Running head: Mortality and Culture Human Awareness of Mortality and the Evolution of Culture

Convergence with Darwinian Principles

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Convergence with Darwinian Principles

First, this explanation is entirely consistent with Darwin’s original account of the mechanics of evolutionary change, as well as its more contemporary renderings: the psychological propensities of members of a given species are posited to be determined by the historical process of natural selection within particular environments. As Tooby and Cosmides (1992, p. 69) noted: “organisms transact the business of propagation in specific environments, and the persistent characteristics of those environments….Consequently, the structure of the environment causes corresponding adaptive organization to accumulate in the design of the organism.” However, Tooby and Cosmides also recognized (p. 69) that evolution could proceed in response to the demands of internal organismic problems entirely independent of the demands of the external environment:

Obviously…adaptations may solve endogenous adaptive problems and may improve over evolutionary time without necessarily being driven by or connected to any change in the external environment.
The notion that culture evolved to solve the “endogenous” problem engendered by the burgeoning awareness of the inevitability of death associated with human consciousness is thus completely consistent with an evolutionary point of view; indeed, this idea has been explicitly advanced by primatologist David Premack in E. O. Wilson’s (1978) On Human Nature. In Wilson’s (p. 27, brackets added) words:

If [for non-human primates] consciousness of self and the ability to communicate ideas with other intelligent beings exist, can other qualities of the human mind be far away? Premack has pondered the implications of transmitting the concept of personal death to chimpanzees, but he is hesitant. “What if like man,” he asks, “the ape dreads death and will deal with this knowledge as bizarrely as we have?…The desired objective would be not only to communicate the knowledge of death but, more important, to find a way of making sure the apes’ response would not be that of dread, which, in the human case, has led to the invention of ritual, myth, and religion. Until I can suggest concrete steps in teaching the concept of death without fear, I have no intention of imparting the knowledge of mortality to the ape.”
Convergence with Evidence from Past and Present Cultures

Second, this analysis can help account for much about what we know about past cultures from anthropological, archeological, and historical records, and what we know about contemporary cultures as well.

In the beginning was the word. Clearly death was a serious concern to our remote ancestors as evidenced by pit burials of Neanderthals, and simultaneous emergence of ritual burials and art in early Homo sapiens (see e.g., Mithen, 1996). Perhaps the ability to generate narrative accounts of death-transcending visions of reality (which in turn requires language) is the critical difference between Homo sapiens and at least 15 of closely related species of hominids that are no longer in existence (e.g., Donald, 1991; Tattersall, 2000). There is no evidence that these hominid species perished from physical deprivation or human predation: perhaps they died from fear in light of their burgeoning awareness of death, lacking the imaginative capability to generate death-denying and/or transcending cultural narratives.

How could they have died from fear? Most theorists would argue that the experience of fear would have been adaptive to the extent that it promoted effective survival skills, such as fleeing or fighting in the face of the danger. However, think of the old WWI cliché about there not being any atheists in foxholes. A creature with the dawning realization of its own mortality and no system of spiritual beliefs to quell the consequent fear would seem unlikely to venture forth and take the risks necessary for their own or their group’s survival. Who will go out and risk life and limb to hunt down a woolly mammoth to replenish the group’s food supply? Hominids with faith in some spiritual protection would be more bold and confident in engaging in the risky tasks necessary for survival in harsh dangerous environments. This suggests that with the dawn of awareness of mortality, hominid groups with particularly compelling spiritual beliefs and individuals particularly capable of sustaining faith in such beliefs would have had adaptive advantages; therefore such groups and individuals have thrived ever since.

But why might Homo sapiens have had more solidified spiritual beliefs than earlier human species? One possibility is that along with their increased cognitive capacity for symbolic thought came the ability for spoken language that surpassed that of their hominid cousins. Theoretical reconstructions of the soft tissue of the vocal tract of the Neanderthals and early hominids revealed that the larynx of these species would have been higher in the throat than that of modern humans, making only simple vocalizations possible (Laitman, Heimbuch and Crelin, 1979). This evidence has led some anthropologists to the conclusion that even if early hominids had the cognitive capacity for language, their vocal apparatus left them with only a crude ability for verbal expression (Laitman, 1983; Laitman, et al., 1979; Laitman and Heimbuch, 1982; Lieberman, 1985; 1989).

The linguistic prowess of Homo sapiens would have provided them with a heavy advantage over earlier hominids in activities that directly promote survival (e.g., sharing technology, coordinating hunting parties, etc.). However, the ability for a complex spoken language may have given Homo sapiens another, perhaps even more fundamental advantage. If Homo sapiens were able to contrive speech with syntax and grammar, then they may also have been able to develop a more sophisticated system of beliefs and narratives about death transcendence. For example, before venturing out on a hunt or exploring new territory, early Homo sapiens may have performed rituals and told stories about how the spirits would help them sleigh mammoths, leopards, and bears and protect them from potential dangers in the physical world. The ability to produce spoken language would also have made it possible for modern humans to share their cultural reality with other members of their social group and build a strong consensus and sense of validity for their core beliefs. Without complex language, and therefore, an adequate symbolic defense system to quell their fears, Neanderthals and early hominids may have been overcome by fear and unwilling to take on the necessary risks of hunting and exploration. When the surrounding land was no longer fecund, possibly because of harsh conditions or competition with Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and other hominids slowly died off.

Thus, although language was first and foremost a social device, its initial utility was not so much in enabling a new level of collective technology or social organization, which it eventually did, or in transmitting skill, or in achieving larger political organizations, which it eventually did. Initially, it was used to construct conceptual models of the human universe….The pre-eminence of myth in early human society is testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought. Therefore, the possibility must be entertained that the primary human adaptation was not language qua language but rather integrative, initially mythical, thought. Modern humans developed language in response to pressure to improve their conceptual apparatus, not vice versa.
Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Cognition and Culture (1991, p. 215)
Why settle down? This analysis may also provide a credible account of human beings’ mysterious transition from small bands of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to larger groups of permanent town-dwellers. Many anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists argue that the development of agriculture (and domestication of animals) was responsible for this transition:

Only ten thousand years ago, a tick in geological time, when the agricultural revolution began in the Middle East, in China, and in Mesoamerica, populations increased in density tenfold over those of hunter-gatherer societies. Families settled on small plots of land, villages proliferated, and labor was divided…. The rising agricultural societies, egalitarian at first, became hierarchical. As chiefdoms and then states thrived on agricultural surpluses, hereditary rulers and priestly castes took power.
E.O. Wilson, Consilience (1998, p. 253)

Certainly, the discovery of agriculture made it possible for people to live together in larger groups. However, the notion that agriculture was the reason people originally came together is seriously undermined by the recent excavation (reported in Balter, 1998) of a settlement of approximately 10,000 people in Catalhoyuk, Turkey, occupied 9000 years ago, a thousand years before any evidence of domestic agricultural activity. Archeologist Ian Hodder observed that: "the rich wetland resources...would have been more easily exploited by a dispersed population in small settlements rather than by packing thousands of people into a village...What you end up with is trying to understand why these people bothered to come together." -- as quoted by Balter, 1998, p. 1445); and, other archaeologists agree that this settlement (and others like it) challenges "the long-held assumption that the first settlements and the transition from hunting and gathering to farming...were part of a single process," and raises the possibility that a "shared cultural revolution...preceded the rise of farming." (Balter, 1998, p. 1442).

We propose that the "shared cultural revolution" responsible for the transition to larger communities may have been an evolutionary change in human mentality with respect to managing the problem of death. This may have occurred for two reasons. First, humans who were like-minded with respect to spiritual beliefs and ideals naturally came together because greater consensus for such beliefs made these beliefs seem more “real” and thus more valid as fear-regulating psychological structures. Second, people may have formed more structured communities to become conscious (literally, to know with) of a historically unprecedented conception of God as an all-encompassing repository of wisdom and power, and to then "delegate all human power and all forces of nature to that supreme being, giving men an infinite reservoir of power on which they can draw by prayer" (Langer, 1982, p. 111) in exchange for life-long prosperity, protection and ultimately, immortality. Thus, by coming together, people were able to create a shared meaning system, and then put a spiritual force at the helm of the community that allowed them to have ultimate power over nature, life, and death. This analysis reverses the order hypothesized by material accounts of the origin of social motives. Hierarchical social orders and deference to priestly authority were not engendered by an agricultural lifestyle. Rather, an agricultural lifestyle, and all that came afterwards that we traditionally refer to as culture -- e.g., history, art, science, and philosophy - was profoundly influenced by human beings' fantastically imaginative effort to overcome death by voluntarily relinquishing individual autonomy to delegated authority (the original "transference" according to Becker, 1975) through submission to supernatural spirits (the original "leap of faith"). This submission provided psychological equanimity through the belief that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe and consequently eligible for immortality. Thus, although agriculture certainly made it more possible for larger groups of people to live together, the coming together of people was originally a solution to the problem of death.

Consistent with this explanation, the archaeologists at the Catalhoyuk excavation unearthed mass burials under the floors of houses, often in close physical proximity to painted murals of wild animals and hunting scenes. They speculated that "this close association between painting and burials is no coincidence," (Balter, 1998, p. 1445) and the function of art might be to control nature by symbolic representation. Jacques Cauvin of the Institute of Eastern Prehistory in France hypothesizes that such symbolic and religious pursuits instigated a "mental transformation" that allowed humans to see their environment differently and exploit it "more selectively and more actively" (as quoted by Balter, 1998, p.1445).

All subsequent human civilizations are clearly based on elaborate efforts to deny death. For example, in ancient Egypt:

After a ruler died, his or her body was carefully treated and wrapped to preserve it as a mummy. According to ancient Egyptian belief, the pyramid, where the mummy was placed, provided a place for the monarch to pass into the afterlife. In temples nearby, priests performed rituals to nourish the dead monarch’s spirit, which was believed to stay with the body after death. In the Old Kingdom (a period of Egyptian history from about 2575 BC to about 2134 BC), Egyptian artists carved hieroglyphs on the walls of the burial chamber, designed to safeguard the dead monarch’s passage into the afterlife….Sometimes, in addition to the burial chamber, there were storage chambers within the pyramid. These chambers held objects used in burial rituals as well as items for the deceased to use in the afterlife.
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia
At the same time, in China, early emperors, following the Chinese proverb “Treat death as life,” had their servants, artisans, concubines, and soldiers buried alive with them when they died (Mazzatenta, 1992). This tradition continued until 210 B.C., when Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of unified China and builder of the Great Wall, sent a fleet of vessels with precious gifts in search of the Islands of Immortality. The expedition never returned; and, the emperor continued what historian Li Yu-hing (quoted in Mazzatenta, 1996, p. 442) described as a “quest for immortality and eternal glory and power” by having himself buried with an entire army of life-sized and life-like Terra-cotta warriors, horses, and servants.

A century later, Jing Di, fifth ruler of the Han dynasty, was also entombed with a Terra-cotta army of one-third life-sized soldiers and horses. Summarizing archeologists’ interpretations of these findings, Mazzatenta (1992, p.120) observed:

Tomb excavations during the past 40 years are evidence of the Han belief that the afterlife was a prolongation of this life. Thus Jing Di’s mausoleum, as his afterworld headquarters would have mirrored the magnificence of his residence on earth. The tombs of the rich were lavishly provisioned; goods brought along-everything from finely woven silks and musical instruments to food and drink-indicated life well lived. Whereas a common man might be buried with a miniature clay granary, the emperor got a full-size granary as well as his own army.
Back in the Near East, by 2000 BC there is evidence in Sumerian texts of the development of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oral tradition that became the basis of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and hence of the entire Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions upon which western civilization was constructed and currently operates. In The Cry for Myth, Rollo May (1991; see also Gottsch (2000) for a similar argument independently derived from an evolutionary perspective) notes that the story of Gilgamesh is a metaphor for the unique existential concerns of the human condition engendered by consciousness and the consequent awareness of death. In the story, Gilgamesh is overwhelmed with grief after the death of his best friend Enkidu, and becomes obsessed with the prospect of his own death: “When I die, shall I not be like unto Enkidu?” Gilgamesh then departs on a quest to obtain immortality, a Faustian voyage with no final destination that the human species has been pursuing from that time to the present day. And so we can see over the course of recorded history how the death denying ideologies of, e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have spread and prospered over the many generations since those earlier conceptions of immortality.

And as we totter into the present millennium, secular non-denominational cultures, such as the United States, as well as explicitly atheistic communist (e.g., Russia and China) cultures continue to be constructed on the basic principle of death-denial. In America, the back of the One dollar bill says “In God We Trust,” and just to the left is a picture of a pyramid (the ultimate immortality symbol) with a disembodied eye-ball floating mysteriously above the pinnacle of the pyramid as if an all-encompassing-power were shining his or her countenance upon us. And indeed, according to Joseph Campbell (1988), this reflects the eye of God opening to us when we reach the top of the pyramid and attain immortality. Americans also go to great lengths to avoid direct contact with death: the average American has never seen a dead person and is loathe to live anywhere near people who are likely to die; i.e., the sick and/or elderly stashed away in hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, and California. The average American goes to enormous lengths to retard and/or disguise the natural process of aging-hair replacement, hair removal, hair coloring, face lifts, tummy tucks, wrinkle removal etc.

In the former Soviet Union, thousands of people came to the Kremlin each day to see Lenin’s body preserved for perpetuity in a glass tomb. Hitler was quite explicit in proclaiming that the Third Reich would endure long beyond his individual death: we can only be thankful that he was wrong about that. In communist China, a well-known party slogan is “May the Revolutionary Regime stay Red for ten thousand generations.”--longer than the current age of the human race. In Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Robert Jay Lifton (1968, p. 7-8) notes that all political revolutions are ultimately driven by concerns about death:

Much of what has been taking place in China recently can be understood as a quest for revolutionary immortality. By revolutionary immortality I mean a shared sense of participating in permanent revolutionary fermentation, and of transcending individual death by “living on” indefinitely within this continuing revolution. Some such vision has been present in all revolutions and was directly expressed in Trotsky’s ideological principle of “permanent revolution”…Central to this point of view is the concept of symbolic immortality… of man’s need, in the face of inevitable biological death, to maintain an inner sense of continuity with what has gone on before and what will go on after his own individual existence…The revolutionary denies theology as such, but embraces a secular utopia through images closely related to the spiritual conquest of death and even to an afterlife….What all this suggests, then, is that the essence of…all…”power struggles,” is power over death.”
The proposition that the course of cultural evolution was radically altered by the potential anxiety engendered by the “endogenous” problem of death is thus entirely consistent with archaeological findings, the historical record, and the nature of contemporary cultures.

Convergence with Contemporary Research on the Role of Culture in Managing the

Awareness of Mortality
There is also a large body of experimental evidence in accord with the notion that culture plays a primary role in a complex species-typical adaptation to the uniquely human awareness and denial of death. Following Rank (1931; 1936), Zilboorg (1943), Roheim (1934; 1943), and especially Becker (1971; 1973; 1975), terror management theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) posits that the juxtaposition of an inclination toward self-preservation with the highly developed intellectual abilities that make humans aware of their vulnerabilities and inevitable death creates the potential for paralyzing terror. To allow people to function effectively in light of this realization, cultures evolved beliefs designed to help individuals manage the terror associated with this awareness of death. This has been accomplished primarily through the cultural mechanism of self-esteem, which consists of the belief that one is a valuable contributor to a meaningful universe. There are thus two basic components of what we refer to as the cultural anxiety-buffer, both of which are necessary for effective terror management: (a) faith in a meaningful conception of reality that provides the possibility of death transcendence to those who meets the prescribed standards of value (the cultural worldview); and, (b) the belief that one is meeting those standards of value (self-esteem). Because of the protection from the potential for terror that these psychological structures provide, people are motivated to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and satisfy the standards of value associated with their worldviews.

Empirical research to assess the merits of terror management theory has been based on two broad hypotheses derived from the theory. First, if self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function, then high self-esteem (dispositional or temporarily elevated) should serve to reduce and/or eliminate negative affect, defensive responses, and physiological arousal engendered by stressful circumstances. Consistent with this proposition, high self-esteem has been shown to reduce: self-reported anxiety in response to gory death-related videos (Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Rosenblatt, Burling, Lyon, & Simon, 1992, Study 1); defensive distortions to deny vulnerability to early death (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Pinel, Simon, & Jordan, 1993); and, physiological arousal in response to threat of electrical shocks (Greenberg et al., 1992, Study 2 & 3).

Second, if cultural worldviews and self-esteem based upon them serve a death-denying defensive function, then making mortality momentarily salient by asking people to ponder their own death should intensify allegiance to the worldview and striving to meet it’s standards of value. Over 90 experiments conducted in five different countries have provided support for mortality salience hypotheses: mortality salience has been shown to lead to more negative evaluations and harsher punishments of moral transgressors and more favorable reactions and rewards to those who uphold moral standards (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989; Florian & Mikulincer, 1997), and more positive reactions to those who share one’s religious or political beliefs, and correspondingly negative reactions to those with different beliefs (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990). For example, mortality salience increases physical distancing from dissimilar others (Ochsmann & Mathy, 1994) and physical aggression toward them (McGregor, Lieberman, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, Simon, & Pyszczynski, 1998). Mortality salience also increases perception of social consensus for one’s attitudes (Pyszczynski, Wicklund, Floresku, Gauch, Koch, Solomon, & Greenberg, 1996) and discomfort when performing behavior counter to cultural norms (Greenberg, Simon, Porteus, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1995). In addition, recent evidence shows that mortality salience motivates bolstering for self-esteem as well as the worldview. For example, Taubman, Florian, & Mikulincer (1999) showed that Israeli soldiers who use driving ability as a basis for their self-worth drive more boldly after a reminder of death; and Goldenberg, McCoy, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (2000) demonstrated that people with high body self-esteem are more attentive to their bodies following a mortality salience induction.

Mortality salience effects have been obtained using open-ended questions about participants’ own death, fear of death scales, gory accident footage, subliminal primes, and proximity to a funeral home. Mortality salience effects are specific to thoughts of one’s own death; they are not produced by thoughts of other aversive or anxiety-provoking stimuli, e.g., thoughts of intense pain, paralysis, social exclusion, worries about life after college, giving a speech, failing an exam, or imagining the death of a loved one (see Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997). There is thus strong evidence that quite specific concerns about mortality influence a wide range of human social behavior in predictable ways.

Most recently, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (1999, p. 835) proposed a dual process theory to explicate the nature of the cognitive processes that underlie cultural worldview defense in response to mortality salience:

Distinct defensive responses are activated by thoughts of death that are conscious and those that are on the fringes of consciousness (highly accessible but not in current focal attention). Proximal defenses entail the suppression of death-related thoughts or pushing the problem of death into the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability to various risk factors. These defenses are rational, threat-focused, and are activated when thoughts of death are in current conscious attention. Distal terror management defenses entail maintaining self-esteem and faith in one’s cultural worldview and serve to control the potential for anxiety resulting from awareness of the inevitability of death. These defenses are experiential, not related to the problem of death in any semantic or rational way, and are increasingly activated as the accessibility of death-related thoughts increases, up to the point at which such thoughts enter consciousness and proximal threat-focused defenses are initiated.
In support of this dual process conception, Greenberg, Arndt, Simon, Pyszczynski, & Solomon (2000) have demonstrated that immediately after a mortality salience induction, people engage in proximal defenses (vulnerability-denying defensive distortions) but do not show evidence of distal defense (exaggerated regard and disdain for similar and dissimilar others respectively); and, as expected, distal defense was obtained after a delay, but proximal defenses were not. Additionally, defense of the cultural worldview does not occur when mortality is highly salient, or when people are forced to keep thoughts of death in consciousness following our typical subtle mortality salience manipulation (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994), or when they are asked to behave “rationally” (Simon, Greenberg, Harmon-Jones, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Arndt, & Abend, 1997). We have also demonstrated that the accessibility of death-related thoughts is low immediately following mortality salience as a result of an active suppression of such thoughts, and that a delayed increase in the accessibility of death-related thoughts (presumably from relaxation of the suppression) is responsible for the delayed appearance of cultural worldview defense (Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Simon, 1997). Heightened accessibility of death-related thoughts has been shown to be a necessary and sufficient condition to produce worldview defense following mortality salience (Arndt et al., 1997; Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1997), and cultural worldview defense serves to keep levels of death-thought accessibility low (Arndt et al., 1997; Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, & McGregor, 1997). See Figure 1 for a graphic depiction of this dual defense process.

We agree with Tooby & Cosmides’ (1992, p. 62) assertion that “complex adaptations are usually species-typical; moreover, they are so well-organized and such good engineering solutions to adaptive problems that a chance coordination between problem and solution is ruled out as a plausible explanation.” And it is in light of this claim that we would argue that the terror management process of sustaining self-esteem within the context of a cultural worldview qualifies as a species-typical evolutionary adaptation. Given the wide range of attitudes and behavior that are influenced by making one’s own mortality salient, the complex interplay between conscious and nonconscious processes resulting from thoughts of death, and that all such defensive processes serve to reduce the accessibility of death-related thoughts, it seems highly unlikely that such an imaginative, sophisticated, elaborate, and highly-organized system of death-denying psychological processes is the result of “chance coordination.”

Summary and Conclusions

At first thought it seems strange, even fanciful, to regard a conceptual insight like the realization of natural mortality as a milestone on the road of man’s evolutionary advance. On longer consideration, however, one can see many reasons to class it as such, both because of the conditions which its attainment has required and the influence it has had on the subjective and objective course of human life…. It marks no direct physical change, though indirectly and subtly it may produce many; its historical significance and its crucial function belong to the advance of mind, not of physique.
Susanne Langer, Mind: An essay on human feeling (1982, p. 89)
We agree with evolutionary psychologists such as Tooby and Cosmides that a psychological account of the underpinnings of culture is a central problem for the study of mind, and that credible theories should show “hallmarks of special design for proposed function,” be “capable of generating specific and falsifiable empirical predictions,” and “account for known data better than alternative hypotheses” (Buss, Haselton, Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998, p. 546). We propose that human awareness of death, as a result of the evolution of consciousness, instigated the construction of an elaborate host of psychological defenses in pursuit of immortality that are manifest in many important components of culture:

art: “...the creative impulse…attempts to turn ephemeral life into personal immortality. In creation the artist tries to immortalize his mortal life.”

Otto Rank, Art and Artist (1932, p. 39)

economics:The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life ever-lasting.”
Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, p. 73)

science: “...fear -- that is man's original and fundamental sensation; everything is explained by fear....This protracted, ancient fear at length grown subtle, spiritual, intellectual -- today, it seems to me, it is called: science.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885, p. 312)

religion:All the teachings and training in Buddhism are aimed at that one single point: to look into the nature of the mind, and so free us from fear of death....”
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan book of Living and Dying; 1994, p. 51-52)
These culturally mediated responses to the fear of death operate at the individual level to minimize the accessibility of non-conscious thoughts of death by a complex interaction of conscious and non-conscious processes to sustain the belief that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe.

Culture has thus been shaped in part to serve this species-specific evolutionary adaptation to the uniquely human awareness of death. This proposition is consistent with an evolutionary perspective; it can provide a compelling account of the archeological and historical record; and, it is supported by an extensive empirical literature demonstrating the pervasive influence of intimations of mortality on a wide range of personal and interpersonal behaviors.

The psychological processes that use culture as a vehicle for death transcendence have been quite successful so far, as the burgeoning human population of over six billion attests. But will these modes of death transcendence continue to be viable human adaptations? As Becker (1975) noted rather somberly at the conclusion of Escape from Evil, an inevitable result of cultural worldviews serving a death-denying function may be the inability to tolerate those with different visions of reality, in that acceptance of the potential validity of alternative worldviews undermines the confidence with which one subscribes to one’s own, and thus threatens to unleash the unmitigated terror ordinarily quelled by absolute faith in one’s culture.

A host of compensatory processes are consequently instigated to restore psychological equanimity: derogating those who are different, pressuring them to dispose of their beliefs and convert to the dominant worldview (assimilation), incorporating neutered versions of their views into one’s own (accommodation), and/or annihilating them to demonstrate that your vision of reality must have been “right” after all (Solomon, et al., 1991). Prejudice, scapegoating, ideological fervor, and ongoing ethnic strife may thus be the psychological price to be paid for psychological equanimity via death-denying cultural worldviews. This has not been fatally problematic for the entire species as yet because for most of human history, there weren’t so many people or cultures in close proximity or such destructive technologies so readily available. In contrast, the recent advent of powerful nuclear weapons in a culturally heterogeneous overpopulated world of limited physical resources makes human self-extermination a very real, albeit chilling, possibility.

We have argued elsewhere (Solomon et al., 1991) that the utility of any theory is determined not only by existing evidence and the nature of the questions generated by it, but also by the implications of the theory for constructive individual and social change. The psychodynamic perspective advanced here acknowledges the dynamic nature of change of over time--recall Fenichel’s assertion, quoted earlier, that mental processes, as products of evolution, are “changeable in the course of further biological history,” and Roheim’s claim that civilization is still developing. Similarly, Jaynes (1976, p. 125) recognized that “…it would be wrong to think that whatever the neurology of consciousness now may be, it is set for all time….the function of brain tissue is not inevitable…perhaps different organizations, given different developmental programs, may be possible.” So perhaps all hope is not lost.

Roheim (1943, p.100) argued that culture “…originates in delayed infancy and its function is security. It is a huge network of more or less successful attempts to protect mankind against the danger of object-loss, the colossal efforts made by a baby who is afraid of being left alone in the dark.” On these grounds, he proposed that a viable future for our species will require that the human race “grow up” - to somehow squarely face up to and accept our vulnerabilities and mortality. Such a maturation process may require a profound transformation of the manner in which our uniquely human need for death transcendence is satisfied. We are hopeful that this chapter will contribute to a growing psychological discussion of the extent to which this is possible in the foreseeable future, and precisely how it might be accomplished.


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Figure 1

Defensive processes activated by conscious and unconscious death-related thought (adapted from Pyszczynski, Greenberg & Solomon, 1999)


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