We humans are peculiar creatures. Each of us harbor contrasting views about the world we found ourselves in, some perceiving it to be one of hope whilst another sees is as a place of endless disappointments. With hypotheses such as these, at times well-informed or born out of random guessing, we act under their guises; to be champions of the people as one who believes the earth is a kind and just place, or a man notorious for his cruelty as he has seen only the darkest parts life has to offer, on simply someone who stands somewhere in between the two extremes.
The results of our thoughts, deeds, and decisions generated by our views create a plethora of doubts concerning the nature of human morality. Manifesting in the oft heard question of “are we good or evil?” we ourselves do not know where our species stands on the moral spectrum. Hence this post shall discuss and provide a hypothesis of the puzzle plaguing human nature. Via reviewing the actions of ancestors and ourselves, the various environments we found ourselves in throughout history; all with the employment of the harsh evolutionary logic that underlies the things we do, and the persons we become. Perhaps, by conducting this little hypothetical experiment, we could slightly add to the pool of knowledge regarding the reasons for why we are ourselves—animals capable of utmost brutality the likes of genocide, yet also of throwing ourselves to the fire for the sake of total strangers.
As a starting point, let us begin by discussing the Noble Savage hypothesis. A conception which purports that before civilization came to be—the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and so on—the men, women, and children of our species lived in almost complete harmony. A society in which all individuals are treated as equals, where all of us are eager to do utmost good, and would only commit acts of violence if our lives and those of the ones dear to us are threatened. I find it quite difficult to support this view.
The Noble Savage, frankly put, never existed throughout human history. Selfish and powerful individuals has always been and will always be part of our species’ tale. From the early days of our dawn in the continent of Africa, those with the power to rule over their fellow men did so, beginning the eras of classism and individualism. A time of climbing atop each other’s lifeless bodies to succeed was ushered in. Nightmarish stuff for supporters of the Noble Savage idea, exact opposites of what they had claimed to be the history of homo sapiens. This criticism does not come without evidence, and though I wish the imaginary wonder of an egalitarian society existed sometime in our past, the claim can be quite easily refuted.
In the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, he discussed the Noble Savage ideal in great detail. Via analyzing the fossilized remains of our long-deceased ancestors, and observing contemporary nomadic tribes—which many scientists utilize as a model for the ways of life of our progenitors—acts of violence can be found in surprising abundance. Several of the more intact corpses analyzed showed cler sings of having been punctured, gashed, bludgeoned, et cetera by man-made objects. The tribesmen observed regularly committed murders, rapes, and genocides. Following tribal feuds, the total annihilation of rival clans’ males as well as their children are accompanied by the abduction and raping of the women. Moreover, these clan wars can be instigated by simple insults, or crimes as petty as theft; the things we from the more modern world would not consider worthy of killing over. Those left out of the civilized process are nowhere near noble, they are brutal, sadistic, and utterly remorseful when it comes to taking the lives of their enemies (Pinker, 2002).
To elaborate further on tribal conflicts, when seen from a numerical standpoint, they can be perceived as nearly negligible. A few dozen deaths can’t possibly compare to the number of coffins needed to house the bodies of soldiers who died in the World Wars, or even the corpses generated by international warfare. However, when we look at the data from a proportional point of view, that is by focusing on the death-rates, the percentage of fatalities found from inter-clan warfare is staggering. At times an entire population is effectively wiped off the map, nor spared such as what is expected in the resolution of modern conflicts. Such as when the Allies aided in the reconstruction of Japan and Germany after World War Two.
The unwritten wars of prehistory may been similar in terms of completely annihilating the defeated, and/or the part of integrating females into the victorious side. Sparing the women works for the benefit of the victors as they can be—forgive my usage of this overtly coarse analogy—repurposed as reproduction machines (of course, the males only saw the appeal of sex, not necessarily the expansion of their genetic legacy). Hence, a the winning tribe continued to grow by these means of fighting and plundering. Yet at some point we stopped the endless roaming, raping, killing, and infanticides. We suddenly preferred settling down in less temporary encampments. The question is why, and much to the dismay of Noble Savage supporters, the answer may lie in the birth of civilization.
When tribes grow large enough, gallivanting around the wilderness is no longer effective nor safe—too many people to keep tabs on at once (Marr, 2012). Ten or twenty is doable, but a hundred? A rather challenging ordeal considering the threat Mother Nature poses. Hence, attempts at settling down on relatively permanent lands began, enabled by innovations the likes of agriculture and construction methods able to withstand the weather. With this developmental step in humankind, a system needed to be made, one that could ensure that the tribe is performing at optimal levels and not squandering around precious resources like food and energy.
The division of labor is the answer. If all the men of a tribe went out to hunt wild beasts, positing that the population of the animals is always limited, their harvest would likely only be slightly more rewarding than that produced by a smaller group of select individuals. Furthermore, other duties required for survival would be abandoned had all the men gone—guarding their land, women and children, tool-construction and so on. Efficiency is essential for any clan hoping to thrive. Job-division is one of the many aspects of civilization, and it undoubtedly makes the wonders we see today possible.
Though with the division of labor comes intensified classism. In tribal societies, it is usualy the hunters who are treated as the elites of the society. They are handed larger shares of foods and more women to copulate with, than their stay-at-home brethren. This unfairness is caused partly due to the relative rarity of meat when compared to crops, as well as the physical fitness—where sexual selection plays a part—necessary to be an effective hunter. Simply put, they are often placed atop of the social ladder because of the nature of their work.
Classism is by no means a good, but it has its uses. Regardless, no man should be treated as lesser just because of the station he found himself in. Yet this type of segmentation allows for a somewhat unenjoyable harmony. Fights, occurrences which are more common among those considering themselves as equally footed, rarely breaks out when either one of the party “knows his place.” It’s an unappealing method of reducing conflicts, but it is certainly a good thing that today’s employers almost never have to fear being murdered by his employees—which is what would probably happen when someone throws out orders without having a recognized authority to do so.
Here is where we must return to the original question about the morality of man. There are few, if any, evidence supporting the Noble Savage’s idealistic vision of humankind. Man is brutal when left in a world where murder is of little consequence. But if we introduce this imaginary individual into what we know of as civilization, he would have to think twice before striking, or suffer the morbid consequences. Supposing he understands the situation he’s in, questions the likes of “What kind of punishment would happen if I did this?” and “Am I allowed to kill so and so?” alongside many more, would be subconsciously and consciously processed by his mind. Civilization provides additional factors into the calculating part of our brains. Some of which, like classism, enforced punishments for crimes, even job we have add to the pacifist hand of the scale.
Humans are adaptable, contextual creatures. When the climate is ‘kill or be killed’, we will follow it throughout its course for the sake of living. However, place a large enough population of peoples, give them some form of hierarchies and laws, and we would lay witness to the diminishing rate of of the deaths by human hands. This, I would argue, is because we are neither good nor bad.
The logic of evolution favors the species that can find the ways to survive long enough to reproduce. In the time of our predecessors, killing rivals and mating with their women were effective strategies. Yet civilization, with all its rules and social norms, accompanied by the means to administer them effectively, devalued the kill-plunder tactic. Instead of having to be battle-hardened, bloodthirsty warriors, the civilized need to rather obey the invisible laws surrounding him and fulfill the duties demanded of him to be evolutionarily successful. For being an outcast, imprisoned, or executed by one’s own peoples obviously give no boost to the reproductive chances of a person.
Whilst those who do not follow the path of civilization—which overwhelmed the more divisive members of our species due to the civilizing process resulting in larger population sizes, pools of resources, and other benefits enjoyed exclusively by the civilized—would be excluded from all the plusses made by progress: stability, security, chances to procreate without having to fight for a female, etc. Nearly all of the sought-after gains favored by evolution, are readily available without much risk to one’s health. If civilization does indeed allow for an individual’s genetic line to continue on, without having to resort to potentially fatal situation, it only makes sense that our species’ members who chose it would be more prosperous. Their rivals would be constantly plagued by the wilderness, uncertainties which could result in a sudden death—ones that may happen before the reproductive phase.
Goodness, morality, altruism all came from the civilizing process. In the sense that the environment provided by a civilized lifestyle is rarely shadowed by death—a logarithmic reduction of the possibility to perish while living in tribes. With the relief of having far less worries, one can concentrate on the things not necessarily related to survival.
Altruism and our sense of cooperation is inherent in our genes—otherwise no such thing as ancient tribes could have existed. It is fruitful to share our piece of beef with a starving neighbor, as such an act increases probability of a future return. A kind of informal investment, if you will. However, helping those in need, although at times indirectly beneficial to ourselves, isn’t free and unfortunately may come with too high of a cost. When we consider that tribal societies live on the most meager and basic of resources, it is no to see that sharing is rarer than amongst those living in more prosperous cities; giving away that slice of chicken might mean starvation in the days to come. Theft, squabbles over the tiniest scraps of foodstuff can result in bloodshed without the safeguards of civilization. People living in cities, except for the impoverished and homeless, would in all likelihood never encounter such unpleasantness.
When we have dinner with our friends or acquaintances, we openly share our meals. We ask, “Would you like another slice of pizza?” or “Want some more?” and likewise inquiries. This sharing be attributed to the safety-nets granted by civilization. In contemporary first-world countries, there are various security guarantees strewn about for their citizens: free healthcare and education, subsidies, grants, the list goes on. Compared to our ancient progenitors, we are living a life of luxuries unimaginable to them.
The level of fortunes enjoyed by people living in safe, stable, modern environments encourages kindness. When our food stocks are so plentiful, it sounds wrong not to share it, laying out the path for charities and such. The comfort we have allows us to be kinder, gentler, as we no longer have to worry about survival with the same tenacity as our now dust predecessors. Safety begets altruism.
To answer the question of good and evil, I propose that humans can—and have proven—adorn either one of the masks. The genetic components are there for us to be kind or cruel (unless we suffer from some strange abnormalities). But how we as individuals and groups turn out to be, relies heavily on the atmosphere of the locales we find ourselves in. Context, the environment, is key in shaping who we’ll eventually become; just as much as our genes dictate our paths in life.
Marr, Andrew. (2012). A History of the World. London: Pan Macmillan.