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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

People are Naturally Good, But ...

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According to Scientific American, human behavior is caused by “two mechanisms:  intuition and reflection.”  Given this perspective, we can boil the complexities of basic human nature down to a simple question:

Which behavior — selfishness or cooperation — is intuitive, and which is the product of rational reflection?  

In other words:

  • Do we cooperate when we overcome our intuitive selfishness with rational self-control, or

  • Do we act selfishly when we override our intuitive cooperative impulses with rational self-interest?

The author reports on recent empirical research and concludes:

Although no single set of studies can provide a definitive answer -- no matter how many experiments were conducted or participants were involved -- this research suggests that our intuitive responses, or first instincts, tend to lead to cooperation rather than selfishness.

Three points that must be kept in mind regarding the conclusion that humans are “naturally” good, is that our nature, as humans, was established:

  1. Through the operation of evolutionary mechanisms that gave us the biological characteristics that we still have.

  2. Those mechanisms operated prior to the Neolithic Age, which began about 10,200 BCE.

  3. People in that time operated in a particular situation -- in small human groups who depended on gathering and hunting for their sustenance.  The nature of those activities varied from place to place, of course, but all humans, prior to the Neolithic, had in common foraging (another name for gathering and hunting) as the basis for sustenance.

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During the twentieth century, anthropologists discovered and studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies, in various remote parts of the world, who had been nearly untouched by modern influences.  Wherever they were found -- in Africa, Asia, South America, or elsewhere; in deserts or in jungles -- these societies had many characteristics in common. The people lived in small bands, each composed of 20 to 50 adults and children. They moved from camp to camp within a relatively circumscribed area to follow the available game and edible vegetation.  The people had friends and relatives in neighboring bands and maintained peaceful relationships with them. Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, Where it was known, it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive child rearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making.  Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was the equality of individuals.

Beginning during the Neolithic, foraging -- with its migratory existence -- gradually gave way among some groups to a sedentary existence that was primarily dependent on agriculture.  Later still, commercial activities, manufacturing activities, and urban existence, etc. developed.

The basic point here, though, is that the way of life began to change for some humans during the Neolithic. Over time, an increasingly larger portion of the world’s population experienced these changes -- if only as a result of contact with more “advanced” peoples. Meanwhile, human biology remained basically constant. There began to develop, and to increasingly widen over time, a discrepancy between:  

  1. The way of life for which one had become “designed,” prior to the Neolithic; and

  2. The way of life that one now experienced.

Changes included.:

  1. Exposure to new stimuli.

  2. Engagement in a new set of behaviors.

  3. Using one’s brain in a new way.

In addition, those human groups that were now becoming ever more dependent on agriculture as the source of their food were:

  1. On their way to becoming strictly sedentary; and

  2. Increasing in population size.

An important consequence of these two developments -- the second one in particular -- was a weakening of the bonds that connected each person to other members of one’s group. That change provided a situation that was conducive to the beginnings of exploitation of some by others -- which led, in turn, to the formation of social classes.

To understand behaviors, as they exist today, one must keep the above facts in mind, and also recognize that:

  1. A corollary of way of life changes was that obstacles were increasingly placed in the “paths” of people.

  2. People vary in (a) their genetic characteristics, as well as (b) their “situations” -- the latter being a new factor thrown into the “mix.”

The above facts make it understandable why, we learn each day of, for example, shootings as well as admirable actions.  An example of the latter is that, here in Milwaukee, WTMJ-TV often ends their local news program with a “Positively Milwaukee” feature.

When individuals engage in shootings, robberies, etc., it is tempting to assume that those behaviors resulted from free choices on the part of those who engaged in them.  Making such an assumption may make one feel “better” than the transgressors, but shows no real understanding of why the transgressors engaged in their negative behavior.  The real reason is the discrepancy that began to develop during the Neolithic -- something that Jesus seemed to sense, as illustrated by his behavior relative to the woman caught in adultery.

Which brings me to the main point that I wish to make here:  Although we are all “naturally” good, the facts that we (a) vary genetically and that (b) our situations cause some of us to find it easier to be good than others.  What can help those of us get -- or stay -- on “the right path” is stories -- fictional and other -- that model good behavior.  I think here especially of two parables taught by Jesus:

Identifying such stories, “rehearsing” them often, and keeping them in mind, can help us stay on the “right path”!  

You, as a reader, can probably think of still other vehicles for doing so. I would enjoy learning your ideas on this matter. My email address is: [email protected]

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Original posting: 2018-MAR-28
Latest update : 2018-MAR-28
Author: Alton C. Thompson
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