Why We’d Need Positive Bonds with Our Ancestors and Descendants

In the second installment of this series, I said that the signs that it is important to people to have positive bonds across generations are so widespread – across cultures and throughout history — “that one might reasonably infer that feeling is built into our nature.”

Why would that be true?

Our thinking about “human nature,” I propose, should begin with the understanding that our humanity was “crafted” over countless generations by a selective process that consistently chose life over death. In that perspective, something becomes part of our nature if it has tended, over our ancestral generations, to serve the survival of our kind.

Surely, family has been a central part of the human strategy for survival.

During the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years during which what became “human nature” was formed, our ancestors lived in small bands. These bands consisted largely of what we would call “extended family,” and they survived by cooperating in getting the food they all required, and in raising their ever-longer dependent young.

So it would seem obvious that positive bonds in the human family would have been life-serving for its members. And whatever a creature’s survival has long required, its nature will be crafted to seek. Such as the positive bonds that lead to mutual caring and cooperation.

And whatever a creature is inherently motivated to seek, it will find fulfilling to find. So, for us humans, it is fulfilling to feel loved and appreciated by — and fulfilling also to feel love and appreciation for — those around us.

Hence that “need to experience ourselves as part of a ‘good family.’”

To see how that might illuminate the significance of the Heirloom, it is necessary to understand “family” as consisting not only of those people who are alive at a given moment, but also as something that moves through time with the turnover of the generations.

“Family” — for the present generation — goes back into the past to Ancestors, and forward into the future to Descendants.

Can a case be made that a need for positive bonds — going both backward and forward in time in our families — would have been instilled into our nature?

Here’s why that seems plausible to me.

Long before the rise of “civilization,” humans were already “cultural” creatures. That is, even in those small bands, they followed culturally-shaped ways of life (ways of making tools, preparing food, performing rituals to convey meanings, etc.) Presumably, the very persistence of these cultural ways constitutes evidence that they aided the group’s survival.

That, in turn, suggests that it would have been life-serving for each generation to preserve their culture (at least for the most part)—a purpose served by respecting the cultural heritage that previous generations had developed and passed along to them. (History shows how devastating it can be to peoples whose cultures get shattered.)

And if it would aid a people’s survival to have respect for what has been handed down to them by past generations, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that therefore it would be life-serving for people to have positive regard for the ancestors whose heritage they would be wise to retain.

That means that, over many generations, selection would favor those with some innate inclination to want, seek, and feel fulfilled by feeling a positive bond with the ancestors.

(Just like how we can see how selection has favored a “maternal instinct” in any number of mammalian mothers, fostering a motivation to care for their young. Over the eons, the offspring of those mothers who lacked such a feeling would be less likely to survive to be part of the species’ gene pool.)

How about positive bonds with the generations of the future? Can a similarly plausible argument be made that the selection for what has survival value would instill into humankind an inborn need to feel some such positive feeling toward one’s descendants?

Once again, our condition as cultural creatures makes the well-being of each generation dependent, to an unusual degree, on how well their forebears have worked to make a good future for them. (One thinks about the Iroquois tradition that with every decision, consideration should be given to how it will impact the descendants of the future, down to “the 7th generation.”)

A famous proverb says: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.

(Conversely, a society in which the present generation does not care enough — about the generations to come — to pass along to them a world in which their descendants can flourish will surely grow weak and sickly.)

For people to be motivated to “plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit” has survival-enhancing consequences. Which makes it reasonable to imagine that – given enough generations – the inclination toward such bonds of caring would be instilled into our nature.

To the extent that these arguments are valid, Heirlooms have the potential to meet two basic human needs by

  • forging positive bonds to the ancestors who pass Heirlooms down to us, and
  • expressing positive bonds with the Descendants by creating Heirlooms to pass along to them something of value from the family.

And by meeting those two needs, the Heirloom project can not only help fulfill us individually but also help our society grow great.

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