excerpts from “Unchaining Human Ecology,” part 1


A short time ago, an essay called “Unchaining Human Ecology:  Paul Shepard, the Nature of Freedom, and the Crisis of Modernity” appeared in conjunction with the project represented by this blog.  What follows are selected excerpts illustrating some of its main points.

Paul Shepard may the most vital voice in the ensemble of contemporary writing seeking to understand the ubiquitous crises of modern civilization.  Profound psychological malaise for the individual, endemic dysfunction for society, and the contempt shown by both for an utterly collapsing environment are all intimately-related aspects of the same pathological culture, which have only been addressed insufficiently by the social and natural sciences. Shepard transcended certain limits of the academic context of his time and of his background as an evolutionary biologist to attempt an answer to the most crucial question facing the human species and the one most poised to reward our attention: why do human beings persist in destroying the natural environment that sustains us.  His theories are as plausible, soulful and visionary an attempt at an answer as it is possible for one human to offer in printed form.  His unique and potent synthesis of ideas is deployed in support of his theory that epidemic pathological behavior on the part of individuals and societies has its origins in the subversion of our genetic heritage.  If, as Paul Shepard desired, ecology– the rediscoverer in the modern age of the interdependence of all life– could possibly play a part in the redemption of past wrongs, it could only do so upon freeing itself from inauspicious beginnings, and manifold pitfalls along its paths.  The perspective of human ecology as espoused by Paul Shepard represents the best prospect for such redemption and freedom…


In an early essay called “Man and Ecology– a Viewpoint,” his introduction to the 1969 anthology The Subversive Science, Shepard’s nascent pluralistic or transdisciplinary approach to a new perspective with ancient antecedents is framed this way:  “But ecology cannot be studied, only organisms, earth, air, and sea can be studied.  It is not a discipline:  there is no body of thought and technique which frames an ecology of man.  It must be therefore a scope or a way of seeing.  Such a perspective on the human situation is very old and has been part of philosophy and art for thousands of years.  It badly needs attention and revival.”  Here may be seen the reasons for Shepard’s broad survey of academic studies embracing, among others, evolutionary biology, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, geography, economics and psychology, despite his situation in those “mid-century years when ‘interdisciplinary’ study was considered in bad taste.”

This approach is the basis for his most uniquely original arguments, a sort of composite intellectual midwife for a theory struggling to be born, and may have been motivated in part by desperation.  Implicating the “shallow” and the “deep” alike, the introduction to his seminal text The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game states that “solution through techniques and action was an illusion.  Sufficient ecological data to guide the redirection of society toward environmental harmony has existed for more than thirty years, and surely there has been no lack of social change.  It seems that in staring at the environmental crisis we have missed the central spark of ecology itself, its unexpected connections to the whole of life.  Putting the environment ‘out there’ external to us has made it invisible.”  Later, in what he considered to be his most important book, Nature and Madness, Shepard refers to this same unseen something, saying “Either I and the other ‘pessimists’ and ‘doomsayers’ were wrong about the human need for other species, and the decline of the planet as a life-support system, or our species is intent on suicide– or there is something we overlooked.”

That unseen something is human ecology. This perspective finds its most significant form and content in the uniquely primitivist corpus of Shepard, the main contention of which is that the ancestral reality of the human species and our resultant genetic heritage bode for a specific framework of normal, healthy human development in relation to self, community and environment.  Shepard posits particular concrete aspects of that framework of healthy development, requirements for a fully human life, and calls it the Pleistocene paradigm, so named for the geologic epoch in which humans evolved.  This program of sorts is the primary feature distinguishing human ecology from deep ecology.

The foundation of the Pleistocene paradigm is a way of life based on hunting and gathering, or foraging.  For Shepard, its importance for healthy human development cannot be overstated.  Humans are primates who evolved over the course of millions of years into our basic and enduring but wide-ranging ecological niche– a flexible hunter of large fauna, a nomadic gatherer of wild food.  Therefore, Shepard suggests we view the hunter/gatherer way of life in three important ways:  as the lifeway of many living, healthy peoples; second, as our true human past; third, as a profound aspect of ourselves.   Furthermore, human culture itself is a product of this biological heritage of hunting/gathering, and is what allowed humans to spread successfully across the globe.  But our adaptability is not total:  our evolved culture includes social lives of relatively specific size and structure as well as certain rituals and other cultural elements which are either lacking or found only in a degraded form in domesticator societies.

In an interview with Derrick Jensen, Shepard summed up this underpinning of the Pleistocene paradigm, saying, “Once you begin to domesticate plants and animals, you move into a different cosmology, value system, and cultural set of assumptions.”  His writing is overwhelming devoted to explaining this qualitative difference between foraging society and all societies based the domestication of plants and animals, including agricultural, pastoral and urban/industrial civilizations.  Basically, hunter/gatherer cultures contain the basic elements of a healthy and meaningful human existence in harmony with the environment, while civilization does not.  This is because we are formed in infinitely subtle and important ways by culture, so failures in its basic structures are manifested in our own lives as deformations of the long, complicated passage of individual human development called ontogeny.

Ontogenesis means literally “coming into being,” and is identified by Shepard with the first two decades of the human lifespan, during which all human beings proceed through life stages requiring biological and cultural expression.  Furthermore, Shepard says that tribal hunting peoples exhibit the normative ontogeny for the human being, fitted by natural selection to the hunting life.  All major characteristics of humans have come into being via natural selection and are oriented to this life.  In this way, it can be said that the human organism biologically expects fulfillment of particular mental, social, and environmental requirements for their development.

In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Shepard begins his exposition in earnest.  He writes:

…in reality environmental requirements are greater and more exacting for human beings than for most other species.  Men need, in their non-human environment, open country with occasional cover, labyrinthine play areas, a rich variety of plants, animals, rocks, stars; structures and forms numbering into the thousands; initiation solitude, transitional and holy places, a wide variety of food organisms and diversity of stone and wood, nearby fresh water, large mammalian herds, cave and other habitation sites, and so on.  Beyond the ecological and psychological constants needed for normal human health there must be an environmental margin of security to allow choice and to contribute to the individuality of experience and learned behavior.

The “environmental margin of security” alluded to here allowed for the evolutionary development in humans of an extraordinarily long period of biological immaturity, a prolonged development and growth rate marked by the partial retention of youthful traits, known as neoteny.  This expanded time of youth is described as a unique adaptation of human beings, providing a “prolonged psychogenesis,” which “extends, specializes, and orders experiences essential to the emergence of consciousness and the psyche.”  This period, a biological commitment to humankind’s special way of learning, lasts about 30 percent of the total average human lifespan, suggesting its utmost importance.

Besides its importance to human development, it is necessary to point out that the long deferment of maturity in the human species is further evidence of the viability of the hunting/gathering way of life, as the incompetence of the young in providing food for the whole community would make such a deferment counter-evolutionary in the absence of such viability.  In this way, Shepard’s work as a human ecologist provides a biological corollary to the reversal of anthropological orthodoxy regarding the hunting/gathering way of life that began to take place in the 1960’s.  Until that time, the Hobbesian dictum prevailed that life outside of and before civilization was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Beginning with the “Man the Hunter” symposium organized by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore in 1966, this view faced a steady challenge, eroding in the face of a tidal wave of anthropological and ethnographic research on the hunting and gathering peoples of the world.  The resulting works of scholarship whose conclusions buttress the Shepardian view include Lee and Devore’s book named, after the symposium, Man the Hunter, and Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins.  The lead essay in Sahlins’s book, called “The Original Affluent Society,” demonstrates that the average “workweek” of the hunter gatherer–time spent engaged in the food quest– totaled far below the 40 hours a week of the industrial world, with the quest taking place on about half the days of the week.

But it is far beyond this rather mechanistic, time-and-motion study approach that Shepard recommends the oldest vocation of human animals as the truest model for living.  In his introduction to Meditations on Hunting by Jose Ortega y Gasset, Shepard praises the Spanish philosopher for anticipating several years in advance the union of social and natural sciences typified by his own work.  In the course of doing so, he indeed indicates the original affluence plotted out by Sahlins, describing the hunting way of life as one that precludes work as we know it and identifying the current status of hunting as a privileged leisure activity as a vestige of this generalized Paleolithic condition.  However, he does so only after locating in hunting humankind’s participation in “elaborate and stable flow patterns linking forms through food habits.”  He attributes to this very participation the evolution in humans of specialized features such as “some parts of the central nervous system for storing and transmitting information symbolically.”  Its interruption has resulted in the collapse of the mental, social and environmental complex responsible for our health and vitality.

Shepard ultimately concludes that the events leading to the first domestication are somewhat inscrutable from our current historical vantage.  It can be said that a series of uncertain events about twenty thousand years ago led to the eventual adoption of animal husbandry and agriculture east of the Mediterranean Sea, and elsewhere.  The ensuing sedentary life to which humans were consigned was marked by the dissolution of several elements of the Pleistocene heritage espoused by Shepard.

Where once humans relied on immediate or slightly-delayed returns on the “investment” of their time in the quest for food, farming, which Shepard terms “an ecological disease,” instigated a boom-or-bust economy of subsistence turning on the fortunes of particular plots of land, and greatly reduced the total number of plant and animal species depended upon by humans.  In addition to a vastly truncated repertoire of food sources, the remaining plants and animals were domesticated, denatured and less robust than their wild predecessors from whom they were selectively bred.  Shepard writes, “By supporting large, minimally nourished human populations and by their destructive effects in the environment when grown in cultivated uniformity, the cereals are truly the symbol and agent of agriculture’s war against the planet.”  Also, the creation of agricultural surpluses and sophisticated storage systems made class specialization possible, and then necessary.  Herein lies the origin of the social catastrophe, the invention of drudgery, “the epidemic of acquisitive proprietorship and territorial aggrandizement,” to which human psychological malaise is a concomitant.

The isolatable, nameable elements of the Pleistocene paradigm which have been subverted by the onset of civilization leading to environmental and social disaster are virtually unlimited.  Some of these deal with human group size, population density, infant mortality rates, vernacular gender roles and sexual equality, to name a few.  These, and nearly all other aspects treated by Shepard bear in some way on the question of human psychological development.

Following his experience in conservation Shepard problematized the transitory dream of social peace of the 1950’s, its shallow consensus that a cross-class coalition of do-gooders, conservationists, consumers, engineers and various other strata of mass society could cooperate to usher in an era of ecological wisdom, but in the same breath he stridently rejects any misanthropic, ostensibly deep, but equally facile placing of blame on a supposedly greedy human nature as well.  Furthermore, Shepard foresaw that the integration of ecology, its triumph in the minds of people does not imply that the gulf between the earth and philosophy is being closed.  For similar reasons, Shepard concludes that “a history of ideas is not enough to explain human behavior.”  The efforts at such a history, the likes of which he first undertook in Man in the Landscape, do not explain the destruction wrought by Western culture any more than the idea of the noble savage explains the satisfactory relation to self, land and cosmos of the hunter.  The failure occurs in a more fundamental dimension of human existence than philosophical knowledge.  In Shepard’s phrase, it is “an irrationality beyond mistakenness.”……

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