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Towards A Biology of Culture

Originally, I planned to just offer one sample chapter in this section. But later, I changed my mind and added the rest of the material below.

Note: the following sample chapter is repeated, for the most part, below. This repetition was initially unintentional, but I've left it since the one below is a bit changed because it's a different draft. In addition, the sample chapters here are not listed in the order they fall in the book itself, because website format demands they be placed alphabetically. To read them in the proper order, please check the list of chapters that follow. Those who would like to read them in proper order should begin with "Dennis' Story."

The entire book can be found here:




          One cannot believe in kindness, in morality, and in disinterestedness because of psychology. But one cannot believe in evil, etc., because of history.


                                                                                               Albert Camus




          The old folks of Mahotiere will tell you that the Mistress of the Water is a mulatto woman. At midnight she comes out of the spring singing, combing her long, dripping hair which makes a music sweeter than violins. It's a song of perdition for anyone who hears it. There's no sign of the cross or, "In the name of the Father," that can save him. Its evil charm catches him like a fish in a net and the Mistress of the Water waits for him at the edge of the spring and sings and smiles at him, and beckons for him to follow her down into the bottomless water from whence he will never return.


                                                                                            Jacques Roumain




          The witch doctor recognized that evil spirits are bad feelings (hostility and malevolence) and that these can make a person ill.   Bringing these feelings out into the open and discharging them through the maneuvers of the shaman or witch doctor freed the individual and the community from a negative force that had disturbed their well-being.  As therapists, we try to do the same thing, but since we are unable to bring the community itself directly into the therapeutic process, there is no final resolution of the conflict.


                                                                                             Alexander Lowen



          To tackle the question of the scientific truth of the biology of culture in a more specific and pertinent way, let's focus on the aforementioned relationship between image and emotion. 


          One wintry morning back in Massachusetts, I was feeling sufficiently down that I decided to do some bioenergetic exercise before going to my desk to write.  After a few minutes of stretching, grounding, and doing a falling exercise (in which I stand on one leg then the other with knees slightly bent, till I topple onto the mattress), I found myself in my usual end position: laying on the floor on my stomach, calmly breathing, perhaps still making a sound or two, and letting the pure pleasure of physical reconnection throw into conscious relief any emotions that might come up.


          Soon I felt the sense of gloom that had led me to do the body work that day lose some of its vaguely abstract quality and transform into a tangible sense of weight upon my back.


          No matter how many times I experience an emotion turn into a bodily sensation as it wends its way out of my system, I am still surprised and amazed when it happens again.  This, obviously, is a by-product of all the years I've spent repressing, denying, trivializing, sublimating or otherwise ignoring the very existence of my feelings.  So it took me a moment or two to make the connection and understand what was happening. 


          Bioenergetically exorcising a feeling is often at once both pleasurable--in the Lowenian sense of release and movement--and uncomfortable, since to have been repressed in the first place, it would have to have been painful, embarrassing or in some other way too difficult for the conscious mind to deal with at the moment.  Now, in the present, the extra-added power and support of being grounded and reconnected reverses the tightening up of the muscles that accompanied the storing of the feeling within the subconscious.


          But once free of the social context that originally precipitated the repression (three days previous or three decades), and with the aid of exercise and the ground, as well as the emotional and intellectual support of the therapeutic context, you can let go of that original feeling--anger, sorrow--or whatever it was that the circumstances inhibited you from expressing at the time. 


          Often, if not always, once I have fully connected with and released the repressed emotion(s), and experienced the involuntary deep relaxed breath that for me usually signals the successful completion of a bioenergetic, I'll "get" an image.  The image is usually nothing flashy, nothing more than a fleeting picture. But it's still, nonetheless, indisputably obvious--a waking dream image if you will.  Sometimes the image will be totally literal, for example something from the scene at which the feeling was repressed in the first place.  This, as in regular dreams, can involve various people, places and things.  When an image is so familiar, its meaning can be immediately clear.


          At other times, though, the image is so abstract that it's hard not to view it as some sort of metaphorical clue, not just to the origin of the feeling, but to the creativity of the unconscious mind.


          The image I received that particular morning seemed to fall into the latter category. For, as the sense of physical oppression representing the state of my emotions began to lift, the image I got was that of a golem.


          No sooner had I seen this golem, however, than it vanished. But so, along with it, did any sense of physical oppression or feeling of gloom.


          Now, if, before that moment, you had asked me whether golems, which are esoteric fictional creatures found mainly in Yiddish literature or more recently, in pop culture comics and computer games, held any particular significance for me, I would have said, "Of course not.  Golems are merely some odd bit of myth of which I ought to be only marginally aware." Yet here I was with the image of one churning somehow significantly in my unconsciousness and attaching itself to a feeling which, on this morning, seemed to be very much an intimate and significant part of my life. Heavy and oppressive, it had been lumbering lugubriously about in my psyche.


          After the fact, of course, the subliminal presence of the image did make sense, I suppose. But no more sense, to my conscious mind, than most other kinds of dream imagery.  What was exciting and important about its appearance, however, in addition to its having been an integral part of a healing process that morning, is the way this showed the relationship between the release of body tension, feeling and image within a bioenergetic context.


          But in my enthusiasm in describing the moment, I realize, I have to some extent digressed from the main issue:  Can such an experience ever lend itself to the development of a science?  Is it "real" enough?  Is it representative of a body of fact that is knowable or provable?  Does there lay within this sea of vague, personal, intimate impressions some generalizable, independent, stand-alone mechanism that could be demonstrated to operate in many if not all such situations?  Or is it so idiosyncratic as to be deserving of the condescending attitude the confession of such personal therapeutic experiences usually elicits.


           Well, the hypothesis here is that this is a science, or at least the beginnings of one. Yet, at this point in the evolution of our social scientific knowledge, even if what we have here is scientific evidence, you will never find a wholly satisfactory answer to the question of its ultimate validity solely in this book, or in any book.  (Though books can help.) For we are still at a point in the development of this science in which our bodies are the laboratory and we as individuals the ultimate testing ground.


          So in order to come to the point where you are at least in some form in rudimentary agreement with me, you must first experience for yourself, with yourself, some convincing correlation between bioenergetic cause and effect.


          Do similar kinds of experiences tend to repeat themselves when you do your body work?  Does a pattern become discernible? And, keeping in mind all the while, as we ask these questions, that what makes the exercises at once so challenging, confusing and potentially rewarding is that, in doing them, you are doing culture as much as you are doing biology.


          Let's presuppose for the sake of argument that you get this far.  A major stumbling block at this point is still the question of whether these things, the feelings and images elicited, are "real."


          "So what if all this stuff is happening?  It isn't real, anyway."


          And here is precisely where culture enters into biology.


          How so? Well, personally, I would hope that you saw that the obvious answer to this question of, "Is it real?" would be  "It is and it isn't." And that at the same time you understood that this kind of answer does not make the existence of the phenomena in question any less profound, but in fact all the more so.


          A Haitian priest and an American doctor are walking down the road together near the priest's home.  Suddenly the Haitian stops dead in his tracks.

          "Why are we stopping?" asks the American?

          "To wait for those three donkeys to cross the path."

          The American looks at where the Haitian is looking but sees nothing.  Not sure of what to do, he says nothing, just nods feebly.

          Eventually they just walk on, their relationship irrevocably altered, and probably not for the better.


          Did the priest actually see those donkeys or didn't he?

          Were they really real or weren't they?


          Well, did I see that golem or didn't I?


          I suppose we could write us all off, including yourself during your own bodywork experiences, as "crazy." Or, alternatively, we could see something of scientific significance here.

          Does your response, your attitude, depend on biology?

          On culture?  On both?  Or on neither?


          Let's presume the priest's donkeys were in the same category of phenomenon as my golem. Then we might envision how, without their being real in the same way to the priest as a few saddled-up Rocky Mountain burros might be to that American doctor back home on vacation, there's still exists enough of a link between image, emotion and body for him to simultaneously "see" and palpably sense those donkeys.


          So cultural relativity could apply, not only to the kind of imagery we use, but to the way we use it. To add some common sense and common experience to this argument, we only need think of what usually happens to us Northerners after any extended visit to the tropics. Few of us are surprised to find ourselves with an enlivened body sense and more vivid dream life after only a few days in such a different environment. So what kinds of cultural changes do you suppose might occur in people living there for ten millenia?   Might such people not be sporting sensory adaptations that run much closer to the surface than in us colder, more hidebound Northerners, who have long since rendered the processes of perception much more subliminal. For better and worse. 


          Arguably, it is just this more active and socially integrated relationship to our creative unconscious, and in some central way the body's role in it, that we "first-worlders" have paved over in our urgent, and eminently successful, scramble for emotional and technological control.


          While the technologies of 1945 and after have given us both the potential and the incentive to change, we have scarcely begun to catch up to outer technology in terms of an awareness of our inner technologies.


          These inner technologies, whose approach and effects often run parallel to the modes of language--vindictive, provocative and ameliorative--tend to kick in automatically and with great intensity at precisely those moments when that more "primitive" body sense is in danger of being restored.


          In many ways, in fact, civilized behavior can be defined in terms of our attempt, with varying degrees of success, to escape from the messiness of those immediate interconnections between body, feeling, and image.  Sometimes our attempts to hold on to the immediate sense of health, wholeness, and strength it conveys--when not exploding into uncontrollable violence--have had beneficial results.


          The lives of the Romantic poets reflect in part the various results of a somewhat belated attempt, historically speaking, to straddle this chasm of communication. Several of these poets attempted to reconcile the unreconcilable, trying on one hand to find the ultimate source of language in the body, and on the other to develop the fullest expression of life's vicissitudes within a body of language.


          In both the beauty of their art and the excess of their lives, poets like Byron and Shelly often epitomized the war between these two opposing, yet nonetheless still somehow complementary directions in human language.


          Shelley's manic passion for the sea, and Byron's raging superiority complex foreshadowed the very same moral abyss into which the Nazis were to fall and which Nietzsche, their madly brilliant bard, was to chronicle so well--all of them driven by the impossible desire to remake the world with both the strength of the old ways and the controlled certainty of the new.


          To reiterate, and probably not for the last time, we can't do biology without doing culture.  We can't do science without doing change.  So, yes, perhaps we do need to proceed carefully. And we need to stay grounded for sure. But by whatever fair means, we need to proceed.  Because our old cultural plateau, however steady or however flawed it may have been, is gone. In the United States, this means that our 200 years of happy Protestant ethnic hegemony are up. And a new plateau, in profound ways newer than any other we have ever had to invent, and upon which must rest our future hopes and dreams, is not yet even clearly in sight. . . .


    . . . . "pure " information can exist only so long as we remain sufficiently rooted in the natural system.  The natural system, unlike the social system, which has come to be nearly indistinguishable from the corporate system, does not promise immortality or immunity, but strength and a fighting chance. 


          Within the context of the natural system, "fighting" does not necessarily mean "competition." Competition, as distinct from a struggle for survival, really only exists in human social systems, the result of our having institutionalized habits of force and aggression within our bodies. The first of such highly specialized, very biology-of-culture technologies probably consisted in the disposition of certain groups of people; in this context, most saliently, warriors or hunters.


          The reasons for us to have run away from our natural state are obvious and many.  But some of us are once again beginning to see that to run too far--into the ultimately illusory sense of ecological invulnerability our sophisticated social systems can foster in us--is even more perilous than our continued exposure to the inevitable freedom of the natural universe.  In fact, it is more than just perilous; it is suicidal. 




Hail to thee, blithe spirit!

     Bird thou never wert,

That from heaven, or near it,

      Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


Higher still and higher,

      From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

       The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.


                                                                                          Percy Bysshe Shelley




          What disturbs me more is that I failed to read the physiognomy of the regime mirrored on the faces of those prisoners--the regime whose existence I was so obsessively trying to prolong during those weeks and months.  I did not see any moral ground outside the system where I should have taken my stand.


                                                                                            Albert Speer



          When the existence of a combat neurosis could no longer be denied, medical controversy, as in the earlier debate on hysteria, centered upon the moral character of the patient. In the view of traditionalists, a normal soldier should glory in war and betray no sign of emotion. Certainly he should not succumb to terror. The soldier who developed a traumatic neurosis was at best a constitutionally inferior human being, at worst a malingerer and a coward. Medical writers of the period described these  patients as "moral invalids."


                                                                                         Judith Herman




          Being a person is not something one can do.  It is not a performance.  It may require that we stop our frantic business, that we take time out to breathe and to feel.  In the process, we may feel our pain, but if we have the courage to accept it, we will also have pleasure.  If we face our inner emptiness, we will find fulfillment.  If we can go through our despair, we will discover joy. In this therapeutic undertaking, we may need help.


                                                                                       Alexander Lowen



          The body of the primitive, phylogenetically, and the body of the child, ontogenetically, will automatically fight against being overtaken by the social system.  When, from this situation, through which at some point every one of us must pass, a wise or lucky development results, it means our childhood has been sufficiently infused in the pure information of love/the love of pure information for the organism to strike some kind of beneficial natural/social balance within its given time and context.


          At best, an optimum condition of both protection and the potential for perspective is achieved.  For this to happen, though, both the individual and the social system into which he/she is born must be sufficiently porous and susceptible to outside influence.


          Cultural evolution on the planet has reached a point at which many people now are more in danger of being crushed from the inside than destroyed from the outside.  This change from our traditional situation has progressed almost to the point where we could say that truly great or saving ideas now require not inspiration, but outspiration; not insights but outsights.


          All interpretations are subject to revision, by definition.  All that ought to be expected of them is that they conform to sensory experience.  That more experience from a different perspective would change ones interpretation is always a possibility.


          We must come to understand that perspective is preemptively a function of biology, of excess space, inner or outer, in that the lack thereof can distort and obstruct all other connections to the outside, even to God. Distortions and obstructions may or may not be of our own choosing. But they can be. This is the "freedom kicker" in the love mode. We can argue until the next millenium about who or what is at fault, but the result will still be the same.  It is part of our job to find the right balance for ourselves, between the inside and outside, between society and nature, mind and body.  As such, the potential for both confusion and improvement is great.


          The pure information of love can suffuse even the most violent and aggressive of people. This is a paradox of space, freedom and emotion, and may constitute Coppola's most valuable insight, the trickiest aspect of Brando's attraction for us, in both The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.


          But, as Camus might add, the other side of the question looms: is any price is too high, any point at which the Church will suddenly refuse, on moral grounds, the most heartfelt ameliorations of the godfather?


          Emotional confusion distorts our joy of being. Turns it euphoric or salacious, transforms it into something too high or too low. It's by keeping to the middle ground that we maintain our respect for the other, and, ultimately, for ourselves as well. Clarity can be achieved across the entire spectrum and this can usually bring you back to balance, but at what cost? 


          But all this also explains how we can get so thoroughly hooked on violence in the short run.  Attaining clarity, contrary to much of our most heartfelt teaching and hoping, is sometimes really just a biological phenomenon, not a moral one.  Is the joyful end result of an emotional release the same whether I hit the ball, the mattress or the store clerk; yell at the umpire or just yell at the wall?


          But in the long run, and this is key, targetting the clerk, and to a lesser degree the ump and ball, only perpetuates the wound (that all of us would somewhere rather heal), and the entropy, and the cycle of our compulsively competitive behavior. Particularly as ecological pressures mount, we increasingly buy our short-term release at the price of a long-term loss.


          A better definition of misplaced concretism than that still fashionable among academics is the ability of an object--the gun, crystal, or orgone box, and even the schema of some great New Age or freshly discovered Ancient Wisdom--to catalyze, usually within a general context of ecological or personal stress, a moment of release, clarity, or sense of transcendence. This often leads to what are mostly short-lived, self-hypnotic results, which are then, unfortunately, transformed into a belief in that object's scientific validity.  Thereby constructing, out of emotion and physiology rather than brick and mortar, a wall between the true believers and real science.


          In such cases, it can be difficult to distinguish good intentions from quackery. Not that short-term relief from pain or conflict is in itself to be discounted, but to the extent that any long-term effects of the technique are fleeting and haphazardly effective at best, in the end they can only add to the general personal and ecological stress.


          What is needed is a common vocabulary of long-term personal and ecological stress relief that includes the emotions as well as the physical body. This cannot be achieved without its encompassing the semiotic dimension of affect, which, in turn, we can only discover through a bioenergetic analysis of language.




Lee Strauss (Copyright @ 2019)