Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Are humans Good or Bad.

Whenever I hear the issue raised of whether human nature is essentially good or bad, I feel the question is misplaced. It seems like asking whether cats are essentially good or bad.
We have evolved certain tendencies which are good in some circumstances and bad in others.  In modern life, many of the features which may have benefitted us while living in the plains of Africa 100,000 years can now be a hinderance, such as our almost insatiable appetite for sweets and fats.  When we lived life as hunters and gatherers, it was difficult to accumulate material goods, and so being in a state constant craving for more and more likely served us well. This perpetual craving was necessary to stay alive. Since the invention of agriculture and much more so with modern technology, this state of constant craving leads to excess and waste. But is this something that can be held against us? Is it a moral failing for our technological advances to occur far faster than the rate of evolution? Can humans be held responsible for having evolved particular tendencies over millions of years, some of which can be destructive to ourselves and others, particularly when in a different context than those tendencies evolved to be helpful?  I don't believe this judgment is anymore fair than it would be to condemn a grizzly bear as evil if you let it run loose in a mall and it eats people or a bunch of large pretzels. Yes, the bear may end up with a stomach ache and the pretzel shop owner is now without pretzels or life, but the bear shouldn't be blamed for following desires which are otherwise beneficial, but within that context were harmful.
I am not trying to say that certain human tendencies and actions are not harmful and destructive, because some are. But in general, they are harmful because of context. In the context within which those tendencies evolved, they were beneficial, otherwise they would not have evolved. 
There are very few tendencies which might be seen as destructive regardless of the context. A person who today might be a regarded as celebrity because of their joke telling ability may have, in the past may have been regarded as serving little purpose. At the same time, someone who today may be seen as quick to anger or a brute may at one time played a valuable role in the survival of his tribe. 

If we had none of the traits we today regard as the failings of human nature, it is unlikely any of us would even exist today, because at one point in time those traits were necessary for our survival. To regard humans as bad, or even good, for maintaining  tendencies which were necessary at certain points in time for our survival, some of which are now destructive because of our radically changed environment, is, I believe, an unfair and misplaced judgment. 


  1. I agree with you but I just want to add:

    "In the context within which those tendencies evolved, they were beneficial, otherwise they would not have evolved"

    They were beneficial for US, but not necessarily for other species or the planet. And in the long run may not be beneficial to US if they end up killing us off. There's no point in time where you can say any species is safe and at some point all of our past evolutionary advantages may end up killing us off. Also the planet could get set back a few million years depending on what we do (nuclear war for example)

    not that any of this has anything to do with whether we're bad or good. I'm just drunk and I thought these things so now you get to read them

  2. I agree with you. Just the same with any species the tendencies it evolves are not good or bad for other species, and likely bad for many, especielly those they prey on, or are trying to protect themselves from.
    I also agree that many of our tendencies are now harmful. That was the point of my entry, that because evolution is so much slower than technology we now have tendencies which are harmful, but that we should not be judged, or praised, for having evolved tendencies which are now destructive to both ourselves and others.

  3. This is very close to where I am at, too. I couldn’t respond before because I was too full of prejudice against anyone raising the issue of “whether human nature is essentially good or bad”. I was metaphorically foaming at the mouth, and muttering anti-American things. This may sound strange but discussion of “good people” and “bad people” seems peculiarly American and associated with stupidity of the George W Bush kind. Prejudice, as I freely admit.

    Reading it again, I see that you were not raising the issue but (like me) reacting to the raising of the issue, a bit more calmly than me. I like your example of the “insatiable appetite for sweets and fats” for it reminds me of a tale by Laurens van der Post about his time with the Bushmen of South-West Africa. After being victims of a kind of genocide for centuries, they were left with some very dry infertile land. He describes two kinds of feasting: (1) when they caught a large animal---they roasted it and ate every part, till they were distended, for they had survived on roots etc for a long time before that; (2) when of them took a honeycomb from a tree, heedless of the beestings incurred. Their delight was childish. They shared and finished the lot.

  4. Here is an extraordinary coincidence. My post "Blessings for All" on which you commented, originally began with the following text, which I removed before publishing :

    I think we have stuff deeply imprinted in us, so that if we have to go back to the wild, the layer of civilization will fall off us like dirt washed off the skin: all civilization’s diseases, stresses and miseries. The contemptuous notions of “primitive” and “savage” arose in a colonial era as justifications to steal native land.

    Many are sad at the loss of age-old skills that were once passed down the generations by masters to apprentices. I’ve been amongst them. But I see that new skills have arisen too. With today’s knowledge and education, it’s possible with some intense effort to rediscover them; flint-knapping for example, to make arrow-heads and tools.

    I think it will produce a better world if the most advanced regions are forced by circumstance to let go their unhealthy dependence on progress, and regress a bit. The banking system almost self-destructed in the last two years: Nature has a way of reclaiming sanity.