Collapse of civility

“Millions of Britons unable to cope with modern life,” the Young Foundation reported last week portraying Britain as a psychologically fragile society where increasing wealth is often accompanied by soaring levels of individual isolation and distrust.

What goes around, it seems comes around.  It was 14 years since Time Magazine published The Evolution of Despair, by Robert Wright, the rapidly rising star of the new discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Wright’s book on Darwin, Why We Are As We Are, attracted great attention.  As an evolutionary psychologist, he quoted the Unabomber – the man who, as his personal demonstration against the dehumanising aspects of modern life, conducted a seven-year bombing spree across America in the 1980s: “I attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved.”

“We at times get the feeling that modern life isn’t what we were designed for,” wrote Wright.  The human mind – our emotions, our wants, our needs – evolved in a very different environment to that of today.  Earlier Freud in his Civilisation and its Discontent had argued that contemporary ways of life had become an oppressive force “that thwarts basic animal urges such as lust and aggression, transmuting them into psychopathology.”  Wright turned that argument on its head, by showing that from an evolutionary perspective, “the larger threat to mental health maybe the way that civilisation itself thwarts civility.”

This stimulated a seismic shift in thinking about social issues.  There is, Wright wrote, a gentler side to human nature and it is this which seems to be increasingly the victim of repression; “The problem with modern life is less that we are over-socialised,” he wrote, but that we are under-socialised – or that too little of our ‘social’ contact is social in the natural, intimate sense of the word.”

Evolutionary psychology has started to sketch the contours of the human mind as shaped by natural selection (which Darwin had hinted at 150 years earlier).  Wright and his colleagues have explored “mismatch theory” which shows how various maladies result from the conflict between modern lifestyles and that ‘ancestral environment’, which shaped our deepest instincts, and thought processes.  He noted that the rates of depression amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania were one-fifth of those in nearby Baltimore, while in New Guinea researchers couldn’t even find a trace of depression.   In the world we have come-from our ancestors lived such interconnected lives (living within each other’s pockets) that of necessity they had to be good at getting along with each other.  Consequently, we humans have inherited a vast and varied portfolio of social skills.  While our ancestors could not have survived alone ,15 years ago a quarter of households in America comprised a single person.

In the typical hunter/gatherer world mothers could reconcile a home life with a work life fairly gracefully, and in a richly social context.  When they gathered food, their children stayed either with them or with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins or lifelong friends.  When they were back at the village, childcare was a mostly public task – extensively social, even communal.  The isolated mother of today burdened with bored, small children, is not a scene that has parallels in pre-industrial societies.

Wright notes that Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique grew out of her conversation with a suburban mother in 1959 who spoke “with quiet desperation” about the anger and despair that came to be called “the problem with no name,” and which a doctor dubbed “the housewife’s syndrome.”  Suburbanisation has exposed modern mothers struggling to rear their children on their own to levels of depression that previous generations never experienced, and it was this which fuelled the feminist agenda.  Wright says all this more persuasively than the Young Report with all its statistics; the problem with modern life is that too little of our social contact is actually social in the intimate sense of the word.

See Chapters Six, Eight and Nine of Overschooled but Undereducated