Saturday, June 05, 2004

Human Evolution and Behavior

One of the most dominant and profitable field of study involves the discovery and interpretation of human behavior. Almost every aspect of our lives revolves around understating the behavior and actions of others. Psychologists, so called psychics, even businessmen use various tools and approaches in trying to dissect the behavior of others. Some, in the guise of spiritual help, such as psychics, use the weak minded and gullible to profit out of the mystery or expectation of their subjects. Others, such as Psychologists, use certain evaluative methods and tools to dissect the inner thoughts and actions in order to help an individual become part of the mainstream norm of society. Businessmen on the other hand, use their skills and judge of character to turn a profit, in some instances, taking complete advantage of a person. Countless books always surface about the mysteries of the opposite sex, how to understand and take advantage of a given situation. However, most of human behavior can be summarized into a more cohesive subject, when taking into account our evolutionary history. We don't need psychologists or psychics to provide us the reasons for our actions.
One must first understand that almost every behavior exhibited by human beings can be easily traced back to our evolutionary background. Just because we live in cities, drive cars, listen to headphones, fly in planes, and have the technological world at our fingertips, doesn't mean that we are not the same human beings that searched the Savannah for food, migrating thousands of kilometers, always in fear of predators, obtaining the next meal, seeking shelter from the elements, etc. The biggest difference between human beings now, and those that lived 80,000 years ago is culture. We have gone through an amazing cultural evolution, as evident in such various fields as art, developing and harnessing the forces of nature, manufacturing items that ease our survival, and pretty much everything we know of today. However technologically advanced we've become, we are not far removed from our progenitors, and there has been an insignificant amount of physical evolution since.
Physical evolution has not prepared human beings for the vigors of urban life, and all the associated problems that we experience on a daily basis. Our evolutionary behavior can still often outshine the cultural behavior that we've tried hard to develop. One must understand our society in the context of the physical evolution that resulted in Modern Humans. We have in essence, evolved as a hunter-gatherer species. The male members of a given clan would often go on extended hunting expeditions to provide high caloric foods such as buffalo meat, while the females would remain at a residential encampment(even in nomadic societies, the base would remain until the whole tribal unit moved together) and gather roots, vegetables, fruits, and small animals that could have easily been trapped. This in essence is our latent character, it is these behaviors that we've spent the last few millennia fighting against. In Modern times, work functions in the same way as a hunting expedition. The difference these days is that going to work and providing for the family has ceased to become solely male, and females often participate. This complicates the behaviors and actions that our evolution has resulted in. In Paleolithic times, when men went on a hunting expedition, women were forced to take care of the children, paying a heavy burden with almost no free time available. Evolution thus helped keep a stable household (even if the household was not monogamous). Since the male spent so much of his energy hunting, and the female of gathering and rearing young, there was very little time for cheating. In fact, since most males were off hunting, females didn't even have the choice in the matter. These days however, we have become an intramural society, and the sheer economics of the world today does not allow the stratified households that humanity evolved for. The rate of divorce, unfaithfulness and general problems with relationships have widened because of our cultural evolution. There is no cure for any of the social ills that have resulted as changes in our cultural evolution have clashed with the physical evolution that is present in our species. We are still creatures of the Earth, but with a facade of civilized behavior. Exteriorly, we may seem civilized and light years beyond our ancestors, when in fact, internally, we are not far removed from the Savannah. We have thus become a walking contradiction. The greatest tool for survival that human beings have ever evolved would be our adaptability. We have spread across the globe, living in countless climactic niches, and have managed to infiltrate pretty much all ecological zones of the planet. In fact, it is our amazing adaptability that has caused the modern ills of the society that we live in.
For a more thorough illumination of this concept of adaptation and survival, please read Desmond Morris' book entitled The Naked Ape. This is the most cohesive and thoughtful book ever written about human behavior. Forget what you may think you know about psychology, because this book illustrates almost all of our current social woes, as well as our social successes. It does not trash our advancement or denigrate our species. It does not pass judgment on human behavior and actions, but instead, illustrates why we act the way we do. Remember, In order to change or even address a given subject, one must have a complete and thorough understanding of it.

Note: I am not claiming that we should revert back to pre-neolithic human ideals. The information I have presented is a direction that our cultural evolution has progressed in, and retreating to the status quo of society as it once was is not beneficial. What is important is to realize where we have come from, understand our human condition, and perhaps learn a great deal about ourselves in the process. In this moder-day, complex world, we must first understand our place within it, understand our underlying biological and cultural processes, and embrace the course of the future with greater knowledge and potential for progress.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The Roots of Monotheism and the Pervasiveness of Zoroaster

There once was a force so influential in philosophy and religion that any other entity that came in contact with it was influenced in a number of ways. It was such a tenuous yet highly logical belief, something so metaphysical and ahead of its time, that within a few hundred years, countless cultures, and at least 4 distinctive religions can attest to its influence. This force as we not it today was called Zoroastrianism.
When I speak of Zoroastrianism, I am not speaking of the bastardization version that the powerful Western Persian empire implemented during the first millennium BCE. This too was a force that was influenced by the original teachings of an individual named Zarathushtra, but later, due in part to Greek influence, called Zoroaster. There are many different versions of his origins and even the place of his birth, or the region of his teachings are in contention. Most of these claims are erroneous at best, and based solely on the "tourist attraction" factor.
There are generally two main schools of thought as to the exact dates of Zoroaster's existence. The first claims that Zoroaster lived during the rise of the Achaemenid Persian dynasty (Western Persia, around 700-500 BCE), while the second places him somewhere between 1300-1100 BCE. According to linguistic scholars, the most likely scenario would probably be the latter, considering some linguistic clues I will soon explain. Unlike Socrates, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, Abraham, Moses, or most any legendary religious founder, Zoroaster was actually a scholar. His written word has been passed down through the ages, and survives today in the form of the Avesta. To be more specific, the first part of the Avesta (roughly half the book) known as the Gathas. The language of the Avesta is very similar to that of an ancient Hindic script called Vedic. As with all Indo-European languages, early Persian and Hindic were related at one point. Scholarly estimates place the divergence between Persian and Hindic languages around 2000 BC. In fact, even today, Indo-Iranian/Indo-Persian is sometimes classified as one branch of the Indo-European family tree. It has also been referred to as the Aryan languages (not the same Aryan term that Hitler manipulated to fit his needs). Upon close examination, the similarity between the Vedic script and that of the Avesta is close enough, to approximately date the time of composition. As it turns out, the Avesta, especially the Gathas, can be approximately dated to about eight centuries after the divergence of the Indo-Iranian language group. Thus placing the time of Zoroaster's Gathas to about 1200 BCE, give or take a few hundred years (since linguistics isn't an exact science). Following the same train of thought, Zoroaster's origins place him in North Eastern Iran, a region called Bactria (which should ring a bell, because the two humped shaggy camels are called Bactrian camels). Bactria and Eastern India were in close proximity, and the Aryan culture spread West to East along this zone. Thus, Zoroaster's Avestan culture, and that of the Vedic Indians was closely linked.
The confusion between what I call Eastern Zoroastrianism (the original form) and the latter day Western Zoroastrianism is like night and day. In fact, Western Zoroastrianism is almost like a separate religion. Today, there are about 100,000 surviving members of the Zoroastrian religion. Half of them still live within the Western Mountains of their ancestral homeland in Iran, while most of the rest live on the Eastern Indian coast, primarily in Bombay (they call themselves Parsee). A few are scattered across the West, mainly in the US, Canada, Great Britain, and the EU. These Zoroastrians as of today, practice the Western form, and are generally oblivious to the original roots in Eastern Persia.
Zoroaster's basic assumption was that there was an all powerful and pervasive force called Ahura-Mazda/Ormizd, what we call God. In order to allow this force to permeate as much of oneself as possible, one must follow 3 main tenants in life. Good words, good thoughts, and good deeds. The struggle between good and evil was not a cosmic thing, as much as it was internal. Basically, it was a way of addressing one's struggle with their own personal demons. One must remember that Zoroaster taught this philosophy in a region that was mostly rural, divided into sects (such as priestly, orderly, etc.), and Pagan in belief. Each tribe worshipped a pantheon of deities, some familiar throughout the region, others only in certain areas. Yet, Zoroaster's persuasiveness, and reasoning, enlightened and illuminated countless groups. His teachings were not in the form of Organized Religion as we know it today, but rather as an educational and more philosophical view of life. Because of just this reason, Zoroastrian belief was tenuous at best, and although it effected almost any thought and culture it came across, the original message was lost out. Thus, Zoroastrian thought spread to Western Persia, particularly during the Achaemenid Period, when the Persian Empire rivaled that of the Greek. The Achaemenids however, were unwilling to completely alter their religious practices and thus, altered the original form of Zoroastrian thought into an organized religion. The dualism that Zoroaster taught suddenly became more pronounced and severe. Suddenly, Ahura-Mazda became associated with the solar Deity Mithra, and thus became a hybridized version of the original (he went from a metaphysical being, to object worship). This hybridized Ahura-Mazda became known as Ormizd (due to the western Dialect of the Achaemenids). The force of evil became cosmic, not just found within one's body, and was known as Ahriman (what we call the Devil). The whole purpose of Zoroastrian thought went from teaching a more productive way of life, into an organized religion. The latter form of Zoroastrian is also identified as Mazdaism. Many of the pagan deities were eventually incorporated into Ahura-Mazda, or became Angels. The deities that were feared, became associated with Ahriman, and became demonic in character. The Yannas (the second part of the Avesta), were composed during this time. The dialect and language used in the Yannas is closer to Western Persian, and the style is completely different from that of Zoroaster. The Yannas basically highlight the punishment for disobeyance and other canonical thoughts that turned Zoroastrianism into an organized religion.
Zoroaster's influence on Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism is evident upon close examination. The whole concept of Monotheism, especially the dualism, present in Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all based off of Zoroastrianism. Baptism, and the ritual use of water as a cleansing agent comes from the Zoroastrian belief that water is a purifier. Zoroastrians were very respectful of nature, particularly water, fire, mountains, and even earth. They refused to bury their dead, because they didn't want to corrupt the cleanliness of the earth. Fire and water was used ritually, and even today's Zoroastrians hold steadfast to these beliefs. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism have borrowed the Zoroastrian concept of attaining perfection. Attaining Nirvana, or trying to reach "the Buddha" can trace it's origins to Zoroaster's teaching that the purpose of life is to become closer to God. Through Good Words, Good Thoughts, and Good Deeds, one becomes one with the universal creator.
Even Greek thought was heavily seeded and influenced by Zoroaster. Due to Greek contact with the Persian Empire, Zoroaster's teachings reached as far as Athens. The proof is in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If one were to read Plato's Republic, then they will be surprised to learn that unlike most of the Greek populace, Plato spoke of only one God, in singular form. Aristotle in his writings also held this belief. It's more then just mere coincidence that when the Greek and Persian Empires began to influence each other, monotheism suddenly popped out of no where and into Greek philosophical thought.
Zoroastrianism was more then just the religion it later became, but it was a school of thought. It was a philosophy and a direction on how to lead a noble life. Unlike organized religion, Zoroaster never pushed his agenda on anyone, but reasoned with almost any person he came across. Since he was most likely from a priestly sect, considering that he was literate, it was not easy for him to level with commoners, and yet, he pressed on ahead, spreading a message that later evolved into an organized from. It was a highly tenuous yet pervasive philosophy, influencing countless religions practiced today, yet remaining for the most part anonymous. Another victim of it's reasonable and generally advanced preaching. As I've mentioned before, I'm agnostic, but the original form of Zoroastrianism is so light and pervasive, that even I have a hard time completely disavowing it. Especially considering the context of it's spread, Zoroastrianism must be regarded as the most influential and pervasive thought ever present through the course of humanity. [As an interesting analogy, to make the whole concept of Zoroastrian influence more palatable, imagine if you will, a family line of very fair skinned individuals suddenly having a very dark skinned person in the mix. The resulting generations will have certain traits, such as middle skin tones, and other such influential characteristics. Eventually however, these traits will not disappear completely but become latent. Zoroaster's teachings can similarly be compared. Zoroaster is the dark skinned individual, not literally of course, and his influence initially was felt strongly, yet in a few hundred years, his true message became muddled. His teachings went the way of the dark skinned individual's children, and grandchildren, successfully generations losing more and more of the obvious features, yet, in their genomic makeup, they will forever hold the influence of these genes]

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Religion, Evolution, and the Borrowed Template

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in a given society. It is so influential, that it almost seems like an evolutionary necessity. Why is it that so many people, perhaps 98%, invest their time and effort in a belief structure that at best is a mythical representation, and at worst can lead to countless wars and quite possibly the extinction of a society? The obvious answer is that religion is a force that binds a given society together, preventing any loss of social identity. Religion in essence is a pan-societal factor. Just as language, dress, music, even choice of cuisine reinforce a society, religion provides yet another common ground between various different individuals.
When one analyzes any pan-societal factor, they must first understand the prehistoric and evolutionary reasons for such a powerful force. Human beings are essentially the same creatures that existed 100,000 years ago in Africa; motivated by an irresistible urge to keep moving and exploring. We are physically identical to those early humans who hadn't yet lived in cities, or domesticated animals, mastered agriculture, or developed metal production. Those early hunter-gatherer humans were composed of small wondering bands, in a clan-based social hierarchy. Evolution provided humans with the tools to strengthen and socially bind each small clan together. The larger ones numbers, the more strength, and less stress each individual in the clan would have. As long as resources were abundant enough, people were happy and more then willing to serve beliefs that reinforced and identified their bond. In fact, it was an evolutionary necessity to find commononalities and pan-societal factors. Artwork such as cave painting, rock carving, tattooing, ornamentation, and other such aesthetic bonds were a method in which a clan could have formed a social identity. An example from today's world, would be gangs. They are like the early clans, each having a strong self-identity, whether it's the color of their bandanas, or the hand signals, or any number of identifying factors. In this context then, it's not difficult to see religion as a social binding force and an early necessity for self-identification.
Religion works great as a force of social identification. It's a belief structure that each member can follow, and share with one another. But unlike mythology, religion is taken far too seriously. Mythology was once religious in nature as well, and only through the course of history, can one look back and laugh at the irrationality of people (without realizing their own irrational beliefs). We now look at Greek Mythology, and find it amusing that their pantheon was composed of gods who had such "flawed" human characteristics. They were vengeful and spiteful, highly jealous, and sometimes truly enjoyed causing a complete mess. They were constantly meddling with people and really enjoying it. They not only drank, but ate, slept, laughed, had sex, played music, and pretty much enjoyed life to the fullest. However, as society developed and advanced, it evolved to embrace highly metaphysical concepts. The gods were not identified as flawed humans, but as flawless beings (or being, in monotheistic thought). They now lived in a metaphysical realm that was far different from the physical world that we know. Instead of living on the top of the highest mountain (such as mount Olympus) they now resided in a metaphysical world called heaven, out of reach for a corporeal body. In some religions, the idea of deities all together was shelved, and instead, the purpose of existence became to reach fulfillment. In Buddhism, the whole purpose of existence is to attempt to attain a state of perfection. Hinduism also has similar concepts involving the attainment of Nirvana.
In current matters of religion, there is a wide rift developing between those who follow their beliefs literally, to those who take it half serious and in vague terms called spirituality, and the minority who have completely distanced themselves from any concept of it. I for one am in great conflict as to where I stand in this matter. I definitely don't fall in the serious religious category, but I am grateful to religion in some ways. I am Christian by birth, my denomination being Armenian Apostolic (similar to Orthodox Christianity), and I'm very grateful for the church. It has helped preserve the Armenian culture and given us a social identity. Without such a strong cultural influence, we would have become islamized. Armenia is located in the middle of the silk route on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It has been a source of contention since time immemorial. Countless cultures have come and gone through Armenian land, yet the general social unity remained, due in part to religion. Before Christianity, Armenian pagan religion was a strong enough force to outlast invasion, however, something more powerful and culturally invasive would be needed to outlast the modern era (after 1 AD). Christianity thus became such a force, binding and strengthening the ties of Armenians. This force was further strengthened, when a unique literary alphabet was created to assist with the religious literature. Armenia in fact was the first nation to adopt Christianity (301 CE). Although persecuted and tormented, especially during Muslim rule, Armenians remained unified, and still maintained a cohesive culture, due in no small part to Christianity. For this, I am grateful, but I can't take religion so literally.
The Bible as I see it is mythology at it's most absolute. It was long assumed that Christianity had it's roots in Judaism due in part to the adoption of the Old testament (which is completely Jewish mythology). However, one must not forget that Judaism itself borrowed many concepts from Zoroastrianism. Monotheism itself, the God that Christians, Muslims and Jews believe in, evolved from the Zoroastrian God Ahura-Mazda. I will speak more about the Zoroastrian religion in another essay, but for now, suffice as it is to say, Judaism not only has some roots in Zoroastrian thought, but also borrows heavily from Sumerian and general Mesopotamian beliefs. Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, and many other such concepts are not rooted in Judaism but instead, in Sumerian religion (mythology as we call it now). In fact, the world was shocked when fragments of cuneiform tablets were discovered in what is now Iraq, that attested to the earliest flood stories. As it turned out, this belief was so pervasive in the Middle East, that one such group, even after relocating, maintained these multiple stories (the Biblical Jews) and eventually abridged them into just one legendary feat by a man named Noah. Even the Mountain of Ararat that is so oft mentioned, was not anywhere close to the Biblical Jews. If the story of the flood was a creation on the Levant (the region that extends from along the Eastern Mediterranean coast), then perhaps Mount Lebanon would have a been a better choice, since it clearly was the highest mountain near. However, the very fact that the Mountains of Armenian, and Ararat are mentioned attests to the fact that it was closer to a Sumerian myth, since the life giving waters of the Tigris and Euphrates (which supported Sumerian society) have their source in Armenia. The flood myth in essence is an analogy to the start of civilization. Just as the story of Adam and Eve is an analogy to the beginnings of humanity, the flood myth is the pre-cursor to civilization. This is another concept I will delve into later.
Finally, as one can see, even the strongest of religions has been influenced and borrowed concepts from another. Each religion is a borrowed template from a thought that has existed before it. We have reached a global point now, to understand that even though religion is a unifying cultural force, we can finally start to distance ourselves from it. Cultural identity does not have to be based solely on religion. I am, and will always be an agnostic. I am not an atheist, because I am not even sure on whether existence is based solely on our corporeal life. I think being atheist itself is as extreme as being religious. Since there is no way to prove or disprove of any metaphysical concepts, it's best to be willing to admit to ones ignorance and play it by ear. As I always tell the Jehova's Witnesses, I'll wait till I'm dead, then I'll tell you who was right. This is the philosophy that anyone with a religious disagreement should follow.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A question of Semantics

There are many words in the English language that have such a heavy connotative meaning, but when used improperly, are useless. These words are used so often and become so casual, they lose all meaning and cease to become powerful.
One of the most over-used and improper phrases is the term Anti-Semitic. This phrase is used so often, at so many people, that it has ceased to carry the weight it once may have had. Anti-Semitic is a control term, a term used to bully people into believing a certain ideology, when the term in itself is just ridiculous. When a person criticizes the Israeli government, its policies, or its politics, they are branded anti-Semitic. If one states a true fact such as the majority of the Media and finances are run by Jews, or that Jews in government are highly over-represented when compared to their number in the population, they are regarded as anti-Semitic. First, it's helpful to dissect the term anti-Semitic. A Semite is a person who's background is generally Middle Eastern. Groups such as Arabs, ethnic Israelis, Assyrian's and Druz' are all considered Semitic people. Thus, the term anti-Semitic as associated with only Jews is incorrect, when in reality, any discrimination towards the Semitic groups mentioned can be considered anti-Semitic. Another very important concept to understand is that not all Jews are Semites. In fact, the majority of Jews are of European descent, and not originally from the Middle East. A statement made by an Arab against a Jew being called anti-Semitic sounds as strange as if an Englishman calls a Spaniard anti-European.
Once one understands that most Jews are not Semites, and not all Semites are Jews, then we can begin to discuss the objective truth. There is no such thing as being anti-Jewish (which is the term I shall use from now on), when one discusses their displeasure with Israeli policy. In fact, there are very few people in the world that can look at Israel's conduct and agree with the heavy handed tactics used. Also, the claim that Israel is a Democracy or a free society is absurd. Israel is as much a democracy as South Africa was during Apartheid. If one would try to understand the plight of non-Jews in Israel, then the state policies would be all but evident. How many supporters of Israel have ever talked to the minority Christian populations, Palestinian, and non-Palestinian alike. For at least 3 decades now, Israel has put more and more pressure on churches and mosques within its borders. They have instituted unfair practices in which they raise the price of land or rent for non-Jews, and when it's sold to Jews, the price comes back down to normal. The truth behind the facade is that Israel has a highly stratified and caste society. The people at the top are the Ashkhenazi Jews (European descended, especially from Russia), they are the most militant and hawkish. Below the Ashkhenazi are the Israeli Jews, and below them on the caste system are the American Jews (those that have moved to Israel from America). Following this, there are the Ashkhanazi Jews married to Sephardic Jews(those Jews with roots in Spain who actually have Semitic blood), and below this, are the Sephardic Jews themselves. On the lowest rungs are the Christians, Muslims, and Druz'. If you do not believe any of the statements made here, please find the time to talk to any of the lower groups, especially the Christians and Muslims. The justification for this nationalistic and stratified society is that Israel is a refuge for all Jews so that events such as the Holocaust can be prevented. Now in theory, this may seem like a sound idea, but in practice, the ethnic cleansing and the heavy-handed tactics used to achieve the intended results all but encourage dissatisfaction, resentment, and anger. Israel can act on its own accord, with no regulation. Unlike most countries on Earth, Israel can pretty much do as it pleases, and the worst they get might be a mockingly half-serious rebuke from the US government. However, the amount of money invested in Israel by the American Government is in record proportions, yet there is no authority to control this spending. Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear arsenal, yet they get away with it, due to "nuclear ambiguity". This is just another play on semantics to allow Israel to receive foreign aid. A country that has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, yet has an arsenal in excess of 200 nuclear warheads is not a joke. I mean, think about it objectively, how ultimately outlandish can a country be. Yet, these policies run unchecked because any possible criticism of Israeli policy is branded as anti-Semitic. Disliking Israeli policy does not make one anti-Jewish. In fact, there are many Jews who are appalled at the policies instituted by the Israeli government.
A question of semantics indeed. Words can have such an overwhelming influence over thought that the whole world can be bullied over a simple misnomer such as the phrase anti-Semitic. Absolute truth is the formula for a thorough understanding of the world that we live in. When this truth is shaded before our eyes, and the facts of history are altered, or words are played with in such a manner as to influence thought, then this in effect destroys all that we strive for (excluding politicians, since they purposely implement measures to change the course and direction of history for their malicious benefit).