Animate Motion & Religion

While working on the Göbekli Tepe Series, a reader suggested some possible intersections with the work of Julian Jaynes. At her suggestion I’m reading The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) and some of Jaynes’ other writings, including his 1970 essay on “The Problem of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century.”

Jaynes begins the essay by reminding us that motion, our understanding of which today is taken for granted, formerly was a problem:

Motion is now so much the domain of physics that it is difficult for us to appreciate that this was not always so. Before the seventeenth century, motion was a far more awesome mystery. Shared by all objects, stars, ships, animals, and men, and since Copernicus, the very earth itself, it seemed to hide the answer to everything. The Aristotelian writings had made motion or activity the distinctive property of living things, an idea that occurs naturally to children and primitive peoples of all centuries.

Motion, in other words, was conceived as animation. Everything that moved did so through the agency of unseen forces or spirits.

Early theorists of religion, such as Edward Tylor, called this understanding “animism” and asserted it was the earliest or original form of religion. Modern theorists of religion, such as Scott Atran, call this understanding “folk physics” and argue that religion arises from the over attribution and imputation of agency.

Although Jaynes wasn’t thinking in these terms, this early essay on motion presages his later interest in religion. Motion and religion may not seem to be related, but they are and have been perhaps since the beginning. Jaynes seems to have understood this.

While recounting the intellectual history of motion, Jaynes comments on Fabricus ab Aquapendente (1537-1619), an Italian Renaissance thinker and rival of Galileo. In 1618, Fabricus published a book containing this remarkable statement:

In truth, nature fulfills her aim by so bestowing behavioral movements and functions among animals that they preserve themselves through them; this consists in a preservation of the ablest in obtaining food, in continuing the species, and in avoiding injury.

It looks like Fabricus was thinking along evolutionary lines several hundred years before Darwin.


Jaynes, Julian (1970). The Problem of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century Journal of the History of Ideas, 31 (2), 219-234 DOI: 10.2307/2708546

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9 thoughts on “Animate Motion & Religion

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    What a wondrous web we weave when first we endeavor to perceive. Nice graphics too.
    I take the challenge of motion as a strong argument for free will. To move effectively through this world of peril, every brain must make thousands of independent and time varying decisions. Else would make both predator and prey too predictable to compete effectively. What we take as ‘free will’ is the evolutionary extension of the independent decisions required for effective locomotion.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post.

  2. Cris Post author

    You are welcome. I am intrigued by the way you connect free will to evolutionary problems of locomotion. I’ve never doubted we have some capacity for free will, or that free will is possible, so I’ve never cogitated the issue. I have a really cool article on the evolution of consciousness and its relationship to locomotion challenges that would interest you. Email me and I’ll send it.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Sorry, I cannot locate your contact info, but would like to see the article. The connection came to me working navigation solutions with Kalman filters while arguing free will with a determined deterninist.

  4. tony in san diego

    That Julian Jaynes book changed my life. I ended up writing my senior essay in college on the Iliad in terms of Jaynes’ analysis.

  5. John S. Wilkins

    Honestly, the recognition that things are well adapted is hardly evidence of evolutionary thinking (adaptation can mean stasis), and such comments go back to the Greeks, in particular in Aristotle. This is an instance of the common trend to find precursors where none are needed, especially with respect to evolution.

  6. Cris Post author

    Perhaps though I think various aspects of evolutionary theory have much deeper roots than Darwin and his immediate predecessors. Lucretius, for instance, clearly was thinking with proto-evolutionary concepts. Evolution may have been “in the air” during Darwin’s time, but it seems to have been “in the air” earlier also. Also, the sense I get from this is a focus on greater ability or competition in the food quest, not a William Paley-like joy in a static adaptation.

  7. Cris Post author

    I will admit to being highly skeptical of Jaynes’ claims at this point; as an evolutionary neurobiological matter, I can’t see how this could possibly have been the case. His sample of one from Greek literature is provocative but probably not generalizable. I do love his panache and willingness to think big things.

  8. J. A. Le Fevre

    If not from his own inner voices, I would suggest that Jaynes’ thesis flows from a profound misunderstanding of oral tradition. These fantastic and supernatural stories were not handed down because they represented contemporary thinking, but rather because those are the sorts of stories that can be remembered and were entertaining or provocative enough to be continually repeated. There is a circle, of course, created here: by repetition, the stories gain credibility. This, however, appears to be orchestrated by the communities’ leaders, not a phenomenon of random ‘voices’.

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