Book two of SS O’Connor’s four book series addresses the very peculiar differences between our species and of any that occurred previously. It explores the encounter and potential balance that might arise through competition and collaboration, both of which are identified as being driving forces in the development of humanity.
As in book one (How Did We End Up Like This?), O’Connor’s approach is to question, then explore, and then to make suggestions which propose further questions, thus propelling the reader onwards to the next chapter in anticipation of an answer. There are seventeen chapters in this book – and another two volumes to come! It never ceases to be engaging and is often totally absorbing. He is so good at putting us homo sapiens in our place from time to time, and frequently serves up a breath-taking panorama of detailed information.
“But if stone-age humans had progressed through the power of language to move from their animal pasts to becoming sentient beings, how did the confusion that must have been taking place in their brains, the neuroplasticity that was incorporating new experiences, the separation of their minds from their growing consciousness, the effect of their imaginations and individual thoughts being shaped by group beliefs, the need to sort out whether their internal monologues came from their own thoughts or were a conduit for external gods and spirits… how did this storm of stimuli settle down into the codes of behaviour that everyone was to sign up to?”
We are taken on an exploration of a series of revolutions (as he identifies them) which encompass the transformation that being able to run produced, the affliction of domination, the extraordinary value of gossiping, and the ambiguous role of dictators with reference to imitation and mirroring. This is to name only very few of the subject areas covered.
The many links O’Connor forges are the most fascinating and at times thrilling moments to experience when reading this book. For example, that ‘persistence hunting’ led to co-operation leadership and on to greater communication. Thence to the origins of trading and its intrinsic value which impacts egoic hierarchy and then back to primal mating needs. And that’s only chapter one. It can feel, at times, like a wild, exciting, and utterly plausible ride that is always compelling and often riveting. We travel through the faculty of speech being a result of standing upright, fire availing the capacity to plan, language enabling conflicting views which reveal intention from which arises the need to control. Chapter four on gossiping and the power of opinion is exceptional in its insight into the relevance of stories, myth, meaning, and empathy, all of which arose from the potency of imagination.
“…language now began to feed and nourish an entirely new human construct – because it was about this time that primitive peoples gave birth to imagination… People were now able to describe fantasies, summon up images, echo profound fears and hopes, dream up gods and legends, describe a narrative that linked outside forces to their own lives, and to create myths that explained where they’d come from, and what their roles in life would be…Gods, spirits, fictions and lore must all have started appearing about now, and these powerful concepts played a crucial role in people’s desire to give their lives a special meaning.”
The origin of memes as a cultural reflection of genetic development is investigated in chapter 5, and reference is frequently made to Yuval Noah Harari’s work. There follows a fascinating examination of trade exchange leading to the issues of value, motive, and trust, both actual and psychological. O’Connor then identifies the 5th revolution as being that of agriculture and subsequent growth which in turn leads on to outsourced tokens of trust, the principal example being money from which emerge more hierarchical inequalities which continue to prevail. From here we are taken into the cause of aggressive warfare and the need for control by the elite, together with the age-old desire for glory, power, and income:
“…undoubtedly these ancient societies would have found wars were brutal and pitiless affairs, but they were also discovering how cultural unification could follow. The conclusion was inescapable: large scale conflicts were one of the most powerful catalysts for the growth of non-zero activity. In spite of the bloodshed and misery, the destruction and the smashed beliefs, the most ironic of the outcomes of warfare was that money and trust and collaborations would grow.”
Chapter 14 takes us to the 7th revolution ‘from conquest to containment.’ This explains the huge impact of printing and, therefore, mass information. A revolution indeed, and their version of the internet perhaps. And a revolutionary step towards independent private reading, thinking, sharing ideas and the 8th revolution of The Enlightenment. Here is a perfect quote at this point:
“But in the middle of the 18th century onwards, society was showing that the most powerful directional force shaping it wasn’t due to accepted beliefs, but instead, was coming up from below. It was no longer individual leaders who’d be deciding on the fate of ordinary men and women…but these people themselves would increasingly be saying how they wanted to live.”
Volume 2 is replete with historical data and fascinating discoveries, many of which are then usurped by updated and still more fascinating ‘facts.’ (Chomsky, Everett, and back to Chomsky etc., as one of many examples). O’Connor leads us forward by looking backward as a possible insight into what we should do with what we have. Printing in the 15th century was their worldwide web.. Where have we come and what might we do with this extraordinary facility?
We wait to hear.