Published Online: June 1, 1990

Human Nature's Brighter Side

The conventional wisdom has it that no one could look hard at the particulars of human behavior and be pleased with what he sees. So deeply held is this view that if some extraterrestrial intelligence were to talk about us the way we talk about us, there would likely be an interplanetary war. Think, for example, of the expression "I'm only human.'' The emphasis is on the middle word: It is what we fail to do or be that seems to us most noteworthy. The phrase "human nature,'' meanwhile, is reserved, as if by some linguistic convention, for what is nasty and negative in our repertoire. We invoke it to explain selfishness rather than service, competition rather than cooperation, egocentricity rather than empathy. On any given day, we may witness innumerable gestures of caring, ranging from small acts of kindness to enormous sacrifices, but never do we shrug and say: "Well, what do you expect? It's just human nature to be generous.''

Rather than being welcomed as evidence for a more balanced perspective, moreover, anything hopeful about our species is likely to be received suspiciously, a tendency that suggests a peculiar, defensive attachment to the gloomy viewpoint.

To some extent, this world view may reflect concrete experience with mendacity. It is important to acknowledge that humanly caused horrors have shattered countless lives; nothing said here should be construed as an attempt to trivialize them. But while the habit of locking one's door in a big city is simply good sense, the inclination to write off our species--to assume that what is contemptible is more real than what is commendable-- strikes me, above all, as something that needs explaining.

A number of well-articulated belief systems sustain, and in some cases probably generate, our assumptions about the nature of human nature. The best known of these is, of course, original sin, the doctrine in Christian theology that all of us since Adam require divine redemption since we are born impure and thus are naturally inclined to commit evil acts. (Although this idea owes its current form to St. Paul, it did not originate with Christianity; the 51st Psalm tells us, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.'')

Even many people who scoff at the idea that the virtue of contemporary humans could be compromised by (or would be seen by a merciful divine being as compromised by) the actions of some character in prehistory seem to adopt a pseudoscientific version of the same belief. When Sigmund Freud wrote that "children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them,'' and 30 years later, that "the inclination to aggression is an original, selfsubsisting intellectual disposition in man,'' he had no need for a mythical Eden from which we were banished, nor of a redemption that we might achieve. When the late Konrad Lorenz referred to human nature as "unreasoning and unreasonable,'' it was on the basis of ethology rather than theology. When a sociobiologist described us as "survival machines-- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,'' this allegedly morally neutral vision is just as damning as any hellfire Sunday sermon.

From the traditionally opposed quarters of religion and science, then, we receive instruction on our innate wickedness. This instruction also takes diverse forms. There are some who view our unique humanity as inspiring but believe it is a mere overlay on the vicious animal nature beneath--a conception that, like Freud's notion of a veneer of civilizing influences barely covering the unruly horrors of the id, does not speak well for us on balance.

Even those who have resisted outright cynicism may regard talk of the brighter side of human nature as reflecting a simple-minded "man is good'' dogma that seems starry-eyed and untenable in a century pockmarked by genocide. I am suggesting that the error lies not in being skeptical of that position but in creating a false dichotomy. To insist that there is more to our species than egoism or aggression is not necessarily to cast one's lot with Carl Rogers or TV's Mr. Rogers. Confronted with the kaleidoscopic variation of human behavior, some humanistic psychologists and other neo-Rousseauvians have argued that the good in us is essential and the loathsome is contingent; without a corrupting environment, we would individually and collectively be admirable. This leap of faith, cogently criticized even from within the humanistic tradition, is simply the mirror image of the unsupported assertions on the subject to come from Hobbes, Freud, and other partisans of original sin (in its original and pseudoscientific versions). To wince at the naivet of "we're all beautiful creatures deep down'' need not bring us to assume that we must be fundamentally corrupted, self-serving creatures--or vice versa.

In fact, Freud (as well as Nietzsche and others) saw himself as debunking romantic illusions about the species, ripping off the reassuring deceptions that blocked out bad news. But he also said that it was not his "intention to dispute the noble endeavors of human nature''; he tended to emphasize "what is evil in men only because other people disavow it.'' This correction may have been sensible at one time, but today the dominant view has slid to the other extreme. Anyone concerned to restore balance is now more likely to be working at debunking the debunkers.

There are several ways to set about such a project. Here, I confine myself to a reconsideration of aggression. Let us ask, what conclusions can be drawn from the fact that people sometimes hurt and even kill each other? If our nature "at bottom'' is to be aggressive--a nature that we can only struggle to inhibit--then why, to begin with, are so many hunter-gatherer cultures apparently devoid of aggression? Erich Fromm has pointed out that "the most primitive men are the least warlike and that warlikeness grows in proportion to civilization. If destructiveness were innate in man, the trend would have to be the opposite.'' Why, for that matter, are severely retarded people, whose inhibitions are also presumably low, so rarely characterized by aggressiveness?

Of course, even if aggression were innate--and a growing body of evidence suggests that it is learned--the very fact we can inhibit the impulse to do harm reminds us that what is innate is not inevitable, what is biological is not fixed. The fact that people voluntarily fast or remain celibate or commit suicide shows that even drives like hunger, sex, and survival can be overridden. In the case of aggression, where the existence of such a drive is doubtful to begin with, our ability to choose is even clearer.

We can go further: The more serious the act of aggression, the more often its commission seems to require overcoming a deep-seated repulsion rather than liberating our natural instincts. Let us consider the organized killing of other human beings. Polls have shown that roughly 60 percent of American adults, undergraduates, and high school students believe that wars can never be eliminated because fighting them is an inevitable consequence of human nature.

Now, this assumption is in trouble to begin with because the aggression ascribed to that nature has very little to do with war, which, as Rousseau put it, is "not a relation between man and man, but between State and State, and individuals are enemies accidentally.'' Moreover, even casual reflection on what happens before, during, and after wars exposes the human nature view as specious. While there are exceptions, the first thing that strikes an observer is the fact that those who declare and direct wars apparently must make extensive use of propaganda to elicit and solidify support on the part of the populace.

If propaganda depicting the other side as barbaric aggressors who threaten "our way of life'' does not adequately stimulate young men to kill, the state will resort to coercion. The frequency with which nations draft its citizens into combat (and invoke stiff penalties for those who resist it) qualifies as powerful evidence against the idea that wars reflect natural human aggressiveness. Once drafted, the process of military training is characterized by remaking human beings into soldiers, dehumanizing the draftees themselves as well as the enemy, replacing critical thought with mindless obedience, and trying to replace an abhorrence for taking a life with either indifference or positive enthusiasm. These procedures have their analogue in the ritual preparations for warfare in primitive tribes, all of which leads us to ask: Why the universal need for this deliberate and involved process if we are innately disposed to kill?

More remarkable than the need for propaganda, the draft, basic training, and than the fact that no one will kill until the identified victim has been painstakingly stripped of his humanity, is the fact that even then most people will refuse to take another's life. In 1947, the military analyst S.L.A. Marshall, who had been appointed chief historian of World War II and was later to serve as a general in the Korean War, wrote a book called Men Against Fire, in which he discusses the results of interviews with hundreds of infantry companies in the central Pacific and European theaters. These findings are nothing short of astounding and are worth quoting at length:

On average not more than 15 percent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BAR's (Browning automatic rifles), or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. Even allowing for the dead and wounded, and assuming that in their numbers there would be the same proportion of active firers as among the living, the figure did not rise above 20 or 25 percent of the total for any action. The best showing that could be made by the most spirited and aggressive companies was that one man in four had made at least some use of his fire power....A commander of infantry will be well advised to believe that when he engages the enemy not more than one quarter of his men will ever strike a real blow unless they are compelled by almost overpowering circumstance or unless all junior leaders constantly "ride herd'' on troops with the specific mission of increasing their fire.

These cannot be dismissed as the tendentious findings or interpretations of an antiwar activist or even a humanistically inclined psychologist. Marshall was a lifelong military man, writing in this case to other military men about what he referred to as a handicap of most soldiers, not a sign of health. It should also be noted that he was not interviewing participants in the Vietnam War, about which many soldiers had profound moral doubts. This was World War II, to which everyone was ideologically committed. But commitment is apparently not enough when this sort of aggression is involved. There are multiple and variable social pressures at work here, but on balance it would seem that resistance to killing is at least as "natural'' as killing. Why, then, are we so wedded to the view that aggression is innate? The simplest answer is that we are exposed regularly to acts of violence in and by our own society. Something on the order of 20,000 murders are reported each year in the United States (to say nothing of 90,000 rapes and about three-quarters of a million cases of aggravated assault). These numbers are, even on a per capita basis, astronomical from the perspective of other Western industrialized nations. Also anomalous is the existence of capital punishment: While almost all countries we view as civilized have come to regard its moral status as akin to that of slavery, many of our states persist in electrocuting, gassing, or shooting people to death for failing to understand the sacredness of human life. Moral considerations aside, there is evidence that the death penalty, so far from deterring criminals, actually encourages some of them to imitate the state. Thus is the society made more dangerous and the climate of violence, from which conclusions are drawn about human nature, worsened. Likewise, if "people in a highly warlike society are likely to overestimate the propensity toward war in human nature,'' as sociologist Donald Granberg put it, then it must be noted that the United States is one of the most warlike societies on the face of the planet, having intervened militarily around the world more than 150 times since 1850. Within such a society, not surprisingly, the intellectual traditions supporting the view that aggression is more a function of nature than nurture have found a ready audience.

Finally, and most insidiously, there is the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy. To assume that humans are bound to be aggressive (or egoistic or competitive) is to act in such a way as to provide evidence for the assumption. Thus, by virtue of believing that humans are naturally aggressive, one may be relatively unlikely to oppose particular wars or to become involved in the peace movement. For some, this belief undoubtedly functions as a rationalization for their unwillingness to become active for other reasons. But there is some limited empirical support for the proposition that the attitude itself has an impact. In a 1985 Finnish study of 375 young people, Riita Wahlstrom found that those who considered war to be part of human nature were less inclined to support the idea of teaching peace or of personally working for it. Two American researchers got similar results in a smaller U.S. study: college students who said they thought war was "intrinsic to human nature'' proved less likely than others to work on a peace-related activity, according to a follow-up questionnaire. A survey of students during the Vietnam War revealed that "those who believed wars to be inevitable were more likely than others to view the U.S. military involvement to be justified and to express the opinion that the involvement should be escalated.'' Indeed, the sociologist C. Wright Mills has argued that the most important cause of World War III will be the preparation for it.

The simple assumption that we cannot help being aggressive helps us to continue being aggressive. No circle is more vicious than the one set up by the fallacious assumption that we are unable to control an essentially violent nature. Aside from the respect in which it proves itself true, then, this belief is not only inaccurate for all the reasons reviewed here, but also deadly. While the various psychological and social factors that contribute to aggressive behavior cannot simply be wished away, assumptions about the nature of our species can be--and, given the stakes, must be--reconsidered.

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