The New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott, has written an interesting article about why in his view that Americans have become less adult and more juvenile over the past few decades. The tile of the article The Death of Adulthood in American Culture is premised on the idea that American culture is responsible for a terrible disservice. “It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”
Scott’s conclusion is Americans, if judged by their TV, movies and fiction have entered a stage of perpetual adolescence. In examining this premise, a couple of points are useful when considering Scott’s analysis. Like a blind man describing a wolf by running his hand along a wolf’s tail. It’s not wrong; it’s just not a very good description of a wolf. And you run the risk of mistaking a wolf for a dog.
The divide between adults and juveniles isn’t just an American cultural issue. As with most states of being, it is better to avoid a binary view and see a continuum with concepts such as a complex network of various degrees of wisdom, maturity, experience, empathy, attitudes, or belief systems. The problem with isolating the issue as mainly about the consumption of modern film and TV programs is to miss the broader and deeper layers that go with adulthood.
Let’s start with some basic information about process of domestication. Homo species did not begin as domesticated animals. Domestication is a relatively recent event for dogs and for people. It required thousands of years to create a docile, dependent mindset necessary for people who no longer live in a state of ‘nature’ but live cheek by jowl in megacities beside millions of others. That concentration of strangers is abnormal. We never evolved to live with millions of strangers. The psychology had to be manufactured into broadly accepted social constructs first. Remove those social constructs and revert to the traditional adult member that evolved in our species, and you’d likely find that our cities would be far more like Mad Max rather than Hangover II.
Neoteny isn’t a word you come across every day. Think of an animal that occupies the state of being an eternal juvenile. The idea has both a biological and psychological component. Neoteny is reflected in biology when the animal retains traits that appear childlike. It is the difference between wolves and dogs. The domesticated dog has floppy ears, a curly tail, and puppy like snout and face. Compared to a wolf, the dog lacks the aggressive, adult look of a wolf. No one would think of training a wolf to be a seeing-eye companion for a human being.
Here are some numbers I’ve extracted from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind📷. There are around 250,000 wolves remaining in the ‘wild’ and around 400 million dogs in streets, houses, farms living as pets dependent on human beings. The adult wolf, in the wild, isn’t man’s best friend. He is aggressive, hunts to kill, attacks for food or when threatened. There are 200,000 chimps on the planet, and seven billion homo sapiens. Scaling the wolf population to 400 million or chimps to 7 billion is an interesting thought experiment.
What would life be on a planet with such numbers of wolves and chimps? Fill the BTS in Bangkok with chimps from different groups and run it between two stages, and open the doors and you’d find blood, hair, and severed limbs splattered across the seats and walls. Feral, wild creatures outside of their group turn aggressive and violent in the presence of strangers. We have no reason to believe that the innate nature of homo sapiens is little different from that of his close cousin, the chimp. Yet we ride the commuter train without violent attack. Either our biological and psychological conditioning has through accelerated evolutionary pressure fundamentally changed our nature, or that nature remains under a surface and the lid is held on for other reasons.
We can conclude that the changes to the way we process our reaction to strangers has made our species far less hostile. Whatever our current chaos—terrorism, wars, plagues, natural disaster—would be trivial compared to sharing the planet with the scaled up populations of wolves and chimps.
By all scientific accounts (which won’t match the holy books) for the vast amount of our 100,000 year run as a species we lived in small bands or groups that rarely numbered more than a couple of dozen members. The total homo sapiens numbers ranged from the hundreds of thousands to the low millions for most of this period. Evolution produces a biology and psychology that equips an adult with a high level of aggressive behavior. While within the small band or group, the adults may battle for Alpha status, the adults in the band normally don’t turn and maim and kill each other. But if you are a stranger, that is a different matter altogether.
Richard Wrangman’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence arising in primate bands and culture. Those outside the ban can be beaten, raped and killed. There is no taboo against the murder of a stranger. There is no social construct that renders the murder of a stranger into a ‘sin’ or a ‘morally’ reprehensible act. How can we reconcile civilizations if we are a species who possess such an evolutionary pedigree? Clearly, no society of millions of people could exist that rested the foundation that cold-blooded murder of strangers was permissible behavior.
A lot of public and private resources are spent on domestication programs, e.g., schools, universities, churches, and associations. The failures of these programs often fall into the category of psychopath, a person who experiences no regret or remorse in the act of harming or killing another person.
Another reaction is to blame the violence on a ‘foreigner’—someone who is not one of ‘us’, someone suspected of being less than human. In the recent brutal murder of two British nationals on Koh Tao, local police are quoted as saying they suspected a migrant worker had committed the murders. The Bangkok Post noted no evidence was offered to support the speculation. It is a hard pill to swallow that people inside your own culture are as capable as anyone to engage in savage acts of violence.
Neoteny is not limited to biology or the physical difference between a feral and domesticated animal. Psychological neoteny occurs when the domestication is internalized. We socialize the aggression out of human beings. We create social constructs from religion and ideology to expand our feelings about people who are not kin. Strangers become brothers in arms. You couldn’t have a modern army without first establishing the belief that the person in the foxhole next to you won’t slit your throat in the middle of the night. The aggression trigger is reset by instilling the prevailing social construct in a large population of strangers who overcome the strangeness of others and replace it with a feeling of unity and solitary. Domesticated and feral aren’t binary choices. There is long continuum with domesticated and feral at either end. Depending on the time, place, history and culture, large groups of people cluster towards the domesticated end of the spectrum. We are a species that tends towards the kind of large-scale social co-operation that comes from successful domestication.
We are, for the most part, juveniles living inside our group or culture with the psychological settings established by ideology or religion, and this defines the borders of our comfort zone. But we can easily descend into chimps on a rampage when our leaders target non-believers as non-human and command us to attack. This chimp-like aggression isn’t always easily tamed in every member of the community, and we have violent actors who are dealt with by the police, courts, and prison system. We can say these ‘adults’ lack impulse control. Or we can say the social constructs haven’t sufficiently repressed the inherent violence that is part of our biological and psychological heritage.
These are the traits of adulthood, a mature member of the species, feeding, fighting, fleeing and fucking as opportunity, reward and threat appear in his environment.
Scott wrote in his article, “I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” That should be no surprise. Our social constructs are intended to maintain a juvenile vision of the world. Without them, our world of seven billion people wouldn’t be one anyone would wish to live in.
Then Scott raises an existential question about adulthood and violence:
“Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?
“Before we answer that, an inquest may be in order. Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?”
What killed adulthood wasn’t a TV show or a movie? Or what has happened in the United States over the last fifty or two hundred years. We have created an illusion of adulthood because calling people over the age of eighteen children is thought patronizing or demeaning. We don’t really want the mature, aggressive adult wolf or chimp. We want the softer version of the housedog that obeys and wags its tail when you come home.
And now for Scott’s conclusion, “It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.”
Where the analysis goes off the rails is to associate childhood with perpetual freedom and delight. The reality is we’ve long cultivated a juvenile mindset, as that person is comfortable being a dependent. And once a person accepts dependency, he or she is far easier to control and manipulate. Political leaders in number of countries including England and Australia have publicly expressed their anxiety in their young men traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS. As the rest of the world watches ISIS use social media to recruit fighters from around the world. They hope to attract more young male recruits by circulating YouTube videos of beheadings. The message is clear. Leave aside the domestication of your country, and join us on a jihad to kill the infidel foreign journalists, AID workers and other non-believers. They make their murdering into a righteous cause. A certain personality will find an attraction in that act of murder and the ideology that justifies and condones it.
That anxiety is about the return of these recruits to their home countries. The fear is once back in London, Toronto, Sydney or KL, their mindset has been fundamentally altered. Their social construct is closer to the ‘wolf’ or ‘chimp.’ The home country domestication has failed in its mission and the new psychology is one based on our most ancient and primitive nature, where violence, aggression and murder are widespread.
The problem is illustrated in a Bangkok Post article with Kuala Lumpur as the dateline: “Police have arrested at least 19 suspected militants loyal to the IS this year and say they uncovered their plan to bomb a Carlsberg brewery near the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the IS militants in a statement in August, saying their actions were ‘counter to our faith, our culture and our common humanity.” A case is being made that we should prepare ourselves for many more such stories coming from an increasing number of countries.
The need to maintain our social constructs that reinforce a dependent-like state, one that falls short of the fully autonomous adult, may be the price to be paid for social co-operation among strangers.
“Humans have been evolving toward greater ‘psychological neoteny’.” Dr. Bruce Charlton, a Newcastle University psychology professor, said what looks like immaturity — or in his terms, the “retention of youthful attitudes and behaviors into later adulthood”— is actually a valuable developmental characteristic, which he calls psychological neoteny. Physical neotenization in humans has, likewise, caused psychologically neotenous traits in humans: curiosity, playfulness, affection, sociality and an innate desire to cooperate.”
Adulthood hasn’t died. American culture hasn’t killed it. Our adulthood has been resized to accommodate billions of people. Our ancient adulthood equipped us to live and interact inside an environment and way of life long since vanished. Our ancestor had much more detailed knowledge about the natural world. They survived in the wild through their knowledge about hundreds of plants and animals and terrains. Throw a modern person into a jungle and the ignorance of nature, which is the default state of the domesticated, and our fate becomes obvious. Domesticated man can only survive through co-operation with thousands or millions of others within a system much larger than any of us, a system which no one person fully understands or could explain in sufficient detail to rebuild it should it be destroyed.
We have inherited our emotional reflexes from vanished world where higher levels of aggression, fueled by self-reliance and independence, provided an advantage. That aggression, in part, served to enhance the breath and depth of our knowledge about the untamed world. In 2014, an argument can be made that our emotional gearing suffers from over specification. Not enough time has passed for our emotions to naturally evolve to fit the demands of a life our vastly more limited knowledge about the world and is sufficient to support a repetitive life of routine.
Adolescence (Lord of the Flies) can be aggressive and violent as any adult. The crucial difference is the control over the child by the parent, who is the adult. We’ve evolved a redefinition of adulthood. Whether the end result is called immaturity, juvenile, or childlike is beside the point. Those are categories that distinguish human traits that fall short of what is perceived to be adulthood.
We are forced by the sheer scale of numbers to accept that domestication is necessary and is bound to mirror the values in our culture. There is an important caveat— our historical violence is receding but the violence that remains indicates that our domestication remains an incomplete process. And when the ISIS fighters who return to their home countries in the West ‘radicalized’ with a radically different social construct about murder, the fear is the returnees have reinvented themselves as the original ‘Adulthood”, the one who worked in small bands and took no prisoners.
A number of governments’ fear, based on uploaded YouTube horrors recorded about the violence of a few thousands of such fighters, is spreading. The deep fear is the security headaches once these fighters return radicalized to their home countries. They also fear that ISIS ex-fighters may change the frequency on the domesticated and feral bandwidth, making social co-operation more difficult. They will have to confront the possibility of a couple of hundred ex-fighters whose experience has caused a reversal of neoteny and reversion to the demonic male. The day that your golden retriever reverts to its true wolf nature will make coming home a different experience.
Looking ahead to the immediate future, what is likely to replace the crude religious/ideological social constructs that are collapsing in many parts of the world will be a combination of chemicals and brain-computer interconnectivity. This idea isn’t ripped out of a science fiction novel. We are already some distance down this road. News reports hint at what we can expect:
“Currently, brain-computer interfaces can detect emotions. Some technologies, such as deep brain stimulation, can induce emotions directly into the brain. It’s only a matter of time before input is connected with output. This would be a form of telepathic empathy—a technology that lets you feel some piece of what another person is feeling.”
The potential for governments, the police, the military and the superrich to use such technology raises many issues. But this never stopped the spread and use of religion and ideology as means of social control. The new technology will finish the job started by religion. We’ve only begun to explore the digital world for the means to perfect mind control.
As Leonard Cohen said in 1992, “I have seen the future, it is murder.”