If we believe in the fundamental goodness of man, we are doomed.
— Dr. Robert Hare
We may as well start with some very bad news, and get it out of the way. We humans are naturally violent, acquisitive, greedy, negligent, aggressive, destructive, petty, mean, self-centered, and sometimes abysmally foolish. And now for the very good news: it’s also in our nature to be peaceful, giving, generous, caring, gentle, creative, broad-minded, kind, altruistic, and sometimes profoundly wise. We are domineering, yet we long for equality.
Mother Culture of the so-called progressive worldview vigorously disagrees. As a reaction to the often-knee jerk blaming of human nature for the failings of civilization, many of us moderns bought the other side of the coin. Haven’t we been told by the various gurus of enlightened 21st century thinking that human nature is “basically good”? Like some anxiety management self-help circle, we indulge in endless mutual assurances that I am ok and you are ok. But the façade of “goodness” crumbles rather quickly under the critical gaze of those who lose faith in the ready blandishments. “There are more and more factors beginning to push us out of the comfortable pew where we mostly once worshiped our species, our ‘leaders’, our civilization, our perception of unlimited human capacity and entitlement and manifest destiny.” Indeed. And along with the worship of our species goes the often uncritical defense of the species’ nature. These particular worshipers fish around for evidence that our primate cousins are gentle giants, that our paleolithic ancestors lived non-violent lives, that hunting and omnivory was really somehow imposed upon us mild-mannered fruit-eaters, and that human aggression is really learned — not innate — and can be erased with another kind of learning.
When people argue on behalf of benevolent human nature, the argument often takes this informal shape: It is quite evident that most of us behave in fairly innocuous ways most of the time. But look at all the horrible things people have done – now a list of genocides, tortures, and other ghastly deeds emerges – that is not us, is it? The Hitlers of this world are caused by… culture, stress, poor upbringing, perhaps even innate pathologies. But that’s not us! See, most humans are basically good. Such an argument is based on a fallacy. It’s not either/or: either we are basically good, or we are genocidal maniacs and perverts. There is a third possibility: that we are both good and bad in fundamental common measure. And this point of view, called by some social scientists “the ambivalence model of human nature” is the keystone of my own understanding. I used to believe otherwise. I once defended vigorously the “basically good” point of view. But events in my own life — in my own behavior! — eventually prompted me to take a harder look.
I now accept a different argument. This one is rooted in the evidence of primitive tribes. Their profound egalitarianism, radical sharing, steady emphasis on social harmony, and the rarity of serious armed conflict rightly astounds the modern mind. But it would be a romantic misdirection to claim that greed, violence or power abuse is absent among them. Studies clearly indicate that hiding one’s kill from others, shirking common work, eagerness to inflict severe damage on neighbors, and upstartism has been documented time and again even among remote or newly contacted tribes. Significant levels of violence — mostly among males competing for females, and in skirmishes between bands — have been recorded in most primitive societies.
What is the evidence from our far-ancient ancestors and other primates? An erectus find displays the remains of a human being who had been scalped and his eyes gouged out. There is evidence of interhuman violence, including human sacrifice, in cave art and Upper Paleolithic remains. And a massacre from about 12,000 years ago shows half of a small settlement dispatched by human weapons. Chimpanzees have been observed to terrorize and kill other chimps. It has finally been understood that intraspecific violence is common among animals, including our closest primate relatives. We are no different.
It is the propensity for killing that allows both chimps and humans to be such good hunters. Bonobos were said by eager romanticizers a while back “to have lost the desire to kill.” But careful study shows bonobo females organizing themselves into precise, coordinated, swift and deadly hunting bands as they go after monkeys. It is hard to believe we would have evolved into fierce predators had there been no biological basis for it.
And then there is cannibalism. Well documented among the erectus, Neanderthals, and sapiens, it presents a picture of our nature many of us would prefer not to know. But the evidence cannot be ignored. Both long-ago ancestors and more recent tribal peoples hunted fellow humans as prey. Eating one’s fellows out of dire hunger, reproductive reasons, and cage confinement is not uncommon in the animal kingdom. But gastronomic cannibalism, the hunting of one’s own kind in plentiful times for food is far more unusual. We stand in the company of bull frogs, scorpions, king cobras, sharks, and our primate cousins, the common chimps. Isn’t that alone something to gag on?
Benevolent, us?! Trees are benevolent beings. We are not. Besides, any animal species has it in their power to wreak a lot of damage on earth by overbreeding, overtrampling, overkilling and overconsuming. This is true from bacteria all the way to mammals. It is true of us.
The dark and light nature of our species was vividly portrayed by that classic of a film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Dr. Jekyll, a noble humanitarian, develops an elixir that — he hopes — will improve upon human nature. He tests his potion on himself and morphs into the hairy, coarse, nasty Mr. Hyde who goes off on a rampage. The story ends badly. To be rid of Hyde, the world must be rid of Jekyll. The Jekyll/Hyde metaphor is a powerful reminder of the underlying light-and-shadow that lives in ambivalent, dappled symbiosis in all of us.
Where once humans were blamed for the imperfection of civilization, turning it upside down blames civilization for the imperfection of humans. “It is the psychotic demands of civilization that have created these very troubling forms of social disintegration along with the weakness that haunts individuals in their complicit acquiescence, in their enslavement to these urban walls and the psychopathologies they generate.” Human evils are symptoms of stress-related mental illness caused by our culture. If that is true — and the project of Enlightenment has believed it to be so — then all we need is shucking off the burden, healing, and plenty of freedom. More freedom! How sweet it rang in the French revolution. How sweet the sound in all the propaganda for modernity. But if human nature is dark and light, then more freedom for Jekyll will always and inevitably lead to more freedom for Hyde… and that seems like a singularly bad idea.