Certain myths of our culture hint at a time of greater innocence and deeper knowledge when humans had developed a form of consciousness and a way of relating to each other unavailable to us today. The subtext suggests that with the rise of civilization came a fall, a loss of something valuable. Science tends not to credit this kind of cultural myth, but rather to discount or discredit it, and instead supports the view that civilized man is the absolute evolutionary pinnacle, and that our wild ancestors were benighted lesser beings. For instance, books like Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and offers a Path to a Safer World, by Malcolm Potts, and The World until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond, portray indigenous tribal people as excessively violent, and ascribe this violence to a kind of genetic determinism. This view is consistent with the doctrines of both scientific materialism (with its roots in mechanistic physics) and the brand of Neo-Darwinism espoused by the likes of Richard Dawkins. I call these views doctrines because that is what they are: non-science posing as science. They are based on assumptions held by some scientists, but the assumptions themselves will not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Or so it appears to me. Fortunately, theirs is not the only view available on this subject of human potential, and how it has been observed to manifest among unconquered Natives.
The anthropologist Richard Sorenson worked for many years among the lesser contacted peoples of south New Guinea, and for many of those years didn’t quite register what it was he was witnessing. Like virtually all anthropologists, he was a captive of his own culture, and was unable to see his subjects in their own terms. Eventually, though, their reality penetrated his preconceptions, and he became witness to a phenomenon seen by few outsiders: a culturally developed way of achieving small group solidarity, empathy, and mutual understanding, little recognized in the West. He states that: “Preconquest groups are simultaneously individualistic and collective—traits immiscible and incompatible in modern thought and languages. This fusion of individuality and solidarity is another of the profound cognitive disparities that separate the preconquest and postconquest eras. It in part explains why even fundamental preconquest cultural traits are sometimes difficult to perceive, much less to appreciate, by postconquest peoples.”(p.4) The problem with conquered peoples being studied by their conquerors, and calling it science, shows up again and again in the field of anthropology. The concept of objectivity is open to serious question in any of the sciences, but in paternalistic anthropology (coming directly out of the White Man’s Burden, as it does) the pretense is ridiculous.
Of all the anthropological works I have read, the very best ones have invariably been written by anthropologists who have cast aside all pretenses of objectivity and have allowed themselves to feel empathy, acceptance, affection, and respect for their informants. The Forest People by Colin Turnbull and Make Prayers to the Raven by Richard Nelson are two notable examples. Sorenson has gone through a similar process, and finally begins to understand his “subjects” on their own terms. “In the real world of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. When deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.” (p.4) The empathy and rapport that come so readily in this circle of trust are highly sensitive to any breach of integrity. But how is this honest and intimate way of relating nurtured in the first place?
Not surprisingly, it begins with how people are treated from the day of their birth. “In the isolated hamlets of the southern forests, infants were kept in continuous bodily contact with mothers or the mother’s friends—on laps when they were seated, on hips, under arms, against backs or on shoulders when they were standing. Even during intensive food preparation, or when heavy loads were being moved, babies were not put down. They had priority.” The effect of this physical closeness creates not only a sense of inclusion and belonging, but a physical and emotional sense of well-being. “Very quickly [the infant] began assembling a sophisticated tactile-speech to transmit desires, needs, and states of mind. They didn’t whine or cry to get attention; they touched. While babies everywhere are liminally aware, the constant empathetic contact required to produce a sophisticated type of preverbal communication is rare—except among preconquest peoples.” (p.5) This is true not only in New Guinea but also among tribes in South America, as documented in Jean Leidoff’s ground-breaking book, The Continuum Concept. Presumably, this way of childrearing and group interaction was once general among tribal peoples everywhere.
The kind of group closeness and cohesion engendered by this way of relating to one’s intimates apparently worked quite well in a world that was sparsely settled and not subject to colonization by outsiders. In a world of overcrowding and power politics , where duplicity and force are the norm, these preconquest groups have proven highly vulnerable. When postconquest groups—who had themselves been transformed by their conquerors– began to impinge on preconquest groups, the mindset and feeling –space of the latter could change quickly and radically. ”In the face of sustained powerful exposure to anger, deceit, or greed, preconquest mentality collapsed. In the traumatic existential period that caused, instinctive compassion gave way to savagery, generosity to greed, and heartfelt harmony to basic sexuality. A ‘savage-savage’ arose from the ashes of the ‘noble savage.’”(p.16) Much of the anthropology that has been conducted—and almost all in the twentieth century– has taken place under these traumatic transitional conditions, when the people were not themselves.
I find all this information relevant both to the present and to the future. To the present, because it helps us see how preconceived ideas, and a failure to empathize with peoples of other cultures, impels us to draw false conclusions. Also, these cultural insights could prove relevant to the future, in case a few humans might actually survive the multiplying crises we are bringing down on ourselves. Small isolated groups of mobile hunter-gatherers might have a chance to not only hold their own, in a world made hostile by us, but do so in this fully recovered, highly adaptive old/new way of being fully human.