Agustin Fuentes (on the right)
When in seminary I realized that I’d moved from Plato (one eternal ideal pattern for a faulty reality) to Heraclitus (all is process and shifting) I didn’t really understand that these two were streams of thought. The faculty was not about to tell me, since they were invested in Plato. But the world was on my side and there has been a steady growth in Heraclitian scholarship.
I have a list of as many thinkers as the names on Rachel Maddow’s roll call of wised-up White House people leaving for the provinces. Mine are in-coming thinkers. The most recent on my list is Agustin Fuentes, best approached on YouTube. Here’s a one-minute intro. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmZX9dKMzqI
Another on my list is John Hawks, a fossil chaser who knows hominids. These guys are box-busters who cross disciplines, but they are not just trendy. Here’s a conversation between the two of them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upRFk2b2vas
Here are some concepts I picked up from the talk. One is plasticity, which has been applied to the idea that brain connectomes can physically adapt to new thoughts (learning) throughout their human lives — even that new brain cells can form, which is so new that it's still challenged, so there will soon be new research.
The next is winnowing which is the idea that circumstances and the nature of the human individuals both change all the time, which means that inevitably they will lose the fittingness that allows them to survive. OR they will figure out a new way to "be." The ape that is arboreal in a time when drought kills all the trees will either learn to live on grasslands or disappear. (I had not known that besides the 200 or so hominids there were many many kinds of apes, both of which assortments mostly disappeared. There was no one missing link, but rather a stream of life that dried up or changed its flow.)
Fuentes named the great ape categories we know: chimp, bonobo, gorilla, orangatan, gibbon — and notes that they are all a little weird, remnant populations in ancient places like jungle. (I have never seen a list of fossil “pongids” which are what the category of us is technically called, or even a list of where pongids had a long and fortunate existence.)
But there are kinds of monkeys, closely related but not pongids, that are not threatened by the presence of humans, but in fact become part of the larger ecology to the point of challenging humans. Fuentes studied macaques, a large monkey that thrives in Thailand. The difference is that they are social and live in interrelated groups.
The key to survival for humans is not just fittingness to the circumstances, but also the ability to change their environment by creating a niche, which is done socially. Much of it is sex/family based, but possibly defining family in a very broad way so that the animals, plants and even geology are part of that ecosystem. For a rancher, protecting the cattle, the hay crop, the water dynamics, and even a certain level of predation (which includes diseases across species lines) can be part of the mix.
I discovered Fuentes because of a tweet pointing to this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpr-4ykX0Xo is a video lecture at the University of Edinburgh sponsored as part of a series called the Gifford Lectures. This is how a diasporic rogue scholar (me) continues to participate in what used to be confined within the boundaries of a university. It is an another example of a shift from a boundary to a central node.
In this lecture Fuentes leads us through history of the long kind — over hundreds of millennia rather than only back as far as written material records -- and also in terms of the evolution of individuals as they go through life from conception to death. His assumption is not Platonic -- that we should all be pressed into some template -- but Heraclitian in our ability to invent, adapt, realize, wonder. I use these two thinkers for markers for the people who believe that learning is always approached through past precedents defined by admired figures.
“Culture” and how individuals fit into them is one of my personal thought precursors from theatre courses and the same is true of Fuentes, though he didn’t linger over theatre very long. The work of inhabiting another person, quite different from oneself, leads one naturally to plasticity and awareness of the environment that make social groups form.
Belief systems, as in religious and patriotic groups, emerge from the semiotic systems that record what behavior is. These things are organic, not planned rationally. This is a main difference between the Euro-origin industrial systems and those that are autochthonous. The first is name-based, what a name defines/confines, and the second is based on the verb, what is done, “the way it rolls.”
If you are focussed on the former, your challenge will be to keep things the same, to build walls, to store resources, to eliminate challenges. If you are focused on the latter, the energy will go into recognize new things, seeing how they can be understand and used, what they can give us as new access to in the world around us.
You’ll need language to keep track of this and to share it with others. It is the skill bringing the group along through persuasion and instruction. Crucial are the theatre-related skills, from imitating a cave bear by a bonfire, to the moral issues of Greek drama, to our present adventure of video narrative and image.
A human is a community of cells within a skin. An interfacing interaction with social community then gives us the ability to construct a human “niche”. This niche then forms the physical brain of people in it, plugging together the connectome. Culture becomes anatomy.
I need to connect this to a specific story. Last night I watched David Hare’s four-part series called “Collateral” (Netflix) which is a consideration of the collateral ecology around human trafficking — how different kinds of people are affected. One character is an Anglican vicar, formerly a role symbolic of parish order and social conformity. But this one has adapted: she is female, lesbian, rebellious, focused on the welfare of individuals. Her lover is Asian, not quite fitting into the same niche. This vicar is very appealing.
Another character is a female soldier who has identified with her father, also a soldier, and who has attracted a senior officer to dominate her sexually, partly because of the vulnerability represented by PTSD. And hierarchy. That is, he rapes her because he can and his identity is based on what he can do. She is destroyed.
The third female breaking stereotypes is a cop who must move among the assorted characters and figure out what happened. She represents what Fuentes identifies as imagination. Not only can she imagine her way into these assorted and displaced peoples, but she understands the underculture well enough to find processes to move the situation in ways that might or might not conform to the written rule of law, which is meant to control and force conformity.
Fuentes then moves to transcendence which is beyond the scope of this blog post. I would love it if David Hare continued with his challenged female Anglican vicar into the realm of the transcendent.
This is David Hare's introduction to the series: