Human Nature

sophie sheppard
“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

— Paul Simon

Until a generation or two ago, we were all taught that animals had no feelings, no intelligence, that they were incapable of feeling pain — it was all autonomic reaction, they were mere robots. Only humans, magically endowed by God, had these distinguished qualities.

With such staggering, almost unfathomable, universal ignorance of animal nature, it’s not surprising that we really know nothing of human nature. We can, after all, judge the nature of our species only from our own personal nature. There is absolutely no consensus on our innate nature, or even if there is such a thing. Some people believe we are all inherently evil, sinful, and need strict control to prevent us from running amok and committing deadly sins without remorse or restraint. Some people believe we are all inherently well-intentioned, and in the absence of stresses we will always be sociable, generous, even altruistic.

Psychologists and sociologists, with their dumbed-down, simplistic models, seem especially incompetent at understanding our nature. We are left to piece together our own perception of what makes us tick, and we tend to socialize with others who share our worldview of human nature and how the world works.

In Straw Dogs, John Gray painted a picture of human nature as self-absorbed and driven by immediate needs (urgency before importance):

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.

This assessment seemed intuitively valid to me, consistent with Pollard’s Law: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. While this book’s assessment of the future of our species was gloomy, Gray seemed to be making the point that, just as we emerged from the cauldron of evolution as a remarkable accident, an improbability, so too was our demise accidental, the result of overpopulation and overconsumption that was in turn the result of a series of extraordinary adaptations (the inventions of catastrophic agriculture and what we call civilization) necessitated by a horrifically bad roll of the cosmic dice (the striking of Earth by a meteor that wobbled its orbit and caused the ice ages). I could buy short-sightedness and selfishness as ‘human nature’ but only in the context of the four boldface words above. When times are desperate, yes, I can see us behaving the way we now do. These are not normal times. We live in a horribly overcrowded, violent world where psychopathy is an effective survival strategy and where we are all (and not always just metaphorically) prisoners.

This is what lies behind the apparent contradiction between my belief that our civilization is in its last century, and my passion for creating models of better ways to live. If we can get away from the mental and physical prisons of modern society, we might rediscover how we were meant to live. In a world without desperation, scarcity, urgency, what true human nature and what astonishing joy and accomplishment might emerge? And even if it’s too late to save our species from civilizational collapse, that knowledge of working models might be useful to the survivors. And if we gotta go, what a high to go out on!

In his new book, Black Mass, Gray removes the above four word qualifier from his assessment of human nature. Not only does our world face intractable problems, he asserts, we live in an “intractable world”. He rails for most of the book against various “idealistic” approaches to coping with such a world: Western religious orthodoxy, utopianism, the entire spectrum of political ideologies, and post-modern ideologies of scientific, teleological,  ‘free-market’ economic and techno-utopianism. Only realism, an acceptance that ‘progress’ is a myth and that civilization necessarily entails a constant struggle against despots, liars, murderers, thieves, megalomaniacs, genocides, oppressors, hoarders, extremists, psychopaths, mobs and other manifestations of human frailty. Moral dilemmas where opposing views and needs are simply irreconcilable are inevitable, he argues. And then, wham:

The cardinal need is to change the prevailing view of human beings, which sees them as inherently good creatures unaccountably burdened with a history of violence and oppression. Here we reach the nub of realism and its chief stumbling-point for prevailing opinion: its assertion of the innate defects of human beings. Nearly all pre-modern thinkers took it as given that human nature is fixed and flawed, and in this as in some other ways they were close to the truth of the matter. No theory of politics can be credible that assumes that human impulses are naturally benign, peaceable or reasonable.

No when times are desperate qualifier. It’s hard to say whether this represents a darkening of Gray’s perception of human nature or merely a tacit acknowledgement that in our terrible modern world times are always desperate. My guess is that it’s the former, and that Gray would not think much of intentional communities. He would probably believe, as others who see humans as ‘fixed and flawed’ would, that such communities are merely idealistic, smaller-scale ‘fixed and flawed’ societies even more open to despots and cultists than larger, more heterogeneous cultures.

And this takes us back to the essential point that no one really ‘knows’ human nature. Our experience and context of it is too narrow, and the narratives of human behaviour throughout history are inevitably tainted by their authors’ worldviews. As Lakoff has explained, we accept information that is consistent with our personal worldviews and reject, almost subconsciously, information that is not. Paul Simon, quoted at the top of this article, said the same thing. We believe what we want to believe. There is no ‘objective’, unarguable data that can be applied to change those beliefs. We are all, ultimately, as Gray himself argues, figments of reality — lonely collections of organs that evolved consciousness in their collective self-interest. He writes, in Straw Dogs: “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”

What is the ‘nature’ of a ‘succession of fragments’? I would argue that (at least when times are not desperate) its nature is evolutionary — to live, to experience, to be happy, and to socialize in the interest of enabling a continuation of that happy experience. It is in our collective interest to get along, to love, to converse, to live together in community, to maximize life and its diversity.

But then what do I know. I’m just a figment of reality, a succession of fragments, a complicity of the creatures that make up my body, like anyone else.

Painting above by painter and environmentalist Sophie Sheppard, auctioned in1999 at the Authors Unite in Defense of Mother Earth festival.

Category: Being Human
This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Human Nature

  1. Mariella says:

    …”We believe what we want to believe”…or maybe…we believe what we “can” believe…? (because we lack experience or information that helps make sense to form other believes)

  2. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –I’ve brought it up many times before, but never asked your thoughts directly… in my mind, Dunbar’s Number (aka the Monkeysphere) and The Prisoner’s Dilemma experiments answer this question about our fundamental nature and the disconnects we see pretty clearly. What are your thoughts on this? Do you disagree, or have you not looked in depth, or do you have other concerns about it? I’m quite curious.Janene

  3. “What is the ‘nature’ of a ‘succession of fragments’?”We won’t have a high-up enough view of that until it’s too late to do anything with the information. *If* we get a high-up enough view at all.On the other hand, I’m believing what I want to believe about sparks cast from the all-that-is, but not disregarding the rest. At least, I’m making an effort. For me, with age has come a curiosity about how to connect with other human beings that never really existed for me before my 40s. Back then, I was only interested in telling other people how I thought and what I thought about what *they* thought.Yeah, that’s helpful, huh?Really good post, Dave. I mean, it’s still bleak as hell, but at your best when talking about doomsday, you always get me to thinking and wondering “what if?”

  4. malcolm klein says:

    I’m reading Straw Dogs right now, and having a hard time finishing it because of his extreme pessimism. Your site is always a welcome antidote! I think the recent primate research indicates how malleable our natures can be, depending upon the culture in which one is located. Robert Sapolsky’s article below summarizes some recent research. If great apes and even lowly monkeys can modify their behavior to such degrees, then certainly humans, which have been shaped by recent evolution for even greater domestication and socialability, must be even more culture bound. Thanks for your website… malcolm”Peace Among Primatesby Robert M. SapolskyAnyone who says peace is not part of human nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves.”

  5. I agree that we can learn a lot from animals about our own nature — both through scientific behavioral studies of animals in the wild, where there’s no human interaction, and by having animals in our lives as friends. I think it’s best for children to grow up with pets. I’ve had pets all my life and not only have they been some of my very best friends, especially as a shy, introverted youngster, they’ve also been my teachers. I even like to know about the pets of politicians I vote for, and was curious to learn that Barrack Obama has no pets and that Dennis Kucinich has pound-rescued beagle-mix friends. To me these are important details because they tell me a little about each person’s response to and interaction with his whole world, not just that of humans.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Mariella: Absolutely right. We also suffer from an horrendous imaginative poverty that makes it almost impossible for us to believe anything other than what everyone else believes.Janene: It would take hours to explain why I think the Prisoners’ Dilemma is fraudulent, but I do *love” David Wong’s Monkeysphere hypothesis that many of our social/political/economic problems result from not being able to really care about more people than we can really know. Small is beautiful, especially when it comes to community. Alas, there is no longer room for us all to live in fairly stable communities of 150 people or less. BTW, Wong’s article 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable is also pertinent to this, and I’ll be writing about it next week.

  7. Dave,I hate to burst your bubble but we have thousands of years of recorded history to tell us what humans actually DO. How they feel about what they did is a fascinating and essential study in the humanities but don’t think to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. It is undeniable that history will repeat itself if we don’t learn from it. Your IC will have to be prepared to defend itself from the worst humanity can bring forth as much as it will revel in allowing the best qualities of humanity to shine forth.The essence of humanity is that ALL is contained within it – the worst and best, in each of us. The challenge is to learn about the conditions which hone those qualities we treasure. Compassion only exhibits itself in the face of misfortune. Your world will never exist without “desperation, scarcity, urgency”. Your crops won’t prosper year after year, water may become scarce, illness (your own) and death will visit.Utopia doesn’t exist because utopian conditions don’t exist. The “grass is greener” on the other side of the calendar (last century) isn’t true. Every century has a long list of atrocities endemic to humanity. We have to celebrate the dark side as well because without it, we aren’t strong enough to meet the darkness in others. Turn the other cheek may work well for snide remarks in the locker room but does one no good when bands of outlaws visit or shortages force you to barter with other groups when you have little to exchange. Sharing is not natural but a product of a civilized heart. Civilization is not dying. It has yet to be born. We just have to live long enough to bring it about but it requires acceptance of all within us and an understanding of how to control it within ourselves before we can deal with it on a systematic level. The loss of the veneer of civilization requires examination of survival skills on every level, emotional and physical.Life is not easy and never will be because nature is not benign. Everyliving thing fights to stay alive and peace within groups is never a ‘given’ but one requiring work. Animal groups engage in rituals which keep the peace, as do humans (you recall that the custom of shaking hands came from showing the dominant hand to be weaponless). Reality is most frightening when it is denied. Truth must be hallowed even when it is not what we want to hear. I have seen examples of extreme courage and cowardice and we never know which side of us will shine forth until the time comes. But we can train for each scenario and hope to pass the test when it comes.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    ‘Trix: Thanks, dear friend. Funny how we spend our youth arguing that what we believe is right and our later years trying to figure out what we believe. And you’re right about us not having enough time, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning what we might have done and having a lot of fun in the process.Malcolm: absolutely brilliant! Thank you. He clearly presents the paradox between our inherent xenophobia (which has Darwinian advantage) and the ease with which, in the absence of stress and the serendipity of an ‘outbreak of peace’, we are so readily malleable to become gentle, loving, nurturing creatures. Or vice versa.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Barbara K: Yes, we do have so much to learn from animals, personally, one-to-one. At the same time we need to be careful that we don’t mis-learn from the prevailing anthropocentric propaganda about animal behaviour that has prevailed, to our collective disgrace, since the dawn of our so-called civilization.Barbara R: You are repeating the well-established orthodox propaganda about human ‘progress’ and the inherent savagery of all creatures that we are taught in schools and in Western religions and by those with wealth and power. It is an orthodoxy that does not bear scrutiny from outside the narrow confines of our modern ‘history’ and culture. We lived in a utopia before civilization, the same utopia of abundance that most creatures not severely encroached on by our civilization still live in today. Nature *is* benign — not because it is ‘nice’, but because that is the best formula for evolutionary success of all-life-on-Earth. We cannot, of course, go back now — there are far too many of us and we have abandoned our natural, peaceful habitat to live in much less hospitable habitats.

  10. Intelligence evolved as the best formula for evolutionary success. Misusing intelligence for the profit of a minority is the most maladaptive characteristic of today’s societal groups. This is why we are regressing, instead of progressing. But I can find no evidence of the Utopia you say once existed in any tome or model of history that doesn’t appear distinctly revisionist.Unfortunately, ignoring reality to further personal mental health needs and an understandable longing for love, has never permitted anyone to successfully shape a reality that can endure. Organized society (I won’t call it ‘civilization’ as we aren’t civilized), is threatened by the distinctly unlovable aspects of the human animal that you believe can be ignored within intentional communities. I guess the unlovable will become extinct in your model or form some lower class of imported labor as they do today.Such a community as you envision can only be created and maintained by virtue of the permission granted it by some, larger entity that will defend your right to have one. Your retreat into the state of ‘learned helplessness’, dressed up in new-age jargon and Renaissance poetry, mistakes ‘hope’ for action. Philosophy is not equivalent to ‘hope’ and I no longer see any practical expression of that social science here. I believe it is that loss which has led to your blog’s desertion by many of your long-time readers. While I am quite sure my attentions won’t be missed, I mourn the loss of application of your intellect to real world problems of existence.Take care and I hope you find your happiness.

  11. Randall Ross says:

    Dave, I realized that “Pollard’s Law” had no entry on Wikipedia, so took the liberty of creating one. Would appreciate it if you’d take a quick review and edit as necessary.Such a simple and powerful idea deserves to be shared widely, and I think Wikipedia is the place to make that happen. Cheers, Randall.

Comments are closed.