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The Big Answer


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The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society

a book by Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan Turner

(our site's book review)

In a challenging essay on human and primate evolution, the authors contend that human social structures contradict, more than they reflect, humans’ basic biological tendencies. They say we are more like the apes, that went in more individualistic and less social directions in their evolution than we are like the monkeys, which went mostly toward more social in their evolution. Wikipedia says "In their natural environments, the non-human hominoids show sharply varying social structure: gibbons are monogamous, territorial pair-bonders, orangutans are solitary, gorillas live in small troops with a single adult male leader, while chimpanzees live in larger troops with bonobos exhibiting promiscuous sexual behaviour." Of course, if these authors were to study such books as Carl Sagan’s and Ann Druyan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (which, like The Social Cage, was written in 1992) and others, they’d quickly realize that the primates we share the most genes with (98%) and from whom we’ve inherited the most sociocultural tendencies (chimpanzees) all rely on close-knit social groups to give them safety, security, a context from which to pass on learning, and company with whom they can play and thrive.

The primates we share the most genes with (98%) and from whom we’ve inherited the most sociocultural tendencies (chimpanzees) all rely on close-knit social groups to give them safety, security, a context from which to pass on learning, and company with whom they can play and thrive
The primates we share the most genes with (98%) and from whom we’ve inherited the most sociocultural tendencies (chimpanzees) all rely on close-knit social groups to give them safety, security, a context from which to pass on learning, and company with whom they can play and thrive


Chimpanzees, like humans, rely on close-knit social groups to give them safety, security, a context from which to pass on learning, and company with whom they can play and thrive
Chimpanzees, like humans, rely on close-knit social groups to give them safety, security, a context from which to pass on learning, and company with whom they can play and thrive

We’re not much like the solitary orangutans who are only that way because of food scarcity, and who easily fall into more social patterns if given the chance by outside influences (like humans that feed them and lead them into more social patterns, as depicted in a 1999 NOVA broadcast on PSB). Also, both apes and monkeys have well-developed social organization, and any tendency for either to be less social is simply a function of food scarcity—the advantages of social group living compared to solitary lifestyles are so great that these authors’ thesis of inherited nonsocial primate tendencies seems farfetched at best.

Apes and monkeys have well-developed social organization, and any tendency for either to be less social is simply a function of food scarcity—like the orangutans experience
Apes and monkeys have well-developed social organization, and any tendency for either to be less social is simply a function of food scarcity—like the orangutans experience

They propose that humans are in a “social cage” which encloses and represses the human instincts for individualism, autonomy and freedom. This is simply not so. In actual fact, what the social component of human existence has always done is to nurture OR warp, inspire OR depress, evolve us in nurturing groups OR incarcerate us in enmeshed groups, and benefit OR impair. In other words, without a social component, humans are nothing but wild, foolish animals unequipped to survive, so the mothering, learning, and socialization that occurs in extended human childhoods gives us great potential because of language, identity and the realities of civilization, but it is also true that world history and cultural anthropology have proved that societies—beyond the role of feeding and clothing the young and making sure they survive—vary greatly as to the benefit or harm they do in the way they socialize and train their young.

The authors say humans are in a 'social cage' which encloses and represses the human instincts for individualism, autonomy and freedom
The authors say humans are in a 'social cage' which encloses and represses the human instincts for individualism, autonomy and freedom

Societies vary from being secure, inspiring, happiness-producing influences that make the young feel cared about to being insecure, fearful, hateful, rejecting influences that make the young feel angry, afraid and numb. So the social component of human life can traumatize the young and wreck human potentials, or it can inspire the young toward self-actualization and wonderful lives. But there is, of course, a third possibility: It can affect humans in a way that is somewhere between these two extremes. And as we all know, that is what most societies do. None have ever been at the positive extreme as far as we know. But there have been a few cases—like the Ik, near Uganda—near or at the negative extreme.

This highlights the fact that the social component in itself is neither a “cage” nor is a set of stick-on wings that guarantees that we will be allowed to soar off in a blissful rapture. It is reductionistic to put a value on the very fact of social reality itself. It makes more sense to see it as what it is: a facilitator for a continuum of possibilities that varies from the very good to the very bad. The authors needed to read more Maslow and less sociological claptrap full of abstract and conspicuously useless theorization. When good socialization happens, the result can be wonderful. When bad socialization happens, the result can be tragic. The former frees, inspires and evolves us. The latter cripples us. Therefore a social-cage context is perhaps an apt metaphor for the bad type in which groups enmesh, restrict, traumatize, reject, humiliate and teach anti-human values and beliefs. But to generalize that there is an intrinsically incarcerating quality to socialization per se is absurd.

The authors’ trivialization of the recent (and not so recent) concerns over loss of community (by wise and sophisticated thinkers like Etzioni and Eberly and us) is ill-conceived and presented sans sociological insight. And the idea that humans would reach autonomy and achieve freedom better with less social influences is naïve. Let’s state it with the greatest possible clarity and simplicity: HUMANS ARE NOT BURDENED WITH SOCIAL INFLUENCES BECAUSE OF THEIR QUANTITY, BUT BECAUSE OF THEIR QUALITY. MOST HUMANS NEED MORE AND BETTER SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS THAN WHAT THEY HAVE. SURELY THEY NEED LESS OF THE NEGATIVE KINDS OF SOCIAL EXPERIENCES THAT THEY HAVE ENCOUNTERED. BUT THEY ALSO NEED MORE OF THE POSITIVE KINDS OF SOCIAL EXPERIENCES, WHICH THEY HAVE YET TO—AND MAY NEVER—EXPERIENCE. AND THE BEST WAY TO INSPIRE HUMANS TO REACH AUTONOMY, AND BECOME FREE, SELF-ACTUALIZING INDIVIDUALS IS THROUGH PLENTY OF THE BEST TYPE OF SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS. (THINK MCs.)

The collectivist, welfare-state mindset bred other-directed conformists
The collectivist, welfare-state mindset bred other-directed conformists

Is this book really a camouflaged slam at the collectivist impulses of liberals and other-directed impulses of social conformists in general? They tip their hand as they discuss “the collectivist bias of much sociology.” They also expose a conservative bias as they talk about industrial capitalism being more compatible with our primate legacy than agrarian societies were. (They seem to be constricted to discussing the merits of Second Wave civilization as opposed to First Wave civilization. Where in the world is their consideration of Third Wave civilization? By so much focus on sociologists of the past, they have missed the forest for the trees. Their thinking is obsolete and they seem to be apologists for what they consider to be the current industrial capitalist regime, even though the U.S. is already 90 percent service industry and 10 percent goods production and more people work in knowledge industries than in industrial production. There’s a head-in-the-sand, nostalgic feel to all this.)

By so much focus on sociologists of the past, they have missed the forest for the trees
By so much focus on sociologists of the past, they have missed the forest for the trees


There’s a head-in-the-sand, nostalgic feel to all this; have the authors missed seeing the Third Wave civilization altogether?
There’s a head-in-the-sand, nostalgic feel to all this; have the authors missed seeing the Third Wave civilization altogether?

The authors say the goal should be to construct cageless societies that restrain the “repressiveness of community.” While they’re right in wanting to keep humans out of oppressive, restrictive, enmeshing and incarcerating situations, they may be throwing out the baby with the bath water. They consider their tome to be “. . . a short book on human evolution,” but, in reality, it is a short book on misguided ideas with the laudable goal of keeping us out of cages but the hopeless strategy of reductionistic and anachronistic social theorizing that comes out a day late and a dollar short.

Obsession with the 'repressiveness of community' is leading the authors to throw out the baby with the bath water
Obsession with the 'repressiveness of community' is leading the authors to throw out the baby with the bath water

A vastly superior way to explore the advantages and liabilities of “social cages” is to read Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and works by Fromm, Maslow, Louv, Dyer, Putney and Putney, and Slater. Riesman’s work, for example, shows how society can mold some of us into conformists (with inner-directed, other-directed, or tradition-directed character structure) and others of us into autonomous beings. The latter happens when people transcend social pressures and become at cause, exercise self-control, and choose who they are as they choose to run their lives rather than letting their lives run them. The conformists are mostly at effect of their environments and social or parental pressures and values, and their lives mostly run them rather than the other way around. One could consider the lives of the conformists described by Riesman—or even the lives of those run by their authoritarian conscience, described by Erich Fromm—to be in a “social cage.”

The Adjusted American by Snell and Gail Putney have us not only in a cage of alienation but running neurotically on a hamster wheel, but it's the quality of their relationships that put them there, not 'society'
The Adjusted American by Snell and Gail Putney have us not only in a cage of alienation but running neurotically on a hamster wheel, but it's the low quality of their relationships that put them there, not 'society'. They would not be alienated or neurotic or in a cage or on a wheel if their relationship quality was good.


Is this man more likely to survive as an individual fighting 'heroically' or as part of a cooperating, fire-wielding group? Group/clan living facilitated human survival and evolution.
Is this man more likely to survive as an individual fighting 'heroically' or as part of a cooperating, fire-wielding group? Group/clan living facilitated human survival and evolution.

However, since the autonomous people are nurtured in the very same society, but their lives are not locked in social cages but free expressions of who they are, it follows that it isn’t society itself but the quality of the nurturance we receive in our society and the quality of the existential decisions we make about our beings, choices, relationships, self-actualization, self-control and values that determine our life quality. Within the same society is good nurturance and bad nurturance, good life decisions and bad life decisions. This more nuanced assessment trumps black-and-white "community holds us back" thinking, and it can be found in the works of any of the authors just cited. The authors do well in warning us about community excesses, but err in warning us about community per se.

If we let life run us rather than the reverse, we are indeed in a cage, running on a hamster wheel
If we let life run us rather than the reverse, we are indeed in a cage, running on a hamster wheel

If we let life run us, we are indeed in a cage. If we take charge of our lives, use the best Third Wave knowledge to make sure the lifestyles we have inspire us and our young in the direction of self-actualization, make good decisions about our relationships, beings, and values, and act with wisdom, humanness and compassion so as to become part of the world’s solution rather than part of the world’s problem, then we are not only not in a cage, we are in a wonderland. But the main thing about attaining such a thing is that it is not a given.

If we take charge of our lives, use the best Third Wave knowledge to make sure the lifestyles we have inspire us and our young, we're soon in wonderland
If we take charge of our lives, use the best Third Wave knowledge to make sure the lifestyles we have inspire us and our young, we're soon in wonderland

But this wonderland is not what one can expect from society. It is only individual decisions, courage, lifewish, and good sense that lead one in such a direction. No one can do it for us. It is our individual responsibility to seize the day and make the best of life. Do NOT look to leaders, politicians, gurus, or the programs of the social engineering advocates. Those who self-actualize and find wonderland find out that society is merely a context, but one that we can thrive within. It is a great opportunity to live in a reasonably benign society. But only for those willing to “go for it”—meant in the ontological-spiritual sense, not the materialistic sense. For those that do not seize their opportunity, it becomes a cage. Happily, today’s conformists (inner-directed or other-directed) can choose to become tomorrow’s autonomous beings, if freedom and being and happiness and meaning mean enough to them to prompt them to “go for it.”

Fear of the future and rampant political corruption and observing that control of the U.S. has been taken over by warmongering neocon empire builders have all conspired to coax people to seek "authorities" to guide them, rather than reason, logic, and knowledge. People are unsure of themselves, can't find jobs, and seek reassurance on Facebook whose unstated rule is "I won't notice your shortcomings is you won't notice mine." People who do not accept or like themselves get indirect self-acceptance on social networking sites, presenting a false self to the world. People cease thinking and let their peers or churches do it for them. The trouble with ceasing to grow as a person is that what doesn't progress will regress. The main trend in human culture in 2017 is regression and abandonment of science in favor of authorities. To the extent the culture is influencing people to seek "authorities" to guide them because the work of self-actualization is seen to be too tedious and/or time consuming, to that extent people are indeed in a social cage. And this situation unfortunately describes the majority of humans on our beautiful planet.

Humans are regressing toward pre-Enlightenment thinking that depends upon 'authorities' to guide them, rather than reason, logic, and knowledge. So life will be about two things: tyrants and religion. It's almost as though civilization is stuck in reverse.

Humans are regressing toward pre-Enlightenment thinking that depends upon "authorities" to guide them, rather than reason, logic, and knowledge. So life will be about two things: tyrants and religion. It's almost as though civilization is stuck in reverse and along with that it would seem that human evolution is stuck in reverse. Think about it: brains that cease thinking for themselves and instead let authorities do it for them are unused organs that will degenerate. (In the Middle Ages and Dark Ages, people did little thinking and neither civilization nor evolution progressed one whit.) Thinking takes lots of effort and energy, but replaying tired old religious dogma in one's head takes hardly any energy. Sort of like watching a movie compared to writing a movie or using an app compared to programming an app. Humans are more evolved than apes because they think (or at least they used to—now they just quiver in fear in megachurches). Nonthinking humans are like apes without body hair—not much else is different. There are sayings that point out that if something isn't growing it's dying, and a flowing river stays healthy, while a stagnant pool generates diseases and smells bad. A mind replaying tired old religious dogma in place of thinking and being closed to new experiences and ideas does not flow, grow, or create. It stagnates, degenerates, and is unproductive.

Unfortunately, the 21st century Dark Ages (a.k.a. Dark Ages 2.0) will be ripe for exploitation by tyrants, demagogues, and psychotics. Narcissistic political performers will fill leadership positions—they will be people out to gain power and wealth not for the people but for themselves—to stroke their egos and improve their lot in life. Sometimes their goal will be to try to make up for the fact they dislike themselves by getting others to admire them.