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Catastrophe, Collective Trauma, and the Origin of Civilization
Part I
| Part II

If we consider mankind as a whole and substitute it for a single individual, we discover that it too has developed delusions which are inaccessible to logical criticism and which contradict reality. . . . [I]nvestigation leads us to the same explanation as in the case of the single individual. They owe their power to the element of historical truth which they have brought up from the repression of the forgotten and primeval past. --S.Freud

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:
  • 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,
  • depression,
  • generalized anxiety,
  • episodes of rage,
  • substance abuse,
  • intrusive recall and dissociative "flashback" experiences,
  • insomnia,
  • suicidal ideation, and
  • survivor guilt.
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?

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 comparatively rare.

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 effects.

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 to it.

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 of others.
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 their religion.

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 generations.

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?