I have speculated that the long 10,000 year explosion of civilized society has had a domesticating effect on humans. that we have, in fact, become a domesticated species, essentially a product of self-domestication.
But this has led us to not only deny but denigrate certain parts of us that may not be entirely domesticated. I constantly hear about how wonderful our air-conditioned existence of mortgage payments, graduate school, vicarious living through celebrities, labor-saving devices, 24-hour entertainment and creature comforts is, and how utterly beastly and horrible existence must have been for all people before "modernity." But what if, on some level, we need to live on the edge to be happy? What if it on some level a tame existence is antithetical to happiness?
I think we've made the world too safe. We crave something more than the dreariness of industrialized, commoditized, comercialized, suburban cul-de-sac exitence, even as we're told that we never had it so good. And we rebel in all sorts of ways, from extreme sports to drug abuse to petty crime to motorcycle gangs. I think is why so many men disappear into computers and video games - it hijacks that primal goal-seeking part of us that gets no satisfaction in our normal day-to-day existence. Much like the dog chasing a car, or the cat pouncing on a flashlight beam, it's a simulacrum of what we evolved for. As George Monbiot writes:
We evolved in challenging circumstances. In Africa we contended not only with the current megafauna, but also with sabretooth and false sabretooth cats, one species of which may have specialised in hunting hominids (an idea Bruce Chatwin explored in The Songlines). When modern humans first arrived in Europe, they entered an ecosystem dominated by lions, hyaenas and cave bears, by forest elephants and rhinos and the monstrous scimitar cats which preyed on these animals. Russia and eastern Europe were haunted by two great beasts, Elasmotherium sibiricum and Elasmotherium caucasicum: humpbacked rhinos the size of elephants, eight feet to the crest, weighing perhaps five tonnes.Ghost Psyche
In most parts of the world, we have been relieved of our nightmares. Ours are ghost ecosystems, whose species are adapted to challenges which no longer exist. The pronghorn antelope of North America, for example, can run at 60 miles per hour because it was once hunted by the American cheetah, which is now extinct. Most deciduous trees in Europe can resprout from any point at which the trunk is broken, and can withstand the kind of extreme punishment they suffer when a hedge is laid. Why? Because they evolved among elephants. Similarly, we possess a ghost psyche: a suite of behavioural and emotional adaptations to a dangerous world; which once helped us to hunt and to avoid being hunted.
Even when we are only dimly aware of these adaptations, our ghost psyche still haunts us. The heroic tales we have preserved – stories of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lạc Long Quân or Glooskap – are those which resonate with our evolutionary history. In computer games, fantasy novels and science fiction films, the ancient sagas of battles with lost monsters maintain their essential form. The absence of our ancestral challenges forces us to sublimate and transliterate, to invent quests and dangers, to seek an escape from what I have come to see as ecological boredom. Sometimes this sublimation seems insufficient.
We deny all this of course, and celebrate our modern civilized existence as the epitomy of human culture. That we have "progressed" beyond that ghastly mode of existence once and for all and will never look back. And good riddance. We're told that we're much better off being preyed upon by the corporate sharks and sociopaths of the one percent than actual sharks and saber-toothed tigers.
It's intersting that writers like Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker express shock and horror at the high rate of violence of past societies. But why don't they express the same shock and horror at the high rates of social dysfunction and mental illness that seems to be the tradeoff in modern, post-industrial societies? It's interesting to note that there is no evidence that people in "violent" societies are any less happy. There are very few therapists in hunter-gatherer societies, and no PTSD. In fact, the more peaceful and orderly the society, it seems, the higher the rate of mental illness, familial dysfunction, and suicide. I think this paradox deserves more exploration, except that I'm not sure we would be entirely comfortable with the answers we might find. Monbiot again:
The first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans were characterised by dispossession, oppression and massacre, but in some places there were periods of friendly engagement. Native Americans were sometimes given the opportunity to join European households as equals; and in many cases Europeans were able to join Native American communities on the same basis. It could be seen as a social experiment, whose purpose was to determine which life people would prefer to lead. There was no mistaking the outcome.Chris Hedges wrote a book about his observations as a war correspondent in a book entitled War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. It's been overshadowed by his subsequent work as an activist and dissident, but it makes some very important points about why war stubbornly refuses to go away, even in the age of cell phones:
In 1753 Benjamin Franklin made the following complaint. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return … [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
In 1785, Hector de Crèvecoeur remarked on what happened when the parents of European children came to collect the children who had been kidnapped by Native Americans. “Those whose more advanced ages permitted them to recollect their fathers and mothers, absolutely refused to follow them, and ran to their adopted parents for protection against the effusions of love their unhappy real parents lavished on them! … the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us … thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of these Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”
People of both communities were given a choice between the relatively secure, but confined, settled and regulated life of the Europeans, and the mobile, free and uncertain life of the Native Americans. In every case, Crèvecoeur and Franklin tell us, the Europeans chose to stay with the Native Americans, and the Native Americans returned, at the first opportunity, to their own communities. This says more than is comfortable about our own lives.
And yet there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war's simplicity and high. The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it gives us what we all long for in life. It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those that have the least meaning in their lives-the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the lost legions of youth that live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world-are all susceptible to war's appeal.http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/War_Peace/War_Gives_Meaning.html
And I think men, by their nature, have an even harder time dealing with this dull, understimulating, servile, cubicle-bound, water-cooler, office-politicking, "have-a-nice-day existence. Men weren't bred for it, we were built to explore and build and fight and screw and drink. I know that's politically incorrect, but there it is. I think modernity forces us to fight against our own human natures. Why does society force us to deny who we are? (I think a lot of women have trouble too, but I can better speak from a man's perspective). I think a lot of men, even those who put on a tie every morning, yearn for this. It's a recurring theme, from the Romantic Movement through Fight Club. We yearn for the macho workplace of Mad Men instead of the rule-bound asexualized workplaces of today; we prefer to watch the carnage unfold on Game of Thrones rather than the dull meetings, pandering, and spin doctoring that is modern politics.
Classics can be interpreted in different ways. These days, “The Searchers” can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.Men on the Threshold (NYT)
The movie’s West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As the University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own. That kind of person, the hero of most westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.
But, as this sort of classic western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there’s no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury.
As Cantor notes, “The Searchers” is about this moment of transition. Civilization is coming. New sorts of people are bringing education, refinement, marriage and institutionalized justice. Crimes are no longer to be punished by the righteous gunfighter but by law.
Ethan Edwards made this world possible, but he is unfit to live in it. At the end of the movie, after seven years of effort, he brings the abducted young woman home. The girl is ushered inside, but, in one of the iconic images in Hollywood history, Edwards can’t cross the threshold. Because he is tainted by violence, he can’t be part of domestic joy he made possible. He is framed by the doorway and eventually walks away.
And I think there is a difference between feral humans and domesticated ones. While we now know that 10,000 years is enough to change a species at the genetic level, the "earlier" genes are still present. Domestication is not 100 percent, especially not the undirected kind we've been subjected to. And I think, for some of us, those genes are stirring something deep in our soul, something that can never be fulfilled by careerism, post-secondary education, computer games, TV shows or shopping. I think those "domesticated" humans are the ones who are okay with extreme inequality, with being under the thumb of a leader, with being spoonfed their thoughts, with being told what to do at every moment of the day, with pissing away their lives in a cubicle living though their sports heroes. I've often marveled at such people. They seem so happy and content. Why, I would wonder, do they have no qualms about this tame and mediocre bland existence? But that's not all of us. Some of us are reversion to a more "primitive" type. I think it may come down to what genes you have. When Europeans began to exploit natives in "primitive" cultures, some submitted, while some ran away, or, in many cases, chose to die instead.
And if this is true, I think we should think about building society around human nature, rather than the reverse. Because the longer the mismatch goes, the greater the urge to tear everything down, even the beneficial things, throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Please be clear, I'm not celebrating violence, only pointing out that celebrating our 24-hour monitored "safe" existence of security cameras and bureaucracy and courts and prisons as some authors do isn't as much "progess" as proponents claim. And if our goal truly is creating societies of human happiness and fulfillment, we should be prepared to live with a little bit of danger.