The Bikecast Episode #20: Human Nature Expansion Pack

I’ve gone a long time without saying it–in fact, I’m not sure I ever said it in a podcast that ended up surviving–thanks for the comments and the feedback. I received a couple comments related to episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human behavior and related material.

Download this episode of the bikecast

It’s heartening that I don’t get push-back when I point out the monstrous war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by government. I didn’t get alot of static from my comparison of communism and fascism and my pairing of the two as very similar forms of totalitarianism. Nobody disagreed substantially with the idea that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. People have some very strong beliefs, however, that violence, obedience, and animal response to base instincts are immutable aspects of human nature.

I’ve found this attitude fairly prevalent within the social circles I travel. Nobody vouches for the virtue of the state, nobody supports the military or the neo-colonial policies of the corporate ruling class. Nobody thinks that justice is being served in the court system or the the prison system is anything but a racist racket for those who build, provision, and staff prisons. The one trait that separates these people from the anarchists I’ve met is their fear of other humans. Take the following email correspondence for example:

I’m not convinced of your points about human nature. I don’t think human nature is some monolithic entity, of course there is a large amount of variation. Some small percentage of people seem to lack empathy (sociopaths), and there seems to be a genetic component (that is, sociopaths are not necessarily created by their environment).

Humans are capable of horrible, unspeakable things. My point in episode #17 was that those are the result of mental and physical trauma during early development. The science around this topic is, as far as I’m aware, entirely conclusive. Sociopaths suffered some subset of a very well understood suite of supremely sub-optimal developmental conditions. This isn’t to say that no genetic pre-disposition exists, but it won’t be expressed without a traumatic developmental environment. I think the next bikecast will elaborate on this a bit further.

Hobbes famously described life in his hypothetical state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short”, which is why we come together to create society.

The social “we.” It’s awfully convenient for the wealthy and privileged that “we” came together to subsidize their industries, fight to maintain control of minerals and supply lines, and replenish their riches when they suffer losses. Hobbes and the other enlightenment political thinkers depended for their very lives on the ruling class. From the enlightenment onward, it became increasingly clear that decreases the power of the aristocracy and the lessening of the oppression of the peasant and merchant classes lead to far less bloodshed and even the beginnings of prosperity. Because of their situation, they were in no position to follow their logic to its conclusion.

This isn’t to discount the novelty or value of their thinking, but Hobbes, for example, existed in a time in which the scientific method was in its infancy. He had no understanding of anthropology, sociology, psychology or child development. He and his intellectual peers provide an interesting look at the modes of belief in their day, but their opinions as to the necessity of Leviathan based on human nature, I feel safe discounting in the face of modern discoveries and understanding.

I think you are a bit quick to dismiss any dissenting evidence. For one thing you seem to focus on individual human nature – but as we know, individuals in groups behave differently than individuals alone. There was a famous case of a brutal rape in NYC in the 80’s in which at least 50 neighbors heard what was going on but nobody intervened or called the police – they all assumed that someone else would help.

I am interested in dissenting evidence, but I think this is another non-example of said evidence. I agree that people behave differently in groups–that’s been clearly demonstrated in both the laboratory and in history. I maintain however that this instance and many similar instances in which even more thoroughly evil activities are participated in by otherwise “normal” people are examples of broken people with broken minds acting in groups. The group may amplify the individual lack of human connection to a person being raped and beaten in earshot, but it’s fairly far fetched to imagine that happening in a crowd of self-aware, empathetic and emotionally healthy human beings.

In a related facebook post of this video,

I got the following comment:

I have to question this idealistic principle of global empathy. I find it difficult to empathize with the Haitians and I attribute that kind of phenomenon to the fact that I can only manage care for a limited set of other individuals at one time. I read in some book years ago that the average group size of primates (don’t remember if it was bonobo or chimp) is around 200. And to me it seems likely that it hasn’t been that long since 200 was a large number of contacts for humans as well. However, within a few hundred years, we are expecting ourselves to be able to really grasp caring for 6.8 billion people? Maybe I am just being contrary, but I think it’s asking a bit much.

Then again, it’s not people like me who care for a small group that is the main problem–it’s those who regardless of their environment tend toward narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive behaviors, right? Or perhaps this man is implying that those traits are completely a response to our societal structure??

Here’s my reply:

. . . I think that understanding that it sucks to lose one’s family to aerial carpet bombing, or to be so poor that one lives in a plywood shack on a hill on a seismic fault line is really all that’s necessary. We *should*, if we are mentally healthy, be able to understand that those things are painful and to be avoided–even if we don’t experience it at the same level that we would experience *our* family being murdered or *our* hovel falling to an earthquake.

The speaker sort of skips that part and pretends like people generally do feel that level of empathy. I don’t think that they do. He wants to expand people’s empathy, I think that the issue is developing that empathy in the first place.

The narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive people among us are damaged humans, not examples of human nature. I think that’s the most important part of the piece . . .

I’m entirely convinced, after considerable, albeit amateur, research that it is the case that the damaged sociopaths among us are products of horrific childhoods. The contrapositive, of which I’m also convinced, is that loving, nurturing developmental conditions leads to healthy, social adults.

Even if I’m wrong, the anarchist position on the optimal social structure still stands. I’m straw-manning a bit here, since neither commenter outright claimed that their views of human nature necessitate a state. If sociopathy is an immutable aspect of human nature, then the very worst mechanism on which to found societal organization is violence. Sociopaths can dispense violence without concern for the victims or lingering regret. They are natural authoritarians, both as physical enforcers and as social engineers who can indulge their intellects by experimenting on human societies.

It makes intuitive sense and is amply borne out by the facts that social structures based on violence select against empathy, cooperation, and participants seeking win-win solutions to problems. It selects for narcissism, materialism, aggression, and a disregard for the health and well-being of others.

Instead of shielding society from the activities of sociopaths, the current system gives them weapons, badges, uniforms, legislative power, armies, prisons, and nuclear arsenals.

In either case regarding the nature of humanity, statelessness is optimal. In the one case, it’s inevitable, without a culture of violence, the state is impossible. In the other, it is essential: if violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition regardless of upbringing, then the state must not exist if the species is to have any hope of long term survival.


I make reference to The Project for a New American Century in the bikecast as an example of policy promotion that assumes the necessity of a violent management structure for all of humanity. It may not be the best example, but it’s what I thought of at the time, so here’s the link.

    • SirenSandwich
    • July 20th, 2010

    I’d love to see some child raising study info . . .

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