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Human nature and the struggle for survival

The struggle for existence is actually composed of individuals collaborating

Post by on Thursday, June 17, 2021

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CECILIA HARNBURG

 There are three connected issues. What is human nature? How fixed and transmissible is it? How does human nature relate to modern society? Commentators imbue ‘human nature’ with the qualities that best fit their philosophical and political predilections. Writings in the early twentieth century argued that all species are collectively oriented. The struggle for existence is actually composed of individuals collaborating. Indeed, the rise of capitalism had wrecked this essential human nature, a circumstance to be reversed by an anarchist society. Some scholars argued that people could easily be individualistic and competitive. They therefore envisaged a form of social engineering that would override these propensities. Individual actions must sooner or later be checked by the whole, lest the whole perish through the error of its member.

 Social Darwinism has relied heavily on the idea of “traits” or “characteristics” that are seen as determining whether an organism, a “race,” or even a nation survives and satisfactorily breeds. This issue is especially important when considering eugenics, the deliberate selection of people with particular traits and their discouragement from breeding through forms of social control. Darwin’s own express anxiety about biological decline stemming “the weak members of civilized society” not only propagating their kind but, as a result of medical and charitable intervention, leading to “the degeneration of a domestic race”.

 

In Hereditary Genius, Galton studied family trees over a period of two hundred years and argued that a disproportionately large number of distinguished jurists, politicians, military commanders, scientists, poets, painters, and musicians were blood relatives. He concluded that it would be “quite practical to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations”. His young colleague Pearson attempted to measure mental capacities and claimed on a statistical basis, one appealing to scientific method that these capacities were indeed passed on between generations. But the influential Herbert Spencer envisaged human nature as flexible and transformed over time.

 

Primitive man was immoral, irrational, mendacious, and aggressive. A number of groups (including children, women, inferior social ranks, and tribal cultures) remain arrested in a prehistoric state, although they could be civilized during their individual lives. Social evolution is generally progressive. It has consisted of a steady improvement of a primitive state of affairs. Individualism, morality, and voluntary association had developed in modern society, one in which people could start caring for one another.

 

In modern society the successful are those with advanced mental capacities. Meanwhile unsuccessful people with low intelligence are interbreeding to produce a rapidly increasing underclass. Society is again envisaged as “natural,” class structure being a product of inborn characteristics. The issue of a fixed, heritable, possibly genetically based human nature remains highly controversial. In contrast, there is a rapidly growing literature showing that early parenting and schooling are especially important in determining both mental and physical “fitness”. Perhaps the most important defining trait of human beings is their flexibility, their capacity to adapt to many different circumstances.

 

As regards the relationship between human nature and modern society, a recurrent theme was established by Graham Wallas (1858–1932), another Fabian socialist. Writing in 1908, he asked, “Why should we expect a social organization to endure, which has been formed in a moment of time by human beings, whose bodies and minds are the result of age long selection under far different conditions?”.The implication is that human nature was established during the earliest years of human evolution but is inappropriate for, or even destructive to modern society.

 

This is a position developed later by “evolutionary psychology.” Again using the idea of a genetically based human nature, the suggestion is that humanity’s principle predispositions were established while the species evolved with the passage of time. The modern mind remains a “neural computer,” one driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments, such as food, safety, parenthood, friendship, status and knowledge.

 

(Excerpt from: Cecilia Harnburg ‘Existence and Survival’) 

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