Jesus’ Pre-Civilized Supper Club

When we think of our fast-food culture today table manners don’t really play a huge role. There is less and less emphasis placed on sitting down together as family, neighbors, let alone communities doing meal sharing practices.  When was the last time your whole neighborhood shut down the street and had a large block party of food and drink?  It just doesn’t happen that much anymore.  However, this is a recent casualty of the Civilization Project.  For much of its 6,000 year history most people groups have feasts to celebrate, commemorate, and connect.

The reasons for this pan-cultural technology of meal-sharing actually lie within our hunter-gatherer, or primal, past.  Eating was an egalitarian event. Everyone partook. We know this from a couple of primary sources. The archeological record demonstrates in physical ways that the same resources were generally eaten by multiple parties across potential social strata, and anthropological studies of current hunter-gatherer tribes note a suspension of tribal roles when it comes to food sharing. In other words: the warrior who kills the game isn’t the only one who eats–everyone does. This practice probably extended to far more than food. Material possessions, land distribution, and even relationships, were communitarian in nature.  Quite honestly, there just wasn’t much hoarding happening.


There wasn’t much of this going on–because in many ways there simply wasn’t much to hoard. This was intentional. Band societies (or hunter-gatherers) often have what is called an “immediate-return-economy.”  This is a fancy phrase meaning that when people in this kind of culture get hungry they go and hunt for game or forage for mushrooms and plants, etc. When they need a basket to hold something, they weave it out of what is there such as long grasses.  Their need is satisfied immediatelyGenerally speaking immediate-return-economies value disposable and time-sensitive possessions. Unlike the brands of today they aren’t making things to endure. They know, instinctually, that “stuff” will weigh them down on the next move, so why bother.

Contrast this to the “delayed-return-economies” of most cultures today. Food is harvested, it takes time to grow. Animals are raised to maturity in order to be useful. Paychecks are earned over time. Possessions are planned, crafted, and then protected. We literally build bigger barns to store up our treasures–if we have done “it” right.  Insurance policies safeguard our investments. Security systems guard our intricate systems in order to maximize future potential. Everything is done with an eye to delayed gratification.  As you can see these two kinds of economies have two very different ways of viewing the world.


As hunter-gatherer tribes shifted towards agricultural practices they became more sedentary. They stayed in one place and developed it over time. They left behind crucial nomadic ways of being and a majority abandoned immediate return economies.  Holding onto resources for ones’ own self and ones’ kith and kin eventually became the name of the game. This meant wealth distribution and functional sharing declined and disappeared. However, this value shift didn’t occur all at-once. People didn’t just put down their foraging ways one day and become professional gardeners. Instead, the archeological record demonstrates “transitional societies.” 

We have few histories or records we can point to with these mid-way point societies. However, language functions as a preservative here.  English is a part of a family of languages including Germanic, Russian, Persian, Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek (and many many more) that originated from one of these transitional societies. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were a series of tribes that formed somewhere between the Balkans and the Anatolian steppes.  They were famous for their horses, their chariots, and most importantly their conquest and assimilation of other older peoples. That is, in part, why their language is so prevalent. The Indo-Europeans spread from their homeland all the way to England and France in the west and Russia in the East and as far south as India. With them they brought their language. And we find many words today are actually derivative from that originating point. This is one of the ways we can piece together what their culture looked like.

There are so many fascinating things to say–but for our purposes its best to focus on their practice of the Feast.  As dynastic chieftains gradually replaced the egalitarian hunter-gatherer society there were value shifts, as we said earlier. Winners and losers emerged. In order to modulate negative reactions the ruling class ritualized, and commemorated the sharing of yesteryears.  Archeologist and anthropologist Anthony David summarizes: “Foragers generally value immediate sharing and generosity over miserly savings for the future, so the shift to keeping breeding stock was a moral as well as an economic one. It probably offended old morals.” That’s what feasts initially started as. They were remembrances of times, not too long before, in which their was a common table and a common good.

Language helps us piece this puzzle together somewhat. Take the English words guest (meaning a visitor) and host (one being visited). These words actually share a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European language: ghost. The word ghost is obviously something we still use, and it literally means visitor also, in modern vernacular.  However it is understood that in its original usage there wasn’t a strong division between visitor (guest) and the one being visited (host). There was a reciprocal relationship in which both found the common ground of gift and exchange. The singular word, ghost, reinforces this fascinating cultural observation that hospitality and feasting were opportunities in which the feast-thrower was no longer the power-holder, but simply another participant. Additionally, the grunt, or common worker, who was simply attending the feast, now was elevated to equal standing as what we might call the host. They were, in terms of participation in the feast or event being hosted, equals.

During this difficult transition, the importance of feasting came into view. The feast in early agricultural societies was a way of memorializing the older human experience of sharing across gender, power, and all other lines. Ancient feasts just prior to the outright launch of the Civilization Project roughly 8,000 years ago would have acted as a humanizing experience in which the meal contained a kind of magical remembrance of earlier egalitarianism.


As alluded to earlier, The Civilization Project,mostly ditched egalitarian practices such as meal sharing or wealth distribution. The gap between the have’s and the have-nots is abundantly clear. Socio-economic divergence impacts not only where some one might end up for college (or if they will ever even go to school), but also things such as quality of sleep or mental health. Society, as we experience it today at the height of the 6,000 year old project, is a divided one with identity politics and segregation firmly entrenched. Today’s experience differs little from that of the Roman Empire in the first century CE.

Within the Christian New Testament, the ritual called Eucharist (or what we often call “communion” today) was one of the ways that the alternative community of Jesus radically remembered human identity. This meal is, in fact, the peak occurrence of their regular gathering. In the early church it was a literal meal, not only a cup of wine and wafer; it carried the same connotations as the Hebrew Passover had. Jesus himself imbued the meal with fresh force by saying that as often as his followers shared together in this Way, they were actually re-membering him. By savoring this ancient feast, they were both partaking of and becoming the mystical body of Christ. This became, in a manner of speaking, Jesus’ signature move.16 However, it was the church-planter Paul of Tarsus who seems to have really seized the revolutionary import of Eucharist in nourishing community.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is addressing apparent divisions within the small band of friends and followers of Jesus. They’re at each other’s throats due to breaches in trust. Numerous commentators have noted the moral aspect of the divisions. Apparently idolatry, incest, drunkenness and sleeping with temple prostitutes were all going on within the young community. But most appalling to Paul was the relational behavior that took place during the Eucharist meal. For him this meal had the power to transform, and the church’s failure to see this put everything in jeopardy. His understanding of this meal is that it symbolizes inherent wholeness within the family of faith. Just as we break the bread, he argues, we partake of one loaf. He rebukes the Corinthians for their selfish and inconsiderate conduct during their gatherings:

“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”

In Paul’s reckoning the ‘sacred’ meal, or conviviality, is quite simply the sharing practice of an egalitarian society, a distinct echo of ancient immediate-return social gatherings. Notice how in another letter Paul deconstructs the civilized order and institutes his radical egalitarian agenda:

“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Communion re-institutes this ancient rhythm of eating together as egalitarian practice. It is the physical remembrance that we are not separate from one another. By sharing across gender, racial, sexual, religious and political lines we witness a value shift. The meal itself becomes the ritualized practice of unitive consciousness.

What Paul, Jesus before him were emphasizing is a dramatic new sort of social engineering, attempting to build a new culture from the ground-up on the principles of egalitarianism. This Divine Supper Club affirmed each member, regardless of social distinction, as having unique importance and worthy of full participation. This simple, subversive act challenged the dominant order of patriarchy, hierarchy, and the established norms of civilization. As John Dominic Crossan points out:

“[Meal-sharing] did not invite a political revolution but envisaged a social one at the imagination’s most dangerous depths. No importance was given to distinctions of Gentile and Jew, female and male, slave and free, poor and rich. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory, they were simply ignored in practice.”

This is one of the many aspects in which the New Testament “Jesus Movement,” or early Christ-followers, and PRE-CIVILIZATION are explicitly linked.  It is one of the many reasons why we here at Evolving Wild, think that Christ, as the one who was and is and is-to-come, is stirring up the echo of a memory. What do you think?

Wired for Emotion

Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist, noted that all children seemed, ‘equipped for the world that they found themselves in.’  In part he was noticing something “pan-culturally,” that was occuring.

I think of my daughter,Maxine (5 years old), who is dragging her bear, “Hearts” around. She’s talking to it, she’s telling stories about it.  She is feeding it, changing it, and giving it a nap. I even had to kiss it goodnight last night. This isn’t simply pretend world. This is Magical Thinking. We see it in her explanation of the moon suddenly coming into view or disappearing. Amazingly we see this in the Kalahari Bushmen and New York aristocrats alike.

What is this? Who taught her to do this?

From the view of the science of development, Piaget (and a great many others), believe that the mind is composed of content rich mental models.  Imagine a swiss army knife with multiple blades so to speak. There’s one mind, but it comes equipped with several built in features. The reality is that these models do not reflect OUR world, but rather the Pleistocene world in which we developed. Cambridge Professor of Archeology and Psychology Steven Mithen states, “Young children seem to have intuitive knowledge of the world in at least four domains of behavior: language, psychology, physics, and biology. Their intuitive knowledge within each of these appears to be related to a hunting and gathering lifestyle that appears long ago in prehistory.”

Mithen is actually just building on Noam Chomsky’s logic concerning the language aquisition device within the mind. This theory has been shown time and again to play out in the same way– that whatever their cultural background children could not adequately construct language, psychology, physics of biological information from the evidence available to them during the earliest stages of their development.  The researchers conclusion is that “Consequently these concepts appear to derive from an innate structure.”

Emotional Development

Let’s trace backwards a bit: our human ancestors descended from the primal jungles onto the African Savannah, and immediately they’re at a disadvantage. In the ancient forests they had been an unremarkable creature–which is in many ways why they left it. But during that 3 million year stint they had developed some interesting adaptations.

“Unlike most mammals with olfactory dominance, primates are visually dominant.  Primate brains are rewired to subordinate sensory inputs—haptic, auditory, and olfactory, to vision.  Seeing enabled us to move rapidly through the trees, dodging predators, and finding prey alike…Additionally there was a decline in the olfactory bulb…allowing for a larger subcortical emotion center in the brain… Additionally an animal moving from the trees, must feel a heightened sense of touch, texture, weight and strength…” (Turner, pg 3)

Heightened sight. Decreased smell. And increased space near the neo-frontal cortices. Additionally they had an active limbic or responsive (emotional) system. Thus, when aroused, this creature might have given off a noisy response.They could respond quickly–in exaggerated way–and due to the absence of the olfactory bulb and the larger subcortical center, they could remember and project.

By the time they reach the Savannah they are exposed to a world riddled with large mammal predators, which they cannot smell, and in the tall grass are only partially able to see. However, they also have deeply flexible joints, no tails, limbs capable of fast locomotion, flexible arms, wrists, and hands. They also had teeth capable of grinding, holding, and disposing of a wide variety of food.  During this period they adapted to the tall grass by standing upright.  And, their brains had doubled from 500-1000cc.

As they began to explore the savannah, their nimble and hypervigilant mind’s made maps of the terrain. They set about to memorizing it in a way that would have been unfamiliar to other species, incorporating the patterns of other predators and prey.“A dozen species of large carnivores and an equal number of powerful ungulates played at the game through the grasslands for 60 million yers. As genera they came and went like substitutes playing on a field. Because of little neural connections our ancestors went well ahead of most of their kin-folk in the swamps, brush and forest in terms of discerning the relationships between clues: the color of droppings, the presence of blood, a thousand other important events that were occuring around them…the game hard already started and we newcomers came to it with our primate scuffling, our chimpanzee sized brains, our social restrictions and a growing taste for meat.” (Shepard, 52)

A distinct disadvantage that this creature had, we know through observation of forest monkeys and apes, is “weak-tie-patterns of social relations.”  Small and individual game was easier to hunt than banded societies. If they were going to survive on the Savannah the early hominids needed to build higher levels of social solidarity. Human emotions are born as a meeting of both the deficits and advances of the apes so far.


Our evolutions sped up as we explored our physical world.  Using our visual senses we were able to intake information. Next we both projected and utilized our physical bodies to communicate non-auditory cues to others (auditory would have meant we would be threatened). These cues could include information about sanctioned elements (threats): fear, aggression, disappointment/sadness and approval.Additionally, our large brain could make embellishments on many of the interactions socially. We could carry an image of ourselves, remember past interactions in great detail, and project future concern.

It’s vital to understanding that emotions are adaptive to serve several central purposes:

1.Communication to Self: To readily interpret information in ways that do not require complex rational thought.

Emotions can be signals to check things out.

2.To communicate to others in non-verbal ways

Facial expressions are biologically hardwired to communicate faster than words. Emotions have automatic effect on others. Consider Infant responses to adult smiles or looks of fear–without having words attached, it correlates, instantly, to their emotional impulses. They know what’s going on.  Emotional expressions influence others, whether we intend it or not.

3.To motivate to action

Emotions save time in getting us to act in important situations. If we had to sit around and think about what to do in a Tsunami, we probably wouldn’t survive. Or if you’re responding to an infant who is crying and you feel distress you shouldn’t have to way your options. Your emotion motivates to know exactly what to do.

These three basic functions are found in each of our core emotions. Consider the adaptive function of several of our most basic feelings:

a) FEAR—organizes our responses to threats to our life, health, or well-being. It focusses on escape from danger.

b) SADNESS-Organizes our response to losses of someone or something important to us and to goals lost or not attained. It focusses us on what is valued. It also draws attention to the need to be helped.

c)SHAME-Organizes responses related to personal characteristics or our own behaviors that are dishonoring. It focuses on hiding transgressions and, if these are already public, engaging in appeasement.

e) HAPPINESS—Organizes our response to optimal functioning to ourselves and other we care about, or groups that we are apart of. It models continuing activities that are pleasing or enhancing to us.

While many all mammals are capable of expressing emotions, humans seem to have the largest repetoire, particularly as they enter adolescence.

Adaptive Emotions

All emotions have a biological basis because they are built from body systems activating one or more primary emotion. What function would emotions serve in creating and sustaining a hunter-gatherer/forager population in the African savannah, 250,000 years ago?

  • *Create and sustain cohesion
  • *Be readily interpretable, but not cause threat
  • *Not be overtaxing

In other words they may not bare the unsustained emotional highs that we witness today. “Moderate intensity emotions would be essential to sustaining social continuity. Terror would disrupt the group of hunters, unnecessarily. So too, high intensity anger is disruptive and invites counter-anger or fear or avoidance. Mid-level sadness would alert others that help may be required, without making the task hopeless.”  (Turner, 131)

  • Satisfaction (Cheerful, friendly, amiable)  versus (joy, bliss, rapture, ecstasy)
  • Aversion (misgivings, anxiety, trepidation) versus (terror, horror, dread)
  • Assertion (angry, hostile, displeased) veresus (loathing, wrath, rage)
  • Disappointment (sadness, discouraged, grieving) versus (anguish, heartsick, despair)

Emotion Model

Emotions are the physiological response (communicating to self, others, and urge) to our interpretations, based upon our vulnerabilities, of a particular prompting event.

“The manner of primitive peoples forms a science of the concrete…they conceptualize their world in way that is not merely coherent, but the very one demanded where objects are complex….they treat plants and animals as capable messengers….their own emotions as part of the rich fabric of the phenomenological world, to be listened to, trusted, and acted upon in relationship to others” (Levi-Strauss, 57).

What we find is that humans adapted complex emotional responses to give them the advantage on the African Savannah. It created cohesion among a species that was fairly dispersed prior to this. Additionally, it enabled us to make non-auditory signals in order to motivate action among one another.  However, humans had a range that was far greater than other mammals in these emotions. Their capacity could well extend above average ranges. It would take other features to keep these in check. It would take environments of evolutionary adaptivity.

A Normal Human? 

In the first part of the 20th century, Chinese Christians were beginning to rebel against what they saw as imperial, ‘outsider’ missionary religion encroaching into their territory. This was a novel development, as the 19th-century yielded Chinese nationals opposed to all forms of Christianity, and Chinese believers who more or less assimilated Western culture. Sincere Christians who weren’t at the same time Western were a rarity—until a new movement swept onto the scene.

One indigenous Chinese mystic and ‘church planter,’ Nee Tao Shu, was so vigilant to purify the faith of Western influence that he was given the name ‘The Watchman.’ Watchman Nee gave a series of addresses to a packed-out audience in 1938, which ended up circulating—first serialized in magazines, and then in book form—from the Far East to the West.

The talks? Were eventually called The Normal Christian Life. Here’s how Nee opened his address:

What is the normal Christian life? We do well at the outset to ponder this question. The object of these studies is to show that it is something very different from the life of the average Christian. Indeed a consideration of the written word of God—of the Sermon on the Mount for example—should lead us to ask whether such a life has ever in act been lived upon the earth, save only by the Son of God, himself. But in that last saving clause lies immediately the answer to our question.

The Apostle Paul gives us his own definition of the Christian life in Galatians 2:20. It is “no longer I, but Christ.” Here he is not stating something special or peculiar—a high level of Christianity. He is, we believe, presenting God’s normal for a Christian, which can be summarized in the words: I live no longer, but Christ lives his life in me.

Watchman Nee wanted to challenge his Christian hearers, to both expand their desire for what’s possible, while lowering the barrier for realizing the same. And what does he see as possible? Later in this same address he says:

Do you know, my friends, that the Spirit within you is very God? Oh that our eyes were opened to see the greatness of God’s gift! Oh that we might realize the vastness of the resources secreted in our own hearts! I could shout with joy as I think, “The Spirit who dwells within me is no mere influence, but a living Person; He is very God. The infinite God is within my heart!” I am at a loss to convey to you the blessedness of this discovery, that the Holy Spirit dwelling within my heart is a Person.

According to Nee, how does the seeker recognize this God-consciousness, this Spirit dwelling at the heart of everything? Nee accomplishes both expanding expectations and then solidifying these by re-framing them as the forgotten or undiscovered ‘normal’ that his co-faithful could real-ize in their lives.

At ReWilder, we’re taking a similar line of inquiry to see what’s possible for us. Before we even ask the questions Nee was asking—ie, what is possible as a Christian or a spiritual person—we want to ask an even more fundamental question:

What is the normal human life?

Our human development is a Pleistocene adaptation, when our species as we know it made its debut.  We inherited from our primal ancestors a way of perception, of orienting ourselves to this world.

There are certain experiences common to the human race; these form a biological baseline for what it means to be human:

‘Goosebumps’ (when our hair was raised to protect from the cold).

Better eyesight, lowered olfactory sensors, heightened touch, increased emotions.

“Unlike most mammals with olfactory dominance, primates are visually dominant.  Primate brains are rewired to subordinate sensory inputs—haptic, auditory, and olfactory, to vision.  Seeing enabled us to move rapidly through the trees, dodging predators, and finding prey alike…

Additionally there was a decline in the olfactory bulb…allowing for a larger subcortical emotion center in the brain… Additionally an animal moving from the trees, must feel a heightened sense of touch, texture, weight and strength…”

Who are we, as a species? We find a picture of a sensitive creature in its earliest settings…

At last moving out from the forests into the open country. Gathering grass seed, finding big carcasses to scavenge. It is likely we developed the ability to stand upright as a way of looking out in the tall grass as we quickly sifted through a carcass.

As CL Rawlins put it: “I’m a primate evolved for foraging the African Savannah. My basics—legs, eyes, hands—are suited to light scavenging. My eyes are good at picking up quick movements, the flop of vultures, from a lion kill or the scuttle of rabbits into brush. My hands are good for wrenching the joints of carcasses, prizing roots from the earth, plucking leaves and berries. Like my hands, my digestion is able to handle a wide variety of things.”

We would add to this list that with or without language (prior to 70,000 years ago) we are a social animal—utilizing signals and facial features to work together to corner a prey. Indeed foraging enabled us to develop the basic activities that would make possible to hunt together to kill large mammals and eventually even form larger tribes.

Night restlessness, typical of primates, is a precaution against predators.

Our craving of fat, salt, and sugars is a sign of absences of such nutrients across vast swathes of our species history.

We share, cooperate, carry, keep kinship ties, divide labors sexually, make tools, and have long memory. All of which served us across the long history of humanity.

But the core and essential element of this is what we call: Ontogeny, or the genesis of being. The regular and scheduled development of both physical and psychological elements. Human ontogeny, at each stage of development is the programmed movements through our evolution.

Modern psychology tends to portray us in self-centric terms as individual lives, beliefs, affiliations, rather than defining the self as the relationship to others—lives, species, and planet.  Human ontogeny proceeds along these outwardly-intertwined lines—the self is in relationship to the world that birthed it, and it longs for what it was made for: to breathe, run, and relate—here and now.

The Importance of the Stories we Live

Anthropologists often comment about a kind of ‘look’ among hunter-gatherer cultures. The tribal member stands still, eyes neither fixed nor searching. There is an expansive gaze with which the hunter considers their environment. It feels alert, but grounded. Without romanticizing what is potentially an essential survival mechanism, we witness a kind of heightened awareness, a connection to the spontaneous pantheon of the present moment. Strict joy sweeps the construct of time out of the mind, gifting us with the phenomenology of experience. Without the civilized convention of ‘history,’ the timeline is erased, leaving only isolated dots on a page.

Could we get here, now?

Rising mountain peaks.

Ocean’s tides.

The smell of a thunderstorm.

Bodies coming together in lovemaking.

A child’s birth.

Arms grappling mid-wrestle.

A kiss in a parking lot.

The green of stoplights.

Sun beating against the skin.

All of these exist as a conscious absorption of this, the present.

The grace of the human condition may very well be that our consciousness simply cannot exist in a state of pure awareness. While most people visit from time to time, we often retreat from the edge. Total concentration is rare. Our devotion to the present moment is fragmented.  We excavate the past, project into the future, or enter the mists of mindlessness.

Psychology today is somewhat obsessed with ‘here and now’ disciplines.  Take the ‘Third Wave’ of therapies, for instance: humanistic, Gestalt, person-centered, and now mindfulness-based interventions, all holding the promise of connecting us to that elusive and ever-receding event horizon.

Spiritual traditions, of course, also hint at such givenness. Jesus is memorialized by his biographers as having eaten mindfully, “Do this in remembrance…”  Indeed, many contemporary Christian adherents practice a weekly sort of reflection on the here and now when taking bread and the wine in their gatherings. So too Zen quiets the mind and teaches the art of sitting, standing, and walking. Such sensory awareness aims at training the full attention of feelings and sensation.

What anthropologists reflect on in hunter-gatherer societies is not dissimilar from the intentions of psychology or religion: being fully and deeply in the here-and-now, in relationship to self, others, and the world around us. Yet to desire such lack of self-conscious presence is also to wish for a kind of regression to infancy. We cannot simply go backwards, any more than we can become a child again. We are here now, whether we like it or not. Indeed, without our ability to reflect and project, we might be ‘stuck in a moment’ – a kind of alzheimers of the immediate without recourse to effective recall or envisioning next steps. The very definition of boredom may well be being imprisoned in one time and place.

Even so, most of us are suffering from a deficit of present-moment-ness. But there is hope! We can recover a kind of second naïveté—a way of being in this world that honors where we have been and where we are going, while still remaining grounded in this sensual universe. Cultivating this ability is vital in establishing the boundaries of self.

Our culture is the most efficient one that has ever existed in terms of telling stories that compel us to feel and to act.

This is no great surprise. Humans have always existed as story-telling animals.  Even our name, Homo Sapien, tells a kind of story. Sapiential or rational knowledge refers to the primacy of intellect that some scientists name as our signature contribution.  Still other scientists suggest it’s our ability to stand upright, or use opposable thumbs. However, there is perhaps a more fitting label—Homo Fictus, the storytelling animal.

The genus of ‘homo’ is a latecomer. Cats, dogs, even pigs developed first. HG Wells said rightly, “man is mere upstart.” The Paleolithic era began some three million years ago with tool-making hominids, lasting until the latest inter-glacial period, commencing twelve thousand years ago.  It spans 99.5% of human existence.

Change was, during this three million years, incredibly slow. Technology replicated itself generation to generation, with major change happening roughly only every 100,000 years.

Sharp stones, useful bone and wood bits, then animal skins, then wildfire, then controlled fire, then at last the advent of fire-making. This slow progression takes us to the event which changed everything: Language.

Some 70,000 years ago, for unknown reasons, our branch of primate developed the ability to consistently verbalize—to communicate.

Scientists are divided on the reasons for this. Some suggest it was because the increase of the size of the brain: from some mere 750 cubits to 1500 cubits—doubling!  Others suggest its because of a physical development in our vocal chords. Some anthropologists wonder if it is because increasing human populations, due to fire, needed ways of distinguishing friend from foe. The Gossip Theory posits that humans innovated language as a result of our need to talk about each other.

When one watches a child master language, we realize how physical this process is. The first sounds a child makes are crying, then laughter, then eventual imitation of the sounds around them. Instead of being purely symbolic, it is largely a response to a very sensual universe.  One can imagine early human innovation in much the same way. The birds have a certain way of communicating, an organization of sounds. Even trees have a kind of linguistic reverie as their response to wind or movement. Humans followed suit—making sounds, grouping them together in a responsive way, and codifying meaning around them.

Whatever the reasons we started doing this—the shift is remarkable.

Within the span of 30,000 years—a mere eye-blink of geologic time—we supplant all other homo genus on the planet, including our cousins the Neanderthals.  Language enabled bands of humans to cooperate in larger hunts, gather seeds for planting, construct houses, plan villages, then cities; it enabled us to refine metals, wheels, then explosives. As Ronald Wright notes in A Short History of Progress, “From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took three million years….from iron to the hydrogen bomb took a mere 3,000 years.” It is as though time collapsed on itself.

This is due to humans’ ability to use the technology of language to transmit information and move beyond the environments that made us, to begin remaking ourselves—at the level of culture, which moves far faster than biology.  The effects of such power were unprecedented, allowing for complex tools, weapons, and orchestrated behavior. Culture became transmissible through speech from one generation to the next.

But language alone does not equate to meaning. Indeed language without meaning is simply another kind of phenomenology, like the wind in the trees, or the song of the birds. It is the stories we tell with our words that provide context for this technology.

Humans are constantly making meaning and telling stories. And now we are constrained to it.

Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, commented that humans without meaning lived depressing and empty lives. Yet even such ‘meaninglessness’ exists within a sphere of meaning. There is quite simply no such thing as meaninglessness outside of the story we assign to it. Life is phenomenon until we tell stories about it—until we connect the dots.

Nietzsche proclaimed the ‘death of God,’ or the end of the Big Story. There would be no more metaphysics. Indeed, Camus drives the point home with his Myth of Sisyphus in which he shows a man, punished by the gods, constrained to pushing a stone up a mountain, only to reach the top and start over once more. This, Camus suggested, was the rather “absurd” reality we live within.  It’s all stories…and there is no meaning…

But the knife by which Nietzsche killed God is the one by which he slit his own wrist. The existentialists, and with them post-moderns like Derrida and then Foucault, spend great amounts of words in order to tell of us of silence—they tell masterful stories to illustrate the end of stories. Which of course is absurd, to borrow Camus’ word.

A truly ridiculous story goes like this:

There was a farmer during the days when surveyors were mapping the border between Finland and Russia; he happened to live right along the line. Agents from both countries approached him and asked which nation his farm should be associated with. After thinking about it for some time he responded “Finland.”  When the surveyors asked why that was, he responded: “Well I love Mother Russia, and frankly have always wanted to live there…but the winters are so cold!!”

Words are powerful. Words are meaningless.

Stories make our world. But we have the power to make—and un-make—the stories we tell.

Which stories will we choose to live by?