The history of anger, guilt and shame

The original and proper purpose of anger was to support our survival in prehistoric times when we were under physical attack or in immediate danger from predatory animals etc. Anger does this by firing up our sympathetic nervous systems and releasing the adrenal hormones which prepare us for ‘fight or flight’. Our blood pressure goes up, blood is diverted to the muscles and away from the internal organs, our pupils dilate and so on. As modern humans living in a relatively civilised part of the world, we are almost never in a situation where we need to defend our bodies, our helpless children or our immediate physical space (house or encampment) against actual violent invasion. Anger is very rarely a helpful response to the events of our daily lives, but the neurochemical system remains in place for genuine emergencies, and is easily co-opted by the evolving mind to dramatise and intensify our emotional and psychological conflicts. Thus we have road rage, neighbours quarreling over the fence, parents screaming at their children, revenge killings, and so on.

Guilt and shame may, like anger, have had a useful purpose in earlier phases of our evolution as social animals. When there is little consciousness of the impact our actions can have on others around us, when there is a lack of awareness and self-control, it can be beneficial to have some social inhibitions to protect weaker individuals and preserve the coherence of the whole tribe. Otherwise the strongest males are likely to literally throw their weight around and hurt others, especially the more vulnerable females and children. All mammalian species in which the males are bigger then the females face the same problem and typically solve it with lifestyles that strictly separate the two sexes, except briefly at mating time. Moral codes have instead enabled female and male human beings to live together year round, albeit in a mostly uneasy coalition, which nevertheless has created much richer opportunities for social and personal development. Along the way, and especially with the advent of the patriarchal religions and the agricultural economy, the prevalence of guilt and shame expanded in many cultures and came to influence almost all areas of human behaviour.

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