Reggie Ray made an interesting point in one of his talks that I’d never heard before.
He’s very big on the shift from the hunter-gather lifestyle (59’30” of the human historical hour). To the agricultural way of life (the last 30 seconds). For most of the human genome’s life, we were hunter-gathers. Integrated into the movements of herds, the shift of the weather, the curve of the landscape. We were a part of Nature. For the 10,000 years that we have been penning or herding animals, trying to escape the weather and shape the landscape. We have been at odds with it.
Genetically speaking, our bodies have not changed a jot in 10,000 years
Ray points out that, genetically speaking, our bodies have not changed a jot in 10,000 years. We are biologically still wired for hunter-gathering (since our genes change at a glacial pace) and the agricultural lifestyle is punishing for our brains and bodies. Reggie Ray made an interesting point in one of his talks that I’d never heard before.
This is not just a claim about Paleo diets and wheat intolerances. Rather that the whole tension of having to control, tame, manipulate and exploit ‘the World’ is wearisome and heart-breaking.
The ‘mark of Cain’ is essentially carried in the farmer’s cudgel
This is – he says – the fall from Eden (which is the idea I’d not heard before). The expulsion from the integrated, holistic “I-am-part-of-this” world view. Into a split-off, dissociated “this-is-not-me” worldview was the exit that Adam and Eve made from the Garden. And moreover, the further adventures of Adam and Eve’s sons – Cain and Abel – compounded the wound. Abel, you remember, was a shepherd (pastoralism being a form of agriculture, albeit a more flexible one). And Cain, the murderer, was a farmer.
The brutality of pure agriculture (Cain) wins out in a bloody showdown. It’s as if the blueprint for an awful lot of violence and anxious acting-out is laid down in that Biblical story. The ‘mark of Cain’ is essentially carried in the farmer’s cudgel.
Thinking psychologically, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture has similarly bruising outcomes.
The cultivation of the soil and the management of populations of animals by pens. And of people by houses made it possible for larger and larger groups of homo sapiens to stay put in one place. (Cain is the godfather of cities.) This seems like a good idea. But the outcome is spoiled by one cursed fact: the earth in one place is finite. The soil becomes exhausted. But rather than working with that fact, the people exploiting it have to become anxious thinkers. They have to plan, to anticipate, to worry if they want to stay put.
Did hunter-gatherers, despite the incredible hardships of their life, worry less?
I wonder, quite without neurological evidence. Did the increase in neural density in the frontal cortex and the explosion of complex and never-ending conceptualisation that characterises modern human brains, arise alongside the rise of agricultural city-states? Or put differently: did hunter-gatherers, despite the incredible hardships of their life, worry less? Is our comfort bought with exponential growth in anxious and panicky thought?)
Spin forward 10,000 years. Our culture is still 100% premised on that panicky pact of agriculture (in its widest sense). If we can think enough, anticipate everything and manipulate everybody to bend to our needs. Then we will be able to ignore the Mark of Cain and be happy.
The crazy consumer society that has spread over the face of the globe like a strawberry birthmark
To put it another way. Anxiety is not an annoying aberration that spoils the natural joy of being a settled human. Anxiety is the absolute precondition to making this way of living work. If we want to live in the ‘agricultural style’, that is, seeing the world around us as a resource to be plundered or a threat to be annihilated. Then we must live in perpetual anxiety because we must always be thinking of the next catastrophe.
Clearly, the Mark of Cain is manifest in the crazy consumer society that has spread over the face of the globe like a strawberry birthmark. Latter-day capitalism is the ultimate manifestation of the agricultural style or Cainism. It is driven by this psychotic axiom. Perpetual satisfaction of perpetually created needs requires perpetual growth which requires perpetual plunder of a very finite Earth. We are all – and I count myself similarly, unconsciously ‘marked’ – complicit in this crazy-making belief. Wanting endlessly from a resource that is not endless. And what is worse is that we are not only killing the World. (I shan’t bother to list the horrors of ecological die-out) but we are killing ourselves. Because to sustain the illusion that this state of affairs is working we have to do an insane amount of worrying. Indulge in decades of delusional thinking and. Most tragic of all – cut ourselves off from the one thing that can heal us: the rest of the World.
We are part of the world and it’s an optical illusion of the mind, to think that we’re not.
Because the stupid thing is: we don’t need to be Cain or Abel. We can be in our Eden.
Like the story of Genesis, it’s a myth that we are no longer part of the world. Our bodies – blood, muscle, bile, faeces, bone, brain, urine, offal – are entirely part of the natural order. The process of mind that arise in the brain. The emotions that skate around the body on a surf of neuropeptides are likewise wonders of the natural world. We are part of the world. And, as Albert Einstein mentions, it’s an optical illusion of the mind, to think that we’re not.
The only way we can really combat anxiety – this deep anxiety that is bred in the bones of Cain. Is by undoing the exit from Eden. By returning – through our bodies – into the Earth, into a step-by-step reconnection with the experience of being alive. When we tune in to that small, voice of calm, right inside the in- and outflow of breath. Then we feel a simple satisfaction that trumps new cars, new iPads, new boyfriends or Facebook ‘likes’.
A simple and gradual return into our bodies
And this is not some new-age nostrum. It’s the process of meditation, practiced since homo sapiens have been on Earth. Meditation – putting yourself in the middle (to return to the roots of the word) – is just that. Putting ourselves back in the centre of the experience of being alive. Not thinking, not planning. Not living in a simulacrum of ourselves – a mental hologram – but a simple and gradual return into our bodies. ` There are impediments, blockages. Large pieces of historical detritus may get in the way. But this path back into the body, back into a simpler more direct experience of being alive is, I believe. Not only at the centre of meditation. But at the centre of the political act (political, again, in its widest sense) that needs to happen. If we’re not going to drive ourselves insane tracing Cain’s steps.
I’d love to know your thoughts about hunter-gatherers. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!