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Exploding the human nature myth

Picture this:

Scene: The High Courts of Justice, London. On trial is a 30 year-old man, charged with 3 armed robberies, 3 counts of attempted murder, and 5 charges of assaulting police officers and another of incapacitating a police dog. The QC for the prosecution has finished summing up. He sits down, satisfied he had done enough to see this psychopath imprisoned for 350 years, and now the defendant’s barrister approaches the jury, one hand in his pocket and fidgeting with his car keys.

Barrister: Members of the Jury! It’s an open and shut case as far as I can see. It’s human nature, innit? Humans are by nature greedy, selfish and aggressive. We’ve been like this for donkey’s years. Nothing you can do about it, eh? He can’t help it (points to defendant) - he’s naturally predisposed to be a violent robber. I, therefore, urge you to find my client not guilty on account of this ’ere human nature thing.

The jury retires and the judge adjourns. Five minutes later the jury returns. The foreman of the jury hands the usher a note which is then passed to his Lordship Justice Fairlaw. The judge looks at the slip of paper, raises an eyebrow and puts the note to one side.

Justice Fairlaw:  Have the ladies and gentlemen of the jury reached a verdict on which you are all unanimous?

Foreman of the Jury: Yes, M’Lud.

Justice Fairlaw:  And it is?

Foreman of the Jury: We find the defendant not guilty, M’Lud. We’re all agreed it’s not really his fault. Like his barrister said, it’s human nature, innit?’

Justice Fairlaw: In that case you’re free to go Mr Stabbemall

If you read this account of a trial in a newspaper you would be flabbergasted. You’d think this some huge joke or, if not, that the judge, barrister and jury were completely and utterly bonkers. Your faith in the criminal justice system would be shattered into a billion pieces.

This, however, is just the kind of logic socialists come up against when trying to convince people of the benefits of a socialist society. People will hear us out, agree that capitalism is insane and that our vision of a future society sounds perfect, and then wallop you with their evolutionary psychological analysis of human society, saying:

“Yeah, I agree with everything you say. But it ain’t gonna work, is it, coz of human nature? At the end of the day, humans are greedy selfish and aggressive. Always have been, always will be.”

Which immediately puts your socialist on the defence: “Are you greedy, selfish and aggressive?”

“No, but . . . err . . . I’m . . .”

“Good to hear it. Neither am I. Hold on a sec, I’ll ask this bloke here.” And the socialist holds out an arm and attracts the attention of a passer-by. “Sorry to bother you. I wonder if I could ask you a question.”

“Yeah, sure?” The passer buy joins the socialist and his critic.

“Right, would you consider that you are greedy and selfish?”

“Most certainly not.”

“Maybe aggressive?”

“No.”

“Thanks. That’s all.”

“That it?”

“Yes, thanks. Have a leaflet.” The socialist turns back to the evolutionary psychologist. “I’ll ask this woman crossing the road.”

The street psychologist walks off, muttering under his breath that the socialist is distorting his words.

The ‘human nature’ objection to socialism manifests itself in numerous ways, though it is usually the human nature of others, the wider society, which is acting as the barrier to socialism, never that of the model citizen and objector.

Let’s look briefly at the argument that humans are “by nature greedy, selfish and aggressive.”

So are humans naturally aggressive?

Well, if this is so then why do governments have to bring in conscription to force young men and women into their armies during times of war? At previous times, in Britain’s history, people have woken up from a drunken night to find themselves clutching the ‘king’s shilling’, turned into cannon fodder overnight, having been tricked into the army, and  others have woken up in the holds of war ships which had already put to sea. Here, in Britain, where there is no conscription, very few people join the army with a view to killing others. Most join because they see it as an alternative to the dole queue or because they seek adventure or believe the army can teach them a valuable trade.

Moreover, one real problem armies have is that of desertion. In the Vietnam War, 50,000 US soldiers deserted. Since the current war in Iraq began some 8,000 members of the US armed forces have deserted (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-03-07-deserters_x.htm). In previous wars, the army hierarchy has had to introduce the death penalty for deserters in an attempt to prevent so many fleeing the front line. So much for innate aggression.

Again, if humans are naturally aggressive, then why is there so much opposition to war? Surely our inborn aggressiveness compels us to cheer on “our boys” into battle, but this is not so. The February 2003 Anti-War demo in London became the biggest ever demonstration in British political history, with almost 2 million protestors taking to the streets of the capital, having travelled from all over the country. They were not alone; there were coinciding demonstrations in cities right across the globe. Hundreds of thousands  carried placards saying  “Not in my name” - determined to make clear their opposition to conflict.

Critics may counter by citing the rising levels of physical violence as evidence of a violent trend amongst humans. But even this can be attributed to the fact that well over 90 percent of this violent crime is carried out when the perpetrator is drunk or high on drugs. The remainder tend to be violent crimes of desperation, rooted in poverty. When for instance, did you hear of a member of the aristocracy jumping an old lady  on her way out of the bingo hall and snarling, “rightho, missus, let’s ’ave yer ’and bag”?

The human aggression argument is looking pretty dubious, so we’ll move on.

So humans are greedy?

Our objector assumes that in a free access society, which socialism would be - where people give freely of their abilities, taking from the stockpile of communal wealth according to their own self-defined needs - that there would be an orgy of consumption. It is assumed that people would simply go mad and grab at anything that did not have to be bought; running home with 20 loafs of bread and five walkman cd players.

Now, have you ever watched a mother and, say, a two-year old child in a corner shop? The mother will be at the counter, momentarily distracted, paying for her groceries, and her child heads for the confectionery display. The child has no real conception of the buying, selling and exchange game that parents play; one penny might as well be a pound coin - they’re just little fiddly things adults play with. Children simply take so much for granted. The mother will call the child away from the sweet display, and the child, wanting something, brings an item back - a packet of Smarties maybe - to her mother in the hope the parent will approve.  Now note, it is just one packet, not ten and six bags of crisps! Just one packet of Smarties! Surely innate greed would mean the child would is more predisposed to fill his or her arms with a stash of chocolate than an adult - believing this to be simply for the taking. But no, the child will take what he or she thinks will satisfy his or her immediate needs. For him or her there is always another day - mum’s always in this shop - and it doesn’t look like all this free access confectionery is going anywhere in a hurry.

What possible benefit could there be to storing goods that were in plentiful supply and freely available? Take more than you need by way of perishables and you’ll end up with a cupboard full of stinking and rotting vegetables. Water is generally considered to be “free” - you can for instance go into a public building and get a free drink at a water fountain - but no one runs in with 10 gallon containers in order to hoard it at home. Air is free, but when did you last hear of anyone extracting it and storing it in warehouses?

In a free society it is far easier just to take for you immediate needs and to return when you require more. It is only in class society as exists today, where commodities have two values, a use value and an exchange value, where the profit motive results in artificial scarcity, that people display characteristics associated with greed. But establish as society in which the artificial constraints on production are removed (profit), in which goods have a use value only, and are produced for no other reason than people need them, and people’s approach to obtaining them will change.

Humans are selfish?

Are we really self-seeking, self-centred and egotistical? Well, let’s begin with a few facts.

In Britain, as of March 2006, there were 167,000 registered charities (Charity Commission website) and in the USA there are 1.3 million charities (Independent Sector, a US coalition of non-profit organisations). These charities involve millions of people who give their free time, unpaid, for what they believe are worthy causes that benefit others. Some 85 percent of the British public give regularly to charities. According to a survey by Independent Sector, a US coalition of non-profit organisations, the percentage of volunteers in America is the largest of any country - almost 56 percent. The average hours volunteered per week by an individual is 3.5 hours. According to Charity America, donations to charity for 2002 were $241 billion, 76.3 per cent of this given by individuals.

Now let’s go back to 26 December 2004, when the Asian tsunami hit, killing upwards of 200,000. Overnight charities mobilised all over the world to get food, medical aid and other supplies to the millions left homeless in the disaster zone. The generosity shown towards the victims of the tsunami disaster by, say the people of the USA, were not Bush administration “values”, which Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, seemed to imply during his damage limitation exercise in Indonesia, but rather the basic values of human beings in America, indeed, the world over, who had been motivated by the sorry plight of their fellows overseas.

Unlike other animals, humans are endowed with the ability to sympathise and empathise with their fellow humans. Humans derive great pleasure from doing good, are at their best when faced with the worst and will go to extraordinary lengths to help alleviate the suffering of others.

Right across the US, as in many other countries, there were all manner of fundraising events, in all sections of society, inclusive of nursery schools, prisons, universities and impoverished communities. In some instances people queued for over an hour to put money in a plastic collection bucket. People raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help people they had never met before, nor knew anything of, and it was the same during the Ethiopian Famine of 1985 and again last year, with millions around the world mobilising to help the starving of Africa.

Several years ago, when the Yangtze River in China threatened to burst its banks, seven million people came out and began to fill sand bags, pillow cases, anything, to build up the fragile river banks, the breaching of which  threatened their communities.

Here in Britain, and indeed elsewhere, millions attend donor centres to give blood - usually every 17 weeks. Others put themselves on bone marrow registers and carry donor cards. All of this to help people they know they will never meet.

There have been cases where a small animal, a cat or puppy, sometimes even a child has become lodged in some deep underground pipe. Hundreds of people have mobilised to rescue it - fire crews, ambulance personnel, engineers,  rescue services of every description. Contractors have freely sent in mechanical diggers. In most cases these people work endlessly, sometimes for days on end, sometimes without sleep, more often than not unpaid, until the cat or dog or the small child is rescued. You can’t get near the site for TV crews and newspaper camera men - all desperate to capture the ‘human interest’ story, in the knowledge that this makes big news (as well as profits for the newspapers and TV networks, it must be said).

So the evidence hardly suggests that humans are selfish, greedy and aggressive. Indeed, if this was the case, if we could just not help ourselves, then we would very much see the type of court case we began this episode with far more often.

What most critics of human nature are actually referring to is human behaviour, behaviour exhibited in varying circumstances, and sometimes this reveals humans to be displaying behaviour that is aggressive or selfish.

For instance, if you go to Newcastle on a Saturday afternoon you’ll see thousands of people out shopping, strolling along quietly, minding their own business. Return ten hours later when the pubs and night clubs empty, when the same streets are full of drunken youths and you’ll see behaviour that is quite blatantly aggressive and anti-social. This is not natural aggression, but aggression which is arising because the normal functioning of thousands of brains is being upset by an overdose of the chemical alcohol and other drugs taken during the course of the evening as these young workers try to unwind after a stressful week at work.

Anti-social behaviour is also influenced by our social circumstances at any given time, i.e., when we are poor, depressed, lonely, afraid, angry or frustrated - sometimes a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion arising from abnormal and unfamiliar circumstances.

Socialists maintain that human behaviour is shaped in general by our surroundings, our circumstances, by the kind of system people are conditioned to live in - that it is not our consciousness that determines our social existence but our social existence which determines our consciousness. Nobody, for example, is born a racist or a patriot, a bigot, or with a belief in gods - this has to be learned. Nobody is born a murderer, a robber or a rapist, and our assumed greed for money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were slavery or witch burning.

Ordinarily, the reactionary ideas the common people hold have been acquired second-hand, passed down from the ruling class above us. This is because, as Marx observed, the class which owns and controls the productive process also controls the intellectual life process in general. 

In most cases, those who produce the world’s wealth (some 95 percent of the world’s population) have had that second-rate education that makes free-thought difficult - an upbringing that conditions us to accept without question the ideas of our betters and superiors. Indeed, the education system is geared to perpetuate the rule of an elite, insofar as it never encourages children to question and take issue with the status quo. Children may well cite that 8 times 8 equals 64, but how many will ask about the cause of wars or query the destruction of food? Moreover, the master class is allowed to hold onto power by controlling exactly what we think to the point that we imbibe a false class consciousness and readily acquiesce in our own exploitation. They control the TV, the radio, the newspapers, the schools. They perpetuate ideas that become so ubiquitous many people accept them as their own, uncritically. Many of these ideas are reactionary and, once imbibed, provide fertile soil for other reactionary ideas.

Socialists hold that because we can adapt our behaviour, the desire to cooperate should not be viewed as illogical. We hold that humans are, “by nature”, cooperative and that we work best when faced with the worst and that our humanity shines through when the odds are stacked against us. Today, world capitalism threatens the human race with extinction. The reason this obnoxious system survives is because we have been conditioned to accept it, not born to perpetuate it.

Rest assured: no gene inclines us to defend the profit system.

JOHN BISSETT