16 December 2011

Dragons as an Evolutionarily Adaptive Construct

At Salon, Paul A. Trout summarizes the hypothesis of anthropologist David E. Jones’s An Instinct for Dragons:
Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.

According to Jones (what follows is a condensed summary of a complex argument), ancient primates evolved alarm calls to identify each of the three predators, with each call triggering the defensive response appropriate to the nature of the attack mode of the specific predator. Jones calls this predator-recognition template the “snake/raptor/cat complex.” This complex is the source of what Jones refers to as the “brain dragon.”

The brain dragon emerged when our apelike ancestors left the trees to walk on the ground. rather suddenly, the relatively small brain of Australopithecus had to process a lot of information about many new forms of predators and develop new alarms calls and strategic responses to them. Faced with information overload, the brain of Australopithecus resorted to lumping information into manageable and memorable chunks.

As a result, the cat, the snake, and the raptor were merged into a hybrid creature that had the salient predatory features of each: the face of a feline, the body of a snake, and the talons of a raptor. This is the hybrid “monster” that came to be known as the “dragon.”
But aren’t European dragons usually reptilian in their facial features? And what about the wings—or is that another carryover from the raptors?


rocketdave said...

Interesting, though it sounds a bit far-fetched.

Nathan said...

Yeah, this sounds like it has the more composite Asian dragons in mind. Early European dragons are pretty reptilian. Neill is the only artist I know of who drew dragons with crocodile-like heads, though.

David Lee Ingersoll said...

I'd think that the test of this theory would be if most African cultures have dragon-like beasts in their myths and legends. Unless the theory also assumes that subsequent waves of humans from the African cradle bred out the dragon "racial memory" so that only the descendants of the original exoduses have that memory?

J. L. Bell said...

Given how much of the human population is Chinese, it makes sense to examine the Chinese cultural model of a dragon first, I think. Good point about checking African cultures, though there one might have a difficulty in finding ancient written sources.

John R. Neill seemed to have a variety of dragons in his pen. There’s the type in Tin Woodman and Giant Horse, the two-headed one in his own books, and what always struck me as more traditional forms in Dorothy and the Wizard and Tik-Tok. Probably some others I’m forgetting, like the ice dragon in Ojo.