Last Christmas, I was given a book with the snappy title, ‘The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous’. The author, Joseph Henrich, is an anthropologist and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. In the book, he argues that WEIRD people – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – have a civilisation like no other. It is individualistic and monogamous, as opposed to the overwhelming majority of human civilisations which place prime value not on the individual but on the status and prosperity of the kinship group (tribe, clan, call it what you will).
While there are many positives in such traditional societies – stability, long-term vision, respect for ancestors – the trade off is the lack of individual rights. There is no real concept of individual rights. Individuals are born into a role within the group, defined by their gender and by who their parents are. Romantic love, the whole idea that individuals can choose for themselves who to mate with, is an aspect of individualism. In most human societies, the choice is made for them. High status men typically take multiple wives, and women aspire to bear the children of high status men. WEIRD people (like me and you) think that is abhorrent. We have developed a totally different sense of moral value founded on the concept of individual rights.
The book looks at how this WEIRD mentality has developed over the last 2000 years or so, and how it affected the way European civilisation developed – particularly in relation to trade. It looks at the relationship to religious beliefs (the one, of course, begets the other) and the huge influence of literacy on human psychological development. (The very act of learning to read the written word, it turns out, actually changes the way the brain perceives and processes information.) It’s a fascinatingly different take on European history that goes to the psychological root of why Europeans created empires that spanned the globe – and all the misery, oppression and dislocation that goes with that imperialism.
I was most of the way through this book when I came across the transcript of an interview with an Australian biologist, Jeremy Griffith, who claims to have identified a science-based theory for why humankind’s natural state is peaceful co-existance and mutual aid, and that aggressive competition for land and resources, far from being intrinsic in human nature, is unnatural. He cites the example of one of our closest animal relations, the bonobo, with whom we share 99% of the same DNA, and who live in social colonies distinguished by the tenderness and care individuals show for each other.
Bonobo zoo keeper Barbara Bell writes that ‘Adult bonobos demonstrate tremendous compassion for each other…For example, Kitty, the eldest female, is completely blind and hard of hearing. Sometimes she gets lost and confused. They’ll just pick her up and take her to where she needs to go’ (‘The Bonobo: “Newest” apes are teaching us about ourselves’, Chicago Tribune, 11 Jun. 1998). Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh says, ‘Bonobo life is centered around the offspring. Unlike what happens among chimpanzees, all members of the bonobo social group help with infant care and share food with infants. If you are a bonobo infant, you can do no wrong…Bonobo females and their infants form the core of the group’
Griffith’s argument is that the aggressive and competitive traits in humanity arise from the conflict between this ‘natural’ state of unconscious harmony, and human consciousness which always wants to free itself from the constraints of inheritance and push against the boundaries of cultural conditioning – in other words, the questing human mind which rejects the constraints of a pre-ordained life in pursuit of individual freedom. He believes this continual inner turmoil is where all human psychosis, anger, fear, guilt and insecurity comes from – we are all continually trying to work out the meaning of life as individuals, not as part of a tribe where the individual’s purpose is to serve the needs of the tribe in pre-determined ways. Griffith therefore concludes that the conscious re-discovery of that pre-conscious (‘innocent’) state of peaceful and harmonious co-existance resolves the psychological conflict and heals the human psyche.
Randomly, I also came across a new word the other day. The ‘noosphere’ is “the sphere of human consciousness and mental activity especially in regard to its influence on the biosphere and in relation to evolution.” In practice, it means that people who have no apparent contact or connection to each other can come up with the same idea, invention or discovery at roughly the same time because the noosphere is right for that revelation to take place.
Working through in my imagination the conflict between the dream of the Fair Land existing in a war-torn, conflict-ridden, progress-obsessed human world governed by a patriarchal and individualistic god, I blundered blindly and unscientifically to the same conclusion as the anthropologists and biologists (as many others have done before and will continue to do). It may well be that the time is right now for us to discover our birthright – our capacity for peaceful co-existance. It seems to me that the ultimate stage of the search for individual meaning is the conscious re-discovery of how to live in harmony with each other and with the rest of the natural world – only in that state of harmony can the individual be truly free. We need to finally understand where we belong, and what made us.
It won’t happen overnight. But what I suspect we will see in the coming decades are more and more societies experimenting with peaceful co-operation, quite likely underpinned by concepts such as the doughnut economic model, or the Wellbeing framework. The governing structures, habits and mores of that culture will not be like those of our world today. The things people value and the traits they respect will be different. The interactions between different social groups will be different – the whole concept of ‘nationality’ is part and parcel of our dysfunctional conflict-ridden world, but the emotional connection people have to the land where they feel they belong, and the people they feel they belong with, is not.
Where I differ from Jeremy Griffith is that he sees a conscious return to some kind of Eden as an inevitable future for humanity. But it is not just DNA that makes us who we are. Humans are not bonobos. Bonobos walk upright, like humans; their young need a lot of nurturing, like humans. Unlike humans, they live in matriarchal groups, not patriarchal ones, which is why that nurturing of infants is central to their community life. Humans live in a global patriarchy where status and power are central to community life.
There are two forces I see at play in the world today – the awakening consciousness of a mass of individuals who are working with humanity’s key adaptation – the thinking, learning, problem-solving mind of each individual – to create a culture of peaceful co-existance and mutual aid. Ranged against them is the formidable force of the status quo which concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, and is aiming for the survival of just a few individuals on a world of drastically diminished resources. At the same time as some places and societies are experimenting with peaceful co-existance, we will see other places – and sadly Britain, or at least England, is almost certainly going to be one unless there is some kind of a revolution in its current political direction – where reactionary forces dominate. Resources will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, dominant elite; some will be dispensed to a corps of people who serve the needs and fancies of the elite. Anyone else who has the misfortune to share a geo-political location with these oligarchs doesn’t get a look in. There is no support, no concept of public welfare, no recognition of common wealth, no respect for the rights of the individual – no real ‘government’ as we understand it. The legacy of cultural conditioning comes to the fore, giving rise to a popular culture that suppresses individual choice and individual rights. It’s fertile ground for corruption, crime, misogyny, greed, short-termism and abusive and addictive behaviours of all kinds; all the evils of individualism flourish, and it is barren soil for the compassion and creativity that might challenge the elite.
These reactive enclaves are by nature aggressive and expansionist. They focus on immediate gratification, and very little on long-term thinking. The ruling elite are uninterested in understanding cause and effect because they are completely unaccountable – they have no internal conscience, and there is no-one with the power to hold them to account. They foster over-consumption, so they will always have an eye on other peoples’ lands. They may drive out the peace-loving mutual-aiders, leave them no space to be. In which case, whatever human-like creatures continue to walk the Earth a few generations hence, they will not be the thinking, learning, adaptive, loving creatures we are capable of becoming but something other. Something less.
The New Testament – a text that has been hugely influential in the formation of WEIRD psychology – says that God is Love. In other words, love is what has made us the way we are, which is the basic concept of the scientific theory proposed by Jeremy Griffith (and the basis of the infant-centred bonobo culture). The New Testament also says the meek shall inherit the Earth. Let’s hope it’s right on this as well.
Humans are conscious animals, we evolve by conscious learning more than we evolve through genetic adaptation. If our environmental niche is co-operative social groups living within the resources available to them, then we cannot inhabit it living under a competitive global system that fosters wars and conflict, and all the over-consumption that comes with those conflicts. But survival is not compulsory. Humans have to make a conscious choice to return to their environmental niche – co-operative social groups living harmoniously within the resources available to them. If we humans are collectively incapable of learning our place, if we surrender our individual capacity for critical thinking and revert to the cultural habits of the kinship group where rebellion against the status quo is shameful, individuals have no rights and creative thinking is heavily constrained by what is acceptable to those of high status, we surrender our future to the reactionaries. These are the choices we are living with today. Which path do we each, individually, want to tread?
Below is an extract from my book, the Hills of Gold. It features Therro, the pirate, the highly individual, typical rags-to-riches WEIRD hero, talking about life in Shehaios, the Fair Land:
“The people [Shaihens] saw themselves as just a part of the place, they supported the life around them and it supported them. It all went on just exactly the same, day after day, working in between the spaces left by all the bloody ants and all the bloody ancestors. And no-one could govern the place without the consent of these people. That’s why the rate of change was so glacially slow. Every bloody peasant had to think about it for half a lifetime and study the ants before they could decide whether to accept it or not. Why they called it the Home of the Free I did not know. Every slave-driven bugger beyond the Gate working for a starvation wage was more free than the highest-born Shaihen, tied to his inheritance and fettered by his obligations.”
Later, the Magician of Shehaios confronts Therro with the choices facing him:
“You don’t want to be tied down by the things and people you love.” [says the Magician] “I get that. That’s why you’re my hero. [but it]…Looks to me like you’re facing a straight choice. You do a deal with the higher authority – and we both know who that is. Or you make your peace with Shehaios.”
“I don’t belong in Shehaios. Never did. Never will.”
“Bollocks. Of course you belong here. This is the land of the free.”
Therro gave a cynical grunt of laughter.
“And that’s the biggest joke of all. No-one in Shehaios is free.”
“By choice,” said [the Magician] looking him in the eye. “And that’s the difference, Therro. The only difference. Anyone can be a Shaihen if they choose to give their allegiance to the Fair Land.”
Jeremy Griffith: Breakthrough Biological Explanation of the Human Condition,
Joseph Henrich: The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Pub. Penguin, widely available from booksellers.
S.A. Rule: Shaihen Heritage Series Book 5, The Hills of Gold www.shehaios.co.uk