Are Humans Inherently Selfish? Dismantling the Dominant Myth of Human Nature.


selfish human

Image: Pawel Kuczynski

If you take a quick look at modern-day humans, you might conclude that they are inherently selfish. For if they are not, then why are they constantly trying to maximize their personal gain — whether in the form of money, possessions or power — at the expense of others?

The belief that human nature is essentially selfish is held by many — if not most — people. But it’s not only laypersons that hold it — even distinguished scientists do, including the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who popularized the theory of the “selfish gene.”

Dawkins bases much of his theory on evolutionary psychology, the field of study that tries to explain psychological traits from an evolutionary perspective. A common theory in evolutionary psychology is that, in prehistoric times, people lived in a fierce, competitive, life-or-death situation, where they had to fight tooth and nail against each other in order to gain access to resources necessary for their survival. Therefore, by behaving selfishly, they increased their chances of surviving and passing on their genes. This, some evolutionary psychologists claim, explains perfectly well why modern-day humans are selfish: Through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution (according to the latest findings, Homo Sapiens is at least 300,000 years old), we’ve been biologically and psychologically programmed to behave in selfish ways.

This theory sounds plausible, until we take into account historical and archaeological evidence. Contrary to what most people think (and yes, that includes distinguished scientists too), for 99% of human history humans lived pretty much at peace with one another. Before the Neolithic Revolution — that is, the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement that took place some 12,000 years ago — humans lived mostly in nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups of up to 150 members. Back then, the world was sparsely populated (according to some estimates, the global population was no more than half a million around 15,000 years ago), food was abundant (at least, for the most part), and humans were quite healthy (as it’s evident, for example, from skeletons of ancient hunter-gatherers). Therefore, it seems unlikely that they would fight against each other for resources, or for any other reason really. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they never did fight, but it does suggest that, generally speaking, they peacefully coexisted, without the need for competition and organized violence.

The case that prehistoric humans lived mostly at peace is also supported by anthropological research. Anthropologists who lived with and studied closely some of the world’s few remaining “immediate-return” hunter-gatherer groups — meaning, groups that don’t store food, but consume it soon after obtaining it, like prehistoric humans did — have found them to be highly egalitarian. Such groups don’t accumulate property or possessions, they share resources, and have no hierarchical power-structure. In such a social environment, humans don’t feel the need or desire to compete against or oppress each other. And when they do — which does happen, albeit rarely — the rest of the group fights against them or ostracizes them. As you might imagine, this defense mechanism makes it even less likely that someone would want to compete against or oppress other members of the group, for doing so would mean risking their very life (not a smart move, right?).

Considering the above, it doesn’t make sense that selfishness would have given humans an evolutionary advantage. Quite the contrary, altruism would. Helping, collaborating and sharing resources seems to have been the best way to keep oneself alive and safe. So, if that’s the case, then what could explain for the selfishness that pervades modern society? Well, to answer this question, we need to go back in time again and look at the conditions that turned humans selfish.

As humans were settling in agricultural societies, they gradually started to behave very differently compared to hunter-gatherers. They began to privately own land (which, by the way, was inconceivable to hunter-gatherers, who saw the land as a sacred gift of nature to be shared by all), as well as animals and other resources. This, as you can understand, led to social and economic disparities between humans. Resources weren’t enough for everyone anymore, as they used to be until that point in time. Naturally, thrown into an increasing environment of scarcity, humans felt more and more compelled to act selfishly in order to survive and gain competitive advantage.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and the same competitive ethic exists to this day — and arguably more than ever before. Modern humans — that is, humans like me and you — live in conditions of scarcity, where nearly everyone is forced to compete for money and resources. In this world, we’re taught from a very young age that there are winners and losers — and that if we want to be on the winners’ side, we need to be very competitive. Only this way, we’re conditioned to believe, can we find success in life. Add to this our materialistic culture wherein people are judged based on their possessions, and it becomes crystal clear why humans today behave mostly in selfish ways.

Of course, that doesn’t mean humans are inherently selfish, since as we’ve seen, for nearly the entire span of human history they had been mostly altruistic. Human nature is extremely malleable, and the environmental conditions humans live in largely shape how it’s expressed. Place people in a competitive environment, and they’ll most likely act selfishly. Place them in a collaborative one, and they’ll most likely act altruistically. Put differently, within each human lie two potential psychological aspects — a “selfish” and an “altruistic” one — and the side that becomes manifested is the one we cultivate through the environment we live in. It is in our hands, therefore, to design a social environment that helps us to develop the behavioral traits we want to see in ourselves and others, rather than those we don’t want.

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