|The Idea: A Canadian naturalist argues that civilization has obfuscated important truths about our world in a defensive and overwhelming mythology of prosthetic anthropocentrism, and that it is not too late to turn away from this disconnected mythology and rediscover our true purpose and a higher, wilder consciousness.
Alone among the beings who have arisen on Earth, we have evolved into virtually total dependence upon not our nature but our nurture…a fabricated prosthetic [replacing a missing part] device…a surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being…”Software technology” — storable, retrievable, transmissable technique, is the human specialty…The dependence into which we have grown has made us not merely the servants of this technique, but one of its very artefacts, its own domesticate.
This self-domestication, he argues, is synonymous with civilization. We are now utterly dependent on learning the technique of how to live, and on other humans whose roles in this awkward way of living dovetail with ours. To make it work, we have invented and imposed a “linear, vertical hierarchy”.
These constraints, especially in a species that is both social and cooperative, are psychologically suffocating, he says. And “the most barbaric punishment that can be visited upon such a species is dense confinement.” But we were genetically vulnerable, perhaps even genetically predestined, to be self-domesticated because we have all the qualities needed for a domesticated species: Docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity. We share these qualities with all the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.
Once domesticated, dependent on ideology and learned technique, we and our fellow domestics have been ‘transplanted’ across the globe, replacing, as Richard Manning subsequently explained in Against the Grain, robust natural ecosystems with poor, fragile artificially-sustained ones. Genocide of all undomesticated species, including gatherer-hunter humans, followed, and an ideology of apology and denial for our devastation was constructed to justify this behaviour: Myths that ‘wild’ creatures and cultures lived ‘short, nasty, brutish’ lives, that all life was inherently competitive not collaborative, that ‘development’ was a natural and evolutionary driver, that hierarchy and ‘pecking order’ is natural, that everything is property to be claimed and fought over, that domesticated humans were ‘the crown of creation’, that life was inevitably a struggle in a ‘market’ economy of scarce resources, and that the “simplified, homogenized, monoculturalized industrial-growth imperative” was ordained by God and confirmed by Darwin. These myths prevailed, and still prevail, despite overwhelming ecological, anthropological, sociological and scientific evidence to the contrary.
Livingston carefully dispels these myths. For example, Alpha males, he shows, are not the top of a hierarchy but the centre, the glue of community circles, with responsibility far outstripping the reward of the position. And marking territory is not making a property claim, but is a natural way of establishing sufficient distance between creatures of a particular species to ensure a comfortable level of food for each and prevent overpopulation of the species messing up the ecological balance of the community. He argues that, far from being less conscious than civilized man, wild animals and wild human cultures actually have a greater ‘participatory collective’ consciousness beyond the our primitive individual consciousness, that extends to their ecological community and to the entire Gaia organism of the planet, an interconnectedness to which we, and other domesticates, have become numb, have lost from disuse or ideological counter-programming.
The most important question he asks, I think, is whether, once we reach adolescence, it is too late to acquire this greater consciousness, much as it becomes too late to learn language — our brains have been wired for good, and the capacity for it is lost forever. This is a terrifying possibility, but one that explains why so few humans ‘get’ the message of environmentalists, even though it is imprinted in their DNA. In young wild animals a key experiential learning is the bonding of the youth to the rest of its ecosystem, reverence for balance, respect for predator and prey alike, attentiveness and sense-ability that in our simpler, sheltered human world we never really acquire, just as animals domesticated from birth cannot be ‘reintroduced’ much later to their true natures. If we could acquire this consciousness, this ‘becoming a part of the whole’, Livingston argues, we could not possibly continue to tolerate the “aberrant and deviant” destruction of nature — it would be as unthinkable and unforgivable as destroying an integral part of our own bodies. The amputation of wildness from our collective psyche would be seen as no different from the amputation of our own limbs.
Livingston goes on to show the absurdity and chauvinism of the idea of animal ‘rights’ — an impossibly poor substitute for ‘rightness’, and concludes with an analysis of our psychological condition and options. “There must be an alternative way of human being in the world”, he says, though “there is little reason to think that the human community is about to address the ideological content of our cultural prosthesis”. It is all too easy, he laments, to go back to incremental work ‘within the system’: “Why try to blow up the entire human metaphysical dome when there is so much within it calling for immediate attention? Why not attempt to do what is possible, what works? When one is very tired, or very discouraged, these can be attractive propositions. But they are not good enough.” We must, he insists, stop equating ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ with something ‘other’, outside us, a set of “free material commodities and garbage commons”. He concludes poetically with this portrait of the appreciation of and belonging to wildness which he says we must rediscover:
[By wildness] I mean the dissolution of the ego-centred self, as when one was drawn close, ever closer and at last into the gold-flecked eye of a toad, or when one melted into black earthy humus, laced with wintergreen, on a cool forest floor. Or when one’s cry of joy was transposed into a gull clamour by a sea wind pungent with the scent of rotting kelp. When one sought, and found; when one relinquished, and was free…Look at a child gently holding an unfledged young robin that has fallen from its nest. Look in that child’s eyes. The sweet bondage of wildness is recoverable.
Although Livingston’s portrait of our predicament and our possibilities is more upbeat than the one painted by John Gray that I reviewed two days ago, it is also more tentative, and ten years older. In 1994 the world seemed to have turned around, and for the first time since the late 1960s anything seemed possible. In the light of the grim and relentless legacy of human destruction, deceit and denial of the past ten years I wonder if Livingston, who has been strangely silent for a decade and who lamented to interviewers that his students never really understood or accepted the message of his work, would today be silently nodding his assent to the much darker view of Peter Brown or John Gray.
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A Harvest of Myths
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If I Only Had 37 Days
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