Is Human Nature Perfectible? – October 31, 2010

I love what they call “cleavage questions”—the ones that split the subject like a diamond cutter finding a fracture plane. And this, I think, is one for modern politics: should we accept human nature for what it is, and work around the many imperfections? Or can we make humankind better in order to create a fairer, more just and gentle society, and do away with the messy workarounds altogether?

Those who align with freedom, moderate laissez-faire, and appeals to responsibility and personal honor usually fall on the let-it-alone side of this question. Those who believe in social engineering, re-education, and political redemption usually fall on the let’s-perfect-it side.

First, of course, we have to decide what human nature is. As with most things, I believe it’s a spectrum: halfway between angel and beast, with some people almost grasping the halo and others chasing the tail. And each of us in different situations exhibits, or is offered the chance to exhibit, the qualities of either extreme. There are no pure spirits, and no pure monsters, either.

Being a convinced evolutionist, I believe that human nature has already been shaped (that is, perfected to meet its circumstances) by the pressures of 100,000 years of hunter-gatherer wandering, with a late patina from 5,000 years of village-agrarian association, and—more recently, and not for all—perhaps 500 years of urban-technological adjustment to extraordinary population density and distraction. This has made a creature that is automatically loyal to and self-sacrificing for family and tribe, while distrustful of and often hostile to “the other.” Before we feed the outsider, we make sure our own children have enough to eat. (This is ingrained in all animals: protect the progeny, conserve the DNA.) Our brains and their neurologically and culturally ingrained natures give us the adaptability to blend into and work in a relatively low-stress way under a variety of social and economic situations—where more hard-wired animals would simply fail to adapt and die.

That is, I think we’re already doing pretty well, for a bunch of walking apes accustomed to bringing down small game with stones.

Personally, I’ve always been resistant to the pressures of social engineering. I’ll pay the tax and abide by the law, but I still believe that my actions, my thoughts, and my perceived future are my own responsibility, and not the business of any outside group. (That is, until my actions infringe on your personal space and destiny.) You have my compliance, within the bounds of what I conceive as my personal honor, but you don’t get my soul.

Those who believe in social engineering—and they go back a century or more, to the revolutionaries who wanted to create the “New Soviet Man” in order to facilitate their communalistic society—always seem to have a larger agenda. And it points to a utopian society that does not exist, rather than the life we all live. The social engineers want to eliminate distrust of the other (i.e., “race hatred”) in order to facilitate a multicultural society where the outsiders don’t actually have to blend and assimilate. They want to eliminate personal concern for one’s own resources and family (i.e., “greed”), in order to facilitate a communal society where others will ultimately define and provide for individual needs. They want to limit the scope of personal life (i.e., “consumerism” and “carbon footprint”), in order to create a command-and-control economy that can more easily be centrally managed.1

The trouble is, the definition of that utopia is always bound by a limited horizon. It’s short-range thinking. Put aside for the moment that utopias are always beyond the reach of even their most ardent supporters. The very definition of the world they want to live in is bounded by the conceptions and capabilities of the times. “Heaven on earth” was a very different proposition for a 17th century Puritan than it is for a 21st century Social Democrat. Each would call the other’s “perfect world” a perfect hell.

Human nature may be prodded and pressured and temporarily bent by the social conceits of the current reformers, but it will always snap back. Certain behaviors can be learned and even pursued pretty thoroughly, but ingrained nature is always there below the surface.

As the steady stream of apocalyptic books and movies from the last fifty years constantly reminds us, we are still a thin dime and an atomic flash away from the hunter-gatherer world of our ancestors.

1. No, I’m not a Randite. Ayn Rand was fun to read as a teenager, but anyone who grows up and attains some experience of the world soon finds her icy heights far too bleak and demanding. No actual people live there.