The end of human nature

People are only too well aware of the magnitude of the social problems which daily confront them. The persistence of conflict at every level of human affairs, from wife bashing to open warfare, serves only to reaffirm the prevailing mood of pessimism about social relations. Society’s manifest failure to solve or alleviate problems such as malnutrition or war has not however, led to a rejection of the principle of leadership or to a lack of faith in those with ‘new solutions’. Far from the working class thinking and acting in terms of common human interests on a social basis, we find that popular wisdom continues to accept the failure of political solutions as inevitable.

The reason for this lack of success, according to most people, is not the misconceptions of leaders but the ineradicable flaws in the human make-up. If humans are naturally aggressive, selfish and acquisitive, the establishment of social harmony is out of the question. What is referred to as human nature will not permit it.

In the difficult task of rebutting this popular fallacy, socialists are not alone. In the field of research into the nature and history of the human species, there has developed a strong body of opinion in support of the view that they are not dominated by an innate aggressiveness and self-interest. Furthermore, these studies stress the possibility, and indeed necessity, of human beings transforming their behaviour and relations in society in order to overcome their problems.

The anthropologist Elman Service in the Introduction to his book The Hunters, has this to say about twentieth century people:

“Civilised man is often uneasily aware that not all of civilisation is an improvement, although there seems to be very little agreement about what is wrong, unpleasant or perhaps unnecessary about it — except of course such things as war, crime, and mental illness. And even for these ills there is no obvious panacea. Could it be that civilised man does not understand his civilisation very well? Most anthropoligists are likely to go further. Civilised man does not understand his civilisation at all. He does not even know what it is.” (our emphasis)

Study of societies still living at the food gathering and hunting stages of cultural development points up the error of those who see the future of the human race as determined by ‘ineradicable shortcomings’. Attempts. particularly of the Konrad Lorenz/Desmond Morris/Robert Ardrey school, to show that homo sapiens is simply an improved form of ape have been soundly and scientifically debunked, in particular in the works on human aggression by Ashley Montagu and Erich Fromm. (That apes are not innately aggressive, as has been demonstrated in the research of Jane Van Lawick-Goodall, George Schaller and Dian Fossey, is another matter).

Service, in the above quoted work, shows that selfishness and hierarchy are not common features of primitive society, and that on the question of dominance the hunting and food gathering band differs more completely from the apes than do any other kind of human society. There is a total absence of authority based upon either physical strength or sources of power such as wealth, heredity, military or political office. Even when, by dint of greater strength or wisdom, individuals possess greater status or prestige than others, the manifestation of these prerogatives is the opposite of ape-like dominance; the rewards are intangible, being merely the attention and love of others. In primitive society prestige is accorded to the individual only if their qualities are put to work in the service of the group, a feature alien to ape society. Service further refutes the idea that what is accepted to-day as natural human behaviour holds good for all times in history:

“In no hunting-gathering society is gratitude expressed, and, as a matter of fact it would be wrong even to praise a man as “generous” when he shares his game with his camp-mates. On another occasion he could be said to be generous, but not in response to a particular incident of sharing, for then the statement would have the same implications as an expression of gratitude; that the sharing was unexpected, that the giver was not generous simply as a matter of course.”

This was exemplified by the reproof another anthropologist received when thanking an Eskimo hunter for sharing his meat with him.

On the question of aggression another equally eminent anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, in Wayward Servants or the two worlds of the African Pygmies remarks on the virtual absence of physical or emotional aggression in the groups known to him. This was borne out by the lack of warfare, feuding, witchcraft and sorcery. Even the act of hunting is, to Turnbull, not carried out in aggressive spirit at all. Due to the consciousness of depleting natural resources there is actually a regret at killing life.

So, contrary to popular belief, the human race is capable of different behaviour in different environments. In the words of Marshall Sahlins:

“In selective adaptation to the perils of the stone age. human society overcame or subordinated such primate propensities as selfishness, indiscriminate sexuality, dominance and brute competition. It substituted kinship and cooperation for conflict, placed solidarity over sex. morality over might. In its earliest days is accomplished the greatest reform in history; the overthrow of human primate nature and thereby secured the evolutionary future of the species.”

Many anthropologists are not only aware that humanity can radically change its behaviour patterns as a species, but realise that it is absolutely essential that this be done if we are to survive. Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in their book Origins have this to say:

“Precisely because evolution produced an animal capable of tackling whatever challenge the environment might offer, the answer must be that very few behavioural patterns are rigidly built into the human brain. Obviously our brains are not jumbled networks of nerve cells with no overall structure. The anatomy of the human brain is well ordered, but it is built in such a way as to maximise behavioural adaptability. Within reasonable biological limits, humans, it is fair to say, could adapt to living in almost limitless numbers of ways. Indeed this flexibility is manifest in the rich pattern of cultures expressed throughout the world.” (page 945)

Primitive people began the process of social production, making possible the enormous technical development of modern times. However, in the course of this progress the individual became more and more dependent upon society as a whole, his changing behaviour reflective of new social structures. Capitalism, based as it is on private property relationships, creates problems which are insoluble within its own framework. The further development of social co-operation and the elimination of antagonism can now be achieved only within the framework of Socialism, a society of common ownership and production for use. Anthropologists may be dimly aware of the barrier to human progress presented by the social relations under capitalism, but unfortunately this awareness takes the form of mild reproach and idealistic moralising.

If it is true that, in the words of Marx, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”, the abolition of private property will see the beginnings of the development of the new humanity and the disappearance of ‘human nature’, a concept central to capitalist ideology.


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