Our material conditions limit us, but not as much as we think they do. Imagine a farmer who has a wild forest next to his pasture. If he has a capable body, he could certainly choose to hunt and gather. The material circumstances permit a wide range of possibilities. But almost always the real counterparts of our hypothetical farmer feel trapped: to them, the pasture is all there is, the only possibility.
Marxism and cultural materialism are therefore insufficient for explaining why cultures take the form they do, because they ignore the biopsychological side of behavior. The farmer could hunt and gather, but for whatever combination of reasons he is fixated on the farming way of life. The artificial environment has shaped him through a cultural evolutionary process, encouraging unhealthy psychological patterns that keep him locked into the social system. This, of course, is not because the social system has acquired a conspiratorial intention of control. The world just works that way: evolutionarily.
Place a forest organism in a marsh and the organism and marsh will begin to shape each other. In the original Darwinian framework, the marsh works exclusively on the organism, selecting traits that make it adapted to the new environment. In reality, the organism’s interaction with the environment itself imposes evolutionary pressures — like the way deer overpopulate in the absence of large predators. Either way, the point stands that the form the world takes is through an interactive process, each component pushing and pulling at the other, shaping the other more successfully if it holds a more powerful position. It tends to be true that the environment holds more power than the organism on the whole. I do not think it unreasonable to propose that always the environment is a primary determinant of the biology, psychology, and behavior of the organism.
If this is true, then we can see clearly how our artificial environments trap us. Take a human — an organism adapted to hunting and gathering — and place him in an artificially constructed farming environment. This new environment demands certain behaviors from the human, instills in him certain patterns of life and psychological tendencies. Ortega y Gasset writes:
The hunter does not look tranquilly in one determined direction, sure beforehand that the game will pass in front of him. The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen… thus he needs to prepare an attention with does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a ‘universal’ attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points.
But what would farming do to a man’s attention? How would his myths change with the shift from a forest developing outside his control, to a pasture that dies and is reborn according to his labor?
Consider, for example, the process of acquiring food under hunting-gathering conditions and under farming conditions. The hunter/gatherer engages every aspect of his mind and body; the farmer plows, and thereby denies aspects of his bodily health by necessity. This in turn creates a psychology that reinforces his degradation. After several years of plowing the hunter-turned-farmer is not at full capacity, and, already fixated on farming life, he now feels ever more dependent. How could he become a hunter with the body of a farmer? he thinks, and loses the will to make himself. He becomes infected with a learned helplessness.
Today, however, we have an anthropological history of man, an overview of his full capacities. We see what he has done in Egypt, Greece, modern Europe, Mesopotamia… Man has even had different conceptions of time, which bred entirely different relationships with the world around him. Man holds all these potentials, all these capacities, within him. Is it inconceivable to imagine a human who could flit between the whole spectrum of these possibilities — an anthropological man — fuller than any of the narrow incarnations of human being he sees around him?