Journeying Home

Latent within each of us lies a knowledge of what home feels like.

Of being at home on this planet. Within a human culture. Inside a body.

To build a viable human future on earth, we need to remember how to become at home in it again.

Embodied Politics

Politics and ethics seem to take place on a battleground, pitched between virtue and vice. Vice pulls us toward greed, selfishness and narrowness of spirit; virtue toward generosity and altruism. When we feel drawn to vice or see others drawn there, we explain it away with a sigh. It's human nature. There’s a sense that entropy leads that way. Without effort, and maybe constant effort, we’ll slide toward our true nature and tear one another apart.

To guard against ourselves, the left says to build our ethics into social institutions; the right wants self-discipline through morals or markets. The battle entire is waged on the presumption that we will be selfish unless we regulate ourselves. To be most fully human, it would seem, is to repress human nature.

What is this nature we must work in perpetuity to keep at bay? What danger is down there? Thomas Hobbes said that we will destroy each other unless the government is violent. But then Freud says that social etiquette is repression, and Nietzsche says morality weakens us. What is it we are repressing? What source of authenticity or strength? What is going on beneath this thin, staid façade we call society? 

Are we afraid that beneath the veneer, we are animals? 

Well, of course we are animals. We evolved from animals, into another kind of animal. Genetically, we are still all but identical to the higher apes. We must know, mustn't we, that the Discovery Channel’s When Animals Attack is not what goes on out there most of the time, among the rest of the animals? That life is mostly peaceable in the forest most of the time? I wonder, how much time did Thomas Hobbes spend in the wild? 

What it would look like if we lived a little more from those animal impulses, and a little less by social imposition? Those impulses we so fear, we have evolved nearly as far as we have because of them. Our great flourishing on this planet -- achieved through brains much more than brawn -- took place because we developed impulses toward interdependence.

Indeed, Darwin seemed to think so. From The Descent of Man: "in numberless animal societies, the struggle between individuals for the means of existence disappears; struggle is replaced by co-operation."[1]. But at the time Darwin published his work, a Victorian elite was ascendent through the early capitalist markets. They latched on to survival of the fittest as a moral justification for laissez-faire economics, racial hierarchy, and their own obscene wealth.[2] Meanwhile, Darwin didn't even coin the phrase. It was written by the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer transposed Darwin's theories onto the social realm, to help him explain "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."[3-5] Gross. It’s not clear that vicious competitiveness is any kind of human nature, nor that it ever was.

For a long time, anthropologists thought we had descended from a brutal monster ape whose bloodthirstiness still lived inside us. These theories shot streaks through our common mythology. But they've since been found to rest on little more than the projections of early-20th-century Europeans upon the fossil record, horrified as they were by their own brutal wars.[6]

From those early inspirations, we thought we were most closely related to the aggressive and hierarchical chimpanzee. But in the last few years, we've seen substantial suggestion that it may be the co-operative, orgiastic bonobo that best reflects our ancestry. Bonobos settle their disputes through love instead of war.[7,7a] We share about 99% of our DNA with each of these great apes, but the bonobo's genes seem to have changed less than the chimp's have since our evolutionary paths diverged.[8,9] Says Takayoshi Kano, Japanese primatologist who oversaw the longest ongoing field study of bonobos in the wild: "[t]hey prove that individuals can coexist without relying on competition and dominant-subordinate rank."[10]

Wellness and goodness in human life, I submit, are not a late-liberal conceit draped atop a wild and naked animal nature. For the overwhelming majority of our evolutionary history, we have lived in highly egalitarian societies.[11] Sociability is a part of our animal nature. We have out-competed every other species because of it. We have been crafted root and branch to see our own welfare as bound up with the welfare of the group.

Impulse and Culture

Even our most vivid expressions of violent instinct -- racism, war -- are simultaneously hyperactive expressions of in-group bonding. Warmongers tap deep into our psyches by calling not upon a joy of violent destruction, but the defence of the collective values and the collective home. They weaponize the us-and-them dynamic that underlies in-group cohesion. Even in war and structural violence, when we really do tear one another apart, from the perspective of their deep psyches each side is acting out its mutuality. We can only rationalize demonizing members of other tribes by an appeal to co-operation.[12] Ideologues of violence twist this nature by defining the in-group as they see fit.

We can do a better job of channeling these deepest drives. Sometimes we do. In many small, non-capitalist economies, wrote the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a famous essay, daily trade passes through gifts freely given. It's considered impersonal to pay in exchange. Over time, each person in the group owes a web of overlapping debts to every other, never intending them to be tallied. Generosity and mutual obligation are institutionalized. Co-operation becomes a currency, and it keeps the group together.[13]

In late capitalism in the West, though, our economies are set up on the opposite orientation. We exist in competitive infrastructures, facing off against each other for access to jobs, for possession of the best goods, for the quality of education of our children. Advocates of the approach will argue that it simply unmasks our competitive natures and directs them toward national productivity. But these arguments are drawing upon Victorian-era pseudoscience still, set up to justify the obscene self-aggrandizement of the very rich.

Constant competition is not a reflection of our evolutionary nature. It perverts our nature. Epidemiologists report that status anxiety in our societies is driving pathological levels of metabolic stress.[14] Competitive economies bend back the vector of co-operative intent until it is entirely reflexive, pointing only to our own nuclear families, or even to our individual selves alone. The in-group is ever-shrinking. Such was not the case prior to capitalism.[15] Our economies aren't fueled by our violent will toward one another, but by our fear of being cold and alone. When we sense threat from the outside, our evolutionary instinct is to protect our own. 

We do our best under these counter-evolutionary conditions to express our co-operative impulses. We will form relationships in almost any set of circumstances. If there is something that we're covering up, perhaps it's not our nature, but the hole carved out inside us by the brutal logics of this system we've been placed within. It might cause us crippling cognitive dissonance to face it entirely: that the state operates always through the threat of violence, and that markets pit us against each other for access to belonging and food. If perhaps we have forgotten that we know a better way, the protestations of our bodies tell us that the memory is still buried in here somewhere.

What is dangerous about our animal impulses, then? Not the impulses themselves, but how they are twisted to serve narrow aims and ends. There is danger because they are powerful -- because we are viscerally, powerfully interdependent. It has been building for millions of years. We will fight to preserve the in-group. If there is something we should worry about, it is not the direction of our impulses, but in how and why they become re-directed. 

There is no virtue or vice. These are but things we are told to do and not to do. There is only flesh, evolving animal flesh, and its prime driving impulse: life, ever more life, expressions and protections of life. If a malevolent few want to extract or re-direct this pleasure-driven drive, for profit or conquest or self-aggrandizement, they must do so by instructing us against our own desires. They must tell us what we are to do and not to do. They must convince us to cover up the life-affirming drives of flesh. They must build a disembodying culture.

A good culture does not repress our impulses. A good culture, a living culture, revels in them, raises them, extols them. It channels them, toward our welfare.

Culture through the Flesh

In less complex animals, impulse and instinct form a total set of instructions for life. Turtles and fish lay their eggs and then go on their way. In more complex animals -- apes, dolphins, humans -- offspring are born unfit to survive. They must be taught. This is what is called culture.

Instruction in hunting takes the place of a certain measure of instinct. Emotional nourishment extends the feeding and warmth of the womb. As a species evolves into higher complexity, the work of gestation moves outside the mother's body and becomes intersubjective. We are nurtured toward viable life first by placenta and then by parenting. The process straddles a nature-culture divide. Culture is not a thing we foist upon our biology, to correct or to hide it. Culture is the extension of biology by other means.

There is a difference between our animal impulses and our cultural ideas, but it is continuum more than category change. We have higher and lower orders of functioning, the higher ones more recently evolved, but they operate as an interwoven one. Inside our skulls, the upper cortex that controls our language envelops the limbic system that oversees emotional life; the limbic coddles the brainstem that ensures we breathe.[16-18]  Our higher functions grew out of our lower ones, and then returned to wrap themselves around their ancestors. All the while that we try to separate nature from culture, our social and instinctive selves are nestled together, speaking intimately to one another, in order to make both worlds appear to us.

We may think we are separate from animal nature, but our bodies, where everything we know takes place, have not been told. When we try to arrange our lives such that our higher functions dominate our lower ones -- virtue over vice -- we are at war within ourselves.  Do we really expect we could cease being at war with one another this way? Animal nature, that thing we are fighting down, or running from, is the most basic storyline of our evolutionary success.

Let us not look to culture, then, as something used for separating out parts of our inner selves. Good culture, I think, is good when and because it interpenetrates them. Whether death rituals or gathering around a meal, literature or painting or jurisprudence, cultural practices are good practices when they integrate. When they link our higher and lower natures. Good culture reaches into the limbic system and the brainstem, where our animal impulses lie. A good cultural practice is something you can feel.

It makes your heart race, or slow. It releases muscle tension, and relaxes digestion. It translates your intellectual life through your emotions. Good culture links mind and body. Good culture isn’t what separates us from animals. It's what reminds us how to be animals well.

Embodied Politics

Good politics, then, won’t be a horse-trade between the better and worse angels of our nature. Virtue-and-vice thinking intensifies the split we feel between our higher and lower selves. If good culture helps us cross the divide, then good political practices are those that channel our impulses to inspire, to enrich and to give rise to our good ideas. A good politics doesn’t choose the ideas of our best minds over the desires of our bodies – a good politics is, itself, embodied.

Embodied politics begin once we know, innately, what is healthy. When we make use of the subconscious knowledge upon which we thrived for the millions of years before conscious thought. Conscious thought: the capacity to mentally de-link from our impulses, to re-train and reconfigure them, to try to know better. An embodied politics begins by reclaiming animal impulses as basic biological guides toward health and wholeness. It continues as it engages our conscious minds to express rather than repress those impulses. It matures when we invite logic and language and creative design to build upon them. To build a healthy society, we need to know what is healthy. This is a thing we can remember how to physically feel.

In the radical public health thread, we look backwards from widespread illness to find its roots in power relations. We look to find out who is organizing life in ways that imperil it. Here in our medicine thread, we look inward instead. We ask how and why any of us, or many of us, could have arrived at a state where we no longer knew what was good for us. Where we became so disembodied within ourselves -- our ideas split from the life-seeking impulses of our bodies -- that we could create political life that would further disembody us. In the medicine thread, we reverse-engineer the epidemiological process of studying disease to find its roots. We seek the root directly, and ask what it would mean to build life up from there.

Many of us are led to forget what will nourish us in the interests of profit for a cynical few. Marketers strive to play upon the limbic brain. But so have those who profit from disembodiment lost their inner way. Our epidemiologists tell us that an unequal society is unhealthy even for the well-off. It imposes stresses and strains that we have not evolved to process.[19]

Greed is a state of disembodiment, where the higher functions of ego-structures run ahead unbundled from the interests of the lower functions that sustain basic life. In greed, an ego seeks its own aggrandizement to the point of detriment to others around it. It has forgotten the ways in which it is functionally dependent on those others for psycho-physiological stability. And so it creates social problems that imperil its own physical life.[20,21] Greed is masochistic.

In an embodied life, ego-structures and lower structures serve one another. Part of individual embodiment is awareness of interdependence with others. So an embodied politics can rise. 

Medicine as Politics: A Work of Re-Embodiment

Good culture helps us find our way across that inner gap between high and low. But when the bridge all but collapses, medicine intervenes. Medicine is called for when mind and body are working at cross-purposes. When we drive ourselves habitually to exhaustion. When we can no longer summon the hows and whys of life to raise us from bed in the morning. When our immune systems can no longer tell self from invader. Good medicine intervenes then.

Medicine is more focused, more penetrating, than the broad brush of culture. Good medicine knits together again our mental awareness of our lives with our sensual experience of them. It returns us to relationship with our impulses, those life-seeking drives that sustained us through millions of years -- through the millions of years before we developed conscious thought, before we gained the capacity to outrun our impulses, to try to know better than them, to repress them. It teaches us how to be both conscious and animal. It re-educates us in how to be what we are. It is understandable that we should forget, or maybe never have quite understood. By evolutionary time, we are rather new at this duet.[22]

Medicine, at this depth, re-introduces conscious processes to the direction of the things we feel. It re-aligns us with the impulses that tell us how and what to eat, when to rest, how to love. If our breath and our heartbeat function like a whirring machine, re-embodying medicine reminds us how to monitor the readouts and respond, adjusting production so it corresponds with capacity, and tending to maintenance and care. It teaches us to engage our whole selves like this, rather than disconnecting from our body functions, shutting the door and walking the other way. Re-embodying medicine lowers us down upon the waiting bed of autonomic function, ready to receive us always beneath the racing panic of our disembodied minds.

Medicine like this begins in attending to the simple, quickening impulse, and it builds us all the way up to a wise determination of how to organize collective life. When we once again feel physical cravings for the things that make us healthy, we become re-acquainted with the universal life-giving urge. It is a wellspring of embodied inspiration. From it, we can re-create forms of culture that remind us how to feel. With emotions that enliven our impulses, we can generate wise ideas for organizing social life. In this way, we might imagine ways of living that are more in line with the limits and gifts of life. Like the evolutionary layers of our brains, a politic of re-embodiment begins in the most direct and basic, and flowers up through the explicit and complex.

Re-embodiment is not the whole answer to the problems of social life. We face a much more complex and variegated world than the ones we mostly evolved in. But I doubt if we are better equipped to handle the challenge without the help -- integrated, interpenetrated -- of our oldest, most field-tested tools, our impulses. If we want to create or re-create life on earth that feels like home, we may need to come home to our own bodies first.

Nature never intends the generation of a monster.
— John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, in debate with Thomas Hobbes (1645) [23]

Many thanks to dear friend and righteous performance poet Kelsey Rideout, who first introduced me to the term 'embodied politics.' She offered to let me share in its development with her. This is my latest contribution. Check out Kelsey's work here.

Deep thanks also to Matthew Remski, with whom I worked out my first concept of medicine as a process of re-integrating the conscious mind with autonomic function, while sitting in comfy old chairs in his sunlit office and drinking great coffee.

Audio Credits:

  1. Never Stop - Chilly Gonzales (4:44)
  2. Off We Go - Hakuu (2:58)
  3. Ghost - Hakuu (3:21)
  4. Sunspot - Moby (6:49


[1] Qtd. in Dubos, René. Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress and Biological Change. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959, p. 63.

[2] Dubos, pp. 62-63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Saul, Jonathan Ralston. The Comeback. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2014, p. 9.

[5] "Survival of the fittest." Wikipedia. 24 May 2016. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link. Darwin did like the phrase when he saw it, and adapted it for a later work. the phrase for a later work, but re-applied it to the biological setting.

[6] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011). "Ariel Casts out Caliban." Times Higher Education. 21 April 2011. Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[7] Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books, 2009, pp. 203-205.

[7a] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[8] Wong, Kate. "Tiny Genetic Differences between Humans and Other Primates." Scientific American. 1 September 2014. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link.

[9] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[10] Qtd. in Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[11] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 207-208.

[12] Ibid., pp. 207-210. The basic concept of competition as reflective of in-group co-operation is drawn from here.

[13] Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972, pp. 149-18.

[14] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 164-166, 194, 201-206

[15] Parker, Stuart. "Political Geography of Community – Part 4: Dispossession, Dislocation and the Invention of the Neighbour." Stuart Parker's Blog. 13 February 2014. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link.

[16] Hanson, Rick. "Pet the Lizard." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 11 July (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[17] Hanson, Rick. "Feed the Mouse." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 27 July (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[18] Hanson, Rick. "Hug the Monkey." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 29 July. (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[19] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 173-196.

[20] Ibid. The basic physiology linking inequality and ill health, via mental stress, is explored here.

[21] Stone, Michael (2016). Forthcoming. The basic notion of greed as self-harm is drawn from here.

[22] Cf. Jaynes, Julien. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Jaynes presents a theory that consciousness arose roughly 3,000 years ago. He defines consciousness as the specific ability to remove oneself by an act of will from identification with the world and into abstraction.

[23] Qtd. in Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).