Originally published in the Scientific and Medical Network Review, Winter 2006-7.
Since Europeans first arrived on the shores of the ‘New World,’ one of the greatest sources of culture clash between European colonists and indigenous tribal peoples has been their different attitudes to nature.
Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been consistently appalled by European peoples’ lack of respect for the natural world, and systematic abuse of nature. They generally feel a strong sense of empathy and kinship with nature, and perceive natural things as alive. But in contrast, Europeans have generally seen nature as little more than a supply of resources to be exploited. We – at least most of us – treat natural things as objects with no inner life or being. We have no sense of empathy with them – how we could have, since as far as we’re concerned they have no being to empathise with? And since they are just things with no interior, there’s no reason why they should have any value for us, except as resources.
One of the European concepts which indigenous peoples like the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines found most difficult to understand was that of the ownership of land and natural resources. Ownership implies a position of superiority and dominance. Since we European peoples know that we are conscious and alive ourselves, and perceive natural phenomena as not being alive and conscious, we feel that we’re superior to nature, as a master is to a slave, and so feel entitled to dominate it. But indigenous peoples’ sense of the sacredness and alive-ness of nature means that they could never take this attitude. Even as communities, they rarely see themselves as owning land or natural resources in the sense that we understand the term. As the anthropologist Colin Scott notes, to the Cree Indians, ‘no one, not even the Creator, owns land.’ At the most, they might see themselves as looking after it on behalf of the Great Spirit. This attitude often worked in European colonists’ favour, since many Native American groups saw the idea of selling areas of land as an absurd joke, and let the Europeans buy them for almost nothing.
This respect for nature appears to have an underlying spiritual source. Natural phenomena are alive because they are pervaded with Spirit. Trees, rocks and mountains are animate because of the spirit-force – the Life Master or Great Spirit – which flows through them. Almost all – if not actually all – indigenous peoples have a concept of this ‘spirit-force.’ I have been collecting examples of these terms from my readings of anthropological and religious texts for years, and have lost count of the number I have. To give just a few examples, in America, the Pawnee called it tirawa, while the Lakota called it wakan-tanka (literally, the ‘force which moves all things’). The Ainu of Japan called it ramut (translated by the anthropologist Monro as ‘spirit-energy’), while in parts of New Guinea it was called imunu (translated by early anthropologist J.H. Holmes as ‘universal soul’). In Africa the Nuer call it kwoth and the Mbuti call it pepo. Indigenous peoples (at least those whose cultures have not severely disrupted by now) therefore generally respect nature because they see it as the manifestation of Spirit. To damage or destroy natural phenomena would be a crime against Spirit itself, and disturb the harmony of the world. And since they sense that they are manifestations of Spirit too, these peoples feel a sense of kinship with nature, a sense of sharing identity with it, which contrasts with the sense of ‘otherness’ to the natural world which we normally experience. The Australian Aborigines perceive that all things have their own ‘dreaming’ – that is, their own inner life, or subjectivity. They can’t conceive of themselves as being separate from nature since to them, in the words of another anthropologist, Lynne Hume, ‘Everything is interconnected in a vast web of sacredness.’
Most modern Eurasian peoples clearly do not have this awareness of Spirit in the world. Rather than being a commonly perceived everyday reality, for us the concept of an all-pervading Spirit only appears in mystical and esoteric traditions, such as the brahman of Hindu mysticism, or the Dao of Chinese Daoism. We have apparently become blind to Spirit in the world – and this is, presumably, why we do not sense natural things as being alive.
But there is evidence that this wasn’t true of earlier of inhabitants of Europe and Asia. It appears that the earliest Europeans had the same kind of reverential and empathic attitude to nature as the Indigenous Americans and Australian Aborigines. This is suggested by the artwork of ‘Old Europe’, for example, the culture which was unearthed and reconstructed by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Old Europe flourished between 7000 BCE and 2500 BCE, covering large parts of southern, central and eastern Europe. And alongside its apparent peacefulness and egalitarianism, one of the most striking things about Old European culture is its artwork, which is full of beautiful natural images. These were practically everywhere in their villages and towns – images of the sun, of water, serpents and butterflies, painted or drawn on the outside and inside walls of houses, in shrines, on vases and bas reliefs. There are also numerous drawings of ‘cosmic eggs,’ and representations of goddess figures as part human and part animal, suggesting that there was a sense of the interconnectedness of nature. Old European culture survived longest in Crete, whose isolation protected it from Indo-European invaders until around 1500 BCE. And the artwork of the ancient Cretans – or Minoans – shows the same sense of wonder. According to the archaeologist Nicolas Platon, for instance, the art work of the ancient Cretans showed a ‘delight in beauty, grace and movement’, and an ‘enjoyment of life and closeness to nature.’ It’s obviously impossible to say for sure that this indicates that these people had the same ‘spiritualised’ vision of the world as many indigenous peoples, but, as Riane Eisler points out, the archaeological evidence suggests ‘a view of the world in which everything is spiritual (inhabited by spirits) and the whole world is imbued with the sacred: plants, animals, the sun, the moon, our own human bodies.’
The Intensified Sense of Ego
So what is it that makes ‘civilised’ Eurasian peoples apparently different from most indigenous tribal peoples, and even the Neolithic peoples of Europe? Why do we, as a culture, suffer from a pathology of alienation from nature? And why, as a result, have we abused the life-support systems of this planet to the point of imminent ecological catastrophe?
Some authors believe that our ancestors saw the world around them as animate and sacred place until fairly recent times. One view is that we lost this vision of the world due to the influence of Christianity, which taught our ancestors that human beings are supposed to have dominion over the rest of creation, that we’re the only living beings with souls, and that God is apart from the world. Other scholars believe that the real problems started later, and that this soulless vision of the world was the result of the scientific paradigm created by Descartes and Newton around four centuries ago. But while there’s no doubt that these factors have engendered and encouraged our abuse of the environment, in my opinion there is a more fundamental reason for our pathological attitude to nature: the particular kind of psyche we have, through which we experience reality, and relate to the world.
The fundamental psychic difference between indigenous peoples and modern Eurasians is, I believe, that we have a stronger and sharper sense of ego than them. According to the early 20th century anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl, the essential characteristic of indigenous peoples was their less ‘sharpened’ sense of individuality. In his words, ‘To the primitive’s mind, the limits of the individuality are variable and ill-defined.’ He notes that, rather than existing as self-sufficient individual entities – as we experience ourselves – indigenous peoples’ sense of identity is bound up with their community. He cites reports of primal peoples who use the word ‘I’ when speaking of their group, and also notes that indigenous peoples’ sense of individuality extends to objects they use and touch. A person’s clothes, tools and even the remains of meals and their excrement are so closely linked to them that to burn or damage them is thought to death or injury to the person. (This is one of the principles by which witchcraft is believed to work.) Similarly, George B. Silberbauer notes that, to the G/wi of the Kalahari, ‘identity was more group-referenced than individual. That is, a person would identity herself or himself with reference to kin or some other group.’
In other words, most indigenous peoples don’t seem to exist as personal, self-sufficient egos to the same extent as European peoples. The naming practices of certain peoples suggest this too. For us, a name is a permanent label which defines our individuality and autonomy. But for indigenous peoples this often isn’t the case. Among the Balinese, for example, personal names and even kinship names are rarely used. Instead they commonly use tekonyms – i.e. terms which describe the relationship between two people. As soon as a child is born, the mother is called ‘mother-of ___’ and the father is ‘father-of ____’; when a grandchild is born they become ‘grandmother-of ____’ and ‘grandfather-of ____.’ Similarly, Aborigines do not have fixed names which they keep throughout their lives. Their names regularly change, and include those of other members of their tribe.
Some colonists actually became aware of the problem, and realised that they would never be able to fully ‘civilise’ the natives unless they developed their sense of ‘self-ness.’ Senator Henry Dawes put his finger on it when he wrote of the Cherokees in 1887, ‘They have got as far as they can go [i.e. they are not going to progress any further], because they hold their land in common There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation.’ The English missionaries in Australia tried various measures to develop the aborigines’ sense of individuality. They made them live in separate houses and tried to stop going into each other’s. They baptised them so that they would think of themselves in terms of permanent name, instead of the fluid aboriginal names which could change and include the names of other tribe members. It didn’t work though – the aborigines never developed a sense of personal ownership over their houses and the possessions inside them. They wandered in and out of each other’s houses all the time, and continually swapped possessions.
Indigenous peoples’ less intense sense of ego leads to a respectful attitude to nature because they don’t experience a sense of otherness to the world; their own identity can’t be separated from the world around them. They experience a shared sense of being with the rest of the cosmos, a natural intersubjectivity, which means that there is always an empathic connection between them and natural phenomena. On the other hand, our stronger sense of individuality creates duality and separation. The shared sense of being is disrupted, as we become ‘walled off’ within our own egos. We become separated off into islands of individuality. We generally exist in a state of ‘ego-isolation’ which means that we are always one step removed from the world, and can never participate in it.
And as for the difference between us and earlier European peoples, there is evidence that this intensified sense of ego may have arisen at particular historical time. The archaeological record reveals the first signs of strong sense of individuality during the 4th millennium BCE, among certain Middle Eastern and central Asian groups. In prehistoric times almost all communities had communal burial grounds, but during the 4th millennium BCE, individual burials took over. Up till this point, people were buried anonymously too, with no markers and no possessions. But now people were buried with identity and property, as if their individuality mattered, and as if they thought it would continue after death. As the Swedish archaeologist Mats Malmer has written, these new burial practices (and the new emphasis on private property linked to them) are part of a ‘surprising change [that] occurred in Europe, a new social system giving greater freedom and rights of personal ownership to the individual.’ Referring specifically to the beginning of the third millennium BCE, he calls these new European peoples ‘the first individualists.’ Texts and inscriptions from the fourth millennium BCE are more concerned with individuality and personality, and around this time new myths appeared throughout Europe and the Near East that show, in Joseph Campbell’s words, ‘an unprecedented shift from the impersonal to the personal.’
The root cause of this intensification of individuality – the ‘Ego Explosion’, as I have called it – may have been environmental. Until the beginning of the 4th millennium BCE, the Middle East and central Asia had been fertile and full of animal and plant life, but now a process of severe and widespread desertification occurred. Rainfall decreased, rivers and lakes evaporated, vegetation disappeared and famine took hold. Farming became impossible, and lack of water made hunting treacherous. The areas had been intensely populated (at least compared to other parts of the world at this time) but now there was a mass exodus of animals and people from the region, as groups migrated in search of more fertile areas.
These peoples may have developed a ‘sharpened’ sense of ego in response to this environmental disaster. Perhaps as their lives became more difficult – as their lands became fertile and later they were migrating away from their homelands – people were forced to develop a greater logical problem-solving ability, a greater ability to think discursively and analytically to deal with the new difficulties. And perhaps these difficulties encouraged a new spirit of selfishness, as people began to put their own individual needs before those of their group. Some major psychological change certainly seems to have happened to these peoples. The peoples who migrated away from the Middle East and central Asia from the 4th millennium BCE onwards – including the Indo-Europeans, the Semites and the forebears of peoples such as the Finno-Ugrics, the Turks, the Scythians, the Mongols, the Shang and the Sarmatians – appear to have been a new type of human being, with a completely new attitude to life, and a new type of culture. As well as showing signs of a new sense of individuality, these peoples were also much more war-like than any groups before them. The archaeological record shows a sudden eruption of warfare at this time, as these groups fought against each other for new land and as they conquered ‘indigenous’ Neolithic peoples like the Old Europeans. These groups also appeared to have had the world’s first ever strongly hierarchical and patriarchal societies, to have worshipped anthropomorphic gods (often male warrior gods) and, judging from their artwork (which contains few natural images but a massive number of scenes of violence and depiction of weapons), they appear to have lost a sense of reverence for nature. And all of these characteristics were, I believe, the consequence of the new intensified sense of ego which these peoples developed. Even in our time, warfare, patriarchy, social oppression and other social and psychological pathologies can be seen as the inevitable consequence of an ‘over-developed’ sense of ego. (I try to explain how the ego gives rise to each of these pathologies in my book, The Fall.)
The Loss of Awareness of Spirit
In other words, it was this ‘Ego Explosion’ which made us – since most of us are Indo-Europeans too, and we have inherited the psyche through which we are aware of and relate to the world from our ancestors – different from the world’s indigenous peoples.
And it’s also, I believe, this intensified sense of ego which is the root cause of our alienation from nature, and our abuse of the natural world. Rather than seeing Christianity, materialistic science or capitalism as being the cause of our pathology, these ideologies should themselves be seen as results of the dualistic and de-spiritualised vision of the world which our psyche generates.
The Ego Explosion led to a ‘de-spiritualised’ vision of the world because, now that the ego became a much more powerful feature of the individual’s psyche, what might be called a ‘redistribution of psychic energy’ occurred. The powerful new ego ‘gobbled up’ the psychic energy which had previously been devoted to present-centred awareness, to the act of perceiving the immediate is-ness of the phenomenal world. This energy was diverted to the ego; as a result we could no longer perceive the world the same intense, vivid vision, and our attention became ‘switched off’ to the presence of Spirit. The phenomenal world became a shadowy, one-dimensional place, and natural phenomena became lifeless objects. In Australian Aboriginal terminology, we lost the ability to ‘enter the dreaming’ of natural phenomena.
Healing the Pathology
All of this might make our predicament seem hopeless. If the fundamental problem is the particular psyche through which we experience the world, then presumably the only way for us to survive as a species would be for our psyche to change, for us to somehow transcend our separate sense of ego and regain a sense of connection to nature and an awareness of Spirit in the world.
And how could a change like this take place? After 6000 years, why should we change now?
There are, however, many signs that a process of change is underway. Since roughly the mid-eighteenth century, major cultural changes have occurred which can be seen as the result of a general inner psychic change, a movement beyond the separate sense of ego. At this time, particularly in western Europe, a new wave of empathy seemed to emerge, a new ability to sense the suffering of other human beings – and animals too – and a new emphasis on the rights of other individuals. This led to the women’s movement, the animal rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, more humane treatment of disabled people and homeless children, and the abolition of brutal forms of punishment such as branding and public flogging, as well as an end to the use of the death penalty for trivial crimes (prison or transportation started to be used instead). In other words, the pathologies which the intensified sense of ego gave rise to started to be transcended, suggesting the walls of separateness which divided human beings from one another (and from other beings and the rest of the natural world) had faded away to some degree.
This process also gave rise to the socialist movement of the 19th century, and the spread of democracy. And more recently there has been a healing (at least partly) of the most powerful pathologies which came from the Ego Explosion: the hostile attitude to sex and the human body. Adolescent and extra-marital sex have become more acceptable, as has the display of naked flesh, and once taboo topics such as menstruation and female sexuality can now be discussed more openly. And most pertinently for this essay, over the last few decades a more reverential attitude to nature has developed, as shown by the environmental and ecological movements. There has been a return to the empathic and respectful stance towards nature of primal peoples, an awareness of a shared sense of being with nature and a sense that natural phenomena possess their own being or subjective dimension (their own dreaming, in Aboriginal terms).
In my opinion these developments are too significant to be merely the result of social or cultural factors. I believe that they are the result of a psychic change which the human race is undergoing collectively, an evolutionary movement which may be occurring in response to our present dire predicament. The real question is whether there is enough time for this transition to manifest itself completely. After all, although this process appears to be gaining in strength as time goes by, it’s still really only a minority movement. It hasn’t yet brought the kind of sweeping changes that we need. The isolated ego still holds sway, with its alienation from nature and desire to dominate the world, and is still pushing the human race towards self-destruction.
But this may be where we come in. It’s possible for us to add our own individual efforts to the natural process of change. After all, the whole purpose of spiritual development is to try to transcend the intensified sense of ego, to erode away our walls of ego-separateness and bring us back into union with the cosmos. And every change we make to our own individual psyche will resonate with our species as a whole, and take us a little further along the path to transformation and survival.
- Scott, C. (1997). ‘Property, Practice and Aboriginal Rights among Quebec Cree Hunters.’ In Ingold, T., Riches, D. & Woodburn, J. (Eds.). Hunters and Gatherers, Volume 2: Property, Power and Ideology. Oxford: Berg, p. 40.
- Monro, N.G. (1962). Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: Columbia University Press, p.8.
- In Levy-Bruhl, L. (1965). The Soul of the Primitive. London: Allen & Unwin, p. 17.
- Hume, L. (2000). ‘The Dreaming in Contemporary Aboriginal Australia.’ In Harvey, G. (ed.), Indigenous Religions. London and New York: Cassell, p.5.
- It is, of course, debateable whether tribal people’s concepts of all-pervading Spirit correspond with mystical concepts such as Brahman and the Dao. But I believe that the literal meanings of these concepts and the available descriptions of them make this almost impossible to doubt. Here is a description of Spirit-force given by a member of the Pawnee tribe, for instance:
We do not think of Tirawa as a person. We think of Tirawa as [a power which is] in everything and moves upon the darkness, the night, and causes her to bring forth the dawn. It is the breath of the new-born dawn.
— In Eliade, (1967), From Primitives to Zen. London: Collins, p.13.
And compare this with the following passage from the Hindu Upanishads, describing the presence of brahman within the manifest world:
Shining, yet hidden, Spirit lives in the cavern. Everything that sways, breathes, opens and closes, lives in Spirit Spirit is everywhere, upon the right, upon the left, above, below, behind, in front. What is the world but Spirit?
— In Happold, (1986), Mysticism. London: Penguin, p.146.
- In Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. London: Thorsons, p. 32.
- Eisler, R. (1995). Sacred Pleasure. Shaftesbury: Element, p. 57.
- Levy-Bruhl, L. (1965). The Soul of the Primitive. London: Allen & Unwin, p.68.
- Silberbauer, G.B. (1994). ‘A Sense of Place.’ In Burch, E.S. & Ellanna, L.J. (Eds.), Key Issues in Hunter-Gatherer Research, Oxford: Berg, p. 131.
- Wright, R. (1992). Stolen Continents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p.363.
- In Keck, L.R. (2002). Sacred Quest. West Chester, PA: Chrysalis Books, pp. 47-8.
- In Baring, A & Cashford, J. (1991). The Myth of the Goddess: The Evolution of an Image. London: Arkana, p. 154.