Humans are naughty & nice by nature

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help:

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in "Why We Cooperate," a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.

An earlier book by Tomasello which I read was The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. He seems to believe in the primacy of sociality in the emergence of the basic features of humanity which we take for granted, from empathy to language. The bigger picture is that humans have a capacity for "goodness" and "evil." The average human can vary in their behavior. And, there is probably a variance in the average response of the average human. These variances are probably due to genes and environment (yes, genes, I suspect some people are "more evil"). Additionally, "good" and "evil" can be somewhat fuzzy concepts beyond the margins. Victors write history. What may be a good deed for your in-group may be evil when evaluated from the perspective of another group. It is probably good that we're going beyond cut-out caricatures, seeing as how humans are one of the most socially complex organisms, elegant models applicable to other species might not be so appropriate.

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The Chinese philosopher Mencius's philosophy of human nature was that we all have "sprouts" of goodness which will grow if we nurture tham. I don't think he spoke of sprouts of evil, but his "nurturing" metaphor probably also implies weeding out the bad sprouts.

Xunzi (Hsun Tzu) held that human nature is evil and that only firm government action keeps the evil from becoming dominant. In part he may merely have meant that individual desires, if acted on without guidance, do not lead to social order. But Xunzi was unquestionably an authoritarian.

Mencius's theory of a mixed or plural nature strikes me as inherently plausible, and superior more or less on inspection to the ideas that human nature is naturally good, naturally evil, or a blank slate.

On the other hand, the pluralist theory doesn't do much work. You end up about where you started, saying "The problem is complex". Simplistic theories, even though wrong, move the ball in a certain direction: behaviorism, for example, did motivate productive research of certain kinds, even though as a general theory it failed. (In soical theory, even if purportedly scientific, there's usually an ideological angle, and ideology NEEDS to be biased in order to get any forward movement. Examples: Calvinism/evil, Jacobins/good, social engineering/blank. Ideology pretends to describe, but its goal is change).

And finally, as I always say: "natural" doesn't mean either "good" or "inevitable and unchangeable". A strong freemarketer will say that innate generous impulses are irrational and lead to inefficiency. An egalitarian will say the same about innate respect for hierarchy. The details are worked out in history and politics; neither the innate ethic, nor the challenge to the innate ethic, are prima facie valid.

A prime example of a probably-innate form that's bee suppressed throughout the civilized world is clan organization and the accompanying customs of feud and vendetta. These are the basic organizing principles of most agricultural pre-state societies, and they lead to endemic low-level violence (called by an anthropologist of China "family anarchy". Family anarchy is probably the real state of nature; the war of each against all is a modern fiction used to support political agendas. Locke's argument for liberalism was grounded on a rejection of partriarchal authority descendent from the clan system).

By John Emerson (not verified) on 02 Dec 2009 #permalink

Razib: Have you considered Sarah Hrdy's work in your survey of the evolution of human nature?

I had to baby sit my 3 yr old niece. We were left alone in the house. I was playing with her when I felt I had a hard time breathing, tears were already forming in my eyes. I thought, I needed my inhaler. My niece saw me, instinct told her to look for that blue thing I always put in my mouth whenever I had asthma attack. I did not tell her to do that. She just knew. Now I understand better. Thanks for this post.

Locke is my son

While riding the New York City subway, I watched as a mother gave her toddler a piece of candy. The child took off the clear plastic wrapper, put the candy in his mouth, and handed the wrapper back to his mom. She threw it on the floor. Children don't litter by instinct either, but it only takes a second to learn.