From the May 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard
t seems that everyone is an expert on human nature, right? Especially politicians, who often make remarks about the general nature of humans. Why, everyone knows that humans are an inherently greedy, selfish, violent, nasty species. I mean, what could be more obvious?
This conventional wisdom is both wrong and unscientific. There has been a lot of debate over the years, for instance the Nature vs Nurture debate, but it seems that the public at large remain ill informed. The public's judgement is of course affected by the unchallenged remarks of people in positions of power. We not only do ourselves a great injustice by condemning our fellow humans in this bigoted way. we also place ourselves and our collective future in great danger. That such views should be widespread amongst all sections of the population is a striking commentary on the education most people receive.
It is worth noting that when people make the scathing remarks concerning our nature they often conveniently exclude themselves and their friends. Actually, when most people talk about human nature, they are referring to human behaviour—two different concepts.
Human nature implies a built-in, inherent attribute, and we do have these. For instance, the urge to satisfy human needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Human behaviour, on the other hand, includes learnt or acquired behaviour. The fact is that we are a social animal and that our behaviour is virtually all learned behaviour.
One to two million years ago, human beings emerged as a species from an ape like creature, and for at least the last 100,000 years we have had basically the same bodily form. The thing that ensured our survival was and is co-operation and this has been a constant indispensable feature of human society. Unlike other animals we long ago dispensed with adapting ourselves biologically to the environment, but instead we adapt the environment to ourselves. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived in primitive hunter-gatherer societies of tribal communities. One of the outstanding features of these communities was the ability of their members to co-operate and live in harmony for their own mutual benefit. If they had the behavioural attributes that we now so glibly condemn in ourselves, human beings would have perished forever millions of years ago.
The main things that people are born to do are to eat, drink, keep warm, imitate, copulate and learn. The relations they enter into with each other at a given time to accomplish these ends set the pattern for the social outlook and the social code. In the course of history humanity has moved from relative simplicity in the social arrangements in isolated communities into a world of large interconnected industrial 'complexes. What people think and how they act is not due to some fundamental instinct, but is the result of customs, regulations and inhibitions that spring from the social environment in which people of past history have had to solve the problem of living. In other words, that people are able to think and act is a fact of biological and social development, but how they think and act is a result of social conditions. Since private property came into existence some 10,000 years ago. the pursuit of property has bred murder, cruelty, fraud, enmity and other anti-social behaviour.
There has been little discernible change in the fundamental make-up of humans, yet there have been considerable changes in social conditions. For example, stealing today is looked on as a criminal act whereas hunter-gatherer societies did not have any concept of stealing because there was no private property.
As to the assumption of selfishness, there are thousands of people who give selfless devotion in all manner of voluntary effort. There is co-operation going on all around us if you care to look, despite the competitive, one-upmanship, law-of-the-jungle philosophy which is rammed down our throats. It comes as a surprise that, despite the enormous inhuman stresses that are placed upon people by the society we live in, there are not more murders, rapes and crimes in general. The selfish, cruel, anti-social conduct that is laid at the door of human nature is really only the outcome of systems based on private property, which compel people to engage in predatory conduct in order to survive.
We cannot afford to let an erroneous view of ourselves as human beings prevail. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot live in peace and harmony. That this will mean that we must make a fundamental change in our system of society is something we will come to when we know about ourselves as humans.