For a long time, there has been a general assumption in our culture that “human nature” is essentially negative. Human beings — so it was assumed — are strongly disposed to traits like selfishness, domination, and warfare. We have strong natural impulses to compete with one another for resources, and to try to accumulate power and possessions. If we are kind to one another, it’s usually because we have ulterior motives of some form. If we are good, it’s only because we have managed to control and transcend our natural selfishness and brutality.
This view of human nature has been justified by biological theories like the “selfish gene” (as popularized by the UK science writer Richard Dawkins) and the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology describes how present-day human traits developed in prehistoric times, during what is termed the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). The EEA is usually seen as a period of intense competition, when life was a kind of Roman gladiatorial battle in which only the traits that gave people a survival advantage were selected, and all others fell by the wayside. Life was such a struggle that selfishness and the desire for power and wealth were “selected” by evolution. Because people’s survival depended on access to resources (such as rivers, forests, and animal groups), there was bound to be competition and conflict between rival groups, which led to the development of traits like racism and warfare.
This seems logical. But in fact the assumption it’s based on — that prehistoric life was a competitive struggle for survival — is completely false.
It is important to remember that in the prehistoric era, the world was very sparsely populated. As a result, it is likely that there was an an abundance of resources for hunter-gatherer groups. According to some estimates, around 15,000 years ago, the population of Europe was only 29,000, and the population of the whole world was no more than half a million. With such small population densities, it seems unlikely that prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups had to compete against each other for access to resources, or had any need to develop ruthlessness and competitiveness or to go to war. (In fact, this is illustrated by the evidence for a long period of “prehistoric peace,” as I have discussed in a previous blog.)
There are other ways in which prehistoric life was relatively easy, too. Hunter-gatherers had a good diet — one that was arguably better than many modern people’s, with no dairy products and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, roots, and nuts, all eaten raw, as well as meat. This partly explains why skeletons of ancient hunter-gatherers are surprisingly large and robust, and show few signs of degenerative diseases and tooth decay. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers were also much less vulnerable to disease than later peoples. In fact, until the advances of modern medicine and hygiene of the 19th and 20th centuries, they may well have suffered less from disease than any other human beings in history.
There is also significant evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherer groups who live in the same way as prehistoric human beings. (This doesn’t mean all contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, only the groups who practice foraging and live an “immediate return” way of life, meaning that they don’t store food, but consume resources soon after gathering them.) One of the striking things about such groups is their egalitarianism. As the anthropologist Knauft has remarked, hunter-gatherers are characterized by “extreme political and sexual egalitarianism” (1). Individuals in such groups don’t accumulate their own property and possessions; they have a moral obligation to share everything. They also have methods of preserving egalitarianism by ensuring that status differences don’t arise. This is done by sharing credit and putting down or ridiculing anybody who becomes too boastful. The !Kung of Africa swap arrows before going hunting, and when an animal is killed, the credit does not go to the person who fired the arrow, but to the person to whom the arrow belongs. If a person becomes too domineering or too arrogant, the other members of their group gang up against them or ostracize them. Typically in such groups, men have no authority over women. Women usually choose their own marriage partners, decide what work they want to do, and work whenever they choose to, and if a marriage breaks down, they have custody rights over their children. Other recent research on contemporary hunter-gatherer groups has shown that men and women tend to have equal status and influence, leading to the suggestion that sexual inequality only began to emerge with the development of agriculture (2).
Altruism and Egalitarianism
So there is no reason to think that selfishness and cruelty are natural to human beings. There is no reason why traits such as racism, warfare, and male domination should have been selected by evolution, since they would have had no benefit to us. In fact, as we have seen, individuals who behaved selfishness and ruthlessly would be less likely to survive, since they would have been ostracized from their groups. On the contrary, it makes more sense to see traits such as cooperation, egalitarianism, altruism, and peacefulness as natural to human beings. These were the traits that were prevalent in human life for tens of thousands of years, during the so-called era of evolutionary adaptedness, and so presumably these are the strongest traits in us now.
Of course, you might argue that if this is case, why do present-day humans often behave so selfishly and ruthlessly, and why are negative traits, like warfare and male domination, so normal to many cultures? However, we should perhaps view these traits as the result of environmental and psychological factors. Research has shown repeatedly that when the natural habitats of primates (such as chimpanzees) are disrupted, they tend to become more violent and hierarchical. So perhaps something similar has happened to us, since we gave up the hunter-gather lifestyle and switched to farming, and then started to live in towns and cities. Another possible theory (which I put forward in my book The Fall) is that the “fall” into warfare and hierarchy (and other negative traits) was related to a psychological change that occurred in some groups of people, beginning around 6,000 years ago: the development of a heightened sense of individuality and separateness. At any rate, these negative traits developed so recently that it’s not feasible to explain them in adaptive or evolutionary terms.
It is therefore inaccurate to portray human beings as genetic machines who are only concerned with their own survival and replication, and whose selfish and ruthless nature is the inevitable consequence of their prehistoric struggle to survive. The “good” side of our nature is much more deep-rooted than the “evil” side.
About the author:
Steve Taylor Ph.D is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds and The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of A New Era.
Steve’s books have been published in 16 languages and his research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.
- Dyble, M et al. (2015) ‘Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands.’ Science, 15 May 2015, 796-798
- Knauft, B.M. (1991). Violence and sociality in human evolution. Current Anthropology 32(4), 391-409.