Saturday, April 04, 2009

Embrace your inner caveman and be happy

A few years ago, I read these paragraphs in a book called The Human Zoo by noted anthropologist Desmond Morris:

‘Imagine a piece of land twenty miles long and twenty miles wide. Picture it wild, inhabited by animals small and large. Now visualise a compact group of sixty human beings camping in the middle of this territory. Try to see yourself sitting there, as a member of this tiny tribe, with the landscape, your landscape, spreading out around you farther than you can see.’

‘Now imagine a piece of land twenty miles long and twenty miles wide. Picture it civilised, inhabited by machines and buildings. Now visualise a compact group of six million human beings camping in the middle of this territory. See yourself sitting there, with the complexity of the huge city spreading out all around you, farther than you can see.’

All that separates these hugely different pictures is a few thousand years; a mere blip in the story of life and a very small portion of the 250,000 years that Homo Sapiens has been around. As scientists will tell you, if we found a bronze-age man frozen in the ice and were somehow able to defrost him and bring him back to life, he’d be quite capable of doing everything that we can do. He could drive a car, use word processing software and assemble flat-packed furniture. We are cavemen and women living in a world we did not evolve to fit. It is a world of complex, modern problems that our brain simply wasn't designed to cope with. Isn't it staggering that you can feel isolated and alone even in the midst of a city of millions?

We live atop a very thin veneer of civilisation that has been laid down over our biological history. It's probable that we are no longer physically evolving; we don't need to adapt to our environment because we can adapt the environment to us - often, sadly, with dangerous consequences. Natural selection no longer weeds out the aged, the infirm or the disabled. We live longer, richer lives and get to pass our genes on to our children, despite not being the biggest, strongest or most able. If we are evolving at all, it is through the structures of society rather than any natural cause. I mention this because I honestly believe that, every so often, our older, natural selves break out through the cracks in the veneer.
Philip Zimbardo is an American psychologist famed for a series of investigations into the nature of 'being human'. He's not the only person looking into these things but his experiments have been particularly revealing (If you want to know more, click here). Zimbardo and others have shown that, lurking just under the dermis of respectability and adherance to society's rules and values, we're actually still those cavemen and women of long ago. We are all inherently selfish - and quite rightly so if our survival and the survival of those we care for - depends upon it. One famous experiment, often repeated, shows clearly that most people in a hurry would not stop to help a stranger in distress. The importance of being on time outweighs compassion for many normal humans.

And we are not always as civilised and altruistic as we like to think we are. The Stanford Prison Experiment in particular seemed to indicate that we are all capable of horrific acts - even torture (see here). Countless other experiments have supported the idea that we are less than perfect. Just look at the parallels between Stanford and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers for example. But at a more mundane level ... how many people steal pens and staplers off colleagues' desks? How many people take items from hotel rooms? How many illegally download music and video? How many cross the road when the sign says 'Don't walk'? We are constantly fighting these urges; we are in a constant war with our baser selves. Occasionally we lose and the result is anti-social behaviour. But the cure for this is not stiffer penalties or more CCTV. I'm convinced that it all lies in embracing our inner caveman ...

Yesterday, and over the course of the past few weeks, I've been looking at community-based projects in London that are aimed at tackling so-called Gang Culture. Having spent a number of years working with such projects, the one fact that emerges time and time again for me is that the term 'gang' is completely wrong. It really is. It sends all of the wrong signals. Replace it with what you will - team, group, collection, crew - it makes no difference. The actual word we need to use is 'Tribe'.

That group of hunter-gatherers I mentioned right back at the start of this post would have been an extended family group probably led by a matriarch and a number of the stronger men. Everyone would have known everyone else. The majority would have been blood relations. Consequently, they were a tribe; a group of related individuals bound together and caring for each other. That's our natural state. I am convinced of that. It's what nature intended for us. Members of a close-knit tribe don't steal from each other. They don't kill each other. They don't mess up their shared environment.

Now go and visit a small community. Let's take a tiny Cotswolds village. What's the crime rate like there? It's probably very small because everyone knows everyone else. There are shared experiences and commonalities. There are community events. The children all know each other and their parents know each other. Why do you think that so many people are migrating from the cities to the countryside? This isn't some fictitious idyll. This is an example of a real, working, healthy community acting as a tribe.

Compare that to a crowded concrete housing estate in central London. No one knows their neighbour. Families are fragmented. Young Mums and Dads have no older relatives to teach them parenting skills or even right from wrong sometimes. They've been let down by their parents - some of whom are drug dependent (that selfishness makes their drug of choice more important than their children) - and sometimes they've been let down by the education system. The poorest and least able to function in society have all been thrown together into a crowd of strangers. So what tribe do they join? How can they get that sense of belonging that's etched into our DNA? Older people probably have day centres and women's groups and pubs where they can meet and bond. But what do the kids have except the street corners and stairwells? Is it any wonder that they look to join a tribe? The defining membership factor may be skin colour, geographical location, football club allegiance ... but the 'colours' are immaterial. It is enough to belong.

The popular press will tell you that these kids are criminal, evil, sociopaths. Older local residents want the kids swept from their streets (to where?). The kids, in the absence of family, youth clubs and strong role models, band together in adversity. Then they come under constant attack from all sides: police, tabloid press, local people etc. Bad things almost inevitably ensue. But it doesn't have to be that way.

One such estate - the Kingswood - in Southwark has recently turned itself completely around. Smart work by a partnership of police, the courts, social services, housing, the local authority, drug education groups, other agencies and - most importantly the residents and 'gang' members - has completely transformed everone's lives. Just a couple of years ago, the estate was rife with crime and anti-social behaviour. Things reached a tragic head with the fatal stabbing of a young lad named Shaki. However, just two years on, nearly 80% of residents say that the estate is a good place to live. The majority of kids say that they feel safe. So what's changed?

What has changed is the realisation that we have to revert to type. We have to look at the positive aspects of what being human means. The biggest driver for change on the Kingswood estate has been community cohesion; getting people from different demographic groups to see themselves as part of a greater whole - the Kingswood Tribe, if you like. It took some cajoling to get people to even talk to each other. And it does require some effort from all involved. But soon the older residents came to see that the kids were not actually the spawn of Satan. And the kids discovered that not everyone over 20 is a whingeing, fun-hating, coffin dodger. By turning the estate into a working tribe, many of the problems have simply vanished.

I guess the main point of this very rambling and not-too-well written post (Sorry ... I have written this in one sitting) is that sometimes it does us good to shrug off the shackles of modern life, political correctness and unhelpful labelling and re-examine who we are and what we want from this short life. People would, I'm sure, be healthier and more in tune with reality if they had to catch or pick or cultivate their own food. People would feel safer if they never felt isolated, alone, unloved and unprotected. The growth of our towns and cities means that we're drifting ever further away from these simple truths; we're losing our tribal roots and society is suffering as the result.

This can only be a personal viewpoint I know. But in 29 years as a cop I've seen the very worst of human behaviour and the very best too. And I'm utterly convinved that we need to seriously rethink the way that we live today. And we need to start with the poorest and least able to help themselves. Because if we don't, things are going to get a hell of a lot worse.

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