Naturally Human: A Hypothesis

By virtue of natality and the ability to act, each new individual poses a threat to civilization. The child carries barbarism with him or her.  – Einer Overenget
Perhaps we would not view babes as self-centered creatures of desire were we not already committed egoists ourselves. – Marshall Sahlins

How do we resolve this apparent conflict, and the legacy of enculturation to the requirements of modern civilization?

As early as fifth century Greece, the intellectual groundwork had already been laid and battle-lines drawn so that preSocratic philosophers could make the final cut, separating physis (nature) from nomos (convention or culture). Then, in Plato, we find the metaphysical articulation and de-construction of a hierarchically-organized tripartite human soul, where the rational part – well trained by culture and civic convention, and with the aid of its higher spiritual part – rules over the lower, natural, concupiscent part, the baser and insatiable animal desires.  In short, hypotheses were already being floated to justify the very model of hierarchical civil society, its dominion over and management of the body-politic, the unwashed masses.

Throughout the ancient world, well into medieval times, and right up to the present day, civil society has been viewed as both a necessary and a coercive corrective to the hypothesized inherent egoism, self-interest, and concupiscence of human nature, mankind’s allegedly brutish instincts. While Freud made this a cornerstone of his early twentieth century work in The Future of an Illusion, Marshall Sahlins confirms that the concept of “Original Sin pretty much sealed the deal in Christendom for centuries to come.” (The Western Illusion of Human Nature)  As Elaine Pagels argued in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Augustine “offered an analysis of human nature that became, for better and for worse, the heritage of all subsequent generations of Western Christians and a major influence on their psychological and political thinking.” Thus, in the pre-Socratic philosophers and early Church Fathers lay some of the theoretical groundwork for political philosophers in the West thereafter, including Enlightenment philosophes like Thomas Hobbes and J.J. Rousseau, themselves relying upon concepts already in the noosphere from the time of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War.

Even in his more romantic view of pre-civilized humanity, Rousseau himself presumes this nature/culture divide, arguing in The Social Contract that the principal function of civil government is the sublimation of the natural man in order to recreate him or her with a new nature.

[The Legislator must] so to speak change human nature, transform each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which that individual as it were gets his life and his being; weaken man’s constitution to strengthen it; substitute a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence which we all have received from nature. He must, in a word, take man’s own forces away from him in order to give him forces which are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others. The more the natural forces are dead and annihilated the greater and more lasting the acquired ones…

This new civil order, as Rousseau suggests, is anything but natural; rather, it is pure artifice, a politic construction of new forces allowing citizens to work and live together safely within a well-defined universe. But, lost beneath the neatness of such civil contrivance and convention, life’s fundamentally arbitrary and unstructured wildness receded from view while still lurking just under the surface, challenging civilization’s very ability to establish, maintain, and control its well-ordered cosmos.

Yet, as colorful as these philosophical reflections must seem, we need to shift our focus momentarily to explore such characterizations in terms of more recent assessments of the transition from pre-civilized bands and pre-urban tribal communities, to our more stratified and institutionalized urban settings. In Recovery of the West, Marvin Bram characterizes the two hundred thousand year period of human pre-history – before the birth of modern civilized States – as the “kinship era” after its basic form of social organization. As he defines it:

Kinship means that what urban peoples call political, social, economic, and cultural arrangements are made not by specialists or professionals, usually strangers to most persons, but by the elders of clans, well known to all clans persons.

The “post-kinship era” on the other hand — characterized by the emergence of cities and the concomitant hierarchical systems of management and control — touts precisely those specialists, professionals, and impersonal institutions that we currently find in abundance in the modern State today. Embracing kindred observations by Alexis de Tocqueville in his commentary on nineteenth-century Democracy in America, Bram concludes,

[In a ‘post-kinship’ era] the nuclear family by itself cannot resist the impingements of modern political and economic institutions: the father, mother, and their children must be surrounded by some intermediate, protective body of persons in order to be safe from unacceptable levels of control. In fact, those modern political and economic institutions could not have been created in the first place unless the original protective body of persons, the clan, was broken into its constituent and susceptible parts, its nuclear families. The first emergence of civilization in the Middle East, and all subsequent civilized nations, were constructed on the break-up of their pre-urban clans.

The breaking-up of these pre-urban clans was not merely a materially or socially relevant event, but represented deeply psychological and existential transformations as well, affecting the collective sense of self and world even more dramatically than we today realize.

In any event, such assessments betray the roots of our modern conceptual bifurcation of nature and culture, and the subsequent reification of human nature as barbaric, egoistic and in need of control by now formalized institutional bodies.  The hierarchy of the State – along with its legislators, priests, and princes – were and are believed to be a necessary antidote to the evil and barbarism that haunts the savage soul of humankind.

However, such conceptions and arrangements were not always indicative of human community.  In pre-civilized (as well as extant primitive) kinship-based social groupings, the very notion of  “self” – defined as an isolated ego inside a bag of skin, the virtual center of individual thought and action – simply did not exist.  That concept, in all probability, was not fully articulated until the birth of cities, literacy, and accompanying written codes of social control.  In fact, for most kinship-based cultures, the self (or person) is only meaningfully constituted in relation to and in the context of its relations with other persons and within the natural environment.  Again from Marshall Sahlins:

Ethnographic reports speak of ‘the transpersonal self’ (Native Americans), of the self as a ‘locus of shared social relations or shared biographies’(Caroline Islands), of persons as ‘the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them’ (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of ‘the individual,’ Roger Bastide writes: ‘He does not exist except to the extent he is outside and different from himself.’  Clearly, the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary and autonomous individual as we know him… Rather the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being…

The self, in such a view, is not some lonely, internalized entity confronting and struggling against a foreign world, or competing with other egos there.  Rather, such a self exists only as an instantiation of the Other, as an integral part of the Other.

In kin relationships, others become predicates of one’s own existence, and vice versa… It is the integration of certain relationships, hence the participation of certain others in one’s own being.  As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths… [I]n kinship, as in relations to the cosmos in general, alterity [the Other] is a condition of the possibility of being.

There is a sense here of what Lucien Levy-Bruhl has called a participation mystique, an ontological connection or participation of the self in the Other and in the universe at large, where human and non-human natures pre-reflectively collide, co-mingle, and inter-animate one another in the constitution of meaning, both socially and existentially.  Here it is difficult to talk about nature vs. culture, for the two are simply manifestations of the same power of being – what the indigenous Melanesians might call mana, or the Sioux, wakanda.

If, in hunter-gatherer kinship-based bands, individuals participate one another, each and all together participating nature, why wouldn’t sharing and gifting be at the very heart of community, representing the primal and common mode of exchange among themselves and within their environment at large?  In fact, that is precisely what we find as a defining characteristic of the earliest of pre-Neolithic economies.  As Morton Fried clearly states in his classic work, The Evolution of Political Society, “The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing because it underlay the division of labor that probably increased early human productivity above the level of competitive species in the same ecological niches.”  And Elman Service confirms in Primitive Social Organization, an Evolutionary Perspective, “The more primitive the society… the greater the emphasis on sharing, and the more scarce or needed the items the greater the sociability engendered.”  As Ingold notes, it is more important “that food ‘go around’ rather than that it should ‘last out’.  Whatever food is available is distributed so that everyone has a share…” (The Perception of the Environment).

So, where does this leave us when confronting the modern problems of thuggery, theft, avarice, and cupidity; the problematic of an evil human nature and the asserted need for external domination, institutional management, and hierarchical control?  If primal (pre-civilized) social relations were characterized by sharing, and sharing itself was based upon a felt intertwining, being-with, or participating-the-Other, then we can be sure that such societies were in fact organized in an egalitarian fashion, without any obvious social ranking or economic stratification, save perhaps, for the prestige that came with exceptional gifting.  Fried confirms this:

[We find that] of almost equal importance [with sharing] was the concomitant reduction in the significance of individual dominance in a hierarchical arrangement within the community. In part, the structural possibility for such a hierarchy was undermined by the demands of sharing. [Even] cooperative labor parties, whether for hunting or gathering, [took] place with very little apparent leadership…

So, is purely self-regarding behavior naturally human?  Is there an evil human nature lurking just beneath our refined civilized exterior?  Or, are thuggery, self-interest, and greed merely symptoms of this modern, civilized culture and it relentless emphasis upon the individual — on competition, hyper-specialization, management and control, both of nature and our fellow man?  As Sahlins concludes:

Natural self-interest? For the greater part of humankind, self interest as we know it is unnatural in the normative sense: it is considered madness, witchcraft or some such grounds for ostracism, execution, or at least therapy. Rather than expressing a pre-social human nature, such avarice is generally taken for a loss of humanity.  It puts in abeyance the mutual relationships of being that define a human existence.  Yet if the self, the body, experience, pleasure, pain, agency and intentionality, even death itself, are transpersonal relationships in so many societies, and in all likelihood through so many eons of human [pre]history, it follows that the native Western concept of man’s self-regarding animal nature is an illusion of world-anthropological proportions.

Where does this take us in terms of our modern love affair with individuality, personal agency, and self-aggrandizement?  And where, then, does this leave us in our discussion from last week’s post? How do we properly understand or assess the unique habits and institutional arrangements of the Western-style, ego-driven politics of business — of capitalism, of competition, of enterprise and entrepreneurship, of progress and growth? I proposed in the last discussion that such behaviors and economic arrangements should be viewed as psychopathic.  My primary interlocutor on that post, Ralph Meima, responded with some degree of alarm.

But to call all entrepreneurs – social or otherwise – “psychopaths” is to throw out the baby with the bathwater, in my opinion.  A psychopath is someone who is mentally ill, exhibiting abnormal, dangerous, violent behavior. What entrepreneurs do in modern society is quite “normal”. Few people consider their behavior insane… But it’s the society that’s crazy, not the entrepreneurs. They aren’t psychopaths. They are well-adjusted.

Well now, I could not have stated it better myself. Our society is indeed “crazy” based upon the rather long prehistory of our hominid ancestors, and for that very reason anyone considered “well-adjusted” or “normal” within this society must be considered quite diseased as well. Indeed, the culture we have created/inherited propagates the disease among its members; that is what cultures do, they do not inoculate, but rather inculcate their populations. Furthermore, it is customary for the psychopath to “fit-in” rather nicely with his society, enabling him to manipulate his compatriots more effectively.  Finally, it is in the nature of psychopathy to hold fast to one’s delusions — to save the appearances, if you will — of the world one inhabits.  That is what business as usual has come to mean in this wayward society, as it grasps wildly at eleventh-hour solutions, holding fast to its delusions.  As long as we believe we can manage, engineer, or otherwise manipulate our way to saving even a mock-up version of this culture, we remain unabashedly and voluntarily its inmates. Like ancient astronomers looking up at the night sky with its heavens turning ’round the earth, we too search for those hypotheses that will save the appearances of the world we now see before us, if only temporarily.

83 Responses to Naturally Human: A Hypothesis

  1. Brutus says:

    Well thought-out and constructed post. However, my suspicion is that you will fail to reach those who are not already converted. I must repeat myself here: we’re all ruined people in the respect that our very existence is circumscribed by the cultural conditions into which we were born, and the future (if we’re not extirpated first by our own hubris or by that asteroid hurtling toward us) instead belongs to those well on the other side of the bottleneck, after remnants of modernity are erased. My point is illustrated in this part:

    If primal (pre-civilized) social relations were characterized by sharing, and sharing itself was based upon a felt intertwining, being-with, or participating-the-Other, then we can be sure that such societies were in fact organized in an egalitarian fashion, without any obvious social ranking or economic stratification ….

    Though some few of us may adopt an anthropological pose and glimpse a small part the mindset or worldview of our ancestors and the behaviors the flowed from that mindset, we are foreclosed from entering into those kinds of intertwined ego relationships because they don’t exist in the civilized world and we can’t accommodate ourselves to what few indigenous culture persist. This is because we bring ourselves and our deeply entrenched metaphors with us, such as rationalism and quantification. We’ve had these discussions in the past, so I apologize for trotting out my points yet again, but it seems to me worthwhile to suggest why we often talk past each other.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Brutus, no apologies necessary. Your observations are good and need repeating. As I have said on other occasions, which I said yet above: the social and economic changes that transpired, represented ontically much deeper existential, perceptual and psychological transformations, affecting the underlying and sensible experience of our relatedness to the world and to the Other.

  2. Ralph Meima says:

    Thank you for this elaboration.

    This may be heading off on too much of a tangent, but – much closer to our experience than the late Pleistocene – we need look no further than many modern cultures around the world to see profound differences in how the concept of “individual” is constructed relative to the group, and the extent to which individualistic vs. collectivist or communitarian behavior is culturally regulated and tolerated. (This is well-known, of course.)

    I spent 14 years living as an immigrant in Sweden, and as accessible as Sweden is to for instance an American, it is a society with a very different idea of how individualistic people should be, vs. how closely they should conform to group norms and put group interests before their own. For instance, even though it’s changing, eating lunch at one’s desk is regarded as antisocial, as is taking a coffee break (“fika”) alone, and when you go on trips with work colleagues or a club, you do everything as a unit. The anecdotes can be quite amusing. But Sweden is not the US, and I believe this difference goes part of the way toward explaining why Sweden is a lot further down the track toward environmental sustainability than the US is, or why it has successfully operated a universal health care system for, oh, 80 years. All this indeed suggests that “Western” should not be conflated with “American” because there are many individualistic, egotistical, antisocial things that are accepted as quite normal in the US that do not pass muster in other parts of the “West.”

    According to the Randian likes of Grover Norquist or the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, such anti-individualism around the world leads to uncompetitive, “sclerotic” economies, short of entrepreneurs, and ought to be further deregulated and liberalized in the name of every person’s Gawd-given freedom. Sociopathic infiltration?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Ralph – I would not deny that other (even Western) cultures may demonstrate or advertise more communalism than the USA. But, not unlike the Soviet model, any institutional hierarchy is contrary, in my view, to natural egalitarian social arrangements. Constitutions, laws, political bodies, legislative councils and judicial arenas are, in their very nature, anathema to a pre-reflective reciprocity based upon the more primal experience of being-with, or being-the-Other. The very transformation in thinking that took place with the birth of urban life and the development of writing, leading to the syllogism and the articulation of legal codes heralded the end of real communitas.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Ralph – et. al.

      Some further reflections on the issues under consideration. Certainly we civilized peoples can “ape” caring and communitas; and we can proclaim equal rights for all under the law. We can even sympathize and empathize with our fellowmen and women (and other animals) as we see their pain or see ourselves in their own predicament. But this is not the equivalent of “living one another’s lives or dying one another’s deaths.”

      I want to propose again that there was a substantial shift in human consciousness, and concurrently in our collective representations of the world we inhabit with the emergence of cities, hierarchy, and writing on the heels of agriculture. What we patronizingly and with some deprecation call ‘animism’ was a felt experience of physical and psychic integration in the world, a world where it was not possible to completely understand oneself as isolated or independent of the natural and social environments of which one was an essential part. This primal sensibility cannot be recovered. It is forever lost to the civilized consciousness, although it may still inhere in some loose fashion within the life-world of extant hunter-gatherers.

      I am not suggesting that we try to recover that life-world, but only raise the issue so we may understand the difficulties in reconstituting relations that had been grounded in such perceptions and realities.

  3. James says:

    Why has technological civilization destroyed the tribal model? Because the tribes have been assimilated voluntarily or under compulsion by ruthless leaders that expand and consolidate power. To keep from being destroyed by a larger force and to enable conversion of greater surplus into military might.

    Why would this happen? Because smaller tribes were at war with each other and would form alliances to destroy competitors.

    The Maori would have great relations within their tribes, but would put the neighboring tribes children on a spit and roast them on an open fire. Restraint and lovey-dovey is for those within the tribe. Those outside the tribe can be fair game as were the Chinese at Nanking. The Japanese are one of the most homogeneous tribes on the planet and upon finding a military advantage, they used it to mercilessly to kill and degrade hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in the name of their Emperor God. I suppose the Americans did the same thing with their Manifest Destiny.

    Unfortunately, modern technological man has no tribe. He clings to Facebook to find some meaning and companionship. The lifelong relations of the tribe are gone as people become dispersed. The substitute tribe is a nation, a flag a president, and TV personalities. The assimilation process continues on a corporate and banking level.

    The current arrangement is dependent upon massive energy flow and won’t last. We will probably see tribal size decrease as the energy wanes, with many citizens being left out or obliterated, until we arrive back where we began, at a level of population and with a death rate that limits tribal size and interaction.

    The genetic ties of the tribe, where you were related to everyone else, and when they died a part of you died, is mostly gone. Anyhow, TV personalities are so much more fun than family members. A great substitute.

  4. BretSimpson says:

    Think we screwed up when we started growing our food…anyway, couple thousand years and won’t even know that we were here.

    • leavergirl says:

      No we didn’t. We’ve been tending plants since we became human.
      We screwed up, IMO, when we tolerated for some to hoard that food, and for others, to go hungry.

      • kulturcritic says:

        Not far from what Rousseau said

        “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

        — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 17543

  5. leavergirl says:

    A fine salvo, Sandy. I missed that part about aggrandizers being well adjusted. Ha! Sure they are, those aggressive grabby people celebrated by an aggressive grabby culture! A vicious circle.

    Just wanted to add a small point. From my readings, it seems to me that the 200,000 long pattern was not based on kinship as we know it, but rather on affinity. Bands were groups of kith and kin, and non-related people were part of the kinship stories as well — kinship in the sense of affinity. Only with the late paleo and neolithic do we see the sudden burgeoning of blood kinship — ancestor cults arose, elaborate genealogies, etc. When you begin to privatize, then kinship is the way to hang onto what you’ve accumulated. And blood kinship is also a way to grab power.

    So, professor, do you figure you can weave sharing into the Business School culture?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Vera – correct. The primal kinship model seems to have been based upon consanuinity and affinity, both. Marvin Bram would concur, as would most of the other experts.

  6. A certain brand of psycopathy might have been instigated with the idea of the “ever-normal granary.”

  7. john patrick says:

    It seems… that all philosophies distill down to one thing: child versus adult. No matter how pristine or advanced ones philosophy or observation is, a child will not adopt the philosophy/life of an adult. It is unable to. Nor should it prior to the appropriate time.

    Children cannot build/sustain a “civilization.” It would be easy if there were a defined rubicon, and some cultures do have this. But at least in the U.S., it consists of “graduating” from H.S. or college. Or making six figures. Or getting married. etc.. So, with such a wandering scale to judge the departure from childhood to adult, is it any wonder we can’t accomplish a great thing together. The adults build. The children tear it down.

    And then… you have adults that refuse to pull one leg from the crib, sucking on Mom(gov’t) teat. Even if the world were full of mature/responsible/caring adults, eventually procreation is necessary and more children. So this whole issue is cyclical with no way out. Reminds me of an ancient teaching, though the source is unimportant (at least to me).

    1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

    It “might” be important to identify when the child becomes an adult. Perhaps make it mandatory 😉 But even so, the adult ways will not appeal to the child. And the child is unable to create a sustainable society. So… we’re stuck in the middle of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We can toast it. Or try to enjoy it as best as possible. One sticky lump at a time.

    It does make a point to the importance of going home and taking care of ones children, before any great civilization can occur… It’s 1pm here. Time for a glass of red, before the kids get home.

    • kulturcritic says:

      JP – you know there was ample attention paid by adults to the life cycle and maturation process of children within the primitive clan and tribe. And this is something we have certainly forgotten about in the modern world. Paul Shepard writes at great length on this topic, see his book, Nature and Madness.

      • john patrick says:

        The fruit of their labor (raising children) was most likely “noticed” and put to good use within their little community. With corrective feedback. Now, we raise them to stoke fire in the belly of the beast. Until they realize, they are slaves with a shovel. I’d like to think that everyone reaches adulthood (functioning adult), though their only gift returned may be the final gasp “Do not do as I did.”

        Still, the wise die. And children are born. I do not see a “fix” to deal with this.

  8. Hello Sandy,

    You write:

    What we patronizingly and with some deprecation call ‘animism’ was a felt experience of physical and psychic integration in the world, a world where it was not possible to completely understand oneself as isolated or independent of the natural and social environments of which one was an essential part. This primal sensibility cannot be recovered. It is forever lost to the civilized consciousness, although it may still inhere in some loose fashion within the life-world of extant hunter-gatherers.

    You seem to be saying that the problem is ultimately one of perception; i.e. of how we experience (as opposed to conceptualize) ourselves and the world. I agree with this, but I am curious why you go on to say that it is impossible for ‘civilized’ humans to regain this ‘primal sensibility’ – if the ‘primal sensibility’ – that is, the way of perceiving and being in the world that sees oneself as fundamentally not separate from one’s surroundings (ecology and community) – is truly our natural state, then why are we unable to recover it? If it is in fact our nature, then while it may be possible to bury it under ‘civilized’ conditioning, why is it impossible to recover it? Can we not retrain our perception, ‘unlearn’ what we have learned? Domesticated canines can become ‘feral’ if exposed again to the wild, can’t they? Why not domesticated homo sapiens?

    • Brutus says:

      Since I’ve been arguing that we can’t go back repeatedly (those of us now alive, but probably those who follow in the foreseeable future as well), I’ll jump in here. Sandy will surely add his thoughts in time.

      First, rabbits, cats, dogs, and some horses can be reintroduced into the wild, but birds, farm animals, and tropical fish cannot if they are expected to survive. Captive-bred zoo animals have had mixed results. Also, you separate experience from conceptualization, but the former flows from the latter. They’re inseparable and interpenetrating, not exclusive.

      Lots of evidence is being gathered in the scientific literature that points to neuroplasticity throughout life, but that isn’t quite the same as alternative styles of consciousness formed in the socialization process of early childhood. I’m unsure whether you are more inclined to believe anthropological, psychological, philosophical, or scientific explanations of our being trapped within our worldviews. Sandy tends toward the philosophical, especially the phenomenological school, whereas I’ve been more inclined to the scientific view, perhaps because I’ve been reading and book blogging The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, who brings considerable scientific evidence to bear on the issue.

      His fundamental argument is that the left brain, the Emissary, has usurped the right brain, the Master, and created a civilization with inverted values: logical, categorical, generic, rational, and heavily reliant on the metaphors of language instead of more holistic, specific, interpersonal, tolerant of paradox, and suffused within context and meaning. It’s an impressive book and thesis, deserving of a Pulitzer Prize. But like another author I keep promoting (Morris Berman), his book is not getting the attention it deserves. One of the tidbits McGilchrist offers is that the infant brain possesses neuronal connections that are pared away as others are reinforced. So, for instance, the inability to differentiate and produce certain sounds others hear readily (e.g., foreign languages without accents and the words merry, marry, and Mary) is sealed early in life if not reinforced. One can’t go back and retrain once the developmental window of opportunity is closed.

      When one contrasts Europe with the U.S., Europeans simply don’t get how we can tolerate, among other things, capital punishment and employer-contingent healthcare. Northern aggressors just don’t get why the Confederate states still, after 150 years, resent losing the Civil War. These are intractable issues because we cannot enter into another’s worldview, close at it may be to our own, any more than we can recover one that has been whittled away and extinguished millennia ago, which is frankly a lot farther away.

      • Hello Brutus,

        You write:

        Also, you separate experience from conceptualization, but the former flows from the latter. They’re inseparable and interpenetrating, not exclusive.

        My point was simply to say that there is a difference between coming to an intellectual understanding of a worldview – the idea, for instance, that we are not separate from our environment – and actually experiencing, at the level of perception, that we are not separate from our environment. In this sense, there is a distinction between experience and conceptualization. Maybe an example will make this clearer; in his book A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen recounts this conversation:

        Jeanette [Armstrong, “a traditional Okanagan Indian”] said, ‘Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor.’ She paused, then continued emphatically, ‘It’s not a metaphor. It’s how the world is.’

        To see “listening to the land” as metaphor is to have a purely conceptual understanding; to actually experience listening to the land is something else entirely; one perceives “the land” as a subject that can be engaged with through listening. Does this make sense?

        Much of your post seems to be about ‘worldviews’; the main point I am trying to make here is that ‘animism’ or ‘the primal sensibility’ is not a ‘worldview’ at all, in the sense of a conceptual narrative that one adopts, but something that operates on the level of perception. I forget the name of the First Nations leader who said “What you people [i.e. the civilized] call resources, we call our relatives”. He wasn’t speaking metaphorically (i.e. at the level of ‘worldview’), but of a way of being in the world.

        The angle I’m coming at this from is from the many practical disciplines (Buddhist meditation, Daoist “inner alchemy”, various traditions of magick, etc) for transforming consciousness.

        • Brutus says:

          I appreciate the Derrick Jensen quote. I’m also passingly familiar with (in concept, not in practice — I’m blocked) alternative consciousnesses arising out of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, shamanism, and alchemy and agree they represent roads once taken.

          However, you sorta prove my point by adopting the principal dualism of modernity: the subject-object distinction. You say that “one perceives ‘the land’ as a subject that can be engaged with through listening.” This is intolerant of the sort of paradox Sandy mentions above in quotes by Marshall Sahlins and Lucien Levy-Bruhl. If I were to say, “I am him, and he is me,” there would be no conflict from within animism or participating consciousness or primal/feral sensibility whatever we choose to call it (not so important to me) because hard ego boundaries (self-other) are not present. The unity of the trinity is another instance, which most of us shuttle off to the side as illogical on its face. Also, the Tao Te Ching is full of this sort of paradox, such as this bit from Chap. 36:

          To make something smaller,
          you need to appreciate its size.
          To make something weaker,
          you must recognize its strength.
          To get rid of something,
          you need to hold it tight.
          To take something,
          you must give it up entirely.
          To put it another way:
          Sensitivity and weakness
          overcome unfeeling strength.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Well NaturalMystic – I think your gut is correct; there is a difference between a conceptual “view of the world” and our engagement within the world. And actually, there was a point in the Middle Ages, where participation seemed to regain some traction in terms of perception and experience. I have spoken time and again about a book that deserves close examination (if you can ignore the closing chapters and their Christian pitch). It is a book that clearly describes this issue of perception, conceptualization, worldview, as it relates to the very primitive experience of participation. Please look at Saving the Appearances, by Owen Barfield. sandy

      • leavergirl says:

        Dunno, Brutus. I came to America at 18, and struggled mightily with those crazy English vowels (English grammar is a piece of pie, but pronunciation is the bugbear, at least for us Slavs) but mastered them eventually. Now I know, it is unusual at that age, but nevertheless, it is not fixed. I have met a few other people who were also able to get past that barrier in later life. Sometimes I toy with the idea of jumping into yet another foreign tongue to see if I could prove them wrong once again. 🙂 (My immigrant-English teacher used to baffle the crap out of us with “I am not a nut.” Yikes. Could not hear it at all, initially.)

        Been looking into the rewilding of rescued squirrels. It’s not easy, and needs to be done very gradually, and sometimes it fails. And yet, most healthy squirrels will rewild though raised in captivity into adulthood from blind babies. So I wonder about us. I would say that it’s an open question, and someone ought to do an experiment! Wouldn’t be a bad idea if a rewilded human subspecies branched off the doomed sap-sapiens…

        • I. M. Nobody says:

          I had an AH HA moment a couple of days ago after reading John Michael Greer’s latest post. That led me to revisit Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. My take from these sources is that the rewilding experiment has already been conducted on a massive scale and shown to be well within the capacity of sap sap.

          As I understand it, after Europeans unleashed the microbiol WMD they didn’t yet realize they possessed, the multi-decimation they visited upon what were mostly agricultural societies left many of them no option but to regress toward an H/G existence. The Cherokee managed to continue farming until the crazed American public gave Andy Jackson permission to park his ass in the vortex of corruption popularly known as the White House. How dare heathens be committing agriculture, when they could be off trampling out a future National Historic Trail?

          A personal touch; my great-grandfather was given a provisional officer’s commission by the Union Army to go into what would become Oklahoma to try and recruit a unit of Indians to fight in the Civil War. They turned him down. Probably they were still quite busy with the rewilding thing.

          Now the open question is just how much capability to walk on the wild side do banksters, lawyers, cosmetologists, auto assemblers, barristas, et al, including most modern-day farmers possess? I know I won’t be around to see the outcome, but the question does interest me.

        • Brutus says:

          The bit about lost access to language and accents is McGilchrist’s point, which I am reporting. You’re arguing the exception here, and from personal experience at that. You’re clearly atypical. I also don’t know how difficult it is to learn English from a Slavic background, but I dare say they’re closer in sound than Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. to English. Like your difficulty with I am not a nut, Asians really struggle to hear the R and the L side-by-side in the word world. But I’m not a linguist, so I’ll stop short of prosecuting this point any further.

          A rewilded human population is inevitable, IMO, but I can’t anticipate how a biologically distinct subspecies might evolve. Survival pressure will certainly be present. An open question indeed.

          • leavergirl says:

            True, I may be an exception, but still, wouldn’t it make more sense to find the people who *are* able to acquire those sounds upon adulthood, find out how they did it, and see if something in what they did could be of use to those who have difficulties? I think to derive general theories out of the average has its drawbacks.

            It’s like saying (way back when) only a few people understand electricity, therefore, the average human is just simply not equipped to understand electricity… uh, wish I had a better analogy…

            (My experience is that people have trouble with sounds that are differentiated in the new language where in the old language there is only one sound that is in between those two — like the r and l for Asians, or v and w for Slavs, or v and b for Latins.)

            Anyways, back to rewilding… IM, interesting about the Indians. The Sioux went back to foraging when then acquired horses, when they used to be farmers before that. And of course, when ancient civs failed, people went back to being tribal…

        • kulturcritic says:

          Great experiment on rewilding humans suggested, Vera. BTW – I am trying the language experiment with Russian, at 59 years old. WOW

      • James says:


        Master and Emissary? Right and Left? I prefer to consider the limbic system as our master and the right and left cerebral cortices as the slaves. I’m even beginning to think that the prefrontal cortex can be affected by the limbic system to selectively reject realistic but unpalatable ideas (optimism bias). The great planning feature of our brains will remain blind to thoughts that are too negative to contemplate. Like people that counter death with the belief in an afterlife or those that never save for retirement, sickness and so on. “Not gonna happen to me, no sir. Global warming, no way. Peak oil, you’ve got to be kidding.” “Now get out of here, you’re making me depressed.” I’ll have to get McGilchrist’s book and consider his angle on right and left.

        Most people are right-handed and the left hemisphere is responsible for its control. We also know that the hand and its fine control is essential in the manipulation of tools to record information and symbols and other assorted technological tasks. That the left brain should have been super-activated in a technological environment seems to make sense. Maybe the right hemisphere will have a rebirth when all of our technological toys have found their way to the dump.

        Regarding “A Natural Mystic’s” comment, I was much connected to nature and the outdoors when I was younger, but it seems harder now to get those feelings. Being alone in nature, without human interaction seems to me important, no one there to talk to but the trees and birds and frogs. After your trip to the beach or forest you can go back to technotopia and let your left hemisphere and right hand engage the artificial. Dr. Rhawn Joseph has a lot of good brain information at Beneath the colorful heading block there are some links to essays and a few embedded lectures.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Natural Mystic – you make a very good point. Such perception is primal (feral) to us. Certainly we never “lost” the capacity, per se. Yet, the species has undergone millennia of changes, psychologically, epistemologically, temporally, linguistically — so much so that even our perceptivity and proprioceptivity has been altered. There has been a whole reorganization of our sensoria with sight now occupying a privileged seat in a (new) hierarchy of the senses. I think some psychoactive drugs can help trigger the sense of this capacity and our intertwining, as can certain forms of yogic or meditative practice (at least according to reports I hear). But, I think, on a larger, longer term scale, it will be a ‘tough row to hoe’ to re-instantiate that experience of participation. But, hey, I am no expert on these matters, just someone who thinks alot about the issues. I always stand to be corrected… (ell almost always). sandy

  9. kulturcritic says:

    Here is an interesting quote from Shepard regarding maturation, our relations to nature and one another:

    Politically, agriculture required a society composed of members with the acumen of children. Empirically, it set about amputating and replacing certain signals and experiences central to early epigenesis. Agriculture not only infantilized animals by domestication, but exploited the infantile traits of the normal individual neoteny… What agriculture discovered was not only that plants and animals could be subordinated, but that large numbers of men could be centrally controlled by manipulating these stresses, perpetuating their timorous search for protection, their dependence, their impulses of omnipotence and helplessness, irrational surges of adulation and hate, submission to authority, and fear of the strange. (Nature and Madness, 113, 116)

  10. Cliff says:

    HI Gang guess I’ll drop 2 cents into the bucket here
    It seems that how and what we decide to perceive is connected to some degree by choice, maybe by conscious personal choice. I cannot help but speculate that through certain self engaging practices, disciplines, like intensly focusing our efforts, time and energies on becoming a billionaire it is possible to take the correct steps to reach that goal.

    And isn’t it possible to re-orient oneself after much consciously spent time and focus to again be joined at the hip with our natural, wild nature? I intellectually understand that the Earth is a living breathing organism. Shouldn’t It be entirely possible to actually experience, percieve, my breathing, my movements as really not different, but the same as the Earth?

    We certainly cannot deny our past, It is likely to accompany us wherever our reoriented perceptions may lead us however like an old dream could it not take a back seat, And no longer
    hold us captive? I cannot help but believe that it all comes down to our individual perceptions and what importance and relationship we decide to cultivate with those perceptions. The deeper we conjoin ourselves to the relationships that are connected to the perception, the more significant they become to our very existance. As we all plunge into the future past no doubt there will be
    an array of expected and unexpected outcomes.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Cliff – the problem I see with your recommendation is that it cannot possibly replicate (recover) a primal and pre-reflective experience of participation, insofar as what you suggest requires reflection and indeed individual intention and effort; what you call “conscious personal choice,” “self engaging practices and disciplines,” “focused effort,” “decision to cultivate.” In other words, you are speaking from a fully rationalistic, individualistic perspective. Whatever we “choose” to do now is fine as a post-rational attempt at civilized communion, but choosing and cultivating participatory consciousness was not an option for our progenitors; it was a given, as far as I understand.

      • Cliff says:

        Sandy, yes we may not be able to replicate a simmiliar primal time,place, and experience, due mainly to the possibility that significant physiological changes to the brain and how it percieves its’ surroundings coupled with emotional/psychological differences has certainly transpired. However, at this moment, right in our face, some real signs that physiologial/ psychological change with our brains /its’ functions is now unfolding.
        I’m referring to our growing involvement with the computer. It seems to me that the re-shaping of human perception eventually over a certain period of time leads to physiological emotional changes in our brains and I wonder how permanent /dynamic these changes become. And is any of this naturally reversible? Did we choose to use a computor? Or did the culture / technology force our hand?

        Thanks for this loving overview Relentless!

        • kulturcritic says:

          Consumerism is not a choice; but a way of life ingrained. I don’t think IT changes much of our brain chemistry, as much as our relationships and our perceptual truncating.

        • relentless says:

          You’re most welcome Cliff. As for the “cha…cha…changes,” merely spend some extended moments with those who grew up (sic) with computer technology, and the physiological emotion changes become rather apparent. Is it reversible? Though i thorougly distrust the word ‘hope,’ in this case i’ll employ it, one reason i spend minimal linear time with this potential monster of living disengagement.

        • I. M. Nobody says:


          I’m not at all qualified to comment on brain chemistry, but I do have a long and deep relationship with electronic computers. We were born at about the same time in the middle of WW-II. Me and computer first met about two decades later, in the military. The relationship has gone on for 50 years. The tales I could tell. 🙂

          The point I wish to make is that as near as self examination will allow, my brain still works almost exactly the same as it did in that teenager of 1961-62. Though it doesn’t know as much now as it did then. 🙂

          I will disagree with Sandy that consumerism isn’t chosen. It’s just so darned attractive that hardly anyone ever turns it down. I watched my own parents choose it, though at the modest level their income would allow.

          What computers have done is alter the biases and relationships within society. In other words, a shift in outcomes for different groups. The industrial economy had favored men with strong backs and, dare I say it, weak minds. Barring the Rosie the Riveter episode of WW-II, most industrial women’s exposure to machines were things such as sewing machines and typewriters. I remember the first woman our field office sent off to be trained to troubleshoot and repair computers. That was in the early 1970’s. Prior to that time, notable involvement of women in electronic computing is pretty much limited to mathematician Grace Hopper. Single-handedly she inspired the coinage of one of our most widely used verbs, “debug”, the result of her having entered in the log book that she had found a moth crushed between the contacts of a relay in the computer. And she wrote the very first software compiler. One of the old west myths is that Sam Colt made men equal. What the computer did was make women and weak-backed men with excess curiosity, like me, not just more equal, but in fact dominant in the society.

          We did choose to make and use computers and for some while now the computers have been choosing us. Choosing who will be afforded the opportunity to live in a house, get a job, receive government benefits or a higher education. That list is far from complete.

          The actions of the MoTU, such as Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Blythe Masters, in the face of incipient collapse, are invariably intended to keep that society intact and them on top. That is most unfortunate as my kind, and their’s, are the least likely to survive even a regression to an agro-society. Hunting and gathering, almost no chance at all. The people who I think might have the right mental and physical traits to successfully re-ag or rewild will be starting with almost no resources and an inferiority complex.

          • Brutus says:

            I.M. Nobody sez:

            Me and computer first met about two decades later, in the military …The point I wish to make is that as near as self examination will allow, my brain still works almost exactly the same as it did in that teenager of 1961-62.

            Self-assessment on this point is not too reliable, especially when the cognitive changes take place slowly, over years. Further, you were already a fully formed adult and the real effects of the communications and computer revolution didn’t manifest until 1985 or 1992, depending on whether you count the first mass-produced consumer PC/Mac or the WWW hitting critical mass as the jumping off point.

            When I was training SAT and ACT instructors 5-8 years ago, there was a clear dividing line at about age 40. Those above that age could reason, think critically, and develop lessons dynamically in response to student input, whereas those below were technically adept at course content but lacked teaching skills. Worse, the younger ones often (not always) lacked interiority, which allows for empathy and theory of mind to root. The clinical data was reviewed and reported by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows, which discusses trends manifested in sample pools much larger that yours or mine.

            • I. M. Nobody says:

              et tu, Brute?

              Who knew this was the country for old men? 🙂

              I’ll probably get this wrong too, but I think you are telling me that there is clinical data that proves the human brain turns inside out at age 40 and makes you into a completely different person. Count me as totally amazed. No, that isn’t actually what you said at all. What you said was that there is something different about people born after about 1964.

              I couldn’t agree more with that proposition. That is the era when my children were born. I wanted to give them a childhood similar to mine, but that was impossible. I took them to grandma’s house as often as we could and let them run loose in small town America and they loved it. But back home at an apartment in the ‘burbs, their life was necessarily quite different. Their schools (note the plural) bore no resemblance at all to the one that I attended. The TV programming they grew up with was also quite different. Essentially, everything was different. They were after all the first children born since 1946 that were not Boomers. The world did not kiss their ass. They are several years past 40 now and they still don’t think very much like I do. They do still exhibit pretty much the same mentality they had as teens.

              Their mother and I split before their teens and she never had a computer until after they embarked on their own way. They have them now and spend a lot of time on them. It wasn’t a computer that shaped their childhood. I wonder though if it isn’t somehow an important factor in keeping them well adjusted upstanding citizens.

              I also wonder if your Mr. Carr might have unwittingly discovered the amazing generational gap between Boomers and Xers in that clinical data. Stranger things have happened. Call me old fashioned, because I am, but most of the time I have found good anecdotal evidence to be more useful than statistical. As we used to say, “statistics lie and I have the numbers to prove it.”

              Now I am not here to defend computers and what they have done to society. In fact I feel quite badly about what they have made possible, because I did play some small part in it. Now, I am just Sancho trying to dissuade Don Quixote from breaking his lance on a windmill. We cannot slay the many headed monster, but the heads do die of natural causes and I am confident that eventually they will stop being made. And will that be a time for lamentations from the multitude!

              • kulturcritic says:

                Sorry for interfering in your discussion with Brutus, IM, but I think you are right, the more screens that become present in our world, (theaters, televisions, computers, ipads, kindles, smart phones) the more visual (and thus virtual) do we become. The other senses becoming silenced by the visual “overshoot,” to borrow a current sustainability meme. I may try to look at this issue a bit in the next week’s post. sandy

      • leavergirl says:

        Anyone read Original Wisdom by Wolff? He has a breakthrough with the help of a Senoi wise man that takes him into that primal experience of participation. And he says that after, he’s never lost it.

        The Senoi man acts as a sort of a midwife, taking him to the jungle repeatedly… but in the end, it’s being suddenly alone in the jungle and not knowing where, or how to get back, that does it. An amazing story.

        • kulturcritic says:

          That is when the Tiger? shows him the way back, right leavergirl? Excellent book.

        • kulturcritic says:

          So, what you are saying is that the way to experience primal participation is go find a tribe in the Amazon and apprentice to a wise elder. Sure, not many of us can find that or will make the journey or survive if we do. Let’s not tilt at windmills. Although it is a noble quest.

          • leavergirl says:

            Yeah, it was the tiger.
            No, what I am saying is, it’s possible. There could be lots of different ways. Wolff says, this is a natural thing. This is the way we are made, deep down.

            • kulturcritic says:

              I do not disagree. It is in our feral core, our Pleistocene makeup. And I do believe that it is possible to recover that sense of integration, an ecstatic (standing-out) from oneself , and stripping back layers of enculturation, including literacy, rationality, unidirectional time consciousness, egoism. When I was responding to Cliff, above, I should have been clearer. I specifically said that Cliff’s recommendations (“conscious personal choice,” “self engaging practices and disciplines,” “focused effort,” “decision to cultivate”) may not lead us back there. Go back an look at what that discussion was, LG. Wolff had none of these intentions when he went to the Senoi. That is all I was commenting on. 😉

              • Cliff says:

                If anything at all has happened during this computer / tv / visual age. It seems to me that there has been a blatent exteriorization of human perception. Meaning to some degree that humans form relationship with the annimate and innanimate realms based more on, the information received from visual cues(sense perception) rather then the primal interior connections that likely still lurk within us all.

                I do believe that physiological changes in brain chemistry do take place over prolonged exposure to these visual repetitions. And I believe it is possible, of course thru discipline to reversemany of these effects.

                Languaging/ definitions/ labels, etc, etc seems to be a major
                stumbling bloc for us to experience the reinteriorization of all matter around us.
                All right I humbly withdraw
                all this speculation. Feel free to poke away

  11. relentless says:

    First: i must thank ALL of you, from Sandy for every week now for what, an Earthly revolution around our sun? This blog for the profoundly impassioned ones seeking far more than what the imposed indoctinations could ever offer us. This includes the emotional residues of the disaffecteds, the anarchrists, et al, who, whether or not known to them, have brought us to an unusual point (not yet unique but closing in) of sublime comprehension. i sense…kinship, in spite of our bantering differences, which really aren’t eons apart. Brutus, Ralph, Javacat, Leavergirl, Ron, John, Cliff and all the rest–you know who you are. With that stated: There are subtleties just beneath the surface with your blog this week, esp. your final paragraph Sandy, that nearly come to what i refer to as the ‘flash,’ a brilliant insightfulness where words bcome impotent, and only get in the way of something glaringly obvious. Because i am heading down a path which feels strangely ancient yet untrod, i suppose i’m asking myself to ponder if those of us on the tip of capturing this flash, will ever ‘get there’, there being where we almost know where ‘there’ is but remain frustrated because we attempt to understand it #1) with words and #2) at all. What really was going on in our ancestors’ minds 100,000 years (whatever) past…really? What i do seem to ‘understand’ is that our great, great, great, great (keep going) grandparents were responsible for all our breaths today, and damn it, whether they thought about THEIR great, great, great, great (keep going) grandchildren at all or didn’t, i have a most profound sense of extreme, passionate, resonating responsibility to MY great, great, great, great (keep going) grandchildren only due to those great, great, great, great (keep going) gandparents’ beautiful gifts bestowed from them.

    We are all capable of creating wondrous throughts and deeds, in my specific case, new plants, new music, new words/thoughts, etc. And ALL of you extraordinary people have your own creative passions, this i know. So i ask: what if each of us allows them all, singly and together, to coalesce into something extraordinarily wondrous? Creating a truly authentic sustainable existence?

    Will we all get ‘there,’ and live to live it? i don’t know, but i think i know this: None of us are on a plateau, we’re hacking out our own path(s) with our mental machetes, though seemingly very alone and yet very together. Will mere written words accomplish this ‘dream’ i have? i think not, however, i reside–stand–right on the cusp, or is it the precipice–like you, of figuring it all out, some beautiful insight, or, losing it completely. i would prefer, unlike Melville’s Barnaby, the former. Thank you all for your continued existence on this most amazing orb.

    • john patrick says:

      Hey R, thanks for the nice writeup. “Will we all get ‘there,’ and live to live it?”

      Pondering one of the ancient writings… it makes more sense to me that the “apple” was an invitation/ticket to adventure, to explore both high and low, mountain and valley, and gain understanding in the process. Something a fetus in the womb, or a gardener in the garden (agriculture?) would never know.

      If exploration/adventure is at the core, where does hunker down and form a sustainable community fit in if we are just passing through. I can certainly understand the need for peace and serenity, of rest in one place, a glass of red without spilling it on ones shoes. But this can only be for a short time if the advent-ure is to go on.

      To achieve and sit in perfect peace, would make a perfect slave. Unable and unwilling to explore, or affect the landscape for others to enjoy. To have all of us sit in perfect peace, would be the end of the world.

    • leavergirl says:

      Relentless, thank you! And I think we are on the cusp of coalescing.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Renlentless – thanks for having joined our expanding group. The pleasure of hosting is all mine. I too believe there is a precipice approaching, but am not sure if that will lead to chaos or ecstasy. Although flashes along the way must be cherished. No? best, sandy

  12. BretSimpson says:

    Aboriginals are the canary…what crops did the Nunamuit grow?

  13. leavergirl says:

    Here’s a link for professor Meima. The difference between building social capital and contributing to the human community.

  14. BretSimpson says:

    Milk drinker…emuktuktik..levergirl…

  15. BretSimpson says:

    Was hast the arts gesagt bette sehr..hubslesh fruhlain ja?Petchiak pin..das is shade..gute bessurung…(red neck ebonics)

  16. troutsky says:

    This supposition makes narcissism a modern phenomenon. An epidemic, I would argue. As for some practical sharing exercises, the Diggers could be reincarnated.

  17. BretSimpson says:

    Lived in Denver..worked @Rocky Mtn. Arsenal..rabbits with no ears..Shell gettin rid of weapons..Boulder was nice in those days..

  18. “So, is purely self-regarding behavior naturally human? Is there an evil human nature lurking just beneath our refined civilized exterior? Or, are thuggery, self-interest, and greed merely symptoms of this modern, civilized culture and it relentless emphasis upon the individual — on competition, hyper-specialization, management and control, both of nature and our fellow man?”

    Personally, I think its simple – being born into this terminally ill and pathological society, are forced as a survival meme to both conform and to hide the fact of our disgust and disagreement with it. So out of fear we adopt defensive measures to survive and protect the ‘inner self’ from defeat and death – by deferring to the apparently overwhelming threat of death if one denounces the status quo completely.

    However over time we have the choice to fully self-inculcate the lies of our civilization, or to nurture and main the basic observation that we are disconnected from reality in every artifice of polite society. The difference between these two attitudes determines your complicity in the system and the potential for a freer future. On Brutus’ point, I do think at every level we are trapped within the historical inertia of our circumstances, but in the interests of maintaining hope I would like to maintain that having a more true attitude about human nature will be the bedrock of any potential future we are going to have after a civilizational breakdown crisis.

    • kulturcritic says:

      OK VL! I read what you wrote. I understand that this society is sick; I understand that we either buy in fully to the delusion, or we maintain a sensibly reflective position on the edges. But, you still have not answered the question you quoted at the top of your comment. What lurks beneath? Do you agree or not, that the evil we experience in and around us is a product of the sick culture, or is it in “our nature.”

      • Basically, we have set up a chain of events that that results in many people being born into difficult situations requiring them to adapt to attitudes and actions quite the opposite of their nature – or in my view, simple common sense. I don’t think it makes any logical sense to be a proponent of infinite personal growth as the only predictable end result is isolation and destruction… So our nature is not naturally self-interested above all else, however when confronted with what is apparently an anti-social apparatus, I think many people will take up an attitude of apparent self-interest when in reality, they are simply trying to preserve the truth within them. In a way it is a form of pure survival mechanism rather than a desire for acquisition.

        So in that way I think that not everyone who is part of the system is necessarily doing it for greed, but rather as a survival mechanism. At the end of the day I think there are far more disaffected people than beneficiaries of the capitalist system – just look at the OWS claims of the ‘99%’. While they may be a bourgeoise elite begging for more scraps from the master’s table, I don’t think their number is off the mark. Almost everyone loses as the top elites laugh all the way to the bank.

      • Brutus says:

        The provisional subject of the post is man’s (true) nature, and Sandy is framing the question with some insistence in terms of a chimerical underlying biology in contrast with adaptive behaviors borne out of acculturation to external circumstances. Vyse Legendaire slips by the question by relying on survival instinct — as it operates within a complex social system now run amok — to explain why we participate, knowingly on some level though perhaps only intuitively, in a crazy and corrupt system. These are curiosities, no doubt, and the arguments are appreciated, but I wonder how much light they really shed on anything. Assuming solely for the sake of argument that the question (boiling down to the familiar trope nature vs. nurture) has a definitive answer, once we arrive at it, then what?

        Put another way, is it a wave or a particle? What does that even mean, really?

        • javacat says:

          Well said.

        • Maybe I should explain myself a bit better. I don’t think there is a distinction between biology and survival mechanism. I believe the fact that we are alive today is no reducible down only to survival – because we have managed to evolve numerous traits completely alien to bare survival – like consciousness, reason, and the appendix. Additionally, I don’t think that distinction even pertains to the question of ” is purely self-regarding behavior naturally human?”, because whether we like it or not, we are acculturated into that environment, as we always have been born into some level of danger and constant change. Man never was materialized from the cosmos on a fully formed planet, in some Certesian, mathematical sense. The process of life begins in chaos and ends, likely, with chaos.

          However isn’t our rationality reason enough to try and grab ‘fate’ by the horns and direct it? That’s why I’m suggesting we take it upon ourselves to intuit our own idea of what human nature is, otherwise we might as well give in to our vestigial nature and die right here and now. Maybe your idea that we can’t have any real effect on any good future due to our ‘taintedness’ in this soiled age, but something tells me our ice age hunter gatherer ancestors did not think their actions would lay the groundwork for sipping coffee while having long winded debates on internet blogs…

          Point being, isn’t nihilism a suicidal trait?

        • kulturcritic says:

          Not sure where you’re driving this truck, Brutus. I happen to agree with Sahlins, that the concept of human nature is a chimera of Western metaphysics and political philosophy. It has been constructed, much like the world religions were constructed, to justify control of the masses, wholly evil by nature!

          • Brutus says:

            I’m not driving anywhere in particular. I’ve made a few points and they failed to convince. You (and others) still want to divide and categorize and mete out responsibility for moral failure. That’s the launching point of the post, which itself stems from comments in the previous post. I don’t regard the issue as a machine works with separable parts and functions but rather as a unity, and an immensely complex one at that, resistant to our understanding and certainly to any fiddling.

            In biology, everything eats something else, and the manner in which that is accomplished is rather horrifying to some of us. Is a lion kill (chasing down an antelope and snapping its neck) better — however that might be construed — than a parasitic infection (depositing larvae under the skin and using the foreign body as an incubator)? Goes back to the issue of boundaries, mentally and bodily understood.

            We humans have a strange moral overlay on being prey (now preying on each other again with renewed ferocity) and having our bodies penetrated and corrupted. We’ve carefully ignored that our minds have been hosts to foreign ideas all along, many of which have proven virulent. There are undoubtedly good and bad ways to die, peacefully or violently, painfully or contentedly. As prey, we often don’t get to choose. And as predators, we use what we got with the same utter lack of moral compunction as the lion or the parasite. That’s what being the top predator grants us, I guess.

  19. James says:

    Men are competitive, often violently so, and can take great pleasure in perpetrating that violence on other humans and inanimate objects. This derives from being a social hierarchical species in which competition for mates and resources has often been settled with brute force and humiliating defeat for the loser. This characteristic is likely many millions of years old and predates any technological influence. If you couldn’t fight, you couldn’t mate and therefore your genes were not passed on.

    In the technological society the violence and competition is channeled into sports where many thousands of raving mad fans can have a violent experience with sexy, scantily clad prizes, cheering from the sidelines. Also consider the popularity of violence on TV and in video games and boxing, wrestling, war and so on. Sometimes males just like the beat the tar out of something like an old car or blast a road sign just for fun, and not coincidentally that violence does result in the release of feel good neurochemicals like dopamine. All of that violence feels good. Recently a teen girl murdered a nine year old friend and said with regard to strangling and stabbing her, “I am so sorry for what I did” yet “it felt pretty good”.

    The competition is taken to ridiculous levels by the wealthy that compete for net worth, mansion size, car stable, horse stable, jet stable, yachts and so forth. Business competition is just another means of determining the hierarchy. In a civilized society, those that resort to using fists and testosterone end up in prison.

    Testosterone behind a fist is bad enough, behind a technological weapon like a gun it’s much worse, behind a nuclear weapon it’s vaporizing. I really don’t see any changing of man’s tendency towards violence, it’s a salient feature of our species, whether we’re throwing stones at each other or launching ICBMs.

    • kulturcritic says:

      James, For some reason your anecdotal evidence does not convince me in the least. cheers

      • I. M. Nobody says:

        James did get a little over the top with phrases like “tendency toward violence” and the apparent exoneration of females for lacking the right hormone. While I observe no particular tendency, it is demonstrably true that most humans, including females, do have a considerable capacity for violence. The evocative energy required to tease that capacity out into the open varies quite a lot. Most people do not let it out easily. For this we must be thankful.

        A writer named Fred Reed posted his thoughts on this topic on his blog today. Borrowing a saying I read somewhere a long time ago, Fred “has been to the other side of the hill and seen the elephant.”

        I think there is a lot in this topic worth thinking about. Nuclear weapons will eventually disappear, but even bow and arrow violence is nothing to sneeze at.

        • kulturcritic says:

          Good link, Nobody — I think his last statement sums up well: “When you have trained men to behave in a certain way, don’t be surprised when they do.” sandy

          • I. M. Nobody says:

            Yes, and I think it applies equally well to those who are non-violently assaulting the ecologies, economies and cultures of this planet. The executive officers aren’t crazy. They are doing what they were trained to do. Some at their parents knee, others by their renowned prep schools, colleges and universities. Whether being trained to kill or to destroy, one human characteristic that must be suppressed is caring about people who in some way are not like you. The people adequately skilled in conducting such training do not seem to be few in number.

            • I like the thrust of this discussion, its similar to what I was getting at in my previous posts…that ‘human nature’ is quite malleable, and can be twisted and molded just as much or more so as it is inherited. That is why I think its important not to throw humanity down as an ‘evolutionary cul de sac’ (as Peter Joseph has said) because we happen to also eat other living organisms – something Brutus seemed to be hinting at.

              I don’t think we must always be predator or prey… maybe there is balance that we can meet without depleting those resources that are out there… maybe our more egalitarian pre-civilized bands were more respectful and resourceful to the planet and other organisms in a way that surpasses lions and parasites…and isn’t there something to be said for the difference in consciousness levels of plants and insects and our ‘sapiens’ selves? Maybe its just a kind of superiority to say that we are entitled to eat other organisms because we are self-aware, but the extant difference does remain.

              I think its just as easy to picture our selves living relatively harmoniously with our surroundings indefinitely rather than to think we have become corrupt simply because we could. I think the far path we’ve taken towards our own destruction was a cascading series of moral failures and failures of courage that reap what they sow.

  20. kulturcritic says:

    Excerp from:
    Preconquest Consciousness
    E. Richard Sorenson
    Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of Anthropology, Helmut Wautischer, ed.

    The Preconquest Setting

    The preconquest type of consciousness detailed below survives today only in a few, now rapidly vanishing, isolated enclaves. Although those we contacted were widely dispersed, they shared a distinctive type of consciousness—one very different from the postconquest type that dominates the world today. It emerged from a type of child and infant nurture common to that era but shunned in ours.

    The outstanding demographic condition required for such a life is small populations surrounded by tracts of open territory into which anyone can diffuse virtually at will. This allows those discomfited by local circumstance, or attracted by conditions further on, to move as they wish with whoever might be similarly inclined. This was the case even in the smallest of all the preconquest enclaves seen. The outstanding social condition is a sociosensual type of infant and child nurture that spawns an intuitive group rapport and unites people without need for formal rules. The outstanding psychological condition is heart-felt rapprochement based on integrated trust. This provides remarkable efficiency in securing needs and responding to nature’s challenges while dispensing ongoing delight with people and surroundings.

    The outstanding economic condition is absence of private property, which allows constant cooperative usage of the implements and materials of life for collective benefit. The human ecology engendered by the interaction of these outstanding conditions makes the forcing of others (including children) to one’s will a disruptive and unwholesome practice. It was not seen.

    Any form of subjugation, even those barriers to freedom imposed by private property, are the kiss of death to this type of life. Though durable and self-repairing in isolation, the unconditional open trust this way of life requires shrivels with alarming speed when faced with harsh emotions or coercion. Deceit, hostility, and selfishness when only episodic temporarily benumb intuitive rapport. When such conditions come to stay and no escape is possible, intuitive rapport disintegrates within a brutally disorienting period of existential trauma and anomie. With no other models about except those of conquerors, a `savage-savage’ emerges from the wreckage of a once ‘noble-savage’. These more brutal beings adjust to the postconquest milieu by adopting formal group identities. First they internalize various abstract ideas of space, boundary and kinship introduced by their conquerors. They then use them to anchor claims of their own to turf. They devise rules and customs that clearly identify them as a distinct people with formal rights. From this process different kinds of cultural elaboration emerge in separated regions—until a harsher level of conquest presses their uniqueness to extinction.

    This preconquest type of life, and its transformation, came to light unsought and unexpectedly during a comparative study of child behavior and human development in cultural isolates. It was encountered among such peoples as: Neolithic hunter-gatherer-gardeners in the Central Range of New Guinea; pagan Sea Nomads in the Eastern Sea of Andaman off southern Burma and Thailand; maritime nomads in the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines; isolated ocean-going fisherfolk in southern India; nomadic hunter-gatherers in Tamil Nadu, India; subsistence agriculturists (Tharu and Tamang, but less so Jyapu) in Nepal; forest nomads (Sikai) in the interior mountains of the Malay Peninsula on the Malaysia-Thailand border; Negrito hunter-gatherer-gardeners in interior mountains of Negros Island in the Philippines; hunter-gatherer-gardeners (Mbotgate) in the central rainforests of Vanuatu’s Malekula Island; nomadic Tibetan herders of the Changthang Plateau; subsistence Micronesian atoll dwellers in traditional outliers of the Western Caroline Islands, the remote Polynesian population on Ono-i-Lau; and in isolated American Indian enclaves in Mexico and South America. Vestigial aspects ofpreconquest life were seen in segregated urban ghettos in Asia and Oceania. Early accounts suggest that traditional Eskimos and many North American Indian tribes possessed similar traits. The Yequena Indians of Venezuela clearly did.3

    • Brutus says:

      Nice to see support for this discussion. Although out of scope for this post, I was also glad to see description of liminality, which has been the subject of prior discussions of ours. One a purely personal note, I’m surprised frankly that so many remote groups persist outside of interior Africa and the Amazon basin, but that just goes to show my feeble grasp of Asian geography.

      • I. M. Nobody says:

        If you have access to Netflix, I recommend watching Pururambo. Amazon has it available on DVD. A Slovak film crew plunged into the New Guinea jungle to capture something of the way some of those really remote people live.

      • kulturcritic says:

        I studied with Victor Turner where the concept of liminality was explored in great detail; I like the idea, but want to think it through more carefully. Sorenson’s confirmation of the issues in previously extant groups is stunning. For certain!!

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