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I’ll start with a brief recap of my last few articles.
For thousands of years after the last Ice Age, human society over a large part of the planet was peaceful, cooperative and egalitarian – what Riane Eisler called a partnership culture. Then, several thousand years ago, there was a switch to a violent, hierarchical, dominator model which is still by far the commonest cultural form today.
One compelling explanation for this switch is the dramatic drying of the climate and the associated trauma of famine, displacement of populations, and the need for radical change. This trauma led to the emergence of social stratification, and a rise in aggression and violence over dwindling food and water resources. Once in place, dominator societies have persisted because their violent institutions and relationships create fresh trauma in each generation – ably assisted from time to time by further climate change, environmental destruction, earthquakes and other natural phenomena.
If valid, this theory has important strategic implications for creating a peaceful, sustainable future. In essence, it means we need to focus on healing existing trauma – both collective and individual – and minimising the production of new trauma in order to promote a transition back to a partnership culture. But before enthusiastically embracing this approach, we need to step back and take a long hard look at the theory, and the many questions it raises. Does it really stack up when looked at from various perspectives?
THE NATURE OF HUMAN NATURE
To start the investigation, this article focuses on the nature of human nature. Are we genetically programmed for hierarchy, domination and violence as many biologists and social scientists believe? Or is this just one possible outcome of a flexible, malleable development process that can also lead to peaceful, egalitarian relationships? Was the partnership civilization described by Riane Eisler no more than an evolutionary flash in the pan, or is it a humanly achievable model? More specifically in this article, I will be looking at the effects of child-rearing practices on the personalities of adults.
Arguments have raged for centuries over the relative influence of ‘nature’ or genes, versus ‘nurture’ or environment on human personality and behaviour. A few decades ago, tacit agreement seemed to emerge that both are important. However, the rise of biotechnology has seen a resurgence of claims that everything from consumerism and charitable giving, to addiction and aggression are genetically determined. Almost daily, it seems, a geneticist announces the discovery of a ‘gene for’ a particular trait, or a sociobiologist invents a new ‘Just So’ story to explain why evolution produced a specific social behaviour.
This is not the place to dive deeply into this debate. The most pertinent point, I think, is that human personality and social behaviour varies enormously between individuals, cultures and times. Hence, whether or not our genes predispose us to certain behaviours, the observation of eminent anthropologist, Margaret Mead, provides firm ground in this intellectual morass: “human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.”
To illustrate her point, she gave the examples of two New Guinea tribes. The Arapesh cherish their children who grow into gentle, loving, cooperative, generous, unaggressive adults, responsive to the needs of others and unconcerned about personal property. By contrast, the Mundugumor use harsh child-rearing methods, and the adults are ruthless, aggressive, quarrelsome, undisciplined and lacking in gentleness and cooperation. These stories suggest that childhood trauma is linked with dominator behaviours in adulthood, whereas a nurturing upbringing fosters partnership.
These are not isolated examples. One study showed that only one third of 652 preliterate societies engaged in aggressive war. Similarly, social psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out that “the most primitive men are the least warlike and that warlikeness grows in proportion to civilization. If destructiveness were innate in man, the trend would have to be the opposite.” In other words, even if aggression and other dominator characteristics are innate, it is quite possible to inhibit them successfully.
Such peaceful cultures teach flight rather than fight, but do eventually learn to stand their ground and become aggressive if trapped. Similarly, they tend to become more aggressive when faced with outside pressures on their land and resources – an observation that supports the climate hypothesis discussed in the last entry. It also supports the idea that partnership cultures flourish only in the absence of serious resource limits.
(See A. Montagu (Ed) “Learning Non-Aggression: The Experience of Non-Literate Cultures” Oxford University Press, 1978)
Looking now at nation states rather than tribes, one study noted that half of 144 countries were not involved in any international war between 1816 and 1965. By comparison, the ‘peace-loving’ USA “is one of the most warlike societies on the face of the planet, having intervened militarily around the world more than 150 times since 1850” (A conservative estimate for the period to 1975). It is not that Americans as individuals are particularly warlike. The government regularly has to resort to the draft coupled with harsh penalties for refusing to serve. And training and indoctrination aim to dehumanize both the recruits and the enemy in order to over-ride the naturally intense inhibition against killing. Inhibition is also reduced by responsibility being taken from the individual soldier by higher authority, and turning killing into a routine, normal act. Even then, however, military research shows that the great majority of soldiers never fire their weapons in battle even though they face the prospect of dying themselves.
(See Falk R. A. and Kim S. S. (eds) “The War System: An Interdisciplinary Approach” Westview Press, 1980; Quote, Alfie Kohn “The Brighter Side of Human Nature”, 1990, pp. 45-58)
The huge range of cultures from peaceful and cooperative to highly aggressive and violent lends credence to Riane Eisler’s contention that humanity is not inevitably condemned to live in dominator societies. We can create partnership relationships and cultures. The critical questions then become:
• What causes these enormous differences between cultures? and
• Can we identify ways to shift from domination to partnership?
In my next article, I’ll look at ways of raising children to be partners rather than dominators.