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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 449-451
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Instinct and Revelation: Reflections on the Origins of Numinous Perceptions *
Instinct and Revelation: Reflections on the Origins of Numinous Perceptions. By Alondra Oubre´. Chur, Switzerland: Gordon and Breach, 1997. $58 (cloth), $29 (paperback).
Medical anthropologist Dr. Alondra Oubré writes from a truly interdisciplinary perspective on topics generally avoided in both social science and human biology, namely the future potentials as well as the origins of consciousness as both a social and biological reality. In the development of consciousness there are what become termed "religious" representations and rites that symbolize human experiences, not only comprehended as part of a real social and natural world but as manifestations of incomprehensible "supernatural" powers and processes. How do such ideas originate adaptively as part of biological evolution itself? What are some potentials of their future evolution?
Oubré attempts an adventurous examination of human thought as it develops from a biological, evolutionary, physiological plane into elaborated sociocultural levels of social interaction. Not only does the author reveal her familiarity with recent work in various anthropological fields touching on all these topics, she demonstrates a special capacity to express complex ideas with clarity and cogency.
Her first three chapters take us into the recent scientific discoveries that are recreating for us some picture of the "hominid journey" and the physical evolution of the sapient brain. She ends this voyage by noting an evolution of evolutionary theory itself as a reflection of the increasingly expanding self-perception of scientists. We are all becoming more conscious of how all members of Homo sapiens are related to one another.
After starting us on this trail, following how the brain's capacity developed biologically through the vicissitudes of early human prehistory, in Chapter 4, "The Numinous Mind in Evolutionary Perspective," the author directs us to consider not only man as a successfully ingenious hunter and gatherer, but communicating man as bonded into social groups requiring increasingly symbolized social performances as well as the satisfaction of bodily needs. Psycho-spiritual rituals are developed as part of our evolution. Ritual practices can be deliberate, combining repetitive vocalization, dancing, and bodily movement that create, both in those acting and in those witnessing, early experiences of what comes to be termed "awe" and the creation of a "supernatural" experienced as part of the social and natural world. These practices and ideas have an internal dynamic pushing them toward increasing complexity and the development of a "numinous mind." Man becomes a more resonant being as his sensory-motor intelligence increases. Man's sensory-motor [End Page 449] systems are increasingly encephalized, or under volitional control of a "higher mind" that resides in the cerebral cortex.
Oubré's chapter on "the numinous mind" is most rich and conceptually innovative. In it she juxtaposes a number of themes relevant to the consideration of the development of human thought, even considering our special susceptibility to psychotropic drugs and the development of the unconscious as a part of man's psychic apparatus.
Chapter 5, "The Nectar of Chant," is the climax of her examination of consciousness. Her detailed discussion of chanting as an early form of ritual is particularly intriguing. Oubré suggests how there is an interactive effect of ritual, especially vocal chanting practices, on evolutionary development that is related to the development of such human capacities as trance behavior and to the origins of metaphoric "religious" concepts and representations used in social communication. Her central hypothesis about chanting is that "it represents a psychocultural practice enhancing an expressive or metaphorical form of perception." There is a limbic-based drive to achieve psychophysiological integration which manifests itself as a desired emotional catharsis.
What Oubré enters here is an area of discomfort for many scientists, including many psychologists who prefer examining cognitive features of human thought independent of continual emotional involvement. The continual underlying driving force of human emotional life, even as it stimulates the development of human thought itself, is hard to control theoretically. Nevertheless, Oubré's arguments are most compelling...