An Evolutionary Perspective on Human Nature by Travis McNamara

Many may fear the possibility of the theory of evolution’s factuality due to a misperception of what it says about the nature of humanity, and indeed the nature of existence itself. Many, if not most, people associate the phrase “survival of the fittest” with Darwin and his theory; this in turn paints a bleak picture of reality, which, while not totally inaccurate, is far from the whole story.
Van Slyke (2010) notes that the view that selfishness comprises “the core of human nature has been a live option throughout Western history.” He cites Thomas Hobbes’s declaration that nature is a “war of all against all,” resulting in an inevitable “savage and brutal competition for resources” unless the actors are coerced into ethical behavior (p. 849). This generally negative view of humanity — that we are little more than sociopaths by nature, domesticated by our cultural institutions, a view DeWaal (2003) refers to as “veneer theory” (p. 3) — can also be found, in the philosophies of Huxley, Freud, and Spencer (p. 8), among others.
It is Thomas Henry Huxley that DeWaal (2003) “credits” with the founding of this school of philosophy (p. 3). His continuous and adamant defense of evolutionary theory earned him the moniker “Darwin’s Bulldog,” however, DeWaal sees this advocacy of veneer theory as an “astounding position,” “an inexplicable retreat” on Huxley’s part for two reasons: the first being that it undermined evolution’s explanatory power for what has been widely viewed as one of humanity’s defining characteristics — our highly developed sense of morality; the other reason being that it left one huge question unanswered: if our morality is just a veneer and our truest nature is truly one of utter, relentless competition with our conspecifics, then where does our sense of morality come from, that is, how does one behave in a fashion other than one is naturally able (p. 7)? I concur with DeWaal’s assessment that this position is “untenable in light of what we know about the evolutionary background of our species” (p. 4).
Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, and certainly one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era, also saw struggle as the defining characeristic of existence (DeWaal, 2003, p. 7) and civilization as a means of repressing our natural drives, ultimately resulting in discontent. And while he was not totally off the mark — we certainly do possess the potential for extreme cruelty, and society does, and should act to constrain the acting out of these antisocial impulses (Schwartz, 2012, p. 229) — the view that our nature compels us to behave antisocially, and it is only our societies and their institutions — which we, quite obviously, constructed — that prevent us from acting out in every heinous and contemptible fashion imaginable again begs the question proposed above.
Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin, and the true coiner of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” applied this view of human nature to economic philosophy. He was a strong proponent of laissez-faire capitalism; he opposed any interference with the market, as any efforts taken to mitigate the inequalities that would arise would cause more misery by allowing the innately inferior to survive and reproduce (Beck, n.d., p. 2). A whole string of pseudointellectual sociopaths, most blatantly Ayn Rand (Stewart, 2011, p. 391), have continued this disgusting legacy. Though she (Clardy, 2012, p. 243-244), like Hayek (Finn, 2003, p. 146), Friedman (p. 138), and others, cloaked her Social Darwinism in a thin veneer of a sophistic philosophy claiming to be dedicated to freedom — desecrating the word in the process — the stated objectives: the elimination of social safety net programs and no, or at minimum, greatly reduced, taxation of the income of the wealthy, are wholly in line with Social Darwinism (“Ayn Rand,” 2012).
Haque (2011) refutes the Social Darwinist hypotheses regarding human nature by pointing out that “[e]xperimental approaches within fields as varied as psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology demonstrate that human morality is fully grounded in the natural world and, thus, part of our evolved nature” (p. 151). In other words, our impulses towards empathy and altruism are every bit as important a facet of who we are as a species as our tendencies towards competition; that our concern for others is just as real as our concern for our own self-interest.
But contrary to popular opinion this understanding of human nature isn’t all that new. Darwin (as cited in Reynolds, 1981), in a personal notebook twenty years prior to the release of On the Origin of Species, wrote that humans, as well as other animals, instinctively feel “love [& sympathy] or benevolence” for our fellows and engage in acts of selfless altruism. He continued with fierce logic, pointing out that while the satisfaction of these instincts “gives great pleasure,” when their satisfaction is prevented they “give pain,” he closed by adding “[t]herefore in man we should expect that acts of benevolence towards fellow [feeling] creatures, or of kindness to wife and children would give him pleasure, without any regard to his own interenst. Likewise if such actions were prevented by force he would feel pain” (p. 36). What greater degree of despair can one imagine than being denied the comfort of the companionship of their loved ones, to be unable to lend assistance when they are in need? As one who has spent time in prison I testify that this deprivation was the hardest aspect of imprisonment; for me as well as for most of those I spoke to.
One should not assume, however, that the intensity of feeling for our family precludes emotional connections to others, as Petr Kropotkin (1972) observed in his study of the fauna of his native Russia: “though there is an immense amount of warfare … going on amidst various species, and … classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society.” He suggested we “ask Nature: ‘Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other or those who support one another?”, he provided the answer to this rhetorical question by stating that “we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest.” (Chapter 1, para 9).
E. O. Wilson corroborates his assertion by pointing to the fact that it is those species who have developed the most advanced social systems — ants, bees, wasps, as well as ourselves (termites could only have been an accidental omission) — that are the most dominant forms of life on earth (Flora, 2012, para 6). He adds that “[g]roup selection, combined with individual classical Darwinian selection” are the keys to understanding how we evolved (Flora, 2012, para 18) but “[t]he group selection pressure is what made us” (Flora, 2012, para 31). Darwin was saying essentially the same thing in 1871; “[a] tribe including many members … always ready to aid one another … would be victorious over most other tribes” (p. 71).
But while Darwin seemed to view the primary group struggles, at least among humans, to be intraspecific, our friend Kropotkin (1972) believed, or, in my opinion, realized, that our primary struggles were against the external forces of nature (Introduction, para. 14); this would seem to especially hold true in our earliest days on the African plains surrounded by fearsome predators such as the lion, leopard, and hyena. Fuentes, Wyczalkowski, & MacKinnon (2010) postulate that the selection pressures inherent in inhabiting an environment with multiple apex predators were important factors in our evolutionary history (p. 435). I find this hypothesis entirely plausible as we would be utterly defenseless against a wide range of predators, if it were not for our intellect, and our tendency to use it cooperatively in groups, due to both an intellectual recognition of mutual benefit as well as the strong emotional bonds we form with one another, for the purpose of mutual defense. We are, comparatively speaking, a weak and slow species, lacking in camouflage, fangs, or claws; we were, and still are, dependent on one another for mere safety.

Our lack of natural weapons also necessitated communal hunting, as well as the production of artefactual weapons, and other technological and behavioral innovations for our ancestors (Whiten & Erdal, 2013, p. 2120). Ferraro et al (2013) reveal that the earliest evidence of persistent carnivory in our evolutionary lineage, at a site in Kenya, dated between 1.7 and 2.3 million years ago, primarily consisted of small to medium-sized bovids — though small need not imply easily killed, as the speed of Grant’s gazelle, for example, would pose serious problems for any hunter working alone — as well as zebras, Metridiochoerus (an extinct species of giant warthog that possessed four large tusks), and even more formidable prey, albeit in limited numbers, such as water buffalo, hippopotami, crocodiles, and Deinotherium (an even larger cousin of the modern elephant) (p. 2-3). By the time of the Late Stone Age, roughly 50,000 years ago, our hunting capabilities and technological prowess enabled us to consistently engage in the hunting of higher risk, higher reward prey: Dusseldorp (2010) says that in Africabushpig, warthog, and two species of buffalo (water buffalo and the extinct giant buffalo) began to outpace the more docile eland in terms of representation in archaeological finds, clearly a result of increased hunting proficiency (p. 109), he also notes that, even today, the water buffalo is still responsible for many attacks on humans and that the bushpig is capable of disembowling dogs and leopards and even the occasional killing of a human, clearly highlighting the danger inherent in the tackling of large, aggressive prey, which would have necessitated either larger group numbers, more sophisticated weaponry, or both (Dusseldorp, 2010, p. 111).
Our progressively heightening proficiency as hunters was largely responsible for our ability to colonize the entire planet, and had profound impacts on the fauna, particularly the megafauna, that we encountered as we came to populate the other continents — while there were surely other contributing factors to the megafauna extinction events in Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas, primarily climatic, it cannot be denied that there was a large, though imperfect, degree of correlation between the times of our arrivals with the times of these species demise (see Ripple & Van Valkenburgh, 2010, or for a competing, non-anthropogenic hypothesis, see Field & Wroe, 2012) — as well as ourselves.
Whiten & Erdal (2013) posit that the behaviors involved in the hunt, its planning, and its aftermath (review of events, storytelling, food-sharing) led to the development of what is referred to as a “socio-cognitive niche” based on “cooperation, egalitarianism, mind-reading (theory of mind), language and culture” (p. 2120), forming an “interconnected, adaptive complex.” They construct their case by citing a wide body of ethnographic studies that reveal the highly cooperative and egalitarian societies of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, in tandem with the archaeological record;  though on what is surely the most controversial claim, that of egalitarianism, they are forced to lean exclusively on the ethnologies, which is, admittedly, controversial as a practice, in and of itself. However, they are honest about the controversy and cognizant of the method’s shortcomings, recognizing that while behavioral details of our ancestors in antiquity, particularly in reference to ancestral hominins, are impossible to infer from modern ethnologies, they make a compelling argument that broad, consistent patterns regarding generalities can lead to perfectly logical inferences regarding the behavior of our primitive ancestors (Whiten & Erdal, 2013, p.2121-2126).
A theory of mind, or ability to interpret another’s state of mind, is, as I see it, the foundation on which the whole complex rests (though it is ultimately cyclical, as all aspects reinforce the other aspects, either directly or indirectly — see figure 1 for a visual representation), as it results in a tight-knit group whose minds “interpenetrate each other … facilitating … closely integrated cooperation and egalitarian sharing and decision-making” allowing “the band to act as a unified, sophisticated predatory ‘organism'” (Whiten & Erdal, 2013, p.2122). This hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the only lifestyle we knew until roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago when some populations began to domesticate formerly wild plants and animals for food; the impact of resulting lifestyle changes brought on by this shift in mode of subsistence is etched into our genomic code, in the form of genetic predispositions to certain illnesses, as well as biological adaptations to the shift in diet itself and the new social niches we constructed (Laland, Odling-Smee, & Myles, 2010, p. 143) in the form of villages, towns, and cities with population densities far exceeding that ever accomplished by any hunter-gatherer society (O’Brien & Laland, 2012, p. 449); though given the harsh realities of the world we live in (war, institutionalized oppression, imperialism, etc.) one must worry that our social evolution has dramatically outpaced our biological evolution, that our minds — or at least, some of our minds — are incapable of dealing with the overwhelming complexity of interpersonal relations with such large groups of people, each with their own goals, aspirations, and agendas which often conflict with our own; and, if left to their own devices, without cultural intercession, this evolutionary mismatch can manifest itself in an array of maladaptive tendencies.
Candidates for inclusion into these evolutionary mismatches are xenophobia (fear of those deemed as “other”), ethnocentrism, and racism (McEvoy, 2012; Wilson, 1998), as well as patricarchalism and homophobia (Goldstein, n.d.). These tendencies are, by their very nature, difficult to prove empirically, as they are immensely complex patterns of behavior and are highly contentious due to the immense pain they have caused, and continue to cause, in our society, as well as others. Now mind you, natural and “good” are not synonomous; cancer and other illnesses and natural disasters are completely natural but few, if any, of us would consider them good. But this is an area deserving, no needing, a far greater degree of inquiry, for as McEvoy (2012) says:
Only if an individual understands the forces and biases at work in determining their attitudes, beliefs and actions can they hope to attain free will. Only free will can emancipate the individual, allowing him or her to decide, rationally and independent of all unconscious prejudice, what is “right” (p. 48).
Our desire to see a more inclusive society where the rights and dignity of all are protected require our coming to understand the source(s) of those behaviors that impede our ability to achieve this lofty and noble goal. Predicating our self-examination solely on criteria not established through rational observation of empirical reality poses too grave a risk to our coming to the correct conclusions for us to waste any more time with. For while spirituality certainly serves a purpose for our species, it must be integrated with a knowledge gained through the scientific process if we can utilize its positive aspects and reject those negative aspects that obstruct our path to realizing a better world.
A better understanding of what science really has to say regarding our nature as a species, as well as its philosophical, moral, and ethical implications. This can only assist us in refuting the pseudo-scienctific justifications sometimes used to justify relentless, cutthroat competition in our economic system, racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other evil some sophist may attempt to legitimize as well as attempting to construct economic, social, and political systems that are designed to meet the needs of the mass of humanity, as opposed to solely those of a self-ordained “superior” class.
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