Monday, June 14, 2010

Human Nature and Human Behaviour

Socialist Review was produced by our Jamaica Group from 1970 to 1974 and in one of the issues was a reprint from the Socialist Standard. It's still worth reading today. SOYMB took it upon itself to re-edit slightly because of the slightly sexist language of the original article.

"What about human nature?" is a common reaction among those hearing the case for Socialism for the first time. To a certain extent, no doubt, this reflects a healthy scepticism amongst ordinary people towards so revolutionary a new idea. But there is more to the human nature argument than this. Behind it is a clever but false theory touching on the subjects of biology, anthropology, and sociology.

Because people are lazy and greedy and aggressive, runs the human nature objection, they could not live in a society where work was voluntary or where there was free access to wealth. If work were voluntary, nobody would do it; if goods were freely available, there would be a free-for-all as people fought each other to grab as much as they could.

Let us be clear about what this says: that certain patterns of behaviour are innate and are inherited from generation to generation by all human beings.

Highly adaptable
What evidence has been brought forward in favour of this view? Only the way people actually behave in present-day and in many previous societies. It is true that people sometimes are lazy or aggressive, but this is not in itself strong enough evidence for concluding that this is because they are born that way. Because, if this were so, all people would exhibit these characteristics at all times in all societies.

Since this is what the human nature argument asserts, it is sufficient to disprove it to produce examples of men behaving in a hard-working or a friendly way. This is easy. At times most human beings will feel lazy; at others they will undertake extremely hard work because they enjoy it. At times they will be aggressive, but at others friendly and helpful to their fellow human beings. The fact is that everyday experience of life today disproves the human nature argument.

So does the evidence of the past. There are traveller's tales going back to ancient times of human communities based on common property with equal or fair sharing of what little there was to go round. Witnesses have testified to the consistently friendly and co-operative behaviour of the members of these communities. Anthropologists studying present-day survivals of primitive social systems — like the Eskimos, the Bushmen of South West Africa, or the Aborigines of Australia — confirm this. In fact all the evidence amassed on human society and human behaviour suggests no rigid or consistent pattern. Quite the reverse. It points to people being a highly adaptable animal who can survive in and adjust to an immense variety of different circumstances.

So we can list the evidence against the human nature objection to Socialism:
That there have been societies based on voluntary work and free co-operation.
That some work today, for example the dangerous work of manning lifeboats, is done voluntarily.
That there have been societies where there has been free access to some of
the necessities of life.
That those things, such as water from a public drinking tap, that are more or less freely available today are not grabbed or hoarded.

What is more, there is no evidence from genetics, the branch of biology concerned with heredity, that complicated behaviour patterns like being greedy can be inherited. The mechanism by which certain characteristics are inherited is now fairly well known. The sort of characteristics that are inherited are those governing the physical make-up of people. Since the brain is part of the human body this too is inherited, but ideas and complicated patterns of behaviour are not transmitted along with the brain. Each normal human being will inherit a brain that can be trained to think abstractly just as he inherits hands that can be trained to use tools and make things or a voice that can be trained to speak and sing.

A picture of homo sapian's real nature is now emerging. What people inherit are certain physical features and certain capacities. The physical make-up of people merely defines the limits of what he can do, but within those limits people can learn to do anything. We have now come again to the conclusion that human beings are an immensely versatile animal who can learn to live in many different circumstances.

So, from the points of view of both sociology and biology, people are an adaptable animal. Behaviour patterns like aggression are not inherited but learned as are behaviour patterns like friendliness. Humans can be and are both aggressive and friendly; it depends on social circumstances, not on his biological make-up.

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s book The Bio-Social Nature of Man well sums up that man is part of nature (biology) but that he develops only it and through society. That mankind is by nature a social animal, in the sense of developing his capacities only through society, is an important point.

What distinguishes human beings from other animals are such features as the ability to think abstractly and the ability to use and make tools. All these thought, speech, and tool-making — are linked. All of them could have developed only through society. It was probably through working to satisfy basic needs that pre homo sapiens developed their brain and hands and so became homo sapiens. Indeed, the basis of all human activity and thought is the way people organise themselves to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter. Human society develops, and human behaviour changes, as the methods men employ to produce wealth develop. Since it is peoplethemselves who change and improve the technical methods and the social organisation of production, we can say, as in the title of another book by the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, that Man Makes Himself. People changes themselves by changing the environment in which he lives. Such too will be the change from capitalism to socialism. This will be the product of conscious human activity; in changing their environment from class to common property people will at the same time be changing the way they behave or, if you like, changing themselves.

There is nothing in the make-up of human beings that would prevent their freely working together and then freely taking from the common store what they need.

The human nature argument thus out to be, frankly, nonsense. But it is not only false. It is also part of the ideology by which class society and its coercive state machine are justified. Recall what the argument says — that people are lazy, that they are greedy and aggressive — and think what it would mean if it were true.
If people are lazy and will produce wealth only when they are forced to, then if human society is to continue, some must be in a position to force the rest to work. Thus it is natural that human society be divided into rulers and ruled.
If people are greedy then they must be denied free access to the fruits of their labour and allowed only so much as will keep them working. Again, it is natural that society be based on private property and divided into exploiters and exploited.
If people are aggressive then they must be restrained, if human society is not to break up amid chaos. There must be a public power of coercion in the hands of a ruling minority. Thus the state machine and government over people also are natural.

What a convenient theory! Class society, exploitation, and oppression justified as natural! Of course this is no accident. The human nature argument is a ruling-class idea. As long as people believe that Socialism is impossible and that only class and property society is practical the ruling class is safe. Marx pointed out that in a non-revolutionary period the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. The human nature argument is so widespread today because it is a ruling class idea in a pre-revolutionary period.

(Socialist Standard, September 1969)

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