Industrial Vs Primal Intelligence: What We Are Missing

Our nomadic cousins have more receptive smarts…

Moral Landscapes Book Cover

Through the descriptive, observational works of others, I’ve been studying small-band hunter-gatherer societies and other indigenous societies (e.g., those on their lands before European explorers largely displaced them with ruthlessness, “guns, germs and steel”).

It’s been a big puzzle as to why hunter-gatherers seem much more intelligently connected to the earth and live in sustainable ways, unlike European and Euro-descendent societies in recent centuries.

The conclusion I have come to is that they develop and enhance a particular intelligence that Westerners typically undermine. Before I name it let me describe it.

Robert Wolff describes his gradual learning of this type of intelligence:

“My perception opened further. I no longer saw water—what I felt with my whole being was a leaf-with-water-in-it, attached to a plant that grew in soil surrounded by uncounted other plants, all part of the same blanket of living things covering the soil, which was also part of a larger living skin around the earth. And nothing was separate; all was one, the same thing: water—leaf—plant—trees—soil—animals—earth—air-sunlight and little wisps of wind. The all-ness was everywhere, and I was part of it.”

(Note: Experiences like these are often considered “mystical” in the West–see Coxhead, 1985.)

These receptive capacities are grown bottom-up in small-band hunter-gatherer societies (humanity’s 99%). They approach childrearing differently. The child is treated like an equal who temporarily needs more support than an adult. They keep babies satisfied with touch, rocking, breastmilk. As children grow capacities to be on their own, adults don’t direct the children very much. Children spend a great deal of time playing in the natural world with other, multi-aged mates. Nature provides the ground for learning.


Among established indigenous societies (e.g., various American Indian groups). It is very important for a young child to directly experience the natural world. The natural world generally is considered a part of the family. Children are encouraged to listen to and learn from the natural world. They learn to be receptively intelligence—attending to the communications in the natural world through their senses and what seem to us like extra-sensory powers (see nice descriptions in Kent Nerburn’s books). Some of these children learn to imitate birdsongs and other natural sounds. Often there is a particular animal that is considered a relation to the particular clan and the ways of the animal are well learned.

In contrast, Western education typically emphasizes an “activist” intelligence—one that emphasizes seeking and manipulating things in the world. Interestingly, the English language itself encourages this attitude in two ways, by calling everything but people “things” and by having static, noun-based descriptive words for entities instead of verb-based terms (e.g., “tree” instead of “tree being;” the latter is more common in indigenous languages). So, English itself makes it easier to treat other entities as objects to be acted upon instead of agents with their own lives and purposes. Indigenous languages often have way more verbs than nouns and opposite is true for English.

English speakers are taught to label and categorize things, grouping them into units—a left-brain-hemisphere orientation. Left-hemisphere-directed processing divides things into categories towards which one is a detached observer (a vision-centric perspective). According to Flynn himself, this detached thinking is what has increased over the 20thcentury, explaining the “Flynn effect” of rising IQs.

Interestingly, acting on the world of objects is a completely different orientation to the world than what is found among indigenous societies. There, a reception orientation to the natural world is fundamental. One trains one’s senses, perceptions, and awareness. One takes time to “know” the uniqueness of a situation or person. This is typically a right-hemisphere directed orientation. The right hemisphere drives holistic sensibilities.  (SeeMcGilchrist, 2009.) The indigenous worldview does not divide the world up but sees individuals as unique. It is right-hemisphere directed, attendant to relationships and aware of energy.

Critical aspects of right hemisphere development are scheduled to occur in the first years of life. But by not following what babies evolved to need, many Western parentsundermine its development.

If you are looking for truth, you cannot find it solely or predominantly by acting on the world. It requires receptivity, as Wisdom traditions have long known. As McGilchrist points out, the type of attention one brings to a situation informs what one perceives. Habitual receptive attention sees more, understands more. In contrast, focused attention is helpful momentarily for solving a specific problem. Just like a microscope is helpful for some things, a telescope for others, flexible intelligence can shift among modes of attention and not be caught in too narrow a mode when it really matters. When we deny babies what they need and force children into left-directed functioning (reading, categorizing) too early (when right hemispheric development should be primary), we undermine this fuller intelligence our hunter-gatherer cousins display.

For more discussion on these topics, see my new book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.


Nona Coxhead (1985). The relevance of bliss: A contemporary exploration of mystic experience. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Robert Wolff(link is external), 2001, Original Wisdom(link is external). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.


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