The bi-polar bear and the captive human

“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” This quote made the Geneva-born political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau world famous. But why is it that this quote resonates much more with a minority of people than the majority? People all around the world live in non-democratically governed states that violate human rights and the dissenting voices are usually only a few.

The recent years have shown a particular downward trend in democratic awareness, with up to 30% of millennials agreeing that an authoritarian government may be better than a democratic one and there is a danger of these numbers approaching the ones of pre-war Germany. In the wake of World War II the German psychologist Erich Fromm published his book Escape from Freedom in which he analysed how the Nazis could ever have gathered so many followers. He concluded that humans tend to fear freedom when freedom is perceived as bringing chaos. The desire for stability and control makes them wish for authoritarian leaders and strict rules and regulations, making material well-being a priority over freedom.

Where most people just went on with their lives without asking too many questions, the dissidents tended to always come from similar corners: writers, poets, scientists, academics, journalists, philosophers and other intellectuals. Is there a connection between feeling captive and thinking a lot?

In such places (he went on at last), where animals are simply penned up, they are almost always more thoughtful than their cousins in the wild. This is because even the dimmest of them cannot help but sense that something is very wrong with this style of living. (from Daniel Quinn Ishmael )

It’s hard to verify if Quinn is right regarding animals starting to overthink their captivity. Captivity certainly takes a huge toll on animals and in a way it’s relatable that they have a vague idea of the possibility of a different kind of life and the vague feeling they were in the Matrix. As a result, animals in zoos oversleep, overeat, and show signs of severe frustration, anxiety, depression, obsessive behaviours and often lose the drive to reproduce .

Many of the very same behaviours of captive animals are observed in humans suffering from mental illness and are never observed in wild animals. I have argued that many mental problems such as neuroticism and oppositional defiant disorder can be regarded as a mismatch between evolutionary programming and the environment. In a simplified way, people can be seen as evolutionary foragers, farmer or herder types. Our world is very much a farmer world, which leaves the other types more vulnerable to mental health problems, in particular forager types.

There is a traditional distinction between doers (farmer-herders) and thinkers (foragers), which is very close to the Jungian distinction between sensors and intuitives. The signs of those “thinkers” can already often be observed in early childhood, as these are the children who relentlessly will ask “Why?” The children who rebel against authority and perceived injustice. The children who are often loners as they find it hard to connect to their peers. These are all common symptoms in neurodiverse children(ASD, ADHD, ODD, OCD; gifted).

When I write about neurodiverse people being hunter-gatherer types these people themselves are often incredulous: “I wouldn’t have survived because I am scatterbrained, because of my anxieties, because I am weird, etc.” Well, then consider what happened to Gus:

In the mid-1990s, Gus, a polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, alarmed visitors by compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool, sometimes for 12 hours a day. He stalked children from his underwater window, prompting zoo staff to put up barriers to keep the frightened children away from his predatory gaze.* Gus’s neuroticism earned him the nickname “the bipolar bear,” a dose of Prozac, and $25,000 worth of behavioral therapy. ()

Was Gus born with a defective brain? Hardly. And yet he was treated like a human considered to have brain damage. For us it’s easy to understand what happened to Gus, but would Gus if he was conscious like a human being? Hardly, there would be no way of him knowing what the environment that evolution has programmed him for is like. Would Gus have survived if he had been released into the wilderness? Hardly. Most large, captive-bred carnivores die if returned to their natural habitat. Animals in captivity do not usually have the natural behaviors needed for success in the wild.

The same is true for forager types. They often feel like captives in a farmer world. School, their 9–5 routine jobs and, yes, even family life can feel like prison to them. Foragers all over the world refuse to take up “farming” and show “captive animal symptoms” when forced to integrate into a farmer society: depression, substance use, signs of PTSD and suicide are all rife. What makes me so sure that there a forager types in our modern society when people have been farming for 10.000 years? Consider the following story:

By the end of the nineteenth century, factories were being built in Chicago and slums were taking root in New York while Indians fought with spears and tomahawks a thousand miles away. It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans-mostly men-wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened : Indians almost never ran away to join white society. (Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, 2016)

The people who joined Native Americans were forager types who were attracted by the forager way of life and egalitarianism. So, they found it relatively easy to integrate. The opposite almost never happened.

As a member of the Mbuti people, Ota Benga lived in equatorial forests near the Kasai River in what was then the Congo Free State. He was captured by slave traders and taken to America. In 1906 he was exhibited like an animal in the Bronx zoo. There were doubtlessly many people, sadly a lot of clergymen, who thought of him as subhumans, but also those who criticized what had been done to him. The New York Times quoted Robert Stuart MacArthur as saying, “We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him”. Benga was finally adopted by a family and tried hard to integrate into American society. However, when the war made it clear he would be unable to return to his native tribe in Congo he committed suicide in 1916.

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley had very different visions of how humans would be bereft of their freedom and 20 years into the 21st century they are strangely converging.

“War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.”

― George Orwell, 1984

Originally published at on September 12, 2021.