There has long been a general assumption that human beings are essentially selfish. We are apparently relentless, with strong impulses to compete against each other for resources and to accumulate power and possessions.
If we are kind to each other, it is usually because we have ulterior motives. If we are good, it is only because we are able to control and transcend our innate selfishness and brutality.
This gloomy view of human nature is closely associated with the scientific writer Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene became popular because it fit so well (and helped to justify) the competitive and individualistic ethos of late twentieth-century societies.
Like many others, Dawkins justifies his views with reference to the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology theorizes that the current human traits developed in prehistoric times, during what is called an “evolutionary adaptation environment”.
This is generally seen as a period of intense competition, when life was a kind of Roman gladiator battle in which only the characteristics that gave people a survival advantage were ed and all others were left out. And because people's survival depended on access to resources - think of rivers, forests and animals - there was bound to be competition and conflict between rival groups, which led to the development of characteristics such as racism and war.
This seems logical. But in fact, the assumption on which it is based - that prehistoric life was a desperate struggle for survival - is false.
It is important to remember that in the prehistoric era, the world was sparsely populated. Therefore, it is likely that there was an abundance of resources for hunter-gatherer groups.
According to some estimates, about 15,000 years ago, Europe's population was only 29,000, and the world's population was less than half a million. With such small population densities, it seems unlikely that groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherers would have to compete with each other or have any need to develop cruelty and competitiveness, or go to war.
In fact, many anthropologists now agree that war is a late development in human history, arising with the first agricultural settlements.
There is also significant evidence contemporary hunter-gatherer groups who live in the same way as prehistoric humans. One of the impressive things about these groups is their egalitarianism.
As anthropologist Bruce Knauft noted, hunter-gatherers are characterized by "extreme political and sexual egalitarianism". Individuals in such groups do not accumulate their own properties and possessions. They have a moral obligation to share everything. They also have methods to preserve egalitarianism, ensuring that status differences do not arise.
The! Southern African Kung, for example, exchange arrows before going hunting and when an animal is killed, the credit goes not to the person who shot the arrow, but to the person to whom the arrow belongs. And if a person becomes too dominant or arrogant, the other members of the group condemn him.
Usually, in these groups, men have no authority over women. Women often choose their own spouses, decide what work they want to do, and work whenever they want. And if a marriage breaks up, they have the right to custody of the children.
Many anthropologists agree that these egalitarian societies were normal until a few thousand years ago, when population growth led to the development of agriculture and a stable lifestyle.
Altruism and egalitarianism
In view of the above, there seems little reason to suppose that characteristics such as racism, war and male domination should have been ed by evolution - since they would have been of little benefit to us. Individuals who behaved selfishly and relentlessly were less likely to survive, as they would have been ostracized by their groups.
It makes more sense than seeing features like cooperation, egalitarianism, altruism and peace as natural for human beings. These were the characteristics that prevailed in human life for tens of thousands of years. So, presumably, those characteristics are still strong in us now.
Of course, can you argue that, if that is the case, why do today's humans generally behave so selfishly and relentlessly? Why are these negative traits so normal in many cultures? Perhaps, however, these characteristics should be seen as the result of environmental and psychological factors.
Research has repeatedly shown that when primate natural habitats are disrupted, they tend to become more violent and hierarchical waistband. So it may well be that the same thing happened to us, since we abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
In my book The Fall, I suggest that the end of the hunter-gatherer's lifestyle and the advent of agriculture were linked to a psychological change that occurred in some groups of people. There was a new sense of individuality and separation, which led to a new selfishness and, ultimately, hierarchical societies, patriarchy and war.
In any case, these negative traits seem to have developed so recently that it does not seem feasible to explain them in adaptive or evolutionary terms. Which means that the "good" side of our nature is much more ingrained than the "bad" side.