A Biosocial Approach
C. George Boeree, PhD
© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009
The world before it is perceived is an infinite collection of
It is up to the perceiver to use some of these qualities to
one event from another. This process of differentiation is driven
by desire (relevance, need, meaning...). The perceiver
does not “construct” reality itself; he or she
an understanding of reality, a model or theory which guides
and behavior. Neither does reality alone determine perceptions
behaviors; reality is experienced “through” our
understanding of it.
Animals, we presume, live in a perceived reality mediated only by
and individual experience. The differentiations they have or
remain close to the natural “fault lines” of reality before
it is perceived. In other words, what one animal sees is pretty
likely to be similar to what another of
the same species with similar experiences perceives. This
immediate reality is also what
infants experience - and what we all
every now and again, when we are totally engaged in the world.
We adult human beings, on the other hand, are more usually creatures
of symbolization, language, and culture. We may have instincts,
we certainly have our own unique experiences, but we also learn from
experiences of others (or even the whimsy of others) communicated
language and other symbols, artifacts, and techniques.
Let’s back up a moment: Images are anticipations temporarily
from their referents in the real world - perceptions without their
When we imagine (fantasize, think...), we use these “loose”
as if they were real. We
experience the same problems and
with the same distresses and delights, that we experience in full
with the world.
Symbols are events that become attached to images. These
thereby allow us to “project” images (and fantasies, and thoughts...)
our minds, in the form of speech, writing, art, and so on. We can
then communicate our mental images to others who share our symbols.
These symbols can themselves be held within our minds as images, and
we can manipulate those images as we can any other. We are now
three-times removed from immediate experience! This is what most
of us call thought in the strictest sense, i.e. the internal
When rules for manipulating symbols are shared along with a set of
we have a language. We communicate to the extent that we
share these symbols and rules, which ultimately means to the extent
we share differentiations. This is the essence of culture:
shared differentiations - shared understanding of reality - as
in shared symbols.
This is ability gives us a huge advantage: Each individual
not discover from scratch what others have discovered before
Plus, in a social creature (one that requires, not just enjoys, the
of others), the very real and immediate needs of others can be
communicated, rather than vaguely intimated and guessed at.
words (and symbols in general) are not tied to reality the way that
images are. They can be manipulated, moved around,
They are our most powerful means of creativity.
But there is a negative side to this as well. Because words
symbols are relatively independent of reality, they can easily develop
a life of their own. Differentiations and complex systems of
that may once have had meaning (or not) are communicated to the
child as if they represented a reality directly, experientially,
to anyone. I refer to this as constructed reality, since
is made rather than “grown” experientially from the reality beyond
It is, we might say, a fiction
or myth, and it may be beneficial or
The most important constructed reality is social reality
We create this social reality out of fabric provided for us by our
through our parents, teachers, peers, media, etc. Each
social reality is somewhat different, but our social realities are
and mutually validating, to the extent that we share common cultural
meaning common symbolic differentiations. If we share
traditions, we are “cut from the same cloth,” so to speak.
These social realities are fictions that have socially evolved over
generations because they aid in the smooth operation of society.
They survive the way physical characteristics and instincts survive,
for the same reasons. We could even speak of cultural genes or
indeed have. But they are fictions, created and not “born,” and only
tied to deeper reality. As long as they tend to help rather than
hinder, and do not too frequently fly in the face of that deeper
they can survive and flourish.
Unfortunately, we tend to reify
these structures, to give them lives
of their own. We may even consider them more real than the
they represent. And they may become roadblocks to
actualization, rather than aids. They may be used to interpret
explain reality, instead of being used for practical communication. “E
= mc2” becomes a law of the universe rather than an abbreviated
of a recurrent pattern. “God” becomes an all-powerful entity
and behind the very world he was invented to explain. A person is
neurotic, introverted, self-actualizing, etc., rather than worried,
or creative. And so on and so on.
All this leads me to some very strong conclusions: For the
part, religions are fictions; governments are fictions;
are fictions; philosophies are fictions; sciences are
fictions; arts are fictions; societies are fictions;
all the “isms”
capitalism, socialism, racism, humanism, sexism, feminism... are
They are words with few referents. A mature, experienced,
person can handle these words and use them as conveniences in
Unfortunately, the great majority of people apparently cannot.
Erich Fromm suggests that the human needs can be expressed
in one simple statement: The human being needs to find an
answer to his existence. Fromm says that helping us to answer
this question is perhaps the major
purpose of culture. In a way, he says, all cultures are like
religions, trying to explain the meaning of life. Some, of
course, do so
better than others. A more negative way of expressing this need is to
say that we need to
avoid insanity, and he defines neurosis as an effort to satisfy the
need for answers, but one that doesn't work vdery well. He says
neurosis is a sort of private religion, one we turn to when our culture
no longer satisfies.
"Culture is a way of thinking,
feeling, believing. It is
group's knowledge stored up (in memories..., books, and objects) for
use." (Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man)
Culture is learned. But, as we saw, learning, at least in
is a lot more than just conditioned responses. It would be more
to think of it as a soaking-up of the world - especially the social
world - around you. This makes the impact of culture considerably
richer, if less fundamental, than the impact of genetics.
It is easy to get carried away by genetic or sociobiological
explanations for human behavior.
They seem so reasonable! But you have to be careful: Many
the things that have sociobiological explanations may also have
cultural explanations that are just as reasonable.
For example, it is certainly true that those who carry a gene that
the individual towards sexual activity are more likely to leave behind
children who, in turn, will have that gene and pass it on, etc.
conversely, those who carry a gene that makes them sexually
may leave behind fewer children, and that gene eventually may disappear
from the species.
But a society of people with certain well-learned cultural habits
push them to reproduce has the same effect! Someone who
believes that it is one’s duty to have many children is more likely to
actually have them, and then teach them what they so thoroughly
That it is one’s duty to have many children. And so on down the
Those who believe they should reproduce pass on those beliefs as
as their genes. Those who believe that it is better to remain
don’t pass on their genes, nor their beliefs in celibacy. But
Haven’t their been cultures that promote celibacy - the Catholic and
traditions of monastic life, for example?
In these cases, although a portion of the society is not
that portion may actually serve a useful purpose for the rest of
helping to pass on that society’s beliefs via education. The
concerning the value of celibacy are passed on to other people’s
children, and so
continue as well!
Cultures need to accomplish certain things if they are to
at all. They must assure effective use of natural resources, for
example, which might involve the learning of all sorts of territorial
aggressive behaviors, just like in sociobiological explanations.
And they must assure a degree of cooperation, which might involve
altruistic behaviors, rules for sharing resources and for other social
relationships, just like the ones in sociobiological
And they must assure a continuation of the population, which might
certain courtship and marital arrangements, nurturant behaviors, and so
on, just like in sociobiological explanations.
If a society is to survive - and any existing society has at least
survived until now - it must take care of the very same issues that
must take care of. But, because learning is considerably more
than evolutionary adaptation, culture tends to take over many of the
tasks of genetics.
That is, after all, only evolutionary good sense!
It has become popular to refer to these beliefs as memes (in
analogy to genes). “It is your duty to have many children,”
is to be valued,” “Obey those older than you,” “Kill those who do not
to our beliefs,” are all examples of memes.
Also included as memes are all the techniques a society develops,
as how to make a flint tool, how to grind wheat, how to butcher a pig,
how to make a cake, how to wage a battle, how to read and write, and so
on, all the way up to how to build a nuclear power plant or perform
Other memes include the rules to sports and games, the way we keep
and dates, the events we celebrate, the rituals we engage in, the rules
for choosing leaders, the way we keep track of who
owes whom how much.... The list is endless. And yet all
things survive - or not - in a manner not too
from the manner in which we pass on our genetic inheritance: If
they promote the welfare of the society, they continue. If they
against the welfare of the society, they will disappear, perhaps with
Many memes have very short life-times: Top-ten music hits
seldom last longer than a few months; Fashions are notorious for
changing one year to the next; And the popularity of one
celebrity or another goes as fast as it comes. But some memes
last for generations, and some last for a thousand years or more!
There are characteristics of various ethnic groups (often contributing
to exaggerated stereotypes) that can be traced back centuries and seem
to be nearly impossible to erase. These memes may even become
things that a people use to identify themselves as a culture.
Examples can easily be found in the cultures of traditional people
around the world. The ancestors of people living in small
villages in parts of the Middle East, or Sub-Sahara Africa, or high in
the Andes of South America would likely have little difficulty fitting
in with their descendents - except, I suppose, for the occasional
radio or cellphone. Even in Europe, the day-to-day life of
little from the dark ages to the renaissance.
Another example is language. Language usually changes very
slowly, if there are no major movements of tribes. In Iceland, a
very modern country in every other way, the language is nearly
that spoken by its original viking settlers from a thousand years ago!
On the other hand, when populations start to move and cultures begin
to mingle, we can see rapid changes in culture. One hundred years
ago, white Americans were rarely well educated, looked to the
Bible for guidance, were very independent, hard-working, and frugal,
and would have nothing to do with African Americans or their
culture. Today, almost all have a high school degree, and a large
number have college degrees. Religion still has a strong
influence, but most people turn to doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists
for guidance. Most people work for large corporations and
government institutions, belong to unions, expect all sorts of
government services. They tend to spend money very freely - even
money they don't actually have - and consider leisure time a God-given
right. And parts of African American culture have been thoroughly
the mainstream culture: Blues, jazz, rock, and hiphop are
referred to as true American music, though created by the
descendents of slaves. And they might even consider voting for an
African American for president!
Even more dramatic are the changes wrought by technological
advances. Many of the major cultural changes of history follow
major changes of technology: The agricultural revolution and the
industrial revolutions are the obvious examples. Consider the
technological revolution of the last century: Imagine the world
of your great-grandfather or great-grandmother 100 years ago. No
cars, no highways, no airplanes, no radios, no televisions, no
telephones, no computers, no recorded music, no internet....
Imagine what your great-grandfather or great-grandmother would think of
the world today. Things have changed.
If we look at the world today, we can clearly see the results of
even millennia of this cultural kind of evolution: Democracy
to be winning out over totalitarianism; Science seems to be
out over superstition; Less happily, militarism seems to be
out over peacefulness, and the economics of greed over an economics of
compassion. We may have to be extra vigilant in the near
future: Militarism and capitalism have little use for the voice
of the people, and prefer ignorance over knowledge.
Another thing to consider here: Just like genes are selected
the context of an ecosystem, so are memes selected in a larger
What worked really well in the stone age may not work so well in the
age. What meant superiority in the middle ages may lead to
in the industrial age. Even what meant success in the last
may not mean success in this one.
And one more thing: Unlike physical evolution, cultural
can change very quickly! We don’t have to wait for the slow
of natural selection: Change can occur in a single
And a single individual can introduce a new meme - a new belief or
technique - that alters the world. Think of Edison, Gandhi,
Sanger, Darwin, Pinel, Pasteur, Gorbachev... the list goes on and
a picture of
What makes up a society? How do we describe one? It is a
affair, but here are some suggestions as to what we need to keep in
1. Who - the individuals,
the roles, the
2. What - the objects, clothing, tools, ritual objects,
3. When - scheduling, timing, cycles....
4. Where - the locale, buildings, furnishings....
5. How - the activities, rituals, techniques....
(or Why we do these things)
1. Organization - order
2. Power structures - enforcement (the military, police,
3. Production - subsistance (work, industry,
technology, cooking, cleaning, sewing, modern professions, applied
4. Education - learning (school, apprenticeship,
5. Recreation - entertainment (play, sports, toys,
music, musical instruments, stories, literature, theater...).
6. Belief systems - stability (propitiation of the gods
spirits, satisfaction of superstitious tendencies, social manipulation,
control, religion, magic, theoretical science...).
of society (the "concentric
1. Family - the most
intimate circle and its
including meals, sexuality and reproduction, child rearing, male/female
adult/child role differentiation....
2. Community - a larger circle of people that we still
of as "us," and all that pertains to "us."
3. The Others - the people beyond our community, whom we
of as "them," and how we relate to "them."
(There may be additional layers and
sublayers, depending on the
of the society.)
I am a fan of the work of Richard
Castillo, who uses three very traditional culture dimensions
in discussing multicultural psychopathology and therapy.
1. Sociocentric vs. egocentric.
This is also known as collectivism vs.
In the sociocentric society, a person gets his or
her identity from the group, traditionally, the extended family.
Your status comes from your position within the group, and the group's
position in the larger society. People rarely try to move beyond
the group, since that means a loss of identity. In fact, being
"excommunicated" is the strongest punishment the group can apply.
In an egocentric society, a person's identity is independent of the
group. Even when there remain socially stigmatized individuals
and groups, the egocentric society maintains an ideal that says you are
what you make of yourself, rather than what class, race, or gender you
were born into. Being dependent on others, on the other hand, is
frowned upon. The down side is that you have much less of a
safety net in egocentric societies.
2. Dominance hierarchies
In societies with prominent dominance
people at lower levels of the hierarchy are perceived as having less
value and are stigmatized. This leads them to develop low
self-esteem, which in turn leads them to accept the situation as
deserved and appropriate. These people see their social
environment as hostile and respond to it in various ways: They
may simply submit to their plight, they may attempt to "pass" as
members of higher status groups, they may imitate their "betters," or
they may resist their plight with violence.
Egalitarian societies tend to view all people as having similar value,
even when that may not be entirely true of the society. Equality
is at very least held up as an ideal to aspire to. People in
egalitarian societies tend to prefer negotiation over conflict,
informal leadership based on abilities as opposed to authoritarian
structures, consensus over division. People are much less likely
to resort to violence.
3. Premodern vs. modern.
Premodern societies have a relatively low level of technology.
They tend to have a subsistence economy with little
specialization. Kinship systems are the predominant basis for
social organizations, and authority tends to be located in the family
or in religion. And supernatural causes are assumed for many
Modern societies are basically those that have passed into an
industrial economy, or at least a high-level agricultural level with a
significant urban population. Social organizations other than the
family are common and significant, and, while religion may still have a
powerful influence, scientific and technical solutions to problems are
This last dimension is clearly oversimplified, although it serves well
enough in the modern world for psychology's purposes. The
classification of societies on the basis of degree of technological and
economic progress is, of course, old as the hills, and was particularly
important to Karl Marx and the many social scientists he influenced.
An example of such a classification scheme is the one developed by
Morton H. Fried
Service, which has four levels
1. Hunter-gatherer bands
- very small population density, an economy based on (of course)
hunting and gathering, with the tasks divided approximately on the
basis of sex and age, and an otherwise egalitarian set of relationships.
2. Tribal societies -
low population density, an economy based on simple agriculture and some
domestication of animals, and a moderate amount of social
stratification and specialization.
3. Stratified societies
- moderate populations, with formal hierarchies and assigned
statuses. There are firmly established classes with defined
rank. Agriculture is sophisticated, the society may develop
strong pastoral habits, and there is considerable specialization,
especially among artisans. Villages are large, sometimes
including wide-ranging alliances, and serious warfare raises its ugly
4. Civilization - high
populations, with considerable urban concentration. Multiple
hierarchies, considerable authoritarianism, much social stratification,
including layers of leadership at the top, and peasants, serf, and
slaves at the bottom.
Of course, civilizations can vary hugely. The ancient Romans were
certainly civilized, and yet few of us living in western societies (or
even most nonwestern ones) would enjoy living in such a society.
Something happened in the last few hundred years, that has led us to at
very least strive for a degree of liberty, equality, and, yes,
In addition, in those same few hundred years, technology has evolved at
a breakneck speed, taking the factory system that we even find in
ancient Rome and transforming it into modern industry. Add steam
engines, the automobile, electricity, mass communication, and the
computer, and you have a society that would no doubt appear magical to
those ancient Romans.
This latter differentiation - just subsets of civilization - is
actually the one that Castillo is
referring to when he differentiates premodern from modern!
It is an educated guess that our original society resembled what is now
a rare form: the band. Our paleolithic ancestors were
hunter-gatherers -- a style of life that lasted about 90% of our time
on this planet. Now we only find these bands in
areas of the world so hostile that more sophisticated societies simply
haven't wanted them: deserts, the arctic, the deepest rain
But back at the beginnings of human life, bands could be found
everywhere, and especially in the lush savanna of Africa to which we
owe our roots.
A band is an association of somewhere between 10 and 50 people, mostly
related by birth or marriage. It is thought that people were
spread very thin back then -- between .2 and .02 people per square mile
-- because of the large area of land needed to support even small
populations surviving only by hunting and gathering. For
comparison, Pennsylvania has 260 people per square mile, the USA has
62, and even Alaska has .7!
Most members of a band could probably do any of the tasks required for
survival, but men specialized in hunting while women specialized in
gathering and child care. Training consisted of
children imitating adults and actually performing the full
range of adult tasks early in life. Work was life, and life was
Tools were developed early in the history of our species - in fact, it
was our pre-
Homo sapiens ancestors who invented them. The band had all the
basic tools: scrapers, axes, spears, sewing needles, mortar and
pestle, baskets, simple clothing to wear, and tents, huts, or caves to
live in. All tools were homemade.
Bands were fairly egalitarian. Status was based on respect for
someone's abilities, and that respect could change in different
situations and over time. Anyone with some respect could make a
suggestion, but no one was in a position to give orders. And
others followed those suggestions because it was the rational thing to
closest you get to a leader is a person that the Inuit call the ihumakortujok:
"person of wisdom in ordinary affairs."
The economy of the band is simplicity itself: generalized
reciprocity. Each person got what he or she needed, and if there
was anything left, it was shared. Each band may have had set
regarding how to split up game: Often the one who made the kill
had the right to distribute as he saw fit. Sometimes the kill
would be partitioned, with the front parts of the animal going to the
made the kill, and the hind quarters split among his assistants.
Whatever the rules were, when the hunters returned, there would be a
The concept of private property only extended to a few decorative or
ceremonial articles, and never to the necessities of life.
Neither were there exclusive rights to land use, watering holes, animal
herds or plants. These might be associated with a particular
band, and it might be considered polite to ask first, but the idea of
ownership as we know it probably didn't occur to them.
Theft was unknown, simply because there was nothing to steal.
Instead, the sin was not sharing, being stingy, or refusing
a gift. Even then, the response was likely to be a matter of
ignoring or making fun of the culprit.
Relations with other bands was touchier, but scarcity tended to mean
more sharing, not less. If hostilities did break out, it was
likely to be a matter of aggressive posturing rather than anything
physical, and if someone should actually get hurt, everyone goes home
and feels bad about it. Some plains Indian groups, for example,
even though they had evolved well beyond the band level, still
"fight" in the form of something called "counting coup," that is, in
the form of ritualized contests involving sudden forays, the goals of
which were nothing more than touching the enemy.
Besides which, bands were exogamous, meaning you had to find a spouse
outside your band. Marriage ties between bands meant that even
they were relatives of a sort.
It is only when it comes to behaviors that threaten the solidarity of
the band that we might have seen the far more drastic responses of
murder or ostracism - which was death as well - in these societies.
This society, although our most basic, is nevertheless a far cry from
what we see in the world of the chimpanzees or the baboons: No
power hierarchies, no alpha males or alpha females, no gangs of
What were the psychological motivations of these people?
Selfishness is sin; everything is in the
service of the band. So one would imagine that our ancestors had
to suppress their assertive instincts rather severely and allow only
their nurturant instincts to express themselves. The only sense
of assertiveness that might have been permitted is striving to model
oneself after the best of your band, the role models who, of course,
put the good of the band ahead of their own individual needs!
But notice: No band, no individual. There is actually not a very
between what is in one's own interest and what is in the group's
interest. The nurturant instincts and the assertive instincts, far from
being in conflict, actually supported each other. Life was hard, no
doubt. But inner turmoil was
At some point, bands started evolving into tribes. This probably
first happened in the neolithic Near East, perhaps 10,000 years
ago. The innovation that made this possible was
agriculture. For the first time, we saw surpluses. Farmers
had to work harder than the hunters and gatherers, but that was a small
price to pay for the security
Agriculture meant a good deal less traveling. Although it began
with the slash-and-burn technique, which still required moving every
few years, families could put down some roots (no pun intended!) and
allow their population to increase. Instead of 10 to 50, a
farming community could support hundreds of people, and often in a
Keep in mind that 10,000 years ago, there were only about 8 million
people in the entire world - less than now live in New York City.
Bringing it closer to the present, in 1500, just before the European
expansion, there were only one million people living in the area now
covered by the USA and Canada, as many as are now comfortably collected
in the state of Rhode Island.
Tools included hoes and plows, and would eventually be made with
metal. Clothes were more often made of cloth, which required
looms. Houses were made of wood and stone, which required the
tools of construction. Things were getting substantial!
This in turn encouraged a few people to develop their talents in one
direction or another, rather than remaining generalists.
Most importantly, agriculture requires a new system of economics.
With surpluses come the concepts of food preservation and
storage. These in turn demand that the surpluses be collected and
later redistributed. And something this important demands that we
find among ourselves someone of great character, and that we imbue the
position with powerful controlling rituals and tokens.
In many tribal cultures, the chief is the hardest worker in the
tribe. He maintains his prestige by demonstrating the quality
most valued in someone entrusted with the important task of
redistributing surpluses: generosity. He must pay for the
satisfaction of his position by giving things away! A
particularly dramatic example of this is the famous potlatch of the
Indians of British Columbia.
As the populations of farming villages increases, they begin to split,
first into moieties (two very extended families) and later clans.
These moieties and clans each resemble the earlier bands, with their
own special cultural traditions, and they use each other as sources of
spouses. Of course, this means that it is less important to have
good relations with other tribes.
Clans become lineages as the tribal structure matures. "Family trees"
become very important. This is determined, of course, in
different ways in different tribes. But in any tribe, the details
of social behavior are heavily dependent on the way in which you are
related to others. This becomes especially important as positions
originally based on respect become positions based on inheritance.
Surpluses, specialization, and a variety of ritual objects mean more
property, and the concept of theft arises. At first, this mostly
applies to symbolic items, but eventually it includes areas of land,
particular fruit or nut trees, totem animals, personal tools, and so
on. Adultery, too, becomes a greater concern, now that
keeping track of lineages has become important. These lead
to an increase in the amount of conflict within the tribe, and likewise
an increase in the importance of explicit rules.
In the band, the rules were implicit, even unconscious. "This is
the way we behave.... This is the way we have always
behaved." In the tribe, though, we may have differences among the
various clans. We have more property to be concerned about, more
surpluses to carefully redistribute, more feelings to be hurt. So
the rules become more explicit, more law-like. Punishments, too,
become more defined, and often harsher.
The psychology has begun to change a bit, it would seem. People
are beginning to be differentiated from each other, in specializations
and rank, as well as on the basis of talent and reputation. In
the more "natural" world of the band, the crowded village would have
long ago splintered. People are behaving differently in the
different clans and lineages. Some have more clout than others,
just because of the luck of a good birth.
The tribe still requires most individuals to suppress whatever
tendencies they may have, but the social instincts that so easily lead
in the band now need considerable outside forces to support them.
Conformity becomes a real issue, with more rules and stricter
punishments, precisely because there is less "natural" conformity!
But it won't be until the next stage of social development that the
urges toward self-promotion would actually start seeing some rewards.
Civilization comes with the development of the city-state. As
agricultural technology develops, fewer people need to be involved in
farming. And more people can be supported to engage in arts and
crafts. The complexity of a large population requires improvement
in management techniques. The transformation of the warrior from
any able-bodied member of society to a professional specialty
occurs. With that comes the transformation of the war chief into
a continuous leadership position. Religious life as well
transforms from a placation of nature spirits and appeals to the dead
into an organized hierarchy
of priests, with their own leadership position.
Eventually, we see the development of stratification: Some people
have power and some don't. Some have everything they need and
others have to make do with what's left to them. Some have, some
have not. I should mention that this concept spread to the
pristine tribes, which became the considerably less friendly societies
we still find today. There are no more "pristine" societies!
There are a number of possible scenarios for the development of
stratification. Perhaps a pastoral tribe has taken advantage of
their mobility and warfare savvy to take over nearby farming
communities, turning themselves into a ruling elite. Perhaps,
with the invention of irrigation, downstream people become dependent on
the good graces of upstream people. Perhaps a shortage of land
develops, and the distribution of produce turns into the distribution
of land - for rent!
In bands and pristine tribes, hoarding is antisocial. In
societies, it is institutionalized. Property becomes
private. Instead of shortages increasing sharing, shortages raise
prices (at first value in trade, later in labor, later still in
can even hold back necessities to raise prices, or create black markets
and play favorites.
Because stratification is stressful, it is by nature unstable, and
requires some strong organization to keep the society from flying
apart. We develop various bureaucracies: military
institutions, religious institutions, legal institutions, a
treasury.... There are
large farms worked by peasants or slaves, and large workshops of
craftsmen and slaves, but all owned by the elite. This is the
of what Karl Marx called the alienation of the worker from the product
of his or her labor: You have no claim to what you grow or make. It all
belongs to the well-named owners.
Stratification creates poverty. When times are hard, it is no
longer the entire group that suffers: The elite takes what it
thinks it is due, and the underclass does without.
Stratification institutionalizes war. In order to feed the city's
or state's voracious appetite, the elite look to what other cities or
states have, and decide to take it. Or they fear the greed of the
other state, and attack to prevent attack. The warrior class
justifies its existence by making war.
Stratification breeds slavery. In band societies, women and
children are occasionally captured during raids, but they are usually
absorbed into the society. There is more slavery in tribes, but
they are almost always a minority of the population. The
city state places slaves under threat of death and torture, and creates
a class that is even lower than the underclass.
These city states continue to grow. It seems that they need to
grow in order to survive! They may begin with a thousand people;
they end up as empires with millions. It has only taken a few
thousand years for these social structures to dominate the entire
Civilization adds considerable stress to its individual members.
On the one hand, selfish motivations are actively encouraged:
Survival depends on taking care of "number one" (and one's nearest and
dearest). On the other hand, the institutions work by means of
explicit rewards and punishments to control the assertiveness of most
of the underclass and a good portion of the elite. Within certain
small groups, the kinds of conformity pressures we see in the band may
still operate. But beyond those, we see severe consequences
instituted to keep people and groups of people in their "place."
One of the most significant psychological methods of promoting
conformity is religion. Since the society is split into many
different groups and several classes, there is no longer a general
"center of gravity" for norms to revolve around. Instead, an
otherworldly ideal is promoted, conformity to which is encouraged by
promises of rich rewards or horrendous suffering in the
afterlife. The more effective the religious ideology, the less
the elite needs to waste their resources on more physical incentives to
Under certain circumstances, a state or empire might enter into a
steady-state period. If there is relatively little threat from
outside the society and relative prosperity within, and if the
religious ideology is powerful and the bureaucracies efficient, a state
may last for centuries. Examples include ancient Egypt and
China. The closest we get to such long-lasting states in Europe
are the Roman Empire and the culture of the Middle Ages, the first
because of its military structure, the latter because of its powerful
Crucial to such steady-state societies is an image of reality
a "great chain of being." The society - even the world - is
ordered into a huge stratification, from God and his angels down
through the kings and popes, down through the various elites, down to
the artisans and merchants, down to the peasants and the working poor
of the cities, down to slaves and barbarians, down even into the realm
of the animals. This chain of being is understood as being
established by God, or something in the nature of the universe, such as
karma. The people of these societies saw this chain
like we see
the laws of nature.
And just like disobeying the laws of nature results in disaster, so
does disobeying the laws of society. God or karma or whatever
forces hold the universe together will get you, now or in the
afterlife, if you attempt to deviate. This, of course, gives all
members of the society - but especially those on higher rungs - the
right, even the duty, to help God or karma along. Disobey the
social laws and you are truly an outlaw - someone who is no longer a
part of the great chain at all.
age of the individual
In the last 500 years or so, beginning in Europe, a rather dramatic
change in social structures and the accompanying psychological
attitudes has occurred. Bit by bit, we have magnified the role of
the individual. At the same time, society and its conformity
pressures haven't really diminished, meaning that we have become "split
personalities" in that the pressures to conform and the pressures to
realize one's autonomy divide each of us, and often cause us to feel
alienated from our societies, our communities, and even ourselves.
How did this come about? The first step, I believe, was a shake
up of the European order during the renaissance. Before, the
continent was at unified culturally by the Catholic Church, if not by a
The great chain of being, for all the infighting amongst the nobility,
held. With the renaissance, the powers of the nobility increased,
the boundaries between nobility and the church became blurred, and the
authority of the pope diminished. Aristocrats began to think of
themselves as free agents, who could rise (and fall) in the great chain
via wealth and politics, as well as warfare. The church, which
had the supposed last word on one's status, could be bought off or
The second step was the protestant reformation. At first, it was
simply an extension of renaissance power struggles. But it also
contained some slight variations on traditional beliefs that allowed
people to essentially deconstruct the great chain of being. In
1517, Luther (and others) said that our salvation was in our own hands,
and not something mediated by the priests and bishops of the
church. God speaks to each of us, and judges each of us, and
grants his grace to each of us, as individuals. Lutheranism
would, of course, simply become a minor variation of the Catholic
Church in short order - but a new "meme" had been introduced.
Calvin added another small idea to the mix: Since God knows all,
he knows who will be saved and who will be damned. Some of us,
regardless of our blood lines or position in the church, were
predestined to end up in heaven, and the idea of the Elect was
born! People, of course, wanted to know what signs would indicate
salvation, and found it in something that cut across old hierarchies of
church and state: wealth. And, since wealth is far more
variable than the older traditions of the great chain, people began
compete for places on what was now more of a ladder than a chain.
Christopher Columbus and his imitators played a big
part. By opening up the "new world" to Europe in 1492, he gave
the European people two things: An incredible surge of wealth in
the form of silver and other products they could compete over (at the
inhabitants of both the Americas and Africa, of course), and a place
for thousands of malcontents to escape where they could - perhaps -
independently of their social origins.
Another piece of the puzzle is the Gutenburg Bible. The printing
press meant that increasing numbers of people had access to the word of
God, and had less need to rely on the priesthood. In addition,
reading was an asset to the middle classes, since it allows one to keep
books and ledgers - allows one to keep score, you might say. As
printing expanded beyond the Bible, philosophical and technical thought
became available to that literate middle class. People were
asking themselves: How is the priest or the nobleman so different
from me? Why should they get all the respect?
A bit later, we see a few more literal revolutions: The Great
Peasant War of 1525; the Edict of Nantes in 1598; Dutch independence
from Spain in 1648; the overthrow of the British monarchy in 1649; the
Declaration of Rights in 1689; the rebellion of those pesky colonists
in American in 1776; the overthrow of the French nobility in 1789; and
so on. The idea that "the people" (always defined with
limitations, of course) had actual rights - what a concept! And
what a boost to the individual!
Then there's the industrial revolution. Beginning in England and
rapidly expanding to the continent, the development of the factory
system of production caused a massive reconfiguration of western
Europe, with peasants moving from their traditional farms to the
cities, exchanging their bondage to the land for bondage to the
machine. The aristocratic landowners become less and less
significant, while the factory owners, usually of middle class origins,
became richer and more powerful.
And late, very late, in all this, we see the freeing of 40 million
serfs in Russia in 1861 and 4 million slaves in the United States in
similar events all over the western world. The day to day
conditions of serfs and slaves changed very little - but the idea of
individual freedom for even the lowliest among us is a genie you cannot
put back in the bottle! Even women - that eternal
underclass - would achieve political equality in many places by the
All this was not without consequences, of course. Wars became
more extensive and sophisticated. Churches of all denominations
became more possessive of what power they had left. The nobility
hardly missed out on all the opportunities for wealth and power.
And the modern concept of the nation-state solidified, complete with
patrolled borders, standing armies, heavy taxation, and huge
bureaucracies. England became Great Britain, France became a
powerhouse, Italy and Germany finally became unified, Russia and the US
entered the international scene.
Finally we have the socialist
revolutions - especially the Russian Revolution in 1917 - with dreams
of economic equality for
all. Although the extreme versions have since failed, socialism
has had a huge impact everywhere. The worker was protected,
education was spread more evenly, the poor were assisted, and the
powerful industrialists were restrained. There was something
closer to a "level playing field," where each individual had similar
opportunities to make of their lives what they wished, than ever
before. Sadly, what should have been the final surge of freedom would
coincide with the battles of huge nation-states that were
World War I and II.
While the hunter-gatherer condition lasted hundreds of thousands of
years, and the agricultural tribes lasted tens of thousands, and the
traditional civilizations began only thousands of years ago, all these
happened in a mere few hundred years. Change was actually
noticeable to the people embedded in it. We are still
reeling from it.
Psychologically, we are stretched rather thin today: Society
still asks us to conform, but that conformity is more a matter of
law than of cultural tradition and religious ideology. Although
we rarely think in terms of great hierarchies or chains of being
anymore, we still feel the pressures to conform "horizontally," to each
other - feelings strongly supported by the novel forces of mass
media. On the other hand, the variety of beliefs, cultural
traditions, lifestyles, choices of careers, educational opportunities,
and international movement, constantly confront our minds with the fact
of our considerable autonomy and the responsibilities that come with
it. We can no longer say, when we feel unhappy with our lives,
that this unhappiness is the sad but inevitable result of being born to
station on the great chain of being.
We are a divided animal, with conflicting instinct: The assertive
instincts drive us towards
individuality, and the nurturant instincts drive us towards community.
Both derive from older instincts: The assertive is based on our
basic needs plus competition for mates and a place in the dominance
hierarchy. The nurturant is based on infant care, mate pairing,
herd instincts, and reciprocity.
When we add cultural learning, the assertive instincts may be expressed
individuality, leadership, stratification, striving for success, etc.
nurturant instincts may be expressed by
codes, religions, and morality. Just like sexual needs can be expressed
in dramatically different ways
in different cultures, so can the assertive and nurturant instincts,
providing the foundation for the many thousands of societies our
species has created.
But note that these instincts may also contain the roots of
their own transcendence. For example, our assertive need to "show
off" can be
stretched into a desire for creativity and self-expression. And
our nurturant need to care for our own children can be extended to a
concern for all children, humanity, animals, and life itself.