Saturday, 17 September 2011

On Human Nature

Arguments I see time and time again against left-wing politics is that “human nature will get in the way” or “it ignores human nature”. Recently I’ve even seen this argument trotted out by people on the left, that any future system must “take human nature into account”. It’s fairly clear what is meant here without asking too many questions. Human beings are selfish. Human beings only work in their own self-interest and that this is natural. But I believe this to be wrong. This blog post will hopefully explain why.


The complexity of this subject has seemingly always been acknowledged but the approaches of philosophers, scientists and economists have varied widely over the centuries.  The ancient Greek approach held that destiny played a large role in human nature as every human was thought to be in some small way divine.

As time went on, this metaphysical view of human nature fell out of vogue and philosophers began to rely more on observation of human tendencies.  Thomas Hobbes had a particularly pessimistic view of human nature as fundamentally violent.  Following this, Rousseau held that there was no predestination involved in human nature.  He believed that morality was a natural possession of human beings and that the construction of institutions, language and concepts such as justice are a necessary development from this, and that further to this, the importance of government and commerce had undermined liberty.

Later, following general acceptance of Darwin’s ideas on evolution and natural selection, an idea built up of nature in general being a brutal and violent struggle pitting individual against individual in a battle for survival.  The complexity of Darwin’s idea was frequently and erroneously boiled down into soundbites like Darwin’s unfortunate yet metaphorical “Survival of the fittest” and (retrospectively) Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.  Inevitably this was applied to the economic, social and political ideas of the day.  Indeed, this narrow view of evolution seemed to reaffirm the class divisions and economic inequalities of Victorian society.  A society divided by class and deeply uneven in economic terms suddenly had a basis in reason, a scientific justification.

Darwin himself knew, of course, that this was a gross oversimplification and had anticipated such misunderstandings by pointing out in The Origin of Species that his phrase “Survival of the fittest” was more metaphor than an attempt to distil evolution into an easily digestible soundbite.

The use of these ideas by the establishment to justify the status quo could almost be seen as harking back to the time of the ancient Greeks.  While the Greeks used the idea of metaphysical predestination to justify the status quo of land-owning citizens and a labouring class of non-citizen slaves, the post Industrial Revolution capitalist societies used the idea of a kind of scientific predestination in the same way.

In the mid-twentieth century, game theory began to be used in the study of human nature and the initial studies in this direction would have consequences reaching into the 21st century.  Mathematicians working at the RAND corporation tasked with developing US Cold War strategy began to apply their ideas in game theory more generally and in idea of human beings as isolated, paranoid and self-interested individuals began to be built up.  Not only that, but an idea developed that human beings acting in their isolated self-interest would bring about a stable society, and the mathematician John Nash actually won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating this mathematically.

The key to this was that the ground rules set down in the games developed at RAND must be followed – that is, participants must act selfishly and always attempt to outwit other players.  But when these ideas were tested on real people at RAND, the mathematicians found that in reality, people always chose to cooperate rather than betray other participants.

The particular game developed at RAND to demonstrate this concept was called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the game can be outlined as follows:

“In the Prisoner's Dilemma two players act as prisoners who have been jointly charged of a crime (which they did commit) but questioned separately. The police only have enough evidence to be sure of a conviction for a minor offence, but not enough for the more serious crime.
The prisoners made a pact that if they were caught they would not confess or turn witness on each other. If both prisoners hold true to their word they will only be convicted of the lesser offence. But the dilemma occurs when the police offer each prisoner a reduced prison term if they confess to the serious offence and give evidence against the other prisoner.
This sounds like a good deal, confess and you get the minimum possible term in jail - although your partner will get the maximum. But then you realise that if both you and your partner confess then both will be given the maximum term in prison. So the dilemma is whether you trust your partner to keep quiet - and if you do, should you 'stitch them up' to get out of jail quicker?”

The game, and Nash’s application of it to human behaviour, chimed perfectly with the paranoia of the time, at the height of the Cold War, and with Nash’s own paranoid world view as, at the time, Nash was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

These ideas eventually filtered into the consciousness of right-wing economists and politicians, culminating in modern neoliberal economic thought, Thatcherism and extreme individualistic capitalism.  Cooperation and altruism were held to be myths and every person thought to be working purely in their own self-interest.

But parallel to this, certain biologists had begun to study what they considered a neglected and poorly understood aspect of evolution.  Biologists knew that, contrary to the received wisdom, the story of evolution was not exclusively one of brutality, violence and death.  They knew that along with the competitive aspects, there was also an aspect of cooperation and altruism, and some biologists set out to try to explain this in evolutionary terms.

Blazing a trail in the early 1970s was American evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, who proposed theories on reciprocal altruism and parental investment. Reciprocal altruism can be framed as follows:

“…a behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.”

Examples of reciprocal altruism in nature include vampire bats, which will occasionally regurgitate blood to feed each other, dolphins, which occasionally come to the aid of struggling humans and other animals, and, in particular, chimpanzees have been shown, in studies at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, to act altruistically towards even genetically unrelated individuals.  According to Felix Warneken at the Institute:

“Chimpanzees and such young infants both show that some level of altruism may be innate and not just a factor of education.  People say we become altruistic because our parents teach us so, but that young children are originally selfish. This suggests maybe culture is not the only source of altruism.”

And we know from our own experience that human beings cooperate all the time in a wide range of endeavours and also often perform extremely selfless acts for the greater good of the group, or other individuals.  We see cooperation all around us, from trade unions to workplaces to units in an army during times of war.  All of these activities require cooperation and individual sacrifice for others.

As laid out by Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd and Joseph Henrich in a study entitled Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation, evidence of human cooperation is “extensive and diverse”.  They cite studies of Prisoner’s Dilemma games which shows that “humans are prone to cooperate even with strangers”, and they “often vote altruistically”, but that cooperation could be dependent on other factors and that institutions play a large role in human behaviour.

It may seem obvious, but, as Richerson et al put it, “people from different societies behave differently because their beliefs, skills, mental models, values, preferences and habits have been inculcated by long participation in societies with different institutions”.  This manifested during repeated play of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, a rapid breakdown in trust and consensus.

In Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search For Who We Are, an experiment is relayed in which “macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror.  Otherwise they starved.  After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so – 87% preferred to starve… Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain”.

In the study The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, it is acknowledged that cooperation is a common intra- and inter-species phenomenon.  Building on Robert Trivers’ theories, Axelrod and Hamilton used the Prisoner’s Dilemma game to suggest a possible mechanism for the evolution of cooperation.  The tit-for-tat mechanism which had great success during these experiments is quite comparable to Trivers’ idea of reciprocal altruism.  Indeed, the conclusion of the study states that:

“Darwin’s emphasis on individual advantage has been formalized in terms of game theory.  This establishes conditions under which cooperation based on reciprocity can evolve.”

In some situations it seems clear that people will cooperate and in some they will act in their own isolated self-interest.  Of course, there are numerous variables which will affect this, in addition to the situation.  Personalities, values and beliefs, among other things, will all play a part.  But in relation to the more general situation, could the political and economic status quo of the day play a part?

There seems to be no question about this.  Media and government have always been hugely influential.  The influence of the experiments at RAND mentioned earlier is still being felt.  The paranoid world view embodied in these experiments has sat at the heart of western capitalist institutions for several decades, especially so in 1980s Britain and America and also, even more tragically, in Pinochet’s Chile.  Yet despite this, people have continued to cooperate in many circumstances despite encouragement, sometimes forceful and violent, to behave otherwise.

As mentioned earlier in relation to the P.J Richerson et al study Cultural Evolution of Human Cooperation, “Institutions matter”.  There are implications for human cooperation which depend on the institutions under which the behaviour occurs.  Politics, media and social norms will influence individual behaviour to a greater or lesser extent.  And as we note the general tone of self-interested individualism presented to us by politicians and the media today, it can be no coincidence that this view of humanity has filtered into everyday thought.  Where institutions themselves come from is a complex subject which has only comparatively recently come to be understood, but societies and communities probably began to develop early in the evolution of human beings as a consequence of the development of the human brain.

As the human brain began to get larger, human females in response had to give birth earlier and earlier in the development of the child since as the brain got larger, the more difficult the childbirth became.  This in turn meant that human babies were born helpless and remained so for a relatively long time (a number of years).  Human babies were also born without a large amount of instinctive knowledge and behaviour and thus had to be taught by earlier generations.  Extended family units remained together for this purpose and as the amount and type of knowledge required changed down the generations, societies and communities built up to meet this need.

A general history of human institutions throughout the centuries is not the aim of this blog post.  Different people in different places have come up with different solutions to challenges they have faced.  But obviously, as we see all over the world today, institutions also have the potential to oppress a majority and work in the interests of a minority of individuals.  As an example, capitalism has seized on Darwin’s ideas and bent them to its own ends, with Social Darwinism as the result.  Later, the ideas of the mathematicians at RAND were also used to strengthen the grip of capitalism and to try to cement in the human consciousness the ideas of all-against-all individual self-interest on which capitalism thrives.  Capitalism requires division, greed and inequality in order to exist and the ideas which came out of RAND to influence neoliberal thought provided what appeared to be a reasoned mathematical basis for these ideas, even though the models relied on initial assumptions which proved to be untrue.

Opposition to these ideas has taken many forms, from changing the state to better manage capitalism, to the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ state, to the abolition of both capitalism and the state, and it is against these ideas that the human nature argument is brought to bear.  The argument is thought to be simple and self-evident but relies on a mixture of erroneous assumptions and institutional propaganda.  Capital has long used a mixture of these arguments and coercion by law and state violence to reinforce the status quo and to suppress opposition in all its forms.  Yet human beings, while generally living under its yoke, continue to defy such coercive violence all over the world.  Why should this be?

Peter Kropotkin argued in Mutual Aid that the natural tendency of human beings, far from being combat, opposition and violence, is one of cooperation and mutual aid and that mutual aid is the chief criterion of evolutionary success.  Kropotkin may have overstated his case somewhat, but he was certainly onto something.  Stephen Jay Gould points out that Kropotkin and other Russian intellectuals’ views about Darwin’s ideas and their generally Malthusian tone was coloured somewhat by the differences in culture and their experiences in Russia, in contrast to Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace’s life experience in an imperial, industrial and strongly capitalist Britain.

Since this time, we have seen the ideas of altruism and cooperation studied in more detail in evolutionary terms and have found that humans, primates and many less cerebrally complex forms cooperate extensively, with both related and unrelated individuals and that humans and primates also have a biological predisposition towards altruism and even heroism.

It would seem that this innate tendency is not exclusively a product of culture, but culture and experience is able to build on, develop and change the nature and frequency of display of these tendencies.  So the question should not really be “How can we make this or that idea work with human nature?” but “How can human nature help us make these ideas work?” or “What aspect of human nature do we feel we should encourage?”

The ideals of capitalism have been responsible for a great deal of human suffering.  Concentration of wealth and property, exploitation of labour, the use of land for profit, the suppression of opposition by violence, the exploitation of democracy, control of information, the enormous gap between rich and poor, and surpluses of food and medicine for the rich while millions of the poorest die of malnutrition and disease.  However, attempts to oppose this system using the state have also led to oppression, poverty, injustice and violence– all of the crimes of which capital is guilty.  Such regimes have proven to be twisted caricatures of the ideals of the left, however well-meaning their creators were originally.

So, if capitalist and communist regimes inevitably lead to oppression, then how can both be opposed?  What can the solution be?  Both types of regime require the control of the majority by a minority.  Both require strict rule of law and coercion by violence to run.  Both, at their heart, serve the interests of an elite against that of the masses, and so both need to use ideas of paranoia, suspicion and, ultimately, violent suppression to achieve their goals.  So the reasons that paranoia, suspicion and violence are needed must be removed.  Power and control by an elite must be replaced with true direct democracy in which every person can participate and in which every person can have a stake.  The tyranny of capital must be removed; nobody’s labour should be exploited by anybody else for their gain.  No more must wealth be concentrated in the hands of the few.  Wealth must belong to all.

Human beings have the capacity both for individual self-interest and for cooperation, altruism and heroism.  It is culture, education and the situation in which they live which determines which aspects of human nature will manifest themselves.  Society itself and the institutions within it are hugely influential in this.  Cooperation, altruism and heroism must be valued above individual self-interest.  By creating a society where this is so, we can remove the distinction between cooperation and altruism, and self-interest, and make true cooperation between everybody in the interest of all.

References and further reading/watching:
  • ·         Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: The Search For Who We Are (1992)
  • ·         Michael Crichton – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996)

1 comment:

  1. I almost entirely agree with you, and the last few paragraphs summarise things really well. I think Dawkins on the 'selfish gene' can be used by the workers' movement, and that's something I plan to write on extensively at some point.

    You're absolutely right, a key problem with Soviet-style top-down "workers' states" was that they both "require the control of the majority by a minority". Given that humans - like every other organism - are genetically selfish, that led to a bureaucracy organising production and distribution to suit their own interests. Of course there were other factors - such as economic backwardness, White counterrevolution etc., but I would maintain that a top-down "workers' state" in the USA for instance would have had similar results. I alluded to this in my review of Simon Pirani's The Russian Revolution in Retreat (

    But I think having said "How can human nature help us make these ideas work?", I don't know if you still need to say "Cooperation, altruism and heroism must be valued above individual self-interest". As you imply, the challenge is to create a society where it is impossible to be 'selfish' and harm another whilst doing so. For me, this is far more about material conditions than 'values', which are always the ideology of the ruling class.