Human Nature:What Kind of Creature Are We?
Many of us tend to think that human nature is inherently competitive and destructive. We hear about “selﬁsh genes,” as if our genetic makeup predetermines that we will be egotistic people and that we will ﬁght with one another. We’re told that our species contains a built-in “killer instinct,” that we are descended from apes who needed to be brutal and ferociously aggressive to survive the hostile conditions of prehistoric times. According to such notions, the natural world is an unrelenting battle for survival, and it is mere wishful thinking to believe that people can live in peace with one another and with their environment for any signiﬁcant length of time. “War,” said Dick Cheney when he was Vice-President, “is the natural state of man.”
Cheney and others who think like him believe that the human condition is inherently and inexorably competitive, and that all of human experience is an expression of the Darwinian principle of “survival of the ﬁttest.” If they are correct, then given the existence of nuclear weapons, our species is almost certainly doomed. But Charles Darwin himself would not agree. In fact, in The Descent of Man, Darwin mentioned the survival of the ﬁttest only twice, and one of those times was to apologize for using what he had come to feel was an unfortunate and misleading phrase. By contrast, he wrote 95 times about love. In his later writings, Darwin repeatedly stressed that the “survival of the ﬁttest” model of natural selection dropped away in importance at the level of human evolution and was replaced by moral sensitivity, education and cooperation.
It’s true that chimpanzees, whose genetics are very similar to our own, have quite a propensity for deceit, violence, theft, infanticide and even cannibalism. But it’s equally true that among chimps, the toughest rivals will reconcile after a ﬁght, stretching out their hands to each other, smiling, kissing and hugging. And besides, there is another primate who is as genetically similar to us as the chimpanzee–the bonobo, an ape species native to the Congo. If, instead of studying chimps for clues to the origins of human behavior, we had been studying bonobos, we would have come to very different conclusions. Instead of the killer-ape model, we would have had the lover-ape model, for these primates show a phenomenal sensitivity to the well-being of others.
“Primatologists,” writes author Marc Barasch in his book, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, “are ﬁnding in the bonobos evidence that it is not tooth-and-nail competition, but conciliation, cuddling, and cooperation that may be the central organizing principle of human evolution.” One of the world’s leading experts on primate behavior, Frans de Waal, calls it “survival of the kindest.”
What kind of creature, then, are we? There are those who believe human beings are fundamentally selﬁsh, and there are those who believe we are essentially kindly creatures who need only love to ﬂourish; but I stand in neither camp, or maybe I should say I stand in both camps. It appears to me that we have nearly inﬁnite potential in both directions. There are in each of us forces that can produce a Bernard Madoff, and also those that can produce a Martin Luther King. Depending on what we choose to afﬁrm and cultivate within our children, and ourselves we can collectively turn this planet into a hell or a heaven. Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, our choices make an enormous difference.
In these deeply uncertain times, I believe that the effort to create a web of caring, support, authenticity and trust among your friends and family members, and in your larger community, may be among the most important acts you can undertake. With the economy and the biosphere deteriorating and potentially collapsing, nothing may be more imperative than overcoming the isolation and disconnectedness that so often pervades contemporary life.
Down through history there have been sages and philosophers who have spoken of the fundamental unity underlying the human condition. They have taught that each of us is truly part of an extended family that includes all people everywhere. But today the human future depends on more than just a few wise people understanding the concept. The quality of life for humanity in the years to come depends on ever-increasing numbers of people incorporating this understanding into their everyday lives. The health and survival of the human species now depends on how deeply we grasp the reality of our interdependence.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a choice to be either accomplices in the status quo or everyday revolutionaries. We have a choice whether to succumb to the consumer trance, identify our self worth by our net worth, and race by each other in the night — or to build lives of caring, substance and beauty.
In our so very troubled times, hope itself can seem like a romantic fallacy. The news we hear is so filled with horrors and tragedies, so replete with examples of humanity’s failures, that it can seem like a childish fantasy to still root for all that is good in us. But I believe the real news on this planet is love — why it exists, where it came from and where it is going.
This is why, even though I fail at it far more than I succeed, I still try to follow the advice of the author Og Mandino, who wrote: “Treat everyone you meet as if he or she were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do so with no thought of reward. Your life will never be the same.”