…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.]
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.
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.
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.