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Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes's Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited (Book Review)

Julie Kane, Language and Communication Department, Northwestern State University

In 1972, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft rocketed into space carrying a plaque carved with symbols meant for the "eyes" of extraterrestrials. Those symbols included two naked human beings, one male and one female, and a sketch of the solar system they came from. Four years later, Julian Jaynes launched a bold new theory into the postwar scientific atmosphere — a theory that defamiliarized the human beings of a scant three thousand years ago, making them out to be as strange as space aliens. According to Jaynes, the oldest books of the Hebrew Old Testament depicted characters who could neither reason nor reflect on their experiences, but instead heard hallucinated voices that commanded their actions—voices they attributed to gods.

Scientists knew it would take tens of thousands of years for Pioneer 10 to approach a star that might support an alien life form. In the meantime, the craft hurtled on alone through the silent stretches of space. And, for a while, so did Jaynes's trailblazing theory. Though it earned a National Book Award nomination the year after its publication, few scholars stepped forward to endorse it. Marcel Kuijsten, in his Introduction to this edited collection, explains why: The politics of securing academic tenure and bureaucratic grants prevented researchers from risking their careers on an unproven theory. In an age of specialization, few scholars were familiar with more than one of the disciplines spanned by Jaynes: neuroscience, psychology, religious studies, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and poetry, to name just a few. And, of course, new ideas that shake up the status of human beings relative to their world have never gone down easily, from Galileo to Darwin to Jaynes.

Yet, over the past three decades, a dozen or so scholars have gambled their reputations on the possibility that Jaynes may be right. Gathered in this volume, their research provides hard data in support of Jaynes's claims. Like radio signals beamed back to Earth thousands of years in the future, such information holds the power to restore mystery and wonder to the world we thought we knew.