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.



Have a listen and look at this.

Yes, it certainly is unique and touching. Both critters are apparently lonely, but have found something valuable in their cross-species affection.

Perhaps also this quite amazing film may also be a peek at an unforeseeable future.

Part of what makes it really believable is that the penguin is and acts like a real penguin in other respects. He disappears regularly but always returns to his human friend.

What could this be telling us about the future?

Maybe animals will play a very different role in our social lives in the future.

Maybe we’re moving towards some kind of evolutionary confluence.

Maybe human beings are not as different from other animals as we so often imagine.

(And while I’m doing my high-minded pondering, it’s hard not to wonder what the other penguins make of all this.)

Please let me know what you think we can learn from Jinjing and his human friend?


I don’t remember when I first heard it, but the phrase ‘Many nickels make a muckle” has been bouncing around my brain for nigh eighty years. Until a few days ago, I thought I was dealing with Lewis Carroll-type nonsense words, but the phrase is very real, though it is even stranger than I had always believed.

The actual phrase, according to The Scotsman, is actually “Many a mickle make a muckle,” an aphorism used to indicate that many small things add up to one big thing, a Scottish equivalent of “little strokes fell great oaks.” However, even that usage is wrong! Both mickle and muckle mean ‘a large amount’. Rather, the word for a small amount is pickle or puckle, so the original phrase SHOULD be “many a pickle makes a muckle,” which isn’t nearly as much fun to say.

Language is a slippery thing, and English especially so. ‘Flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ sound like opposites but are actually synonyms (believe it or not, BOTH mean easily set on fire!); ‘cleave’ can mean to join together or to pull apart, while ‘seed’ can mean to take seeds out of something (like a fruit) or put them in something (like a field); and apparently we even have words like ‘muckle’, which sound like nursery-rhyme nonsense but actually mean something. And, perhaps most oddly, we have words like ‘mickle’, which actually means a large amount, but is exclusively used to refer to a small amount. (Actually, I am pretty sure that ‘mickle’ is the only word like that, but who knows for sure!)

Our language is always changing, caught in a tug-of-war between our culture, our history, and the speaker’s thoughts and intentions.

And of course, maybe that’s WHY I misheard mickle as nickel; spending so much of my life working in finance and commerce, how could I not? After all, I know it to be true: gather enough small change, and you have a fortune. A chain of small transactions can lead to a muckle of nice bonuses. All those nickels can power the  compound interest that Ben Franklin made so clear and compelling.

But the world of pennies and nickels may be quickly coming to an end. Success is not as often about the small margin as the big score.

But, this new world will hopefully not just be empty of nickels but full of muckles. So we better “Buckle up and muckle down!”


Recently I did a piece about The Hotdog Story (click here to read), which prompted a lot of interesting feedback.

The bulk of the comments made the point that our species is hardwired to fear strangers, implying that the problem is intractable, that its source is hidden deep in our genome. Maybe they are right, BUT there is more to think about.

This August, Scientific American ran a fascinating article by paleoanthropologist Curtis W. Marean, who posits that our ancestors were not hardwired to fear strangers, but rather to cooperate, a trait that gave us an incredible competitive advantage over Earth’s other species. Because groups easily outcompete individuals in productivity, Marean reasons, intense competition likely led to a genetic tendency to collaborate. That cooperative gene, so powerfully tied to our success as a species, has influenced social development from the formation of families to the rise of tribes, kingdoms, and nations.

All this raises a difficult question: if humans are inherently collaborative, why do we have such a hard time actually collaborating as we might today?

Marean indirectly suggests a possible answer. He believes that collaboration accounts for only one part of H. sapiens’s world domination. He writes, “two innovations unique to H. sapiens primed it for world domination: a genetically determined propensity for cooperation with unrelated individuals linked with [emphasis added] advanced projectile weapons.”  Humans needed not only the ability to collaborate, but also the ability to destroy. And, that second ability has been severely diminished since Hiroshima.

Today, the human species is capable of wiping itself out many times over. Since the development of nuclear weapons, and due to Mutually Assured Destruction, no other nation has truly posed an existential threat to our country (except perhaps ISIS). In hotdog terms, a server may have the right to say “stop arguing or no hot dogs for anyone ever again”; but most people like hotdogs (and few think they would like living in a nuclear wasteland), so that type of demarche is no longer taken seriously.

“That sounds pretty great,” you may be thinking right now. “What benefit could there to be someone having the capability to wipe us off the map without similar consequences to themselves?”

The work of biologist Pete Richerson of U.C. Davis and anthropologist Rob Boyd of Arizona State, as cited by Marean, reveals a possible answer. Richerson and Boyd note that collaborative behavior “spreads best when it begins in a subpopulation and competition between groups is intense and when overall population sizes are small.” That is, people are more willing to cooperate in small groups and/or when faced with intense competition for resources.

Humans collaborated very well in the original 25-person tribes that once were the basic unit of human society, but as groups grew, rivalries and competing interests increasingly threatened the unity of the groups. What holds large groups together is intense intergroup competition, which forces people to put aside their differences and unite against an external enemy.

Compare America in 2001 to today: after the September 11th attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists with a single dissenting vote, a political consensus almost unimaginable today. The external threat of Al-Qaeda united a country that had been bitterly divided for years. But today, our political parties are at one another’s throats, and the hope for any cooperation seems a distant one. In order to promote party unity, each party demonizes the other, painting it as the threat to incentivize intra-group collaboration, even at the cost of inter-group compromise.

Without some external threat to unite against, humans do seem to prefer working in smaller groups. Thus, our formerly collaborative nation has broken down into smaller, intensely competitive groups. Without arrows in one hand, the olive branch is less effective. Take a look at the Great Seal of the United States if you don’t believe how important that balance was to our nation when the seal was designed long ago:


So what can we do? Obviously we should not seek to create a new enemy (real or imagined) with a new power to destroy our society. In fact, there is no need to do that; that enemy is still here. We see him/her every day, staring back from the mirror.

With our willingness to collaborate and our mastery of ever-deadlier projectile weapons, Homo sapiens has rapidly become the most dangerous species that has ever existed on this planet. And we should be more afraid of what we may be capable of.

I suggest that we in effect hold up a global size mirror (lots of public illumination of the subject) and see ourselves really clearly: recognize that we are a truly existential threat to our own species. And maybe then, finally, we can learn to collaborate, not out of a fear outsiders, foreigners, or strangers, but of ourselves.

If we can see ourselves as what we really are, perhaps we will be frightened enough to put aside our differences and strive towards a better, more cooperative future.



A strange and true story:

A mother, let’s call her Sally, brought her three young children to her new country club for a swim and lunch. After sitting the kids down at a table by the pool, she went to the counter and ordered hot dogs and drinks. After bringing the sodas back to where her children were sitting, she returned to the counter for the hot dogs, only to find another woman in the process of taking hers.

This other woman, call her Mary, insisted that the hot dogs were hers. The attendant explained that Sally had in fact been there first, but Mary DEMANDED that she be given the hot dogs. Sally, wanting to avoid a scene, caved.

That evening, Sally and her husband figured out that they had a friend in common with Mary and called her to complain. The friend could not believe what Mary had done, but agreed to ask for her side of the story.

What’s strange about this story isn’t Mary’s actions (sadly all too common), or is it the friend’s disbelief (also to be expected). No, the strange part of the story is Mary’s mortified response when questioned: “If I’d known it was her, I would never have done it!”

Apparently, she wasn’t embarrassed that she’d been caught doing something wrong. Rather, she didn’t seem to think that what she had done was wrong, except for the fact it had not turned out to be stranger. WOW!

Most people who hear this story connect immediately and personally, not just from Sally’s perspective, but from Mary’s!

Obviously, the tendency to devalue strangers is a more pervasive problem than we might want to think. (The story is fifty years old, and the only thing that has changed is that we all see more of that attitude today!)

But it becomes particularly dangerous when it invades the complex process of social governance that manages our massive, diverse population, and when it creates a barrier to intersector communication and collaboration.

Because most people in the different sectors do not know one another, they tend not to trust each other and fail to value the perspectives and desires of potential collaborators. The end result is stagnation of festering problems, lack of compromise, and the failure to adequately confront complex problems.

Nowhere is the danger of such devaluation more clear than in our political system, including (maybe especially) in Congress. Due to a tendency to over-value the opinions and desires of people we know, it is too easy for politicians to dismiss valid concerns or needs because they come from strangers.

The lives of others are so undervalued that improving or even SAVING them is rarely seen as important enough to spur compromise and political action. (And it’s not a stretch to say that some of the same people who make a big show of concern over unborn lives are among the worst offenders when it comes to valuing unfamiliar lives.)

In our political process, it often seems that others simply do not matter. To many people, they just don’t exist.

What we need is to learn to value the people who we don’t know just as much as we value those we do. We need to learn to “de-otherize”, to stop seeing strangers as somehow “other” and start giving them the same moral standing that all human beings deserve.

Until we can de-otherize en-masse, we may be doomed to suffer from the inability to solve problems that involve­­­—as most problems do—other people.

The first and most important step in dealing with the problem at the root of The Hot Dog issue is that the treatment of strangers is not limited to mundane conflicts over cylindrical meat products, but rather that it is at the root of the majority of problems that plague our society.

Once there is a real public awareness of the extent of the corrosive otherizing [discriminating against ‘others’] we do every day, a foundation can be laid to take serious, simple, and practical steps to change how we treat everyone, whether we’ve met them or not.


Most of my young friends tell me regularly that, at my age, I should give up trying to understand their new world.

When Uber arrived two or three years ago, I thought that it was primarily a clever new way to flex price the cost of wheels in cities to accommodate changing demand, but I doubted it would be allowed in New York. NYC has long prided itself on regulating/fixing taxi fares to prevent gouging and to protect less fortunate riders from having to pay peak fares, and a company like Uber endangers those protections.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear that I was wrong!

The yellow taxis are still in business (though the cost of Medallions has fallen by a third since 2013) and Uber now has 20,000 cars on the streets of New York, plus many other cities.

Uber has a great model: their only significant investment—apart from their initial development costs—is in their technology and maintaining it. Their system uses iPhone GPS to identify all Uber drivers who are willing to take fares at any given time when they are logged on. When a driver is near a passenger (who has requested a ride on his/her phone), the driver gets a message and then connects with the passenger. Uber gets paid $100 for supplying the iPhone and $10/month until it is returned, and 30% of all the fares charged through the system the remaining 70% is paid to the driver weekly.

When the passenger gets out at the end of the trip he/she says thanks (hopefully), but does not tip. Instead, the passenger rates the trip on a scale of 1-5 and the driver rates the passenger as well. Passengers with consistently good ratings get preferential treatment in the future and drivers with regular bad ratings get offered fewer passengers, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to be effective, courteous, and professional. In addition, if a passenger has a complaint about the fare or anything, they can email Uber, which has been responsive and fair.

Drivers also like the system because they feel safe. When the driver is logged in, the computer keeps constant records of who was in the car no matter when or where it is, which obviously discourages folks from doing harm because they are known and likely to be caught.

In addition, the system allows drivers to work part-time, flex-time, or full-time; almost every day or practically never –a lot of them have other jobs and businesses. In addition, the drivers’ costs are only the car (which they often already own), and the gas and insurance.

Passengers like Uber because it is hassle free. No longer does a passenger need to dash dangerously in the rain and traffic to hail a yellow cab. (And this is the easiest scenario. Have you ever tried to hail a cab in a city like San Diego?) The cars are clean, comfortable, and mostly easy to get in or out of with decent leg room.

No cash is necessary and tip computations are gone. Passengers can “hail” Uber on a smartphone a few minutes before a departure and leave immediately when the driver arrives, effectively eliminating any waiting.

Obviously, Uber is a significant improvement on the standard yellow cab system. But that’s not where the real genius of Uber lies.

Uber is truly brilliant because it enables the so-called “sharing economy”, in which technology gives consumers access to substantial static capital that would otherwise be idle. No matter how dependent one is on a car, it’s actually parked most of the time, which is a huge waste of an expensive machine. What Uber does is limit that waste, giving people an opportunity to use their car, that would probably otherwise be parked in the driveway (with the driver parked in front of the TV), in their spare time.

The underlying genius of Uber (and similar new technologies, like Airbnb, the short-term accommodations-rental app) is identifying such a waste of large amounts of capital and connecting the people who have access to the wasted capital (whether a car or a couch) to the people who need such access for a fair percentage of the rent.

These new technologies are examples of what is now well known as “disruptive” technologies. Distinct from the tiny computers and the internet that make it possible, a disruptive technology allows new, better, and cheaper ways to go about daily life for many people.

Thus it disrupts the old, and what was often the only way, to do such things.

Cheers for the young disrupters breaking the way into a truly new world, and shame on me for being so slow to pick up on the significance and value of something so truly useful and valuable.