Human Nature: What Is It?

Human Nature: What Is It?

In any conversation about a different kind of society organised on principles of cooperation rather than competition, of common rather than private ownership of the means of living, the subject of human nature inevitably arises. To those who support a society of from each according to ability to each according to need, the answer is often given that it could not work, since human beings are by nature selfish, possessive, competitive and always wanting more. It’s not an easy argument to combat, as all around us, in present society, we see examples of this kind of behaviour both on a personal and a collective level.

It is backed up furthermore by much written ‘authority’. As early as the 16th century the Italian political writer Machiavelli, in his famous essay The Prince, stated that human beings are ‘ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, hypocritical, cowardly and greedy’ and ‘never do anything good except out of necessity’. This view of humans has often been quoted since, as has the similar idea expressed in the following century by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan that human beings are greedy by nature and human life is ‘a condition of war of all against all’. For Adam Smith too in his late 18th century Wealth of Nations, private interest (or ‘self-love’, as he also put it) was the basis for his argument for the free market. Though, in the two centuries that followed, the rise of views contesting the inevitability of the market and the social and economic inequality that went with it saw some questioning of the fixed human nature theory, it is only in very recent times that such questioning has come to the fore and now seriously contends with the ‘original sin’ idea, whether religious or secular, of human beings as deep-down selfish, wicked and aggressive.

This change in perception (though not yet a sea change) has come about partly through the arguments put forward by organisations such as the Socialist Party arguing for a cooperative society of common ownership, but more widely through a slew of publications, especially over the last few decades, by thinkers and writers from a variety of fields. The latest of these is a remarkable book entitled Humankind. A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury, 2020) by the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. This work has already received praise from many quarters and it isn’t difficult to see why. It comes at ‘human nature’ with in-depth scholarly research from a whole variety of areas (an ‘immense sweep’, as one reviewer put it) and is unfailingly informative, instructive and thought-provoking. At the same time, for the informal ‘in your face way’ in which it’s written, it manages to be highly and consistently entertaining, a page turner in fact. So a real ‘good read’ for absolutely anyone.

Bregman’s main line of approach is to examine the evidence presented for what he refers to as the ‘veneer theory’ of human nature and to show it as severely flawed. By veneer theory he means the widespread idea that the civilised, communal behaviour which characterises many of the normal day-to-day interactions of human beings only take place because of the pressure social and political authority puts upon us to behave in a civilised way and not tear one another to pieces. But, the theory goes on to say, the pressure that this authority creates is only a thin layer (a veneer) and as soon as it is relaxed or things go wrong, our true savage individualistic nature manifests itself and we are revealed for what we are – self-centred, individualistic and even savage. So, according to this notion (referred to by the writer as ‘the zombie that keeps coming back’), evil simmers just beneath the surface in us all. He looks at the various writings and life events that are used to support this theory – e.g: the immensely successful novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding about children stranded on an island turning savage; the story of the supposed cannibal inhabitants of Easter Island; the famous ‘shock machine’ experiment by Stanley Milgram, anthropological works by ‘big name’ writers such as Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari – and proceeds to drill down into the reality of these and show us new perspectives.

So, for example, the only real-life instance known of children being lost on a tiny island (which he calls ‘the real Lord of the Flies’) shows those children to have set up a friendly cooperative way of living before being rescued rather than establishing some kind of cruel hierarchy as depicted in the novel. In the same way Milgram’s experiment, which purportedly showed volunteers willingly administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to people in obedience to an authority commanding them to do so, is shown, when examined closely, to have encountered significant resistance from those taking part and the outcome to have been reported in an unbalanced, one-sided way. Again, amidst the carnage of the First World War, Bregman provides evidence that very few soldiers in the trenches actually fired their weapons at members of the enemy they could see and many deliberately fired into the air. Likewise, during the Second World War he quotes research showing that only a very small percentage of soldiers actually managed to fire their guns when they came into direct contact with the enemy despite being under orders to do so. Other real-life extreme situations such as the impact of aerial bombing on populations are also seen in a light rarely considered. For example, one of the expectations of aerial bombing by both sides in the Second World War was that it would cause social chaos with people turning on one another. But, in fact, just the opposite happened. Despite the extreme circumstances and the casualties, there was no breakdown of morale. The communal spirit was actually greater than before. In Britain there was the ‘blitz spirit’ and in Germany the mass bombing of civilians towards the end of the war resulted in people working harder than ever and actually increasing production of food and other necessities as well as war equipment. The numerous examples he cites of this kind of thing allow him to state that ‘catastrophes bring out the best in people’ and to regard the ‘bad’ behaviour frequently seen in human beings and their societies as aberrant. He dates it back to the invention 10,000 years ago of settled agriculture, seeing it as a ‘mismatch’ that did not fit the human psyche. Yet it became a game-changer in destabilising and stratifying populations that had previously lived in relative harmony and equality and had not been plagued by the idea of scarcity or the constant desire for more which agriculture introduced.

Though other writers too have presented arguments for seeing ‘human nature’ in a positive light (a recent example is Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff), Bregman goes further than these in a particularly striking way. Like him, most of them reject the notion of an innately self-serving, potentially evil human species, explaining anti-social behaviour as the reaction of hugely adaptable and flexible beings to conditioning and circumstance. Bad circumstances can make us bad people. But Bregman goes a step further. He looks beyond that idea to claim that the innate, fundamental default of human beings is to be friendly, communal, kind-hearted and cooperative, to the extent that he attaches to humans the label Homo puppy. This may seem sweeping or extreme and perhaps the jury is still out, but his arguments are certainly compelling. He sees as the main driver of human behaviour the desire to act together even in the most dire circumstances, leading to tolerance and mutual support even when things seem to be falling apart. Apart from the ‘blitz spirit’ in Britain in the Second World War, he also gives the surprising example of the apparently inexplicable dogged resistance shown by the vastly outnumbered and outgunned German forces as the Nazi regime was falling apart towards the end of the war. They found it impossible not to continue cooperating with one another. More generally, the author points to the plethora of everyday gestures of help, cooperation, solidarity and compassion people in all societies all over the world show to one another on a daily basis and quotes approvingly the statement by historian Tine De Moor that ‘History teaches us that man is essentially a cooperative being, a homo cooperans’. Another way he puts it is that ‘human beings claim togetherness and interaction’ and ‘our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food’.

On violence too, after presenting the evidence put forward by war historian Samuel Marshall in his book Men Against Fire that ‘the average and normally healthy individual (…) has such an inner usually unrealised resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life’, the author expresses agreement with sociologist Randall Collins that ‘Humans are hardwired for (…) solidarity (…); and this is what makes violence so difficult’. In view of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that one reviewer has seen Bregman’s analysis as leading to ‘a new understanding of human nature’ and lighting ‘the path to a brighter future’ and another as ‘a devastating demolition of the misanthrope’s mantra’.

This is truly myth-busting stuff and all good news for socialists who have always argued that there is no ‘human nature’ obstacle to a society of common ownership and democratic organisation based on from each according to ability to each according to need. But what about any political conclusions or prescriptions by the author from the wealth of evidence he presents? Well, he expresses strong support for ‘participatory democracy’, even if with no clear explanations of its content, and recommends people associating with one another as closely and directly as possible as ‘the best remedy for hate, injustice and prejudice’, since, once they come into close contact, their Homo puppy nature, their innate friendliness, will dissipate any hostility, prejudice or lack of empathy. He doesn’t go much further than this, and he had already done that in a previous book, his best-selling Utopia for Realists (reviewed in the August 2017 Socialist Standard). In political terms that book roundly criticises the market system for its ‘bullshit’ jobs and the waste of skills and energies it engenders and sees a remedy for this in various reforms such as a shorter working week, a basic income scheme (here now renamed ‘a citizen’s dividend’), increased taxes on wealth, and open borders. From the socialist point of view, though Humankind is an impressive and important book, it’s a pity he didn’t go any further, since the changes he recommends, apart from being unlikely to happen given the nature of capitalism, would clearly not, even if enacted, get to the root of the problems caused by the money and profit system with its imperative to produce come what may for profit rather than for need.

There is, however, one point in Humankind in which the author does seem to make an argument against the money system by pointing out that in capitalist society, even of the Western democratic kind, ‘the threat of violence is still very much present, and it’s pervasive. It’s the reason families with children can be kicked out of their homes for defaulting on mortgage payments. It’s the reason why immigrants can’t simply stroll across the border in the fictions we call ‘Europe’ and ‘the United States’. And it’s also the reason we continue to believe in money (…) Money may be a fiction, but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence’. Yet in the end, disappointingly, money and the violence behind it are not something he seems to want to look outside of. As in his previous work, he fails to go beyond recommending anything beyond what would in practice be relatively minor reforms to capitalism, easily withdrawn if the going got tough for profit making. Indeed, he’s on recent record as saying that ‘sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution’. This is a pity, given that he expresses an unequivocal liking for the kind of non-hierarchical social arrangements which characterised the pre-agricultural past of our ancestors, people who were ‘allergic to inequality’ and ‘universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free from the authority of others’. What is the objection, therefore, to such arrangements – without the market and without the state and at a secure level of technology – for our own future now?


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