Human Paleopsychology
A Paleopsychological Take on the Eric Garner Case

Kent G. Bailey
     In 1987, I introduced an approach called Human Paleopsychology based largely upon Paul MacLean's triune brain theory.  MacLean postulated that the human brain is a three-in-one amalgam comprised of a mechanistic "reptilian" level, an emotion-based "mammalian" brain at mid-level, and a thinking, reasoning, and futuristic brain at the topmost level.  I added the notion that we humans constantly move up and down these levels in our day-to-day behavior.  Moving up is called "phylogenetic progression" and moving down is called "phylogenetic regression."   It seems inescapable to me that the Michael Brown and Eric Garner tragedies were products of powerful and even compulsive phylogenetic regressions.

     Human beings- and especially the intellectual classes- think we humans are free agents guided this way and that by rational cognitive processes.   If we err, we only need to learn better habits and ways of thinking.  In my view, that borders on the delusional.  With millions of years of adaptation formation directed primarily toward reproduction on the one hand- set against 20, 30, or 40 years of cultural shaping on the other- it really is not a fair fight.  Mother Nature will always prevail ultimately against the protestations of socialization and culture.  We are still "hunters and gathers" at heart just as we were for eons of evolution.

     Now down to business.  As a full-fledged paleoconservative, I generally favor the police when controversy arises.  Indeed, I was one of the psychologists who helped implement the excellent Virginia State Police Training Program in the early 70s.  However, I did not like what I saw with the Eric Garner take down and keep-down by the Staten Island police.  My exhilaration with the Darren Wilson acquittal was immediately muted by concern over police excess in the Garner instance.  My theory may help clarify what "excess" means here.

     Every person must keep his or her "inner beast" at bay to be accepted in various social and cultural groups of choice.  Phylogenetic "slippage" into older, inappropriate outputs may lead to social rejection, criminal charges, expulsion from the group(s), or even the death penalty.  Everyday human behavior is a complex process of interacting phylogenetic regressions and progressions and most are not morally or legally problematic.

     Theoretically, the motivations and actions of Eric Garner appear rather mundane and "normal" given his pressing life circumstances.  He was a married 43-year-old African-American man with 6 children who worked part-time in the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and Recreation.  He has been described by family and friends as amiable, generous and congenial.  He had a criminal record of more than 30 arrests dating back to 1980, including charges of assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny.  In general, he seems to me more a petty criminal than a dangerous menace to society.  

     However, his race, physical size, criminal history and resistance to arrest, played central roles in the violent encounter leading to his death.  Had he been a small black or white man with a similar criminal history who resisted, then there would be no protestors in the streets today.  One or two officers would have easily brought him down without further incident. Given differing crime rates by race, officers might have been more tense and wary with the black offender, but would have, nevertheless, made the arrest.  In my theory, race is always  in play if one digs deeply enough. 

     Paleopsychologically, there appeared little remarkable on Eric Garner's side of the equation, save for size and race.  In this regard, he stands in sharp contrast to Michael Brown who was also a very large black man.  But Brown was a very violent black thug looking for trouble, whereas Garner just wanted to be left alone to make a few dollars on illegal cigarettes.

      Theoretically, the soil is a tad richer on the law enforcement side.  Garner might be seen as little more than a fairly peaceful but misguided  "gatherer" of resources for his family, whereas law enforcement and the military are male bastions of the "hunter-warrior complex."  Even female officers, who may tend toward nonviolent solutions,  must don the mail of warriors when faced with life and death threats to self and others.  In my work in state police training, most recruits were really nice guys, but there was always a small minority of  "hot dog" types with the dark shades, the swagger and chip on the shoulder.  These guys did not have to "regress" much in a violent encounter; they were pretty much already there.  In the worst case scenario, these testosterone driven types could easily step over the line into 'excess" and sometimes would even cause a fight.   However, even the nicest and kindest officers must be on constant guard against regression-to-excess that violent confrontations elicit.
     When a group of hunter-warriors is called into action, the likelihood of excessive response is greatly magnified.  Warriors may compete as to who is the toughest or bravest, and moral responsibility is diminished for the individual and "shared" across the group.  It takes a person of considerable character to resist regression to lower levels of moral response when confronting the "enemy," whether it is on the battlefield or inner city streets.

     Was excess force applied in the Garner case?  Certainly, the "elicitors" for a very violent response were set into motion when the officers were required to confront an extremely large black man with a criminal history including assault.  Under threat, a mixture of  adrenaline-fueled fear and anger can be explosive.  I can only offer a personal opinion here based on the videotaped incident.  It appeared that Mr.Garner was in the defensive mode from the outset and just wanted to be left alone.  He pushed and shoved a bit, but defensively.  But he did resist and his fate was thus sealed.

      The officers appeared- for the most part- to follow normal procedure in the take down.  But it was a very violent one indeed.  The controversy surrounds officer Panteleo's role in the melee- was it a choke hold, a common wrestling hold, a submission hold, or one of the mixed martial arts maneuvers?   We may never know for sure.  The fact that officer Panteleo is a mixed martial competitor is a fact of considerable interest here.

     For me, the "keep down" aspect was more important than the initial take down.  Once this hulk of a man was down it would have taken great effort for him get back on his feet even under normal circumstances.  Thus, was it necessary for Panteleo to continue his vigorous neck hold and then to press Garner's face into the sidewalk while other officers already had the upper hand?

     I believe Mr.Garner's daughter was closest to the truth when she said, "it was not a matter of race, but one of pride."  The officers certainly "won" the confrontation definitively, but at great cost.   The police (and the military) are the "hunter-warriors" that protect us from the bad guys, and we love and respect them for doing so.  But it takes tremendous training and moral resolve to resist "regressing" into excess that can put a good cop over the line in a threatening situation.
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Kent G. Bailey [email protected]