What is it “to be human?”

In previous posts we examined the scientific research related to both individual and collective intergenerational trauma impacts. This emerging research strongly suggests it is time we revisit the too seldom asked, but all important question – “what is it to be human?” Are we as individuals and members of Western societies simply the inevitable outcome of the workings of the “selfish gene?” Are we really the greedy, self-centered and violent creatures our current neoliberal economic mythology claims us to be?

The research into the neurobiology of trauma and the epigenetic transmission of trauma impacts suggests we must question this mythic Western “common sense” assessment of our humanity. We must ask what might be the relationship between our current collective state of existence as human beings on planet earth and our massive collective intergenerational trauma history? The new evidence of intergenerational trauma transmission forces us to also ask if and how our collective trauma history may have actually shaped our Western conception of what our very “nature” is as human beings. If so, how might both our cultural mythologies and our conception of “normal” human behavior intersect with the collective trauma history of pre-colonial Europe?

Meaningful analysis requires that we do our best to transcend our current Western cultural myth systems. This includes at least temporarily suspending unquestioned belief in the “received truth” of neoliberal capitalism and its hierarchical power structures, as well as multiple religious sub-systems promoting belief in various post-death realities. It is also long past time to question the sanctity of the “selfish gene” concept as an explanation for our current civilizational morass.

Globalizing society led by the West is engaged in highly organized and hierarchically controlled ecocidal, homicidal, racist, militarist, patriarchal, class, greed and fear based, behaviors gravely threatening the survival of a life supporting planet, including continued human existence. Our cultural mythologies suggest, as such mythologies always do, that our current state of affairs is the only “natural” state of affairs.

We could describe the present global situation in many ways, but by any humane, or even sane definition, we cannot use the word “progress.” Yet our intersecting cultural mythologies tell us either that no other better world is possible (neoliberal capitalist, militaristic, patriarchal, and racist myths), or that one must forgo actions to improve this world in exchange for an eternal life after death (religious myths). All of our intersecting cultural mythologies are underlaid by the unstated supposition that what exists is “the natural order” of things. The collective control of perception, thought and behavior that cultural mythologies facilitate is hardly a new phenomenon. The fact that earth’s ability to support continued life is now in jeopardy due to the impact of our mythologies is most certainly both new and frightening.
“The ruling class in every age have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers.”

– George Orwell
Our mythologies imply the that the way things are is “natural” and no other better world created by human actions is really possible. Meta-messages implied within the main mythic messages are “get over it,” and “you can’t change anything.” Resignation to the status quo is the implied mythic message defining “normality.” As in all previous ages, one risks accusations of various forms of what amounts to “heresy” if one questions our current set of cultural myths.

The research on trauma, epigenetics and intergenerational epigenetic modes of trauma transmission suggest we must seriously question the notion that there is anything “natural” or “inevitable” about Western civilization’s long trajectory into mass violence. A brief examination of the historical record of the first encounters Columbus had with Native Americans is enlightening. It clearly does not describe or support the Western conception of a universal human nature. It does not depict two similarly violent and greedy human societies encountering one another for the first time.

Howard Zinn quotes Columbus and others involved in these initial contacts:

“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

(The Natives) – “Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….”


“The chief source-and, on many matters the only source-of in formation about what happened on the islands after Columbus came is Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a time he owned a plantation on which Indian slaves worked, but he gave that up and became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. “

“Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…”


Las Casas tells how the Spaniards “grew more conceited every day” and after a while refused to walk any distance. They “rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry” or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. “In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings.”

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”

Bartolome de las Casas describes one violent and greedy group of humans, not two. Other historical descriptions talk of how kind and gentle Native peoples were toward their children. This stood out to early chroniclers as a great contrast to European standards of child rearing at the time. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was not seen as “natural” by the various Indigenous peoples encountered by Europeans in the “New World.” Physical violence directed toward children is prescribed in the Christian mythological text known as the bible, but was not present in Indigenous myth structures.

The American mythic holiday of “Thanksgiving” celebrates a cooperative relationship between Native Americans and the first English settlers. As such, it creates a mythic narrative that obscures rather than illuminates real world events. Misrepresented is the historical record showing that Europeans, engaged in rape, theft, mass murder and enslavement in relation to the Native peoples they encountered on land the Europeans wanted for their own. This violence and greed based historical reality is replaced by a story of cooperation and sharing. The concept of mystification provides a template for understanding the psychological gymnastics involved in such collective distortions of history. These distortions, often total inversions, create palatable myths where none exist in physical historical reality.


Only by European explorers and settlers falsifying history and mis-representing the cultural norms and behaviors of the indigenous peoples they encountered, could a mythic narrative suggesting Native peoples were “violent savages” be implanted in the Western mind. Labeling Native peoples as “violent” and “savage” enabled and rationalized the American settlers genocidal slaughter, enslavement and massive resource theft. Projecting their own violent intent and behavior upon the indigenous population has provided psychological cover for 500+ years of European invasion, colonization, enslavement and genocide around the world. As such it is an example of the “mythic mystification” of historical reality.

Those of us with a functioning conscience and the ability to experience empathy recoil at the comments and behavior of Columbus, his men and those that followed. However, we in the West have never altered our path from these initial exercises in brutality directed at the non-European world. Madeline Albright’s chilling remark that it was “worth it,” while publicly defending U.S. lead sanctions that killed a half a million Iraqi children speaks plainly to the normalization of Western barbarity. Literally scores of similar mass murders have been conducted by “liberal Western democratic” governments just since the end of WWII. The so called “post-colonial” period after the end of the last world war has not resulted in a diminishment of violence by the West toward the rest of humanity. The litany of U.S. led Western carnage and brutality continues in real time. This ongoing assault is both astounding and appalling, and is clearly visible to those willing to risk heresy by simply choosing to look objectively at daily world events.

To understand how it has come to this, a global system that threatens global survival, we must first look backward in time. We must begin by acknowledging that we all come from somewhere. Whether we identify racially/ethnically as black, brown, red, yellow, native american, hispanic, asian, caucasian or various ethnic and racial mixes of almost endless variety, the reality is that we all come from somewhere. The “somewhere” we “come from” is our collective ancestral past. It is a history of observable events that took place in the physical world. That history itself is not mythic. It is a sequence of events in the physical world in both place and time that could be witnessed. Many such events were in fact observed and recorded orally, in writing, or in paintings, photographs, or more recently in video.

In other words this “history” I refer to is simply the documentation of events that occurred in the real world. The subsequent “reinterpretation” of those events takes place through the blinders imposed by our collective mythologies. It is this “mythic reinterpretation” that we then label as “history.” This is what we teach our young by way of indoctrinating them into our collective myth systems. These myth systems are crucial to the control of collective perception, belief and behavior.

Those of us who were born into the mythic “history” of the United States have been indoctrinated into such a carefully crafted collective mythic history. We are children of a settler society. That is a society that is the result of people in one part of the earth, traveling intentionally to another part of the earth in order to settle and inhabit it. In our case this route to settling involved killing and enslaving the Native American inhabitants who lived here, taking the land they had inhabited as our own, and in the process creating myths to support and justify such murder and theft.
“when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

Frederic Bastiat 1801 -1850
In the U.S. this settling process also involved the capture, transport and enslavement of fellow human beings from Africa. Chattel slavery thus became a part of “where we come from,” and it’s subsequent justification became part of our collective myth systems. The intense often unconscious racist attitudes held by of much of white America today toward Native Americans and African Americans is intimately tied to these myths that were used to rationalize and justify generations of slavery, brutality, land theft and genocidal behavior.

However, myth and the real world often fail to historically reconcile. The “human nature” exhibited by the Native Americans that settlers encountered did not match the “human nature” of the settlers themselves. The communal and collective based, often matriarchal cultural orientations of Native Americans involved sharing, group solidarity and a deep sense of being part of the natural world. This version of “human nature” was seen as unnatural by our settler culture, and therefore in need of modification and if necessary eradication.
The Indian – “must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say “I” instead of “We,” and “This is mine” instead of “This is ours.”

John Oberly
U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs
This Western concept of “I” instead of “we,” and “mine” instead of “ours” did not somehow spontaneously spring up from nowhere. It was/is part of the mythic world view of the European settlers of America. It was a mythic conception involving ownership and domination of the earth, rather than connection to and with the earth. Thus these “settlers” had their own stories which they brought with them. These settlers “came from somewhere.”

That somewhere was a European continent that had spent multiple millennia engaged in almost constant warfare, religious hatred, devastating plagues, mass starvation and other unimaginable forms of human barbarity. The litany of collective trauma is too exhausting to begin to catalogue in such limited space, so we will touch on only several. Noteworthy are the Holy Inquisition and the witch burnings. For centuries the population of Europe gathered and watched as public spectacle the burning alive of anyone found guilty of what essentially we now think of as Orwellian “thought crimes.” Simply put, those burned were those found guilty of thinking or believing something the church found unacceptable. Both the ancestors of and the contemporaries of America’s pioneer settlers included those accused of heresy or witchcraft. Such people were routinely tortured and brutalized psychologically and physically before either being released to live scarred by this trauma, dying in custody, or being burned in public spectacle for all to see.


How can we begin to calculate the collective psychic trauma impacts produced by generation upon generation of Europeans of all ages witnessing or experiencing such highly organized, unpredictable, routine brutality on such a massive continent wide scale? This public violence spectacle took place for hundreds of years, generation after generation collectively traumatizing all involved. How do we conceptualize as “normal,” unimaginable brutality carried out generation after generation?” How might the incorporation into a societies mythic systems the “normalization” of such unimaginable brutality, impact that society individually, collectively and mythically?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) has opened the door to a much deeper appreciation of the lifetime impacts of childhood trauma. It demonstrated that childhood trauma, such as experiencing a divorce, losing a parent for any reason, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or neglect often impact us both psychologically and physiologically for many decades. Recent epigenetic research has shown how individual trauma impacts in one lifetime can be transferred to the next generation, and beyond. When we try to imagine the collective trauma history of Europe prior to Columbus’s voyage, we are faced with what amounts to an intergenerational psychic holocaust unfolding over many centuries.

In addition to the intergeneration trauma induced by hundreds of years of literally watching neighbors and family members burned alive by the Holy Inquisition, many other forms of collective trauma shaped the European psyche and collective mythology. Multiple outbreaks of bubonic plague ravaged most towns with estimates that up to one-half of the entire population of Europe perished in the most intense outbreaks. Records show that the living literally could not keep up with burying the dead in some locals. The scale and impact of such massive collective trauma strains our ability to imagine it.

Plague existed in conjunction with other trauma, such as ongoing feudal warfare. The 100 Years War between England and France not only produced massive physical and psychological trauma to those directly involved, but also massive collective trauma to those impacted in secondary ways. Royal troops as well as unlawful bands looted and stole the food stuffs of peasants leading to collective hunger, starvation and destitution even for those not directly engaged in the warfare itself.

We can add to these collective traumas the impact of the Crusades to the Holy Land and the Albigensian Crusade. In the later the Church literally exterminated the vast majority of a religious group known as the Cathars. In one French town troops killed 20,000 people by sword including not only the Cathars, but their Catholic friends and neighbors who refused to turn them over to Church authorities. Today, eight hundred years later in the the Languedoc region of France, road signs reference the history of the Cathars. There it is common knowledge that the Cathars were exterminated by the Catholic Church for the simple crime of having a spiritual belief system the Church did not approve of. That thousands of Catholic friends and neighbors died protecting the Cathars would fit today’s political definition of “collateral damage,” one suspects. I find it an amazing testimony to human solidarity and connection. It challenges the Western world view of a “selfish” human nature, replacing it instead with the ultimate human sacrifice, that of giving one’s own life to protect the lives of others. These mass scale collective traumas resonate through Western minds, bodies and myth systems in ways we remain by and large unconscious of.

We have discussed only a few examples of the massive collective trauma that impacted the people of Europe in the Middle Ages alone. Through hierarchical systems of control, including monarchy, the feudal system, and the actions of brutal Catholic popes cum warlords the population of Europe was physically and psychically brutalized generation after generation. This inevitably resulted in the highly traumatized general population from which first the explorers came, and afterward the settlers who arrived with plans to inhabit and conquer the “New World.” Along with their own traumatized psyches came evolving Western myth systems. These myth systems justified domination and violence toward others and the earth itself. These settler myth systems saw human nature and relationship to the earth in very different terms from the Native peoples encountered.

Europe’s collective mythologies both created and evolved within this intergenerational trauma milieu. Threats to psychic and physical survival included more than being sent to foreign lands to fight for feudal and/or religious masters, or being tortured and murdered by being burned alive in the Inquisition. Collective trauma was also built into the European religious myth systems which promoted the belief in eternal damnation as punishment.

In large part control over the minds and therefore behavior of Europeans of all classes rested upon the Church’s contention that without it mediating the transition from physical life to death, eternal suffering in a literal lake of fire awaited. The concept of the existence of such unimaginable eternal torment was of course reinforced every time someone accused heresy or witchcraft was burned alive as public spectacle. Thus watching others being burned was mythically transformed for bystanders into the terrifying fear of similar fires engulfing them through the eternal damnation threatened by Mother Church. Such trauma induced fears strengthened the power of both Church and feudal hierarchic power structures. The Inquisition existed as a form of collective psychic terrorism in service to hierarchical control.

It is perhaps more than simply ironic, that the U.S. military rains what it calls – “hell fire” – missiles on Muslim non-believers in the Middle Eastern nations we have invaded. That the military could concoct such a name is testament to the power bronze age mythologies continue to hold upon the psyches of Western populations. Through public spectacle the fires of hell merged with the fires of the Holy Inquisition. Through the normalized trauma of witnessing neighbors and family members burned alive a mythic structure of total psychic control of the medieval population was enacted by church and monarchy.

Excavating and examining the almost unimaginable collective trauma history of Europe is crucial for those of us of European ancestry in answering the question – “where do we come from?” We quite clearly come from century upon century of massive collective intergenerational trauma . This collective trauma was “normalized” in the Western mind by the mythic and institutional structures of Church, monarchy, and later by the State. It has impacted us profoundly as individuals, as well as collectively through the evolution of our present day mythologies.

Europe’s trauma history is crucial to understanding the behavior of our collectively traumatized settler ancestors as they began to encounter Native peoples around the globe at the start of the Colonial period. The mythologies that helped create, and which evolved out of Europe’s trauma, also justified and supported the brutal settler behaviors that followed, and continue to inform the Western mind today. They exercise powerful, yet largely unacknowledged influence upon our current way of imagining our very nature as human beings.

In profound and dangerous ways the trauma history of Europe continues to be manifested in today’s world threatening a very real human-created “apocalypse” of biblical proportions. The fact that in the past century two world wars and massive genocide took place in Europe and Africa insure that collective trauma impacts are anything but some long past history. Epigenetic research show that the past trauma of holocaust survivors continues to echo through the genes of their offspring today.

Many of us have no problem looking back in time, and in doing so acknowledging the barbarity of past ages in European history. Yet many of us struggle mightily to see the racist and violent structural inhumanity surrounding us and holding us captive today. White European colonialism never died, it simply morphed into its current forms, with massive suffering, poverty and violence inflicted on the majority of the world’s non-white poor. With the current manifestation of neoliberalism’s unfettered greed, more and more of the white poor of Europe and the U.S. are finding that they are as unwelcome at the table of their betters as their non-white neighbors, or the recent immigrants of color who are fleeing the carnage of Western global rule. The “selfish gene” theory is the perfect justification for the madness we call our current global order. It offers the cloak of scientific credibility to the outworn Western mythologies used to continue to justify neocolonial brutality and resource theft.

In conclusion let us return to the question of what it is to be human. In the course of my life working as a social worker and later as a therapist I have been lucky enough to spend time closely engaged with Dine people in New Mexico and with Inupiat, Aleutic, Haida and Tlingit peoples in Alaska. I have also spent time with mestizo peoples in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil. With none of these peoples did I find greed, selfishness and violence to be routinely exhibited or considered some normalized innate aspect of their human character or “nature.” However, all had been severely impacted by the greed, selfishness and violence of the white colonial culture of which I am a member. All collectively suffer from historical trauma impacts.

The boarding schools attended by those Dine, Aleutic, Inupiat, Haida and Tlingit I knew, as well as by their parents and grandparents, were consciously designed to – “kill the Indian to save the man.” This planned cultural destruction was U.S. policy. The human nature exhibited by those “Indians,” which necessitated it be “killed,” was in many ways the antithesis of our European notion of human nature. The well documented Native “nature” was generous and sharing of material possessions, identified and connected communally rather than being focused on “individual ego,” and was not accustomed to viewing mass violence against others who had not harmed them as a justifiable normative behavior. In other words, by our own definitions we in the West have identified “other types” of “human nature” which we disapprove of, and we have systematically attempted to eradicate them and to remake any survivors in our own image.


In examining the trauma history of Europe we have a means to better understand how and why settlers from Europe transmitted their own intergenerational trauma impacts to the far reaches of the planet. The neurobiological impacts of trauma continue to become clearer with evolving research. The epigenetic and intergenerational impacts of trauma are only beginning to be recognized and understood from within the admittedly limiting paradigm of Western science. Impacts upon our ability to manage stress, susceptibility to depression and anxiety, increased rates of suicide and substance use, as well as many physical illnesses and reduced life expectancy have clearly been identified in scientific research as trauma related. That such impacts, as well as others may be actually transmitted across generations through biological mechanisms is an immensely important realm of the epigenetic research now unfolding.

Native peoples have long understood from their own more recent collective trauma experiences, what those of us from European ancestry seem to have forgotten. Our collective trauma is not some long ago, long past, best forgotten history. Rather it is living and breathing within us all. It impacts us both physiologically and psychically. It inhabits our mythic systems of meaning and understanding. It shapes how we see ourselves and the world around us. Most importantly, if unexamined it keeps us in invisible chains. These are chains that the world desperately needs those of us in the West to see and to begin to free ourselves from.

As Native American artist and activist John Trudell has pointed out, we were all tribal at one point. We whose ancestors hail from Europe included. If we ever hope to rejoin the rest of humanity, to reconnect with the natural world from which come, and to begin a healing process we must realize that we are the ancestral children of massive collective intergenerational trauma. The impacts of that trauma upon our hearts and minds has become codified in our both our myths and in the very expression of our genes. It is this trauma history and the myth systems that support and justify it that tell us “all humans” are greedy, and violent, and selfish above all else.

Our Native sisters and brothers around the world who have retained their cultures in spite of our violent onslaughts look at us with very different eyes and from very different myths. They know that we colonizers must acknowledge and begin to heal from our own collective trauma, just as they are doing in response to the trauma we inflicted upon them through colonization. Once we all knew we were children of this earth, interconnected, communally interdependent, engaged in sharing rather than accumulating. Our task now is to remember where we came from and to begin to heal.
Quotes from:

Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States; Third World Traveler – https://www.sott.net/article/267451-Columbus-and-the-Indians-By-Howard-Zinn) (http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncol1.html) (http://www.rawstory.com/2014/10/five-scary-christopher-columbus-quotes-that-let-you-celebrate-the-holiday-the-right-way/

https://www.sott.net/article/267451-Columbus-and-the-Indians-By-Howard-Zinn) (http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncol1.html) (http://www.rawstory.com/2014/10/five-scary-christopher-columbus-quotes-that-let-you-celebrate-the-holiday-the-right-way/

I am a retired LCSW who has had a lifelong interest in trauma, collective trauma and the impact of collective trauma upon Western societies and consequently upon the world. View all posts by intergenerationaltrauma

MAY 3, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s