Category: The Unbound Spirit

Why People Join Cults

BY SOFO ARCHON

Why do people join cults? Why do they join groups of other people who blindly accept and believe in ideologies, or blindly accept and follow sets of rules and authority figures?

It is often thought that those who join cults do so because they are not smart enough. But I find that, generally speaking, this is not the case. In fact, a lot of people who join cults are very intelligent and brilliant in all sorts of ways. So, why do they do that?

There are three main reasons. The first and most important one is that cults provide a sense of connection.

In this day and age, an unprecedented number of people feel lonely and alienated; they feel alone in a cold world where they have nobody to genuinely connect with. But humans are highly social beings. We all want to connect with others, to form intimate relationships, to share our thoughts, feelings and emotions, to listen to others and be heard by them, to love others and be loved by them. Yet, in modern society where community has been nearly entirely dissolved, many people crave connection more than anything else. They might have a successful career, high social status, plenty of money and material possessions, but the pain of loneliness in their hearts is excruciating nonetheless. And one way of soothing it is by joining cults.

Those who’ve joined cults often report feeling understood, accepted, loved, and those feelings boost their happiness and self-esteem. Of course, cults don’t accept anyone unconditionally — they accept only those who’re willing to unquestionably believe an offered ideology and follow an authority figure and/or a given set of rules. But as long as one does that, he or she is usually able to experience a sense of care, support and connection that was missing from their lives. In some cults, people are even willing to sacrifice their very lives to help other members of their cult — so strong is their social bonding. Not surprisingly, cults have a tremendous appeal to many of the lonely among us.

The second important reason why people join cults is that cults provide a sense of purpose.

Nowadays, a lot of us feel that we have no true purpose in life. Just think of how most people live: they force themselves to wake up early in the morning, they commute to a workplace where they spend 7, 8 or more hours doing work they don’t enjoy (or even hate), then they return home exhausted where they spend a few hours relaxing, watching TV, surfing the Internet or meeting their loved ones, and soon afterwards they go to bed to sleep, only to repeat the very same things the next day.

This lack of purpose leaves people feeling unfulfilled and renders their lives meaningless. But being so thirsty for purpose, some of them are willing to drink even from dirty, contaminated ponds, since they have a hard time finding a clean pond to drink from. And cults are contaminated ponds, for they lead us to believe and do things that are harmful to ourselves and the world. But they do offer a sense of purpose. That purpose can be pretty much anything: eliminating evil from the world, delivering people to heaven in the afterlife, bringing eternal justice to society, and so on and so forth. Of course, that purpose doesn’t really sprout from within themselves; rather, it is imposed on them by an outside source — that is, the cult they belong to. Hence, it can never truly satisfy their deep yearning for purpose. Yet it still provides a substitute that at least on a superficial level provides some sense of meaning and fulfillment to their lives.

The third important reason why people join cults is that cults provide a sense of certainty.

Life is fundamentally uncertain. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, whether the distant or near — in fact, we don’t even know what’s going to happen in the very next moment. That’s just the way of life, but some people don’t accept its unpredictable course, and try to control it in ways they can’t. Inevitably, they experience plenty of anxiety, as well as disappointment and sadness. On top of that, due to the harsh conditions (social, economic, environmental, and so on) many people live in, they naturally feel insecure about their very survival, and experience immense stress and anxiety as a result of that.

To escape from that painful psychological situation, some people often end up in cults. Cults can relieve people from the fear of uncertainty in two main ways. Firstly, by offering a dogma — that is, a belief system that supposedly contains the absolute truth, which, if followed to the letter, one can’t really go wrong. Another way is by offering an authority figure or leader who is supposedly confident, wise, even infallible. By unquestionably following that figure, cults promise their members that they don’t have to worry about the future — it has already been taken care for them by someone else. Let’s just do as our leaders say, cult members believe, and everything is going to be alright. In reality, of course, cult members not only lose their freedom by giving their personal power away to someone else, but they also often end up causing a lot of harm to themselves and the world due to their mindless behavior.

I could go on giving more reasons why people join cults, but I will stop here because I find the above three reasons to be the most important ones by far. If we want to effectively deal with the threats cults pose to society and the world in general, we need to study those reasons and deeply understand them, for only this way will we be able to change the conditions that give rise to cults and entrap people in them.

The Truth About the Egg Industry

BY SOFO ARCHON

egg industry

People like to eat eggs, but most of them don’t know about the cruel conditions in which the eggs they eat are produced.

Do you? If not, then let me tell you.

Nearly all eggs being bought and sold in the market come from the egg industry — an industry that sees chickens merely as egg production machines, and exploits tens of billions of them each year for one and only purpose: to sell their eggs and make profit. And the way it achieves that is… horrifying.

Here’s what the process of industrial egg production looks like:

When they are born, male and female chicks are separated. Right afterwards, nearly all male chicks are killed, usually by being ground alive or thrown into plastic bags where they’re left to suffocate. Why? Because the egg industry considers male chicks “worthless”, since they don’t lay eggs and hence can’t make the industry any profit.

But female chicks have it much worse: once they grow up, they are usually placed in huge barns where they have to live with hundreds or even a thousand of other chickens, confined in small cages where they step and lie on excrement. Living in such filthy conditions, many of them get sick and die. To minimize disease and deaths, the egg industry regularly pumps hens with hormones and antibiotics.

For the rest of their lives, hens have their eggs constantly stolen, which makes them produce more without end. In their natural state, they only lay eggs until they have a full nest, but by removing their eggs this natural process is interrupted, and they feel the instinctual urge to lay more of them in order to fill their nest. This is not only exhausting for them, but also damaging to their health, since every single egg requires tremendous calcium loss from a hen.

But things get even uglier: because of the continuous pressure their laying organs have to endure, some hens even die in the process. Those who don’t, are day in, day out exploited and abused for their eggs. But their life doesn’t last for long: once their production wanes, they all end up in the slaughterhouse where they have their throats slit. This usually happens when they are just a few months old, while in natural conditions chickens live for about 8 years.

This is the truth about the egg industry — a truth most people don’t know about, because it has been intentionally hidden from us. If you didn’t know, now you do, and this gives you the power to make better-informed decisions — that is, decisions that can help put an end to the egg industry, such us saying no to the consumption of its products and raising awareness about the unbelievable cruelty caused by it.

Today I Met a Reader — And Something Unexpected Happened

BY SOFO ARCHON

man alone

Although I’m reaching hundreds of thousands of people through my writing, I almost never meet any of my readers in person.

Well, today I happened to meet one. It wasn’t the first time I met him though; rather, it was the fourth. And something unexpected — and at the same time a bit frustrating — happened. But before I go into detail, let me first tell you the story of how we first met.

Over a year and a half ago (that is, in pre-pandemic times), my girlfriend and I participated in a local vegan social gathering, something we enjoyed doing from time to time. There we had the chance to meet a person who I like to call “the man with the biggest smile” (I really think he is) with whom we immediately clicked and became friends.

Soon afterwards, that friend introduced a friend of his own to my blog — a man who, as he himself told me just a couple of hours ago, was deeply moved and inspired by some of my articles, and as a result had formed a very high opinion of me, which made him want to meet me in person.

And so it happened. One night, we dined all together (he, my girlfriend and I, and the man with the biggest smile). We had a great time and met a couple more times from then on. During our meetings we’d discuss several topics, ranging from yoga to education to nutrition to art — topics that interest us all.

But then came today. This time, we met at his (the reader’s) house where we stayed from mid-afternoon until nearly midnight. And here’s the juicy part of the story: A few hours after being there and mostly listening to him talk, he asked me, “Sofo, nearly every time we meet I don’t hear you sharing your opinions and advice during our conversations that much. Why is that?”

My response was, “Well, actually I feel that I do share them, but perhaps not as much as you might want to.”

“Come on!,” he continued, “I was talking for so long on this and that topic, and you had so many opportunities to jump in and share your thoughts.”

“Well,” I said, “If that’s the case, then it doesn’t mean that I intentionally withheld my thoughts — it just means I didn’t feel like having anything to share at those moments. What you perceived as ‘opportunities’ were not been perceived the same way by me.”

“Does that mean you don’t like sharing your thoughts with us?,” he persisted.

“No, that’s not what I mean by that at all,” I said. “I actually love sharing them but, as I already said, only when I feel like it.”

“Tell me, then, when exactly do you feel like sharing your opinions?”, he pressed me on, clearly not pleased with my answer.

“What kind of answer would be satisfying to you?,” I responded. “I can’t tell you when exactly I feel like doing so. It’s something that just comes to me naturally — that is, spontaneously — depending on the circumstance.”

He nodded and smiled, and this slightly heated exchange of words ended.

But the conversation continued, and a bit later he explained why he asked all those questions: Because, after reading my blog he felt that I am a very talkative, wise guy, and expected that I would be sharing my opinions, knowledge and advice much more often than I did. He had pictured a certain image of me in his mind — and he felt a bit disappointed when I didn’t turn out to be exactly as he expected.

To which I responded, “Well, what can I do, this is me. If you want my friendship, then you’ll need to accept me as I am, not as you imagine me to be. Plus, if you want to know more about my thoughts on something, you can simply ask. Anyway, I usually feel more like sharing my opinions — and especially my advice — when people ask me for them.” I also added, “Of course, like any other person, I don’t have an opinion or advice about everything, so even if you do ask, don’t expect me to have an answer.”

It was getting very late, and my girlfriend reminded me that we had to go. So we hugged, mentioned the importance of having conversations like the above, and said goodbye to him and the man with the biggest smile.

***

Now, why exactly am I sharing this story with you? Because there are a few valuable insights it reminded me of:

1. Wisdom doesn’t equal talkativeness or heavily opinionated knowledge.

I don’t know about you, but the wisest people I’ve met in my life tended to speak far less than they listened, while the most foolish spoke a lot and rarely listened. To avoid any misunderstanding, I’m not saying this to make myself appear wise (which I don’t claim to be) nor to make my reader seem like a fool (which I don’t think he is; in fact, I find him to be intelligent and brilliant in many ways). I’m saying it simply because that’s what has been my experience, and when I contemplate on it, it makes total sense:

Wise people are wise because they have the ears (inner and outer) to hear and absorb information from their environment. This is how they learn and grow — through mindful observation. But this requires a sense of humility — and by that I mean admitting to oneself that one doesn’t know that much, and hence that there’s always enough room for personal growth and understanding. Fools, on the other hand, think they know pretty much everything and have an opinion on any subject, which is exactly what keeps them stuck in the psycho-spiritual state they are (i.e. that of being foolish). In fact, thinking they have it all figured out, fools aren’t willing to learn from anyone — not even from the wise, while the wise are open to learn from everyone — even from fools (yes, sometimes fools can teach us a lot).

Another thing I’ve realized over the years and want to briefly touch upon here is that, even if they are actually well-read and knowledgeable, people who tend to talk too much sharing their opinions and advice (especially when no one asks or cares for it) haven’t yet integrated that knowledge within themselves, and hence don’t apply it in their lives. So, why do they talk so much like that? There could be several reasons, but this is the most common one: They try to distract themselves from their inner demons. In other words, their behavior functions like a psychological defense mechanism arising from a deep-seated insecurity: that they might not be intelligent enough or able to deal with their own life problems.

2. Friendship can flower only under the sun of mutual acceptance.

To some extent, we all have expectations from our friends, life partners and people in general. For example, I do expect that my girlfriend won’t play music out loud for hours in my presence, or that she will be there to support me when I find myself in need of her help. This kind of expectations is a necessary part of a healthy relationship.

But there’s another kind that is extremely poisonous for both partners in a relationship: Expecting the other to be in ways they are not. For the one who has such expectations, there’s a constant feeling of disappointment and sadness (for their expectations can never be fulfilled), as well as a desire to control their partner — which results in further disappointment and sadness. And for their partner, such a behavior can be — depending on their psychological state — immensely painful, because they don’t feel accepted as they are. On the contrary, they feel judged, something that could emotionally traumatize them and leave them feeling inadequate and unworthy of love.

Acceptance is the foundation and very essence of friendship (or any other type of love relationship). That’s because for people to open up and intimately connect with others, they first need to be given the space to be who they truly are — and not how we expect them to be.

3. Strong relationships require genuine communication.

Although I felt a bit frustrated and uncomfortable during the above conversation with my dear reader (and now friend), I know that it was important that we had it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to resolve any possible misunderstandings or tension between us.

To avoid interpersonal conflict, most people usually don’t express what they have on their mind. This way, however, they can’t really understand others or be understood by them. As a result, their relationships tend to remain stagnant, superficial and inauthentic.

To build stronger relationships with others, it’s tremendously important that we’re as honest with them as we can, as well as curious (albeit sincere) to better get to know them. At some level, everyone knows this basic principle, yet many of us tend to forget or overlook it, so I hope this article will serve you as a reminder to be true to yourself and others.

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Greed, Altruism & Capitalism: A Critique of John Mackey

BY SOFO ARCHON

John Mackey - Conscious Capitalism

John Mackey, Advocate of Conscious Capitalism

Note: The following is an adapted transcript of a video published here.

In this article would like to offer my critique of some statements made recently by the CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods Market John Mackey on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. As you’ll see, Mackey tries to defend capitalism using some very weak arguments which I would like to expose here.

Although I’ve written a lot about the flaws of our economic system, when I do that I rarely talk about “capitalism” or “socialism” or “communism” or any other “ism”, because, for one, I find that those terms are loosely defined, and hence their use tends to create confusion instead of clarity. In addition, a lot of people identify as socialists or capitalists and so on, so when the “ism” they support and advocate is challenged, they usually become defensive and fight against the opposing side to win over it, without caring about having an actual discussion.

Now, John Mackey is a self-proclaimed conscious capitalist – a term that makes me laugh, really – but, anyway, he is speaking a lot about why business and competition and markets are so good for society and the planet, and basically he’s claiming that capitalism is amazing, and that, although it could be improved, it’s the only economic system that works — and not just works, but works great!

I find his claims to be far-fetched to the point of being delusional, but I hear claims like his all the time, so I thought of making this video to refute some of them and help show why our dominant global economic system – call it “capitalism,” “market economics” or however you will – is for the most part a destructive force that has to be stopped, if we truly want to live at peace with each other and in alignment with nature.

So, let’s start by reading what John Mackey has to say about business:

“Business isn’t primarily about maximizing profits. Business is primarily about creating value for other people. And through creating value for other people, you do make a profit. But it’s the value creation that comes first. The profits come second, in exchange. Right? And it’s almost if you are creating value, then you are profitable. And then you can reinvest those profits and you have this upward spiral.”

Ok, so, Mackey says that the primary goal of businesses is not to maximize profit, but to provide value to the consumer.

It’s true that businesses do in general provide consumers with something that the latter value, otherwise they wouldn’t buy it, and, as a result, businesses would not make profit, and hence die. The problem, however, is that what is valuable isn’t necessarily good — “good” in the sense of contributing to our personal, societal or planetary well-being. What if, hypothetically speaking, I find value in buying products that are made using toxic materials that pollute the soil or the air or the sea? Businesses can provide those products to me in exchange for profit, so does that mean such businesses are helping me or society or the world? Not really, for my very health and that of people and animals and everything else alive depends on the health of our planet.

Now, although businesses do want and, in fact, have to provide some kind of value in order to stay profitable, the truth is that for most of them, profit is the end goal, and serving the needs or wants of people is just the means through which they make profit. If that wasn’t the case, I’m pretty sure that businesses would not sell all the crap that they do or deceive people through advertising.

Having said that, I’m sure there are some — although, not many — businesses that do want to contribute to the well-being of the world, but their effectiveness in achieving that is restricted by the very structure of our economic system, since to serve the well-being of people and the planet in a way that is what you might call “ethical,” isn’t that profitable in the competitive, consumption-based and deception-filled game of business and markets. Hence, most of those businesses can’t really make much of an impact, for they have an extremely hard time staying alive in such a fundamentally anti-social and anti-environmental economy.

John Mackey goes on to talk about greed and how it is “human nature,” suggesting that it’s essentially pointless to try to minimize it since it’s an inseparable part of who we are.

“Business has its potential for higher purpose. It’s primarily about greed. Greed is found in human nature, Joe, it’s not just found in business people. There are plenty of greedy governmental officials, plenty of greedy politicians, greedy lawyers… Greed is endemic to the human nature. Business people either have no more or no less than it, it’s just part who we are.”

There’s no doubt that greed is part of human nature. Violence is part of it too. Murdering, raping and punching others in the face is, in a sense, “human nature.” When it comes to violence, of course, we understand that people who are violent, are generally people who have been subjected to harsh or violent conditions, such as poverty and abuse, and we know statistically that if those conditions were improved significantly, then violence in society would be largely reduced.

Greed, just like violence, has psychological and economic roots. I’ll not go much into what those are right now, since I’ve already made another video exploring this very topic. In relation to this context, however, I’ll just say that monetary greed results from a sense of inner lack that is caused partly by our debt-based economic system which creates artificial scarcity and incentivizes competition and incessant economic growth.

Mackey continuous:

“It’s a type of utopianism. It’s an attempt to change human nature. If we would all love each other, if we’d all share equally, then the world would be a better place. And, hey, guess what? It probably would be, if we were naturally that way, but we are not naturally that way.”

If greed has its root causes, is it utopian to think of changing the conditions that tap to and feed the greedy part of our nature? Is it utopian to consider altering or even getting rid of the business game as we know it, with its profit-seeking orientation that breeds greedy behavior by design?

Again, greed is part of human nature, and there’s no denying that most likely people will always be greedy to one degree or another. But my point here is that greed can be minimized by changing the conditions that give rise to it, and should be, if we want to live in a saner and overall healthier world.

Let’s listen to some more pearls of wisdom coming out of the conscious capitalist’s mouth:

“The beauty of capitalism is, it’s a win-win-win game. It’s an infinite game. It’s a game because the customers are winning, or they wouldn’t trade. The employees are winning… How the customers are winning? They are getting products and services, and there is competition to make those services and products better. The employees are winning because they have jobs and opportunities to grow, benefits are paid. And they do that voluntarily, they’re not forced to work for any particular company. They do it because they think it’s in their best interest.”

OK, Mackey made some big statements here.

Firstly, he said that customers are winning. But, are they? Are they, for example, truly happy spending their hard-earned money buying stuff they don’t really benefit from yet which they were persuaded to obtain by manipulative advertising that seeks to destroy our self-esteem in order to increase sales? And, saying that they wouldn’t trade if they weren’t happy doing so, is ridiculous. For, in this system, we have no other choice than to trade when it comes to meeting our needs. You have to buy food or you starve, you have to pay for housing or you live on the streets. In other words, the freedom to not trade simply does not exist.

Secondly, he says that employees are winning because they have jobs and the opportunity to grow, and that they voluntarily choose to work for the companies they like. Do most people in this system have the choice to not work for some company? Not really. In other words, they are coerced to sell their work to someone, for otherwise they won’t be able to earn money and make it out alive. Hence, in this system the exploitation of workers by the employers is structurally inevitable.

Now, here’s the part from this interview that I enjoyed the most:

“We may do some things for altruistic reasons, but you cannot build a society around it.”

Let me repeat what he just said: We may do some things for altruistic reasons, but you cannot build a society around it.

Oh, really? You can’t build a society around altruism? You can’t build a society where people share resources – which, by the way, are enough to satisfy everyone’s needs — instead of neurotically hoarding them at the expense of others? You can’t build a society where people work together to maximize social well-being, instead of fighting against each other when they don’t actually need to?

This is bullshit.

Next, John Mackey talks a bit about the environmental impacts of our economy and the importance of regulating business:

“There will be unintended negative consequences, as you say, environmentally. Well, that’s why you have to regulate business to a certain extent. That’s why you have to make people responsible for their environmental pollutants.”

So, Mackey says that it’s important to regulate business so that it is forced to be more environmentally-friendly, forgetting that our economic system requires endless economic growth and consumption on a planet of finite resources. Why? Because money has to be constantly moving in the economy or else the economy would collapse. If the circulation of money was stopped or reduced significantly, people would lose their jobs and hence spend less money in the market, which would create unemployment on a vast scale, and that would result in impoverishment and social instability. In other words, our economic system requires the over extraction of the Earth’s resources. Hence, it’s structurally anti-environmental.

Now, concerning regulation, in a world ruled by money those who have the most possess the power to influence regulation to their own economic advantage. The government itself is, in a sense, governed by the rich. I do agree that regulation does help overall, but not much. That’s obvious, for example, when you consider that, despite the efforts made thus far by activists and certain political figures to regulate businesses, all life support systems are currently in decline due to the game of business, and both we humans and the countless other beings we share this planet with are suffering immensely because of that.

Lastly, John Mackey goes on to say that we needn’t attempt to fundamentally change our economic system, and the reasons he gives for that are hilarious.

“The sad truth is that humanity is not perfectible. We can never create the perfect system. And the attempt to create the perfect system, the perfect enemy is the good. Capitalism is not perfect, because people’s choices and what people want is varies. Capitalism will sell cigaretts to people because that’s what people want. It gives them pleasure but it’s bad for their health, but they are giving people what they want. It’s the same thing in any type of externality. That’s not deliberably done to harm the society, it’s a sort of a byproduct.”

Sure, humanity is not perfectible, and, I agree, no system will ever be perfect. But that doesn’t justify having an economic system that by design creates artificial scarcity, poverty and disease, that breeds competition, violence and war, and that causes environmental destruction to the point of possibly seeing our very civilization perish in the near future.

All the above are largely the result of business and profit-seeking. So, to say that, although our economic system isn’t perfect, it is still good or anything close to that, is just delusional. This system is inherently destructive, and unless we radically redesign it, things will only get worse.

Systemic Racism, Explained Simply (with an Example)

BY SOFO ARCHON

george floyd painting

Note: The following is an adapted transcript of a spontaneous talk.

When we hear the word “racism,” most of us tend to think of what is called “interpersonal racism.” This term is used to describe racism that occurs between individuals – that is, the holding of negative attitudes toward a different race.

But there’s another, covert form of racism which is much less understood by the general public. It has been called “systemic racism” (also known as “structural racism” or “institutional racism”) and refers to the way a combination of factors – such as historical, cultural, legal and economic – normalize, legitimize and produce racist outcomes, even in the absence of racist intent.

If the above definition sounds vague to you, here’s a simple hypothetical example to help you better understand what systemic racism is, and hopefully to spark your interest to learn more about this important social issue.

***

Imagine that you are a white kid living in a district of some city of the US. A district which is populated mostly by white, middle class people, and where it is quite safe to live, it has almost no violence or crime.

Now, imagine that there is also another district in the same city where mostly black people live, and which has very high rates of violence and crime. The people who are living in that district are very poor, and have been politically and economically oppressed for generations. They are people whose great-grandparents were subjected to slavery. And they are people who still, to this day, carry the traumas of their great-grandparents in their collective psyche. They are people who have been culturally discriminated against, and because they live in so harsh conditions, some of them are led to perform acts of crime or violence.

As you grow up, you often hear in the news stories about black people committing crime and violence. And, slowly-slowly, influenced by the mass media, you begin to feel a bit afraid of black people. You also watch movies that usually show a black person or a bunch of black people committing crimes. In most of those movies, there is also a white policeman or policewoman, who is considered the good person, and who is fighting against the black criminals in order to restore peace, order and justice in society.

Inspired by such movies, one day in your early adulthood you decide to become a policeman or policewoman yourself. During your training to become that, you are told that criminals are bad or even evil, and that your job is to control, dominate and punish them. And, after years of training, you are given a gun and you are told that you can use it when needed. Then, you’re officially allowed to work as a policeman or policewoman.

One day during work, you encounter a black man who is committing a crime right in front of your eyes, and without second thought and for no important reason, you pull the trigger of your gun and you shoot that person. And you heavily injure or even kill him, something that you would not have done if the person was white.

Now, it’s not that you’re necessarily racist. Perhaps you like black people — or at least you think that you do — and you want to see them well, and you think that your work is to protect them as well. But you acted that way unconsciously and with no bad intentions due to your cultural conditioning. And the victim is not inherently bad, or evil. As we saw, it is the harsh conditions that he was brought up in and perhaps still lives in that led him to behave that way. Perhaps, because of those conditions, he developed a mental illness that led him to act that way and committed that crime. Or maybe he’s so poor that he had to commit a crime to keep on surviving.

This, my friends, is a brief and simple example to help you gain an insight into what systemic racism is, and to understand some of the many different forms that it can take.

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

BY SOFO ARCHON

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.