Human nature is, of course, a term that slides off our Homo sapiens tongues with simplicity, familiarity, and ease. But what does it really mean?
Of course, experiences like fear and hunger seem common not only to humans, but to almost all other animals because these sensations flow out of our most basic biological imperative: to survive. But while fear and hunger are important parts of the human experience, there is clearly more to human nature than just that.
As far as science can tell us, there seem to be some experiences, like happiness, laughter, anger, loneliness, and longing, that are limited to just a few animal species. Such emotions are more complex; they are not clear outgrowths of the simple need to survive, and, as such, are more uniquely human. And while they might not be unique to being human, they are close to universal among our species. I would be shocked if there was a single person on earth who did not experience these emotions: even the most privileged person on earth feels longing, and even the most unhappy people surely experience moments of joy.
But that doesn’t seem to be the end of it. Are not all humans capable of ambition and greed? Jealousy and vanity? What about love? Obviously human nature is more complex than the simple, common use of the term would suggest, but there do seem to be experiences and emotions that are common to just about all members of our species.
But something is missing (of course there may be many things missing, and I would be happy to hear what I left out) and that something is vital to understanding many of the problems that plague humanity in our complicated technological modern world.
Research suggests that not all human beings are capable of experiencing empathy, and even among people who would be considered neurologically normal, the ability to empathize with others varies wildly.
One thing that seems true across the board is that people are generally better at empathizing with others they know well, who are part of their family, social circle, or—and here is where problems so often arise—cultural, racial, or ethnic group.
Very few people put the personal welfare of their neighbors ahead of their own, except perhaps in rare, dire emergencies. And, it is even more surprising when someone puts the welfare of a complete stranger ahead of his or her own.
As we have evolved as a species we have surely experienced different phases. Initially, fear of all types of predators must have prevailed. But later, collaboration became very important in order to gain the advantage of numbers in production of food and manufactured things.
Today, many people are at risk of being swallowed by conflicts involving the allocation of societal resources by unseen and uncontrolled forces in their lives. But this is nothing new. Humans have oppressed and murdered one another for millennia. Lack of empathy has been epidemic since the beginning of life.
So perhaps the basic item of human nature is the most basic item of nature itself: I must succeed, even if it means everyone else fails. The root of the human experience is the voice within incessantly crying ME-ME-ME.
Many people say, perhaps with a chuckle, that they would like to see more overall collaboration as long as they can get EVERYTHING that they want.
But that’s not to say that there’s been no progress at all. After all, empathy, even in the limited form in which we experience it, does seem to be uniquely human (or at least uniquely primate). And maybe, when we talk about human nature, we need to remember that empathy is a key part of what makes us human.
Hopefully the forces of evolution, both biological and cultural, are carrying us farther and farther from the feelings that drive mere, individual survival into a world of empathy and collaboration.
But how long will it take for us to evolve into a more empathetic species? And how long can we afford to wait?
It is possible that our move towards empathy cannot simply be the slow drift of evolution. (And given evolution’s random nature, it could be that it will never take us there.) Rather, we could need a major shock to disrupt the status quo such as a species-wide equivalent of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which woke the U.S. from its isolationist slumber. And while we might hope that such an event does not extend such a cataclysm on a global scale, it’s debatable how much worse that might be than the slow-moving tragedies that surround us today.
Either way, the problem remains. Whether by evolution or catastrophe, something must awaken us to the realities problems of today’s Me-Me-Me. We must remember that when we talk about human nature, the focus should not be on the second word, but on the first.