[Disclaimer: This is one of the speculative half-baked posts I feel entitled as a philosopher to come out with every now and then to keep things interesting. Needless to say, it concerns things way outside my area of competence. On to the point then….]
One of the favourite books on my bookshelf is a slight volume entitled “An Instinct for Dragons” (Routledge, 2000) by David E Jones. Jones’ purpose is to explain the prevalence of the myth of the dragon in world cultures. His starting point is the fact that something recognisably ‘draconian’ turns up in the mythologies of an astonishing variety of different cultures –too great a variety to make dissemination of an idea through cultural pathways an adequate explanation. If we understand by a ‘dragon’ a creature having roughly the following combination of features:- reptilian form, sharp claws and teeth, the ability to fly, fondness for caves or lakes and rivers, the ability to breath fire (give or take a few) –then dragons appear in the myths of the peoples of Asia, The Arctic, North America, South America, Central America, Polynesia (incl. my own New Zealand), Australia, Africa, The Middle East, Europe, … in other words practically everywhere. It is exceedingly unlikely that the resemblance is attributable to different cultures copying and spreading the same stories throughout the world. Jones is certainly right. Though he doesn’t make the following point, to have a handle on the effectiveness of cultural pathways of dissemination, consider the spread of writing through the world. Writing is extremely valuable and stands a good chance of being adopted by any culture exposed to it, which you wouldn’t think could be said for the idea of a dragon, yet only a small minority of the world’s languages have writing systems. To account for the prevalence of the myth then, one has to explain how or why the idea may have arisen in each culture independently.
Jones’ answer is that the idea of a dragon vestigially preserves the remains of hardwired fear and behaviour responses to three separate categories of predator on our early evolutionary ancestors. We have a lingering amorphous fear of the species that once ate us on the African plains that when worked out in words and song describes a dragon. This is a hard idea to understand, so consider it developmentally. Apparently vervet monkeys have 3 distinct innate calls for each of their common predators: birds of prey, leopards, and snakes. When the call is given, members of the troop take appropriate action. Jones’ speculates that our ancestors once also had such distinctive instinctual responses. These reflex responses were written into our brains in some way, so that they didn’t have to be learned anew by each generation. He speculates that as humans developed, these neuronal structures were still passed on down the generations but eventually stopped being called upon to do real work as humans turned from being hunted into being the hunters (even before we were humans). As we developed the separate patterns for separate categories of predator degraded and merged and stopped triggering real behaviours but were/are still present enough to interact with whatever systems are responsible for the emotions and imagination. The combination of features we see in the ‘dragon’ is how the creative imagination rationalises the latent fear of a snarling toothy clawy flying scaly predator. Each culture has such a creation because each culture externalise in their own ways the same primordial fear.
That’s the view in a nutshell and I think I basically buy it. I am willing to believe something like the proposed mechanism could exist and have no better explanation. Generally speaking, I am reluctant to associate neuronal structures with concepts or ideas, since the two types of thing seem to be so differently identified and to have such different properties, that I can’t see how one of them could be the other. But here I need only believe in a state that only loosely connects certain features with inarticulate fears and emotions; a state which is then ‘brought to the surface’ in talk by more general means.
Now for an interesting extension. There are many flood myths in human mythology. Most familiar to us, there is the Christian flood myth, but according to Richard Leakey in ‘Origins reconsidered’ the Amazonian tribe the Yanomamo also have one. The wikipedia page cites flood myths among other widely scattered tribes in North and South America and Asia. Since they are too widely scattered to have copied the same myth from each other, they must have invented it independently. How did they come to hold such a similar story? Clearly something about this story captures the imagination. What’s the explanation?
Obviously, maybe there really was a flood. Maybe people independently speculated there was a flood because they independently found fossilised sea shells in the mountains. Both these explanations are more economical (in that they involve less of a deviation from our commonsense starting point) than the following, which I nonetheless table anyway: Maybe we had a semi-aquatic past.
In another of my other favourite books, “The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis” (Souvenir Press, 1997), Elaine Morgan defends the thesis that humans passed through an evolutionary stage of adaptation to a semi-aquatic environment. Obviously we’re well adapted to land now, but we were at one time aquatic apes. The idea is absolutely brilliant! Morgan claims that only a brief aquatic stage in our evolutionary history explains several distinctively human features like baldness, subcutaneous adipose tissue and our distinctive bipedal gait. Walking upright is hard to account for because it is an awkward form of motion which only approaches quadrupedalism in efficiency terms in fully bipedal humans. But our early ancestors would have been quadrupedal on the ground, or possibly brachiators adapted to the trees. In either case walking on two legs on the ground would have been a giant leap backwards in efficiency terms for our ancestors, so why did they do it? So they could wade, says Morgan, and keep their heads above water. Maybe they waded to get fruit from branches over hanging water. Staying in water may have helped them avoid big cats and snakes. And water probably provided a measure of support too. Morgan also claims baldness only makes sense in an aquatic environment because on dry land nothing approaches fur as a temperature regulator (so only an aquatic environment could have provided our ancestors with a sufficient cause to lose our earlier obvious body hair). Subcutaneous fat is a better insulator than fur underwater (at certain body mass sizes), and she claims only aquatic animals and those for whom an aquatic past has been postulated and humans have large deposits of subcutaneous adipose tissue.
The idea of a flood, of the place we live being in or under water, is an idea an aquatic or semi-aquatic creature might have (although not with the associated fear and anxiety). Perhaps in some corner of our minds there lurks a vestigial trace of the aquatic past Morgan argues we have, and this finds universal expression in the myth of a deluge.
(caveat lector: I’m not suggesting the two myths have any direct connection, nor that either book implicitly or explicitly supports the other. Nor am I suggesting the prevalence of the flood myth supports the aquatic ape hypothesis. This is just some free association of ideas, for what it’s worth – I know this is a bit defensive, but it’s a bit of a habit for me now).