How often do we hear it said “It’s only human nature?” And mostly about an anti-social piece of behaviour, as if it couldn’t be avoided? Curiously, it is not often said about the best things that people can do. On hearing that someone has risked their life to save another, for some reason we are not inclined to say “Yes, it’s human nature.”
Mostly, the idea of “human nature ” is a reflection of a divisive society that is incapable of creating a decent life for all its members. This failure is then rationalised as a pessimistic view that all people (mainly other people) are inherently selfish, greedy, and lazy. This view has been used as an objection to socialism, in which all the bad examples of human behaviour under capitalism are called upon to say that a society based on equality and voluntary co-operation is impossible.
Not genetically programmed
This prejudice is also reinforced by arguments which assert that our behaviour and our relationships result from the way we are biologically or genetically programmed. These focus on competition, leadership, possessiveness, aggression, social and sexual inequality and an alleged drive to be territorial but, again, all these are behaviour patterns that reflect capitalism.
The arrival of capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon within human history, ninety per cent of which has been spent living as hunter gatherers, in small tribes moving from place to place. This ended with the rise of settled agriculture about ten thousand years ago and a variety of different forms of social organisation have followed across different parts of the world. If our social arrangements were determined by our biology then this diversity of human behaviour, relationships and culture would never have arisen.
The real scientific evidence shows humans are able to adapt to cope with the challenges presented by the natural and social environments within which they have had to live. Evidence from the now completed human genome project supports the view of the adaptability of human beings. Dr Craig Venter, President and chief scientific officer of Celera Geonomics (the private firm that wants to patent genes for profit and thus not someone to be suspected of anti-capitalist or pro-socialist leanings) declared in the official press release issued by the journal Science which published his firms results in its 16 February issue:
“There are many surprises from this first look at our genetic code that have important implications for humanity. Since the June 26, 2000 announcement our understanding of the human genome has changed in the most fundamental ways. The small number of genes—30,000 instead of 140,000—supported the notion that we are not hard-wired . We now know that the notion that one gene leads to one protein and perhaps one disease is false. One gene leads to many different products and those products-proteins- can change dramatically after they are produced. We know that regions of the genome that are not genes may be the key to the complexity we see in humans. We now know the environment acting on these biological steps may be key in makin us what we are. Likewise the remarkably small number of genetic variations that occur in genes again suggest a significant role for environmental influences in developing each of our uniqueness.”
Toolmaking, language and thought
While human beings’ genetic nature leaves much scope for variation in behaviour, there are certain features that we all share and distinguish us from other species. These include the ability to walk upright, binocular colour vision, hands with opposable thumbs, organs capable of speech, and the ability to think conceptually. These physical features have led to the versatility of the human species as embodied in their labour as well as social behaviour such as the accumulation of shared experience that can be passed down through the generations. The development of tools, from the flint-working technique during the paleolithic period to the computers and space vehicles of today is central to understanding human history.
It may have been that this toolmaking tradition played a key part in the development of human consciousness. The tools made by early human kind objectified the existence of the tool makers and in contemplating this they become conscious of their own existence. This reflection of their own lives in their own creations may have led to a heightened self awareness and an ability to think in an expanded timeframe of past, present and future. Language could then develop from basic references to material objects to higher levels of abstract thought which expressed a developing, more complex vision of their world. It was possibly then that humanity created ideas and culture, becoming less instinctive and more decision-making. Through this dynamic interaction between human characteristics and the environment which was essentially the labour process, humankind not only altered their conditions of life, they changed themselves. What this required was not an invariable set of behaviour patterns programmed by genetic coding but adaptability.
Predisposed for co-operation
But none of this would have been possible without co-operation. Whilst we may not say that co-operation is programmed through our genes, it is certainly predisposed by our physical make-up. The view that co-operation was essential to the survival and development of human society has recently been supported by the work of the anthropologist Andrew Whiten. He argues that egalitarianism, sharing and lack of domination were the most prominent features in hunter-gatherer societies. (For more about the work of Andrew Whiten see Hunting, Gathering and Co-operating)
By co-operating with others through a division of labour we greatly increase what can be produced for our mutual benefit. Besides these material benefits, co-operation enables us to develop as individuals. Our individuality grows and finds its expression in relation to others and this would be impossible in social isolation. In this process of individual growth we draw not only on personal relationships, we draw on society in general and even on the lives of those who lived in the past.
Co-operation is sometimes said to be impossible because there is an inherent conflict between self-interest and the interests of others. In fact, the reverse is true. The interests of the individual are best realised when people are working together.