It is very commonly assumed that humans are innately or by nature flawed, and that this is why there are so many dreadful problems evident in our history and in the world today. In the Christian tradition the assumption is that humans are by nature sinful, either evil or weak and fallible. Most often the assumption is that humans are by nature competitive and/or selfish and/or aggressive. More recently some people have come to see the issue in terms of evolutionary biology, whereby species are thought to be driven to act selfishly by the struggle for survival.
Those who hold this general view usually conclude that it is not possible for humans to build a satisfactory society, since humans will always be condemned to conflict and trouble by these nasty elements in our nature.
The argument below is that this position is mistaken. It is not argued that humans are by nature "good", but that the social behaviour of humans results from their learning and their circumstances. Some conditions produce very selfish, aggressive, competitive and nasty individuals, and some produce very cooperative, altruistic and peaceful individuals. Thus achieving a satisfactory world order is not prohibited by anything in our biological or psychological nature.
EVIDENCE AGAINST THE "HUMAN NATURE IS BAD" VIEW.
1. From human evolution.
Leaky points out that the circumstances in which humans evolved over millions of years, especially having to survive in small tribal bands on the dangerous grasslands of Africa, required strong bonding and cooperation between people. Had humans been competitive and individualistic we would not have survived. This suggests that if anything we have evolved to be inately cooperative, not aggressive. Richard Leaky says,
“Humans could not have evolved in the remarkable way in which we have unless our ancestors were strongly cooperative creatures...there must have been extreme selective pressures in favour of our ability to cooperate.”
The theory of evolution is often taken to mean that organisms struggle to survive in competition against each other. However it can be argued that the fundamental theme in evolution is the survival of the species, not the individual, and often species have developed cooperative and altruistic behaviours which increase the chances of survival for the species. For example in some bird and animal species the individual who first detects danger will give the alarm which helps the group to flee quickly but actually reduces that individual's chances of escape (because it draws he attacker's attention, and because the individual could have sneaked away leaving the others to be attacked.)
In The Origins of Virtue Matt Ridley argues that we have “moral” instincts; tendencies to be friendly, cooperative and helpful, built into our genes by evolution (…and we have nasty tendencies too…the task is to facilitate the former.)
2. Altruism exists, in abundance.
Even if humans did have an innate disposition to be selfish, competitive and aggressive, it is obvious that most people at least also have a strong disposition to be helpful, cooperative, friendly and to care about the welfare of others. Many humans will go to great effort, and in fact will sacrifice their own welfare, to help others. This is most obvious within families (the "selfish gene" theorist might say this is only a mechanism which increases the chance of survival of those with the same genes as the helper), but many people are also powerfully motivated to be cooperative, helpful, sympathetic and altruistic to strangers. How can this be if we are basically selfish, competitive and aggressive. Even if we have both sorts of dispositions why can't the nice one be encouraged to be predominant.
Even though there is much warfare, selfishness and violence in the world, the important fact is that the ordinary person spends about 99.99% of their time not trying to harm others, or to intentionally grab. They spend far more time cooperating with, helping and living peacefully with others than trying to attack, harm or steal. Why then don't we conclude that humans are basically nice but occasionally do nasty things to each other?
3. From Anthropology.
There are about 30 societies known to anthropologists in which people are very peaceful, cooperative and friendly and not selfish, competitive, aggressive or violent. This mean that humans are not by nature nasty. Some tribes are intensely aggressive, but some are not. Some groups in modern society, such as the Quakers and the Amish are very peaceful and cooperative. These observations reinforce the claim that behaviours such as cooperation and aggression are due to cultural factors, not to our biological inheritance.
Anthropologists recognise that ”primitive” societies can have much internal violence, arising from conflicts over women, status etc. This leaves open the possibility that better rules and arrangements might avoid such conflicts, but more importantly, below this aggression/conflict is distinguished from the propensity to undertake wars of conquest and plunder against other societies.
4. War is a recent invention.
Human history is such a terrible record of warfare that it is tempting to say we humans are naturally warlike. But this seems to be quite incorrect because organised wars of conquest and plunder and lasting domination of another society appears to be only an activity we have engaged in over the last 8000 years. The archaeological record seems to show clearly that before that time humans did not wage war, or at least that it was not prevalent or important (e.g, no evidence of walled settlements.). There would probably have been the occasional inter-tribal fighting (remember that for millions of years we lived in very small scattered groups that would rarely have come across another group) and it seems that there was and still is considerable violence within many tribes (disputes and murders), but there seems to be no archaeological evidence of organised battles or armies until around the time when humans settled and developed agriculture. This enabled the accumulation of surpluses. When it became possible to get food and wealth by raiding grain stores etc. rather than growing it then it evidence of warfare, armies, fortified villages etc. becomes apparent in the archaeological record. Also, hunter gatherers have little property and share a great deal, whereas agricultural people tend to inevitably have more private possessions and property (e.g., stored harvest), making it more likely that disputes would arise. The evidence is that there is more aggression in such societies.)
In other words it seems that in general war is a fairly recent human invention, not something that we have always engaged in. The Twentieth Century was the most warlike in human history, with over 160 million people killed in war. This indicates that the explanation for war lies in our social institutions and structures.
What about the argument that “evil” traits are probably distributed in humans in differing degrees, like intelligence, or schizophrenia, meaning that some people are very anti-social and can become Hitlers. There is evidence that empathy is like this, likely to be lacking in people who harm others. Again if this is so it does not seem to mean that serious conflict, let alone war is unavoidable. These traits would occur among the Amish or Quakers, but in those societies there is little or no aggression, so again it seems that if these tendencies are there they are easily countered by socialisation.
So even if nasty dispositions were part of our biological inheritance, it would still not mean that human interaction would inevitably be characterised by warfare, predation, selfishness and domination...unless it could be shown that they were so strong that we could not control these tendencies sufficiently to enable satisfactory social interaction. We have innate tendencies to yawn and burp, but we easily learn to prevent these from disrupting polite conversation.
THE ALTERNATIVE VIEW.
The foregoing considerations seem to clearly contradict the reasons commonly put forward for the view that humans are innately selfish, competitive and aggressive and conflict between them is inescapable. The alternative view is simply that nasty human behaviour and nice human behaviour can be explained in terms of two factors:
- a) how we socialise people; i.e., the behaviours and values etc. we bring up children to hold,
- b) the social system we have; i.e., do we have a social system which
We teach people to be nasty.
Our society stresses,
• Competition; Its main structure and systems are competitive. Consider the economy, politics, sport, and the obsessions with winning, fame, status and power seeking. There are almost no cooperative sports. Most people delight in beating others, in winning, in being the best.
• Individualism. You strive for your own advantage. The main concern is not to help others or work for the good of society. It is a society driven by self-interest, not by collectivism or community. For example most people try to minimise their tax. It is not a very compassionate society; in fact there is a strong tendency to condemn, blame and despise people who are poor, homeless or unemployed. Those who are not so mentally able are not given disproportionately large resources to compensate; e.g., most educational resources are spent on the brightest, who need them least. It is a “winner-take-all” society. The fittest or most ruthless and greedy get to the top, and they tend to be admired for their success.
• Aggression. We are taught the importance of being tough, fighting for our goals, triumphing over opposition. Physical aggression is typical of various sports, notably football. Sport is spoken about in military terms; battles, attack, defence. We have war toys. Many videos and films (especially cartoons for children) are extremely violent. Violence, killing and destruction are regarded as entertaining. Macho images are idolised; e.g., Rambo, the Phantom, the Terminator; it is attractive and desirable to be tough and destructive. John Wayne never backed down did he?
• Acquisitiveness, getting, greed. Almost everyone wants to be rich and to be able to buy expensive things. People are not very interested in living simply, sharing what they have and giving to others. It is alright to take wealth that others need.
To some extent we do also endorse and reinforce values like cooperation and peace, but
Western culture is predominantly about individuals competing energetically to increase their
own wealth, power and status.
Our society requires nasty behaviour.
Our society's institutions, systems and structures involve and require competition, individualism and aggression. It is a competitive society. We must all compete against each other for scarce jobs, incomes, security and success. You aren't likely to get by very well if you do not try to beat others. Our prospects for comfort, status and security do not depend on how sensibly we get together to help each other and to cooperate in producing what we all need, but on how fiercely we strive as individuals to beat everyone else to the scarce positions and goods.
The situation is one of (unnecessary and avoidable) scarcity. There are not enough jobs for all. There are not enough "nice" houses for all. Many people are dumped into avoidable unemployment and poverty. You will not get good medical care, legal assistance, aged care or education unless you can pay a lot, and many can't. It would be very easy to organise society so everyone has all they need for a high quality of life, with no unemployment or insecurity, and so that all have access to good health care etc., but we don’t do this.
Our political systems involve highly formal conflict. We do not get together to think out the best policies for all. We have parties which fight each other, usually in dishonest and infantile ways. Our leg al system is adversarial; whereby each side tries to beat the other, rather than all try to work out what happened or what might be the best solution.
Our economy is organised in terms of mortal competition between firms to maximise their profits trying to win the scarce sales opportunities. The weak players get trampled and sent into bankruptcy while the strong then take their business.
Most importantly, our "living standards" in rich countries are not possible unless we grab far more than our fair share of the world's scarce resources. All other countries are also striving for these high "living standards". This is the basic explanation for much of the conflict in the world. Much of the warfare, diplomatic lying and thuggery, support of dictatorial regimes and the imperial domination going on is necessary, if the rich and powerful few are to continue to get their disproportionately large share of the world's scarce resources, such as petroleum, timber and fish. You couldn't go on getting the amount of petrol you use if there were not a vast military machine keeping "order" in the Middle East and making sure that no one interferes with the flow of almost all the oil to rich countries. You could not get so much coffee and bananas if we were not prepared to support regimes in Third World countries willing to keep their economies to the economic policies that take land from hungry peasants and put it into export crops. (See http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/OurEmpire2p.html)
In these many ways our society is structured as a competitive, selfish, acquisitive and aggressive system. It does not put top priority on cooperation, generosity, altruism, giving, care, concern for the good of all or friendliness…or the welfare of nature. Thus living and surviving in this society requires us to be aggressive, competitive and selfish, whether we want to or not (although of course we can also be cooperative and friendly.)
The important conclusion is that if we want a society in which people are nice to each other we could easily organise this if we a) raised kids to be nice and not competitive, aggressive and selfish and b) organised our society in ways that require and reward cooperative and friendly behaviour. These are central characteristics of The Simpler Way.
At another level (not the psychological level) there is a very disturbing connection between the nature of consumer-capitalist society and military activity. Rich world affluent living standards, and corporate wealth would not be anything like as high as they are if we were not controlling a global empire from which we draw far more than our fair share of resource wealth.
We use arms (and other things, such as aid) to do this. Most war in modern history has been driven by the determination to grab resources and markets – not by an aggressive human nature. (See Peace and Conflict; From the perspective of The Simpler Way.)
(The selfish and competitive nature of consumer-capitalist society contrasts markedly with that of the Medieval era. On the distinction, and the role of Protestantism in the transition, see.
Why the issue is important.
This issue is very important because if you believe that the problems in our society are due to tendencies built into our biology or nature then you will not be inclined to work to solve the problems. The arguments above supports the conclusion that we are not prevented from building a satisfactory society by anything in our human nature, but that to do so will require much effort to produce nice people and to produce good social systems.
The much more problematic human trait.
The aspect of human nature that is now most important of all, most likely to see immense global problems in the near future, is not individualism, selfishness, competition or aggression. It is the lack of social responsibility. Humans are remarkably incapable or unwilling to attend to, be concerned about and take action on urgent social problems. We are rapidly heading into an era of very serious problems and breakdown, but most people do not seem to be anywhere near appropriately concerned or wiling to face up to the required action. (See Social Responsibility.)
The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment,
limits to growth, Third World, war, social breakdown...)and the sustainable alternative society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
communities, and a new, zero-growth economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.