A Critique of the View that Primal Peoples were/are less Socially and Spiritually Developed than Modern Humans
Originally published in The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, vol. 22, 2004.
Many theorists – including Wilber, Habermas and Gebser – believe that there are strong parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny, and that the development of the human species has followed the same basic pattern as the development of the individual from birth to adulthood. I discuss this view in relation to archaeological and anthropological knowledge of the world’s ‘primal peoples’. I look at the spiritual, moral and social development of primal peoples and find that, in almost every instance, they are more advanced that these theorists suggest, possessing characteristics which only occur – ontogenetically – at the higher ‘fulcrums’ of development. In particular, I argue that Wilber’s model of phylogenetic development is false, and that his spectrum model cannot be applied to species development. I suggest the basis of a new (non-ontogenetic) model of phylogeny.
The question of whether the world’s ‘primal peoples’ – both those who existed during earlier epochs and those who existed until recent times – are genuinely ‘spiritual’ or not is a hotly contested issue, which has important consequences for transpersonal psychology. The two sides of the argument will be familiar to every reader of Ken Wilber’s works. On the one hand there is what Wilber calls the ‘Retro-romantic’ view, which holds that primal peoples were more ‘spiritual’ than modern human beings. They possessed a strong sense of connection to the cosmos and an awareness of esoteric forces and phenomena, both of which we have lost. With the development of our powerful intellect and strong sense of ego – and especially with the development of modern industrial civilisation – we ‘fell’ away from their higher state of being.
But according to Wilber (e.g. 1995), this is to fall victim to the pre/trans fallacy. Applying his spectrum of consciousness model to phylogenetic development, Wilber argues that primal peoples were a pre-personal level of consciousness. The hunter-gatherers of the Paeolithic Era belonged to what he calls the typhonic stage of evolution, which is characterised by ‘magical thinking’, including voodoo practices, taboos, and an animistic worldview. The farmers of the Neolithic era, beginning around 12,000 BCE, belonged to the mythic stage, where individuals begin to realise that magic no longer works and instead projected the existence of elaborate systems of gods, demons and other forces. At around 2500 BCE the ‘solar ego stage’ began, with the ‘low egoic’ phase lasting until 500 BCE and the current ‘high ego’ phase beginning at around 500 BCE. Only at this stage did human beings become capable of rationality and hypthetico-deductive reasoning; and only at this stage did human beings become capable of experiencing the higher transpersonal levels, including nirvikalpa samadhi itself. Every age has an ‘average’ level of consciousness, and some gifted individuals are able to ‘jump’ from that level to the higher realms, but because their average level was relatively low, earlier human beings could not leap the full height of the spectrum. Even during the mythic stage individuals could only ‘peak’ at the psychic realms, which they attained with the help of shamanic rituals and trances (Wilber, 1981,1995). (Recently, however, Wilber (2000) has modified this view, and now suggests that ‘a truly developed shaman in a magical culture, having evolved various postconventional capacities, would be able to authentically experience the transpersonal realms (mostly the psychic, but also, on occasion, subtle and perhaps causal)’) (my italics).
In other words, according to Wilber, primal peoples are actually less spiritual than us, both in the sense that their average level of consciousness was lower than ours – and therefore further away from the transpersonal spiritual realms – and in the sense that their exceptionally developed individuals could not ‘leap’ as high as us (or at least far fewer of them were capable of doing so). One of the problems here, Wilber warns us, is that the lower levels of consciousness have superficial similarities with the highest levels. At fulcrum-2, for example, (during the typhonic stage), the individual experiences a state of pre-personal fusion with the world, which is superficially similar to the trans-personal state of oneness which highly developed mystics experience. This pre/trans fallacy is so prevalent, Wilber argues, that we have developed a completely romanticised view of our earlier human cultures. We believe that there was once a golden age (or at least a more golden age) when human beings lived at one with each other and with nature, when there was no war, oppression, selfishness or environmental destruction. But Wilber takes exactly the reverse view: rather than seeing human history as being shaped by a Fall away from earlier more pristine condition, he sees human history as a series of ‘leaps’, propelled by the atman telos of evolution (Wilber 1980). He contends that, like young children, earlier human beings were at the pre-operational stage of cognitive development and a pre-conventional level of morality, and therefore narcissistic and egocentric. According to his model, individual and social attributes such as compassion, democracy, sexual equality etc., only become possible at fulcrum-5, when formal operational cognition develops. As a consequence, in order to fit his ontogenetic model to phylogeny, he has to contend that earlier human beings lacked these ‘higher’ attributes.
My intention here is to dispute Wilber’s analysis. I believe there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that primal peoples did possess many of the higher characteristics which Wilber believes can only arise at the egoic and post- egoic levels. However, above and beyond this, I believe that the primary mistake Wilber makes is not his view of primal peoples itself, but the application of ontogeny to phylogeny which forces him to take this view. In my opinion, this application is itself a fallacy, similar to the pre/trans fallacy, in the sense that a number of superficial similarities prompt one to take the giant leap to complete identification. Primal peoples seem to possess a simple, undivided consciousness and a strong sense of connection to the natural world; they also seem to have less developed powers of rationality and intellect, and a less developed sense of individuality and separateness. But to leap from these similarities to the conclusion that their level of consciousness is exactly that of ontogenetic fulcrum-2 or 3, and that they share exactly the same state of pre-egoic fusion which children experience, is completely unwarranted. Wilber himself recognises that the application of ontogeny to phylogeny is sometimes unfounded, noting that there are ‘many places that strict onto/phylo parallels break down’ (Wilber, 2000), but in my view the matter is much more problematic that he believes.
Before I begin with this, however, I ought to define exactly what (or who) I mean by ‘primal peoples’. In the sense I am using the term, it refers both to hunter-gatherer tribal and early agrarian peoples who lived during earlier epochs but whose cultures have now disappeared (e.g. the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Europe and the pre-Semitic inhabitants of the Middle East), and also to tribal peoples whose cultures survived until recent centuries (e.g. Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, traditional Africans). Some writers have warned against inferring from contemporary to prehistoric tribal groups (e.g. Roszak, 1992), and I believe this is justified in the sense that every tribal culture in existence now has been affected and altered by colonial European influence. But I also believe it is valid to see peoples like the Native Americans and the Aborigines, at the times when Europeans first had contact with them (and for a period afterwards), as a kind of window through which we can look back at the history of the whole human race. These were cultures which had been unchanged for thousands of years. As the anthropologist Robert Lawlor (1991) writes, for instance:
Traditional archaeological evidence holds that Aboriginal culture has existed in Australia for 60,000 years, but more recent evidence indicates that the period is more like 120,000 or 150,000 years. The Aborigines’ rituals, beliefs and cosmology may represent the deepest collective memory of our race.
Lawlor 1991, p.9.
In any case, what anthropologists tell us of these peoples corresponds very closely to Wilber’s (and Habermas’) depiction of early human beings at the typhonic stage (e.g. their tribal system, hunger-gatherer lifestyle, animistic and magical worldviews). It is therefore, I believe, completely valid to use anthropologists’ reports of these relatively contemporary primal peoples to argue against Wilber.
However, I must first say that in some respects I agree with Wilber. Primal peoples clearly are pre-rational – or at least, they clearly do not possess rational-logical powers to the same extent that we do. It’s probably justifiable to say that, in terms of Piaget’s model, their cognitive development does not reach the formal operational stage – or at least, that their rationality and hypthetico-deductive ability is less developed than ours. This is a controversial issue in itself, and many ‘retro-romantics’ will take me to task for this, but I believe that the prevalence of magical beliefs and practices, irrational taboos and superstitions amongst primal peoples is clear evidence of this. These show an inability to come to grips with causal mechanisms and logical systems, and an inability to analyse. The relative lack of technological and development amongst primal peoples is also, I believe, evidence of this. Apart from a few exceptions, early human beings, and primal peoples like the Aborigines and Native Americans, had only rudimentary engineering and building skills, rudimentary medical science, and no written language. Juergen Kremer (1998) has listed a number of achievements which he believes show that primal peoples’ intellectual powers were as well developed as modern humans’, including the Aztec and Mayan calendars, the astronomical knowledge associated with Stonehenge, and the pyramids of Egypt. Wilber (1998) argues against this by stating that ‘any individual can be above or below a society’s centre of gravity, and any remarkable accomplishments are open to virtually any society’, and this is, I believe, completely valid. To assume that a whole community is intellectually developed because some individuals were capable of designing intricate structures or possessed astronomical knowledge is as misguided as assuming that the whole population of India is enlightened because a small number of mystics and saints have emerged from the country (although this is a mistake which is sometimes made too, of course).
But apart from this, Wilber’s analysis of early human beings and primal peoples is, I believe, full of fallacies and misinterpretations, which he is forced to make in order to hitch his ontogenetic spectrum of consciousness to phylogeny.
According to Wilber, at the psychic level (fulcrum-7) we experience nature as divine. We sense the presence of brahman in everything – or, as it has elsewhere been called, dharmakaya (Mahayana Buddhism), God (Christian Mysticism), consciousness-force (Sri Aurobindo), or the One (Plotinus).
As we’ve noted, Wilber contends that primal peoples cannot have access to the psychic levels, except as exceptional individuals. A thorough an open-minded examination of primal cultures, however, leaves absolutely no doubt that primal peoples in general (not just through a few exceptional individuals) were aware of the presence of ‘consciousness-force’ everywhere around them. They do not simply see nature as Spirit but as an expression of it. Spirit is in nature, rather than exclusively identified with it.
In many primal cultures the concept of ‘God’ has two meanings. On the one hand it can refer to a creator God, a personal being, who created the world but then stepped aside and now has very little significance. This God is usually a very remote and detached figure, who seems to have been invented simply as a way of explaining how the world came into being. According to Eliade:
Like many celestial Supreme Beings of ‘primitive’ peoples, the High Gods of a great number of African ethnic groups are regarded as creators, all powerful and benevolent and so forth; but they play a rather insignificant part in the religious life. Being either too distant or too good to need a real cult, they are involved only in cases of great crisis.
Eliade, 1967, p.6.
However, ‘God’ can also refer to an animating force which pervades all things.
Native Americans have called this the Life Master and the Great Spirit (Wakan to the Sioux, Dachakamaq to the Incas, for example), the Nuer of Africa call it Kowth, and the Ufaina of the Amazon call it fufaka, and so on. Every primal culture without exception has a term for this force. The word the Plains Indians used for ‘Great Spirit’, Wakataka, literally means ‘the force which moves all things.’ While here a member of the Pawnee tribe describes their ‘supreme God’:
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.
Eliade, 1967, p.65.
In my view this force is clearly one and the same as brahman or consciousness-force. The important point, again, is that Spirit is in nature, rather than actually being nature. The passage above invites comparison with any of the passages from the Upanishads which describe the presence of brahman within the manifest world. For example:
Shining, yet hidden, Spirit lives in the cavern. Everything that sways, breathes, opens, closes, lives in Spirit
Spirit is everywhere, upon the right, upon the left, above, below, behind, in front. What is the world but Spirit?
Happold, 1963 p.146.
Wilber might contend that I am falling victim to the pre/trans fallacy here, and say that primal peoples’ apparent sense of the divine is the result of their pre-personal fusion with the world. But this does not hold true. Primal peoples do not, strictly speaking, experience a state of fusion with this force. Although (as we will see in a moment) they recognise that Spirit is the essence of their own being as well, they experience a sense of differentiation between themselves and consciousness-force. They speak of it as something external, something which is ‘out there’ in the world, which they perceive with a degree of subject-object duality. In other words, this is not the same state of pre-egoic fusion with the world which young children experience, but the state of differentiated experience of the divine of fulcrum-7.
In terms of Wilber’s model we are already dealing with impossibilities, of course. I am suggesting that primal peoples existed at two different levels of consciousness simultaneously. Their lack of rationality and their magical thinking locates them at fulcrum-2 (or the early stages of fulcrum-3), but at the same time their awareness of the divine locates them at fulcrum-7. I feel much more comfortable with the application of Wilber’s model to ontogeny, and I agree that ontogenetically this is not possible: as individuals we clearly have to pass through the pre-personal levels of childhood and the egoic levels of maturity before we can stabilise ourselves at the transpersonal levels. But this does not appear to be the case phylogenetically – which clearly shows, to me, that Wilber’s spectrum model can not be applied to species development.
The third main aspect of primal religion, after the creator God and consciousness-force, is the presence of spirits. There are, generally, two kinds of spirits: those which are the spirits of dead human beings, and those which have always existed as spirits. These are everywhere; every object and every phenomenon is either inhabited by or connected to a particular spirit. As E.Bolaji Idowu (in Magesa, 1997) writes of traditional African religion, ‘there is no area of the earth, no object or creature, which has not a spirit of its own or which cannot be inhabited by a spirit.’ These spirits are not autonomous beings with personalities, like gods – as Idowu writes, ‘they are more often than not thought of as powers which are almost abstract, as shades or vapours.’ And although to some extent they are conceived as individual forces, they are also seen as an expression of the ‘great spirit’. As Evans-Pritchard (in Magesa, 1997) notes of the Nuer, ‘God is not a particular air-spirit but the spirit is a figure of God The spirits are not each other but they are God in different figures.’ (Note here that the term ‘God’ here does not refer to the creator God but to God as spirit-force.)
Wilber maintains that this animism is the result of pre-personal fusion, the lack of a clear distinction between subject and object. But I believe that animism is both pre-personal and transpersonal, in the sense that it’s the result of a combination of elements associated with both these levels. At the most basic level, primal peoples see all things as alive because they are aware of the Spirit in all things: Spirit makes the world alive. However, as we’ve noted, their lack of rationality means that they cannot understand the causal mechanisms by which the natural world operates. But they had to find some way of explaining these to themselves, and they did this by translating their sense of the general aliveness of things into a belief that phenomena were individually alive with individual spirits, rather than generally alive with a common Spirit. These individual spirits had powers of agency and influence, and could therefore be responsible for events and processes. When a wind suddenly arose, for example, this could be explained as the action of a wind-spirit; when somebody became ill this could be explained as the influence of ‘evil’ spirits. This was, you might say, a distortion of the original sense of Spirit, which would certainly not occur in post-rational spiritual evolution. We should remember, however, that, as Evans-Pritchard indicates, belief in spirits does not occlude primal peoples’ awareness of Spirit itself, since ultimately individual spirits are an expression of the Great Spirit.
Other Spiritual Characteristics
Another characteristic of higher spiritual states is the sense that Spirit is not only out there, pervading the world, but also inside us, as the very essence of our beings
Brahman exists inside us as atman; or, in the words of Meister Eckhart (1996), ‘The inward man is not at all in time or place but is purely and simply in eternity. It is there that God arises, there He is heard, there He is’. When awareness of this divine Self arises, the individual becomes something of a ‘divine schizophrenic’, consisting of two selves: the superficial ego-self and the true, spiritual self, or the ‘outward’ and the ‘inward’ man, as Eckhart called them.
According to Wilber, of course, this identification with inner divinity only becomes possible at fulcrum-7. We have to first ‘dis-identify’ ourselves with the world, then with the body and then with the ego. But again, although this is clear enough from an ontogenetic perspective, primal peoples do not seem to fit to this framework. This is admittedly not quite so clear from my research, but there seems to be a general recognition that the individual human spirit is in essence divine too, as a part of the great ocean of Spirit which pervades the whole world. In fact, since all natural things are seen as divine in essence, it would be very surprising if this was not the case. As the anthropologist H. Sindima (in Magesa, 1997) writes of traditional African peoples, for example, ‘All life – that of people, plants and animals, and the earth – originates and therefore shares an intimate relationship of bondedness with divine life; all life is divine life’.
Similarly, the Ufaina of the Amazon believe that when a human being is born a small amount of fufaka (or Spirit) enters her body. She, and the group to which she belongs, ‘borrow’ it from the total ‘stock’ of Spirit. While she lives, therefore, Spirit is always the essence of her being, and at death it is released and returns to its source (Hildebrand, 1988).
Some primal peoples show clear awareness of the ‘two selves’ concept as well. We might take the example of the Australian Aborigines. As we’ve seen, and in common with the other peoples we have looked at so far, their animism, magical thinking and hunter-gatherer lifestyle locate them squarely at Wilber’s typhonic stage, corresponding to fulcrum-2 or early fulcrum-3. At this stage, according to Wilber, their self-sense should only be associated with their body; there should be no sense of ego and certainly no sense of Spirit. But the aborigines appear to possess both of these simultaneously. Many aboriginal tribes believe that human beings contain two souls, one of which is the ‘true soul’ and the other of which they call the ‘trickster’. As the anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner wrote of the Murngin tribe:
One is looked upon as fundamental and real, and is felt to be the true soul The other is considered a trickster, of little value, and only in a vague way associated with the ‘true man’. The ‘shadow soul’ causes evil and badness within the personality. The true soul supplies the eternal element to the cultural life of an individual Murngin. It lifts man from the simple profane animal level and allows him to participate fully in the sacred eternal values of the civilisation.
In Eliade, 1967, p.187.
Another anthropologist who has intensively studied aboriginal culture, Robert Lawlor (1991), describes the ‘trickster’ as the ‘source of the individualised ego [which] can be characterised as the ego soul. This spirit force is bound to locality; to relationships with wives, husbands and kin relatives; and to material things such as tools and items of apparel’. This sounds frighteningly similar to the ego as we understand it – especially when we learn that, as Lawlor also notes, the trickster resents death because it takes it away from these material and emotional attachments. It wants to be immortal, in eternity with its pleasures and possessions. But in the same way that, according to the perennial philosophy (and Wilber), we can only truly find eternity by dis-identifying with the ego-self and orienting ourselves around inner Spirit, the aborigines recognise that every soul ‘must true immortality in identifying itself with the enduring energy emanating from the celestial realms of the Dreamtime ancestors’ (Lawlor, 1991). In other words, since the Aboriginal concept of ‘Dreaming’ corresponds roughly (with distortions possibly due to magical thinking) to consciousness-force, we must identify ourselves purely with Spirit.
Narcissism and Egocentricity
Piaget showed that, before they reach the operational stages, children are severely narcissistic and egocentric. They are unable to see the world from other people’s points of view. Piaget demonstrated this with his famous ‘Swiss mountain scene’ experiment. He built a model of three papier-mache mountains, each of which were different colours and sizes and shapes.
Children walked around and explored the model, and then were seated on one side of the model, while a doll was placed at a different location. The children were then shown ten pictures of the mountains and told to choose the one which shows the scene as the doll sees it. Children at the age of four always chose the picture which matched their own view of the model, showing that they were unable to understand perspectives beyond their own. Six year olds showed some awareness of perspective: they always chose a different picture to their own view, but usually the wrong one. Only seven and eight year olds chose the right picture (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956).
Because of this, young children are incapable of empathy and compassion, since these depend on looking at the world from the perspective of others, and ‘feeling with’ them. I experienced this with my three-year-old Nephew the other day, when I said to him, ‘I don’t feel very well Ben – I think I’m ill.’ Instead of expressing sympathy or asking me what I thought I was coming down with (and therefore feeling empathy), he simply said, ‘I’m not.’ This is why, despite their innocence, young children are capable of appalling acts of cruelty – e.g. tearing the legs off spiders, boiling frogs, putting cats in the washing machine.
If primal peoples have only reached Wilber’s fulcrum-2, corresponding to Paiget’s pre-operational stage, we would expect them to be similarly narcissistic and egocentric. But the reality could hardly be more different.
In fact, primal peoples are characterised by a pronounced lack of these. They generally display a strong sense of empathy and compassion for other living beings, and nature in general. Whereas children at the pre-operational stage have so little ability to ‘feel with’ animals that they can be sadistically cruel to them, primal peoples often apologise to the spirits of animals before they set off hunting. Hunting is usually seen as an unfortunate necessity, and they take no pleasure from killing. In The Forest People Colin Turnbull (1993) describes how, to the Mbuti of Africa – who he lived with for three years – hunting is the ‘original sin’, which occurred when a mythical ancestor killed an antelope and then ate it to conceal his act. Since then, all animals – including human beings – have been condemned to die. Partly because of this philosophy, they are, in Turnbull’s words, ‘gentle hunters’ who never show ‘any expression of joy, nor even of pleasure’, when they make a catch. They never kill more than they need for one day, since ‘To kill more than is absolutely necessary would be to heighten the consequences of that original sin and confirm even more firmly their own mortality’.
Their strong sense of empathy means that primal peoples are reluctant to damage or destroy any natural phenomena. In The Dance of Life, Edward T. Hall (1984) describes how an agricultural agent was sent to work with the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. At first, through the summer and winter, he got along well with them, but when Spring came around their attitude to him suddenly became hostile. The Indians refused to say what the problem was, just that ‘he just doesn’t know certain things.’ Eventually, however, it emerged that the agent had tried to make them start ‘early spring plowing’, which offended their empathetic sense that in spring the earth is pregnant with new life and must be treated gently. In Spring, Hall notes, the Indians remove steel shoes from their horses, refuse to wear European shoes or to use wagons, for fear that they might damage the earth.
Even now there is continual conflict between native Americans and European-American companies who want to ‘develop’ lands which the Indians believe are sacred. Often the Indians refuse to let mining take place on their reservations, even though this would bring them massive financial benefits. In the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, for example, it is estimated that there are around 50 billion tons of coal, but despite large scale poverty and unemployment on the reservation, the Indians’ empathetic sense of the alive-ness of nature means that they will not allow mining to take place. To them this would be tantamount to murder (Bryan, 1996).
(This is incidentally a reason why I dispute Wilber’s view that primal peoples were potentially – apart from their lack of technology – as environmentally destructive as we are. Their awareness of Spirit pervading the whole of nature, their sense of the alive-ness of natural phenomena and of their sense of connection to nature, meant that they had – and have – an extreme reluctance to damage or even interfere with nature. I am not disputing that in some cases they may have damaged their environment due to a lack of forethought, but it is clear, I believe, that their strong sense of empathy with nature means that they are much more reluctant – and therefore much less capable – of damaging nature than us. Our lack of connection to and empathy with nature is, I believe, one of the root causes of the ecological crisis. Wilber maintains (in 1995, for example) that ecological awareness can only arise with formal operational cognition, when we become capable of grasping mutual interrelationships. But surely there is another kind of ecological awareness which is non-rational, and which stems from the sense of empathetic connection with the natural world – in other words, from direct perceptual awareness, rather than from rationality).
The quality of compassion is so central to Aboriginal culture that mothers take care to ‘teach’ it to their children. Often, when a child grabs some food or another object and holds it to its mouth, the mother – or another female relative – pretends to be in need of it, to encourage a spirit of sharing. Similarly, whenever a weak or ill person or animals comes by, the mother makes a point of expressing sympathy for it, and offering it food. As Lawlor (1991) notes, by these means ‘The child experiences a world in which compassion and pity are dramatically directed towards the temporarily less fortunate. The constant maternal dramatization of compassion in the early years orients a child’s emotions toward empathy, support, warmth and generosity.’
Narcissism and egocentrism give rise to a whole host of negative human traits. They mean that the individual is dominated by his or her own needs and desires, and refuses to let the needs of other individuals or of the community as a whole come before them. After all, since he cannot ‘put themselves in other people’s shoes’, the individual cannot understand the needs and desires of others. This leads to behaviour which we associate with greed and selfishness. A child below the age of 7, for example, might eat a whole bag of candy themselves instead of offering them to his brother, or throw away a toy she is bored with even though her brother still plays with it. At the pre-operational levels – at least according to Wilber and Piaget – this selfishness is inevitable. Children are extremely reluctant to share.
But we do not, of course, find anything resembling this amongst primal peoples. In fact, again, we find the complete opposite: a powerful spirit of reciprocity and sharing, and ethical systems which negate any expression of greed. One of the fundamental cultural differences which made Native Americans unable to adapt to the European way of life was that, whereas Europeans became successful and respected as a result of accumulating wealth for themselves, the Indians gained kudos by distributing wealth. Even the Incas, who shared many negative European traits – such as militarism, patriarchy and social stratification – possessed a welfare system, the like of which the U.S. and Europe have only seen during the last few decades. Every town had a large number of warehouses, full of provisions and supplies which – except in times in war – would be distributed amongst the poor, the disabled, widows and the old (Wright, 1992).
The same is true of traditional African culture, where to hoard any wealth for oneself, and so to deprive the other members of the community, is regarded as a heinous sin. To traditional Africans, hospitality is a moral imperative; greed breaks the communitarian principles which sustain the universe. As Magesa writes:
What constitutes misuse of the universe? This question can be answered in one word: greed Greed constitutes the most grievous wrong. Indeed, if there is one word that describes the demands of the ethics of African Religion, sociability (in the sense of hospitality, open-hearted sharing) is that word.
Magesa, 1997 p.62.
This is clearly why most primal societies have a lack of private property and social stratification, which itself indicates a lack of egocentrism. Marx described this as ‘primitive communism’ and it was the source of another massive cultural clash between the Europeans and Native Americans. The Native Americans could not comprehend the concept of private ownership of land, or the massive inequalities which ran through European society. As Sitting Bull complained, ‘The White Man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it The love of possession is a disease with them. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule’ (Wright, 1992). While the Europeans, for their part, saw the ‘communism’ of the natives as a defect which had prevented them from becoming ‘civilised’. As Senator Henry Daweson said of the Cherokee Nation in 1887:
There is not a pauper in that nation, and the nation does not owe a dollar. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation.
In Wright, 1992 p.67.
There is also a general lack of concern for gaining individual status and power amongst primal peoples, and a lack of competitive behaviour. The root of competitive behaviour is a desire to possess wealth, status or power at the expense of others, to hoard a large part of the total supply of these for oneself instead of them leaving them to the community – in a word, egocentrism. And we can see evidence of the difference between European and primal peoples’ attitudes here simply by looking at games. There were always giant problems when European colonists tried to introduce their competitive sports to the natives. In New Guinea boys were trained to play soccer in mission schools, but instead of trying to win by as many goals as possible, they would always carry on playing until both teams had level score (Lawlor, 1991). The aborigines could not get to grips with soccer either – not only did the idea of winning against other members of their community seem incomprehensible to them, they could not bring themselves to play the game with the usual kind of aggression and confrontation, since these were absent from every other arena of their lives. The only occasion when they did show aggression and confrontation was for the punishment of those who broke taboos, which confused them even more (Lawlor, 1991).
Primal peoples are, then, clearly not narcissistic or egocentric to anything like the degree that children at fulcrums 2 or 3 are. Again, this suggests that Wilber’s ontogenetic model cannot be applied to phylogeny. In fact, like their awareness of Spirit, their pronounced ability to take the role of the other primal peoples way above the developmental level which Wilber allocates to them. According to Wilber’s model, there is a widening circle of identity – and of empathy – which develops as we move through to higher fulcrums. At fuclrum-4 we cease to be completely egocentric, and become sociocentric, identifying with our tribal or social group (in Kohlberg’s terms, we move from pre-conventional to conventional morality). At fulcrum-5, our circle of identity and empathy expands to the whole human race; we become worldcentric. At fulcrum-7, the circle widens to include all living beings; and at fulcrum-8, it expands to all reality, all manifestations of Spirit (Wilber, 1995). Based on the above evidence, it seems entirely justifiable to place primal peoples at fulcrum-7, perhaps even higher.
Once again, this makes absolutely no sense in terms of Wilber’s model. In terms of Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral development, primal peoples should – according to Wilber – only have a pre-conventional morality, with their sole moral motivation the completely egocentric goal of avoiding punishment and gaining rewards. But they clearly have a much higher level of morality than this. As Magesa indicates above, the main motivation of their morality is not personal or even communal, but universal: to preserve the harmony of the universe. This clearly suggests that, at least in some respects, they possess a post-conventional morality.
Another conundrum which the above analysis gives rise to is the apparent fact that we Europeans are more egocentric and narcissistic than primal peoples. This is evident from a number of factors: our much more pronounced desire for status and power and material goods (i.e. greed), the extreme competitiveness of our culture, the emphasis of the individual over the community, social stratification, and – perhaps most emphatically – our lack of empathy with the natural world, our inability to ‘feel with’ nature. According to Wilber’s analysis – and those of Gebser and Habermas, to which most of the criticisms I am making here also apply – as evolution progresses there should be a decline in egocentrism. And again, in ontogenetic development this is indisputably the case. But equally indisputably, in terms of the development of our species this is not the case.
Enlightened Social Characteristics
This obviously contrasts with Wilber’s view of phylogeny as a gradual advancement of the human species, progressing from one fulcrum to the next, and leading to higher levels of cultural and social development. And there is another persuasive argument against his progressivist view of phylogeny, which is the apparent prevalence of ‘higher’ social and cultural characteristics amongst primal peoples.
According to Wilber, enlightened social characteristics such as non-militarism, democracy and equality can only occur when societies as a whole move to the formal-operational levels. This is happening at the present time, and has been since the beginning of the ‘high ego’ or egoic-rational phase at around 500 BCE. This phase reached its fruition in sixteenth century, with the rise of the modern state, and gradually began to manifest itself in the ‘Enlightenment’ principles of equality and democracy. It led to the end of slavery, the end of autocratic monarchies, women’s rights, workers’ rights, a decline in militarism etc (Wilber, 1995).
Again, since primal peoples are allegedly at a pre-operational stage of cognition, and have only reached fulcrum-2 (or early 3), we would expect to find a complete absence of these characteristics, or at the very least to find that they were as war-like, as socially stratified and as patriarchal as more recent societies have been. Wilber maintains that this is the case – or at least that, if it isn’t, this is only because of accidental and unimportant economic factors. He agrees that patriarchy was absent from hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, but argues that this was a simple consequence of the fact that women had a much more prominent role economically – in fact during both phases they produced around 80% of food. Patriarchy began, he argues, with the transition from horticultural to agrarian society – in other words, when the plough began to be used, which meant that women began to be excluded from economic life (since working with heavy ploughs would have made them miscarry) (Wilber, 1995). At the same time, he flatly denies that war and inequality were less prevalent amongst these societies, quoting Lenski’s data – e.g. that 58 percent of hunter-gatherer societies and over 50% of agrarian engaged in frequent or intermittent warfare, that 61 percent of agrarian societies had private property rights and 14 percent had slavery, and so on.
But again, the archaeological and anthropological evidence contradicts this. I have already suggested that primal societies were natural democratic, with a lack of private property and social stratification. In fact there is a very good case for suggesting that, at least to some extent, the modern concepts of democracy and equality were derived from primal peoples: specifically, from the Native Americans. The authors of the American constitution borrowed their concept of a union of different states from the centuries-old ‘Six Nations’ confederacy of the Iroquois Indians – in fact the idea was actually recommended to the Europeans by a leader of the Six Nations at a treaty signing in 1744, at which Benjamin Franklin was present (Wright, 1992). Similarly, the constitution’s concept of a non-hierarchical society – which was, after all, completely alien to Europe at that time – was to a large extent inspired by the authors’ observations of Native American societies. In the words of Alvin M. Josephy Jr.:
Colonial records show that many of the Indian peoples of the Atlantic seaboard taught the European settlers much with regard to freedom, the dignity of the individual, democracy, representative government, and the right to participate in the settling of one’s affairs.
Josephy, 1975, p.39.
The Native Americans were also to some degree responsible for the French Revolution – at least to the extent that they inspired Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who idealised them as ‘noble savages’ (And Rousseau’s ideas influenced the American constitution as well, of course.) And it’s ironic that, as well as being the originators of modern capitalist democracy, the Iroquois had a hand in the creation of communist states. In 1851 Lewis Henry Morgan published League of the Iroquois, reporting his anthropological observations of Iroquois society. Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels read the book, and were also inspired by what they saw as an example of a Utopian socialist society. As Engels wrote to Marx,
This gentle constitution is wonderful! There can be no poor and needy…All are free and equal – including the women (Wright, 1992).
Similarly, Wilber’s assertion that primal peoples were as war-like as later human groups does not fit the historical evidence. The idea that ‘war is old as humanity’ is now disputed by the majority of archaeologists and anthropologists, whose findings are mostly opposed to Lenski’s. In The Origin of War (1995), for example, J.M.G. van der Dennen surveys over 500 primal peoples, the vast majority of whom he finds to be ‘highly unwar-like’, with a small proportion who have ‘allegedly mild, low-level, and/or ritualized warfare’. Similarly, R. Brian Ferguson (2000) has stated that
the global pattern of actual evidence indicates that war as a regular pattern is a relatively recent development in human history, emerging as our ancestors left the simple, mobile hunter-gatherer phase.
This is also clear from an anthropological perspective. The different tribes of the Australian aborigines, for example, very rarely fought against each other, and even when they did it was common to ‘ritualise’ the conflict into a fight between two individuals. A representative of each tribe would be chosen, and the two men would stand motionless, about 15-20 metres apart, and throw spears at each other. When one of them was wounded the ‘war’ would be over (Wildman, 1996). One potential source of conflict amongst aborigines is when hunters from one tribe approach the campsite of another tribe. But here there is another traditional ritual which defuses the situation. The hunters wait at a distance from the campsite, making sure they can be seen. Then the unmarried members of the hunting group and those who have been apart from their wives for a long time lie down on their backs. At sunset a group of women from the tribe walk over from the campsite, lie down on top of the hunters, and make love to them (Lawlor, 1991).
The Native Americans became much more war-like as a result of their conflicts with European colonists, and certain peoples (like the Aztecs and the Incas) were always aggressive, but in general war was a much less prominent part of life for them than for Europeans. As Josephy has written:
Certain groups like the Hopis were among the most peaceful peoples on earth, and many Indians abhorred warfare and the misery and violent death that it brought…
[Warfare] usually consisted of sporadic raids. There were few sieges, protracted battles or wars of conquest. Quite often an attacking side, believing that nothing was worth the loss of its own people, would break off fighting as soon as it had suffered casualties.
Josephy, 1975, p.37-38.
In other words, when we look back at history we do not see a gradual ascent to present day Western democracy, equality and (relative) non-militarism; we see an earlier time when these qualities were already present, and then a ‘Fall’ away from this state, into war, patriarchy and social stratification (as well as greater egocentrism and narcissism). And later still – during recent centuries – we see a gradual re-emergence of these ‘higher’ social characteristics.
To summarise my argument, then, Wilber’s application of ontogeny to phylogeny is misguided for the following reasons:
- Primal peoples exhibit higher spiritual characteristics, including a) an awareness of Spirit pervading the manifest world b) an awareness of the inner Spirit or atman and c) an awareness of the ‘two selves’, the ego and the divine self. This paradoxically locates them at fulcrum-7, while their lack of hypthetico-deductive reasoning and magical thinking locates them – according to Wilber’s model – at fulcrum-2 or 3.
- Primal peoples show no sign of the narcissism and egocentrism which children at pre-operational levels exhibit. Their ‘universal’ empathy locates them at fulcrum-7 or higher, and suggests that they possess a post-conventional morality.
- Primal cultures exhibit enlightened social characteristics, such as democracy and peacefulness which, according to Wilber, should only emerge at fulcrum-5, or during the high egoic period.
- There is, however, another point I would like to add briefly, which in my view further undermines the application of ontogeny to phylogeny. Following Gebser and Habermas, Wilber suggests that, like young children, early hunger-gatherers existed in a state of fusion with the world. There is no sense of separateness to the world, and no clear sense of subject-object duality. As Wilber (1996) writes, ‘Mind and world are not clearly differentiated, so their characteristics tend to get fused and confused.’ The problem with this view, however, is that surely, if these early humans could not clearly distinguish between subject and object (or between an image and real object), they would have found it impossible to survive. After all, they did not live in the protective circle of parental care which young children live in, and which alone makes survival possible for them. As Wilber hints, pre-personal fusion equates with confusion, which would have severely undermined our ancestors’ survival abilities (just as it does with young children). The practical business of survival – especially within the dangerous world which early human beings inhabited – requires a sense of differentiation.
- In my view, as I’ve already hinted above (e.g. in my discussion of the aboriginal notion of the ‘two-selves’), the reality is probably that early human beings did have a degree of separate-self development, but only a small degree. The difference between them and later peoples is that the latter developed a much sharper and more defined sense of ego. The egos of primal peoples are not so developed that they result in a sense of disassociation from the physical body or from nature, or that individual desires take precedence over communal or universal welfare (or that they possess hypthetico-deductive reasoning powers). However, later human beings – including us moderns – possess what Barfield (in Wilber, 1981) describes as ‘the individual, sharpened, spatially determined consciousness of today,’ and so do experience a painful sense of separation from the world, other human beings and even from our own bodies (and are capable of hypthetico-deductive reasoning). In other words – again in opposition to the application of ontogeny to phylogeny – primal peoples are not at a pre-personal level, but at a less developed personal level.
- What we really need, in order to fully substantiate my argument here, are two things: first, a new view of spirituality, explaining what spiritual states actually are and how they are attained, which could account for the fact that primal peoples are ‘spiritual’ and pre-rational at the same time; and second, a new model of phylogeny, to replace the ontogeny-based models of Wilber, Habermas and Gebser. I do not have space here to investigate these properly, and intend to deal with them in future papers. But I would like to suggest briefly that the basis of a new model of phylogeny should be what the myths of many different cultures describe as a ‘Fall’. As many of the myths indicate, the ‘Fall’ was precisely the development I referred to in the last section: the development of a much stronger and sharper sense of ego in certain human groups. I would like to put forward a basic three stage model of phylogeny, the bare skeleton of which is as follows:
- The ‘pre-Fall’ period (from the beginnings of the human race to 4000 BCE, and later in many places). This covers both the hunter-gatherer and the Neolithic agricultural phases of human history. During these human groups were peaceful, democratic, free from social stratification and private property, highly attuned to the natural world, and non-patriarchal. The negative aspects of this phase were the lack of technological development and the irrationality of superstitions and taboos.
- The ‘fallen’ period (from around 4000 BCE onwards). The ‘Fall’ appears to have begun with certain human groups inhabiting the middle east and Central Asia at this time, whose psyche was apparently transformed by an environmental catastrophe (see DeMeo, 1998 for a discussion of this). Forced to leave their homelands, these peoples – including the Indo-Europeans and the Semites – migrated throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia and in this way their ‘fallen’ culture eventually spread to large areas of the globe. The characteristics of this stage include: patriarchy, intense warfare, social stratification, a hostile attitude to the human body and nature, theism (both polytheism and monotheism), capitalism, private property etc. The Fall also resulted in the increased narcissism and egocentrism which I mentioned above, and a sharp decline in ecological awareness. Positive aspects of this phase include increased technological development and rationality, enabling a transcendence of magical thinking.
- The ‘trans-Fall’ period (16th century onwards?). This is the phase which we are moving through at present, corresponding to what Wilber calls the ‘high egoic’ phase. This period features a re-emergence of pre-Fall characteristics on national and global levels, including democracy, equality, non-militarism, a healthy acceptance of instincts, a sense of connection to the natural world, increased sense of empathy with other beings etc. Significantly, however, human beings at this phase retain the positive aspects of the Fall, and are capable of rationality and spirituality at the same time.
Such a model as this dispenses with the need for species development to follow the same pattern as individual development and fits more closely with the archaeological and anthropological evidence than Wilber’s, admitting the possibility that, in some respects, primal peoples were more ‘advanced’ than modern human beings. By attempting to hitch his ontogenetic model to phylogeny Wilber does primal peoples an enormous injustice, denying them ‘higher’ characteristics which they clearly possess.
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