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Civilization and Human Nature

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We’ve been discussing human nature and the naturalistic fallacy a lot, and how proving that something is human nature is not the same as proving that it’s a desirable trait to have today in modern society. As I’ve said in the past, human nature just means it was something that was at one point in human history very useful when it came to surviving and reproducing, but is not necessarily so useful now. Something that is part of human nature may still be useful for surviving and reproducing, but it also may be maladaptive, meaning it’s counterproductive to optimal living, but not so counterproductive that it ever ends up being weeded out of human nature through the evolutionary process.

To give an example, bugs evolved to be attracted to light. This is because being attracted to light, for a variety of reasons, helped them survive and reproduce in their original habitat. In the location of a big city, in an era where artificial light is the norm, this attraction to light is a maladaptive trait. When you remove your light bulb cover you may see a bunch of dead bugs accumulated in it. Bugs are known to waste time flittering around lamp posts at night, or hovering outside an apartment window, or flying into bug zappers.

However there are still plenty of habitats where this attraction to light still provides high survival and reproduction value, so this trait is not going to be weeded out of existence anytime in the near future.

Just like a big city with artificial light makes things that our part of a bug’s nature now counterproductive and dysfunctional, modern civilized society does the same thing to many traits that are part of our human nature.

The desire for violence is a part of human nature. So is the desire to live peacefully. Civilized society tries to police and reduce the former, or at least channel it into areas where it will do the least collective harm, like athletics, while encouraging and incentivizing the latter in a way that helps the greater, collective good. The urge to compete is part of human nature, as is the urge to cooperate. Civilized society tries to channel the competitive and cooperative urges into areas that it deems constructive, while discouraging people from exercising these same urges into areas it deems detrimental to the greater good. For example, civilized society may encourage cooperation in many instances, but when criminals cooperate with each other it’s its own separate crime, racketeering. Or society may give a criminal incentive to cooperate with the police and confess to a crime and incriminate his partners, but will punish criminals who cooperate with each other to cover up crimes.

Some human nature behaviors and traits are considered universally bad in civilized society, with no positive manifestations. Take for example, rape. It’s a controversial notion, but there is a school of thought that says that rape evolved under some circumstances as a genetically advantageous behavioral adaptation. This view was popularized by biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer in their 2000 book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion.

The Wikipedia entry discusses how critics applied the naturalistic fallacy with this book:

Thornhill and Palmer write that “Rape is viewed as a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage”. They further state that by categorizing a behavior as “natural” and “biological” we do not in any way mean to imply that the behavior is justified or even inevitable. “Biological” means “of or pertaining to life,” so the word applies to every human feature and behavior. But to infer from that, as many critics assert that Thornhill and Palmer do, that what is biological is somehow right or good, would be to fall into the so-called naturalistic fallacy. They make a comparison to “natural disasters as epidemics, floods and tornadoes”. This shows that what can be found in nature is not always good and that measures should be and are taken against natural phenomena. They further argue that a good knowledge of the causes of rape, including evolutionary ones, are necessary in order to develop effective preventive measures.

Evolutionary psychologists McKibbin et al. argue that the claim that evolutionary theories are justifying rape, is a fallacy in the same way that it would be a fallacy, to accuse the scientists doing research on the causes of cancer, that they are justifying cancer. Instead, they say that understanding the causes of rape may help create preventive measures.

The point is, because rape was once an advantageous strategy purely from a survival and reproduction standpoint, especially during those parts of human history before the existence of modern birth control and abortion procedures, it is still part of human nature today, which is why our society puts so much effort into educating about, preventing, and punishing rape. Yet only an idiot or a sociopath would argue that a rapist is behavior to emulate, or that being a rapist was ever an example of good behavior.

Another reason why an aspect of human nature may be maladaptive is because it’s a free rider trait. Free riders are opportunists who game the system in a way that allows them to benefit themselves as the expense of others. Free riders behave selfishly in their own favor in ways that hurt the greater, collective good of the group.

Since free riders have existed throughout recorded human history, and because one can see the ways in which being a free rider can benefit someone, it’s tempting to use the naturalistic fallacy with free riding and say that being selfish is a desirable trait. As I described in a recent post:

[B]eing a free rider only works when a minority of people are free riders. There is always a tipping point level where if enough people start behaving selfishly and free riding the whole game falls apart. In the game theory game Prisoner’s Dilemma, if everyone starts competing it’s a mess. Same for the game Tragedy of the Commons: if enough people start acting selfishly the system falls apart.

In every system, there is always a balance between competition and and cooperation that must be aimed for. The more civilized and structured a society is, the more important cooperation becomes, and the lower the threshold becomes for crossing that free rider tipping point and having the whole system unravel.

So advanced civilization as it exists today must be taken into account when discussing whether a trait reflects human nature, and when discussing if that trait is still an optimal trait today or a maladaptive one. What works in the context of a hunter gather society from thousands of years ago, or even in the context of a civilized society from mere decades ago, may be dysfunctional and self-defeating within the context of the specific, advanced society of today.

5 Responses to “Civilization and Human Nature”


  1. It seems like your just repeating yourself with your recent posts.


  2. That’s deliberate. Each post is meant to build off the other with a lot of overlap, but there’s still unique information in each one. For example I may be wrong but I don’t think I’ve discussed Thornhill and rape before.

    I dwell on this because the naturalistic fallacy is by far one of the most recurring and hardest to change fallacies my blog readers have.


  3. dear T,
    there is a lot to which I do not agree in this post. I’d like to concentrate on this paragraph:

    The desire for violence is a part of human nature. So is the desire to live peacefully. Civilized society tries to police and reduce the former, or at least channel it into areas where it will do the least collective harm, like athletics, while encouraging and incentivizing the latter in a way that helps the greater, collective good. The urge to compete is part of human nature, as is the urge to cooperate. Civilized society tries to channel the competitive and cooperative urges into areas that it deems constructive, while discouraging people from exercising these same urges into areas it deems detrimental to the greater good. For example, civilized society may encourage cooperation in many instances, but when criminals cooperate with each other it’s its own separate crime, racketeering. Or society may give a criminal incentive to cooperate with the police and confess to a crime and incriminate his partners, but will punish criminals who cooperate with each other to cover up crimes.

    you write this as if violence is all the same totally disregarding the purpose of a certain act of violence. In this way you put it as if “Civilized Society” needs to channel it. Now do you think that hunting an animal, fighting a rival clan in stone age, beating a slave, beatings by a policeman against an prison inmate, arresting a person who commited financial fraud or, say, vacating a house whose tenants didnt pay the rent is all the same violence? dont you think that it doesnt make much sense to talk about violence in this abstract way? Dont you think you need to consider the relationships in which people commit their violence? E.G. their purpose? Or the role they are executing.
    There is much more I’d like to criticise in your post but maybe we can come to a discussion about this for now.


  4. you write this as if violence is all the same totally disregarding the purpose of a certain act of violence.

    No, I didn’t disregard the purpose of certain acts of violence.

    Violence, to me, can be defined as an attempt to gain or regain a sense of control or dominance through intimidation, coercion, or rough, injurious treatment. The specific purpose of the violence is irrelevant, the generous purpose is always the same: to gain or regain a sense of control or dominance.

    Now do you think that hunting an animal, fighting a rival clan in stone age, beating a slave, beatings by a policeman against an prison inmate, arresting a person who commited financial fraud or, say, vacating a house whose tenants didnt pay the rent is all the same violence?

    Yes. They are all the same in the general sense, in that the person is trying to establish dominance or gain/regain a sense of control. Sometimes the act of trying to dominate and gain control is offensive and proactive, other times it’s defensive and reaction, but violence tends to be about domination and control. Even if you add the reason “safety,” that still falls under the category of control. When you feel safe, you feel a sense of control over your situation.

    dont you think that it doesnt make much sense to talk about violence in this abstract way?

    No, it still makes perfect sense to me.

    Dont you think you need to consider the relationships in which people commit their violence? E.G. their purpose? Or the role they are executing.

    That’s my point about what the role of civilization is. Considering the context of the violence to figure out whether it was justified or not, whether it was “acceptable” violence that should be tolerate or encouraged or “unacceptable” violnce that should be discouraged and punished is what civilized society does. When a society is extremely uncivilized, lawless, and primitive, the only criteria for whether violence is acceptable or not is whether you have the power or opportunity to get away with it. Might makes right.

    This is what I was trying to tell Cameron. Cameron says I was being too repetitive, yet someone still fell into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy, or at least that seems to be what happened here. When I said violence was a part of human nature, you felt that I needed to distinguish between “good violence” and “bad violence,” as if both couldn’t be a part of human nature. The issue, to me, seems to be that you believe that you are falling into a form of the naturalistic fallacy where my act of calling violence a part of human nature was a “mistake” because I need to explicitly exclude immortal forms of violence from that statement.


  5. so part of what you are trying to say is that when you reduce certain behaviour to nature, that doesnt mean that you want to state that is good or agreeable, right? Now my point is this: Aside from the question if certain human behaviour is good or not, desirable or not when reduced to nature, I doubt that is reducable to nature at all. I doubt that you can state much sensible about human behaviour by leaving aside the circumstances under which violence is commited.

    I agree to your definition of violence except for cases of violence with the purpose of direct survival, e.g. hunting an animal to have something to eat.
    Violence, to me, can be defined as an attempt to gain or regain a sense of control or dominance through intimidation, coercion, or rough, injurious treatment.
    and yes, for THIS definition, the specific purpose is irrelevant.

    I wonder if robbery with the purpose of increasing self-worth or gaining a reputation falls under your definition.

    I wonder also if the subject of your defintion must be an individual. That is, your definition is problematic because the benefitor of the established dominance or gained/regained sense of control is left out. Now I am referring to violence commited by institutions via their executive agents. When vacating a house it’s not the executive officer who has a benefit from it (at least not primarily). When fighting a war it’s not the soldier who has a benefit from his acts of violence (in fact, the opposite is likely, he may be injured or killed). If it were the soldier it wouldnt be the state which decides when to wage a war. So that shows for me that the reduction of violence to the nature of a single subject is wrong. It is just not his nature which makes him commit the violence.

    Consider the prison ward. First it should be said that prisons themselves are not natural at all. Nor is the occupation of prison ward. Or do you know any animal with prisons? Violence is just a part of this job. It is required to do this job and they are trained for it, so are soldiers. Now this shows that the violence they are enacting doesnt reduce to nature. This should also become clear when you consider the fact that after work as private persons they are not allowed to enact the violence if they want to. It is limited to their job and to this role (if it is dividable in this way is another question). I’m still not talking about violence being acceptable or not. That would also be another question. I argue that it is crucial to analyze the purpose and context of violence for understanding it.

    Now you could save your definition by saying that this violence is just realized to reduce the natural violence. So lets look at this „natural? violence.

    Take gang-violence. I guess it falls under your definition of an attempt to gain or regain a sense of control or dominance and I guess it makes a considerable proportion of violence enacted by private citizens. But how could it be regarded as natural, i.e. stemming from biology? Is gang-violence in any way conceivable without the reasons gangs are formed? I think it only can be analyzed and understood under the conditions of culture in western societies. It has a lot to do with establishing counter-norms for the members of the gang in opposition to the enforced norms. You even see in this example it is not a natural drive to form gangs and then the reaction of „civilized society? to channel their violence in other ways. It’s the other way around, gangs are formed maybe not only because of rules and laws, but also as a reaction to them.

    That’s my point about what the role of civilization is. Considering the context of the violence to figure out whether it was justified or not, whether it was “acceptable” violence that should be tolerate or encouraged or “unacceptable” violnce that should be discouraged and punished is what civilized society does. When a society is extremely uncivilized, lawless, and primitive, the only criteria for whether violence is acceptable or not is whether you have the power or opportunity to get away with it. Might makes right.

    States do certainly punish what falls under their definition of crime, but that is anything but natural.

    In general, what do you mean by „civilization??
    All the world? What about the wars between the nations? what about all the effort states are doing for armys? To channel the natural violence that comes naturally out of other natural states?
    Or do you mean nations for themselves? Then why are so many people victims of violence enacted in the name or by state power? Are they not part of civilization? Did you ever thought that it might be counterproductive to enact so much violence for the purpose of fighting it? Isnt that a contradiction? And if all this violence is so natural and state power the expression of civilized society – why does it need thousands of people working to define what is a crime and what not? If its natural why is the trade with alcohol a crime in a certain period and a supported industry in another period? and why is marital violence not a crime? Did the law-makers had to find out if marital violence is natural? did they make some studies about marital violence of monkeys?

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