When people ask me what my favorite animal is, I’ll often surprise them by saying Homo sapiens, human beings.
After all, I’m a human, my partner is a human, my family and (most of) my best friends are human. So I have a personal stake in human beings and their well-being, but we’re also just fascinating animals! Humans have an incredible capacity for logical and imaginative thought no other life-form can match. Humans are uniquely altruistic and creative among animals.
What surprises people about my answer, of course, is that I have a reputation for caring about the Earth and our fellow lifeforms, more so perhaps, than the average westerner, and the common-sense view is that humans and the environment are at odds. “Human nature” is seen as antithetical to the survival of the rest of the biosphere. This view is often summed up by some form of the claim that the human species is a cancer, spreading over and killing the Earth.
When people use the term “human nature” in this way, what they mean is something along the lines of “greedy, non-empathic, and out to maximize personal gain at the expense of others”. The problem is that this is hardly a universal description of ubiquitous human behavior.
It’s a description of colonial capitalism.
But, but… human nature!
The appeal to “human nature” as to why we can’t have nice things is already somewhat of a running joke among leftist circle. It should be pretty clear to anyone who has traveled too far beyond their home, or looked into history in any depth, that “human nature” is not an unchanging phenomenon but a product of the culture and times of the individual human.
If however, we want to try to find some common facets of “human nature” across time and cultures, we’re forced to admit that humans are, if anything, wired to be altruistic and prosocial.
In their brains, humans possess specialized cells called mirror neurons that activate, not just when we perform a particular action, but when we see another person perform the action. This function extends to cover the emotions of others too, in other words, it’s what hard-wires us to empathize.Researchers as UC Berkley have found a link between the vagus nerve and compassion for others. The vagus nerve runs from the base of the brain through most of the torso, it’s activation is associated with the warm feeling in your chest you get when you see someone do a good deed. Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory stated about the research:
Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity.
While it’s true empathy is something everyone possesses to varying degrees, recent studies and experiments have demonstrated that altruism may actually be something humans are just innately wired for. For instance, a literature review in the journal Frontiers on human prosocial behavior stated:
The fact that humans cooperate with nonkin is something we take for granted, but this is an anomaly in the animal kingdom. Our species’ ability to behave prosocially may be based on human-unique psychological mechanisms. We argue here that these mechanisms include the ability to care about the welfare of others (other-regarding concerns), to “feel into” others (empathy), and to understand, adhere to, and enforce social norms (normativity).
A recent experiment, published in Social Neuroscience, used a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to temporarily dampen activity in various areas of subjects’ brains. The control group had a portion of their brain dampened that has no effect on altruism or selfishness, the experimental group had the portion of their brain dampened that is responsible for blocking impulses. The assumption was that with their impulse blocking mechanisms dampened, the experimental group would feel free to act more selfishly than they might otherwise. Exactly the opposite occurred, the experimental group was a full 50% more generous than the control group.
And why shouldn’t this be the case? Common sense dictates that a species such as humans, a social species that lives in groups just like birds, ants, whales or bison, would thrive when inter-group cooperation is high and inter-group competition is low. Imagine two tribes of hunter-gatherers, one in which the members make a point to cooperate and look out for one another, and one in which each member is out to maximize their own gain at the expense of others and of the tribe itself. Which one of these tribes will persist to propagate future human generations? The cooperative tribe would thrive relative to the tribe torn apart by violence, oppression, and all the other means by which selfish individuals pursue personal accumulation.
Indeed, this seems to be the case throughout the history of the human species. The original human social group, a tribe of hunter-gatherers, seems to be a “fiercely egalitarian” one, according to the anthropological research. In fact, it seems like hunter-gatherer societies were and are actively structured to be egalitarian, having systems set up to prevent domination and oppression.
So there is absolutely no evidence humans are hard-wired to be selfish, at least among other humans, but what about the relationship between humans and the rest of the living world? As I’ve pointed out, we’re currently in the process of wiping out as much as two-thirds of the life on earth. These extinctions are, of course, directly attributable to human beings. Human beings have done such a number on the Earth, destroying the biosphere and altering the very biogeochemical cycles that keep life going, that geologists have proposed that we have entered a new epoch of geologic history characterized by human activity— the Anthropocene, the age of humans.
Homo sapiens have been on Earth for as long as 200,000 years and lived a largely tribal, hunter-gatherer existence until around 12,000 years ago with the occurrence of the agricultural revolution. However, the explosion of negative environmental indicators has occurred almost exclusively in the last couple hundred years.
Human beings lived on the Earth for hundreds of thousands of years before we became such a problem.
The main objection to this stance is that prehistoric peoples were no angels themselves, that there was never a time when human beings didn’t exert an influence on the environment. Doubters will point to the evidence that the prehistoric people of Turtle Island actively managed ecosystems through fire (though the extent of human vs. lightening caused fires is debated), or most damning of all, they imagine, the Pleistocene extinctions.
The Pleistocene extinctions are a series of prehistoric extinctions of megafauna all over the world, occurring suspiciously close to the first human occupation of the continent they occur on.
There has been a debate, here too, on the relative culpability of human hunters and the climate change that was occurring at this time, but many people now accept that it was likely human hunters that were the ultimate cause of these extinctions, though proximate causes may have been loss of prey or possibly a keystone species such as Mastodon (this view may change as a recent study posits that humans live on Turtle Island as long as 130,000 years ago, though this remains to be proven). The Pleistocene extinctions, therefore, are often held up as an example of humans innate inability to coexist with the more-than-human world.
This view, however, even if it is true, is not as much a uniquely human phenomenon as its proponents would have you think.
3 million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama rose out of the ocean to connect the previously separate continents of North and South America. Animals that evolved separately for millions of years suddenly converged in an event known as the Great American Interchange. North American species never before seen in South America migrated south while South American species migrated north. The interchange was not equal, however. North American animals, for reasons having to do with evolutionary history, greatly out-competed their South American counterparts — eliminating many of them and going on to populate South America with half the genera we recognize today.
While we may mourn the passing of these species from the planet, we would never deign to say that it occurred because any or all of the North American species were innately unable to coexist with other lifeforms. After all, they did so for millions of years before and for millions of years since. The same can be said of humans. Even if we accept the premise that humans were 100% to blame for the Pleistocene extinctions (meaning climate change had no effect at all) we still have to contend with the fact that the extinctions occurred during the small window of time Homo sapiens was spreading to other continents, not before and not after.
When European colonists first set foot on Turtle Island, it was a land of biological plenty. Grizzly Bear and American Bison, the most prominent extant megafauna, numbered in the hundreds of thousands to millions. This appears to have been the case for tens of thousands of years while the indigenous humans lived here. Why, if the issue is one of innate human nature and not the peculiarities of one particular economic and social model, did these megafauna survive the Pleistocene extinction only to be almost completely wiped out (97–99%) within the last 400 years by capitalist colonial Europeans?
This fantasy that human beings are somehow uniquely unable to coexist with other lifeforms is, in fact, a form of human supremacy. The assumption is that there is a hard line between human beings and the rest of “nature”. At one time this notion had a religious underpinning but the secular world still preserves it, explaining human supremacy by the penchant of our intellect. However, as Jared Diamond demonstrates in his book The Third Chimpanzee, many of the characteristics we take to be uniquely human are more accurately understood as differences in degree than in kind. Diamond demonstrates examples from the more-than-human world of characteristics commonly thought of as unique to humans such as language, agriculture, art and even drug use. Humans are exceptional in many ways but no more exceptional, Diamond argues, than say, woodpeckers.
With the admission that Homo sapiens is only one member of the democracy of species and doesn’t represent a unique category of extra-biological superiority, we can see the ridiculousness of the claim that they can be a species doomed to destroy life, the world and themselves. The most basic concepts of evolution belie the claim that any species could evolve to be uniquely unsuited to live among other species, such a species could simply not have survived, as humans have for hundreds of thousands of years, without wiping itself out.
The Real Cancer
The metaphor of cancer, while not accurately attributable to human beings as a whole, is instructive in a way its proponents don’t mean for it to be. A cancerous cell, say a cell of lung cancer, is not a unique type of cell – it is simply a lung cell, like any other lung cell, that has had its growth inhibitions curtailed by mutation. When a person contracts lung cancer, we don’t suppose it is because lung cells are inherently unable to survive in equanimity with the other cells of a human body, we recognize something has gone wrong with them along the way.
When a cell turns cancerous it is because of mutations in the genes that code for cell division, (proto-oncogenes) such that they begin to divide uncontrollably (becoming oncogenes), and mutations in the genes that inhibit cell growth (tumor suppressor cells), such that they no longer do so. Colonial capitalism is our oncogene (or perhaps, oncomeme), it told a group of humans long ago that the whole world was there for them to exploit (including other groups of ‘savage’ humans) and that the destiny of humanity was perpetual growth. This group of humans spread, either eliminating or mutating other groups of humans it met along the way.
If colonial capitalism is our oncogene, then the purposefully constructed egalitarian and reciprocal cultures of prehistoric and contemporary indigenous people are our tumor suppressor gene. Many indigenous cultures, in addition to being organized horizontally, have deep cultural and spiritual traditions of reciprocity with the ecosystems in which they live and taboos against practices such as over-exploitation. Taking the ecological view we took earlier in regards to Homo sapiens we can easily see how such practices would allow a group of people to persist indefinitely, in the absence of outside factors. Indigenous humans, in this way, functioned as just one part of the ecosystems they lived in, as opposed to the colonial capitalist dominant culture, which simply transplants itself on top of any ecosystem it finds — altering the environment until it fits the culture (e.g. monoculture cornfields in the place of tall-grass prairies and deserts alike)- not vice versa. This is a culture in which the tumor suppressor genes are no longer functioning, a culture which has brought the world to the brink of destruction in a couple hundred years.
It’s important to note that living as a part of an ecosystem does not mean you do not exert an effect on it. This is another example of the supposed innate destructiveness of Homo sapiens that does not hold up to ecological inspection. Imagine the ludicrousness of saying that Beaver was not part of the river ecosystem because they exert an influence on it with their dams. To be part of an ecosystem is, by definition, to exert influence on it and to have its influence exerted on you. Take, for example, the burning of forests in the American North West by the indigenous people who lived there. Opponents often point to this as evidence of those bad humans altering and destroying ecosystems for their own gain. However, inquiry into this practice shows that it produced a mosaic of meadow, early forest, mature forest, old growth forest and burnt forest that likely maximized biodiversity in that region in keeping with the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis in ecology, which posits that biodiversity is maximized when disturbances such as storms, floods or fires are neither too frequent nor too rare. This holds up when compared to the way our Forest Service treats forests and forest fires in the west today, which suppresses the fire to benefit lumber extraction and which has resulted in a definite reduction in the biodiversity of that area.
The danger of blaming human nature for societal or environmental ills is that it often means blaming the victims of harsh capitalist policies while letting the economic and social system at the bottom of our many crises off the hook. Not to mention, a belief that humans, unless controlled, are naturally evil, selfish creatures provides the rationale for the need of authoritarian institutions to control them.
In addition to passing the buck, saying that the destruction of the world is because of our innate human nature effectively erases the many peoples living in harmony within their ecosystems for hundreds of thousands of years before the colonial capitalist humans wiped them out, as well as the many who still resist colonial rule. It’s important to note that this wiping out of the old paradigm doesn’t make colonial capitalist culture “more successful” than these indigenous cultures were any more than we would call cancer cells “successful” for taking over a body that it will eventually kill, taking itself down too.
Human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature. It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed, and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution. It takes little imagination to see how these assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life.
This relationship between concepts of human nature and the culture those concepts are developed in is reciprocal. Our culture tells us that selfishness is human nature from the time we are very young, we grow up believing it and because capitalism is structured to reward selfishness, the most selfish are the ones launched into positions of power, seemingly proving the original assertion that this is the natural way of things.
If it’s in our very nature to be destructive than there’s nothing we can do to stop the end of the world, it’s hopeless. However, if we admit that it is only the way we as a species have been living recently that is the problem, there is still hope to change course. This is not a polemic about returning to some atavistic hunter-gatherer culture, the changes we’ve already wrought would make such a thing impossible anyway. But if we know the problem, we can work out the solution. It will involve engaging with the wisdom and traditions of indigenous peoples, who know how to live as a part of a functioning ecosystem and changing the whole global colonial capitalist society to one that is aware of its place within the democracy of species and gives voice and agency to the more-than-human world.
This article was originally published on Medium.