What is human nature? Are we really a horrible species?

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Posted Sep 4 2014 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

When discussing war, exploitation, wealth disparities, violence and the apparently uncaring nature of society, a common response is: ‘well, that’s human nature for you’. Is it? Really? Are we that bad? Are we inherently, intrinsically, irredeemably horrible?

We recently had solar PV installed, which involved a visit from an energy performance assessor to provide a certificate to claim feed-in tariffs. His name was Josh (here’s a plug – he was a good guy). After he’d done his business, we discussed the above question over a coffee. He told me that he used to work in the city, but found it soulless and so he re-trained to become an energy assessor. He now enjoys visiting people and explaining how they can make their homes more energy efficient. He said that he’d visited over 600 people, and all but a couple of them were really nice people. He didn’t believe the myth that human nature is horrible – and neither do I.

OK, so that’s not a very scientific analysis, but I’m not sure how well ‘niceness’ lends itself to scientific enquiry. Think about all the people you know. How many of them are predominantly greedy, selfish and/or violent? Maybe none of them? Aren’t most people predominantly warm, kind and honest when you get to know them – and just struggling to get along in a society that seems to be the exact opposite?

So what’s gone wrong? How can it be that people are generally nice, but society is so unjust? What I want to argue is that it’s because we have a system that allows sociopaths – greedy, selfish, ruthless people – to get into positions of power. I’ve argued many times that ultimate power is economic not political, and that to get to the top of the economic (i.e. corporate) greasy pole, ruthlessness, selfishness and greed will not hold you back. Quite the opposite in fact.

So how did that happen? How on earth did we end up with a system run by sociopaths, if most of us are not sociopaths? I believe that it all began after our transition from hunter-gathers to farmers. In the first agrarian societies in the Middle East, Indus Valley and China, instead of living collectively in tribal groups, people began to accumulate land – and the more you had, the more you could produce and the wealthier you got. In the absence of legal systems, what kinds of people do you think would accumulate the most land? I suggest that it would have been those least inclined to use restraint in the attempt to acquire it. What I’m saying is that sociopaths took power a long time ago, and the rest of us haven’t been able to work out a way to take it from them – yet.

Yes, if you read about human history, it reads like the history of butchery and murder. But that’s the kind of thing that makes history. You don’t get to read about the ordinary, perfectly nice people who just got on with their lives and never hurt anybody. That’s not a story. And of course, all those wars were started by the sociopaths in power, not the ordinary people. We all know the story of the German and British troops climbing out of their trenches during World War 1 to greet each other and play football at Christmas. That’s real, empathic human nature at play. Of course, leaders on both sides soon put a stop to it.

I actually think that the gap between the empathic nature of people and the psychopathic nature of society is widening, for the following main reasons:

  1. Parenting is getting better. For most people above the age of 50, their childhood experiences would have included being hit at some point. That rarely happens now, and if it does, it’s frowned upon and seen as bad parenting – which of course it is. If you go back further, the horror of Victorian parenting doesn’t bear thinking about.
  2. The internet prevents people from other cultures from being demonised.
  3. The prevalence of therapy means that nowadays, people are encouraged to look deep inside themselves and evaluate their innermost feelings in relation to others (and are often obsessed with it, it has to be admitted). It’s the first time this has happened – just a few generations ago, no-one would have understood the vocabulary we have now in relation to human psychology.

We’re raising better people, and yet at the same time, society is becoming more polarised, more environmentally damaging, and remains stubbornly committed to war as a means of resolving conflict. At some point something must give. I don’t think that people will be eternally compliant with a system that is so far removed from their values and aspirations.

What might happen if we had a system where intelligence, compassion and integrity were rewarded most? What kind of world might we have then? That’s where we need to focus, I believe – on our economic and political systems. Let’s change them so that better people get to the top. I don’t have any blueprint for what those systems might look like, but at least let’s start talking about it. It’s not about people – we’re OK. We’ve just got rubbish systems that allow sociopaths to retain power.

(That devil is me by the way: fancy dress party, Redfield Community, 2009.)