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Human Nature

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The evidence for the most pessimistic versions of human nature does not seem to be true, yet society seems only to see the worst.

When the facts at best are optimistic, at worst ambiguous, why is the glass never half-full? When detail and discourse depart, we are no longer talking about science and truth. The question then is whom do certain standpoints serve?

French-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz has explored this issue over the course of her career. Arguing that convincing people to act on self interest began in the early twentieth century, she detailed the massive efforts behind it.

The attitudes that now seem self-evident were encouraged by psychologists hired to cultivate the qualities corporate capitalism needs. 

After examining texts from training manuals and self-help books, she concluded that psychologists, acting as professionals and as producers of culture, codified emotional conduct inside the workplace. More crucially, they also made self-interest and efficiency into acceptable societal behaviour. 

Throughout the twentieth century, under the aegis of therapeutic discourse, emotional life became filled with images of how to succeed, even at the expense of others.

Illouz’s conclusions may seem extreme unless you recall that dueling was a social practice that persisted into the twentieth century. To be a man was to draw a weapon when insulted, not to exercise emotional control in pursuit of self-interest. 

Remembering a world driven by ideas of honour is not a plea for a return to duelling. It is to suggest that the view of a world driven by self-interest is itself a product of history. And of particular interests. 

Those interests have not disappeared. 

 

Evolutionary Psychology

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Today the modern evolutionary psychology movement promotes these views. We are hard wired to be selfish and cruel. As preparation for an economy built on unlimited global competition, these views create an atmosphere in which everyone who opts out of the competition seems weak-minded.

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that to overcome nature we need to know how bad it is. More often, they claim they are in the business of facts, leaving the business of values to others.

Yet the more convinced we are that things are natural, the more likely we are to think them necessary. Unfruitful targets at which to aim. Life keeps getting longer, but it’s still too short to waste on struggles that look doomed from the start. 

It may be true that your views of what human nature is naturally like needn’t determine your views of what human beings are like today. However, they may influence them in more ways than you can tell.

 

 Subjunctives

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Pick up any book on evolutionary psychology and count the subjunctives. This may have been adaptive, that could have evolved like this. Where researchers find agreement, it’s agreement about our ignorance. 

We do not even know which apes model our closest ancestors. The peace loving, erotic, egalitarian bonobos, or the more aggressive hierarchical chimpanzees. 

One species in different environments can vary almost as much as different species do. 

There are no assurances about what our five-million-year-old ancestors’ were like. 

There is much we can learn about the environment we are likely to have adapted for, but we’ll never know for sure. Rather than seeing the world as it is today and passing it off as our nature, better to recognise four thousand years is quite a time after all.

 

The Fall

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Animals want to copulate; humans want to be desired. Both are driven by the biological urge from procreation, but the second gives human sexuality its particular shape. 

Once it is born, the rush to distinguish ourselves from our fellows is set in motion, creating a momentum far beyond our original goals. 

What began as a harmless dance to impress your bride can end in the wish to pick her up in a Lamborghini. The Fall was not a moment, but a process, for human natures isn’t static; it has a history. 

And while that particular process wasn’t inevitable, it must be intelligible. 

We became wicked without willing it, not because of anything essential to our nature but because of a couple of accidents. 

They all seemed like good ideas at the time.

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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