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Essays Understanding Human Psychology Facts

Vlad Petre Glaveanu
University of Bucharest

Myths are “the archetypal model of all creations, no matter of the plan which they relate to: biological, psychological, spiritual. The main function of the myth is that of establishing exemplar models in all the important human actions”.
Mircea Eliade

Greek mythology doesn’t resume to the period of Antiquity. It can be found in other epochs (Renaissance and Classicism), other contexts (history and art) and other discourses (scientific and philosophical). The key to understand this “spiritual longevity” lies in myths. As a concept, the myth has known over 500 definitions in about 25 centuries (Topor, 2000); its etymology leads us to (of course) a Greek word, mithos, which means “a fabulous story”. The myth “reveals something that has already been completely manifested, and this manifestation is at the same time creative and exemplar, because it is the support for a structure of the real as well as a human behavior” (Eliade, 1998, p.10-11). Throughout history there has been developed an authentic hermeneutics of myths, because they are an eternal “source of inspiration” (Auregan, Palayret, 1998, p.9). The explanation, in Aristotle’s opinion, is very simple: “the one who loves myths, loves, to a certain degree, wisdom” (Vladutescu, 1984, p.7).

Mythpsychology, a new dynamic branch of Modern Psychology

The enormous contribution of ancient Greeks to the progress of philosophy, natural sciences and arts, can’t be contested. Unfortunately, the role they played in the history of psychology is mentioned only briefly. Very often philosophers are quoted (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato), as well as Aristotle’s theory about the soul: “De anima” being seen as “the first systematic book of psychological analysis” (Manzat, 2003, p.12). In spite all this, the most important Greek “producer of psychology” has been avoided: mythology. Greek myths are a vast domain of research for disciplines such as: history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, occultism (astrology), art (literature, painting, sculpture, music); the strongest bond is settled between mythology and religion, with its magical or ritual practices (Sommer, 1969). Therefore, we can understand better the diversity of dimensions ancient Greek myths have:

  • literary (the expedition of the Argonauts)
  • historic (The Trojan War)
  • esoteric (the orphic mysteries)
  • initiatory (the voyage of Ulysses)
  • moral (Daedal and Icar)
  • psychological (the story of Oedipus)
  • philosophic (the legend of cosmogony)
  • social (the ages of humanity)

As we can observe, the psychological “ingredient” of myths can’t be ignored; it is ever present as an essential part. Between myth and psychology the bounds are numerous and thigh and this lead to the development of a psychology of myths (mythpsychology). The psychological interpretation finds in myths an extraordinary material, the perfect occasion to separate the setting from the object, the details from the essence, or, in psychoanalytic language, the hidden from the noticeable. What may be confusing is the multitude of significations seen in myths by different psychologists (Topor, 2000): expression of the archetypes (Jung), form of language (Levi-Strauss), cultural reality (W. Wundt) etc.

Extremely interesting is the initiative of Paul Diel (1966, p.40) to associate every important divinity with a feature: “the spirit is Zeus; the harmony of needs: Apollo; the intuitive inspiration: Pallas Athena; the act of forcing back: Hades etc. The impulse of evolving (as essential need) is represented by the hero; the inner conflict is represented by the fight against the monsters of degradation”. This point of view agrees with that of the psychologists Rudica and Costea (2003, p.8): “all great mythological creations describe, at the level of common psychological sense, the entire dramaturgy of our inner life”.

As a synthesis of all this opinions, we can observe that there are, from a psychological point of view, three levels at which we can understand every myth:

At the first level, the formal one, the narration in itself is important, as a succession of events that leads to a specific end. The second and third levels, much more valuable for psychology, have as a fundament the act of interpretation. “The myth as evidence” is related strictly to its “creator” (in this context, a community or nation). Instead, “The myth as truth” goes beyond the geographical, cultural and historical borders. We are talking, of course, about the psychological truth, the universal signification, the one that reveals something about the human been in itself. Such an analysis is frequent in psychology, being related to “great names” like Sigmund Freud, who believed in the universality (afterwards contested) of the famous Oedipus complex (Sillamy, 2000).

In the present essay we will focus on the second level of interpretation, less noticed, but, as we want to demonstrate, very useful. At a general level, the myth offers us the chance to investigate the conception ancient communities had about the human soul. In other words, this essay is dedicated to the attempt of reconstructing the psychological knowledge of ancient Greeks from their mythology.

We must clarify that the psychology of myths doesn’t resume to Greco-Roman Mythology but also myths of other cultures: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Celtic, Hebrew, Chinese, Germans, Thracian, Dacian, Indian, etc.

The Pantheon of Ancient Psychology

The psychology we’re talking about in this section isn’t a “didactic” one and has a poor (if not an absent) systematization. It is, instead, dynamic, complex, and, surprisingly, real.

“As in the case of all polytheist religions, the Greek myths talk about the origin of the world and of humans, as well as the actions of Gods and heroes” (Naudin, Cuq, 2001, p.20). The legend of cosmogony is, often, a story about “the birth” of psychological and behavioral manifestations. “The Night gave birth to Moros (the collapse), then Hypnos (the sleep) and Oneiroi (the dreams), as well as a multitude of evil Gods: the Vengeance, the Fraud, the Haste, the Oldness, the Argue, from which appeared: the Trouble, the Forgetfulness, the Hunger, the Disease, the Fight, the Murder, the War, the Slaughter, the Dissension, the Lie and Words with double meaning, the Injustice and the Oath. In the service of Olympian Gods there were: the Hours (representing the idea of order and regularity), Moira (faith), Nemesis (the reward for injustice), the Caryatides (the idea of elegance), the Muses (the idea of art), Iris, Hebe (youth) and Ganymede (the beautiful servant of Gods)” (Stan, Rus, 1991, p.112-113). Some sources also mention Momos, “the God that stands for jokes and irony” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.192).

Even the main ages find a correspondent in the being of certain Gods: Hermes is the eternal child, smart and creative, “the heroes are associated with the rituals of spiritual initiation of the adolescents” (Eliade, 1992, p.282). Hebe is the youth, married with Heracles (“victories are almost always related to youth”, Mitru, 1996, vol. II, p.62), Zeus symbolizes the maturity as an age associated with power, equilibrium and ability to lead, Cronos represents the end of our evolution, oldness, the God of death and time.

From the start we can’t ignore the determinist vision of ancient Greeks concerning psychical manifestations (a conception which derivates from their general belief in universal order and predestination). The psychic, along with the body, is under the influence of natural laws. Craving for universal harmony (won by defeating the giant Tifon with the help of Hermes – intelligence), ancient Greeks valued equilibrium and psychological normality. To oppose these is a crime leading to some sort of punishment. Prometheus, the prototype of genius and of an unthinkable braveness, was severely punished by the Gods.

Insanity, as a mind disorder, knows a large area of representations. About its origin, in the majority of cases, the ancient Greeks invoked the fault (personal, that of a member of the family or the ancestors – nowadays the idea of “bad” hereditary baggage ) of offending the Gods by egoism, negligence or injustice. For the error committed intentionally the term used is hybris (for example, Ixion), and for the unintentional fault, the term is hamartia (the typical example here is that of Oedipus).

The divinities from Greek myths associated with mental illness or disorder are, as a result, extremely numerous, related to the emotions of the mad person and the reason of his/her misery:

  • Hekate, infernal goddess of the night. Represented as having three heads (symbol of the impossibility to escape your own fears); she waits for travelers at crossroads, “pushing them to despair and death” (Hamann, 2004, p.148). She corresponds to the unconscious fears of every person.
  • Erinies, the Greek name for Furies. “From the Antiquity, they started to be identified with conscience. Brought “inside” the mind, they symbolize the remorse, the feeling of guilt, the self-destruction of the person that feels it is impossible to be forgiven” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21). The correspondence with the Eumenides reveals a complex psychological dynamics. “This evolution is related with that of the conscience, which first forbids and after that punishes. The Erinies can transform into Eumenides, favorable divinities, when reason brings the morbid conscience to a better appreciation of human acts” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21).
  • The Gorgons, three monstrous sisters that inspired fear; they were synonymous with the ugliness of the soul, symbol of degradation. “Euryale represents sexual perversity, Stheno – social perversity, Medusa symbolizes the spiritual need to evolve turned into arrogant stagnation” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.105).
  • The Harpies are similar to the Erinies as signification and consequences, but they have a more general meaning. “The Harpies symbolize bad habits – the obsessions generated by craving and also the remorse; the wind that carries them is generated by the spirit” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p. 120).
  • Hydra, the legendary snake with nine heads, continues the analogy with the lust that devours the soul, taking it one step further: “everything that gets in touch with depravity or comes from it ruins or is ruined” (Chevalier, 1999, vol. II, p.129).
  • The Bacchants or Menades, servants of Dionysus, have, because of their rituals, a complex symbolism, being in direct connection with hysteria, drunkenness, perversity.
  • The Nymphs remind us of “a superstition referring to the madness generated by any form that raises from water; the feeling of both attraction and terror” (Elit, 1964, p.178).

Ancient people have noticed the dual nature of humans, expressed in the myth of the Dioscures. “Pollux (the soul) can’t live his terrestrial experiences without Castor (the body)” (Ciuperca, 1998, p.18). As to the existence of conscience and unconscious in our being, the ancient Greeks not only have guessed it, but they also created some suggestive metaphors concerning it: passing to the world of Hades, the fight between Perseu and Medusa, Tezeu and the Minotaur, the centaurs as union of contrasts. “Apollo’s victory upon Python is the triumph of reason upon instinct, the conscience upon the unconscious” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. III, p.144).

But, even best represented in Greek mythology, are the antagonism and complementarities between rational and emotional, by “couples of contraries” like: Athena – Ares, Athena – Poseidon, Apollo – Dionysus. In this context, we can clearly notice the Greek preference for reason, order, Logos. Therefore, “Athena is the worst enemy of Ares, which she defeats in the famous battle of the Gods” (Eliade, 1992, p.277), and so wisdom defeats anger and brute force (the mother of the Goddess, Metis, is “Prudence” in itself). In the same way, Athena wins the capital-city from Poseidon, God of the irrational, sudden and violent gestures, monstrous phantasms. The symbolic gesture of domesticating the horse offered by Poseidon to the Athenians signifies the reshaping, with the help of the intellect, of what is natural and unrefined. The capacity of thinking to help us adapt and evolve is best represented by the image of the caduceus (belonging to Hermes, a God associated with intelligence, agility, wisdom): the two snakes are the alchemic symbol of the union of contrasts, conciliation and creative synthesis.

Zeus married “Metis, whose name means idea. From this union Athena was born, growing in Zeus’s head, from where she jumped into the world” (Hamann, 2004, p.296). This is the way ancient Greeks connected instinctively the process of thinking with the head and, implicitly, the brain. Humorists, in exchange, view it as the capacity of the cognitive labor, the genesis of an idea (Athena), to generate head-aches (for Zeus, her father, or, in other words, the “author”). In conclusion, Athena “symbolizes, most of all, psychological creation, the synthesis, the socialized intelligence” (Virel, 1965, p.104). Therefore, the words of Horatius, the poet, remained famous: “Tu nihil invita dices faciesve Minerva” – “Nothing will you be able to say or do without the help of Minerva (Athena)” (Mitru, 1996).

About the “pair” Apollo – Dionysus (thought by Nietzsche in relation to the philosophy of culture) we can think of as “the harmony of reason” versus “the experience of ecstasy”. Dionysus, God of drunkenness and mystic, “symbolizes the surpass of inhibitions, repressions” (Chevalier, 1994, p.449).

But the opposition between reason and emotion isn’t always seen as a conflict. The symbol of perfection, the Hermaphrodite, the one that integrates the masculine and the feminine, is, as its name demonstrates, the son of the intellect (Hermes) and affectivity (Aphrodite). More than this, the respect for and importance of Aphrodite, Goddess of love, in Greek mythology is obvious. “The sexual act is the specific domain of Aphrodite, which she inspires and protects” (Eliade, 1992, p.280). “Her opposite” is Artemis, a virgin Goddess. “Greeks have seen in her eternal virginity the indifference towards love. In the tragedy of Euripides (Hippolyt), Artemis herself states her hate for Aphrodite” (Eliade, 1992, p.280).

The Goddess is, like all feelings, primordial, feared by Gods, capable even to give life (Galateea). She wins the apple of Discord because love comes first before power (Hera) and wisdom (Athena). The eternal lover of the Goddess is Ares (whose cohort is formed by: Enyo – the destruction, Eris – the dispute, Deimos – terror and Phobos – fear). Inspiring metaphor of the ancient: the union between Aphrodite (feminine and spiritual side) and Ares (the masculine and carnal side) generated Harmonia (joining of contrasts) and Eros (passion). About Eros (Cupid for Romans), the myths say that “his arrows are of two kinds: ones made of gold, soaked in honey, others made of lead, soaked in poison” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.86). Love is joy and also soreness, just as the affective processes are characterized by polarity and mobility. “The ancient artists presented Eros riding a lion. This way they showed that feelings can tame any being regardless of how cruel it is” (Mitru, 1996, vol. I, p.179).

In the end, we must mention the appreciation of ancient Greeks for creation, talent and art. The legend says that “Zeus united with Mnemosyne, Goddess of memory, generated the nine muses” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.195), metaphor of creation by inspired use of gained experience. In any case, music is an atribut of the Gods, proof to that being the lire of Apollo (solar God, protector of the muses), Pan’s pipe and the sublime music of Orpheus, that calmed down even infernal forces – a symbol of revealing the products of our unconscious with the help of art. As a fundament of creation stands the fantasy (associated with Pegasus) and the act of defeating all doubts, falsity and lies (the symbolic fight between Pegasus and Belerofon against Chimera). But originality isn’t an exclusive divine feature. “Thetis, the primary, fertile force, became the wife of a mortal (Peleu), and this symbolizes the fact that the creative potential can’t be put to use without the help of human intelligence” (Hamann, 2004, p.149).

From Antiquity to Modern Psychology

The majority of psychological ideas ancient Greeks had (now “taken” from their mythology) are not lost, but found (as we demonstrated), maybe in a different form, in modern scientific psychology. Even more, this psychological approach to mythology has often proved to be more than “literature”, but a valid, useful investigation, capable to generate new concepts and theories.

Because of the well-known anthropomorphism of the Greek Gods, it was possible to create famous typologies, such as “the character in eight planetary types” (Jues, 2003, p.52), basset on a number of four oppositions (Mars – Venus, Earth – Mercury, Jupiter – Saturn, Sun – Moon).

Mythology isn’t dead. ” Gnothi se auton, or, in a Latin more familiar form, Noscere te ipsum: know yourself. The old dictum written at the entrance of the Delphi temple seems more present than ever” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.678). Myths offer us the way to reach the essence, a way to eternity, to the self.

Even the origin of the word psychology leads us to a myth: Psyche and her lover, Eros. “This allegory has a meaning. Psyche, in the Greek language means soul. But the soul rises only through love, Eros, and ends up in Olympus, the place of eternal happiness” (Mitru, 1996, p.179). The psychic is characterized by feeling, life and torment. So, psychology represents, from the mythological point of view, more than just science or knowledge. Psychology is the study of the human soul in search of love.


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When I was growing up in New York City, a high point of my calendar was the annual arrival of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — ‘the greatest show on earth’. My parents endured the green-haired clowns, sequinned acrobats and festooned elephants as a kind of garish pageantry. For me, though, it was a spectacular interruption of humdrum reality – a world of wonder, in that trite but telling phrase.

Wonder is sometimes said to be a childish emotion, one that we grow out of. But that is surely wrong. As adults, we might experience it when gaping at grand vistas. I was dumbstruck when I first saw a sunset over the Serengeti. We also experience wonder when we discover extraordinary facts. I was enthralled to learn that, when arranged in a line, the neurons in a human brain would stretch the 700 miles from London to Berlin. But why? What purpose could this wide-eyed, slack-jawed feeling serve? It’s difficult to determine the biological function of any affect, but whatever it evolved for (and I’ll come to that), wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. My favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, better known for first articulating the tenets of capitalism. He wrote that wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.

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These bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart.

English contains many words related to this multifarious emotion. At the mild end of the spectrum, we talk about things being marvellous. More intense episodes might be described as stunning or astonishing. At the extreme, we find experiences of awe and the sublime. These terms seem to refer to the same affect at different levels of intensity, just as anger progresses from mild irritation to violent fury, and sadness ranges from wistfulness to abject despair.

Smith’s analysis appears in his History of Astronomy (1795). In that underappreciated work, he proposed that wonder is crucial for science. Astronomers, for instance, are moved by it to investigate the night sky. He might have picked up this idea from the French philosopher René Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method (1637) described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigate rainbows and other strange phenomena. In a similar spirit, Socrates said that philosophy begins in wonder: that wonder is what leads us to try to understand our world. In our own time, Richard Dawkins has portrayed wonder as a wellspring from which scientific inquiry begins. Animals simply act, seeking satiation, safety and sex. Humans reflect, seeking comprehension.

For a less flattering view, we turn to the 17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. He called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ — a mystified incomprehension that science alone could cure. But this mischaracterises science and wonder alike. Scientists are spurred on by wonder, and they also produce wondrous theories. The paradoxes of quantum theory, the efficiency of the genome: these are spectacular. Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel. Without science, we are stuck with the drab world of appearances. With it, we discover endless depths, more astounding that we could have imagined.

In this respect, science shares much with religion. Gods and monsters are wondrous things, recruited to explain life’s unknowns. Also, like science, religion has a striking capacity to make us feel simultaneously insignificant and elevated. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that awe, an intense form of wonder, makes people feel physically smaller than they are. It is no accident that places of worship often exaggerate these feelings. Temples have grand, looming columns, dazzling stained glass windows, vaulting ceilings, and intricately decorated surfaces. Rituals use song, dance, smell, and elaborate costumes to engage our senses in ways that are bewildering, overwhelming, and transcendent.

Wonder, then, unites science and religion, two of the greatest human institutions. Let’s bring in a third. Religion is the first context in which we find art. The Venus of Willendorf appears to be an idol, and animals on the walls of the Chauvet, Altamira and Lascaux caves are thought to have been used in shamanic rites, with participants travelling to imaginative netherworlds in trance-like states under the hypnotic flicker of torchlight. Up through the Renaissance, art primarily appeared in churches. When in the Middle Ages Giotto broke free from the constraints of Gothic painting, he did not produce secular art but a deeply spiritual vision, rendering divine personages more accessible by showing them in fleshy verisimilitude. His Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is like a jewel-box, exploding with figures who breathe, battle, weep, writhe, and rise from the dead to meet their God beneath an ethereal cobalt canopy. It is, in short, a wonder.

When art officially parted company from religion in the 18th century, some links remained. Artists began to be described as ‘creative’ individuals, whereas the power of creation had formerly been reserved for God alone. With the rise of the signature, artists could obtain cultlike status. A signature showed that this was no longer the product of an anonymous craftsman, and drew attention to the occult powers of the maker, who converted humble oils and pigments into objects of captivating beauty, and brought imaginary worlds to life. The cult of the signature is a recent phenomenon and yet, by promoting reverence for artists, it preserves an old link between beauty and sanctity.

Art museums are a recent invention, too. During the Middle Ages, artworks appeared almost exclusively in religious contexts. After that, they began cropping up in private collections, called cabinets of curiosity (Wunderkammern, in German). These collections intermingled paintings and sculptures with other items deemed marvellous or miraculous: animal specimens, fossils, shells, feathers, exotic weapons, decorative books. Art was continuous with science — a human practice whose products could be compared to oddities found in the natural world.

Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life

This spirit dominated into the 19th century. The early acquisitions of the British Museum included everything from animal bones to Italian paintings. In a compendious book called The World of Wonders: A Record of Things Wonderful in Nature, Science, and Art (1883) we find entries on electric eels, luminous plants, volcanic eruptions, comets, salt mines, the Dead Sea, and dinosaur bones, casually interspersed with entries on Venetian glass, New Zealand wood carvings, and the tomb of Mausolus. The founder of the circus that I used to attend was the showman and charlatan P T Barnum, who took over the American Museum in New York in 1841. There he displayed portraits of famous personages, wax statues, and a scale model of Niagara Falls, at the same time introducing enthralled crowds to the ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng Bunker, and a little person dubbed General Tom Thumb. The museum was advertised on luminous posters proclaiming ‘the greatest show on Earth’ — the same show that he would eventually take on the road with his travelling circus. Today, the link between circuses and museums might be hard to fathom, but at the time the connection would have seemed quite natural. As temples of wonder, museums were showcases for oddities: a fine portrait, a waxwork tableau and a biological aberration all had their place.

By the end of the century, however, science and art had parted company. Major cities began opening dedicated art museums, places where people could come to view paintings without the distraction of butterfly wings, bearded ladies and deformed animal foetuses in jars. Nowadays, we don’t think of museums as houses of curiosity, but they remain places of wonder. They are shrines for art, where we go to be amazed.

Atheist that I am, it took some time for me to realise that I am a spiritual person. I regularly go to museums to stand in mute reverence before the artworks that I admire. Recently, I have been conducting psychological studies with Angelika Seidel, my collaborator at the City University of New York (CUNY), to explore this kind of emotional spell.

We told test subjects to imagine that the Mona Lisa was destroyed in a fire, but that there happened to be a perfect copy that even experts couldn’t tell from the original. If they could see just one or the other, would they rather see the ashes of the original Mona Lisa or a perfect duplicate? Eighty per cent of our respondents chose the ashes: apparently we disvalue copies and attribute almost magical significance to originals. In another study, we hung reproductions of paintings on a wall and told test subjects either that they were works by famous artists or that they were forgeries. The very same paintings appeared physically larger when attributed to famous artists. We also found that pictures look better and more wondrous when they are placed high on a wall: when we have to look up at an artwork, it impresses us more.

In the mid-18th century, the philosopher Edmund Burke hypothesised a connection between aesthetics and fear. In a similar vein, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke proclaimed: ‘beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’. To put this association to the test, I, together with Kendall Eskine and Natalie Kacinik, psychologists at CUNY, recently conducted another experiment. First, we scared a subset of our respondents by showing them a startling film in which a zombie jumps out on a seemingly peaceful country road. Then we asked all of our subjects to evaluate some abstract, geometric paintings by El Lissitzky. Those subjects who had been startled found the paintings more stirring, inspiring, interesting, and moving. This link between art and fear relates to the spiritual dimension of wonder. Just as people report fear of God, great art can be overwhelming. It stops us in our tracks and demands worshipful attention.

Bringing these threads together, we can see that science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, contends that it is ‘one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order’. In science, that invisible order might include microorganisms and the invisible laws of nature. In religion, we find supernatural powers and divine agents. Artists invent new ways of seeing that give us a fresh perspective on the world we inhabit.

Art, science and religion appear to be uniquely human institutions. This suggests that wonder has a bearing on human uniqueness as such, which in turn raises questions about its origins. Did wonder evolve? Are we the only creatures who experience it?

Descartes claimed that it was innate in human beings; in fact, he called it our most fundamental emotion. The pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson also posited an inborn sense of wonder, one especially prevalent in children. An alternative possibility is that wonder is a natural by-product of more basic capacities, such as sensory attention, curiosity and respect, the last of which is crucial in social status hierarchies. Extraordinary things trigger all three of these responses at once, evoking the state we call wonder.

Other animals can experience it, too. The primatologist Jane Goodall was observing her chimpanzees in Gombe when she noticed a male chimp gesturing excitedly at a beautiful waterfall. He perched on a nearby rock and gaped at the flowing torrents of water for a good 10 minutes. Goodall and her team saw such responses on several occasions. She concluded that chimps have a sense of wonder, even speculating about a nascent form of spirituality in our simian cousins.

This leaves us with a puzzle. If wonder is found in all human beings and higher primates, why do science, art and religion appear to be recent developments in the history of our species? Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, yet the earliest evidence for religious rituals appears about 70,000 years ago, in the Kalahari Desert, and the oldest cave paintings (at El Castillo in Spain) are only 40,000 years old. Science as we know it is much younger than that — perhaps only a few hundred years old. It is also noteworthy that these endeavours are not essential for survival, which means they probably aren’t direct products of natural selection. Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself.

And if wonder is shared beyond our own species, why don’t we find apes carpooling to church each Sunday? The answer is that the emotion alone is not sufficient. It imbues us with the sense of the extraordinary, but it takes considerable intellectual prowess and creativity to cope with extraordinary things by devising origin myths, conducting experiments and crafting artistic representations. Apes rarely innovate; their wonder is a dead-end street. So it was for our ancestors. For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit.

Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species. Children at the circus are content to ogle at a spectacle. Adults might tire of it, craving wonders that are more profound, fertile, illuminating. For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.

If this story is right, wonder did not evolve for any purpose. It is, rather, a by-product of natural inclinations, and its great human derivatives are not inevitable. But wonder is the accidental impetus behind our greatest achievements. Art, science and religion are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry. Each of these institutions allows us to transcend our animality by transporting us to hidden worlds. In harvesting the fruits of wonder, we came into our own as a species.

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Jesse Prinz

is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. His latest book is Beyond Human Nature (2012).


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