Giving the Stoned Ape Theory fangs
Two more interesting snake-related bits of mythology:
* The notion of Kundalini ("coiled snake")  in Hinduism. It sits at the base of the spine, travels up the spine in a serpentine movement (energetic vibrations) and travels up to the head, leading to liberation/enlightenment/etc. Carl Jung also observed the kundalini phenomenon in his patients (e.g. a woman who claimed she felt a snake crawl up from her belly and out her mouth).
* The caduceus , an ancient symbol which today is mostly associated with medicine. It has two snakes crawling up a staff in sine-wave form.
Here's my take: the "snake" so worshipped is a sensory experience of sinusoidal energy moving up the spinal column. You can experience it yourself by practicing Kundalini yoga, and it's very easy to see how people would analogize its movement to the movement of a snake.
I neglected to mention in my other comment: I love this. This is really impacting my thinking. It's my new favorite possibility. It makes SO much sense. Jury is still out on specifically "snake venom as psychedelic" but the basic thrust of "We got how we are because ~15ky ago we stumbled across memetic psychotechnology that granted a conscious sense of self" seems impressively compelling. Thank you for writing all this up!
One bit you keep mentioning that I'm really interested in hearing more about:
> I’ll write more about the gender aspect in future posts. For a bit more see the Eve Theory of Consciousness (or read Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc.).
I'd super duper love to hear more about your take on this gender thing. You mention women became sapient first. That fits the legends, and I can come up with some just-so stories about why that might have happened (e.g. women have always had more evolutionary & cultural pressure to practice social recursive thinking)… but my thoughts aren't as compelling as what you've written here. I feel like the explanation is going the other way: "Why would there be legends of female figures lifting men out of being animals and/or into being alive at all?"
But… gosh, that last framing seems like that's what being a mother is? Giving birth is creating new life. Go far enough back & people might not have noticed it had anything at all to do with sex! So ANY kind of (re)birth experience might be thought of as fundamentally from a feminine force.
But I get the sense that you have some kind of woven evidence to suggest that women were sapient (maybe for a while? like generations?) before men were and then figured out how to onboard men to sapience. That it's not just a metaphor.
I'd super duper love to hear you say more about this. If you'd be up for giving the one-paragraph version in comments here I'd very much enjoy it! But if not, just know that I'm looking forward to when you share the article about this.
> In humans the concept of self was extended to an invisible agent with an impossible task. The self is defined by tension between id and superego. There is no rest for the wicked, nor the righteous. Such is life.
Would you mind saying more about why you see this as impossible? Never-ending, sure, because id and superego aren't static and might well adapt in response to the ego's solution at each stage. But why IMPOSSIBLE?
Andrew, thanks for writing up such an interesting theory, and I especially enjoyed the selection of art used throughout.
Forgive me if this was linked elsewhere and I missed it, but this essay dovetails nicely: https://smoothbrains.net/posts/2022-08-24-planetary-scale-vibe-collapse.html. In this essay, the author discusses two models of consciousness, “liminal vs. supraliminal awareness, or preconquest vs. postconquest consciousness.”
It’s worth reading for anybody who enjoyed Andrew’s article here, and theorizes a mechanism for memetic transmission of “knowledge of good and evil” between groups of people.
> religion produced agriculture, for without initiation abstract thought and the ability to plan would not have been present.
How do you reconcile that with ants practicing agriculture but not, apparently, religion?
Fascinating read. Great pitch of a wild idea!
Best line: "Show me a culture and I’ll show you the snakes" <— in terms of how the story is built, that should have been the starting point, in my opinion.
But anyway, great writing. Thank you!
+ There are a few snake species in Siberia.
+ The Khoisan separated from the main branch of Homo Sapiens around ~250k years ago, which suggests language is at least that old.
+ Existence of Williams Syndrome (look up kids with WS, they're quite dumb but perfectly capable of speech) suggests language is not that special.
+ Dating language, consciousness, self-awareness, or any cognitive affordance universal to all Homo Sapiens, to after the Out of Africa event [which is itself dubious (looks like there were multiple back and out migrations), but whatever] is not parsimonious. The simplest explanation is that the last common ancestor already had it.
+ In my opinion, the self-model is a quite elementary structure that any control model of the contents of current attention must quickly discover (or evolve to discover) in order to generate a world model that is sufficiently rich to allow effective regulation of the self and its actions in the world. It is true that language might be a prerequisite to achieve the expressive density necessary to represent concepts that rely on a tower of abstractions. E.g. I can't imagine a speechless mind capable of representing the following thought: "the current thought process that is representing its own action of thinking". But that kind of capability should hardly be the criterion for self-awareness; it's just a richer, higher resolution kind of self-awareness imo.
This was fun to read.
I think the dormancy question deserves a better attempt to reject the null hypothesis (i.e. chance). Evolution is rich with examples of a trait that exists with one purpose before suddenly becoming useful for another purpose and adapting rapidly as a result. Indeed, evolution doesn't work without that idea.
We know that contemporary humans who grow up without exposure to language during formative years can never catch up later.
So it seems to me plausible that language and all the accompanying insights could have arisen by chance in a substrate of minds that were all perfectly capable of it but, till then, lacked the stimulus to conceive it. Just like it's easy to observe Pythagoras' theorem in hindsight but hard to invent it in the first place.
Finally, isn't it "homo sapiens" rather than "Homo Sapien"? And "Zeus" rather than "Zues"
Creative and engaging piece. There's a lot to engage with, but I'd like to call attention to some known biology that may shed some light on the biological origins of language (an active and thorny domain of research as you mention).
I do think there's persuasive evidence to assert that the brain and morphology of modern humans are adapted for sophisticated verbal communication and along with it executive functions (strategic planning and the like). There are certainly precursors of spoken language (vocalizations) in ancient humans and other apes that are likely substrates for natural selection. Understanding the architecture of these traits is likely to illuminate more about the origins of language.
Whether the capacity for spoken language and a sophisticated consciousness occurred while modern humans emerged or later I think is secondary to the fact it must more or less be largely a product of evolved biology rather than a culturally or environmentally evolved technology (though the selection mechanisms themselves certainly involved these factors).
There are several lines of uncontroversial evidence to point to that suggest language is an innate human capacity (and with it an enriched subjective perspective and experience): autism as a genetic disease of neurodevelopment, natural lesion experiments to brain regions involved in language (Broca's, Wernicke's, and the arcuate fasciculus), and hyoid bone evolution.
For brevity, let's follow the autism thread.
Autism can be understood as a systematic disorder of brain development that results in specific social deficits. A key symptom is language problems. Language is often delayed, if not absent, in those with severe forms of the disorder. Autism, despite being a spectrum of disorders, is fundamentally a genetic disease. There are little to no environmental inputs on it (except extreme in utero exposures). This is shown by twin studies, family studies of rare gene mutations, GWAS, brain morphology, etc. If language is essential to normal social interaction and normal social interaction is so deeply woven into the genomic program of brain development, then it is probable that whenever modern humans obtained the our contemporary genome (~100k ya), a capacity for consciousness was there too. This doesn't exclude the cultivation and enrichment of consciousness via cultural technologies. I think we have some evidence for this (e.g. written language rewiring brain areas that were previously used for facial recognition). But I think it underscores the innateness of human consciousness. Some neuroscientists allege that consciousness itself was a phenotype that was selected for.
I am probably conflating language and consciousness too much, but I am not sure how separable they are.
Excellent food for thought – thanks for sharing!
I'm sure these will have been covered by you somewhere, but I think of the uraeus / spitting snake on the Pharoah's crown, and of the snakes in the desert that Moses had to deal with. These would spit in your eye. Somehow this is connected with the Solar deity, aspects of which are inherited by Jehova.
Also, women with snake heads include not only the Medusa, but also the ancient Erinyes / Furies, who had snakes on their heads in many representations. The Erinyes embodied a kind of conscience, that wreaked revenge on those who defied the gods and broke their rules. They are also connected generally with Titanic nforces of nature (Typhon and the like) who are connected with water / storms / rain and hence the growing of crops. But they must be tamed by Zeus, etc.
I wrote a litte about Solar snakes in another context: https://travellerintheevening.substack.com/p/blakes-annihilation-by-the-eye-of
I don't know why but I have always been profoundly convinced that Julian Jaynes was on the right track, and that our myths are saying something really fundamental about the nature of consciousness, and its historical transformation. Please get it together to write a book that collects all of your reasoning on these ideas!!
From my article on Solar Snakes: "Othmar Keel has traced the use of uraeus iconography in Palestine from the Hyskos period to the end of the Iron Age, and this has led to “an emerging consensus that the Egyptian uraeus serpent is the original source of the seraphim motif.”22 The uraeus is the rearing cobra depicted on the Pharaoh’s crown, poised and ready to strike his enemies. The uraeus, therefore, is a protective deity, and a symbol of regal power and legitimacy. While uraeus symbolism is certainly an important aspect of the imagery of the seraphim, the identification with the cobra is not essential.
The uraeus has its origins in the ancient Egyptian snake goddess, Wadjet, tutelary deity of lower Egypt. Evidence of the worship of Wadjet goes to before the Old Kingdom of the third Millenium BC. Nekhmet was the similarly ancient protective goddess of upper Egypt, and appears depicted as a vulture alongside Wadjet in the full uraeus crown of the Pharaoh’s of a united Egypt. This ultimate protective role was transferred over to the protection of Ra himself, as the god of the sun and of the solar disc and Lord of all. Wadjet and Nekhmet are seen in Egyptian iconography flanking the winged solar disc. Their role is to protect Ra, shooting a consuming fire at his enemies that threaten to destabilise Ra in guiding the sun in its daily course. Egyptian theology even makes a distinction at points between Ra as such and the ‘Eye of Ra’, the solar disc, as an emanation of Wadjet, so that Wadjet becomes ‘the Eye of Ra’. Ultimately in Egyptian theology, all the other gods become aspects of Ra, and thus the winged sun disc becomes emblematic of ultimate divine sovereignty. "
Great article Andrew.
You state herein that, "I can’t show an unbroken chain between Gobekli Tepe and historical snake myths." I suppose this is true. However, the prominence of the serpent at Gobekli Tepe's compeer, Karahan Tepe, carved into the wall of the hypogeum pit, lends credence to the overall prevalence and connection of the myth genre.
> At first only some of the initiated would obtain or retain a sense of self. As the seamless formation of self was useful, there would be selection for those that could maintain it. After several generations, perhaps the success rate goes up, and dosage of psychedelics can be reduced. After thousands of years, the dosage is zero, and the ritual is forgotten
For what it's worth, in not sure biological selection is required here at all (although it was probably also happening in this direction!)
The main different pathway I can see is that once a society's memes are increasingly full of self-reference, recursion, first-person pronouns, references to knowledge of good and evil (and other dualisms), there might be a tipping point where that in itself is enough to cause any human growing up in it to identify with their ego. The ritual might essentially be reduced to things like demanding a kid justify their behavior, which projects a *YOU* into them that becomes an *I*. Much like how learning any culture is harder from one person vs being immersed in it.
While reading the part about recursion, I immediately thought of the Ouroboros. It's a snake eating itself... 🤯
I'm so happy I found your blog! I've also thought for a long time that consciousness (and I would say perhaps even complex language) is relatively recent. Just binged a few of your posts. Subscribed!
Perhaps I'm being daft, but it's unclear to me how the venom induced consciousness attained by a individual through rituals is spread to the forever and future uninitiated.
I mean are you hinting at some sort of mimetic contagion? Why Are the blind,deaf and dumb, not suffering some impaired consciousness?
There doesn't seem to be much reason to believe Psychedelic states effect anyone beyond the experiencer.
Would the literature on language and consciousness in feral children be insightful on any of these issues?
This is great... now I'm going to comb early cultures for snake references. I think it absolutely stands that what snakes represented in antiquity doesn't necessarily follow from instinctual fear of dying to a snake!