Human Nature

Why in the world is that awful book Lord of the Flies required reading in so many schools? Or even more so, why are any dystopian speculations considered entertaining? From them, we get an unrealistic idea about basic human nature, and we remember and believe these very fictional accounts. Which are false. In fact, we have so much evidence of the inherent prosocial basis of human nature.

An article in The Guardian is a wonderful counterpoint to the fantasy of what might happen if children were left to fend for themselves. In real life, they are cooperative, creative, and constructive. And that actually happened! Rutger Bregman, a professor in the Netherlands found and interviewed six boys who had been marooned for about 15 months back in 1977. They had organized themselves and made do with the few implements they had with them.

Now Bregman has a new book: Humankind. His point of view is that human beings are hard wired for kindness, cooperation, and trust in each other. He provides substantial data from studies showing the benevolent side of human nature and the flaws in an argument for self-interest as the core of people.

Why do we want to believe we are selfish and destructive? Why are we drawn to ideas that make us feel isolated and afraid? Maybe it’s because our most urgent and compelling instinct is survival, and the emotional systems related to that instinct are the most powerful and dominating. After all, if we don’t have survival we can’t do anything. Bruce Perry shows that the emotional systems underlying our bodily survival will dominate all of our thoughts and feelings if they are dysregulated (stirred up). So generating fear in people is a way of getting their attention and of directing their responses. It’s a great way to sell books, but not a very accurate story.

The problem is, cooperation is our superpower as a species. It has never been more clear that we rely on each other. The interdependence of people with each other has allowed us to build cities, schools, and hospitals–all of civilization actually. We have supported each other and promoted our collective well-being. All the while, we have been taught that people inherently act in their own self-interest and only do things that will benefit themselves. This is a persistent conviction, even though we have tons of evidence before us continually that it is not true.

We sustain this dysphoric fantasy by viewing other people as inherently different from ourselves. Our own group is good and caring people, and other groups are scary and self-serving, according to this picture. The problem is, this is just not true. When the governor of California, Gavin Newsom,  sent needed equipment to be used by states that were short on it, he was being human. When he asked the governors of those states to return the favor if California needed it, he was being human.

We have been shown over and over, in studies and in personal encounters, that human beings are primates; we are social animals; and we succeed by cooperating. We need each other now more than ever. We need to remind ourselves and each other of the bigger picture, of the truth about human interdependence, and of the vision of a more compassionate community that reflects the reality of who we really are.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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