22 April 2012

Defining Human Nature

In my previous post, I talked about our sexual nature, but I understand how some people might not be ready to accept what I had to say. I suppose that I should define the scope of human nature before I go on about what that nature is. As concisely as I can put it: human nature is our behavior while in our natural environment. You’ll notice the caveat, which is actually quite important. Our range of behavior is so vast, that to define it all as our nature would take the teeth out of making statements like the one I am making here. In order to understand who we are, we must understand the environment in which we evolved. Doing so will also shed some light on our strangely conflicting behavior when confronted with situations that nature never saw coming.

To get it out of the way quickly, I don’t see our current living situation as “natural,” and for a couple reasons. First of all, we are the products of evolution, which is a process that takes hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of years to substantially change a species. Though very specific parts of our DNA may have changed in the mere 10,000 years or so of civilization, we are still very much the same animals that moved out of the jungles a million years ago (give or take a few). Despite that, we find ourselves living in large, dense, centrally governed societies that couldn’t be further from our initial configuration of living.

Secondly, to say that we are products of nature and thus our creations are therefore natural is a philosophical cop-out. It once again defines everything as natural and gets us no closer to understanding ourselves than we were before. What we have that no other organism on our planet has is the will to consciously deny our biological impulses. What that’s allowed us to do, in ever-increasing amounts throughout the generations, is steer our species further from environment-determined evolution to socially determined evolution.

Don’t confuse my argument with some hippie pleading to get back to our nature. The realistic implications of doing that would result in the deaths of billions of people, simply to satisfy the mathematics involved in reducing the population density to pre-agricultural hunter/gatherer times. I say this to illustrate a point; if the removal of billions of people from our planet is only one in a series of drastic steps to return to our original environment, that should help to illustrate how out of our natural element we are currently living.

One feature of human behavior that is constantly attributed to our nature is aggression. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you beat a dog and starve it, can you then say that its resulting ferocious anti-social demeanor is part of its nature? Even peace-loving bonobo apes can be pushed to violence, given the right provocation. Now look at our mutual cousins, the chimpanzees. We tend to empathize with them for their human-like ability to wage war with each other and commit brutal acts of savagery. What if, however, we have merely been misunderstood about the chimps’ nature, as well as our own?

Would you believe that chimps, before they were studied as intensely as they are today, were actually quite peaceful? What changed? You might have heard of the observer effect, where the very nature of observing something affects its outcome. In this case it was the researchers luring chimps closer to their camp with crates of food so that they could watch them more easily. The apes stopped spreading out to gather their food and instead collectively bore down on one central location with a limited and unpredictable source of food. From there, it’s economics: fights broke out because of the limited resources and the high concentration of bodies, and, as a result, the social dynamics of the chimps we’ve studied were changed forever.

Now, when primatologists write back home and say that chimps are vicious, just like us, we take a look at our own behavior and nod our heads, agreeing. But even our own guilt-ridden view of vicious and cruel homo sapiens is mistaken. Let’s not forget that we have been under similar pressures to those of the studied chimps since the beginning of agricultural life.

A quick comparison of true hunter/gatherer tribes, which represent our life much closer to our nature, and modern “civilized” life should do the trick:

  • Our species spent anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million years living in hunter/gatherer formation. Our current formation, as an agricultural (and later industrial) society has only been going on for 10,000 years.
  • Tribes live in low-density, nomadic communities. They move where the food is and spread out so they don’t step on any toes. We claim ownership to our land, defend it, pack in tight, and invade other land if we need more.
  • Tribal population holds very steady over long periods of time. We procreate and spread like crazy, creating higher density communities and an ever-increasing need for resources.
  • Tribes live in non-hierarchical, egalitarian communities. We have economic class division.
  • Tribes work only a few hours per week gathering food that is available in abundance. That’s incredibly low-stress. We spend most of our time working to earn our survival. That’s not to mention all of the other stress we put on ourselves with our increasingly complicated lifestyles.
  • Tribes feed off of plentiful and naturally occurring food sources that take no effort to cultivate. Our food is governed by the economics of supply and demand, which can be a cruel, cruel bitch at times and drive a man to do crazy things.

Though hunter/gatherer life is often depicted as brutal and miserable, it was actually quite peaceful and simple. Meanwhile, its no wonder that we have come to expect viciousness of ourselves; we’ve wondered quite far from the lifestyle that our brains originally evolved into. The result is a hefty amount of stress and other complicated emotions that our bodies have to contend with, and it doesn’t work too well. We’re animals pushed into invisible corners of our own creation.

Is a soldier who snaps and kills innocent civilians just a reflection of supposed brutal human nature? Or is it an animal whose brain has been forced to process stress far beyond the limits of what nature has prepared it for? Is a leader who sends his nation’s youth off to kill thousands of enemies simply defending his turf and the turf of the people who he is responsible for? Or is he just a man caught up in a system that can’t help but expand and grow until it meets resistance greater than it can overcome?

If you take my example of our mythical aggressive nature to heart, you may start to recognize other aspects of human behavior that are attributed to our natural tendencies, but are really just unfortunate side-effects of adopting a lifestyle that introduces us to situations we're simply not built for. Think about it hard enough and perhaps you'll start questioning why everyone says we should be monogamous and chaste, yet we can't help but be curious and explore sexually. Maybe you'll start to see that many aspects of today's world are just poor substitutes for the life of real abundance our ancestors once had.

Our nature has been hijacked. We live in a societal structure that stretches us thin and manipulates our impulses. At the same time, it would be impossible to even voluntarily return to our roots. We’re left helplessly dreaming about the life we could be leading, but are instead obligated to perpetuate the game of have and have-nots. What is possible, though, is for us to recognize and stamp out modern values that perpetuate false ideals. We may not be able to beat the system we’ve created, but we can become better adjusted within it by recognizing and nurturing what our nature really is.