The psychopathology of modern life

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Dr Gregor Kowal
Senior Consultant
in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy,
German Board Certified,
Medical Director,
Clinic for Health and Medical Care
Phone: 00971-4-4574240

An excerpt from “The Two Million-Year-Old Self” by Anthony Stevens

At the London Zoo there is a concrete mound, surrounded by a moat, known as Monkey Hill. It measures about thirty meters by eighteen. In 1925 the zoo authorities put 100 hamadryas baboons on this pitiful excrescence and expected them to settle in good-naturedly and entertain the public. They declined.

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It was to have been an all-male population but, with a degree of care that proved typical of the operation, six females were accidentally included. Vicious battles for dominance took place between the males, which continued for months, and before two years had elapsed, forty-four of them were dead. But by then, a stable dominance hierarchy had been established, and an uneasy peace prevailed. However, the unfortunate creatures seemed unhappy, and in a wholly misguided attempt to cheer them up, the authorities put thirty more females on the island. Within a month, fifteen of these had been torn to pieces by the resident males fighting to possess them. By 1930, only thirty- nine males and nine females survived, and that year three males and four females were killed.

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What does this say about baboon psychology? Are they such vicious brutes that they are incapable of controlling their passions and living in peace with one another? How on earth has this species survived? To answer these questions we must turn to the ethologists (those biologists who study animals living in their natural habitats), who have investigated the life of baboons in the sort of surroundings they evolved to live in. The ethologists tell us that, out of captivity, hamadryas baboons live in well-ordered social groups based on a stable dominance hierarchy; they respect each other`s territories and seldom challenge heterosexual bonds once they have been formed.

Clearly, the behavior of the baboons on Monkey Hill was grossly abnormal. What went wrong? Quite simply, the circumstances in which the zoo required them to live constituted a monstrous frustration of their basic archetypal expectations. The ethogram of the hamadryas baboon – that is to say, the total archetypal endowment of the species – presupposes large areas of land on which to establish territories, win position in the social hierarchy, and, when successful in both these achievements, collect a harem of females. Instead of the 540 square meters afforded by Monkey Hill, a troop of one hundred baboons would normally require a range of 50 square kilometers – 50,000,000 square meters – an area nearly one hundred thousand times as great.

In normal circumstances, baboons develop intense group loyalties and are hostile to strangers from other troops. That the animals on Monkey Hill fought each other with such psychopathic savagery was due to the fact that they had been trapped and assembled from different wild troops and crowded together in a tiny area where there were more males than females and where they couldn`t possibly keep out of each other`s way. We must conclude, therefore, that the zoo environment in which this tragic population was placed constituted what I have called the “frustration of archetypal intent.” The result was gross and unmistakable psychopathology.

This sad story is an allegory of what can happen to another creature that evolved to live in the wild open spaces of the East African savanna, Homo sapiens sapiens, when made to live in that urban habitat which Desmond Morris called the human zoo. Directly comparable disasters to that suffered by the baboons in London Zoo occur in human communities forced to abandon their traditional way of life and live in circumstances alien to them. One such people were the Ik, a group of hunter-gatherers in Uganda who were excluded from their range of 40,000 square kilometers, placed in shack settlements, and taught subsistence farming. They rapidly became demoralized, depressed, anxious, and ill, and they behaved with psychopathic indifference to their children and their spouses.

Evidence such as this provides us with a model for psychopathology. Mental health depends upon the provision of physical and social environments capable of meeting the archetypal needs of the developing individual. Psychopathology can result when these needs are frustrated.

From “The Two Million-Year-Old Self” by Anthony Stevens, ISBN 1-58544-495-2