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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Refugees From Civilization (p. 120)

From chapter "Seeking a Third Way"

I do not know the interior nature of the universe, nor the essential truth about evolution. But if there is one thing I know about natural selection it is this: creatures who have survived in the long run, have survived in the long run. It is not possible to survive in the long run by taking from your surroundings more than you give back, in other words, one cannot survive in the long run through the domination of one’s surroundings. It is quite clearly in the best interest of a bear to make sure that the salmon return and that berries ripen. They can eat them, but they cannot hyperexploit them and still expect to survive. Insofar as competitors enrich and enliven the natural community in which they live, it is in the bear’s best interest to see that they, too, thrive, which it does by doing nothing—by simply being a bear. The same can be said for deer, who couldn’t survive without wolves or other predators, and for wolves, who couldn’t survive without deer. The same can be said for all of us—human and nonhuman alike—that we cannot long survive unless we cooperate with those around us.

It seems likely that no one living today will ever experience a fully natural interaction with either another human or nonhuman. All observations, including my own, are made as through a glass darkly, because we now live in a world of refugees.

The Yanomame Indians are a violent and misogynistic group of people, but how much of that violence has developed in defensive response to marauding Europeans? We shall never know what they were like before, nor will we know anything about peaceful groups. After encountering the Arawaks, Christopher Columbus wrote: “They have no iron or steel or weapons, nor are they capable of using them, although they are well-built people of handsome stature, because they are wondrously timid….They are so artless and free with all they possess, that no one could believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.” The Arawaks were exterminated for their kindness.

These are some observations that are worth our consideration. We know that groups of Yanomame who were better hidden from European influence are less misogynistic and less violent than their troubled cousins. Our violence has reversed the rule of cooperative natural selection, such that those who fight possibly survive, and those who don’t fight will most likely die. The inverse is true as well: those who survive learn how to fight, or more precisely, those who survive learn by painful experience to deafen themselves to their own suffering, and the suffering of others. The deafness facilitates the perpetration of extreme violence since extreme violence and survival are now associated. The violence leads only to further deafness, each furthering the other in a spiral of attenuated feelings until at long last we mimic “beast-machines”—horribly frightened, and not so very rational after all.

I do not know what my brothers would have become without exposure to my father’s violence. Nor do I know the same about my sisters or my mother. Nor also do I know what it would have been like to have a father whose parents had not transformed him through their own violence. With no notion of what a peaceful family or a peaceful culture might have to offer, I am now a refugee from my own childhood. The millions of rape victims around the world are refugees from a worldview that was not inevitable, but chosen. We all—human and nonhuman alike—are refugees from the war zone that is civilization.