Biophobia and Its Consequences: How the Nature-Nurture Binary Has Mired Social Movements in Chaos
This is excerpted from a draft of Arnold Schroder's book Revolutionary Biology: Evolutionary Politics for a World on Fire.
A few tear gas-inundated field notes on the human mind's persistent attraction to false dichotomies
The fundamental misconception that nature and nurture exist in categorical opposition to one another has had a catastrophic influence on our ability to make any serious effort at sociopolitical transformation. This misconception—the starting point for the claim, ubiquitous within so many political theories, that humans are shaped by “social” forces, which are somehow to be understood as not only distinct from, but antithetical to, “biological” forces—is not simply wrong, but logically impossible. To falsify it, it is not necessary to turn over any stone, gaze into any microscope, or make any other kind of inquiry. A moment's sober reflection makes abundantly clear that it is ridiculous to imagine that nature and nurture “refer to mutually exclusive sets of causes that exist in some kind of explanatory zero-sum relationship, so that the more one explains 'biologically' the less there is to explain 'socially' or 'environmentally.'”(1) Unless one imagines that a social or environmental process would have the same effect in a mountain or a stone as in a human being, evolved behavioral competencies are obviously the only means by which social or environmental responsiveness occurs.
Considering that we are watching the world collapse and despotic power become ubiquitous, it is more than a little unfortunate that this moment of sober consideration is so utterly lacking. For many years, my life in social movements was characterized by a disavowal of high theory and explicit ideological identification, a belief that what is solely relevant is identifying convergent perceptions, among people with disparate worldviews, of immediate courses of action. But in fighting for this the world, I have known many numbing horrors: constant movement fracture, nightmarish repetitions of failed strategies, the inability to identify our own fear, a persistent type of thinking about political outcomes that avoids thinking about power, strategic disputes conducted in mutually incomprehensible terms, the lack of a theory of mind of our adversaries and allies. Somewhere in the course of this journey—in the cycles of exertion, precarious efforts at de-escalation, clouds of tear gas, psychosis of sustained surveillance, and all the rest—I have come to believe that our fundamental stories about the world are deeply relevant to how we fight for it.
It is my belief that, far from an academic curiosity, the failure to integrate our thinking about human biology and behavioral flexibility into a coherent, unitary framework has been a truly catastrophic impediment to our politics. It engenders myriad forms of runaway logic, prevents us from seeing strategically relevant variables, and forces us to tell a story about the world which is manifestly implausible.
The unintegrated thinking characteristic of nature vs. nurture logic is evident in the mutually incompatible statements it frequently engenders. The trivially obvious fact that if an entity is capable of environmentally adaptive variability, this hardly indicates the lack of a nature but rather a highly developed one, is not infrequently acknowledged. Simultaneously, however, in the same breath or the same text, the variability of our behavior is cited as a disproof of human nature.
A 2004 document written by a British socialist party called Are We Prisoners of Our Genes? is as good an example as any, which I am choosing truly at random, not because it is particularly egregious but because it is perfectly typical and I encountered it very recently. In it, we learn that “If our social arrangements were determined by our biology then there would never have been the great diversity of behavior patterns, relationships and culture that is the real story of our past …”.(2) This notion is phrased in endless variations, in a vast range of sociopolitical theoretical formulations, as if it is common sense that biology=fixity, and all one must do to conclusively demonstrate to any reasonable person that something isn't biological is to show that it changes. On occasion, we find this basic premise presented in terms of continuous variation rather than categorical opposition: the more unvarying and incapable of responding to environmental conditions an entity is, the more biological it is. But presumably there is a logical endpoint, a condition in which something is capable of no change whatsoever, at which point is utterly, truly, completely biological.
This may come as a surprise to anyone who has thus far failed to notice this rather counterintuitive property of the universe. Many may have been beguiled by appearances, concluding that biology would actually seem to be the fundamental source of all the interesting or meaningful variation the world has to offer. One might even have thought this had something to do with the very definition of life—that if, for instance, all inanimate matter would roll down a hill if subjected to sufficient external forces, only living entities possess the novelty and variability of behavior necessary to go up it. One might have had this impression reinforced by something they read, but apparently the authors of such books are making it all up, for we also learn from this document that “The argument that our behavior is determined by our physical inheritance may pose as science but in reality it is a socially determined prejudice used as part of crude political ideology.”
Further confusion might be generated by having never seen anything remotely describable as sociality among, say, clouds of ionized gas or motes of dust hovering in a beam of sunlight. One could get the impression that sociality is in fact a biological phenomenon. But it turns out that it exists in a kind of scorched earth war of utter negation with biology. Most things, like oranges and laughter and wallpaper, don't really have a logical opposite, but apparently the social and biological are an exception. Thus, “you can’t avoid dealing with what humans are biologically, so, in our view, it is better to make clear right from the start the distinction between biologically-determined human nature and socially-determined human behavior.”(3)
This is all perfectly insane on its own terms, but as I said, it becomes particularly dizzying when Are We Prisoners of Our Genes? says that human biological nature is what equips us with our capacity for variation in the very next paragraph: “there is such a thing as biological human nature but … there is nothing in the biological make-up of humans to prevent them living in a socialist society … on the contrary, it is part of humans’ biological nature to be flexible and versatile in their behavior and so to be able to adopt behaviors appropriate to the society in which they are brought up and live.”
I am indulging in a certain level of rhetorical flourish, which might read as cruel, to make clear how logically inconsistent this sort of thinking is, but I sincerely believe that the group that wrote this text is not only well-intentioned but consists of smart people. In fact, it was sent to me by someone I respect and love a great deal as an example of something that helped inform her understanding of human nature. When she listened to me point out the fundamental untenability of nature vs. nurture logic in a podcast around the same time, she immediately saw my point and thought it strange this had never occurred to her before. I am relating all this inconsistency to convey that the enduring appeal of the nature-nurture dichotomy has much less to do with its intrinsic logical appeal than it does with our psychology.
For thirty years, I couldn't remember significant experiences of childhood abuse. When I thought back on my childhood, I experienced it as a landscape of fragmentary horrors separated by mysterious blank spots. For those years, without ever bothering to look into it, I hastily reasoned that there was probably no such thing as repressed memories. I finally changed my mind when my memories broke free and flooded back into my consciousness. I could easily write a similarly scathing commentary on the absurdity of my perspective for all that time, and I wouldn't be wrong. This doesn't mean I'm an idiot—please do not be offended if I am harshly criticizing a way you have found yourself thinking about the world.
I think the psychological underpinnings of nature vs. nurture are at least two. First, our experience of symbolic abstraction is so immersive, it can be hard to understand it is part of the same physical world in which trees grow and blood flows. This is particularly true within a technologically and symbolically intensive social context. We assume a discontinuity because we experience one, because our mental world feels like a transcendent realm into which the laws of physicality and the traits of animality do not extend.(4)
Second, it is the product of a fear response, and fear responses are characterized by compartmentalization of experience. In this case, the fear is that biology implies something about humanity that negates the possibility of various programs of social transformation, a fear that is too intense for a considerable number of people to psychologically integrate. Thus, the very notion of human behavioral biology is rejected before its nature or logical implications can even be meaningfully examined. That a fear response is characterized by the compartmentalization of experience will be a fundamental thesis on which we will operate throughout this entire book, as will its counterpart, that the transcendence of fear is characterized by integration.
Thus, social theories which are based on schismatic nature-nurture oppositions are characterized by a general lack of integrated thinking, by a tendency to conflate what is different and segregate what is the same. In 1995, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, two early contributors to evolutionary psychology, wrote an often-cited essay describing the lack of progress in social sciences throughout the 20th century, caused by what they referred to as biophobia. In it, they noted precisely this broader legacy, of a tendency toward experiential and conceptual fragmentation, in which biophobic social theory operated.
humans, like every other natural system, are embedded in the contingencies of a larger principled history, and explaining any particular fact about them requires the joint analysis of all the principles and contingencies involved. To break this seamless matrix of causation—to attempt to dismember the individual into “biological” vs. “nonbiological” aspects—is to embrace and perpetuate an ancient dualism endemic to the Western cultural tradition: material/spiritual, body/mind, physical/mental, natural/human, animal/human, biological/social, biological/cultural. This dualistic view expresses only a premodern version of biology, whose intellectual warrant has vanished.(5)
So prevalent was the rejection of human nature in the academy at the time they wrote, they called it the Standard Social Sciences Model (SSSM). They were eager to note the term standard was not meant to imply that the myriad theories within the SSSM were in any sense consistent with one another. On the contrary, the very lack of any overarching framework into which the far-flung adventures of various social scientists could be integrated was a central point.
disconnection from the rest of science has left a hole in the fabric of our organized knowledge of the world where the human sciences should be. After more than a century, the social sciences are still adrift, with an enormous mass of half-digested observations, a not inconsiderable body of empirical generalizations, and a contradictory stew of ungrounded, middle-level theories expressed in a babel of incommensurate technical lexicons.
The type of evolutionary theory Tooby and Cosmides championed was not without its shortcomings. We will discuss these shortcomings in the next chapter, as a contrast to the type of biology that emphasizes the means by which traits actually develop, and the plasticity of those means, whose revolutionary implications are central to our journey. However, 30 years later, their essay remains one of the most apt characterizations of the descent into chaos that biophobia inevitably entails for social theory. Generally, when we have political discussions, the nature-nurture binary is only invoked somewhat indirectly. We rarely hear the underlying social theory rejecting human nature outright. And when we do hear overt repudiations of human nature, we rarely follow them to their logical conclusion, which is the existence of a non-physical realm which transcends causality.
But Tooby and Cosmides do precisely this, quoting myriad social scientists, foundational figures in their disciplines, explicitly stating their usually unarticulated, overtly magical premises: that the phenomena they study exist in a self-generating realm, utterly discontinuous from physical reality. They quote, for instance, sociologists and anthropologists saying that social phenomena form an “autonomous system,” that “culture is a thing sui generis which can be explained only in terms of itself,” that culture is “independent of the laws of biology and psychology,” and, my favorite, a Latin formulation which I have occasionally intoned on my podcast with all the gravity of a Catholic liturgy or a magical incantation, “Omnis cultura ex cultura.”(6)
To contrast with this insane gibberish of ruptures in the fabric of reality, they named their own evolutionarily-informed approach the Integrated Causal Model. Thirty years later, I think it is fair to say their campaign for theoretical integration has been significantly successful: it would no longer be apt to describe the heterogenous theories they oppose as belonging to any kind of standard model. This is certainly not to say that one can't find echelons of the academy in which these modes of social theory prevail, just that they are no longer nearly so dominant. As is so often the case where academic notions appeal to different fundamental psychological inclinations, cognitive types, and worldviews, what has occurred instead of some kind of reconciliation is simply bifurcation. There was never any kind of formal decision, no ceremony to inaugurate a transition, but those without contrary ideological commitment simply began incorporating biological explanations into their efforts—there was just too much progress to be made by doing so—while those who wished to continue writing the other kind of social theory did that. This has had a profound effect on a wide range of social science. A typical psychologist, for instance, no longer needs to have recourse to agonizing nature-nurture debates in order to simply incorporate the reality of heritable trait variation into their analysis, nor do they need to explicitly identify as an “evolutionary” psychologist in order to examine the evolutionary dynamics that might engender such trait variations. Real progress has accelerated as a result.
It is my claim that the “failure to thrive” and lack of progress of the social sciences that Tooby and Cosmides wrote about is mirrored in social movements, owing to the same cause of biophobia. They described a widespread malaise, in which a growing fatalism about the very prospect of scientific explanations of human affairs was the only unifying thread in an otherwise massively heterogenous landscape of disparate academic tendencies. This certainly parallels the incommensurate terminologies and paradigms of political tendencies and sub-tendencies, unified only by a growing fatalism about the prospects for social transformation, we find today.
I would've been an evolutionary biologist if what I wanted to study wasn't being destroyed, and so I've had my differences with the theories of revolutionary possibility common in social movements since I entered them in the mid-1990s. But at the time, whatever else could be said of these theories, they clearly animated sincere hopes for a better world. It is apparent that somewhere along the way since then—somewhere in the numbing repetitions of state violence we have encountered, between the right-wing judicial coup that gave Bush the power to invade Iraq and our failure to prevent the crossing of climate thresholds, in the slow-motion horror of the history of authoritarian seizures of power repeating itself while the history of liberal institutions sleepwalking toward this outcome is likewise repeated—the hope we once experienced has been lost. This is not to say that people are always able to acknowledge the depth of their despair. As the text Desert, written by an anonymous anarchist in one of the seemingly countless phases of de-escalation from heightened conflict we have endured over the years, says:
The specter that many try not to see is a simple realization — the world will not be ‘saved’ … Many … have remained in old patterns but with a sadness and cynicism which signals a feeling of futility. Some hover around scenes critiquing all, but living and fighting little … The hope of a Big Happy Ending hurts people; sets the stage for the pain felt when they become disillusioned. Because, truly, who amongst us now really believes?(7)
What I see is people attached to their political doctrines, and the specialized language and reasoning that comes with them, just as stridently as ever, while in many unintentional ways they signal a loss of real conviction that those doctrines present a path to social transformation. The emotional risk of hope, once so freely embraced by so many, is now very carefully managed, if indulged at all.
Just as the despair is not explicitly acknowledged, neither are the conclusions that accompany it, which inevitably comprise some version of deciding humanity is simply too flawed—too callous, petty, fearful, distracted, or otherwise characterized by unfortunate traits—to step off our path to annihilation. In other words, our despair involves an assertion of human nature, and unless one sides with those who contend that human nature exists but derives from god, this despair therefore involves an assertion about biology.
However, as I have said, underlying social theories are often left unarticulated in political dialogues, even internal ones. The reasoning we have adopted not only prevents us from thinking about biology, but also prevents us from thinking about the very fact we don't think about biology. The term “frame” describes a mode of information processing essential for navigating a complex world: it is a protocol for deciding what to look at by determining what not to see, without ever having to think about it. The scientists involved in early attempts at constructing artificial intelligence designated the problem of their computers paying attention to all kinds of wildly irrelevant stimuli “the frame problem.”(8) These misadventures in simulated cognition were once a staple of nature-nurture debates, indicating as they did the detailed structure of biological minds, a structure that unconsciously identifies salient variables and prevents us from wondering if someone pointing at a bear and saying “look!” is asking us to look at their finger, or if, because the bear is brown, everything brown is hungry. The biophobia of the social theories upon which so many political tendencies are built function as a frame, a logic whose runaway consequences are obscure to us even as we inhabit that logic.
It is our mandate to make this frame visible. We can then perceive the consequences of the schismatic thinking we often take for granted, and see how moving through our fear, out of the uncomprehending darkness of biophobia and into the exultant world of possibilities that emerges when we embrace integrated causality—“the tragic and exalting desert where god is dead,” to borrow a turn of phrase from the Situationists—reveals myriad unexamined strategic possibilities.
On social theory that can explore every possibility except that people are different or that people are the same
The unintegrated thinking that characterizes biophobia, as I said, tends to conflate what is different and segregate what is the same. Perhaps most fundamentally, considering it is the whole premise of political transformation in the first place, is segregating the claim that society can do a better or worse job of meeting human needs from the idea of human nature. Obviously, it is an assertion of human nature—a nature more specific than just generalized capacities for learning and social adaptation—to say that we might be better off not being forced to work 16-hour days from an early age, or put in cages for doing things that are no one else's business, or constantly living with the imminent threat of homelessness.
Equally problematic is the persistent failure of biophobic social analysis to distinguish between two fundamental categories of evolutionary implications, one of which pertains to people's differences and the other to people's uniformities. These entirely distinct realms of biology are explored in different scientific disciplines—behavioral genetics for the individual differences, disciplines such as evolutionary anthropology for the species-typical universals—but are frequently confused with one another. The results are bizarre, such as the frequent claim that descriptions of traits universal to all humanity are racist.
fundamentally divergent—even opposing—programs and claims have become enduringly conflated in the minds of 20th century social scientists. Most significant was the failure to distinguish adaptationist evolutionary biology from behavior genetics … Obviously, claims about a complexly organized, universal human nature, by their very character, cannot participate in racist explanations. Indeed, they contradict the central premises of racialist approaches. Yet, despite this fact, adaptationist approaches and behavior genetics remains inextricably intertwined in the minds of a majority of social scientists.(9)
This confusion is truly ubiquitous, and disavowals of individual difference function as disavowals of “human nature” in the writings of foundational political thinkers. Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism describes the political thought of theorists who contributed substantially to the development of the anarchist political tendency. While the tradition is diverse and arguably more adept at meaningfully examining human nature than any other, we do find instances throughout Marshall's work of the disavowal of biology. This passage on William Godwin is characteristic of the tendency to conflate human nature with individual difference:
Godwin rejects the theory of innate ideas and instincts and asserts, as one of his chapter titles puts it, that the ‘Characters of Men Originate in their External Circumstances’. We are born neither virtuous nor vicious but are made so according to our upbringing and education. Since we are almost entirely the products of our environment, there are also no biological grounds for class distinctions or slavery. It follows for Godwin that we have a common nature and substantial equality. From this physical equality Godwin deduces moral equality: we should treat each other with equal consideration and recognize that what is desirable for one is desirable for all.(10)
In a single paragraph, we go from “rejects the theory of innate ideas and instincts” to “we have a common nature.” Neither Godwin nor Marshall seem aware we are talking about two different things, that biological human nature is not the same as biological differences, nor that to be capable of being shaped by our environments, equipotentially or otherwise, requires us to contradict the statement that we have no nature, which is precisely what happens in the course of the paragraph. But whatever it lacks in internal consistency, these statements do illustrate one of the fundamental psychological foundations of biophobia—the notion that if people are meaningfully different from one another, this would justify our social differences. Not just our social differences in terms of our specialized skills or the nature of our friendships, but in terms of power and access to resources, the differences between individuals that, across various species, characterize dominance hierarchies.
The reality of individual difference is not a premise from which dominance hierarchy inevitably proceeds, logically or biologically. Species certainly vary along a continuum of social forms from egalitarian to despotic,(11) but species are more or less unified in terms of individuals exhibiting significant variation from one another. In fact, individuals of a very wide range of species, from octopuses to donkeys to chimpanzees, are different in the same ways humans are different. Although studies of nonhuman personality difference use varied and incommensurate terminologies, they describe human personality dimensions such as Openness, Extraversion and Neuroticism.(12) This cross-species uniformity is likely because temperamental variation is caused by variation in neurotransmitters,(13) hormones, brain structure, and other features common to complex animal life.
Here we see the dire logic of succumbing to fear responses: in exchange for rejecting conscious examination of a stimulus we can't come to terms with, we are burdened by it forever. Because we do not consciously examine the possibility that individual differences may be real—may, indeed, be beautiful—we unconsciously acquiesce to the logic of those who cite them as a basis for political and economic inequality. By rejecting the very reality of human difference we are essentially conceding that, if they existed, this would justify the type of societies we inhabit.
This is an exceptionally shallow manifestation of egalitarian political principles. I do not believe in a world where we are all free to manifest our greatest potentials, where no one is a mere instrument of another's whims, because I believe that everyone has equal potential to learn to play the violin, get famous on the internet, or elucidate the mathematics of strange attractors.(14) I believe in such a world on the basis of empathy. This is not so much a matter of commitment to a principle as it is a fundamental way of experiencing the world. To abandon the primacy of intersubjectivity in my experience of the world, and the solidarity it implies, something far more paradigm shattering would have to be true than the existence of heritable variation in, say, exploratory behavior.
Insisting that humanity is equipped with a monolithically undifferentiated psychology is to insist on a state of affairs both manifestly implausible and tragically boring. For as much as a tolerance of difference is often espoused as a core commitment of egalitarian politics, in practice this so often applies only to differences that are utterly contingent, reducible to broad categorical environmental influences, readily modified, and ultimately trivial. It is strange that people can contemplate the prospect of communicating with alien life—with actually, substantially different intelligences—with such reverent thrill, but recoil in horror at the notion that our own species may consist of intelligences that are substantially, meaningfully, different.
This failure to coherently assess the relationship between individual difference and hierarchical social difference begins with a failure to even meaningfully distinguish between traits that are relevant to power dynamics and those that aren't. For instance, a fundamental objection to organizing our societies as dominance hierarchies in this hyper-technological age might be that the capacity to achieve a monopoly on violence is a very poor qualification for deciding the safety standards of nuclear power plants. Or for that matter, whether they should be built in the first place. Some version of this argument would apply equally well to overtly despotic societies and those that claim, however seriously one wishes to take this claim, to function as democracies. In the latter case, we might wish to point out that the traits that enable one to, say, assuage fears about terrorism, and thus win elections, might not be the traits that enable one to understand the dangers posed by melting permafrost. They might even be negatively correlated. Obviously, it is exceedingly difficult to see how these arguments are undermined by people differing in a great many ways they have been shown to differ. Their propensity to see faces in inanimate objects, for instance, or for that matter—despite its strangely enduring ideological significance—their performance on IQ tests.(15)
But of course, there are other traits which have a very clear bearing on questions of power. And here is the first of a great many instances we will examine in this book where rejecting biophobia is not simply a matter of telling the right story rather than the wrong one, but instead a matter of profound strategic significance. After all, political theories purport to describe how power relations can change between different groups of people. So it is a noteworthy barrier to developing such a theory if we cannot coherently describe what different groups of people exist in the first place. And if we confine ourselves to those exceptionally broad differences—such as race, gender, and class—that egalitarian political theories have traditionally confined themselves to, we simply cannot.
People vary in their thresholds for aggression,(16) comprehension of the emotional states of others,(17) tendency to see people as means to an end,(18) fearfulness of the unfamiliar,(19) desire for self-aggrandizement,(20) and degree of reductionist thinking,(21) just to name a tiny proportion of the great many traits which have a role in shaping the kinds of societies we inhabit and the distribution of power within them. Ignoring them leads nowhere. It leads to annihilation. It leads to wondering time after time why people vote against their own material welfare. It leads to shrieking endlessly and pointlessly at political and economic power holders that the global devastation they have wrought will kill them, too.
Power is the ability to influence behavior. There is an enduring tendency to conflate power with coercion in some egalitarian political thought, but it should be clear that if one aspires to change society at all, one aspires to use power of some kind or another. Doing something that others see and decide to emulate is, for instance, a form of power. There are three fundamental forms of power with which we will attempt to understand social outcomes: the cultural, coercive, and technical. Starting with Weber's Politics As a Vocation, social theorists have converged on a number of broadly similar schemes, sometimes adding a fourth dimension of economic power.(22)
I suppose it reflects my evolutionarily-oriented thinking that I am somewhat agnostic on classifying this fourth variety of power as truly fundamental, in the same sense as the other three. Convincing someone to do something by talking is really, truly different than beating someone up. But physical aggression is the ultimate basis for differential access to resources whether we are talking about grizzly bears or humans. We don't describe a bear who chases other bears away from a salmon fishing spot as wielding economic power. We recognize this as coercion. Likewise, I don't know what it means to say that someone owns something except that a man will come to put me in a cage at gunpoint if I try to access it.
An awful lot of ideology and social myth seems to function to make us forget this fact, to make economics seem like an intrinsic feature of the universe, and therefore economic power as more fundamentally real than it is. But I would describe such exercises as the use of cultural power to obscure the presence of coercive power in determining social arrangements. So we will content ourselves with three forms of power.
These types of power are exercised in all societies, from those of small-scale hunter-gatherer egalitarianism to mass technological authoritarianism. They are just exercised differently. We could say each form of power has an egalitarian form and a corresponding hierarchical form, or likewise an ecological and extractive form. And of course these are matter of degree—it is probably better to say each form of power varies continuously along, say, a hierarchical to egalitarian axis. What is pertinent, in terms of understanding the relevance of biology, is that each type of power relates to psychological and behavioral tendencies which are individually variable. Therefore, a logical corollary of classifying societies by their structural differences—by their degree of hierarchy and egalitarianism, for instance—is classifying societies by the types of people who have exercised the greatest influence on them, whose temperaments are mostly clearly manifest in them.(23) Those who wield cultural, coercive, and technical power, in the intensive dominance hierarchies we inhabit, we shall call, respectively, the Narcissists, Strongmen, and Technocrats.
Across a wide variety of animal species, individuals vary in a trait sometimes called dominance,(24) and regardless of their measurements on any specific scale, observers of many species have noted that individuals show very clear, and often very familiar, differences of political personality. In her pioneering work of many years' sustained observation of a single chimpanzee society, Jane Goodall observed differences in the dominance hierarchy, depending on which individual male had alpha status, which offer substantial parallels to the differences between authoritarian and more liberal, democratic societies.(25) Likewise, fieldwork on baboons describes individuals who showed little interest in the dominance hierarchy of any kind, neither in ascending it or submitting to it—neither victims nor executioners, in the phrasing of Camus—and these individuals were also particularly strongly bonded to other group members.(26) Nothing about these individual differences, and their relationship to social outcomes, would seem to suggest anything remotely like whoever happens to be most adept at coercion is also the individual who will create the most advantageous social order. Strong inferences to the opposite effect leap out from everywhere.
And yet this is precisely what right-wing argumentation would have us believe: that individuals vary in traits that confer the ability to gain power, and these precise traits also happen to make them the most suited to wield power. This would be an exceptionally fortuitous coincidence, considering that power in a dominance hierarchy is defined by others' lack of consent to its imposition. It seems no more or less counterintuitive than the claim that people simply aren't, in fact, different at all. To discredit such a conjecture in favor of hierarchy hardly requires elaborately theoretical arguments.
One simply has to flip through the pages of a history book, or take a cursory look around the world we live in, to see that we are on a ludicrous journey to annihilation, guided by people who have absolutely no idea what is happening around them. One could note the astonishing degree to which World War One was the result of those with power simply disregarding a steady torrent of evidence that the utterly baseless assumptions upon which they based their war plans would result in catastrophe.(27) One could note that Trump's White House aides, when they were defeated in their efforts to explain some situation to him which he clearly didn't understand and about which he was intent on making a truly catastrophic decision, would simply take a policy off his desk before he could sign it, knowing that he would simply forget it no matter how feverishly he had ranted about the need for it.(28) Or one could live in a world that is quickly coming undone as those with power talk about the sexual agenda of Disney films.
In a society with power imbalances this intense, it is useful to name two broad categories of differences between people. There are those differences which pertain to the psychology of power, those traits that characterize those who wield it, and there are those differences that correspond to broad ideologies, ideologies which divide those of us who are unified in our subjugation to those with power.
One of the strongest and most durable results of political psychology—with lines of converging evidence involving brain structure, physiological threat responsiveness, styles of experimental game play, psychological self-report, and more—is that right-wing political orientation is intimately related to fear.(29) Importantly, fear has very specific manifestations in a desire for stability, for the preservation of whatever structures are already in place, in an aversion to novelty and change.(30) This relationship is so deep that a politics of hierarchy and a politics of social stability—while lacking any intrinsic logical relationship when given a moment's thought—are so deeply interrelated in our experience that we essentially take their conflation for granted. This is, of course, reflected even in our basic political labels, where right and left are often described as politics of hierarchy vs. equality, and conservative and progressive are frequently used as synonyms. (To be fair, very commonly used political terms lack consensus definitions, even among, or perhaps particularly among, specialists(31)—I am simply employing the the definitions of left and right used by the specialists I happen to agree with).
Here again, we encounter the strategic salience of embracing biologically integrated thinking: understanding this psychological underpinning to people's politics, a considerable proportion of whom we wouldn't classify as right-wingers but who still support a more hierarchical system than the planet can endure, allows us to see the benefit of pointing out the incompetence, rather than the evil, of those in power. Because egalitarian political perceptions are likewise correlated with a novelty and stimulation seeking temperament,(32) we very frequently present ourselves as an adventurous choice. Our argumentation tends to be either moral or logical, but rarely intended to meet psychological needs for security and stability. I used to read, with considerable pleasure, a periodical called Rolling Thunder: An Anarchist Journal of Living Dangerously, and while the framing worked perfectly for me, this is a dead end for many.
The point of talking to other people is to actually talk to them, not to a version of ourselves projected onto someone else's body. Pointing out that this system is deeply precarious and unstable; that giving someone too much power is inherently dangerous; that there are no adults in charge; that the kinds of people who are good at gaining hierarchical power are too narrowly obsessed with that power to be aware of much else, like any particular cliffs they happen to be driving society off of; and that this system promises near-term chaos—these are significantly neglected frames for strategic communication.
Specificity of means vs. specificity of outcomes
The other motivation for biophobia is that, rather than people being different, people are the same. If people are the same in certain regards, whether they lived in mud brick huts between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at the end of the Bronze Age or they live in one of the steel and glass towers I see out my window tonight, this is taken to imply limits on the potential novelty of future societies. There are the direct inferences and the less direct ones. The former are things like if every society ever documented has marriage,(33) then one might be in for disappointment if one's ardent objective is to abolish marriage. The latter are things like if there is all this uniformity to human behavior, then even if we don't see a certain social trait within a certain context, perhaps in other contexts—say, those with contemporary technology and population density—the trait becomes inevitable.(34)
These cross-cultural uniformities are assumed to be the work of biology. In a hasty departure from a line of reasoning that generates fear, no matter what abyss we might be leaping in the general direction of, any differences between people across cultures are therefore assumed to be the work of something which … isn't biology.
Just to really belabor the point that this lack of thinking about the means of environmental responsiveness plunges us immediately into darkness and uncomprehending chaos, we can note that humans in cages act differently than humans outside of them. Within cages or other settings of intensive confinement, such as cells, we exhibit predictable behaviors, such as shaking the bars or pounding the walls in rage, self-injuring by banging our heads against our barriers, and self-soothing by clinging to ourselves, sometimes with rocking motions.
This is environmentally variable behavior, but the very fact that we do this, regardless of our cultural background, presents us with another cross-cultural uniformity. I myself was often locked in a small cell as a child, and despite never having witnessed these behaviors in anyone else, I exhibited them. If the behavior is contextually variable, but uniformly manifests in those who experience the context, requiring no cultural preparation, does that make it environmental or biological? This behavioral response is one we share with other primates, just as other mammalian orders have their characteristic responses to the torture of confinement, such as the pacing of carnivores and the compulsive chewing of equines.(35) Does the cross-species presence of a confinement response push it into the biology category?
I understand that the point that variable environmental responsiveness is a biological phenomenon is trivial when it's actually being made, but again, we are making the point in opposition to a couple centuries' worth of ardent argumentation which frequently misses it. In each case, the underlying motivation has always been a rejection of constraints on human possibility.
dissent from the SSSM tends to be framed as claims about "constraints" or limits on … malleability. This, in turn, is taken to imply a possible intractability to social problems—the stronger the biological forces are, the more we may be constrained to suffer from certain inevitable expressions of human darkness. Thus, the debate on the role of biology in human life has been consistently framed as being between optimistic environmentalists who plan for human betterment and sorrowful, but realistic nativists(36)
Just as with anxieties about individual difference, that some version of this thinking about biology implying constraints on human potential motivated the formulation of major political tendencies is evident from the writings of their foundational thinkers. The term tabula rasa, or blank slate, to characterize a human behavioral and perceptual potential free from any inherent structure or tendencies whatsoever, was coined by John Locke, known as the Father of Liberalism.(37)
Although his statements on the subject are complex, Karl Marx likewise mistook a capacity for social responsiveness for a lack of nature when he argued that “human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual” but rather is produced by “the ensemble of social relations.”(38) A grimly hilarious manifestation of biophobia, even by the standards of no less an eternal wellspring of grim hilarity that Joseph Stalin, was him outlawing the science of genetics for contradicting Marx, and, naturally, having the geneticists shot.(39)
Pierre Proudhon, the first to adopt the term anarchism to refer, for better or for worse, to a politics opposed to all coercive relations (the term already had the other meaning of a state of upheaval or chaos), likewise managed to conclude that our reasoning abilities somehow exist for a reason other than our biological nature: “in society as well as in the individual, reason and reflection always triumph over instinct and spontaneity. This is the characteristic feature of our species and it accounts for the fact that we progress. It follows that Nature in us seems to retreat while Reason comes to the fore.”(40)
The above quotes make clear that people genuinely failed to make this distinction in their own thinking, but what is actually being argued, in all of these and every other case of so-called nature-nurture debates, is really the degree of specificity of our biological potentials. This was sometimes more or less acknowledged by biophobic social theorists, such as the early sociologist Durkheim:
individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms. Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and consequently plastic predispositions which, by themselves, if other agents did not intervene, could not take on the definite and complex forms which characterize social phenomena.(41)
It certainly is true that our biological potentials require a rather specific, intensively social developmental context to manifest in any remotely functional form. Human infants certainly do not achieve the integrated behavioral complexity characteristic of our species “by themselves,” which I can only take to mean raised in social isolation—although this very specificity of developmental need would seem to be an instance of intricately structured human nature, rather than of “vague and consequently plastic predispositions.” This was a serious permutation of the infinite vagaries of 20th century nature-nurture debates—whether infants require specialized and species-typical developmental environments or whether any situation that appeased basic drives such as hunger would produce identical outcomes—and one of the appalling results were the maternal deprivation experiments of Harry Harlow, in which infant monkeys were reduced to perpetual, psychotic terror by lack of social contact.(42)
But whatever its internal inconsistencies, so characteristic of this way of thinking, Durkheim's statement makes clear what kind of evolved biological potentials we can expect those of the biophobic persuasion to concede the existence of: basic drives such as hunger and an aversion to pain. A cognitive capacity which has no particular characteristics other than the ability to learn, to be environmentally and socially influenced, which is thus equipotential to learn anything. A capacity to be environmentally and socially influenced by any means and toward any end, so long as it does not conflict with fundamental physiological constraints, such as a need for sleep or an aversion to temperatures outside a certain range. Thus, terms like domain-general vs. domain-specific cognition, and content-free vs. content-rich psychology, are characteristic of nature-nurture debates. Tooby and Cosmides make this point with respect to another of the 20th century's truly infinite permutations of this dialogue: Chomsky vs. Skinner debating the nature of language:
most of what passes for the nature-nurture debate is not about the need to posit evolved mechanisms in theories. Everyone capable of reasoning logically about the problem accepts the necessity of this … what the debate often seems to be about is how general or content-specific the mechanisms are: Skinner proposes conditioning mechanisms that apply to all situations, while Chomsky proposes specialized mechanisms particularly designed for language.
Skinner's premise in the debate, a book called Verbal Behavior, makes the universally familiar experience of speaking sound bizarrely alien in a number of regards, but most important for our purposes is the claim that we learn language with no greater or lesser difficulty than anything else. Chomsky pointed out that this simply isn't true, and that our uncanny aptitude for language clearly indicates an underlying biology. It is a species-typical behavior, acquired without explicit instruction, by all cognitively normal members of all populations, much earlier in life than other skills of roughly equivalent complexity(43)—say linear regression or differential equations.
Something much like what happened in debates about the developmental needs of infants or the process of becoming competent with language occurred across many domains. Repeatedly, it was demonstrated that the biological potentials which generate human behavior and perception were intricately structured. As I said before, early attempts at developing artificial intelligence indicated just how many unconscious assumptions were involved in our abilities to navigate space and comprehend relations of causality—abilities which we often describe as basic turned out to be exquisitely complex.
Thus far, we've established that early political theorists, and often enough social scientists, got confused enough to oppose environmental responsiveness to biological nature, but that even when it was acknowledged that their true position was that the biological means of environmental responsiveness are very general, this position turned out to be wrong. What about the assumption that motivated all this reasoning in the first place: that the existence of specific structure to our biological potentials, developed over many generations where certain conditions were reliably experienced, implies a fixity of potential human behavioral outcomes, and thus future social forms?
They were wrong about this, too. And what is tragic, in terms of the time wasted and the confusion wrought in our politics by this fear, is that it was always abundantly clear they were wrong. The reason is that we are living in hyper-novel circumstances, and thus demonstrating an ample capacity for utterly novel behavioral outcomes, all the time. And we are doing so not in spite of, but because of, our highly structured biological potentials.
The specific form of unintegrated thinking these anxieties produced was a failure to see the deep interrelation between freedom and constraint in the generation of behavior. Let's first illustrate this point in the broadest, most purely logical terms possible, by way of a syllogism, that type of argument where if two statements are true a third must be as well.
All systems which have the capacity to vary in a meaningful or interesting way—that have what we might call freedom—have structure.
All structure requires constraint—for a system to be something there must also be things it is not.
Ergo, all systems which have the capacity to vary in a meaningful or interesting way, which have freedom, are also wrought with constraints.
Systems theorists talk about an incredibly brief transition point between order and chaos where complexity occurs. Life is an astonishing case, the most dramatic we have, of a complex system that lives right at the vanishingly narrow range of values where regime change occurs between opposed states.(44) Organisms are both open to the environment and closed from it, wantonly innovative and deeply conservative, and behavior is both free and constrained.
Let us take any case of radical behavioral novelty at will from the myriad examples daily life presents us with. We can thus see how, outside of the domain of behavior which is laden with psychologically potent social implications, we are able to reason far more coherently.
Let us take the example of driving an automobile. Obviously, a number of evolved competencies are required, competencies which are deeply structured and specific. A number of fine motor skills are required to grasp and rotate the wheel, which may have originally evolved grasping branches, and then later on in our evolutionary adventure, been modified knapping flint, grasping spear shafts, rotating fire drills, and stroking the hair of lovers. Perhaps even more remarkably, visual-spatial perception is required to operate in an ambulatory mode totally unlike anything we experienced over the long course of human evolution, at considerably greater speeds. We walked and ran and creeped and crawled, but never did we conduct ourselves through the ancestral landscape—the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, in the jargon—by simply moving our hands around while slightly rotating the pressure we apply with one foot, certainly not at speeds of, say, 150 kilometers per hour.
It is very easy to imagine, if cars were speculative technologies and loaded with the same psychological potency as social structures, evolutionary arguments for the impossibility of driving.(45) Good luck developing the response time to move 10-15 times faster through the environment than our ancestors ever did! Good luck getting acquainted with an ambulatory mode that presents a completely different relationship between motor activity and external outcome than anything we ever experienced in the Pleistocene! And such arguments wouldn't completely lack substance: driving requires more explicit instruction and occurs later in life than our basic motor repertoire. But we get the hang of it.
Again, it is not because the underlying evolved competencies that are deployed in driving lack structure or specificity that we can drive. It is because of their richly articulated structure. The novel behavioral outcome is the result of the unique combination and interrelation of the evolved biological potentials, and the novelty of the environmental context in which they are deployed. Thus, from an array of evolved behavioral potentials that do specific things in specific ways—and thus are impossible to think coherently about absent the language of constraint—an infinity of possible behavioral outcomes emerges.
Being afraid that the structured specificity of our evolved social psychology implies the inevitability of certain sociopolitical outcomes—war, for instance, or life in dominance hierarchies—is like being afraid that the structured specificity of our evolved motor skills and spatial perceptions implies the inevitability of walking, rather than driving, to the store.
If you, like me, are a little fed up with all the fossil fuel combustion happening in the world, and would maybe like people to consider walking to the store, there's something to note here. You may have noticed that conversations about the possibility of humanity getting accustomed to life without cars run into arguments which sound an awful lot like people are saying that driving is somehow an essential, inexorable aspect of human nature. This illustrates the moral valence that the invocation of human nature often has for many people—basically anything destructive, stupid, or cruel will be cited as an expression of it.
It was easy to imagine an evolutionary argument against humans learning to drive when we were thinking of it as a form of progress, as a means to develop a richer landscape of human possibility. For as long as that's the frame, it doesn't feel like driving is “human nature,” but the moment we begin noting its destructiveness, it does. This general tendency is mirrored in an age-old right-wing trope that renders humanity's long, exhausting record of brutality as an expression of the natural order, but somehow renders humanity's equally long record of empathic solidarity an aberration, an epochal mistake or misunderstanding.
We can, of course, note any huge numbers of other behavior novelties and the evolved aptitudes they combine in novel interrelations and contexts. My ability to say something “is a right-wing trope” requires evolved potentials for comprehending and navigating hierarchy (even if only to prevent it), deployed along with spatial capacities that allows me to configure objects onto a linear horizontal continuum, with more hierarchy to my right and less to my left. And I only “say” it's a right-wing trope with my fingers, interacting with a brain region, the Broca's area, which was originally used to make and perceive communicative gestures and facial expressions, which later got recruited for vocal communication, until the vocal communication was rendered in visual symbols. Moreover, we can't learn language unless we do so during a very narrow developmental window, while literacy involves a change in brain structure, but a change which we can affect at any point in our lives. So we see that this act, of me writing these words, is a case of freedom built from constraint, a generality of potential outcomes emerging from a specificity of means.
Far from constraining, specialized mechanisms enable competences and actions that would not be possible were they absent from the architecture. This rich array of cognitive specializations can be likened to a computer program with millions of lines of code and hundreds or thousands of functionally specialized subroutines. It is because of, and not despite, this specificity of inherent structure that the output of computational systems is so sensitively contingent on environmental inputs. It is just this sensitive contingency to subtleties of environmental variation that make a narrow intractability of outcomes unlikely.(46)
An important distinction must be made, which has every bearing on the practical implications of a biologically integrated approach to human behavioral plasticity. To understand the distinction between biologically integrated thinking and the insistence that there simply are no rules requires—bear with me here, as the relevance will quickly become apparent—understanding that there are at least two types of infinity. It is possible that there are more than two, and even that infinite magnitudes exist in a sequential relationship like the finite numbers. The question of whether or not this was true, called the continuum hypothesis, drove at least one mathematician—Georges Cantor—insane, and it severely imperiled the sanity of another, Kurt Gödel, whose statement of the unknowability of the problem is a masterpiece of epistemic humility.(47)
We do not need to wander through the intricacies of set theory to understand these two types of infinity. For as much as the matter is usually phrased in terms of pure mathematical abstraction, precisely the system of evolved aptitudes generating novel behaviors we have been discussing is a perfectly concrete example. We have spoken of the constraints of the underlying biological capacities that are combined in novel relations and contexts. What this does, in fact, mean is that there are some behaviors which may simply be impossible.
For instance, there is no good basis for arguing that humans are inevitably hierarchical, for the simple reason that there are human social arrangements which aren't, and very good evidence that egalitarianism was an enduring characteristic of human societies throughout prehistory. However, in both human psychology and in the psychology of many other species, egalitarian tendencies correlate with a greater general openness, with a diminishment of hostility toward the unknown and an increase in behavioral plasticity. Perhaps it is true that this correlation would turn out to be impossible to abolish, absent massive restructuring of true biological fundamentals over enormous evolutionary timescales. This would be because of the specificity of the potentials involved, because egalitarian and exploratory temperament share, for instance, common regulatory pathways, hormone profiles or information processing pathways, so that invoking one implies invoking the other.
I've deliberately chosen an example that is not so emotionally potent it would cause people to recoil in horror, but that does have a real potential for adverse implications. Too much behavioral plasticity can have its drawbacks. As many who lived lives of rootless wandering beyond a phase of youthful adventuring can attest, constant variation and impermanence can become its own form of constraint. Moreover, we have already noted the inconsistency of a leftist politics that denies any specific human nature but fights to meet specific human needs that could only exist as a function of such a nature. There are some deviations from evolutionary expectation that out current social forms impose on us—profound social isolation, let us say, or the expectation to work tirelessly in subordination of someone else's interests—that I don't expect we'll adapt to any time soon. At least, not in a way that wouldn't sacrifice truly essential aspects of ourselves in the process, which I am intent on defending.
So how can it be true that both some behaviors genuinely might not be biologically possible and that our biological potentials allow for infinite possibilities? This is the difference between the infinity of a system where literally anything can happen and the infinity of a system whose rules generate its infinite potential outcomes. What biology and other complex systems tell us is that, in practice, a system where literally anything can happen exists only in our minds—without constraints of any kind, what we actually get is not infinite potential but mere chaos, a system incapable of doing anything complex or interesting.
Something very similar to this was used by Georges Cantor to demonstrate two kinds of infinity. He constructed a mathematical set which excluded some values and was still infinite, and compared it to a set which excluded nothing. Think, for instance, of the difference between pi, an infinite number between three and four, and the set of all the numbers in between three and four, not constrained to start with 3.1415. Such a set could also contain 3.2526: two magnitudes of infinity!
If, to use a convenient number, it were to turn out that there are 1,000 things which are not biologically possible, we can start counting from 1,001 and continue forever—this is still infinity. We cannot know what human possibilities are excluded from our infinite potentials by any means other than finding out. No one can plausibly claim, on the basis of some a priori theory, that evolution precludes a particular sociopolitical condition.
we know in advance that the human psychological system is immensely flexible as to outcome: Everything that every individual has ever done in all of human history and prehistory establishes the minimum boundary of the possible. The maximum, if any, is completely unknown. Given the fact that we are almost entirely ignorant of the computational specifics of the hundreds or thousands of mechanisms that comprise the human mind, it is far beyond the present competence of anyone living to say what are and are not achievable outcomes for human beings.(48)
The practical implication for us—for anyone who wishes to create a society capable of survival—is the distinction of attempting to create a novel outcome by paying attention to the processes that generate behavior rather than ignoring them. Simply proclaiming “anything is possible!” and attempting to compel people toward novel behavior has a long history, undertaken in configurations of power ranging from obscure reading groups to dictatorships. At best, these efforts have been uniformly disappointing; at worst, in situations involving power differentials, they have involved atrocity.
leaving behind the SSSM does not entail accepting the inevitability of any specific outcome, nor does it entail the defense of any particular aspect of the status quo. Instead, for those genuinely concerned with such questions, it offers the only realistic hope of understanding enough about human nature to eventually make possible successful intervention to bring about humane outcomes. Moreover, a program of social melioration carried out in ignorance of human complex design is something like letting a blindfolded individual loose in an operating room with a scalpel—there is likely to be more blood than healing.(49)
The insistence on ignoring structures underlying behavioral plasticity has familiar, recurrent characteristics. There is a tendency in case after case and context after context for advocates of a program of social transformation to insist people should be acting with more undifferentiated rationality than they are.
For instance, someone attempting to convince people to participate in an effort to transform the economy, such that we do not kill ourselves and everything else, might be particularly concerned with demonstrating that the threat the current system presents is very real. Once it is established that the ecological crisis is a grave threat to an individual's deepest attachments—their own survival and that of their children, for instance—the advocate expects time and energy will be rationally, proportionally allocated to the threat.
When this does not occur, the question of what evolved psychological tendencies the advocate is failing to connect with is not asked. Instead, the question is asked: what rational calculation is interfering with the desired threat responsiveness? The answer usually turns out to be a calculation of economic necessity, mediated by issues of scale and temporal proximity. People cannot be expected to concern themselves with annihilation in a few years if they aren't sure how they'll put dinner on the table tonight, especially when annihilation comes about through such a complex situation, involving so many moving pieces.
Here—and this is where the thinking gets more than a little condescending—it turns out that what is best is to de-emphasize the whole global collapse thing, and come up with a set of claims about how the desired economic transformation will increase the number of jobs, maybe talk a little about some tax rebates or something. It is claimed—doing great violence to the realities of ecological limits and the nature of the system we inhabit—that we are essentially talking about an economic opportunity rather than a wholesale transformation of our fundamental way of life, and that aside from all that extra money, nothing should be expected to change too drastically. I say this is condescending because it is perfectly acceptable for the advocate making the appeal to be concerned with something greater than their next meal, but by claiming most people aren't quite so sophisticated, this frame simultaneously distinguishes the advocate from others while affecting a certain sanctimony, claiming to be willing to really listen to and understand people, unlike the dreamers and wild-eyed lunatics motivated by a sense of connection with the living world.
I have spent much of the time and productive energy of my adult life practicing a politics called—I think somewhat ineptly considering it advocates a minimum level of transformation necessary for survival—radical environmentalism. And I have encountered arguments to this effect the whole time, often presented as if they were stunning revelations rather than numbing repetitions of familiar claims. If what motivates you to try to stop a mountain from being blown up for mining is that your sense of self includes the mountain and the creatures that inhabit it, if you look to the sky and see an eagle whose outstretched wings form the both sky and part of yourself, then the strategic implication of this is that you should communicate with people about the price of their electric bills.(50)
What might it look like to abandon this insistence on a lack of psychological structure, undifferentiated rationality, and a humanity equipotential to engage any argument toward any end, so long as it convincingly demonstrates their best interest? We could start by noting that an awful lot of human behavior seems to be motivated by what we might call participation in transcendent mythologies. In particular, if said mythologies invoke a sense of identity through group belonging, people often do things that seem wildly at odds with any rational calculation of self-interest. We could note the millions of men who went over the edges of their trenches in World War One to their deaths because of their sense of identification with nationality; or the so-called dancing plagues that swept through Europe in the middle ages, in which some people literally danced themselves to death; or the abuses people endured and perpetuated in exchange for a sense of group identity in the religious cult I grew up in.
We might note that many fossil fuel industry workers, who some climate advocates have become obsessed with appealing to, are motivated by the masculine cultural status of their jobs far more than any rational economic calculation—and that telling them they'll make as much money installing solar panels is not nearly as compelling as supposed.(51) We might further note that if we are simply honest about the need to adopt locally self-reliant economies, to build strong communities that can take care of themselves without the global economy, we suddenly have much more to talk about, that appeals to core psychological motivations, with the kind of people who, generally speaking, build pipelines and operate refineries.
Likewise, if we are honest with people more generally about the radical transformation necessary, we might stop assuring them that nothing will really change, and note that people are actually finding their lives unbearable on a massive scale. We might note the spiraling sense of meaninglessness and disconnection afflicting so many, and present a radically new way of life as a chance to transcend these conditions. We might note that instances of European colonists defecting to indigenous societies are numerous, while there literally isn't a single documented case of voluntary defections in the opposite direction,(52) and ask ourselves what it would be like to appeal to the psychological realities informing these defections.(53) When we stop insisting on an undifferentiated rationality, it becomes apparent that the evolved human psychological need of peerless intensity is the need to belong to something.
This, of course, is intended as a sketch. These are strategic theses by which I have conducted my own political efforts, and I do think I've seen them validated. But my point, of course, is to broadly illustrate the difference between paying attention to human nature and pretending like it's not there. My point is that the difference is not one of the scale of the transformations we seek, or their degree of divergence from the status quo, but how we pursue these transformations.
From “the psychic unity of mankind” to “cognitive apartheid”
I've had two broad phases of political commitment, separated by about a decade. The first from the early 90s to the early 2000s; the second from the early 2010s to the very end of the decade. I'm by no means “politically disengaged” now, but my work these last few years has primarily consisted of searching for paths forward. Any number of distinctions could be made between these two phases—the first was more fun but the second far more epic, for instance—but the point I want to make is that in the first, biophobic social theory was barely evident, whereas in the latter, it was literally the primary theme of the strategic dialogues, social dynamics, and general behavior of massive segments of the social movements I navigated. Its presence and prevalence within a given movement echelon more or less precisely defined the situations I tried to avoid, and thus I find it difficult to imagine this trend has nothing to do with the appeal of revolutionary politics to a great many people.
To be clear, I do not mean to imply that what I encountered were actual nature-nurture dialogues, or actual instances of biophobic social theory. I encountered this occasionally, but it was by no means a defining feature. What I mean to say is that I encountered a runaway version of a core logic and rhetorical style of biophobia, unmoored from its original context and bereft of any sense of scale or proportion, miring us in epochal darkness and confusion.
Now, it is probably true that in my youth I could've found social movement echelons where this trait was already far more pronounced. I gave a considerable majority of my political energy to the Earth First! movement and to the more institutional grassroots environmental movement which was its ally, and these were political tendencies which were characterized by fascination with, and reverence for, living system and evolutionary processes. Had I joined a sect of Trotskyites centered on a university campus, for instance, I'm sure my encounters with the modes of rhetoric and reasoning in question would've been more abundant. But it is not as if I didn't have contact with a much broader set of movement tendencies, especially anarchism and the ideologically pluralistic direct action tendency of that time.
When I began organizing ecological direct action once again in 2012, this time confronting the fossil fuel rather than the timber industry, I noticed a profound set of changes. I mused that virtually everyone at the meetings I showed up at, in the groups I tried to work with, now sounded like a social constructivist anthropologist writing the introduction to their ethnography, endlessly elaborating on culturally conditioned contingencies of perception which supposedly render mutual incomprehension inevitable.
This style of academic rhetoric goes well beyond asserting the obviously valid need for epistemic humility, the need to search for unconscious frames of reference that confuse our understanding of each other. One of the signature traits of this rhetorical mode is that it never exits its self-induced paralysis and gets on with the business of understanding. It never finds that whatever contextual differences mediate our perceptions of the world, we fundamentally share not only the same biological capacities for experience, but are all equipped with the neural anatomy for a profound empathy which renders mutual comprehension, on at least some level, not just possible but inevitable. We cannot truly divest ourselves of intersubjectivity, and when we witness someone experiencing a situation we mentally model experiencing that situation ourselves.
The other signature trait of this style of academic rhetoric is that, without ever really precisely defining its terms, it tends to portray efforts to comprehend other people, social categories, or cultures as not just impossible but somehow almost certain to be harmful. The nature of this harm is deliberately left exceptionally nebulous. It's most likely not harm that can be said to take corporeal form (naturally, since the academics in question would never condescend to concern themselves with mere physicality). It often might be phrased as something to the effect of “reproducing the perspectives of the dominant culture.”
How this academic gibberish translates into catastrophic implications for efforts at social transformation is fairly obvious. If a person is in a cage—say a person of an ethnicity disproportionately targeted by the police, or someone who has crossed a border—and we formulate a strategy for getting that person out of that cage, our effort is doomed. Not only will our inevitable failure to understand the unique context-dependent contingencies of this person's experience render our attempt to offer them assistance futile—however intuitive it might seem that whatever else we fail to understand about someone, we can be pretty sure they'd be better off outside a cage—but it will actually cause the very harm we wish to avert. This is a truly extraordinary claim, but questioning it will be met with the mockery and condescension appropriate for someone who fails to see how perpetuating the modes of thought associated with the dominant culture is pretty much the same thing as employing the modes of physical coercion of the dominant culture.
Thus, a conversation about people who have been caged no longer consists of questions like: how high are the walls, how many the guards, and are they behind bulletproof glass? Such a conversation consists of questions like: what is it about our own behavior and perceptions that is not so dissimilar to building those walls, or being those guards, who may or may not be behind bulletproof glass? What is it about ourselves about which we should introspect, in an ardent (but never truly successful, never completed) attempt to overcome our conditioning, to free ourselves from the relentlessly beguiling hall of mirrors into which our cultural experience has led us?
Because I re-entered social movements in the early 2010s, my own bewildering experience was synchronous with that of many professors who began noticing that their students were much more sensitive about language, less tolerant of opposing viewpoints, and more prone to claims of harm inflicted in the symbolic world than previous generations had been. Such professors began writing pieces belonging to what has become a truly defining genre of our era. They expressed alarm at a “growing tide of illiberalism” (a turn of phrase which wasn't necessarily wrong, but more than a little infuriating, since these same professors had never bothered to express concern about, say, police brutalizing protestors). They marveled at the fundamental epistemic ruptures their students imagined existed between people with different experiences of socialization. They agonized over the reduction of all statements about the world to the identity of whoever made them.
And to my utter bafflement, they wondered where all this was coming from. This genre of writing—the analysis of the origins and meanings of “woke” culture, as the terminology would evolve over the next few years—is easily one of the most vastly overproduced cultural forms in existence. It is not without a certain disquietude, bordering on horror, that I contribute to this already massive glut. But it has never ceased to amaze me how adept at failing to note the actual origins and meanings of this epistemic shift the vast majority of these agonized, soul-searching screeds were, which typically couldn't stumble upon answers more gratifying than, say, the internet, or an amorphous and growing “fragility.” The answer to all of these professors asking where this was coming from was, of course, that it was coming from academic departments down the hall from their offices, and that it originated in a rhetorical mode in opposition to the idea of human nature.
This mode was birthed from one of the two forms of biophobia we have already examined—the fear that if people exhibit uniformities over time and across cultures, there is little plausible explanation for these uniformities other than an underlying, species-typical behavioral biology, and that such a biology implies constraints on the possibility of social transformation. In social science debates in which the universality of certain traits was claimed to demonstrate human nature, a mode of countering such claims was needed. The paradigmatic, recurrent response was some version of a claim that the ostensibly universal behavior in question was simply not being comprehended in all its culturally particular idiosyncrasy, that projections from one's own culture were being made onto others.
As Donald Brown describes in his book Human Universals: “if culture is genuinely autonomous, then cultural universals are highly improbable: unless they occurred by sheer coincidence they could only result from having existed in the very infancy of humanity,” a problem which anthropologists addressed by claiming that universals “were mere artifacts of our Western mode of classification, not of ethnographic reality … 'Religion,' for example, is our way of classifying certain ranges of information; the term conveys little if anything of the complex ethnographic reality it allegedly designates.”(54)
In such arguments we can see the very distinct sense in which left-wing disavowals of human nature have more than a little in common with right-wing disavowals of climate change: when the implications of a body of evidence are feared, a sort of general epistemic fatalism can quickly develop, a skepticism that anything really means what it appears to, accompanied by sudden overarching distrust of the very process of human reasoning. And as we have seen is so often the case with a fear response, the unintegrated thinking it causes leads to all manner of runaway logic, unexamined assumptions, and unforeseen implications as an absurd line of reasoning runs its course. In the case of biophobic social sciences, disputing racist and even eugenicist claims about group differences was a core motivation of rejecting biology in the first place, reflected in the early anthropological formulation of “the psychic unity of mankind.” But because rejecting biology required rejecting universals, it required arguing against this very psychic unity, portraying seemingly perfectly relatable experiences and behaviors which were common to all people as the unknowable vicissitudes of truly alien cultural systems, a state of affairs described by one critic as “cognitive apartheid.”(55)
Other sciences select frameworks by how much regularity these frameworks allow them to uncover. In contrast, most anthropologists are disposed to select their frameworks so as to bring out the maximum in particularity, contingency, and variability (e.g., how are the people they study unique?). Certainly one of the most rewarded of talents inside anthropology is the literary ability to express the humanly familiar and intelligible as the exotic(56)
Deployments of this literary talent were so extreme as to amply justify the term cognitive apartheid. One famous case, for instance, was Benjamin Whorf's astonishing conclusion that Hopi people did not have “the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. In particular, he has no general notion or intuition of TIME as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, and into a past.”(57)
This is truly remarkable, as an intuition of linear time is not something one would assume is common merely to all humanity, but to all animal life in general. A cougar could not go hunting, for instance, if it did not understand that first it must find, then stalk its prey, and only afterward pounce and kill, or for that matter could not eat if it did not understand that it must hunt before doing so—which is all to say it could neither eat nor hunt if it did not have an intuition of time like mine or yours, assuming you are not Hopi. The basis of these claims—which naturally progressed into notions that Hopi people perceived the universe in non-linear terms akin to the strange vagaries of quantum mechanics and the mystical experience—were predictably disappointing, consisting of things like “In Hopi one says 'they left after the tenth day' rather than 'they stayed ten days.'” Whorf's work had always been light on actual linguistics, and when in 1983 a book was published re-examining his conclusions, it turned out they were not a matter of strained interpretation, but rather, he had simply fabricated his claims about language upon which his inferences of the atemporality of Hopi consciousness were based.(58)
One gets the very distinct sense that many of these literary experiments in the radical overstatement of cultural difference, particularly from the first half of the 20th century or so, are conducted under the assumption that the vast majority of the intended readership will never come into contact with the people being portrayed. Certainly, one imagines that Margaret Mead would not have written Coming of Age in Samoa, perhaps the most famous anthropological text ever, if she knew that Samoan people would become relatively common in the United States. Mead's work particularly thrilled American audiences with its depictions of casual sexuality, a depiction at profound variance with reality. This sense of inconsequentiality with respect to sex extends to virtually every domain of life: carefree to a point of childlike frivolity, she tells us Samoans are a people for whom “bravery in warfare was never a very important matter,” who “lack deep feeling,” “have no strong passions,” and indeed lack “intensity in every respect.”(59)
At the time Margaret Mead (very briefly) visited Samoa, a political movement called Mau, meaning “to stand fast in opposition,” was attempting to liberate Samoa from the rule imposed by New Zealand. This movement involved, among other things, mass protests and conspiracies to kill externally appointed leaders. While clearly made with a certain romantic intention, Mead's descriptions render her subjects bereft of fundamental traits common to all humanity, which function as a basis for universal respect for the autonomy of others. It is difficult to make a claim that we should not, for instance, steal a people's land to drill for oil on it if they “lack deep feeling” and “have no strong passions.” As one Samoan remarked to the author of Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, documenting her wholesale mischaracterization of every aspect of the culture she wrote about, such descriptions portray his people as “spineless nonentities.”(60)
It is difficult to know how to ally in a fight with spineless nonentities, and I suppose it is essentially impossible to invite someone to a meeting who lives outside of linear time. To thwart any system of power in its attempts at domination, people throughout all of human history have had two fundamental options: evasion and confrontation. Strategies of evasion reward social disaggregation. However, population density and the ubiquity of state control mean evasion is no longer an option: there is no longer a frontier to which to flee, and the last terra incognita has disappeared from the last map. Ecological collapse likewise makes evasion meaningless.
We have only the option of confrontation, and strategies of confrontation have always required social cohesion. This is why Vercingetorix was appointed king of all the Gauls when the Gallic tribes united to fight Caesar, while before no such king had existed.(61) This is why the prophet Wovoka attempted to unite many North American tribes with the Ghost Dance when the US military was near victory against them,(62) and why in general prophets unifying disparate tribes has been a recurrent basis for political upheaval around the world.(63) This is why Fred Hampton unified black, Puerto Rican, and white people in a revolutionary coalition. This is why Judi Bari attempted to unite Earth First! with loggers.(64) This is why the traditional substrate of political organizing, especially before the heightened individualism of the late 1960s, was entities like churches, granges, agricultural cooperatives, unions, neighborhood associations, and other such aggregations of people—because they provided a source of existing social cohesion to mobilize toward some shared objective.(65)
It is not for nothing that divide and conquer is arguably the most enduringly familiar cliché of political strategy. Difficult to see how it could go any way other than catastrophically, therefore, if we became ensnared in a form of reasoning about the world which required us to ceaselessly perceive, and therefore construct, insurmountable walls to mutual understanding and the establishment of common interest. But this is precisely what has happened, as the radical overstatement of the epistemic divisions between groups has become a default tendency of political movements, abstracted from its original academic preoccupations and free to confound our efforts to thwart annihilation.
If this isn't the tragic and exalting desert where god is dead, I don't know what is
I believe we have reached a point of ecological crisis where we can say, empirically, that all extant politics have failed. This is simply a function of their having existed for a long time in the world, and the world having crossed thresholds where we can no longer predict with any confidence where the runaway changes we have initiated will take us, nor who or what will survive. No other aspect of politics has this distinct finitude. We could endure millennia of subjugation and still claim, in theory, that someday syndicalist anarchism, a philosopher king, or conventional liberalism will save us. But the ecological crisis consists of acute thresholds—once crossed, all of our politics have failed.
One could object, of course, that the only problem with a given political tendency is that it failed to be instantiated. I can't, of course, decisively demonstrate that a century or two is long enough for anything to get its foothold which is likely to, but I emphatically include a failure at instantiation as a fundamental deficiency of a political tendency. I encountered the definition of anarchism in a dictionary when I was ten and immediately recognized that I had found the politics best suited to my temperament. While I haven't typically identified explicitly with anarchism throughout most of my political life—preferring, as I have said, to identify with concrete courses of action rather than broad worldviews—it remains true that I believe anarchism is the best of our evolutionary inheritances; am most historically inspired by anarchist social experiments, such as those in revolutionary Spain in the 1930s and Ukraine in the 1920s; and have always organized on anarchist principles. But if the only thing that is wrong with your politics is that people with other politics tend to come along and kill or imprison you and your friends, that's still a pretty fundamental problem. As we will see in subsequent chapters, questions of the relationships between temperament, worldview, and power are central to this inquiry.
One could equally object that it is somewhat meaningless to say “let's abandon the existing political frames and do something new” because nothing could possibly live up to such rhetoric, that anything conceived in this spirit would be sort of like promising to utterly abolish the art form of the novel and then writing something that turns out to be an awful lot like a novel. Obviously, it's a semantic question, but I really do believe that adopting a biologically integrated frame is such a fundamental departure from our extant political traditions—even considering that thinkers such as the early anarchist Peter Kropotkin were explicitly evolutionary in their orientation—that it justifies some kind of terminological distinction.
Moreover, it seems like a pretty easy case to make that existing political terminologies generate an awful lot more heat than light. Even if we did nothing else new, arguments could be made for abandoning these terms. After centuries, it is not simply the case that left and right evade consensus definition, but that their definitions grow more confused as history progresses. This is just as true among experts as it is among laypeople(66)—I am reminded of a left-right political spectrum someone's political science professor gave them which showed monarchism and anarchism as directly adjacent on the far right.
This would perhaps simply be a matter of a lack of education for laypeople and an institutional bias among experts, but this confusion equally abounds among people who ardently identify with a given political term—there are leftists, for instance, who insist leftism is opposition to hierarchy in general, and those who insist it is the assumption of dictatorial powers in opposition solely to economic hierarchy. Meanwhile, leftists and anarchists are unified in defining liberal and left very differently, whereas liberals and right-wingers seem to mutually benefit from confusing these terms, so that right-wing commentators describe Joe Biden as “far left” without a single tremor of suppressed laughter discernible in their voices. It is hard to see how most political programs would not be easier to communicate if they were simply phrased in terms of their concrete implications rather than in a network of terms with profound emotional effects and little consensus definition.
A great many political terms have accrued such a massive burden of psychologically potent associations it is impossible for people to see their own logical inconsistencies while using them. For instance, the association of terms like leftism and socialism with historical dictatorships goes an awful long way to allowing people to associate unregulated private property with a generalized opposition to coercion, without ever asking themselves how exactly property comes to belong to some people and not others without a healthy dose of coercion. I didn't bother to include any authoritarian political thinkers in my quotes exhibiting falsely dichotomous thinking regarding nature and nurture, but certainly, authoritarianism (or right-wing politics, if you prefer) exhibits precisely the same flaws in biological reasoning as are common in liberalism, leftism, and anarchism—it simply embraces, rather than rejects, the inevitability of certain social and behavioral realities perceived to be the logical implication of biology. This is the fundamental flaw that is foundational to all of our major modes of political reasoning.(67)
For all the terminological confusion, many political differences, whether explicitly or implicitly, pertain to hierarchy. And ultimately, variation in perceptions of hierarchy reduces to variation in perceptions of human nature (that it doesn't exist is, obviously, a perception of human nature). However, one of the advantages of biologically integrated thinking about politics is we can note many psychological corollaries of political perspective, even if they do not, strictly speaking, have much of a logical relationship with politics.
We could note, for instance, that a hierarchical to egalitarian political axis is also an axis of temporal orientation. First, we have authoritarianism, which was a well-developed political persuasion with the advent of state societies, and which is overtly associated with recapitulating tradition of one variety or another. Although the precise golden era to which return is desired is often somewhat ambiguous, there are frequent allusions to the middle ages—the Enlightenment is often described by the right-wing as a fundamental error whose consequences reverberate throughout all subsequent history. Classical antiquity, for that matter, is likewise often cited as a foil to the decline and decadence of modernity (a position that is probably easiest to maintain through assiduous ignorance of the actual behavior characteristic of the powerful in, say, ancient Rome).
But for as much as liberals describe themselves as scientific-minded proponents of rationality and progress, they do so in terms that are fundamentally derived from the Enlightenment, which was, after all, centuries ago. Thus we see that their divergence from the archaism of the authoritarians is a matter of degree. Appalled though they may be by the suggestion that society be governed by Biblical principle, they take it for granted that institutions such as the US constitution and the Supreme Court should have authority over our lives. Which is to say: nine elders in ceremonial robes whose mandate is to interpret the sacred calligraphy on an ancient scroll should make decisions about life-and-death subjects that did not exist when the document was written, such as nuclear weapons and the deoxygenation of the oceans.
Then, of course, there are egalitarian political traditions, such as Marxism and anarchism, formulated a century or so after liberalism. Even here we find that, for as much as the contemporary practices of movements does continue to evolve our underlying theories in meaningful ways, discussing the fundamentals of these political tendencies very frequently has a distinctly historical quality, where the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries seem to weight particularly heavily in people's evaluations.
I believe political thinking based on a contemporary understanding of biology implies none of these associations with a historical era, and more importantly, implies significant general departures from the modes of thought associated with them. To reason about variation in social systems with a contemporary understanding of biology is to ask legitimately novel questions: what range of our evolved potentials does a given social arrangement elicit, and what range of our evolved potentials does it leave unexpressed? To what extent are these potentials already manifest in some individuals? What is the basis of individual variation with respect to these potentials? What traits correlate in their expression with those directly elicited by a given political system, and what does this imply? Finally, there is a set of questions for which our discussion of behavioral novelty has prepared us: what are the novel behaviors or perceptions we wish to see manifest, and what are the evolved systems which we imagine would generate them? To what extent does this require some degree of learning or exposure to certain environmental conditions, and how will this be achieved?
A political continuum which seems perfectly conceivable to me is one based on, rather than any particular convictions, simply the degree of violence done to reality in order for a worldview to be constructed. Notably, this would place people with radically different politics in great proximity. Certainly, a Stalinist who says a gene is a “mystical concept,” an evangelical who says the world is approximately 6,000 years old, and a liberal who insists a “solution” to the climate crisis is an election away are all telling stories about the world based on psychological need, at the expense of something I will simply call, even in this age of epistemic fracture, truth.
Once again, this has very concrete strategic implications. One of the central questions I have found myself repeatedly asking in my political life is what frames generate what convergences of people. Prompts such as “who wants to do something about climate change?” or “who wants to blockade oil trains because they contribute to climate change?” or “who wants to abolish cis-hetero-patriarchical white supremacist settler colonialism because it is the root cause of climate change?” all result in different rooms full of people. For much of my political life, I have been deeply troubled to find that the correct frame—the prompt that gets the right people into the room, for the work I was trying to do—evaded me.
When I began a few years ago to produce media about the relationship between evolutionary biology and revolutionary politics, it was clear I had found the right frame. The simplest way to phrase it is that I had found people who were clearly motivated by empathy and a broad awareness of the world, but who also possessed a certain tough-mindedness, a willingness to engage with forms of evidence and lines of reasoning that did not immediately offer a clear path to psychological comfort. As a corollary, they seemed to be people who lacked some of the tendencies I've found most destructive to political efforts, and virtually impossible to filter out, in organizing processes.
Crucially, as the frequent correspondences I receive have made clear, the people I've engaged with my work also lack any kind of cohesive background or self-selection into any particular existing cultural or political niche. Some are scientists, physical or social, while others prioritize intuitive perceptual abilities; some have lifelong immersion in a practical skill like farming, others are creatures of the internet; some have a developmental context that could plausibly be described as feral, others are self-described wine moms. This is equally important to me as their lack of certain destructive tendencies, for as we will see, I believe a fracturing of humanity in complex societies into echelons, in which only a tiny proportion of our evolutionary potentials are expressed, is fundamental to the circumstances of power we confront. If this book has exactly one truly overarching theme, it is integration, the trait that is most characteristic of the abandonment of fear.
Let me attempt to justify my claim that it is time for a wholesale departure from our previous modes of political engagement in one final set of terms. Let me make the point experientially, by describing a state of being that I am referring to.
In the late summer of 2017, I found myself standing on railroad tracks east of Vancouver, Washington, a grief which I had suppressed for years finally washing over me in its full flood, my heart utterly breaking for this world. By sheer coincidence two independent factors of deep significance in my assessment of the ecological crisis were converging in that moment.
On the one hand, this was the first time smoke from wildfires blanketed the entire west coast, making palpable the crossing of a climate threshold I had long paid particular attention to. It would be another year or so before a scientific paper was published stating that global forests had become net sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, meaning the carbon sequestered in new vegetative growth was outpaced by the carbon lost in the death of forests from various causes. But to me those first days of ubiquitous smoke up and down the west coast made that shift abundantly clear. I had spent many years of my life battling for the survival of forests and understood that logging, climate change, and wildfire suppression threatened fires unlike anything we'd ever seen, and that once started, they would gain a momentum of their own.
At the same time, I found myself on the railroad tracks that morning as the culmination of years of feverish exertion in pursuit of a single strategic imperative which was finally being realized, albeit in greatly diminished form from what I envisioned. For four years, I had attempted to help initiate a wave of oil and coal train blockades throughout the Pacific Northwest that would gain autonomous momentum and impede the transit of fossil fuels in a meaningful, sustained fashion. I was there to watch an oil train go by and to call the number you see posted at railroad crossings—to inform signal control of things like cars stalled on the tracks—and tell them of a blockade in the Vancouver train yard. It was to be the first of an indeterminate number. I wasn't involved in the planning of any specific blockade, but was available for groups acting on their own initiative to contact, so that I could, in turn, contact the freight carrier and publicize their actions. As a result of this long and earnestly sought after wave of actions becoming realized, I was coming to terms with the profoundly limited scale of their implications.(68)
When making even a few small tentative steps toward a revolutionary process requires the absolute commitment of one's entire being, a certain contraction of perspective becomes almost inevitable. The simple fact was that I could've theorized about massive programs of wholesale revolutionary transformation in the abstract, but in practice getting anything done in physical reality required such ridiculous levels of commitment that a broader perspective evaded me. Now, I was being forced into that broader perspective, to really see what all this work had actually been for, and it felt like something was breaking inside me forever.
To be certain, I saw this wave of actions as an aspect of a greater strategy. In addition to sustained disruption, I imagined we would issue an explicit plan for completely eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the Pacific Northwest's entire economy over the course of a handful of years, shifting the terms in which the climate crisis was conceived. And probably more importantly, I imagined that the process of commitment to these actions would change those who took part in them, generating a culture of legitimate initiative and agency, freeing us from both the psychology of opposition and acquiescence so characteristic of political dispute, enabling us to develop the psychology of world building on our own terms. More than anything else, these actions were designed to transform their participants.
But that day, what felt true was that we were going to do something that merely felt like protest, and that then we would go home, utterly exhausted and aware of the massive disconnect between the conception and the reality of our efforts, to see if any criminal charges resulted. A couple years before, a barrier I had erected between my adult consciousness and my childhood torments suddenly broke down and I spent a few months confronting the full depth of horrors which I previously had simply not been able bear. The process literally felt like it might kill me, but in the end it made me much stronger.
Now, something very similar was happening. It is not as if I had a general outlook one would characterize as naively optimistic—I was acutely aware that we could not know the effects of the harm we had already done, and that claims of ecological progress by political institutions were utterly meaningless—but it nonetheless became apparent, in that moment, that the full-time revolutionary life I was living enabled a psychological process of denial, of the avoidance of realities that were too painful to bear.
Now, I want to emphasize that there is nothing about what I was actually doing that should be interpreted as a signature of psychological compartmentalization and rejection of overwhelming stimuli. My point is not to say that if someone is blockading trains they are in denial, or conversely, that psychological integration is inevitably characterized by inaction. What I did shortly after this moment of revelatory horror was to spend a handful of months doing climate policy meta-analysis, to show sectors of the economy where all climate plans converged on a lack of any concrete measures, to demonstrate those activities which simply lacked any sort of remote capacity for “green transition,” even on paper.
Obviously, there is nothing about a phrase like “climate policy meta-analysis” that in any way indicates something in me had decisively changed. There is no particular criterion of externally observable behavior we can apply to indicate the breaking of the walls inside myself which confined and concealed my grief for this world. I know it because I know, because it is unmistakable when we let go, when we allow the truth of this world to carry us away in the full flood of its unbearable potency and beauty and terror. It is unmistakable when we cease to negotiate with reality—cease perceiving in a contingent, and thus partial, fashion, accepting what is acceptable and rejecting what is beyond endurance—but instead allow whatever is true to register on its own terms, with no guarantees for our safety or victory or the validation of our deepest-held attachments.
There's no externally observable behavioral criterion by which I can say this is what I did, but it is worth noting, to convey that this sense of letting go was real and offered no guarantees, that the moment on the railroad tracks did indeed mark the beginning of a long and dangerous downward trajectory. As is commonly the case for people who have found themselves at the end of one particular revolutionary journey, I had tremendous difficulty de-escalating or integrating in any meaningful sense into any other life. I no longer believed in what I had been doing, and I had accrued characteristics which made my searching for a next phase perilous. I was not ready to give up the fundamentally tactical character my life had taken on, to stop moving around constantly with a bag full of burner phones and grappling hooks.
So I stayed on the road for no reason. I felt a sort of constant pressure, a heightened intensity that made everyone around me feel very far away and which released itself periodically in what felt like storms. It often seemed like I was observing my behavior from an external vantage point. I sometimes tried to explain to friends that it wasn't so much that I was traumatized as that I couldn't give up the meaning and the intensity of what I'd been doing. This is all fairly common. The book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging movingly describes the attachment to a heightened state of connection and purpose experienced by those who fight wars on behalf of the power structure, but it is also experienced by those who have fought wars against it.
For me, it got worse until it got better, and when it did, it illustrated the same paradoxical reality which I encountered integrating fragments of unreconciled childhood pain into a psychological totality. This paradoxical reality is one for which we don't have particularly precise terms, where we almost inevitably employ metaphorical, even mythic-sounding, language. A text on PTSD, for instance, describes healing as a process that begins when we “flow with the symptoms.”(69) Miyamoto Musashi, the master swordsman who won more than 60 duels—a record among samurai—counsels that one should meditate on the image of one's own corpse before battle, accepting that one is “already dead.”(70) Pema Chödrön tells us that “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”(71) The way I state this paradoxical reality is that it is precisely when we accept our worst fears about a situation that we gain the agency to affect it.
What all of our dominant modes of political reasoning have in common is that they prevent confrontations with difficult truths, and that they have failed to shift our trajectory toward annihilation. This process of constructing worldviews out of psychological need has run its course. Those of us who are witnessing the planet become uninhabitable have a minimal obligation to examine our situation truthfully, without fear or attachments obscuring our search for other paths.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain 2004.
Seeing that we have come to mistake the technical and the symbolic for theworld itself through a symbolic argument is paradoxical, but see Abram 1997; McGilchrist 2021.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Pinker 1994; Xu and Wang 2012
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Dingemanse et al. 2010 unify human and nonhuman metrics of individual variation with the behavioral reaction norm, encompassing both stable individual differences as well as differences in plasticity. Gosling and John 1999 summarize Big Five factors, with their many names, in nonhumans.
Brown, Acevedo, and Fisher 2013 map four fundamental human temperaments, as opposed to the more conventional Big Five, correlating them with activity in brain regions particularly rich in four different neurotransmitter receptors.
All behavioral traits we can think to measure are heritably variable, but for a good review on how we don't entirely understand the nature of this heritability, and that little of it reduces to gene sequence variations (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, in the nomenclature), see Chabris et al. 2015.
For an account of the plasticity of IQ depending on a population's exposure to test-relevant stimuli, see Davis 2014. What I think studies of this kind reveal is that IQ measures something as specific as our aptitude at the manipulation of abstract symbols on a sheet of paper, but as general as any given test in this format.
For childhood temperament predicting adult theory of mind see LaBounty et al. 2016 and Wellmann et al. 2011.
Dean and Altemeyer 2020 describe metrics such as the Power Mad and Con Man Scales.
Hibbing et al. 2014 remains the best overall summary of traits related to left-right political difference.
Nenadic et al. 2014.
Gambetta and Hertog 2016 describe the interrelation of reductionist thinking, professional specialization, and political orientation.
This recapitulates the once prominent culture and personality school of Benedict 2006.
Gosling and John 1999.
Goodall 1986 named the male with the most abusively despotic tendencies Satan.
Sapolsky and Share 2004.
Hibbing et al. 2004.
Jost et al. 2003.
What Is Politics? 2020.
Jost et al. 2003; Piurko, Schwarz, and Davidov 2011.
They do. Brown 1991.
Conditional universals. Ibid.
Mason and Rushen 2006.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Gilbert and Epel 2015.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Harlow, Dodsworth, and Harlow 1961.
Sole and Goodwin 2002.
A few days after I wrote these words, I found out biologists argued the human body couldn't endure speeds of greater than 20 miles per hour when the train was being developed.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
A paradigmatic case of the disconnect I am referring to is social ecology vs. deep ecology, as presented by Murray Bookchin critiquing Earth First!. Bookchin was ardent in dismissing ecological consciousness as a fringe tendency that “people” couldn't connect to, and entirely undeterred from this reasoning by the fact that Earth First! was a thriving movement to which many diverse people did, in fact, commit their whole lives, while his own theorizing did not generate real-world activity on a remotely commensurate scale.
I can only cite here a life spent fighting resource extraction, and thus talking to people who do it for a living.
Inglehart 1977 makes a distinction, concerning 1960s social movements, between workers fighting physical deprivation and students fighting psychosocial alienation. In subsequent decades alienation and loneliness have taken on epidemic proportions, while graduating college hardly implies material stability: these struggles have arguably converged.
Tooby and Cosmides 1995.
Black Elk 1932.
Buff 1993; Scott 2009.
Smucker 2017, but for a very different interpretation of what has changed, see Schroder 2021a; 2021b.
What Is Politics? 2020.
Of course, there are political tendencies—my own, for instance, or those associated with many indigenous movements—that are neither biophobic nor right wing. I believe understanding why these politics have also failed requires a distinct understanding of nature-nurture dichotomies that will require further chapters.
A far more robust and impactful version of this happened in Canada in 2020.
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