from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

The Early Human Condition

Life would have been much more difficult if we had been reared without any words for concepts, that is, without a language. And this would have been even further the case if we faced a seemingly unforgiving and harsh world like primitive hominids did. Most likely, it would have been harder to relate and work with others to ensure a successful life. One can imagine how disputes and disagreements were normally settled. Subhumanly is the word that comes to mind.

Words need to accompany the concepts they depict. Otherwise, very little can be grasped and dealt with cognitively; one’s mental range becomes constricted. Without the ability to speak our thoughts and feelings, our life most likely would embody a world in which many events remained frightening and inexplicable.

Language grants new possibilities. As our distant ancestors acquired the ability to form concepts, they acquired the ability to change their natural fate, the typical course of their lives on Earth. Thereafter, the more discoveries that were made, the better life could be for people, physically and psychologically. The formation of language, however rudimentary, was an indispensable achievement in terms of progress for early humans. With the ability to use words to name concepts came the ability to think in long chains of abstractions and, as a consequence, communicate effectively and efficiently with others. Now a system was in place to relate ideas and modify behaviors.

Though our species was able to develop more advanced tools and refine its language abilities, little else was accomplished other than sheer survival. Until just a few thousand years ago, humans had developed the technology to make weapons and build shelters, for example, but not much else was done. They had not made the types of discoveries that we take for granted today. Basically, their mental frame of reference was geared primarily to perpetuating the modest knowledge they had. Their main concern was probably how to find nourishment, protect themselves from predators, and survive through the next season.

Because we are no longer in their context, we may fail to comprehend how difficult and disorienting this time likely was for people. Large numbers of individuals, if they survived birth, died in their youth because of diseases and harsh environmental conditions. If they did manage to live past childhood, they were still faced with a relatively brief period of life; the average lifespan was a half or a third of ours today.

Imagine yourself born into an environment stricken by a prevalence of death, disease, and famine, and ask yourself how much you could progress mentally or contemplate in these desperate conditions. How many original ideas would occur to you while learning the basic necessities of hunting and gathering?

Currently, similar conditions exist on an even greater scale throughout most of the so-called third-world countries. The amount of misery in these areas remains unequaled. Millions of people starve to death yearly, and hundreds of millions (possibly billions) are stricken by the “hidden hunger”—mineral deficiencies. Multitudes of children experience so much horror in their formative years that little can shock them afterwards concerning their insecure predicament. So many live and die, never knowing what life was about—and what it could have been. A sense of normalcy has enveloped their plight, and few can see things otherwise. For many, a toleration of pain seems to be the standard, rather than an achievement of joy. Due to the nature of our physical pleasure/pain mechanism, extended and heightened pain can make life truly insufferable. Such pain can seem worse than death itself.

One may wonder why all the humanitarian aid does not significantly alter the situations found widely in developing (and sometimes even in developed) countries. Even though many plea for more funding of these programs, this type of aid is merely a temporary fix. It avoids the fundamental political and psychological causes. To correct these causes requires, as we shall see, even more compassion and courage—and more thought.

At this point we can develop a sense for how miserable our life could have been or can be. For those whose lives really are miserable, reading a book is neither useful nor possible. One just does not focus on intellectual matters when one’s next meal is at stake or the next week’s survival is not certain. We and every other living thing in the universe have only a certain amount of time and resources to dedicate to certain tasks. And these certain tasks are determined by our particular conditions.

We might be reminded here of the psychological theorist Abraham Maslow and his outline of people’s “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow stated that we have an escalating scale of needs. Each need in the hierarchy must be satisfied (at least partially) in order to best move on to the next higher need (e.g., food and water, shelter and clothing, social needs, and so on, with self-actualization at the top).

Once our basic needs are met, though, the psychological motivations of humans can become complex and at times may not fully conform to the need hierarchy. Nonetheless, the most basic physiological and safety needs must be met before we can endeavor to fulfill other higher needs. Intellectual pursuits thus require the basic needs to be met.

Most of Homo sapiens history was a continuous process of satisfying the most basic and ultimately essential of needs—survival. The demands of the physical environment were enough to deter early humans from expanding their awareness of what was actually possible to them. They were people just trying to survive on a seemingly harsh planet.

While this seems to be a pretty grim picture of the plight of primitive humans, not all was bad. Many individual lives flourished, and periods of pleasure assured them that life was still worth living. By inspecting tribes that have lived recently, we can get an idea of what life was like for so many thousands of years. For the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, for example, normally half their week is spent hunting and/or gathering; the rest is spent resting, gaming, and socializing.72

Actually, a life of day in and day out toil to ward off the constant threat of deprivation would have been unacceptable for primitive tribes. Most sought to establish a way of life that involved an adoration and appreciation of nature as well as merriment with others.74

The internal mechanism or capacity to experience pleasure is a key factor in human survival. Life needs to be worth living in order for people to accomplish the task. A mere absence of pain is usually not enough to strengthen one’s will to live; although, it may be encouraging if one has been constantly suffering either physically or emotionally.

Yet, the will to live should include not only the drive to continue one’s existence but also a psychological state whereby one considers new alternatives and makes new choices. Again, as conceptual creatures, every moment of our existence is related to choices. The choice for most humans throughout history was to basically repeat what was normal for that timeframe. A man who lived 50,000 years ago assuredly chose to perform actions that seemed perfectly appropriate for his life, as he saw it—and as his tribe saw it. Correspondingly, a man living in present day New York City also chooses to perform actions that have become perfectly acceptable routine to him, as he sees it—and as his culture sees it.

Pressures from the age may be such that it becomes increasingly difficult to make new choices concerning one’s own path and outlook. Ultimately, ideas about how to live and function are accepted and advocated for various reasons—some physical, some psychological, some economic, and so on.

When we examine the psychological context of most of human history, the factors that influenced behavior become more apparent. The physical aspects of human history are accompanied by social and psychological aspects. For us, psychology is the key that opens the door to genuine understanding of behavior and mental experience (which, of course, includes political systems).

Understanding the psychology of our ancestors might lead us to conclusions that prevent a repeat of history. As a nineteenth century political theorist, Michael Bakunin, stated poignantly:

If it is justifiable, and even useful and necessary, to turn back to study our past, it is only in order to establish what we have been and what we must no longer be, what we have believed and thought and what we must no longer believe or think, what we have done and what we must do nevermore.3(p.21)

Human beings have been called social animals. They tend to live and interact in groups. Since most creatures can be classified similarly, this really does not tell us much about who we have been and who we are.

Rather than observe the mostly beneficial aspects of life among others that we are all familiar with, we must go further and address the problematic aspects. We must discuss the hazardous ways that humans have lived and interacted in groups.

For a human, to live in a group is different than for any other creature. Our ability to reason is the main explanation for this. Within groups of people, the rational process of making compromises and reaching agreements maintains social tranquility and prevents disruption among individuals. Unfortunately, people in any era may not completely value this process.

Although comprehension of the process of reason was especially important for people centuries ago, it was commonly overlooked. The group’s or particular individual’s guidelines often took precedence over such mental considerations. To voice opinions that opposed the general rules concerning “how things are going to be” was met often with strong disapproval.

Within primitive societies there were mostly customs instead of laws. Customs were wrapped in ritual and reinforced by tradition. They yielded an atmosphere of social unity in which reliance on organizations such as the “joint family” was primary.26 To speak out against the group or to disagree with an “authority” was often equivalent to disobeying the appropriate norms established. Early on, children were told and shown what could or could not be done, should or should not be said. Just a few frustrating encounters with the group (and its accepted guidelines) were normally enough to stop psychological growth.

Customs offered individuals something reassuring, though. Because so little was known about reality (and thus about life’s possibilities), routines that could be followed granted feelings of security and belongingness. Eventually in such a context, the subtle psychology of the group and its practices became accepted as the authority, and it was not questioned. Anthropologist Paul Radin wrote of the group’s customs:

There is no compulsive submission to them. They are not followed because the weight of tradition overwhelms a man....A custom is obeyed there because it is intimately intertwined with the vast living network of interrelations, arranged in a meticulous and ordered manner.74(p.223)

As a result, an intolerant, collective mentality tends to develop. Radin stated further:

Where tribal consciousness has become completely dominant, as in so many parts of Africa, any self-assertion of an individual against the community is, theoretically, sin. Where a theocracy prevails, as among the Zuni of New Mexico, any self-assertion of the individual against the priesthood is witchcraft and punishable by death.74(p.245)

Of course, early humans knew that life in a group better ensured their health and survival. The phrase “strength in numbers” made definite sense. In a tribal milieu, to be physically strong and healthy helped also, since hunting and gathering at times required as much power as a person could muster. Not surprisingly, the strongest men were able to provide many things that others simply could not. Depending on their personalities, this might have granted them an authority to control others in the group.

Power cannot be described in mere physical terms, however, because it is a psychological concept too. How a person perceives power in other individuals (or groups) will invariably affect how he or she behaves toward them; it will affect the range of options seen as appropriate in dealing with them. This is one reason why people can allow themselves to be intimidated by others of all sizes and types. The ability to convey and utilize one’s psychological power (and be influenced by another’s psychological power) depends on one’s attitude towards power itself.

Yet, being more powerful physically might have been a major factor in people’s perceptions of who was psychologically powerful. Intimidation and fear tactics are common ways to enforce rules. Various incentives and rewards for belonging and conforming to the group’s standards are other ways. The goal of the group’s leaders was typically to shape its members’ ideas and behavior to fit their needs and the needs of the group.

Those who challenged the given atmosphere of authority (for whatever reason) were usually confronted by the main evil to a reasoning mind: physical force. The use of force basically violates the capacity for identification, integration, evaluation, and subsequent action.75 Even the threat of such aggression is sufficient to snuff out the assertion of independence and autonomy—key traits necessary for an individual member of a thinking species.

As noted, in terms of human evolution violent behavior can be classified as the subhuman. As Homo sapiens acquired the capacity to reason, the initiation of physical force in human relations was invalidated. Human beings were now able to make choices and identify aspects of reality, including disagreements with others, and then communicate them through the invaluable tool of language. This necessarily meant that conflict resolution could only occur between reasoning people—be it adult to child, child to child, or adult to adult.

Since only reason allows us to understand and comprehend differences of opinion, only reason can resolve them. Any other process or action is self-refuting. The instigation of force can never be effective for anyone in terms of reaching an agreement or achieving proper resolution. If force is used to deal with peaceful others, communication and language become irrelevant; barbarism is the only avenue of existence.

The age-old idea that force is needed because people cannot be reasoned with, in the words of philosopher Leonard Peikoff, “amounts to the claim that brutality is the antidote to irrationality. It is the same as telling a person: ‘I’m going to bash your brains in to assist you in using them.’”70(p.322) Such an attitude only engenders more brutality.

In this coercive setting, man becomes no longer a social animal but, rather, an anti-social animal capable of limitless destruction and disintegration (including his own). Such circumstances certainly cannot treat life as the ultimate standard of value by which all other values are chosen. Aggressive actions are the exact opposite: anti-reason and anti-life. They are contrary to a physically and psychologically nourishing environment in which human life can flourish.

But, for centuries human beings resorted to and sanctioned inherently anti-life methods to deal with one another—typically on the basis of unexplained feelings and a rationale that no other alternative is desirable or useful. These destructive social and psychological elements definitely impacted people.

Important ideas and emotions were habitually relegated to a lower status of awareness. Habits developed in which focus on new things was shunned. Throughout much of human history, the mentality might have been this: We function as a group in order to survive, and we must think as a group in order to survive; dissenters are to be chided or punished because they disrupt the group; consequently, stability must be maintained. In 1894 an expeditionist wrote about the Australian Aborigines he encountered:

[They]...exhibit in extreme form the strengths and weaknesses of conservatism as a way of adapting. For them everything had a completed quality; everything was accounted for, once and for all.

The memorizing of songs and myths and dance sequences was a way of preserving the status quo. So were the mutilations, pain and bloodlettings of rituals dramatizing the desperate seriousness of doing things as they have always been done. Everything was spelled out in detail so that there would be no questioning. No one thought of modifying ideas about dreamtime tracks [images of heroes, mighty accomplishments, plentiful goods, effortless acquisition of game] and sacred places, much less of inventing new ideas, because every feature of the desert had long since become part of a time-honored and firmly established legend. The landscape was effectively ‘used up.’72(p.330)

For centuries, the psychology of the group reigned supreme and its norms and routines were performed mostly unthinkingly. This made it difficult for people to see beyond their particular view of relationships and environment. Similar to many areas of our world today, most people throughout history saw few alternatives to the kind of existence they were living.

In order to discover what the various alternatives for us might be, we need to turn to the topic of individual enlightenment. To do this, we first need to comprehend the nature of emotions.

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