Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Are Humans Really Evil?

My particular brand of Christianity always taught me that people were evil from the very first breath of air they took. Since Adam and Eve disobeyed god, every human was under a curse and were slaves to their sin. I’ve talked to some Liberal Christians since that time who say the whole ‘original sin’ thing is incorrect but that’s definitely not what I was taught, and I certainly don’t see that perspective in the Bible. Since turning into a heathen, my position has changed and I no longer concur with this dehumanizing stance. Humanities nature is too complex to label it as solely diabolical.

I’ve been reading books by Desmond Morris and Frans de Wall, both Zoologists, who study the behaviors of some of our nearest relatives. Frans de Wall, in particular, makes comparisons between Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Homo sapiens. Chimpanzees are known for their aggressive tendencies and male dominated societies. Bonobos are better known for their high sexual promiscuity, relatively low aggressive nature and high ranking, dominant females. We seem to carry a mixed bag of behaviors that these two different groups of apes demonstrate.

What’s Fair is Fair

I argue that humanity is not evil by nature; the situation is grayer than that. There are some truly despicable humans out there and history has showcased some of them throughout the modern era—I don’t think I need to mention any names. But, for the most part, humanity lives in a give and take state of affairs. Through mutual reciprocity, humanity tends to cooperate with each other on a routine basis. On an aside, the media also seems to ignore the trivial, admirable things people do on a daily basis and focuses exclusively on the heinous acts committed by a very small percentage. We live in a culture of fear as sociologist Barry Glassner taught us. The media feasts on shocking stories that get people to watch the evening news. We also tend to resent those who have an “unfair” share of resources. For instance, we may idolize celebrities but, at the same time, we may feel a certain sense of justice when something bad happens to one of them.

Some theorize that societies become violent and disorderly when resources are not fairly distributed and a disproportionate amount of wealth is avariciously withheld from one group for the sake of another. Societies like America encourage entrepreneurship and capitalistic pursuits but also see a disproportionate distribution of wealth. Certainly, early America saw violence en masse among the poor working class who struggled to make ends meet. They were being unfairly treated, provided inadequate pay and it caused serious tension. For example, railroad workers went on strike in the latter part of the 19th century. They tore apart the railroad and disassembled box cars; the military was eventually called in and violence ensued. Many workers were wounded and some were killed; the egalitarian in all of us was showing through. In the cases of humans, as well as apes, there have also been studies where one is rewarded with more than another for the same positive behavior. The person who is given less refuses to take anything at all. Indeed, most employers don’t want employees sharing their salary information with each other for that very reason. In ape society, you better be someone willing to share or you will quickly be ostracized from the group; this seems to be an innate characteristic of the ape species.

In contrast, societies known for far less violence like Denmark stress egalitarianism and the values of participation. On an aside, in Denmark, it is not uncommon to see babies left by themselves outside of restaurants while their mothers enjoy a meal without the slightest bit of apprehension. The mother believes that the fresh air is good for them and abduction is almost unheard of.

Can You Feel that, Buddy?

Empathy is another trait that Frans de Waal has witnessed time and time again from Chimps and Bonobos. An individual ape has the ability to look at things from another ape’s perspective and, in a sense, to feel what they are feeling. They take care of each other when one gets sick and rescue those in danger. They usually make sure those who are weak get a fair share of food as well. There have also been experiments which demonstrate how apes will forgo food if it avoids hurting another ape. Apes are also capable of self-recognition which is a key component to more sophisticated levels of empathy.

Chimps, in particular, can be quite violent as well. The males struggle for leadership and will wait for the current dominant male to fall from grace. They may team up with other males in a strategic alliance to knock the current dominant male off his pedestal. Some humans, filled with an aggressive nature, will do whatever it takes to get to the top. This aggressive nature is not ubiquitously observed across our species. Some humans, including females, are content to make an honest living and work their way to the top—without resorting to underhanded scheming. On the other hand, Bonobos are generally lovers not fighters. They have make up sex and lots of it. Orgies, male on male, and female on female sex are common occurrences among the Bonobos.

Some people I know say that humans are evil by nature; I think this sort of view comes prominently from the Bible. We are born bad and the only cure is to ask forgiveness for being human. Let's not forget that god puts us here in the predicament we find ourselves in the first place. He knows, with foresight, those who will continue to do very evil deeds but creates them nonetheless. If we were truly born bad, I believe that our morality would not have improved over time but gotten more deleterious instead. However, in the case of our morality, the exact opposite appears to be true. Our 21st century morality is head and shoulders above that of Biblical times or medieval times. In Biblical times, it was apparently commonplace to witness a stoning or mass execution; genocide and infanticide were not entirely uncommon either. This was the ‘just’ penalty for disobedience. In today’s time, these practices are looked at with the utmost abhorrence in America and much of Europe. As far as I know, Europe no longer has witch burnings either. The most problematic thing I see today in Europe is the Catholic Church continuing to get away with pedophilia. Even in the case of capital punishment, we do it in the most humane ways possible, at least in America and other civilized countries.

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