How long do you have to wait for a trolley/subway train before you can tell a story that will earn you sympathy?
Each year I pose that question to my Boston University students who rely on the aging Green Line. Generally, students will agree that anything longer than 20 minutes merits sympathy. The T—as the Boston subway/trolley system is known—seems to have a mind of its own, coming and going at random.
One year, an undergraduate—call her Carol—volunteered that she didn’t know much about waiting for the T; but, she did know that if she worked out at the gym, the T was right there waiting for her. And, if Carol didn’t work out, she had to wait for the T.
I asked her, “Do you think the T knows? Do you think the T cares if you work out?”
All Carol could say was “that’s the way it works.” She connected random events to imagine an invisible force that doesn’t exist. Carol has established a “universal law” that governs her exercise routine: exercising will be rewarded by the subway.
And that is human evolution at work. Our 21st century homo sapiens is functioning like homo erectus of a million years ago.
A million or so years ago, hominids—our species—observed the random nature of life and tried to extract meaning through imagination. They imagined myths of creation, spirits in the trees, and powers in symbolic carvings and cave paintings. And they evolved language to communicate with each other.
Of course, other primates, mammals, insects, dolphins and birds communicate. They warn each other of danger. They signal food sources. They announce availability for mating. But, none of these species can imagine something that does not exist; nor can they imagine a benevolent, omniscient spirit like the Boston subway, powerful enough to know your workout efforts and smart enough to reward or punish you.
Creating this kind of narrative to explain the mysterious actions of the world is the beginning of human culture. The culture grows from simple connections to defining how people interact and behave with those who believe in the same things. And how to interact with outsiders.
Although we don’t know, we believe that early man—hunters and gathers—had simple narratives perhaps imbued with animism. After a few thousand years of agricultural life, man developed more comprehensive stories to unify large groups of people under one narrative: the teachings of Buddha, the Bible or the Quran.
Through the millennia, as homo erectus gave way to homo sapiens, the range of diverse languages, narratives and isolated cultures across the planet probably numbered in the tens of thousands. Today there are an estimated 6500 languages, 2000 of which are teetering on extinction.
Did Homo Erectus have language a million years ago? It’s likely. But, with or without language, they demonstrated imagination.
Bands of Homo Erectus left the savannas of Africa spreading across Asia and Europe—from Southeastern Spain to present day Beijing, from Amiens France to the Indonesian islands of Flores and Java. Fossils and tools found on Flores and on the island Socotra in the Arabian Sea lead to speculation that Homo Erectus developed seafaring craft and sailing skills.
Why did these hominids leave Africa? Perhaps Homo Erectus, in the course of the hunt, simply followed animals across the land bridge from Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps some groups were driven out by other hominids or by a lack of food.
But, why did they cross the open sea to islands invisible from the shore, such as Socotra, Flores and Crete? How did they know the islands were there and would be suitable for their community?
Scientists estimate that a sustainable Homo Erectus community required a minimum of 50 to 150 people.
Somehow, an existing community of 50 or more on-shore could conceive of an easier life. This was an act of shared imagination: to become so convinced of the benefit that they would risk their lives to journey across the sea in a raft, dugout canoe or boat to an island most of them had never seen.
Perhaps some members of the community were adept sailors, able to navigate the strong ocean currents, tides and unpredictable winds. Did they survey the island? How many of the scouts lost their lives? Did they have to make multiple trips to ferry everyone to the island? Or, did they make multiple boats and coordinate their efforts?
The oldest existing boat in the world is the Pesse canoe approximately 7 to 8,000 years old, a dugout carved with stone tools out of a single pine tree. The Pesse canoe was found in the Netherlands but dugout canoes have been found throughout the world and were also used for ocean travel.
Did Home Erectus make dugout canoes? They had Acheulian tools, flints and sharpened stones. But, maybe they had a better method. The Wampanoag people in New England used to make dugout canoes by burning out the cavity of a single tree with hot coals. Homo Erectus was the first hominid to control fire.
All of this is speculation, imagination. Much of it proposed by scholars.
History is an act of imagination. We combine experience (memory) with visualization and planning. We visualize the act of carving out a tree log with stone tools. We guess about the organization of a sea voyage: which would have been better, multiple trips or multiple canoes in one trip. And, in my case, I remember a demonstration of Wampanoag canoe making.
We then turn these observations into a narrative by selecting information that fit or enhance our understanding—just like the undergraduate student and her Boston subway.
Many might find her belief in the Boston subway odd, an expression of primitive animism, attributing spiritual qualities to an inanimate object or sensing that a tree has a soul. We moderns are too sophisticated for that. We already have our imaginative narratives in organized religion.
But, look at the toys and teddy bears left in memoriam at tombstones. Consider the makeshift memorials that appear at the scene of fatal car accidents. Consider the designation of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center as “sacred ground.” Or, the sprinkling of human cremains at places of natural beauty or significance.
Like ancient hominids, we still perceive the divine at specific sites. We pay homage to the spirits that linger by these spots.
These are acts of imagination. They help us find meaning. Ancient hominids used imagination to create their form of meaning and understanding of the world. The same imagination that inspired Homo Erectus to journey across land and sea also inspires Carol, the undergraduate student, to find meaning in the Boston subway.
We will now call to worship the congregants at the First Church of the Boston Subway. Let us bow our heads as we ring the trolley bell.