One day, 12,494 years ago, somewhere in the middle of Mesopotamia, a young woman named Maya (I don’t know if that was really her name, but I like it, and it does have an Ancient Near Eastern ring to it) was walking around her village feeling bored. She had plenty to do, taking care of three babies and a couple of toddlers, gathering wild grains and nuts, washing clothes and sweeping out the hut, talking to her sisters and aunts and neighbors, and so on. But all of that was just…. boring.
Her husband, like all the rest of the guys, was out on one of their interminable “hunting” trips. She had no idea why they had to spend weeks wandering around and then come home with a couple of deer and some rabbits that they could have caught in a day or so. Well, of course “having no idea” was sarcasm, she (and all the other women) knew exactly what they were doing. Oh yeah, they did do a little hunting, but a lot more drinking fermented fruit juice, and maybe some visits to those harlots in the next valley, and a lot of stupid, drunken singing and storytelling. Men.
Poor Maya was, although she didn’t realize it, one of the smartest human beings alive at the time (or ever for that matter) and she was just bored and frustrated. The only person she could really talk to was the Shaman, who was smarter than most, but he almost never knew the answers to her questions, other than to say “It’s magic.” She wanted to know why the lightning and the thunder arrived together, but the lightning always first. She wanted to know why dogs seemed so smart but couldn’t talk. What happened after you died? What was the moon, and why did it move? And so on. The Shaman would look at her, smile and shake his head. He was in charge of making the rain stop, getting people better when they fell sick, and telling everyone what their dreams meant. But he only knew what he knew, and all of that was magic.
On this day, feeling bored, Maya, holding one baby on her hip, and taking a toddler by the hand, wandered over to a flat patch of ground just outside the village, before the forest started, where a couple of weeks ago she had done something silly. Last year, having noticed that wild wheat grew from the ground, she had taken some wheat and buried it in the ground, just to see what would happen. She wondered if it would pop up again. It did. She told everyone, and the general reaction was disbelief or disinterest. But two weeks ago, she had done something a bit different. She had seen many times how the tiny hard seeds (they weren’t called seeds yet) of many plants, even trees, flew around the air and finally settled in the ground. So this time she had buried only the seeds of the wheat.
When she got to her patch (the very first garden or farm, ever), there were the shoots sprouting from the ground. Maya was no longer bored.
The council meeting (composed of all the men) agreed to hear Maya, and they all laughed at the folly of women. Nobody believed her trick, and as one wit put it, even if it were true, so what? But the Shaman and the Chief were lost in thought and didn’t laugh. The Chief asked her, “Can you eat the wheat that grew from those seeds?” “Yes,” she said, “I used it making bread.”
“Hmm” said the Chief, who would become the world’s first economist.
“But how is such magic possible?” asked the Shaman. “You are saying that you have made something from nothing. How can a whole plant come from a tiny little stone? It makes no sense.”
“How does a baby come from the seed of a man?” Maya countered (I told you she was a smart cookie). The people were not completely sure that this was true, but Maya was, because she had done a careful epidemiological study. Women only became pregnant if they had sex.
So, that was the start of the revolution in human life that led in a direct line to shopping malls, reality TV, the internet, and all the other manifestations of the fact that human beings have too much free time on their hands since food is so easy to come by.
So what is the answer to Maya’s question about seeds and plants and babies, and in fact all of her other questions? We know of three ways to answer all questions. Magic, religion, and science. Magic came first and is the most primitive and least useful. Magic is a chaotic system with few if any rules, and it presupposes a universe filled with capricious and unpredictable spirits, demons, demigods, and mysterious forces which make things happen that have no explanation. According to magic, the spirit dwelling in the seed comes forth to make a plant. This spirit could decide, however, to not show up, or just sleep through the season and allow a famine.
The twin children of magic are religion and science. No, religion is not the same thing as magic. Religion (like science) is based on overarching principles and the concept of an order in nature that cannot be violated by spirits, demons, or humans. The religious idea of agriculture is that God made plants and animals, and the creation of plants included the wondrous properties of their seeds to produce bounty for humanity.
Science also uses some all-encompassing ideas and techniques to find out all that is possible to learn about how things happen. Scientific investigation allows us to probe quite deeply into the mechanisms by which seeds produce plants, and the information we learn is so astounding that it leads to ever more questions.
Maya knew all of this already 12,494 years ago. She believed in a God who oversaw everything that happened. She also believed in the spirits of the woods, and the earth. And she believed that she could find truth by paying close attention to the world around her, and by trying things out to see what happened. With time, God and reason made the spirits unnecessary and inconvenient for humans to still believe in (although magic is far from dead in the world). Many people today believe that God and science are engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy, but the reality is that both are needed. But that’s a whole nother story.