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Rebalancing the World
Why Women Belong and Men Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium
A Sturdy Web, Closely Woven
Before the advent of agriculture, all human beings were foragers. They didn't till the earth, and they didn't domesticate animals. They relied on the plant and animal resources of their own locality. The foraging strategy has been called mankind's most successful and persistent adaptation. What that word "adaptation" implies in this context is that human beings spent their first couple of million years becoming the ideal inhabitants of specific niches in a wide range of local ecosystems. Through the mechanism of biological evolution, they gradually became fine-tuned so as to fit perfectly into the more-or-less steady-state equilibrium of the shoreline or foothills or ice-scape they called home.
Human beings had to be able to eat whatever was available in their bioregion from one season to the next. Carnivores in some places, omnivores in most, they developed strong jaws, teeth that could tear as well as grind, a long digestive tract, and all kinds of enzymes for breaking foods down. Because in areas where food resources were few or sporadic in their appearance, the ability to walk long distances without tiring was an asset, as was the capacity to store calories as fat until needed, human beings acquired those traits in due time too.
The fact that our earliest ancestors were foragers shaped us in innumerable other ways, among them the physiology of infants and mothers. Helpless for a much longer time than other mammal babies, and unable to obtain their own food, the children of foraging mamas stayed on their hips and at their breasts well into toddlerhood. That extended propinquity allowed human offspring to learn by osmosis and observation much of what they would need to know as adult foragers.
Biological adaptations take place slowly, and they're not swiftly undone just because surrounding conditions change. When most of us stopped being hunter-gatherers about ten thousand years ago -- which in evolutionary terms is no time at all -- our diet changed sharply, reducing the variety of foods we ate even as food itself became more easily available. Life scientists across the spectrum have noted over the past hundred years the many areas in which health is compromised because our bodies have still not adjusted to that shift. Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are just two of the illnesses that are caused and/or exacerbated by diets composed largely of separated refined foods such as butter-fat, corn oil, sugar, and white flour.
But biological adaptation involves much more than biochemical interactions. Exercise, for instance, plays a crucial role in health. Our bodies were clearly designed, by the long process of genetic "sculpting," to flourish at high levels of activity. Muscular exertion stimulates the growth of bone mass, for example, sweating removes toxins from the bloodstream, and deep breathing strengthens the muscles in the heart. All these relationships can be traced back to our having been very active while we were evolving, and we ignore them now at real cost.
There's still another dimension to the adaptations that made us who we are. Take a troubled mind for a long walk in the woods, and watch the tensions dissipate as you fall into a rhythmic pace. As anxiety levels drop, the likelihood of developing stress-related digestive and circulatory problems drops as well. In addition, the natural "high" of released endorphins is palpable -- that is, if we move in the ways our bodies need to move, we receive the immediate bonus of feeling great.
As for the infant on her mother's hip, the hormonal secretions released in the long-ago mother while she nursed her baby made it unlikely that the woman would conceive again soon, which was typically a good thing for hunter-gatherers, because it was important that the size of the group not exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. But delaying the next pregnancy also meant that the child would have her mother's exclusive companionship all the longer. In addition, hormonal secretions induced in both mother and child feelings of deep delight in one another.
All around, it was a nice package.
Our unconscious emotional needs, then, were shaped as powerfully by the experience of foraging as our physiological characteristics were; they didn't develop separately. We don't have to meet those needs in exactly the way they once were met (even nonhuman primates avail themselves of babysitters: anthropologists call them "allo-mothers," or "other-mothers"), but we do have to reckon with them, because they're so deeply a part of who we are. hey were "adaptive" to the conditions we lived in for our first few million years, but they haven't gone away just because external conditions have changed.
Values and Desires
The massive sum of adaptations that allowed hunter-gatherers to live successfully and sustainably on every continent extended beyond the physiological and the emotional. What enabled human beings to live in such finely tuned harmony with their environment was that particular constellation of values listed earlier, universal among hunter-gatherers, hammered out over time in the context of a foraging life as inexorably as peripheral vision, the opposable thumb, and "fight-or-flight" reactions to immediate danger.
We'll describe the relationship between a foraging life and the values it generated much more extensively in the next chapters. But for now, consider the following:
In a nomadic, subsistence economy it was folly to be anything but generous and forbearing toward one's companions, because everyone depended entirely on one another: parents and children, gatherer and hunter, woman and man, old and young. Intimate knowledge of the natural world was synonymous with survival, and so was restrained use of that world's resources. The simple fact that over long reaches of time a band or tribe had been able to eke out its subsistence in a particular region gave rise to a strong sense of connection and mutual reciprocity with that place -- a sense that you and I would be tempted to call "reverence" or even "worship." Though most of these cultures didn't have a word for "religion," a strong sense of the sacred, and of sacred presences, pervaded the whole of life ...Rebalancing the World
Why Women Belong and Men Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium. Copyright © by Carol L. Flinders. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.