Culture, evolution, and identity

I’ve been reading Intimacy and Desire, one of Schnarch’s books I hadn’t read yet, and it goes much more into some of the evolutionary science basis that he purports gave rise to some of the most common relational dynamics we see.

So as I’m reading it, one theme that comes up often for me having a background in anthropology is that I’m highly skeptical of ways that people attempt to fit modern social/interpersonal systems into an evolutionary context. I just think there is far too much cultural variability, not to mention things we will never know thanks to imperialism over thousands of years that has wiped innumerable cultures just off the map forever, to say for certain why certain emotional and behavioral patterns exist. 

And I give him a lot of credibility for his expertise and obvious innovation as a clinician who both continued his research throughout his entire career and worked with couples in his own office, which put him in a situation where he was able to weave together research with his own observations and come up with highly effective strategies for tackling interpersonal problems. He knew what he was seeing and confronted paradoxes in a way that changes how you see yourself and relationships forever.

(a quick aside- I make it no secret that I truly believe his work to be revolutionary and broadly applicable, particularly as a leftist invested in creating a sustainable movement, but I do actually hold back quite a bit and tailor myself around how I think his work can revolutionize understandings of abuse because I just don’t think many people are ready to really hear it).

This all said, I find some of the arguments he presents around the origins of certain cultural and behavioral patterns to be highly compelling. For instance, that monogamy and family units (perhaps not limited to nuclear but extended as well but based around monogamy) serve the purpose of security for the long and laborious process of raising neotonous offspring.  

For ppl not familiar, human beings have the longest period of development outside of the womb of any animal (neotony). The prevailing theory for why has to do with brain development and skull size – if babies heads grew any bigger in the womb, they couldn’t fit through a pelvic opening and reproduction would mean guaranteed fatality of both mom and offspring. Which isn’t a great evolutionary strategy as a species.

But in order to raise our young, we need far more resources than other species. We need support and community. Fatherhood is a pretty obvious source of support and it makes sense that families would culturally evolve to accommodate the burdens of child rearing. As societies grew more complex and specialized, the structure of tight knit communities began to be challenged. Monogamy serves as a social contract to (attempt to) ensure the support necessary to raise young. 

And it makes sense too that jealousy would be a nearly universal emotion- threats to the security of a childrearing pair bond literally could threaten survival. So societies have created complex rule systems to navigate this including punishments for beaching these contracts. 

Interestingly, our cognitive capabilities as humans also give us a sense of self that as far as we know is unique to us in the animal kingdom in it’s depth. So we have these two drives- attachment/pairbonding, and individuation. 

What’s interesting to me about this and has had my gears turning the last few days is that, as we know from studies on epigenetics we can change biologically very very quickly. Socially and culturally this is the case as well and thanks to neuroplasticity, as individuals we are highly adaptable.

My thoughts have been this: in what ways have our self-conceptions been influenced by technological advancements and the associated social shifts?

For instance in specialized agrarian society, identity was highly tied to occupation (baker, miller, shoemaker). In many indigenous societies, identity is tied to place, land features, food systems, etc. The industrial revolution (and colonization) obviously created major shifts that would have disrupted identity based on things like occupation, place, etc. Now we are in this fascinating (from a curious sociological perspective, terrifying to live in) time where technological advancements have pushed many of us to seek identity in terms of branding. And this identity is highly individual- there is less continuity in terms of communal connection (perhaps one need that narratives of nationalism or fascism seek to fill), which has it’s benefits and it’s drawbacks in terms of how we can individuate ourselves as well as how we conceptualize ourselves as in relationship to a greater community.

Of course identity is so much deeper and more complex than any of these things alone, even in agrarian, nomadic, or hunter gatherer societies, there is so much more to being an individual, and mediating those things within relational and cultural systems has likely always posed a challenge, particularly in systems that require rigidity of roles/social expectations and don’t value individuation as a natural human developmental need.

(I really want to dive more into this another time but I think looking at the Blackfoot ideas around this that Maslow “borrowed” from in proposing his hierarchy of needs points to the potential of a society based on differentiation and interdependence.)

It’s fascinating and exciting to me to think about what it means watching societal collapse what the future of identity formation could be. In this moment we are in a place where people are using social media to craft themselves as “the old books guy”, “the legal advice lady”, “the ADHD cleaning person”, etc. Like we know this isn’t the entirety of who we are but it takes up a significant portion of our psyches to be attempting to survive capitalism, stay relevant, wrestle with algorithms etc. At the same time we are so deeply alienated and cut off from one another and able to maintain an illusion of individuality that simply doesn’t exist. The reality of our interdependence is quite intentionally hidden from us and so we don’t consider thoughtfully the relationship between identity and self and how this relates to cohesion, sustainability, continuity. The places where we do encounter these struggles are usually in the private confines of a romantic relationship.

What are the possibilities of opening up that psychic space to something else? What will identity formation look like in the future? We seem only to be at the dawn of a world with true AI, how will that that shape our world and our concept of who we are- to ourselves and to each other?

And taking in a Bowenian/Schnarchian view of cognitive development, what would the structure of a society based in differentiation look like? Where we honor maturation as the intentional process of coming into alignment with a set of deeply held personal values? Identity is so often defined in relation to others- I am this because I come from/like this, I am not that because I am in opposition to that.

But that isn’t differentiation. Differentiation is clear, grounded, thoughtful. It can look at something it disagrees with and see the value of commonalities or shared principles. It can make solid decisions about what those commonalities mean based on observation (for instance- I believe in feminism and women’s rights but I don’t align myself with TERFs because my observations show me they are inconsistent and aligned with other dangerous ideologies).

I think to create a sense of identity one has to have something to compare to and the beauty of human diversity is that it’s inbuilt in our social environment whether we like it or not. But I do wonder what it might look like if our social environment was not shaped by violence and an economic and political system that keeps us all gasping for air. What would it look like if the underlying social fabric was one where respect/dignity for all human life was a given?

I know many examples of this come from indigenous societies! But what this could look like in a world with the kind of technology we have now, that is highly connected globally and interculturally, that has had to overcome immense violence, that we do not know.