Adam, Abraham, Atlantis

January 11, 2005 | 21 comments

Santa Claus came through with a copy of the Charles Murray book Human Accomplishment. Murray uses statistics to quantify genius and excellence in the sciences, math, art, and literature. Once you accept that excellence is not entirely subjective, his method works fairly well. One of his surprising conclusions is that the rate of human accomplishment (accomplishment per capita) has been declining since the mid 19th century, which may have something to do with Mormons’ artistic doldrums. We’ve discussed the book before here.

I’ve heard a lot about the book and its purposes, but the introduction still surprised me. In it, he says that any description of human accomplishment before Christ must be largely speculative. We have lost the art and the literature and the technology of the ancients. He points to the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, a geared device from the first century before Christ which calculated the positions of the sun and the moon. It used a differential gear to do it, which had before been though to have been invented in 1575.

Even more intriguing, Murray entertains the possibility that we may yet discover a lost mother civilization that predates (and surpasses?) the ancient ones we know. He points to some raging controversies about the dating from water weathering of the Sphinx and a few nearby Egyptian monuments. He also refers to the common features that show up in mythic traditions. These are usually explained as structural elements that well up naturally from human nature, but Murray cites a book called Hamlet’s Mill

that purports to show that the precession of the equinox, a phenomenon requiring decades of sky watching and recording to observe, (and the knowledge of which does not appear to well up naturally from human nature), is also a common feature of the mythic traditions. Now to Murray, a secular man, this is all intriguing but nothing more than that. He shrugs and moves on.

To a Mormon, this stuff is full of fire and excitement. I don’t know anything about the specific arguments Murray cites—if you’ve something to add, fire away—but I do know that the idea of a common, worldwide myth fits well with the faith.

The simple explanation is simply that God has revealed the same sorts of things to different civilizations around the world. The other explanation, the one familiar to readers of Hugh Nibley, is that all the wild talk in the Pearl of Great Price is the memory of a great post-Adamic civilization, and that even the symbols and patterns of life that move us and shape us still are just the fading echoes of it. Nate Oman has written about it here and tied it into structuralism and Mircea Eliade (whom Murray mentions). Clark Goble follow-up here (scroll down).

I prefer that commenters who want to discuss Murray’s book go to the post linked to in the first paragraph. This thread is for worldspanning civilizations lost in the mists of time! For intoxicating stuff.

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21 Responses to Adam, Abraham, Atlantis

  1. Jonathan Green on January 11, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    Adam, I thought I was going to splutter indignantly, but I found that I quite like your post.

    When I taught Norse mythology last summer, we ran through most of the “big” approaches of the last century and mostly poked them full of holes, or re-enacted the process of hole-poking that others did fifty years ago. Frazier is dated, Campbell is shaky, and I’ve got doubts about Gimbutas’s staying power. But after doing that exercise, what you’re left with is the prevailing scholarly wisdom: that the Norse myths illustrate one moment in the history of 13th-century Icelandic literature. It’s solid scholarship, but dull as rocks compared to the truths of world myth/European pre-history/human psychology that other approaches promise to reveal.

    I think your last two words are exactly right: the ideas you mention are intoxicating, and intoxicating ideas (when used in moderation) are an excellent thing. I suspect that at the heart of every oh-so-serious scholar there’s an undying fascination with ancient astronauts or their equivalent.

  2. Adam Greenwood on January 11, 2005 at 10:33 pm

    Have you read C.S. Lewis’ account of his conversion? In it he says that his first contact with the divine was your Norse myths. He had a kind of vision of ‘Northernness.’ Then he really delved into the subject and all the joy went out.

  3. Geoff B on January 12, 2005 at 6:19 am

    Adam, as you probably know, CS Lewis’ concept of the “Tao” is based on a universal morality that all cultures share. It is roughly based on the Ten Commandments. For example, there is no large culture where the majority of people accept adultery or murder or stealing — these are basic universal concepts. You could argue as some have that this is just the way humans learn to get along, but these concepts are usually based on something greater than that. There seems to be a learned understanding of history and “what is right” that goes deeper than simple practicalism. In the same way, most learned cultures seem to have an understanding of certain times in history that appears more and more the same the farther back you go. Imagine the shock of the Spanish to learn that the Mayans and other Indians had a creation story and flood story not that different than the Bible (and, by the way, compatible with the BoM). It seems clear to me that there is a Deep History that mankind has that goes back to Adam. We just need to find more of it.

  4. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 8:52 am

    I don’t think I’d want to argue that those moral constants have their roots in an ancient, universal civilization. I think they’re the light of Christ.

    But I’m all for Deep History, if it’s there to be found. Good phrase.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on January 12, 2005 at 9:46 am

    Hmmmm… could we turn it around and argue for a Deep Transhistorical Social Pathology: that the difficulties in relations between the genders, and the unsatisfactory life choices of many women across time, all stem from Adam and Eve’s fruit-induced premature exit from the Garden, before God had time to give them the Marriage Relations/Sex Ed course?

    (Only half joking!)

  6. Christian on January 12, 2005 at 11:24 am

    Unlike Adam, I would say that those `moral constants’ may in fact have ancient roots—in fact, more ancient even than our species. Consider the emotional responses to being a victim of stealing, adultery, or (a relative’s) murder. The emotional responses—the reaction in our bodies, increased heartrate, adrenaline, etc.—are primal, predating the rational functions of modern humans, and selected for because of the obvious ramifications that stealing, adultery, and murder have for one’s ability to pass on one’s DNA. But evolution is hierarchical, acting not only on individual organisms struggling for existence, but on _species_ that are born, compete, and die (extinction). Our species (and primate and hominid forerunners) depend on cooperating social units for survival in the ‘species struggle’; hence selection for both innate `ethical’ instincts, intertwined with the development of cultural rules (and brains capable of developing, changing, and transmitting culture).

    Our `depraved’ or `natural man’ tendencies are commonly recongnizable from evolution as a result of `selfish’ individuals needing to pass on their DNA. Much less appreciated is that our `god-like’ attributes of love, cooperation, etc. also may arise from naturally from evolution, from
    selection pressures acting at a higher hierarcharhical level. Both good and bad are in us in tension, a tension which reflects the evolutionary history of partially competing interests of individuals and species.

    On emotional response and culture in our forerunner species, see e.g. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors : A Search for Who We Are, by Carl Sagan. On the evolutionary origins of e.g. cooperation, as well as both conserved and plastic aspects of culture, see e.g. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect by Paul Ehrlich. On the hierarchical nature of evolution, see e.g. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould.

  7. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 12:29 pm

    if our moral codes are godly, as I claim, then they have the ancientest of roots. If not, then who cares?

  8. Geoff B on January 12, 2005 at 2:01 pm

    Here’s how I see it: Adam receives light and knowledge that he passes on to his righteous progeny. He has a written language in which he records selected experiences and revelations. Some of this clearly includes his knowledge of the savior. Others (Seth, Methusulah, Enoch, etc.) add to this written knowledge. A core group of believers carries on these traditions. Some of them are so righteous (the city of Enoch) that they are taken from the Earth entirely before the flood. There remains within the conscious knowledge of mankind a sense of the truth of the Gospel. Noah and his family have these traditions, including the sacred writings. They board the ark and keep this information. But soon after the ark lands and the earth begins to be repopulated, apostasy rapidly spreads. There is a knowledge of the gospel and its truth that is kept by a core, small group, and a knowledge of the flood and the reason for the flood. But over time the truth gets distorted and lost. Other explanations and theories take ascension. The truth is carried on by a small minority until Abraham and Melchezidek begin to restore it again. Meanwhile, the truth has been carried to other lands by small groups of people (the Jaredites, and others, imho) who have the knowledge of the true history of the earth.

    So, you have small groups throughout the world with a knowledge of the truth of the gospel and the plan of happiness and a true understanding of Deep History. These groups receive revelation based on their righteousness. And you have the vast majority who come up with alternative explanations and the preaching of men, mingled with scripture. This has been the pattern throughout history and is the pattern today. I’m not sure I would look for evolutionary answers. Men are not that different today than they were in the days of Adam.

    As for a basic morality, man has known what is right and wrong since the time of Adam. It is enshrined historically in the concept of the “Two Ways” — a way of looking at the world that most ancient cultures accepted. The right way has always included following the basic commandments of God. Most ancient cultures had a sense that this is the way human beings “should be.” It’s just that they tended not to be the way they should have been.

  9. Bill on January 12, 2005 at 3:23 pm

    “If not, then who cares?”

    I can’t even begin to understand this sentiment

  10. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    If our moral codes don’t come from God, who cares where they come from? Evolution or culture, it’s all the same to me.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on January 12, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    Come on, Adam, where’s your curiosity for the galaxies when you turn your gaze to earth?

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 6:41 pm

    If I thought the Tao were simply the result of evolution without anything eternal about it I’d lose interest in galaxies too.

  13. Ebenezer on January 12, 2005 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks Adam for an interesting post.

    As for the Tao, The Abolition of Man is one of my favorite books. And the appendix on the Tao is an excellent resource.

  14. Christian on January 12, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    Adam, I wasn’t sure what you meant by `who cares’—I’m still not sure after your #10 and #12.

    I, for one, care. Whether or not there is a God, it remains the case that the reward of a good life is—well, a good life. No matter what the answers to the Terrible Questions are, “When you’re helping you’re happy” will remain an empirical truth.

    To be fair, it’s also true that many things _will_ change if one takes a naturalistic view of the origins of morality. I put `moral constants’ in quotes in my post above because in a naturalistic view they’re not expected to be precisely constant, and I think this view is borne out by human (and even ecclesiastical) history.

    Consider sexuality. Yes, there have been restrictions in all cultures, but the precise nature of the restrictions and the mix of reasons for them probably have varied with the times. (Warning: I’m getting out of my depth with armchair history here.) I get the sense that in the law of Moses proscriptions against adultery are essentially about preventing arguments between men over their property. I wonder if a man having relations with a woman who didn’t belong to someone else would have even been considered adultery. Indeed, the “punishment” for such was that you had to marry the girl.

    In later times, reducing society’s burden to care for illegitimate children (motivated by increased consideration for women and children) probably played a relatively larger role in the regulations than considerations of property. With regard to modern times, I would guess that widespread use of birth control will be looked back upon historically as a tectonic shift. The theory that regulation of sexuality arose naturalistically from societal concerns would predict that as the burdens to society of extramarital sexuality are reduced via birth control, the range of activity tolerated will increase proportionally. This seems to be borne out in contemporary history, and will surely continue. As society’s cultural brakes diminish, all that remains are the biological brakes: the threat that one’s infidelity will lead to jealousy/hurt responses that cause loss of a desirable mating partner. But even these biological responses may shift somewhat on a longer time scale due to birth control, as the decoupling of sexual behavior from passing on DNA changes the selection pressures in play.

  15. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 8:22 pm

    If our moral notions do not have a transcendent element, then I for one don’t really care if they have evolutionary or cultural origins, or both. I just wouldn’t care if birth control changes sexual practices. Why should I?

  16. Jonathan Green on January 12, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    Adam, Christian, aren’t there enough opportunities to argue about evolution, birth control, and their unholy offspring? Adam’s original post is redolent of the Romance of Deep Time, and that’s a topic with plenty of common ground for everyone. Geoff B. has picked up the ball and run with it. Not to where I would go, but that’s not the point. Pick your field or your hobby, use it as a lens to look back 6000 or 6 billion years, and just gaze in wonder for a bit.

    It’s worth noting how many otherwise respectable people in otherwise respectable fields can’t resist the lure of Deep Time. In my half-informed opinion of historical linguistics, trying to recover Proto-World is just plain loony, but it’s an idea that can’t be entirely driven from the mind. From time to time we should abandon all pride and pretense, I think, and read “The Golden Bough” as an expanded version of “The Wasteland,” “Hero With a Thousand Faces” as Star Wars minus the light sabers, and classic Nibley as, say, the Mormon scholar’s equivalent of Lovecraft. That Adam and Christan see radically different things when they look in the telephoto rear view mirror is, at this point, not as important as the fact that they’re both looking the same direction.

    Adam, I’ve read Lewis’s account, but it’s been a very long time. I wonder if he entirely lost his fascination with the Norse myths; there’s a lovely image from Voluspa that he reuses in “Prince Caspian.”

  17. Adam Greenwood on January 12, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    If I recall, Lewis claims that once he gave up on the Norse myths and discovered Christianity, the myths regained their power.

    What, exactly, is the lure of Deep History? What’s the romance? Maybe its one of the few ways that eternity is accessible to us. We can just go far enough back in our minds to know that there is something just beyond the edge of what we know.

  18. Geoff Johnston on January 13, 2005 at 12:38 am

    I’m basically with my fellow Geoff on this one.

    I admit to being enamored with the work of Hugh Nibley. I read Old Testament and Related Studies and Enoch the Prophet from his collected works a couple of months ago. Hugh obviously believes that there was one original religion — the true religion given directly to Adam from God — that has morphed and digressed into all of the religions and moral codes of the earth. He argues that if this isn’t the case then the same ideas must have spontaneously sprouted in the four quarters of the earth at about the same time.

    One thing I haven’t seen much commentary on, though, is how some of the fundamental doctrines of many eastern religions fit into this picture. I wonder which, if any of those doctrines, were variations on the Adamic teachings that have not yet been restored… In other words, is some of the stuff in the sealed portion of the plates the unadulterated version of some of the doctrines of the East?

  19. J. Stapley on January 13, 2005 at 3:46 am

    Adam: If I thought the Tao were simply the result of evolution without anything eternal about it I’d lose interest in galaxies too.

    Can it not be both?

  20. Christian on January 13, 2005 at 10:03 am

    Adam, one last point about `why care’… The story I told in #6 may seem hopelessly banal in comparison with stories featuring more transcendent aspects. But even our more mundane terrestrial progenitors—be they distant in geological time, or a few generations back—hold endless fascination. This is demonstrated by the common interest in genealogy—and by the way you choose to introduce yourself in your profile on this blog.

    Jonathan (#16), yes, I did kind of get off track. I was trying to understand Adam’s apparent lack of interest in the origins of society’s morality if there were `no transcendent element.’ In my illiteracy I may be mistaking `deep history’ for `stories of origin,’ but what I think is interesting about stories of origin is that they allow us to tell stories that explain ourselves to ourselves. I wanted to demonstrate that even a story of origins without a transcendent element serves to tell interesting stories that `explain’ how we see ourselves and our society behaving. I guess Adam didn’t find that particular story very interesting!

    Perhaps this explanatory element is backwards, though. The inaccessability of deep history necessitates bold interpolations on our part to string a narrative together; and in the act of constructing these interpolations, perhaps we are _revealing_ ourselves to ourselves—observing the act of constructing the meaning our existence—as much (or more than) really _explaining_ ourselves to ourselves.

    As a firm believer in the value of the natural sciences, my hope would be that the `explanatory’ element can truly have some substance, and usefully serve to inform the society (and meanings) we construct. But maybe I’m dead wrong; not sure, in that case, I want to think too hard about what stories I tell in the posts above `reveal’ about me! :)

  21. Jonathan Green on January 13, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Adam, excellent point. I’d like to think that my faith is something that helps me appreciate the majesty of myths and other grand ideas, even when I don’t believe in them. At least I find that reaction more appealing than recoiling in suspicion. If the gospel teaches us several very nice things, we can either decide that they are the only nice things in an otherwise hostile universe, or we can recognize the limits of our knowledge and try to imagine the possibilities of a universe filled with similarly nice things, even if they are beyond our present knowledge.

    Christian: absolutely. There’s a place for disagreement on important issues, but I don’t think we’ve sufficiently mapped out the common ground yet. The origin story/deep history you brought up is just fine. Again, it’s not what everyone thinks of, but I agree very much with your point that the exercise tells us as much about ourselves as anything else. Of course, there’s also that ‘anything else’, the substance that you mention–but I’m out of time for now, so I’ll have to think more about that point.


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