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On Human Nature

We live in a culture that enshrines selfishness, that sanctifies it with such conviction that questioning the validity of self-interest as a moral guidepost will see you branded as a radical. Gordon Gecko, the ruthless antagonist of the film Wall Street, summarized the prevailing ethos of our culture when he proudly declared, “Greed is good.” Just about everyone accepts this philosophy; the only difference is presentation. The Right openly embraces the values of self-interest while the Left grudgingly tolerates them.

We justify this self-interest – or perhaps self-indulgence – by telling ourselves that human beings are incapable of any other kind of behaviour. Attempts at creating a more egalitarian society are pointless because at his core, every human is ultimately self-serving and will not tolerate any check on his self-interest. It’s the old nature vs nurture debate. Is the rampant avarice that we see in today’s world a product of genetic programming that we cannot turn off, or is it perhaps a consequence of living in a society that fosters such behaviour? It turns out that nurture is winning that debate.

When we imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we tend to picture something along the lines of Quest for Fire with tribes of spear-wielding men making war on one another. Surely humanity’s prehistoric days were a violent time where only the strongest men survived and the weak were left to starve.

But actually…

The hunter-gatherer societies that have survived to this day in isolated parts of the world have all been described as some of the most peaceful and egalitarian people on this planet. Only contact with the outside world exposes them to the concept of war. To quote Dr. Peter Gray: “If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren’t really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story. There are some variations from culture to culture, of course, and not all of the cultures are quite as peaceful and fully egalitarian as others, but the generalities are the same. One anthropologist after another has been amazed by the degree of equality, individual autonomy, indulgent treatment of children, cooperation, and sharing in the hunter-gatherer culture that he or she studied. When you read about “warlike primitive tribes,” or about indigenous people who held slaves, or about tribal cultures with gross inequalities between men and women, you are not reading about band hunter-gatherers.”

So, how do they do it? Dr. Gray has several theories, but the one that caught my eye was the fact that most hunter-gatherer societies practise a system of reverse dominance. When someone starts to get a big ego – say a man who brought home a nice big antelope – the others playfully tease him until he shows a bit of humility.

While studying the indigenous peoples of Botswana, anthropologist Richard Lee asked one of the tribal elders about this practise. The response he received was as follows.

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.

Not only are these people non-competitive, not only are they egalitarian, they actually see competition and social stratification as a threat to their way of life. In their eyes, a man who elevates himself above his peers has taken the first step down a long road the leads to violence and brutality. To be fair to the nature-crowd, we should admit that obviously some drive toward competition and status-seeking does exist – the man with the antelope wouldn’t feel compelled to boast if it didn’t – but the point that everyone should take away from this is that such instincts are not insurmountable. Human beings are quite capable of embracing egalitarian values if their cultural circumstances permit it. As Dr. Gray concludes, the values we adopt are a matter of culture not genetics.

Human nature is exceedingly complex and encompasses just about every form of behaviour that you can imagine. Humans are benevolent and selfish, cautious and reckless, individualistic and prone to mob rule.

The sad reality is that our society nurtures the worst aspects of the human soul. You can see it in our slogans. If you want to “get ahead,” you have to “look out for number one” because “it’s jungle out there,” and no one will give you “handouts.” Not only do we fail to foster socially-conscious behaviour, we go out of our way to stifle it. Just listen to the amount of scorn that we invest in the word “handout.” It’s a dirty word in our society, associated with naivety on the part of the benefactor and laziness on the part of the recipient. We come up with any number of reasons to justify why those in need are not deserving of our attention. “That homeless man will only spend the money you gave him on booze.”

Under conditions like these, is it any surprise that we live in a society where a small number of financial elites can lend money to clients whom they know are incapable of repayment and then demand billions of dollars of public funds to recoup their losses? Now we have to ask ourselves whether this is the kind of world we want to live in. Because we don’t have to.

I won’t be the first to go on record saying this, but it needs to be said anyway: self-interest is only good in moderation.

I’ll leave you with a video by Tim Jackson as some food for thought.

_______________

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1 Comment

  1. […] On Human Nature […]

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