THE GERMANIC CONCEPT OF EVOLUTION
“We don’t need ideology, much; we’ve got genetics instead. Our social order is hard-coded into our nervous systems.”
A character in S. M. Stirling’s novel, Drakon, Baen Books, 1996, p. 324
Wherever pre-Christian Odinist beliefs (which in northern Europe survive mainly in poetry) can be compared with those of modern science, the two seem to be almost fully in tune. Indeed, the overlap is as perfect as it could possibly be between a poetic and a prosaic exposition. Modern Odinists believe, in fact, that if our ancestors had never been forcibly half-converted to the crude Biblical conception of the cosmos, the state of our contemporary scientific knowledge would be centuries ahead of where it is currently.
The same can be said for the theory of evolution – as it applies to humans.
Christian creationist theory insisted that their god, Yahweh, created the first couple, Adam and Eve; and that these first people were every bit as human as we are. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, which witnessed the towering intellects of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, that this belief began to be seriously questioned.
Today, of course, most of us accept that modern humans have evolved – physically, intellectually and culturally – from earlier and more primitive versions of our species. But few, even among enlightened Odinists or the scientific community, are aware that this was precisely what our ancestors believed before they were led astray by Christian ideas.
The poem Völuspá mentions three “powerful and loving” (ölfgir oc ástgir) gods who found two primitive beings, Askr and Embla, who were “feeble”, “weak” and “fateless”. Each god then gave this couple life-enhancing blessings. These were: the breath of spirit; mind and feeling; the warmth of life; and a desirable appearance. It should be noted that this paradigmatic proto-human pair was placed on the path to human status by an act of pure favour on the part of the “powerful and loving” gods.
(Snorri Sturluson’s Christianised prose version of this event states that Askr and Embla were mere lumps of wood before our gods animated them with qualities that could only be bestowed by divine beings. We needn’t take this reference to timber too seriously. Old Norse poetical traditions frequently compared humans to trees. For instance, in Egill Skallagrimson’s masterpiece, Sonatorrek, the poet describes his son as a warrior by using a phrase that literally means “shield-tree”, and his own wife by a phrase that translates as “kin-timber”. One of the by-names for Odin is svinnr sigrunnr, “wise victory-tree”. Snorri himself notes that “poets have called man ‘ash’ or ‘maple’, ‘grove’ or other masculine tree-names” – and that the same applies to kennings for women. These comparisons would have been as transparent to our ancestors as any modern reference to young women as “chicks”.)
Western science has long since accepted our ancestral understanding that we humans have evolved from vastly more primitive predecessors. But to understand how far we have evolved since the first modern humans with whom we could physically interbreed we need to look at another Old Norse poem, Rígsþula.
According to Rígsþula, a god who goes by the name of Rígr visits three human-like couples and impregnates in turn each of the three females. His children are, respectively, thralls, farmers, and aristocrats. The thralls are unattractive, swarthy-skinned, dark-haired, dull-eyed. The farmers are ruddy faced with sparkling eyes. The aristocrats are fair-haired and attractive – in appearance and accomplishment everything that you might expect of the descendants of a god.
Some scholars, basically following Georges Dumézil, have insisted that this myth is intended to account for the tripartite class system that existed in most early Indo-European societies. To some extent their views have merit. But myths can function on many different levels, just as poetic or artistic imagery can, and to restrict the meaning of Rígsþula to some sort of apologia for social class is plainly silly. A much more striking way in which Rígsþula functions is as a poetic account of human evolution.
We have seen how the gods elevated the primitive Askr and Embla to something approaching human status. Snorri tells us that this happened by the sea-shore. Rígsþula starts in the same fashion, with Rígr travelling along the sea-shore until he comes to a “house”. The descendants of Askr and Embla have clearly progressed somewhat by this time. At least they can construct shelters for themselves. But the fire is set directly on the floor, suggesting that the floor was little more than rammed earth, and all they can offer their divine visitor is the most coarse and simple food. Given the ugliness of the child who was later born to the woman and to Rígr, the mother must have been downright hideous – just like some of the species that preceded Homo sapiens. Still, that child’s own children (with names such as Howler, Stumpy, Swarthy and Stinker) were able to put dung on fields, herd goats and pigs, and grub for peat. A step up.
Some time later Rígr again intervenes in human evolution. The emblematic couple that he visits this time are well-dressed, the man whittling some wood and the woman spinning yarn. Rígr again impregnates the female, and the boy that is born is a pretty baby with sparkling eyes. He becomes a proper farmer, plowing the land, erecting tall buildings, taming oxen, crafting carts. His children in turn have names like Man, Yeoman, Master, Franklin … and Woman, Wife, Maiden and Lady. By this stage the species is truly human, yet Ríg’s tasks are still not complete.
He visits a third couple, known as Father and Mother. They are a loving couple, and well-off, with silver platters, fine clothes, and delightful food. Significantly, Rígr sits drinking and chatting with them all day long. The son that is born of this union is the beautiful blond boy “Jarl”, who becomes a horseman, a hunter and a warrior. Rígr returns to visit him, teaches him runes, and acknowledges him as his own son and heir.
Now if Rígsþula were primarily intended to justify class divisions, it obviously does a very poor job of it. All the children are Rígr’s own, and if they are meant to be representative of different classes or castes coexisting at the same time each one of them could claim divine origin. As an exercise in politics the poem would therefore be inept.
On the other hand, as a poetic and religious account of evolution Rígsþula, especially taken as a sort of sequel to the gifts of the gods to humanity in Völuspá, makes perfect sense.
Askr and Embla can be viewed as a very early form of human ancestor, perhaps somewhat like the sloping-browed Australopithecus with his brain volume of about 500 cubic centimeters (by way of comparison the brain volume of modern humans is about 1400 cc).
Their descendants progressed culturally as far as they could, but were still living at a very primitive level, and by modern standards they were hideous to behold. They needed a physical evolutionary boost, and Rígr provided it.
This next stage in the human species as depicted in the poem represents a level of development somewhere between that of the Acheulian Period, about three hundred thousand years ago, and early historical times.
The third visit by Rígr ushers in a thoroughly modern type of person, participating in aristocratic sports of the Viking period – like swimming for pleasure, and playing “tables”.
Unfortunately, Rígsþula is incomplete. The ending is missing. If we had the lost lines today they would perhaps shed more light on the moral and spiritual aspects of the poem – such as the symbolism of the doors of the three dwellings, the first of which is shut, the second half-shut and the third open. We can speculate on these and other issues, but the purpose so far is to show that our heathen ancestors had at least a general and workable concept of human evolution.
Of course, this ancestral account differs in some ways from modern neo-Darwinism. In particular, it posits the existence of a god who “breeds up” our ancestors with his own divine genes, just as modern farmers and stock-breeders have improved their sheep and cattle by crossing them with superior animals. But Rígr is definitely not a creator in the way that Christians claim Yahweh to be. He is more like those Nobel Prize-winners who have donated their semen to sperm banks in order, they hope, that the next generation of humanity will be more intelligent than it would be without their generosity.
It could be argued that Rígsþula is therefore not fully consistent with Darwinism. Yet the poem is only claiming for Rígr a supervisory role in the direction that evolution has taken in one single species – humans. And as one of the most prominent neo-Darwinians of our era has written: “If there are versions of the evolutionary theory that deny slow gradualism, and deny the central role of natural selection [through random mutation], they may be true in particular cases”. (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books, 1988). Rígsþula requires only one such “particular case” – divine intervention in the evolution of the Nordic branch of the White race.
What is truly marvelous about our ancestral concept of evolution is that it existed at all. As far as we are aware there was no understanding at that time of the fossil record. So how might our ancestors have known that humanity had undergone a very lengthy period of physical development before it could reach its then-present level of culture? There seem to be only three possibilities: perhaps they made a series of incredibly lucky guesses; perhaps they were informed by the gods; or perhaps they were heirs to an earlier and extremely technological and scientific culture.
The implications of each of these possibilities are awe-inspiring. If our ancestors arrived at something extremely similar to the views of Darwin and Russell by brilliant guesswork, we would do well to trust their other “guesses” – such as the existence of the gods and goddesses and the “nine worlds” (dimensions?). On the other hand, if the gods revealed the truth to our ancestors in this particular matter, then we would do well to accept that their other beliefs may have been divinely inspired. Yet again, if our ancestors were heirs to a scientifically superior culture, it should be possible to see whether they knew other ideas that “should” not have been available to them in those times.
One way or another, it seems that Rígsþula ought to be taken seriously. And that leads to the vital question of what Rígr’s purpose may have been. Why would he, and earlier the other three gods, have intervened to give our somewhat sorry species such a series of massive boosts?
Ultimately, we cannot answer that question. All that we can observe is that the consistent purpose of the gods has been to improve us as a species. Furthermore, we have now reached the point where we can take our destiny into our own hands. We have enough understanding of genetics to transform ourselves within a few generations to the extent that our descendants may look back on us the way we ourselves look back on Australopithecus.
Whether we choose the upward evolutionary path depends on the moral values we hold dear, and these in turn depend on our religious or spiritual outlook. What is certain is that we humans cannot stand still as a species. Far more people like Howler, Stumpy, Swarthy and Stinker are being born today than people like Jarl. We can go forward, or we can continue to regress. Those are our only choices.
The implications for Odinism and politics are awe-inspiring. Can we examine them, in Professor Oliver’s words, “without vertigo”? Let’s try.
The gods and goddesses of our people are engaged in an epoch-long struggle against the forces of chaos. For some reason known only to them, they chose one unprepossessing species among many, a “feeble”, “weak” and “fateless” species, and raised them to a proto-human level somewhat like Australopithecus. The same “powerful and loving” deities clearly had a policy concerning us, and as a result Rígr intervened repeatedly in our evolution – until these repeated infusions of divine matter raised us to the highest level that the Viking age could imagine. If the ending of Rígsþula had survived, we might know where this process was supposed to head. We don’t have that ending, but we do have another surviving poem, Völuspá, which Icelandic speakers say is the greatest aesthetic creation of the Viking age.
In a sense, Völuspá takes over where Rígsþula was truncated. It tells of the final battle between the gods (and their human allies) and the forces of chaos, at the end of the present dispensation. Many of the gods will die in the process of defeating chaos, and nearly all humans will also perish. Yet although the victory of the gods is costly, it is total. The children of the major gods of the previous era survive. The most gracious of all the gods, Balder, is at last restored to the earth. The earth itself is reborn and pure; new life is restored to it; what may be called evil is abolished.
Völuspá again does not survive in its original form. Various attempts have been made to restore it to its correct stanza-order. Perhaps some parts may be missing. The aspect of the final battle that most concerns us here is the fate of humanity.
Another poem, Vafðruðnismál, completes the picture. Two human beings take shelter in a forest. Their names are Líf and Lífþrasir. (They mean something like “Life” and “Abounding with life”.) These two, and these two alone, survive to repopulate the earth with our species.
But are the children of Líf and Lífþrasir entirely our kind? Throughout the history of the gods’ interaction with humans they have been intervening directly to raise our evolutionary standard. Once chaos has been defeated, in the triumphant final battle, is it logical to assume that the gods and goddesses presiding over a vastly improved earth would be satisfied with the level we have reached so far? The poetry suggests not. There is a direct and presumably deliberate parallel between Askr and Embla, our proto-human ancestors, and Líf and Lífþrasir. Furthermore, there are the other named couples along the way, each of which has been helped up by an infusion of divine matter. So why should Líf and Lífþrasir be any different? The whole world is to be renewed in transcendent beauty, the surviving gods will be young and fresh, and it seems unlikely that they would be satisfied with people like us who are, in Nietzsche’s terms, “Human, all too human”. In short, it seems to be the will of the gods that humanity will be surpassed by a higher species, based on the best that already exists – as happened every time Rígr improved our species in the past.
This, in effect, was also what the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was predicting when he told the White House in 1997 that the new millennium would see the development of superhumans. While our ancestral religious myths make this prophecy in symbolic terms, Hawking was speaking as a rational scientist with a deep understanding of modern technological power. Although not an Odinist himself, he was echoing Odinist concepts.
Predictably, his address raised howls of outrage. His notion of superhumans was savaged by critics from a Christian ethical heritage, who reject the idea of further evolution just as firmly and blindly as the American judge who thought Darwinism was a “monkey mythology”. Their fear led many of them to trivialize Hawking’s vision, to reduce it to the idea that we would – for unspecified reasons – choose to create people who could run faster, jump higher, or whatever.
The truth is, of course, that we are already influencing future human evolution, and not always in positive ways. Our social and political structures encourage the less intelligent to breed, for instance, thus lowering the average of human intelligence. On the positive side, the prevalence of certain diseases is already lessening as a result of pre-natal screening.
But Hawking was referring to far more than this. He believes that we are on the verge of being able to re-engineer ourselves as a species.
This will come about as a result of the human genome project, which by 2003 had mapped all of the 3 billion or so bits of information that make up human DNA. According to the driving force behind this project, Nobel Laureate James Watson, “It is the most important scientific project ever attempted … [It will identify] those normal genes whose mutant forms are the cause of the countless genetic diseases that diminish the lives of so many human beings and their families.” In short, future gene therapy will be able to manipulate a gene that has gone wrong – as in cancer, for instance.
Hawking himself suffers from a degenerative illness called Lou Gehrig’s disease. He can only move his eyes, mouth, and right thumb. Yet, “Hawking is marvelous,” said one of his audience in the White House, geneticist Craig Venter, adding “I wish the project could help him now.” Any of us with a loved one who is suffering from a terrible genetic illness would agree with Venter. The sooner the technology is available, the better – although many fundamentalist Christians would disagree, vehemently, with this statement. To take our destiny into our own hands, they would say, is to “play God”. Therefore there were critics. One such was Dr Christopher Newell, an ethicist at the University of Tasmania and an Anglican priest. Newell asked: “In the brave new world that Hawking suggests is inevitable, will there be a place for people with disability to make the contribution that he has?” To which the obvious answer is that if we’ had the technology sooner, Hawking may have been spared his disability.
Newell also said that the “notion of superhumans will be inherently racist”. It is hard to see why this should necessarily be so. Of course it will be pioneered in wealthy Western societies, but there is no inherent reason why it should not spread. After all, penicillin was pioneered in the West, but it didn’t stay confined to the rich nations.
Another Newell argument was that, “It seems likely that despite the promise of genetics, future superhumans would still need to deal with the basic human struggle of frailty, disability and death.” Here Newell was putting on his religious hat, albeit unconvincingly. It is doubtful that, with hindsight, he would have banned the development of penicillin just because it didn’t improve human morals. In fact, a world with far less misery and illness is likely to be far more productive and therefore far less competitive. Perhaps that would assist our moral development. At any rate, human beings would, by definition, live longer. It is possible that greater age will lead to greater wisdom. Should that happen, a wiser world would, logically, be a better one.
The shallowness of the arguments used by people like Christopher Newell indicates that their true motivation is fear. But what are they afraid of? Obviously they aren’t worried that the Christian god will punish us for daring to improve on the human model that was supposedly made “in his own image”. Yet it seems that they feel that taking charge of our evolution is somehow “just not right”, and are desperately casting around for pseudo-logical excuses.
Is there really anything to fear about the human future sketched by Hawking? Yes, of course there is. The most obvious problem is the risk of unintended consequences. As soon as the technology becomes available it will be used. That is the way things happen. And despite any regulations that may be placed upon it, those who are both extremely rich and desperate will find ways around those regulations. Once again, that is the way things are. If they rush into using the technology before its effects are fully known, they may hurt themselves and perhaps their future offspring. They will not, however, do much harm to humanity as a whole. We will not rush headlong into becoming a race of clones, for the simple reason that we already know how a major loss of genetic diversity can damage the future health of any species.
A far greater cause for concern would be the consequences of attempting to prohibit the new technology. This would not prevent illicit use. Prohibition never does. And while the use of a technology as significant as this by occasional illicit “rogue scientists” would probably not be devastating, it would have the potential to cause terrible fear and hostility in the community at large.
One thing, though, is certain. If the Odinist view of evolution had prevailed, this debate would have occurred centuries ago. By now we would know of any unintended consequences. Meanwhile the technology is all but on our doorstep already – begging the question, “how are we going to use it?”