Healthy Environment = Healthy Human
In a previous article, I looked at the scientific error that is the alpha male. There, I noted that alpha behaviour, at least in wolves, was unnatural behaviour created by wolf biologists when they ripped wolves from the wild and stuck them in an artificial zoo lab. In their natural environment, wolves act nothing like the cartoon caricatures Hollywood and the mass media offer up as your arch-typical alpha male.
The enlightened realization that “alpha” wolf behaviour is toxic behaviour is interesting. However, what is most interesting is what modern wolf research indicates about the importance of the environment. As clearly demonstrated in that previous article, environment determines wolf behaviour, wolf personality, and wolf mental health. If you rip wolves from their home, throw them into captivity, and force them to live with a bunch of strangers in an unnatural environment, they develop toxic alpha behaviours. On the other hand, if you leave them alone in their natural environment, they stay healthy and whole.
The obvious and undeniable truth of this basic fact begs three important questions. The first question is academic and follows upon the realization that environment is an important factor in wolf behaviour. The question is, “what exactly do we mean by the word ‘environment?’”
The second question is more practical and is simply this: if wolf environment determines wolf behaviour, and if toxic environments can elicit toxic behaviour, then “what exactly is a healthy wolf environment?”
Finally, a third question relates to human society: if environment can determine the personality and behaviour of even “simple” creatures like wolves, surely human environment is an equally important determiner of human personality and behaviour. If this is true, and there is no reason to suspect that it is not, then the obvious question becomes, “what kind of environments are natural and healthy for humans?”
What is environment?
The first question, what do we mean by the word “environment,” is easy to answer. Environment, or perhaps more appropriately, Lived Environment (i.e., the environment you live in), consists of two things, the physical environment and the social environment.
The physical environment of an organism includes the trees, bushes, rivers, lakes, mountains, and so on. In the case of humans, the physical environments also contain the walls, beds, bathrooms, bathtubs, televisions, doors, yards, and all the other “so on and so forth” of the material world that surrounds them.
The social environment of an organism includes all the other animals that the organism interacts with in the physical environment. Obviously, what the social environment consists of depends on the type of animal involved. For wolves, the social environment is primarily their family grouping (i.e., their pack). Other animals may have a wider social experience.
All animals have a lived environment, obviously, but humans have the most complex physical and social environments of all. The complexity of the human physical environment is obvious. You can see the complexity of the human social environment when you consider that humans are symbol-making-social-animals. The human social environment includes the biological pack, members of other biological packs (e.g., friends), and members of the various artificial packs pacts organized practically around work, or symbolically around things like ethnicity and culture.
Healthy versus unhealthy environments
Now that we have answered the first question, the second question, what is a healthy wolf environment, is easy to answer as well. Quite simply, a healthy wolf environment is an environment where all an organism’s Essential Needs are met. For wolves, this is an environment where wolves have enough free space to hunt and feed themselves, and where their pack, which is really just their family, is healthy, whole, and intact.
Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed. That is, maturing male and female wolves from different packs disperse, travel around until they find each other and an area vacant of other wolves but with adequate prey, court, mate, and produce their own litter of pups. David Mech
On the other hand, an unhealthy environment for wolves is one where they are unable to meet their needs to hunt and socialize with their family.
Healthy environments are important. As we saw in the previous article, when you rip wolves out of their natural environment and put them in an unhealthy zoo lab, they become emotionally disturbed and develop toxic “alpha” behaviours.
Healthy human environments
At this point, we know the answers to two of the three questions posed. We know what an environment is and we know something about what makes for a healthy wolf environment. The third question, what kind of environments are natural and healthy for humans, is a bit harder to answer.
Obviously, we can rule out jails and residential schools right away. If there is any lesson that wolf research can teach us about humans, it is that incarceration causes emotional and psychological disturbance.
Beyond jails, however, it can be very confusing to sort out, not because philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and others concerned with human society have not speculated or provided prescriptions, but because so many of them have. Everybody from Plato to Abraham Maslow to Karl Marx have had something to say about what would make for a healthy human environment. We could spend a lot of time trying to dig out what they said, but I think we can cut through the static by simply stating that just like a healthy environment for wolves is one where all their essential needs are met, a healthy environment for humans is one where all our essential needs are met.
If you put a human in a healthy environment where all its essential needs are met, that human will thrive. If, on the other hand, you put a human in an environment where their needs are not met, that human will stunt, become damaged, and may even grow ill and die.
I think this is true for all living organisms. Put any organism into an environment and meet all its needs and it will thrive. Deny it satisfaction of its essential needs, and it will not. It is not rocket science. It is as simple as simple and straightforward as that.
I want to say at this point, just because you have experienced an environment that is less than ideal does not mean that the damage and disconnection are irreparable. They are not. As modern neuroscience is showing, you can teach an old dog new tricks. However, before we get to the question of undoing damage done during a Toxic Socialization process, a couple more questions need answers.
Number one, we need to figure out what our human essential needs are. Personally, I theorize that humans have seven essential needs. Number two, we need to figure out exactly what happens when the seven essential needs of humans are not met. Both these questions are important. We will tackle the first question, “what are humanity’s seven essential needs?” in the next article, and the second question, “what happens when you do not meet these needs?” in the article straight after that.
Articles in this series
- How environment creates the alpha male
- Healthy environment = healthy human
- The Seven Essential Needs — basic statement
- The Seven Essential Needs — advanced view
- The Seven Toxic Needs
Mike Sosteric is a sociologist and author of Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy and Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Authentic Spirituality. Find him on twitter @MikeSosteric and, for the more academic stuff, at academia.edu