What ever happened to all the good in the world?

I’ve been getting the disturbing impression of late that the default human position isn’t generosity and kindness; it’s selfish malice.

A seagull having lunch – and yeah, their squabbling over food reminds me SO much of humans it isn’t funny.

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.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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

9 thoughts on “What ever happened to all the good in the world?

  1. It seems to be the story to this point. Can we change the narrative, which I believe means accepting the story to this point. I’m referring to having perspective on where we have been, knowing history (as more than a Google search) without judgment and with an eye not to repeat. I don’t know anymore, Matthew. I really don’t.


    1. I very much hope we can. I think that while on the one hand, we’re prisoners to some extent of our origins and evolution, we also have intelligence; and if it’s used properly, yes, I think humanity can change things. However, I remain cynical that it can actually be done – world events of late are deeply disturbing, not least because history tells us the trend and direction in which things are clearly going has happened before, and in surprisingly similar ways. Humanity seems blind to its own true nature, which to my thinking emerges not just in general social terms but in detail of everyday life, even down to the way possession of consumer goods has been weaponised by producers and advertisers, by exploiting human need for self-worth, as just one instance. There’s also the way behaviours become ‘normalised’ by particular attitudes from the top, even though they’re obviously unacceptable. It’s hard to change; here in NZ, our Prime Minister has proposed that kindness is the way forward – resulting in criticism that she must therefore be ‘weak’. That’s not so – one doesn’t become Prime Minister by being weak. I guess the only answer is to keep on calling out the dark side of the human condition on many levels, from the general to the specific, in all its forms.


  2. Part of it is we’re exposed to more horrible acts than ever before through all the media outlets.
    But as you allude to, it’s merely revealing the ugly underbelly that’s always existed.

    But with such a converging focus globally of going for selfish gains, of the need to be rich, successful, liked, commented on, etc plus predominant capitalistic ideology of the self and thereby selfishness, I can only see the greed and tragic nature of people worsening.

    We’re brought up on the notion that most people are good…which is a fairy tale well peddled, because with age anyone who thinks on these things knows that’s simply bollocks, and it becomes a wonder that civilisation of a peaceful nature at all exists.

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    1. I agree on all counts. I think human civilisation will be lucky to get through the next generation without some kind of major crisis – likely global, one way or another – if things continue to trend in the way they have been. Of course we have to hope for the best… but it is, I think, wise to prepare for the worst. History reveals the way these sorts of situations usually play out – and it is seldom good. The problem is that while the particular circumstances and narratives of the past don’t repeat, human nature doesn’t change… and the outcomes, inevitably, are always counted in lives lost and the suffering of the innocent. Sigh…


  3. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I think selfishness and malice sums up part of human nature. I think that it would be naivety in the extreme to think that humans don’t act selfishly. And at the same time I think there is a case to be made that evolutionary psychology can explain some of this behaviour. But, I think that humans are also programmed if you will for a tremendous capability for good. A lot of people are born with large amounts of empathy, which make them good caretakers and drives charitable movements. Or some people have industrious tendencies- which make them want to be proactive (which can be directed in positive directions). Obviously, every quality has its downsides, however I think that every negative trait also has its upsides. And while I don’t think people are innately either good or bad, I do think that it’s interesting that it’s interesting that if people do good things, they feel better about themselves (and can make themselves sickened by bad behaviour- as is demonstrated in books like Ordinary men)- which almost suggests that there is a strong impetus (naturally) for good behaviour. Anyway, I hope you don’t mind my ramblings, it’s just my thoughts on the question.

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    1. I agree, there’s a great capacity for good in humanity (and some people have a great deal of empathy). What concerns me is that all this is being buried by the nature of where western society has gone just now – that the style of culture being framed by certain social media, encouraged by the ‘us vs them’ mentality and so forth – is dominating. We need the good people!

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  4. The world can only change one person at a time, and each of us is IT. So should we bemoan the selfishness of others, or live life as we know it should, be to our best potential? We know the answer. Getting depressed about the behaviour of some others, even a lot of them does not help. I’m just reading a book about 1930s Germany and the rise of the nazis – now that’s depressing, but good people did magnificent things.

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