Culture and Religion

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Hard Wired to Compare

One online web site asked the question 'are human beings inherently evil' and more than 75% responded yes. A Christian's blog suggested people are hard-wired to temptation. This essay began as a response to that blog article. Rather than being hard wired either for evil or for temptation, I suggest mankind is hard wired to compare with others.

Certainly very little children are still learning how to deal with others so bad behaviors can be observed, perhaps frequently, though their interactions with their parents are important (as the infants watch and learn from their caregivers so parents should model good behavior). Those infants have not really learned the distinction between good and bad, so it is wrong to suggest those observed behaviors are evil or they reflect a nature in all adults. As those toddlers mature they learn how to share and how to take turns, behaviors that are nearly impossible when younger.

Man is a social being just like many others, including chimpanzees, whales, elephants. Even ants and dogs can exhibit certain social behaviors. Our social nature is driven by empathy, our innate capacity to relate to others, to consider their feelings, to imagine being in their place. This nature means we are always comparing ourselves with others, that our status is judged in relation to that of others.

As far as I can imagine in very ancient times, when the global human population was still small there must have been small groups of families or tribes. If there were not multiple families to work together then those few individuals would have succumbed to any number of challenges while never having offspring. By working together the families could succeed where individuals cannot. Some could hunt or gather a crop, while others tended the children, or worked on housing, clothing, etc., or perhaps even recovered from an illness.

In these tribes there would have been little temptation to do evil in the group, simply because everyone was living in the same conditions. Each valued the trust and respect of the others, for their own survival as well as the group. Anyone violating the trust of another (like a lie or a theft) would be immediately noticed by the group. There was never a need for a policeman in such small communities because everyone knew everyone else. Trust was implicit. Punishment for misbehaviors, if appropriate, would probably be immediate for the community to maintain cohesion, or else those misbehaviors would damage the social health of the community, probably leading to its disintegration.

Certainly before written language, even before a defined spoken language, each person had to rely on recognizing and interpreting what was going on with others, through facial expressions or changes in vocal tones, to note their health and their intentions. The use of this innate empathy was critical to the survival of the tribe and community. One can only suspect that 'evil' behaviors toward anyone within the tribe would not be tolerated while 'evil' behaviors toward outsiders would be subject to the context, probably dependent on whether the outsiders were a threat or not. There must have been mingling of members among different communities or else each small group would have become quite inbred over time, another problem for overall survival. Even bonobos (a close genetic relative of humans) innately avoid this possibility when a female nearing their maturity leaves the community of birth to find another, with the result being no breeding with her father. The survival of humanity has always required some level of diversity in communities.

As communities grew in size even with a defined spoken language, it was no longer possible for everyone to know everyone else with complete familiarity. When conflicts arose between strangers, a policeman or a judge (someone impartial or objective) was required to manage the conflict resolution because the strangers did not have that implicit trust and respect between the relatives or close friends to be found in the much smaller community.

As communities grew in size, different capabilities or disabilities would result in some inequalities, as now not everyone shared in exactly the same manner. Some might be better at the hunt and then in fairness get a little more food than the others. Some who might be less capable (shorter, slower, less coordinated, etc.) would still get a share but in fairness those providing more effort to the community might get a little more than those providing less effort. Someone with the personality to take charge and control might seek a little more as a result of such management skills.

Our ‘hard-wired’ nature is still to always compare ourselves with others. Our perception of differences and inequalities will be managed differently by each person, whether by the extent of their altruism or by their present mood (like being happy or depressed) or condition (poor or rich or middle class).

Obviously this nature is there to be manipulated by advertisers (to get the target audience wanting what others have) and by propagandists (to get the target audience to fear the threat and danger presented by an outside group).

As populations have grown, communities now present to each of us the local groups of more familiarity (family, neighbors) as well as the many other groups of little familiarity – strangers.

Each of us behaves in relation to the others around us, but we also must look after ourselves, so our own survival remains a priority. If the community is not cohesive, then there is less of the tendency to work for the benefit of others but instead more of the tendency to work only for ourselves. When becoming more self oriented, one will probably become more tempted to push the boundaries of behavior, to take advantage of others who are less important to our own survival.

I suggest many of our social problems characterized as evil arise out of our disintegrating communities and the other social structures (like authoritarian corporations and the police state approach to civil governance), rather than people just behaving like brutal savages, as if that is our nature.

Political leaders and religious leaders also emphasize the evil in others, to divide and conquer different groups, to take advantage of our basic nature to defend ‘our’ own social group from attack by others – a tendency that would have also been rooted in the survival of those most ancient tribes and communities.

Our genetic heritage suggests each person always relates to others, but not always for evil behavior. Any observed tendency toward evil temptation is based on the social pressures to suppress that local community cohesion, to emphasize divisive comparisons (like advertising) rather than the beneficial social bonds. When taking this interpretation, the many evil behaviors observed take on a different meaning, rather than this ‘inherently evil’ concept.

The suggestion people are inherently evil rests on the important assumption that each person's behaviors are autonomous, that each person inherently intends to hurt those around him/her. That assumption is in conflict with the presence of empathy (in everyone but those few having a physical mental disability for that trait), where a person inherently senses and reacts to the behaviors around him/her. For a particular person to be inherently evil, that person is behaving counter to his/her human nature, the ability to be aware subconsciously of others.

There are three well known triggers for evil behavior - 1) when confronted with a choice between death or survival, a person can be willing to do nearly 'anything' to survive even to the detriment of those around him/her, 2) when a person is ordered by their authority (the infamous Milgram experiment is one demonstration of this; the staff of the Nazi concentration camps following orders is another) then he/she can hurt another even while knowing it is wrong, and 3) when a person has absolute power, with no mechanism for accountability, and he/she cannot see those affected by evil behavior, one's innate empathy for those around us can be lost or suppressed.

In that last case (absolute power), no one should be truly surprised by 'evil' behavior because the person has interpreted one's position as being above and better than all those insignificant beings affected, suffering death or misery, perhaps to the edge of survival. Our world civilization has become that described in the book 1984, with a very small ruling class for the world (the inner party) with a former democracies evolving into police states to protect the ruling class (governments and middle managers making up the outer party) and the rest of mankind being squeezed for the benefit of the few at the top. There is little hope for humanity unless this stranglehold is broken, to allow a more just society. However, even in this oppressive context, each community must still strive for the well being of its members, benefitting from people naturally working with those around them.

In so many things in life and nature, there are opposites, like light/dark, high/low, good/bad, sometimes summarized as yin and yang. There is certainly much violence in nature, where life is continually in a fight for survival. Mankind should be different in one respect because with our larger communities now most individuals are typically no longer in a fight for survival but are instead in a daily struggle away from misery and toward comfort. I suspect that for many people there are also opposite tendencies when reacting to a conflict with others, like those who are quick to react to dominance in a conflict while others are slow to violence but instead first seek compromise or some type of negotiation. Mankind’s two closest relatives are the bonobos who are very peaceful and the chimpanzees who tend toward violence. Sometimes it seems mankind is a hybrid mixture of its two relatives, with some extent of the people tending toward one or the other (peaceful vs violent). People are also spread across the spectrum of introverts to extraverts, with that innate varying sensitivity to their environment. I remain hopeful for mankind where if the social bonds were emphasized throughout society, including from childhood to learn the importance of relating to others, people might actually behave better and the extremes we see today would be suppressed ‘naturally’ by that different social dynamic – different than that found today where the individual is emphasized, as that dynamic makes political control so much more easier (divide and conquer, among the less cohesive groups, for the few to remain in control).

To suggest people are inherently evil, and only some are able to become good, is to deny our social nature, our capacity to relate to others. That capacity for empathy can be suppressed (as mentioned above), but then the evil behaviors that result were not due to the individual's nature.


created - April 2016
last change - 04/03/2016
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