Shadows of Our Past

by Don Neeper

Added 4 July 2000

WEBMASTER'S NOTE: The essay has been included here in it's entirety as given to me. There are a couple minor points that I disagree with, which are noted within the text.


Since Daniel Quinn has been constantly exhorting us is in his books and essays to reach, teach and educate as many people as possible, it seemed to me that one way to accomplish this would be to package up some of his writing into an email that could be distributed over the internet. I submitted it as a suggestion to his web site, but then thought "what the hell, I'll do it myself." DQ makes his living from his books and has a slight conflict of interest - he wants people to spread his ideas but his writing is copyrighted so you can't legally just cut, paste and email it out. My intention is to provide an essay based on his ideas using my own words that isn't copyrighted and can be distributed freely. Therefore, please publish this on your web site, forward it on to other people, print it out, whatever - it's my gift to the B and Ishmael community.


Don Neeper

Shadows of our Past

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins presents D.C. Dennett's theory that the human brain can be thought of as a massively-parallel computer running software designed to create the illusion of a serial virtual machine. "The salient feature of the subjective experience of thinking, Dennett thinks, is the serial 'one-thing-after-another', 'Joycean', stream of consciousness." (pg. 280) In addition, we seem to be unique in the animal kingdom in our ability to process information serially and most animals "use brains directly in their native, parallel-processing mode." Dawkins concludes by saying that he doesn't know why our brains have this serial abstraction, but that Dennett believes it arose as a response to some stimulus in our pre-historic culture.

While Dawkins can't answer the question of why we process information serially, anyone who has read Daniel Quinn's books can easily come up with a pretty good explanation. In order to answer the question we have to go back - way back - to the very origins of humanity. In fact, the answer to Dawkins' question of why we developed a serial mode of thinking also answers the question of how we became us. If you stopped someone on the street and asked him or her to tell you what defines a human you'll get answers like tool usage, spoken language, intelligence, self-awareness, higher religious thought, etc. These seem like good answers, but yet don't some primates use twigs and stalks to dig for insects, birds and other animals have distinct calls to sound predator warnings, domestic cats and dogs can display signs of intelligence and recognize words or tones of voice. But we unquestionably do possess all of those qualities, and in such abundance that in comparing our abilities to other animals you could easily believe that other animals don't even possess them at all. We could therefore restate Dennett's question to ask: "What stimulus in our pre-historic culture drove us to develop a serial mode of thinking, an affinity for tool use, complex language skills and a high level of intelligence?"

In answering that question you could argue that any one of those abilities gave rise to the others. For example, you could say that once we became "intelligent" we naturally learned how to express ourselves and figured out how to fashion tools to make our lives easier. Or you could say that once we learned how to communicate we "naturally" became more intelligent and then developed the use of tools. But besides being circular arguments this line of reasoning doesn't answer the question of Why us? Why are other primates, cats, dogs, birds, and all the other animals evolutionary success stories with their more limited language, reasoning and tool abilities? Or turning the question around, if every form of life that is around now is here because its lifestyle and skill set works for its niche and environment, what was it about our lifestyle that required tool use, language, reasoning and a serial mode of thinking in order for us to be evolutionary successes? Here is a clue - whenever you see a cartoon or representation of a "caveman", Neanderthal, American Indian or any aboriginal people what are they inevitably holding in their hand? A spear, of course! If you could go back in time two hundred-thousand years you would find humanity's ancestors living a unique lifestyle - and in this lifestyle you would find the seeds of all the abilities we posses today. The answer is that of all the other primates we alone developed a lifestyle based on foraging and hunting. [WEBMASTER'S NOTE: This is not entirely true, as chimpanzees mainly forage, but are known to occasionally hunt as well.) But to look at us you wouldn't think that we'd be formidable hunters - we don't have a bear's claws, a cheetah's speed or a tiger's teeth. That's because the weapon with which evolution armed us lies inside our head. We alone have the ability to use our power of reasoning to track our prey, the intelligence to create the tools to kill our prey and the language skills to coordinate our hunting parties. [WEBMASTER'S NOTE: This, again, is not entirely true, as many animal species track prey, coordinate hunts, and perform other complex means of gathering food.) We have language, reasoning and tools because we're hunters, and we're successful hunters because we have language, reasoning and tools. It sounds like another circular argument, but it's really just a matter of one side of the equation reinforcing the other. In the beginning there were some early humans who had some rudimentary hunting skills - not much, but enough to give them a reproductive advantage that ensured their genes were passed on. As time went on those qualities became more honed since the better hunters were more likely to attract mates and provide for their children. Better hunters had better language, reasoning and tools, and individuals who had better language, reasoning and tools became better hunters. And the best hunters became us - humanity.

We can also trace other human qualities back to our hunting origins. For example, everyone likes a good story, but hardly anyone wonders why every human culture has the need for them. Stories always have a beginning, a middle and an end, and with a little imagination we can discover what the first stories were. Hunters see stories all around them, and in fact it's their job to intercept, interpret and join the stories they encounter. Imagine a hunter first encountering a story - he spots deer tracks and fresh spoor on a forest trail. "Aha!" he thinks, "Once upon a time a deer was walking through the forest." Noting a number of older deer tracks heading in the same direction and hearing the sound of running water he continues, "It was on its way to its herd's normal watering spot by a small stream." Several hours later he finishes relating the story to his children and mate: "I crept slowly through the forest, keeping downwind of the trail until I came up to the stream. Peeking around a tree I saw a buck drinking from the water, I threw my spear and the gods gave us our dinner tonight. The End." Even today after playing sports, travelling or surmounting an obstacle men will get together to discuss, analyze and re-live the experience. You easily can imagine the same thing happening after a successful hunt, and perhaps the purpose was to share hunting techniques, analyze failures and to educate the children.

Humans also have a strong desire to know the future - the end of the story - that comes from our hunting past. Think about the way that fortune-tellers today go about their divinations - they read Tarot cards, examine entrails, read the lines in your palm, gaze into crystal balls, throw bones, etc. Very rarely do they simply close their eyes, concentrate and reveal the future - they have to read and interpret the signs instead. And this is exactly what hunters do when reading the signs and tracks on the ground - they use the information revealed in the physical evidence to construct a story and to predict the future. "If the signs around me indicate that my prey was recently headed in this direction then if I continue in the same direction I'll find it." And a hunter who followed the signs and correctly predicted where to find his prey undoubtedly experienced the same feeling that gamblers do today when the roulette ball lands on their color, when they're dealt the ace, when their horse wins the race, when their numbers come up in the lottery - that warm glow that comes from being right. That you performed your divination, interpreted the signs and the universe and the gods rewarded you.

We can continue to theorize about other behavior that derives from our hunting origins ad infinitum - for example, the fact that men and women seem to have different methods for visualizing directions and spatial awareness could be explained by the hunter's need to know where he is and how to get home without necessarily relying on landmarks. But what is important to remember is that no matter how much we pretend otherwise we came from them. Our culture split off from theirs after a paradigm shift ten-thousand years ago, but their culture is still around in various isolated and remote spots where they inhabit land that our culture hasn't yet gotten around to acquiring. These tribal and aboriginal peoples are the direct descendants of the original humans, while we are an aberrant offshoot. When we watch their documentaries on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel most people look down on their lifestyles and consider how much richer we are in our culture. But if our culture is so wonderful why don't they abandon their villages, become full-time farmers or get jobs? Many of them are certainly exposed to the outside world and our culture, but when they look at us they immediately recognize that we're lacking the cultural structures that they have in abundance. Their wealth lies in their tribal support network and their connection to what made us human in the first place, which we are sorely lacking.

Humanity became an evolutionary stable species by following what has been called the Leaver lifestyle - a lifestyle that was tested by its environment and has worked for a million years. Use your innate divination skills to look around at the lifestyle we have now and ask yourself whether or not it can be as successful. What we had was tested and lasted because it worked - what we have now was constructed artificially out of metaphorical duct tape and baling wire and is in the process of shaking itself apart. The signs of stress are all around us and it doesn't take a fortune-teller to see them, so I'm not going to enumerate them here. Just remember that when people start looking for alternatives or think that the way we are now is the one right way to live that the answers to our problems lie in the shadows of our past. We pretend that the shadows aren't there but they've been following us all along, waiting for us to finally turn around and acknowledge them.

This is but one small corner of the entire mosaic that describes us - who we are, where we came from and what we desperately need. If you're still with me, know that there is more, much more than can be contained in one letter. Please, go to your library or local bookstore and find some of the books written by Daniel Quinn - Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, to learn more. His website address is:

And no, this isn't advocating that we immediately give up everything we have and are doing now. But we have to understand how we got here and the important things we're now lacking before we can come up with any meaningful solutions to our problems. In the meantime, please forward this letter to as many people as you can - our problems can only ultimately be solved by people with changed minds and a new vision.