Forest People, Desert People

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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There's a lot of fascinating literature on links between various cultural attributes and environment. Much of the data for these conclusions comes from massive cultural inventories like R. Textor's Cross Cultural Summary and G.P. Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas. One of the most conspicuous patterns is that forest societies in environments of plenty tend to be polytheistic, egalitarian, nonviolent, sexually tolerant, with substantial rights for women. Desert societies tend to be monotheistic, socially stratified, prone to warfare, have strong sexual taboos and are male-dominated. Since much of the world is dominated by monotheistic religions originating in deserts, this pattern is significant. James DeMeo coined the term "Saharasia" for the core region of desert cultures, consisting of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. He contends that desertification about 4000 BC led to the rise of warlike, male-dominated, repressive cultures, which he describes as patristic. These cultures supplanted the older, gentler (matristic) cultures in the Saharasian heartland, which then spread elements of their culture around the world.

The best place I know of to see the difference between matristic and patristic cultures is the Archeological Museum in Iraklion, Crete. By all accounts, the Minoan civilization on Crete fit the definition of matristic pretty well. Female figures predominate in their art and there is a rich tradition of nature themes as well, especially marine life. Weapons and other military artifacts were few, although the prevalence of double-bladed axe heads as a symbol is troubling. But there's no denying that their art objects (like the vase at left) are original, beautiful, whimsical and vibrant in a way matched by no other ancient culture I know. After a morning wandering the museum, you forget that there were ever any other civilizations on Crete. Then, at the end, almost as an afterthought, is a gallery of Roman era works. It's like getting a bucket of ice water in the face. It's stiff, cold, arrogant and cruel.

The Minoans are the highest matristic society I know of in terms of material culture, with the possible exception of parts of India, which were at comparable levels. The Minoans were crippled by the tsunami from the great Thera eruption about 1600 BC and overwhelmed by invaders from the mainland not long after. Maybe it's a matter of unfortunate timing that the Minoans reached a peak about the same time that a great natural disaster struck and less sympathetic invaders were appearing. But the most crucial test a civilization can face is survival, and the Minoans didn't pass. It's not fair that an attractive culture like the Minoans was slammed by two immense blows in quick succession, but it happened.

The Good

It would be interesting to know how European cultures fit into the pattern before Christianity became dominant. Since the Indo-European homeland probably lay in Central Asia, we can expect that Europeans would show a very substantial component of desert values. On the other hand, the Celts and Germanic peoples lived for a long time in forest environments, and the first Indo-European invaders may have mingled with long-time forest dwellers and absorbed a large dose of forest culture values.

DeMeo identifies north Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia as the core of Saharasia. Intermediate cultures surround the core, covering the rest of Africa except for the far southwest, most of Asia except for the northern forests, and scattered pockets elsewhere: Spain, Indonesia, Central America, British Columbia, and other enclaves in the Americas. Matrist cultures included the northern forest and tundra fringes of Asia, western Europe, the British Isles, southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and most of the Americas. He presents a map showing presumed diffusion of patristic values through transoceanic contact, although he does acknowledge the possibility of independent development.

DeMeo's theory is that humans basically were peaceful until about 4000 BC, when desiccation of Saharasia and the consequent famine caused the emergence of hierarchical societies with warrior castes and all the other patristic cultural baggage. In Saharasia: The Origins of Patriarchal Authoritarian Culture in Ancient Desertification, De Meo writes:

Increasingly, the migrations out of Saharasia took place in the form of massive invasions of the more fertile border territories. In these borderlands, patrism took root not by virtue of desertification or famine trauma, but by the killing off and replacement of the original matrist populations by the invader patrist groups, or by the forced adoption of new patrist social institutions introduced by the invading, conquering peoples. For example, Europe was sequentially invaded after c.4000 BCE by Battle-Axe peoples, Kurgans, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks. Each took a turn at warring, conquering, looting, and generally transforming Europe towards an increasingly patrist character. European social institutions progressively turned away from matrism towards patrism, with the far western parts of Europe, notably Britain and Scandinavia, developing patrist conditions much later and in a more dilute form, than either Mediterranean or Eastern Europe, which were more profoundly influenced by Saharasian peoples.

As an aside: if Scandinavia developed patrist traits in a more dilute form than elsewhere, how exactly did the Vikings acquire their ferocity?

The idea that Western Europe is a blend of forest and desert values has interesting implications. You need only spend a little time looking at extreme patristic societies up close to realize how crippled they are by their cultural baggage. Their obsession with masculine honor and patriarchy cripples them socially and technologically. Science and technology are mortal threats to such societies because they threaten traditional definitions of status. A world where gender, age, and family origin dictate status is not going to look kindly at the idea that mere competence can furnish status; where a smart woman can prove herself the equal of a man, a youth can be better informed than a patriarch, or someone of low birth can rise above someone from a noble clan.

On the other hand, matristic societies may be hobbled in a different way. We need only look at some of the stuff put out by matristically-oriented counterculture groups to see that they too, are crippled, not by rigidity, but by mushiness. In a world where there are no absolutes, everything is shades of gray (or green?), and perception shapes reality, could science ever take root? It can hardly be an accident that  counterculture groups in our own society that glorify matristic values tend to be harshly critical of science, seeing it as mechanistic, uncaring, and a tool of cultural imperialism.

Robert Sapolsky, in Are the Desert People Winning? (Discover vol. 26 No. 08, August 2005) wrote:

This division [forest versus desert societies] makes ecological sense. Deserts teach large, singular lessons, like how tough, spare, and withholding the environment is; the world is reduced to simple, desiccated, furnace-blasted basics. Then picture rain forest people amid an abundance of edible plants and medicinal herbs, able to identify more species of ants on a single tree than one would find in all the British Isles. Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural. Moreover, those rain forest dwellers that are monotheistic are much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people’s business by controlling the weather, prompting illness, or the like. In contrast, the desert seems to breed fatalism, a belief in an interventionist god with its own capricious plans.

Desert environments, much more than forests, teach a forceful lesson in no uncertain terms that the world does not shape itself to human desires. Furthermore, deserts offer opportunities to observe cause and effect with extraneous factors stripped away; if you don't find water, you will die. So a hard-headed dualism born of the desert, moderated somewhat so that the obsession with patriarchy and status is somewhat diluted, might be just what would be needed to permit the emergence of science.

On the other hand, northern forests can be decidedly unfriendly in the winter. Lumping "forest" cultures in one bin obscures the enormous fact that northern forests can be every bit as deadly as deserts (we won't talk about southern forests since there is so little land south of the equator with comparable climate). There are only two places in the world where advanced civilizations emerged from northern forests: Western Europe and northeast Asia (north China, Korea, and Japan). Perhaps mingling of desert and forest values is of only secondary importance in the story of Western culture, and the northern forest setting is the real cultural determinant. We'd certainly expect intense interest in the passage of time, since the variation in daylight in high latitudes is enormous and the seasonal climatic variations are overwhelmingly important to survival. We might expect a similar emphasis on cause and effect and impersonal nature to what we find in desert cultures, since cold will kill you as much as thirst, but with more of a concept of personal empowerment. There are a lot more things a stranded traveler can do to survive cold than to survive in a desert. You can always do something to get warm; you're powerless if there's no water.

The Bad

The idea of trans-Pacific cultural diffusion to explain the human sacrifice of the Aztecs and the Maya is far fetched but forgivable, since DeMeo is open to the possibility of independent development. But it hints at the fundamental flaw in his theories: the assumption that humans are intrinsically matristic (nice) and only become patristic (not nice) through environmental trauma, conquest, and the like.

DeMeo asserts that there is no evidence for warfare among humans before about 4000 BCE. Not all anthropologists agree. DeMeo reinterprets possible massacre sites as ritual group burials, and petroglyphs as showing ritual dances rather than battles. But let's assume those revisionist interpretations are correct. Can we conclude that humans were innately benign before 4000 BCE?

In Saharasia: The Origins of Patriarchal Authoritarian Culture in Ancient Desertification DeMeo writes:

a question naturally arises as to how the cultural complex of trauma, repression and violence (patrism) could have gotten started in the first instance. Patrism, with its great outpouring of violence toward infants, children, and women, which is passed from one generation to the next through painful and life-threatening social institutions, must have had specific times and places of origins among some, but not all of the earliest human societies. The assumed absence of an innate character to patrism, which derives from the chronic blocking, inhibition, and damming-up of biological urges, demands that this be so.

Note the last sentence: the assumed absence of an innate character to patrism. At least DeMeo openly labels that as an assumption. Much more dangerous are the assumptions stated as facts. The ultimate root cause of patrism is known ("the chronic blocking, inhibition, and damming-up of biological urges") and how it perpetuates once it develops is likewise known (  "passed from one generation to the next through painful and life-threatening social institutions").

On the other hand:

Matrism, however, which springs from freely-expressed, unimpeded and pleasure-directed biological impulses, and which therefore is innate, would have been global in nature, ubiquitous among all of humankind at the earliest times. Indeed, natural selection would have favored matrism, given the fact that it does not generate the sadistic urges which lead to deadly violence toward women and children, nor does it disturb the emotional bonds between mothers and infants, which impart distinct psycho-physiological survival advantages.

DeMeo raises the million-dollar question with: "a question naturally arises as to how the cultural complex of trauma, repression and violence (patrism) could have gotten started in the first instance." He suggests three possible causes, all related to prolonged famine:

In tackling this issue, DeMeo goes much further than most pop-sociology theorists in trying to unravel the roots of social inequality. Nevertheless, his answers are deeply unsatisfying.

What we have here, a little gussied up in modern ethnographic terms, is your basic Noble Savage paradigm. It bears some resemblance to the Garden of Eden story (which may well also reflect a yearning for the simpler days before civilization). There's even a version of Original Sin: once the environment begins to tighten the screws, some people turn rogue, and infect everyone else with their malady. But the Saharasia theory differs from the traditional Original Sin concept in one key respect: Original Sin is pictured as infecting everybody so that everyone is individually flawed and everyone is individually responsible for its aftereffects. Saharasian patrism, on the other hand, infects much of the planet but nobody is individually responsible for what it does. It's like arguing there's an AIDS pandemic but nobody with the virus is individually responsible for spreading it. Okay, bad example. Try this: it's like arguing that crime is a problem in many inner cities, but individual criminals are not responsible for the problem. Hmm. That doesn't work either. Okay, try this: schools are producing uneducated students, but individual students are not responsible for the results. Not good either. How about this? Middle class consumers are responsible for global poverty and environmental destruction. Yeah, that's the ticket.

At bottom, the Saharasia hypothesis is a variation on the idea that The System, The Man, is responsible for the ills of the world but individual people are not. It's closely related to the bizarre theological argument that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of a good God but does not disprove the contention that human nature is basically good. The idea that The System creates injustice and cruelty carries the appealing hope that the right external fix will eliminate the problems once and for all. If we ban spanking, eating red meat, Road Runner cartoons, competitive sports, and so on, we'll eventually hit on the fix that will cause everyone to be peaceful and benign. Then we can all have peace, justice and equality forever without lifting a finger to perpetuate or protect it.

The Original Sin paradigm is radically different, and you don't have to believe in any theology at all to accept it. It can be described in wholly naturalistic terms, with the term "Original Sin" regarded metaphorically if you prefer. Evolution is about survival, and even altruistic behaviors can be described in evolutionary terms as indirectly self-serving. So natural selection favors self-centeredness. Now all humans encounter two great moral crises early in life. The first is the discovery that the individual cannot get his or her own way all the time. Our prisons are filled with people who never got over the trauma of this discovery, but even more prevalent is the retreat into a fantasy world where one's will does shape reality - in a word, magic. This, not sexual frustration, is the great neurosis of the human race. (In fact, don't a lot of sexually frustrated people retreat into a magical fantasy world where they magically become desirable?) None of us are wholly free of this neurosis. The second crisis is the discovery that it may be possible to secure some immediate self-interest by violating some altruistic or group preservation instinct. I have inhibitions against taking other people's mates or property, but I can gain sexual or material gratification if I decide to ignore those prohibitions. It may be possible for people never to face these crises if they live in a lush environment that satisfies their demands and they never become aware of any desires beyond comfort. It may well be that the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" in the Genesis account reflects an awareness of a simpler past where people never faced moral dilemmas. But in a world harsh or complex enough to compel awareness of moral dilemmas, every single person will face them and it is inevitable that some will rebel against a universe that thwarts their self-will, or choose their own gratification over the rights of others. The only way to contain anti-social behavior is to contain the people who commit it. We will always need police. We will always need prisons. We will always need armies.

One of the ironies of the conflict between science and religion over evolution is there is no book more relentlessly evolutionist than the Old Testament, especially Deuteronomy. It doesn't have much to say about genes - the Old Testament would never sanction the practice of societies like Sparta of leaving imperfect infants to die of exposure - but it is merciless in its demands to rid the society of bad memes. It's not so much Darwinian as Dawkinsian. It seeks to rid the society of dangerous memes (Dawkins' word for the fundamental unit of social information) by relentlessly eliminating infected individuals, deterring potential carriers, and isolating carriers by making it suicidal to try to propagate dangerous memes. Repeatedly, Deuteronomy demands "You must purge the evil from among you." As a blueprint for selection it has no equal.

Would a fragile race that lived forever sheltered from problems in a lush rain forest environment even be worth calling human? Would it ever have built a Parthenon or produced a Beethoven? But the question is meaningless. The natural environment will change adversely. This just in: we have ice ages every so often. There's a word for species that live in lush forest environments: specialized. When generalist species invade forests, they generally make short work of the specialists. But even more important, in a lush setting, do you need intelligence? Might the ultimate fate of DeMeo's forest people be like that envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke (The Lost Worlds of 2001, Signet 1972, p. 58):

He had seen near-men who could run like the wind, swim like fish, hunt in the dark with sonar or infrared senses; on one world of exceptionally low gravity he had even encountered men who could fly. Most of these specialists had been extremely successful; so successful that they had had no need to develop more than a rudimentary intelligence.
    And therefore they were doomed, though they might flourish for a million years. Sooner or later, the environment to which they were so perfectly adapted would change, and they could not change with it.

Or this vision from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

In their explorations, they encountered life in many forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night. (p. 184)

If matrism is favored by natural selection, then how could patrism ever have originated at all, and how could it persist once it encountered more benign conditions? Is it perhaps possible that patristic traits are also "freely-expressed, unimpeded and pleasure-directed biological impulses?" However it got started, is it possible that some people in proto-patrist cultures discovered that patrism offered pleasures of its own; specifically domination, access to the most desirable mates, adequate food while weaker members went without, adulation of sycophants hoping to share in the prosperity, acquiring prosperity without effort, and ego aggrandizement?

The fact that social stratification seems to be tightly linked to the start of agriculture suggests another possible origin for warfare. Grain-based agriculture requires a Mediterranean climate because seeds in such climates can remain dormant for long periods. Thus grain can be stored. It can also be stolen. It could very well be that some people discovered that it was a lot less laborious to let other people grow and harvest the grain, so that grain agriculture inevitably led to raiding and the need for organized defense.

DeMeo claims that matrism would be favored by natural selection because it reinforces the bonds between mothers and offspring. But is it favored by natural selection (the only possible outcome) or is it merely allowed (one of many possible outcomes)? For one thing, the fact that humans evolved in savanna settings may well mean we were all desert people from the very beginning. Then there's the biological fact that many primates (including our close relatives, the gorilla) tend to have one male monopolizing several females. Talk about a recipe for sexual frustration, violence, and repression! Natural selection favors this outcome because the dominant male passes his genes along to most of the offspring in his group.

Rather than wondering why patristic societies evolved, we should wonder instead why matristic societies evolved. Since matrism is concentrated in environmentally rich forest environments, one obvious explanation is that matrism is an artifact of an unusual environment that is so rich that competition becomes temporarily unnecessary. It's a luxury societies can indulge in when the environment allows them to engage in the illusion that the world is a benign place that owes humans a living.

If the survival of the human race is at stake (because our warlike tendencies will destroy us, or our relationship with nature will lead to environmental disaster), is it wise to look to forest values for the alternative? After all, according to some theorists, desert values supplanted forest values during a time of ecological disaster. However benign and peaceful forest values may be, they failed to sustain their cultures during a time of ecological crisis and they failed to equip their societies to defend themselves against invaders.

The Ugly

Those who read the literature on Saharasia after having read Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science will frequently encounter an old friend: Wilhelm Reich.

Reich was a psychiatrist who studied under Freud. His early writings on the connection between sexual well being and social disorders were fairly mainstream (and supply theoretical and terminological underpinning for a fair amount of the Saharasia theory). His theories were not blessed by the Nazis, especially the part about Nazism being the product of sexual neurosis, and he moved to the United States. In Europe, Reich had become convinced he had discovered a sexual energy, called orgone energy, that was responsible for the generation of life, weather phenomena, and the creation of matter in the universe. As Martin Gardner said in  Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science:

From this point onward, you may take your choice of one of three possible interpretations of Reich's development. (1) He became the world's greatest biophysicist. (2) He deteriorated from a competent psychiatrist into a self-deluded crank. (3) He merely switched to fields in which his former incompetence became more visible.

When Reich started selling orgone devices for medical purposes, he ran afoul of the FDA, and was sent to prison for two years where he died in 1957.

There's nothing to preclude the idea that Reich did some sound early work and then drifted off into the fringe, but the fact that he did drift off into the fringe raises red flags. It certainly inspires caution in accepting the generalizations Reich made, and others find so compelling. At the very least, before accepting his theories as seminal (no pun intended) we need to show that his early work was in fact different in quality from his later ideas, on grounds other than the fact that a lot of later writers find them useful to build their own platforms on.

I wouldn't have been surprised to find out Reich's theories still had adherents. No pseudoscience theory ever dies out. Those that do drop out of sight for a while either get revived, or are hailed by the next wave of eccentric theorists as harbingers of the truth. Still, I was surprised to find out how much interest in orgone energy there is. Searching "orgone" on line plunges the searcher into a parallel universe of orgone energy, free energy devices, chemtrails, Illuminati mind control conspiracies, weather modification, and astral networks. DeMeo describes himself as Director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory, of Ashland, Oregon and cites Reich repeatedly in his own papers.

Chemtrails are the name some people have for the broad white stripes in the sky that form behind aircraft. I can attest with absolute certainty they are made up of a chemical: dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). Contact with large amounts of DHMO vapor can cause burns, inhalation of excessive DHMO can cause respiratory failure and death, and prolonged contact with the solid phase of DHMO can cause tissue necrosis. When dumped on the ground, DHMO can liquefy the soil and cause landslides, and DHMO was responsible for most of the damage and fatalities during Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the phase transition between liquid and vapor DHMO is what provides the energy for hurricanes. DHMO caused all the fatalities during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Astonishingly, DHMO is widely used in the food industry and entirely unregulated. However, Reich's orgone energy accumulators can be used to disrupt chemtrails.

Reich asserted that orgone energy created organisms from non-living matter, and claimed to have observed the process under the microscope. Reich's setup involved microscopes magnifying beyond the physical limit of light microscopy, a fatal error in the eyes of critics. So I wondered if there was any recent corroborating evidence obtained with electron microscopes, which were not readily available in Reich's day. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were a few attempts to verify Reich's findings using electron microscopes. One paper reproduced pictures of complex leaf-like structures of unknown nature. I recognized them immediately as moth scales (below).

This suggests two things.

  1. We're not talking Nobel-caliber research here. I'm a geologist; knowing about butterflies is not in my job description, and I recognized the mysterious objects at a glance. The fact that people who hope to demonstrate the genesis of life from non-living matter didn't recognize them doesn't inspire a whole lot of hope that they can tell organic from inorganic structures.
  2. Their lab protocols need a lot of work. To demonstrate genesis of life from non-living matter, it's absolutely essential that the experimental media be utterly uncontaminated. Getting moth scales into the experimental media isn't going to cut it.

Although modern orgone theorists are still seething over Martin Gardner's treatment of Reich in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science fifty years ago, I haven't found a single piece that even remotely looked like research in any of the recent writings on orgone energy. The electron microscope photographs with the moth scales were the most rigorous research I found. There are challenges to orthodox scientists to examine Reich's research results from the 1940's and 1950's, but not a single thing that looked like original recent research. As far as I can tell, there is not a single mathematical description of any orgone phenomenon, not one formula describing how orgone behaves or suggesting lines for experimental testing. We find rapturous accounts of "gifting" communications towers - they're really for mind control, you know - with mini orgone energy accumulators, but nothing remotely like an objective way of determining if they actually do anything.

Incidentally, I hope Homeland Security is aware of these accumulators. Not because they're dangerous, but precisely the opposite. It would be a shame to evacuate an area and call in the bomb squad because someone found a suspicious piece of harmless junk.

Many orgone phenomena possess the epistemological advantage of only manifesting themselves to people who already believe in them. If skeptics and people with negative energy fields can disrupt orgone energy, that's not going to make it very potent in solving the problems of the world. One alleged orgone device, the Joe Cell, supposedly converts water into hydrogen and oxygen for fueling cars. But in one test, the car stopped dead; the explanation was that a skeptic observing the test had caused the device to stop working. Say what you will about the oil companies, but my car doesn't stall every time I pass someone broadcasting negative vibes.


SAHARASIA: THE 4000 BCE ORIGINS OF CHILD ABUSE, SEX-REPRESSION, WARFARE AND SOCIAL VIOLENCE, IN THE DESERTS OF THE OLD WORLD by James DeMeo, Ph.D.Director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory, located in the beautiful, vibrant and pristine mountain country outside of Ashland, Oregon. (as cited by an orgone energy enthusiast)

The Origins and Diffusion of Patrism in Saharasia, c.4000 BCE: Evidence for a Worldwide, Climate-Linked Geographical Pattern in Human Behavior* by James DeMeo, Ph.D.**

James DeMeo, Saharasia: The Origins of Patriarchal Authoritarian Culture in Ancient Desertification

DeMeo, J. 1986. On the Origins and Diffusion of Patrism: The Saharasian Connection. Dissertation. University of Kansas Geography Department. Xerox available from Natural Energy Works, PO Box 864, El Cerrito, CA 94530.

Robert Sapolsky Are the Desert People Winning?  Discover Vol. 26 No. 08, August, 2005.

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