Human Nature

“Human nature and with it the need to marginalise, insult and bully people belonging to other groups, never changes…” Such talk should be the start of a conversation, not the end.

Here is one such thought that I’ve been pondering for a week or so. Someone posted this comment:

Human nature and with it the need to marginalise, insult and bully people belonging to other groups, never changes…

I hear this a lot, usually (I have to say) cited as a reason for not bothering to support charitable causes and group endevours; or as an excuse for some tribalistic rejection of some other group. For too many people, citing the selfish aspect of human nature is the end of the conversation, a put-down to all the idealistic talk about equality.

And for me, it is this attitude which grates. I am sure humans have selfish side, but I am not so confident that this part of our nature trumps all our other qualities! Either way, I think this fact should be the start of the conversation: How do we work to overcome these urges? How do we achieve something greater together, than we could do alone?

7 thoughts on “Human Nature”

  1. As the original author of that quote I feel duty bound to defend it !

    What I meant by human nature were a number of characterstics of human behaviour, in both the individual and the group context, which seem to be innate, in the sense that they are culturally invariant. Boiled down they are.

    Sex (not gender) differences. In all known cutures there are relative differences in the social roles of males and females. Males are responsible for acquiring resources, females for rearing young. It does not matter that the exact way this is expressed (gendered) or the degree to which it is apparent, vary from culture to cuture, the direction of difference is always the same. Hence innate and characterstic of human nature.

    Sterotyping. A lot of reasearch has shown that instant judgement/stereotyping/bigotry/prejudice/whatever you want to call it is an automatic process rooted in the structure and function of the human brain. Pre existing knowldge is condensed in memory enabling rapid access, this facilitates the easy categorisation of new objects, enabling rapid assimilation of new knowledge, this is the essence of human perception. This enables learning by making maximal use of the limited processing power of the brain and minimising the processing load on it, such that effective conscious operation becomes possible. It is intersting to note that failure of this process (meaning everything is “new” and has to be constantly relearned) may be implicated in the development of serious mental ilness. A simple example of this if if you only met one martian in your entire life and he stole some money from you, you may have an internal representation of martians which coded something like “martians are theives” and would use this information when encountering, thinking about or opinining on martians generally.

    Inter Group Hostility. Psychology experiments have shown that conflict between groups is inevitable and is maximal where resources are limited. This is because it is not possible to advance the interest of one group without disadvantaging another. In simple terms if there are a limited number of jobs and a job is given to a member of one group (for the sake of argument a left handed person) then a right handed person does not have that job avaiable to them. In evolutionary terms this disadvantages the right hand person, whose chances of reproduction take a hit.
    Hostility between groups can arise even in the absence of obvious competition where sterotytping (see above) is used and the (perceived negative) characterstics of one group member are amplified and applied to every member of that group. This “out group” becomes a sort of subconscsious repository for internal negativity, frustration and dissafection, and in the expression of this hostility, they become scapegoats for an entire group or even an entire society. Historical examples of this are numerous but in the contemporary zeitgeist the logic “White males occupy all the positions of power in UK society, therefore all white males are powerfull” is a good example. This pheneomena probably arose as adaptive advantage to protect the group from hostile competition – such that those not recognised as members of your own group were perceived and treated as a threat to food/shelter/mating and thus individual and/or group survival. Although such literal threats are seldom so immediate (at least in the west), the protective mechanism has simply transferred into the modern context. This “defend the group” behaviour is innate, culturally invariant and an example of human nature.

    “How do we work to overcome these urges? How do we achieve something greater together, than we could do alone?”

    I’m not sure that we can – nor would I describe them as urges. That implies they are temporary and fleeting and can be satiated. On the contrary I beleive they they are hard wired modes of cognition. However, if I were to attempt it then the most obvious way is by sublimating all the the smaller groups into a larger group. In theory this would cause identification with the larger group and negate the drive for hostility among the smaller groups. (E.g the old USSR and arguably contemporary multicultural britain). The problems with this are are:

    The new bigger group then needs a new enemy to take out its hostility on (viz the USSR demonising capitalism during the cold war, or the west demonising islam now). This moves the hostility up one level rather than removing it. Note that all cutures have their hate figures – even if they are just the object of ridicule rather than outright hositility, indicating again that this is innate, human nature.

    Inevitably not all of the groups will wish to co-operate with the new harmony – some will seek to dominate or protect their own group intersts, particualarly if they perceive themserlves to be getting a less than equal share of the benefits (e.g the USSR descended into chaos with the fall of communism suggesting that inter group hostility never really went away, or the disenfranchised white working class/radicalised muslims in contemporary muti-cultural britain)

    The other way to reduce hostility is by encouraging frequent contact in a positive context with other groups (e.g competitive sport, travel, positive media images, greater cultural exchange). This approach has the advantage, with the arguable exception of the media, that participation is volutary, there is no feeling of coercion into loving they neighbour. The disadvantage is that those who wish to remain bigoted will simply avoid participation, and will probably harbour even deeper feelings of alienation and hostility.

    All the above have been tried with, to be generous, mixed results, hence my contention that they cannot be imposed sucesfully on any whole population “once and for all”.

    I’ll end this short opus by turning your question round and asking:

    If it is possible to overcome our baser tribal instincts (and I’m not convinced it is, at least not all the time or all the people) then is it desirable ? Apart from giving us all a nice warm feeling of altruism and enabling us to be smug about how “civilised” we are – what does it achieve, how does it move mankind forward ? These instincts seem to have served us well, after all with their help we have survived and evolved into a hugely sucesfull and sophisticated species which dominates the planet ?

  2. Lots that is dubious there, Matt Munro. Spot on re. the stereotyping though. In answer to your question, I think it would move mankind forward in leaps and bounds if we could be free of the desire to dominate others. We (mostly) seem to be perfectly capable of overcoming many baser instincts – most people do not rape or murder others, or do violent crime, or rob people, when there are laws and authorities in place to enforce them. It is desirable because it will improve the quality of many people’s lives, and would be, I might even hazard, a more sustainable and ethical way to live. I certainly do not share your pessimism, or your willingness to accept or condone the status quo, or your “smugness” as to how successful and sophisticated and dominant we are. It’s a great shame, and a mistake I think if dominance is to be equated with either sophistication or success.

  3. Thanks a lot. I have to say that by resorting to insulting me, rather than making a reasoned argument against what I have said, you are placing yourself firmly in the “It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, it’s agressive/intolerant/dinasour thinking etc”. In other words the PC world of silencing dissent.
    Incidentally you are confusing personal deviance (rape, murder etc) with social action (domination/expolitation of one group by another) . No man ever sat down and said “How can I dominate women ?” and there is no “patriach central”. Rather, domination (for want of a better word) of one group by another, is an emergent property which arises from the collective actions of a group, but is not reducible to the individual level. The behaviour of a crowd for example, cannot be explained in terms of individuals within it, and the formation of a traffic jam cannot be explained in terms of the individual driver. Similarly, the alledged dominance of white males, cannot be explained by the actions of any single white male.

  4. Actually no, I just couldn’t be bothered. I do have my life to conduct, you know. And I wasn’t insulting you, only some of what you wrote, so let’s not confuse things, eh?

    And actually, desire to dominate is a well-documented personality characteristic of certain individuals. And actually, crowd behaviour can be explained with reference to individuals within it.

    In your reply, you are wrong on virtually every point you make, aside from the trivially obvious straw-man-type ones that is.

  5. Who doesn’t ! I’m wrong on every point I make, without any counter argument ? Crowd behaviour can be explained with reference to individuals within it, based on what research ? You sound like someone quoting dogma, with inconvenient facts being disregarded as “trivially obvious straw man type” points.

    I so hope new labour don’t win again…………………

  6. Who doesn’t what? I wasn’t sure you’d be especially interested in any counter-argument, based on the comment to which this post refers, also, as I said, I didn’t have time, especially since you make so very many points which are, in my view, flawed – so where do I start?

    Well, without being crass, if individuals did not have a central nervous system, and a particular cognitve architecture, with all the attendant abilities and biases, then there would be very little crowd behaviour to disagree over, wouldn’t you say?

    Second of all, it is not controversial to point out that individual and circumstantial differences do occur in things like conformity, obedience and so on.

    Thirdly, things affecting crowd behaviour – deindividuation, emergence of group norms and so on, are factors that operate on the individual, to a greater or lesser extent.

    I simply do not see how it is possible to explain crowd behaviour without reference to the individual. It’s nonsensical to me. Utterly nonsensical. This position is a theoretical one, taking into account what empirical research exists. If you want references on any of the above, I’d be happy to supply.

    That will have to do for now. But we should be careful in our use of the word “fact”, and not confuse it with opinion. That, in my view, is one of the cardinal sins of argumentation. It’s either a very low trick, or a poor intellect.

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