On Optimism and ‘Human Nature’

In the last few days, I came across a couple of unrelated quotations on human nature and our internal tug-of-war between cooperation and conflict.

A 20 year-old Charles Darwin in an 1830 letter to his cousin, W.D. Fox:

It is quite curious, when thrown into contact with any set of men, how much they continue improving in ones good opinion, as one gets ackquainted (sic) with them. This was an argument used, in a religious point of view, by a very clever Clergyman in Shrews. to encourage sociability (he himself being very fond of society), for he said that the good always preponderates over the bad in every persons character, & he thought, the most social men were generally the most benevolent, & had the best opinion of human nature. I have heard my father mention this as a remarkably good observation, & I quite agree with him.

In “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck wrote:

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love…We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”  (1952)

Such a monumental topic of whether our fallibilities outweigh our virtues deserves more attention than I can give it here, but I tend to come down on the optimistic side of the equation. My main rationale is that, despite the many examples of people behaving badly toward each other, we remain intensely social and interdependent, which is likely embedded deeply in our primate heritage.

A recently published book by Martin Nowak (Supercooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed; NYTimes review here) highlights the role of cooperation in nature, be it among genes, individuals, or groups.   Though I’ve yet to read Nowak’s book, the review reminds me of Robert Wright highlighting “nonzero-sumness” as an almost transcendental force that fosters cooperation, in that mutually beneficial relationships will proliferate at the expense of mutually destructive ones.

On the other hand, we do have a capacity to be absolutely miserable to each other. In the video below, primatologists Richard Wrangham and Frans de Waal go back and forth on our capacity for cooperation and conflict, alternatively comparing us to chimpanzees and bonobos. There may be some truth to the analogy of humans as “bipolar apes,” but overall, I would come down on the side of de Waal (and Darwin and Steinbeck), who gives a more nuanced view (3:40):

Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know.

It would be naïve to not acknowledge the fact that we have ongoing wars around the globe, extreme poverty, and large groups of people treated as second-class citizens. Yet, on balance, I don’t think these derive primarily from our ‘default human nature’ (a problematic idea, I know). Instead, perhaps we truly are bipolar creatures, with the emotional and cognitive ability for cooperation, conflict, love, or hate. But these abilities do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are triggered under given circumstances, facilitated or hampered by social conditions and structures. For most of us, however, our daily lives are not filled around-the-clock with physical violence. Those events stand out precisely because they are rare and shocking. Perhaps that’s overly optimistic.



7 thoughts on “On Optimism and ‘Human Nature’

  1. Great post on a subject I discuss all the time with my bioanthro students. (And I’d not known of the Wrangham-de Waal video, so an extra thanks for posting that.)

    You probably know the 1998 volume by Goodman & Leatherman, Building a Biocultural Synthesis. I was just discussing with my seminar students the article by R.B. Thomas in there, on a dynamic-systems, multi-causal approach to poverty. What I like about it so much is the political-economic view of structural inequalities, married to the more typical adaptationist view of population response to environmental triggers- and it strikes me that we can think of cooperation/aggression perhaps in a similar framework.

    Just as Thomas ended his article with a call for an adaptationist framework to be a framework of hope (because of great human plasticity), so I think is true for aggression….

  2. Hi Barbara, thanks for bringing up the Goodman and Leatherman volume (combined, I always thought they sounded like two superhero names). I like the way they and the contributing authors within emphasized the need to integrate a multi-causal approach. As Steven Pinker said in the video, aggressive tendencies may always be with us, but that doesn’t mean they translate into aggressive behaviors.

    Sounds like an interesting discussions with your students.

  3. there is no good nor bad but thinking makes it so

    Not an original thought but what is? And I daresay Hitler thought he was doing Man a good service by eradicating the Jews and that bin Laden thought 3,000 deaths in the WTC a small price to pay for eradicating the greatest Satan. Our Christian Inquisitors tortured and executed an estimated 5 million Europeans, mostly women, in the name of God — to drive out the devil. Like Hitler they went home after a hard day at the torture chamber and patted the family dog and gave their wives a peck on the cheek. Man is sick and it will take more than a doctor of anthropology to cure him…unfortunately. On the other hand, put on the rose-tinted spectacles and have your happy thoughts…why not?

  4. I had completely forgotten that I had already contributed to this subject. Darwin and Steinbeck are two of my favourite (and formative) writers and when I read either, I go along with what they say. But opinions on the nature of man are, like all opinions, subjective. It is easy to point to Darwin’s youth (20) when he made the comment cited. That comment was made before his fantastic work and decades of personal anguish before releasing his Origin of Species. That work took so long (I think 26 years) because Darwin anguished over the objectivity of his data and conclusions. The main point of anguish was: do they apply to human beings? He chose to leave the answer to that question ambiguous. I think in that he showed true greatness. Steinbeck, unlike Darwin, was fully into the conflicts within society and writes of those conflicts from an ‘underdog’ perspective (some would say ‘Marxist’) in which one side is ‘good’ and one is ‘bad’ (the exploited and the exploiter), with an inevitable conflict which takes on almost religious tones (as does any resolution of conflict through revolution).

    Darwin was not into ‘fiction’, but almost all fiction contains protagonists and antagonists. Good fiction nuances the difference, but it is still there. Without good and bad there is no story. At least no story that the mind of Man can understand. We need to polarise in order to understand, and in doing so we create good and bad as opposites. Both are part of our thinking process. Also an important part of us is that we cheer for the protagonist and accept the death, torture and destruction of the antagonist. But in doing so, we cheer for ourselves.

    • I think you’re right about protagonists and antagonists. It is hard to maintain a ‘view from nowhere,’ and we are compelled to empathize more with one person or group or another. I remember a comedian saying that he liked to watch a nature show on television. One week, the focus would be on gazelles and he would find himself rooting for them to escape from the lions. A few weeks later, the topic would be the lions and he would find himself rooting for them to get the gazelle. I guess the point is that we can empathize more deeply with one side when we know more about them, but it comes at the expense of not being able to extend that empathy to everyone equally.

      • You have opened something very basic to human nature, Patrick. Many years ago when living in England, I would use ‘Buddhist mouse traps’. Don’t laugh, some people (not many) here hate the idea of personally killing so much they put out traps that don’t close on the mouse (actually there are only rats here). The traps are fairly large, but so are the rats. You put some food on a wire inside the box, the rat eats the food and this triggers the lid to snap closed with the vermin inside, trapped but unhurt. Of course, you don’t release the captive over your neighbour’s fence, and if you did it would most likely ‘home’ before you closed the door. You have to take it far away (or dump it in the water tub to drown, which doesn’t really fulfill the Buddhist part of the exercise). It’s pretty hard to kill a defenceless animal, even if you wish it dead.

        Today I saw a TV debate between Americans. Their general conclusion seemed to be that Americans were wrong simply to let Muslims fight out the Sunni/Shia conflict, as human beings are involved and Americans being outside the conflict can see it in human terms, unless of course it carries into their homes and neighbourhoods. It struck me that these normal Americans were being very ‘anthropologist’. It is not possible to learn all cultures, and learning how somebody thinks and acts does not stop anybody from using that information to harm, but it is possible to be objective (AND care). But I didn’t say it is easy to be objective. It would be nice to have more not less ‘social studies’ at school, with refresher courses and exchange schemes between families that think differently. Whether it is possible to have real respect for a culture fundamentally different to one’s own, I don’t know.

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