Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Human Nature Redux?

In his Feb. 17 New York Times column, "Human Nature Redux," David Brooks argues that belief in human goodness is nearly extinct--and that science is responsible:

Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don’t even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.

This belief, most often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, begins with the notion that “everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Human beings are virtuous and free in their natural state. It is only corrupt institutions that make them venal...

This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led, first of all, to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying... It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves...

Let's pause here and ask ourselves if what Brooks writes is true.

Perhaps belief in goodness led people to hit the road and launch communes, but drugs? Does a belief in human goodness compel the believer to take drugs? Are crack addicts and pot smokers united in their faith that men and women are born good?

I wasn't able to find an empirical study (I looked) that says so, and I doubt very much that Brooks found one. Most of the studies I found pointed to histories of abuse, stress, and so on that fuel patterns of addiction--I didn't see anything about Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mr. Brooks continues:

In the realm of foreign policy, it led to a sort of global doctrine of the noble savage — the belief that societies in the colonial world were fundamentally innocent, and once the chains of their oppression were lifted something wonderful would flower.

Whose belief? When? Obviously Brooks is referring to the anticolonial struggles of the middle of the twentieth century, when European empires collapsed under their own weight and the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America gained some degree of independence--leading, in many cases, to wars and civil wars, dictatorships, and border disputes. To be sure, such struggles produced armies of disappointed idealists, few of whom, I think it's safe to say, saw themselves as "noble savages."

But more seriously, it is false to claim that simple belief in human goodness is what lifted "the chains of their oppression." If only that had been the case. No, I think if Brooks bothered to research the anticolonial struggles of the era, he'd find that it was a combination of economic failure and guerrilla warfare that drove Europeans out of their colonies. In the end, they didn't have much choice in the matter.

Brooks continues:

Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded.

The past 30 years? Here's a quote I found from a 1932 issue of Time Magazine: "Simple human goodness is out of style. To modern eyes it appears too simple to be good, too good to be true." And so it seems that for newspaper and magazine columnists, simple human goodness is continuously going out of style; for the rest of us, however, it somehow persists. This lack of perspective does not stop him from continuing:

It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

Did progressive education fail? I will put that question aside; it's beyond the scope of a single blog entry. Instead I am going to focus on the alleged "big blow" science delivered to belief in human goodness. Writes Brooks:

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists...

Moreover, human beings are not as pliable as the social engineers imagined. Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups...

Where to begin? On nearly every point, Brooks proves himself to be wrong or ill-informed or out-of-date.

Far from believing that "human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules," today neuroscientists (and scientists in many other disciplines) are discovering that brain structures are more "plastic"--that is, "subject to changes brought about by environmental input"--than previously supposed. "Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest," writes UC Berkeley Social Psychologist (and Greater Good editor) Dacher Keltner. "These studies support a view of emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive--a view which has its origins in Darwin's Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated."

In his introduction to Douglas P. Fry's new book Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine, demolishes the case Brooks tries to make in his column. Sapolsky is worth quoting at length:

One of the truly well-entrenched realms of It-Is-Inevitable-That is that it is inevitable that humans will be violent and that human societies will wage warfare... Anyone noticing the blood-drenched world we live in would have to take that idea seriously. And academics of various stripes have as well.

Students of primatology and human evolution sure thought this. The 1960s saw the rise of the Robert Ardrey / man-the-territorial-hunter / big-cojones school of human evolution. Drawing upon the social system of the savanna baboon as a surrogate for our formative history in the savanna, the conclusion was that we are by nature a violent, stratified, male-dominated species...

[Meanwhile, the] game theorists were awash in the inevitability of violence and noncooperation as well... Neuroendocrinolosts weighed in also. Testosterone increases aggression, as it increases the excitability of parts of the brain relevant to aggression...

And, naturally, none of this is true.

Even those violent chimps and baboons can reconcile after fights, have cooperative, altruistic relationships, can even establish and transmit cultures of low aggression. Then there are the bonobo chimps, a separate species that is as genetically related to us as are chimps, a species that is female-dominated, has remarkably low rates of aggression, and solves every conceivable social problem with every conceivable type of sex. The game theorists, meanwhile, have spent recent years revealing the numerous circumstances that select for cooperation rather than competition even in competitive games...And normal levels of testosterone turn out not to cause aggression as much as exaggerate preexisting social tendencies...

Thus Brooks is quite wrong to write that science has dealt "a big blow" to belief in human goodness. The opposite is true. If his column proves anything, it's that belief that humans are born evil goes hand in hand with shoddy and superficial thinking.


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