The Primate Diaries

The Politics of Human Nature

Human nature is one of those concepts that, like “common sense”, everyone knows what you mean but no one knows how it’s defined. Ironically, the most insistent proponents of human nature are often those who have benefited from the status quo in society and prefer people to remain just as they are.

June 27 (the day before my son was born) was the birthday of the famed feminist, author and political radical Emma Goldman. I had the opportunity to spend last summer at the Emma Goldman Papers in Berkeley, California to study her unpublished speeches and correspondence. As someone who was profoundly influenced by the works of Peter Kropotkin (and devoted an entire edition of her journal Mother Nature to his life and legacy as an obituary) I found the archives to be a terrific resource. As on many issues, Goldman had a strong opinion on authoritative claims concerning human nature.

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

Emma Goldman, Anarchism: What it Really Stands For, 1917