But What Should We Discuss?

Part 1

In “Our Primary Problem,” I identified the two principal problems facing us humans at present—the threat of “runaway” and our “unnatural” way of life, and I noted that two courses of action relative to those problems would be (a) the development and deployment of alternate sources of energy, and (b) drastic change in our ways of life. I then evaluated those two courses, and in the process reached some rather pessimistic conclusions.

I was not, of course, happy about that fact, and reacted to that feeling by recalling some words written by someone for whom I have tremendous admiration, Philip Slater: “… there is no particular reason why the United States could not become the center of the most beautiful, benign, and exciting culture the world has ever known.” ((Philip E. Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970, p. 144. Dr. Slater has a web site.)) I then put together “A ‘Meaningful’ Solution,” a brief essay in which I offered, not a solution per se, but a means to solutions, a special sort of discussion group—what I called the Structured Interaction Group (SIG). In that essay, I stated that the Leader for a particular session should start the discussion by saying whatever s/he felt “led” to say (whether or not it concerned either of the two above-named problems), and I continue to hold that position.

I realized, however, that it might be helpful to supply those interested in initiating SIGs having the specific intent of addressing the two above-mentioned problems with some “raw material” that might help stimulate the release of their creative juices while participating in a SIG session. Not wanting to present the ideas of just one person, I have therefore collected together summaries of ideas that several others have developed relative to a topic that is especially close to my heart—that of our “design specifications” as humans—and present them in the pages that follow. For reasons of length, however, I present these summaries in three separate essays.

In this first essay I begin by summarizing relevant ideas presented by George B. Leonard, Gordon Rattray Taylor, Edward Goldsmith, and Jean Liedloff. In Part II the ideas of George Edgin Pugh, Philip E. Slater, and Melvin Konner (et al.) are given attention. And, finally, I discuss relevant ideas of Paul Shepard and Dacher Keltner in Part III. I follow the discussion of Keltner with a summary of my own ideas as to what our “design specifications” are, and then offer some concluding remarks.

The amount of space that I devote to a given author should not be interpreted as indicating the importance of that author’s contribution. If anything, the opposite is true, for in the case of several of the authors, I restrict myself simply to a listing of contents, and encourage the reader to pursue those authors further.

I suppose that I should apologize for limiting my attention here to a discussion of “design specifications” (and ignoring the topic of “runaway”). This limitation might be interpreted as meaning that I have changed my mind regarding “our primary problem” (that of the possibility of “runaway”). But such is not the case. I justify my avoidance of that problem here, first, because my knowledge regarding “global warming” and technological developments “in the offing” to develop “safe” alternatives ((For a recent example, with avionics relevance. )) is limited—and I have no particular interest in expanding my knowledge in those areas. Second, however, I believe (on the basis more of “faith” than hard evidence, I’ll admit) that if we give priority to developing a new way of life that is centered on realizing our “design specifications” as humans, in the process of doing so we might, very possibly, simultaneously solve our pollution and alternate energy problems.

Given my reference to “faith” in the above paragraph, let me begin here by identifying what are believe are the primary “articles of faith” that govern thought and action in our society (to repeat here somewhat from my “Obstacles to the Good Society”):

• Happiness comes especially from the consumption of goods and (more recently) services.

• One will “naturally” attempt to maximize one’s happiness. ((A corollary here is that if someone is to be rewarded, the reward should be monetary—so that the recipient can increase his/her level of consumption, and thereby become happier.))

• There is no upper limit to happiness—more is always better.

• Given that acquisition must ((What is the rationale behind this “must”? Could it be that people are more readily exploited in a society within which there is “law and order”? A fact, however, which must be hidden from public view lest its knowledge leads to an overturning of the social order!)) be by purchase rather than theft, ((Thus, redistribution efforts, whether performed in the manner pioneered by Robin Hood, or by “legal” means, are typically perceived as constituting theft.)) one will “naturally” attempt to maximize one’s income.

Given that individuals vary in their abilities, personalities, interests, values, etc., the pursuit of income by some individuals in the society undoubtedly has an impact on other members of the society—it being highly likely, given what “drives” this society, that that impact is primarily negative. However, my intention here is not to pursue that (very real!) possibility but, rather, to question the “conventional wisdom” of our society as stated in the above four precepts—using as my point of departure the concept of “human design specifications.”

The concept of “human design specifications” could not arise until evolutionary thinking came to the fore—which occurred during the latter half of the nineteenth century, propelled especially by the publication of Charles Darwin’s [1809-1882] The Origin of Species in 1859. However, Darwin himself made absolutely no contribution to the concept. If anything, his contribution to the concept was of a negative nature (specifically in that it gave rise to Social Darwinian thinking)! ((Robert C. Bannister is one scholar who would deny this. But also see Richard Weikart’s web site which has links to a number of works by Prof. Weikart on the subject.))

My purpose is to give individuals interested in initiating a Structured Interaction Group (SIG) something to read and think about either before they establish a SIG or while they are involved in participating in one. My hope is that I have provided enough “raw material” in this paper for interesting discussions, and that those SIG discussions result in some creative ideas regarding how a way of life can be created—here and elsewhere—that will enable people to live in accord with their “design specs” as humans. Ideas that will generate excitement on participants’ parts, so that they will want to publicize them and work for their realization.

The concept of “human design specifications” has its basis in the thesis that a mutual development occurred, over a long period of time, between (a) humans as biological entities and (b) their way of life (i.e., their sustenance—and other—activities). This development was not mutual merely in the sense of simultaneous occurrence, but mutual in the sense that a “fit” developed as an integral part of this development. That is, humans came to “fit,” biologically, a certain way of life, and simultaneously developed a way of life that “fit” that biology.

Although there was no “purpose” associated with this mutual development, ((Either one chosen by those involved in these developments or one imposed upon them by a Higher Power.)) a “product” of it was a high level of well-being—both physical and psychological—for humans. Thus, the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence claimed by Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679] for early humans had absolutely no merit when it was promulgated—and has even less merit today. Hobbes’s “conclusions” were based on a total absence of empirical support, and were likely invented to serve ideological ends rather than intended as historical statements. Given that possibility, it is unfortunate that Hobbes’s views on early humans have been accepted as “gospel truth” by so many over the past few centuries.

It is the facts that (a) the “fitting” of humans to a certain way of life occurred over a long period of time and (b) associated with that “fitting” was a high level of well-being for humans that allows me to assert that humans developed certain “design specifications” during that period of mutual “fitting.” The question that arises is: What are those “specifications”? I have no intention of supplying a definitive answer to that question here (for the reason stated above), and instead will provide some “food for thought.” What the reader does with these ideas, of course, is up to the reader.

My early intellectual life consisted of listening to parents, teachers, and preachers; reading textbooks and novels (such as Tom Sawyer and Ivanhoe); and watching television. Little of what I was exposed to was of an unconventional nature; and even when, in my later youth, I was exposed to “deviant” works such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, George Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, or Everett Knight’s The Objective Society, such works had little impact on my thinking. For, after all, my orientation had to be to getting on with my life, and that required that I acquire an “education” that would prepare me for some sort of career.

Not until my late 30s—when I entered a somewhat unsettled period in my life—did I pay serious notice to societal critiques, and at present I can’t even remember what particular works especially caught my attention. It seems to me that the first societal critique that I read that made me take notice was George B. Leonard’s The Transformation: A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Humankind. ((New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1972.)) Although this book was published in 1972, I don’t think that I read it until the late 1970s. ((Leonard was born in 1923, and died on January 6, 2010. He had, e.g., been the editor of Look magazine for a time.))

Introduction: George B. Leonard’s The Transformation

Leonard made a number of striking statements in this book, such as:

• “Actually, there is nothing essentially human or natural in our present situation.” (p. 11)

• “I consider how often the moments of bliss in my life have been associated with rhythmic activities—dancing, running down a long mountain trail, playing drums, paddling a canoe for hours—an affirmation, perhaps, of the essentially rhythmic nature of the universe.” (p. 16)

• “Only humanity under the conditions of Civilization has dared try to step outside the pulsing flow of nature.” ((Spending several hours on a golf course does not constitute getting close to Nature—for one’s mind is on the game, not the surround. Besides, the well-tended grassy surround isn’t even natural!)) (p. 18)

• “It has been consumers and components, unaware and out of tune with nature, that our culture has for the most part needed and produced.” (p. 24)

• “A space capsule is not a very good escape vehicle. We cannot escape ourselves.” (p. 29)

• “… every American knows (he is repeatedly reminded, in countless subtle ways) of his inalienable right, not to be happy, but to be unhappy in style.” (p. 34)

• “ … it is doubtful that anyone, including ourselves, can long tolerate the peculiarly deprived consciousness that prevails over most of this nation. Suffice it to say that the life of the [“primitive” African] Bushman … clearly contains more power and intensity, more laughter, more music, more challenge, more joy than does that of a typical American.” (p. 35)

• “In terms of how it feels to be alive, we have a very low standard of living indeed.” (p. 35)

• “The repeated use of ‘why?’ with young children constitutes one of our most effective ways of insuring that they not endow objects with vital force… . there are no real ‘whys’ in nature, and all the ‘hows’ are strictly provisional.” (p. 41)

• “Perhaps the basic, unacknowledged purpose of every zoo is to distort our children’s perceptions, to show them that living things can be ripped from their biofields and held, still “alive,” prepared for what Civilization, through a more complex series of manipulations, is going to do to them. It is interesting to note that zoos are prominently featured in those societies that mask their almost paranoid anxieties behind powerful machines of war—the Aztecs, the Assyrians, the Romans, the modern megastates.” (p. 165)

• “[Our] ponderous and complex material culture is actually a millstone around the ordinary citizen’s neck.” (p. 51)

• “Higher technology … seems to go along with social stratification—the proliferation of classes and castes and the decline of a sense of single community.” (p. 56)

• “Religion, ever more priestly and separate from daily living, validates caste and class, and sanctions formal codified punishment as a means of social control.” (p. 60)

• “All religions that promise specific, significant rewards in an afterlife are agricultural adaptations.” (p. 63)

• “… we know that, in order to achieve success, every child of Civilization must have at least one physical or mental deformity, one Gift from the culture.” (p. 69)

• Etc., etc.

Much in the book lends itself to commentary, but I will here focus on just one of the topics that he discussed. In his Chapter 5 (“The Gift”) he noted that neuroses, diseases, and just plain discontents are associated with Civilization, and that rather than discussing the causes and consequences associated with each separately, he would lump them all together and give them the name NDDs. He then offered (p. 71-72) a series of theses regarding NDDs:

• “Civilization’s most indispensable nonmaterial endowment to its children is some type of neurosis/disease/discontent.”

• “The best way of gaining temporary relief from dis-ease lies in forgetfulness of existence. This is generally achieved either by drugs or by the relentless getting and building that has characterized much of human life since the success of agriculture [10,000 years ago].”

• Individuals need to be “afflicted with dis-ease in order for Civilization’s work to be done.” Despite what Sigmund Freud taught, the “NDDs do not necessarily result … from a conflict between humankind’s sexual and aggressive instincts and the realities of social life.” Rather, Civilization per se is the culprit.

• “An NDD is more effective the more its origin is veiled. When one mode of programming dis-ease is widely revealed in a particular society, that mode loses much of its power.”

• “Up to a certain remarkably high breaking point, the NDDs are not maladaptive for the civilized individual but highly adaptive. A pre-ulcerous condition makes for success in this society; ulcers are a bit too much.”

• Every NDD is of both a physical and psychological nature… every NDD leaves some physical scar. To that extent we are all maimed and we are maiming our children.”

• “The NDDs are essentially incurable in any civilized society and perhaps in any society that has advanced as far as agriculture. Symptoms may shift and particular forms of dis-ease may be exchanged for others. The basic condition remains[, however]. Transformation of society is the only real cure.”

Note this last statement: “Transformation of society is the only real cure;” it is a statement with which I concur; indeed, in a sense I offered some ideas relative to that matter in my “Our Primary Problem” (i.e., self-sufficient homesteads and self-sufficient “intentional” communities).

Leonard’s argument, in brief, seemed to be:

• World history since the “fall” into agriculture, (( “The Biblical legend of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden seems clearly to describe the invention of agriculture.” Warren Johnson, Muddling Toward Frugality. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1979, p. 43.)) rather than being a story of continual, even accelerating, progress, has been one of continual, even accelerating, regress.

• In arguing (p. 3) that “most of our current troubles … can be traced ultimately to the lack of a vivid unifying principle or belief system [“vision”],” Leonard seemed to state that what initiated this process of regress was the loss of a “vivid unifying principle or belief system … .”

• Leonard’s reference (p. 235) to “these fading days of Civilization” suggests that he believed that the period of regress was coming to an end, to be followed by some sort of Golden Age.

• On p. 3 Leonard asserted that “the Transformation [of our society], despite surface similarities, is neither utopian nor millenarian, … it is not only possible but inevitable, …it is, most significantly already, well under way, … it proceeds out of historical necessity, amenable to validation both by intuition and by reason.” On p. 236 he repeated his claim: “I know that the Transformation is possible because it is already so well under way.”

I agree with parts of Leonard’s argument, but disagree with other parts:

• I agree that world history since the Agricultural Revolution has been, in important respects, a story of regress—the criterion that I am using here being the “general welfare.”

• Whereas Leonard seemed to think of the cause of this regress as being the loss of a “vivid unifying principle or belief system,” my explanation is The Discrepancy (discussed briefly above). As one reads in the book, one may “read” my explanation into the book (i.e., one may infer such an explanation from the contents of the book); however, Leonard’s explicit (apparent) explanation does not agree with such an inference.

• I assume that this Discrepancy was not chosen. Humans made certain choices, true, but could not foresee all of the ramifications of their choices—could not anticipate that a Discrepancy would arise and grow in magnitude. But it did; and—following the “one thing leads to another” principle—once a process of societal-cultural change got underway, it gained the appearance of being a “natural” process. And, in fact, was labeled “progress”—and embraced by most. ((After all, one has little choice on this matter—for heroic efforts are needed to “buck” the ways of the society that one was born and raised in.))

• Although Leonard ostensibly perceived a “fading away” of Civilization, and the dawn of a glorious future, he failed to present an explanation for that turnaround. I, in contrast, see no reason to believe in such a turnaround; what appears to be more likely is James Lovelock’s ((Lovelock is most noted for being the originator of the “Gaia” hypothesis.)) prediction that by the end of this century few, if any, humans will be alive!

• Perhaps in 1972 (when Leonard’s book was published) there seemed to be evidence of a change in “consciousness,” so that it was then reasonable to project the expansion of that “consciousness” throughout the civilized world. But if a change in consciousness was detectable at that time, I would interpret this not as an independent development with great (and positive) causal potential but, rather, as just another effect of a growing Discrepancy!

• A belief that positive change began to occur around 1972 seems terribly naïve today.

• I agree with Leonard that the “cure” for our problems is societal system change (rather than electing a new president, developing a new curriculum for the schools, etc.), but do not believe that it will “just happen”—or happen in the way that Leonard apparently thought.

• Rather, I believe that societal system change will occur only as the result of (1) the development of plans, (2) plans capable of implementation, and (3) the actual implementation of those plans.

• I agree with Leonard’s statement (p. 3) that “the biblical dictum that where there is no vision the people perish is by no means merely metaphorical.” But where “vision” needs to enter the picture (I’m convinced) is in developing plans for societal system change. For if plans are developed that are easily understood and that capture people’s imaginations, the enthusiasm generated by the plans can result in people becoming actively—and energetically—involved in implementing the plans.

• Plans that are developed must have an orientation to bringing genuine well-being to as many as possible, while simultaneously ensuring ways of life that are sustainable. The focus of this paper, however, is “only” on the first subject.

In the next series of sections, I summarize (or at least list, in some cases) ideas that a number of writers have published relative to human “design specifications” and then conclude (in Part III) by presenting my own (tentative) thoughts on the matter. I begin with a book by Gordon Rattray Taylor [1911-1981], Rethink: A Paraprimitive Solution. ((New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1972.)) As the title of this book suggests, its contents bear a fairly strong resemblance to those of Leonard’s book—and the book was also published in 1972.

Taylor’s “Rethinking”

Taylor begins by noting that (p. 7) in the “developed” countries, at least, “the suspicion seems to be crystallizing that somewhere down the line we took a wrong turning.” And that although most of those having this “suspicion” likely do not realize it, there is good reason to conclude (p. 8) that “the future cannot be, must not be, simply an extension of the past: a radical rethinking of the whole system is needed.” Taylor noted (p. 17) that the “primitive” societies that have been studied by anthropologists in general do not exhibit the signs of stress (e.g., alcoholism, suicide), common in “advanced” societies, which fact suggests strongly that “such stresses are the product of an unsuitable way of life.” That is, if one becomes an alcoholic, this is not the result of a weak personality, poor choices, etc. but, rather is attributable to the nature of the society that one lives in. Given this conclusion, Taylor looked to “primitive” societies to see what can be learned from them that would be applicable to modern “advanced” societies. Taylor realized that it would not be either possible or desirable to “go back” to the sort of sustenance system of the “primitives” (i.e., a gatherer-hunter way of life). Yet he observed (p. 13) that the technological developments that have occurred in the “advanced” societies have been a mixed blessing: they have made life easier but have not necessarily made life better. In fact, Taylor baldly declared (p. 19) that “we live in a psychological slum.”

Taylor noted (p. 10) that “material advance” has been a primary characteristic of the “developed” countries, but that this has not been accompanied by an increase in people’s level of satisfaction. And he asked: Do we need to reconstruct society to achieve this end? His answer, of course, is that we do; and he establishes as the primary goal (p. 15) improving mental health: “we must think in terms of improving mental health, creating sound basic personalities and the matching of social institutions to them.” That is, our goal should be especially to have a society within which all members have “sound basic personalities,” and to achieve that goal we must establish institutions that will conduce the emergence of such personalities. If we allow technological development to continue to occur without any thought as to its impact on how institutions, and thus basic personalities, are affected, we will simply intensify our problems—make our societies even worse psychological slums than they already are.

Taylor contended (p. 12) that there are three ways of living:

• Service to others.

• The manipulation of materials.

• Having an intellectual life.

And he evidently perceived these three ways of living as mutually exclusive. Regarding these three “ways” Taylor argued that a problem arises “when a society offers a range of choices which differs from the range which its members demand … .” I assume that what he meant here is that there are several “natural” personality types, and that it is important for a society to recognize this, and ensure that the society is structured in such a way that all of these types can readily find expression. Taylor added (p. 22) that a society must offer a range of challenges to its members, and even (p. 57) satisfy a need to have some mystery in life. One might argue, Taylor notes (p. 89), that the psychological needs that people have can be satisfied during leisure time if they are not satisfied during one’s “work” time. But Taylor insisted that the answer, rather, lies in striving for the sort of wholeness that characterizes (and presumably has characterized) the lives of “primitive” peoples.

This conclusion led Taylor to offer a list (p. 149) of the characteristics of a society “fit” for human habitation:

• The rate of social change would be small.

• Members of the society would live in communities.

• The society would have an improved political system.

• Members of the society would live in the country.

• A consumer mentality would be rejected by the members of the society.

• Bureaucracy would be simplified in the society.

• “Busyness” would not be valued.

• Reflection, however, would be valued.

At a slightly later point (p. 153) Taylor noted, “A sensible person would choose to live in a society whose other members were also sensible.” He adds that “it is precisely the creation of a sensible populace which constitutes the problem.” Yes, indeed!

I find it difficult to disagree with the eight points listed by Taylor—nine, if “sensible people” is added. However, how does one reduce the rate of social change? What is the nature of the communities that Taylor envisions? What would an “improved political system” look like? Is the goal of living in the country consistent with the goal of living in communities? How does one eliminate a consumer mentality from the society? How does one accomplish simplification of bureaucracy? How does one get people to become less busy, and more reflective? How does one get a society of sensible people?

Given all of the questions that Taylor’s list causes one to ask, one might feel it necessary to conclude that Taylor himself was not a very sensible person! For one is forced to ask of his list: Of what value is it to develop a list of goals worth achieving if one does not also provide some worthwhile ideas regarding how those goals might be achieved?! I suppose that lists such as those provided by Taylor are of some value in that they can cause others to think of the goals that they would put forth which, in turn, might lead them to develop ideas regarding how their goals might be achieved. Still, it is not very satisfying to read a list of goals without also being given at least some ideas regarding how those goals might be realized. However, if a list such as the one that Taylor offered would be used as the basis for a group discussion, the list might prove to be of value precisely because of its lack of specificity! That’s my hope, at any rate.

Goldsmith’s “Blueprint”

Edward Goldsmith [1928-2009], founder (in 1969) of The Ecologist, devoted the entire January 2 issue (1972) to a long article entitled “A Blueprint for Survival,” later that year published as a book. ((He left this position in 1990, at the urging of Norwegian “deep ecologist” Arne Naess, to write the lengthy The Way: An Ecological Worldview, published in 1992. An updated version was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008.)) In that book, he advocated the creation of a stable society ecologically, but also made a few comments regarding human well-being. Let me begin my summary of his discussion of that topic by quoting a statement that he made at the end of the book: “… if we are capable of ensuring a relatively smooth transition to it [i.e., a stable society], we can be optimistic about providing our children with a way of life psychologically, intellectually and aesthetically more satisfying than the present one. And we can be confident that it will be sustainable as ours cannot be, so that the legacy of despair we are about to leave them may at the last minute be changed to hope.” ((I am quoting from the online version, section 354. Given that the book (presented in four sections, plus appendices) is organized into a series of short numbered sections, it will be convenient to refer to those sections numbers rather than page numbers.))

In “The Goal” portion of the book (the final of four) Goldsmith made these comments that pertain to human well-being:

• “A society made up of decentralized, self-sufficient communities, in which people work near their homes, have the responsibility of governing themselves, of running their schools, hospital, and welfare services, in fact of constituting real communities, should, we feel, be a much happier place.” (Sect. 312) This indicates that Goldsmith put a premium on subjective feelings of well-being, and was convinced that having an ability to play a major role in decision-making that affected them was a vital factor underlying such a feeling.

• Goldsmith added that if people lived “in these conditions, [they] would be likely to develop an identity of their own, which many of us have lost in the mass society we live in. They would tend, once more, ((Goldsmith’s “once more” here seems to be an allusion to the fact that prior to the Agricultural Revolution all humans (and their ancestors) were “hunter-gatherers” (Sect. 238). As such, they had a high standard of living—if not in a material sense, in senses that are much more important. )) to find an aim in life, develop a set of values, and take pride in their achievements as well as in those of their community.” Sect. 313) Here Goldsmith’s emphasis was psychological and ethical.

When I read this passage, the Cheers television program theme song came to my mind “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo), three verses of which are:

Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you’ve got;
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

All those nights when you’ve got no lights
The check is in the mail;
And your little angel
Hung the cat up by its tail;
And your third fiancée didn’t show.

      Sometimes you want to go
      Where everybody knows your name,
      And they’re always glad you came;
      You want to be where you can see,
      Our troubles are all the same;
      You want to be where everybody knows your name.

In the next section I discuss a book by Jean Liedloff that recounts her experiences with the Yequana Natives of Venezuela. Ironic here is that the characters in the once-popular Cheers program were trying to emulate the Yequana but had no idea that they were; and that the song’s composer likely also had no idea that he was writing as if he were a Yequana! Cheers, of course, was set in the “Cheers” bar in Boston (which I had occasion to visit a few years ago, as my older daughter was a student at Boston University at the time), and I feel it necessary to “ask”: Isn’t it a pathetic commentary on our society that to have some semblance of a “natural” life—for a time at least—one must go to a bar?! Not that all bars will “do the trick,” of course; but it almost seems that only bars will! (Which is not to say that I am a frequenter of bars—for I most decidedly am not!)

• Goldsmith’s interest in having psychological needs met was made explicit in Sect. 314, in which he asserted that the absence of “these things” (identified in the previous point) is what results in “rendering our mass society ever less tolerable to us and in particular to our youth and to which can be attributed the present rise in drug-addiction, alcoholism and delinquency, all of which are symptomatic of a social disease in which a society fails to furnish its members with their basic psychological requirements.”

• In Sect. 315 Goldsmith presented a long quotation from John Stuart Mill’s [1806-1873] Principles of Political Economy, Vol. II (1857), one excerpt being: “Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating a world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature …” This suggests a conviction, on Goldsmith’s part, that because we humans developed “in Nature,” we evolved with a need for close contact with Nature. In Sect. 123 Goldsmith noted that “Industrial man in the world today is like a bull in a china shop, with the single difference that a bull with half the information about the properties of china as we have about those of ecosystems would probably try and [sic: to] adapt its behaviour to its environment rather than the reverse.” Implicit here is the conviction that if we are to live in a harmonious manner with Nature, it is not enough to collect ever more scientific knowledge about Nature. Doing that has great importance, to be sure, but equally (perhaps more) important is to experience Nature. For doing so can not only help one gain knowledge about Nature, but help one gain a sense of oneness and respect-reverence for Nature—which feelings will make one reluctant to despoil Nature in any manner.

Although both Edward Goldsmith and (especially) Gordon Rattray Taylor wrote admiringly about “primitive” peoples, their knowledge of such people was based on what they had read (by, e.g., anthropologists). Jean Liedloff, in contrast, wrote her The Continuum Concept ((New York: Da Capo Press (a member of the Perseus Books Group). 1977 (revised edition). First published in 1975. Liedloff has a web site. (Given that she died last month, it is not clear whether this web site will be continued.) )) on the basis of her personal experience with “primitives” in South America.

Liedloff’s “Continuum”

While in Florence, Italy, on her first trip to Europe (from New York City) Liedloff met, and became acquainted with, two Italian explorers (p. 3), and was invited by them to accompany them on a diamond-hunting expedition to the Caroni River (a tributary of the Orinoco River) in Venezuela. She accepted the invitation (but does not comment on why she did so in her book ((Was it, e.g., out of a sense of boredom—a sense that she needed some adventure so that she could feel alive? We don’t learn from the book what was going through her mind.)) ).

The group then traveled to Venezuela (which means “little Venice,” after the Italian city with that name), and proceeded (p. 6) up the Orinoco, and then the Caroni and, finally, the Carupi River (a tributary of the Caroni). While on the expedition she encountered Tauripan Natives; and although on this trip made no effort to study these Natives, she was struck by the fact that (p. 8) they were all evidently happy and (p. 9): “The children were uniformly well-behaved: never fought, were never punished, always obeyed happily and instantly; the deprecation ‘Boys will be boys’ did not apply to them; but I never asked myself why.” These observations made her curious about the Natives she encountered, but as the purpose of the expedition was other than to observe Natives, she lacked motivation to satisfy her curiosity.

Later (she did not specify how much later—or even when the initial expedition occurred), she went on a second expedition (p. 12-13) this time led by another Italian, the destination being the upper Caura River basin near the Brazilian border. Not only did she not indicate when this second expedition occurred, she did not even comment on its purpose. Evidently she believed that such details were not important for her story, for she only wrote about her contact with members of the Yequana and Sanema tribes.

Her comments about those Natives suggest that the purpose of the expedition was to learn about “natives” in Venezuela, for she made a number of comments (p. 13-16) about the Natives she observed on this trip:

• All of the men, women, and children had strong personalities—each was an individual in his/her own right. Meaning that no pressures for conformity existed with these Natives.

• The people seemed unreal to her because of the “absence of unhappiness, a large factor in every society familiar to me.” “The ‘rules’ of human behavior did not [seem to] apply to them.”

• There didn’t seem to be any word for “work” in the Yequana vocabulary. This is not to say that they failed to engage in sustenance activities—for obviously they did: their survival depended on it. But when they engaged in activities necessary for their continued survival, they did so as members of a group, and in doing so engaged in gossiping and joking while “working.” Indeed, “a party mood prevailed.” That is, they had learned to do the “work” necessary for their continued survival in such a way that it was enjoyable; they got their “work” done, but the “work” itself was almost secondary to their other activities while “working.” In a sense, the “work” they engaged in was simply an excuse for being, and interacting, with other members of their tribe, which interaction they made enjoyable for themselves. They had learned to interact one with another in a manner that all parties involved found enjoyable, and by combining this mode of interaction with those activities necessary to their survival they had “hit” upon a mode of living that (1) made them all happy, (2) resulted in their necessary “work” getting done, and (3) helped give cohesiveness to their group. Given this, is it any wonder that (p. 15) “They … had no motive to progress, ((I wish that Liedloff had not used the word “progress” here—or at least had put it in quotes. For how can one label any movement away from what these people had “achieved”—but certainly not as a result of conscious choice—as anything but regress?! We Westerners are so used to equating technological development as “progress” that we have difficulty being critical of such development. It’s as if Gaia has been guiding our history since the Agricultural Revolution: Gaia realized, shortly after this “Revolution” got underway, that it had made a mistake in allowing humans to appear on the scene, and “fixed” historical development in such a way that humankind would unwittingly bring about its own destruction; and that via “global warming” would accomplish that “goal.”)) as they felt no need, no pressure from any quarter, to change their ways.”

• Liedloff could detect no tendencies for competition in their behavior—suggesting that cooperative behavior is what we humans are programmed for. (Note that one of Darwin’s first important critics was Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin [1842-1921], who wrote a book—Mutual Aid (1902)—based in part on his research in Siberia; Kropotkin argued that, contrary to Darwin, cooperation was the “law of life.” Were he alive today, I feel confident that he would find Liedloff’s book not only highly important, but a joy to read.)

Liedloff’s expeditions three and four (p. 18) were under her own leadership, and presumably had the purpose of studying the Yequana (specifically) more intensely—for she referred to her journals, and noted that they “reflect that the unlearning technique was becoming second nature to me …,” but was having difficulty letting go of the notion that unhappiness was not a “legitimate … part of experience …” When she returned to New York City after her fourth trip, she stated (p. 18) that by then she had developed “a point of view so stripped of presuppositions that the effect was like arriving after a long haul at zero.” For a time (she did not specify how long) she had a jumble of ideas in her head concerning the “primitives” that she had been observing, but after an editor of the New York Times asked her to elaborate on a statement that she had made earlier that was quoted in the Times, she “began to reverse the tearing-down process, and, bit by bit, to perceive the order that underlay not only my South American observations but also the naked fragments into which I had broken my experience of civilized life.” She admits that at this point she was “innocent of [any] theory,” but that “After about a year” she came to recognize “the evolutionary origins of human expectations and tendencies that began to explain the high state of well-being of my savage friends compared with the civilized.” Clearly her use of the word “savage” here should not be interpreted as indicating that Liedloff thought of the Yequana as her inferiors—for most certainly she did not!

Even after coming to see the Yequana in an evolutionary light, however, Liedloff did not feel that she was ready to write a book about her experiences. Thus, she made (p. 19) a fifth expedition “to see whether my observations, only rallied retrospectively into a body of evidence, might be usefully augmented by deliberate study.” She learned a few additional facts about the Yequana during the course of this trip, “But in the main, Expedition Five served to assure me that my interpretation of their behavior, constructed from my recollections of it, was supported by the reality. Indeed, the once-unaccountable actions of Indians of both tribes [Yequana and Sanema], viewed in the light of continuum principles, became not only understandable but often predictable.”

Liedloff’s Chapter 2 is entitled “The Continuum Concept” (p. 21-28), but nowhere in that chapter did she clearly define “continuum concept.” On p. 25 she stated, “The human continuum can also be defined …,” which implies that “continuum concept” had been defined earlier in the chapter—but it wasn’t. Let us, however, attempt to infer the meaning she intended for “continuum concept” from what she wrote in Chapter 2.

She began by claiming that during our first 2 million years (p. 21) “man ((I am somewhat surprised by Liedloff’s use of sexist language in this passage, given that she is not a male (to the best of my knowledge).)) was a success. He had evolved from apehood to manhood as a hunter-gatherer [I prefer “gatherer-hunter,” following Richard Leakey] with an efficient life style [I prefer “way of life.” ((A given society can be said to have a certain “way of life,” but that different individuals in the society may have different “lifestyles”—based on income, education, age, etc. That is, certain general characteristics will tend to prevail in any given society, but the particularities of how one lives will vary from person to person. In a sense, the “lifestyle” of each person is unique, but there are enough similarities between different individuals that it is possible to identify types of lifestyles.)) ] which had it continued, might have seen him through many a million-year anniversary. As it is, most ecologists agree, his chances of surviving even another century are diminished with each day’s activities.”

“But,” she continued, “during the brief few thousand years since he strayed [with the Agricultural Revolution] from the way of life to which [processes of] evolution adapted him, he has not only wreaked havoc upon the natural order of the entire planet, he has also managed to bring into disrepute the highly evolved good sense that guided his behavior throughout all those eons.” I agree that the Agricultural Revolution has proven to be a disaster for humankind, and also agree that humans had become adapted to a certain way of life (that included gathering and hunting—and fishing, snaring in some locales—as sustenance activities). However, I would add (using Liedloff herself as my source!) that child-rearing practices also had an impact on adult behavior, as well as habits developed while one was young, and growing up with other youngsters in a common environment.

Liedloff implied that the change in ways of living associated with the Agricultural Revolution was accompanied by a change in the role of the human brain in human affairs (p. 21): “Ever more frequently our innate sense of what is best for us is short-circuited by suspicion while the intellect, which has never known much about our real needs, decides what to do. It is not, for example, the province of the reasoning faculty to decide how a baby ought to be treated.” What she could have added at this point—but didn’t—was that prior to the Agricultural Revolution the human brain had acted as a servant to one’s total being, but that after that Revolution got underway, it began to assume the role of a master ever more. As Joost A. M. Meerloo has stated (p. vii in his Foreword to A. T. W. Simeons’s Man’s Presumptuous Brain: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Psychosomatic Disease), ((New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961.)) “the brain of human animals in the pre-cultural period of evolution was well-adapted to its environment. It served adequately to master the dangers of the world. But man is born like a monkey foetus, naked and unprotected, with a freakish brain, an overgrown computer, far too advanced for its body. Such a presumptuous brain gradually leads to an overgrown censorship. Man, the helpless baby … begins at the dawn of culture to build a new artificial environment which makes many of his animal reflexes nearly obsolete.” That is, for whatever reason(s), with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution the brain began to “interfere” with the “instincts.” This not only led to a mismanagement of child care (Liedloff), but the onset of various psychosomatic disorders (Simeons).

Liedloff continued (p. 22): “We are now fairly brought to heel by the intellect; our inherent ((It is easy to overemphasize the role of genetics here at the expense of epigenetics, learning, and the development of habits.)) sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.” The “conscious mind, by its [very] nature, can only consider one thing at a time, while [sic: whereas] the unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly. ‘Correct’ in this context is a tricky word. It implies that we all agree on what we want the results of our actions to be, when in fact our intellectual ideas of what we want vary from person to person. What is meant here by ‘correct’ is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations which we have evolved.”

We find in this passage the first discussion ((The word is first mentioned on p. 20.)) of “continuum” that occurs in the book, and it would appear from the discussion that precedes its mention here (on p. 22) that she means by “continuum” the absence of a Discrepancy ((The next (and last) major section in this essay will focus on The Discrepancy.)) —the existence of accordance, “fit,” between the way of life for which we became “designed” prior to the Agricultural Revolution and the ways of life that we humans have been forced to live ever since. Perhaps, however, it would be more accurate to say “way of life that we had” rather than “way of life for which we had become designed,” given that the behaviors that Liedloff observed with the Yequana likely could be attributed partly to genetics, partly to the nature of their child care, and partly to learning and the development of habits.

On p. 23 Liedloff asked (after her reference to “tendencies” and “expectations” on the previous page: “How do the forces that put him [i.e., humans] together know in advance what a human will need? The secret is experience. The chain of experience that prepares a human being for his time on earth begins with the adventures of the first single-celled unit of living matter. What it experienced in the way of temperature, the composition of its surroundings, available nourishment to fuel its activities, weather changes, and bumpings into other objects or members of its own species was passed on to its descendants.” This is a somewhat odd claim on her part, because in her prior discussion she seemed to suggest that evolution occurred by selection processes, and now she seemed to be saying that she believes in Lamarckian inheritance—i.e., the possibility that acquired traits can be transmitted to progeny. Perhaps she was here alluding to epigenetic research (such as has recently been undertaken by Swedish scientist Lars Olov Bygren), but she made no reference to such research.

She next made (p. 24) a glib reference to “the stabilizing principle” without presenting any reasons for expecting a situation of non-change. In the case of humans prior to the “Fall” (into agriculture) I have noted (earlier in my discussion of Liedloff) that our ancestors (if the Yequana can be taken as a modern example) had a way of life that they found so satisfying that they would have had no desire to introduce changes in it. That doesn’t mean that they could not have made certain decisions whose consequences would have brought change to that way of life—change that appeared to be of a positive nature, but turned out otherwise (the Agricultural Revolution!)—but such decisions were either absent or of a negligible nature until 10,000 years ago. Liedloff, however, offered no explanation for the “stabilizing principle” that she posits.

She continued (p. 24): The “design” that emerged for our species “was a reflection of the experience it expected to encounter. The experience it could tolerate was defined by the circumstances to which its antecedents had adapted.” I dislike her use of the word “expectations” here because it suggests conscious awareness—although I’m sure that it was not her intention to suggest that. I assume that what she meant in using the word “expectations” is that the human develops—for whatever reasons—with certain needs and certain behavioral tendencies, and that if those needs are not met and those behavioral tendencies are denied expression, only negative results will be forthcoming—both for the individual involved, and for others with whom s/he comes in contact. ((In the modern world such “others” can live at a great distance away! As Brook Larmer points out in his National Geographic article “The Big Melt,” the glaciers in the “high heart of Asia, which supply meltwater to the great rivers in that part of the world, are disappearing—which fact is likely to be disastrous to the 2 billion people who depend on that water. Who is responsible for this melting? Western countries such as the United States, of course!))

We finally encounter a definition of sorts of “continuum concept” on p. 25: “The human continuum can … be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed.” I’m not sure what she was trying to say here, but she appears to have been saying that our needs and behavioral tendencies are not a “given” at birth, so that they remain unchanged over the course of our lives, but, rather, change as we age. If that’s what she meant, why didn’t she just say it?!

I have devoted a considerable amount of attention to the first few pages of Liedloff’s book, because I thought it necessary for providing a background to her “real” message. In her lengthy Chapter 3 (“The Beginning of Life,” p. 29-75) she noted (p. 36): “For millions of years newborn babies have been held close to their mothers ((My recollection of the 1975 (original) edition of Liedloff’s book—which I read about 30 years ago—is that she placed far more significance in early child care than she did in the 1977 edition. I haven’t gone back to check the 1975 edition, so I may be wrong on this point.)) from the moment of birth.” She argued (p. 37): “The state of consciousness of an infant changes enormously during [this early] … in-arms ((Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of Skin (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986, third edition) develops—but rather poorly—this subject.)) phase.” “Step by step, as his central nervous system develops, he becomes more particularly Homo sapiens [i.e., s/he realizes his/her potential as a human being].” “What he feels before he can think is a powerful determinant of what kind of things he thinks when thought becomes possible.” The sort of care that a child receives will likely have a decisive influence on the sort of person s/he becomes. In addition, the social environment one finds oneself in as a youth can also be a significant factor; and I agree with Trigánt Burrow that even one’s “experience” while in the womb can have importance.

Liedloff noted (p. 39) that: “Man, more adaptive still [than a woolly monkey] to his own experience, can cope with variations in his surroundings that would extinguish a less ingenious species.” I agree, but would add that our superior ability to adapt has negative as well as positive consequences. For example (and I believe that Liedloff would agree with this point), since the Agricultural Revolution we humans have developed ways of life that have been progressive in the sense of progressively Discrepant! Most of us have become somewhat adapted to (or at least resigned to) our Discrepant way of life, although some of us have “adapted” by acquiring heart problems, lung cancer, diabetes; some have “adapted” by becoming drug addicts or alcoholics; some have “adapted” by turning to crime; some have adapted without acquiring (or becoming) any of the above, but dislike the fact that we must adapt for the sake of survival; etc.

In a conclusion of sorts to her discussion (that occurs, however, in the middle of the chapter, on p. 43!), she stated: “The conscious mind is not what it seems to itself to be, nor does it have access to the programming secrets of the continuum it is evolved to serve. To make of the intellect a competent servant instead of an incompetent master must be a major goal of a continuum philosophy.” What we need today is not just an understanding of the Discrepancy concept, and the problems that it is causing for us, but ideas on “whither we should tend” and how to get there. I have already addressed the first of these topics earlier in this chapter, and shortly will list Liedloff’s contribution.

Before proceeding to Liedloff’s list, however, I would like to note that on p. 49-56 she presented a detailed discussion of child-rearing practices of the Yequana, followed by a discussion of the contrasting infant experiences of Western-raised children. What that presentation suggests is that Liedloff believes that the primary need we “advanced” peoples have is a need to revolutionize our child care methods. I concur with this view but would add that our society, as currently constituted, requires its members to be “maimed” (as George Leonard, quoted earlier, put it); and that it is also true that in our society (as Thorstein Veblen noted over a century ago): “All classes are in a measure engaged in the pecuniary struggle, and in all classes the possession of the pecuniary traits counts towards the success and [indeed very] survival of the individual.” ((The Theory of the Leisure Class. Introduction by Robert Lekachman. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1994, p. 241. Originally published by The Macmillan Company in 1899.)) The point is, then, that rather than encouraging people to adopt the child-rearing practices that Liedloff advocates, with the expectation that societal system change will eventually follow, we must build, within the Larger Society, a New Society that has all of the features that we desire (including for sustainability), and work for its continual expansion—until it entirely replaces the Old Society. Liedloff claims (p. 138): “It is sadly impractical, unrealistic, utopian to describe a culture to which ours could be changed in order to fill our continuum requirements.” I do not concur with that judgment, however, and believe that societal system change in some form is a necessity. So that the point is not whether we need societal system change but, rather, how to get it and what form it should take.

At an earlier point (p. 105) Liedloff—who had been bemoaning our “presumptuous brains”—declared: “We have no choice but to find our way back to that knowledge common to the Yequana and our own ancestors, through the use of the intellect.” I would add only that in our “voyage of return” we recognize that we are not alone on this planet—which fact has at least two implications:

• We must strive not only to bring change to our society, but to others as well—but eschewing the use of the “heavy-handed” procedures that we have tended to use with “inferior” other peoples.

• We must recognize that we will continue to have enemies (largely of our own making, as a result of our mistreatment of other peoples!), and therefore must continue to have defense capabilities in proportion to the threats “out there.” We have long had a Defense Department, but must make it into a department that matches its name: to date it has been rather offensive—in both meanings of the word!

Let us, then, identify (and comment upon, where appropriate) Liedloff’s proposals—beyond her key one, the need for a revolution in our child-care practices:

• A culture that desires to return to “continuum principles” needs (p. 138) “a language in which the human potential for verbalizing can grow.”

• Children need (p. 138) to be able to “hear adults speaking to one another,” and “should have contemporaries with whom to communicate” on their own “level of interest and development. It is also important that … [the child] always have associates slightly older than himself so that he can have a sense of where he is going before he gets there.”

• The (p. 138) “activities of a child need both companionship and example. A society that does not provide them will lose in the efficiency of its members as well as in their well-being.”

• A (p. 139) “generation gap” should not exist. “If the younger generation does not take pride in becoming like its elders, then the society has lost its own continuum, its own stability, and probably does not have a culture worth calling one, for it will be in a constant state of change from one unsatisfactory set of values to another.”

• (p. 139): “The constant promise of a ‘better tomorrow’ … is of no interest to the members of an evolved, stable, proud, and happy society.” “An unchanging way of life is called for which requires the work and cooperation of its members in amounts not excessive to their natures.” When I read this last passage, the Amish came to my mind. Although I have admiration for the Amish—and am glad that they are in our midst, for they demonstrate to the world that “there’s another way”—I don’t see much resemblance between them and the Yequana—for whom I have infinitely more admiration. It seems to me that because it is impossible for us to “go back” literally, it is foolish for us to think that we can re-create a society that—like that of the Yequana—will be unchanging. We can only be vigilant so that before we adopt something new, we carefully think through the implications of its adoption before doing so (as the Amish do now), to ensure that the goals of universal well-being and sustainability will not be affected adversely. It is, of course, always possible that those goals will be enhanced by the adoption of new ideas and practices, and for that reason we should not reject the new out of hand. (I am sitting here typing this on my computer, and would not give up my computer for anything! Well, that’s not quite true.)

• (p. 139): “Families should be in close contact with other families, and everyone, during his or her working life, ought to have the opportunity for companionship and cooperation.”

• (p. 140): “Children ought to be able to accompany adults wherever they go.”

• (p. 140): “In a continuum-correct society the generations would live under the same roof.” Inspired by the ideas of Charles Fourier ((See, e.g., Jonathan Beecher, Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986.)) [1772-1837], who proposed the creation of “phalanxes” (i.e., “grand hotels”), I would go even farther than Liedloff in arguing for the desirability of multi-family structures. Not only for the interactional possibilities that they open up, but for their contribution to sustainability goals.

• (p. 141): “Leadership would emerge naturally among the members of a society, very much as it does among children, and confine itself to taking initiatives only when individual ones are impractical.” I expect that on those occasions when leadership was called for, different individuals would emerge as temporary leaders, depending on the situation. In general, however, decisions would be made by consensus, so that leaders would simply not be needed—or even desired.

• (p. 141): “The number of people who [would] live and work together would vary from a few families to several hundred people, so that the individual would be interested in maintaining good relations with all the people with whom he deals.” Although we humans have certain needs in common, each one of us is also unique in our needs. What this means from the standpoint of nature of residence is that some people have a desire to live “in nature” with just a few others nearby, others prefer to live in much larger agglomerations. The Good Society would have few if, any, cities, larger than the size of, e.g., Des Moines, Iowa—for the simple reason that there would be no justification for larger agglomerations.

• Although (p. 143) conformity in behavior is common in “advanced” societies (for whatever reasons), in a “continuum-correct” society there would be “freer expressions of innate characteristics, since the society has no need to fear or try to suppress them.” (Note that Liedloff had observed a high degree of individuality with the Yequana, but this was combined with a universal cooperative spirit.)

• A “continuum-correct” society would be characterized (as Yequana society is) by a (p. 144) “supreme desire not to create tension.” Liedloff then went on to describe the “gentlemanliness” of the Yequana exemplified “when she had business to transact with Anchu, the Yequana chief.” After describing the nature of her relationship, in this case, with Anchu, she concluded (p. 145): “He was, one could say, trying to disengage my continuum sense from the innumerable interferences my own culture had imposed upon it.” That is, Anchu had such tremendous insight into the “mindset” of Liedloff, that he was able subtly guide her in the direction that she needed to go; and Liedloff gave the impression that all Yequana developed such a talent as a matter of course!

• We all need (p. 146) a variety of stimuli—our current way of life not satisfying that requirement. Liedloff added (p. 148): “A great part of our tragedy is that we have lost the sense of our ‘rights’ as members of the human species. Not only do we accept boredom with resignation, but innumerable other infringements upon what is left of our continuum after the ravages of infancy and childhood.” It’s not that we “accept” boredom but, rather, become “resigned” to it—while, however, maintaining, somewhere deep inside, a strong desire for a different way of life. A desire that we are forced to suppress in our current society, but a desire that can be drawn upon if the right sort of New Society Movement were to get underway.


Parts II and III are available from the author upon request.

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.