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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 5

Gabillou 'sorceror,' Dordogne, France [1]3,360 words

Part 5 of 7 (other parts here [2])

5. Can Biology Explain Ekstasis?

I have already mentioned that scientists speculate that cave art (and religion, language, etc.) comes about as a result of some kind of genetic mutation, perhaps a “sudden, serendipitous, genetically-based brain reorganization.” Since I have argued that it is ekstasis that founds the possibility of art, and other things, we must now entertain the hypothesis that ekstasis can be explained biologically: specifically, in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. I will argue that there are inherent difficulties with this.

Discussing these difficulties will bring to light some further facts about ekstasis and human nature, which will set the stage for my own account of how ekstasis arose. My theory will not be a rejection of science, however. Instead I will argue for a new scientific paradigm — a new type of evolutionary theory — that can make sense not only of how ekstasis took possession of our Paleolithic European ancestors, but of what our place is in the scheme of creation. Sections Six and Seven will lay out these ideas. But let us now begin by considering the more conventional, and generally-accepted scientific approach.

Recall Schopenhauer’s words quoted earlier. He says that in the experience I have called ekstasis we “lose ourselves entirely,” and “we forget our individuality, our will.” “Will” is a special technical term in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, essentially this refers to the natural self, with its biologically-based instincts and drives, which normally enthralls us.

When we are in the grip of will, everything is viewed in terms of utility. To put the matter in the terms of current biological theory, we approach everything in terms of whether (or how) it will advance our survival and reproductive success. Now, the basic problem with explaining ekstasis in biological or Darwinian terms is that it is precisely a state in which — as Schopenhauer makes very clear — we disengage completely from concern with the satisfaction of biological drives. Those drives, by contrast, narrow our interests to the concerns (short term and long term) of the organism. In ekstasis we prescind from all such concerns. We transcend our biological drives — the preoccupation with survival and reproduction — as well as the immediate moment, and even our personal identity.

Darwinism, as it is understood today by its proponents, insists that human characteristics that have proliferated (and are not, by contrast, isolated anomalies) must somehow serve to advance survival and reproductive fitness. How can Darwinism, then, make sense of ekstasis, the defining characteristic of humanity, when central to it is our ability to negate or transcend the concern with survival and reproduction?

Now, I can imagine what the response might be from Darwinians. They will point to the fact that ekstasis makes possible symbolic thought, which makes possible language, which has obvious survival value. Or they will point to the fact that ekstasis makes possible the grasp of essences, which enables us to engage in scientific investigation, which enhances our ability to survive by allowing us to make predictions about nature, and to harness nature’s power. And, perhaps, those who were able to experience ekstasis and to engage in these sorts of activities were more attractive to mates. All of this is quite plausible. Ekstasis does make possible certain things that enhance our ability to survive and reproduce. “So,” the Darwinian will say, “ekstasis is a faculty or act that allows us to momentarily disengage from biological concerns — only so that we may produce results that are biological advantageous.”

So far so good, but matters get trickier when we turn to the other products of ekstasis: the Hegelian triad of art, religion, and philosophy (the highest forms, for Hegel, in which human Spirit strives for self-knowledge). To try to explain such matters in terms of their theory, Darwinians will put themselves through the most absurd mental contortions.

For example, in an otherwise valuable book, Nicholas Wade asserts that “the essence of religion is communal,” because “religious rituals are performed by assemblies of people.”[1] He then argues that religion must therefore have been a device for strengthening communities. But this is an obvious non sequitur. Most people see films in cinemas, gathered together with others. Does it follow from this that the essence of cinema is “communal”? Is sitting in the dark with other people the point of going to a movie? (It’s certainly not why I go: I usually want the other people to leave.) Will Darwinians of the distant future conclude that human beings made films as a device for strengthening communities? If so, they will be quite wrong.

When we turn to how Wade actually thinks religion strengthened communities, things get really absurd. He theorizes that the invention of language gave “freeloaders” the power to deceive others, and then speculates that “Religion could have evolved as a means of defense against freeloading. Those who committed themselves in public ritual to the sacred truth were armed against the lie by knowing that they could trust one another.”[2] Now, up to a point what he has said is quite true: religious commitment is a way of increasing trust (as when we swear on the Bible in court). But it doesn’t follow that this is the point of religion, or why it arose in the first place.

Wade’s theory is just one example of the clumsy approach some scientists take in explaining religion, and other matters. As in Lewis-Williams’s account of the origins of art, these are cases of people trying to explain a phenomenon they find quite alien, which involves feelings and desires they have simply never experienced. But the nadir of the Darwinian explanations of such matters are the “sexual selection” theories that have been offered by many. How do we explain philosophy? The pursuit of wisdom for its own sake can’t really be for its own sake, can it? No, it’s got to be about attracting mates. Philosophy is a reproductive strategy developed by nerds. They can’t compete with the jocks on the playing field, so instead they dazzle females with their dialectic. Such hypotheses simply do not deserve to be taken seriously.

The theory of natural selection is a powerful tool for explaining a great deal in nature, and a great deal about us. The trouble is that Darwinians totalize the theory. When faced with a human activity that clearly has nothing to do with advancing survival or reproductive fitness, and even perhaps to sometimes imperil these, they respond by inventing highly implausible stories about how that activity must really fit their theory after all. And, often in the absence of any other evidence, they treat the simple fact that they have made up such a story as “proof” that Darwinism has now explained things. Stretched and contorted in this way, Darwinism becomes an unfalsifiable pseudo-science: nothing can disconfirm it.

Plus, the neo-Darwinians fail to understand Darwin. He never said that all human traits that get passed along must have something to do with advancing survival and reproductive fitness. Darwin merely claimed that traits that are positively inimical to survival and reproduction will not get passed along. Some traits may be entirely neutral to these considerations, neither advancing nor hindering biological interests (e.g., male nipples). Whereas others may be ambivalent, like ekstasis: sometimes advancing, sometimes hindering.

Art, religion, science, and philosophy all may, in some direct or indirect way, contribute to our ability to survive and reproduce. But this fact is merely incidental — it is not the reason why these activities are engaged in by human beings, nor (as I will argue anon) why they originated. Indeed, all of these activities may actually threaten survival. Consider the artist who practices celibacy, or ruins his health for the sake of his art. Or the scientist who does the same: Nikola Tesla was just such a man. Consider the chaste monk, or the religious fanatic who immolates himself in the name of his faith, or starves himself to death (as some of the Jains still do to this day). Consider the philosopher who, like Socrates, chooses to die rather than to renounce the love of wisdom.

All these activities — art, religion, philosophy, science — are, as I have argued, founded on ekstasis. And ekstasis is just the capacity to disengage ourselves from our biological drives, our selfish concerns, and the immediate moment and to awaken to the Being of things. And in that engagement with Being, we may glimpse possibilities for human life that have nothing to do with the call of nature.

Of course, my readers may be having some misgivings at this point. The very idea that we can “negate” the nature inside and outside us may strike some of you, justifiably, with horror. Isn’t this the human tendency that has caused all the problems in the world? Isn’t it what’s behind not just environmental devastation, but also the modern denial of biologically-rooted human differences (i.e., natural inequality)? This is undeniably true.

There is a kernel of truth in the Christian doctrine of freedom of will. Unlike the rest of his creatures, God did not place man completely under the subjection of natural drives and instincts. Instead, he left him free to choose — up to a point. He can choose to be in thrall to those instincts and drives, as is the man the Hindus call pashu. But if he chooses to transcend (or to try to transcend) the pull of nature, things can go either way. He may find truth, beauty, and goodness. Or he may make a complete mess of things. He may envision impossible ideals that go so much against nature they are inimical to human flourishing, even the flourishing of alienated intellectuals. In such cases, nature usually bites back, or finds a way back in.

Ekstasis is indeed a double-edged sword: helpful to us sometimes, harmful at others.[3] But it is crucial to understand that our ability to negate or, better put, transcend the natural is also the source of everything that is great about us. I need say little on this latter point, for I have already argued that art, religion, philosophy, and science involve this “transcendence,” and these are unquestionably the glories of the human race.

As I have indicated, I am skeptical of the ability of modern, Darwinian biology to explain ekstasis and the peculiar duality it produces in our nature. However, in fairness I must concede that it would be plausible for a Darwinian to take the position that although ekstasis produces behaviors that are sometimes inimical to survival and reproductive fitness, it produces enough results that actually advance biological interests for ekstasis to have proliferated. This is a reasonable position — but in fact it does not show that Darwinism can explain ekstasis. Far from it.

Darwinism, in truth, can only explain why certain traits have been passed along, or not passed along. It cannot explain why these traits originated in the first place. Darwinian theory essentially explains everything in terms of two components: random mutation, plus natural selection. Biological novelty arises as a result of genetic mutations that occur when organisms reproduce themselves. Those mutations that are disadvantageous to survival and reproduction will tend not to be passed along (the organisms that bear them will tend not to reproduce, and so eventually the mutations die with them). Whereas mutations that enhance survival and reproduction, or are neutral with respect to these, tend to be passed along to subsequent generations.

But if we ask where the mutations come from in the first place — where novelty comes from — Darwinian theory has no substantive answer to this. Mutations, Darwinians will tell us, are “random” or “chance.” Most non-scientists think that the theory of evolution has something to do with “progress”; with things getting better and better. But this is not the case. According to Darwinism, there is simply change, without ultimate rhyme or reason. Mutations do not happen because they are somehow “needed”; they just happen. And they do not fit into any sort of larger plan. That would buy into the sort of teleology (or “design”) that Darwinism expressly rejects.

The teleological or theological explanations of nature all make order primary: things happen for a reason; things are tending toward the realization of some rational plan or order. For Darwinism, by contrast, chance is metaphysically primary. The ultimate explanation for things — for why mutations (or biological novelties) arise — is chance, the opposite of order, design, or intention. But for all intents and purposes, to say that something happened “by chance” really amounts to the same thing as saying “we don’t know why it happened.” And to be committed to the idea that ultimately things happen by chance (i.e., that “things just happen”) is to be committed to the idea that the universe is absurd. Thus, despite the undeniable explanatory power Darwinism has exhibited within certain delimited contexts, ultimately it is simply another expression of modern nihilism.

The Darwnians are uncannily like the character of Socrates in Aristophanes’s comedy The Clouds (first performed in 423 B.C.E.). Socrates is portrayed in this play as a materialist and sophist. He accepts Strepsiades, an old bumpkin, as a student and attempts to teach him that it is not Zeus who thunders but the clouds themselves:

Socrates: They thunder, as they roll.

Strepsiades: In what way, you all-daring man?

Socrates: When they are filled up with much water and are compelled to be borne along by necessity, hanging down full of rain, then they heavily fall into each other, bursting and clapping.

But Strepsiades responds to this theory with a very reasonable question: “Who is it that compels them to be borne along? Isn’t it Zeus?” Socrates has a ready answer: “Not in the least. It’s ethereal vortex [dinos].” Strepsiades’s response is amusing, but pregnant with significance: “Vortex? I hadn’t noticed that Zeus didn’t exist and that instead of him Vortex is now king.” Later, Socrates has more success with Strepsiades’s son Pheidippides. Near the end of the play, a thoroughly-corrupted Pheidippides commits the cardinal sin of beating his old father, and the following exchange takes place between them:

Strepsiades: Have awe before ancestral Zeus!

Pheidippides: See! “Ancestral Zeus”! How ancient you are! Is there any Zeus?

Strepsiades: There is!

Pheidippides: No, there isn’t, since Vortex is king, having driven out Zeus.[4]

The Darwinians are in exactly the same position as Aristophanes’s Socrates (and have had exactly the same social effect, incidentally). They have dethroned God, and put Vortex — Chance, Chaos — in his place. This is literally true. At root, the typical Darwinist is committed — with all the fervor of a religious zealot — to the view that it is chance, disorder, and meaninglessness that reign supreme in the universe. But once one realizes that “chance” (like “vortex”) is a non-explanation, then the door is left wide open for another theory to supplement — or supplant — Darwinism; one that has greater explanatory power.

And we will need such a theory to explain ekstasis, for clearly “chance mutation” will not do. O felix mutatio! To have made possible art, religion, philosophy, science, and language. Indeed, to have made possible man’s self-knowledge — and, as I shall discuss in the next two sections, the universe’s self-knowledge. No, there must be something else going on here . . . But if we must go beyond the approach of Darwinist biology, where do we look?

The 'black monolith' from Kubrick's 2001 [3]

In thinking about ekstasis and the mystery of how it arose, I am often reminded of the “black monolith” from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, while the film leaves this mysterious and metaphorical, Arthur C. Clarke’s understanding was more literal: aliens sent the black monolith to ape-men as a “teaching machine.” I am also reminded of Heidegger’s concept of das Ereignis. In German this term simply means “the event,” but Heidegger uses it to refer to his belief that sometimes in human history there have been occurrences or shifts that may have no rational explanation. For Heidegger, the ultimate disproof of modernity’s insistence that everything is explicable lies in its inability to fully explain the contingent historical circumstances that have led to it.

Now, I am willing to accept the idea that certain things may be inexplicable — with the exception, however, of those that I can explain. And I do believe that ekstasis is explicable. Talk of alien intervention, Ereignis, or even God will not do, however. “God” is more uplifting an explanation than “chance” (and it does have the advantage of making order primary, rather than disorder — which, I shall argue, is the more reasonable position). But ultimately it is really no more clarifying than “chance.” “It’s chance” means “things just happen for no reason.” “God did it” means “things happen for a reason, but we can’t understand it.”

To be sure, there are mysterious, abrupt “shifts” in the evolutionary record. One of these was the so-called “Cambrian explosion” (this example is dear to the hearts of the advocates of “intelligent design,” a theory I do not endorse). This was the rather sudden appearance about 542 million years ago of most of the major animal phyla. Upper Paleolithic Europe was, in effect, the “Cambrian explosion” of human prehistory. But such events are neither miracles, nor chance occurrences. They make perfect sense if we understand that nature itself is moving toward something — that the whole of which we are a part has ends of its own.

Man is, of course, a part of nature. But, as I have discussed, it seems that in us nature has given rise to a curiously unnatural being. We are of nature, but separate from it at the same time. We are capable of negating the nature in us (and the nature outside us) and transcending it. Consider: doesn’t the fact that nature has given rise to an “unnatural” being like us make “nature” itself (or existence itself) seem awfully peculiar? It seems to suggest that there are mechanisms at work in nature that have gone unfathomed by the scientific theories that currently reign. It suggests, in fact, that existence itself may have certain larger “purposes” that we have not yet comprehended.

Ekstasis can be explained by biology — or, more broadly, science — but only if we go beyond the narrow confines of Darwinism and consider a new way of looking at things. The next section will return to the topic of ekstasis, this time considering how the possession of it can be used to situate man “in the scheme of things,” vis-à-vis the rest of nature. This will set the stage for a consideration, in Section Seven, of the meaning and purpose of nature, of the whole itself.


1. Wade, 164.

2. Wade, 165.

3. As I wrote in my essay “The Gifts of Ódhinn and His Brothers [4]”: “Ódhinn, the god of ekstasis, is not an entirely benevolent god. There is within us, and within him, the capacity to err: to go too far, to pervert and corrupt in the name of ‘the good,’ to rebel against all limits to will or to knowledge. Ódhinn is both Ginnarr (Deceiver) and Sanngetall (Finder of Truth). He is both Sváfnir (Sleep Bringer) and Vakr (Awakener). He is both Bölverkr (Evil Worker) and Fjölnir (Wise One). We have the same oppositions within us. We have the capacity to open to Being — and to close to it. We want to receive the mystery — and to cancel it; to penetrate everything and obliterate all mystery. . . . Ódhinn sometimes helps men and guides them to the true and the good, and sometimes tricks them and leads them to their doom. He is wonderful and terrible. He switches sides without warning and breaks covenants. He seeks total knowledge, torturing his body on Yggdrasil for nine nights to win the runes, and sacrificing an eye to drink from Mímir’s well. Ódhinn gains timeless wisdom from Mímir’s well — but sacrifices part of his ability to perceive the present and immediate. Western man has made a similar sacrifice, losing the present in anticipation of the future, the ideal; losing the earth in anticipation of what the earth might be shaped into.”

4. The translation is by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, in Four Texts on Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 131 (lines 374-380); 175 (lines 1468-1471).