Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Have Westerners Fallen Off the Evolved Human Cycle?

Learning from the Mbuti about a Path Towards Responsible Adulthood

I try to expand my moral imagination by reading about societies that function well without violence. I thought I would share the latest with you.

Colin Turnbull, acclaimed social anthropologist of the 20th century, spent a great deal of time with the Mbuti hunter-gatherers of formerly Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). He wrote about them in his bestseller, The Forest People. In The Human Cycle, he contrasts the lifecourse of the Mbuti with that of Westerners, particularly his own upbringing in Britain (having nannies, going to boarding and exclusive schools).

A little background. The Mbuti believe themselves to be conceived as soon as they were wanted, before the sacred act of intercourse that created them. During pregnancy, the mother sings a uniquely devised song to the child in the womb, reassuring the child of the world into which it will be born. The mother is very focused on the sacredness of the life growing within her, deciding which actions to take by sensing how the child is affected by them. After birth, the mother enters into a reciprocal relationship with the child, sensing when the child is ready to meet the family and later, the whole camp. The child is passed from one to another who holds the child close, returning the child to the mother if there is any distress. Once the child is named, the child is treated as an equal individual. The first three years of life are a symbiotic relationship with the mother, along with great caregiving assistance by the others in the family. Childhood is spent in free exploration and cooperative (not competitive) play, coordinated challenging activities with other children. The forest is the playground for developing senses and skills to their fullest. Teasing is used as a means to prevent aggression and violence. But if, as children are learning these things, someone teases another to tears, the play group ostracizes the teaser (for a short time) and focuses on giving the teased the best play roles until all is forgotten.

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Now, because Turnbull writes so well and persuasively (at least for me), I am going to quote him extensively.

"By the time a Mbuti boy reaches youth his total experience has equipped him to enter a stressful situation with confidence, supported by a whole repertoire of specific conflict-resolving skills and techniques well learned and practiced throughout childhood. If he feels a degree of uncertainty, he feels none of the fear and perceives nothing of the threat that would lead ultimately and exclusively to a violent solution to conflict....Infancy is by no means a time of total protection but rather one of controlled experimentation and perpetual learning" (pp. 36-37).

Children on the verge of adolescence: "All their potentialities have been explored and developed to the limit; not just their bodies, but their senses of sight, smell, touch, and hearing have all been nurtured as instruments of learning and communication" (p. 73). Isn't remarkable how our schooling (and even raising) of children moves in the opposite direction--to keep them from looking out the window, paying attention to the bird song, or touching things?!

Turnbull contrasts his own experience in school in which he was roundly criticized for his failure to do well in competitive sports with hints that he was a coward and afraid to use his body (e.g., "Colin cannot stand up in the boxing ring and take his punishment like a man. He must learn to assert himself" p. 73). I quote his discussion of his report card and its contrast with the Mbuti experience (pp. 74-76; I added bold for emphasis):

"Now that report card tells us pretty clearly what was expected of a child at that school. A body that could be "built" and trained for "punishment," capable of physical violence against others' bodies; a mind that was initially totally empty but capable of uncritically absorbing the prescribed dosage of facts and dogmas and that would not do those facts and dogmas the dangerous impertinence of thinking about them; a team spirit that meant trying to beat everyone else down, either alone or in temporary alliance with others. Are those admirable qualities for any child in any society? Are they so very different from the qualities taught in schools today? Are they not amply manifest in the toys we buy our children at Christmas (a veritable arsenal of sophisticated weaponry is what fills the store windows and many a Christmas "stocking")? And look carefully at the many ways in which competition rather than cooperation, is encouraged. Even the team spirit still so loudly touted, is merely a more efficient way, through limited cooperation, to "beat" a greater number of people more efficiently.

"By contrast with the Mbuti system I think we can see where the dangers lie. Again, look at the end product. The Mbuti are a people who are inherently no better or worse than any other people, subject to the same human temptations and failures, but who even under extreme provocation are nonviolent; who even in times of deprivation share what there is without hesitation, as though there were no alternative; and who even in times of confrontation seek and find nonviolent solutions; who are able to maintain a remarkably high level of social order without laws. Are any of those qualities, all of them learned in Mbuti childhood, unacceptable to us? That is, would they be functional or dysfunctional in our society? Are they really incompatible with our context, with the complex technological and scientific world to which we have to introduce our children? I don't see how."

"On the contrary, it seems that none of the Mbuti values learned in childhood would be of anything but benefit in any society where the social good is considered at least as desirable as the individual good. And even considering the skills the Mbuti learn, such as how to use the senses of smell and touch and sight and sound, their application would be different in our society but does that make them any the less worth developing? We just take our senses for granted and leave them where they are; we do not allow them to "become," anymore that we allow the child to "become"; we impose limitations rather than encourage total growth. Mbuti children grow both outward by exploration and discovery of the total world around them, including humanity, and inward by using all their sense to learn who and what they are and where their abilities can lead them as individuals. Their physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual growth are not segmented into different compartments; they are constantly interacting until they become an indivisible whole.

"We can also see where danger in our society may lie by comparing one of the most significant similarities, the function of the family as a model for adult interpersonal relationships. I too learned about family loyalty, about the importance of age as a bonding mechanism, of territory in defining human relationships, and the utility of sex/gender as a device for the division of labor. But the kind of caring for one another that I learned in childhood was based both on a possessiveness that divided the family and an insistence that the child, unable to care for itself, had to have goodness, or what was deemed good for the child, imposed on the helpless creature. Almost throughout, the family model taught division rather than unity, competition rather than cooperation, and even hostility rather than the fullness and acceptance of love. Even the love that for so long I only dimly recognized was imposed and demanded rather than felt and feelingly reciprocated. Therein les he enormous importance of the intense, continuous, and consistent physical proximity between the Mbuti mother and her child during those first three critical years of its life, during which the two share one mutual existence, fully reciprocating everything they have to give each other.

"Now there is a model that will lead to the child's becoming a truly social being throughout his life, a model of mutuality. And as the model was enlarged in just about everything the child did and experience, including all activities and all human relationships, as the model steadily expanded. The Mbuti child was offered no challenges that it could not meet, but at the same time was offered new challenges to meet its growing abilities. The model I was given to follow, however different in detail, is not all that different from models found in most other Western cultures, but almost totally different from that of the Mbuti. It is a model that establishes division rather than unity, segmentation rather than integration, competition rather than cooperation The focus is upon a number of discreet, separated individuals rather an on a single corporate group. The cooperation that emerges later in life--and in our modern society cooperation is every bit as necessary as it is in all societies--is mechanical, rather than organic, because it was learned by imposition rather than felt through reciprocation.

"I think we see the consequences of this when we recognize what the plain facts tell us, that unlike the Mbuti we continue in adult life to have to be coerced to behave in a social manner. Order has to be imposed or enforced by violence or threat of violence; it lacks that inner drive that makes such external compulsion unnecessary or minimal. And there, finally, we come back to Spirit, which for the Mbuti is where life begins and where it ends. For them, at least, it is that awareness of Spirit that enables them to accept differences of manner, custom, speech, behavior, even of belief, while still feeling an underlying unity. It is awareness of Spirit that enables them to avoid the conflict and hostility that arise so easily from such differences." End of quotes

What has become plain to me, from reading anthropological accounts like these and analyzing our own state of childrearing, is that Western culture has extirpated the evolved grounding of moral development. We have driven out close maternal, familial and community care, as well as in the individual autonomy and self-development necessary for a confident social being. These ancient practices have been undermined by a number of ideologies pervading Western culture including ‘human-nature-as-evil,' ‘body-as-disgusting,' ‘body-as-machine,' ‘nature-as-separate,' and the illusions of extreme individualism.

Stripping away the evolutionarily-evolved principles of childrearing, as the West has done, leaves the child with no internal moral compass. Instead, morality must be imposed from without--through rules, sanctions or constructed incentives. And each group or subgroup has its ideology that clashes with another's. Beliefs become all important because we don't have the underlying experiential knowledge to guide us.

Western culture has stripped us of our moral foundations in our relationship with nature, our bodies, our bodies-in-nature, and our mothers (now more than ever). Ultimately, Western culture has taken away our sense of Spirit (in Turnbull's term), which probably is a right-brain holistic orientation (see McGilchrist, 2009) that allows us to sense the ultimate unity of all living things, as we know they are at the quantum level.

If schooling only emphasizes conscious, explicit understanding, reasons, logic, linearity, and representations (rather than actual experience, emotion, connection, awareness) it can leave children spiritless. Maternal and familial distraction foster little right brain development, leaving in charge either the left brain, detached spiritlessness, or the reptilian survival (fight or flight) mechanisms (Security ethic). We flip between apathy (especially towards nature) and fear/rage towards change/ difference/ the Other.

This is no way to live a life, let alone a good life. The results are disastrous for the future of humanity and other life forms on the earth. Are you paying attention to your senses? Are you noticing the many lifeforms around you right now? Do you hear the birds?


Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.


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