“The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”— Eric Hoffer, philosopher
“Human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive.”— Margaret Mead, anthropologist
“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down rules of conduct for other people.”— William Howard Taft, President
“What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”— James Madison, President
“Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.”— Henry Adams, historian
“Human Nature is the only science of man; and yet has been hitherto the most neglected.”— David Hume, philosopher
“No social policy can ever eradicate evil or perfect human nature.”— Michael J. Knowles, author
“It is not to be expected that human nature will change in a day.”— Frank B. Kellogg, politician
“It’s not just human nature to associate in tribes. It’s deeper than that.”— Jordan Peterson, psychologist
“Human nature is the one constant through human history. It is always there.”— Thucydides, Athenian historian and general, ca. 400 BC
Are we humans malleable, or are there some things in us that cannot be changed? Today, a most important question, as various ruler-wannabes are trying so very hard to change us. Can they succeed, or will human nature prevail? This of course depends on how you define human nature. What, in practice, is “human nature”?
Many powerful people and groups are making huge efforts globally to control us normal folks, or to change us so that we can be controlled. Most visible and open about such grandiose aims are people like Klaus Schwab, founder and chief honcho of the increasingly powerful World Economic Forum (WEF), and António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN).
There are many others but these two are quite open about their goals and tools. This has become a serious problem, in my view at least, since they appear to be well on the way to succeeding. They are effectively defining our future.
Can they actually succeed, or are there some aspects of human nature that will not change no matter what they do?
What, in practice, is “human nature”?
Note the “in practice” qualifier here. There are many definitions of human nature out and about, but the one that matters most to rulers and ruler-wannabes is what there might be within humans that could cause serious, or even overwhelming, resistance. They may – in practice – be fighting human nature in hugely important respects. And if so, potentially losing.
Should this actually be the case rather than just my non-humble conjecture, we potential resisters need to know something about our human-nature-based strengths and weaknesses. Individual survival may be at stake for so very many of us in the near future.
Is there enough built-in strength to ensure that rulers and ruler wannabes will ultimately fail? Or will they fail from their own weaknesses instead? Or both?
As you might expect, there seems to be no generally agreed upon definition of human nature. Whatever it may be has been in dispute among great thinkers for millennia, if not forever. It is simply whatever you want it to be. Not helpful to us wannabe-survivors, and especially to our wannabe-rulers.
From good old Wikipedia:
“Human nature is a concept that denotes the fundamental dispositions and characteristics—including ways of thinking, feeling, and acting—that humans are said to have naturally. The term is often used to denote the essence of humankind, or what it ‘means’ to be human. This usage has proven to be controversial in that there is dispute as to whether or not such an essence actually exists.”
“Arguments about human nature have been a central focus of philosophy for centuries and the concept continues to provoke lively philosophical debate. While both concepts are distinct from one another, discussions regarding human nature are typically related to those regarding the comparative importance of genes and environment in human development (i.e., ‘nature versus nurture’).”
“The concept of nature as a standard by which to make judgments is traditionally said to have begun in Greek philosophy, at least in regard to its heavy influence on Western and Middle Eastern languages and perspectives. By late antiquity and medieval times, the particular approach that came to be dominant was that of Aristotle’s teleology, whereby human nature was believed to exist somehow independently of individuals, causing humans to simply become what they become.”
“Against Aristotle’s notion of a fixed human nature, the relative malleability of man has been argued especially strongly in recent centuries—firstly by early modernists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”
Great. Even among great thinkers, nobody agrees about much of anything here.
A working definition of human nature
The engineer in my bones wants something concrete, something to work with. Not fuzzy (at least to me) philosophical or sociological concepts and theories. Can human nature truly be changed – is it malleable – and if so, how? If malleable, are there any aspects of human nature that may be relatively unchangeable?
This seems to mean looking at human nature from the standpoint of what can be changed, and what may be unchangeable. In practice, not theory.
While people, aka us-humans, may all be different in so many respects, are there aspects that seem to be both common to all and difficult or impossible to change?
My thinking shortlist:
These in my mind are what makes us particular two-leggers human. No other animal in the general species realm has all of these defining characteristics. I’m not sure about the order of importance, but this order is my best guess.
Most creatures display courage of sorts, but it may simply be a flight-or-fight instinctive response. What I’m thinking of here is a willingness to die for others, or for what one believes, or for an idea. Critters so far as I know don’t believe or have ideas. They just know what they know. Belief is in the mind, a particularly important human feature.
Non-human critters have self- or kin-protective courage, but they don’t have concept, cause, or community courage. Human courage that goes beyond protective is in all of us to at least some degree. I am truly amazed at the individual courage that I have read about and even experienced. This has to be part of a practical human nature.
Most of us are willing to accept a fair amount of nastiness in order to avoid active confrontation. Nastiness is just part of life. We have to be pushed hard – very hard – before we are forced by our human nature to resist. How hard seems largely instinctual, but also personal, individual. There is however a limit for each of us – a human nature limit – beyond which most will become actively and forcefully resistant no matter what the risks.
Human nature restrains us in so many cases where the stakes, weighed intuitively, favor caution and patience. Going along also serves our needs to belong. Tribal stuff. Not many people are willing to buck the crowd on important issues. Many may not agree, but see resistance as counterproductive, and even not-friendly. Simple survival concerns can also weigh heavily in many situations.
Humans in general have a strong need to belong, to be part of a socially acceptable group. This aspect of human nature probably goes back to tribal days when being part of a strong tribe meant survival, among much else. Many critters have an innate pack, herd, or flock social structure. Tribes are just our version of a common need to belong, to be accepted.
Resistance to belonging to some established group typically shows up in the formation of, or belonging to, a competing group. Wars and even politics feature competition between strong groups. It is very hard to resist taking sides, not to belong to one or other. Few are strong enough to stand alone.
Compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”, motivates people to be sensitive to, and to go out of their way to relieve, the physical, mental, or emotional pains of others. Parental instincts as found in many animals are not compassion. They are just what animals do to survive as a species.
Human compassion need not even be directed toward survival of one’s own species, but arises from one’s voluntary desire to help in some way, to relieve another’s suffering. It is not driven by instinct, but by a higher-level faculty that most humans have and respond to. It can be directed toward people we do not even know. This is a very special and wonderful aspect of human nature.
Love beyond the physical seems to be one of the most important aspects of human nature. Love can be directed toward causes, organizations, music, literature, places, and so much else. Love comes from the human heart, and probably the mind as well.
It is an emotion, whatever an emotion may be in practice. It may involve watching sunsets, canoeing, stimulating conversations, playing an instrument, … and much more. I have no words to do more here than suggest. This surely is a vital aspect of human nature not shared by other creatures. And it is part of us, surely not removable.
The urge to create seems, like love, to be uniquely human. People have created the most wonderful and amazing things over the eons. Often done at great personal pain and cost. One must be powerfully and deeply motivated to create in the face of all kinds of obstacles.
Great artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio were prolific despite enormous difficulties. Mary Shelley wrote the classic Frankenstein while struggling with poverty, poor housing, debts, blackmail, and humiliations inflicted by the poet’s father. Creating – for so many greatly-talented, and even mini-talented, folks – is not an option; it is part of who they are. Critters don’t create in any human sense.
Human intelligence seems quite different from other animal intelligence. Many animals exhibit what we call intelligence, probably without careful definition, but none comes close to what humans possess. Intelligence is even being attributed to computer programs that, via learning using enormous amounts of relevant data, can generate some quite amazing outputs. Artificial intelligence, I think they call it. Emphasis on “artificial”. Rather than repeat myself, you might want to have a quick look at recent posts on this currently important topic: See here, here, and here.
My efforts to define human intelligence vs. machine intelligence operationally came out with these human-only capabilities:
- Critical thinking
Besides machines, non-human animals don’t have these capabilities either.
Is evil also part of our human nature?
What exactly is “evil”? If it means “bad”, who decides what is “bad”? Bad is often good for some people. It depends on the situation. Human nature in a fundamental sense can’t be situation-dependent. It is part of who we are, no matter what the situation may be.
Okay then, are most people corruptible – potentially becoming “evil” under some circumstances? Of course. Situations, emotions, and conflicts can generate all kinds of truly bad behavior. But this is situation-dependent behavior, which is not part of human nature as just defined. What may well be part of human nature however is human corruptibility.
I touched on this very thing a while back in connection with leadership and government (both of which appear to bring out the worst in many people):
“… ‘corruption’ … [is] an important part of human nature. Almost everybody is corrupt or corruptible to some degree. The great blessing here is that this human weakness is suppressed, individually or collegially, in the majority. Most of us are fundamentally nice and are not easily corrupted.”
“If one makes a great leap and considers ‘corruption’ as being characteristic of sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, then research indicates that 4% of the adult population are sociopaths and 1% are psychopaths. But, just to confuse things, some 5% to 15% are ‘almost psychopaths’. So, for purposes here, it seems that up to 10% of the population might fall into one of these categories. That is, they may be more likely than the main population to be [especially] corruptible or [already] corrupted.”
So, if our human nature is to be potentially corruptible, then some people will surely be corrupted by all kinds of situations and opportunities. And they will even do some incredibly evil things as a result. This unfortunate downside in human nature has probably been with us since humans were invented. In any case, our corruptibility potential will not change. Fortunately, human beings are far more inclined to be sociable and selfless than “treacherous and knavish.”
Nathan J. Robinson writing in Current Affairs describes evidence that “… human beings are, on the whole, far more inclined to be sociable and selfless than ‘treacherous and knavish’. He goes on to warn about situation-driven behavior and innate human nature:
“The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, in which students were assigned the role of ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard,’ and the guards became savage and brutal, supposedly shows that ordinary people given a role to inhabit can quickly transform into sociopaths.”
“The Stanford Prison Experiment may be one of the most egregious pieces of fake science about human nature. But the experiment, cited endlessly in introductory psychology courses … was a fraud. The demented and sadistic stuff was intentionally dreamed up by the experimenter, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, not spontaneously by the student guards.”
In other words, you can probably lead humans into the nastiest imaginable behaviors given the right situations, including force and fear, but situations are not human nature. Our human nature responds to situations.
Human nature never changes, but situations do
No idea whether the human nature attributes listed above are valid in any strict sense, but they seem to be – based on my decades of experience with humans, or allegedly such. What does change of course is life – situations that present challenges and joys to most of us. We all react differently, but generally from our underlying human nature, and not from the particular situation itself. People, with psychotic exceptions, are by [human] nature “good”.
Situations are often not so good, and are regularly quite awful, or even worse. Our innate human nature gets severely tested by these situations that collectively constitute our lives. Sometimes we respond nobly, commendably. At other times, we respond in ways we later wish we had not. Instinctively, in many cases, if our animal natures take over. Human natures are a recent evolutionary layer above our animal natures – or so it appears.
It seems to be a common mistake to assign “human nature” to such animal-nature responses. They mostly reflect our instinctive evolutionary foundations. Like it or not, we retain our animal natures. Besides our human nature corruptibility, we are still critters that can and do respond badly to especially stressful situations. Our “good” human natures get sidelined.
Tessa Luna writing in often-outspoken The Burning Platform offers a particularly grim view of where us humans and our human nature may be headed: “Damaged People, Rotten Standards: Anatomy of Decline”:
“The ‘new normal’ has snuck up on us. No, there are no big screens broadcasting the babble of Klaus Schwab, dressed up as Ze Big Bro. There is no CBDC for the peasants and no climate lockdowns — not yet. But the ‘new normal’ is here because the people have been eaten into. You can see it in their faces.”
“Many of the less resilient ones have checked out. The so called ‘new normal’ is, in fact, a lack of any kind of a rational or honorable baseline in people’s heads. There are no standards, no accountability, just a Kafkaesque free fall, wrapped in politically correct words.”
“After a very long time of physical poisoning, soul stomping, social decline, and erosion of standards — followed by three years of deliberate torment — many people have just shut down. Gone inside. Brought their baseline to a very low level so as to feel ‘normal’ in a world that is anything but.”
Perhaps an overly-grim view of things today, but it seems clear to me at least that our human nature can be suppressed, overwhelmed, and damaged by sufficiently adverse and destructive situations.
So, will human nature lose once again?
Human nature, at least as I have hypothesized above, regularly takes a serious beating from situations, aka life. In fact, it seems at times that these beatings constitute much or most of what we see as life. But this underlying human nature survives. While it may go underground for a while, it is still there in the majority of people. It returns in the too-brief interludes between beatings.
This means that human nature truly never loses, despite its frequent turtle-like retractions into our protective psychic shells.
We can however become so badly damaged that we may effectively lose our “humanity”. Our human nature gets buried beyond recovery. Still there, but no longer reachable by any remaining active capabilities. Seeing what goes on in world affairs, it may be reasonable to conclude that some people are effectively no longer “human”. They are inhuman – brutal, cruel, barbaric – or unfeeling.
Are such people around today? You bet. They are, and have always been out there. Life does nasty things to so many that it is more of a surprise that so many seem to retain their humanity despite the world and its machinations.
Maybe this time, it is truly different …
There are many individuals hard at work today to dehumanize great numbers of people. Also to transhumanize – to replace various human aspects with machine-based (AI) versions. Along with cyborgs and robots. Humans are too difficult to control and enslave, so the high-tech answer is to get rid of human aspects rather than the whole inconvenient human being. This was not possible in past.
Can humanity – human nature – be removed from human beings?
Yes, but only from a highly-corruptible minority, at least it was so in past. And, as suggested above, the humanity remains, but can be suppressed permanently, beyond access or recovery. The end-effect is a non-human human.
Even in the worst of all possible past regimes, fortunately, there remained a solid population of people who resisted, fought back, faked obedience, and other means of staying human. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian historian and novelist who spent years in the Soviet Gulags and in U.S. exile, comes to mind in this respect.
Resistance of this kind often costs those involved their lives. Giving one’s life for a cause or belief is one of the greatest pieces of evidence of our unchangeable human nature at its best. Sort of captured by the “Live free or die” motto of New Hampshire, where I live largely “free”. So far.
The question then is whether the-powers-that-be today can succeed in permanently suppressing the human nature of roughly 8 billion still-mostly-human people. As demonstrated by world-dominator wannabes like the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the United Nations (UN), they are hard at world on just this sort of agenda. And they appear, for the moment at least, to be headed toward some significant degree of success.
Unlike in past, you can’t really kill a major population to get to its resisters. Even if you blow up the world, some of the 8 billion among us will survive. Survivors may not include any of the-powers-that-be, which may explain their focus on suppressing human nature broadly and permanently, and getting cyborgs and robots fully involved.
They are of course busily at work at the depopulation of non-essential folk through deprivation of energy, food, health, social freedoms, and other such ingredients of normal life. This effort also seems to be working to at least some degree, but it is going slowly. No doubt much too slowly for the rulers and kin. They may well opt for a nuclear world war to speed things up in this respect.
Is war part of human nature?
Humankind seems to have been at war somewhere, at some level, forever. It’s just what we do. It must be part of our human nature. Or perhaps not.
Wars tend not to be started and waged by “good” people. They seem to be initiated by corrupt people for personal ends. As noted above, being corruptible may be part of our human nature, and sociopathic-psychopathic individuals are most readily corrupted – by themselves if not by others.
Brian Klaas, Washington Post columnist, has written a book – Corruptible – about just this topic:
“An ‘absorbing, provocative, and far-reaching’ (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) look at what power is, who gets it, and what happens when they do, based on over 500 interviews with those who (temporarily, at least) have had the upper hand—from the creator of the Power Corrupts podcast and Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas.”
“Does power corrupt, or are corrupt people drawn to power? Are tyrants made or born? Are entrepreneurs who embezzle and cops who kill the result of poorly designed systems or are they just bad people? If you were suddenly thrust into a position of power, would you be able to resist the temptation to line your pockets or seek revenge against your enemies?”
“To answer these questions, Corruptible draws on over 500 interviews with some of the world’s top leaders—from the noblest to the dirtiest—including presidents and philanthropists as well as rebels, cultists, and dictators. Some of the fascinating insights include: how facial appearance determines who we pick as leaders, why narcissists make more money, why some people don’t want power at all and others are drawn to it out of a psychopathic impulse, and why being the ‘beta’ (second in command) may actually be the optimal place for health and well-being.”
“Based on deep, unprecedented research from around the world, and filled with ‘unexpected insights…the most important lesson of Corruptible is that when psychopaths inadvertently reveal their true selves, the institutions that they plague must take action that is swift, brutal, and merciless’ (Business Insider).”
My take here is that individuals with sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies or full-blown disorders seek power by any manner at hand. Such people always exist, so wars of one sort or another will always exist. As seems to have been the case.
The mostly unchangeable parts of our human nature – the “good” parts – appear to be counterbalanced by the corruptibility that is also part of our unchangeable human nature. We are by nature both good and evil. Which part rules depends upon our free will and upon the situations that we encounter in life.
What is changeable for each of us is how we respond to life’s challenges and opportunities, not our human nature. We respond with currently available tools and we put them to uses that may be good, noble, or that may be bad, destructive. Our responses reflect who we are and who our human nature guides us to be.
- Tyler Durden writing in ZeroHedge has a useful summary of why AI is not likely to be a major problem: “AI Is Being Over-Hyped: ‘Those Who Believe Artificial General Intelligence Is Imminent Are Almost Certainly Wrong’“:
“The intelligence of AI systems is being overhyped and, while we could get there eventually, we are currently nowhere near achieving artificial general intelligence (AGI). Those are the words of Gary Marcus, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, as he pours cold water on the ‘AI Boom’ that has almost single-handedly supported the entire stock market for the last month.”
“At the core of all current generative AI tools is basically an autocomplete function that has been trained on a substantial portion of the internet. These tools possess no understanding of the world, so they’ve been known to hallucinate, or make up false statements.”
“The tools excel at largely predictable tasks like writing code, but not at, for example, providing accurate medical information or diagnoses, which autocomplete isn’t sophisticated enough to do.”
“The data on which LLMs are trained can have bias effects on the model output, which is disquieting given that these systems are starting to shape our beliefs. Another concern is around the truthfulness of AI systems – as mentioned, they’ve been known to hallucinate.”
“Bad actors can use these systems for deliberate abuse, from spreading harmful medical misinformation to disrupting elections, which could gravely threaten society.”
- History Crunch, developer of history and social sciences educational tools, offers this summary of how major philosophers viewed human nature: “Age of Enlightenment. Theories on Human Nature”:
“There are three main thinkers that philosophers and historians look back on when considering the Enlightenment and views on human nature; Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Each of the three discussed their differing views on the natural state of human beings in their writing. For example, in his famous work, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that people in their natural state were more bad than good. Specifically, he stated that people lived in a constant state of fear and always acted in their own self-interest. As such, Hobbes viewed people as naturally greedy and violent with a complete lack of morals. He believed that without a strong central authority the life of man would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’”.
“In contrast, John Locke had a much more positive view of human nature. Locke believed that people were naturally cooperative and reasonable and, if given the opportunity, would work well with each other towards a common goal. He did not agree with Hobbes in the need for a strong central authority and instead argued that people had basic morals that would guide their behaviour. In fact, since he believed that people were naturally good, he stated the necessity for them to have a role in deciding the leadership of the society.”
“Jean-Jacques Rousseau offered yet another perspective on human nature. He believed that people were born good but that society corrupted our basic human nature. He famously stated that ‘man is born free yet everywhere is in chains’. By this he was stating his belief that people are born good natured but that the conditions of an organized and civilized society corrupted our basic intentions. His main issue with ‘civilized societies’ was the class divisions that existed, which in his time were related to life under feudalism. He argued that these class divisions, caused people to lose sight of their basic human nature and instead become competitive.”
- And if these three are not sufficiently confusing, Allen W. Wood in Cambridge University Press adds the views of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and one of the great central Enlightenment thinkers: “The Radical Evil in Human Nature”:
“Kant’s thesis that there is in human nature an innate, universal, inextirpable, and radical propensity to evil belongs to his attempt to choose fragments of (Christian) revelation and see if they cannot be seen to lead back to the religion of pure reason. Though Kant regards this thesis as unproven, he offers it as an interpretation of the Christian doctrine of original sin that can be used in moral discipline, though not in moral dogmatics. To understand Kant’s concept of evil, we must understand his concept of freedom and disentangle it from incomprehensible metaphysical speculations with which it has often been associated in the literature. Kant’s concept of moral evil is extremely abstract, consisting in the choice of some nonmoral incentive over the moral incentive. Evil can never be made entirely intelligible because evil is action, hence done for reasons, but there can never be a sufficient or decisive reason for doing it because the moral incentive is rationally prior to all nonmoral incentives. But Kant thinks evil can be made intelligible to an extent by seeing it as part of nature’s purposiveness in developing human species predispositions in the social condition.”