Human Nature Redux?

By Jeremy Adam Smith | February 20, 2007 | 1 comment

In his Feb. 17 New York Times column, "Human Nature Redux," David Brooks argues that belief in human goodness is nearly extinct–and that science is responsible:

Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don't even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.

This belief, most often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, begins with the notion that "everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." Human beings are virtuous and free in their natural state. It is only corrupt institutions that make them venal…

This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led, first of all, to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying… It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves…

Let's pause here and ask ourselves if what Brooks writes is true.

Perhaps belief in goodness led people to hit the road and launch communes, but drugs? Does a belief in human goodness compel the believer to take drugs? Are crack addicts and pot smokers united in their faith that men and women are born good?

I wasn't able to find an empirical study (I looked) that says so, and I doubt very much that Brooks found one. Most of the studies I found pointed to histories of abuse, stress, and so on that fuel patterns of addiction–I didn't see anything about Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mr. Brooks continues:

In the realm of foreign policy, it led to a sort of global doctrine of the noble savage — the belief that societies in the colonial world were fundamentally innocent, and once the chains of their oppression were lifted something wonderful would flower.

Whose belief? When? Obviously Brooks is referring to the anticolonial struggles of the middle of the twentieth century, when European empires collapsed under their own weight and the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America gained some degree of independence–leading, in many cases, to wars and civil wars, dictatorships, and border disputes. To be sure, such struggles produced armies of disappointed idealists, few of whom, I think it's safe to say, saw themselves as "noble savages."

But more seriously, it is false to claim that simple belief in human goodness is what lifted "the chains of their oppression." If only that had been the case. No, I think if Brooks bothered to research the anticolonial struggles of the era, he'd find that it was a combination of economic failure and guerrilla warfare that drove Europeans out of their colonies. In the end, they didn't have much choice in the matter.

Brooks continues:

Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded.

The past 30 years? Here's a quote I found from a 1932 issue of Time Magazine: "Simple human goodness is out of style. To modern eyes it appears too simple to be good, too good to be true." And so it seems that for newspaper and magazine columnists, simple human goodness is continuously going out of style; for the rest of us, however, it somehow persists. This lack of perspective does not stop him from continuing:

It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

Did progressive education fail? I will put that question aside; it's beyond the scope of a single blog entry. Instead I am going to focus on the alleged "big blow" science delivered to belief in human goodness. Writes Brooks:

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists…

Moreover, human beings are not as pliable as the social engineers imagined. Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We're tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups…

Where to begin? On nearly every point, Brooks proves himself to be wrong or ill-informed or out-of-date.

Far from believing that "human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules," today neuroscientists (and scientists in many other disciplines) are discovering that brain structures are more "plastic"–that is, "subject to changes brought about by environmental input"–than previously supposed. "Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest," writes UC Berkeley Social Psychologist (and Greater Good editor) Dacher Keltner. "These studies support a view of emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive–a view which has its origins in Darwin's Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated."

In his introduction to Douglas P. Fry's new book Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine, demolishes the case Brooks tries to make in his column. Sapolsky is worth quoting at length:

One of the truly well-entrenched realms of It-Is-Inevitable-That is that it is inevitable that humans will be violent and that human societies will wage warfare… Anyone noticing the blood-drenched world we live in would have to take that idea seriously. And academics of various stripes have as well.

Students of primatology and human evolution sure thought this. The 1960s saw the rise of the Robert Ardrey / man-the-territorial-hunter / big-cojones school of human evolution. Drawing upon the social system of the savanna baboon as a surrogate for our formative history in the savanna, the conclusion was that we are by nature a violent, stratified, male-dominated species…

[Meanwhile, the] game theorists were awash in the inevitability of violence and noncooperation as well… Neuroendocrinolosts weighed in also. Testosterone increases aggression, as it increases the excitability of parts of the brain relevant to aggression…

And, naturally, none of this is true.

Even those violent chimps and baboons can reconcile after fights, have cooperative, altruistic relationships, can even establish and transmit cultures of low aggression. Then there are the bonobo chimps, a separate species that is as genetically related to us as are chimps, a species that is female-dominated, has remarkably low rates of aggression, and solves every conceivable social problem with every conceivable type of sex. The game theorists, meanwhile, have spent recent years revealing the numerous circumstances that select for cooperation rather than competition even in competitive games…And normal levels of testosterone turn out not to cause aggression as much as exaggerate preexisting social tendencies…

Thus Brooks is quite wrong to write that science has dealt "a big blow" to belief in human goodness. The opposite is true. If his column proves anything, it's that belief that humans are born evil goes hand in hand with shoddy and superficial thinking.

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About The Author

Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!


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from extreme study of my own, and very objective study at that, I do not see where brooks is wrong at all.

Nothing in this article shows opposite of what brooks says.  It is just people who are not capable of looking at history,along with the present, and what many theists believe to be what the future holds.

People are fullfiling their own awful prophecies left and right.

The the human world is a patriarchal society. It does not take a genius to see this.  The idea that the bonoboo chimps, along with other animals having a more matriarchal society, being more peace loving and less violent, speaks very loudly.

Not to say that if our society were one of matriarchal, it would be much more peaceful, but come on..of the two genders, which is most likely to commit a violent crime.

We continue to ignore what is right in out face, screaming at us, because we do not want to think we are inherently ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.  The fact is, we are really not very intelligent.  We claim to be, yet what other animal is destroying the planet it lives on?  Are we more intelligent because of what our bodies are able to do?  We can write, we have a body made to build and design what we call technology, yet look at what technology has gotten for us.  We are incapable of just ‘being’. We always have to make things bigger, faster, stronger, taller, more destructive and dangerous because we fear ourselves as a species.  We have all of these weapons of mass destruction in order to let other countries know we are somehow ‘stronger’ than others. What is the purpose or need to be stronger or to be known as stronger?  Easy. Fear.  We live in fear because we know what we are capable of, so of course others are capable of it as well.  Unfortunately, we are capable of being good, but being good has no place in a world of ‘fear.’  Being nice can get you killed in our society or put you at great risk in one way or another.

We exploit other animals and even other people who are ‘weaker’ to assert our power and to be more ‘confident’, therefore, being less fearful. If humans fear something, instead of looking at it, examining it, attempting to understand it, the first response is to completely remove it.  Fear is the exact opposite of Love. All negative thoughts and actions come from fear.  It would even make sense to say that it is in out evolutionary design.  Look at how many suffered for years at the hands of other predatory animals. Without the present day weapons at hand, we still would be suffering from being attacked, killed and eaten by much stronger predators than ourselves.  Without our hand made tools, we do not stand much of a chance. Now we use those same tools, to turn on each other, and usually for something as idiotic as having a different culture, or religious belief.  How intelligent is that?

We do have the capacity to be a very wonderful species of course, but that is not what we are. Look at what we continue to do, knowing it will harm others.  That is not kindness or compassion.

Of course there are individuals who are absolutely fantastic and nothing but a pleasure. Unfortunately, these people, if discovered, are put down, and even some of our greatest visionaries have been assasinated, for just having the insight that being kind is much more productive than being fearful.  We try hard to be ‘fair and just’, but it never really holds for very long.  We use the excuse, ‘life is not fair’.

Life is what WE have made it to be, and that is, “not fair”.  We lie, cheat, steal, and kill to better ourselves, or our positions. Doing what is not ‘fair’ gets people much further than doing what is ‘fair’.  Kindness is not a common trait of people. Not today, and not in history. There are kind acts, but they are far outnumbered by the ugliness and darkness of what we do to harm, insult, humiliate, and degrade.  We are insecure beings because we know we are nothing special, yet we are taught through religions that we are, so therefore, it must be true.

For too many people, truth lies in dusty books written by people living thousands of years ago. Instead of seeking for ourselves, what is true to us, we rely on the words of others, and therefore, really learn nothing new.  We are so afraid of a place called “hell” that we force ourselves and everyone else to live in it daily.

We are lazy, and we are bored.  We are never happy with the way things are, we always have to be ‘messing’ with something that would be better left as is. We do this because of the way our bodies are made. Because we can. And let us not mention ‘money’ and how that one small aspect, rules our lives. There is not even a need for money, we could survive much more peacefully without it, yet we let it rule our world and our interactions with our world.  Every person has at least one talent that could be traded for another person’s talent, yet we would rather have ‘money’ because money = power and the more power we believe we have, the less we believe we have to fear.  We are not realistic, and this article proves it. Brooks is really on the right track. Just ‘claiming’ he was wrong does not show much at all. I would invite those claiming he is incorrect to step out of their laboratory or from behind their desk and look at all we have done in our past, and how much worse it is getting and will get before we kill ourselves and every other living being along with us.

The acts that humans have done and still do are unspeakable and are real.

Perhaps if everyone lived in “La La” land, like those who would say that we are not hardwired for anything other than power, the world would be a wonderful place. Those in “la la” land, I am sure are very happy and will remain wilfully ignorant on what is really going on.  There is alot to be said about the saying, “ignorance is bliss”.  Frankly, I envy those who remain in ignorance. They are probably the happiest people in all of the world. The people who dare peak from beneath the covers and actually observe the reality of it all, usually suffer from major depression and other psychiatric disorders.  Why wouldn’t they? It’s a very, very Mad World.

Selectively breeding those who remain in ‘happyland’ may help to preserve what is left of what we had to begin with.

The enitire human species is not all inherently evil, it is our nature however, to do what suits us for immediate gratification, and usually that means someone else is harmed in some way or at least is taken from.  Happiness with self is not common and as long as that is prevalent, unhappiness with others will cause action to be taken against them.

humans as a whole are very dangerous, savage and violent, with no remorse or sympathy.

Look at how we treat other animals. That alone says it all.

KKJ | 12:47 am, July 10, 2009 | Link

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