Does Evolution Say We are Basically Good or Basically Bad?
by Tom Atlee
There is tension in the world between two partially true beliefs -- both of which claim evidence from evolution. These two views are:
1. "People are basically good and just need to be nurtured and freed" (see this Nova interview about bonobos, summarized below)
2. "People are basically bad and need to be controlled to keep from killing each other" (see this New York Times essay about "Conservatism and Evolution", summarized below).
Given the tremendous evidence on both sides, perhaps it might be useful to consider a third thesis that embraces both of them:
3. "Human nature is not one thing, neither 'good' nor 'bad' overall. People in general have been genetically endowed by evolution with a wide variety of tendencies and capacities that respond to -- but are not necessarily controlled or determined by -- their environment. And so we see all sorts of individual and cultural behaviors, providing evidence to defend virtually any assertions about 'human nature.'" (see the Foreign Affairs article "A Natural History of Peace", summarized below).
We might therefore conclude that our challenge at this stage of evolution is to recognize that 'human nature' is richly diverse and flexible. Perhaps our task is to use our powers of consciousness, intelligence, and choice to explore the full range of who we are and can be in various circumstances, aiming both to accept our whole selves and to co-create more life-serving, meaningful and joyful ways of being together.
Among the things we might take into account is the evocative power of our assumptions about ourselves, each other, and what's possible. For example, elementary teacher Jane Elliott did a famous experiment in 1968 in which her young students behaved -- with unexpected intensity -- according to her assumptions about how bright and competent they were. One day brown eyed kids were smart and blue eyed kids stupid, and the next day the opposite. Her results suggest that in many circumstances our assumptions about each other have a profound effect on which aspects of us show up in the world. And this is only a small piece of what is going on within us and among us. We have much more to learn about this and other dynamics if we wish to consciously and wisely engage our full evolutionary heritage as humans.
We could also develop evolutionary versions of political philosophies like liberalism, conservatism, anarchism, libertarianism, and communitarianism. Each of these worldviews invokes key facets of human nature that other philosophies downplay or disparage. Since, from an evolutionary perspective, all facets of our humanity have a certain functionality under particular circumstances, evoutionary reframings may allow for integrating these embattled ideologies into more inclusive, holistic, and benign political worldviews.
We are the ones we've been waiting for -- and we are all we need. We just need to live into being the people and societies we know we need to be. Evolution has much to teach us about the full pallette of humanity that's available to us, and the interplay of our strengths and weaknesses in the world we face -- a world which we and evolution have made.
(For a list of evolutionary science books on human nature, click here.)
The Bonobo in All of Us
A PBS Nova interview with Frans de Waal
"Bonobos help us to see ourselves more in the round," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. In particular, he says, we can learn as much about human evolution and behavior by studying the sensitive, peace-loving bonobo as by studying the more violent chimpanzee -- both of which share more than 98 percent of our DNA. In this interview, de Waal explains what the ape he calls the "make-love-not-war" primate can teach us about who we are -- and why, for this reason alone, it's vital to protect this highly endangered close relative of ours.
For this enlightening interview, click here.
For more on bonobos and other primates, see these Nova pages:
Read My Lips
See a slide show of bonobo gestures and facial expressions, and find out what they mean.
Kanzi the Bonobo
In this audio slide show, researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh describes one extraordinarily linguistic ape.
Our Family Tree
See (and hear) where you stand among the great apes in this audiovisual interactive.
Conservatism and Evolution
By David Brooks
New York Times: February 18, 2007
Belief in natural human goodness is fading fast. The idea that human beings are virtuous and free in their natural state, that they are happy in their simplicity, but social conventions make them unwell, has inspired a string of antiestablishment rebellions led by people who wanted to shuck off convention and reawaken more natural modes of awareness. Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has lost favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it -- from the communes to progressive education -- and because of science. From the content of our genes, to the nature of our neurons, to the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.
For the full essay, click here.
A Natural History of Peace
By Robert M. Sapolsky
Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006
Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not "killer apes" destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history. In fact, some of the other primates are pretty flexible, too! Here is a comprehensive, story-filled review of the social varieties of chimps, bonobos, baboons, and other primate cousins of ours.
To read the fascinating, full-spectrum article, click here.
Some books on the subject of Human Nature, as we have begun to understand it scientifically today...
Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are - the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, Mean Genes: From Sex, to Money, to Food - Taming Our Primal Instincts
Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices
David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way You Think About Our Lives
This writing assignment is due before class starts on Thursday, Oct. 25
One of the more complex and perplexing questions raised throughout history concerns the true nature of humankind. Philosophers have debated whether people are naturally good or are they instinctively capable of evil. Some of the novels you may have read in 9th grade, including Lord of the Flies, Night, Animal Farm, and/or Ishmael have grappled with that very same topic. In A Separate Peace, that idea is also raised as Gene struggles with his own actions and the realization of his true inner feelings.
What do you think? Do you think people tend to be naturally good or naturally evil? Are we all born with the capability to commit evil, or is it something we learn as we grow up? There is no easy answer to this question, but you should try anyway in the comment section. In addition to your own opinion, your answer should include a specific reference to a piece of literature as part of the evidence to support your opinion. It could be A Separate Peace, or it could be something else you've read.