Internal Affairs: Biochemistry and the Body Politic

Politics, in both practice and analysis, is very often a traffic in abstractions. Programs and policies – and certainly all the attendant propaganda -- are usually couched in vague terms or impersonal categories, no matter how seemingly precise: "the people," "the markets," "the Arab street," "the international community," "soccer moms," "swing voters," "economic migrants," "liberals," "conservatives," all the many "isms" and ideologies. The study of history too is painted in similar broad strokes.

Some measure of abstraction is unavoidable in speaking of larger issues, of course (although some categorizations are more useful than others). But there is always the ever-present -- and almost never-avoided -- danger of forgetting the fact that reality is, literally, embodied in individual human beings. It takes place in our bodies and brains -- in the unique, constantly shifting coalescence of elements that make up each person's consciousness and physical being.

Underlying this coalescence of mental states and physical infrastructure are the multitude of biochemical processes that are, simply put, the stuff of life. They help shape and direct mood, motivation, cognition, action. They are not tyrannical determinants in each and every case, but taken together they constitute a framework in which and through which we express our being in the world. Any understanding of human behavior that ignores this framework and its impact on both the individual and society will be woefully -- perhaps dangerously -- inadequate.

An insightful article in the latest London Review of Books brings this point home forcefully. Professor Steve Mithen -- whose fascinating books on archaeology include After the Ice: A Global Human History, and The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body -- has written a review of the latest book by multidisciplinary scholar Daniel Lord Smail: On Deep History and the Brain.

Mithen provides a succinct, clear summary of Smail's detailed and complex work. The review is not available on-line -- otherwise I'd simply offer the link and urge you to read the whole thing. So I've provided some extensive excerpts below of Mithen's examination of what I think is an insightful and important contribution to our understanding of reality.

And in an age when the means to destroy and distort reality are more powerful than ever, we need all the understanding we can get.

The book "looks way back beyond the conventional starting point of history, the earliest civilisations of five thousand years ago, to the Palaeolithic period when, Smail argues, the key features of our neurochemistry evolved. It then proposes that neurochemistry has shaped the course of human history right up to the present day: 'What passes for progress in human civilisation,' he writes, 'is often nothing more than new developments in the art of changing body chemistry.'"

As Mithen notes, Smail's work is not yet another rehash of the "crude evolutionary psychology that has become popular in recent years….[which] argues that we still have biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments, principally those of the African savannah of three million years ago." Instead, Smail starts from the fact that "the neural states of humans are plastic and thus manipulable – quite unlike the fixed mental modules proposed by evolutionary psychologists." Thus he focuses on the interplay between our brain-body chemistry and the social, cultural, religious and political practices that influence and alter that biochemistry, and are in turned influenced by it.

Ironically, in Smail's view it is the founding event of civilization – the advent of agriculture and the resulting development of fixed communities -- that led to the return of the more primitive ape-mind reactions that humankind had evolved beyond in its earlier organization as hunter-gatherer bands. [I wrote about the pre-dominance of the ape-mind in modern politics in this piece a few years ago: Broken Light.]

Mithen takes up the story below:

It is with the shift to sedentary communities and eventually state societies that Smail sees our Palaeolithic-evolved neurophysiology coming to play the driving role….One of the first things the shift entailed was a return to a primate-like social structure, with dominance hierarchies often maintained by random acts of violence against subordinates to maintain them in a constant state of stress. This type of social structure is found among chimpanzees and baboons, yet is curiously absent among those human hunter-gatherers known from the ethnographic record. These [latter] societies are egalitarian, employing various social mechanisms – joking and teasing would be instances – to prevent individuals from gaining dominance over others. This is most likely an adaptation to the harsh environmental conditions – like the Kalahari desert or Canadian Arctic – in which hunter-gatherers survived long enough to be historically recorded….[There are] minor exceptions, [but] the majority of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, this being a necessary adaptation to Ice Age conditions and their mobile lifestyles.

…Smail proposes that with the Neolithic revolution, a "long-dormant" neurophysiology was turned "back on." Village, town and city provided ecological situations in which individuals could once again maximise their own advantage by gaining dominance through random acts of violence. The control of agricultural surpluses or trade routes was not enough to maintain their power base: they also needed to control the brains and bodies of their subordinates by manipulating their neuro-chemistry. The political elites, Smail argues, were not aware that they were engaging in such biological interventions; they were simply repeating what had seemed to work in gaining them power. Random violence is a winner every time.

Not just physical violence either. Smail's arguments will be particularly striking and persuasive to those familiar with the 9,000-year-old Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, one of the earliest known towns.

[There is an excellent description of Çatalhöyük – and its connection to fundamental neural states – in Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, which is a follow-up to Lewis-Williams' remarkable and persuasive work, The Mind in the Cave, which dealt with the neurological underpinnings of the emergence of image-making – cave paintings, sculptures, etc. – in Palaeolithic times.]

Here we find horrendous wall paintings and sculptures showing decapitated people and monstrous animals. [CF: There was also the constant presence of the family dead, who were, at least in some instances, buried within the cramped, cave-like living spaces themselves.] It is a culture of suppression through terror, with – no doubt -- a priestly caste benefiting from these visions of a Neolithic hell. Had the Çatalhöyük people had been hunter-gatherers, they could simply have moved on…but being tied to houses and fields, their cattle and sheep, their pots, baskets and mats, they had to stay and let their body chemistry come under attack from those who had sought, and were intent on maintaining power.

The Neolithic was just the start. Because the neural states of humans are plastic and thus manipulable…we see a succession of new forms of economic, political and social behaviour emerge during the course of history. Those that had the greatest impact on our brain-body chemistry became the most ingrained features of human culture: religion, sport, monumental architecture, alcohol, legitimised violence – and sex for fun. These emerge independently in state societies…for the good reason that they are the most effective in moulding and manipulating our body chemistry.

….What better way for elites to build and maintain their power than to create stress within a population by a culture of terror and then very kindly offer the means for its alleviation…?

Smail (and Mithen) go on to note that one thing that elites have fought to quash from the Neolithic age to today is "autotropic mechanisms," i.e., actions undertaken autonomously by individuals to relieve stress. Instead, anxieties and stresses of life are supposed to be dealt with only within the confines of some greater controlling structure – which, as noted above, has often induced the anxiety and stress in the first place.


Indeed, Smail suggests that this is why religions such as Christianity considered various "autotropic" practices such as masturbation and alcohol – which alleviates one's own stress – as sinful….It is far better for those in power to be in control of their subordinates' body chemistry than to leave it to the subordinates themselves.

In an earlier passage, Smail offers other examples of such dangerous license, including  "symbiotic mechanisms" such as "sexual arousal, [which] generates oxytocin and may be of mutual advantage to couples experiencing it." Art, music, even gossip can also act as autotropic and/or symbiotic mechanisms which alter moods and minds outside elitist control.

The expansion of such autotropic mechanisms may indeed provide one of the grand explanations of historical change from the Middle Ages to modernity, replacing as they do the teletropic mechanisms [activities which influence the body chemistry of others] used by the elite to maintain their power base. Thus coffee, sugar, chocolate and tobacco, coming from Africa, Arabia and the New World, followed perhaps by the increasing popularity [and availability] of sentimental novels and pornography in the 18th century, allowed people to modulate their own body chemistry, resulting in profound social and economic change. There was, in Smail's opinion, a "tectonic shift," and in light of the case studies he provides, the development of a neurohistory is indeed going to have a massive impact on our understanding of the last three hundred years. Making the Palaeolithic relevant to the drinking of tea is no mean feat.

Behind these arguments is a profound insight regarding the relationship between culture and biology. A common misapprehension is that the course of human evolution has involved a transition from our being biological to being cultural creatures….Smail sees things differently: "We can finally dispense with the idea…that biology gave way to culture with the advent of civilisation. This has it all backward. Civilisation did not bring an end to biology. Civilisation enabled important aspects of human biology…."

So students of history will in future need to know the names of a new set of impersonal actors: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and the rest. Historians, Smail argues, will have to become more scientifically literate. Equally, biologists and physiologists have to become more historically minded and appreciate just how much our bodies and brains are products of society and culture.