The theory of “racial memory” played a key role in Sigurd Olson’s ideas about the meaning and importance of wilderness and other green spaces to humankind. Here’s an example from the final chapter of Open Horizons:
When we remember that only a hundred thousand years have elapsed since man’s emergence from the primitive, with vague beginnings running back a million years or more, it is not surprising we feel as we do. Man’s life was regulated by the seasons, the fears and challenges of the wilderness, and total dependence on natural forces. Only during the last ten thousand years is there any evidence of culture beyond the Stone Age….
In the last few decades we have almost succeeded in weaning ourselves from the past, but in spite of our urbanity, we have not been able to sever our spiritual roots, and I believe this to be the cause of our discontent. With growing divorcement from nature, the change is coming more and more swiftly, and we are now embarking on the greatest adventure and possible tragedy of all, exploring the universe while holding in our hands forces which threaten our survival.
Catapulted into such a dynamic and unfamiliar world, we are questioning the objectives and meaning of our lives. We may seem urbane and sophisticated, but we are beset by longings we cannot satisfy and search for quick panaceas to fill the growing void within us. Because of the conditioning that made us what we are, we have a powerful urge somehow to align ourselves with influences dominant for ages, but are still largely unaware that the solution may lie in a return to our old attitudes toward the earth.
the Pleistocene mind
The idea that humans have a biological attachment to nature arising out of our evolutionary heritage is not unique to Sigurd Olson. It has ties to the romantics and primitivists as well as to Carl Jung’s theory of the “collective unconscious.” Outside of Jung and his followers, it didn’t get much scholarly attention during Sigurd’s lifetime. Since his death, though, it has become the cornerstone of the discipline known as evolutionary psychology, and advocated by internationally respected scholars such as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker.
The researchers are confirming Sigurd’s claim: ten thousand years of agriculture and the recent, brief era of industrial civilization cannot significantly change millions of years of evolutionary design and behavior. In essence, we are Pleistocene creatures who require regular contact with nature to be fully human.
Those who study and write about it today are more likely to use the term “genetic memory,” no doubt at least in part because people easily can misconstrue “racial memory” as referring to specific races. We don’t speak so often these days of “the human race.” In Sigurd’s time, though, that inclusive sense of the word was common, and that is how he used it.
Some people today use the term “ancestral memory” interchangeably with genetic memory. It refers to the same process, but I like it better. People easily can relate with the term “ancestral,” while “genetic” comes across as cold and technical.
Also, “ancestral memory” arguably has the flexibility to include a variation on Sigurd’s theme. He not only referred to the deep past effect’s on the human species, but the near past as well. He wrote about the frontier experience still playing a role in the American psyche, and the more recent period of a largely rural, agricultural nation. In these cases Sigurd wasn’t referring to genetic inheritance so much as additional overlaying patterns of thought and habit passed down through families, influenced by the local environment and culture.
“Ancestral memory” nicely captures both the large-scale genetic memory as well as the additional non-genetic elements passed on within families from one generation to the next. I plan to use it from here forward when referring to Sigurd’s ideas, as it better captures his full intent than either of the other terms.
Sigurd’s combination of the theory of ancestral memory with his spiritual perspective steeped in evolutionary humanism made his ideas about nature and culture unique, and his poetic language gave them power. They are still relevant, and continue to inspire others to explore what I call the singing wilderness way.
The background in the photo shows the tip of Listening Point. Note the striations: rocks, too, carry signs of the ancient past.
This post is about knowledge and theory, which place it in the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.