Human Nature

Brian and Hannah and I had a picnic in Kananaskis country. Perfect days are simple days.

Brian and Hannah and I had a picnic in Kananaskis country. Perfect days are simple days.

I perennially run across ideas that make me nuts. I was going to write about what constitutes good evidence (as in “both sides of the vaccine issue have their evidence” when in actuality – one side does not), but got thinking about something more fundamental: what’s the nature of humanity? Here’s a question: if I really believed in the popular assumption that people are, at their heart, selfish and nasty, then why would I bother to engage in conversation at all? There have been a couple of articles lately that have given me pause because of their poor interpretation of human nature. I can be a misanthrope with the best of them, and certainly living in the reactionary-right-wing bastion of Canada, at the end of the Bush years and soon after the G20, does nothing to improve my opinion of human kind. But I’m also a mom to a darling little girl, who’s going to have the earth I leave her, so the nature of the dominant species on this planet is an important question to me.

In Scientific American, John Horgan discusses the book Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Our nature is nurture: Are shifts in child-rearing making modern kids mean?). Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is an evolutionary biologist/anthropologist, who really sounds like someone I might like. Dr. Hrdy worked as an anthropologist during the years when women’s contributions to science were not readily accepted, and also raised three children. Her book emphasizes a type of child-rearing that allowed her to pursue her career – allocare, or the assistance of non-related members of the troop. Group child rearing differentiates us from the rest of the great apes, who rear their offspring individually.

In his article, John Horgan then goes on to discuss modern human societies. Many of today’s children receive most of their care from non-kin, and often times care from the parents is distant, which can result in disorganized attachment. Might this then result in a loss of empathy in our species, if empathy is not selected for? He then cites a recent study showing that empathy in college students has suffered a precipitous decline in the last 30 years.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy probably didn’t say this in her book, because no evolutionary biologist would suggest that any phenotype can be selected against in roughly one or two generations. Not only is 30 years much too short a time frame for the evolutionary loss of any phenotype, but it would require that empathy be strongly selected against. Certainly the misanthrope in me thinks this is the case in modern society, but in reality empathy is required for the most basic of human interaction and communication, so its selection against seems unlikely to me. But it isn’t the science of this article that upset me. I wasn’t really sure, however, what was bothering me.

Then tonight I reread an old issue of Discover and came across an article by one of my favorite columnists, Bruno Maddox. He shares my love of Ghost Hunters and wrote eloquently on one of Darwin’s bigger mistakes. In “The Body Shop” (Discover, May 2010, pg 43) he discusses the rise of the robot, and wonders why people aren’t as disturbed by robotics as they used to be. A large body of 20th century literature examined the fine line between the potential advantages and dangers of robotics, and until just recently, we all seemed to be terrified of the thought of robots taking over the earth. Now, as robots adopt human-like faces, vacuum our floors, and take over the battlefield, we seem to have quietly given up our fears of being made obsolete. Why? Maddox suggests that this is because we’ve really stopped thinking we’re any good at all. The basis of our fears of robots was our belief in unique nobility of humans. Maybe, however, in the age of the internet, we suddenly realize that humans are largely stupid. “[Man] enjoys porn and photographs of cats on top of things. He spells definitely with an a, for the most part, and the possessive its with an apostrophe. On questions of great import or questions of scant import, he chooses sides based on what, and whom, choosing that particular side makes him feel like, and he argues passionately for his cause, all the more so after facts emerge to prove him a fool, a liar, and a hypocrite.” Perhaps then, our fear of robots has been replaced with a hope that they can be programmed to be the intelligent, rational, even empathic beings that we have failed to be.

And there it is. This particularly Judeo-Christian idea of the fallen angel. That mankind’s nature is inherently selfish and irrevocably sundered from our noble origins. This philosophy has coloured western philosophy for centuries; Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of life as naturally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. I can’t underestimate how much this philosophy has coloured the thinking of the west, and we hardly seem to question it. But we should question it, strongly. Because in a world where humans are basically jerks it becomes very difficult to put in the energy to make it better. It makes it easier to care less for our neighbours, and easier to accept injustice.

It would be easy to categorize my objection to this poor view of human nature as a womanly or sentimental instinct to protect my child, and to be perfectly honest, that is part of it. No parent wants their child to grow up in a society that is irredeemably selfish. But the bulk of my objection comes from the fact that this cynical view of humanity is just too easy. It’s simple to look at the state of the world and roll your eyes. Cynicism takes no courage and leaves no room for outrage.

The cynic in me doesn’t have a hard time accepting that college students of today are less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, but the optimist in me doubts strongly that this is due to some genetic decline. Instead it seems clear the problem stems from a culture that strongly rewards self interest and devalues idealism. This is not the real tragedy, however. The real tragedy is that, like a rapacious economy and lying politicians, we think that this is the natural, immutable progression of our society. There is no scientific or anthropological reason to suggest that humans societies are limited by rapacious self interest, so let’s not give into a poor philosophical excuse.


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