Is human nature doomed, as conservatives claim?

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June 29, 2011

By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall

See also related article: Human Nature—How the media whitewash the face of capitalism

Chimps grooming each other. What would Ayn Rand think?

This is the first of two articles exploring the age-old Human Nature debate and the question of whether human beings are capable of achieving true participatory and economic democracy.

The failure of the world’s great economic powers to solve the global debt crisis, coupled with growing political instability in the Arab world and Latin America’s leftward turn, produce daily evidence that global capitalism is on its last legs. Growing global instability is producing intense debate among everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman over the nature of the political/economic system that will likely replace capitalism. Those on the far left see the demise of capitalism as a golden opportunity to end class society and institute a true socialist economy and self-governing democracy. More moderate “liberals,” on the other hand, agree with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser and author of The Grand Chessboard, that western democracy needs to be more totalitarian. Brzezinski argues that existing democratic processes tend to be too cumbersome to make hard decisions about dwindling energy, water, food and other essential resources.

Liberals base their views, in part, on the old argument that socialism and participatory democracy are impossible owing to innate flaws of human nature. They insist that a ruling, privileged class is essential for survival of civilization owing to innate flaws of human nature that make “socialism” and other more democratic forms of social/political organization impossible.

Animals Behave Better than People

The debate over man’s “bestial” nature is centuries old, and draws from traditional religious beliefs that man’s higher intellect makes him more similar to God (according to Genesis, we are created in His image) than to other animals. Marx and Engels themselves confront the controversy head-on in the Communist Manifesto and the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The Marxist psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich also addresses the issue in his 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism. It’s Reich’s view that most contemporary social problems stem from society’s tendency to devalue or even condemn the biologic (i.e. animal) underpinnings of all human behavior. As he, and many contemporary researchers point out, there is nothing inherently evil or dangerous about the behavior of animals that live in social groups. In fact, they usually treat each other far better than most human beings do.

Class Bias and the Human Nature Debate

I am always struck by the one-sided examples of flawed human nature offered by conservatives and so-called “centrist” Democrats. They talk a lot about violent crime, drug and alcohol related abuse, domestic violence and child abuse, but almost never about banksters, fraudulent corporate bookkeeping practices or the unscrupulous drug company CEOs who aggressively market dangerous pharmaceuticals. They capitalist classes, who have near absolute control over public education and the mainstream media, argue in favor of preserving class society and privilege, owing to so-called innate character defects that make working people incapable of governing themselves.

Categorizing Alleged “Innate” Flaws of Human Nature

For the sake of discussion, I have broken down these so-called “innate” flaws of human nature into four broad categories: impaired rational decision making, self-centeredness and greed, laziness and aversion to work, innate aggressiveness and violence.

1. Impaired Rational Decision Making: Impulsiveness and emotionality allegedly make human beings (especially those from the poor and disadvantaged classes) innately irrational. Limited capacity for rational decision making, due to emotional instability, ignorance, superstition and/or prejudice makes it impossible for the average person to participate in self-governance. This means wiser, more technologically sophisticated people are needed to make the fundamental decisions necessary to run the basic institutions that govern their lives. This viewpoint isn’t limited to the ruling elite. As Wilhelm Reich observes in the Mass Psychology of Fascism, much of the working class, especially those raised in authoritarian families, share this belief. In fact many of them deliberately seek out external authority to set out firm rules for their personal lives.

2. Self centeredness and greed: Survival of the fittest dictates that individuals prioritize their own self-interest. Innate competitiveness and greed will always prevent human beings from voluntarily sharing resources unless they derive direct personal gain or some external authority imposes it on them.

3.  Laziness and aversion to work: Human beings (especially those from poor and disadvantaged classes) are innately lazy. Socialist economic systems are doomed to collapse. Without strong financial incentives, people would have no motivation to work.

4. Innate aggressiveness and violence: Human beings, especially males from poor and disadvantaged classes, are fundamentally violent and aggressive. Without external restraint from law enforcement, stronger individuals will constantly victimize weaker ones.  Marx and Engels on Human Nature

Writing nearly 130 years ago, Marx and Engels totally reject all these arguments. They argue, quite compellingly that capitalism itself is responsible for all these so-flaws of human nature. Mainly by contrasting the harmonious human relationships typical in primitive cultures in Africa, Asia and North and South American with the aberrant behavior found in capitalistic societies. Social anthropology (the study of primitive cultures) was a new and exciting discipline in 1884 when Engels first published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which quotes extensively from several contemporary researchers.

The Agricultural Revolution and Creation of Class Society

The Origin of the Family begins by describing the “primitive communism” that characterizes all hunter gatherer cultures, which rely exclusively on hunting and naturally growing berries and roots for food. Engels goes on to describe the dramatic social transformation that occurred in all cultures, even those remotely isolated from one another, around 10,000 BC with the agricultural revolution. The latter enabled primitive peoples to domesticate animals and crops, instead of relying on hunting and scavenging for berries, nuts and roots. This technological change led to the regular production of a food surplus, which could be stored to cover future shortages and to the rise of a priest/king/nobility class (in all cultures) responsible for looking after this surplus.

For 10,000 years the division of society into classes took the form of feudalism, where most of the population were landless peasants performing agricultural labor for feudal lords and priests, who were the landholders. Class divisions persisted after the industrial revolution, which caused capitalism to replace feudalism in the mid-1800s. The priest/king/nobility class was replaced by the capitalist class — the owners of the “capital” — the land, factories, machines and other raw materials (other than human labor) required for industrial production. While the lower classes left the land in increasing numbers to work in their factories.

The Need for Class Divisions to Protect the Agricultural Surplus

Marx and Engels acknowledge that the creation and maintenance of a priest/king/nobility class was essential for human survival during feudal times, owing to economic scarcity. However they also argue that this need for class divisions ceased with advances in agricultural technology that have enabled humankind to produce more than enough food to feed the entire planet. Marxists argue that current economic scarcity is artificially produced by produced by the capitalist class to enhance profits.

Marx and Engels also give numerous examples of how the brutal nature of capitalistic oppression gives rise to the so-called “character defects” that, according to the ruling elite, make a privileged ruling class essential. They show, for example, how poverty, alienation, exploitation and oppression make it very difficult for the poor and disadvantaged to raise children in an environment that enables them to become fully productive adults. In particular they make the point that capitalism forces people to be competitive and greedy and demand financial rewards for their work — under a capitalistic economic system, these traits are essential for survival.

The Biology of Human Behavior

At present eight main fields of study inform our scientific understanding of “human nature”:

1. Social anthropology — the study of human behavior in primitive groups, both from archeological evidence of prehistoric societies and from contemporary study of indigenous cultures.

2. Primate ethology — the study of group and social behavior of our closest living relatives (chimpanzees, gorillas and other great apes and monkeys).

3. Psychology — observational and controlled research of personality development as influenced by early childhood events and other formative experiences.

4. Social psychology — the study of human behavior in groups.

5. Neurophysiology — the study of correlations between brain structure and electrochemical events associated with thoughts and emotions. This includes the detailed study of hormonal influences (from stress hormones like cortisol, pro-aggression hormones like testosterone and pro-social hormones like oxytocin and endorphins) on emotions and behavior.

6. Behavioral genetics — the study of the genetic inheritance of temperament, which according to twenty plus years of research, seems to be the strongest determinant of adult “personality.” Thus far, four genetically inherited temperament types have been identified: harm avoidant, novelty seeking, reward dependent and persistent.

7. Epigenetics — the study of the adverse effects of stress during gestation and early childhood on enzyme expression on emotional stability and stress tolerance.

Is Human Nature Innately Flawed? The Research Evidence

1. Impaired Rational Decision Making

Decades of research reveals that all human beings (even those with mental illness or intellectual disability) have some capacity to learn and practice rational problem solving — though all are susceptible to impaired problem solving when under stress. Individuals with impulsive or emotionally unstable personalities or discrete physical or mental illnesses may experience longer or more frequent periods of impaired problem solving.

At the same time, there is absolutely no evidence that high intelligence or advanced education offer any protection against impairments in judgment or problem solving ability. In fact, putting virtually unlimited power in the hands of a few individuals can have extremely devastating consequences for the rest of society. The decision by three men (Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld) to launch disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by a handful of banking CEOs to speculate with trillions of dollars of investor funds are two recent examples.

2. Self centeredness and greed

The assertion that human nature is innately self-serving and greedy directly contradicts the bulk of scientific research which shows the exact opposite — that human beings are fundamentally social animals who are hard wired to crave social interaction and are strongly rewarded (via pleasurable hormones) for altruistic and socially dependent behavior.

3. Laziness and aversion to work

Studies of our closest living relatives (the great apes) show that higher primates have the same innate craving as human beings for regular stimulation, as well as the same strong propensity for boredom. Human research shows that people also have a strong need for both social engagement and productive and creative activity to function optimally. The Protestant work ethic, which justifies compelling the working class to labor long hours under high stress, unsafe conditions, is a new development with the industrial revolution. Historically there is no comparable work ethic in ancient or medieval cultures.

4. Innate aggressiveness and violence

Studies of both primates and indigenous cultures in naturalistic settings indicate that most social groups live totally harmoniously, except in conditions of food scarcity — when apes, gorillas and people engage in violence against other social groups (i.e. war) and cannibalism. All recent research indicates that income inequality — the size of the gap between rich and poor — is the strongest predictor of violent crime in a society. See http://cjr.sagepub.com/content/18/2/182.shortand http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DEC/Resources/Crime&Inequality.pdf

Several overlapping mechanisms contributed to this effect. The stress of poverty and poor nutrition during gestation and early childhood can cause permanent changes in the brain arousal system via epigenetic enzyme derangement. Poverty and stress are also strongly associated with attachment disorders and child neglect and abuse.

Genetic conditions, such as attention deficit disorder and “callous indifferent” conduct disorder, allegedly predispose to aggression and impulsive violence. However psychological and cross cultural research indicates that even these conditions are more strongly influenced by environment than genetics. All five conditions (ADHD, conduct disorder, epigenetic emotional instability, attachment disorder and PTSD from child neglect/abuse) are far less common in cultures with more equal distribution of wealth that raise their children communally and in extended families.
Author’s Website: http://www.stuartbramhall.com

Author’s Bio: I am a 63 year old American child and adolescent psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. I have just published a young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW about a 16 year old girl who participates in the blockade and occupation of the US Capitol. In 2010 I published a memoir, THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE describing the circumstances that led me to leave the US 8 12 years ago to start a new life in the South Pacific. I blog at www.stuartbramhall.com

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