A realistic view of human nature

>> Monday, April 20, 2009

Always with the Apocalypse. That's what sells rags, you know? The Earth is about to be destroyed, but not before all your children become heroin addicts and are molested by terrorists who were influenced by violence on the radio and suffer from undiagnosed autism caused by being overweight ad nauseum. And then the press wonders why everybody's getting their news from The Daily Show; well, because they have just as many jokes, but theirs are funny.

So when Newsweek muses on the end of religion in America, one is simultaneously unimpressed and nonplussed by the hysterical reaction in some quarters: unimpressed because this is what the media does, takes one survey and bloats it up into Something Tremendous and people go nuts, and nonplussed because you'd think "Boy-Cries-Wolf" Syndrome would kick in at some point and everyone would say, "Oh yeah, Newsweek, what is it this week? 'The End of Christian America'? Enh."

(The other week, in conversation, the subject of the Washington Post came up and I asked, "Who reads the Washington Post?" It was a rhetorical misstep that was swiftly leapt on, and I can't complain: I mean I read the Post for fuck's sake, it's bookmarked on my smartphone. What I meant though was something like the previous paragraph: not who literally reads the WaPo, but who takes it all that seriously? And I guess there are people who do, but it just seems like it would be tempered by the realization that there's a whole lot of talking-out-the-ass that goes on in the media, and it's one thing to take facts seriously--the release of torture memos, the extent of Somali piracy, the state of the American auto industry--and quite another to take reportage seriously--the death of religion, say, or George Will's latest semi-informed blatherings. In one sense I "read" the WaPo and Newsweek, in that I regularly visit their websites and look at the words and my brain interprets them. In another sense I don't "read" them at all even when I'm looking right at the pages--my brain ascribes exactly the degree of import the words deserve, which is frequently zilch. Who reads the Post indeed.)

But that's a sidetrip, yes? The point of talking about Newsweek is really to get at something silly that was said about Newsweek at another favorite source of blatheration, Huffington Post. As bad as Newsweek can be, HuffPo is frequently worse, though it at least frequently manages a kind of endearing awfulness--yes, a particular post might be moronic and simply wrong, but there's such spirited earnestness that one sometimes ends up vaguely rooting for a writer who possibly spent his or her childhood huffing paint fumes (there's probably a "HuffPo" pun in there somewhere, but I'm too lazy to make it up) before embarking on a semi-successful career in movies, TV, or partial-or-complete nudity. That's a broad brush, I know: some of HuffPo's contributors are brilliant, it's just that the dumb ones somehow tend to stand out.

And they're not all actors. Bruce Ledewitz, who got a bit frothy about the Newsweek article and wrote a response in HuffPo that is sort of the point of the rambling blog entry you're now reading, is a law professor. Mr. Ledewitz is of the opinion that the secularization of America's actually-rather-secular-already culture will have possible ill-effects in the future. "I think raising children without religion is quite difficult," he writes, which doesn't seem false so much as it seems, for want of a better word, meh. And let's make that "meh" truly dismissive: please imagine Frankenstein's monster saying it to a chair with a clumsy, full-shouldered shooing-motion while he looks for a fiancée to defenestrate, perhaps muttering "break later" as he turns.

Indeed, Professor Ledewitz's central point isn't even worth responding to at all, and that actually isn't the point of this blog entry: whether a less-religious culture is healthier or not is something culture will have to determine for itself, regardless of what Professor Ledewitz or I have to say about it. He can point to whatever he'd like to point to, and I can point to the world's various theocracies, and in the end everybody listening will most likely believe whatever it is they believed before we started pointing at things.

No, the real point of this response to a response is Professor Ledewitz's statement that:

But religion by and large does not claim that it makes people good. Instead, religion, and especially Christianity, begins with the proclamation that people are not good. We lie, we cheat, we steal, we cheat on our spouses and we allow a billion people in the world to live on a dollar a day.

Which is more realistic about human nature, Dennett or the classic Christian view? And what, and for that matter how, will you teach your children the truth about such matters?

Oh please. Life is nasty, brutish and short, we are all born in sin, blah-blah-blah. Professor Ledewitz might be surprised to find that Professor Dennett's view of human nature seems to be supported by studies of our biological cousins. Capuchin monkeys may have a sense of justice. Chimpanzees might possess a sense of awe in addition to feelings of empathy, grief and altruism. While we can't quite get into another animal's head, and must be wary of anthropomorphizing and projection, it has to be acknowledged that such feelings may be a part of our cousins' wiring and therefore a part of our wiring, and logically so: after all, our nature is that we are social animals. Like other primates, humans are not necessarily as strong or fast as predatory rivals, or armed with teeth-so-sharp or hide-so-thick. Even a gorilla or chimpanzee, as strong as such creatures are, may find itself quickly overmatched by species that have evolved as dedicated predators--lions and tigers, to cite obvious examples, if not necessarily bears (oh my). But what our cousins are adept at to varying degrees is adapting to environments as a social group. And humans represent a peak, perhaps the acme, of that quality.

Human nature--like primate nature--isn't wholly noble. Chimpanzees fight tribal wars over scant resources, much as we do. The sense that we are part of a group--a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation--necessarily invokes an other, something alien and not-us to which we instinctively respond by protecting our group, frequently invoking fear and violence to do so. But these facets of our nature (a word I don't think too highly of in this context, but Professor Ledewitz invoked it) are not opposites so much as they are manifestations of the same impulse. The instinct to drive off or kill a rival is married to the instinct to protect the members of the family/tribe.

Part of the reason the foregoing is so significant is that it drives a stake through the heart of Ledewitz's cynical assertion: yes, there are people who lie, who cheat, who steal; and what happens to them? They become outcasts, pariahs, they are punished. Even the most liberal and forgiving of us see the man or woman who has broken the implicit social covenant and feels the same upswelling of instinctive rage in the heart that the capuchin monkey who throws down his cucumber might feel watching his brother receive a grape. (There is a popular slander against the bleeding hearts that claims we care more for perpetrators than victims; no, we allow other instincts of pity and fraternity to move us as well, or attempt to moderate our more extreme feelings with reason, experience and education, but believe me, the sense of justice and the instincts for protection and retribution are no less present and accounted for.) The person who tries to live as a lone wolf suffers the fate of lone wolves--and wolves are social pack animals as we are; the lone wolf is unlikely to hunt as well on his own as a pack does as a unit, suffers the psychological wounds of being unable to satisfy his social impulses (ever seen a dog whimper when the family leaves without him?), and ultimately dies cold and alone (sometimes with the teeth of wolves in his throat).

I'm not ignoring the second part of the good Professor's indictment: there are humans who cheat on their spouses and we indeed allow a billion people to live on a dollar a day. These are another apple and an orange, respectively, to the previous apples. The spousal relationship may not be instinctual, but whether it is or isn't, adultery surely is a matter of lying (to the spouse), cheating (breaking the rules you agreed to in your wedding vows), and perhaps stealing (to the extent that any married man or woman might "belong" to his or her wife or husband), no? As for the injustice of poverty (the orange): surely if you accept what I wrote above, it's obvious that allowing people to live on a dollar a day is the perverse result of the same tribal instinct that leads to loving our brothers and sisters. The "tribe", understand, can be and has been redefined, from the family to (eventually) the nation, but it doesn't yet include the planet. The failure to address the problems of others ultimately comes from a failure to recognize them as being the same, members of the extended clan, but we are getting progressively better at this with each generation, I think. Certainly the idea that we are one enormous human family is taken for granted far more often than it seems to have been a century ago, and one can go back farther and find a time when the notion scarcely existed at all. We are not merely products of instinct; we can (and have), for instance, moderate or structure our instincts with culture and reason--channelling our innate tribalism into the forming of non-familial communities like cities, states, religions, nations. There is no reason to think that it's impossible for the "tribe" to someday be universally seen as a human one that spans the globe.

The realistic view of human nature (if there is such a thing) is that it is complex, that we possess instincts that evolved to allow us to function as a pack: we recognize that others have feelings, have a sense of what is fair, feel compulsions to share and support those who are fellow-members of the pack. By-and-large, our instincts tell us that our personal survival follows the group's, because creatures who lack these instincts tend to die and breeding populations of humans in which these instincts do not predominate are breeding populations that decline (usually in the face of successfully cooperative breeding populations); this is Natural Selection 101. That said, these instincts go hand-in-hand with instincts that have detrimental effects, indeed the positive and negative results frequently stem from the same impulses (e.g. the desire to kill an outsider who appears--however falsely--to threaten the pack merely by existing).

I feel obligated to close with one more obvious point (but one that is frequently missed when discussing this sort of thing): none of this has any bearing on the existence of any deity or deities, including the Christian. Regular readers are aware, of course, that I'm openly an atheist and have been for most of my life; but I honestly don't care if you think likely human instincts that are demonstrable in our genetic cousins are the result of God's clever long-term planning or merely a natural result of selective pressures favoring social behavior. That humans are the product of evolution is something that has to be accepted as a given: there is far too much evidence of that. Just as it has to be taken as a given--from physics, astronomy and geology just for a start--that the world is more than six thousand years old. But any religious person who doesn't think his otherwise-omnipotent deity can't craft an intelligent, tool-using civilization by means of evolution probably might download DOSBox and SimEarth in order to truly appreciate the bliss of watching a "species" evolve from a few basic rules.

My issue with Professor Ledewitz's claims isn't an atheist-versus-whatever Ledewitz is issue, in other words. My issue is that his view of humanity is constipated and wrong; if Christianity's view is what Professor Ledewitz makes it out to be, than Christianity is indeed wrong on that score, irrespective of the divinity of Jesus, salvation of Man, or existence of God. We are not the sum of our faults, steeped in Original Sin. We are something far more complicated, interesting, and beautiful.


Janiece Murphy Monday, April 20, 2009 at 9:48:00 AM EDT  

::looks at feet sheepishly::

I read both Newsweek and WaPoI am a liberal crank.


Nathan Monday, April 20, 2009 at 10:49:00 AM EDT  

I hate to point out to you that you're likely preaching to the choir here...and there's little or no chance that anyone else is going to listen.

First, as you state, an acceptance that other primates are related to us is not a given with those who may disagree with you. Just the opposite is true and those who believe that secularizing America is a bad thing, see the teaching of Evolution as a symptom of our downfall.

Second, your opponents in this argument will often point to the fall of Rome as an example of what happens when a society is Godless. Much like some people think that smoking a joint will inevitably lead to you becoming a destitute crack whore, they firmly believe that Agnosticism and Atheism can only lead to licentious hedonism. They just don't believe you can lead a virtuous life without a heartfelt fear of Divine Retribution.

I won't paint all of Christianity with the same broad brush, but I feel sorry for people whose faith in human nature is directly proportional to the size of the carrots and sticks.

Eric Monday, April 20, 2009 at 10:56:00 AM EDT  

Blogging is an inherently narcissitic activity, Nathan. We're always preaching to the choir. ;-)

Janiece: like I said, I read WaPo too, and obviously I read Newsweek; it's more about how seriously one takes them. And as far as liberal crankiness goes, I've become a regular reader of Salon and I used to be a regular reader of Mother Jones once upon a time. Ergo, I'm probably liberaler and crankier. :-P

Bruce Ledewitz Monday, April 20, 2009 at 11:34:00 AM EDT  

I hardly disagree with anything you say about human nature, Eric. So, let me put the matter this way: granted that human nature evolved and is complex, and granted that we are capable of both unspeakable and ordinary evil against others, what view of human nature is most helpful in improving human behavior? In my experience, most crimes are committed by people who do not doubt their own goodness, whether they are religious or secular. And I think this is true both of large-scale crimes and ordinary inhumanity. I think this is what Reinhold Niebuhr was trying to get U.S. policymakers to see during his lifetime. This is my objection to easygoing references to human goodness.

Random Michelle K Monday, April 20, 2009 at 11:48:00 AM EDT  

Couple random points...

1) I used to read Newsweek until one volume contained an article about how the paparazzi caused the death of Princess Diana and how such a system is bad/dangerous.whatever, followed a few pages later by an article on Chelsa Clinton going to college, and a pictures that was obviously taken by a paparazzi. Canceled my subscription on that one.

2) Religion is both a good and evil regarding ethics.

There are people who seem to be incapable of making ethical decisions on their own. For them, the laws of the land and the rules of the bible (or whatever) provide a guide for how one should behave. In that case religion plays a very important role.

However. I don't think all--or even the majority--of people are like that. I also think that for some people (such as myself) religion can actually prove a hinderance to developing ethics and morality.

It's nice to have guidelines that tell you how to live, but those guidelines can get carried away, and keep an individual from truly considering why they take or do not take a particular action.

If you think about it, Hillel and Jesus were both on the same track when asked about the Torah (and ethics). (IIRC) When asked if he could recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel the Elder responded, "do not do until others as you would not have done unto you. The rest is just commentary."

The rest is just commentary.

That's the thing I think most people miss. Ethics and morality can be summed up in a single sentence, and the rest can be sussed out from there.

Unfortunately, many people don't want to do the work and instead want to be lead around by the nose. Determining why one should behave in a certain manner is work. Some people want to do the work, others don't.

Unfortunately, those who don't want to do the work assume that everyone is just as lazy as they are.

In my humble opinion anyway.

Jim Wright Monday, April 20, 2009 at 12:24:00 PM EDT  

But religion by and large does not claim that it makes people good. Instead, religion, and especially Christianity, begins with the proclamation that people are not good. Yeah, I read that too, Eric, and I'll drop the bullshit flag on that one, and a lot less eloquently than you did.

Religion does claim to make people good: in fact that's the primary message. You don't go to heaven unless you're good, you can't be good unless you believe, and you can't believe without the church - we don't like freelancers. But, and this is the loud and clear message of the devout christian right, you can't be moral or ethical without religion. They repeat this endlessly, atheists are immoral, evil, and etc - why there is nothing to keep an atheist from rape, murder, thievery, and etc. You've heard it, I'm sure. The Christian right has staked out the moral high ground for themselves, now if that's not claiming that their religion makes you better, I don't know what is. They may start out with that "flawed, sinful, fallen" made-up bullshit, but they get right around to salvation if you believe as we do bit pretty damned quick.

And just for the record, I read the WaPo, and once in a while Newsweek. But I also read the Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journel, Al Jazeera, and Mother Earth News, to name just a few ;)

Eric Monday, April 20, 2009 at 1:00:00 PM EDT  

Professor Ledewitz, first let me say I'm honored and surprised by your visit.

To answer your question, " what view of human nature is most helpful in improving human behavior?": I think the view that is most helpful is one based on a truthful appraisal of what human nature is. Irrespective of whether one's approach is ultimately a theistic or non-theistic one, the fact is that whatever human nature is, it isn't all bad: we are, by nature, compassionate, empathic and altruistic by turns. And much of our bad behavior, ironically enough, comes as a consequence of our better natures: when we are compassionate to some but not others, when we are empathic towards members of our own tribe but fail to recognize the essential humanity of "outsiders," when our generosity overly favors those we feel kinship for with unnecessary selfishness towards those for whom we fail to feel such bonds.

I don't feel harping on the notion that we are inherently fallen creatures is particularly helpful, and this is the approach favored by some strands of Christianity and the approach your HuffPo postin hearkens to. For starters, it just isn't true (see above). Furthermore, I think it just isn't effective: there's an old quip about network television that comes to mind (David Gerrold, I think): "It's hard to convey an uplifting message when you're interrupted every fifteen minutes by someone telling your viewer he smells bad." I think you have something similar in the kind of religious first principles you appear to be advocating: "You can be good (but you were born bad), you can be charitable (but you're selfish by nature), humanity can live to be peaceful (but is violent by instinct)." In short, Professor, you're suggesting that a religion can help people be better despite the fact that the sort of religion you're promulgating constantly says they probably won't be.

And negativity aside, how productive is any message based on fundamental falsehoods? You lose credibility with anybody who catches wind of the lie; much as, by way of an analogy, the teenager who discovers smoking a joint won't turn him into some crazed, murdering dope fiend à la Reefer Madness will tend to become cynical and immune to everything else the grown-ups say--and why not, they lied to him once already?

The view I'm advocating is, I think, not merely more honest and in keeping with the evidence we see in ourselves and our biological kindred, but also a view that is more productive and moral: that you are a social beast, which carries with it noble qualities and burdens; that you are a member of a pack and your life and your childrens' lives depend on the welfare of the pack; that you cannot possibly go it alone and expect good results. That you are a creature wired to recognize yourself in others, that you are an animal that has evolved to read the feelings of others and respond appropriately to them. That you have something in common with dolphins and wolves, other creatures that thrive as communities and die as loners. That justice isn't something imposed upon you from outside by some supernatural force but a powerful instinct from within. That what is altruistic is also self-serving, because giving to the pack enables you to receive from the pack, that such sharing is the natural order and not something you do merely to assure yourself a ticket into whatever afterlife you prefer to believe in.

I do believe that raising every child to believe that he or she is a vital member of a pack of humanity that has spread from some sub-Saharan nook in Africa to every corner of the globe and to the edge of space tells the young human what he or she is a part of far better than telling the child he or she is terrible but God will love him or her anyway, unless he or she messes up and goes to Hell for all eternity. You have failed the pack, do better next time because you are built to do better next time seems to me an essentially moral message that has a better chance of improving human behavior.

But maybe that's just me.

Jim Wright Monday, April 20, 2009 at 1:08:00 PM EDT  

Professor Ledewitz, Eric,

Hmmmm, rereading my previous comment I realize that I said what I meant, but I was a lot more obnoxious about it than I intended. I'm in a lot of pain this morning and it's making me somewhat testy. Apologies for the tone.

Eric Monday, April 20, 2009 at 1:55:00 PM EDT  

None needed, Jim. Hope you get to feeling better soon.

Bruce Ledewitz Monday, April 20, 2009 at 2:36:00 PM EDT  


I did not mean to suggest that my characterization of human nature is an intentional falsehood, only that it is a characterization that does not deny evolution and social instincts. Yes, the golden rule is quite practical, yet few people follow it. I mean, just as one small example, aren't we right now ruining the climate to the immense harm of our own great-grandchildren? And are we not doing this just because it is more convenient for us to do so and not change our way of life? The "evidence" about human nature is capable of different interpretations. By the way I would be interested in your view of my book, Hallowed Secularism, if you have a chance to look at it. [It is too expensive for most people to buy but maybe you can find it in a library].

Eric Monday, April 20, 2009 at 4:38:00 PM EDT  

I don't know that the Golden Rule is followed as rarely as we tend to assume--within the local sphere, small kindnesses may be the norm, since these are part of social functioning. Breaches of the norm--acts of selfishness, for instance--tend to be punished fairly quickly when found out. (I don't merely mean criminal or civil sanctions, of course: a person who is regularly rude, cruel, dishonest, thieving, etc. is likely to find him or herself socially snubbed, talked about, confronted by angry/disappointed family members, etc.--the social sanctions that one finds in many social species.)

And if you're right that the Golden Rule is rarely followed, doesn't it pose a problem for the argument you've made about the role of religion? My suggestion is that we tell people that treating others well and responsibly is essentially human, regardless of the separate question of whether a deity exists or not. Your suggestion has been, if I understand your HuffPo piece, that we tell them moral behavior is what God wants, including Jesus' sermon on the mount at Matthew 7:12, and that this is more likely to produce moral behavior than any alternative--and yet you now suggest few actually take that advice. Does that not suggest that Christian teachings are failing to have the desired result, and if so are secular alternatives really that likely to have a worse result?

The comment about the environment is a bit simplistic, Professor: we began ruining the environment because we were ignorant and continue to do so because extricating ourselves from our current dependencies is socially (including politically) and technologically complicated. "Convenience" has little to do with it: abandoning fossil fuels or switching plastics manufacturing over to renewable oil sources, to cite two issues, will involve massive infrastructure transformations that will take years even if a near-unanimous desire to change is arrived at. And many of the choices along the way are likely to be painful and controversial: the most immediate and practical alternative energy source that would satisfy reasonable consumption is nuclear energy, an option that is simply off the table for many environmental advocates, and even proponents of nuclear must acknowledge that waste disposal and safety standards are thorny issues that must be dealt with.

Amazon lists your book, Hallowed Secularism at around $60 (hardcover), for anyone interested. I have to admit a bigger obstacle at the moment is the length of my current to-be-read stack; at the moment I'm enjoying some cheesy pulp courtesy of Michelle, but there are some fairly serious volumes in the stack (including a Pol Pot bio) that have been sitting there too long and need to be cracked.

Thank you for the thoughts, Professor Ledewitz.

Eric Monday, April 20, 2009 at 4:42:00 PM EDT  

Incidentally, lest one read the last sentence in the first paragraph and laugh: no, social animals like chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys don't use language as we know it. They (and other social animals) do, however, appear to use nonverbal communications--e.g. shunning, denial of access to food or grooming, violent confrontation--to apply social "punishment" to a problem-member of the community.

Jim Wright Monday, April 20, 2009 at 4:50:00 PM EDT  

Professor Ledewitz,

I agree with Eric's previous comment in as much as I think the environmental statement you made was a bit simplistic, however, reading through your blog I suspect that you're aware of that already. And in fact, I find your ideas and writing very interesting. I don't agree with a number of your conclusions, but I guess that's what I find interesting. I'd be interested in reading Hallowed Secularism though I admit that the title puts me off more than the price, and like, Eric, I'm massively backlogged on reading at the moment, so it'll be a bit before I can get to your work. In the meantime I intend to read more of your ideas on your website. Thanks for giving me something to think about, you too Eric.

Random Michelle K Monday, April 20, 2009 at 7:48:00 PM EDT  

Yes, the golden rule is quite practical, yet few people follow it. I mean, just as one small example, aren't we right now ruining the climate to the immense harm of our own great-grandchildren? And are we not doing this just because it is more convenient for us to do so and not change our way of life?
Oh! I strenuously object! (name that movie Eric!)

Eric posted the explanation previously: the Golden Rule is in fact applicable to most people. The problem is that we consider the here and now, and those who are our family and neighbors *before* we consider strangers halfway across the world.

1) Humans tend to live in the moment. This is why obesity is such a problem: our bodies tell us to eat now because there may be famine in the future! Eat fats! Eat sugar! Intellectually we know we have plenty of food, but our bodies do not recognize that fact.

2) We are more concerned with us and ours than we are with those we don't know. When we hear of tragedies, of thousands killed in an earthquake or war we know intellectually this is a bad thing, but we don't particularly feel anything. However, if we are given a single story of a single individual affected by a disaster, that brings the story home to us.

This doesn't mean we don't follow the golden rule. What is means is that our concerns tend to be close to home.

The environment is an issue not because people don't care, but because they are more concerned with the here and now rather than the future elsewhere.

I am more concerned with mountaintop removal in WV than I am with drought and fires in California, because that is what in my backyard--it's what I can see.

To put it another way, we can only care about so much before becoming overloaded--it's the way we're built. So we concern ourselves with the here and now and what directly affects me--it's the best we can do.

Nathan Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 11:00:00 AM EDT  

"Oh! I strenuously object!"A Few Good Men. Great line!

MWT Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 5:10:00 PM EDT  

Hmm, to put Michelle's point into High Geek ...

Everyone has a certain number of Care Points. Some people may have more of them than others, but the total is finite.

So, one has to prioritize where to put the Care Points. Stuff of personal importance will rank higher on the list than family and/or friends, then local community, then king and country, then the rest of the world. Most people don't have enough points to put much in the "rest of world" categories - and even then, there are lots of those to choose from.

/geek ;)

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