It was at some point in time that man asked his first question. Suddenly, in what could subjectively be considered a lifetime, or a matter of instantaneous chaos, the Universe came into existence, at least as far as he’s concerned. It was then that all reality was known to be malleable and interactive, for that was the time when man had suddenly awakened from his senses. By understanding that he was no longer a passive observer, but rather an interpreter of associations, he was able to recognize the inner workings of his own consciousness. It was through freedom from the bondage of his animalistic nature that man was able to set in motion the various advancements that continue to push the boundaries of the species’ terminus ad quem.
An analysis of the variables at play throughout mankind’s evolution could potentially offer a broad perspective of various events that occurred throughout the period of time from which man was able to distinguish himself from the rest of the world.
One distinguishing characteristic was unearthed when the homo erectus became the first species to discover and utilize fire (29). Such a discovery offered profound benefits to the species as he would soon discover through various experimentations the different uses of the mysterious element. However, the benefits of the element had proven to be not only practical, but spiritual as well. One could argue that it was through the livelihood of this mysterious element that mankind was able to recognize a form of reality that wasn’t quite so apparent to the senses. That is to say that mankind was finally able to recognize his own spirit. It is because the spirit of man is subjected to and ultimately defined by the individual experience of reality that ambiguity could have paved the way for the diversification of personality and the development of cultures and beliefs in future generations. While practically any claim regarding such ancient history only hovers above the line of speculation, presenting evidence of ancient burials during this time period shows the possibility that our distant “ancestors” held some form of belief in a life after death, or perhaps even in divinity itself (26).
To present the assumption that fire contributed to the spirit of man can be made based on the historical patterns of mankind’s behaviors on the matters of religion. The first pattern includes the attachment of meaning to the divine through symbolic stories and images. The second pattern emerges due to consistent historical claims of the recognition by man of an all-pervading and incorporeal entity that exists beyond any level of sensual perception. The difference between these two patterns of belief reveal much about human nature and the evolutionary characteristics that determine subconscious behavior.
By placing an emphasis on the reality of speculation in regards to prehistoric behaviors and beliefs (but given that the nature of man has been overall pretty consistent throughout history), it can be said that religion was first formed when man made the connection of fire to the flaming ball in the sky — that thing which was the source of all energy, heat, and activity. It is possible that by discovering fire, they found themselves to be granted power by the divine, for in their hands was a small piece of that mysterious element. It was through fire that they were able to find solace in its heat to get them through the darkness. It was with fire that they could ward off the animals that threatened their existence. It was because of fire that they were able to hone in on a central focus point, in times of darkness (specifically at night), to express and understand others within the group at a time where it could be said there was no established form of communication.
By forming a group that is centered around not only a mutually beneficial relationship, but also a shared fascination in this “thing”, it is likely that at some point humans evolved to recognize theory of mind. That is to say that at some point they came across an understanding that the perspectives of others did not necessarily reflect their own. Once the theory of mind was established, it is likely that a form of communication came into play; whether it be a passive progression or an active one is likely still up for debate. Regardless of how or when communication was established between members of the species, it is important to recognize the role that abstract thinking has played in creating specific groups. Without the ability of one person’s thinking to deviate from the obvious or established perspective, there would be little to no need for communication. It brings to question whether belief in the divinity, or something that cannot be defined as one thing or another, has given mankind his capabilities. Sooner or later it was art and symbolism that was used as a matter of expression in situations where words would not suffice. It is through art that man was truly able to flaunt the frontier of his ambiguity. It was probably through the observation of the expression of another’s experience of reality, and the comparison of such with one’s own experience that man was able to create and understand new ideas at an exponentially increasing rate (25).
As groups of the species began to form and expand, the creative thinking and cohabitation led to the resolution of many problems that daunted their forefathers. Introduced agricultural practices allowed for some members of a civilization (albeit a small number of them), to focus their attention on matters other than food for survival. It was because of this settlement, however, that new problems started to arise. The need for plumbing and irrigation, and of diplomacy and justice are but a few examples of the many obstacles that mankind was forced to overcome during his transition to civilized society.
While there are many factors that can be attributed to man’s dominion over the world, the power of his mind remains his most essential tool in interacting with his environment. His natural tendency to form within his mind a plane of existence that is separate from his sensual reality allows him to predict the outcomes of actions that have not yet taken place in the physical reality. It is possible that man’s attunement to the divine is as valid and true as the glorified stories would tell. On the contrary, such an attunement could be nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation that merely expresses the attachment of meaning to patterns and symbolic creations that would otherwise remain undefined. Regardless of the trivial details, the triumph of mankind can be directly ascribed to the power he has over his animalistic qualities. The self-control and dominion he has over his own body has in turn created individual identities that decided its own preferences in all the different ways there is to perceive and interact with reality.
John Morris Roberts, and Odd Arne Westad. The Penguin History of the World. London, Penguin Books, 2014.