The Bikecast Episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human Behavior
Last week, the secretary of state was in asia threatening North Korea. The proximate reason for this round of threats is the sinking of a South Korean ship six miles off the N. Korean coast. This is a true gem of political theater: a country that is actually in a declared war with it’s adversary sinks a military vessel closer to it’s shoreline than I am from work and it’s up for international reprimand. The country delivering the reprimand has murdered, maimed, tortured, imprisoned, and destroyed the lives of tens of millions of non-combatants thousands of miles away from any conceivable “national” interest. I am in no way defending the North Korean attack, but the obvious hypocrisy of the U.S. condemnation renders them morally impotent.
There is an interesting parallel between the language in the international missive and the threats and promises made to a child in order to “make them behave.” This is the purpose of the language. When we hear it, even in a 2 minute propaganda piece, it immediately registers with us. The schema is the irrational child who could be playing with friends and enjoying goodies but is choosing to behave badly despite increasingly harsh punishment from a just authority.
This narrative has two purposes, the first is to turn the rebellious nation, group, or person into an irrational actor who we should be angry with for not knowing what’s best for them. The entity or person who is punishing/promising rewards is always in the right and always has the disobedient entity/persons best interest at heart.
The second purpose is to make us afraid. We smart, obedient people should always remember that there are bad/crazy/evil people out there and they just won’t listen to reason! The only thing standing between them and us are the various agencies of state security.
It is important to the power structure that we believe that this unpredictable, dangerous element is essential to human nature. Its eternal presence requires eternal vigilance on the part of our brave and ever expanding defense forces. This narrative is critical and must be told as many times per day as possible in order to counter-balance the obvious cataclysmic failure of the state in all aspects of social management.
In conversations with “very smart people,” I find that we can quickly dispense with the formalities of demonstrating the the state is a vile, murderous institution. They get it, but they fear a greater state of chaos that lies in the uncontrolled interactions of their fellow humans. Most of the people I’m talking with aren’t mystics or nationalists, or any other kind of fantasy dwellers. They’re skeptical and accept reason and evidence as the ultimate arbiters of truth . . . unless the claim is that humans are, ceterus paribus, social, cooperative animals. A claim supported by any number of studies as well as classical economics and modern game theory.
The existence of numerous genocides, wars and conflicts around the world do not represent a refutation of the premise that the natural state of human society is cooperative. Rather they provide instances that we can examine in order to determine what factors lead to the exceptional case of violence and the disintegration of civilized society.
The statist will attempt to indicate the strong, central authority as the structure around which peaceful societies grow, and claim that weak central authority or statelessness leads to the tragic human conflict we find around the world today.
This is a classic piece of “Big Lie” propaganda. States are directly involved in every modern conflict and, in fact, the most powerful states are implicated–directly and indirectly–in the most heinous genocides.
What is the difference between societies, or segments of societies, that follow the default human condition of peaceful cooperation and those that disintegrate into self-destructive chaos?
The difference is how children develop and is another aspect of the genius of evolution in creating a hyper-adaptive programmable organism. A child born to a mother who is relaxed and cared for by his/her community; a child who is nurtured and cared for, loved and interacted with; a child who sees empathy modeled by the other members of its society, will grow up to be a thoughtful, peaceful, empathetic and intelligent adult. What the society needs and communicates through the conditions of childhood, the biological organism will seek to provide in order that it and its species survive and prosper.
Meanwhile a child whose mother is exposed to malnourishment and stressers (such as the type encountered in a warzone or as a refugee) while in the womb; who’s starved and neglected in early childhood; who grows up surrounded by brutality and violence; will not develop empathy, gentleness or reason. The survival of this individual and his/her society requires an unquestioning killer, an unthinking brute. Where generation upon generation are born, grow up and die in this manner of human strife, the sociopathic behavior will deviate increasingly widely from the norm to the point of demonic barbarism.
Recovering from such a state–a state such as existed in Europe during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries–take many generations. Hundreds of years later, we’re just beginning to emerge into the light. The children of today, are pioneering a realm of peace, self-awareness and mental health yet unexperienced in the history of humankind. A small number of them will have a tremendous influence on the trajectory of humanity in the world.
When discussing this topic, the opposition usually ignores the reams of behavioral, psychological, and economic science on the matter and refers instead to the realm of fiction: The Lord of the Flies, The Heart of Darkness, episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone to support their position of an essential darkness in human nature. They also misapply “the prisoner’s dilemma” and the “tragedy of the commons” in an attempt to lend some legitimacy to their claim that the state, despite it’s obviously monstrous and anti-human nature, must exist in order than we may avoid chaos.
I’m always optimistic in situations like this because it’s not really a matter of opinion anymore. The beauty of the truth is that it will out-wait any malformed opposition. Going forward, I believe an increasing number of people will acknowledge the evidence and the logic of the situation. They will do so, I believe, via an empathetic connection to the reality of the harm being wrought which will force a dispelling of propagandistic narratives and a reexamination of the evidence.
I hope we reach a critical mass of enlightened humanity before too many more millions of innocent people have to die.