Human Nature – An Unscientific Survey

My parents raised my brother and me in the 1950s and early 1960s. My wife and I raised our two kids in the mid 1970s to late 1980s. They in turn are raising their families in the early 2000s. This weekend I got to thinking about how much, and how little, the world at the micro, social, community level has changed for most of us in the past half century. And I concluded that, at that level, for most people there were really only two significant changes in that momentous 50-year period:

  • The introduction of safe, reliable birth control, and
  • The necessity of the two-income family.

When I spend time with our two granddaughters I perceive the only important differences between their young lives and mine resulted from these two phenomena, one technological and the other economic.

(For those who haven’t read The Two-Income Trap, the two-income family was a direct result of more and more families, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, chasing after scarce amenities like homes near good schools and quality health care. To compete for these amenities required two family incomes, which in a vicious spiral created high demand for other amenities like a second family car and quality child care. That high demand drove up prices to the point that today’s two-income families are really no further ahead than the one-income families of fifty years ago.)

I can hear some of you saying that the PC and the Internet belong up there with these two changes, and some day they might, but I would assert that for most people neither the PC nor the Internet has fundamentally changed people’s lives to anywhere near the extent that reliable birth control and the necessity of two incomes have. I look around our house and, aside from the fact everything is bigger, there is more of everything, and everything is more complicated and has more ‘features’, there is an astonishing similarity between the house I grew up in and the house our granddaughters are growing up in. I am no more informed and no better connected than my father, although we have used different technologies to achieve knowledge and connection. Our children spend money less thoughtlessly than I did when I was their age, and complain about their children’s preoccupation with material things just as the previous two generations did.

As my readers know, I am not convinced that people change, and they adapt to external exigencies (like the availability of reliable birth control and the need for two family incomes) slowly, and as little as necessary. The more I learn about human nature the more convinced I am that nature trumps nurture, and that not only are we reluctant to change, we are largely incapable of it. And we beget offspring that resemble us in more ways than just physically. While they can adapt to new exigencies quickly in their youth, that doesn’t make them fundamentally different in their makeup, aspirations and personalities from us, or from previous generations. Anyone who says, of something awful or wonderful that happened in the past, “that could never happen today” is deluding themselves. We foolishly ignore the lessons of history at our peril.

If Kunstler is right (see yesterday’s post) and we will shortly embark on what will appear to us a march backwards through history, back through world wars and great depressions and rampant disease, back to the point where most energy is generated by our own muscles and by farm animals, where electric light is a luxury and night becomes once again a time for sleeping, where raising a family and maintaining a home is once again a respected, affordable, necessary full-time job, where we do things for ourselves instead of paying others to do them for us, where we conserve because we cannot afford to do otherwise, where we spend most of our lives in one place and walk or ride horseback when we travel at all, it seems to me that our grandchildren’s descendants will not find this so terrible (once war and disease have reduced our numbers to sustainable levels again, anyway). It is completely conceivable to me that they may consider this move towards small numbers, smaller personal footprint on the planet, living within their means, and reintegration with nature to be true “progress” and their history books may brand the 20th and early 21st centuries an era of massive psychosis and self-destruction. They may not even blame us for the horrific ‘adjustment’ they will have to go through to emerge in a world where humanity’s role and impact on the planet is steadily declining towards insignificance, and perhaps even extinction.

My reason for this grim optimism is that I have a fundamentally positive view of human nature. I believe the vast majority of people are by nature generous, care genuinely for others, and want to do what’s best for the world and not just for themselves. And, following the logic that began this wandering essay, I believe we have always been so and will always be so. When I picture massive struggle and hardship, I picture my grandparents during the great depression giving everything they possibly could to the beggars that came to their door. I don’t picture Mad Max, or the tear-gassing of protesting workers, or the tortures and murders of Pinochet or Abu Ghraib or the Russian Stalags or the Nazi deathcamps or Mao’s atrocities. To me these are anomalies, perversions of human nature, behaviour against the grain of humanity.

But I have often been accused of being naive, and perhaps I have been lucky in the humans I have met and conversed with and worked with and read about. Perhaps true human nature is different from that of the people I know (or think I know). So, dear readers, here is your chance to set me straight. In the comments below this post, please tell me your answers to the following three questions, and add whatever explanatory notes you consider appropriate. But please try not to compound my error by reflecting only the views of those you know of like minds — think too of the people you know who do not vote, who do not read, who are rather too caught up in themselves, or who beneath a quiet exterior seethe with rage and loathing. Here we go:

  1. If, because of cataclysmic war, disease, act of terrifying violence, economic collapse, or natural disaster a large part of the planet, including the part where you live now, were to suffer a massive, gradual, and sustained collapse of infrastructure, law and order, what percentage of the population do you think would do each of the following:
    1. Generously sell off luxuries and give what they could to others, and even take others into their homes,
    2. Hole themselves up and protect their property with guns if necessary, and
    3. Exploit the situation by stealing other people’s property, by force if necessary.
  2. If, in the above circumstances, many of the enabling processes of civilization were to collapse — big corporations simply closed up shop, governments went bankrupt and completely stopped functioning, and food, energy and clean water suddenly became extremely scarce, what kind of political and economic regime do you think would be most likely to fill the vacuum:
    1. Argentinian style self-management, where communities would pull together and share, start up new local businesses, barter, and look after each other,
    2. Russian style gangsterism, where people would steal and hoard resources and extort outrageous prices, sexual favours, and ‘protection’ money from others, 
    3. Afghani-style oppression, where local religious fundamentalist warlords would brutally impose and enforce order on local residents, including dictating who owns what, who wears what, who does what and what behaviour is allowed and prohibited, on pain of summary execution, or
    4. Total anarchy, where no one would have enough power to impose order, and where the lack of sense of community would prevent people coalescing around any system, so virtually every family would fend for itself and do what it felt it had to do to survive.
  3. Fifty years after such a collapse, how do you think we would be living:
    1. Peacefully, responsibly, better connected to community, and more modestly than we do today, and very locally, but ultimately quite “well off”,
    2. Striving with mixed results to restore the institutions of civilization — a market economy, national and international trade under well-managed corporations, a lean government to help those most in need with essential services, defence and security forces and the ‘rule of law’,
    3. Under feudal or other totalitarian rule,
    4. Still in a state of anarchy with roving hordes disrupting every attempt to create a functional society,
    5. Under the rule of a ‘higher power’, or 
    6. Virtually annihilated.

My answers will appear in the comments, after I’ve heard from you.

Painting, Human Nature, from the Arcosanti Intentional Community, artist unknown.

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8 Responses to Human Nature – An Unscientific Survey

  1. Harald says:

    According to my history teacher, The single-income “age of prosperity” families of the 40s and 50s were the abberation. Prior to that it was pretty routine for all members of a family to work. The industrial revolution was fueled by working mothers…

  2. Zephyr says:

    Oh, what a cool excercise! – I feel like I’m a kidback in highschool – except in a beautifulphilosophy or sociology class which wouldn’t havebeen taught there, then. My college courses wererarely this engaging. What percentage of the people would act in manner a b or c…? Well – my thoughts about your options:(1a) – Altruism is not a good survival strategy. Infact, those who have the most to give, are thosewho keep a good reservoir of resources forthemselves and their family, first.(1b and 1c) – Look at Iraq – that probably shows usa decent case study. The absence of law lead tolooting in the immediate aftermath of theusa/british invasion. This would certainly occur innorth america as well. But that would be a veryshort term situation. People would quickly developsocial structures which would prevent the chaos,unless there is some outside force, continuing towork chaos across the continent._______________________(2)What kinds of support mechanisms would evolve? I believe all of the mentioned courses would betaken at different stages in the society’sevolution, as it gained it’s footing in this newworld. Along the course of a timeline – first, you wouldsee the events you describe in d, then c, then b,and, of course, situation a would occur, eventually.(3)What would happen fifty years after such a changein society? Well, that is a decade which is up for grabs. Itall depends on who takes up what positions ofinfluence in society, and how they use thatinfluence. You offer some general options. I reallyhaven’t studied that model to be able to offer anyphilosophical conclusions as to what the fate of societywould be, fifty years hence.

  3. medaille says:

    Ouch, those are some tough questions.1) Certainly all three would happen to a certain extent but I don’t think any would be dominant. I doubt that many would be selling of luxuries because I don’t know what the market for luxuries would be. Also I don’t see the sense in selling off assets for short term gains and I doubt many would do it unless their friends and families were involved. I think a lot of people will purchase guns to defend themselves, but I doubt they will be holing themselves up. More just as an “in case I need them” situation. As far as C, I think people will steal what they need, but not to steal to gain wealth or anything. The average person will in my mind not make a tremendous effort to help those in need, but will give their surplus goods to those less fortunate. 2) I think you would see a combination of A and B. For the most part it would be A. The national governments involvement at the local level would pretty much dissolve as would the state government for areas outside of major population centers. I think that communities will bind together to try to do the best that they can. On the other hand I think that you will see the hoarding of certain resources like oil and maybe products like solar panels or wind generators that simply won’t be plentiful enough to fill supply.3) This is the most difficult question due to the uncertainty involved. I think we’ll be in pretty much the same situation we are now, but our interactions with our neighbors will be different. I think we’ll still have a national government that we really have very little control over, but I think that they’ll also have very little effect on us in our local lives. I think our government evolved to be a mechanism to allow the elite to siphon off money from the lower classes to the upper classes and is pretty ineffectual at doing anything else, so I think our government will continue to be mostly for show doing what it wants but remainingisolated from the populace. That said, the population will be fairly powerless to remove the existing government from power, and the government will try to prevent any state or local governments from being too successful so as to provide them a challenge. I don’t think that the elite will be as willing to do what’s best for the country when it means sacrificing their power. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see us start to look more like what Mexico looks like today.For some general comments:Our biggest problems lie within our population. I’m kind of worried about the mental capacity of our immediate population. I think that a large portion of our population has gone soft. Specialization has meant that (in my view) people don’t have to be very adaptable. I’m not convinced that most people would be able to figure out how to feed themselves for a full year up here in the northern parts of the states. I’m sure people could figure out how to plant vegetables quickly, but figuring out how to sustain that through the winter will be a bigger challenge. I’ve been reading some books from authors like Ivan Illich and that has awoken me to believe that our schooling system and current method of employment has the effect of reducing peoples capacity to think for themselves and be able to take charge of their lives. I think it also focuses our knowledge in relatively limited and useless categories. This will be a challenge in setting up our future infrastructure as it means we will most likely be copying other peoples ideas, like how Europe operates, but we’ll probably just end up with some screwed up in between version that doesn’t work because our needs and current resources are different then their needs and resources. It will be kind of like the developing nations trying to play catch up to the developed nations but not having what it takes to make it over the hump.What worries me most is that we will continue to play this charade of ignoring the future to try to make due in the present. I think that in our short sighted ness, we would rather endure an eternity of subpar living then do what’s necessary to fix the problem. It will be similar to most impoverished nations in that we will refuse to adopt a one child per couple policy and we will continue to starve ourselves slowly instead of being responsible and living within the resources available to us.Enough ranting though, but I truly see us having a hard time reaching any sort of better living arrangement.

  4. Amaury Batista says:

    Hello Mr. Pollard, How are you? Hope all is well with you and your love ones. I am becoming a loyal reader of your website, not only because it is intelectually stimulating but it also fuels my passion for the goals I would love to accomplish during my lifetime. In responce to the first question, it all depend on what the educational, social and economic circumstances are with neighbors in my community. For example, if one of my neighbors are upper-middle to upper class, right wing consevative with strong religious beliefs(not to say that all people in this caterogory think alike), they may opt for choices (a) or (b). If my neighbors are inner-city, uneducated, trying to make end meet, very low morale and self esteem, and tired of not seeing light at the end the tunnel,(not say that all people in this caterory think alike) they may opt for choice c. Ultimately it has to do with how you value your life in comparison with others, the level of compassion you happen to posses or develop at that particular moment towards others less fortunate and how it affects your living situation. In regard to your second question, it could be any. I believe that it depend on the people that take control, how influencial they are and how selfish they are in taking advantage of the situation to create their own legacy at the expense of those that are not willing to do anything about it. My answer to question number three is: (a). Because I’m very optimistic and one my goal is to be able to influence people to contribute to mother earth and human progress in any positive way they can so their time and space on earth was used with a good purpose

  5. Devin says:

    I can’t give percentages, but I can talk about my thoughts on human nature. In my view, each person has the capacity for both “good” and “evil” — it just depends on which seeds are watered. I suppose I have a faith that humans are not born corrupt, that it is the nurture they receive as a result of existing in a corrupt system that corrupts them. I believe that it is the system’s fault, and that the system has trapped humans in its scheme. So I think that as far as small communities of humans go, we are generally benevolent and altruistic. As far as civilization on the whole goes, I think it highly distorts how humans have evolved, rendering entire populations, for all practical purposes, insane.Hope that helps.

  6. Cyndy says:

    1. a) 40% b) 40% c) 20%2. I think if we prepare now, which some communtites are beginning to do, a) is quite feasible. However, all the other scenarios will be played out too, to some extent. I think the extent will depend on each community, the divisions that previously existed in each, and what they envision their future to be. 3. I would hope we could evolve to a) but since b) is what we know, would we be striving for that? Nature or nurture? It would certainly be the ultimate test of how we influenced our young. The remainding extremes wouldn’t say much for those abilities or we would have collapsed in the face of fear. I like to think we have more strength than that but I could be dreadfully wrong. I tend to be optimistic. I tend to think that if the US stopped their occupation of Iraq, that the Iraqi people would be perfectly capable of crafting their own society, though it may not be our vision of the society we would like to see. Watching what happens there, in the face of everything they have to rebuild, will tell us a lot about ourselves and how we might behave under similar circumstances.

  7. Indigo says:

    1. Immediately after such an event (the first six months or so) I would expect to see the following where I live. I think the results would vary too much in different locales across the planet to give one set of figures that apply to all, and I don’t have a wide enough view to give one set that averages out the variety:a – 60%b – 30%c – 10%Beyond six months it is difficult to predict because the reaction of people to the reactions they see around them will affect their behavior more and more, as a new norm emerges. At first you will see people’s personality natures coming out, the way they are normally living. I set these amounts based on what I am already seeing in terms of things like how often drivers let others merge into traffic and such.2. I think the norm that would develop here in Hawaii would be Argentinian initially. However, we might later be impacted by more Russian style outsiders if seen as easy victims.3. I think in just 50 years there would still be a lot of effort to “bring back the good old days” of today’s system, but as fewer and fewer people are left who have first hand knowledge of that system, the totalitarians would use that ignorance to distort the nostalgia and put in place a new system that gives them even more power than they have now. In summary, I do not believe that humanity has developed enough for people to be able to create order from within themselves. Our civilization is still quite fragile. If we do not progress from where we are to the point where individuals carry a sense of peace, plenty, connectedness, discipline and integrity within them, that lack of external provision of these “necessities” will cause utter chaos. The rule of the most violent will take over and we will have to once more begin our climb up out of savagery. And it could be so. There could be a pulse to human evolution, not just one motion outward and upward.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm.. hoped for more response to this. Guess we’re all surveyed out these days. My answers, for the record, are essentially the same as Cyndy’s — 1(mostly a), 2(all equally) and 3(b)

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