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Open letter to science editors
HORUS VOL II. Issue 1
Collective Behaviorism and Ancient Astronomy
In "Psychology and Ancient Astronomical Discovery" (KRONOS II:4) it was shown that some form of astronomical lore seems always to have accompanied human
development. In historical peoples, there is no question of the emphasis given to astronomy. Time-reckoning and the control of agriculture, religious beliefs, governmental
(theocratic) authority, monumental architecture - the entire fabric of civilized life reflects the central emphasis placed by the ancients on the sky.
Pre-historic symbolic art shows prototypes for deities that, among historical peoples, are identified as referring to some celestial body. Astronomical gods have been honored
by cultures from the beginning of history and, in the mythology of some peoples, survive today. Because of this long-term conservation of astral deities by historical cultures
the assumption of continuity in meaning from prehistoric, times seems reasonable. Evidence of significant food surpluses from domesticated crops and animal husbandry
further suggest the likelihood of a long pre-history of cultural tore regarding the relation between astronomical and seasonal cycles.
It also was observed that the basis for this global cultural phenomenon lies at far more fundamental (biologically rooted) levels than is proposed by the traditional view that
ancient astronomy was a wholly intellectual achievement. It was shown that, from the perspectives of behavioral science, Nature is so arranged that not only human beings
but much of the animal kingdom as well would acquire certain astral/ seasonal/behavioral associations through conditioned learning alone. The complex, conscious,
intelligent achievements of ancient astronomers in relation to these conditioned associations is neither discounted nor diminished though, from the view of behavioral
science, the course of this adaptive behavior and discovery was pre-determined by the nature of the environment. Before these formal developments in the sequence of human
evolution, proto-human behavior must already have been conditioned to the patterned relationships between astronomical stimuli and the sequence of seasons.
Behavioral Science: Pavlovian (classical) conditioning
Since the discovery of reflex conditioning, behavioral science has evolved into an elaborate, empirically grounded technology that identifies the environment as the primary
determinant of behavior.
The conditioned reflex, whose discovery and early scientific exploration is most associated with Pavlov, has been the object of generations of experiments. Their basis is the
empirical principle that sensations which regularly precede and accompany others which directly trigger reflexes come to evoke [some component of] the reaction
themselves. The reflexive response itself also moves in time toward the signal as the stimulus sequence is repeated and soon occurs to the signal itself - in advance of the
original reflex causing stimulus. Some conditioned associations can form strongly in a single experience though most require some repetition to develop fully. There is
variation as well in the ease with which such connections dissociate when the stimulus sequence is broken, i.e., when the reflex-evoking stimulus ceases to follow the signal.
Research with animal life at all levels of complexity has demonstrated that this means of adaptation exists throughout the animal kingdom. In the laboratory, for purposes of
scientific observation and control, the complex occasions for conditioned learning that Nature provides were reduced to their simplest expression --stimulus-response. The
relationships between these variables have been studied intensively in a variety of physical and temporal configurations. These experiments have made clear the lawful
natural order of stimulus-response relationships that result in the formation of conditioned learning.
There are many natural situations that create in complex, vital form the simpler, controlled models of the research laboratory. As any organism lives through its daily
routines, a variety of environmental sensations directly trigger innate reflexes. An animal that is stung or nipped as it browses reflexively jerks away; characteristics of a
general autonomic reaction, e. g., the raising of hair on the neck and shoulders, may also become visible. Another bites into a fruit, reflexively salivates, and may react visibly
to the taste. In still another, the scent from a potential mate innately activates a state of arousal.
Because these reactions are often triggered within a recurrent pattern of sensations, - a buzzing sound frequently precedes the sting; the color or texture of a fruit may forecast
its taste; in many species, sexual receptivity is preceded by visible changes in appearance - daily instances of the scenario for reflex conditioning pervade all of Nature.
Reflexive behaviors from simple arousal of digestive processes to the complex physical and emotional reactions of "fight or flight" lawfully become associated with stimuli
that anticipate reflex- triggering sensations. Since these inborn "correct" reactions also transfer forward in the general pattern of sensation in which they were previously
triggered, animal behavior, in effect, is organized innately to profit from experience - to become anticipatory.
For example, a stalking predator may generate many signaling stimuli; a distinctive smell, the snapping of twigs, a pattern of color in the underbrush, and the like. Other
animals, not themselves the object of attack, add their own distinctive cues. Some flutter noisily to higher levels in the trees, dive for burrows, or take flight. Others become
silent and motionless, and still others set up distinctive calls of their own. In some prey, often a young inexperienced animal, such cues have not yet acquired significance
leaving it particularly vulnerable to the predator. If the prey reflexively breaks free from the terrifying, painful attack and escapes, future occurrences of a similar pattern of
cues will activate autonomic arousal before the predator strikes.
For coping with the mixture of variable and recurrent sensory patterns in Nature, this
involuntary mechanism for the association of reflexes with the appropriate
response is a far superior behavioral adaptation to that of the reflex alone. The lawful transfer of reflexive responses to signaling stimuli - i.e., conditioned learning -
transforms reaction into preaction as the critical evolutionary improvement.
The most important perspective is that, in Nature, the environment is the source of direction over these associations; both the signaling and the reflex-stimuli originate there.
Recurring cycles of stimulus patterns, both diurnal and seasonal, continuously adjust patterns of behavior throughout the biosphere and an elaborate network of conditioned
behaviors becomes molded accordingly in time. The formation of conditioned associations is governed as much by the temporal order of Nature as by the particular stimulus
Operant (instrumental) conditioning
There is another conditioning mechanism by which the environment directs more complex, apparently voluntary action. Here, behavior is studied in relation to environmental
stimuli which regularly follow particular acts in the stream of voluntary behaviors rather than which precede or evoke reflexive ones. In the laboratory, again involving
decades of experimentation, systematic variation of the timing, frequency, and quality of specific consequences for specific actions has uncovered the variables that direct
this type of conditioned teaming. Whatever the motives for the voluntary activity biological urges, curiosity, previously conditioned patterns, - the effect of environmental
rewards, neutrality, or punishments for particular acts continuously shapes and directs its pattern. As with (Pavlovian) reflex conditioning, the associations between voluntary
behaviors and their consequences form lawfully and directly - i.e., without any necessary reference to consciousness. Representatives of all types of animal life show this
form of conditioned learning as well.
Both types of conditioning operate to fine-tune the learned adaptations of each new generation to the characteristics of its immediate environment. A response learned in one
particular circumstance generalizes proportionately to similar circumstances. Through conditioning, an animal that survived his first brush with death at the hands of a small
leopard would be stimulated to fear by the sight of other leopards of different size and, to the degree they were similar, other members of the cat family. Thus, in some cases,
a single experience may serve to prepare an organism to respond appropriately to a wide range of similar future events.
When critical discriminations are involved probably not all cat-like creatures pose an actual threat to our animal - both Pavlovian and operant conditioning produce
progressive refinements in adaptive behavior with repeated experiences of the same general pattern. Successful responses become perceptually, physically, and temporally
more efficient with practice. Unnecessary or ineffective components of the response go unrewarded and drop away. Again, in neither case is it necessary that conscious,
rational, or insightful processes accompany the learned adaptations for them to occur.
Across the phylogenetic scale, the relative contribution of adaptive learning to survival (as opposed to instincts or purely reflexive acts) increases markedly in higher-order
mammals. In primates generally, and the human species in particular, survival is believed to rest primarily on the capacity for adaptive learning.
In Nature the complex voluntary activity of animals obviously is regulated most directly by environmental stimuli related to survival. Seasonal variation in the amount and
type of food available, the water supply, weather changes and other conditions, continuously and in a generally fixed cycle rearrange the environmental payoffs for particular
acts. At the same time the environment in general goes through changes of color, sounds, temperature, smells, and other cues that additionally mark the timing for particular
behaviors. Through conditioned learning, adaptive behaviors in the animal kingdom automatically are shifted to earlier cues, developing a parallel cycle which anticipates the
environmental changes to follow.
Behavior and the Sun-cycle
The principles by which the natural environment induces learned behavioral cycles have implications of direct importance for the student of archaeoastronomy. The fixed,
natural, immutable link between the changing positions of the Sun (and other celestial lights) and the yearly round of environmental changes to which all of life must adapt
had placed its stamp on evolving humankind long before the development of formal astral calendrics.
In the laboratory the point may be seen in an analogous but smaller scale. Imagine an experiment in which a light gradually moved back and forth in a continuous cycle along
one wall of a conditioning chamber and in which a food reward for pressing a lever was available only when the light was in a certain position. The natural outcome of such a
situation in organisms from simple mammals to primates - that acts of pressing the lever for food soon would cluster around those times when the light returned to that
position - has been well established experimentally. It also is known that the behavioral cycle would become associated with the light itself; if the food "pay-off' was
discontinued, responses would continue to cluster according to the position of the light for some time afterwards. The model can be made more complex, as in Nature, by
increasing the variety of environmental cues, behavioral options, and rewards, and linking these to other positions in the light cycle. However complex we make the model
the result will be the same: adaptive behavior becomes organized in a temporal pattern directly associated with particular points in the cycle of light.
The visible annual cycle of the Sun's movement and its direct relation to the cycle of seasons is a complex large-scale natural example of our laboratory model. The seasonal
cycle is punctuated by short-term changes in weather (e.g. periods of thunderstorms, directional winds) and flora and fauna (the blooming of flowers, turning of leaves,
hatching, ripening, etc.). These stimuli add their distinctive stamp to specific seasonal periods most consistently marked year after year by the Sun's position. Invariably, as
the seasons cycle, many adaptive behaviors automatically adjust through conditioned learning to the sequence of change.
[*!* Image: The laboratory model above reflects the patterning of behavior in time when reinforcement is cyclical. The test animal has learned to press a lever on the
chamber wall to obtain bits of food. It has also learned to discriminate that the action will pay off only when the light is in position #3, as highlighted in the diagram, and
generally disregards the lever at other times. Through conditioned association, this light position itself will continue to activate the behavior for some time after the food
reward has been terminated. In nature, the solar cycle becomes associated with seasonal patterns of reinforcement in the same way and, so collectively regulates the temporal
order of learned adaptive behaviors. LABELS: lever-press delivers bits of food only during times the light is positioned in position #3 of its cycle. Food reward cup. Light
Setting the reinforcement (pay-off) schedule to solar time
The annual cycle of sunlight itself is the most general physical cause of the seasons and it acts directly on the physical systems of many animals in shaping their annual
biological cycles. Evidence for direct behavioral control by sunlight stems from research on extra-retinal light reception and its relation to the entrainment of biological
clocks, i.e., diurnal and seasonal cycles of physiological changes. "The cellular architecture of the pineal resembles that of the retina and the pineal became known as the third
eye." In fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and some birds, the pineal body (located centrally in the brain) is sensitive to light which directly penetrates the tissue and bone of the
head. In these animals the pineal is able to sense changes in sunlight directly and in turn stimulate neural and endocrine activity leading to seasonally adaptive physical and
behavioral changes. Other areas of the brain also sensitive to light may play a role.
In mammals, however,
the retina is the only light-sensitive neural organ, but a direct neural connection exists between the eye and the pineal. The pathway - from the retina through the brain
down the spinal cord to the neck, then out through the vertebrae and back up along the carotid artery into the brain to the pineal - is one of the most constant neural
pathways in mammalian phylogeny...
[J. Ehrenkranz, Natural History, June 1983]
Although mammals are possibly exceptional in not utilizing brain photoreceptors to mediate entrainment they nevertheless are organized biologically to entrain physiological
cycles to Sun-time. Through the neural link between the eye and pineal body, both daily and annual physiological cycles which are otherwise free-running become
synchronized with environmental time by the cycle of sunlight. In the evolutionary shift to the visual sense for entrainment in mammals, it seems possible that, in many, their
biological clocks are set and regulated continuously only through conditioning to the visible Sun-cycle rather than by a direct, innate effect via the retina on activity in the
pineal body. In any case, so much of the lower-order animal kingdom (as well as plant life) directly entrains vital biological cycles to Sun-time that widespread mammalian
conditioning of other adaptive responses to the visible Sun-cycle is no less guaranteed.
From many alternatives, consider only adaptive feeding behaviors. The interaction of plant and lower-order animal life cycles determine the type and abundance of food
available to higher-order mammals around the seasons. Biological cycles directly entrained to the Sun-cycle - reproduction, metamorphosis, migrations, -orchestrate seasonal
variations at the base of food chain. Directly regulated by non-visual light reception, these cyclical "reinforce, merit" patterns determine, as in the laboratory model, that at
least some learned behaviors related to feeding will become conditioned to the annual movement of the visible Sun itself. Whether physiologically, through direct action on
extraretinal receptors, or behaviorally, by conditioned learning through the visual sense, the Sun-cycle itself clearly stands as the central and most reliable cue for feeding
cycles in the animal kingdom.
I personally believe that higher animate life is far more sentient than the terminology of experimental psychology implies. It is impossible presently to say how much a
higher-order animal "knows", in nonverbal sense, about its environment, how much it remembers from day to day, whether it consciously recognizes signs of seasonal
change, or whether it confirms such recognition by actively attending additional environmental details. Wild chimpanzees have been known to observe colorful sunsets
throughout their duration - sitting quietly and with fixed attention. We are left to wonder whether such behavior reflects attention to the mere perceptual novelty of sunset
patterns, whether some aesthetic quality has evoked an emotion, or whether, even, a more abstract intelligent curiosity about the daily change in sunset position motivates this
Whatever the case, the language of research in conditioned learning avoids inferences of internal, subjective states to remain as objective as possible not to deny their
existence. The point is that even if we adopt only the Behaviorists' empirical perspective, avoiding any inference conscious awareness, it is no less true that various stimulus
qualities of the annual Sun-cycle always would have become finely discriminated cues for seasonal behavioral adaptation; the Sun's position bears critically on the food chain
and most consistently marks the period of the greatest density of a given reinforcer. In technical language, it becomes the primary discriminated stimulus. To reemphasize,
behavioral mechanisms operate independently of the observer; neither Pavlovian nor operant conditioning is a phenomenon "created" by the laboratory experiment. The latter
serves only to identify and describe empirically lawful interactions between behavior and the environment which always have shaped and directed learned adaptations.
Conscious elaboration of conditioned patterns
When applied to Nature, the resulting conclusion - that the visible Sun is the final determinant of learned behavioral cycles - should focus the archeoastronomer's attention
sharply on the parallels between the stimulus qualities of the astronomical environment, their relation to the pattern of seasonal reinforcers, and the direct relation to the
paradigms of the learning laboratory. The natural world is a grandscale "conditioning chamber" in which the Sun's movement serves as the primary cue for a cyclical pattern
of reinforcers and the consequent organization of learned behavioral cycles in the animal world.
It is not being suggested that conditioned teaming produced the formal astronomy of ancient civilizations even though it already would have led to behavioral patterns
associated with astronomical stimuli. Formal astronomy obviously required, attention, perception, cognition, memory, measurement, calculation, and the like - functions we
summarily call human intelligence. The measurements and myths which encoded the knowledge and the civilizations which preserved and transmitted it required other
uniquely human capacities. Even so, regardless of its level of complexity, conscious development of astronomical lore and techniques of measurement was still governed by
the same natural principles of behavioral organization that applied in the pre-civilized and, for that matter, the prehuman state. Being accurate was rewarding - being wrong
It is generally acknowledged that the development of astronomical time-keeping enabled some of our ancestors to anticipate the regularities of seasonal change and to exploit
the natural environment more successfully than their less astronomically- minded neighbors. Marshack has argued strongly for astronomical measurement of time as far back
as the remote Stone-Age. archaeoastronomers have firmly established evidence for the central importance of astronomical time-keeping in historical civilizations.
Ethnoastronomers show how pervasively behavior associated with the development and application of astral lore is found at the hub of human social organization.
The power of astral priesthoods and similar offices (e.g. Amerindian Sun-Watcher) derived in part from their practice of measuring the regularities in the seasonal cycle and,
from the knowledge, organizing the social order to increase efficiency in food production and other vital activities. Measurement itself became endowed with qualities of the
sacred. Temples and monuments were designed and erected to create a distinct visual display to mark a solstice, equinox, or other significant day in the Sun-cycle. These
structures were often massive constructions and only with extreme care and accuracy of engineering would they regularly perform their intended astronomical function.
Scholars that study ancient inscriptions and symbols discover the historically central role of conscious behavior related to the visible universe and its objectively measured
relation to other natural cycles. No level of cultural development from the Stone Age to complex literate civilizations is unrepresented. Concepts vital to everyday life reflect
the astronomical focus. Land was divided and occupied according to earth/sky models. Birth, marriage, burial, rites of passage, and other ceremonies were laced with astral
symbolism. Names, both royal and common, were often astrotheophoric. Even today, many societies follow traditions rooted in beliefs and practices modeled directly from
living experience with the celestial environment. There is perhaps no greater common denominator of human culture.
The selective advantage for the group that watches and records the movements of astronomical phenomena, the archaeoastronomer's primary rationale for the global
development of such practices, is verified by history. So too, observed patterns of conscious activity associated with astronomical time are directly compatible with basic
conditioned-learning models we have reviewed from the science of behavior. The Hopi, for example, follow a horizon-Sun calendar; timing the annual sequence of essential
seasonal activities is achieved directly by observing the position of the horizon Sun.
In the great astronomical priesthoods of the past, highly specialized observers integrated additional astronomic cycles into elaborate calendars marking not only seasonal but
long-term astral cycles. The observational skills and techniques of the specialists, focused consciously on the task of measuring celestial cycles in planets and stars as well,
developed into an elaborate lore. These progressively refined skills and discoveries in celestial time-keeping led to greater productivity of basic needs and fed the growth of
empires. In some cultures, the task and accompanying skills were passed from father to son and in others through apprenticeship and formal training in astral priesthoods.
Whichever the case it is plain that confirmable accuracy of observation and precision of measurement of celestial cycles were as essential to the behavior of ancient
astronomers as to astronomers today.
For ancient astronomers, externally verifiable accuracy was obviously important to credibility with farmers, hunters, fishermen, and other husbanders whose productive
efforts were tied to the seasons, and certainly to the astronomer-priest teaching his skills to the next generation. Precision must have been equally important to those
specialists charged with proper design and alignment of the massive astral temples and monuments which visibly marked the occurrence of particular days of the annual (or
other astronomic) cycle.
Clearly the range of environmental controls over the ancient astronomer's behavior, from the purely natural seasonal contingencies of reinforcement to the complex social and
economic rewards for correct knowledge and practice of this skill, would have operated to shape progressively refined discriminations of the solar year and of the spatio-temporal order of the heavens generally. Equally obvious is that conscious recognition and use of the visible relationship between Sun and seasons would have been one of
the first - not one of the last - adaptations in the sequence of cultural evolution. The emergence of formal astral calendrics more reasonably may be seen as a specialized effort
to quantify precisely those cycles which already were generally recognized through direct experience with Nature.
Thus, the archaeoastronomer's rationale for the emergence and central importance of astronomical knowledge - its natural selective advantage for human groups - has
scientific bedrock in the Sun-centered temporal order of biological cycles generally, and specifically in the scientifically predictable behavioral effects of this fact on adaptive
learning in higher-order life. From the viewpoint of behavioral science, however, the growth of complex human cultures based on astronomical time is not just the outcome
of fortuitous intelligent discovery by some early groups. In learning-dependent humanity, it is the inevitable result of successful behavioral adaptation to seasonal patterns in
the environment. The emergence of specialists to measure and study astronomical cycles, the precise methods and calendric systems which resulted and even, to some degree,
the cosmological beliefs and social organization of early civilizations, can be understood as environmentally pre-determined.