The Archetypal Age and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness

More on the Formation of Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilizations

In Origin Myths of Spacefaring Civilization I discussed how the origins of spacefaring activities and technologies today being pursued could be the material for the origins myth of a far future spacefaring civilization, and that we are now participating in the making of that myth. In this connection I cited well known mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Campbell in his lectures liked to mention how Jung had asked himself at one point in his life, “What is the myth by which I am living?” and in asking the question Jung realized that he didn’t know the answer and that he needed to know.

Jung’s question remains valid today, and it would remain valid even if we knew that we were creating the myths by which later cultures would find their way in life and in a complex world. We tap into mythological archetypes in living our own lives even if we are also at the same time creating a myth based on the same archetypes. One of Jung’s central concerns was that of elucidating archetypal elements from what he called the collective unconscious. Archetypal images and stories and situations resonate almost universally among human beings; we respond to them instinctively, without any preparation or education in them. From a naturalistic point of view, this is because archetypal elements evoke central features of human evolutionary psychology.

The formative period of human evolutionary psychology is what evolutionary biologists call the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA. (I have written about this previously in Survival Beyond the EEA and Existential Threat Narratives.) The EEA is the period in which we truly became what we are. The speciation of humanity in terms of anatomical modernity took place on the plains of Africa, which was, then, the EEA of our anatomical modernity. I think that cognitive modernity occurred later, and that it occurred separately in different geographical regions after anatomically modern human beings had already spread themselves to the four corners of the world (cf. Multi-Regional Cognitive Modernity; I do not know of anyone else who holds this view, so the reader should understand that I am putting myself out on a limb by taking this position).

If I am correct, cognitive modernity in each geographical region took place in a slightly different EEA in each case, which then accounts for the slight differences in the characters of the regional civilizations that eventually supervened upon these populations. (This is not unlike the native ability that all human beings have for language, but many different languages of different structures are found in different geographical regions. Analogously, I hold that cognitive modernity was a potential in all human populations, differently realized in different regions.)

Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero of a Thousand Faces to demonstrate the universality of the hero myth and the hero as archetype. This is fundamental to human evolutionary psychology, and represents a cross-cultural manifestation of an archetypal theme. However, there are also archetypal themes that are more restricted (though not completely restricted) to particular to geographically regional traditions. For example, the transmigration of the soul, and the archetypes associated with this idea, is much more common in the Indian subcontinent than it is elsewhere. On the other hand, complex symbols can have different significations in different civilizations. Dragons, for example, have a different significance in East Asia than they have in Western Europe. The dragon comes from deep in our evolutionary psychology, but it is woven into distinct narratives in distinct cultural regions.

Some archetypes, then, are truly universal (like the hero), while some are universal but interpreted in importantly different ways, and some archetypes resonate much more in one cultural region than another. I assume that this variance follows from the differences in evolutionary psychology from cognitive modernity occurring independently in different geographical regions, each of which regions constituted the EEA of the particular occurrence of cognitive modernity that it shaped. With these considerations in mind, I hold that, from a mythological or psychological standpoint, one might also call the EEA the Archetypal Age. The EEA is when the archetypes of the human collective unconscious were laid down (and they are with us still), and these archetypes vary slightly from region to region. Human beings have more in common with each other than they have fundamental differences, but the differences remain and they are important.

The Axial Age is to be distinguished from the Archetypal Age. While the Archetypal Age was about the formation of human nature (our psycho-social makeup), the Axial Age was that time in human history when a macro-historical division of human experience reached a mature mythological expression, and this occurred tens of thousands of years after the Archetypal Age.

The Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was the Axial Age of agricultural civilizations. I have speculated that there was an earlier Axial Age when our Paleolithic ancestors produced a distinctive culture that was the mature mythological expression of the Paleolithic human world (cf. Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm), and that there could be another Axial Age (cf. The Next Axial Age) when the mythological framework of industrialized civilization is brought to its mature expression. Indeed, this axialization of industrialized civilization could coincide with the origin myth of spacefaring civilization, if the mature form that industrialized civilization takes is that of a spacefaring civilization.

We do not yet know in what direction contemporary planetary civilization is headed, but a spacefaring civilization is among the possibilities. Industrialized civilizations following the industrial revolution are still very young in historical terms. There are some who argue that there have been two or three or even four distinct industrial revolutions. Certainly we can distinguish finer-grained periods within industrialization, but in the big picture the changes to human society and civilization since the industrial revolution is one continuous movement of change for the past two hundred years, approximately. This is, as I said, a very recent phenomenon. It took thousands of years for settled civilizations all over the planet to displace hunter-gatherer nomadism as the primary locus of human activity. It will take hundreds of years more for the changes begun by the industrial revolution to be consolidated and brought to social maturity. We should not wonder at this; we should expect it.

As noted above, the axialization of industrialized civilization could coincide with the origin myth of a mature spacefaring civilization if this is the trajectory of the development of civilization today. This would be another Axial Age and not another Archetypal Age, because we would still be bringing our hunter-gatherer evolutionary psychology with us as we make the transition to a spacefaring civilization (something that I wrote about in Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space). Transitions from one stage in the development of civilization to another stage are messy rather than neat affairs, and we tend to bring a lot of baggage along with us from the past.

For example, we have preserved Axial Age religions into the early stages of industrialized civilization, but this cannot be satisfying to the soul of man. We see this in the nihilism and anomie that characterizes the industrialized peoples, who feel cut off from their history and traditions, and have nothing (as yet) to replace them. It is this kind of social tension that is a catalyst for myth-making efforts, in the attempt to fill a void left by the tightly-coupled relationship between mythology and civilization in the now-lapsed paradigm of a social order than no longer exists except in cultural memory.

All of the foregoing about mythology is concerned with Axial Ages that bring our older Archetypal Age evolutionary psychology into some kind of workable relationship with the social order in which we find ourselves. All of these myths reach down into the same collective unconscious and dredge up the same (or nearly the same) archetypes. However, there could be another Archetypal Age if there was another environment of evolutionary adaptedness, i.e., another period during which evolutionary changes were being shaped by the environment in a decisive way, i.e., in a way that shaped a new (or, more likely, altered) human nature based on a new (or altered) evolutionary psychology, with the latter shaped by a new (or, again, altered) EEA.

It is important to point out that evolution has not come to an end with human beings or indeed with any species currently in existence. A species only stops evolving when it goes extinct. However, the speciation and stabilizing selection of a species within a given environment constitutes a distinctive period in the evolution of an organism. The cognitive speciation that is cognitive modernity also results from a distinctive period in the formation of human minds. Other evolution follows these distinctive periods, but does not play the same constitutive role.

By building civilizations and growing them to planetary scale, human beings have in fact created a new environment that is selecting for fitness differently than the way in which nature prior to civilization selected for fitness. If civilization continues for long enough, and human beings live in a civilized state for a period of time during which differential survival and differential reproduction result in speciation, whether anatomical or cognitive, then civilization would be the EEA of a new species of human being or a new kind of human mind. This is already happening very slowly and gradually — but not rapidly enough or consequential enough at this time to result in speciation. This could yet happen, but it is not happening now. At the current rate of human evolution within civilization, any changes to human nature as a result of civilization could still be derailed or redirected by some other force that acted more rapidly or which impacted humanity more dramatically.

If, however, we began to alter ourselves at the genetic level, becoming transhuman or post-human — i.e., becoming something other than what humanity has been to date — the environment in which this took place would then be the EEA of this new transhuman or post-human species. However, for the environment to play the role it has in the past in terms of EEA, this process of human change would have to take place over a considerable period of time so that the environment had an opportunity to act as a selective pressure on differential survival and differential reproduction. The kind of sudden and radical change made possible by technology could result in a disconnect with the environment as it is usually understood, so that the real selection pressure is the technological milieu within which these changes take place. If reproduction were to be dominated by technology (e.g., ectogenesis), differential reproduction would be a function of the technological environment narrowly conceived, and not the environment we equate with a particular ecosystem.

Here, then, is a little recognized risk of transhumanism: that the formation of both mind and body of the transhuman individual, and any group of transhuman individuals taken together, would occur under unprecedented evolutionary conditions, which could result in unprecedented selection pressures upon the human organism undergoing such change. Can the human organism be changed in this way and still retain its integrity as a living being? We do not yet know the answer to this question, and finding out the answer to this question could be unpleasant.

However the next change in humanity takes place, whether by nature or my technology, and whether it goes well or badly, this kind of change would be a change in human nature rather than a change in human culture. In other words, it would be a archetypal change and not an axial change. The conditions under which an archetypal change came about — the EEA of the archetype — would shape that archetype, and the new successor species would respond to different archetypal symbols, and different narratives would resonate in the psyche of such a being.

In actual practice, it would be a little more complex than this. It not likely that there would be a sharp break with the human archetype, but rather there would be an overlap between the human archetype and the transhuman or post-human archetype, so that some aspects of human depth psychology would carry to our successors, some aspects would not carry over, and some aspects would be carried over but substantially modified by the transition. Almost certainly this is what happened when homo sapiens speciated from human ancestors, but at that time the development of the mind and the capacity of thought on behalf of the genus homo was at a much lower level than it is now, so that a change in conceptual framework would have been less in evident. Archetypal change after cognitive modernity will be a different matter.

Philipp Otto Runge, “Birth of the Human Soul,” c. 1805



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