I’ve been getting the disturbing impression of late that the default human position isn’t generosity and kindness; it’s selfish malice.
I’ve blogged about this before, but it won’t go away. Life, it seems, is a zero-sum game in which all that counts is self, and the way to get ahead is to break somebody else. That seems to happen on every level from individual to national.
We can point the finger at current trends, to some extent. We’re now seeing a second generation brought up under the aegis of neo-liberal philosophy, with its focus on self and greed at the exclusion of altruism.
There’s also social media, which I see as very much a litmus test for human nature – chock full of ‘flaming’, ‘fake news’ and requiring absolute vigilance against malware designed to do damage. If humans were actually nice, surely we wouldn’t need to have heavy-duty passwords and massive protections against efforts to destroy? Or use it to mislead each other. Why? The people doing it get a kick out of being able to damage others. To me that sums up human nature all over.
It’s not recent – all technology has done is bring these issues out into clear focus. I can think of plenty of historical evidence for all this too – even down to recent discoveries of Neolithic battles during which it appears differing hunter-gatherer groups were smashing each other over, giving the lie to the notion that wars were an invention of settled agriculture. There is some evidence of humans being default-hostile to other bands on sight.
And sure, there’s plenty of evidence of altruism and kindness. Every world religion carries that message. Be good. Be nice. You’ll get rewarded.
Except that then we start brutally slaughtering each other over how to be good in the name of these various religions. Yah, crazy.
Humans are very good at intellectualising all this – at adding layers of rationality over what, at base level, seems to be a quite fundamental attitude in the human condition.
What worries me is that there’s a field of evolutionary biology known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ which postulates that humans – as one of the surviving species of great apes in a biological sense – behave fundamentally as apes. Chimps beat each other up and fight wars too. That same thinking also suggests our behaviour, in detail, is a product of the scale of our early hunter-gatherer bands, which were our reality for most of the time our species has existed. We support ‘our’ group and slaughter the rest – which explains ‘altruism’, the way we get families and friends around us.
The groups we make today, it seems, are about the same size as the old hunter-gatherer communities, specifically around 150 individuals, often kin-related. This has been proposed as an explanation for the altruism we show, and its limited application versus our normal state of hate-filled selfishness.
The problem – suggested by ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that this can’t work in world where virtually every city is bigger than that, where nations are bigger than that, and where there are seven billion of us on the planet, all apparently biologically programmed to seethe with hatred for anybody outside their immediate family and friends. Ouch.
To me this can’t really be the full story, but when I look at the world around me today I do wonder.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018