Scapegoating Human Nature

Here is today’s short answer essay question: Given human nature, there will always be war, aggression and conflict. Explain why you agree or disagree with this statement.

For many years I’ve begun my introductory political science course with this assignment. Most students express agreement and include comments such as, "Humans are inherently greedy; life is survival of the fittest; and every person and nation wants to get ahead of others and be number one." Not a few add, "That’s why I’m going to college."

 I raise this question early in the course because students invariably invoke the mantra, "Well…it’s just human nature" as the reason we’re unable to extricate ourselves from the morass caused by our current economic and social system.

By term’s end, most students have reconsidered their early assumptions. They’re surprised to find that we actually know very little about human nature and most of what we think we know isn’t warranted by any evidence.  Yes, there are basic instincts including the need for food, shelter, clothing, and reproduction. And humans share the desire for language interaction, an inherently social activity. Beyond that, human nature has revealed an enormous capability for a wide range of behaviors, from depraved, barbaric, and extremely xeonophobic to compassionate, empathic, and sublimely altruistic.

Despite dominant cultural beliefs, students learn that during most of human history, individuals did not engage in war and aggression. Some years ago a world-class conference of scientists shared findings with journalists that raised doubts about "natural aggression" in humans. They were encouraged to "Call us back when you find a gene for war." Apparently peace doesn’t make for captivating reading or sell newspapers.

Students discover from the anthropological record that empathy, cooperation and mutual aid were the hallmarks that nurtured human evolution — not aggression. Some societies, like Sweden, went from fiercely warlike to among the most peaceful nations in the world. Could it be that different social structures permit our "better selves" to take root?

Further, there is mounting but as yet inconclusive evidence suggesting that humans are born with moral motives or a "moral instinct," and that our capacity for making moral judgements may be genetically determined. Psychologists like Jerome Kagan believe that children as young as age 2 begin to judge good and bad behavior. He argues that without this inborn moral instinct, it would be impossible for children to be socialized. The Australian philosopher, Neil Levy, argues that moral dispositions and the capacity to make moral judgements evolve via natural selection.

Noam Chomsky asserts that humans possess an "instinct for freedom" and at some level are aware when this potential is denied to others. Drawing on recent work in experimental cognitive science and moral philosophy, Chomsky asserts that this part of our nature "lies well beyond anything that could be explained by training and conditioning."

My sense is that the potentially profound and liberating implications of this thinking explain the initially negative view revealed by my students. Our culture, a reflection of our market-driven system, attempts to convince us that human nature is at bottom, homo economicus. This ruthless fellow is cut-throat competitive, relentlessly acquisitive, and only looks out for himself.

Why is this view so popular? It’s because this pathological interpretation provides an elaborate ideological after-the-fact rationale for exploitation and empire. How much easier for those who fear losing their wealth, power and privelege to proclaim, "Hey guys, it’s just human nature!" Dr. Will Miller, the late Univ. of Vermont philosopher, noted that these folks are defending their own predatory behavior, actions that are both endemic and required by market capitalism. That is, we’re all systemically admonished to buy into this view because it serves the status quo.

But capitalism has only been around for 500 years and only 0.4 percent of the time humans have been on earth, some 200,000 years. As historian Edward Hyam’s reminds us, "Capitalism turns men into economic cannibals, and having done so, mistakes economic cannibalism for human nature."

 That conventional opinions withstand neither basic tests of evidence nor the historical record should mandate healthy skepticism toward all received wisdom about human nature. It also allows us to imagine that another world is possible. That as we transform our world and its culture we can change our "human" nature and allow our better selves to emerge and flourish. Gary Olson is Chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olson@moravian.edu


Leave a comment