Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.
― Wallace Stevens
It bothers me when people talk about human nature. It bothers me because I can’t understand how anyone can actually believe such a thing exists. The idea is that there is some core aspect of being human, some base model we all come equipped with, and that the nurture part of our life, the part that conditions the crap out of us as we grow and change, that part merely exists to amend the baseline and keep us within acceptable limits. Like we are all cast in flesh from the same mold and only the forces of a strict social system can help us keep the worst parts of that form from overtaking us.
I call major bullshit.
I basically can’t understand how anybody would go about showing what human nature is supposed to even be. I can only see that, depending on where you place a human, the results vary. When you place a human in a blackened void indefinitely, you will most likely get a nearly mute, feral creature. When you place a human in the loving arms of some severely, emotionally mature people, you will most likely get a caring individual who makes good choices. When you place a human with a group of wolves, you will most likely get a rabid near-animal, and possibly a quite loyal friend. When I’ve pointed this out before, I get a few set responses. They don’t vary much. From the camps of people who believe human nature exists I get three main answers: look at the history of the world, look at the implications of certain famous psychological studies, and look at that one book, Lord of the Flies.
Let’s start with the book, it’s easiest. Do you know it? It’s a pretty big deal, basically. Or at least, if you look at how frequently it pops up on High School reading lists nationwide, it is. In it, author Golding shows us what might happen if a group of rich British boys from a prep school get stuck on an island free from grownups who make them do stuff they don’t otherwise wanna. The boys quickly transform into a group of assholes who rape pigs and try to kill one another before you can wonder, “why the hell did this book become so popular and noteworthy?” We are asked to believe they allow themselves to finally unleash a disgustingly cruel aspect of themselves, now that they are free from the fetters of civilization.
To be fair, the book is well written and interesting. It’s also as depressing as pig-raping young boys can be to our unsullied minds and leads us to wonder things like, “Is this human nature? Is it everyone’s destiny, should they become stranded on an island, to begin killing and harming everything around them?” The answer is obviously, “Hell the shit no it is surely not!” I personally would never, ever rape a pig or hurt people for power, or at least not for so little as being left unsupervised on a tropical island. I’d be like, “Dude, help me get these coconuts down and let’s chill out before those school marms haul us back home!” I’m serious. What would you do? Would you rape pigs? No? Then why would we believe the author’s supposed thesis: that all of us are one civil-chain’s erosion away from pure chaos.
Simply put: just because an author imagines himself as a little boy on an island of complete monsters does not mean that this is at the base of all humans who ever existed anywhere in any possible reality. Just because some people really are held in mostly by the social pressures of those around them and the constructs created for them to function within, does not mean that all of us need those things. In fact, I’d argue that most people do most things simply because they want to and they see how it benefits them, not because someone forced them to or because it is against the law.
Whether you agree or not, let’s look at another argument: that the history of the world should prove to us everything we need to know about human nature. Well, that’s a load of hooey, too. First of all, it is strikingly obvious that we don’t even know what the crap was happening at any given time. New information comes out ALL THE TIME that leads us to new ideas about history and how things went down. For example, new human remains push the date of our entire species’ predecessors’ emergence back millions of years. Or how about when we found this cog in a chunk of coal that places its creation back hundreds of millions of years? Or how about how we burn entire libraries and lose information gleaned and recorded by anyone who wasn’t well liked by whoever was in power at that time? History tends to be written by victors and by people who promote the status quo…..which may in itself be indicative of some kind of nature to humanity, no?
Well, no. This trend, like many others such as war and famine and genocide and greed…..these are all just trends. There are also trends of positive things like women’s rights, civil rights, the end of human slavery, and LolCats. It’s easy to look at our knowable history and be overwhelmed by all the bad….and then, if you look, there’s also all this amazing goodness, too. So, which one is our nature? It can’t be both, right?
Finally, the last argument rests on the scientific proof of various studies. This is something I can get down with a lot more quick and dirty-like. I can hold this in my hands and rub it all over my brain in an orgy of surety, right? You feel me? Science can’t really be messed with. It just is what it is. But, unfortunately, that’s only kind of true. Case in point: when it’s not true.
There were these experiments done by Stanford that are super famous. One is the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, Stanford asked groups of people to take on the pretend roles of prison guards and prisoners. Without hesitation, it seems, people went nuts and started enforcing all kinds of authoritarian and oppressive measures on the prisoners. Likewise, prisoners instantly began to accept horrible treatment as normal and even began treating each other badly, especially if they perceived the treatment to gain them favor with the authority. Whoa. That has to prove it, right? It has to prove that we are all, at our base, just waiting for a chance to totally do whatever we can to harm each other….right?
It simply shows, as more and more studies are now starting to prove, that the people who participated were brought up in a culture that views power and authority in the ways implied in the experiment. Go do the same experiment on a group of people who were raised in a power-sharing, matriarchal tribe…I dare you! Some people are finding, as expounded upon in this article in great detail, that the results of psychological tests and experiments are fully malleable, based on the social upbringing of the participants. All that research that came out of famous institutions like Stanford and Harvard, allegedly implying that humans mostly suck, is thrown into question.
At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West.
No book, no supposedly written-in-stone history, no scientific evidence that is supposedly universal can ever really tell us what it is that humans are going to do in any given situation. Take a group of blissed out, vegan, pacifist Buddhists and put them on Golding’s island. They’re not going to rape pigs. Take a version of history you haven’t read before. It won’t show people in the same light as the one you already have. And take a group of the Machiguenga tribe of Peru and run the same experiment you ran only on white males of the west and, guess what, their supposedly intrinsic values will be completely different.
If something like human nature exists it is this: we are born with only potential, just like our genes show us, and our surroundings are what cause us to be likely or unlikely to be or act or grow in any certain way or another. Our nature is simply that we are nearly limitless potentiality, waiting to see what will show itself in our specific run-through of life. Most likely, it will be very similar to everything that has ever come before it. Most likely, it will be completely different from anything that has ever come before it.