The Invention of Dragons

The Invention of Dragons

Vsauce! Kevin here. Fighting an inflatable dragon with a plastic
sword. Which is all you can do with a dragon. They’re fairy tale foes in the west. But for some reason, the dragon image has
existed all over the world since the dawn of civilization. So is the dragon just a fantasy cliché, or
does it help explain our evolution, embody our oldest fears, and unite all of humanity? And when old maps marked unexplored territories
with, “Here be dragons.” Well…where be dragons? Everywhere. South America, Central America, North America,
Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia – the dragon is a universal ancient concept. Long before legends of English knights besting
maiden-devouring, fire-breathing dragons, the Aztec worshipped Quetzalcoatl, a feathered
serpent sky dragon god of wisdom and life. And the ancient Greek serpent dragon Ladon
was trusted with guarding immortality-granting golden apples until he was defeated by the
demigod Heracles. Ladon, like many dragons, was very snake-y. Wait, why are dragons and snakes so closely
related? To get to our imagination’s ultimate predator,
we have to start with the first persistent predator of our evolution. Molecular Phylogeneticists who study DNA to
date organisms, date like time not date like…y’know… believe that our earliest placental mammal
ancestors began flourishing within 400,000 years of dinosaur extinction about 65.5 million
years ago. But snakes basically as we know them today
were around 100 million years ago. They had about 20 million years of alone time
eating placental mammals before predatory birds joined the party, and had another 2
million before the first carnivorous mammals evolved. Snakes had been eating every iteration of
our evolving ancestors for millions of years – so by the time homo sapiens evolved and
developed language, we were talking about our oldest arch-enemy — snakes. In what’s considered the oldest known great
piece of literature, Mesopotamia’s Epic Of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s immortality is
stolen by a snake. A snake makes him mortal. The Abrahamic origin story says that a serpent
convinced Eve to eat forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil by
promising that, “her eyes would be opened.” She and Adam were subsequently banished from
an immortal paradise, but the mortal threat of snakes might have literally helped our
eyes. The Snake Detection Hypothesis suggests that
visual systems of primates evolved to detect dangerous animals – primarily venomous snakes. In The Fruit, The Tree, And The Serpent, anthropologist
Lynne Isbell explains the hypothesis like this: Snakes evolved to be difficult to see
and mortally dangerous. They coil their camouflaged bodies and remain
motionless until they attack. Surviving the peril of snakes for millions
of years required selective pressure favoring primates’ specialized visual systems. And compared to other mammals, the pulvinar
region of the brain, which helps visually detect relevant objects, is disproportionately
large in primates and humans. Studies from different international labs
have detailed the ability of humans’ enhanced visual relay system to recognize snakes. And this sight is preconscious. Blindsight, which lets even those with cortical
blindness respond to visual stimuli without knowingly perceiving it, allows us to detect
snakes and react without being consciously aware of them. Basically, we can notice and react to a snake
without having to think, “There is a snake, I’d better watch out!” Or like explorer Percy Fawcett wrote after
dodging the attack of a bushmaster, “I had not seen it until it flashed between my legs,
but the ‘inner man’ – if I can call it that – not only saw it in time, but judged
its striking height and distance exactly, and issued commands to the body accordingly!” Fawcett’s “inner man” was confirmed
by a 1993 study on “Conditioned electrodermal responses to masked fear-relevant stimuli.” Not very catchy. Consistent with the hypothesis, the lemurs
of Madagascar, an early branch of primates living on an isolated island off the coast
of Africa with no venomous snakes, do not fear snakes and have poor vision. Armed with the vision to detect them, we quickly
learn to fear snakes. Ophidiophobia, or a fear of snakes, is one
of the most common and intense phobias in the world. In The Dragons Of Eden, Carl Sagan notes dream
studies in which almost half of the people surveyed reported dreams about snakes. And while modern psychologists’ studies
show neither human infants nor monkeys raised in captivity inherently fear snakes, studies
of fear association showed both are prepared to learn. Lab monkeys showing no initial fear response
were conditioned to fear live as well as toy snakes after viewing videos of wild monkeys
demonstrating a fear response to snakes. Researchers were unable to condition the monkeys
to fear non-threatening stimuli like flowers or toy rabbits. We notice and fear snakes as part of a co-evolution
arms race for survival that eventually led to us telling legendary stories of our origins
amongst serpents. Skeptics of the Snake Detection Hypothesis
would like to see more data, like studies done with primates reacting not just to snakes,
but to other primate predators like leopards and eagles. And in any case, dragons don’t just look
like snakes, dragons have legs, they can fly and they have a mouth full of ferocious sharp
teeth. Dragons are more like a snake mixed with
a leopard and an…eagle. The three predators monkeys are screaming
about. When Anthropologist David Jones studied howler
monkeys, he noticed they use three distinct alarm signals that lead to specific instinctive
safety actions. One call alerts the group to a snake and they
stand up on their hind legs to look at the ground and then climb to safety in the tops
of trees. Another call identifies a hunting bird or
raptor and monkeys abandon the trees, hit the ground and take cover in bushes. Finally, a call for a leopard or large carnivoran
causes them to run into the trees and out onto the thinnest branches that can’t support
heavier meat-eating mammals. In An Instinct For Dragons, Jones writes that
the dragon is a composite creature of the three major predators of primates — serpent,
carnivore and raptor. He believes combining them into one monster
is a natural indexing mechanism performed by the brain to consolidate a message. That message is to recognize, beware, and
honor what Georgess McHargue called in her 1968 book The Beasts Of Never, “the oldest,
the first, and the most basic monster.” McHargue was right. The Epic Of Gilgamesh not only mentions dragons
but featured the demigod Humbaba, whose dragon-like characteristics included the head of a lion,
the claws of a vulture, a body covered in thorny scales, and a tail that ended in a
snake’s head. Also, a phallus that ended in a snake’s
head. Phallus means weiner. Conquering or harnessing the power of this
symbol of nature’s chaos granted the hero the power to create order. Chinese emperors are said to be descended
from dragons, and adorned their kingdoms with dragon imagery. In the East, civilizations were created with
the blessing of dragons. In the West, civilizations drew power from
tales of defeating them. But something weird happened to dragons in
Western culture over the last hundred years – these manifestations of evil that needed
to be vanquished to secure our future became friends with our future. Dragons became playmates for children. The Reluctant Dragon, written by Kenneth Grahame
in 1898, was the first popular western story in which a dragon is a sympathetic character. It tells the tale of a bookworm child who
befriends and defends a peaceful, poetry-loving dragon from the stubborn, ideological local
villagers who believe all dragons must be destroyed as tradition demands. The valiant dragon slayer of legend, St. George,
is summoned to kill the dragon but the child successfully convinces the knight to spare
his harmless friend. To appease the blood-thirsty villagers, they
stage a fake battle in which George innocently pierces a fold of skin on the dragon’s neck. George then parades the dragon through town
and declares he is no longer a threat. The knight, the child and the dragon walk
away peacefully, hand-in-hand into the night. Peter Green wrote in a 1959 biography of Grahame
that he grew up in the countryside of Berkshire during a time so simple kids entertained themselves
by playing games like “push the heavy log.” As an adult, Grahame was reluctantly forced
into banking in the booming city of London after being unable to afford his dream of
going to Oxford University. At the height of uncontrolled development
of manufacturing during the industrial revolution, the whimsy and serenity of Grahame’s rural
youth contrasted starkly with the rigid responsibilities of banking in polluted, urban 19th century
London. The Reluctant Dragon represents the inner
turmoil Grahame felt between his creative, artistic self — the dragon — and his dutiful,
banker self embodied by the fabled dragon slayer St. George. In the end, the knight, the child and the
dragon make peace with one another at a time when Grahame reconciled with his own struggle
between being an artist and being a prominent member of The Establishment. The first friendly dragon story is a negotiation
between the rigid control of modern humanity and the anarchist entropy of nature brokered
by the precocious innocence of adolescence. The dawn of modern science and human advancement
required a compromise between our past and our future. We became friends with an enemy we had fought
for time immemorial. An enemy who represents time immemorial. The ouroboros, a serpent or dragon eating
its own tail, symbolizes the infinite cycle of nature — creation from destruction. A fundamental truth recorded by the earliest
civilizations. Life and death eternal. Today, we don’t need dragons. Not like we used to. The millions-year war is over and we’re
still here. Living and breathing the fire of curiosity
and courage. Instinctively exploring the deepest, darkest,
depths of the unknown. And overcoming the impossibly powerful enemy
guarding the most valuable treasures imaginable. Using our minds to detect problems and invent
ways to conquer challenges. It’s how we evolve. But into what? Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned, “He
who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself…” Devoid of the monsters that strengthened us
for this moment, we’re left with the power to decide. “Am I the knight? Am I the child? Or am I the dragon?” And as always – thanks for watching. Don’t you know? You were brave with a free-talking mind and
a voice that is still a cry for life. And no matter what we want, we want to be
loved. Yes we were here. We were afraid. We paid them for the right to commit our own
ego suicide. But I believe it’s just a ride.

67 thoughts on “The Invention of Dragons

  1. Far away in the twilight time
    Of every people, in every clime,
    Dragons and griffins and monsters dire,
    Born of water, and air, and fire,
    Or nursed, like the Python, in the mud
    And ooze of the old Deucalion flood,
    Crawl and wriggle and foam with rage,
    Through dusk tradition and ballad age.

    -John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Double-Headed Snake of Newbury”

  2. one mistake i wanna point out is that the aztec's where contemporary with late medieval Europe, though Quetzalcoatl predates them.

  3. I love these origin-of videos! I know I'm… two years late… But I hope we can see more of these. Just re-watched the video about blue as well, I can't get enough of these <3

  4. Who ever writes your text, thx and your presentation is awesome. Keep it up dude. Live long and prosper.

  5. If Western European dragons are evil and Eastern Asian dragons are good, then what does that make middle Eurasian dragons? (Hybrid crossbreeds of western and eastern dragons). Leave replies if you know where they stand in this.

  6. Am i the kight the child or the dragion no i am the god. We have at this point in to advacest so fair that we can do thing unimaginable to most of us as children . ower power over the world has grown to the point were we can remake the world we destroyed alowing us to live with the dragion as ower partner as we remake what was lost and invent new life to replace that we can not remake.

  7. Can't believe that this video sat in my "watch later" playlist for years. So glad that I finally got around to it.

  8. ……….But, Dinosaur bones explain the dragon thing way better than all the other things shown in the video?

  9. That blindsight kinda happened to me when I was like, 13, and was cycling to the beach when a snake appeared and I just went around it without thinking. It was a snake that is actually the only venomous type of snake where I live.

  10. Dinosaurs
    Ever heard of dracorex it was a real thing, and there are real sculptures and cave paintings of known dinosaurs long before we had ever seen a fossil.
    In the Bible the Book of Job there is a description of a “behemoth with a tail like the Cypress tree”

  11. Why can't you "Scientists" see that Dragons are/were NOT myth. They are/were what people called "Dinosaurs" before we decided to call them "Dinosaurs" in the 1800's. They absolutely existed. Alongside man…

  12. “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself” is it just me or this just means that we don't fear dragons anymore because we have become a dragon. I guess being high in the food chain has naturally made us dragons. That is why dragons are so awesome now!

  13. everything is a matter of perspective. where one see's a snake eating its own tail, i choose to see the snake growing out of its own mouth. perspective

  14. I just think dragons are cool because they have more operating appendages than any other vertebrate. Well, maybe a gryphon and hippogriff have as many, but they don't have teeth. Maybe a manticore, but it can't breath fire.

  15. 6:19

    "But to other primate predators like leopards and eagles."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but how come leopards and eagles are primates?

  16. Is it that we have overcome dragons, made peace with them, or simply been deceived into believing that either or both of these ends have been or can be achieved?

    Props for the Chesterton quote at the end. Dude is severely underappreciated in this day and age.

  17. You didn’t mention once the possibility that throughout history, people probably on occasion ran into the fossilized remains of dinosaurs? Nah that probably had nothing to do with it.

  18. I heard somewhere before a hypothesis for the lore of dragons being so universal was because fossils of dinosaurs seemed to be the corpses of these giant beasts. Which contributed to how some cultures dragons differed. Not sure if that's at all true. But if nothing else it could have served as "supporting evidence" to ancient peoples that Dragons existed. Not contrary to, but in support of this origin story, as it were, to dragons.

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