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What a Piece of Work is Man: or, Would Starfish Feel the Same Way About Pentagrams?

By Jeremy Harte

Originally Published at Imbolc 2001

Archaeologists are familiar with an item which turns up in the debris of Anglo-Saxon weaving sheds; it is a long flat bar, used to beat down the weft and press it tight after each motion of the loom. This is called a weaving sword.

A long, long way away, in central Mexico, archaeologists are familiar with an artefact found on pre-Columbian sites: a long flat bar, which tamps down the weft in the loom. It appears in early pictures of women at work preparing cloth. There is a Nahuatl name for the tool, which translates as 'weaving sword'.

That should make the most hardened relativist wonder if there is, perhaps, such a thing as human nature. The two phrases are, if you like a coincidence, but it is not the sort of meaningless coincidence that you occasionally get between different cultures. I am reliably assured that the Pitjantjara word for dog is dog, which is not so very surprising because there are only that many sounds a language can make, and every now and then one would expect the same combination to be used for the same thing. But this business of weaving swords is quite different, because it is the same idea occurring in two separate cultures, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Mexicans are about as separate as you can get.

The destinies of the Old World and the New diverged a long time ago - about 13,000 BC, although this figure seems to be subject to continual revision. At that time, both hemispheres were represented by Palaeolithic cultures, who didn't have weaving, let alone swords. And yet in 1521, when Cortes and his men were strolling for the first time in the streets of Tenochtitlán, they came across girls making thread and weaving cloth - using looms, distaffs, spindles, spindlewhorls - all the same tools with which they were familiar at home in Andalusia. The creative mind seems to be made out of the same stuff, wherever you go, and to come up with much the same ideas - even the same phrase for these ideas, allowing for translation.

The conquistadors didn't find this at all odd, but then they weren't anthropologists. Since their day, the academic world has made very heavy weather out of emphasising the gulfs that lie between world cultures: not just variations in dress and food and houses, the things that a tourist sees on the first day, but far more fundamental differences between them and us. When people construct their own culture and language, they are constructing their own reality, which is why an Aborigine is able with complete honesty to point to a rock and say that it is a Dream-time wallaby when it doesn't look anything like a wallaby to you or me.

This is alright, up to a point. It lets everyone carry on with tradition without being told that they are silly and must conform to the norms of whatever culture has global supremacy at the time. But you can over-emphasise the incompatibility of cultures. People recognise that other people are not aliens; Cortes and Montezuma understood each other pretty well on certain matters. If the colonial encounter was a tragedy, it was one rooted, not in absolute incomprehension, but in the fumbling attempts of two cultures to comprehend each other.

Recognising what human beings have in common, rather than stressing how different they are from each other, seems to have passed out of the remit of anthropology. These days, most of the work on this subject is being done by evolutionary biologists. There are good reasons for this. Human nature - dreams and laughter and getting the willies when you look over the edge of a cliff - may have an ultimate cause in the will of the gods, but its proximate cause is heredity. The first reason for children and kittens and foals being different is, after all, the fact that they come from different parents. Since, ultimately, horses and cats and people derive from a single ancestral population, the present variations between their natures must have come into being over time, and must have been perpetuated by some mechanism, two mysteries which have been cleared up to the satisfaction of most thinkers by Darwin's theory of evolution. True, there is a long-standing mistrust of Darwin in mystical circles. Such unlikely bedfellows as Charles Fort and Madam Blavatsky went into print saying that the Origin of Species was all rubbish. But until someone can come up with a better explanation of why we have ended up with kneecaps and stomach juices and sneezing and so on - an explanation that doesn't involve God, or the Goddess, sitting down at a drawing pad one morning and running off a blueprint for everything from toenails to the inner ear - then we're stuck with Darwin.

But can we honestly apply Darwinian thinking to the mind? The man himself thought we could: in fact his original notebooks relish the quiet joke that our 'pre-existent ideas' (as the philosophers have it) originate in the mental equipment of baboons, not in the mind of God. But for a century this kind of thinking remained off-limits. Not fair to upset the Church of England, don't you know. Besides, the early anthropologists/ folklorists, like Tylor and Frazer, were wedded to the idea that evolution was a story of progress, not one of diversification and adaptation.

But when you think about it, a mental characteristic must (like every other feature of a species) be inherited from ancestors who did well out of having that feature. There may have been others who felt differently, but they left no descendants, precisely because their minds were non-adaptive. The only reason for something like fear to exist is because the creatures who live now had ancestors who, panicking and running, lived to fight (and breed) another day. It is maladaptive to be frightened of everything, so minds inherit a susceptibility to things that trigger the emotion. Fear varies from species to species. Birds cower in the nest if a short-necked, long-tailed hawk-like shadow flies over. Actually it's an ethologist, winding them up, and when the cardboard cut-out is tugged back the other way, so that it looks more like a goose, the birds stop panicking. Human beings, who have no reason to be afraid of hawks, laugh at the experiment, but it's amazing how shirty humans will get if something creeps up behind them. Remember those horrible lines in the Ancient Mariner -

'Like one who one a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread
And having once turned round, moves on
And no more turns his head
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread'

Frightful fiends do not represent a threat to Darwinian survival in the African savannah, but leopards do, and they stalk and jump from behind, usually at night. So we are afraid of something behind us in the dark, and think that this is perfectly natural, forgetting that nocturnal creatures are just as unhappy in the light. Each to their own.

The identity of ghosts is anyone's guess, and it is not clear how one ought to settle that issue: but the human fear of ghosts is a problem of evolutionary biology. We are descended from some sort of tree rat which didn't have the mental equipment for supernatural dread - and now here we are, and we definitely do - so it must have been inherited from some ancestors along the line who found that this characteristic increased their chances of living longer and leaving larger families. Since ghosts don't actually pose much of a threat to human life, the emotion must have been developed for some other purpose. You might think that it would be more sensible for our ancestors to be frightened specifically of leopards, lions, hyenas and so on, but this is not the case. If people were instinctively terrified of big cats, they wouldn't keep little cats, which look much the same. Actually, recognising a lion as such takes valuable seconds which could be used for getting up a tree, not to mentioning requiring some quite complicated neural machinery - and the brain is already running lots of energy-hungry circuitry as it is. Much more efficient to panic at shadows in the dark and something prowling behind.

Faced with inadequate information - a mysterious noise, a form in the darkness - the mind has evolved to make a simple assumption: there's something alive out there. It's easy to see why. Hominid A, who ran from a stump under the impression that it was a bear, had a good laugh and lived to see another day. Hominid B, who strolled over and kicked the bear under the impression it was a stump, has left no descendants. Even when there is no element of danger, our minds always interpret ambiguous behaviour as being purposeful. In the Irish spinning song, the old lady says

"Eileen, a chara, I hear someone rapping"
"Tis the ivy, dear granny, at the window-glass tapping"
"Eileen, I'm sure I hear somebody sighing"
"Tis the sound, nana dear, of the autumn winds dying"

Actually it isn't, it's the grand-daughter's boyfriend hoping for a bit on the side, which only goes to prove that it pays to be suspicious in this kind of situation. But, leaving Irish lovers out of the question, what do tapping and sighing suggest? Ghosts. Typically, narratives of supernatural encounters involve the minimum of sensory stimulus, surrounded by the maximum of interpretation. Pad, pad, pad. It sounds like footsteps. It is footsteps. It must be someone walking up and down. It must be old Ebenezer the miser, searching restlessly for the treasure that was lost. etc. Always the same stage effects in ghost stories - creaks, whispers, shadows, the faint smell of incense or tobacco, the sound of rustling silk. Our minds leap to interpret these things, but then that is what our minds are designed to do.

And yet, when we rush upstairs into the haunted room, there is nothing there. How can something - for we definitely heard the most peculiar noises - be nothing? Before we get too philosophical, it is worth wondering whether thingness is a genuine quality of the world, or a by-product of evolutionary physiology. When we see something, the process is surprisingly complicated. After all, the visual field starts off as a splodge of colours, like one of those advertisement hoarding pictures seen close up. It's only in colouring books that objects have clear outlines and no shading. Somehow (and this process involves more complex software than chess, crosswords and the theory of relativity lumped into one) we figure out the world as consisting of one thing after another.

We see things. But we don't hear things - not in the same way; we hear sounds, and sounds are ambiguous until they are matched with visual entities (or tactile ones, in the case of blind people). A strange sound does not suggest anything but itself, it conjures up no idea of an object that could have made it. As for smells, we hardly attempt to match them up with a world of things at all. They remain pure sensation, washing through the mind, instead of being used by it to construct a model of the world.

All this seems quite clear (note that visual metaphor) but only to human beings. Echo-locators like bats and whales don't hear sound as we hear sound - they must perceive it as an actual revelation of a world full of objects, as we do with sight. There isn't much to see in the depths, so it wouldn't be cost-effective to process that as we do. Maybe visual impressions just wash past a whale's eyes like noise: like our ears, their two eyes are on either side of the head, without a joined-up field of vision. And what about smell? To a sniffing dog, it is a whole complex world built up out of different things over time, whereas to us it is only a haunting sense of atmosphere.

What dogs perceive when they see things in haunted houses is anyone's guess. Furthermore, most species of animal probably don't perceive a world of objects at all, due to the extremely complicated nature of the mental machinery required to work this trick. So are there really things in the world at all, or is it just a pulsing set of cosmic rays? Luther's Devil was both there and not there, he was so real he could stand in the corner of a room and yet insubstantial enough to have an ink-pot thrown through them. This, and not 'reality', is beginning to look like the ordinary state of the universe. It may be that ghosts are exploiting the cracks which lie in between the peculiarly human construction of sensations. It would be nice to know the truth about this, of course, but the only instruments with which we can do this are our own minds, which aren't designed for that kind of job. Human nature came into being, not as a necessary self-realisation of the cosmos, but because it was the best design for hunting down small animals and raising large families on the African plains. Under the circumstances, it's surprising that we come up with ideas about the world at all.

Maybe, behind the fleeting world of sensations, there is an ultimate reality. But our knowledge of this has to be processed by minds designed for much more mundane purposes. Perhaps that is why we like to turn those strange ghostly bumps and bangs into a personality. Mediums, and priests, have always made a living out of giving a name and an identity to our intimations of the supernatural. It's only natural, because we have, built into our minds, a tendency to interpret vague, uncertain things as being purposeful and alive. 'How easy is a bush supposed a bear', it says in Shakespeare. If bushes and stones can seem to be alive, maybe they are individuals like us; (we think) it would be a good idea to worship them. It's human nature to find signs of life in the universe itself: this is the 'faces in the clouds' theory of religious origins.

'For now I see through a glass darkly; but then, face to face'. To see the face of a god is an epiphany of bliss, or terror, but ultimately these possibilities only exist because human nature places a particular emphasis on facial recognition. In the great scheme of things, one face looks pretty much like another - the members of a family are more alike than the leaves of a tree - but we are made in such a way that at once we can tell who is who. There is a distinct mental operation involved here. It is not identification - like reading a word, or a Chinese character, at a glance - but recognition. Given a face-like shape, the mind whizzes through a process of telling it apart from other faces, and the result is delivered with that unique feeling of personal encounter.

It is easy to see why facial recognition should have evolved its own programmes, running in parallel with the mental workings that identify objects. Relationships with people - allies, rivals, kinsfolk, mates - are the key to success for a social being. It pays to remember the faces of your friends and enemies. But our situation in a Darwinian world doesn't just account for the possession of this skill: it explains the way in which it has been put together. You cannot possibly remember every detail of a face, computer-style, because it would take too long to come up with a match. Instead we pick out details, dealing only with the variations that are actually likely. Experimentally messing around with the colours of a portrait makes no difference to recognition, because colour changes all the time with light and shade. But turning the picture upside down scrambles our recognition software at once, because that is something that doesn't usually happen in nature.

If the mind recognises faces by a few key features, it should be possible to cheat the senses by creating imaginary faces which lack these crucial elements. In cultures throughout the world, people produce artefacts which do just that: they are called archaic heads. John Billingsley, in his study of the motif, draws attention to the universal tricks of style which are used, from Ireland to Japan, to give these sculptures their eerie, numinous aspect. They are in complete contrast to the naturalistic heads which we find in classical and late mediaeval art, works created to look like real people. It's not just that detail is absent in archaic heads: after all, a cartoonist can create instantly recognisable humanity with a few sketched lines. The anonymous masters of the archaic head tradition understood intuitively that by omitting certain features, they could produce faces robbed of almost everything that our recognition software requires. Unable to understand such faces, we see them as otherworldly.

In fact nature produces more realistic heads than Celtic art; or, putting it another way, the random patterns of rock and stone are much more readily constructed by the human eye into lifelike faces. John Michell wrote some time ago on simulacra, by which he meant forms in nature that happened to look like something else. The most convincing examples were faces. Terence Meaden has gone face-hunting more recently among the Avebury stones, and his discoveries are put down by many observers to the same effect. It seems that the human software for facial recognition is so active that it goes into overdrive, seeing faces where they shouldn't be.

What is the Green Man, come to that, but a face in a tree? The features of a foliate head grow imperceptibly into leaves, and some of the greatest works of art in this field - the Bamberg head, for instance - take much of their character from visual puns, from shadows that could ambiguously be eyebrows or the curve of a leaf. Our minds take pleasure in resolving such ambiguities, because that's what minds are designed for: to take the uncertain nature of sense impressions and turn them into a workable model of the world.

It is easy, when thinking along Darwinian lines, to stress the functional elements of living design, and ignore the role of pleasure. For every creature enjoys doing the things that promote its survival (or rather, promoted the survival of its ancestors). That's what pleasure is for: living creatures wouldn't acquire any function, feelings included, unless it served some purpose. Cows get off on eating grass; lizards love to bask in the sun. We enjoy recognising faces. Because we, uniquely, are able to modify our environment in order to make life more pleasant for us than it would be in nature, we have carved the columns and cloisters and pews and poppyheads of mediaeval cathedrals with little heads, half-hidden in greenery.

But why the greenery? Why the trees? There is no doubt that we enjoy them, enough to spend hours carving stone and wood, pasting up floral wallpaper, growing Hanging Gardens of Babylon. 'Paradise' was originally the Persian word for a park, and the original evolutionary home of humanity did in fact look rather more like Regents Park than many of the place we've ended up in since then. There's no direct benefit to be gained from trees - as there is from water, shade, and the other good things of a garden - but they are the most easily recognised feature of a lush optimum habitat. Give us, or rather our ancestors, graceful trees set in green grass and flowers, and survival is assured. If rats could make gardens, they would give them artistic tunnels and rubbish.

So it seems that the Green Man, the face recognised in the leaves, is not an arbitrary notion by mediaeval artists but corresponds instead to something fundamental in human nature. This isn't a new conclusion, by any means. One of the most evocative books on the subject, by William Anderson, sees him as an elemental force of nature who surfaces, time and again, in human consciousness. Anderson's Green Man is a Jungian archetype.

Jung has been popular with poets, less so with psychologists. The idea that there are hidden archetypes lying behind our myths and dreams has immense appeal, and it explains exactly those common features of human nature which cultural relativism tends to slur over. But there is something very woolly about archetypes. Jung never explained exactly what they were. In his earlier works he hinted that they were actual, neural features of the brain, but later on they become more like external god-forms. This ambiguity has been cultivated by his followers. Anderson's Green Man is a force who manifests in history, time and again. Though he is often lost to tradition, he never fails to miraculously re-emerge from.well, from where, exactly? From the physical-mental human mind, or from a transcendent otherwhere? We are not told.

From a Darwinian perspective, it is no longer necessary to imagine a separate metaphysical world of archetypal images. The Green Man - or rather the trees-and-faces instincts that come together to make him - does indeed exist outside of individual human consciousness, but only because he exists in the blueprint for the human mind. Our common humanity came into being long before any of us did, but it is still the contingent result of the particular events that led to the survival of certain ancestors. Evolution is historical: it is a product of this world, and not any other.

Jung was on the right track when he went beyond the individual, and beyond cultural tradition, in the search to find meaning for fundamental resemblances among humanity. But it is too high-falutin' to restrict a project like this to the grand themes, like creation or flood myths. Aztec spindles can tell us just as much about the common ground of human nature. We do not need to hypothesise spindle-gods, or Platonic ideal spindles. Telepathy need not be invoked. Only the functional properties of the human hand, twisting and coiling; the instinctive physics built into the minds of creatures designed to catch and throw; the spatial awareness that gives concepts of over and under - and the need for woolly blankets in a cool climate. The human mind is not an abstraction, but part of the functioning of living individuals, thinking and acting in the familiar world.

The world of the Aztecs, like that of many other traditions, had four directions. Paul Devereux, Nigel Pennick and other geomantic writers have shown that these directions do not exist as absolutes in the world, however much we may wish to make sunrise and sunset, winds and magnetic poles into an approximation of them. They are rather a consequence of our own bodies. Symmetry is an efficient way of running a body - almost any organism has it. It simplifies the software to have equivalent limb structures on either side. Creatures that are going places, and that think about what they're doing, will need a working concept of front (where I'm going) and back (where I've been). Hence four directions. But there is nothing about the universe that requires it. Starfish get by perfectly well with pentagonal, not bilateral symmetry.

Human beings do not just move quadrilaterally: we think that way as well. Almost every culture that makes a feature of the four directions associates them with seasons, elements, colours, evangelists and other rather intangible qualities. These systems do not originate with an abstract design for fourness - what functional value would that have? They are based in the need to orient the body in space. Four directions are spatially understood as mountains, horizons, rivers of Eden. The extension of spatial metaphors to cover time is a recurrent trick of language - beforehand, afterwards, looking forwards to something and thinking back on it.

This occurs instinctively in all languages, including pidgins and creoles. And space is an ever-present source of metaphor for other things as well. Our minds are crammed full of ideas, and we have to arrange them somehow (yes! more metaphor). The existing arrangements for organising our self-knowledge in landscape are exapted, to use Stephen Jay Gould's phrase, into ways of placing ourselves in the comparatively new world of self-knowledge; as the girl says in the song

'I know where I'm going
And I know who's going with me
I know who I love
But the dear knows who I'll marry'.

A classic Darwinian situation. Because a fourfold orientation in space has proved useful as an organising principle for the mind, we think it is an eternal and necessary principle. Squares are solid and trustworthy. Pentagons are mysterious and it seems that, while almost everybody can draw a decent square or cross, hardly anyone can do an accurate pentagon or pentagram. From a pure design standpoint, it is as easy to build a creature that can intuit an angle of 72 degrees as one of 90, but as this would have had no survival value to our ancestors, it isn't built into our wiring. Of course hyper-intelligent starfish would think in five directions and not four, and could doodle accurate pentagrams, but just because of that, they'd lack any mystic feeling for them.

Jung, following the alchemists, understood the mystical significance of quadriplicities, as well as triplicities. The symbolic value of a three-plus-one configuration appears as one of his few abstract archetypes, along with personalities such as the Trickster and so on. But Jung never felt the need to ask why such a mental model should have arisen. Quaternities we can understand. But where do trinities come from?

'Let no one enter', said the sign on the Academy 'who is not a geometer'. Mathematics has always ranked pretty high as a mental faculty, especially among those who want to abstract human intelligence from the messy human situation in which we usually find it. When the slave in the Meno understands a geometrical theorem, Plato takes it as proof positive that the soul is born with recollections of pure truth from the world of Ideas. But human beings are not the only creatures who act as if they understood mathematics.

'God is number, weight and measure', and not just God. In order to survive, any mobile creature must be quick to judge the distance between two branches, the width of a tunnel, the weight that is too heavy to carry to the nest. Moreover, most of the animals that end up in laboratories can figure out numerical accumulations, rather than proportional ones, and can transfer this knowledge from one sort of thing to another.

Whether this involves understanding proportions, or is simply a mental process that leads to behaving as if you understood them, is one for the philosophers. In any case, the kind of thinking involved is not the same as the one we use when we are counting. When trained to bash a bar six times for the usual reward, rats soon end up happily doing it between five and seven times (usually seven, to be on the safe side) but never acquire an exact knowledge of sixness, any more than we can draw an exact twelve-inch line without a ruler. In either case, the evolutionary benefits don't justify the expense of the software. The human mind has got round the problem, not by evolving a more exact judgement of number, but by sidelining the linear verbal faculty of counting and marrying it up to the pre-existing skill of judging quantity.

Funes the Memorist, in Borges' story, could perceive the number of leaves on a tree as exactly and distinctly as we can tell the number of objects on a table. But he was an exception. And in fact we cannot distinguish even small numbers of objects at a glance - which is why the pips on dice and cards have to be arranged in patterns, which we can tell instantly. Four, five and six need their own shapes. But people, like many other creatures, have a basic skill in reckoning numbers one, two and three. We see at once how many there are - or rather, since mind and eye are not instantaneous, we find we know the result of the calculation before we are aware of making it. For higher numbers, a different mental mechanism comes into play, one which has originated more recently in evolutionary time, is less well-honed, and sometimes makes mistakes. That's why IIII had to be changed to IV on the clocks when people found that, at a glance, it looked like III. But nobody ever had problems with II and III.

Three is the highest figure for which our exact judgement of number will work. And we know it, although we don't know that we know it. The mind will happily hold three verses in a triad, three clauses in a rhetorical peroration. There once was a king who had three sons, and we can readily follow their adventures one by one. The Rule of Three is one of the few general rules in folklore that seem to work. Call it archetypal if you like, but the root of the archetype lies not in an abstract realm of ideas, but in the design of the mind produced by differential survival of ancestors with a little more or less in the way of intuitive skills.

John Donne wrote a poem on the universality of the cross, seeing it as proof of God's design in the world. But it is the world which has produced living creatures, one of them with speech, culture and religion, who would find that a cross was a significant shape, even if Good Friday had never happened. There are Christian arguments for the work of the Trinity in creating the world, and Hindu ones; possibly someone, somewhere, has in mind a transcendent role for the Maiden, Mother and Crone. It is almost tactless to suggest that these images have come into being as a by-product of the biological history of one species, but that's the way it is.

If starfish had a god, they would give her five sides.

Further Reading

  • There is a lot of popular science coming out on the evolutionary theme these days. Steven Pinker's How The Mind Works (Penguin, 1997) is celebrated; John D. Barrow's The Artful Universe (OUP, 1995) deals with this among other themes.
  • Readers who can't stand Richard Dawkins should engage with Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Penguin, 1995). Contrariwise, Kenan Malik has just published a critique of the evolutionary position in Man Beast and Zombie (Weidenfeld, 2000).
  • For the psychology of facial recognition, I have drawn on Vicki Bruce and Andy Young, In the Eye of the Beholder (OUP, 1998); and for that of number, on Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense (OUP, 1997).


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