STEPHEN J. GOULD ON HUMAN NATURE
Although I am not a Darwinist, as Gould is, I greatly admire the seemingly unlimited versatility of his work, and the wonderful combination of depth of thought, and accessibility of expression. In one of his columns in Natural History, reprinted in the book "Eight little piggies. Reflections in natural history" (Penguin Books 1994), Gould touches at the core of the debate on 'human nature'. In essence, he says this:
- for a purely empirical point of view, humans are genial.
- the social and historical impact of agressive behavior, however, is blown up disproportionately, because our present social structures are unable to keep such unusual behavior from steering wheel.
- the problem is not, how to overcome our supposedly wicked human nature; the problem is, how to put commonplace human tendencies firmly and permanently into the driver's seat .
But read for yourself what I consider one of the greatest pages in the history of modern thought (and buy the book, it's great reading!):
"History is made by warfare, lust for power, hatred, and xenophobia (with some other, more admirable motives thrown in here and there). We therefore assume that these obviously human traits define our essential nature. How often have we been told that 'man' is, by nature, aggressive and selfishly acquisitive?
Such claims make no sense to me - in a purely empirical way, not as a statement about hope or preferred morality. What do we see on any ordinary day on the streets or in the homes of any American city - even in the subways of New York? Thousands of tiny and insiginficant acts of kindness and consideration. We step aside to let someone pass, smile at a child, chat aimlessly with an acquaintance or even with a stranger. At most moments, on most days, in most places, what do you ever see of the dark side - perhaps a parent slapping a child or a teenager on a skateboard cutting off an old lady? Look, I'm no ivory-tower Pollyanna, and I did grow up on the streets of New York. I understand the unpleasantlness and danger of crowded cities. I'm only trying to make a statistical point.
Nothing is more unfamiliar or uncongenial to the human mind than thinking correctly about probabilities. Many of us have the impression that daily life is an unending series of unpleasantnesses - that 50 percent or more of human encounters are stressfull or agressive. But think about it seriously for a moment. Such levels of nastiness cannot possibly be sustained. Society would devolve to anarchy in an instant if half our overtures to another human being were met with a punch in the nose.
No, nearly every encounter with another person is at least neutral and usually pleasant enough. Homo sapiens is a remarkably genial species. Ethologists consider other animals relatively peaceful if they see but one or two agressive encounters while observing an organism for, say, tens of hours. But think of how many millions of hours we can log for most people on most days without noting anything more threatening than a raised third finger one a week or so.
Why, then, do most of us have the impression that people are so agressive, and intrinsically so? The answer, I think, lies in the asymmetry of effects - the truly tragic side of human existence. Unfortunately, one incident of violence can undo thousand acts of kindness, and we easily forget the predominance of kindness over agression by confusing effect with frequency. One racially motivated beating can wipe out years of patient education for respect and toleration in a school of community. One murder can convert a friendly town, replete with trust, into a nexus of fear with people behind barred doors, suspicious of everyone and afraid to go out at night. Kindness is so fragile, so easy to efface; violence is so powerful.
This crushing and tragic asymmetry of kindness and violence is infinitely magnified when we consider the causes of history in the large. One fire in the library of Alexandria can wipe out the accumulated wisdom of antiquity. One supposed insult, one crazed act of assassination, can undo decades of patient diplomacy, cultureal exchanges, peace corps, pen pals - small acts of kindness involving millions of citizens - and bring two nations to a war that no one wants, but that kills millions and irrevocably changes the paths of history.
Yes, I fully admit that the dark side of human possibility makes most of our history.But this tragic fact does not imply that behavioral traits of the dark side define the essence of human nature. On the contrary, I would argue, by analogy to the ordinary versus the history-making in evolution, that the reality of human interactions at almost any moment of our daily lives runs contrary, and must in any stable society, to the rare and disruptive events that construct history. If you want to understand human nature, defined as our usual propensities in ordinary situations, then find out what traits make history and identify human nature with the opposite sources of stability - the predictable behaviors of nonagression that prevail for 99.9 perent of our lives. The real tragedy of human existence is not that we are nasty by nature, but that a cruel structural asymmetry grants to rare events of meanness such power to shape our history (...)
To base daily stability on anything other than our natural geniality requires a perverted social structure explicitely dedicated to breaking the human soul - the Auschwitz model, if you will. I am not, by the way, asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetuate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time (...) If I felt that humans were nasty by nature, I would just say, the hell with it. We get what we deserve, or what evolution left us as a legacy. But the center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days. What can be more tragic than the structural paradox that this Everest of geniality stands upside down on its pointed summit and can be toppled so easily by rare events contrary to our everyday nature - and that these rare events make our history. In some deep sense, we do not get what we deserve.
The solution to our woes lies not in overcoming our 'nature' but in fracturing the 'great asymmetry' and allowing our ordinary propensities to direct our lives. But how can we put the commonplace into the driver's seat of history?"
Even when one prefers adhering to full Darwinism, there is thus no reason to consider competition as naturally inevitable. Gould formulated this so:
"The equation of competition with succes in natural selection is merely a cultural prejudice (...) Succes defined as leaving more offspring can (...) be attained by a large variety of strategies - including mutualism and symbiosis - that we could call cooperative. There is no a priori preference in the general statement of natural selection for either competitive or cooperative behavior"
(personal communication to Alfie Kohn; see: A.Kohn 'The case against competition' Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co (1986), p.21)
Gould against sociobiology
Here is an excerpt of S.J.Gould's contribution (p.343-351) to the volume: A.L.Caplan 'The sociobiology debate' New York, Harper & Row, 1978
"The issue is not universal biology versus human uniqueness, but biological potentiality versus biological determinism"
The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brain. Size itself is a major determinant of the function and structure of any object. The large and the small cannot work in the same way. We know best the structural changes that compensate for the decrease of surface area in relation to volume of large creatures, for example, thick legs and convoluted surfaces such as lungs and villi of the small intestine. But markedly increased brain size in human evolution may have had the most profound consequences of all. The increase added enough neural connections to convert an inflexible and rigidly programmed device into a labile organ. Endowed with sufficient logic and memory, the brain may have substituted nonprogrammed learning for direct specification as the ground of social behavior. Flexibility may well be the most important determinant of human consciousness; the direct programming of behavior has probably become inadaptive.
Why imagine that specific genes for agression, dominance, or spite have any importance when we know that the brain's enormous flexibility permits us to be agressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological - and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish. Thus, my criticism (..) does not invoke a nonbiological 'environmentalism'; it merely pits the concept of biological potentiality, with a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and predisposed towards none, against the idea of biological determinism, with specific genes for specific behavioral traits.
(...) The protracted and intense debate surrounding biological determinism has arisen as a function of its social and political message (...) biological determinism has always been used to defend existing social arrangements as biological inevitable - from 'for ye have the poor always with you' to ninteenth-century imperialism to modern sexism. Why else would a set of ideas so devoid of factual support gain such a consistently good press from established media throughout the centuries? This usage is quite out the control of individual scientists who propose deterministic theories for a host of reasons, often benevolent. I make no attribution of motive in Wilson's (the founder of sociobiology - JV) or anyone else's case. Neither do I reject determinism because I dislike its political usage. Scientific truth, as we understand it, must be our primary criterion. We live with several unpleasant biological truths, death being the most undeniable and ineluctable. If genetic determinism is true, we will learn to live with it as well. But I reiterate my statement that no evidence exists to support it, that the crude versions of past centuries have been conclusively disproved, and that its continued popularity is a function of social prejudice among those who benefit most from the status quo.
(...) We are both similar to and different from other animals. In different cultural contexts, emphasis upon one side or the other of this fundamental truth plays a useful social role. In Darwin's day, an assertion of our similarity broke through centuries of harmful superstition. Now we may need to emphasize our difference as flexible animals with a vast range of potential behavior. Our biological nature does not stand in the way of social reform. We are, as Simone de Beauvoir said, "l'Ítre dont l'Ítre est de n'Ítre pas" - the being whose essence lies in having no essence"
Comment: Although I admire this passage for its courage and clarity, there is strange point to be mentioned. Gould states that his position is not 'nonbiological environmentalism'. But if biology does not determine behavior, but only fixes a wide range of possibilities, and if environmentalism is also rejected, then what makes that one potentiality rather than another is finally realized? According to Gould (and I fully agree), we may see the influence of peacefulnes, equality and kindness increased, "if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish". But what, if not biology or the environment, will cause us to opt for one social structure rather than for another? Besides biology and the environment, a third element is needed if the argument is not to collapse through circularity. I identify this third element as the human Self, that is irreducible to either biology or environmental influences.