Debunking the "Human nature" Argument

I debunked the so-called “iPhone Argument,” in an article here, so I figured I’d tackle another common objection to communism. This one pisses me off more than any other, because it’s both incredibly common and incredibly dumb. Basically, it states that humans are naturally greedy and/or competitive, and so a system based on cooperation is doomed to fail. As you would expect, I have several objections to this idea. The biggest one is that it is simply an empirically false assertion.

There are numerous studies showing that cooperation and empathy are just as integral to who we are as people as competition. To quote an article from Psychology Today, “In experiments conducted by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, one person is given an amount of money and then offers any amount of his or her choosing to a second person. They are told these rules: the receiver can either accept the offer, in which case the cash is shared according to the offer made, or the receiver can reject the offer, in which case neither person receives anything. If people acted purely out of self-interest, the offers would always be low and receivers would always take what is offered. Over more than two decades, the experiments have shown that typically an offer is between 25-50% and the receiver rejects an offer of less than 25%. People offer more than necessary and reject offers that they consider too little. What seems to motivate both givers and receivers is a sense of fairness.

“The facts are clear,” Fehr says. “Many people are willing to cooperate and to punish those who don’t, even when no gain is possible.” Such behavior, Fehr and others reason, is best explained by the fact that it leads to social cohesion. Working together had an evolutionary purpose in that it allowed our ancestors to form strong groups thereby fostering maximal survival.”

Further, there’s this article in Scientific American, going over several studies on the matter, which says, “Studies show that in the first year of life, infants exhibit empathy toward others in distress. At later stages in life we routinely work together to reach goals and help out in times of need,” and further that, “any benefits derived from selfishness may be short lived.”

Even in the face of such evidence as this, some capitalists still object to this notion. They cite examples of humans behaving badly as a substitute for presenting any actual scientific evidence. However, there’s no reason to assume that their anecdotes are in any way representative of all or even most humans, so they become utterly meaningless. Further, they always cite examples in the current system, like the greed of business owners. When they do this, they are essentially saying, “Cooperation doesn’t occur in a system which does not promote cooperation!” This ignores that this very fact is why we want to change the system. This counterpoint is bullshit because it uses the conditions of capitalism to justify capitalism. But if it is precisely the existing conditions one objects to, then the argument has no value.

Socialist George Bernard Shaw made this point well when he spoke of racism in America. “The American White relegates the black to the position of shoeshiner, and he concludes from this that the black is good for nothing but shining shoes.” This is exactly the same sort of an argument as the one made by the capitalists. It ignores that the capitalist system is what causes human nature to manifest itself in selfishness, not the other way around.

It’s telling, I think, that the capitalist never cites any data to support their position that humans are not altruistic. They can’t. Communists, on the other hand, can. In addition to Dr. Fehr’s experiments, there’s a lot more data to support our position, such as a report from Robert Trivers published in the Quarterly Review of Biology. He conducted several decades’ worth of anthropological analysis and found that most early humans lived in a kind of primitive communism, in which cooperation was the order of the day. He discovered something which came to be known as reciprocal altruism. In a nutshell, it is a principle which states that people are more likely to help individuals that have helped them. Witnessing altruism inspires altruism in others.

A report  published in the journal Nature by David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene, and Martin A. Nowak finds that, “Cooperation is central to human behavior.”

If yet more evidence is required, I would encourage you to look at this PROUT article, which reviews several academic texts and states, “Many new studies…point to quite different conclusions. Robert Augros and George Stanciu, in their book The New Biology: Discovering the Wisdom of Nature, found that, in fact, cooperation, not competition, is the norm in nature, because it is energy-efficient and because predators and their prey maintain a kind of balanced coexistence. They found that, ‘“Nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature.”’ Today most anthropologists and psychologists assert that the question of nature or nurture is not an either/or issue, but one of interrelationship. We are born with certain instincts and tendencies, but through education, upbringing and our own conscious choices, we can transform our conduct, nature and personality.”

To me, all of these passages seem to suggest that if we want people to cooperate, we should create a system which incentivizes them to do so. That system is socialism, which organizes production in a harmonious and democratic manner, putting the neesa of humanity above the enrichment of a minority of capitalists.

2 thoughts on “Debunking the "Human nature" Argument

  1. re: “Witnessing altruism inspires altruism in others.” And no doubt the converse is true. If you are raised in a society where greed, self-interest, and competition are not just constantly on display but glorified, you come to believe that this is the only way to “get yours” and any other way of being is just foolish and naive. This seems to be the main obstacle in getting people to look at actual data about human behavior and to consider what sorts of behaviors and societies make the most sense. They already “know” (firsthand!) that cooperation won’t work. Then they’ll throw in a sentence about breadlines and walk away quite pleased with themselves.

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