People everywhere recognize that our species is in danger. Since most threats to our survival are of human origin, they can be understood by human minds and overcome with human effort. By far the most ominous threat of all is not nuclear weapons, overpopulation, or even poverty. At the risk of seeming romantic, I must tell you at the outset that the critical menace is deficient love.
What Is Love?
The first cell, presumably ancestral to all later life, established the root of love and survived to reproduce because it shared with all its components essentials such as water, oxygen, and amino acids.
Not the usual omelette of sentimentality, sensuality, and sexuality, love is not a feeling but a deed. Love is the conferring, through demonstrative acts, of survival benefits upon another in a creatively enlarging manner. Survival benefits consist of all those encouragements, supports, and stimulations needed for the loved person to reach fulfillment.
Given what we now know of the psycho-neurobiology of health, if we could, by some miracle, suddenly assure to every baby and child sufficient love, we could within one generation substantially turn present peril into potential paradise. But what determines whether or not we will understand the need and make the essential effort? Character.
Character is the pervasive set of reactions and responses to challenges and opportunities that is the most crucial distinction between people. Although biology also influences character, the major influence upon it is the outside world as mediated through parenting. Once formed, character is relatively stable and sometimes resistant, but it can be reshaped gradually to become more loving, even into advanced age.
What people do to surmount dangers (presuming equal resources) depends on the interaction with their widely varying parents, cultures, and societies on the one hand, and interior resources and tendencies on the other. Predominant exterior and interior influences today too often shape character toward painful frustration by fostering inner and outer conflict rather than reconciliation. Predominant influences, both interior and exterior, in extended future days—if any—will need to be those that instead shape character toward loving fulfillment by fostering inner and outer harmony.
Does a culture or a society’s level of harmony depend mainly on its material wealth? No. Although extreme poverty is a major hazard to well-being of any kind, the harmony of a culture or a society—and therefore its ability to foster love—is determined within a wide range of material sufficiencies by the degree to which it accords with or violates the structure of the innate values with which we are born. These values impel the new person to become loved and loving.
“Innate values” are neither airy abstractions nor rigid instincts, but the fundamental behavioral propensities crucial to survival which evolution has established in life across 3 billion years, and which have been especially refined in humans during our 3 million years. Since they are only “capacities,” however, they must be transformed into actual abilities by the pedagogy of learning.
A baby’s first cry, after the painful journey of birth, is not, as sometimes alleged, a scream of innate aggression; it is the ultimate plea for the succor of love. But because we humans have no rigid biological instincts precisely directing a mother’s response to the baby’s rudimentary signal, she must learn how to understand and respond lovingly. If her character is generally nurturant, and not too blinded by inhibiting learned conflicts, the baby will quickly teach her how to fulfill his or her needs. And at the same time, simultaneously and by the same act, the baby will fulfill hers.
From the moment of birth, love is a two-way street. The baby is equipped not only to receive survival benefits but to confer them upon the mother. If put to the breast right after birth, the baby will receive the survival benefits of vital nourishment and, by its suckling, stimulate reflexes in the mother’s uterus which confer upon her the survival benefits of helping to eject the placenta and stop her uterine bleeding. In this beautiful example is to be found a model of all later exchanges of survival benefits between lover and beloved.
The new baby’s built-in potential includes capacities for many other sociable behaviors, which will be expressed if learned. For example, all normal human babies have the capacity for speech as they grow, but will never speak unless spoken to. The new baby also has innate potential to become both lover and killer; whether either of these is realized will depend upon the learning experiences that form his or her character—mainly the pervasive fulfillments or frustrations of daily life.
If we, in turn, teach the new person to expect love through consistent, tender satisfaction of needs, he or she tends to reciprocate with love. If we teach the new person to expect hate through consistent, hostile rejection or failure to meet her or his needs, this tiny dependent individual tends more to reciprocate with hate. As we have learned across more than a century of psychodynamic investigation and treatment, these loving and hating reciprocations tend to be directed both outward against others and inward against one’s self. Our mental hospitals and prisons and our world at large are filled with tragic examples of inner and outer directed hate.
Cultures and Societies
Cultures and societies—like parents—are not all equal in their ability to provide and receive love. Those that are the most and least favorable for healthy, loving character development show several identifiable trends. One is the prevalence or absence of imposed inequalities, such as those which discriminate between individuals for the purpose of exploitation. Another is the degree to which the individual can serve both his or her own needs and those of the group simultaneously and by the same act— paralleling the mutuality of the baby-mother interaction.
For most of human evolution, communities consisted of small nomadic bands of a few dozen hunter-gatherer foragers who lived in relative material scarcity because they could not generate, preserve, or even carry extensive surpluses. So, in such a band, you shared meager resources with neighbors who were your only social security. No more ethical than we, such people were just being practical. After all, a well-fed hyena was no asset to your survival, but a well-fed human friend might be inclined and able to return your favor another day when you might be in trouble. Such sharing satisfied both individual needs and those of the group simultaneously and, by the same act, built on the harmony-generating situation of a baby suckling at the mother’s breast.
Twelve thousand years ago, probably in the Middle East, clever people invented agriculture and animal husbandry— the technologies that have most portentously changed human life. For the first time it became possible for a tiny nomadic band of cooperative foragers who gathered and hunted together to settle with others in a fixed village of maybe 600 or more people by generating, preserving, and storing surpluses. These accumulations of property could help that larger group survive the inevitable natural catastrophes, such as fire, flood, and earthquake. But at the same time, they shifted peoples’ concern from having good neighbors to having neighbors’ goods.
The crucial point is that now the hunger of a neighbor— or maybe a stranger from the other side of town was no longer a liability but a valuable resource that could transform that person into a commodity you very much needed: cheap labor. By not sharing gratis—by letting that person go hungry—you could not only smoke, freeze, or dry and store the leftovers for your own later use, but you could increase that person’s eagerness to work for you for low wages. You could thereby further enrich yourself and impoverish him or her. Moreover, very soon, you could also use that person as a soldier to protect your surpluses from outside marauders. Here was the beginning of organized warfare. During the subsequent 12 millennia, such unloving circumstances have brought us to the present decline in human relationships, in which it is less and less likely for the needs of the individual and the group to be satisfied simultaneously by the same act.
“If we want to know what we are born for, we must first know what we are born as: the virtuoso nurturers of the planet who are fundamentally designed to live as though to live and love are one.” —ASHLEY MONTAGU
Instead, we have increasingly come to accept as normal that we must take advantage of, rather than take care of, each other. It is these unloving—and decidedly abnormal— deeds which have brought about the poverty, pollution, and violence of our current world reality. And because 12,000 years seems to us like forever, most of us have no awareness that only 500 generations ago our human relationships were so much more loving.
Based on all this, if we are determined to cure our troubles, what must we do? First, we must relinquish our much-prized despair—the excuse for not risking the possible disappointment of trying and failing.
Second, we must give up the wholly erroneous (though comforting) rationalization for our brutality: that it is the legacy of our primate forebears. They were no doubt generally at least as egalitarian, peaceable, and loving toward one another as are present-day apes—as was our own species until 12 millennia ago, when our mismanagement of agrarian surpluses set us on our present destructive course.
Third, in Ashley Montagu’s words, “If we want to know what we are born for, we must first know what we are born as: the virtuoso nurturers of the planet who are fundamentally designed to live as though to live and love are one.” (Which indeed they are.)
And finally, we must make the suitable adjustments in our society to satisfy not only all of our basic biological needs, but our underlying behavioral needs, as well— our need for curiosity, experimentation, sound thought; for speech, song, dance; for the encouragements, stimulations, and supports of being both lover and beloved.
What would it mean specifically? It would mean (barring unlikely contraindications) putting each baby to the breast of his or her mother at the moment of birth and doing everything else possible to strengthen the mother’s and baby’s joy in each other and, in that way, launching healthy character development that will continue throughout life.
It would mean teaching children around the world how to think soundly rather than what to think mechanically. It would mean teaching them to test for themselves the proposition that evolution has prepared us not for acquisitive violence but with the innate value to become sharing, warm, loving persons—and that, if we don’t do so, nothing else much matters.
It would mean putting into practice the wisdom that human survival requires access by all people to such full and free realization of their wholesome potentialities.
It would mean applying the insight that most of the people in prisons—and many of those in mental hospitals— are there because of the unstable, unloving conditions of their early lives. It would mean putting to use the extensively documented evidence that punishment is the least effective way to change behavior and that soothing touch is one of the most effective.
It would mean acknowledging the proof that people can change profoundly all their lives, and then doing all we know how to do to help them change healthfully. It would mean working consistently toward caring for other peoples and other species—as well as the inanimate world—as family, recognizing the validity of the biblical injunction that we are all indeed each other’s “keepers.” It would mean dealing with everything on earth in cognizance that, as Lewis Thomas says, it is part of the life of a single cell. And it would mean living with delight and dedication to be contributing to the betterment of all.
But as we all know, nearly everywhere there is crushing poverty, religious and ethnic enmity, and exploitation of people, other species, and the earth. Sometimes it may even seem that we have passed the point of no return—that we cannot limit population, harmonize differences, and decontaminate the planet in time.
But in a time of crisis, the only philosophically tenable position for a pessimist is optimism. So, all we need to do now is to learn to live again with the loving values of our prehistoric forebears—but amid the material sufficiency possible today.
Now, is that a problem?
author’s note: This article was written and delivered by me at Professor Ashley Montagu’s request as his response to his selection as 1995 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. It was deliberately crafted to include many of Montagu’s (and others’) own words about evolution, anthropology and history as well as elements from my study, teaching, and practice of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. It also was published in the 1996 January/February issue of The Humanist Magazine and it appears in an earlier version on the website of the Ashley Montagu Institute. The text above has been updated and edited a bit for ease of reading and comprehension, and shortened by Pathways by 260 words.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #51.
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