What is the meaning of life? Animism, generalised anthropomorphism and social intelligence (2002)

Bruce G Charlton MD

Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Editor-in-Chief, Medical Hypotheses

Tel: 0191 222 6247
Fax: 0191 222 5622
E-mail: bruce.charlton@ncl.ac.uk

Alienation is often regarded as being an intrinsic part of the human condition, and this sense of division is at the root of much religious and philosophical questioning and questing. People do not feel at home in the world. Life seems intrinsically meaningless. If the meaning of life is by fortune to be found, then it is something that people must discover by strenuous endeavour, an act of faith or sustained intellectual exploration.

However, although this analysis is commonplace, it seems unlikely that human beings should have evolved such that their existence felt meaningless. Why should natural selection generate creatures that inevitably experience a chronic state of alienation? Most mental states, such as the emotions of fear, anger and disgust, are potentially useful adaptations that usually benefit survival and reproductive success, at least under the kind of conditions under which humans evolved.

A possible explanation is that the meaninglessness of life is an accidental and harmful side effect of useful mental abilities; perhaps alienation is the price paid for consciousness? But I suggest that when humans originally evolved, they indeed felt 'at home in the world', and that feelings of division and alienation are by-products of cultural change.

The need to discover a meaning in life is not part of human biological destiny, it is an artefact due to biologically-recent economic factors.


The point at which the majority of humans ceased to feel a spontaneous sense of belonging in the world can be identified with some confidence. It was the cultural transition from hunting and gathering to an 'agricultural' mode of life. In other words it is usual for hunter-gatherers to feel that life has ‘meaning’ - but rare for everyone else.

The typical spirituality of hunter gatherers is usually termed ‘animism’. But animism is not a fixed and dogmatic creed in the way of 'book religions' such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Animism is more a spontaneous experience than a set of beliefs, theories and practices - characterised by general form rather than specific content.

In an animistic world all significant things are agents, animate and sentient. There are no objects - only subjects. A hunter gatherer experiences a world in which human-type relations do not stop at the species boundary, but extend out into the animals, plants and landscape. A man may shift form to become a bear, or a bear may become a man, or there may be a synthesis of the two. A particular tree may be conscious, have a personality and memories, and may require informal and formal acts of respect.

Such specific features of animism are secondary. The core feature of animism is one of humans dwelling-in and moving-through a world that is alive and aware, and potentially in communication with humans. For the animist their world is wholly 'peopled'. Nothing is indifferent to the human observer, and the observer is personally concerned by every entity. The animistic world is bound together on both sides by feelings - likes and dislikes, desires and fears. Each person is at the centre of a web of reciprocal emotions. Each person’s place in the world is defined by this mesh, nothing is isolated and independent, every thing is linked to other things by affective bonds.

A world composed of human-like natural entities is a world saturated with meaning - because every significant entity in the compass of experience has its own 'nature', intentions and feelings. The agencies of animism display human characteristics. Bird David describes how forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers characterise the forest as a parent: the spirits of the forest will give foods and gifts, and socialise with the tribe. Like a human parent, the forest may go to sleep and need awakening, or may become angry if treated without respect, and require propitiation. Other natural agencies are enemies who may be blamed for mishaps.

Adaptive anthropomorphism

Animistic beliefs are broadly adaptive under the conditions that prevail in hunter gatherer societies. Indeed, generalised anthropomorphism, or social intelligence applied to non-human affairs, can be an extremely effective way of dealing with the natural world. Knowledge of an animal’s nature enables its behaviour to be predicted with considerable precision in real world situations - and individual animals have their own dispositions which may be learned. Expert animal trainers (such as Vicki Hearne) confirm that even with the advantages of scientific biology, informed anthropomorphism usually offers the best system for understanding, predicting and manipulating animal behaviour - especially with large mammals.

Furthermore, anthropomorphic knowledge is vivid, sustains attention, and mobilises emotions. In an oral culture that depends absolutely on human memory, anthropomorphic knowledge is probably the best way of memorising important information. 'Personalised' knowledge is also highly suitable for encoding in stories and songs that form a reliably transmissible source of information.

Recollections of the animistic experience should be accessible by consideration of pre-literate childhood. The developmental history of each modern child 'recapitulates' the global history of the human species. Without technologies to measure time, or any physical records of previous events, the sum and meaning of human affairs is held in memory. The mind is the measure of all things. History and prediction attain actuality only in the here and now of the lived moment where past, present and future come together (‘Ceremonial time’). Experience is filtered and structured according to the associational modes of the human mind. Recollection can occur in many sequences and orderings, may jump between events, simultaneously consider disparate entities, shape selected elements into a story, and may include dreams or visions of the future. Just as time is experienced in a non-technological society, so the world is perceived.

For hunter gatherers, the observed divisions of space and time are potentially permeable - as permeable as the categories of the human mind. In such a culture, nothing in the world of experience is alien, nor are humans divided from anything perceived or imagined, precisely because all experience is human. The nature of the world is shaped and defined by the nature of the mind.

Social intelligence

The animistic world view is a consequence of the evolved nature of human intelligence. Human intelligence is substantially social intelligence, a set of psychological adaptations which evolved as an adaptation to the problems of social living. Humans see the world through social spectacles. Consequently, hunter gatherers (and children) spontaneously anthropomorphise the natural world.

Humans are social animals, and human minds (like those of their primate cousins) have been shaped by many millions of years of natural selection in a social context. Those individuals best able to survive, thrive and reproduce in competition with their own species were the ones that left behind most offspring.

Humans living in social groups were apparently so successful at solving the ‘external’ ecological problems of life (eg. problems of climate, food and water supplies, the threat of predators etc) that social problems became dominant. Having solved the ecological threats to survival, the most important factor influencing reproductive success became the ability to outperform other humans in terms of social aptitude. So, except in situations of physical emergency, social reality dominates ecological reality.

Demographic studies in hunter gatherer cultures (eg. among the Amazonian Indians or African Bushmen) have demonstrated that you are more likely to be killed by another person than to be killed by a predator species. As in many other social primates, alliances are a major form of power, and the best defence against a hostile foe is to form a gang. Boys and men are highly peer-oriented, especially observant of potential friends or enemies, and spontaneously form goal-orientated cooperative groups. Similarly, but for different reasons and with different mechanisms, women readily form reciprocal alliances with other women for child care, food gathering and preparation, mutual defence against predators while gathering, and so on.

Sexual selection is perhaps the most important and distinctive form of social intelligence. The need to attract and please a mate has been instrumental in shaping the most distinctively human aspects of 'creative intelligence'. It is probable that humour, eloquence, arts, sport, fashion, dance and many other rich 'cultural' forms are primarily ways of displaying creative intelligence. Since creative intelligence requires many highly developed traits, and brain development and function requires exact co-ordination of many thousands of genes, the possession of creative is a reliable guide to good genetic quality and a desirable mate. Socially-orientated creative intelligence has therefore been selected as one of the most powerful of sexually attractive traits.

Over thousands of generations, the most reproductively effective humans were the ones those that were best at dealing with other humans - the best at monitoring and manipulating complex social interactions, interpreting behaviours, inferring the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other people, and engaging in complex and creative mating behaviours. Natural selection favoured those humans with the highest ‘social intelligence’, and social intelligence became the main way of experiencing the world and dealing with complex problems.

Consequently, human experience is socially biased, and human reasoning is spontaneously anthropomorphic. ‘Animism’ is merely one aspect of the lived experience of generalised anthropomorphism.

The transition

For a hunter gatherer the natural world is the subject of a social relationship, it is not a separated and inert object available for manipulation. The natural world is composed of personalities that must be engaged-with, communicated-with, a set of inescapable relationships. Care is needed when dealing with entities that have their dispositions, intentions and memories, and who are more powerful than humans. Since humans exist only by the consent of these personal powers, there is a sense of 'balance' that needs constant attention and work to maintain, excessive demands or inappropriate behaviour might destroy the natural order.

All this is changed by the development of ‘agriculture’. (Following Brody, the term 'agriculture' should be taken as shorthand for all complex economic systems: which include complex sedentary ‘hunter gatherers’ such as the Pacific North West American Indians, systems of herding and pastoralism, classic agrarian peasant societies, and modern industrial-mercantile states.) Agriculture involves a profoundly different relationship between humans and the natural world. In agriculture the natural world is no longer a source of food, it is raw material for the production of food. Human survival depends absolutely and permanently on the mastering of nature by man. The natural environment must be transformed, forced into artificial patterns, and must be sustained in this state.

With the advent of agriculture, at least some significant part of the natural world becomes separated from the social world, an object instead of a subject. The food producing environment is no longer a parent, it does not share its abundance with the farmer - rather, the farmer toils to hold back the continual encroachments of the natural world, and forces it to yield sustenance by strength of limb and sweat of brow. The balance of nature is actively prevented from returning to equilibrium. Although animism continues to feature in people’s beliefs and practices (after all animism remains the spontaneous mode of thought among all people, in all societies), humans cease to anthropomorphise the whole significant world, with the consequence that the world is no longer experienced as a whole. Only certain bits of the significant world are regarded as sentient agencies. In particular the economy is necessarily objectified and manipulated, because human survival depends on it.

The seamless integration of significant experience as a network of social relationships is lost in the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Life becomes divided, and humans alienated. From this point, not everything means something.

The nature of the meaning of life

Every individual in every society starts life as a spontaneous animist inhabiting a meaningful world composed of sentient agencies. However, in ‘agricultural’ societies the child is socialised into an instrumental attitude towards those parts of the natural world upon which the economy depends. The child learns to treat as objects things which were previously treated as agents. Animism is regarded as merely a naïve or uneducated belief system.

On the whole, learned objectification clearly 'works', in the sense that societies which treat significant aspects of natural world as objects include all the most powerful societies, the ones that have the greatest productive capacities, and the greatest ability to understand and manipulate. This should not need emphasising.

Alienation is not an accident. Objectification is necessary for economic efficiency hence societal survival. The need to function in the economic realm means that this division - at least - is inculcated into each new generation. There are sanctions. If socialisation fails and the animistic attitude of generalised anthropomorphism is carried through into adult life, the probable outcome for that individual is economic ineffectiveness, consequently low status. But individual experience of the ‘meaning of life’ has - in effect - been sacrificed to group power.

When people do not feel at home in the world this is because their cultures have 'taught' them that significant aspects of the world are objects with which there can be no legitimate social or emotional relationship. And this implies that when people in modern culture seek 'the meaning of life' they are often deeply mistaken about what kind of a thing they seek.


Typically people expect the meaning of life to be conceptual knowledge, information about how things work and what they should do about this. For instance, people imagine that the meaning of life might be something like a modern religion, or a philosophical system. Perhaps they envisage a 'cosmology' giving an account of the history and purpose of the world, linked to a description of how humans generally, and themselves specifically, fit in.

In other words, traditional discourse on the meaning of life is about propositional knowledge - knowledge about organisation and purpose. Purpose is often particularly sought after. People tend to assume that each human life and the world are part of an unfolding story - a divine plan - leading towards some kind of goal. Life should consist of progress towards that goal. For such individuals, discovering the meaning of life would be about discovering some information, then planning and managing one’s life to live in accordance with this information.

Dogmatic religions provide various stories and goals. Yet religious belief and practice in agricultural societies embodies the same divisions and alienation as the rest of these cultures. Indeed, religions are ‘agricultural’ phenomena - religions are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Much the same applies to philosophy.

Purpose, progress, aims, goals and plans are alien to the animistic mind. In fact, the idea of ‘purpose’ in life is itself a primary source of alienation, since purpose involves abstracting an idealised narrative from the actuality of the world, and matching each individual’s own life against that narrative. The act of comparison creates the state of division.

Hunter gatherers have a very fluid and responsive way of living, appropriate to moving through a world of personalised powers. Bird David describes how gatherers on a foraging expedition will not be looking for specific things, nor will the route be pre-arranged in detail - they set off in a direction, gather what they see, go where the impulse strikes. Such a venture cannot 'fail', and gatherers are seldom disappointed whatever the outcome - every expedition will always come back with something useful. And to have found something confirms the essentially benign relationship with the natural world who nurtures and supports them.

Brody gives an account of Inuit hunting demonstrates how discussion proceeds in a fluid, unstructured way. The hunt is not so much planned as imagined, with some of its infinite possible alternatives. Any 'plans' that emerge are not regarded as binding; each direction taken, each action or movement towards the hunt affects whatever comes next. For animists, hunting is not so much a matter of outwitting and forcibly killing animals; but a receiving of animals that are ready to 'give' themselves. Animals will be obtained only if and when it is right to obtain them, they are a gift from a cosmic economy that should not be artificially forced for fear of distortion and damage to an essentially benign system.

In stark contrast, modern life is a strenuous journey through an indifferent environment which will only yield under duress. The natural world must be coerced and manipulated into producing, the produce must be hoarded and guarded. Consumption needs to be regulated by time and place. A modern economy entails strategy, deferred satisfactions, explicit purpose, fixed and mandatory plans.

Animistic thinking is restricted in scope since not only are plants, animals and places typically regarded as inanimate objects - but even the mass of human beings are seen in this instrumental fashion. Politics, war, economics and management (for instance) are predicated upon an objectification of humans. All this objectification must be learned, and is probably one fundamental reason for the incremental extension of the educational process in developed countries - continual economic growth depends upon ever increasing success in overwriting animism.

Yet, however childish and foolish animism seems to the mass of Westerners, animism is not wholly alien to the inhabitants of modern cultures. Because animism is the spontaneous picture, it is liable to recur at any moment. For instance, there may be a resurgence of animistic ideas in solitude and away from economic constraints, in the company of children, in heightened states of mind that may temporarily be induced by art or by intoxication... For such periods people cease to feel alienated or divided from the natural world and feel emotionally connected with everything else by relational webs of significance. They briefly experience 'the meaning of life'.


Humans are not ‘meant’ to feel alienated - but alienation is an outcome of deep, intractable economic and social changes. A modern spiritual quest for meaning should perhaps be concerned mainly with attaining those conditions which enable the re-emergence of our natural predisposition for animistic modes of thinking, and for learning the cues and constraints governing such experiences.

Fundamental human psychology has not changed: the world is still full of personalised powers. But the diversity of human experience means that individual animistic worlds will be significantly distinctive. For each person the necessary conditions for a resurgence of generalised anthropomorphism are likely to differ - depending upon individual experiences and aptitudes. Few people have the specific depth of experience of plants, animals or landscape to replicate hunter gatherer spirituality. The task is to discover the evolving set of similarly potent associations 'sacred' to each person's internal economy of memory and emotion.

Albeit in such a bracketed and segmented fashion, humans still may experience being at home in the world.

* * *

Notes and References

Social intelligence

The social nature of human intelligence is well described in the ‘Machiavellian intelligence’ volumes edited by Byrne and Whiten (1988) and Whiten and Byrne (1997). And Geoffrey Miller’s ‘Mating Mind’ takes things a step further. The neurological mechanism of social intelligence is elucidated (although not explicitly) by Damasio (1994).

I have tried to put some of this together in my book (2000), a relevant excerpt from which is summarised on the web article on ‘Evolution and the cognitive neuroscience of awareness, consciousness and language’.

Hunter gatherers

The crystallisation of this essay was initiated by Hugh Brody’s recent book - The other side of Eden (2001) on the distinctive ‘world view’ of hunter gatherers, especially the Inuit (Eskimos).

One key concept in this essay is the qualitative difference which divides ‘simple’ hunter gatherers from every other kind of economic organisation - including ‘complex’ hunting and gathering (eg. Pacific Northwest Native American Indians, and probably the Australian Aborgines) farming, herding, pastoralism, trading, industrial production etc. This qualitative difference (although hotly contested in some quarters) is confirmed by authors such as Gellner (1988), Barkow (1989, 1992) and Diamond (1992, 1997).

The difference between simple hunter gatherers and the others has been analysed by Woodburn (1982). Probably the most important factor relates to whether or not there is significant storage of food (or other vital resources). Societies without significant food storage and almost daily food collection, preparation and distribution are ‘immediate return’ economies - those which have storage are ‘delayed return. This essay uses the term ‘hunter gatherer’ as synonymous with immediate return economies - and excludes complex delayed return hunter gatherer societies.

The importance of this distinction is the assumption that humans passed through a long period of their evolutionary history as simple hunter gatherers - many tens of thousands of years (Barkow et al, 1992 passim). This assumption is not (currently) confirmed by direct archaeological evidence, but the convergent supportive evidence from other fields seems very powerful - at any rate, that is my assumption in this essay.

Happiness and the meaning of life

A distinction not made explicitly in the above essay was between ‘happiness’ in the sense of pleasurable or gratifying emotions, and the happiness deriving from experiencing life as meaningful and feeling ‘at home in the world’. There is a difference.

Most children feel at home in the world (alienation typically only arises around adolescence in Western societies) yet children may, of course, be extremely unhappy. In contrast, adults in modern industrial societies often experience pleasure, even though they may feel chronically estranged from the natural world. I have written elsewhere about the problem of unhappiness (1998, 2000), and argued that unhappiness is endemic partly due to the frequency of ‘psychiatric’ symptoms such as anxiety, fear, malaise, insomnia and so on. Such symptoms are - in principle, at least - amenable to alleviation using technological interventions such as pharmacological agents (drugs). But even if all these psychiatric symptoms were successfully treated, this may leave untouched the basic ‘existential’ problem of experiencing life as meaningless and the world as alien.

So, in a sense, the above essay is concerned with those people who are not suffering from any significant psychiatric symptoms, those people who are lucky enough to be happy, healthy and able to experience gratifying emotions - yet who still experience ‘life’ as meaningless.

The idea that people in simple hunter gatherer societies are ‘happier’ than either agricultural peasants or modern industrial-mercantile citizens was one I learned from Barkow (1989, 1992) - and it has been amply confirmed by all other informed references and reports on the topic that I have been able to find (Charlton, 2000). This greater ‘happiness’ of hunter gatherers is twofold. A greater frequency and/or intensity of gratifying emotions on the one hand, and the integrated sense of feeling at home in the world on the other. Feeling at home in the world, as discussed above, is not necessarily associated with more frequent or intense pleasurable emotional states - but is itself a profoundly gratifying state of mind.

Animism and generalised anthropomorphism

References to animistic modes of thinking are widely scattered throughout the hunter gatherer literature, some of which are listed below - Lee and Daly (1999) provide a recent overview. Brody is particularly strong on this topic (1988, 2001). I have also found the work of Bird-David (1990, 1992, 1999) highly stimulating, including her 1999 suggestion of a link between animism and evolved social intelligence.

Possibilities and implications

The contemporary implications of this essay can be read either positively or negatively. On the positive side, an understanding of how it is that humans (under some conditions) can indeed experience life as meaningful and feel at home in the world may be a source of hope, or even a focus for action. On the negative side, it seems that humans living in a delayed return economy (eg. everyone reading this essay), especially humans in which the economy is encroaching on more and more of life (ditto), will never feel that their life ‘as a whole’ is meaningful, and will experience significant periods of alienation.

Furthermore, the mental deformations required by economic efficiency, and induced by a prolonged and intrusive socialisation process, themselves represent a significant barrier to even temporary resurgences of spontaneous animism.

The prospect of a utopian society is as remote as ever, and existing societies seem intractably suboptimal in terms of the chances of individual fulfilment. Nonetheless, for some individuals, it may be that an understanding of the connection between the experience of spontaneous animism and the experience of feeling at home in the world may be valuable in their own lives.


Barkow JH. (1989) Darwin, sex and status. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Barkow JH. (1992) Beneath new culture is old psychology: gossip and social stratification. In: Barkow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (Editors.) The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 627-637.

Barkow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (Editors) (1992) The adapted mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bird-David N. (1990) ‘The Giving Environment: Another perspective on the economic system of gatherer-hunters. Current Anthropology. 31: 183-196.

Bird-David. (1992) ‘Beyond “The Original Affluent Society”: A culturalist reformulation,’ Current Anthropology, vol. 33:1, pp. 25-47.

Bird-David N. (1999) ‘Animism’ revisited. Current Anthropology. 40: 567-591.

Brody H. (2001) The Other Side of Eden: hunters, farmers and the shaping of the world. Faber and Faber: London

Brody H. (1988) Maps and Dreams : Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd; Canada

Byrne RW, Whiten A. (1988) Machiavellian intelligence: social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes and humans. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Charlton BG. (1998) Psychopharmacology and the human condition. JRSM. 91: 599-601.

Charlton B. (2000) Psychiatry and the human condition. Radcliffe Medical Press: Oxford, UK.

Charlton B, (2001) Evolution and the cognitive neuroscience of awareness, consciousness and language. www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/awconlang.html

Charlton B. (2001) Ceremonial time versus technological time. www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/ceremonialtime.html

Damasio, A.R. 1994 Descartes' error: emotion, reason and the human brain London, Macmillan.

Diamond J. (1992) The rise and fall of the third chimpanzee. London: Vintage.

Diamond J. (1997) Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Jonathan Cape: London

Gellner E. (1988) Plough, sword and book: the structure of human history. London: Collins.

Hearne V. (1986) Adam’s task: calling animals by name. Knopf: New York.

Hill K, Hurtado AM. (1996) Ache life history. Aldine de Gruyter: New York.

Ingold T, Woodburn, J, Riches, D. (Editors) (1988) Hunters and Gatherers Volumes one and two. Berg: Oxford, UK.

Ingold T. (2000) The perception of the environment. Routledge: London

Konner M. (1982) The tangled wing : biological constraints on the human spirit. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York

Lee RB, DeVore I (Editors) (1968) Man the hunter. Chicago: Aldine.

Lee R, Daly R (Editors) (1999) Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Miller G. (2000) The mating mind: how sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. Heinemann: London

Shostak, M. (1981) Nisa, the life and words of a !Kung woman. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Whiten A, Byrne RW (Editors). (1997) Machiavellian Intelligence II. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge , UK.

Woodburn J. (1982) Egalitarian societies. Man. 17: 431-451.

Wrangham R, Peterson D. (1996) Demonic males: apes and the origins of male violence. Houghton Mifflin: Boston.



also by Bruce Charlton
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
Peak Experiences, Creativity and the Colonel Flastratus Phenomenon