Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia cover art by Mark Harrison

Ecotopia is a utopian novel that’s not as bad as its reputation but not good either.

I’ve read lots of bad reviews of Ecotopia and had several reports from other readers that it’s really awful. As an avid reader of utopian stories, I had to find out for myself. It’s true that Ecotopia is not that good as either a novel or a utopian idea. To be fair, nearly all utopian novels fail to hold up as novels, with the possible exceptions of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. All of them have the same plot: a character known as the reader’s surrogate winds up in Utopia and wanders around asking “how does this work?” and “how does that work?” Various utopian citizens explain the workings of their society. Eventually the character returns home to deliver the message of how to improve the world. Or, in those novels that want to have an exciting twist ending, the main character may decide to abandon their home and stay in Utopia.

In this story, the reader’s surrogate is Will Weston, a reporter who is the first American allowed to visit Ecotopia, a Utopian nation formed by the secession of Oregon, Washington, and the Northern part of California. The current year is 1999 and the secession happened in 1980. In the intervening 20 years, Ecotopia has turned itself into a 1970’s hippy commune dweller’s idea of Utopia. The main differences I noticed between Ecotopia and other fictional utopias are the amount and variety of sexual activity described and a weird emphasis on the need for random emotional outbursts. Apparently 1970s people thought Americans suffered from a case of pent-up emotions. Ecotopian characters frequently burst into tears or become enraged about seemingly random things, get into fights, and make love with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Spock’s planet, Vulcan, where logic and reason lead to peaceful coexistence.

What holds up well for a 1970s novel:

  • pervasive use of battery powered electric vehicles
  • solar, wind, and geothermal power on a distributed grid system
  • houses and vehicles are individually customized from mass-produced interlocking modules
  • manufactured materials must be either naturally or artificially biodegradable
  • print-on-demand books/newspapers available from vending machines
  • city support systems are stable-state, no build-up of pollutants
  • stable-state agricultural system that balances food production with environment
  • clean air, clean water, natural environment (obvious from the novel’s name!)
  • direct political participation via a nationwide, interactive computer network
  • citizens allowed as much personal and economic freedom as possible
  • universal basic income for all citizens

What doesn’t hold up well

  • emotional outbursts, often leading to violence
  • armed, lethal combat sports (to channel violent tendencies of young males)
  • frequent, unprotected, casual sex with strangers
  • segregated racial “mini-nations” for African-Americans and Asians
  • healthcare system involves lots of sex between patients and providers
  • favorite clothing materials are natural leather and furs – this seems very anachronistic to a modern reader as we’d likely assume California ecological proponents to also be PETA members but back in the 1970s their outlook was more of a Native-American inspired ecological ideal, so the efficient use of animal resources made sense in context.

Young men who take part in the armed combat events shout “It is a good day to die!” when going into battle. This is another Native American inspired element of the book that will likely be lost on modern readers, who are more likely to associate the phrase with Worf, the Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the end, Ecotopia fails at the most important aspect of a Utopian novel: it doesn’t leave the reader with the feeling that they’d like to visit or even live in the world described. Final verdict: if you’re looking for entertaining novel, you’d be best to avoid the entire genre of Utopian books, that’s not their purpose. If you’re a fan of Utopian novels, this one is readable, moderately entertaining, but unconvincing.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed


This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.

Trekonomics by Manu Saadia

Star Trek TOS Replicator (AKA food synthesizer)

I’m always interested in the future of economics and, in particular, ways of adapting our world to deal with post scarcity economics. Nearly any book or paper on post scarcity economics, at one point or another, has to reference the most detailed known fictional example: Star Trek. So, when Manu Saadia’s new book, “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” was published, it went on my reading list immediately.

If you’re not familiar with post scarcity economics, it’s basically the future we’re headed towards, whether we like it or not. Industrialization, mass-production, 3D printing, nano-technology, automation, robots; all these things continually drive down the cost and scarcity of many goods and services. This is interesting because for the past few hundred years, all our economic models have been based around solving the so-called “economic problem” – that is, finding ways to allocate scarce resources to meet human needs and desires. The two favorite solutions to the economic problem, capitalism and communism/socialism, have developed religious-like ideological followings.

Pure capitalism relies on the collective action of everyone’s individual greed to allocate resources. Communism and socialism rely on central planning to allocate resources (the difference is that Communism is the result of a revolution from capitalism, while socialism is an evolution of capitalism). In the real world neither method has ever worked well in its pure form, though capitalism comes the closest. Attempts to rely solely on central planning have always failed unless some elements of individual freedom of action are incorporated. Likewise, attempts to rely solely on capitalism fail unless certain elements of central planning are incorporated (e.g. minimum wages, banking regulations, etc). But, however you mix the two, the goal is always to solve the economic problem of resource allocation. What would happen if that problem went away?

In the Star Trek universe the problem of resource allocation largely doesn’t exist. For the most part, anyone can obtain anything they want, any time they want, at no cost beyond the energy required to replicate it. Obviously the real world isn’t there yet but we’re headed that way. In economics, an externality is something that doesn’t come into play when calculating supply and demand – the cost of goods and services. For example, GPS is thought to be the first man-made service to be an economic externality. It exists all over the Earth and anyone can use it at no cost. No one has to worry about how to allocate GPS service as a resource because there is never a shortage of it and the very idea of supply vs demand is meaningless with regard to it. When many goods and services become as ubiquitous as GPS, what happens?

Obviously, the two primary systems we’ve relied on in the past, capitalism and communism/socialism, would also become meaningless at that point. Supply would tend toward infinity while cost, labor, and employment tend towards zero. Some kind of new economic system is needed to cope with a world like that, but what? Answering that question is what post scarcity economics is all about.

Economists are just beginning to speculate on this sort of thing but science fiction writers have pondered it for decades. Star Trek’s Federation of Planets is the most detailed and well-known example of a fictional post scarcity economy. There is no money. No one is paid to work. Goods have effectively zero cost because they can be replicated at will by anyone. This sounds crazy at first to many people. Why would people work if they’re not paid? How could anything get done with no money? Trying to understand how such an economic system could function is what economists are after. Studying Star Trek’s model has proven to be a good starting point.

Star Trek TNG Replicator

Many people mistakenly think Star Trek portrays a communist or socialist government. But there are many clear examples showing that this is not the case. There is no prohibition against private property. For example, the Picard family owns and operates a vinyard that produces fine wines. Anyone is as free to start any sort of business enterprise as they are under a modern capitalist system. For example, Joseph Sisko operates a restaurant in New Orleans. There is no prohibition against anyone having or using currency if they want to, it’s just unnecessary within the Federation itself. When dealing with alien races outside the Federation, for example, various types of currency have been used.

But who runs the Federation economy? Star Fleet itself relies on central planning in the same way any large organization does but the Federation of Planets appears to do very little Federation-wide economic planning as there is simply no need for it. However, there are a few things that can’t be replicated even in the Star Trek universe, such as dilithium crystals or certain medical compounds. There are upper limits on production such as the number of starships that can be built per year. So the government does have a few things to keep it busy. But, otherwise, little central planning or control seems to be needed.

This brings us to Trekonomics. Unfortunately, you aren’t likely to learn as much as you might wish from this book. Despite the promising title, it’s mostly written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really “get” the show, or at least is only interested in one particular incarnation known as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The author goes to some lengths in the final chapters to point out that he really thinks Star Trek and all science fiction is ultimately a waste of time. The author believes space travel itself is pointless, and that even leaving the Earth to visit Mars is misguided. He’s really only interested in the economic principles. Sadly, he never really gets around to talking much about the economics.

The majority of the book is a collection of personal anecdotes and lengthy retellings and paraphrasings of various Star Trek episodes that had an impact on his economic thoughts. Other than an introduction in which he describes post scarcity in general and a description of how Star Trek’s replicator effectively reduces the cost of goods to zero, there’s very little useful information. At the end of the book, you’ll know his favorite Star Trek characters, his favorite episodes, what he thinks of Elon Musk, where he got his first Isaac Asimov book, and a dozen other bits of useless trivia. But you won’t know much more about the actual economics of Star Trek than when you started.

However, I didn’t write all this just to tell you the book sucked. Rather, I’d like to point you to an alternative to the book. Rick Webb has written a good sized document titled, “The Economics of Star Trek” that does an excellent job of looking at all the economic clues we can discover from Star Trek. He even speculates a bit on how such things could actually work in a realistic economic system, something Saadia doesn’t even attempt in Trekonomics.

And one last tidbit. You may want to check out one of the earliest predictions that the world is headed towards a post scarcity system. In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a paper called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“. Saadia mentions the paper in Trekonomics but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Keynes notes in his paper that while scarcity has long been the fundamental assumption of economics, by 2030 we may be facing a world in which wealth and automation have rendered the economic problem solved. He predicts that capitalism will get us there but that it will be forced by technology to evolve into something else afterwards. He predicts that humans will have to adjust to a new lifestyle in which money is not important and the love of money will be viewed as a sickness. And finally he predicts that economics will become a mundane field as a result.

The one flaw in his vision is that he assumed capitalism would continue following the path of classic enlightenment liberalism, as it did in his time. If we allow economic inequality to grow rather than decline, his predictions will fail. It seems to me that capitalism has gone off the rails in that regard and is leading us toward disaster. We may still reach a utopian economic system like that of Star Trek but it may have to be by another route such as democratic socialism. Or, maybe it’s not too late to reform capitalism. It will be interesting to find out.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern than I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’ll probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in a moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells makes a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organize the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in its own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes


Jaynes’ book atop books by a few authors who were influenced by his theory.

Julian Jaynes’ book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of those books that just about everyone reads sooner or later. Jaynes is an example of the rare author who could write a scientific treatise that was both ground-breaking and readily readable by the general public. His book was published in 1976 and presented what has to be the most controversial theory ever in the fields of consciousness and religion. Despite the theory seeming completely outlandish at first glance, the book presents testable predictions all along the way. Many modern researchers believe Jaynes’ theory to be partially or completely wrong but there’s no question it has pushed research toward a better understanding of consciousness and religion. Daniel Dennett, who notes Jaynes was probably wrong at least about some particulars like the importance of hallucinations, still thinks his main thesis could be correct. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins commented that Jaynes theory is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former but I’m hedging my bets.” In addition to scientists, Jaynes’ theory also inspired two generations of science fiction authors from Philip K. Dick to Neal Stephenson (who based parts of Snow Crash on Jaynes’ theory). David Bowie acknowledges being influenced by this book during his work with Brian Eno on Low and has included the book on his list of 100 Must Read Books.

Julian Jaynes was an American psychologist interested in the origins of consciousness, which he defined roughly as what a modern cognitive scientist or philosopher would call meta-cognition – the awareness of our own thoughts or the ability to think about our own thoughts. In his early research, he specialized in animal ethology (the study of animal’s behavior, communications, and emotions). He began to focus on understanding how consciousness evolved in early humans and studied historical texts and anthropological evidence for clues. This led to his now famous theory that humans initially developed a bicameral mind and that modern consciousness was the result of a breakdown of the two parts.

Bicameral in this case is a metaphor, the word normally describes a type of government consisting of two independent houses. Jaynes came to believe that, as recently as 10,000 years ago, the human brain lacked both consciousness and the strong lateral connection via the corpus callosum that it has today. The two halves of the brain operated more independently but were able to communicate via verbal hallucinations. Humans at this time would have already evolved basic linguistic capabilities, but without the complex metaphors and self-referential aspects of modern language. People behaved in what we would describe today as a ‘zombie-like” way. They would have lacked the ability to reflect on or guide their own thoughts. In times of extreme stress or facing novel situations, the right side of their brain would communicate advice or commands to the left via auditory hallucinations that the person experienced as “hearing a voice”.

As today, humans tended to build up models in their mind of people who are important in their social interactions, parents, tribal leaders, and the like. Jaynes believed the models existed in the part of the mind generating the hallucinations and that the voices often came to be perceived as originating from these people, even if they were not present; even if they were dead. Without the ability to introspect, people simply accepted the voices at face value and assumed they represented some kind of external reality. This predictably gave rise to the earliest religious beliefs: ancestor worship, divinity of kings, belief in an afterlife. It also served as an important social organizing structure that allowed early community groups to form.

This process worked well until about the 2000 BC, when civilizations were going through a periodic collapse. At this time, the growing population was leading to more frequent interactions between disparate groups of humans, resulting in a failure of the bicameral hallucination mechanism as a method of social coordination. If everyone in your group hears the same voices in their head, things work fine. If three or four groups suddenly start living together and everyone is hearing different voices in their heads telling them conflicting things, civilization doesn’t function smoothly anymore.

The result was a gradual breakdown in the bicameral structure of the brain due to the changed environment which gave a huge advantage to individuals whose brains had more direct communication between the two sides via the corpus callosum. This allowed metaphoric language and consciousness to co-evolve, gradually leading to humans who could think about their own thoughts and had the words to describe it. This would also be the origin of the idea of free will, at least in the modern sense. Prior to this time a person did what their brain directed but without any awareness or insight into the process. So, effectively, modern consciousness is a by-product of cultural and linguistic evolution.

The bicameral breakdown leads to the gradual decline of the right brain area that generated verbal hallucinations. Everyone remembered a time when people could hear the “gods” but only a few remain who can still hear their voices. Those people are sometimes elevated to the positions of priest, shamans, oracles or they are seen as insane, eventually classed as schizophrenics.

The whole thing sounds fantastically crazy at first, right? Jaynes says as much throughout the book. But, like any good scientist, he has worked out a series of testable predictions based on the theory in a variety of fields ranging from history to human physiology. Modern researchers have continued to test his theories and, so far, many of his predictions have been dead on. For example, he predicted the existence of an area in the right hemisphere of the brain capable of generating linguistic, auditory hallucinations that is now vestigial and usually dormant. We now know the right hemisphere contains a vestigial area that corresponds to the Broca/Wernicke area in the left brain. This is the part of the left hemisphere responsible for the production of language. He further predicted this vestigial area would be active in schizophrenics who hear auditory hallucinations. Today, with fMRI scanning and other modern techniques, this has been confirmed too. And the hallucinations these patients experience are often in the form of authority figures (parents, leaders, gods) admonishing or commanding them.

Jaynes did an extensive survey of early literature starting with the earliest known writings and progressing through later more well-known documents like Homer and the early writings of the Bible. He analyzes to what extent the authors or the subjects seem to be self-aware and notes a gradual progression through history of both self-awareness and evolution of language to describe self-awareness. The writers of the biblical Old Testament or the Odyssey, for example, show no evidence at all of being self aware, in contrast to authors of the New Testament or later Greek writings. This is complicated by works that have been re-written and changed by later authors, like some books of the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh. In these cases, he tries to tease apart what’s original and what was added later.

He suggests that traces of bicameralism might still be found not just in schizophrenia but in many aspects of modern religion (e.g. those occasional people who still hear voices or experience “possession”) or even in the common childhood experience of having invisible friends (some children experience actual auditory hallucinations of their imaginary friends speaking to them).

Some modern researchers discount the need for the physical changes in the corpus callosum and believe the linguistic evolution of metaphor alone may be enough to bear out the changes Jaynes’ theory describes. There is now a huge body of literature surrounding the Bicameral Mind theory; lengthy articles defending or attacking aspects of it. There are also now several variant theories. Lain McGilchrist has proposed not a breakdown in a bicameral mind but a separation and reversal in the two hemispheres of the brain. Michael Gazzaniga, a pyschobiologist has done extensive experimental work in the area of hemisphere specialization and has proposed a theory similar to Jaynes’.

Jaynes is an engaging and interesting author and, whether his theory eventually proves to be crazy or profound, you’ll find the book a great read. If you have any interest in philosophy, religion, consciousness, cognition, evolution, anthropology, literature, history, or any of a dozen other topics, you’ll love the book. It makes you think about things you would never have imagined otherwise.