There are many cultural narratives that tell of a golden age when humans lived in peace and harmony but which would eventually give way to times of strife and suffering. Indeed, the Old Testament, the core text of the three major book religions, includes such a concept as does the myth of Atlantis. We tend to think of this idea as a convenient myth, but there is growing evidence that it may have been, in some real sense, true.
In The Fall (published in 2005) Steve Taylor argues that such a golden age actually existed up until around 6,000 years ago when everything changed for humanity. Prior to that humans had lived as hunter-gatherers and early farmers in conditions of comparative abundance, equality and peace. Our very minds worked differently, centred on a more collectivist and less individualist way of seeing life. Furthermore, we were generally very healthy, very self-expressive in terms of story, music and dance, and attuned to a more spiritual life. To put it succinctly, we led a much better balanced life than we later did, and do.
Around 4,000 BC the most advanced socio-cultural development was occurring in a region situated in the Middle East and Central Asia known as Saharasia. Then a period of climate change destroyed the fertility of the area, turning it into the arid region we know in part as the Sahara desert.
This disaster forced the people of the region to migrate to surrounding areas, and to radically change the way they lived just to survive. They eventually formed the civilisations that became the world’s first, most notably Sumer and Egypt. These civilisations set the pattern of most of those to follow right up until the present time. Their development model was essentially aggression abroad and repression at home. Amongst the earliest peoples so affected were the Aryans and Semites, and these and other warlike peoples invaded and conquered most of the lands around them and set in place a trend of violence and discord that has persisted to this day.
If this idea is true, then we are living lives utterly at odds with our true nature as formed by millions of years of evolution. Instead we have experienced 6,000 years of civilised life dominated by warfare, rigid hierarchy, and social and sexual repression. Because of this we have come to believe that humans are naturally violent and aggressive, and that it is only the fear of Gods or kings that keeps us in line.
Taylorargues that the first religions arose as attempts to claim back our lives as peaceful, spiritual beings living in harmony with each other and with nature, but that the changes brought about by our expulsion from the real Eden were too great. In particular our minds had shifted to become much more individualist in character. This was what Taylor calls the ‘ego explosion’.
But many, if not most, people hungered for change to escape the ‘schizophrenic nightmare’ of civilised life. Taylor says the second wave of popular liberation began in the second half of the 18th century AD. Around this time democracy took off as a serious movement, slavery was increasingly criticised and eventually (at least officially)abolished, women’s’ rights became an issue and all sorts of new ideas blossomed to challenge the rigid status quo dominated by the Church and aristocracy.
It is not hard to see that the world is currently riven by a fundamental divide with the very rich and huge corporations dominating the billions of powerless masses. But there is growing resistance, and the rise of ideas about gender equality, anti-racism, social awareness, Asian civilisation generally and so-called identity politics all reflect in different ways the underlying change. They all represent a challenge to the previously dominant ideas based on Euro-centricism, patriarchy and militarism.
The Fallis an extraordinary book full of important revelations essential to understanding our fraught times. It tells us that our past was different than we think and helps explain why our present is so precarious, and indicates how to retrieve a viable future by coming to understand our true selves. A better way of life, it would seem, is available already encoded in our DNA over thousands, even millions, of years by evolution.
There are other books arguing a similar line about how we were once very different, the products of millions of years of evolution, but then radically changed, and mainly for the worse. There is Power in Eden by Bruce Lerro, The Origins and Diffusion of Patrism in Saharasia c4,000 BCE by James Demeo, and The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler. In his book The Great Turning David Korten ties it all together into a powerful analysis of the roots of modernity and the problems that beset us now.
The main issues seem to revolve around two matters that greatly concern us today. One is concern over the role of climate change in human development, the other is interest in how our brains work which has been greatly stimulated by advances in neuroscience. Research in climate science has greatly expanded recently and resulted in greater awareness as to the role climate change has played in history. For instance, it is now thought climate change may have played a role in many historical events, including the fall of the Roman Empire.
Technology driven neuroscience is telling us more and more about the structures and capabilities of the human brain. This organ was obviously central to the rise of humanity out of our hominid past, an extraordinary tour de force by the processes of evolution. The most important thing, of course, was the ideas that the human brain was capable of inventing which broke us away from the limitations of animal instinct.
According to Hall and a growing number of other writers, humans have been on an extraordinary journey courtesy of evolution which created a species of enormous capability and almost limitless potential. Unfortunately, we took something of a detour, which was disastrous for humans and the world generally. If we can review our ways and return to the basic ideas and way of living that we previously developed we have a much better chance of surviving an increasingly scary future.