Paul Shepard wrote Nature and Madness to explore a perplexing question: “Why do men persist in destroying their habitat?” Shepard came to the conclusion that modern European-American culture was the damaged offspring of a long process of psychological deterioration.
Obviously, modern consumers live and think in a manner that is radically different from our wild ancestors who lived relatively sustainably. This change wasn’t the result of freaky genetic mutations or the normal process of evolution. We still have Pleistocene genes. Newborns are still wild animals who are ready and anxious to enjoy a good life among a clan of buffalo hunters.
It wasn’t genes that changed us, it was culture. Culture is a tribe’s software, and cultural evolution can happen a million times faster than genetic evolution — and that’s exactly what happened. Few, if any, newborns are now born into wild, free, salmon eating cultures. Alas, most are condemned to spend their days in the most destructive culture yet devised. Poor babies!
The process that leads to the development of healthy, happy, well-adjusted wild humans is a spiral stairway, based on a calendar. There are time windows in which certain steps in the process can be completed. If you’ve ever read the story of Amala and Kamala, the wolf-girls of India, you know that they missed developmental windows for learning how to speak, and walking upright. Missed windows lead to incomplete development.
Shepard thought that modern consumers were the offspring of an incomplete developmental process. We were immature, infantile, psychologically crippled. By Paleolithic standards, we were childish adults, suffering from arrested development. He discussed our downward spiral by presenting us with four snapshots.
First, the domestication of plants and animals blindsided the human journey. We no longer lived in a wild land. We lived in farm country, an artificial human-controlled ecosystem. Regular contact with wild animals had been an essential part of our psychological development process. But farmers erased our wild teachers and replaced them with what Shepard referred to as a horde of goofies — passive, submissive, dim-witted domesticated animals. We ceased venerating the sacred totemic spirits of the land, and replaced them with a human-like Earth Mother, who sometimes fed us generously, and sometimes didn’t. We abandoned the leisurely lifestyle of nomadic foraging, and replaced it with miserable backbreaking toil that destroyed the health of both the farmer and the land.
Next came the desert fathers, patriarchal nomadic herders who pushed Earth Mother out of the temple, and replaced her with a powerful, aggressive, authoritarian Sky Father. He sired three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism was a fountain of world-rejecting asceticism which “tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots,” according to Shepard. “The ‘cradle of civilization’ is also the cradle of fanatic ideology — witness the interminable desert wars…”
Next came the Reformation. The Protestant fathers were fascinated, obsessed, and disgusted by sex, filth, corruption, sensuality, the natural world — life itself. The puritan path led to estrangement from the body and the world. It increased the attention paid to sin and evil.
Finally, he discussed the mechanists of industrial society. They mostly spent their lives indoors in vast manmade urban environments that were densely populated by huge numbers of strangers. Cities were breeding grounds for myriads of psychological problems. The city was “the wilderness in disarray, a kind of pandemonium,” a realm of “menacing disintegration.”
Many of us are coming to comprehend that it is remarkably unclever to continue destroying our habitat. Shepard spent years constructing his controversial explanation. Whether or not you buy every argument, the primary thrust of the book is the rather obvious notion that our civilization has lost its marbles. This realization is a mandatory step for any pilgrimage in search of healing, happiness, and sustainability. We must abandon the belief that we are enjoying the zenith of the amazing human journey, because it locks us into a cage — there is no problem to fix, everything is always getting better.
Human beings thrived as salmon eaters and buffalo hunters. We were healthy, whole, and happy when we lived in wild tribes in wild ecosystems. Prince Charles wrote a line I will never forget: “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.” It’s heartbreaking to watch insane zoo lions endlessly pacing back and forth in their concrete prison. Long ago I read an article about condors. It said that a wild and free condor soaring above the mountains was sacred, majestic, perfect. But a condor held captive in a zoo was less — far less. The essay concluded that condor-ness consisted of 10% condor and 90% place.
After a thorough examination of the process of our decline, Shepard served us a solution that barely covers more than a page. In terms of our human-ness, we still have the 10% human component — our genes. What we’re missing is the 90% place. Therefore, Shepard says, the solution is to raise our children in a manner similar to Neolithic society, in a wild ecosystem, so that they can fully experience a complete, normal, and healthy development process. I was shocked when I first read this ridiculous and naïve idea. But later, I realized that he was exactly correct. It’s a perfect and brilliant solution, but it requires huge change. Shepard pointed to the destination. It’s up to us to find the route.
Shepard, Paul, Nature and Madness, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998. Nature and Madness was originally published in 1982 by Sierra Club Books, but they dropped it because it was controversial.
Warning! This book is written for gray-haired professors, not a general audience. Nature and Madness is the opposite of easy to read. Two beautiful and easy-to-read books that explore psychological development are The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, and The Human Cycle by Colin Turnbull.