Eros, Thanatos, and Tantra

… I am irresistibly led to the conclusion that human organism is evolving in the direction indicated by mystics and prophets and by men of genius..” – Gopi Krishna(1)

Are we still evolving as a species?

Many scientists would think not. The prevailing wisdom is that we humans through the artifice of culture have largely made ourselves immune to the evolutionary process and are no longer subject to its principles. Stephen Jay Gould in an interview in 2000 said: “There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain” (2)

To answer “no” is to say we are essentially physically and genetically complete as a species and that whatever further progress we make will be the result of science and culture. Our genes, our brains, our neurology, and our fundamental human condition is not changing and probably is not likely to change in the future. Of course, we can answer “no” and still agree there might be minor changes – small tweaks in our makeup from genetic drift and various minor selection pressures – but nothing big, nothing major in the way of physical or genetic change. This is the view of many biologists. We haven’t changed genetically in any significant way in the last 40,000 or 50,000 years and we have with our culture and technology made ourselves immune to the selection pressures which would drive such changes in the future.

The evidence for such a view comes partly from the bones. Anthropologists excavate human settlements. They find skulls and bones like modern humans. The teeth look the same; the brain cavities are the same size; the skeletons seem the same height and proportion. Physically in the fossil evidence the humans from 50,000 years almost are indistinguishable from those of today. Accompanying the fossil evidence is the notion of static environment. A population of any species in a stable environment becomes well-adapted to the environment. Once the species become well-adapted there is no reason for it to change and, in fact, any large change would likely to make the species less adapted and this would self-correct itself through evolutionary pressure itself. The idea that we have lived in a static environment for the last 50,000 years initially seems preposterous. What about the Ice Age and its end? What about the migration out of Africa and into the colder climate of Europe and Asia? The argument goes that we are to a great extent immune from a need to make biological changes to adapt to an environment through our cultural ingenuity. We make shelter and clothes to protect from the cold. If antelope are not available to eat, we hunt mammoths instead. In this sense, our environment has been stable since nothing in any environments into which we have moved required fundamental biological change. We are protected from the environment by a cultural insulation. We live equally as well in the warmth of the Amazon or the cold of the Arctic through cultural adaptation.

Anthropologists have little doubt that a child born to a family 50,000 years ago and transported to our time would watch television, play video games, and become the good consumers we have become. In other words, we and they are genetically and physically not essentially different. The only difference between us is the culture we are raised in.

At one point in time, this viewpoint was a valuable corrective to a prevailing belief that there were significant differences between humans of different races and populations – a viewpoint deeply interwoven with race, class, power, and conquest. In the 17th century, Henri de Boulainvilliers divided the French into the aristocratic, superior French race descended from Germanic Franks, and an indigenous Gallo-Roman race to justify the rights of the aristocracy. The entire notion of the supremacy of the “white race” justified the subjugation and domination of native peoples throughout the world. The viewpoint that humans were fundamentally the same challenged and upset the ideas of racial superiority.

Yet clearly there are genetic differences between human populations that have arisen in response to social and cultural change. In The 10,000 Year Explosion (3), Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argue that “human evolution didn’t stop when anatomically modern humans appeared, or when they expanded out of Africa… All this means, has to mean, that biological change has been a key factor driving history.” (4) Among the examples they cite are the development of lactose tolerance, malaria resistance, dispositions to various genetic diseases such as diabetes, and perhaps most controversially intelligence increase among the Ashkenazi Jews in Medieval Europe In other words, culture does not totally protect us from the requirement to make genetic changes, in some cases, it actually drives us to make genetic changes.

If there are genetic differences between human populations it follows from this that quite likely there are genetic changes which have occurred in the last 50,000 years which may be widely dispersed among many (perhaps all) human populations. In addition to the genetic differences between human populations through cultural influence, could there be perhaps even more significant genetic differences between contemporary human populations and those of 50,000 years ago? In other words, is there some overarching trend to human evolution?

Although popular in the 19th century and still so among “intelligent design” believers, the idea of a purpose or direction to evolution (particularly human evolution) has been around a long time. Aristotle classified living organisms in his Great Chain of Being, as a progression from less perfect organisms like plants to more perfect forms like humans. Augustine appended to this view the idea of God as the designer of all creatures with all having a purpose, some playing small parts and others large, in an order ordained by Him. Various formulations of this idea of purpose can be found in German idealism through Herbert Spenser with the breadth of evolution expanding to include physical matter at the bottom of the chain and spirit, mind, or reason at the top with human beings as the bridging link. In the late nineteenth century, Ernest Haeckel popularized and distorted Darwin’s theories in a number of books in the late nineteenth century containing the Tree of Life showing one-celled organisms at the bottom and man at the top. In the twentieth century, in The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin traces out a direction from the primordial matter of the early universe to the development of human beings, the noosphere, and a final Omega Point in the future.

Scientific heirs to the concepts of evolution include Darwin and Freud. Darwin, of course, provides the scientific mechanism for evolution, natural selection, even as it overturns any concept of ultimate purpose or direction to the process. Freud along with Darwin knocks humanity down from its lofty perch at the top of creation. Darwin shows humans to be only one of the recent historical variations of a long line of hominids qualitatively not as different from apes and monkeys as we might have thought. Freud undercuts the loftiest human goals and creations by showing that underlying human culture is the simmering caldron of libido and sexuality.

Evolution from the Darwinian standpoint appears to be more like a random walk of evolving species, whose change is driven mainly by chance, that sometimes results in simplification, sometimes in elaboration, depending upon the laws of natural selection. Freud builds upon Darwin’s understanding but postulates a correspondence between humanity’s evolution and the development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Freud borrows Ernest Haeckel’s concept of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – the development of the individual parallels the history of the species. Although completely disproved as a scientific biological theory, metaphorically the concept has an aura of truth about it. Most of us have probably seen the human embryo in stages looking like tadpoles, then fish, growing tails, then losing them.

In Sigmund Freud’s later works he increasingly turned his attention to considerations of society and culture (“civilization” as he termed it). In his early work, Freud developed his theories from working with individuals talking on the couch about dreams and fantasies. From this he developed the famous three-fold structure of the psyche – the id, ego, and superego – as well as the whole notion of the unconscious and repressed desires as a key drivers of human behavior. Eventually, however, he needed to develop an understanding of human history to explain how the human psyche developed. Using the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” model and working backward from the individual to the species, he arrived at a theory of how human culture itself arose in conjunction with the human psyche through the repression of desires. Evolution from the prehuman to fully human came about through the interaction between the individual and society with human desires and urges (at their root sexual in origin) becoming subjugated to the demands of society. In terms of the individual, the infant operating on the pleasure-principle comes into conflict with the parent and the reality principle.

Freud’s ultimate effort is to explain the evolution of the human psyche in order to understand the current human state. For Freud, the current state of the human psyche at end of this evolutionary process is neurosis. Neurosis is the result of repression. Repression is the inevitable result of the conflict between the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle, sexual desires and society. Although Freud saw no way forward from this dilemma, with Freud, we have circled back to the idea that culture might have driven the evolution of the organization of the human psyche. Since Freud believed that his psychoanalytic constructs were mostly theoretical bridges to an eventual harder science of mind that would be based on biology, we are led also to the idea that the human neurological structure may itself have been evolving itself over the last 50,000 years and could be still evolving. And it could be that Freud still has something important to say about it.

Darwin is still held in high regard and his theories have largely been enhanced and nuanced since he first developed them in the nineteenth century. In contrast, psychoanalytic theory, at least of the classical Freudian variety, has largely fallen into the dustbin of science. In the mid-twentieth century, two significant attempts, Life Against Death (5) by Norman O. Brown and Eros and Civilization (6) by Herbert Marcuse, were made to reexamine Freud, not from a rigorous scientific approach, but from the viewpoint of intellectual and political history. Both of these attempts are efforts to move beyond the neurotic dilemma that Freud left human’s with at the end of the evolutionary process.

Brown and Marcuse both pick up from where Freud’s later work leaves off by recognizing the historical reality of neurosis. Once we understand that neurosis evolved with culture, we can begin to see a way beyond it in the future to a new cultural reality that reintegrates the pleasure principle (sexuality) with the reality principle. In terms of myth, the conflict between sexuality and society is the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death. It is perhaps no accident that Freudians made extensive use of mythological references – Oedipus,Electra, Narcissus. Myth underlies the psychological foundation of culture and, as such, it represents the intersection point between the history of the individual and the history of the species.

In Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse proposes that neurosis evolved as a control mechanism required as humans came together in groups and as a result of scarcity of resources to satisfy completely the pleasure principle. Neurosis is externally imposed by society; therefore, in a society organized on different principles, there is the possibility that Eros could reassert itself and humans could live free of neurosis. In Marcuse, culture imposes neurosis.

In Life Against Death, Brown comes to a different understanding, one almost exactly the inverse of Marcuse’s. Brown proposes that humans create culture because they are neurotic. Neurosis arises as a mechanism for dealing with the world during infancy because of the human neurological underdevelopment at birth. This is a topic I touched on at the end of another post (On the Run). Humans are the most neurological underdeveloped of all animals at birth and require long and intensive care from parents. This is a side effect of the evolution of larger brain size combined with bipedalism. Neurosis, repression of sexuality, is self-imposed in Brown’s formulations. Culture and history are the result. In Brown, culture does not impose neurosis – we create culture because we are neurotic.

Brown has created a more difficult problem for himself than did Marcuse. If culture causes neurosis, we can envision future societal organizations wherein human could live neurosis free. On the other hand, if neurosis is rooted in human biology, then the way beyond it is not so simple. I am not sure Brown ever adequately addresses this dilemma. He shows that in theory there is loophole in Freud’s theories which should allow for a neurosis-free life but never adequately addresses what would drive human culture toward it. A common problem to both Brown’s and Marcuse’s approach is that lack any biological underpinning to drive the change. If there is cultural component in the evolution of the human psyche, we not only need to explain how it works but also understand how it relates directly to he underlying human biology and neurology. In other words, an evolving neurological organization could be the way beyond the neurotic dilemma.

The missing pieces, I believe, are to be found by examining the philosophy of Tantra and the ideas of Gopi Krishna.

By “Tantra” I do not mean anything at all like what passes in the common mind in regard to that term. If you do an Internet search on the word, you are likely to have the impression that “Tantra” primarily consists of a variety of sexual techniques. Although sexual techniques do constitute a part of some types of Tantra, Tantra itself is broad set of beliefs and ideas running on a track. sometimes parallel, sometimes conflicting, and sometimes intersecting with conventional Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally regarded as developing about 1500 years ago in India, Tantrism is primarily characterized by a radical acceptance of this world and the body in contrast to conventional Hinduism’s and Buddhism’s rejection of both. With Tantrism we begin to see the possibility of transmutation of sexual energy without denial or rejection of it.

Tantrism begins with a different understanding of the nature of world from that of conventional Hinduism and Buddhism and from that derives a different understanding of the body. In Tantra, “the world is not a mere illusion but a manifestation of the Supreme Reality. If the world is real, the body must be real as well. If the world is in essence divine, so must be the body.” (7) The body then becomes not a barrier to enlightenment but a vehicle to accomplish it. “The function of Tantra is to transform all pleasures into the transcendental experience of deep penetrative awareness. Instead of advocating separation from worldly pleasures the way many traditions do, Tantra emphasizes it is much more effective for human beings to enjoy themselves and channel the energy of their enjoyments into a quick and powerful path to fulfillment and enlightenment.”(8)

Tantrism, of course, does not exist apart from its cultural, scientific, and philosophical milieu. As such, it is tied directly to concepts of guru and divinity worship, karma and the cycle of rebirth, and the subtle body with its chakras and energies. The chakras are energy centers existing alongside the spinal column in the subtle body. Within the subtle body analog of the spinal column (the sushuma) runs the prana and apana currents. When the currents are united, the energy of kundalini represented symbolically as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine can become activated and, in an initiate who has undergone the appropriate purifications, able to rise through the sushuma to highest centers and confer some degree of enlightenment.

In Kundalini: the evolutionary energy in man, Gopi Krishna tells how at age 34 he had a religious experience during which he felt an energy entering his brain from his spinal cord. He identified this energy as kundalini, the energy which can be awakened through Tantric meditation and yoga breathing practices.

Gopi Krishna however, takes the concept of Tantra one step further and argues that, in fact, the ability to utilize or raise kundalini energy is an evolving characteristic of human beings. He came to believe that this energy had an actual biological basis and is the genuine force behind intelligence, creativity, religious experience, and is the guiding force of human evolution.

Two scientific problems arise with Gopi Krishna’s belief in kundalini. The first is that there is no biological evidence of any force or energy at the base of the spine or any organ that would hold that force. There are, of course, nerve fibers throughout the body and concentrations of them at various points roughly corresponding to the position of the chakras and in the spinal cord, but no particular repository that would be able to send energy up the spine. Although there are variety of organizations, including the Kundalini Research Foundation founded by Gopi Krishna himself, who have performed scientific research on kundalini, nothing has been discovered regarding any biological foundation for it. The second problem with Gopi Krishna’s formulation of kundalini evolution is the presumption of teleology. Gopi Krishna assumes purpose and direction to human evolution and ultimately resorts to the Divine as the guiding hand. There is no scientific principle that can provide this purpose and direction.

Kundalini, if it is anything more than self-delusion, must have a biological basis,and that basis would have to be in the brain. For that matter, the chakras would have to be in the brain too.

Humans like other mammals necessarily have concentrations of nerve fibers at various point critical to survivability and life: the eyes and ears, the throat for swallowing and communicating via sounds or words, the heart, the diaphragm, the stomach and intestines, the genitals, and the anus. These locations are mostly the same locations as those identified for the chakras. It follows then that the brain would have neurological structures or complexes devoted to processing these the nerve impulses from these centers. These complexes would consume a fair amount of the brain’s energy. I am not talking here necessarily about a particular physical location in the brain but rather about assemblages of pathways that may range over many different parts of the brain. The energy I am talking about is mostly demand for nutrients and oxygen plus neurotransmitters and possibly actual small bio-electric currents. In addition, since reproduction is the preeminent responsibility of any individual organism, the genital complex may proportionately be even larger and more resource consuming that the other complexes. It follows that if these complexes which are consuming a large amount of the brain’s energy could be slowed down, the additional energy could be freed for other purposes. In fact, the most demonstrable effect of practices of Tantric meditation and yogic breathing are precisely the effects of reducing sensory input from the eyes and ears, slowing respiration and heart rate, all of which would lead to reduced energy requirement in the brain complexes devoted to processing the corresponding nerve impulses.

In Freud’s theories, infancy is characterized by what he termed polymorphous perversity – a sort of unfocused sexual drive and ability to experience sexual pleasure in many parts of the body. As a part of the human development process, the ability for sexual pleasure gradually becomes fixated to the genital area. Part of the process of repression involves the fixation of sexual energies to the genital area which results in the allocation of brain energies to corresponding complex in the brain (yes, it is true that sex is primarily in the brain!). A key part of many religious traditions is celibacy with the explicit purpose of freeing these energies for other purposes. Tantrism proposes a different approach that does not attempt to suppress these energies but instead involves transmuting these sexual energies to the purpose of enlightenment.

The cosmic consciousness or enlightenment of Gopi Krishna thus appears to be a phenomenon occurring primarily in the brain that involves freeing of energies from the heavy resource consumers to the centers of imagination and pure thought. The end result is the experience of sexual pleasure in the total existence of the body in the world It is a neurological reorganization of the brain that may be the culmination of the maturation process that begins with infancy passes through adolescence to adulthood and ends occasionally in some individuals with reintegration of sexuality into a new relationship between self and world.

If kundalini is not really a force itself but really a reorganization of existing energies, could something still be providing purpose and direction to human evolution?

There are two types of directional movements understood by scientific evolution.

One of these is called Dollo’s law of irreversibility proposed in 1893 by paleontologist Louis Dollo. The law basically states that certain aspects of the evolution of species or lineage are not reversible. To quote Stephen Gould: “Once you adopt the ordinary body plan of a reptile, hundreds of options are forever closed, and future possibilities must unfold within the limits of inherited design.” (9) In addition, once a change occurs even if the change might be reversible, it many cases it might be unlikely to reverse. A recent study on the evolution of drug resistance in bacteria calculated the likelihood of a particular evolutionary adaptation reversing itself. They found that a very small percentage of evolutionary adaptations in a drug-resistance gene can be reversed, but only if the adaptations involve fewer than four discrete genetic mutations.(10)

The other type is direction provided by the ordinary operation of natural selection with a constant selection pressure. For example, if an animal lived in an environment that gradually grew colder, natural selection would cause the animal likely to evolve to be more furry, to carry more body fat. and to develop other metabolic adaptations to cold. This would be ordinary natural selection at work where individual members of the species with better adaptation to cold would be more likely to survive and reproduce than members less well adapted. The result over time would be that the animal would appear to evolve in a direction.

So is there some constant selection pressure which would influence human evolution in a particular direction? Yes, there is. It is the selection pressure of culture itself and all it entails. In other words, culture requires intelligence, communication ability especially language, sociability, and to a degree docility. Individual humans better in those skills will be more likely to survive and reproduce (get better mates) than those less skilled. What’s more, the larger the human societal group with the greater the degree of specializations of roles the greater would be the selection pressure for exactly those traits. All of those traits are intimately involved with organization of human nervous system or human psyche.

Freud’s repression, in this context, becomes directly related to the brain’s energy problem I discussed in a previous post. Repression is a diversion of energies from physiological functions (among them, sexuality) to serve the purpose of culture. This diversion is only possible in a partial manner because of the brain’s energy economy. However, with increasing natural selection demands, the capability to be able to divert more resources would be selected for.

So let’s reexamine Gopi Krishna’s idea of kundalini evolution in the light of scientific evolution and psychoanalysis. If there is a constant selection pressure selecting humans for enculturation skills, then over time the human neurological system would evolve to support those traits. The evolutionary process would pass through a phase of neurosis wherein the neural energy is bound and restrained in an organized way to support primarily sociability (in Freudian terms the ego and superego); however, with continuing selection pressure for intelligence and communication, the need would grow to free up increasing amounts of this neural energy. The end result of this direction could be a human who today we might say is awakened or enlightened.

These characteristics, of course, are a nascent capability in many humans in our human populations that never fully emerge except in individuals who through a fortuitous set of circumstances of upbringing and culture can actualize them.

What we are talking here about cosmic consciousness or enlightenment. This is a reorganization of the relationship of humans with nature and a radical acceptance of world as it is. It is a view of the world as divine play which at its root is sexual. It is an expansion of the view of the body to encompass the entire world. The yoga and meditation disciplines, in fact, are tools and techniques to enhance the whatever natural genetic abilities individuals have to move us in this direction.

If this direction does exist in human evolution, is the outcome and eventual result guaranteed? Will all humans become enlightened at some time in the future?

In contrast to Gopi Krishna, I think not.

In Freud, we must remember that Eros has a companion – Thanatos, the “death instinct”. While we might associate Thanatos with violence, in reality it is more closely aligned with what Freud termed the Nirvana principle – a tendency or urge to return to stasis, to live without tension or stress, to live immortally like a child in a womb. This was Freud’s term and is a clear and common misunderstanding of the actual meaning of Nirvana in Eastern philosophy. However, the concept is important.

The forces of Thanatos are clearly at work in our technology. While having the capacity to free us from toil and trouble to soar to unparalleled heights of intellectual and spiritual freedom , it also now is gaining the capacity to seduce us into human-machine hybrid like existence. This is, indeed, an immortality actually wished for by some. (11)

Whether Eros or Thanatos wins this battle is not for certain or predestined. It is within our power to choose Eros over Thanatos but the choice may require the sacrifice of some technologies and that choice may be difficult for us to understand when the time comes to make it.

1- Krishna, Gopi. Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man, Shambala, 1971, p. 241.

2- Interview Leader To Leader Journal Issue No. 15 Winter 2000 http://www.pfdf.org/knowledgecenter/journal.aspx?ArticleID=64

3- Cochran , Gregory and Harpending , Henry. The 10,000 Year Explosion , Basic Books, 2009.

4- Ibid p. 226

5- Brown, Norman. O. Life Against Death, Wesleyan University Press, 1959.

6- Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1956.

7- Feuerstein, Georg. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Shambala, 1998, p 53.

8- Yeshe, Lama. Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire, Wisdom Publication, 2001, p. 17.

9- Gould, Stephen J. Eight Little Piggies, Vintage Books.

10- Longzhi Tan, Stephen Serene, Hui Xiao Chao, and Jeff Gore. Hidden Randomness between Fitness Landscapes Limits Reverse Evolution. Physical Review Letters, 106, 198102 (2011)

11- Kurzweil, Raymond. The Age of Spiritual Machines, Viking Adult,, 1999.

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7 Responses to Eros, Thanatos, and Tantra

  1. Marilyn says:

    Holy Smoke!!!! What an awesome article. You grapple with some really interesting ideas about our human condition. Of course, you know which side of this issue I fall on, only because experience is the best teacher.
    The one piece that I didn’t see mentioned is our beautiful ability to choose our reality. If our sexual nature is at the base of our need and want for pleasure, then it is our job to remove the obstacles that keep us from enjoying all the pleasure that the human body, heart and mind hold. I believe that love for ourselves and others is just as pleasurable and important as the act of giving and receiving physical pleasure. Consciousness of who we are as humans and a sense of responsibility and integrity along with our love for ourselves and others in conjunction with a connection with all of the energy within and outside ourselves would cure what ails our societies. Meditation along with yoga does a lot to further our understanding of our energetic SELF. With a sincere practice we can learn to move our own energy internally which brings us to a state of freedom from the world’s chaotic way of being. Each individual has the ability to choose the life they wish for themselves. This takes discipline and a strong will to change our condition to one that ensures that we can live with ourselves free of conflict from our karma and have all the pleasure and fullness life offers to each of us.
    Practicing tantra allows our energy to “follow natures way” which is not hurried or focused on an agenda. It allows our physical to be not stagnant but alive. When we can understand our true natural way, combine our animal instincts with our ability to connect with our higher consciousness we will then understand what being created as a human is all about.
    We should talk more about this. Thank you for your thoughtful expression. I appreciate your journey to finding yourself. This should be part of all of our human journey, to understand the nature of our being. That is I believe our challenge on this planet…understand why we are here..what is our purpose and how can we best serve ourselves and all of humanity. It is a big job.
    Thank you.
    Marilyn

  2. Redir says:

    Thanks James tnakhs for the link, I’ve hear of Deheane’s neuronal recycling’ hypothesis but I haven’t read any of his stuff yet. His 2009 book on the neuroscience of reading is still on my to read’ list. This of course relates to a whole are I haven’t mentioned in my post: the role plasticity, epigenetic factors and the process of enculturation have on the development of the human brain. I should probably have a look at the but it’s quite a massive tome and I don’t know very much about neuroscience, unfortunately.

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  4. ptero9 says:

    Hi James,

    Interesting correlations between Freud, Kundalini and evolution. There’s a lot to think about here.

    Having personally experienced the energy surge up my spine into my brain, I can only say, that it’s unmistakable. There’s no doubt that something has happened to you when this sensation occurs as it did in me. I can’t prove that the experience changed me, but I know that it did.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts here! Thank you again for the link.
    Peace,
    Debra

    • James Cross says:

      Thanks for commenting. Sorry I took so long to get back to you.

      I have little doubt of the reality of the experience. I am not sure how or why it originates but my general thought is that energy is blocked by the various centers which are part of our psychological and social maturation. On some occasions these blockages can be removed and the freed energy can be channeled to higher centers.

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