Is humanity today less violent than it was 10 thousand years ago? Does civilization play an evolutionary principle in our ascension?
In nature, beauty and extraordinary violence tango together conjuring a marvelous reality that can turn brutal. Humans are reminded of this paradox from the very first full experience outside placental walls. Choking and struggling down the birth canal, we come into this world having a near death experience. The bloody perinatal homecoming elicits the emotion of fear, imprinting the psyche of the newly born child with trauma. This trauma remains unresolved conflict that can be triggered and expressed in a variety of violent behaviors. The perinatal experience quintessentially affects our capacity for aberrant and violent behavior. This primal flirting with the emotion of fear contrasts with the loving empathy exhibited by parents and their progeny. Empathy is innate to all mammals and they excel at it. Birds also learned to nest their eggs, incubating, protecting and providing for the young offspring. It was because of this nurturing for the young that complex social behavior developed and led to a bigger brain.
The emotion of fear is also fed from ancestral memories of when we were prairie prey. In primates, reading facial distress at a distance offers an edge for survival. The pressure to communicate in life threatening situations encoded mirror neurons to light up and match the feelings of others. Recognizing facial expressiveness is at the core of language resonance and it probably enabled compassion neurophysiology to synapse and hard wire. How this ever happened is anyone’s guess.
Emotions and heartfelt feelings preclude any intellectual empathic experience. Mind, heart-body, and soul have all to be activated when we become compassionate. It seems that altruistic qualities of empathy occur once specific neuroanatomical connections take place. The maturation of empathic behavior into compassion and altruism may have critical advantages over predation and aggression. The coexistence of violence out of fear and empathy is a contrasting constant we must further explore.
Two hundred thousand years ago anatomically modern humans were hunter-gatherers. These groups were empathic, but also very violent, fighting among themselves over territory and resources. Ten thousand years ago civilization and agriculture began to generate cultural baggage. It has been said that only through civilization did we begin the refinement of our savage past, the naked Cro-Magnon fitted nicely into trendy cultural clothing and suddenly became peaceful and civil. A quick glance at the brutality of modernity, suggests that aggression and barbaric predatory behavior is alive and increasing in capacity for mass violence. In a sense, we are still the primitive cavemen dressed in hi-tech gadgetry and fashion gimmick. The ground truth is that we have misplaced self-reflection and empathy for self-interest and ego. It’s no secret that in distress many of us will panic and defend with violence the continuity of our personal interest.
It’s arguable that civilization instead of making us more docile and peaceful, really disrupted the context of our interrelationship with ourselves and nature. This imbalance generated self-inflicting wounds producing despair, psychosis, and aggression in the meta-population. In the early part of this century, aggressive behavior and the abuse of force have escalated to epidemic proportions. Cultural messages portrayed by the media, promote fear and violence. This information war is fabricated with the complicity of government. This social engineering feedbacks the money powers with endless wars. The wheels of taxation enslave society with blood in exchange for profit. Economic groups have it their business to keep people engaged in conflict. How civilized is that?
Why are troops and good honest men in combat only a split-second away from becoming thirsty blood gushing killer machines? Could the emotion of fear trigger a morbid perinatal flashback or pang, a memory of the chase when we were hunted? History and the human experiment is littered with blood and violence. Just a couple of decades ago, the Belgian manufactured class labor conflict in Rwanda provoked the Hutus to commit pay back genocide against half a million Tutsis. These mass killings perpetrated by horrible machete slaying left some 250 thousand Tutsi women viciously raped. How could tensions between familial tribes with so much common ethnicity end in mass murder? Is violence acquired because of social pressures or are we wired for such violence?
Neurophysiological imagery done on the neocortex of serial criminals shows underdeveloped synaptic firing. The forebrain activity and its self-reflective awareness is the seat of temperance and civility, and this is arguably what makes us human. Perhaps this is why serial killers lack empathic behavior.
Many years before the Sumerian tablets, the first modern sapiens had the neuroanatomical capacity to exhibit enhanced empathy and compassion. This suggests a noble nature. It’s likely that people of the stone and bronze age were preoccupied with goodwill and meaning.
Surprisingly anthropological evidence shows that only a minority of the hunter-gatherers were empathic and cooperative. Nineteenth and twentieth-century studies based on first-hand observation of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon and Northern Australia, point out despotic and indifferent behavior among siblings and clan family members, especially toward injured individuals who endangered the clan. This tells us that some of these groups would rather leave the sick and elderly behind in fight or flight. Violent intra-species deaths in the late Paleolithic can be measured through human remains found in ancient graves in various locations. This evidence suggests that at least half of the population around 10 thousand years ago died due to intra-specific violence. Intra-specific killings are the scientific term for homicide. Humans are the only terrestrial beings that kill and torture their own for pleasure or gain. Perhaps our relatives in the Paleolithic only committed homicide when defending territorial interests.
So if we are already rigged for aggressive intraspecific violence, why does the modern world with its civilizing factor reinforce and promote this behavior. By the age of 7, every twenty-first-century child has seen at least 4 thousand homicides on TV. Our Western culture has a love affair with dysfunctional violent tragedies and scandalous film flicks that glorify iconic outlaws in heroic vengeful battles portrayed by celebrities. If you are a serious video game player, you could pull the virtual trigger in mortal combat on that many casualties in just a few days. Anywhere you look, you will not avoid the face of violence, particularly in our children’s favorite toys and games.
Yet mainstream comparative studies suggest that civilization has steadily decreased violence among us. The recent human record shows otherwise, in the last 500 years governments have wiped out 300 million people. In the twentieth century alone at least 200 million deaths have been perpetrated by government monsters in military uniform and politicians in suits giving orders. In other words, we have killed more humans in warfare in the last 100 years than all the recorded deaths before then.
Since the spread of civilization, we have been at war violently depleting each other, conquering nature and exploiting all its resources in every corner of the planet. Mainstream anthropologists don’t include in their analyses and charts the other casualties of domestication: the devastation of the soil; the brutal and horrible treatment to millions of animals; the deforestation of hardwoods and jungles. This is just part of the violent aggression towards the planet. Academicians dismiss the cold-blooded viciousness of hi-tech powered weapons and missiles, proud inventions of our technological civilization.
This fabulous civilization has led us to the brink of mass destruction. So can we really say that we are less violent today after 10 thousand years of civilization? I believe not. The nature of violence within us has been poorly addressed by civility.
Many civilizations have come and gone, disintegrating into dead ends. Our current Western civilization is no exception and we are at the gates of the great collapse. How can the ascent of humanity be such a painful journey? How could this horrible furnace of technological violence, be a developmental stage awaiting maturity? How many civilizations will it take? What if civilizations have been constructed by minds gone amok? These civilizations of mind are very effective at accumulating statistical knowledge, but poor at making people aware and awake. Knowledge alone does not result in awareness nor does it guarantee peace.
A perpetrator of false control, the seat of reason faked an impostor. We call it the mind and it has come to rule our lives. It thinks it knows everything. The soul-body does not think yet it is fully aware. Goodness and beauty are unknowable. Some scholars suggest that these attributes can only appear once the mind is equipped with the intellect. This implies that only curious investigators downloaded with cultural software can reach an introspective understanding. Introspective understanding is the same as self-reflective awakening which is rooted in empathy.
The attainment of compassion, goodness, and solidarity are a consequential maturation of empathy. Empathy has a root base in the soul-body, and this soul-body is grounded in the cosmos. Other animals exercise primal forms of empathy, and they have no mind. The mind is an accessory of the soul.
I believe that our relatives that roamed the planet at least 50 thousand years ago were significantly more aware and awake, transcending from grunts and gestures to spoken words. These wise, docile and gentle beings were capable of goodness and altruism. They buried their dead with accouterments. This suggests a preoccupation with the afterlife, art, and religion. These were the first civilizing symbolic mind structures which explored the meaning of life. It was then that the cycles of civilization began to replace darkness with the light of the mind.
Sadly and in spite of the glorious advancements of our ascent, the toys, and inventions of the technological civilization keep humans hypnotized and unawakened in a blur of informational noise. Capable of infinite goodness but also able to perpetrate horrific crimes against humanity, which of the two wolves shall we nurture?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carlos Cuellar Brown is a New York City media artist and essayist who has written on new media, social theory and metaphysics. His essays have been posted online by Opendemocracy, The Global Dispatches, The Pelican Web, Kosmos Journal, and STARDRIVE.
In 2013 his essay “Intermedial Being” was published by A Journal of Performance and Art PAJ #106 MIT Press Journals. In 2015 Mr. Brown was nominated for the TWOTY awards out of the Netherlands for his essay “Blueprint for Change”. He has been a regular columnist for Second Sight Magazine and Fullinsight.
His book, In Search of Singularity: Reflections and Chronicles from the End of Time, published 29 January 2017, is a series of reflections on the current cultural evolution from competition to cooperation, from patriarchy to reciprocity between humanity and the human habitat.