Paul Shepard considered this his most important book, and it’s easy to see why. It is the most nuanced theory I could personally imagine coming from ecology, or any of the sciences, about how and why humans participate in our own exploitation, succumb to our own domination, and perpetuate or at least ignore the destruction of the land on which we live.
Shepard argues that the long phylogeny of the human species in the Pleistocene epoch included, as one of its most distinguishing evolutionary features, a remarkably long period of neoteny, or biological immaturity, in which human beings graduate through successive phases of development with the mediation of cultural and biological expressions and rituals. In fact, I would argue that Shepard’s theory implies an originary or primal zone of indistinction between the cultural and the biological aspects of life, a concept taken up later by anthropologists like Tim Ingold (whose work may prove to be an interesting complement to the study of Shepard). This suggests an original wholeness, health and vitality unknowable for those of us whose personal emergence as individuals, whose ontogeny, or “coming into being” has been marred by our deprivation of cultural and biological factors.
Shepard explores four successive epochs of civilized life: the first domestication or agricultural society, the monotheistic time of the desert fathers, the puritanical experience of pre-industrial Europeans and the era of modern city-dwelling people. He gives an astonishing analysis of how each of these eras deformed healthy human ontogeny in unique but cumulative, and increasingly far-reaching ways. The result is an utterly damning, but minimally polemical, portrait of Progress as we know it.
The culmination of this “psycho-history” is the finale of the book, “The Dance of Neoteny and Ontogeny,” which finds Shepard returning to more scientific ground as he spells out the psychological and biological implications of the chronicle he has just given.
Our conundrum is this: we have not grown up in a world that we could love as our own grounding. Therefore, we have not really grown up. This causes our failure to treat the world as something living, numinous, animate, something with which to enter into a relationship marked by reciprocity and respect. Consequently, the culture which modern civilization produces, including even the movements of resistance to which its abuses give rise, is shot through with the same pathologies that have driven its long, sad history. The nightmare of modernity was initiated by those with a view toward destroying and re-ordering a world. Now, inhabiting the environment that has resulted, it is uncertain if we can set the situation right with a similar act of world making or world destroying.
Like most theoretical, academic works, this book is difficult, but I found it to be infinitely more rewarding than most works of obtuse philosophy. Its implications for the maintenance of modern social control is inestimable. For example, speaking of pathologically-induced immaturity in the final chapter, Shepard writes,
In this dark shadow of adult youthfulness is an enduring grief, a tentative feeling about the universe as though it were an incompetent parent, and a thin love of nature over deep fears. What agriculture discovered was not only that plants and animals could be subordinated, but that large numbers of men could be centrally controlled by manipulating these stresses, perpetuating their timorous search for protection, their dependence, their impulses of omnipotence and helplessness, irrational surges of adulation and hate, submission to authority, and fear of the strange.
The relevance of this passage for anyone concerned with the nature of human freedom itself and the crisis that has derailed its prospects is compounded by a sense of emergence from old illusions. This is the kind of book that is life-changing to read, not only due to its soulfulness, but because of the adjunct it forms with almost every other manner of critical inquiry, historical or theoretical. The post-modern diagnoses of Foucault, the materialist, feminist-marxism of Silvia Federici, the deep ecology of perception of David Abram, the anarchist iconoclasm of John Zerzan– Shepard at his best moments emerges as the bearer of the truth around which all of these other explorations dance but cannot quite reach.
As with all of Shepard’s work that this reviewer has sampled, this book flies in the face of a cultural relativism that denies normative environmental, social or psychological attributes of a human being. This profound tension is the result of Western philosophy’s mind/body split, which Shepard says has defined instincts as the opposite of reason, and in doing so, has made reason the center of a disembodied fantasy world. With Nature and Madness, Shepard has given us a book like no other for glimpsing what it would be like to bathe in the dissolution of that split, joyful and fulfilled again in world of restored wholeness.