In past issues of MuseLetter we have explored
the origins and horrific contradictions of Western civilization
through the lenses of economics, history, and religion. But what
about the psychological sources of our socially intensified
and organized compulsions to dominate, domesticate, and overpopulate?
What changes in the human psyche, beginning perhaps ten or more
millennia ago, led us to leave behind hunting and gathering and
start down the slippery slope of progress?
There are several theories that seek to explain the origin of domestication,
agriculture, and civilization, of which three have gained wide currency.
The first is that these came about simply as the result of a natural
evolutionary process. We examined the shortcomings of this explanation
in MuseLetter Number Four (April 1992), where we saw that,
in general, hunting and gathering presents the most favorable cost-benefit
ratio of any means of subsistence yet devised by human beings. Why
evolve toward a way of life-agriculture-that requires more work
and results in increased disease and stress? A second theory ascribes
the horticultural revolution to population pressure: Perhaps in
the late Pleistocene prehistoric hunters came to occupy every available
ecozone. Then, according to this theory's foremost proponent, Mark
Cohen, "The only possible reaction to further growth in population,
worldwide, was to begin artificial augmentation of the food supply."
A third theory focuses on climate changes at the end of the last
Ice Age, which caused sea levels to rise. The rising seas not only
drowned the habitats of people and animals, but brought the extinction
of many Pleistocene megafauna. "This," says anthropologist Marvin
Harris, "must have been a major stimulus for the development of
new modes of production regardless of whether the depletions and
extinctions resulted primarily from overpredation or from the reduction
in suitable grazing and browsing habitats."
In fact, all three influences-climate change, population pressure,
and evolution-may have worked together in motivating the switch
from foraging to planting. But if we wish to uncover the psychological
underpinnings of civilization there are more things to explain that
than just the introduction of agriculture. Why did humans begin
systematically to destroy their environments? Why did they invent
organized warfare and learn to pursue it with such ruthless efficiency?
Again, one can argue that these further developments were the inevitable
outcomes of population pressure or environmental stress; and again,
we might suppose that evolution was a contributing factor, though
it is hard to see how it could have been the primary one.
But when we take all of these developments together, and when we
begin to appreciate the depth and scope of their destructiveness
of human health and social bonds and of the human habitat, surely
we then must also consider the possibility-which is not exclusive
of the three explanations already cited-that civilization might
also have arisen, at least in part, or at the very least in the
way it did, as a kind of collective psychic disease.
The idea that civilization is fundamentally sick goes back at least
to the early Greeks; closer to our own time, Sigmund Freud once
asked: "May we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that,
under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations or some
epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of mankind-have become
'neurotic'?" Unfortunately, Freud refused to follow out the implications
of this question, being by nature somewhat of an authoritarian and
a political conformist; but other psychologists have picked up where
he left off. Carl Jung wrote of "politico-social delusional systems"
having their roots in the collective unconscious; Wilhelm Reich
believed that civilization was swept up in an "emotional plague";
and Immanuel Velikovsky theorized that humankind suffers collectively
from amnesia and repetition compulsion.
More recently, as it has become apparent that civilization is in
the process of profoundly and perhaps permanently impairing the
biological viability of the entire planet, a new discipline know
as "ecopsychology" has undertaken to expose the roots of civilization's
omnicidal mania. Paul Shepard's Nature and Madness (Sierra
Club, 1982), Theodore Roszak's The Voice of the Earth (Simon
& Schuster, 1992), and Chellis Glendinning's My Name Is Chellis
and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (Shambhalla, 1994)
have all underscored the idea that individual psychological dysfunctions
may be merely local eruptions of a collective insanity afflicting
the entire civilized world. The ecopsychologists say that so-called
"advanced" human societies are actually merely in an advanced state
of some virulent cultural psychic disorder, and that in order to
heal ourselves individually, and to restore our world to biological
viability, we must find and treat the cause of our illness.
In the Wake of Horror
Initially, as we seek to grapple with the idea of mass neurosis, we
are compelled to draw analogies with individual manifestations of psychic
distress. While a certain amount of caution is always required in extrapolating
from the individual to the collective, in this case the method does
yield some promising leads.
There is, it seems, one disorder whose symptoms in individuals closely
resemble the irrational, self-destructive attitudes and behaviors of
civilized people acting together-a disorder that is commonly seen in
war veterans and in survivors of rape, assault, abuse, or environmental
disasters; psychologists call it post-traumatic stress disorder.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress include:
Clearly, it would be absurd to argue that all civilized
people, without exception, suffer from each and every one of these symptoms.
Nevertheless, some symptoms do seem almost indisputably to characterize
most members of civilized cultures. When hunter-gatherers encounter
civilized people, they often remark on how the latter appear generally
to be disconnected, alienated, aggressive, controlling, easily frustrated,
addictive, and obsessive. But if civilization got its start as the result
of mass trauma, presumably that trauma would have occurred in the distant
past; why, then, would these symptoms appear in civilized people today,
perhaps many millennia after the fact?
- vigilance and scanning,
- elevated startle response,
- blunted affect or psychic numbing (the loss of
the ability to feel),
- denial (mental reorganization of the event to reduce
pain, leading sometimes even to amnesia),
- aggressive, controlling behavior,
- interruption of memory and concentration,
- generalized anxiety,
- episodes of rage,
- substance abuse,
- intrusive recall and dissociative "flashback" experiences,
- suicidal ideation, and
- survivor guilt.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his studies of the long-term psychological
effects of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945 and the 1972 flood in Buffalo
Creek, West Virginia, concluded that the impact of disasters affects
not only the immediate victims, but is transmitted to succeeding generations.
Because the aggressive, controlling behavior and episodes of rage exhibited
by trauma victims can result in traumatic effects on others-particularly,
on children and other close family members-post-traumatic stress can
infect entire families, and, conceivably, entire cultures.
It is not hard to catch civilized cultures in the act of passing trauma
on from generation to generation, though it is difficult to trace the
chain of abuse back to its ultimate origin. The instances are plentiful
and, occasionally, brutally plain. In her book For Your Own Good
(Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), psychologist Alice Miller showed
how the German people's willingness, during the first decades of the
twentieth century, to submit to authoritarian domination and to participate
with blind obedience in unprovoked attacks against strangers can be
traced in part to violent, authoritarian pedagogical practices that
were widely promulgated at the turn of the century. And these practices
in turn arose from previous generations of "poisonous pedagogy." The
infanthood authoritarian programming of the generation that brought
Hitler to power was merely a conspicuous instance of a broader pattern:
Child-rearing in Western civilization is typically and systematically
abusive in comparison with that among many "primitive" peoples,
particularly the hunter-gatherers. Miller notes that "the scorn and
abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality,
creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many
areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore." Anthropologists
Colin Turnbull and Ashley Montagu, and psychotherapist Jean Liedloff,
have described and analyzed in some detail how typical Western practices
surrounding childbirth, informal child-rearing, and formal education
alienate the infant or child from her body and its natural surroundings,
suppress innate needs, implant authoritarian messages, and undermine
the sense of self-worth.
In cases of severe trauma in infancy or childhood, the victim may experience
extreme dissociation, culminating in multiple personality disorder.
Extraordinary abuse-especially from primary caregivers-overwhelms the
child's ego. To keep from being psychologically annihilated, the child
hypnotizes herself into a trance state, while a secondary personality
emerges to take the abuse. Over time, several-even dozens-of discrete
personalities may develop, each with its own personality and ways of
thinking and feeling.
Can a whole culture be dissociative? Native peoples often note that
civilized people typically act at cross-purposes to their stated ideals
(for example, talking about justice and mercy on Sunday morning, then
practicing murderous pillage the next day). It is as though the colonial
European has a divided self: "White man speaks with forked tongue."
And Western civilization seems to glory in the splitting process: God
is pitted against Satan, mind against body, subject against object,
spirit against the flesh, angelic virtue against animal instincts, and
so on. Most of these distinctions appear extreme or even nonsensical
to members of non-Western cultures, whose very languages usually reflect
more inclusive, less categorical patterns of thought. Colin Ross, a
multiple-personality researcher, says that Western culture has promoted
the "executive ego self" to the exclusion of others. This executive
ego is arrogant, intolerant, overly logical, and anti-intuitive. Ross
writes: "A cultural dissociation barrier has been created and reinforced,
the purpose of which is to keep other part selves suppressed, out of
contact and communication with the executive self, and relegated to
second-class status in the mind."
People suffering from post-traumatic stress often develop addictions
as a way to control psychic pain. Addiction is an out-of-control compulsion
to fill an inner sense of emptiness with substances like alcohol or
food, or with experiences like falling love or gambling. In The Guru
Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (North Atlantic, 1993), Joel
Kramer and Diana Alstad see addiction as an unconscious revolt against
an inner authoritarian. If civilized people do have inner authoritarians,
implanted through abusive child-rearing, it stands to reason that they
might collectively exhibit addictive behaviors as a way of rebelling,
as well as to distract themselves from pain and to fill inner voids.
Historian Morris Berman writes: "Addiction, in one form or another,
characterizes every aspect of industrial society. . . . Dependence on
alcohol (food, drugs, tobacco . . .) is not formally different from
dependence on prestige, career advancement, world influence, wealth,
the need to build more ingenious bombs, or the need to exercise control
over everything." It should be noted that Berman is not merely offering
a cynical commentary on our society's more egregious failures, using
the word "addiction" metaphorically; he is pointing to specific addictive
symptoms that are not shared by many traditional cultures, particularly
those of hunter-gatherers, wherein the compulsive search for wealth,
power, novelty, and gadgetry is, if not completely unknown, certainly
Trauma victims frequently suffer from psychic numbing-the decreased
ability to feel joy or sorrow, or to empathize with the feelings of
others. Native peoples wonder how civilized Europeans can treat other
humans, and the animals, trees, and land, with such unfeeling indifference.
Of course, the relentless monetization and compartmentalization of our
society are partly to blame: trees and animals have ceased to be magical
beings and have become instead "economic resources"; peoplehave ceased
to be members of a community and have become instead "workers" or "consumers,"
"national allies" or "enemies of the state." Nevertheless, the questions
arise: Why is it that people in Western society have failed to put brakes
on tendencies to turn empathic relationships into abstract, manipulative
ones-even when these tendencies are clearly out of control and acting
to the detriment of people's own fundamental interests? Could it be
because the population is already numbed to some extent by some ancient
trauma, the destructive energy of which has been passed along from generation
to generation through abusive childrearing?
Now, up to this point we have simply stated a hypothesis. Even if it
is a reasonable one, it lacks any sort of proof. How would we go about
supporting it with evidence? One way would be to examine human societies
that have been subject to horrific disasters in recent times, and see
if the traumatized survivors responded collectively by developing the
sorts of symptoms we have listed, and whether these symptoms led to
permanent social change. Another would be to search for evidence of
an ancient trauma that might have been capable of producing multi-generational
Collective Trauma and Its Effects: Some Examples
Anthropologist Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People (Simon &
Schuster, 1972), is a classic, poignant study of the Ik-a hunting and
gathering people of west-central Africa who had been driven from their
former hunting grounds by the creation of a new game preserve. While
the Ik were not the victims of a natural disaster per se, they were
nevertheless experiencing the equivalent of a catastrophe-slow starvation
due to the loss of their means of subsistence.
Previously, the Ik (also known as the Teuso) had lived the way most
hunter-gatherers do. Hunters, according to Turnbull, "frequently display
those characteristics that we find so admirable in man: kindness, generosity,
consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity
and others. This sounds like a formidable list of virtues, and so it
would be if they were virtues, but for the hunter they are not.
For the hunter in his tiny, close-knit society, these are necessities
for survival; without them society would collapse." As for the Ik themselves,
"we have the remnants of past traditions, customs and beliefs, and something
of their own oral tradition, all of which indicate that they were .
. . an easy-going, loosely organized people whose fluid organization
enabled them to respond with sensitivity to the ever changing demands
of their environment. There is ample evidence in their language that
they once held values which they no longer hold, that they understood
by 'goodness' and 'happiness' something very different from what those
words have come to mean now."
Forced to pursue an unfamiliar agricultural life in the mountains separating
Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya, on land unable to support them, the Ik had
changed profoundly. In less than three generations, they had become
a handful of scattered hostile bands interested only in individual survival.
They had abandoned compassion, love, and kindness for the sake of mere
existence. Turnbull: "Economic interest is centered on as many individual
stomachs as there are people, and cooperation is merely a device for
furthering an interest that is consciously selfish. . . . In present
circumstances they are highly disputatious and given to much acrimonious
fighting. . . . They have replaced human society with a mere survival
system that does not take human emotion into account. . . ." Children
were put out of the family at age three or four; old people were sent
away to die alone. "The ideal family, economically speaking and within
restricted temporal limitations, is a man and his wife with no children.
Children are useless appendages, like old parents. Anyone who cannot
take care of himself is a burden and a hazard to the survival of others.
. . . Such interaction as there is within this system is one of mutual
exploitation. That is the relationship between all, old and young, parent
and child, brother and sister, husband and wife, friend and friend.
. . . They are brought together by self-interest alone. . . ."
Turnbull sees clear parallels between what has happened to the Ik suddenly,
in a matter of years, and what has happened to Western civilization
gradually, over several centuries. Today, "The very old and the very
young are separated, but we dispose of them in homes for the aged or
in day schools and summer camps instead of on the slopes of Meraniang
[one of the mountains of the Ik]." Turnbull points to "our cutthroat
economics, where almost any kind of exploitation and degradation of
others, impoverishment and ruin, is justified in terms of an expanding
economy and the consequent confinement of the world's riches in the
pockets of a few."
The most extensive survey of the psychological effects of mass trauma
yet published is Lewis Aptekar's Environmental Disasters in Global
Perspective (G.K. Hall, 1994). Aptekar compares studies from traditional,
"developing," and "developed" cultures; he also explores the aftermaths
of many kinds of disasters-including chronic disasters (droughts, famines),
quick onset disasters (floods, fires, storms, earthquakes), and human-induced
disasters (wars, toxic chemical spills, nuclear plant meltdowns). The
findings he reviews are complex and varied, and researchers whose work
he cites have come to differing conclusions. There is some controversy,
for example, on a point central to the present discussion: Do the psychological
effects of disasters persist for years, perhaps generations, or are
they only transitory? After a thorough study of researchers' conflicting
views, Aptekar concludes that discrepancies in observations probably
arise from differences in the nature and severity of the disasters,
the presence (or lack) of a social support system, the degree to which
the environment returns to its pre-disaster state-as well as from differences
in research methods (different studies of the same disaster sometimes
produced different results).
Aptekar first dispels misconceptions about people's immediate responses
to disasters. Looting and panic are rare; instead, people more frequently
display behavior that has a clear sense of purpose and is directed toward
the common good (tragically, officials who believe that social chaos
inevitably follows disasters often delay warning communities of impending
crises because they wish to avoid a panic). Nor do people flee from
disaster sites; rather, they tend to remain. In addition, outsiders
usually enter the area in order to help survivors or to search for family
members, producing what has come to be known as the "convergence phenomenon."
While Aptekar describes post-traumatic stress disorder and cites the
work of researchers who have found its symptoms among disaster victims,
he cautions that "the idea that it is common for disaster victims to
develop . . . post-traumatic stress disorder . . . should be questioned."
Symptoms seem to appear only after the severest disasters, and in cases
where victims are directly and personally affected. "The victims who
show the greatest psychopathology are those who lose close friends and
relatives." Not all of the symptoms occur immediately, and reactions
may appear years afterward, especially on anniversaries of the disaster.
Gradually, people tend to distort their memory of the event, forgetting
parts of what happened and minimizing its impact and their reactions
Children appear to be particularly vulnerable after a disaster. "Galante
and Foa documented the aftermath of an extremely destructive earthquake
that struck the mountainous region of Lombardy, Italy on November 23,
1980. . . . Right after the earthquake the children demonstrated extreme
signs of apathy and aggression." Girls tended to be more affected than
boys. (Aptekar notes, "Perhaps the girls were more aware of their feelings
than the boys.") Boys tended to react with aggression.
Meanwhile, adverse reactions in adults can be so severe that disaster
victims "pass fear and insecurity onto their children-even those yet
to be born-by replacing in their child-rearing a sense of a secure world
with a fearful worldview."
One of the early pioneers in the study of disasters, Samuel Prince (whose
work was published in the early 1920s), was convinced that disasters
inevitably bring social change. Subsequent work has tended to confirm
Prince's conclusions. Basing his speculations on his study of the aftermath
of a large ammunition explosion aboard a ship in the harbor of Halifax,
Canada, Prince hypothesized that disasters may cause changes in technology
and culture in a given society; and that after disasters, differences
between social classes tend to increase.
Sociologist Max Weber wrote (in 1968) that disasters tend to produce
charismatic leaders-an observation that has been confirmed in various
cultural settings. In nonindustrial societies, according to Aptekar,
"Before a disaster, traditional local leaders are important; but as
the society adapts to the changes brought about by a disaster, new leadership
skills are needed." When pastoral Somali nomads were forced by drought
to assume a sedentary agricultural way of life, "their once pastoral
democracy was converted to a severe hierarchy of social status; cooperative
leadership changed to leadership by domination. . . ."
In an attempt to discover the sources of warfare in human society, anthropologists
Carol and Melvin Ember compared 186 mostly nonindustrial cultures and
found a strong correlation between disasters and armed conflict. In
most instances, war seems not to have been brought on by the actual
scarcity produced by the disaster, but the fear of having no food as
a result of an unpredictable recurrence of catastrophe. This led some
groups to attack others in an effort to store enough to guard against
scarcity. Then, the fear of being invaded increased each group's fears
Disasters may also bring changes in work habits, gender roles, and kinship
patterns. Studies of Pacific island cultures by Firth (1959), Schneider
(1957) and Spillius (1957) point out that (in Aptekar's words) "the
progression of societies from traditional ways to those of the developing
world is greatly speeded up by environmental disasters." Again, Aptekar:
Among the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari desert, drought now determines
where and how they live. Among the Navajo, alliances between kin and
family groups changed as a result of drought. Because of drought the
Tikopia of the South Pacific rescheduled their adult initiation ceremonies
to occur much later, thus introducing what for them was a new developmental
phase of life: adolescence. After an earthquake the Inca of Huarez,
Peru, moved from a local bartering economy to an urban service economy.
Typhoons on the island of Yap caused Yapians to abandon their traditional
values and adopt a European lifestyle. Because of Typhoon Ophelia the
people of the Micronesian island of Ulithi changed the food they ate,
the style of homes they lived in, their habits of work, the way men
and women related to each other, their form of government, and even
In "developed" (i.e., highly civilized) cultures, patterns of
reaction are somewhat different. In many instances, impacts are minimized
because of the almost immediate availability of elaborate aid and support
systems. Yet disaster researcher Benjamin McLuckie hypothesized (in
1977) that "the higher the society's level of technological development,
the more vulnerable it would be." That is because people in developed
countries live in large population centers and rely on sophisticated
technologies, so that there is a possibility of their being vulnerable
to a large-scale collapse of interlocking systems of transportation,
communication, water supply, and food distribution. Most civilizations
seem to fall because of human-made disasters.
Indeed, civilization itself can be seen as a disaster-in-progress, traumatizing
people as it destroys nature, relentlessly preparing the way for its
own demise. The social effects noted two paragraphs above, quoted from
Aptekar, are the same sorts of effects that vast numbers of human beings
are experiencing now as a result of technological and economic change.
Traditional modes of work, patterns of subsistence and nutrition, social
and family relationships, religious ideas and practices, and common
values are all vulnerable to the ravages of "progress."
Summing Up So Far
In history, effects become causes: wars beget wars, which beget
political, economic, and social changes that may later lead to
still more wars. The search for ultimate causes is nearly always
frustrating. However, natural disasters are sources of change
that come from outside the human social system and that are capable
of introducing influences unimaginable in a closed human system.
But then, is there any such thing as a closed human system? Of
course, there is not: all societies are highly dependent on soil,
climate, and ecology. A change of a few percent in the sun's output
of energy would bring every human culture to a dramatic end.
Civilization appears in many respects to be a pathetic and futile
attempt to create the feeling of a closed human system.
Agriculture partially unlinks humans from wild nature; the division
of labor unlinks people from the process of agriculture (leaving
only their dependence on its products); and cities and technologies
psychologically unlink people from their environment in manifold
ways. People become ever more dependent on complex social and
technological systems; their dependence on wild, natural systems
persists, but is forgotten and hidden from view. Could this compulsion
to escape external influences by substituting artificial systems
under human control have originated as a collective strategy to
elude the ravages of natural disasters?
As we have seen, in many-but not all-cases, survivors of disasters
and civilizaed people alike . . .
-- show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
-- pass psychological dysfunctions onto their children
-- tend more frequently to undertake basic changes in values,
lifestyle, and social organization, and
-- are more warlike. . . than people who live in traditional societies
that have not experienced a major disaster within the past few
As yet we have left many questions unanswered. The most obvious
of these is simply, Can we identify the original trauma? No less
significant, however, are two others: How do we go about treating
collective trauma?, and, What is the significance of this discussion
in the present, as our own society lurches toward a human-made
disaster of unprecedented scope?