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...
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