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Just Human Nature?

Have you ever noticed how gloomy we are in the way we talk about ourselves? About our species, I mean. Someone cheats – on his taxes, on her partner – and we shrug and mutter, “Well, it’s only human nature.” Over and over, we sing the same mournful refrain in response to signs of dishonesty, selfishness and aggression, most often evident among people that we don’t know.

I find this bizarre. I think we need to reclaim this phrase, and shout Now THAT’S human nature! whenever we catch people in acts like this: pushing a stranger’s car out of the snow; smiling at small children; preserving history or restoring spoiled habitats; singing the good old songs; standing against injustice; jumping into icy water or burning houses to save another. I don’t mean that lying and brutality don’t happen, only that they are not the default mode of the human system.

It reminds me of the view of history as one unrelieved tale of war, tragedy and competition. If this was true, how could we have cities and art and temples and enduring music? War destroys quickly, and this is the horror, but it is also the exception. If war and aggression were the rule, we’d have destroyed ourselves long ago. If it were otherwise, how could any of the cooperative projects and personal accomplishments of human beings remain? The King James Bible, Chartres Cathedral, Réal Madrid CF, the computer program on which I write: pick your favourite example of human enterprise and progress, and know that it required time and peace to be built.

And if our human nature is nothing but self-interest and negativity, how have we survived? (Just give us time, I hear some of you muttering. We’re working on it.) We can be beastly to each other, but we can also be angels. When we think of our friends, our family, the colleagues we know and respect, we don’t assume as some sort of default stance that they are “only out for themselves”, “naturally aggressive” or, God forbid, “born in sin”. Oh, we screw up. We are in constant need of education. Most of the time, though, most of us are just ordinary Janes and Jamals who are trying to be useful, wanting to enjoy the company of others and to leave some legacy of goodness behind. It’s only human nature, after all.

(And here’s Waldo! Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is, with his description of humans being at their best, the success that, in our heart of hearts, most of us want more than anything else:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

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