The nature of man

Fair warning: The OP is drunk so what is typed below may be fairly incoherent. You may want to bolt now. :stuck_out_tongue:

Ok. So, I was having a discussion tonight with some friends tonight (large quantities of single malt scotch and cigars were involved…be gentle with me on spelling and syntax tonight please :)) and the discussion got around to the nature of mankind. Now, one of my friends is definitely of the more, er, liberal persuasion. She is also quite the feminist.

Her view of history is that the nature of man is: Love. That by and large mankind (by which she mainly means the dominant females but thats another story) is perfectly content with their lot…hunting and gathering or farming or whatever in peaceful bliss. Its really the elite that forces all those happy peasant/hunter gatherer types to take up arms and go forth to steal from their neighbors…if left to their own devices they would never leave the farm.

For examples she points to places like pre-European Australia or pre-European North-Eastern America (hell, she even mentioned China)…all peoples who lived in peace and happyness, content with their lot and never bothering other peoples (by which she means expanding beyond their borders to take from some other people). The cause is Europe (in her mind…she definitely has it in for those Evil Europeans™ :)), but the root (in her philosophy) is that an elite has managed to dominate the masses and force them to conquest. Well, that and the fact she is convinced that Europe was a resource starved back water that forced our European bretheren to go forth to steal the goodies everyone else had and were content with (she is immune to arguements such as ‘you can’t really go forth and conquere if you don’t have a surplus’, etc etc).

Anyway, I countered with (just to annoy her really) that the nature of man is(in a nut shell): Aggression. My own arguements were that mankind has always been an expansive and exploring species, never content to simply dwell in one place, always expanding its territory and displacing other species and even earlier versions of our own species…or even the same version of our species but who are less able to keep what they have. With reguard to her own thoughts, I countered that those elites she was raving about generally had at least the tassit approval of all those farmer types…and in most cases had their enthusiastic support. One example she used was the Iraq war, where she felt that the American people were lead unwillingly to war. While I agree somewhat that were were MIS-lead to war, by and large the war (in its early stages) had the support of the majority of people. The same goes (again, generally speaking) for every other war of conquest I can think of…and for ever other empire ever constructed. As long as things are going well and the loot (or whatever) is rolling in, all those civilian/peasant/farmer/artisan/worker/blah blah blah types are perfectly happy.

Now, I don’t actually believe that ALL men are aggressive…but I do believe that the mass of humanity is not content to sit around and rest on what it has…not if pastures seem greener somewhere else.

My question for debate though is what YOU might think is the nature of man in the context of our history. Feel free to expand all you like on the question and back it up with your unique version of history as you understand it. I’m drunk enough right now that even the most off the wall theories will seem interesting. :slight_smile:


I don’t have a huge amount to add, but I will add these two points:

  1. I always find the view that pre-European colonial society was this wonderful utopia of peace loving people who would never hurt a fly to be highly suspect. I expect it’s part of a common rational, which is to use Western society as a one stop shop when hunting causes for all of the world’s problems, instead of for the problems that it legitimately causes. I expect that if crime statistics of ancient Australian or American societies were available we would see people no more or less violent than ourselves.

  2. I personally believe the answer will lie somewhere in the middle. We are the way we are because that is just what worked well in terms of being able to survive. We feel love when we are with family whose survival we care about and when we are with friends who support us. We feel aggression when we are threatened or wronged in some way. Which one of these predominates will depend on your own individual experiences. This is a huge oversimplification, but the essense of my point is that it is silly to say “love” or “aggression” is the root of the nature of man.

The only options were Love and Aggression? What was this, the local Freud Fan Club?

lol, no. :slight_smile: I used ‘aggression’ mostly to annoy my friend (she thinks I have a very poor opinion of man…mostly because she doesn’t actually care to understand what I’m trying to say)…and to simplify what I was trying to say and condense it down to a sound bite. Several others were put forth by other folks in the discussion but I didn’t feel up to elaborating further in my current state. Feel free to expand in your own way if you feel like answering my admittedly incoherent OP. What do YOU think is the core nature of man? Or, perhaps you don’t think there IS an easily defined core nature of man, and we are all too different to easily categorize us with simple terms?

Agreed. I tried (repeatedly) to make this very point in fact. I don’t think there ever WAS a society free from aggression. Its just easier for some folk to blame the Europeans for all the worlds problems and to have a very ideal picture of what the rest of the world was like (hugging trees, living in bliss, leaping happily over the fields, etc) before those nasty Euro’s arrived on the scene.

Again, I agree. Its difficult to boil down all of humanity into a simple ‘aggression’ or ‘love’. For myself saying the core nature of humanity throughout its long and blood soaked history is ‘aggression’ was more tongue in cheek. My friend of course was dead serious about the ‘love’ thing. It IS rather silly to try and paint humanity with such broad brush strokes. However, I suppose I was hoping to spark a discussion here that was more than one word terms or sound bites on what folks here think is the core nature of humanity…and perhaps to spark a discussion that speaks to human history in this context. Generally I learn something interesting in these threads that I never knew before about history or human nature.

Granted this isn’t the best thought out or written OP so perhaps it won’t go anywhere at all. :slight_smile:


I suspect you’re exagerating her position at least a bit, but I still think your friend is ill informed. I know something about Native American history and culture (although not too much about those triibes livingin the Northeast), and I can assure you that she is mistaken about them being peaceful or blissful, for that matter. And I’m always astonished at so-called feminists who glorify cultures so male dominated that it makes our own seem like it was run by Betty Friedan.

I also suspect that your friend has bought into the psuedo-scientific theory of the martriarcal origins of European society (mother goddesses, etc) and how war only came about after the invasion of patriarcal tribes. (I’ve probably described it somewhat inaccurately, but I think you kow what I’m talking about.)

In short, your friend is wrong.

I think your pal has at least some angle on a fundamental truth, though probably not the one she thinks she has. One of the ultimate fundamental natures of humanity is inertia. Put people in a farming community and most will be content to farm. Put people in a factory town and most will be content to be factory workers. And most of them will never look up from their circumstances.

Well and good. It’s the fretful 10% (or whatever figure) that drives what you call ‘Agression’ and I would actually call ‘curiousity’.

A certain type of human has a need to see what’s around the mountain or down that river (I’m hearing Pocahontas in my head here!). And it’s that form of curiousity that leads to exploration, research and development, conquest, and so forth. That driving need to know and get ahead in some of us is a strong STRONG urge to try to satisfy.

Seems to me that a lot can be gleaned from positing that mankind is social by nature. This would acknowledge her position on “love”, in that humans seek out others for affirmation, while also accomodating your position on “aggression”, in that it is another way to gain recognition from others (e.g., through exerting power). Similarly, one might say that it satisfies at least some component of “curiosity”, in that one’s accomplishments bring fame. (It certainly seems to me as though there is more to “curiosity” than that, but it would explain part of it anyway.)

This thread might prove insightful even though no definitive answer to the OP emerged:

Those who think the fundamental nature of man is loving or selfless or good are wrong. However, that doesn’t mean we’re evil or bad, either.

Me, I take the generalization to a higher level. I don’t think it’s possible to assign a single trait to all people individually; we’re just too different. Rather, I choose to look at humanity as a hive animal.

Consider the anthill. There’s a queen, there are soldiers, there are drones. Within large groups, there are sub-classifications. Some soldiers defend the hive; some go out and raid other hives. Some drones collect food; some tend the young. And so on. Each individual ant fulfills a need, and with many individuals working together, the hive persists and expands.

Human societies operate on a similar principle, but with far more complicated organization. Some are aggressive, some are reticent; some are violent, some are peaceful; some pursue their ends physically, some verbally; some build, some destroy; some are curious, some close-minded; and on and on and on. Basically, for any criterion you care to identify, you can pretty much be guaranteed that a sufficiently representative group of people will include individuals who vary widely on the scale of that criterion.

And that, I think, is a major contributor to, initially, our survival, and eventually our domination of the globe. The most successful societies are those that have a broad range of talents, dispositions, and natures to draw upon, depending on the challenge being faced at any given time.

Consider violence and aggression. To be successful, a tribe must be able to defend itself against attack, and must be able to attack others to secure necessary resources, but must at the same time manage and control the aggression during times of peace so as not to destroy itself from within. If a tribe has too many members who can not or will not fight, it will fall victim to the next horde of barbarians that comes bellowing over the hill; but if a tribe is too focused on fighting, it’ll tear itself apart. It is, therefore, a survival trait for the tribe to be balanced between the two urges, by means of a variety of individuals who have staked out positions all along the continuum of aggression, and whose power balances the others.

Consider, likewise, the tension between progressivism and conservatism. Progressives look to the new, trying new things and driving for change. Conservatives look to the old, fearing new things, and resist change. A tribe that is unwilling to entertain new ideas, new methods, new technologies, will stagnate and die, and/or be subsumed by an expanding neighbor; a tribe that does not respect its past will be unstable, and risks blundering into self-destruction. Again, it is a survival trait for a tribe to balance the two approaches; the so-called “red states” and “blue states” may regard one another with suspicion, but at the end of the day, each needs the other.

The more I look at groups of people, the clearer this principle seems to me. Every culture has a military wing, and an artistic wing. We have laborers; we have explorers; we have thinkers. We have leaders, and we have followers. Chew on this: virtually every culture looks on politicians and their ilk, people who talk other people into doing things and contribute almost nothing else, with mistrust and disdain, and yet every culture has them, and frequently allows them to take the reins of power despite that negative appraisal. It’s bizarre, but it’s a constant.

For this reason, as stated above, I don’t think it’s profitable to try to identify a universal trait shared by all people equally, because I don’t think we’re wired that way. It seems to me that random evolutionary pressures have driven us toward a broad spectrum of attitudes and behavioral approaches: the better balanced a tribe is, the more viewpoints and methods it has available to leverage, the more flexible it will be in confronting problems, and the more successful it will be in the long term.

Note that I am not arguing for strict biological determinism here. I don’t believe that our genes mandate our ultimate path at birth; one’s DNA doesn’t force one to be a concert violinist any more than it causes one to become a digger of ditches. The anthill provides a metaphor, a useful conceptual framework, but it is imprecise, because we are not born into rigid roles the way soldiers and drones are. There may be a biological component here, an inborn inclination if you want to call it that, but the evolutionary pressure I’m describing is as much cultural as it is genetic. People, as individuals, don’t fit into neat little boxes; any given person has the potential to perform a variety of roles, given his or her own preferences and society’s requirements. But a healthy society balances all of this potential and provides outlets for people to pursue various aims, along with rewards for those pursuits. And over time, as societies bump against each other, and compete with one another, selection pressures will inevitably come to bear. History’s lessons are clear: it is the best-balanced societies that ultimately prevail.

That being said, if any trait can be said to be universal, it is probably self-interest. We all want to be well-fed, and prosperous in our own way. We all want a safe place to rest our head; we all want to get laid. (To a greater or lesser degree, based on the individual, of course, per the spectrum described above.) How we choose to actualize our needs is what makes us individuals, but we all have needs, and that makes us human. Some of us are driven entirely by a need to enrich ourselves, and don’t care about anyone else; the archetypes here include both corporate barons who rake their shekels legally and give nothing voluntarily to charity, as well as common thieves and housebreakers. (I’m not drawing moral equivalence between those archetypes, by the way.) Some of us are driven by altruism, working for the aforementioned charities and causes, helping people and trying to ease the world’s suffering, but note here the impulse is still rooted in a certain self-centeredness, a desire to see the world remade, or at least operating, according to our own principles and philosophies, and further a belief that the effort of our own hands will contribute to the goal.

And it’s this energy, this pursuit of individual quests by millions of highly varied people, that, taken together, fuels the motor of society. Ergo, the hive.

It’s hardly an original thought, I know. But the point is, when you take a high-level view of how populations are organized and how tribes function as groups, I think it’s clear that there’s very little mileage to be gained in trying to identify a single overarching quality that can be applied to every person equally. Every person is different, but every group of people is the same, and that, to me, is the point.

No, not really an exaggeration. There was a lot of more over the top stuff I didn’t even get into (some sounding suspiciously like the Aquatic Ape theory, except with women playing a central role in how we came to walk upright…stuff like that thrown in at odd intervals).

I’m well aware of the fact that Native Americans weren’t peaceful tree huggers following their female matriarchs good advice and living in bliss…but try and get history across to someone who is convinced that modern mainstream history is written by men who have a stake in keeping the truth down some time. :stuck_out_tongue:

Certainly…there was tons of stuff about how women tried to fight off the dreaded influences of the male nobles bent on taking the peaceful farmers out of their settlements and putting them on the road to conquest (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration here :)). Lots of stuff about the mother goddesses and such as well of course. And some odd bits thrown at me at random…things like asking me ‘well, what did the Irish do when they immigrated to the US’ when I’m talking about how Europe was a crossroads of invasion for centuries, and how no one European state was ever able to dominate like, say, China was…

Oh, no doubt. :slight_smile: I wasn’t really looking for validation of that point. Just used it to spark a debate on what folks here thought about the original question. Now that I’m sober I wince a bit at that OP…but maybe the actual question can be salvaged.

I don’t know. I’m not sure that such a high percentage of folks are content with their lot and are only driven by a small percentage of folks who are curious or discontent. After all, our species originally left Africa (in several waves) and managed to eventually move into just about ever eco-system out there…in many cases displacing the top level preditors (eventually) and even earlier or less advanced versions of ourselves.

As for the farmers/peasants/worker types being content…again, I’m not so sure. I seem to recall that generally the folks back home were pretty eager for their armies to march out for conquest in ancient times. After all, they provided the means to do so. Certainly in modern times its been the folks back home who generally seem (at least initially) less than upset about such things. Look at the Civil War (on both sides), or WWI. Vietnam also wasn’t initially met with a lot of protest…nor was our invasion of Iraq (at least by Americans). Its when things start going bad that people get a cold dose of reality. But I don’t see it as an elite pushing all those other folks to do something they never would have done…more along the lines of LEADING them where they seem to want to go anyway. This was really at the crux of the discussion I had with my friends as it seems to say something about human nature…something the friend who’s example I used of Love didn’t want to even entertain.

I don’t really think there is any way to accomidate our two positions. Certainly I acknowledged at the time that Love is a huge force in mankind. Her point was that by and large mankind (by which she means women) Love nature, each other, their lot in life (by which she means women/mankind is content with what they have), etc. Its only a small percentage of elites that are discontent…or more specifically want the (peaceful, blissful, happy, content, etc) populace to THINK they aren’t really content or happy.

To trick them in other words, or to intentionally damage their ability to grow food (starve them), or otherwise drive them to the edge…so that they can use them (that vast mass of formerly content people) to take from others. And to ravage their environments. Her contention is that no other people except the Europeans really managed to do this…all the other peoples of the earth were perfectly content (by and large) to remain where they were and just live happily (this really isn’t much of an exaggeration). For example she used the aborigines of Australia as an example. Why didn’t THEY go forth and conquere, or spread out from Australia, ravage their environment, etc. Her answer…love. They were content with their lot, had no desire or wish to go forth and do those things (and of course they listened to their women folk :)), etc etc.

We were talking (or at least I was talking…in 2 different languages at times so this may have been part of the problem :wink: ) about fundamental or core attributes of mankind and what drives us to do what we have done historically. I can’t wrap my mind around how Love could explain most of our blood soaked history.


I think you’re mistaking ‘staying in place’ for ‘content’ in my post. I think the vast number of people are discontent in one way or the other. But most won’t actually take the steps necessary to do something about it (other than complaining).

Get me? We all know the old saw of the abused spouse who stays in a marriage. Or displaced factory workers who won’t get retraining. It’s that spark of ‘this ain’t working…I should go do something else’ that most people don’t feel strongly enough to act on that I’m discussing when I mention ‘inertia’.

Ah…ok. I’m still a bit fuzzy this morning.


Also, “content” does not always mean “stay in one place geographically”. If the status quo for you and your nomadic tribe is to move with the seasons and the food supply then humans will eventually be practically everywhere. It would take one of the creative/aggressive type people who might realize that there is value in some form of primitive agriculture and developing one area that will be a permanent home.

I don’t think you can try and extract a general trait from humanity by only looking at one small part of it’s history. If you look at the rise of european conquest, well, that’s part of humanity too, is it not? The “elitists” are not some alien species that came out of nowhere. I think, rather disappointingly, our traits are not unlike the rest of the animal life on earth: Social, Survival, Adaptation. We just happen to be incredibly good at it. Maybe our nature is dominance? Even when living at peace, we need to control our domain in whatever way we can. We take safety and comfort in the things we can control, and we fear chaos and the uncertain. We must tame everything.

I think that, most of the time, most people are characterized by self-interest. Sometimes that means staying in place as long as you can, sometimes it means doing something more creative or aggressive.

And who says love and aggression or violence are mutually exclusive? Many people have done or would do something violent to protect someone or something they love, or have used aggression to discourage a rival for a loved one.

China? Mention this guy to her sometime. He certainly was interested in conquest, as were many other figures in Chinese history.

I suspect we hear about more European aggression and conquest because the Europeans had writing, a lot of which can still be deciphered today. Most Native American, Australian aboriginal, and sub-Saharan African cultures didn’t have writing, or much of their written materials were destroyed. No written records means we don’t find out about a lot of the wars they had. I suspect we in the West know less about Chinese and other Asian wars, even though they did have writing, because European history is much more emphasized in our schools.

Joined the army, in many cases. The army had recruiters meeting the boats the Irish immigrants arrived on. Some of them tried to drum up support for armed rebellion in Ireland. Some of them joined criminal gangs, or became criminals on their own. Some (maybe even most) did live law-abiding non-violent lives, but certainly not all of them did.