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Symbols Made Us Human
A symbol is a pictorial device that evokes a concept in its entirety. It bypasses the intellect and talks straight to the heart. Our intellect analyzes, but our heart synthesizes. So a symbol evokes understanding without needing to convey verbal information.
Around 120,000 years ago, a new species of primate appeared in Africa. Its scientific name is Homo sapiens, but we know this creature as the modern human. When this species appeared on the earth, there were already other similar but more widespread species of humanoid apes, such as the Neanderthals. Yet the Homo sapiens were different. They were different because they could tap into the mystic power of understanding that is inherent in symbols. Symbols have helped humans develop a unique form of consciousness that no other animal has.
All the races of humans are much more closely related than most of us realize. You might be even more surprised to know how closely we are related our primate cousins, the African apes. Our genes are about 98 percent identical to those of an ape, and we share large chunks of our DNA sequence with all other life forms on the earth, even bacteria.
All humans are descended from a single female that lived in Africa less than 200,000 years ago. She is popularly called “Mitochondrial Eve.”2 As geneticist Bryan Sykes puts it: “‘Mitochondrial Eve’ … lies at the root of all the maternal ancestries of every one of the six billion people in the world. We are all her direct maternal descendants.”3 Our common maternal ancestor lived only a few thousand generations ago. And her earliest descendants drew the first symbols and tapped into their power.
In the following chapters, you will learn about the power of these symbols, the history of their interaction with humans, and how humans’ differential advantage came about because they evolved a type of brain that benefits from a direct relationship with the symbols. This symbiotic relationship began during our early evolutionary history and continues to influence our development in ways most of us are often unaware of.
There is, however, a secret group of specialists who have spent the last 500 years working with these symbols. They learned how symbols can advance the human condition by enabling us to share understanding. This group is the Freemasons, and their declared purpose is to study and understand symbols.
Ask any Freemason the question What is Freemasonry? and you will get this answer: a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. For 500 years, Freemasons have used a system of allegorical ritual and exposure to the mystic power of symbols to sensitize their members to the life-changing power these symbols have. Freemasons continue to experience the deep understanding that symbols can inspire and their power to change the way humans develop.
When humans were first exposed to symbols’ mystic power, they changed from brute animals into human beings in a way we still struggle to understand. James Shreeve, a well-known anthropologist, sums up the puzzle presented by this abrupt change:
“Human beings—modern humans, Homo sapiens—are behaviorally far, far away from being “just another animal.” The mystery is where, how, and why this change took place. … An “all-important transition” did occur, but it happened so close to the present moment that we are still reeling from it. … Something happened that turned a passably precocious animal into a human being.”
Anthropology records how and when this change happened but offers no explanation. It is my contention that humanity came into contact with a powerful force outside itself that has interacted with our collective mind ever since. This force is carried and communicated by symbols. In later chapters, we will discover that symbols are part of a great cosmic language that transmits deep understanding about the secrets of the universe.