Human Nature and how it can save us

Talk given at the Community Church of Boston on May 3rd, 2015

“Socialism — A nice Idea, but it’ll never work because it’s against

That assertion has been encountered many times by socialists explaining the case for socialism to someone new to the idea. Here’s why it’s wrong:

Probably the most remarkable characteristic of our species’ innate nature is its adaptability. Human behavior depends heavily on the circumstances a person is born into, and there are hugely different circumstances in the various societies that human beings have lived in over the last 10,000 or so years. (The anthropologist RuthBenedict describes and contrasts cultural differences in behavior in her book Patterns of Culture.) But for the two million years before that, all of us humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was as hunter-gatherers that we spent 99% of our evolutionary history, and our species-specific nature developed as it did precisely because it was appropriate to that way of life. We had to be adaptable as the climate changed — ice ages came and went, and some of us left Africa and settled in Europe and Asia. All that migration was done by nomadic people, following the herds of prey animals and foraging for roots and berries as they went.

Everyone reading this, and probably everyone we know, was born into a capitalist society. So if we look around us and observe how our fellow humans act, that is not a true picture of human nature; it’s only a true picture of how human beings born and raised in capitalism act. Capitalism has been called “a dog-eat-dog jungle” because It tends to foster selfishness and greed. Not that those qualities don’t exist in all human societies, but generally not as pervasively as they do in capitalism.

So to explore Human Nature, we need to sort out what behaviors we see that are really part of our nature as human beings, as opposed to those that result from our adaptations to capitalistic circumstances.

A good way to start is to consider what things human children do spontaneously, without being taught — for example, to walk like a biped; to understand and use language; to sleep at night and be active in daytime. All those things are hardwired into our brains, and some — like speech, and the way we walk, are unique to us, not shared with even our closest primate relatives. Our upright posture is different from any of the apes; even when they leave the trees and walk, they have much longer arms than we do and tend to drag their knuckles on the ground. Their spines are not curved the same way ours are and their pelvises are at a different angle. This is actually important for thinking about human nature, because the odd shape of our spine and pelvic bones makes giving birth much more difficult for us humans than for other species. We are the only animal that needs help from others during labor and delivery, and methods of childbirth vary so widely among various cultures that the term “natural childbirth” really can’t be applied to any of them. Childbirth is one of the first aspects of human behavior that become ritualized.

Here’s another element of human nature that is uniquely human: the capacity to feel guilt or shame. (Sometimes people think their dogs seem ashamed when they’ve done something wrong; but veterinarians say that isn’t shame, it’s just fear of punishment!) Exactly how guilt or shame plays out varies from one human culture to another, but it’s always there, more or less, attached to different behaviors in different types of society.

It’s very common for people to make assumptions about human nature that are not evidence-based — such as, “It’s a good idea but it could never work because it’s against human nature!”

Well, let’s take a good look at that assumption.

It’s important to note at this point that we humans, unlike other animals, are not”prisoners of our genes.” We are so adaptable, so flexible, that we can even act against our innate human nature, and we do it all the time! Remember that; we’ll comeback to it again later.

§ Another way to sort out what behaviors we see that are really part of our nature as human beings, as opposed to those that result from our adaptations to capitalistic circumstances, is to look at the innate nature of chimpanzees and bonobos.

Both of those apes are so close to us genetically that some scientists have argued that they ought to be classified as part of Genus Homo like us. Chimps and bonobos each have more than 98.6% of their DNA in common with us, which means that we three species are more closely related to one another, than any of us are to the other apes, like gorillas or orangutans. Looking at “Chimp Nature” and “Bonobo Nature” can give us clues about our own Human Nature.

Chimps and bonobos both still have habitats in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Central Africa; but they don’t share the same territory. Chimps live north of the CongoRiver, and bonobos live south of it. That means chimps have to compete with other animals (notably gorillas) for scarce food resources, whereas bonobos have the southern region pretty much to themselves. That may explain why the two species evolved such different behaviors and life styles.

Chimpanzees are extremely violent. They live in groups. It is very rare for chimps to kill members of their own group, but when groups of chimps meet, the males sometimes wage all-out wars, then slaughter the infants and take the females as their own. Dominant chimpanzee mothers sometimes do away with the children of other chimps.

Chimpanzee females, like most mammals, go into heat regularly. Male chimpanzees guard “their” females from other males when they are in heat, fertile, to prevent them from being fertilized by a rival chimp.

Within the group, they co-operate, and they share food. Primatologist Franz de Waal has demonstrated that when food is thrown into a chimpanzee enclosure, the dominant males distribute it so that each chimp gets some, even the lowest in the hierarchy. No one goes completely hungry. De Waal has written that evolution has “etched some really basic instincts into our brains: sharing, reciprocity, and the most basic one of all: Empathy.” These instincts seem to be something all primates have, including us humans.

Bonobos, unlike chimps, are very laid back. They don’t use violence to settle disputes.They have what might be called a matriarchal society. Female bonobos have high status, with the dominant female and the dominant male being co-equal. The male dominance hierarchy roughly parallels the female. Females forge the alliances, and a male’s rank depends on his mother’s.

When groups of bonobos meet, the males hoot and stand back while females cross over to one another in what may end up resembling an orgy. (De Waal has remarked that our [human] sexual urges are subject to such powerful moral constraints that it’s hard to recognize how they permeate all aspects of our social life, and that bonobo society could teach us a lot about what human sexuality might look like without those constraints.)

No one has never seen a bonobo kill another of its own kind. Bonobo children are cared for by all the females in the group. They do have conflicts, often behaving like humans by screaming at each other and showing off their strength; but they tend to find ways actually not to harm each other, either of the same group or from a different one.

Like human women, female bonobos have “hidden ovulation” which means they don’t come into heat as chimps (and most other mammals) do; no one can tell when they’re fertile. Bonobos use sex not just for making babies, but as both a bonding mechanism and to reduce social tension. And because no one knows when they’re fertile, male bonobos don’t “guard” females when they’re in heat (as chimpanzees do) so the females have more time to themselves, and more time to form female-to-female bonds.

In one experiment,* 14 bonobos (one at a time) were placed in a cage with food, flanked by two cages with no food, one of which contained a familiar group member and the other a complete stranger. The bonobos with food had the option of eating it all themselves, or to share by opening its neighbor’s cage and inviting them in. Nine of the 14 individuals that took part chose to share with the stranger first. Bonobos are willing to sacrifice part of their meal “even when they themselves will not receive any benefits and might even have to pay a cost.”

Both bonobos and chimps are hierarchical, but males and females are co-equal among bonobos, where among chimps females are submissive to males. At the top of the bonobo hierarchy, there is a dominant female, not a male.

Now I want to describe the way of life of our direct ancestors, starting with Homo Erectus: as stated above, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers for most of our evolutionary history.

About two million years ago, our ancestors began using tools made of stone and bone that seem to be associated with hunting and digging. This early hunting and gathering of roots, nuts and fruit played a big part in us evolving from Homo Erectus, which had spread through Africa and then Europe and Asia a million years ago, to become eventually Homo sapiens, which has now spread all over the world. Beginning between 12 and 10 thousand years ago, Homo sapiens began domesticating animals and plants, becoming farmers and herders. That “Agricultural Revolution” marks the beginning of class society.

Human culture changed dramatically after that, with towns and cities and empires quickly developing, and the gulf between the ruling class and all other classes constantly widening.

But at the dawn of European expansion around the year 1500, hunter-gatherers still occupied almost one-third of the world’s landmass, including all of Australia, the northwestern half of North America, and the southern part of South America, as well as parts of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Even today, there are some hunter-gatherer groups left on earth, although their habitat is shrinking as “civilization” takes over.

For almost two million years, all human beings sustained themselves by foraging, hunting, and fishing. They had few possessions, since whatever they owned needed to be carried along with them whenever they moved camp. Hunter-gatherers lived in egalitarian bands in which everyone, male and female and old and young, were treated as equals. They were generally healthy, not afflicted with the chronic diseases of modern civilization, such as diabetes, obesity, dental decay, coronary heart disease, and high blood pressure. They lived fulfilling lives and had far more leisure time than we do, needing only to work an average of three or four hours a day. Most groups lived in peace.The hunter-gatherer societies that exist today are still egalitarian for the most part, because everyone has a relatively equal share of the available resources.

But the habitat available for nomads is shrinking as capitalism takes over the planet, so nomadic peoples are restricted to the less desirable places. Their life is not as wholesome and healthy as it originally was, and ultimately they will almost certainly be assimilated by “civilized” capitalist states.

Hunter-gatherers lived for 19 thousand years in a sustainable lifestyle, something we can only dream of doing today as more and more of the earth’s resources become diminished and poisoned.

They lived in accordance with Human Nature. Do we? 

Let’s review the elements of human nature that we’ve identified so far.

First we noticed adaptability as the most obvious one. Then we added the use and understanding of Language; walking like bipeds; being day-time creatures, as opposed to nocturnal; and being gregarious. Then we noted some primate traits that we’ve inherited, including not only being aggressive and hierarchical, but also being sharing, and being empathic, which leads to altruism and a reluctance to kill our fellow-humans.

That’s fascinating, because I often hear that altruism is against human nature — but obviously it isn’t; it’s there in our closest primate relatives, and 98.6% of their DNA is shared with us! And some studies have found that young human children show altruistic behavior too.

And we can also add generosity, thanks to an article in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic titled “The Neurology of Generosity” documenting that generosity is indeed hardwired into our brains; but also noting that 85% of Americans donate less than 2%of their income to charity. It isn’t hard to figure out that’s because many of us are aware we may be just a paycheck or two away from poverty. Hunter-gatherers lived with an abundance of resources at their disposal; now most of us see very little of abundance; it’s mostly owned by the 1%.

There is really nothing in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that goes against human nature, which makes sense, because that’s how we evolved.

But there are lots of things that discourage the expression of human nature in our present society. The problem is, as previously noted, we are so adaptable that we can choose to ignore our own deep nature. But when we do, it causes stress. When I listed all the diseases that hunter-gatherers apparently didn’t have (and anthropologists can tell this by DNA analysis of their remains), you may have noticed that many of those are diseases we know are stress-related. It is stressful for people with our human nature to live in the dog-eat-dog jungle of Capitalism. It isn’t healthy for us.

It’s our nature to not be nocturnal, but many workers work the night shift: For two years,I did myself, working in a hospital as an R.N. from 11 PM to 7 AM. Many of my coworkers liked it, but a lot of them had health problems that are associated with stress, like elevated blood pressure, more often than the nurses on the other two shifts. (I didn’t enjoy night work at all, and after two years I left that hospital for a position where I could work days.)

I suspect the reason so many others stick it out has something to do with the wage differential that goes with night work and the necessity of earning a living — something egalitarian hunter-gatherers didn’t have to worry about, but we do.

So yes, human beings can make a choice to go against human nature. But when we do, there’s a price to pay, and the price is stress with all its health risks.

Hierarchies* are part of human nature, but natural human hierarchies need not lead to domination, which leads to violence and warfare on the personal and state level. In 19,000 years of hunter-gatherer societies, hierarchy never led to domination. Does it in 21st Century America? Look around you with your eyes and mind open, and you can see it does. Definitely.

Aggression is a part of human nature too, but how aggression plays out is based more on culture than on “nature.” Nomadic hunter-gatherers are egalitarian societies which are not completely without aggression or limited violence; but they don’t engage in wide-scale or extreme violence, or in warfare. Instead, they have many methods of conflict management and reconciliation techniques which keep aggression/violence to a minimum. Therefore, it should be noted that there are more examples of peace and cooperation in the bulk of human evolution (during 99% of which humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers), than of violence and war. Human Nature does not require us to be warlike — but capitalism does. Anyone who has gone through Basic Training in the military knows that reluctance to kill a fellow-human is overruled and overpowered during that experience. Soldiers are expected and required to kill their fellow humans on command. Being forced to go against everything our visceral primate brain is shouting at us probably is the root cause of Post-Traumatic StressDisorder (PTSD) .

Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are not “primitive.” They successfully meet the needs of their individuals. Does capitalism?

Capitalism may meet the needs of the richest 1%. The 99% includes people who are starving not because they lack food, but because they lack money to buy food. It also includes masses of homeless people, and masses of prisoners, and people living on or below the poverty line, and people suffering from diseases (both mental and physical) caused by stress. Black people in capitalist America are under so much stress that they have the highest rate of dangerously premature births of any ethnic group in the world. The stress hormone cortisol bathes their unborn babies in the womb causing prematurity.*

No, Capitalist societies do not meet the needs of their individuals. Capitalism operates in the interests of the ruling class, the wealthy élite. It does not, because it cannot, operate in the interests of society as a whole, the entire human community.

Given that we live in such a system, the amazing thing is that we do still retain the same nature that we began developing even before we were fully human — when our great-great-ever-so-great grandparent was a primate common ancestor that was about to branch into three strains: the violent chimpanzees, the peaceful bonobos, and the ever-adaptable humans.

We ordinary people in the 99% still have empathy: we still have the generous and altruistic urge to help each other with no thought of reward (witness the outpouring of efforts to help after Hurricane Katrina, and after 9/11). We have not lost the values of the hunter-gatherers. It’s just hard to honor values like altruism and generosity in today’s world where Money and love of profit rule, and we are kept so busy and so distracted by day-to-day problems that we don’t notice that all our attempts to “fix” Capitalism over the past 200 years have had no effect at all. Capitalism can’t be fixed.

Even after centuries of Capitalism, ordinary people retain the values of sharing, cooperation, empathy, altruism and generosity. It is not too late for us to change the world.

This does not mean we should go back to being hunter-gatherers. It’s too late to go back — so we have to go forward. We have to stay focused on eliminating Capitalism and moving on to a world fit for human beings. That world will be without money (money really gets in the way of being egalitarian) and without classes: no rich and no poor.

For a species whose outstanding characteristic is adaptability, Capitalism may be fatally maladaptive. That means we have no time to waste.

— Karla Rab


* The experiment about chimpanzees sharing food within the group was cited by deWaal (date not given).

The experiment involving 14 bonobos willing to share heir food with random strangers was done by Hare and Tan in 2013.

The reference to high levels of cortisol in pregnant African American women is from the Keynote Address delivered by Dr. James Collins and Dr. Michael Lu at the Partners in Perinatal Health Conference in Boston, May 18, 2010.

Information about hunter-gatherers was drawn mostly from and from Wikipedia.


Harold Barclay, People without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy, Kahn & Averill, 1990. (A professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta in Canada until he retired in 1988) [I used his insight on hierarchies in this talk.] 

Deni Béchard, Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral, Milkweed Editions, 2013

Franz de Waal, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape 

Brian Hare and Jungzhi Tan, study done in 2013 at Duke University

Barry F. Seidman, Imagine all the People: The Humanist View on War, Peace and Human Nature, available at Equal Time for Free Thought 

Douglas Fry, The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, Oxford, 2006. (A docent in the Development Psychology Program at Abo Akademi in Finland and a research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona.)

Judith Hand, Women, Power and the Biology of Peace, Questpath, 2003 (With a doctorate in biology, Hand is a research associate and lecturer at University of California at Los Angeles, and has written widely on both anthropology and biology.)

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence 

Wikipedia articles on Humans, Human Nature, Humanism and Hunter-Gatherers

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