The possibilities and limitations of human agency

We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. An important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models.

This week the Irish president Michael D Higgins condemned neoliberalism and urged the country to ‘rebalance economy, ecology and ethics’. People and governments should take note. Corporations should be served notice, and be given palliative care, including exit paths for the inmates.

This article includes many references. It can serve as a table of content and resource list for an education course on human cultural evolution, with a focus on the current human predicament.

The role of food in the context of living systems

The role of understanding as a prerequisite for intentionality

The role of imagination in the evolution of culture and technology

The roles of trust, safety, and diversity

Life creates conditions conducive to life

We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. As agents of the human cultural immune system we can expand the language of life and (re)imagine cultures that reconnect us to biological life and local biological ecosystems. The evolution of human cultural organisms is best understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction:

  1. Human scale cultural organisms are the primary reproducing and adaptive units of human life
  2. The life expectancy for healthy cultural organisms is upwards of 200 years
  3. Most interactions between healthy cultural organisms are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
  4. Each cultural organism consists of cultural organs (households) and cultural cells (relationships) that perform specific functions within the cultural organism
  5. Most interactions with and within healthy cultural organs are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
  6. The self selection of cultural cells that function as cultural organs are one primary factor of collaborative niche construction, in this case within the context of a cultural organism
  7. The limits of human scale are another primary factor of collaborative niche construction, resulting in the spawning of self selected human scale organisms, in this case within the context of a cultural species
  8. The set of cultural organisms that share common patterns of core functions (relational patterns within and between cultural organs) constitute a cultural species
  9. In the same way that biological species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations, within the context of a bioregional ecosystem, cultural species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations within a bioregional cultural ecosystem
  10. Healthy cultural cells (depowered relationships) connect cultural niche construction (one evolutionary factor) with genetic niche construction (another evolutionary factor)

This framework of concepts can be used to constrain the values and principles we live by to those that are conducive to life and de-powered human relationships. The axioms of collaborative niche construction also provide a scaffold for mapping our understanding of microbiological immune systems onto the domain of culture and cultural evolution. Given the fractal nature of living systems, it is not at all surprising to see patterns from the cellular and molecular scale reappear with additional nuances at the scales of cultural cells (relationships) and cultural organs (households). Amongst other things the axioms of collaborative niche construction help explain why:

  1. The strongest social norms in healthy cultural species (those whose life expectancy is not severely compromised by cultural disease) are norms that clamp down on the emergence of social power gradients
  2. Within a healthy cultural organism humans experience their life in terms of nurturing lifetime depowered relationships (life creates conditions conducive to life)
  3. The Western cultural notion of self is one of the symptoms of a cultural disease that shifts the focus from cultural cells (de-powered relationships, i.e. the atomic unit of cultural learning) to self-centred individuals (powered-up relationships, i.e. learning disabled units of cultural learning)
  4. Cultural health can be measured in terms of the extent to which explicit cultural operating principles and systems of social norms as found in religions prioritise (or not) (a) human scale cultural organisms vs (b) other levels of scale and/or powered-up relationships (examples of how aspects of this play out in terms of capitalism, religions, and the cult of the self)
  5. All super human scale “civilisations” inevitably end in collapse
  6. Collapse is a liberating experience for most, it is only a perceived disaster from the viewpoint of powered-up elites

The possibilities and limitations of human agency

“Understand there are actions that are bringing the Earth to the brink. But you can be part of other actions. Don’t underestimate your contributions. I work with seeds. The seed is so small… The smallness is what allows it to multiply, on its own…  So appreciate your smallness, because it gives you new flexibility, … And keep good company, and hang out with people you love, and give them energy, and take their energy … The more people join in this solidarity, the more we will be able to create wellbeing by using less…” – Vandana Shiva.

Small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to curate and share the lessons from marginalised perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

In my experience, beyond focusing on human scale, the biggest factor that influences human wellbeing and human health is the way we deal with cognitive dissonance.

In industrialised societies, culturally well adjusted people are unable to speak about their many fears, and their health suffers accordingly. Trauma is a major cause of ill health amongst Autistic people. What I have found is that purging cognitive dissonance from my life has by far been the most beneficial thing I have done for my wellbeing and health. This is not something that culturally well adjusted clinicians and mental health professionals tend to encourage, they very rarely if ever encourage changes in the way we live our lives that deviate from accepted – yet toxic – mainstream culture. I acknowledge the oppressive culture around us with open eyes, depressing, but at the same time providing a clear focus for my agency. I avoid cognitive dissonance like the plague, by refusing to conform to norms and expectations that I am uncomfortable with.

Attempting to conform to toxic expectations in the past had major negative health effects, and I am no longer up for that.

A few observations based on lived experience

The two major challenges that make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local Autistic communities:

  1. The level of social stigma of openly identifying as Autistic, which in many contexts is comparable to the stigma faced by people with suicidal ideation and other forms of mental illness and distress. Furthermore, due to traumatic experiences many Autistic people are part of both stigmatised groups.
  2. The relatively small number of Autistic people in any given location. Even if we assume that one in 25 people is Autistic, in the absence of safe and easily accessible Autistic centres of culture, it remains a challenge to establish and nurture local Autistic collaboration and community building activities.

Additionally, amongst people who have only recently discovered Autistic community, based on initial positive experiences online, I sometimes come across the misconception that all Autists are effortlessly able to get along with each other. Even though Autistic people are much more likely to get along well with other Autistic people than with culturally well-adjusted people, this does not mean that everyone in a random group of Autistic people will immediately get along with everyone else in the group. In fact, due to the narrower and deeper interests of Autistic people, the diversity of personalities between Autistic people tend to be greater than amongst culturally well adjusted people.

But don’t let negative experiences put you off Autistic community building efforts. Overall the positive experiences outweigh the negatives, and active community building definitely beats being on the wrong bus.

Autistic unwillingness or inability to maintain hidden agendas tends to make communication between Autistic people more straightforward and less confusing than communication with non-Autistic people, even if there are disagreements. Higher levels of baseline sensitivities result in above average levels of traumatic life experiences within the hypernormative cultures we are embedded in. These commonalities constitute the substrate from which Autistic cultures emerge in the context of Autistic relationships and small groups of Autistic people.

Noteworthy commonalities between Autistic people have been distilled into the Communal Definition of Autistic Ways Of Being.

One important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models. This observation holds the key to understanding the cultures that emerge within Autistic communities.


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