This morning we feature part thirteen of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire, 12) The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors. Reposted from Telepolis.
The Birth of Boundary Breakers
Neolithic centers like Catal Huyuk left only wordless clues to the new forms of diversity boiling in the cauldron of late stone age cities. The time has come to skip ahead 5,000 years to municipalities which have left their tablets and their scrolls -artifacts whose calligraphy fills in the blank spots left by archaeology. There we can see new factors focussing the frenzies of the nascent global brain. Far below the surface of familiarity, these forces tapped the power lines of psychobiology, built new arenas where instincts could chorus in harmony, and rewrote the emotional scripts which transmogrify society. The catalysts for transformation would be three: freedom to escape group boundaries; ideas; and the games subcultures were about to learn to play.
While some citizens of that far-Western Asian flank now known as Turkey mixed mud to erect the housing developments of Catal Huyuk, others rowed beyond the horizon of the Aegean Sea, came across Crete and the 30 islands of the Cyclades, put down roots and stayed. Sixty miles of sea did not stop the neolithic data rush: the settlers kept up with developments back on the Anatolian plains, importing the new art of wheat cultivation and cattle raising, then joining the trade loop of obsidian which helped make Catal Huyuk’s stone craftsmen rich. Archaeological evidence suggests that at the same time, other Anatolians paddled their high-prowed boats to mainland Greece, where they found accomplished sailors who had been plying the waters, fetching obsidian from distant isles, and fishing tuna since roughly 12,000 b.c.1
Judging from linguistics and from archaeological remains, Eastern immigrants and seafaring salesmen kept the interlocked communities of the Cyclades, Crete and mainland Greece awash in Syrian-style seals to secure doorways and storage jars, and in jewelry which followed fashions set by Mesopotamian Ur. But pre-Hellenic civilization remained Middle Eastern in more basic ways. Catal Huyuk, for example, had been decorated with wall-to-wall paintings starring women with wide open thighs. The Cretans zestfully embraced this sex-goddess-fixation, but covered the loins which had entranced the folks in the old country and targeted their adulation on paintings of fully-clothed women whose standing bodies made a bold display of very naked breasts. Flaunting the need of each group to distinguish itself from its benefactors, Greek mainlanders abandoned brushstrokes for carved figurines. What’s more, Greece’s nude femmes lay instead of sitting or standing, and coyly crossed their arms to hide their mammaries.
Unlike the citizens of Catal Huyuk2 , the pre-Hellenes had walled hilltop towns, but their defensive foresight did them little good. They were conquered by cattle-herding Indo-Europeans, marauders who swept down from the Caucasus in waves, the first around 2200 b.c, the second just two hundred years later.3 These rough-hewn land-rovers carved up the Helladic sea-lovers brutally. However they brought one gift – the language which would become what we call Greek.4 Being patriarchal, the conquerors banished womanly charms from the local artwork and imposed a fixation on more masculine things: a man fighting a centaur, men hunting a lion with the help of dogs, and, the real key, statuettes of horses, those sources of speed and power which lifted heroes from the ground on which mere women walked. For the Indo-Europeans had snatched the battle edge with which they’d over-run large chunks of Turkey, Iran, India, Europe, and western China5 by being the first to tame the “mighty steed.”6 With this hoofed transfer device they’d spread their tongue7 from Xinjiang to Scandinavia, leaving a legacy which would eventually sprout as English, German, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Armenian, Irish, Welsh, Albanian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Czech, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, among others.8 However their method of breaking barriers and imprinting their data wasn’t exactly nice.
It would appear that the Indo-European warrior tradition frequently dictated sending out battle parties of men to slay the males in the territories they took, then to impregnate the newly-widowed or unfathered women.9 Lines attributed to 8th century poet/farmer Hesiod may give an idea of the results. He describes the origins of a testosterone-soaked post-invasion warrior tribe thus: “And she conceived and bare Aeacus, delighting in horses. Now when he came to the full measure of desired youth, he chafed at being alone. And the father of men and gods made all the ants that were in the lovely isle into men and wide-girdled women.” The Greek descendants of settlers from the East were likely to have been Hesiod’s (or should we say Aeacus’) “ants.” In India, war records left by descendants of the savagers from the Caucasus (the Mahabharata and Ramayana)10 portrayed the native population as monkeys. Any local males who’d evaded Indo-European slaughter would presumably have been put to work doing what ants and monkeys did best – laboring for the sons of their weapon-loving masters. The purpose for which the defeated women would have been used may explain the emphasis on their wide-girdled hips.
Back to Hesiod for more on the product of the resulting inseminations: “…The sons of Aeacus …rejoiced in battle as though a feast.”11 Little wonder, given their father’s probable origins. This particular batch of legendary sons became a tribe called the Achaeans, the slaughter-obsessed heroes of Homer’s Iliad and the dominators of the Peloponnesus. Says Hesiod of the Achaeans’ downtrodden subjects:”These were the first who fitted with thwarts ships with curved sides, and the first who used sails, the wings of a sea-going ship.” Captained by Indo-Europeans, the waterborne weavers of Aegean mind became not only vessels of trade but conveyors of the sort of pillage Andromache would mourn at Troy. Later, the launches would be used for an even more historically significant task.
Thanks to the “joy in battle” Hesiod refers to, no one was safe. This may be why by 1200 b.c. Greek hill forts were buttressed in the manner of the strongholds where “hero” plunderers like Achilles, Odysseus and Agamemnon were said to have lived.12 The 24 to 57-foot-wide walls of these “Mycenaean palaces” and their outer ramparts were constructed of stones so large that later generations were convinced only a race of one-eyed giants, the Cyclops, could have wedged each boulder into place.
A thousand years later the old invaders were faced with new attackers. These were yet another Northern people, the Dorians–every bit as pitiless as the Indo-Europeans had been. The interlopers were illiterate, but they’d managed to a perfect a pole-vault in materials science – the art of making swords from iron. Indo-European Greeks still perforated gizzards with weapons of a material tried and true by 2,000 years of satisfied warriors, good old-fashioned bronze. However a stubby stabbing-sword was the best the orange metal’s strength would allow. A fighter equipped with a long slashing blade of iron could cut down a bronze-armed warrior before the outclassed champion could lunge close enough to puncture anything but air. So despite the massive defensive structures the Mycenean hunters of man and beast had built, they were over-run. Many used their subjects’ ships to flee, planting cities on the Turkish fringe of the Aegean Sea and naming this newly Grecofied coastal strip Ionia. Little did they realize that only 100 generations earlier, the ancestors of the women with whom they’d intermixed had called some of this territory home.
Meanwhile, back on the Hellespont and Peloponnesus, the illiterate Dorians wiped out the budding alphabet – Linear B -used by the Greek kings’ record-keepers and reduced the beginnings of a civilization to what seemed like civilization’s end. It took four hundred years before the Greeks would invent a new writing system and get their cultural act together again. By this time, all manner of tribes, clans and families had staked their claims to real estate. Some of them must have wondered if it had been worth the effort. A crowd of crags left only stingy valleys in the creases where they met. The land within these folds of rock was so poorly clothed with soil that Plato later called the place “a fleshless skeleton.” Grain would not grow readily here. But olives and grape vines could suck moisture from the lower depths.13 The families who had been first to seize the best and greatest amount of land – the Eupatrids – lived off the surplus their exorbitant acreage produced. Others were not so lucky. As they multiplied, they split their tracts amongst their sons.14 These lots (named because each son picked a lot to see which swatch of terra firma would be his) grew smaller, so small that their owners were gradually impoverished. To help the unfortunates over hard times, the Eupatrids lent them funds, then collected their debtors’ strips of soil when the harvest didn’t live up to expectations.Soon a poor farmer’s collateral for his loans became his body.
This was one of many times when “the wings of a sea-going ship” would rearrange the evolution of human life. Farmers who couldn’t pay off their borrowings ended as slaves. Others decided on the risky business of adventure, took to the sea, and found more fertile footholds in coastal enclaves whose goods could bring a hefty price back in the newly-flourishing city-states of home, which badly needed grain15 and craved exotic luxuries. The colonists spread their web 2,300 miles from Mainica in Spain to Tanais in Russia.16
Mainland cities were not the only ones sending out boatloads of the land and profit hungry to weave a mesh of trading colonies. Nor were they the first to be jolted forward by the rush of data which comes from the resultant upgrade in network power. By the 7th century b.c. the Asian Greeks of Ionia were hell-bent on seeding excess citizens wherever they could find a promising beachhead. One of those leading the pack was an Ionian octopus called Miletus.
Miletus imported wool from the local Anatolian countryside, ran it through textile mills, built an impressive clothing industry, and sowed 80 colonies from the Black Sea and Egypt to Italy. With her sixty colonies to the north, Miletus traded clothware for flax, timber, fruit and metals. What’s more, Miletus was part of a web of hundreds of additional Greek colonies (including those of relative backwaters like a town called Athens). These were perched, as Plato said, “like frogs” on the shores of Europe’s and Western Asia’s central seas. So Miletus’ commerce stretched from Russia to France, Spain and North Africa, and it sucked in goods from the distant east as well.17 According to Will Durant, Miletus’ resulting wealth became “a scandal” throughout the Mediterranean.18 But the real bonanza would be in something more important than material goods.
When stone age hunter-gatherers had first clustered in cities, Homo sapiens had unexpectedly acquired the freedom to choose a major part of their identity, becoming a carver, priest, bead-maker, carpenter, or the odd etcetera. Yet they had apparently remained yoked to clans and tribes. Seven thousand years later, Miletus still ranked its inhabitants in three tribes. Across the Aegean where things were less advanced, Athenians identified themselves as members of one of four tribes each of which was slivered into 90 clans.19 Tribes would still be vital to Rome’s voting system over half a millennium later, when Mario, Sulla, and later Julius Caesar, would run for consul. True, as time went on, the meaning of “tribe” was no longer rooted entirely in birth. Newcomers to a Greek city who qualified for citizenship were often assigned a tribe at random – no matter who their forefathers might have been. But once you had your tribal label, it was unchangeable. Vocational liberties aside, preordained identities still stuck to you like glue.
During the seventh century b.c., intercontinental nets of city-states embedded in an even larger mesh of trade were fast eroding the old fetters of affiliation and breaking down old boundaries. Thales of Miletus exemplified the heady nature of the new fluidities.
In roughly 640 b.c., a pair of Phoenicians20 decided to settle down in Miletus (how’s that for intergroup mobility!). Their son, Thales, became a speculator in vegetable oil futures or the rough equivalent thereof – a form of choice unheard of in pre-urban days. During the winter when idle oil presses were money-losers for their owners, Thales “gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money…his device for getting wealth is of universal application, and is nothing but the creation of a monopoly.” (This description courtesy of a financial reporter named Aristotle). However Thales had long since been speculating in several other ways. For starters, he had taken a plunge in politics, befriending his local dictator – Thrasybulus – and whispering foreign policy recommendations in the tyrant’s ear. Since Thrasybulus was a major figure on the transcontinental stage, such whisperings made a difference. Thales became the mover behind an attempt to coax the Ionian cities into a defense-alliance against the Persians.21 A rival king, Croesus of Lydia, had something else in mind. He hired Thales to reroute the Halys River so that it would clear a path for his army. Thales was also reportedly a friend and advisor to both Solon and Lycurgus, the great lawgivers of Athens and Sparta, putting him in position to help shape two of the most influential legal systems of antiquity.22 If Plutarch is correct, Thales not only visited Solon in Attica, but entertained the travelling Athenian back home in Asia Minor.23 As a political consultant, Thales was a relatively new form of data connecter – a cable zapping knowledge from one society to another.
Probably the least-recognized mind-weaver was the need to keep up on the mental twists of your competitors and enemies. To win, you had to fathom the tricks of your foes so well that you could use them in your sleep. “Know the enemy…and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat,” said a distant wise man of the era, Sun-Tzu.24 Thales was a knower of the highest degree. Miletus’ opponents included the Persians – who’d mastered the accumulated lessons of 2,000 years of Levantine imperialism: the art of war; the logistic organization of masses of men; and the administration of huge, culturally incompatible territories.25 Insights from competitors synapsing into the Milesian mind also included innovations from that other unpredictable superpower, the Lydians, creators of silver and gold coinage – a financial barrier-piercer the Milesians grabbed and made their own, becoming lenders throughout the Mediterranean basin and the land bridges to the heart of Asia and the Ganges River valley. Both Persia and Lydia were on Thales’ “beat.”
The travel perks of intercontinental trouble-shooting tweaked the bandwidth of Thales-as-idea-link. Thales mused on the Persian obsession with the heavens with such intensity that legend says he walked into a well while pondering the stars.26 He also apparently dropped in on Egypt, learned its mathematical and geometric systems, used them to calculate the heights of the pyramids, then brought them home, where some of this idea-ware would later be attributed to Euclid. Using Egyptian computing techniques and material on the heavens from the Mesopotamians, Thales is said to have predicted the eclipse27 which accompanied the May 585 b.c. battle between the Lydians and the Medes. He thus demystified for the Ionians an event which brought the soldiers of Lydia and Media to a dead halt, filled with dread of the supernatural.
Thales also helped initiate the concept of secular philosophy, reducing yet more of the perverse magic of a persnickety universe to elements graspable by reason. Among other things, he tossed aside the habit of explaining everything via mythology and generated a down-to-earth theory of how this cosmos had begun. The world, he declared, had self-assembled from water and “psyche.”28
For those who needed something with more oomph than proto-physics, Thales’ Milesian neighbors offered poetry, prose, and history. As time went on, a mini-society, an advanced subculture, a whole new kind of tribe, would grow around each of these inventions. In fact, as different schools budded off to argue for the centrality of some hair-splittingly reworded point of view, the choice of groups to join would become bewildering. The couplings and scufflings of these factions were poised to reinvent the operating system of mass mind.
Pondering the blush before the dawn, Thales offered a piece of advice which would be attributed to several philosophers after him: “know thyself.” He didn’t say which of the many possible new selves he meant. As a financial wiz, a guru on policy matters, a transnational thought-conductor, a Phoenician, a Milesian, an Ionian, a Greek, an heir to Middle-Eastern culture, a speaker of an Indo-European tongue, a replacer of theology, and an inventor of philosophy, the man could count up quite a few had he really wanted to.