Origins and Evolution: Writing in the Long View

Origins is not something that I have ever found engaging.  In the formation of the academic study of religion (a good place to learn more details is Walter Capps’s 2000 book Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline), the question of origins was a constituting issue.  The concern has a late nineteenth century flavor because this is when the evidence supporting biological evolution began to establish Darwin’s audacity despite the Christian biblical attribution of origination to god.  The matter has yet to be settled and continues to create in public society something resembling schizophrenia, especially for those who are Christian and also accept biological evolution.  How could it not?

I am fascinated by those ancient pictures on the walls of cliffs and caves that occur the world over.  I once collected a large number of black and white photos of that fascinating enigmatic humpbacked and ithyphallic figure, kokopelli, ubiquitous to the American Southwest.  And I have occasionally pondered the ancient cave art in Lascaux and the Dominican Republic.  Students of religion have been eager to identify figures depicted on cave walls as shamans or priests considering them evidence of the early presence of religion. We will never be able to say much of anything conclusive about the identities and meanings of these paintings.  They always seemed to me to represent traces of events.  I always felt they needed to be seen related to process and action.  I tend to see these rather chaotic pictures of animals overlaying other animals and spears here and there and everywhere and imagined how, rather like the way I sometimes use a chalk board while lecturing, that these images were not the work of an artist preparing for a grand gallery showing (think wild berry juice and hanks of meat for refreshments).  I see them as gestural interactions between say a hunt leader and hunters or hunt apprentices.  A pre-hunt planning session where the hunt leader with charcoal marker used the cave walls to sketch out hunt strategies and techniques.  Or they might be leftover illustrations from a post-hunt bragging session.  In other words, you had to be there to “get it.”  I haven’t taken my opinions on these drawings all that seriously because … well … I wasn’t there.  And, frankly, I consider myself fortunate for having missed it.

So now these decades later I’m rather surprised to realize that I might have had some intuitive sense of the importance of what is going on with these images.  This realization came through Carrie Noland’s 2009 book Agency and Embodiment: Performing Gestures/Producing Culture where I was introduced, rather late I am embarrassed to say, to André Leroi-Gourhan’s work, particularly his Gesture and Speech (1993).  A paleoethnographer, Leroi-Gourhan focused on the human gestures associated with the earliest tools rather than the tools themselves.  This approach shifted the interest from things to actions, from traces to living movement.  Though perhaps it appears this shift is subtle, the significance is great.  Rather than tools being objects demonstrating the emerging character distinctive of human beings, by focusing on gesture the tools are seen as having agency in constructing what is distinctively human.  Rather than the tools being objects used by humans to affect the world (the spear point facilitating the killing of animals to provide food, which is still agency), Leroi-Gourhan saw that these tools recreated their users through the gestural use of the tools.  Thus the evolution and development of humans is effected through movement, gestural actions associated with tool use.  It is a loop rather than a vector.

Leroi-Gourhan considered the emergence of graphic expression as inseparable from the emergence of external memory.  One might reformulate my image of the chalk talk in preparation for the hunt as the illustration of a story of the hunt creating for the first time, coincident with human development, an external counterpart to memory.  Stories become more than just verbal events passing between living persons in their telling.  Stories of events can also be stored as images that endure beyond the memory of the storyteller.  The images are traces of the stories, of memories. This use of graphic image is critical to the construction of the human being and initiates a constitutive series of gestural practices that shape and reshape human beings over time in terms that correlate with the style and character of how memory is stored externally; a series that includes images on walls, alphabetic writing, chirography, print, multimedia, and electronic media.

It is fascinating that Jacques Derrida (see On Grammatology) and his student Bernard Stiegler developed their influential position that writing is constitutive of humans, a radical postmodern position, in discourse with Leroi-Gourhan’s work.

The capability to draw on walls correlates with the long evolutionary process in which bipedal motility emerged from quadrapedal motility.  As the emerging eventual-human animal stood up, the forelegs were freed to develop into hands, eventually with opposing thumbs, and the face (eyes, ears, nose, tongue) became the center for sensory input and began to connect more strongly, and one can see eventually in necessary coordination, with the hands.  The eyes watch and direct (an interesting proprioceptive loop) the hands as they engage in increasingly intricate gestures often associated with tools.  Indeed, Leroi-Gourhan sees the hand as the first tool.  The implications of this hand-to-tool relationality are remarkable.

So here I am all excited and interested in evolution and origins.  My change in attitude comes with comprehending that it was a shift in modes of motility and gesture associated with the changing body (hands becoming tools and making and using tools coordinated with the eye and sight) that was at the heart of not simply reflecting human development driven by vague processes of “natural selection,” but that this process should be seen as an interactive looping process in which the emergence of the hands in their use and movement and gesturing quite literally was instrumental to the emergence of human beings.  Movement, gesture, practice are the living matrix in which evolution occurs, in which modern humans made and discovered themselves.  And even more importantly we must appreciate that this is not only a long evolutionary process where change occurs over a great many generations in a slow and gradual process of natural selection, it is also a process of human development that can be charted across the relatively short time span of the history of writing which has accelerated profoundly since Gutenberg in 1439 to the vastly sophisticated electronic media of the present.  To account for the way writing constitutes humans very differently than does primary or exclusive orality forces us to grasp that what has always seemed natural and permanent was actually acquired and rather recently at that.  It also can be understood as an important and essential factor in constituting the distinctiveness of individuals over their lifetimes.  In other words, the gestures inseparable from the tools of writing construct us as societies and as individuals.  We make ourselves, we discover ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not, through the way (the how of, the gestures of, the mechanics of) we write, through the act of writing.

Thus, I am arguing, that we write and the way we write does make a difference. I’m not thinking of some tiny tweaks here but of our entire identity—of who we are, how we think and reason and feel and experience. I also argue that the establishment of writing conventions, such as those practiced by the academy, do more to shape a person than all of the content delivered through these conventions.

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