Human Awareness of Mortality and the Evolution of Culture Sheldon Solomon
University of Arizona
University of Arizona
University of Missouri-Columbia
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
...culture and history and religion and science...(are) different from anything else we know of in the universe. That is a fact. It is as if all life evolved to a certain point, and then in ourselves turned at a right angle and simply exploded in a different direction. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976, p. 9)
We know that virtually all of human behavior is transmitted by culture…The question is how biology and culture interact, and in particular how they interact across all societies to create the commonalities of human nature. E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998, p. 126)
What are the psychological foundations of culture? Authors tend to combine two perspectives when addressing this question. The first is an evolutionary perspective, which depicts Homo sapiens as animals who have evolved from earlier hominid species; cultures, as products of human thought and action, must therefore have resulted from adaptations over the course of evolution. The second is a cognitive science perspective, which depicts humans as information processing systems, a view that derives from the influential metaphor of the human mind as a computer.
Although our information processing abilities cannot be denied, if we are animals, we cannot be computers; rather, the drives, desires, and processes by which we think, act, and create and perpetuate cultures must be those of an animal. In addition, despite the fact that social and natural scientists routinely tell people that humans are information processing animals designed only to survive long enough to reproduce and care for their offspring before they die, people rarely if ever view themselves that way. People want to view themselves not as mere gene conveying animals, but as beings who lead significant and enduring lives, and one critical function of culture is to help people accomplish that. To understand the psychological foundations of culture, then, we need a third complementary perspective that acknowledges that humans are animals with uniquely impressive intellectual capabilities, but with needs for meaning and value as well.
We think that the existential psychodynamic perspective provided by terror management theory does just that. In this chapter, we will explain how this perspective provides novel insights that are necessary for any compelling account of the psychological foundations and functions of culture. The theory acknowledges the core animal drives and desires of humans as well as the intellectual advances which make us unique, especially the capacities for self-consciousness and temporal thought. It explains how the human needs for meaning and value emerge from this biological heritage and the role of culture in serving these needs. The theory is consistent with evolutionary principles, fits what we know about the cultures past and present, and has generated a large body of empirical support within experimental social psychology.
Contemporary Evolutionary Theorizing about the Psychology of Culture
Prominent thinkers from a number of disciplines have noted that a theoretical account of culture--humanly created and transmitted beliefs about the nature of reality manifested through uniquely human institutions such as religion, art, and science--is a central problem in the study of mind (see e.g., Mithen, 1996; Pinker, 1997; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Wilson, 1998). In their seminal 1992 paper "The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” John Tooby and Leda Cosmides proposed two critical epistemological prerequisites for addressing this problem. First, an adequate theory of culture must be grounded in evolutionary biology. Given the success of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in accounting for the "fit" between physical characteristics of living organisms and their environments and how the physical attributes (within and between species) of populations change over time, all human behavioral and psychological propensities are presumably similarly best understood as consequences of evolutionary processes. Second, it must be framed in terms of psychological processes. Because all cultural affectations initially originated in minds of individuals, "culture is the manufactured product of evolved psychological mechanisms situated in individuals living in groups." (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992, p. 24). Consequently, all theoretical perspectives that presume the existence of culture without explaining its psychological underpinnings are epistemologically untenable (e.g., Durkheim, 1895/1962; Geertz, 1973; Miller, 1999; Shweder, 1990).
Despite this recognition of the importance of understanding the psychological underpinnings of culture, as well as the epistemological prerequisites for doing so, we believe that progress toward this goal has stalled for two reasons. First, discourse in evolutionary psychology regarding culture is currently dominated by an emphasis on cognitive information gathering processes and adaptation to the physical environment in the service of enhancing reproductive fitness. For example, Tooby and Cosmides (1992) and Mithen (1996) view culture as a means to store and transmit useful information that facilitates effective exploitation of the physical environment. Similarly, Harris (1979) argues that cultural constructions developed as post hoc accommodations to material reality (e.g., prohibitions against eating pork developed in areas where raising hogs would be detrimental to survival relative to alternative means of sustenance). We have no quarrel with these assertions: clearly culture facilitates the transmission of useful information and is a reflection of material conditions. However, following de Waal (2000, p. 25), we insist that a proper understanding of the nature and function of culture additionally requires an explicit consideration of non-material non-rational non-information processing psychological factors:
Why can't evolutionary psychology put a little less evolution and a little more psychology into its thinking? We evolved a complex mental life that makes us act in all sorts of ways the sum of which should enhance reproductive success. But this strategy is by no means required for each and every behavior. To focus on just one, isolated from the rest of the package, is like seeking to understand why the kangaroo has such tiny front legs while ignoring what happened to its hind legs and tail.
Second, contemporary discourse in evolutionary psychology concerning the psychological functions of culture is generally uninformed by relevant ideas from psychoanalysis and experimental social psychology; the prototypic but by no means only example being Tooby and Cosmides’ (1992) blanket condemnation of the social sciences lumped together under the caricature rubric of the Standard Social Science Model. E.O. Wilson (1998, p. 74) similarly disposes of more than a century of psychoanalytic thought in a few sentences--“Freud’s conception of the unconscious, by focusing attention on hidden irrational processes of the brain, was a fundamental contribution to culture. It became a wellspring of ideas flowing from psychology into the humanities. But it is mostly wrong.” Well, it is certainly partly wrong, but it is also partly right, and many of Freud’s erroneous ideas have been refined and/or corrected by subsequent psychodynamic theorists (e.g., Becker, 1971; Brown, 1959; Horney, 1950; Rank, 1936). In addition, there is a burgeoning theoretical and empirical literature in support of many aspects of psychodynamic theories, including the existence of non-rational non-conscious mental processes (see e.g., Erdelyi, 1985; Greenwald, 1980; Kunda, 1990; Pennebaker, 1990; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999; Westen, 1998). Indeed, we will now explain how a contemporary psychodynamic perspective and the research guided by it can facilitate a fuller understanding of the psychological underpinnings of culture.
An Existential Psychodynamic Account of the Psychological Foundations of Culture
If therefore we are to discover in what form the destiny of the Western Culture will be accomplished, we must first be clear as to what culture is, what its relations are to visible history, to life, to soul, to nature, to intellect, what the forms of its manifestation are and how far these forms-peoples, tongues and epochs, battles and ideas, states and gods, arts and craft-works, sciences, laws, economic types and world-ideas, great men and great events-may be accepted and pointed to as symbols. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1926, p. 3-4) The quest to understand the psychological foundations of culture is not of recent origin; nor are evolutionary approaches to this question. Following Nietzsche (e.g., The Gay Science (1887); Twilight of the Idols (1888)), Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1926) explicitly posed the question of what culture is and what functions it serves. His contemporary Freud was also interested in questions surrounding the nature of culture. Freud knew and respected Darwin’s The Origin of Species (see e.g., Newton, 1995), and genuinely believed that psychoanalytic theory was constructed from an explicitly evolutionary perspective. Indeed, Otto Fenichel (1945, p. 5) described the epistemological underpinnings of psychoanalytic inquiry this way:
Scientific psychology explains mental phenomena as a result of the interplay of primitive physical needs-rooted in the biological structure of man and developed in the course of biological history (and therefore changeable in the course of further biological history)-and the influences of the environment on these needs. Freud recognized the psychological foundations of culture as a central problem, and this was the primary focus of his later work, especially The Future of an Illusion (1928) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) - work that in turn influenced Hungarian psychoanalytic anthropologist Geza Roheim’s The Evolution of Culture (1934) and The Origin and Function of Culture (1943).
Roheim (1943, p. 9) carefully considered the possibility that culture consists of accumulating accurate information about the nature of reality:
…human beings living in a group, find a way to combine their energies in the struggle with the environment and that the most effective means are finally employed in this struggle. Variations in culture would in this case arise as variations in these means conditioned by a varying environment. But he rejected this notion as “far from being true.” Consistent with his psychoanalytic orientation, Roheim felt that culture was ultimately a product of the complex interplay of people’s psychological needs, and that the need for accuracy was not the only need, or even the most important one, served by cultural conceptions of reality.
For Roheim, even a cursory examination of different cultures' fundamentally inconsistent and mutually exclusive cosmologies--accounts of the origin and structure of the universe and the role of human beings in it--renders the notion that culture serves a rational information-processing function providing accurate accounts of physical reality, at least highly suspect, if not patently absurd. For examples (reported in Langer, 1982), the Ainu, aboriginal people in northern Japan, believe in superhuman women with teeth in their vaginas who bear only female offspring after being impregnated by the wind; the Lugbara in northwestern Uganda and eastern Zaire describe God as a tall white man-like creature cut in half with one eye, ear, arm, and leg; in New Guinea, the Watut believe tadpoles gestated in the body of a boy killed by a ghost swim ashore and metamorphosize into girls and boys who take possession of the earth after spending their childhood years playing on the beach; in some parts of Borneo it is believed that humans descended from a sword handle that mated with a spindle. A bit closer to home, a substantial proportion of the population of the western world believe that a large old bearded God created humankind in his image along with the rest of the inhabitants of earth in six days before taking a well-deserved day of rest (Genesis), while highly successful and educated followers of the modern Western religion Scientology believe that “people are immortal spirits who have lived through many lifetimes after being banished to Earth 75 million years ago by an intergalactic ruler.” (Frantz, 1998, p. A24).
Instead, citing examples from Melanesian folk-lore such as (1943, p. 13):
A small bird invites all the animals to a great feast. Then he pulls mountain goats’ fat out of his rectum with a hook and feeds them all. Raven boasts, “I can do the same.” But when he tries only blood comes out of his intestines and he is put to shame before the guests. Roheim observed that all cultures are, in his words, “actuated” by phantastic beliefs about magical power employed to confer a sense of individual invincibility, from which he concluded that (1934, p. 403, 416, 417):
…the process of becoming civilized is…not the direct result of adaptation to environment…It is through a series of complicated mechanisms of dealing with anxiety that our civilization has developed and is still developing….But these modifications are not due to the pressure of reality….The same environment…did not compel the chimpanzee to modify its ego-structure…
What, then, is the nature of the uniquely human anxiety and the complicated mechanisms designed to reduce it that characterizes the development of culture?
Consciousness: The Great Shift!
…consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication; …from the start it was needed and useful only between human beings (particularly between those who commanded and those who obeyed); and that it also developed only in proportion to the degree of this utility. Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; it is only as such that it had to develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it. That our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness-at least a part of them-that is the result of a “must” that for a terribly long time lorded it over man. As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed “consciousness” first of all, he needed to “know” himself what distressed him, he needed to “know” how he felt, he needed to “know” what he thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887, p. 298)
Consciousness is the psychological attribute that renders us distinctly human, and makes culture both possible and necessary. Nietszche (1887), Jaynes (1976), and Humphrey (1984) each independently hypothesized that consciousness evolved in humans in order to facilitate effective social interactions in groups arranged in dominance hierarchies--presumably because a person who knew how she or he felt would be in a better position to predict the behavior of others which in turn conferred adaptive advantages to those in possession of such awareness. Consciousness is thus a fundamentally social (con-scious=to know with) and learned linguistic (and hence uniquely human) construction by which individuals conceive of themselves (I) as the principle characters in an ongoing narrative (Bruner, 1986; 1990) arranged in a three dimensional spatialized mind-space (e.g., "I am looking forward to seeing you again soon.” “I'll keep an eye out for you.").
Consciousness is "intimately bound up with volition and decision" (Jaynes, 1976, p. 55); humans could delay behavior in novel situations long enough to ponder past experiences, and perhaps more importantly, envision the consequences of future actions, even those never previously undertaken: “Thus humans can learn from the past and plan for the future. And thus man is the historical mammal in that he can stand outside and look at his history; and thereby he can influence his development as a person, and…can influence the march of history in his nation and society as a whole." (May, 1953, p. 85). Consciousness allows human beings to contemplate that which does not yet exist and to transform the products of their imagination into physical reality. Only humans are truly creative--all other creatures must adapt to the physical universe as it is presented to them—human beings adapt the physical universe in accordance with their desires, making the unreal real (Rank, 1932). From an evolutionary perspective then, consciousness evolved as we evolved into human beings because it was highly adaptive. However:
Dream's Ending: The Tragic Vision
And with the rise and gradual conception of the "self" as the source of personal autonomy comes, of course, the knowledge of its limit--the ultimate prospect of death. The effect of this intellectual advance is momentous….It is in a fairly recent phase of that evolutionary course that the realization of death as the inevitable finale of every life has overtaken mankind...It's long preparation, however, has been as natural as the wholly unplanned developments which culminate in the peacock's ornamental tail or the beaver's landscape architecture... Susanne Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1982, p.90,91,103)
A conscious creature able to project him/herself (I) throughout a linguistically constructed metaphorical universe of space and time was at an evolutionary advantage. The abilities to actively reflect on the past, to consider the possible consequences of a host of future potential courses of action, and to imagine novel possibilities that are then enacted in reality surely enhance inclusive fitness not only by allowing people to engage in a wide variety of actions in response to environmental conditions but also by allowing them to render environments suitable for their needs. As contemporary psychologists (e.g., Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Carver & Scheier, 1981) have argued, the capacity to reflect back on oneself allows the individual to strive toward and monitor progress toward long term goals and thereby facilitates the attainment of such goals.
But as Rank (1936) argued, consciousness is both a social and historical process, with increasing self-awareness over time, culminating in what Freud, Geza Roheim, Susanne Langer, Ernest Becker (1973) and others claim is the most significant event in the evolutionary history of humankind: the explicit awareness of death as a natural and inevitable event, an awareness that threatened to undermine consciousness, intellectually and emotionally, as a viable form of mental organization. Intellectually, what an appalling and absolutely unacceptable affront for finely gene containers and conveyors (Dawkins, 1976) refined by billions of years of evolution developing a host of sophisticated physiological and behavioral strategies for keeping themselves alive, to learn by virtue of one of its most effective attributes (consciousness), that the most basic biological imperative upon which individual life is organized (staying alive) is bound to be thwarted! Emotionally, the awareness that death is inevitable gives rise to the potential for debilitating anxiety:
As a naked fact, that realization is unacceptable....Nothing, perhaps, is more comprehensible than that people--savage or civilized--would rather reject than accept the idea of death as an inevitable close of their brief earthly careers.
Susanne Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1982, p. 87,103)
Uniquely human awareness of mortality is thus a "natural" consequence of increasing self-consciousness, which otherwise provides human beings with remarkable adaptive advantages; but conscious creatures encumbered with unbridled awareness of mortality would be crushed by both the weight of the logical paradox (“I am therefore I die?”) and the emotional burden of death awareness -- to the point of behavioral paralysis, in which case consciousness would no longer confer an adaptive advantage:
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow....The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all...For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
Ecclesiastes, or The Preacher
It is at this point that evolutionary advantages emerged for cultural worldviews (and the people who adopted them) that could compellingly assuage the anxiety engendered by the uniquely human problem of death.
A Central Psychological Foundation of Culture: The Denial of Death
Man is the only being that knows death; all others become old, but with a consciousness limited to the moment….Only fully-awakened man…whose understanding has been emancipated by the habit of language from dependence on sight, comes to possess the notion of transience, that is a memory of the past as past and an experiential conviction of irrevocability….Here in the decisive moments of existence, when man first becomes man and realizes his immense loneliness in the universal, the world-fear reveals itself for the first time as the essentially human fear in the presence of death….Here, too, the higher thought originates as meditation upon death. Every religion, every scientific investigation, every philosophy proceeds from it. Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West (1926, p.166)
In the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that a close examination of seminal ideas from the natural and social sciences and the humanities converge on the notion that the denial of death is a dynamic force that instigates and directs a substantial proportion of human activity. Following Zillboorg (1943), Becker argues that fear of death is universal because it is the emotional manifestation of the biological predisposition toward self-perpetuation that we share with all living creatures (but which is known to be ultimately futile only by human beings). According to Becker, cultural worldviews are sets of beliefs about the nature of reality shared by groups of people that evolved to effectively manage the potential for debilitating terror resulting from the awareness of death; they do so through a host of elaborate social and psychological processes that serve to help us avoid thinking about dying and deny that death constitutes absolute annihilation.
The nature of cultural worldviews has thus been profoundly affected by the evolution of consciousness, self-consciousness and the consequent awareness of death:
...death...posits the most terrifying threat to the taken-for-granted realities of everyday life. The integration of death within the paramount reality of social existence is...consequently, one of the most important fruits of symbolic universes....All legitimations of death must carry out the same essential task--they must enable the individual to go on living in society after the death of significant others and to anticipate his own death with...terror sufficiently mitigated so as not to paralyze the continued performance of the routines of everyday life....On the level of meaning, the institutional order represents a shield against terror....The symbolic universe shelters the individual from ultimate terror by bestowing ultimate legitimation upon the protective structures of the institutional order. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966, p. 101)
Culture accomplishes this goal by casting each of us as principle characters in an ongoing sacred narrative cosmological drama that imbues the world with meaning from which each one can derive a sense of value (self-esteem) and the consequent assurance that death can somehow be symbolically and/or literally transcended. This perspective then, helps explain why cultures have not evolved solely toward increasingly accurate accounts of the nature of reality, e.g., as Tooby and Cosmides (1992, p. 119) proposed:
Information about adaptive courses of action in local conditions is difficult and costly to obtain by individual experience alone. Those who have preceded an individual in a habitat and social environment have built up in their minds a rich store of useful information. The existence of such information in other minds selected for specialized psychological adaptations that were able to use social observations to reconstruct some of this information within one's own mind....By such reconstruction, one individual was able to profit from deducing what another already knew. Our analysis also suggests that the emergence of culture and its various affectations-art, religion, music, philosophy, etc. were not merely non-adaptive byproducts of mental processes designed to serve other purposes as Pinker (1997, p. 525), among others, have declared: “...religion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve…. it is wrong to invent functions for activities that lack that design merely because we want to ennoble them with the imprimatur of biological adaptiveness…." Rather, these aspects of culture are uniquely human, species-specific evolutionary adaptations, essential for sustaining consciousness as a viable form of mental organization in the wake of the explicit knowledge of death:
In their developed forms, phantasy thinking and reality thinking are distinct mental processes, different modes of obtaining satisfaction. The fact that they have a distinct character when fully developed, however, does not necessarily imply that reality thinking operates quite independently of unconscious phantasy. It is not merely that they ‘blend and interweave’; their relationship is something less adventitious than this. On our view, reality-thinking cannot operate without concurrent and supporting unconscious phantasies…. Susan Isaacs, The Nature and Function of Phantasy (1948, p. 94)
The notion that culture, in all of its manifestations-religion, art, philosophy, science, politics, economics, etc., serves an adaptive function by a creative misrepresentation of reality to preserve psychological equanimity in response to the uniquely human awareness of death (a byproduct of the evolution of consciousness), is a proposition that we believe to be worthy of serious consideration for three reasons: 1) it follows from basic evolutionary principles; 2) it can account for what we know about past and present cultures; and 3) it is supported by a large body of empirical evidence.