Just the other day a friend of mine was going on and on about the real cause for war:
“It’s human nature.”
Man, by his very nature, is aggressive and will fight to the finish, he declared.
2001: A Space Odyssey.
He reenacted for me the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film.
A group of foraging apes are on the hunt for food and are driven off by larger apes.
Then, as if in a moment of great evolutionary insight and pre-technological innovation, one of them wraps its fingers around a well-shaped club-like piece of wood, raises it high overhead and slams it into the ground.
Dust rises. The music increases in tempo and volume. And again the stick is brought to the ground even more forcefully. The dust settles.
So goes the multi-million year march from primate to humankind.
According to my friend, there you have it: the first step on the long road to inevitable and continuous warfare.
The die is cast, no turning back now.
This got me thinking.
What is this deeply human characteristic we so often allude to as “human nature?”
Where does it come from?
How and when does it arise in us?
And more importantly, how does it serve us?
These are not new thoughts to me, and probably not to you either.
This issue has reared its ugly head many times.
I have always been bewildered though by the fact that “human nature” always, without exception, refers to something negative.
We march off to war because it is human nature; deceive one another because of this deeply human characteristic; people gather unjustifiable wealth around them because of it; depression is a psychological condition tied to this ancient humanness; or so we are led to believe.
Where does it come from?
If it is, as the name suggests, natural, it must be old and it must be a part of us that has evolved, like wings in birds, fat in whales, and colour in mammals.
Human nature is something that has come to us over time. And even though we are the natural world’s most recent creations — a mere 2.5 million year old babe — there is every reason to assume our “human nature” has evolved and has been in flux all of those years.
If this is true — that human nature is always changing — there is every reason to assume at one point in this long evolutionary process, “human nature” could have been a positive characteristic rather than a negative one.
And, it would also seem to follow that even if human nature has always been a negative characteristic, what about the future?
What would prevent our deepest natural instincts from becoming uniformly positive?
If this is possible, I find it heartening.
This means it is certainly possible that at one point in time past, or at some point in the distant future, human nature will embody such characteristics as kindness, honesty, diligence, peacefulness, compassion, even simplicity.
But if, in fact, humankind’s gravitation toward the negative is not natural, what is it?
Culture, not nature, may be the culprit in all of this.
Over time we have learned, through our cultural institutions — churches, schools, families, communities and governments — that warfare is necessary and profitable; that greed is useful at times; that hoarding of goods and services is necessary as a hedge against future hardships; that stealing is justified by the hands of the poor against the excesses of the rich.
If “human nature” is indeed an offshoot of cultural adaptation rather than some kind of inherent natural predisposition, I believe there is every reason to be hopeful.
For I maintain that independent of whether human nature is best defined by our natural processes or our cultural ones, we do know for certain that the world becomes what we imagine it to be.
If our cultural institutions begin to elevate the positive characteristics of love and fellowship, simplicity and earnestness, devotion and kindness as full-bore “human nature”, you can rest assured we are on the brink of a new beginning.
We do know that cultural changes happen more rapidly in times of dramatic climate change — be it a planetary cooling or warming.
As a species we do seem to have no trouble getting the lead out when we have to.
If we need to change we will change.
Now is one of those times.
With the environmental crisis at our doorstep, we are about to experience the great advantage of necessity.
To get hung up on whether this is evolutionary human nature or cultural innovation at work is perhaps beside the point.
We are changing, stepping up to the plate.
And right on schedule.