January 29, 2003

Consider the
Chapter           From "Consilience"
"Ariadne's        by E.O. Wilson.         CONSILIENCE_PRIZE

   Wilson states that
   Freud "guessed wrong"
   with his theories of
   dreams as indications
   of early psychological

           He then presents
           the modern theory
           of dreams being
           the result of
           random synapse
           firing, a sorting
           and shuffling of
           experience, a
           kind of
           housecleaning.       I've heard this theory
                                before in a number of
                                popular articles, and
                                it sounds very nice.

                                                 But then Freud's
                                                 theory sounded
                                                 nice also. What's
                                                 the evidence for
                                                 this new theory?

                                                      What evidence
                                                      could there
                                                      possibly be?
                                                      Wilson pretty
                                                      much just
                                                      presents it as

                                     Wilson then suggests
                                     that a tendency toward a
                                     fear of snakes evolved
                                     because of long contact
                   This explains     with poisonous snakes of
                   their common      different varieties.
                   appearance in
                   dreams, myth,
                   and folklore.

    So Jung was
    correct in his

Big news: an
believes in

       I always thought that
       the pace of evolution
       was too slow to expect
       something like
       "archetypes" to be
       wired into human

                    Jung was a Lamarckian,
                    which helps explain why
                    *he* thought they were
                    plausible... if you
                    believe that acquired
                    characteristics are      But given the ubiquity
                    inherited, evolution     of snakes, how can you
                    would work faster.       rule out the notion
                                             that this stuff is all
                                             just environmentally
                                             learned and culturally

                                                   Perhaps it's plausible
                                                   that this is some sort of
                                                   inherited "prepared
                                                   learning", but how would
                                                   you conclude that?  Maybe
                                                   some kind of careful
                                                   cross-cultural studies?

                                             Checking the footnotes,
                                             I see he bases all of
                                             this on a *single monograph*:

                       "The Cult of the Serpent:
                       An Interdisciplinary
                       Survey of Its
                       Manifestations and
                       Origins" by Balaji
                       Mundkur, (1983, State
                       University of New York
                       Press, Albany, NY).

       And 1983 being ten years           1/20/09:
       pre-web, there's not a             But now we're six years closer
       lot out there about this           to the Grand Hypertext:
    It does tend to
    turn up in a lot
    of bibliographies
    of newage junk,

Wilson argues that imagery of snakes may have a
biologically determined significance for human beings:

   Human beings also possess an innate aversion to
   snakes, and, as in the chimpanzee, it grows
   stronger during adolescence.  The reaction is
   not a hard-wired instinct.  It is a bias in
   development of the kind psychologists call
   prepared learning.  Children simply learn fear
   of snakes more easily than they remain
   indifferent or learn affection for snakes.
   Before the age of five they feel no special
   anxiety.  Later they grow increasingly wary.
   then just one or two bad experiences -- a snake
   writing nearby through the grass or a
   frightening -- can make them deeply and
   permanently afraid.  The propensity is
   deep-set.  Other common fears -- of the dark,
   strangers, loud noises -- start to wane after
   seven years of age.  In contrast, the tendency
   to avoid snakes grows stronger with time.  It
   is possible to turn in the opposite direction,
   learning to handle snakes without fear or even
   to like them in some special way. [...]

   The neural pathways of snake aversion have not
   been explored.  We do not know the proximate
   cause of the phenomenon except to classify it
   as "prepared learning."  In contrast, the
   probable ultimate cause, the survival value of
   the aversion, is well understood.  Throughout
   human history a few kinds of snakes have been a
   major cause of sickness and death.  Every
   continent except Antarctica has poisonous
   snakes.   [...]

   Snakes and dream serpents provide an example of
   how agents of nature can be translated into
   symbols of culture.  For hundreds of thousands
   of years, time enough for genetic changes in
   the brain to program the algorithms of
   prepared learning, poisonous snakes have been a
   significant source of injury and death to human
   beings.  [...]

   The tendency of the serpent to appear suddenly
   in trances and dreams, its sinuous form, and
   its power and mystery are logical ingredients
   of myth and religion.

   Amaringoan images stretch back through the
   millennia.  Prior to the pharaonic dynasties
   the kings of Lower Egypt were crowned at Buto
   by the cobra goddess Wadjet.  In Greece there
   was Ouroboros, the serpent that continuously
   devoured itself tail-first while regenerating
   from the inside.  For gnostics and alchemists
   of later centuries this self-cannibal came to
   symbolize the eternal cycle of destruction and
   re-creation of the world.  One day in 1865
   while dozing by a fire, the German chemist
   Fredrich August Kekule von Stradonitz dreamed
   of Ouroboros and thereby conceived of the
   benzene molecule as a circle of six carbon
   atoms, each bonded to a hydrogen atom.  [...]
   In the Aztec pantheon, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed
   serpent with a human head, ruled as the god of
   the morning and evening star, and thus of death
   and resurrection.  He was the inventor of the
   calendar and patron of learning and the
   priesthood.  Tlaloc, god of rain and lightning,
   was another serpentine chimera, with humanoid
   upper lips formed from two rattlesnake heads.
   Such apparitions could have been born only in
   dreams and trances.