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Conditioned Mind and the Advent of Agriculture

April 11, 2017



In the previous blog I hypothesized as to the birth of conditioned mind within human evolution. As we began to think, I suggested, we developed the capacity to assume a “someone” who thinks, and with this a door was opened to the self-centered orientation that is the source of all our troubles. It’s interesting to consider that our world-view is still founded upon this misconception all these years later, even among those who sincerely look into the issue. Remember the famous dictum of Descartes at the beginning of the “enlightenment” period? “I think, therefore I am.” he said. Our Cro-Magnon ancestors would have agreed with him. Clearly this assumption is the opposite of enlightened. We’ve been suffering from it, in fact, for these past hundred-thousand years.


Way back in the day, then, we evolved to the point where we could form abstract thoughts, we could remember what we were thinking, and we could communicate our thoughts symbolically through language. Communication fostered cooperation, and it wasn’t long before we began to live in small hunter-gatherer societies. If my theory is correct then conditioned mind was alive and well throughout the tens of thousands of years we lived this way. There is some evidence for this in the archeological record. Hunter-gatherers have the reputation (from our jaded point of view) of being noble sorts of folks, and in possession of an organic sort of wisdom that approaches enlightenment, but this is not likely the case. Consider, for example, that the early humans who migrated into North America after the last ice-age managed, it is thought, to hunt to extinction the wooly mammoths, giant bears, tigers, sloths, camels, and horses they found on the continent. The large mammals we still have, such as moose and elk, came with the humans over the land bridge in what is now the Bering Strait.
Their favorite hunting method was to drive herds of animals over a cliff, killing dozens to hundreds at one time when all they could eat was one or two. It’s hard to reconcile this with the exalted perspective that we associate with these people, and it has the odor of conditioned mind to my nose. There is also overwhelming evidence of violence between peoples, here and everywhere the early communities roamed. Once people became people, I suspect, they were as egotistical and self-righteous as we are, and just as controlled by conditioned mind.


A hunting-gathering society, however, provides but a limited scope for conditioned mind to operate within. There are constraints imposed by the environment and by the way people are required to make a living. In particular there was no way to accumulate wealth—no grain that can be stored, no herds of domesticated animals—and so no mechanism with which to divide the people into classes. If you kill a buffalo or a mammoth you suddenly have more than you and your family can eat and no way to store the excess, and so the natural thing to do is share the bounty as a form of insurance. The next time it may be your neighbor with the kill, and s/he will divide it with you. Everyone stands on an equal footing, at least economically, and there is little need for any sort of government. This all changed with the invention of agriculture.


Here is another place, it appears, where we’ve been spoon-fed fables over the years. The agricultural revolution is generally assumed to be the greatest thing to happen since the advent of language (another development of questionable value), but it’s much more likely to have been the worst, at least in the short term (i.e., the past ten thousand years). The history of agriculture is the history, ironically, of famine, malnutrition, and disease. We went from a dependence upon dozens or more of plants for food to just a one in most cases, and if this one essential crop failed then everyone in the community starved. We became dependent upon starches (wheat, maize, rice, potatoes, and a few others) that provided powerful carbohydrates but little nutrition, with the result that people became sickly and malnourished—so much so that people’s average height dropped six inches through the transition to agriculture. Meanwhile the availability of carbs caused the population to explode. People clustered together in order to be near the fields where they worked and were soon ravaged by new diseases, ones that were unable to get a foothold when people lived more cleanly, moving place to place.


The history of agriculture is also the history of social class and oppression. Suddenly there was a way to accumulate wealth. Those who managed to hoard riches could subjugate and even enslave the others. They could eat while their fellows starved. The new carbohydrates fueled the construction of vainglorious work projects (like the pyramids), and made possible modern war.


All of this can be found in more detail and more expertly explained on the internet. The fascination in it for me is from the spiritual point of view. The history of agriculture, I think we could say, is also the history of the expansion of conditioned mind. Things get a lot juicier for conditioning when you have inequality, especially when this occurs in a context that includes scarce and unreliable resources. Now there can be superiority and inferiority, unfairness, want next door to opulence, greed and violence, prejudice and tyranny. Now there can be real suffering. The further along we have gone, and as our technology has become more and more powerful, conditioned mind has reached more and more deeply into our institutions and social structures, to the point now where it could, with the push of a button, destroy the world.


It’s both frightening and illuminating to me to see history in this way. We as humans have been subjugated and misused since the invention of time, not by some outside force, but by an internal entity that most of the time we can’t even see. All is not lost, however. Perhaps this is in aid of something good. More about that in the next blog.

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