Down to the bones: have we really changed?

Recently we have witnessed another carnage, this time in Mumbai, perpetrated by people who are ready to kill for their ideological, political and religious beliefs. Among those murdered, coming from all walks of life and are of different ethnic, national and religious origin, there are also two Jewish parents who leave 2-year-old Moshe orphaned. He was lucky enough to remain alive. This absurd gratuitous violence against unarmed and defenseless people is not the first occurrence and will not be the last.

Certainly, the reasons for taking innocent, often very young, lives would change as the ideologies or the beliefs under which the murderous actions will be justified by the killer. Surely I do not need to mention the genocides and the retaliations as well as the ‘punitive’ attacks which have costs the lives of so many people and the different ways, from ‘bringing democracy’ to ‘doing God’s will’ in which such actions have been justified and supported.

Some, as usual, will blame ‘ideology’, politics, or even religion, in this case Islam, as the ultimate reason for the Mumbai hecatomb and other atrocities. This idea that human actions, included killings, are controlled by ‘culture’ and systems of symbols is a powerful one both in social science, particularly cultural anthropology, as well as in public discourse.

In the social sciences the influence of Clifford Geertz cannot be overestimated. Geertz has defined culture as a ‘control mechanism – plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers calls “programs”) – for governing behavior’ (1973: 44). In a previous version of the same article, he also emphasized that such a ‘control mechanism’ is achieved by ‘the imposition of an arbitrary framework of symbolic meaning upon reality’ (1964: 39).

In other words, humans without culture could not control their behaviour and would act as ungovernable, chaotic, shapeless, a-meaningful beings (Geertz 1964: 46). Non-humans (animals), though lacking symbols and culture, avoid such chaos because they have natural ‘control mechanisms’ (i.e. instincts) that substitute culture.

However, I agree with Ingold when he has observed that Geertz’s conceptualization of culture tends to represent humans as ‘suspended in webs of significance [and] puts humans in a kind of free-floating world in which we are ascribing significance to things “out there”’ (Ingold 1996: 130). Geertz has presented humans as something different from the rest of nature, as beings resembling mythological fallen angels now trapped between the two dimensions of nature and nurture.

Recently, some anthropologists, among them myself, have tried to completely overcome the nature–nurture dyad and have suggested that we can interpret cultural phenomena as one of the many realities of nature. We need to pay more attention to the universal (biological, neurological, genetic) aspects of our being humans; something that many anthropologists seem to have forgotten in a culturalist debauch.

If we pay attention to those universal elements of being human, and then we take into consideration what history and pre-history reveals to us, we can discover that down to the bone, very little has changed since, for instance, 4,600 years ago, which means in the Chalcolithic period, as far as human behavior is concerned, particularly where emotions are involved.

Let me going back to the heartbreaking story of 2-year-old Moshe, or for example the horrible (much forgotten and unreported) story from Palestine. It would be easy for some to use arguments to show that these two kids were killed because of Islam or Judaism (embodied in this case by Israel). Yet a 4,600-year-old burial in Germany tells us a very similar story of violence and the horrible murder of innocent, unarmed civilians and at the same time of a very emotional act of pity and respect by the person(s) whom humanely buried them in such an emotionally significant position (the sons and daughter buried in the arms of their parents).

So powerful was the image of that mass grave and the horrible killings which happened one day 4,600-year-ago that the archeologist could not avoid but weep and feel sorrow.

Indeed, emotions have been with us since our appearance on planet earth. This group of children and women were massacred as the people in Mumbai, and as 2-year-old Moshe’s parents. However, 4,600 years ago there was no Islam, no Christianity, no Hinduism and no Buddhism.

The only thing which makes the killers in Mumbai similar to those who destroyed the german families 4,600-year-ago is their being (in)-human. Maybe it is time that instead of looking at the finger which points to the moon, we start starting at the moon itself.

5 thoughts on “Down to the bones: have we really changed?

Add yours

  1. Life is life: I do not make any difference about innocent lives, wherever they are, whatever religion, nationality, ethnicity, and believes they have. I find highly disturbing that some people feel the need to make such differentiation!

  2. Marranci,

    the King of relativism. It is funny to notice the easyness by which he draws a parallel between mumbai massacre and palestine or irak….


  3. Have we really changed? No.

    You have left, O Hector, sorrow unutterable to your parents, and my own grief is greatest of all, for you did not stretch forth your arms and embrace me as you lay dying, nor say to me any words that might have lived with me in my tears night and day for evermore.” (Andromache, the wife of Hector, grieving over his death in The Iliad)

    The Iliad is perhaps the world’s first novel-length story, with the text being written down – at the latest – by the 6th century BCE. I’ve always thought that if you can understand the grief of Andromache, then humanity hasn’t changed in at least the past 2500 years.

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