But of the tree of the knowledge of good and euill, thou ſhalt not eate of it: for in the day that thou eateſt thereof, thou ſhalt ſurely die.
I'm going to suggest a hypothesis on the evolution of societies, natural languages, and memetic organisms. Relating human language and human thought to programming is a straightforward exercise left to the student.
Eric Havelock in his magnum opus Preface to Plato (fascinating stuff) describes two profoundly different stages in the evolution of human societies, which he calls oral society and literate society. Greek society, reckons Havelock, was transforming from oral to literate around the time of Plato; the epics of Homer are characteristic of oral culture. I suggest that there is a stage of societal evolution before that of oral poetry such as Homer's — and that just as Afghan culture is a surviving example of oral society, the Pirahã culture recently studied in the Amazon is a surviving example of... verbal society. (I can't bring myself to call it "pre-oral", since language is still spoken; but it does have words, and is missing oration, so "verbal" will do till something better comes along.)
Scientific organisms need a literate environment to survive; religious organisms don't need literacy, and were, I reckon, the giants that roamed the ideosphere in the age of orality. But in the age before Homer's, religions could not have survived either. If ever there were an actual event that fits beautifully with the myth of Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the transition from verbal to oral society would be it.Oral thought
In an oral society (in Havelock's vision — I've also read parts of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, which follows Havelock's paradigm), knowledge is preserved through an oral tradition. The form of the account matters; facts are mutated as convenient to put them in a form that will be successfully replicated over many retellings. Standard patterns are used. Repetition is used. A good story also always has an actor: things don't just happen, they are done, by somebody, which may favor a polytheistic society, with deities personifying what we (in a literate society) would call "abstract" forces. One might well end up with some such pattern as
(Note the repetition of each item, repetition of the pattern, and the actor.) For a more concrete example, here is the start of Thomas Hobbes's 1676 translation of Homer's Iliad:
And God said, let there be x. And there was x. And God saw the x, and saw that it was good. And the morning and the evening were the nth day.
And God said, let there be y. And there was y. And God saw the y, and saw that it was good. And the morning and the evening were the n+1st day.
O goddess sing what woe the discontentNotice that things here don't happen, somebody/something does them. The goddess sings. The discontent (of Thetis' son) brings, sends, leaves. The two princes strive. The things that are acted on are concrete as well; nothing is abstract in our literate sense.
Of Thetis’ son brought to the Greeks; what souls
Of heroes down to Erebus it sent,
Leaving their bodies unto dogs and fowls;
Whilst the two princes of the army strove,
King Agamemnon and Achilles stout.
Such oral tradition can be written down, and was written down, without disrupting the orality of the society. Literate society is what happens when the culture itself embraces writing as a means of preserving knowledge instead of an oral tradition. Once literacy is assimilated, set patterns are no longer needed, repetition is no longer needed, pervasive actors are no longer needed, and details become reliably stable in a way that simply doesn't happen in oral society — the keepers of an oral tradition are apt to believe they tell a story exactly the same way each time, but only because they and their telling change as one. When the actors go away, it becomes possible to conceive of abstract entities. Plato, with his descriptions of shadows on a cave wall, and Ideal Forms, and such, was (Havelock reckoned) trying to explain literate abstraction in a way that might be understood by someone with an oral worldview.
Note that science can't possibly survive in an oral environment. It relies on an objectively fixed record of phenomena, against which to judge theories; and it centrally studies abstract forces. Religion, on the other hand, is ideally suited to an oral environment. I suggest that religious organisms were the dominant taxon of memetic organisms in oral society, and the taxon of scientific organisms evolved once literate society made it possible. Leading to a classic Darwinian struggle for survival between the two taxa.Verbal thought
Those who study natural languages have a luxury not afforded to artlangers, those who create languages artistically: When a natural language crops up that violates the "natural" rules that linguists thought they understood, new rules can be invented to fit. But, if an artlanger creates a language that violates the rules linguists think they understand, their creation is likely to be ridiculed. This was the observation of David J. Peterson in an essay in 2007 (he gives a "Smiley award" to a conlang each year, and does so in essays containing some brilliant deep insights into conlanging).
What is it to a linguist if Pirahã exists? "That sounds totally fake," says the skeptic. Says the linguist, "Yeah, doesn't it?" But in a world where Pirahã doesn't exist, imagine the conlanger who created it. "I just made up a language with no temporal vocabulary or tense whatsoever, no number system, and a culture of people who have no oral history, no art, and no appreciation for storytelling. Oh, yeah, and the language can just as easily be whistled, hummed or drummed as spoken. Oh, and the men and women have different phonologies. Oh yeah, and it's spoken in an area with a dominant language, but nobody speaks it, because they think their language is the best. Oh yeah, and it's supposed to be a naturalistic language." Suddenly when someone counters and says, "That sounds totally fake," the conlanger is put on the defensive, because they do have to account for it—in other words, "Yeah, doesn't it?" isn't going to fly.Which is interesting for a conlanger, but fascinating in light of Havelock's notion of oral society. That list of features is pretty much explicitly saying the language doesn't and can't support an oral society: "no oral history, no art, and no appreciation for storytelling" (doesn't), "no temporal vocabulary or tense whatsoever, no number sytem" (can't). And for a verbal society to survive in a world where the main Darwinian memetic struggle is between literacy and orality, of course it would have to be an extraordinarily compelling instance of verbality — "nobody speaks" the dominant language of the area, "because they think their language is the best." The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge— David J. Peterson, The 2007 Smiley Award Winner: Teonaht
The Pirahã were studied by Daniel Everett, who originally approached them with an evangelical mission — the point of such efforts is to learn an isolated people's language, then translate the teachings of Christianity into that language. Of course this failed miserably with the Pirahã, with their compellingly verbal language and culture (J.R.R. Tolkien criticized the international auxilliary language Esperanto as sterile because it had no mythology behind it (one could argue Esperanto now does have a mythology of a sort (but I digress))). Within a few years after completing his dissertation, Everett became an atheist. (Everett's 2008 book on his experiences with the Pirahã is Don't Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.)
All of which goes to show that the myth of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge can be handily applied to the transition from verbal to oral society. However, as I pointed out in my earlier post on memetic organisms, religious teachings are naturally selected for their ambiguity, their ability to be given a wide variety of different interpretations. The plausibility of an interpretation of the myth is, therefore, pretty much meaningless — the myth is a contextual chamelion, expected to blend plausibly into different belief systems. But it is interesting to consider how the myth might have evolved. The early Judaic written tradition is evidently a written record of an originally oral tradition, and an oral tradition mutates events into a good story (i.e., a highly replicable one). If the verbality conjecture is somewhere in the general neighborhood of the truth, there may once have been a vast cultural upheaval as orality supplanted verbality, perhaps (or perhaps not) on a par with the modern struggle between scientific and religious thinking (a major theme of current geopolitics). Such an upheaval might be expected to make a lasting impression on the oral societies that emerged; the lasting impression would be a myth; and the myth would be shaped into the forms of orality, with concrete actors and objects. What sort of myth do you think might result?
[Update: I further discuss the timing of the verbal/oral transition in a 2015 post Sapience and language.]