In last month's MuseLetter we began exploring the
idea that civilized human beings exhibit stress responses (aggressive,
controlling, and addictive behaviors; blunted affect; and generalized
anxiety) because civilization systematically traumatizes them from
birth as part of the process of domestication. Perhaps civilization
detaches human beings from nature--through agriculture, urbanization,
and technology--in order to impart a sense of security against unpredictable
natural disasters; and perhaps civilization wounds people and nature
because it is wounded--i.e., because it began as a response to environmental
We have as yet left some important questions unanswered. The principal
one is simply, What was the catastrophe that lit civilization's
Identifying the Source of Trauma
There are two classes of possible causes of civilization's original
trauma: events that stemmed from human agency, and ones that did not.
And of the latter--causes that arose beyond the human sphere--there
are also two types: endogenous (those that resulted from processes operating
within Earth's systems) and exogenous (those triggered by an agent outside
It is theoretically possible that at least some of civilization's ancient
psychic wounds were self-inflicted. Freud believed that humanity's original
trauma was the Oedipal crisis, in which sons in the primeval cave typically
killed their fathers in order to possess their mothers. However, no
archaeological evidence has ever been found to suggest that this actually
happened, on even a small scale. A much more plausible scenario is that
at the end of the Pleistocene--roughly 11,500 years ago--human beings
allowed their populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the land
and brought on starvation through overhunting.
It is also possible that some non-human agent was responsible for the
catastrophe(s) that led humans to domesticate themselves. Likely non-human
candidates of an endogenous nature include earthquakes, floods, fires,
volcanoes, and climate change. Possible exogenous culprits include wayward
comets or meteors and fluctuations in the Sun's energy output.
How do we go about determining which (if any) of these possible non-human
sources of trauma might have been the actual one? Naturally, we should
consider the evidence--of which there are again two kinds: material
The material evidence of ancient catastrophes includes ice cores, lake
bed cores, tree rings, topographical anomalies, and fossils. From these,
scientists have deduced that for the past 2.5 million years our planet
has been on a climatic roller coaster--a general cooling trend featuring
Ice Ages that come about every 100,000 years and last 90,000 years or
so, during which temperatures fluctuate wildly, leading to intervening
warmer periods of a few thousand years. We are in one of those warm
periods now. It was during these past 2.5 million years, according to
evolutionary biologists, that humankind evolved, its brain increasing
in size fourfold. During the last 120,000 years (encompassing the most
recent Ice Age) there have been roughly 20 sudden and drastic cooling
and warming episodes, averaging one every 6000 years. The end of the
last Ice Age occurred about 11,500 years ago; not long afterward, humans
in some areas began the process of domestication. Like the beginnings
and endings of the Ice Ages that preceded it, the close of the most
recent glacial period came suddenly, and it brought devastation in its
wake. Sea levels rose by some 300 feet over the course of centuries.
Hundreds of species were extinguished, including (in America alone)
the camel, mastodon, mammoth, ground sloth, giant peccary and giant
beaver, dire wolf, short-faced bear, mountain deer, and saber-toothed
cat. Some paleontologists believe that human beings hastened a few of
these extinctions through overhunting.
Also, the Earth's magnetic field has apparently reversed its polarity
some 20 times during the past 4 million years--most recently, about
12,500 years ago in the so-called Gothenburg flip. There seems to be
some correlation between extinction episodes, climate change, and geomagnetic
reversals. It is not clear whether climate fluctuation causes field
reversals (through changes in the volume of ice at the poles), or field
reversals causes climate change (via volcanic activity or a collapse
of the ionosphere and ozone layer), or whether both are influenced by
some exogenous agent.
Clearly, the Earth was not a quiet place during the time Homo sapiens
was evolving. But what about the period when civilization was emerging?
More recent global climate spikes (not as severe as the ones 40,000
and 11,500 years ago) occurred at around 8000 b.c.e., 6000 b.c.e., 3100,
b.c.e., and 1100 b.c.e. A climatological fluctuation known as the Little
Ice Age lasted from 1200 to 1800 c.e., and was made even worse for parts
of that period by volcanic eruptions that clouded the atmosphere and
lowered temperatures worldwide for years at a time (1783 was the year
of the "dry fog," while 1816 was known as "the year without a summer").
Localized floods, earthquakes, violent storms, and volcanic eruptions
known to have occurred during the past 10,000 years are far too numerous
to list here, and it seems likely that archæologists and geologists
have discovered and interpreted evidence of only a fraction of such
disasters that actually took place.
Most of these events appear to have been of endogenous provenance, and
few (other than climate change and geomagnetic reversal) would have
been global in impact. But in the case of global climate change--and,
possibly, field reversals--extraterrestrial agents may have played a
role. In the year 536, according to tree-ring measurements, just as
many of the civilizations of the period were suffering major setbacks,
there was a sudden world-wide decline in tree growth that lasted about
15 years. Since Greenland ice cores show no signs of large-scale volcanic
activity for that time, the most likely explanations are comet impact
or cosmic dust. British astronomers Victor Clube and Bill Napier have
calculated, on the basis of observed cratering rates on the Earth and
Moon, that we should expect the collision of a meteor or comet "of several
megatons energy to occur somewhere on Earth every 200 years or so."
Further, "a few dozen sporadic impacts in the tens of megatons, and
a few in 100 to 1000 megaton range, must have occurred within the past
5000 years." Comet collisions don't always leave an obvious crater:
the comet that struck near Tunguska, Siberia in 1908 (if, indeed, it
was a comet) is estimated to have weighed 1000 tons; its fiery above-ground
explosion flattened trees for miles in all directions but left no crater.
We should expect an impact of similar energy about every 20 years on
average; but, given that two-thirds of incoming meteors or comets fall
into the oceans, one of similar size is likely to strike land only about
once every 60 years.
In short, the physical evidence shows unequivocally that our planet
is disaster-prone, but it does not point to a single dramatic event
that would have traumatized humankind once and for all. Rather, the
possible sources of trauma are all too numerous.
We should next consider cultural evidence bearing on the nature of the
While some mythologists (such as Joseph Campbell) have maintained that
ancient myths contain no reliable historical data whatever, I have argued
elsewhere (in Memories and Visions of Paradise) that ". . . anthropologists
and archæologists have uncovered many instances in which myths do unquestionably
conceal [or reveal!] elements of historical fact"; there I cited the
examples of the Klamath Indians' memory-based myth of the origin Crater
Lake, and Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime stories that feature animals
that have been extinct for some 10,000 to 15,000 years.
Every mythologist knows that tales of ancient catastrophes of one sort
or another constitute an extremely widespread and common genre. Examples
range from the biblical story of the Deluge to Plato's account of the
destruction of Atlantis; from South American myths of universal destruction
by fire and water to the aboriginal Australian depiction of the end
of the Dreamtime. Many cultures--including the Chinese, Hopi, Greek,
Aztec, Iranian, and Indic--recall a series of four or five World Ages,
each ending in catastrophe. Many catastrophe myths ascribe responsibility
for these calamities to human beings.
If we were to attribute some historical truth to such myths, we would,
I think, conclude from them (as from the physical evidence) that more
than one catastrophe traumatized ancient humanity. Since many cultures
viewed comets and other unusual celestial phenomena with extraordinary
dread, we might also conclude that at least some of these catastrophes
had an exogenous source. And since many myths blame the people themselves
for catastrophes, we should leave open the possiblity that some disasters
were indeed humanly caused.
The first of these conclusions finds still more support in other fields.
In individual psychology, the effects of trauma seem most severe and
long-lasting in cases not of singular, but of repetitive abuse
or injury. The Embers' findings on the origins of violence (which we
cited in Part I of this essay) likewise suggest that if civilized humanity's
destructive tendencies arise from post-traumatic stress, the source
would likely have been a series of disasters occurring at unpredictable
Humanity: Wounded and Precocious
It appears that humankind has had a trying childhood. And just as some
abused children cope with adversity by plunging themselves into intellectual
or creative activities, perhaps humanity as a whole has done something
similar. Neurobiologist William Calvin, in his The Ascent of Mind:
Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence (Bantam, 1990),
suggests that it was by matching wits with frequent climate changes
that our early ancestors learned to develop their capacities for language,
culture, technological innovation, and ethics.
For biologists, the evolution of modern Homo sapiens constitutes one
of the greatest of mysteries. We differ from the apes in a hundred ways:
language, accurate throwing ability, concealed ovulation, dramatically
increased brain-to-body size ratio, different hand anatomy, lack of
body hair, descended larynx, flatter face, smaller teeth, and so on.
It is not so difficult to explain how one or another of these developments
could have occurred in a couple of million years, but all of them taken
together constitute virtually a miracle of evolutionary transformation.
Calvin suggests that we look to only a few basic causes, of which each
would have had multiple effects. For example, if early humans spent
much of their time living in open savannas, this might account for our
transition to seed eating and our upright posture. And if we spent another
phase of our development foraging for food along shorelines, living
partly in water, this might explain features we share with the aquatic
mammals--our subcutaneous fat, salt-and-water wasting kidneys, tearing,
and descended larynx, among others.
But what of brain size and intelligence? Calvin suggests that repeated,
drastic climate fluctuations were the motivating factor, acting as a
kind of evolutionary "pump" encouraging change in certain directions:
"[W]e look at the back-and-forth Ice Ages and see in them not just overblown
winter but a way of amplifying the effect of the wintertime natural
selection. . . ." Calvin's hypothesized winter-specialized hominid subtype--which
would have relied more on hunting, and therefore would have developed
better throwing skills than its more tropical cousins--would have expanded
its population during warmer boom times in order to take advantage of
ice-free land; when the ice returned, the hunters would simply have
moved south. With each warm/cold fluctuation, the winter-specialized
types would have grown to constitute a greater percentage of the overall
Calvin suggests that it was through juvenilization that these versatile
hunters developed bigger brains for making, aiming, and throwing projectiles.
The juveniles of most mammals have a bigger brain/body ratio than adults,
as well as flatter faces and smaller teeth. If, in a given population,
puberty gradually occurs earlier, somatic development will be cut short,
and after many generations the adult population will acquire juvenile
characteristics. Calvin argues that the alternation of harsh and hospitable
climates during the past 2.5couple of million years encouraged early
maturity: during boom times "there [was] a race to fill up newly available
'job slots' afforded by an environment able to feed more mouths." When
the ice returned, juvenile body features were retained. And once brain
size had grown, new uses were quickly found for all this new gray matter--such
as the invention of language and culture.
Calvin emphasizes that there is still a lot to account for and that
the problem is complex--"So much brain enlargement in 2.5 million years
is awfully quick by the standards of evolutionary biology"--and he admits
that his explanation may not be the final one. An alternative theory
he doesn't mention is that human beings are the result of genetic experiments
on the part of extraterrestrials. This suggestion is admittedly beyond
the pale of conventional scientific thinking, but it is really not so
far-fetched in light of ancient myths about culture-heroes and creator
gods, and modern UFO sightings and abduction accounts. If the ET genetic-experiment
hypothesis turned out to be true, it would not deny the role of catastrophes
in the shaping of human culture and consciousness, but it would surely
add a bizarre twist to the story.
Still, let's assume that Calvin's explanation (or something like it)
is right: Catastrophe and trauma (via sudden, drastic climate changes
at unpredictable intervals) have led us to become intelligent tool users.
But it seems they have also planted seeds of alienation and distrust
within our vastly enlarged brains. Perhaps, as Paul Shepard suggests
in Nature and Madness, in additional to physiological juvenilization
we have also undergone a stunting in our psychological development.
Civilization, according to Shepard, produces people who are incomplete,
infantile. Deep down we seem to believe that the gods are angry at us.
What have we done wrong? We must be flawed, sinful children who deserve
the gods' (our parents') wrath. Nature is cruel and chaotic. We must
defend ourselves, propitiate the gods, and make sure we have a surplus
for when the next disaster strikes.
Some Problems and Possible Solutions
In this essay we are proposing an explanation for a great many cultural
phenomena. The matters we have touched on are complex and raise many
questions, which I hope to treat elsewhere in more detail than is possible
here. Nevertheless, we might briefly consider three of the most obvious
objections which our theory must face.
Problem: Why would only a few cultures react to catastrophes
by developing civilizations? After all, most human cultures, historically,
have maintained modest hunting-and-gathering, horticultural, or pastoral
ways of life. Were these people not traumatized? If not, why not? If
they were, why did they respond differently?
Possible solution: Even in the case of global disasters--climate
change and comet impacts--the effects would not have been geographically
uniform. Moreover, it is entirely possible that distinct cultural groups
would have been predisposed to handle trauma in varying ways. It is
true that some cultures have maintained a much greater sense of harmony
with nature than have others; however, evidences of collective psychopathology
are not unique to Western civilization: in nearly every culture it is
possible to point to some institution, rite, or taboo that could have
had its origin in mass psychological trauma.
Problem: Why were no other animals similarly affected? Why didn't
horses, monkeys, squids, and parrots develop big brains, technology,
language, and cultural neuroses?
Possible solution: Perhaps they were affected, but responded
differently. The creation myths of many cultures speak of a time (before
the catastrophes) when the animals were less aggressive or fearful and
when a universal harmony prevailed throughout nature. Of course, such
myths need to be regarded with healthy skepticism, but they may hold
some kernel of historical truth. In most higher animals, behaviors are
scripted by instinct, while in humans (for reasons William Calvin may
be partly able to explain) culture has largely usurped instinct's role.
If traumatic stress caused at least some humans to develop dysfunctional
cultures, then it is possible that the same stressors caused at least
some animals to develop dysfunctional instincts. The lemmings' suicidal
boom-and-bust population behavior is one possible example.
Humans' unique responses to stress may be traceable partly to their
unique brain structure. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown
of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1976/1990), Princeton psychologist
Julian Jaynes anticipated Calvin in suggesting that "it is possible
for the brain to be . . . reorganized by environmental changes." With
the Ice Ages came the development of language, and with language came
the invention of an analog inner world of words, paralleling the behavioral
world "even as the world of mathematics parallels the world of quantities
and things." Jaynes argued that, in its early stages, the use of this
new linguistic ability was split between the brain's hemispheres: the
right hemisphere spoke to the left, and its voice was interpreted as
being that of a god. This bicamerality may have served to obviate the
stress of decision-making during times of environmental change. But
later, during the early historical period, as civilizations were developing,
the bicameral organization of the human mind began to collapse. This,
says Jaynes, was partly due to the invention of writing: once the words
of the gods were written, they became silent and could be turned to
or avoided at will. But disasters also played a role: "The second millennium
b.c. was heavy laden with profound and irreversible changes. Vast geological
catastrophes occurred. Civilizations perished. Half the world's population
became refugees. And wars, previously sporadic, came with hastening
and ferocious frequency. . . ." The gods fell silent, and left-brain-dominant
humans were left to fend as best they could. The result was the dawn
of rational self-consciousness, of alienation and anxiety, and of a
condition in which "we have become our own gods."
Problem: We have suggested that the traumatic energy of ancient
disasters is passed along from generation to generation via civilized
child-rearing methods. If so, we might expect the post-traumatic stress
symptoms evident in civilized populations to gradually dissipate over
the centuries and millennia, or at worst to remain constant. Yet we
now face humanly generated social and ecological problems of unprecedented
scope and severity. Why would these problems be increasing, if they
are the effects of some ancient trauma?
Possible solution: It may be that civilization is (or can be)
a progressive social disease. In individuals, a progressive disease
is one in which the body's natural defense systems are overwhelmed or
subverted; rather than improving, the patient becomes sicker and sicker.
Civilization progressively re-traumatizes itself--not only through child-rearing
practices, but through economic inequality and poverty, environmental
destruction, alienation from nature, and war. Thus as civilization "advances,"
the effects of the original trauma are magnified. Add to this the impact
of natural disasters that have occurred in relatively recent times--such
as the Black Death in medieval Europe, in which nearly two-thirds of
the population was wiped out, and which may have helped prime the European
psyche for witch hunts and bloody colonial exploits.
The idea that our psycho-social disease may be a progressive one is
disturbing, of course. Even worse is the realization that we are infecting
and killing our only potential therapists--the primal cultures of the
world, who appear to have been less traumatized than ourselves, or to
at least have found more sensible ways of coping with their wounds.
If we cannot look to them--and, realistically, we have no right to expect
them--to save us from ourselves, then we must learn somehow to heal
ourselves and one another.
Recovering from Collective Post-Traumatic Stress
How would one go about treating an entire culture for post-traumatic
stress? The difficulties involved are considerable--especially in a
chronic case, or one in which the society in question doesn't want
to be treated. It is difficult to know even where to begin, given
a "patient" so huge, powerful, and deranged as our contemporary global
civilization. Such a task may actually be impossible. But perhaps we
can heal ourselves and one another individually, at least to some degree,
and thereby plant the seeds of a new sane and biologically benign culture.
In order to do so, it would seem vital that we familiarize ourselves
with what is presently known about individual trauma treatment and recovery.
There are several good books on trauma recovery, of which the most relevant
is certainly Chellis Glendinning's My Name Is Chellis and I'm in
Recovery from Western Civilization. Another helpful one is How
to Survive Trauma: A Program for War Veterans & Survivors of Rape,
Assault, Abuse or Environmental Disasters, by Benjamin Colodzin
(Station Hill Press, 1993).
In cases where the original trauma is long past, the most important
aspect of treatment seems to be the recollection and emotional processing
of the traumatic event. Whether humankind as a whole can recall events
millennia ago is problematic; it seems more feasible for individuals
to bring to mind and face the specific ways in which they were taught--beginning
at birth--to throttle their wildness and conform to a contorted system
of beliefs and behaviors. A therapist or therapeutic community is often
helpful in this regard--assuming that the purpose of therapy is not
seen as merely to adjust more successfully to the society as it presently
Another step in recovery is to learn to feel our repressed grief and
rage--as well as our repressed joy. Chellis Glendinning, Buddhist scholar
Joanna Macy, environmental educator Annie Prutzman, and others have
offered suggestions for ways to safely uncork the vessel of our dammed-up
emotions, via psychodrama and storytelling.
It is also possible to benefit from techniques used in shamanic cultures
for the re-integration of nature and psyche. Primal peoples resort to
prayer, dancing, drumming, and purification rites in order to restore
the wholeness of individual, community, and nature. While mere imitation
of such rites may constitute a kind of cultural theft, we may nevertheless
find similar ways of working in small groups to call upon ancestors,
spirits, and natural forces to assist us in our healing.
Recovery may not penetrate past the surface layers of consciousness
without significant, deliberate lifestyle changes. As long as we are
utterly dependent upon civilization it is difficult to see its influences
with any objectivity, or to forge a new relationship with the natural
world. On the other hand, disconnecting from the civilizational system--via
natural home-building, growing or gathering much of one's own food,
and providing for other needs with a minimal use of money--tends to
induce feelings of basic self-worth and competence.
Independence from the system need not be seen as abandonment of responsibility,
however. Often a member of a dysfunctional family will stay in the abusive
situation in order to try to fix it from within. In cases like this,
a therapist will usually counsel the individual to leave, since it is
only from a secure position outside the abusive situation that one can
have a positive impact on those still within it. Perhaps something similar
is true with respect to individuals awakening to the dysfunctionality
of civilization: we can be of more help to other people if we are not
entirely dependent on the system that is progressively reproducing its
woundedness. Then our activism is grounded not just in anger and pain,
but in knowledge of workable alternatives.
Regaining our autonomy and reconnecting with life require deliberate
effort, but the rewards are instantaneous. New avenues for play, creativity,
and love open up before us precisely to the extent that we seek them.
As we do, we provide a platform for the next generation. It may be possible
to forge a path toward sustainable culture only so far in one lifetime.
Perhaps our greatest responsibility, therefore, is to explore whatever
routes we can, go as far along them as we can, and then pass on whatever
we have learned. Children growing up in--or under--the dominant culture
today are inevitably subject to nearly constant trauma, some forms of
which are extremely sophisticated and seductive. Unless some young people
are provided with effective tools for self-defense, self-expression,
exploration, and creativity, and examples of what it is to be a relatively
free and happy human, the way ahead looks pretty bleak.
Implications for the Future
Of course, every sane person would wish to avert another disaster; everyone
hopes that civilization can somehow quickly reform itself so that we
don't have to face massive starvation and ecological devastation in
the coming century. But it would be foolish to ignore the implications
of current trends. The likelihood is that those of us who will be around
in the early decades of the next century will experience a catastrophe
of one sort or another first-hand--either one that is humanly caused
or an "act of God" whose effects are experienced far more severely as
a result of population density and the interconnectedness and vulnerability
of civilization's systems of transportation, communication, food delivery,
and political control.
How will people respond? According to Lewis Aptekar, victims of human-induced
disasters often show more stress than victims of natural disasters
because of the perceived need to find parties to blame. Whatever the
eventual circumstances, it seems certain that groups in differing geographic
areas, and in differing economic conditions, will react in dissimilar
ways. In the case of a breakdown of communication and control, those
who are more dependent on high tech will likely suffer much more than
those who are still somewhat accustomed to locally filling their own
basic needs. Over the short term, we are likely to see acts of extraordinary
heroism alongside extreme examples of opportunism and stupidity. But
what about the long-range prognosis?
If human beings are re-traumatized, will they develop even stranger
and more virulent cultural neuroses than the ones they already exhibit?
Or will at least some of us learn from the experience? The fact that
we are now coming to understand how the human psyche typically deals
with trauma is cause for hope: perhaps a significant number of people
will experience civilization's crisis as a catharsis that will
reach all the way to the roots of our ancient, irrational fear of nature,
and help us learn to live in peace with the world, with one another,
and with ourselves.
© 1994 Richard Heinberg. All rights reserved.