PCDForum Column #51, Release Date June 25, 1993
by Mary E. Clark
Listening to National Public Radio I recently heard Pauline Baker complain
that "African societies are still ‘backward’ because when a man becomes
rich he has obligations to all his relatives and extended family, and so there
is never an opportunity to form a middle class." The argument is hardly
new, having been a staple of development economics theory for at least thirty
years. Yet the irony had never before struck me in quite the same way.
It seems we accept a definition of progress that depends on actively
breaking the social bonds that in more traditional societies have provided the
individual with both security and personal identity within a meaningful social
context. While we must not romanticize ties of obligation that have often proved
repressive and exploitive, it has become all too evident that the creation of a
shared sense of sacred meaning and social bonding is an essential function of a
healthy human society. Many still fail to realize that humans evolved to belong,
not to compete.
Substantial scientific evidence suggests that a tendency toward social
bonding is deeply imbedded in our human nature. The early human species could
not have survived without the expanded social bonding beyond parent and
offspring needed to protect helpless human infants a job that mothers alone
could not accomplish. Social bonding to one’s group was a biological necessity.
This included not only looking after the infants and their mothers, warding off
predators and even "strangers" of the same species, and sharing food,
often carrying it long distances back to the tribe. It also came to mean a life
long need to be among known others of one’s own kind. At this stage, "kind"
meant not just any member of one’s own species, but recognizable individuals who
shared the same social signals.
Contrary to what some would have us believe, violence and competition are
not inherent in our "animal" natures. Even chimpanzees, our nearest
animal relatives, are oriented more toward social than toward aggressive or
competitive behaviors naturally seeking out and enjoying the company of others
of their own kind. Destructive, "inhuman" behaviors are most likely to
occur in the absence of a supportive social structure. Individuals living in
societies with properly constructed and shared societal goals automatically have
self-esteem, grow naturally into maturity, and are spontaneously creative.
Yet we have come to accept the decline of an extended social support system
the extended family, lifelong friends and neighbors as an indicator of
modernity. Modern society has even alienated work from its sacred meaning as
one’s gift to society. Thus work, once imbued with sacred social meaning, is now
"labor," the value of which is measured in purely monetary terms.
One consequence of modern society’s lack of attention to sustaining social
bonds beyond the relationships of the market place is an enormous personal
insecurity. No one is ever sure of their social standing, of their role in the
community, or of their acceptance within the group. The results of this misfit
between what our society demands of people and what the human psyche needs, like
pimples on the surface of an unhealthy body, pop up here and there in a wide
variety of pathological behaviors from greed, dominance, wife-beating,
child-abuse, drug abuse, callousness and violence to obsessive needs for
attachment to sports teams, nations, and leaders who project an image of
strength. Such efforts to exercise or attach oneself to power over others and
the environment are manifestations of a pathological struggle to attain what
most modern societies deny namely bondedness, trust, affection, and a shared
Because their life’s work as mothers and nurturers provides women the sort
of psychic rewards that otherwise are in short supply, it is more common for men
than women to engage in the forms of pathological behavior associated with the
denial of these rewards. The point here is not to blame men for all of society’s
ills, but rather to acknowledge the pain that society inflicts on the male and
its dysfunctional social consequences. Then we can address the need to construct
a healthy society in which the psychic rewards of identity are readily available
to both men and women.
It is time to acknowledge that our society’s glorification of competition to
the exclusion of meaningful social bonding is a manifestation of a deep,
potentially fatal, social pathology that is basically contrary to our true
nature. In acting to correct this collective dysfunction we may have important
lessons to learn from those we have been all too quick to dismiss as backward.
Mary E. Clark is Laura C. Harris Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies
at Denison University, Granville, Ohio 43023, U.S.A. This column was prepared
and distributed by the PCDForum based on a collection of her papers.