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Culture and Human Growth

by John Lawson ę 1987, 2011

Body and Mind

The Need for Culture

    Of all the animals, human beings are among the most vulnerable.  The specific nature of human vulnerability is related to the long period of dependency that characterizes the members of our species.  Hand in hand with this vulnerability, however, a compensatory strength emerges; for the very dependency which distinguishes the human infant and child is also a precondition for the flexibility and adaptability - indeed, for the independence - of the adult.  The paucity of fixed responses to environmental stimuli prepares the way for learning.  The human being - to a much greater extent than other animals - must learn in order to survive.  Such a fate involves a consciousness of mortality, which sharpens self-awareness.  The insecurity of human beings exerts a pressure to act upon the environment in such a way as to create a protective boundary between the powerful destructive forces of nature and the vulnerable individual.  Seen in this light, the tendency to create and develop culture is part of human nature.  Recognition of the nature of this tendency, however, does not provide an adequate key to understanding the common source underlying the diversity of cultural forms that have been created by human beings.  To discover such a key, one must explore the primary biological needs of human beings.  It is on the basis of the attempt to satisfy such needs that any genuine culture must find its meaning. 

    An understanding of the basic biological needs of human beings can best be achieved by considering the needs of the human infant and child.  In this regard, the primary need of the human infant is for the mother.  If we ask, in turn, precisely what it is that the child needs from the mother, the answer that emerges is love.  If it is to be more than a mere word or idea, however, love must be physically embodied and actively expressed on an emotional level.  It is, perhaps, the general absence of such embodied affection in contemporary culture that obscures the nature of the human need for love.  Many individuals have argued, for example, that that the solution to the world's problems lies in learning to love.  To take place effectively, however, learning to love must come as a result of genuine experience and not merely as a consequence of moral admonition.  In nature, the learning situation which serves as the primary foundation upon which human beings are instructed in the reality of love is the mother-child relationship.  The heightened significance of this relationship among human beings has a biological basis which merits some discussion. 

    Because of the relatively large size of the brain and head of the developing human fetus, it is necessary for the human baby to be born in a state of great helplessness and dependence.  Were the infant to gestate for a longer period in the womb, the increased size of the cranium of the fetus would make safe passage through the birth canal impossible.  As a consequence, what happens is that the human being undergoes what may be considered an extra-uterine period of gestation during the first year of life.  During this period, the infant's brain nearly doubles in weight as the infant gains motor and sensory coordination and establishes the ability to relate in increasingly complex ways to individuals in its immediate environment.  Myelinization of nerve fibers does not occur until approximately the fifteenth month after birth.  The extremely rapid growth of the human brain during the first year after birth is, in fact, a continuation of a powerful spurt of brain development during the final three months of intrauterine life.  The fetal growth of the human brain proceeds more rapidly than is the case with other primates, and the relatively great increase in human brain size after birth - compared to the growth of the brain in other primates - suggests that the human infant is born "prematurely."  Such a conclusion is supported by the observation that the general tendency toward the lengthening of the gestation period in primate evolution finds an exception in human beings, whose gestation period is not proportionately extended.  This is true in spite of the fact that, compared to apes, all other human developmental periods are prolonged.  Ashley Montagu writes: "No other mammal grows at so slow a tempo as Homo sapiens (not counting brain growth).  There is none that takes so long to grow up after birth, none with such prolonged developmental periods..." [1]  Indeed, the human adult preserves many physical features characteristic of the human infant and child.  This tendency of the human species to preserve fetal and childlike characteristics into adulthood is known as "neoteny" or "paedomorphosis," the terms being used interchangeably.  In contemporary evolutionary theory, there is considerable opinion that the emergence of human beings has occurred, to a significant degree, as a result of the retardation of the basic morphological traits of the anthropoid fetus into adult age.  Montagu remarks: "The evolutionary history of many groups is characterized by delayed development, prolongation of the youthful developmental stages into the phase of sexual maturity, and the discarding of the old adult stage.  In such cases the adult stage of the descendant resembles the youthful stage of the ancestor.  This stage of evolution, called neoteny or paedomorphosis, has been followed by the most successful groups of animals, from a variety of ammonites, through insects and other forms, to humans.  In humans, it is especially clear that this process involves the retention of many of the individual's own juvenile traits into adult life." [2]  How is this process of neoteny related to the human need for culture?

    From a psychoanalytic vantage point, the anthropologist GÚza Rˇheim has proposed that the condition of prolonged infancy in human beings is at the root of the formation of culture.  According to
Rˇheim, the extended period of dependency of the human infant and child is the biological source of the insecurity which predisposes human beings to inner conflict and psychic misery.  Rˇheim writes: "The great danger against which mankind has evolved culture is that of object loss, of being left alone in the dark." [3]  From this perspective, "Society is formed by people 'clutching' or introjecting each other as substitute parental imagos..." [4]  Rˇheim states that "... we know that the outstanding difference between man and his animal brethren consists in the infantile morphological characters of human beings, in the prolongation of infancy." [5]  He is led to the conclusion that the frustration which accompanies both weaning and sexual awakening during the Oedipal period leads to repression and to the sublimation of emotional impulses resulting in the formation of culture as a substitute means of satisfaction.  We may ask, however: what is the reason for the frustration in weaning and in sexual development among human beings?  Rˇheim, following Freud, takes it for granted that considerable frustration along these lines is inevitable.  He suggests that the child "... does not find it pleasant to renounce the libidinal gratification offered by support and contact with its mother..." [6]  Yet, again we may ask, why indeed should such renunciation be necessary?  If the frustration of the needs of the infant and child forms the basis of a frustrating culture, would not the satisfaction of the genuine needs of the infant and child lay the foundation for a culture that is humanly gratifying?   Wilhelm Reich and others have answered this question in the affirmative, and some further consideration of the needs of children will help to draw into focus the basic issue of the human need for culture.

    Given the relative helplessness and vulnerability of human beings during the dependency period, the task of the human parent is an arduous one.  Mammals in general, however, are characterized by the need for love and must learn to survive.  One trait which all mammals have in common is the need to receive nourishment directly from the mother's body through suckling.  In human beings the bond achieved between mother and child during the prolonged period of nursing is the prototype for the love relationships that the child will develop later in life.  It is only through satisfaction of the need for contact with the mother's body and through the warmth, tenderness, patience, understanding, nurturing, and security that derive from such contact that the child gains the concrete trust in life that is the foundation for a satisfying existence.  While nursing at the breast is not the only need of the infant, the quality of the contact between mother and child is well expressed in this activity.  In this act, the attitude of the mother is of great importance.  If the contact between mother and child is disturbed - due, for example, to excessive anxiety or hostility on the part of the mother - the functioning of the child will be adversely affected.

    It should be noted that it would be possible to cite several studies - such as those conducted by Harry Harlow and his associates at the University of Wisconsin - in order to substantiate the emotional importance of close contact between mammalian young and their mothers.  Ironically, the basis for such studies is the controlled deprivation of young, captive monkeys that are prevented from receiving necessary maternal care.  The aim of such studies is to demonstrate the adverse effects of restricting the infant's contact with the mother.  Studies of this type reflect a contemporary cultural dilemma insofar as the need for love is seen as a debatable subject which must be proved by establishing a loveless environment in which an
experimental animal is subjected to treatment similar to the distressing treatment inflicted on newborn human babies who are separated from their mothers as a matter of routine hospital policy.

    The importance of breast feeding to the healthy psychological and physical development of human beings has been noted by Alexander Lowen, who comments: "There is something that seems so right about a mother breast-feeding her child.  Mouth and teat are so obviously made for each other; the fit is so perfect.  This concept of fitness and rightness is basic to our sense of reality...  A human newborn has the biological expectation that a human mother will be available in the way that human mothers have been for countless aeons." [7]  It may seem that Lowen exaggerates the significance of breast-feeding, but there are at least two reasons why this is not so.  On the one hand, if breast-feeding is conducted in a way that satisfies the needs of the child, then the mother must be available to the child not only with a teat but with her entire self, to the extent that she is genuinely oriented toward the needs of her offspring.  On the other hand, in order to accomplish this goal, a cultural situation is required that will permit the mother's contact with the child to unfold naturally.  Thus the resolve to nurse the child and provide sufficient love is a challenge to all those aspects of established culture which impede such a venture.  That there is a "biological expectation" on the part of the infant that the mother's breast will be there is implied in Ashley Montagu's argument concerning the evolution of the female breast.  Montagu writes: "The female breast ... almost certainly owes its peculiar shape to natural selection, to the physiological benefits associated with its form...  For the immature human infant what better promise could there be of good things to come than being put to nurse at the mother's breast as soon as it is born, as is done in most nonliterate societies to this day?  Birth for the human infant is the culmination of a prolonged period of disturbing experiences, some assuagement of which is the first of the fulfillments of his birthright which the infant has a biologic, a natural right to expect."  [8] 

    If we consider that the two primary drives in human beings are hunger and sex, it is worth noting that the satisfactory sexual functioning of the adult is related to nurturance received at the mother's breast.  This can be understood, because the need for nurturing and emotional security, if not satisfied during infancy and childhood, must interfere with the mature functioning of the adult on a sexual level.  Lowen has commented on one aspect of this situation: "Oral sex is safe.  It seems to satisfy the individual's need to suck and to fulfill his oral longing.  I believe that is why it has become so common today.  But oral sex is not conducive to orgastic response.  It does not allow for those pelvic movements that bring the person to the involuntary phase of the orgastic reaction.  What a strange trick of fate!  By depriving our children of the opportunity to fulfill their oral needs by nursing, we program them to act out their unfulfilled oral drives as adults on the sexual level." [9]

    The need of the human child for love - graphically represented in the natural situation of breast-feeding - extends to interpersonal relationships at the level of sex.  In the life of the child, the initial crystallization of sexual identity takes place by about the end of the sixth year.  This occurs by means of an identification with the parent of the same sex and a feeling of sexual interest directed toward the parent (or parent substitute) of the opposite sex.  It is in this context that the self-image of the child is securely established with the approval, respect, and support of the parents.  Such approval, support, and respect can only take place in the absence of jealousy and seduction on the part of the parents.  The existence of jealousy and seductive activity on the part of the parents makes it impossible for the child to establish a basic sense of emotional security and independence.  Instead of independence, inner conflict and guilt emerge, with the child caught in a parental crossfire.  The name given by Freud to this type of situation is the Oedipus complex.  Under fortunate circumstances, however, where the need for adequate love and nurturing during childhood is met, the foundation is laid for a potent sexual identity, and the ability is gained as an adult to enter into a state of community with other human beings.  Such a community is genuinely satisfying, since it is based on the satisfaction of basic needs.  The absence of the gratification of basic biological needs, on the other hand, is synonymous with a state of cultural discontent. 

    If a satisfying culture must be based on the gratification of genuine needs, how has it come about that so much misery and disturbed functioning abound?  In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the Titan who bestows the gift of culture on mankind.  The form which this gift takes is the use of fire, which Prometheus teaches to human beings.  For his audacity, Prometheus is punished by the gods.  At Zeus's orders, he is chained to a rock, and a great bird gnaws at his liver each day.  Similarly, the ills of culture seem to gnaw at the entrails of civilized human beings.  As the German philosopher Hegel characterized it, human history is a "slaughter bench."  What is the source of this tragedy?  The name Prometheus means "he who foresees."  Could the capacity to think, to reason, and to foresee the future be related to the misery of human beings in general?  What is the relationship between the need of human beings to satisfy their basic drives and the discontent so commonly felt in civilization?  Is the answer to these questions somehow bound up with the origins of culture and, therefore, with the origins of humanity itself? 

The Origins of Culture

    The truth of the matter is, we do not know how human culture originated.  How old human culture may be is indicated by some remarks of Richard Leakey.  "By 20,000 years ago," Leakey writes, "people had a rich culture.  The walls of caves are decorated with paintings; stones and bones are carved and engraved.  Finely made needles and pins suggest that much more care was being taken over clothes and shoes, and jewelry seems to have been worn." [10]  Leakey goes on to indicate other ways in which human beings - as long as twenty thousand years ago - may have had a substantial culture, "... including a sophisticated language and what we would take as a social life." [11]  More recently, Donald Johanson has remarked that "Bone needles almost indistinguishable from modern sewing needles have been found at 26,000-year-old sites in Central Europe...  Body adornments, such as beads and pendants of bone, mammoth ivory, shell, amber, stone, and other natural objects appear about 35,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Aurignacian period of the Upper Paleolithic.  They appear scattered in large numbers at ancient campsites and in living areas." [12]  It seems, therefore, that a substantial human culture has been in the process of formation, development, and change during the period of approximately the last forty thousand years.  Prior to this period, there was a long period of human and proto-human social and cultural development.  In spite of unavoidable ignorance at the present time regarding the particulars of human cultural evolution, one conclusion seems apparent: human culture did not appear suddenly, fully formed.  Human culture developed gradually.

    In spite of the fact that the development of human culture stretches far back in time, the evidence of anthropology can be used as a basis for conjecture.  It is now generally accepted, for example, that the nearest living primate relatives of human beings are the chimpanzees and bonobos.  This judgment is based on an analysis of behavioral, anatomical, and biochemical similarities.  Both chimpanzees and bonobos may be said to have a culture. [13]  One of the differences between these primates and Homo sapiens is the much larger and more complex brain of humans.  It is customary for many investigators to consider both the distinctive place of human beings in nature and the growth of human culture as rooted in the relatively greater size and complexity of the human brain.  The evolution of the human nervous system, however, is itself conditioned by cultural factors.  The establishment of the controlled use of fire, for example, which Leakey deems to have taken place at least as early as half a million years ago, is a cultural factor that cannot fail to have affected the environment in which continuing neurological evolution has taken place.  If it is true that increases in the size of the human brain and the complexity of the human nervous system are major factors in the origination and development of human culture, then an attempt to understand the significance of these factors may provide clues concerning the nature of the problems associated with contemporary human social existence.  Many individuals have seen the increase in human intelligence, related to neurological growth and complexity, as the primary issue at the basis of human problems.  How might this be so?

    Intelligence - meaning, in the present context, the capacity to learn - is a distinctive ingredient of human culture, since culture is, by definition, the transmission of learned behavior and experience.  The capacity to learn, however, may be considered a curse as well as a blessing.  Knowledge brings power to manipulate the environment, but it also brings consciousness of one's own mortality.  The ability to inhibit one's impulses, based on foresight, may be a strength, yet it also lays the foundation for chronic anxiety.  In a very deep sense, the well-known adage that "ignorance is bliss" implies that the reverse is also true: "knowledge is suffering."  With the increase in power that comes with the capacity for deliberative thinking also comes the awareness of one's own impotence in the face of nature's awesome force.  By thinking, human beings act upon nature and create culture; yet thinking itself may be a source of dread if it is divorced from the immediate needs of the body.  This idea is part of Wilhelm Reich's reasoning when he comments on the implications of the human ability to think abstractly.  "To judge from the study of the theories of knowledge," he writes, "nothing can compare with man's amazement at his capacity to feel, to reason, to perceive himself, to think about himself and nature around him.  In thinking about his own being and functioning, man turned involuntarily against himself...  Man slowly began to reason beyond his strong orgonotic [i.e., bio-energetic] contact and harmony with nature, which heretofore had been sufficient to keep him alive and to develop him further, even into a reasoning being." [14]  If Reich's view is to be considered relevant, it must be determined why human beings - or hominids - would use their powers of intelligence in a self-destructive manner.  It may be suspected that the answer to this riddle has to do with the requirements for the survival of the species. 

    There are many ways in which human beings in nature are threatened, and it is not difficult to see that some form of culture is needed as an aid to survival.  The rabbit has his burrow, the lion has his claws and teeth, the chimpanzee can take to the trees, but human beings must consciously adapt the environment to their needs.  By using intelligence, human beings have created a complex culture based on sophisticated technology.  With the Neolithic revolution, involving the use of large-scale agriculture and the production of a substantial economic surplus, civilization was established.  In the extended process of cultural and social transformation, however, the shift of focus in human experience has been from spontaneity to control, from being to thinking, and from doing to having.  The gradual development of the human brain, connected with the assumption of an upright posture and an increase in the proportion of free energy in the organism, must have occurred, in part, as a response to environmental pressures.  The brain and the complicated human nervous system thus provide an increased potential for security; yet this power of mind, when relied upon disproportionately, becomes a kind of sorcerer's nightmare.  The possibility of a rational culture, which would serve to establish a firm foundation for the satisfaction of basic human needs, is supplanted in reality by a culture permeated with anxiety and insecurity.  Such a culture allows for a vast increase in overall population and a dispersion of the human species geographically, but it does so at the cost of a disruption in the unitary functioning of the human being.

    According to Reich, the basic disturbance in functioning which characterizes the current stage of development of the human species corresponds to a chronic disruption in the breathing process of the individual and an habitual pattern of neuromuscular and bioenergetic rigidity.  In Reich's terminology, this overall disturbance in functioning serves as a kind of "armor," since chronic inhibitions in respiration and generalized muscular contractions are expressive of a defensive posture.  The fundamental problem at the root of culture, in Reich's analysis, can be stated in the form of two questions:
(1) Why was man the only animal species to develop an armor?

(2) Was the armoring of the organism, which clearly is responsible for the mystification as well as mechanization of nature, a "mistake" of nature? [15]

    In light of contemporary anthropological thinking, answers to Reich's questions suggest themselves. The direction of human culture generally has been toward an increased reliance on abstract intelligence and the products of that intelligence in order to control both the "external" environment of nature and, indirectly, the "internal" environment of individual experience.  Such a cultural trend appears to be the result of a deep anxiety stemming from an awareness of human vulnerability and mortality.  The capacity for such anxiety can be seen as related to specific evolutionary developments, such as increased brain size and neurological complexity and malleability.  It is not difficult to suppose that such vulnerability and anxious self-awareness must assert a selective pressure for the creation of a culture which is based upon the use of abstract intelligence.  The answer to Reich's first question would then be that man is the only animal that has developed "armor" based on disrupted functioning because such armoring has proved to be of survival value for human beings.  The answer to Reich's second question would be that the development of armoring in human beings, while tragic in its consequences, is not a "mistake," insofar as it has allowed human beings to survive and multiply as a species, even though at a fearful price.  From this vantage point, the possibility of armoring is inherent in human nature; the fact of armoring is the result of specific developments in definite evolutionary and historical contexts. 

    When considering the origins of human culture, it is important to keep in mind that the development of culture has occurred in different places at different times among various peoples.  The result is that there are substantial differences among the multiplicity of known cultures.  These differences are due to factors such as the level of technological complexity, the availability of food, the harshness of the climate, the existence of competitors within a given ecological "niche," and the presence or absence of natural accidents - such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions - that might initiate a crisis.  It is apparent that varying degrees of functional balance and health have been associated with different cultures at different times.  Reich, for example, basing himself on the ethnological researches of Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders, contrasts the greater freedom of functioning found in a matrilineal culture with the rigidities and disturbances of a patrilineal order.  As part of his interpretation of Malinowski's work, Reich argues that a universal series of stages in cultural development can be discerned. [16]  Such a generalized succession of cultural stages  - which Reich considers to have led, on a sexual level, from primitive promiscuity through a matriarchal system to a patriarchal order - is questionable, given current knowledge concerning the diversity of cultural patterns. [17]  Despite cultural diversity, however, one generalized feature of cultural development can be discerned; this is a redirection of human awareness away from immediate experience toward a concern for future security.  One of the paradoxes of this development is that the progress of culture itself has in many ways added to the quota of human anxiety and discontent.  This seems to be manifestly true with regard to the advance of modern culture and civilization. 

    Exactly what one means by "modern" depends upon the context in which the word is used.  Literally, the word means "lately" or "just now."  A good argument can be made that, in the broadest sense, "modern" human beings are all those members of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.  This subspecies is thought to have displaced the subspecies Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, which is believed to have disappeared approximately forty thousand years ago.  More specifically, it can be argued that modern human beings are identified with the change from a hunter-gatherer way of life to widespread pastoralism and then to the beginnings of agriculture.  This transition represents a change to a more settled way of life, and there is general agreement that such a change took place about ten thousand years ago, during what is now known as the Neolithic revolution.  It is the period of the last ten thousand years that has seen the rise of civilization.  Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin have commented on the far ranging significance of this occurrence.  They note that a farming culture is in many respects the "exact opposite" of the hunter-gatherer way of life.  These authors write: "Because crops must be tended and the harvest waited for, farmers are obliged to be sedentary.  And in turn a sedentary life offers for the first time the possibility of accumulating material possessions...  The land bearing the crops must be defended, and so must the accumulated possessions.  With the growth of larger and larger populations, which became interdependent through trade, came the possibility for power over many people on a scale unknown to hunters and gatherers." [18]  If modern culture is a relatively recent phenomenon in the evolution of the human species, it is nonetheless the case that this phenomenon is made possible by the emergence of the complex human nervous system.  The significant question remains: what type of culture is most conducive to the growth and well-being of the human animal?  The answer to this question must be based on the biological needs of the human being, needs which are at the root of all human culture.

    Biologically, human beings are in need of prolonged nurturance during infancy and early childhood, and it is during this period that learning takes place at the most profound level.  Authors of widely differing persuasions are in agreement on this point.  Leakey and Lewin write: "What happens in a young child's head over the first few years of its life is that the crucial connections between the nerve cells are established..." [19]  Konrad Lorenz points out that "... in those most highly organized animals in which learning and individual experience play a big part and in which parental care is prolonged ... the 'school of life' of the children lasts a long time." [20]  What must be noted in this regard is that the type of learning which takes place during the formative period of the child's life is what might be referred to as "organic learning." [21]  It is the basic functioning of the individual which becomes oriented and educated during the dependency period of early life.  If this is so, it must be acknowledged that the gratification of the needs of the child is the basic soil out of which a mature and life-affirmative culture may be said to emerge.  Given the fact that such gratification does not commonly take place in modern culture, it is not surprising that the modern human being is characterized by a pervasive feeling of discontent.  The basic needs of the child for nurturing, security, warmth, contact, respect, and guidance are not generally met.  The attainment of individuality, independence, and a strong gender-based sexual identity is impeded.  The mother-child relationship is disturbed, and the role of the father is complicated, confused, and antagonistic.  Anxiety is the rule, and defense against such anxiety in the form of armoring is inevitable.  The result is a chronic disruption in the unitary functioning of the growing person.  When the child becomes an adult, he will tend to treat his own children in much the same manner that he himself was treated as a child.  Culture is thus transmitted, to a great extent, through the organic learning that takes place in the family situation during the dependency period.  In recognition of this, we say "it's a family tradition."  The manner in which this disturbing process is carried out has been analyzed in detail by Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, and others.

    The problem of human aggression and destructiveness, seen in the light of the present discussion, is essentially the result of a disturbance in basic functioning and not an innate predisposition of the human species.  Arguing basically on the assumption that instinctual aggressive patterns observable in various species of animals are also at work in human beings, investigators such as Konrad Lorenz have postulated that "intraspecific aggression" is an inborn pattern of human behavior which will seek an outlet regardless of the cultural milieu and circumstances of upbringing.  Thus, Lorenz maintains that in human beings "... militant enthusiasm is an instinctive response with a phylogenetically determined releasing mechanism...  Like the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, militant enthusiasm in man is a true autonomous instinct..." [22]  In fact, it is questionable whether one can properly make inferences regarding instinctual human behavior based on comparisons with the instinctual activities of geese, fish, and other animals at stages of evolutionary development quite separated from that of human beings.  Moshe Feldenkrais summarizes this matter well when he writes: "The great diversity of patterns of performance by men of any act is due to this fundamental fact that the actual mode of doing in man is influenced by his experience to a degree unknown in animals.  The genetic tendencies only appear as a background to the individual experience, during which the growth and formation of nervous paths and interconnections take place." [23]  Similarly, Ashley Montagu observes: "There can be little doubt that in humans as in other animals neural fiber systems and nuclei or groups of nerve cells are prefunctionally developed in the brain to serve specific functions, but that to a much greater extent than in other animals these prefunctional elements may be later organized or not by subsequent experience." [24]  Therefore, Montague maintains, "... in humans, at least, it is to a large extent experience that functionally organizes specific neural fiber systems and nuclei and determines whether or not they will function in aggressive behavior." [25]  Aside from his questionable belief in a destructive instinct in human beings directed against members of their own species - a belief which he shares with Sigmund Freud - Konrad Lorenz has made interesting suggestions concerning the problems associated with the emergence of human culture.  Thus he writes: "All the great dangers threatening humanity with extinction are direct consequences of conceptual thought and verbal speech.  They drove man out of the paradise in which he could follow his instincts with impunity and do or not do whatever he pleased...  Knowledge springing from conceptual thought robbed man of the security provided by his well-adapted instincts long, long before it was sufficient to provide him with an equally safe adaptation." [26]  The thrust of this argument is consistent with the understanding that the relative paucity of the instinctually determined behavior in human beings - and not the presence of instincts themselves - is at the root of modern culture. 

    If the origins of human culture are to be sought, in large measure, in the precarious emergence of human intelligence in the context of insecurity in nature, then the role of modern culture and civilization in the lives of human beings becomes an issue of considerable importance to each individual.  On the larger scale, the situation of modern human beings is an interesting one.  Lorenz has commented on the predicament that contemporary human beings face.  He writes: "Far from seeing in man the irrevocable and unsurpassable image of God, I assert - more modestly and, I believe, in greater awe of the Creation and its infinite possibilities - that the long sought missing link between animals and the really humane human being is ourselves!" [27]  To place Lorenz's statement in the framework of the present discussion, we may say that the problems of human beings are, to a significant extent, due to a formative cultural environment which is inadequate to the developmental needs of the person.  The possibility of more humane human beings - and, therefore, happier, more nearly fulfilled human beings - is a question of culture in the deepest sense of the word.  If this is true, then what is the situation of the present-day individual who wishes to live as fully as possible? 

Culture and the Individual

    In one of its aspects, the function of culture is to serve as a type of boundary between the individual human being and nature at large.  In this sense, culture is somewhat like the skin, which allows for contact with the external world and yet fulfills a protective role as well.  Just as the skin is a semipermeable membrane, so culture may be seen as a kind of filter which allows for contact with the raw substance of nature while it organizes perception and protects the integrity of the person.  In this manner, culture is clearly related to personal identity, and the individual bears the marks of his or her culture.  The fact that differing cultures affect the formation of differing views of the world on the part of individuals is known and understood by most people.  From the vantage point of the present discussion, the relevant question is: how can culture best serve the interests and well-being of individual humans, based on the satisfaction of basic biological needs?  The answer to that question is rooted in the understanding that, fundamentally, culture may take one of two forms.  It may be more or less in harmony with the needs of the individual, or it may impede the functioning of the person by unnecessarily restricting the satisfaction of basic needs.  A state of integrated functioning involves a condition of fluid contact with the external world.  This means that the human being functions as a part of nature, not as radically distinct or separate from nature.  Living nature "inside" the person is composed of a core of vital functioning enclosed by a membrane through which contact is made with the environment.  If we consider the matter, it becomes evident that the contact of the organism with its environment is formative in nature.  A key element in this formative relationship is one of varying degrees of tension and excitement.  In the course of acting in the world, the living organism shapes itself.  For human beings, this process is part of one's personal history and is reflected in posture, movement, personality, energy level, and the degree of balance and harmony in overall functioning. 

    On a phylogenetic level, one facet of the process of human form development is the specialization of functions and an increase in structural complexity.  The differentiation of the various layers of the human brain is an example of this specialization.  The so-called "higher" functions of the cerebral cortex are concerned with manipulating the external world while the requirements of balance and equilibrium related to upright posture and bipedal carriage are mediated by more primitive portions in the cerebellum, portions which are literally situated at a "lower" level anatomically than the "higher" cortical areas.  It can be seen that the brain has developed from the "core" toward the "periphery."  Hence, vital functions and emotional reactions are closely associated with the "old brain," which is located at a deeper level than the "new brain."  This arrangement corresponds to Freud's description of the mind in which consciousness is seen as a surface phenomenon and the ego is understood to be an outgrowth of perceptual contact with the outside world. 

    For human beings, the formation of the individual has gone hand in hand with the formation of culture, and this has involved a process of growth.  Such growth involves an expansive, pulsatory development.  Although in human beings, the role of the instincts is relatively diminished, it is incontestable that the human organism is governed by very strong drives.  Hunger and sex are the primary examples of such drives.  They represent dual aspects of the living functioning of the human being.  Both of these functions are mediated by culture.  Given the importance of these functions, an adequate response to the need for nurturance and for sexual acceptance of the developing child constitutes a basic element of healthy childrearing.  To the extent that any culture fails to succeed in this direction, there will be disturbances in the basic processes of human functioning and there will be problems in the culture.  Simple observation, as well as considerable research, suggests that disturbances in basic areas of functioning - such as sexual potency, depth and quality of breathing, postural balance, ease of movement, and self-perception - are statistically "normal" conditions in modern society.  This means that modern culture is itself one of the factors contributing to the unhappiness that so many people experience in life.  In the words of Theodore Rubin, "Culture kills." [28]  What does this mean for the individual?

    In one of his books, Moshe Feldenkrais has commented on the predicament of the individual in society.  He writes: "The general tendency toward social improvement in our day has led directly to a disregard, rising to neglect, for the human material of which society is built.  The fault lies not with the goal itself - which is constructive in the main - but in the fact that individuals, rightly or wrongly, tend to identify their self-images with their value to society...  Despite the fact that the inherited differences between people are obvious, there are few individuals who view themselves without reference to society." [29]  The phenomenon which Feldenkrais is describing in terms of the lack of an independent, clearly defined self-image has been addressed by Alexander Lowen, who characterizes the problem in terms of "the mass individual."  Lowen writes: "I would suggest that the common denominator in all neurotic behavior patterns is a diminution of the sense of self." [30] 

    As the self-image of the individual is naturally rooted in a person's sense of self at a bodily level, the analyses of Feldenkrais and Lowen are complementary.  What may be said of contemporary society and culture is that they fail to meet the needs of the human individual in terms of the realistic struggle for satisfaction in life.  This failure - while it has many aspects - is primarily the result of a failure to meet the needs of children during the formative years of their growth and development.  A personal history of neglect and mistreatment is reflected in the basic functional disturbances so prevalent in the modern world.  The paradox that emerges is that human beings - who are necessarily cultural animals - are faced in actuality with an established cultural order that is destructive rather than constructive in nature.  Lowen remarks: "We must be discriminating if we wish to avoid being brainwashed by the overwhelming propaganda and advertising that are hurled at us in favor of the [socio-cultural] system.  We can only do this if we guard our true individuality and not let ourselves be seduced by the rewards which the system offers to those who achieve success." [31]  Such is the case, because in a culture which is to a significant extent pitted against the individual, success in cultural terms will be predicated on a rejection and denial of one's individuality.  On the other hand, it is paradoxically true that the greater the degree of individuality that characterizes a person, the deeper will be the capacity for genuine commitment to other human beings.  The basic context in which the process of relating to other human beings is learned in the contemporary world continues to be some form of family situation, and it is in the family group that the transmission of culture is anchored.  Obviously, therefore, the attempt to respond genuinely and effectively to the needs of children in the family situation is a healthy course to take.  This path, however, is extremely difficult to follow when the parents have not satisfied their own dependency-related needs during their own childhood.  The cycle of neglect, however, can be challenged, and an important aspect of such a challenge is the responsibility taken by the individual faced with continuing his or her personal growth and development in spite of unfavorable beginnings and present difficulties.

    The situation of the individual in contemporary culture is fraught with conflicts and contradictions.  Perhaps the central conflict - at the level of personality - is that the mental life of the typical individual is so much at odds with his or her biological needs.  It may be that a disjunction between mind and body is characteristic, generally, of the last ten thousand years during which modern culture has arisen.  In any event, one consequence of the growing awareness of cultural forces that tend to create a split between mind and body is that many people long for an epoch in the life of the species when a more integrated, less self-conscious, less anxious existence was supposed to be found.  One form that such a longing takes is the desire to get "back to nature."  Given the complexity, depth, and extent of contemporary cultural problems, the proposal to recreate an earlier, more innocent version of human society must necessarily confront many obstacles.  Another common form which the longing for a healthier world takes is the tendency to see the current cultural epoch as the threshold of a new and better age.  One may be permitted, however, to have doubts that we are so lucky.  What is certainly the case is that the basic needs of the person can be ignored only at the cost of imperiling one's health and well-being.  How, then, are human beings to proceed?

    Perhaps part of the answer to this question is to be found in a change in direction of human thinking so that the energy of the individual becomes focused on the satisfaction of genuine human needs rather than on the struggle to conform to cultural norms.  One of the advantages of such a redirection of awareness and personal energy is that it permits (but is not restricted to) an individual approach to personal growth.  Each person is a human being, and the satisfaction of genuine human needs is a proper concern on an individual level.  This is true even if such a redirection involves a critical reappraisal of the cultural context in which human beings now live. 

    From the vantage point of the present discussion, the basic needs of the individual are rooted in the drives of hunger and sexuality.  These drives are inextricably bound up with the need for security, genuinely felt interpersonal relationships, socially necessary and rewarding work, and the experience of growth and potency that corresponds to an increase in real and meaningful knowledge.  Any significant disturbance in the satisfaction of basic human needs - if such a disturbance becomes chronic - will be reflected at the level of organismic functioning.  This means that the personal history of the individual is revealed in the quality of respiration, the tonus of the musculature, the ease and grace with which adjustment is made to the demands of an upright posture, the degree and clarity of self-understanding, and the pleasure taken in being alive.  It is not enough simply to be aware on an intellectual level of the needs of the body; basic needs must be gratified at a basic level.  At the same time, simply sensing one's needs and impulsively seeking gratification is not adequate either; the human condition requires that thought be given to the fulfillment of our drives.  The combination of a deep awareness of fundamental needs and a state of mindfulness regarding the manner of their satisfaction implies an acceptance of both freedom and necessity.  This is the basis of personal responsibility.

    One of the factors central to an integrated approach to personal growth is an awareness that the personal history of the individual is expressed literally in terms of bodily attitude.  Because human beings are cultural animals, that awareness can be extended to include factors of a cultural nature.  The culture in which an individual has grown - meaning the actual nexus of interpersonal relationships and environmental influences which have been formative in the development of the person - are to a considerable extent revealed in the behavior of the individual through the expressive language of the body in terms both of movement and structure.  It is not surprising, therefore, that in attempting to assist an individual to understand the meaning of his or her patterns of chronic muscular tension (armoring), one must address the problem of culture in relation to the needs and awareness that emerge as contact with oneself is deepened.  Without some understanding of the pressures inherent in modern culture, it is easy to be manipulated, to feel powerless, and to lose hope.  One may learn to play by the rules of the game and become a "mass individual," but to do so is to become a contradiction in terms in the desperate attempt to reconcile one's inner conflicts.

    As many observers have commented, our culture sets great store by the achievement of success and power, yet the irony is that with an increase in power and control over nature, there has tended to be an increase in personal impotence that comes from an abandonment of one's true self.  In some degree, no doubt, this is the dilemma of Oedipus, and in spite of the sexual and cultural "sophistication" of the contemporary milieu, the dilemma represented in the myth of Oedipus seems to be, as Lowen has suggested, characteristic of the predicament of modern human beings.  In one of his plays, Sophocles depicts how Oedipus, now old and blind, is miraculously taken into the afterworld.  Oedipus does not die a natural death.  Instead, he is enshrined; the place where he disappears - at Colonus - becomes holy ground.  Similarly, the role of reason as a means of mastering nature has been enshrined in the culture of civilized human beings.  If such reason is to break free from its defensive nature, with its exaggerated emphasis on mastery, and become functional, it will have to sink its roots deep into the energetic processes of the body, which are the source of the vital intelligence of human beings.  To discover the genuine needs of the body is to learn to evaluate one's life not in terms of conventional dictates but in terms of a deeper awareness.  This permits one to gain courage to struggle for a more genuinely human, personal culture.

[1] Montagu, A. Growing Young (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981), p. 84.

Montagu, Growing Young, p. 264.

Rˇheim, G. The Origin and Function of Culture (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), p. 100.

[4] Rˇheim, p. 108.

[5] Rˇheim, p. 20.

[6] Rˇheim, p. 20.

[7] Lowen, A. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 147-148.

[8] Montagu, A. The Human Revolution (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p. 94.

[9] Lowen, A. Fear of Life (New York: Collier Books, 1980), p. 179.

[10] Leakey, R. Human Origins (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982), p. 61.

[11] Leakey, p. 61.

[12] Johanson, D. and Blake, E. From Lucy to Language (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 99.

[13] Comparisons of social organization and "cultural" differences between chimpanzees and bonobos have provoked considerable discussion and some controversy.  See, for example, de Waal, F. B. M., (ed.) Tree of Origin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[14] Reich, W. Either, God and Devil & Cosmic Superimposition, trans. T. Pol (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), pp. 292-293.  Part of the original passage appears in italics.

Reich, Either, God and Devil & Cosmic Superimposition, p. 287. (Reich's italics)

[16] Reich, W.  Sex-Pol: Essays 1929-1934, ed. L. Baxandall; trans. A. Bostock, T. DuBose, and L. Baxandall (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).  The relevant discussion is to be found in Reich's essay "The Imposition of Sexual Morality," included in this collection.

[17] See, for example, Tannahill, R. Sex in History (New York: Scarborough Books Edition, 1980), p. 353n.  Also see Klein, V. "Status of Women" in
EncyclopŠdia Britannica, 15th edition, Vol. 19, p. 909.

[18] L
eakey, R. and Lewin, R. Origins (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), p. 177.

Leakey and Lewin, p. 151.

[20] Lorenz, K. On Aggression, trans. M. K. Wilson (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), pp. 114-115.

[21] See Feldenkrais, M. The Elusive Obvious (Cupertino, California: Meta Publications, 1981).  "Organic learning begins in the womb and continues during the whole of the individual's period of physical growth." (p. 29)

Lorenz, p. 262.

[23] Feldenkrais, M. Body and Mature Behavior (New York: International University Press, 1975), p. 39.

[24] Montagu, A. The Nature of Human Aggression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 204-205.

Montagu, The Nature of Human Aggression, p. 205.

Lorenz, p. 230.

Lorenz, p. 221.

[28] Rubin, T. Reconciliations (New York: Viking Press, 1980), p. 3.

[29] Feldenkrais, M. Awareness through Movement (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 18.

[30] Lowen, A. Pleasure: A Creative Approach to Life (New York: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 82.

Lowen, Pleasure: A Creative Approach to Life, p. 88.

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