How do animals turn into people? The answer has several facets, including evolutionary and neurological ones, although unenlightened folks prefer a theological story according to which divine beings miraculously created us to transcend the other species, by giving us godlike powers of intelligence and creativity. I’m delighted to inform connoisseurs of irony that a large part of how people came to be conforms to the outline of that theistic creation myth, even as the truth humiliates theists and atheists alike. The truth here is stranger than fiction—including the fictions of the major religious myths as well as the liberal secular ones that deny the discontinuity between humans and animals, by way of denying that there are decisive differences between cultures or the sexes, so as to prop up the ideal of equality.
The part of the answer I wish to bring to the fore is historical rather than biological or mythological. Natural selection, the shaping of our brain structure, and the advantage of settling in the Fertile Crescent after the last ice age were so many props and costumes, as it were, for our act of stumbling upon civilized culture. That culture in turn drove the strongest of the late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to form what Lewis Mumford calls megamachines, military, bureaucratic, and labour social systems which reshaped the landscape and set the stage for the new kind of performance which anthropologists call behavioural modernity. Like butterflies that require cocoons to emerge from their pupal form, behavioural modernists, that is, civilized people from our perspective are born from a type of culture that forms in a particular microcosm we construct. Those we used to call primitives or savages, namely the premodern foragers who lived especially before the invention of agriculture at about 10,000 BCE but who still cling to life in their benighted tribes and villages here or there, are indeed intermediaries in the evolution from our anatomically-prehuman ancestors to the behaviourally-modern humans whose activities mark the starting points of history.
But once again the god of irony mocks us, because the modern prejudice is misplaced in light of civilization’s grotesque origin. In the first place, the development of behavioural modernity was accidental and undead, not teleological. Although language and culture had already been invented in the Paleolithic Era—language emerging possibly in the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, 50,000 years ago, and prehistoric art, for example, being found to be at least 40,000 years old—those tools wouldn’t be applied to the task of building the microcosm that accelerated our domestication, until the last glacial period happened to end to pave the way for agricultural civilization. Secondly, we should be most comfortable calling the behaviourally-modern farmers of the Neolithic Era people like us because they share the disgrace of our origin. To be sure, we modernists are embarrassed on behalf of half-naked, jungle-inhabiting tribalists such as the natives of Australia, Africa, or South America, who still worship animals and know little if anything of the wider universe. But in the undead god which is the impersonal natural system that changes and even creates itself (via inflation in the megaverse) to no humane end, there’s more than enough shame to go around…
Monstrous Kings as Creator Gods
Let’s look at the logic of the theistic account of our advent. Putting aside the mystification, superstition, and personification of the undead forces and elements, there is, after all, certain logic to what is nevertheless a pseudo-explanation. The logic is that a greater being imparts life to a lesser one. The gods are often pictured as creating humanity through a bizarre sexual act, the slaying of some deity or beast, or some act of craftsmanship whereby the human body is formed from inanimate materials and miraculously brought to higher life. These accounts provide, at best, the illusion of an explanation, because ultimately the gods are assumed to be beyond our comprehension. In the monotheistic faiths, God’s origin is inexplicable, by definition. Still, at several points the theistic creation myths betray an ancient intuition of how people were really formed.
The key here is that all ancient references to supernatural deities are either personifications of undead processes in nature or oblique ways of speaking of human autocrats. On the basis of biological, pragmatic, and psychological dynamics, a minority tends to acquire power over the majority in a group of social animals. The more flexible the species, the greater the capacity for the leaders (the alpha males) to become corrupted by their superhuman power. The rulers then take it upon themselves to live as gods among the lesser mortals whose lives they control. This is roughly the default social order in most social species. In so-called civilized societies, certainly, egalitarian periods in which a middle class rises to power through democratic means are aberrations. In any case, early civilizations were comprised of grossly unequal social classes so that those societies were well-symbolized by the Egyptian pyramid, with the Pharaoh alone at the apex and the masses at the bottom holding up the ruler and his angelic host by their worship and slave labour. Again, this is the default social order because it arises due to the above three dynamics. To protect the genes, dominance hierarchies emerge so that resources aren’t squandered on the group’s least fit members. To efficiently manage any sufficiently large group, power is concentrated in a minority of overseers. For psychological reasons, given our animalistic shortcomings, that power tends to corrupt the rulers. Thus, most civilized people tend to be ruled by what psychiatrists would call criminal or subcriminal psychopaths.
Here, then, is the empirical basis of monotheism and polytheism. It wasn’t just a matter of shifting from animism to theism, due to our penchant for psychological projection, including personification. No, there really were gods who walked the earth. Even the reckless speculations of ancient astronaut theorists, according to which the gods were extraterrestrial aliens, testify to the more sordid facts. The gods were aliens, in a sense, because they were debauched and nefarious superhuman rulers. Ancient autocrats either had no conscience to begin with, which is why they were able to conquer populations, due perhaps initially to their hunting prowess, or they naturally lost their scruples because of the pressures of the mighty office which they inherited. Either way, the rulers were alien to the enslaved beta herds who toiled for the greater glory of those gods. As Mumford points out in Technics and Human Development, civilization was sustained by religious propaganda which either explicitly identified the autocrat as a divinity or regarded him as divine by association with some symbolic deity. The reason God is ineffable in the monotheistic and mystical traditions, and thus the reason the corresponding creation myths don’t really explain God’s deeds is because any such explanation would have been sacrilegious—because the deity in question was actually, in all likelihood, an all-powerful human psychopath whom the lowly masses couldn’t even have looked upon for fear of being slaughtered on the spot, let alone taken up as the subject of any impartial investigation of his hidden social function.
Even mystical religions such as Gnosticism, Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism, in which God is just the raw consciousness within each of us, disguising itself as the universe of natural forms, including the unenlightened creatures that are misled by their mental powers, betray our true origin. The Source of all things, both Atman and Brahman, absolute subject and object, is the alienated, corrupted human ruler who is made remote by his lofty political station and by his amorality. God is therefore led to toy with the universe of independent forms (samsara), as a decadent autocrat who’s desperate for some distraction to forestall the dread moment of his self-awareness when “God” sees how pathological he’s bound to have become due to his peerlessness and isolation. Here, too, the moral of Philipp Mainlander’s theodicy is inescapable. Any supernatural deity would be monstrous—just as the real gods, namely the human supervillains we call pharaohs, emperors, and kings were actually so and just as technologically-advanced extraterrestrial creatures would have been had they been responsible for the birth of human civilization. There are no free lunches in the undead god and so absolute power is awarded only on a demonically ironic, Faustian basis. Power elites tend to be dehumanized by their unchecked liberty. Of course, the mystic will maintain that mysticism derives from independent experience in disciplined states of self-awareness, but however enlightening that self-awareness may be, the mystic’s metaphysical interpretation of the experience hardly follows as a matter of logic. That which connects the inward religious experience with the mystic’s theological speculations is the outer, political experience of the ancient totalitarian megamachine.
The gods’ dehumanization is crucial to the rise of civilization. Before we could be trained to suppress our primitive inclinations, we needed godlike masters. And so there was another intermediary between the egalitarian, technologically-sparse bands of Paleolithic foragers and the sedentary, sophisticated people whom we’re proud to call our equals in modernity: the monster, which is to say the sociopathic human autocrat whose anomalies were instrumental to our evolution. Recall the three prevalent kinds of creation myth, excluding the myths derived from forager cultures. Whether the act of creation is perversely sexual, brutally violent, or artisanal and industrious, the civilized creation myth alludes to the human autocrat’s decadence or to his megamachine and its role in transforming our nomadic ancestors into behavioural modernists. The autocrat typically indulged in harems and his sexual perversions would have been ways of relieving his boredom. He also commanded the military machine and enslaved large populations of labourers, putting them to work in re-engineering the natural environment and justifying the wars and degradation that followed with self-serving theistic myths that allowed the populace to imagine that its efforts were for a greater good. Members of the lower classes literally became functionaries in social machines, confined to rigid roles in the new world envisioned by their monstrous overseer.
Civilization as Domestication
I’ve identified the true agent responsible for the emergence of behaviourally-modern people, but how was the miracle performed? Indeed, if the megamachine dehumanized the masses, as I’ve said, how could it also have further humanized them? Again there’s a crucial point to keep in mind: “civilized” is a euphemism for “domesticated.” The primary difference between the earlier, nomadic lifestyle and the later, sedentary one pertains to strategies of feeding our kind. Foragers divided into families or clans, feeding themselves mostly by gathering seafood, nuts, berries, fruit, and eggs, but also by planting forest gardens as well as scavenging and hunting. The civilized alternative was to farm and store food to feed larger populations, allowing for the specialization of social classes. Farming depended on domesticating species of livestock, including sheep, pigs, goats, cows, chickens, donkeys, water buffalos, and horses. However, the domestication didn’t end with human control over those various animal species. Superhuman classes, mythically known as the gods, also gained control over the lower classes, training them to serve as pets or as the gods’ children. The process of becoming behaviourally modern was thus one of our domestication, by means of a re-engineering of the natural environment to open up niches that reward or punish the new breeds of people.
How were the autocrats instrumental? Precisely because of the depths of their corruption, the “gods” were liberated from the innate moral intuitions that define us as a social species. Those whom the pacified mob regards as monstrous, those who were beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche puts it, were free to dream of creating new worlds. Moreover, the rulers’ megalomania drove them to realize those dreams, by subduing and exploiting populations, using force and propaganda to aggrandize themselves and to enable them to live as gods. These autocrats literally created new worlds from the raw materials of nature. They built cities and great pyramids and temples and coliseums and other wonders, and they did so by fast-tracking natural selection to breed suitable workforces, both nonhuman and human. In The Origin of Species, Darwin used artificial breeding as a model of natural selection. The undead god evolves most species by natural means, while wily humans (and certain ants too) pacify and harness other creatures, bending them to their will. But it’s doubtful that humans in general were responsible for artificial selection. When livestock were first mass-produced, Neolithic people were divided into strict classes. Indeed, only the masses tended to be civilized, which is to say domesticated and exploited like the livestock, since the rulers ran wild with the pathologies of their supervillainy. Surely the all-powerful autocrats alone would have had the audacity to enslave species instead of honouring their wildness as the foragers had done for thousands of years. Surely only the decadent and amoral rulers would have had the temerity to think of themselves as worthy of worship, and the cold-bloodedness to use fellow humans as nothing more than disposable components of their social machines. The sadism, totalitarianism, and brutality of early civilization, including human sacrifice, wars of conquest, and slavery were brainchildren of a special mutation of humanity: the alien (inhuman), morally bankrupt sovereign.
Again, though, if civilization was so degrading, why speak of a shift from animalism to modern personhood? The answer is that most animals aren’t as creatively destructive as behavioural modernists. There are alpha leaders in most social species, but their brains are more hardwired so that they lack the autonomy to carry their aggression to its logical conclusion. They lack the opportunity to rule as gods or even the intelligence to conceive of godhood in the first place. Language and the cerebral cortex set the stage for that new character, the virtual deity, to preen and strut as well as to create and destroy on unprecedented scales. Before civilization could be built by domesticated animals, including the nonhuman beasts of burden and the so-called civilized human masses, the gods had to be born to envision and manage the Neolithic revolution. Nature prepared the way for the psychopath, for the charismatic and all-too free primate to dazzle and backstab his way to the top of the dominance hierarchy and to move heaven and earth to fulfill his vainglorious self-image. The autocrat felt entitled to be treated as a god, but more importantly he put his plan into action, which entailed the domestication of humans; after all, only with glaring inequalities between the autocrat and his family and entourage, on the one hand, and the human pets on the other could the ruler’s narcissistic, sociopathic boasts seem justified. That systematic humouring of the heart of evil was the source of behavioural modernity.
The civilizing of hunter-gatherers by tyrannical masters whom the former would directly or indirectly come to worship was both dehumanizing and humanizing, depending on your perspective. Compared to the superhuman autocrats, the megamachine was dehumanizing, since the lower classes were necessarily lesser beings, but compared to the other animal species, the process elevated humanity in general. This is to say only that we distinguished ourselves as we came to specialize in the civilized way of life. We used our gods as models of freedom and ingenuity. Moreover, the microcosms we built acted as echo chambers, forcing us to adapt to new cultural expectations. We played the newly assigned social roles, sacrificing for the megamachine and in the name of the almighty ruler. We prided ourselves on our lack of wildness, on our stability which allowed us to live productively in close quarters with so many potential competitors.
The autocrat and his regime taught us to be civilized, to play our part in the megamachine or be cast out. Thereafter, most civilized parents domesticate their children in similar ways. Children inherently worship their parents as the terrorized ancients learned to fear the all-powerful alien beings in their midst. Just as most modern children now learn to be civilized in staged settings, such as kindergarten classes, so that they develop respect for morality, human rights, and so forth, the first behavioural modernists feared the divine commandments of their rulers because they saw the gods’ mighty works all around them: the gods were fearsome indeed to have ruled over so many humans and to have built such megastructures. Within the walls of the empire, whether in Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Africa, or South America, you were at the gods’ mercy, so you quickly internalized the culture, however insane that culture might be. This is why North Koreans don’t presently revolt against their military dictatorship: most behavioural modernists are taught to be civil, which is to say servile to the divine alpha males who usually rule—whether those rulers be in the foreground or the shadows. Milgram’s experiments in our deference to authority likewise bear out this aspect of civility.
The essence of civility and thus of modern personhood is domestication, which is a form of training that’s based on the relationship between master and slave. This is the sociobiological basis of theistic creation myths which are so many garbled, hyperbolic dramatizations of the natural reality. But whereas the nonhuman livestock were needed for their bodies, which could be modified by breeding and thus by relying on the genes to mass produce them from the desired template, lower classes of humans were kept mainly for their mental potential. The gods needed worshipers, after all. And so culture rather than just sexual selection was needed to pacify headstrong foragers, whose ancestors had roamed the wilderness for millennia, free from human tyranny, and to convince them to serve the sham deities. Populations were divided into hierarchies and classes and put to work in the megamachines to build great cities, to prove the credibility of the autocrat’s grandiose promise: if you serve your god, he will bring heaven to earth and will share his divine bounty. The forager mentality was shed, then, as the wilderness was replaced with the structures of civilization, so that the inhabitants learned to fear the autocrat and his commandments rather than the natural forces that the autocrat had apparently tamed.
As I said, the ingredients of behavioural modernity, including technological advances, art, and abstract language predate agriculture; evidence of them has been found to be as old as the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 BCE). But agriculture, civilization, and the megamachine combined those ingredients to produce the familiar civilized herds, as distinct from the nomadic tribes that still seem prehuman to us. For example, language liberates the mind by providing a synoptic model of its mental contents. The model is simplified in that it ignores the labyrinthine complexities of the brain, since too much familiarity with how the brain actually operates would quickly exhaust the memory and render the mind insane; still, even such a symbolic caricature of the self allows the mind to organize its contents, track its development, and control much of its behaviour using mental representations to veto unfavourable options and to plan ahead for success.