IF THERE ARE any alien observers keeping an eye on what’s been happening on this planet for the last few thousand years, they’ll no doubt have reached the conclusion that human beings are slightly insane. Human history is an endless catalogue of pathological collective behaviour – constant warfare, the brutal oppression of women by men, and massive inequalities between sections of society. And over recent decades the pathology of our abuse of nature has revealed itself, with the mass destruction of our other species and of the ecosystems that sustain our planet.

Our ‘insanity’ is evident from our behaviour as individuals as well. Alien psychologists may well be scratching their heads over many human beings’ insatiable lust to possess things, the way that so many of us devote so much of our time to trying to obtain material goods which we don’t need and bring no real benefits to us. They would also be puzzled by the fact that so many human beings seem to live in a state of permanent discontent, oppressed by worries and anxieties, and afflicted with different kinds of psychological malaise such as depression, drug abuse and eating disorders.

Significantly though, there are many groups of people in the world who don’t seem to be touched by these pathologies – or at least, who weren’t until relatively recent times. Indigenous peoples like the Australian Aborigines, the tribal peoples of Siberia, Lapland, Oceania and other isolated areas, generally had a very low level of warfare – if any at all – and almost always featured high status for women and egalitarian social arrangements. The reports of anthropologists suggest that these peoples are largely free of our compulsive materialism and competitiveness and our psychological discord too. Even more strikingly, archaeological records indicate that prehistoric human beings were largely – if not completely – free of warfare, male domination and social inequality. For example, archaeologists have discovered over 300 prehistoric ‘art galleries’ in caves around the world, not one of which contains any images of weapons or fighting.

In my book The Fall, I suggest that there is a fundamental difference between us and indigenous and prehistoric peoples: the fact that we have a stronger and sharper sense of ego than them. Anthropologists tell us that native peoples’ sense of individuality isn’t as clear-cut as ours. Rather than being self-sufficient as individuals, their identity is bound up with their community and their land. The naming practices of certain peoples suggest this. For us, a name is a permanent label which defines our individuality and autonomy. But traditional Australian Aborigines, for example, do not have fixed names which they keep throughout their lives. Their names regularly change, and include those of other members of their tribe. Other native peoples use tekonyms – terms that describe the relationship between two people – instead of personal or kinship names. On the other hand, our sense of ego is so defined and strong that many of us experience a basic sense of separation from nature, other human beings and even our own bodies.

In The Fall I suggest that this ‘over-developed’ sense of ego is the root cause of our insanity – in fact, that it is the fundamental madness that we suffer from. It means that there is a basic sense of discontent inside us, partly because we feel ‘cut off’ and incomplete. Many of us hanker after wealth, status or power as ways of trying to override or alleviate this discontent. This lust for wealth and power is also the driving force of warfare and social oppression – but just as importantly, our strong sense of ego means that it’s difficult for us to empathise with other people, or with nature. It makes it difficult for us to ‘feel with’ other people, to sense the suffering we might be causing them. It makes it possible for us to oppress and exploit other people in the service of our own desires.

But at least this way of looking at our problems gives us a clear view of what we need to do to overcome our present problems: we need to transcend separateness, to heal the pathology of our ego-isolation. This is exactly what the world’s spiritual traditions have always encouraged us to do: to go beyond our own selfish gratifications, to serve the world and other people, to follow paths of self-development which blunt the walls of ego-separateness and bring us into a shared sense of being with all other creatures and the cosmos. That is the only true sanity, and the only way of safeguarding our future as a species.

Steve Taylor is a lecturer and author. The Fall was a Guardian Paperback Choice of the Week. For more information visit:


The Fall: The Evidence for a Golden Age, 6,000 Years of Insanity and the Dawning of a New Era is published by O Books, 2005.