A Motley Vision readers from way back may recognize some content in this post. The older version appeared as a 2-part piece in 2010, then titled, “So You Say You Want a Creavolution? Well, You Know…”. I’ve since added an introduction and more material about language and the possible tensions that may be at work when competing narratives go to war. This version is also the outcome of a Facebook discussion where I crowd sourced a thinking problem I ran up against in writing an introduction for a chapter of my WIP, Showdown at Crossfire Canyon: At the Interface Between Language and Landscape. The online discussion resulted in a breakthrough that enabled my reworking the chapter’s introduction and fine-tuning the post.
Here it is; have at it.
People need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by Mother Nature.
No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.
Creativity: The capacity to create new explanations.
The Beginning of Infinity
Chapter Nine: Environment Almighty
Given the Darwinian view that genes play a critical role in an individual’s success at controlling resources and reproducing, folks who notice similarities between human language’s and DNA’s discrete combinatorial systems might guess that the struggle that breaks out between narratives vying for the right to beget themselves as widely as possible (memes) and to the exclusion of competing narratives, is predictable, maybe inevitable. In the animal world, herd, pack, or pride narrative enforces itself through inherited brute strength or other survival strategies and the hair trigger instinct to use them. This is true too in some groups of humankind. But where the Rule of Law holds sway over a populace, and where thrashing someone to wrest control of resources from them has become criminalized, competing narratives seem to have but one remaining main road open to ensure their memes multiply and replenish the Earth: written and spoken language. In particular, the effectual mutation of narrative takes, the survival of the convictions they encode, and their legacies without end. Hence: showdowns at the borderlands between narrative takes.
But maybe there’s another way to look at struggles between narratives. A narrative asserting highest value often lays claim to some lineage of authority. It could be by designating itself “the chosen” narrative, by co-opting the pedigree of the “sacred,” by declaring itself a “winner,” by asserting the enduring efficacy of tradition, or by some other commonly accepted measure of incontestability. In the old, old days, such authority expressed itself through superior physical competencies that enabled survival and genetic contribution to the next generation: fitness. As the acceptance of violence declined (or maybe as its expense proved detrimental), determination of fitness settled its expression into language, often supported with threat of violence. This gave rise to such narrative strains as the Divine Right of Kings, which conveniently provided grounds for rulers—no matter how fit—to declare all objections to their will not only high treason, but treason against the Most High. Might makes right in its purest form. We perhaps see a modern version of this line of authority trying to elbow its way back into the halls of governance.
More commonly, authority is simply tied by lineage to big-T Truth—to reality, the way things actually, wholly are, often with the codicil “and that’s the way they’ve always been.” For folks of this persuasion, that means true authority within the realm of real life traces all the way up to Absolute Truth and throughout all time to an unchanging, self-evident axiom, true top to bottom, and necessarily true in all its unmoving and immovable parts. This narrative strain relies on the brawn and sometimes bite of a binary sense of an all-true/all-false, of all-in/all-out, all-black/all-white categorical character of instrumental language, where “task rightness” is applied to everything from installing doorknobs correctly to instilling proper spiritual and moral behavior in human beings. This was the truth-system I grew up in, complete with its reverence for classes of authority acting as keepers of the flame. And to be fair, instrumental takes on how to conduct life have enabled the groups of hominins who have prevailed to come as far as they have.
But as philosophers, linguists, and scientists have begun to say, at another level, truth may find expression in many moveable parts and fewer immovable ones, including discrete combinatorial encoding bit-parts that in themselves contain enough vitality to enable one narrative take to spark a successor that more accurately explains not only how certain kinds of relationships in the world work and why but that also reveal and predict other realms of possibilities. The leaps these sparks make do not only provide the discovery of physical law with momentum; they also develop new grounds for personal relationships and for the common good. Charles Taylor asserts that this level of dynamism exists in human expression in the constitutive linguistic dimension. The physicist David Deutsch calls a similar kind of conductivity between earlier and later theories in a line of scientific inquiry, where an earlier theory gives rise to more complete theory, “emergence.”
When competing narratives come to blows, it might seem obvious they are opposing narratives vying for the throne of Truth, with no real difference between them but their objections to each other—Truth’s triumph via team sport. Where combative narratives maintain their footing wholly in the instrumental realm of language, this may be right.
But sometimes, maybe what’s going on is that conflicting narrative takes are coming at each other from two different kinds of footing; maybe they’re two different methods for thinking butting heads. In the case of linguistics, the conflict arises (when it does) between instrumental language, which maintains competency at a critical level of human and animal success in the world, and constitutive language, which jumps category walls to extend from a prior level of meaning—including from an instrumental level—toward something other or something more. In science, for instance, disagreements may not be between radically different theories competing to determine which is the fittest, but occur within a theory, between instrumentalism as it holds forth in holism (the belief that all explanations that lead to growth in knowledge must express truth thorough-and-through, down to the quality of an explanation’s components), and the active principle of emergence, where a theory’s further development can erupt from potential encoded in a previous theory’s especially viable kernels, one or more of which may point the way to a farther-reaching, “more right” theory.
One might see how the “absolutely true, through-and-through,” and “less wrong, more right” linguistic dimensions might collide. Instrumentalism is a name-and-categorize, task-rightness system for developing clear-cut ways of framing knowledge, then transferring it reliably from mind to mind, that gets some job done. It relies on closed sets—therefore, on absolutes. Where it extends itself into the realm of constitutive/emergent phenomena, especially language, it may find itself reduced to fundamentalism, to literalism and holism, and to holdfast, ingrained denial. Instrumentalism is probably the oldest function of language, an adaptive strategy like developing sharp teeth, geared toward facilitating here-and-now, catch-and-hold survival. It operates on “fitness,” on the idea of fixing something or situating it in its right place, along with most other connotation of the word. As such, its end game is to reduce risk. Constitutive/emergence linguistic phenomenon, on the other hand, relies for its boundless development on taking calculated risks. It moves out from a previous position of understanding, driven by elements of a narrative strain that contain enough flash to light the way to further knowledge-creation. Humankind’s full spectrum well-being, from means for getting bread, to scientific developments and human progress, depend on both manners of expression. However, when one of these narrative strains asserts winner-take-all dominance, everybody may lose.
As a reliable account of the origin of life on Earth, the Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden itself stands a hair’s breadth away from being cast out of the paradise of credence. “It didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened that way,” scientists say as they pronounce the Eden story indefensible. Over the last century and a half, they have promoted science-based and evidence-supported stories to supplant the Creation Story: narrative strains of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, the yet-developing evolutionary tale.
Currently, the degree of conflict between the two storylines might be framed as a boxing match—Creationism v. Darwinism—with each camp claiming to have landed multiple knock-out punches. Or perhaps, given both sides’ claims to Higher Truth, the contention is more like a jousting tournament. Despite the pageant’s being over three hundred years old, sterling knights on either side continue to try to unhorse each other, resulting, at times, in such heated language as to lay the nobility of both sides open to doubt. Rampant name-calling and disrespecting of persons abound, along with the dusting-off-of-feet at the boundaries of each other’s narrative grounds.
The evolutionary take on human origins is epic: man began a long squirm out of the confines of the sea in a form far different from what he has now. Some environmental condition or trigger (and/or mutation, genetic drift, or accident of discovery) began to draw this creature out of its depths. In its pre-man body, in its blood and body salt and water content, our early land-going ancestor developed the cellular equipment to internalize qualities of the sea and cart it around with it on land on its stubby legs. Such transitions in physiological structure or in behavior that creatures make as they negotiate changes in their traditional environments or survive the demands of new ones are called “adaptations”. Charles Darwin named the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment produce more offspring “natural selection”. To play a little with the Darwinian take on man’s origins, some fishy creature did eat the fruit of a Tree of Knowledge—or, perhaps, did breathe the Tree’s forbidden oxygen content given off during photosynthesis. Because it transgressed natural boundaries (thou shalt surely die), there were revealed to it clever, verboten ploys for survival. Shame on it.
After attaining such knowledge, there was no going back (except in a few cases, but even then, there was no returning to the ancestral form). The creature left behind the garden-sea and did know daring others of its kind, producing steady streams of transformations, each new model building upon successes of predecessors, enhancing fitness on a temperamental planet. Some split off to pursue other interests. The environments hosting and, at times, driving these transformations continued to exert pressure, sometimes to the point of killing off completely some species we presume to have been unable to adapt quickly enough. Such extinctions could be thought of as the snuffing out
of the un-fittest. Despite their failings, many these creatures are not wholly lost to us. Their morphological outlines are chiseled into the fossil record alongside those of the many other strange, transitional creature-forms that likewise crossed the line—until they could no longer.
While the evolutionary narrative presents itself as shiny and new, non-teleological, rational, evidence-based, and—best of all—shame-free, some strands in its fabric do look familiar. According to Bickerton in his book Adam’s Tongue, in relatively recent versions of the evolutionary tale, the environment approached omnipotence in its demands upon species: that’s to say, it played God.
Bickerton quotes the neo-Darwinist George Williams (May 12, 1926 – September 8, 2010): “Adaptation is always symmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa.” Bickerton adds, “True, some biologists favored a more nuanced version, but for the majority, the organism was impotent, the environment all-powerful, and any interaction between the two ran along a strictly one-way street”.
By sneaking that word “all-powerful” into the sentence, Bickerton gives a head bob toward “that other” narrative whether he means to or not or means to only ironically. The God-man relationship in the Garden of Eden—and, indeed, the whole, long troubled relationship between the two throughout the Old Testament—was likewise a narrow, one-way street. God said; man did. Man never told God what to do, offered suggestions, dropped hints, or even cleared his throat, “ahem”. No, for man’s part, it was always, “Amen”.
True, here or there a brazen patriarch debated options with his creator or wrestled an angel for some advantage. For all we know, in these stories, God granted these men what they asked because it amused him to do so, just as he forbade them certain privileges without discussion or otherwise ignored chances to intervene in their affairs or inform them of other options—of which, let’s face it, there must have been many. In the OT, man was feckless, unless God favored him—or at least tolerated him enough not to destroy him. The key to survival in the OT story: obedience, the bending of the human will to
God’s will and to the wills of his designated mouthpieces. Obedience to an outside influence powerful enough to sustain your life, snuff it out, or at the very least raise beads of sweat on your brow—that was the Old Testament model of adaptation. In God’s terms for human survival, if man didn’t do what God said, God destroyed him, frequently using the environment as his hit-man. He sent floodwaters to drown recalcitrant mankind and all but a fraction of life along with him. He bade the earth open up and swallow sinners who had returned to old practices as security against uncertainty. He conjured the sea to crush the foreign army pursuing his darlings. He tormented and culled people with plagues. He commanded his favored culture to kill ill-favored cultures. For those who despite all prophetic urging dared to maintain their old ways against the decrees of this all-powerful God, the end of the world came abruptly. The earth gaped wide and sucked them down like a blue whale consumes krill—up to 40 million a day.
Okay, that krill part is a bit of an exaggeration. More to the point, this all powerful, vengeful model for God, with his “obey or die” dictum, and the all-powerful model of the environment, with its “adapt or die” commandment, were the ones I grew up with. Some narrative strains in religion provided me the omnipotent, punishing God; my schooling served up the environmental do or die model.
In fact, ‘til very recently, the Environment Almighty take on the history of the earth formed the backbone of the dominant narrative strain of evolution (until a theory called “niche construction” debuted circa late 1980s). It made me uneasy in the same ways as did that fiercely jealous and capriciously violent Old Testament God. The idea that my continued existence depended on powers so unforgiving, so non-negotiably fatal, made me hope that neither God nor Environment would find reason to turn a narrowed, disapproving eye upon me.
And yet . . . and yet. The older I became, the more I recognized I tended to settle into patterns of thought, behavior, language, and into known, comfortable surroundings and not budge unless some act of God demonstrated to me that I could not survive—psychologically, at least—sudden, dramatic changes in conditions until something gave.
What had to give? Me. I needed to take another step outside my comfort zone and adapt to new stresses on the old, familiar mental habitat, developing fresh features in my thinking that in turn affected that habitat. Based on my own strong desire for peace and quiet, I came to suspect that, barring some dramatic change in that Everlasting God whose power made and sustained Eden, the first breeding pair of hominins would likely have stayed in their garden stasis forever, all innocence and naked unknowingness. Our own continued, expressed wishes for a return to the Peaceable Kingdom confirm how deeply that environment still interests us. So I suspect that had not the serpent of change appeared in paradise and coiled itself around Eve, triggering a sudden shift in direction for mankind and precipitating all that “sweat of the brow” stuff, leading to the production of copious offspring capable of adapting to environments through the generations, we might still be who we were—whatever that was.
Besides being a linguist, Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, penned an extensive examination of how mankind’s condition has changed for the better, especially since the Enlightenment. He sees the Old Testament as a “celebration” of the kind of commonplace yet horrifying violence that characterized mankind’s behavior during early stages of its social evolution. He lumps the OT with the bloody epic The Iliad and other tales of predatory guts and glory prowess. He doesn’t mention the fascinating Icelandic tale of family feuds and unwavering blood-letting, Njáls Saga, but I’d certainly include it in Mankind’s Hall of Violent Literary Fame.
Yet Pinker takes a minute from reciting his litany of relentless and God-sanctified OT acts of murder, rape, infanticide, genocide, mutilation, and torture (to name a few) to make the following remark on a possible biblical/evolutionary overlap: “Some biblical scholars believe that the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden was a cultural memory of the transition from foraging to agriculture: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’”. As an aside, it interests me that while God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden, he did not demand that they shed their new duds—technically G of E property—and depart in the altogether in which he had created them. Apparently, he had the foresight to know that where those two were going they would need their clever invention.
But perhaps in one critical and intriguing way, the God Almighty story and the Environment Almighty story are tellingly joined at the hip: the means by which destruction descends upon transgressors. In the Old Testament, God’s punishment descends in the form of plagues, floods, starvation, droughts, giants, captivity. In general, by a wide variety of natural disasters, topped off with annihilation or enslavement at the hands of more dominant tribes. All common environmental stressors, on either narrative side of the Almighty story.
Conversely, deliverance from evil occurs in the lifting of the plague, the restoration of lost, life-sustaining resources, and in divinely-enacted release from the oppression of death-by-dominant-culture, especially where the oppressed signaled appropriate contrition. And perhaps most importantly of all, the Almighty’s favor manifested in the Israelites’ finally being granted entrance into the Promised Land, or the Land of Milk and Honey, which, if we think about it, in significant ways reflects back to the Garden of Eden. By the way, grapes play a prominent role in the Promised Land story. Israelite scouts cut a cluster of Canaanite grapes so large they had to carry it back to their camp on a shoulder pole to demonstrate to other members of their migrant population that this was a land of big and plenty.
We’ve perhaps been abiding in another kind of Eden for some time, a period of relative environmental stability. But that appears to be changing. The environment has once more begun to stir its hand, perhaps in an open slap. Our planet seems to be changing the balance of power in the relationship between us and it, in all its variety, because we have trespassed too often and been defiantly unrepentant. As a result, we’re experiencing perhaps the most powerful resurgence yet of the Environment Almighty tale in the form of climate change’s prophets’ litany of our undoings-to-come. If we do not change our evil ways—and they are, indeed, exploitative, greed-driven, resource-hogging, earth-stripping, carpe diem and devil take the hindmost behaviors—we may all suffer the sulfurous flames of destruction, droughts, flooding, and the ravaging of plagues. Or, at any rate, at the very least, the poorest among us will suffer catastrophic losses of lifestyle, perhaps of life itself.
At the bottom of these sustained bad acts that may imperil us all, or at least those who are “Not-Us”, lie age-old beliefs that Earth exists as a source of wealth and power for the worthy, that it’s a “thing” for our use. But underpinning those beliefs? An even older traditional story line traceable to early creatures’ adaptive behavior, aroused in response to the need to secure the evolutionary advantage. And nowadays, that old struggle almost always takes form in the language of instrumentality; that is, in language—including body language—applied strictly as a catch-and-hold tool.
This is the oldest form of environmental relationship that appears to have existed in this world. I am blessed by might, or by God or by some other superior quality or supernatural authority, or by my musculature, my sharp claws, my highly developed night vision, etc., and am otherwise granted high favor or else take it by the power of the amassed group to make use of you, the weak, the small, the isolated, the trespasser on our territory, the disenfranchised, the “Not-Us”, to fulfill the measure of my creation. In our modern version of the narrative, the exploitative, might-makes-right strain of teeth-baring enframing or instrumental language is a technology that reinforces our traditional natural selection impulses and standards. In today’s versions of the Law of the Jungle, the first line of offense in the strong-arm appropriation of resources will be the most toolish of talk.
It’s hard to say whether men like Williams who promoted the neo-Darwinist concept of an all-powerful environment wrote that dynamic into the evolutionary tale because the archetypal, omnipotent God/impotent Man dynamic cast its shadow across their thinking. To be clear, my purpose is not to give a Darwinian reading of the Creation story nor a paradisaical reading to Darwinism. I don’t have a deep comprehension of the Darwinian narrative take on man’s origins. Neither do I have a scholar’s-eye-view into the Garden of Eden over the shoulder of that forbidding seraph.
Still, to my eye, both narrative takes share enough strong rhetorical markers to suggest they may be kindred. By Darwinism’s own dictum, a species doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, with no inheritance and no relations close by on another island, on another continent, or in the species’ past.
The same with narratives. They have forerunners, cousins, and offshoots. While Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces may have about it the bluster of testosterone, it successfully demonstrates recurring and developing narrative patterns across cultures and through time. Before Darwin, other thinkers and scientists were already working on the questions that the concept of inheritance posed. Darwin was aware of many and influenced by some.
But the modern belief in Environment Almighty—that seems a strange turn in the scientific tale. Like a newly discovered species that at first glance seems to share no genetic relationship with any other species, it’s doubtful it just popped in from nowhere. Somewhere, among all the strata of stories about man’s origins and days upon Earth, may be buried the missing links, including the stresses many species have undergone as they struggled to meet an environmental shift’s precipitous challenges.
Once we begin taking language seriously and become fluent in better methods for analyzing rhetorical kinship markers in narrative strains, we might trace more precisely any existent lines of relation between these two seemingly, mutually exclusive storylines, similar to how we can follow human inheritance with genetic testing, often with surprising results. Is the Garden of Eden tale in some way one of Darwinism’s narrative forebears? Did a Creationist point of view slip in through the back door and dally with a Darwinian Lucy? Did Creationism give rise in some other way to scientific impetus that led to a jog in narrative direction?
Maybe, maybe not, but both storylines demonstrate characteristics suggesting that these two narrative creatures may be more closely related than either side wants to admit, purity of ancestral strain being, of course, a vital component of privilege in some folks’ identities, as asserted through taxonomic lines and their accompanying genealogical storylines. Such lineages are as hallowed as Truth and its Authority. Another possible explanation for any similarities they show: maybe they share a common archetypal ancestor—a cultural memory of departure and its accompanying strains, like Pinker suggests.
I like the evolutionary tale. Despite its “you snooze, you lose” undercurrent, it’s arguably the opening scene on a long tale of unfolding potential—though no creatures thought of it that way, and many people still don’t.
But the OT Creation story holds a special place in my soul. In the heart of my thinking, in a metaphorical amygdala wrapped in the layers and layers of my storied mind, are vestiges of the Garden of Eden tale. Back when I began to awaken to the possibilities in the world but still breathed the water of literal belief, as I sifted out sustaining elements that urged toiling toward the water’s edge, the Garden of Eden story, with its critical plot line of humankind leaving a static period of development because some element in their environment had suddenly awoken to exert pressure on them, was there for me. Off the forebears went into that world of problems that David Deutsch says will always be there.
Some aspects of the narrative became vestigial to my thinking, then dropped away. Three decades have passed since it held true north position on my compass. But I admit happily that the creature I have become emerged from that lush, beguiling, colorful, innocent, and perhaps, in some ways, still developing story of mankind’s departure from a dependent relationship with a forbidding, omnipotent environment.
So while I left Eden long ago, I recognize it as a forerunner of the language I live and breathe today. I feel neither ashamed nor regretful of the prominent role it once played in my life. In fact, given an opportunity, like this one, I celebrate it. What a shame it would be if the rhetorical environment were to become so overheated, so inhospitable to narrative diversity, as to force such a telling tale into extinction.