There’s a certain creepy conversation that I keep falling into.
It happens whenever the topic of human nature comes up, and it usually goes like this:
Other Person: “I think it’s just human nature to be selfish, violent and cruel.”
Other Person (stunned that I even asked): “What planet are you living on? Just look at history; humans have always been at war. Look at the news; just the other day a guy killed two people. Peel back the thin layer of civilisation and underneath we’re all just killer apes. Survival of the fittest.”
Me: “So if it wasn’t for civilisation, you think you might kill people?”
And there it is. While I’m sure the other person just sees their words as harmless opinion, I can’t help but find them deeply disturbing. Do they really feel a murderous instinct inside themselves that is tamed only by the comforts of civilisation and fear of the justice system? Should I back away slowly or retreat at a full run?
Well, no, but if I stay and stick out the conversation it’s only because I don’t really believe them. I don’t believe they feel a homicidal rage bubbling “underneath” their civilised facade, and I don’t believe comfort and fear are all that’s stopping them from rampaging through the streets with an AK-47.
But the other person is far from alone. Like I said, I find myself in this conversation a lot; for the “other person” is, in fact, many people. They represent “conventional wisdom,” the founding doctrine of entire religions, and the core tenet of diverse academic fields from natural science to social science to literature and the arts. Whatever their differences, almost every corner of society is united on this singularly creepy point.
It turns out that my disbelief in the other person’s inner psycho places me in a minority of people who hold to a radical, controversial and widely ridiculed idea.
The idea that, for all our flaws, human nature is not that bad.
a tale of two philosophers
The conflicting sides of the debate about human nature today tend to reduce to the ideas of two Enlightenment-era philosophers: Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In the blue corner we have Hobbes, champion of the status quo, father of pessimism, and a big part of the reason I have to keep having the creepy conversation above. His Leviathan (1651) laid out the case for why you and I, dear reader, are utterly depraved to the depths of our rotten cores.
In a “state of nature,” Hobbes writes, we lived in a “war of all against all,” and civilisation was the light at the end of prehistory’s long and violent tunnel:1
During the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man… And the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Yes, without something like an authoritarian state to claim a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence,” we can simply figure out no better way to obtain food, water and shelter than to fight our neighbours for them. If we are good at all, it’s only because there’s something in it for us or because the state is restraining our true sadistic selves. Civilisation, then, redeems us from our barbarism, but it remains the thin veneer cast over the seething darkness of human nature.
And in the red corner we have Rousseau, defender of humanity, champion of optimism, and therefore dismissed by many. His Discourse on Inequality (1755) is a passionate take-down of Hobbes which contends that the man had it all exactly backwards.
Rousseau argues that in a “state of nature” we lived in relative harmony and equality, and that it was in fact the dawn of civilisation when everything started to go wrong:2
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, and murders; how much misery and horror the human race would have been spared if someone had pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Beware of listening to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one!”
Far from a “war of all against all,” people didn’t really have much to fight over until they developed the concept of private property. Private property led to the original division between “haves” and “have-nots,” to the exploitation of the “have-nots” by the “haves,” to the need for an authoritarian state to protect the “haves” from both the “have-nots” and from the “haves” of rival states. It is not in spite of civilisation that we have had millennia of inequality, greed and war, but because of it.
Needless to say, the world declared Hobbes to be the winner by knock-out and his ghost has haunted us ever since. He’s there in Sigmund Freud’s description of human nature as an “Id” comprised of lower base desires, which exists in a tug-of-war with the “Superego” developed by the influence of civilisation.
He’s there in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), a novel – still taught to millions of high school students every year – of a group of stranded British boys who resort to murder and war the moment the taming influence of civilisation is removed. He’s there in almost every post-apocalyptic film which warns us that, when civilisation falls, we all lose our minds and devolve into beasts.
And while Rousseau has enjoyed some popularity among Romantics, hippies and political radicals, and even influenced a film or two, on the whole he is seen as the less “realistic” philosopher.
Maybe you don’t fully agree with either. Maybe you want to place yourself somewhere on a spectrum between the two. But even just as a matter of which way we lean – more towards Hobbes or more towards Rousseau – the stakes are high.
For one thing, research appears to show that simply believing that human nature is bad can actually make people behave more badly; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a placebo for evil.3 It can also (unsurprisingly) make us more depressed.
Not to mention that almost every important social, political, economic and well-being question hinges on where we stand on it. Should we have more freedom or less? Should justice focus more on rehabilitation or on punishment? Will mitigating poverty also mitigate crime rates? And overall, should we trust others at all?
It all depends on what you believe about human nature.
restoring faith in humanity
Perhaps the strangest thing I notice about that creepy conversation above is that the other person will often judge humanity by the very worst of us. It isn’t ordinary people who get to define us, no; it is the psychopaths and the sadists, the dictators and the con artists.
Bizarrely, some even judge humanity by the behaviour of chimpanzees.4
All of this is consistent with the psychologists’ idea that we suffer from a negativity bias.5 Negative events stand out more in our memory than positive ones. As a result, the psychopaths and sadists stand out more in our view of humanity than do ordinary people. Hobbes had this advantage over Rousseau before he ever picked up a pen.
History and the media institutionalise our negativity bias; it is the wars and disasters that stand out in both our recollection of the past and in what we deem important to know about current affairs. Historians don’t write books about periods when all was well; journalists don’t travel to remote locations to report “Mother got children to school safely” and “Still no murders here.”
Of course, the reason for this is obvious. Who would read such books or reports? But that’s exactly the point; we’re more attuned to negative news than positive.
And we have to recognise the skewing effect that this has on our view of things. That is, we end up judging humanity and the world by the exceptions to the rule instead of the rule. Psychopaths and sadists are exceptions in humanity, not the rule. War and disaster are exceptions in world events, not the rule. That’s why they stand out in the first place.
Defining humanity in reference to a psychopath or sadist, then, is a bit like defining computers in reference to a malfunctioning one. Imagine it: “It is the nature of computers to shut down without warning, to shoot sparks when you try to turn them on, to randomly burst into flame…”
Richard Curtis, director of Love Actually (2003), makes this point more brilliantly than I can:6
If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has probably happened once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.
If we are to really make a judgment about human nature, then it’s about time we started judging it by the rule, not by the exceptions; by the psychologically normal and healthy, not by the abnormal and unhealthy.
And the truth is, the rule for psychologically normal and healthy people is that love, kindness and compassion are sources of happiness, not hate, anger and spite. No one is actually made happier by getting more in touch with their feelings of hatred; no one blisses out in contentment by dialling up their rage. And this is a fact of human nature that Hobbes’ view does not – and cannot – account for.
Even from an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” point of view, we just could not have survived in a “state of nature” if we hadn’t banded together and cooperated with each other. We aren’t lions or sharks; we don’t have the claws, teeth or muscle power to dominate our environment as solitary predators. As the science shows, we had to survive as a social species, and that meant the evolution of social instincts; i.e. empathy.7
This is true even to the point that in group tasks, when given the choice between our own individual self-interest and the collective good of the group, our “first instinct” (i.e. our natural, intuitive impulse before we think about it) is for the latter. It’s a finding that holds up in “every single study.”8
In other words, if we had really existed in a “war of all against all,” then none of us would be here for Hobbes to tell us about it. There has to be a reason, after all, why psychopaths today represent less than 1% of the population;9 if psychopathy had been a successful survival strategy for our ancestors then that figure would now be more like 99%.
There is, in fact, an interesting story about Hobbes that ironically illustrates this point. One day he was caught red-handed giving money to a poor street beggar. When asked about it Hobbes replied, “I’m not doing this to help him, I’m just doing this to relieve my own distress at seeing the man’s poverty.”10
But this explodes his whole thesis. If human nature is so selfish then why would Hobbes feel “distress at seeing the man’s poverty” in the first place? Why would it “relieve” him to help? It turns out that even Mr. “War-of-All-Against-All” himself wasn’t immune to his own innate sense of human decency.
All well and good, you might say, but what about when the chips are down? Do we reveal our “true” selves when our survival is on the line, as in, say, war? While Hobbes, of course, would have us believe that war is just part of human nature, there is actually some astonishing research showing that most people – even when their lives are under direct threat in the heat of battle – are loathe to kill other human beings.
U.S Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall gained some notoriety for his discovery that, during World War II, only an average of 15-20% of soldiers ever fired their weapons, and an even lower percentage actually fired to kill, with many preferring to simply fire over their enemy’s heads. Some have questioned Marshall’s methodology, but many other studies have replicated his findings. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes: “Indeed, data indicate that soldiers throughout military history have demonstrated a strong resistance to killing other people.”11
Humanity’s aversion to war is an observation that comes from even one of the most unlikely sources: Hermann Goering, a principle architect of the Nazi German police state:12
Naturally, the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
None of this makes sense in Hobbes’ scheme. If war is human nature, then – as a rule – we should be positively frothing at the opportunity to kill our fellow human beings. We wouldn’t hesitate to fire our weapons given half the chance, and we certainly wouldn’t need propaganda and lies to manipulate us into doing it. Just being told that we can go to war should feel like winning the lottery.
But it doesn’t. It’s absurd. War isn’t something that people want, it’s something that governments and ruling elites want; that is, those who don’t have to do the fighting themselves (and who nevertheless stand to gain the most from an enemy’s defeat).
But aren’t those governments and ruling elites human too? Of course they are, and this demonstrates one important caveat in the case for humanity’s goodness. While people are generally empathetic, they can also (of course) be corrupted by power.13
This may not be true of absolutely everyone who has ever tasted the intoxicating highs of power. Some saints can manage to gain power and keep their heads. However, the corrosive effects of power on empathy explain why ruling elites have, historically, been much thirstier for bloodshed and war than the general population they send to die in them.
Yet even with this important caveat, Rousseau is still right; for power and inequality – with all their corrosive effects on our ability to feel for others – are products of civilisation, not nature.
Researchers are even starting to warm to Rousseau’s way of thinking about the dawn of civilisation. Yes, today we thank civilisation for modern medicine and longer life expectancies. Historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests that the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer life to permanent settlement initially led to a drop in quality of life, to longer and harder working days, and to overall shorter life expectancies.14
The hunter-gatherer might spend a few hours working each day to procure food, with the thrill of the hunt and the adventure of nomadic roaming, followed by hours of leisure time. But agriculture meant long, hard, less fulfilling hours of toil in one spot; an ordeal for which our bodies are simply not well-built. And yes, permanent settlement meant the rise of private property, of “haves” and “have nots,” of states to enforce it all, and, of course, war.
All of which might just make you wonder: Why? Why did we make the transition from the “state of nature” to civilisation if it was for the worse? What possessed us to commit The Biggest Mistake in Human History? To cut a long story short: population growth. The hunter-gatherer mode simply cannot sustain large numbers of people like agriculture can.
You could say, then, that our hand was forced. And so, here we are.
where to from here
Don’t worry, I’m not advocating dismantling civilisation and running naked into the forests to live in a “state of nature.” Hunter-gatherer life should not be romanticised, and of course I like modern medicine, dental hygiene and so forth. I met my wife on Tinder and I blog on the internet.
No, what I advocate is a better civilisation. After all, civilisation has been around for only 5% of the roughly 100,000 years of human existence; you could say that it’s an experiment still in it’s infancy. Perhaps some “growing pains” were inevitable.
And though civilisation undoubtedly faces some grave, existential challenges today, it’s still possible to turn this experiment around. We can still create a civilisation that lifts up all people, not just a few on the backs of others. A civilisation that encourages compassion, not greed; freedom, not authoritarianism.
A civilisation that truly reflects the potential of human nature.
- Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. (Createspace Independent Publisher, 2014).
- Rousseau, J. J. (1755). Discourse on Inequality. (Penguin Classics, 1984).
- Bergman. R. (2020). Humankind: A Hopeful History. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- I assume they take modern apes to represent our ancestors, or who we “really are” without civilisation. But – and it shouldn’t really need to be said – we and modern apes are different species. Yes we share much of our DNA with them, but then we share just as much with bonobos, who are famously peaceful and amorous in behaviour.
- Linder, J.N. (8 May, 2021). Hacking the Brain’s Negative Bias. Psychology Today.
- Bergman. R.
- Riess, H. (9 May 2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of Patient Experience.
- Ward. A. (20 November 2012). Scientists Probe Human Nature and Discover We Are Good After All. Scientific American.
- Coid, J., Yang, M., Ullrich, S., Roberts, A., Hare, R. (24 Feb 2009). Prevalence and Correlates of Psychopathic Traits in the Household Population of Great Britain. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.
- Cutler, H. (2009) The Art of Happiness: 10th Anniversary Edition. Riverhead Books.
- Grossman, D. (1 June 2007). Hope on the Battlefield. Greater Good.
- Gilbert, G.M. (1947). Nuremberg Diary. Da Capo Press, 1995.
- Piff, P., Stancato, D., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., Keltner, D. (27 Feb, 2012). Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behaviour. PNAS.
- Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper.