The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle”

“As you enter this life, I pray you depart/ With a wrinkled face and a brand new heart.”  Paul Hewson


I saw this photo of a man wearing a shirt quoting Hitler during the violent protests in Charlottesville. I thought about ignoring it, but I’m not merely concerned about this one man’s shirt. Aside from the repulsion from seeing someone walking down a public street supporting Hitler, the thought that people see life as eternal struggle is disturbing. I also think it’s very poor science. If you read the passage where this quote originated (and I’m not recommending you do that), Hitler was appealing to biology, claiming his argument was based in “the most patent principles of Nature’s rule” and “the iron logic of Nature.” Although at one point he also wrote that racial separation was “the will of the eternal creator,” so this seems to be a throwback to a confused, 18th century deistic view of Nature with a big “N” meant to reinforce his own biases.

So here it is in 2017, and some people are still leaning on what a genocidal dictator wrote in the 1920s. Somewhere, we’ve gotten off track. As we’ll see, conflict is not inevitable. In fact, in many ways, “iron logic” suggests that cooperation makes far more sense. First, I’m going to try to tie this together by starting off with a quick story. Please bear with me.

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Trump-ed Up Genes

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

I try to keep my ears open to how public figures speak about science and anthropology. It’s always interesting to learn how different people, particularly influential people, perceive these subjects. For example, in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize Barack Obama said that “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” That’s an empirical claim, but I don’t think the archaeological evidence is on his side.  

However, Obama’s statement offered a tantalizing window into the way he might see war – that it is simply an unavoidable outcome of human nature, implying that we may be stuck with it indefinitely. I don’t know for a fact that he actually thought that way; that’s me trying to read between the lines. And I’m not saying that such a view is wrong; I don’t think war will be eradicated anytime soon either. But I don’t think we should reduce something as complex as the large-scale arming and mobilization of military forces simply to some fuzzy notion of an aggressive human nature.     

This brings me to Donald Trump. More than once, I’ve noticed that he likes to say that he’s a “big believer” in the “gene thing” as an explanation for whatever success he has had in life (see here and here). A quick Google search shows that he’s done this for years, and that he has credited several of his ‘superior’ traits to his genes or some generic notion of heredity, a pattern I find interesting. Some examples:

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Confronting Human Frailty

A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”                                                                                                               

                                                                                     ― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede


In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.  

According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”

These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.

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We Are Complex

A list of claims of what humans are, with ‘human nature’ overtones. It’s meant to be in fun, and the list isn’t complete. 

  • We are moral animals. (1)
  • We are killer apes. (2)
  • We are risen apes, not fallen angels. (3)
  • We are aquatic apes. (4) No we’re not.
  • Man the hunter. (5)
  • Woman the gatherer. (6)
  • Man the firemaker. (7)
  • Homo, the endurance runner. (8)


    Born to run? (Source: Wikipedia)

  • Homo, the high-velocity thrower. (9)
  • We have an instinct for art. (10)
  • We have an instinct for language. (11)
  • We do not have an instinct for language. (12)
  • We are Homo economicus. (13)
  • Man the tool-maker. (14)
  • Pan the tool-maker. (15) Not us, but it’s clever.
  • We are social animals. (16)
  • We are cooperative breeders. (17)
  • We are hypersexual animals. (18)
  • We are sexy beasts. (19)
  • We are political animals. (20)
  • We are rational animals. (21)
  • We are irrational animals. (22)
  • We are no longer just apes; we are biocultural ex-apes. (23)
  • We are complex.


Ehrlich on Plural Human Natures

I’ve been thinking about human behavioral complexity a bit more lately, and the persistent use of the term ‘human nature.’ That brought me to this passage from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich in his book Human Natures (2000: 330).


“In my view, it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen. One good starting point would be to drop the term human nature in the singular form from most of our discourse and learn to think automatically of the built-in genetic and cultural plurality of human beings. Our challenge is to learn to deal sensibly with both nature and our natures — for all of us to learn to be both environmentalists and “people people.” Utopian? Perhaps. I tend to be optimistic in thinking that we can do it but pessimistic that we will do it.” 


Anthropologists might cringe at the use of ‘cultural evolution,’ which has its baggage, but Ehrlich was not promoting the idea of linear progression. As is apparent in the quote, his concern was with people taking charge of some of our larger challenges, particularly overpopulation, war, and environmental degradation. As for the matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, I suppose that’s an open question.


(Related) I’d also recommend this essay by Jason Antrosio on human nature.    


Don’t Blame the Lettuce

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

                                                                                                                               — Thích Nhất Hạnh

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:

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Choice, Obesity & the Irrational Ape (Homo insensatus)

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.

……………………………………………………………………………………. – Albert Einstein

Another irrational ape (imitating Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’)

Jonah Lehrer has written another great piece about our irrationality in decision making, and our emotional responses to avoiding loss. He writes:

From the perspective of economics, there is no good reason to weight gains and losses so differently. Opportunity costs (foregone gains) should be treated just like “out-of-pocket costs” (losses). But they aren’t – losses carry a particular emotional sting.”

Others have noted the importance of emotion involved in decision making, and how it affects our ability to intuit how our choices will make us feel. When someone suffers damage to the prefrontal cortex of their brain, both their emotions and decision-making abilities are impaired (Bechara et al 1997). What this suggests is that emotions and reason are linked, rather than oppositional. They inform each other. This all fits in with Dan Ariely’s view of humans as “predictably irrational.”

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JFK on Nature and Nurture

My university, UMass Boston,  sits on a beautiful spot.  Fortunately for us, we get to share a peninsula in Dorchester with the Massachusetts Archives and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Taking advantage of our school’s location, I’ve made a few trips over to the JFK Library, a very attractive building designed by I.M. Pei.

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The Sin of Certainty

Screen capture from wikileaks video, Iraq

Lane Wallace wrote a recent article in The Atlantic about bias in journalism, and how it influences the questions that one asks. As journalists are human beings, I think we can reasonably assume that they, like everyone else, have biases. What resonated with me was Wallace’s use of the phrase ‘the sin of certainty,’ coined by the science writer Jonah Lehrer. I think this phrase has great utility and should humble us when we consider how much we don’t know. As an example, chemists have just observed for the first time a new yet-to-be-named element (#117). It took until the late 1990s for physicists to recognize that perhaps up to 95% of the universe is actually comprised of dark matter and dark energy. These are far from trivial matters, yet they have eluded us until now.

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