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Life is relational and beyond human comprehension

Life is relational and beyond human comprehension

web of life

Life is a highly dynamic system. Reflecting deeply on the relational nature of life allows us to become reacquainted with human emotional limits. Powered-up relationships are inherently incompatible with healthy ways of being human. Along the way we also begin to re-appreciate the limits of human comprehensibility and sense making.

Evolution of humans

Gene-culture co-evolution

Humans only became established and started to thrive across all terrestrial ecosystems once our cultural, cognitive, and emotional capabilities enabled us to comprehend that primate dominance hierarchies limit collective survival and adaptiveness.

We did not end up outnumbering other primates via the energy intensive route of head to head competition, we saved precious energy by out-collaborating them over the course of hundreds and thousands of generations.

Part of the evolution of life involved the development of advanced and highly reliable patterns of communication, including but not limited to the development of what we refer to as human language. Human language evolved as a way of enhancing our ability to understand each other, as a way of sharing our internal mental models and emotional states in honest de-powered dialogue.

The human capacity for language would not have given us any adaptive ecological advantage if it did not primarily serve the purpose of improving our ability to understand, trust, and rely on each other, and thereby to enable us to engage in collaborative niche construction at human scale – such that every human in a cultural organism to some extent contributes unique capabilities and lived experiences to the cultural organism.

All of this is compatible with what we know about the innate collaborative inclinations of human babies to assist other humans who seem to be struggling – including strangers who are not familiar care givers. It also points to an innate predisposition towards highly egalitarian cultures, which counteracts the latent capacity for establishing dominance hierarchies that we share with other primates. There is a substantial body of anthropological evidence for this claim, which stands in obvious opposition to the dominant modern economic doctrine, i.e. the religion of the invisible hand.

In fact the religion of the invisible hand is so dominant that some anthropologists have felt compelled to look for a more “balanced” perspective, as alluded to in the above presentation and critique of David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s work. The critique correctly points out that in The Dawn of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow focus very much on the last 30,000 years of human cultural evolution, i.e. the period that included and immediately preceded the development of complex large scale societies. Both authors therefore largely avoid the question of how humans and human cultures evolved alongside other primates over the course of the last two million years.

Cultural evolution

The unique contribution and value of David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s work is better understood in their emphasis of the diversity of cultural possibilities that are available to anatomically modern humans, ranging from highly egalitarian cultures to highly stratified hierarchical cultures, including examples of co-existence of egalitarian and authoritarian cultures in close proximity, and the possibility of shifts from egalitarianism towards authoritarianism and vice versa.

Once we acknowledge that innate human cognitive abilities and emotional limits have not evolved significantly over the last 300,000 years, and once we acknowledge the cultural dynamism that The Dawn of Everything points towards over the course of the last 30,000 years, we can no longer dismiss egalitarianism as a “primitive” form of social organisation that has incrementally given way to more “advanced” forms of social organisation.

From a cultural evolutionary perspective the operation of primate dominance hierarchies is best understood as a collective learning disability.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.
– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)

Increasing population density probably was one of the factors that triggered a shift towards agriculture and permanent settlements:

  1. Productivity enabled by agriculture catalysed specialisation of roles and division of labour, and enabled the population to grow further.
  2. Population pressure in a context of permanent settlements increased the frequency of inter-group conflicts and facilitated the emergence of hierarchical systems of power.
  3. The emergence of empires : The inventions of linear written language and debt based abstract currencies allowed rigid hierarchical systems of power to be strengthened, normalised, and expanded across time and space. As a result, all of written human history is framed in terms of social power politics.

As social power gradients and anthropocentric world views became normalised, traumatising social norms have led to distorted perspectives on human diversity, human health, and human natures.

It is non-sensical to attempt to define human wellbeing or even human health at the level of individuals or at the level of super-human scale, i.e. incomprehensibly complex and large groups and institutions. It is time to acknowledge the cultural bias in the DSM, and the extent to which the various “pathologies” are responses to a traumatising cultural environment. The categories in the DSM are cultural rather than scientific artefacts.

The Western disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, in their desire to assist individuals with specific tools, have a tendency to categorise and oversimplify the complexity and uniqueness of individual experiences.

In contrast, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology are more open to the complexities and nuances of human social contexts that come into play, and less inclined to offer ready made tools to individuals.

Yes, there are therapies that can help in some contexts to a greater or lesser extent. But across the board, simply taking people and their unique lived experience seriously, and showing genuine compassion, are possibly the most effective ingredients in any therapy, and much of the rest may be explained by the placebo effect.

As Robert Chapman points out in A Critique of Critical Psychiatry, consistent with what we are learning from participatory research into healthcare services, the whole scientific Western approach to human health and wellbeing is not free of cultural bias.

We have become scale blind, unable to acknowledge human cognitive and emotional limits. We have lost the visceral lived experience of safety that is needed to nurture healthy relationships.

Modern society is caught in a chicken and egg causality dilemma. Safety is generated by healthy relationships, yet healthy relationships can only emerge in a safe environment. Within socially stratified “civilisations” Autistic and Artistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Highly sensitive Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society. This would have been obvious in egalitarian human scale societies, but it has become non-obvious in socially powered-up empires.

Ubiquitous global peer to peer communication

Social power gradients universally lead to distress, conflict, and to simplistic life denying and life destroying social norms (cultural diseases). Even more so than earlier cultures of all powered-up empires, the modern global mono-cult preaches there is no limit to our ability to make sense of the world, and beyond that, it confuses technologies guided by the unquestionable God-like power of “the invisible hand” with the adaptive capabilities of living systems.

Over the course of the last century, the advent of mass media, followed by the more recent rise of corporate controlled digital social media, catalysed the consolidation of the social powers of abstract super-human scale institutions, and has incrementally eroded collective agency and ecological awareness at human scale, replacing it with WEIRD forms of ego-driven individualism.

As a result individuals feel completely overwhelmed, disoriented, and trapped in an incomprehensible social world far beyond human scale. However, the emergence of quasi ubiquitous access to peer-to-peer communication beyond corporate controlled digital social media has enabled people to compare notes across cultural boundaries. This new emergent factor in human cultural evolution, which may turn out to be as profound as the invention of agriculture, is allowing a growing minority to rediscover the biological fact that powered-up relationships are inherently incompatible with healthy ways of being human.

Modern addictions

By framing the harm and the trauma responses caused by the life destroying global mono-cult in terms of addictions, we can begin to comprehend the magnitude of the wound that modernity has inflicted on the living planet.

The delusion of technological progress is feeding the addiction to various forms of convenience and consumption – this keeps us perpetually busy and it distracts us from our human natures.

The delusion of the self is feeding the addiction to various forms of social power – this “normalises” carelessness and deceptive forms of communication, and it allows our latent capacity for establishing dominance hierarchies to override our innate human collaborative tendencies towards mutual aid.


The modern addiction to convenience and consumption comes in many different flavours. More is always better. Quantity is what counts. Quantity can be commoditised. Quantity can be sold as progress. Quality is systematically discounted by the religion of the invisible hand. Enough is no longer part of the WEIRD vocabulary. The most obvious candidates for commodification and addiction:

  • Material consumption
  • Work
  • Substances and foods
  • Sex
  • Gambling
  • Entertainment, including “news”

The not-so-invisible hand is explicitly involved in ensuring that all these aspects of modern life are packaged in formats that maximise addictive potential.

Social power

The religion of the invisible hand explicitly endorses and rewards addiction to social power and pyramidal empire building endeavours. The WEIRD education system relies on the myth of meritocracy to normalise the use of coercive techniques of various forms to enforce power gradients, causing untold harm.

71.1. To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease.
71.2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.

– From the Dao De Jing

Much wisdom in the use of crossbows and arrows, traps and nets, plots and schemes, throws the birds of the sky into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of hooks, bait, nets, poles, and lures throws the fish of the waters into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of traps, nets, snares, and lattices throws the beast of the woodlands into disorder. The wiles of wisdom become like a kind of gradual poisoning, rigidifying and unmooring “hard” and “white,” disjoining and muddying “sameness” and “difference,” and end up casting the people into a muddle of disputation. Thus it is that each and every great disorder of the world is caused by the love of wisdom. Everyone in the world knows enough to find out about what they don’t know, but none knows enough to find out about what they already know. Everyone knows enough to disapprove of what they consider bad, but none knows enough to disapprove of what they have come to consider good. This is the reason for the great disorder, which violates the brightness of the sun and moon above and melts away the kernel of vitality within the mountains and rivers below, toppling the ordered succession of the four seasons in between. All creatures, down to the smallest wriggling and fluttering insects, have thus lost touch with their inborn natures—that is how profoundly the love of wisdom disrupts the world! Abandoning all the many types of generative impulse within them, they instead insist on laborious subservience. Letting go of the peaceful blandness of non-doing, they instead delight in ideas and plans full of tsk-tsk jibber-jabber. And it is this tsk-tsk jibber-jabber that has thrown the world into its present disorder!
– From Zhuangzi

The entire planet, and ultimately the entire universe is there to be commoditised and liquidated. The most obvious flavours of addictive social power games:

  • Pyramid schemes (corporations, big government institutions, financialised investments)
  • Powered-up family/household relationships
  • Powered-up romantic partnerships

Employees are sold on career paths, investors insist on returns, irrespective of the “externalities”, parents demand obedience and project their own ambitions and insecurities onto children, and in the absence of any experience in de-powered dialogue and honest communication, even romantic partnerships easily deteriorate into more or less subtle social power games.

In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are.
– From the Dao De Jing

“What benefit does all this meticulous scheming really bring to the world? Elevating the worthy only makes the people compete with each other. Putting the understanding in charge just makes the people loot one another. Such things can do nothing to enhance the lives of the people. Once they become diligent about their own advantage, the sons will end up killing their fathers and the ministers their rulers, burrowing through walls to rob each other in broad daylight. Mark my words, the root of the truly great disorder lies in people like Yao and Shun, and its branches reach down for a thousand generations. A thousand generations of this and I guarantee it will end up with human beings eating one another for dinner!” Nanrong Chu straightened up on his mat with a jolt, saying, “What then can someone like me, advanced in age, do to live up to what you are saying?” Gengsang Chu said, “Keep your body whole, hold fast to the life in you, don’t let your thoughts get lost in busy calculations, and in three years you will have lived up to it.”
– From Zhuangzi

Survival tools

Many modern humans resort to self-isolation to minimise exposure to a hostile, life denying social environment. Further essential survival tools:

  1. Rediscovery of the relational language of life
  2. Framing the evolution of living systems in terms of collaborative niche construction
  3. Appreciating Daoist philosophy as a non-pathologising therapeutic framework for coping with the social pressure of living in the hypernormative state of (post) industrialised civilisation

Helen Mirra has published a wonderful small booklet buena nada, tracing back Autistic sensory experience to earlier eras:

“These fragments from a wordless autistic not-sutra were scattered intact into the earliest Buddhist texts. Splinters from a reed raft. Here they appear like flocking birds. They describe conscious and conscientious perceptive experience which I recognize as consonant with a relative boundlessness of sensing, especially mirror-touch synesthesia, and seem to be traces of thoughts that would have been cognized by peace-oriented humans long before writing, and maybe before speech.”

The path towards sobriety

Acknowledging all our fears, facing the pain, and turning fears into courage:

  1. Fully letting go of the WEIRD delusion of the self – exiting the cult of the self. This includes letting go of all the internalised ableism that permeates WEIRD social norms, and weaning ourselves off all of the addictions that stand in the way of committing to sacred relationships.
  2. Fully letting go of the WEIRD delusion of technological progress – exiting the cult of busyness. This includes incrementally weaning ourselves off all the conveniences afforded by the availability of fossil fuels.

Most importantly, we must acknowledge that we can not regain sobriety alone, in self-isolation, and we can only relearn to be fully human at a scale that is compatible with our biological cognitive and emotional limits, neither at smaller scales, nor at larger scales.

Healthy cultural organisms do not consist of:

  • Isolated individuals
  • Atomised nuclear families
  • Incomprehensibly complex groups and institutions

In fact, the relational nature of the big cycle of life is obscured as long as long as we attempt to define cultural organisms as groups of people or even groups of living beings beyond the human. The very notion of groups of living beings makes no sense.

Humans and all other conscious beings make sense of the world in entirely relational terms. The so-called self is the entirety of all the relationships with living beings that we are consciously aware of.

If we care to pay attention, we even relate to the food we eat and to many things that in the WEIRD world are not considered to be alive. The extent to which we feel healthy, well, and alive is a direct reflection of the health and aliveness in all our relationships, and the extent to which we are able to minimise cognitive dissonance across all our relationships.

Reflecting deeply on the relational nature of life allows us to become reacquainted with the lower and upper limits of human scale. Along the way we also begin to re-appreciate the limits of human comprehensibility and sense making.

Life is a highly dynamic system of collaborative niche construction. At most times a few of our relationships may not be in the most healthy state – but being alive is all about recognising the sanctity of life, the sanctity of all our relationships, and a deep commitment to caring about and attending to the health of our relationships.

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