involves an observation about ourselves than about animals. We tend to anthropomorphize: to view the world of animals through our own eyes. We visualize them with human-like language and intentions.

Sara Shettleworth, cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto says that “proximate cause” is a better explanation. In biology, proximate cause is the most immediate cause of an event. The crow didn’t drop the walnut because it was thinking about the hardness of nuts relative to the sidewalk, the distance it had to fall, and the consequences of the impact.  No, the bird’s physiological state was a key factor. Hunger linked to the walnuts and hard surfaces.

“That is, physiology that encourages conditioned food-procurement behavior based on past success is what causes a crow to fly above hard surfaces and drop nuts, not the crow’s logic about how to best satiate its hunger,” explains Dunsworth. If the crow hadn’t accidently seen how well the technique worked, it wouldn’t have come up with the behaviour based on analysis.

It’s an honest mistake. If we have abstract reasoning, our natural inclination is that animals do: we project our view of reality on to the world.

I don’t mean to suggest that human animals are superior, just different. The mental baggage we carry comes at a cost. It may help us construct our world to tell ourselves: “Take this saw and make a table.” But those voices can also appear to be external and malicious, as in schizophrenia, and tell us: “Take that screwdriver and stab the devil Fred through the heart” –an internal voice I’m quite sure animals don’t hear.