One of the most powerful ideas that currently drives my thinking, one the psychiatrist Ronald Pies called “speculative,” is the notion that human beings co-evolved with culture.
I would imagine some anthropologists and primatologists wouldn’t find the notion so radical.
Consider this: theories assuming a linear progression from biological structures to cultural expressions tend to downplay what culture is for: helping assure the survival of those species for whom it is a feature. This suggests that as a species practices culture, that practice itself would influence the genetic variability and expression of the species. To worry too much about whether clothing came first or hairlessness came first is to get yourself into a pointless chicken and egg loop. To questions of nature vs. nurture, the correct answer, I think, is “yes.”
Consider also that for those species who use culture, being cut off from that culture leads to extreme distress. People in solitary confinement go crazy pretty consistently; people outside of a cultural context quickly cease thinking of themselves as human in a way that we commonly recognize, becoming severely depressed, delusional, sociopathic.
It’s along these lines that I’d like to explore a little more, since the idea that we’ve co-evolved with culture has some deep implications about the roles of spirituality, politics, gender, criminality, and behavioral health. It calls into question the often simplified cause and effect relationships posited by pundits and researchers, reporters and politicians.
We want to believe that, whatever the problem, we are not to blame, that the origins of what ails us lie in some biological, natural, or extra-cultural “other” preying upon us and making us miserable. When we shift blame, we also shift responsibility. These ideas are often linked in legal considerations because we view them as interdependent aspects of culpability. We reinforce power structures, if we benefit from them or fear their realignment. We place somatic and psychological suffering on the individual and ignore her sociocultural situation.
But all of the bases for these actions and desires are culturally determined; our thoughts and feelings are, themselves, influenced by how we live our cultures, ways of being to which our bodies and the brains within them are constantly reacting and are helping to create. The much vaunted “brain chemistry” explanation for psychological distress ignores the fact that brain chemistry in humans does not exist outside of the cultural and ecological contexts in which the human brain evolved. Treating it separately from a person’s sociocultural situation is not only inaccurate, it’s nonsensical and cruel.
Likewise, what we view as criminal or what we view as politically or economically acceptable are impossible to fully grasp outside of the contexts of shame and blame, feelings of responsibility and rage, that we tend to view as highly internalized or personal. Yet what is our reaction to tragedy or loss? We gather together for public rites of mourning and solidarity. We “check in” with others to make sure that, despite devastation, destruction, or violence, we’re all still “ok.”
Trauma research increasingly suggests that psychological healing happens through meaningful connection with trusted others, yet our “scientific” response is still, for the most part, to isolate the suffering person through medical or pharmaceutical means, to criminalize the person or render her legally “disabled,” kicking her out of the world of social contribution through compensated work.
Perhaps we do this because of baser urges, no matter how gussied up with professional jargon. Isolating individuals, and locating larger problems within individuals, justifies the power of the medical and legal structures that perform this kind of work and serve to maintain the status quo. It’s preferable to those in power to place the problems the institutionalization of that power creates on “problem” individuals, “the mentally ill,” “thugs,” and “lone wolf killers.” But maybe doing this sort of thing also derives from the perceived need to contain or purge what we react to as social contagion. We rid ourselves of suffering people because being in the presence of suffering causes suffering for cultural beings. The brief emotional turmoil of sentencing or diagnosis, execution or exile, will lead, we hope, to the contentment of “closure,” certainty, settled science.
As humans, then, we sit on the balance of favoring the offending limb or cutting it off—and perhaps what side of the scale you’re on determines whether you lean toward the political left or right, toward the traditionalist’s “sensible” exclusion or the radical’s inclusive communitarianism.
That we can even contemplate this is another indication that the dance between the cultures we comprise and the brains that create them never ends.