About a month ago, Hunter was on Chris Ryan’s Tangentially Speaking podcast. (It’s episode 234 if you’re interested.) I can’t speak for Chris but I had a really great time. Some people on Twitter enjoyed the convo too. Someone even said they were happy that I’d finally found my soulmate. I was disappointed that my soulmate would be a married DUDE…but Twitter don’t lie!
And so, Chris and I scheduled a second conversation. Two plus hours later my faith in the wisdom of crowds is greater than it has ever been. Chris not only is my soulmate but he succeeded in bringing me to the point of tears. Legitimately, my eyes made water. Chris Ryan extracted my cultural confession from me.
One of the patterns that Chris drew out in this conversation is that so much of humanity’s cutting edge thinking rests on looking back to how Hunter-Gatherers lived to see what lessons we can learn from them. In short, humanity is trying to return to what it knew before.
This is the nature of the Hero’s Journey. A hero leaves the tribe and sets out on a quest to find something or solve some problem for the tribe. In the oldest sense, they leave the security of the village to hunt and gather to bring food back for the tribe. In so doing, they risk their lives and face trials from nature, plants and animals. Eventually, the face the ordeal that requires them to draw on all they’ve learned. If they succeed, they return to the village with their prize.
A long time ago, humanity set out on an epic hero’s journey. Something was missing from village life. What was it? That’s actually a quite tough question. Life for hunter-gatherers is remarkably good. And yet, set out we did. We engaged in agriculture. We enslaved each other. We built great Empires and those Empires fought great wars. Religious and cultural movements swept across the globe. And now, with all we’ve achieved in our mastery over the natural world, many of us find ourselves looking back with longing to a time of strong communities and social belonging. We want to go back home.
However, as Chris and I discuss in this podcast, we cannot turn back yet. For first, we must face the ordeal. What is that ordeal? The fear of our own mortality. And that, ladies and gentlemen, has been the ordeal all along. We have built great pyramids and statues. We have conquered vast Empires. We have created great works of art. And all of it has crumbled away. Shortly after the British Museum acquired a piece of a great broken statue of Ramesses II, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Ozymandias about the vanity of thinking that any monument to your own greatness would last.
Since time immemorial, mankind has sought the elixir of life and the fountain of youth in the hopes that we would cheat death. And now, there are those among us who believe they will cheat death forever. Men like Ray Kurzweil believe that through the magic of technology we will achieve immortality. And perhaps, we will. But what is it that we want. What do we hunger for? Why as our technology rushes forward do we find ourselves looking back?
Chris is fond of a quote from T.S. Eliot “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” That is the hero’s journey. And perhaps man’s hero’s journey is not a straight line up and up forever. Perhaps in some sense it is one great circle. Whatever great technologies and elixirs we find, perhaps it will not be enough for us to have it. The great joy of the reward that we have hunted and gathered is in returning to share it with the tribe. And that is what we have lost. We have lost community. The challenge of Mixed Mental Arts is to evolve a culture that draws on the best of all times and places. Some of those places we left a long time ago.
Chris’ favorite quote has a special resonance for me. Robert McNamara quotes it in the Fog of War. For all his explorations and great statistical knowledge, McNamara in the end found solace in the words of a poet who talked about returning home. And that is very much my own experience. I have now wandered widely through the science. But all of those explorations have brought me to where I started. I have had to rediscover a sense of childlike wonder, of curiosity and of a desire for the sort of community that existed 10,000 years ago before the rise of agriculture. Can we have it all? I think we can. And I’m sure as heck willing to devote my life to trying.
Chris reminds me in this podcast that Robert McNamara’s middle name was “Strange.” Robert “Strange” McNamara. And that’s fitting. Life is strange. It just gets curiouser and curiouser once you leave your culture behind. And I’m excited to see how deep the rabbit hole goes…even if when I reach the bottom I find I come back out on top.
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot