Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"I'm just a monkey watcher."

Biological research is increasingly debunking the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish.

"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 on Monday. New research on higher animals from primates and elephants to mice shows there is a biological basis for behavior such as co-operation, said de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society.

The common view which was previously held among scientists was that humans were "nasty" at the core but had developed a veneer of morality - albeit a thin one. But humans - and most higher animals - are "moral" in a scientific sense, because they need to co-operate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes. Research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for "reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation.

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, "I'm just a monkey watcher."

Whilst socialists may not be ready to say that co-operation is programmed through our genes, it is certainly predisposed by our physical make-up. Without co-operation society would never have got off the ground. To say that we are naturally co-operative is much closer to the truth than saying we are naturally competitive.

This is the case for at least two important reasons.

By co-operating with others through a division of labour we greatly increase what we can produce for our mutual benefit. This is not only true of the consumption of goods; co-operation has led to our enjoyment of art, music, drama, sport and all entertainment. It has led to science and our greatly expanded knowledge of the world, its systems and its place in the universe. Without all these things made possible by co-operation, life would not just be impoverished, it would be unthinkable.

But co-operation gives us more than material benefits. It is through co-operation that we develop as individuals. Our individuality grows and finds its expression in relation to others and this would be impossible in social isolation. In this process of individual growth we draw not only on personal relationships, we draw on society in general and even on the lives of those who lived in the past.

Co-operation is sometimes said to be impossible because there is an inherent conflict between self-interest and the interests of others. In fact, the reverse is true. The interests of the individual are best realised when people are working together. The best achievements of one person can enhance the lives of all people.

Socialism isn't based upon altruism. Socialism will work even if everyone suddenly decides that they dislike everyone else. Supporting socialism involves recognizing the fact that the current system just doesn't work for most people. Socialism will be a society in which satisfying an individual's self interest is the result of satisfying everyone's needs. It is enlightened self-interest that will work for the majority.

Humans behave differently depending upon the conditions that they live in. Even very short term changes in those conditions can change the way people behave. Most of what people refer to as "human nature" is actually human behaviour: reactions to the world around them. Human behaviour reflects society. In a society such as capitalism, people's needs are not met and reasonable people feel insecure. People tend to acquire and hoard goods because possession provides some security. People have a tendency to distrust others because the world is organised in such a dog-eat-dog manner.

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