“Humans are not naturally nasty,” read a headline I saw this morning. The article went on:
Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, a leading specialist in primate behavior told a major science conference Monday. “Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as cooperation . . .
There is nothing all that new about this idea, but it sounds like there is even more scientific support for shift in thinking described here. De Waal has, in fact, been one of the pioneers of the efforts to see cooperative instincts and empathy as being fundamental to the animal kingdom. So I applaud the ongoing shift to seeing cooperation as being just as fundamental as competition when it comes to our evolutionary history. At the same time, I find it disconcerting that some feel we need the legitimizing stamp of science to give credence to our kindler, gentler sides. Nothing against de Waal or science; this kind of research is always fascinating. But I always find it a little troubling how quickly people jump from scientific research to sweeping conclusions about “human nature.” Decades ago, biology may have told us we were hopelessly competitive and warlike primates; now it may tell us we are big warm and fuzzy critters. But I, for one, want to keep a little bit of distance from the interpretations and conclusions of the moment—good or bad. Evolutionary theory is particularly susceptible to this tendency, probably because the science is so close to home. I mean I don’t feel any twinge of concern about what string theory might reveal about my psychology.
So while it is natural and inevitable to use the latest knowledge about science to inform our view of human nature, we have to be very careful how far we take it. As I say in my new book, there is an important distinction between having one’s philosophy of life informed by science and it being determined by science. If evolutionary biology tells me that my nature, biologically speaking, is warlike and competitive, I can accept that truth and let it appropriately inform my thinking, without in any way taking that to be the final word in the complex story of our human character. And when science evolves, as it must inevitably do, and lo and behold, it turns out that my nature, biologically speaking, is full of cooperation and altruism, I can let that, in turn, inform my thinking, without letting it absolutely determine my worldview. In other words, science is an open-ended story, and any conclusions we draw based on it had better be tentative, temporary, and open-ended as well.