An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson
A reason (or two) for hope?
During the past month the following statement of Philip E. Slater (The Pursuit of Loneliness, 1970, p. 144) has been on my mind: “there is no particular reason why the United States could not become the center of the most beautiful, benign, and exciting culture the world has ever known.” Then today (March 1, 2010) I received an e-mail from Dan Maguire (a theology professor at Marquette University) with a remarkable story attached about a dog (www.snopes.com/photos/animals/jasmine.asp).
The dog had been found by police in England, locked away in a shed and abandoned. The police took the dog to the local wildlife sanctuary, and the man who ran the sanctuary immediately proceeded to restore the dog to a normal condition. After this was accomplished (over a period of several weeks), the plan was to finding a home for the dog (which was given the name Jasmine).
However, she seems to have developed her own plans for her future. At some point she began to take it upon herself to welcome all new animal arrivals at the sanctuary—regardless of species. 1 The employees of the sanctuary can’t remember just how this came about, but were amazed at observing this sort of behavior. Needless to say, Jasmine thereby gained for herself a permanent job at the sanctuary!
I’m not ashamed to state that this story brought tears of joy to my eyes, for it occurred to me that this story was a “good news” parable being told for our benefit as humans. On one hand the story makes one ask: “Why can’t humans be like this dog? Certainly we humans are more intelligent than dogs, aren’t we?” But the story can do more for us than cause us to ask this question.
Irving Sarnoff (Society With Tears, 1966, p. 256) declared years ago that none of the technologically “advanced” societies is fit for human habitation; Philip Slater has asserted (p. 92) that “our society was not designed for people;” and Gordon Rattray Taylor (Rethink: A Paraprimitive Solution, 1972, p. 19) has observed that “we live in a psychological slum.” Certainly a great deal of evidence could be adduced in support of these claims. But this dog story helps give us some hope, on the other hand, that our society can be made fit for human habitation.
To do so, however, will not be easy. I suggest, though, that a good starting point would be to reject two important “crimes against humanity”: the dogma of “original sin,” and the philosophy of Social Darwinism. The first “crime” flies in the face of abundant research—experimental, observational, primatological, anthropological, archeological, etc.—to the contrary. And the second “crime” is rooted in Darwin’s virtually worthless “theory” of Natural Selection. I wish that I could expound at length on this point here, but this is not the place to do so. Let me say here simply that the purported competition—between species and within a given species—that is at the “heart” of that “theory” is simply not a law of nature; and that as early as the late 1800s Prince Peter Kropotkin published research findings (including his own) that contradicted this claim.
It is certainly true that the human has a higher intelligence than the dog—which fact gives us some measure of hope that human behavior can become more Jasmine-like. However, the fact that humans have not used their intelligence to achieve such an end gives one pause.
In noting that humans have not used their intelligence to create societies for themselves that would be fit to live in, I must immediately point out, however, that this claim must be qualified—and that it’s fortunate that this is the case. I must add here that anthropologists who have studied contemporary “primitive” groups during the past century have observed Jasmine-like behavior in most of the groups that they have studied. Which fact leads to the inference that all of the humans who lived 10,000 years ago (i.e., prior to the Agricultural “Revolution”) engaged in such behavior as a matter of course.
Warren Johnson (Muddling Toward Frugality, 1978, p. 43), in stating that “The Biblical legend of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden [the “Fall”] seems clearly to describe the invention of agriculture,” seems to have been suggesting that with the Agricultural “Revolution” a “discrepancy” began to develop between (1) the way of life for which humans had become “designed” (via the operation of certain selection mechanisms—such as sexual selection) and (2) the way of life that people were forced to live. For whereas ways of life began to change after this “Revolution” (and especially after the Industrial Revolution), human biology has remained basically the same.
The implications here are that if certain “design specifications” developed with humans prior to the Agricultural Revolution, it follows that (1) most human problems over the centuries have been rooted in that Discrepancy, and (2) if we serious about addressing those problems—including, e.g., that of “climate change” today—we will need to use our (supposed) intelligence to design for ourselves a way of life more in accord with our design specifications.
Rattray Taylor, in his pioneering book (p. 149), noted that “if we had the sense,” we would use our intelligence to see what we could learn from the “primitives.” Given that I do not have the luxury of writing a book about the matter here, let me note simply that the behaviors engaged in by members of a “primitive” group were necessary for the group to continue in existence:
Indefinitely (assuming away external disturbances—such as those inflicted on them by “civilized” peoples!).
As a small group.
As a relatively egalitarian group.
As a group within which a relatively high level of well-being (physical, psychological) was enjoyed by most members, most of the time.
We can also state that the behaviors that characterize our society are necessary to the society’s continuation—but that our society differs in important ways from a “primitive” group, in favor of the latter. First, I would point out that Thorstein Veblen’s 1900 “Industrial and Pecuniary Employments” made the point (if but rather indirectly!) that some jobs in our economy involve doing productive work (“industrial” ones), others do not. And that the value system of our society values the latter over the former—so that the most productive members of our society have the lowest status and receive the lowest incomes.
The situation today is somewhat different from what it was in Veblen’s time (e.g., technology plays a more significant role), but it is still true that those in our economy who receive the highest compensation and most status, tend to make little contribution of a productive nature to the economy. If anything, in fact, Veblen’s observation that those with pecuniary employments tend to be disturbers of the peace (so far as the smooth operation of the economy is concerned), is as true today as it was in Veblen’s day—as events of the past two years demonstrate.
Not only does the prevailing value system of our society help produce an inegalitarian mass society within which ill-being is a widespread problem (even with the rich); it encourages behavior that militates against sustainability: on one hand we are in the process of exhausting resources (including those that are renewable); and on the other hand, our use of some resources—most notably fossil fuels—is resulting in “climate change.” A phenomenon that some deny; but one that, e.g., noted scientist James Lovelock (The Revenge of Gaia, 2006, xiii) believes will result in the virtual extinction of our species by 2100 CE.
If our “way out” is to learn what we can from our “primitive” ancestors, and then act on it, the question arises: What can we learn from them? Different people will answer this question differently, but here is my list:
The human species is one of those species that falls into the category “social.” Indeed, not only do most humans have an innate desire to be with other humans; they have a need so to be: if, upon birth, one is abandoned, one is likely to die within a few days, even if not killed by a predator; if one is provided care by members of another species (a rare, but not unknown, occurrence) one will not develop into a recognizably human being but, rather, will become a “feral” being.
Humans have a need to be a part of a small group—e.g., one no more than about 500 persons in size. (See, e.g., Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale, 1980—a huge book on the virtues of smallness!.) A “group” here should be understood as not merely a collection of individuals (i.e., a group in a statistical sense) but, rather, a set of individuals who interact one with another (i.e., a sociological group)—so that each person knows virtually all other members of the group.
It is not enough (for a high level of well-being) simply to be a member of a small group, however. Harmonious relationships must characterize the group. This does not mean that all interactions within the group are conflict-free; it does mean, however, that when conflicts arise, that fact is of concern to other members of the group—who then “naturally” act to defuse the conflict. That is, there is unconscious “recognition” within the group that all have a stake in harmonious relationships, so that the social fabric must not be allowed to become torn. Given this perception of conflict, when offenses occur, the point becomes to re-integrate the offender into the societal system again rather than inflict punishment—although at times that (and even banishment) may be called for.
Healthy interaction involves such activities as conversing with others as equals (and in a manner such that individual views are welcomed and respected—rather than treated as, e.g., “heretical”); working together with others to provide sustenance (or other) needs; recreating together; and participating in certain rituals or ceremonies together.
We humans are “designed” for physical activity, and must have a certain amount of it for good physical and mental health. Physical activity can be associated not only with work, but also play—and includes sexual activity. The latter, of course, will tend to be more strictly guided by mores established by the group than the other activities. (For a “design” perspective on humans see George Edgin Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values, 1977.)
In working with others one must feel that one is making a contribution to the group—that one is not a “slacker.” Conversely, one must perceive others in the group as at least attempting to make a contribution to the group.
Related to this point, however, one must feel that one’s contribution is one that “fits” one—in terms of one’s abilities, interests, etc.
Also, in acting as an individual, one must feel that one is a decision-maker, not just acting out of blind habit or doing the bidding of others. (See, e.g., Elizabeth Boyden Howes and Sheila Moon, Man [sic] the Choicemaker, 1973.) One mark of a healthy interactional situation, in fact, is that all members of the group perceive (if but unconsciously) themselves this way, and feel that they have the respect of other members of the group.
A final need that I would mention is extended periods of close contact with the “surround”—a point developed several years ago by noted scientist Edward O. Wilson (Biophilia, 1984).
But how can one use these principles, one may very well ask. I could provide some suggestions, but believe it wise to stop at this point: I believe that I have stated enough to stimulate thought (as if I had told a parable!), and believe that if I have given the reader some reason to have optimism, and some “raw materials” to work with, the next thing I should do is simply get out of the way!
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Jasmine the Greyhound," Snopes.com. 2009-MAR, at: http://www.snopes.com/photos/animals/jasmine.asp
Originally posted: 2010-MAR-02
Latest update: 2010-MAR-02
Author: A.C. Thompson