Monday, October 26, 2009

Our old friend and foe, Human Nature

"Lenin’s ideas fell apart in practice, due in no small part by the human tendency of greed for posession [sic] and power." From a comment at Naked Capitalism

The comment is in response to an important posting by George Washington discussing which socioeconomic system currently best describes the US. It is well worth a read, if only for the fact that it encourages thinking about the question, but that is not what I want to comment on.

The person behind the above quote goes by the name of tgmac and seems to know what he is talking about, expresses what he wants to say eloquently, and all in all seems like an intelligent human being. And yet, there is an assumption in his post that human nature is fixed and tends towards greed for material possessions and power. Typically one has this opinion because history demonstrates that this is the case. Look at all that warring, raping, pillaging, cheating, blackmail, fraud and downright psychopathic tomfoolery that litters the pages of virtually any history book you care to open. Of course we can say with a high degree of confidence that human nature is bad. Just look around you.

What is very seldom considered is that recorded history began at a time when scarcity was not, at least in the economic sense, a solvable problem, and when our knowledge of ourselves, psychologically and biologically, was very poor. Organically and in some ignorance, and under pressure of particular environmental conditions -- like harsh winters and poor agricultural skill -- we have fashioned into our languages and philosophies a very hard to shake relationship with scarcity that is, at least technically, no longer helpful. We also have inherited a rather lazy understanding of ourselves as biological entities characterised by greed and ambition, at least at the popular level. Economists and historians are seldom also zoologists and biologists, neither are they anthropologists or child psychologists etc. Economists in particular have a particularly narrow and shallow view of the human being, assuming it to be rational, selfish and greedy.

Without blathering on for pages let me finish with a couple of questions and a couple of links. Question 1: What exactly are the pathways from genetics to behaviour? Question 2: Why did the islanders of St. Kilda display no laziness until, after 2,000 years without it as incentive, they were introduced to money in the mid nineteenth century?

The links:
My paper on human nature
Peter Joseph's orientation guide, pp 69-77

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