Lecture Three: How did We Change the World? Being with, and Believing in, Others Instigated the Anthropocene

Professor Fuentes delivered his third lecture earlier this evening focusing on how humans changed the world. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion William L Atkins will offer his initial reflections. Atkins is currently a PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Fuentes began his third lecture by articulating various ways that our human niche developed, with a specific emphasis on the more recent phase of our human history and its unique developments.  He stated early on that in this lecture he would provide “a view of the emergence of increasingly complex and multispecies human communities, illustrating how the development of domestication, storage and new modes of social structure enabled the rise of particular beliefs and practices of property and identity which in combination with expanding patterns of inequality, created radically novel landscapes for human existence.” Throughout the lecture he went on to describe how these new “landscapes” set the stage for our contemporary human niche, where the capacity for belief plays a significant and central role.

He first focused on the role of domestication. He spoke of the various ways that plant and animal species were modified for human benefit. He spoke of the modification of wheat and rice, the development of tamer breeds of cows and goats, and of the development of settlements and villages around “resource rich-ecosystems.” In stating this he claimed that contrary to “much popular and academic literature” domestication did not develop out of a context of resource scarcity and stress, but one of abundance where more and more sophisticated “resource management systems” developed.  He was quick to point out that domestication did not cause one-directional change, but instead stated that “these relationships between humans and other species began a mutual process of inter-reliance and left marks on landscapes and bodies.” Fuentes drew our attention back to discussions in previous lectures where he pointed out the roles that stone tools and fire played in shaping the human niche. Similarly, these new and developing interrelations between humans and other species contributed to the construction of the human niche itself (and not merely to the alteration of the human environment). As he stated, “they became central components of our physical and perceptual realities morphing into integral parts of the human niche.”

He then went on to further articulate the significance of these “domesticatory processes” by taking an extended look at two examples: the evolving human relationship with dogs and the developing human modification of rice. As he went on to state, “the plants and animals that we have incorporated into our niche affect how we live and how we see ourselves and the world around us.” Given that these “greatly influence how we experience the world” he went on to point out that they “directly shape how and what we believe.”

Fuentes then moved on to speak about other aspects that began to emerge with the various processes of domestication. He drew our attention to the various commitments that humans began to make: “the development and use of accumulation and preservation storage, singular investment in specific locations, and the emergence of large, permanent building projects.”

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Storage, as he told us, played an important role in the development of the human niche. Storage of valuable items enabled “new types of economic relationships” that “expanded notions of ownership and the sense of ‘property.’” New ways of committing oneself to property as more or less valuable developed. With these developments a new possibility of inequality also emerged. These new economic relationships and accompanying self-understandings linked with the possibility of owning property, as Fuentes told us, sets the stage for a critical aspect of contemporary belief.

Fuentes then went on to describe the significant development of various commitments to specific places (which he referred to as “sedentism”). Agriculture played a big role here. As he stated, “these intensities of investment in space, place, and other organisms locked humanity into a world where we are never alone, never without intensive obligations to other species as a central core of what enables us to live.” He went on to point out how this phenomenon gave rise to “a strong tendency to incorporate those other species” into the perceptions and worldviews of human groups. Fuentes then moved to focus on the further development of specific places through “the building and maintaining of material structures.” He emphasized the coordination and collaboration required to build these structures and, in the case of Gobelki Tepe (which is not the only example), he made the further point that in addition to coordination this necessitated “role differentiation and, very likely, some form of sincere belief that these actions had some greater meaning than the materials or the final product itself.” The human creation of meaning expanding from smaller forms of art to larger scale structures. As he stated, “by the end of the Pleistocene and into the heart of the Holocene humans around the planet are indisputably constructing, maintaining and using places that materially, reflect some form of complex, coherent and coordinated belief systems.”

At this point in his lecture Fuentes returned to focus on the emergence and expansion of inequality. “New patterns of social structure develop” as the domisticatory processes continue along with the human commitments to property, specific places, and to the constructions of more elaborate spaces. He spoke of the development of public storage and management of surplus, which differentiated “a small percentage of individuals as the managers of the storage.” He then spoke about the emerging patterns of “gendered spheres and activities.” As he went on to say, “it appears that across the last 8,000 years or so this general trend of increased gender differentiation in roles morphed into social expectations and norms which involved the inculcating of young males and females in different trajectories in order to train to fulfill these expectations,” which shaped our beliefs about what it means to be male or female. He then moved on to speak about the transition of villages into cities and the accompanying development of the “specialization of craftspeople,” which enabled “a pattern of unequal status, access and practice” that furthermore enabled the development of various economies and population structures and political organization. As he stated, “this changed what humans believe about value, exchange, equity, and each other.” He pointed out that across the last 5-6,000 years these “patterns of political, economic and gendered differences, rooted in social structures based on configurations of enhance inequality, move from their incipient development into formalized realities for a majority of human populations.” This in turn gave rise to the large-scale lethal violence of human warfare.

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Fuentes pointed out that, while acts of lethal violence took place ever since the beginning of our lineage, “large scale lethal violence, or warfare, is an evolutionary recent phenomena.” He asserted that about 12-14,000 years ago the material record began to shift and that by 4-7,000 years ago “warfare and mass killings become not a common, but a regular aspect of the human condition.” He was quick to point out that competition over resources is not a sufficient explanation for this development, but that conflicts with ideology is also a significant ingredient.  As he went on to describe, “During the changes that emerged across the Holocene humans made the perceptual shift from individual-on-individual violence to perceiving a whole group or cluster of groups as ‘the enemy’: we creatively de-humanized others as we redefined ourselves,” which had significant “implications for how and what humans believe.

Fuentes ended his third lecture by pointing toward the fourth where he would speak about “that most distinctive of human developments: human culture.” It is through understanding human culture, Fuentes stated, that we are more fully able to understand how we believe and in doing so we put ourselves in a better position to answer why it is that we believe.

3 thoughts on “Lecture Three: How did We Change the World? Being with, and Believing in, Others Instigated the Anthropocene

  1. In this third lecture, Professor Fuentes discusses an issue which is currently of great interest in the field of science and religion; the relationship between humans, belief, and the world-as-a-whole. Fuentes discusses the long story of human evolution in relationship to the world and how this relationship has shaped what, and how, we believe. He mentions that the “new relationship between humans and the world” has had a dramatic effect on our worldview and as such our belief systems. There are several examples from which I could tease out a series of questions, however, I will focus on two points from his lecture which I found to be the most engaging, the domestication of plants and animals and the construction of sacred spaces.

    Fuentes states that “domestication has affected how we live and how we see the world around us; this greatly affects how we experience the world and so directly shapes how and what we believe.” It is the idea that domestication has “shaped what we believe”, that I will turn my attention to. Fuentes seems to argue that belief is a matter of evolution. That humans began to ascribe more importance to the animals and plants we employed in the support of sedentarism. The labor and space needed to maintain crops and herds, in conjunction with these food sources supporting our survival, eventually develops belief as it changes our worldview.

    His point is well made, however, it does bring some important questions to mind. First, are these food sources in some manner sacred, or possessed of a spiritual nature, or are they simply tools for survival? If we operate from the stance that time is linear and there is a dualistic separation between thought and matter, or physical and non-physical, then the purely physicalist account of human development in relation to the world is rather easily put. However, if we are to adopt the worldview that the universe exists as a resonant pattern in which all is related in cycles of action, then the social construction of human culture could no more emergently create beliefs than a toaster left alone could produce a bagel.

    In this view, there must be an integral relationship between the non-physical (thought, spirit etc.) nature of the universe and the physical aspects which are more readily evident. As an example, the epistemological sciences of wuxing and yin yang observe that Qi exist in in all aspects of the world-as-a-whole, regardless of time. There is a connection between humans and, for example, rice, which is based in a transcendent reality that is presently connected to the world through correspondence. It is this connection that offers sustenance to the person who consumes the rice. The observation of nature, the realization of the way, then lends itself to the cultivation of the product. Of course, wuxing and yin yang do not date to the times referred to in the lecture, however, they are models for understanding; they are not “things” in themselves. I therefore would offer that studying the evolution of domestication, with a view that it began with belief rather than produced belief may provide for new arguments not progressing from a worldview dominated by linear time and a dualistic understanding of physical and non-physical.

    A second point made by professor Fuentes was in relation to places of meaning. I will, as he did, avoid employing the term sacred space. However, I will interject that sacred may indeed be appropriate as “places of meaning” also connotes some manner of importance. Further these places, in particular he mentions Göbekli Tepe, were, according to Fuentes, not used for food production or storage and so were used for some unknown purpose. The idea of a special place of meaning, raises several questions. Firstly, does this construction indicate a belief system which pre-dates construction? Further, would this system of belief be specifically tied to physical locations on the earth? He states that this project took generations to complete, which indicates a powerful motivation for the construction. He compares it to cave paintings and earlier “meaning laden manipulations of the world.” However, is the meaning attached to the physical objects and places by humans, or is it inherent in these places? He also states that these are “wholly human places of meaning.” If that is the case, and there is no transcendent reality with which these early humans were engaging, then was selection of spaces and images random? Considering the labor involved, that seems unlikely. Further, was there a “priest caste” directing this large-scale project and managing it down the years, while maintain the belief system that supported it? It would seem unlikely that such an undertaking would have survived unless there was already a significant “belief” to carry it through. I realize that professor Fuentes is not a philosopher or theologian, but rather someone who studies the why and how of being human. I also allow that ancient ruins and pottery shards do not necessarily indicate belief, but rather the archeological evidence of human practices we are left to interpret as best we may. However, if the aim is to discover the how and why of belief, then it may behoove us to investigate from perspectives that include the transcendent in relation to the physical. Not necessarily from the position of the Abrahamic faith traditions, but a wider view of physical and non-physical interaction in the world-as-a-whole. Belief may be a product of our evolution, or it may be our dawning realization of the nature if the universe.

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  2. Excellent lecture. I am really fascinated by the historical development of our relationship with different species in order to provide mutual benefits, both with animals and plants. The how and why for plants, to me, is more straight forward in genetic selection of plant strains by humans, while the bonding that takes place in different ways in animal/human relationships seem more complicated (e.g. the different ways we interact between cats and dogs versus sheep and cows). These lectures are superb and I am looking forward to the next ones.

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  3. Thank you very much to Professor Fuentes for another fantastic, exciting lecture.

    The journey through time that Professor Fuentes has taken us on, has truly transported me back to those far simpler times that I think, part of me so often yearn for. I was actually slightly overwhelmed when I left, and found myself in modern times on South Bridge after lecture three!!!

    On reading other comments with great interest, and thinking over all that I have blissfully gleaned from these lectures, I would respectfully comment that I personally do believe in what Richard Dawkins wrote in “The Selfish Gene” but that I treat it, itself, in a very reductionist way, in that all species including the human species are hard wired and programmed for survival and procreation, procreation and survival at all costs, ultimately without consideration. Altruism can only be, in some way symbolic or beneficial to overall survival or survival of offspring, which in humans would include devout selflessness?!….so with my take on that, blended with what I take from these first three lectures and seeing far more clearly now that, thanks to, or because of, the factors that Professor Fuentes listed, such as our complete morphology, (here I want to say especially our dexterity! but I now realise that it is ‘all’ dependent on each and every particular aspect of our morphology), which allowed the very gradual uptake of external objects and manipulation of the world around us as facilitators of our deepest inner drivers (unfortunately titled ‘selfish genes’) to hopefully ensure our ongoing success as a species. Every living thing has those ‘genes’, and the long term success of an organism depends on them.

    The most exciting part for me is that it seems beautifully clear now how our paths to belief may have evolved and developed. I hadn’t realised till now how much this had been troubling me, I think that these lectures are connecting up the dots in a very sympathetic way, and have given me a huge renewed feeling of respect for our human niche and ultimately our very complex human culture/cultures.

    I suppose that mastery of fire, stone, wood, plants and of some other more accommodating animals species, were simply challenges, in exactly the same way as space travel and disease control and ‘continued survival’ are today… but that an awe of what was impossible to master or understand must have led to a form of imagined concepts and subsequently the need to make a ‘spiritual’ connection in human form, to try to make sense of things that they couldn’t actually control, like large predators. They could imagine a man-lion who they could then imagine communicating with, and that he could perhaps protect them from his lion-half if they treated his carved image and imagined self with respect?!

    Likewise with the elements and Earth systems that they observed, and that were constants in their lives but which they had no physical control over, though needed to assign meaning to. It would have perhaps helped them to have imagined a way to persuade and appease such forces by attributing human characteristics to them and assigning particular humans to the job of communicating with them…?!

    I got quite excited about the seemingly symbolic constructions, and how we think that they were often aligned to solar and lunar events, and I wonder if by harnessing a predictable often annual event they could perhaps actively show a kind of devotion and perhaps a celebration of the magnificence of things that were way more powerful than they were, a type of reverence for the power of the transformation of day into night and the seasons, and of huge predators. They could maybe feel a sense of control just by aligning up the stones to create a predictable effect. Perhaps there was a huge fear that it was possible that day might not return after night…

    One more thing that has particularly struck me, is that I find it impossible to avoid ‘survival and procreation’ as a fundamental to life, and cannot see it as reductionist at all to always stay connected to that concept in light of everything else, it just is the starting point of life, and is essential and always has been, for a cell, for a tree, a dandelion, a lion, a human. We have just given meaning to it all, and are still asking questions, still trying to make sense of it, it is perennial and in my opinion impossible to avoid. That endeavour just is, as it is part of our human nature since the very outset, and we will always tell stories and enjoy imaginings and have our deeply spiritual selves and each other, but an ever clearer, and for me, much happier answers to the fundamental questions come from the wonderful piecing together of the fossil records and the on going studies of all life forms on our incredible little blue planet and the Universe that supports us, by those who want to imagine and understand, just like those first imaginative humans.

    I am so happy that I came to these lectures because they have honestly and truthfully given me far more respect for every perspective.

    Thank you, Gilli

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