For Dags, who fights me every inch of the way on this one.
There are two things I want to quote here first; two things that will seem highly contradictory but, as far as I am concerned, are not.
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!”
- Terry Bisson, They’re Made Out Of Meat
This next one is a bit of apocrypha. Everyone quotes it, but nobody cites sources. Mead may not be the author. The concept, however, is a sound one.
“One day a student asked anthropologist Margaret Meade for the earliest sign of civilization in any given human culture. He expected the answer to be a clay pot, or perhaps a fish hook or a grinding stone. Her answer surprised him. She said she believed the earliest sign of civilization was “a healed femur”. The femur is, of course, the thigh bone. In a society based on hunting and gathering, a person with a fractured thigh bone would be unable to care for themselves and useless. Meade explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest, reigns. Someone with a broken femur would simply be allowed to die. But a healed femur showed that someone cared. Someone had to hunt and gather food for the injured person until his leg healed. Someone had to provide care for the person who couldn’t care for himself. She said the evidence of compassion was the first sign of true civilization.”
How did we get there? We don’t have answers yet, not concrete ones. The surviving artifacts can only tell us so much, and short of time traveling historians (Connie Willis, please give us more Oxford) we’ll never get firsthand accounts.
I don’t mean which artifacts came first. We know that, more or less. Tools, hunting weapons, things for survival. But there had to be growth before that. They had to be able to teach each other how to make and use these things. Where to hunt. Which animals to choose. How to gather safe food. First, we had to communicate.
I think it all started with art. Art is useless for survival, they say, but I say it’s not because it’s necessary for communication. Without communication, we don’t have culture. Without art, we don’t have communication. And without dreams, we don’t have art.
Some day forever ago, a hominid had an idea. She worked it up with her disproportionately big brains, or she dreamed it up, or — that doesn’t matter. The ape had the idea, and then, this is vital, she wanted to share it.
How? Did she gesture? Point? Act it out? Vocalize? Draw on the ground with a stick? Build something with twigs and leaves? I have no idea. But that first moment, that realization of having the idea and needing to share it, that’s where we started being what we are now.
What we are is apes with art. Monkeys that dream. Hallucinatory hominids. That early urge to share, to link minds, must have been enormous. We invented languages, long lost. (Say what you will; even Homo Neanderthalensis had a working hyoid bone and thus the ability to speak. Though they perhaps did not sound anything like you’d expect.) We had to have language before we had anything else. We had to be able to communicate to show how to gather food, to share knowledge of safe plants and safe places, to teach children how to cure hides and make fires.
The root of all of this, in my thinking – and I have a drop-out’s half assed humanities degree, so I am sure I am wrong; if you wish to go on about how wrong I have got it, back your ass up with cites or I’ll grow tired of your blather – the root of it is art. The urge to make things. Making sounds, words, communicating, so that everything else we made or discovered could be shared. Making fires, then, and stone spear points, and clothing from skins. All of that we know. Without the urge to create, the inventiveness we possess – we wouldn’t have any of it. We needed art, first.
What is art, if not making a thing exist where it previously did not? These days we bicker over trivialities, what Is Art or what Isn’t, whether it’s a giant canvas painted in two colors or the gorgeous god damn Chrysler building or pottery so ancient that there are bits of mammoth hair stuck in the clay.
It all is, because that’s what separated us from the other apes. We’re the lunatic dreaming ones, who want to invent and imagine and share.
A few weeks back, a friend showed me a drawing her kid had done of a spider, and the front of it was speckled with little black marks that, said the child, were the spider’s eyes. This blew me away. He’d probably heard about how insects have multifaceted eyes and, in his limited way, with paper and marker, was trying to work that out. He’d seen a new thing, he processed it in his brain, and he drew it to communicate. There is no act more human than that.
We are because of art. We dream and imagine and create and share. That’s what our experimental species is about.