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A lot of people believe that human nature is evolving and changing in some significant manner. This comes in part from a social psychological notion that culture can change human nature, and that different cultures therefore create, to a significant degree, different people.

If human nature were indeed so malleable, then it could be argued that we can evolve that nature into something different. But human nature is not that malleable. Human nature is pretty much what it was thousands of years ago.

Even so, we are certainly in a better condition, particularly in the West, than our more primitive ancestors. So what is it, exactly, that is changing and evolving in us that leads to such improvement?

Human culture: the understandings, innovations, and meaning that we are able to teach to others, and pass down through the generations.

If you look at the animal world, you can find critters, like orang utans and panda bears, which are more or less solitary. They engage with others of their species only to procreate and perhaps to tend their young.

Then there are the more social animals, such as wolves or buffalo, which are able to accomplish more complicated things, like cooperating for a hunt or protecting each other through numbers. But their cooperation is not created by them; it is instinctual and fairly simple. They are social, but they do not have culture.

We are the only beings on earth that create culture to any significant degree. And it is this capacity that allows us to grow and change and improve our situation. (Roy Baumeister of Florida State University – my favorite social psychologist – writes about this in his excellent book, The Cultural Animal.)

But what is growing and changing is not our individual human nature. Human nature may change somehow over some vast span of time in the future, but that is not what is changing in our experience over the course of recorded human history.

Rather, what we are seeing is that as part of our humanness, we are able to make choices; we are able to emphasize certain elements of who we are, and inhibit certain other elements of who we are.

Part of the difference that we see between cultures is that one culture will value some attribute – say, aggressive violence in males, while another culture may value the ability to inhibit aggressive violence, or to value it only in very specific ways, such as in protecting and defending one’s family, community, or country.

One culture may value a rigid adherence to traditional norms and rules – like most tribal cultures – while another culture may value an ongoing re-assessment of those norms and rules – like we do commonly in the US.

One culture may value a sort of leveling of abilities or success – as in the more socialist countries –  while another culture may value and celebrate those who excel and achieve great things.

So it is clear that human nature is not a rigid quality. We have, as individuals, some say in what we express and practice, and the culture in which we live will have some effect on the choices that we make. But this is very different than saying that culture creates or changes human nature.

In the Soviet Union, as Baumeister points out, there was an attempt to eliminate the family as a social unit, replacing it with a collective social structure in the pursuit of changing human nature into a communist ideal. This was not successful, nor has it been successful in the Kibbutzim of Israel, or the hippie communes of the 60’s.  Nor will it be in the left’s assault on traditional marriage.

We are made to be a part of a family, and the bonds of family are, in general, a constant of human nature.

Communism also sought to equalize and level the individual capacities of different people, assuming that it was within the power of a government to mold people into equal beings, with equal abilities, equal strengths, and equal wealth – the famous “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” baloney was the means of creating this “Communist Man.”

After many decades of brutal enforcement, and tens of millions of human lives sacrificed to this idea, I think we can say with confidence that human nature cannot be molded in such a way, nor is it of any benefit to a given social group – be it a nation or a community – to try and mold us so.

But all this experience does give us a glimpse of something. There are certain ways of being together as human beings, certain organizational principles that are emerging, that seem to work better than others – that seem to be more consistent with human nature, while also encouraging the “better angels of our nature”.

This was, of course, the great wisdom of the Founders of the United States, who had no illusions about changing human nature. They knew that people would act in their own interest, and that a system of government that accepted this and worked to maximize its benefits would be stronger and more effective.

The organization of government as a constitutionally limited, democratic republic is one of the clear innovations of human culture that has lead to historically unprecedented benefits.

A free market system, with the great communication that this enables, and the innovation and goodwill that it encourages, is another cultural structure that we can say with confidence fits with human nature, while encouraging its better elements and discouraging its less desirable ones. Not perfectly, but better than any other structure of trade that has been devised.

The family is another cultural good. People do better when they are part of a family that works, where the adults help the younger members to learn how to interact and treat each other well – not perfectly, but well. People do much less better when their family does not function well, or when they are deprived of their family.

There are certain behaviors that are very good to encourage, such as gratitude, forgiveness, optimism, co-operation, innovation, love of learning, industriousness, respectfulness, benevolence, integrity, empathy, building warm and loving relationships, engagement, devotion, fairness, generosity, honesty, and perseverance.

There are certain behaviors that are very good to discourage, such as physical violence, poor impulse control, rudeness, self-absorption, helplessness, pessimism, bitterness, holding grudges, malevolence, envy, passivity, dishonesty, and in general a lack of those behaviors that are good to encourage.

Some cultures do a better job of encouraging the good and discouraging the bad than other cultures. This is where we should be looking for guides as to how we should evolve as a culture, not toward some kind of cultural relativism where all cultures are equally valued; where cultures that encourage violence and mistreatment of others are given the same moral status as those that encourage respect and empathy.

What are the common features of successful human culture?

It is possible to understand a given culture, to respect where that culture has come from, and to have an appreciation for the customs and traditions of that culture, but to also see how that culture does not function well today, and to see clearly where it needs to improve.

I’m not talking about nitpicking here, and I’m not talking about some haughty self-righteousness about your own culture. I have never liked it when people attack or condemn my culture here in America, and people from other cultures would feel no different.

But when you see a culture that values violence, or rigid adherence to ancient rules and taboos, or the concentration of power in the hands of a very few, it is important to our larger human culture that we not pussyfoot around, pretending that these practices are somehow equally valid or moral or respectable as those practices that encourage the best in human nature.

There is a larger project at work than holding the differences between human cultures as inviolable, as though these cultures were fragile museum pieces that must not be disturbed.

We have been evolving our human culture for millennia. We have come a long way from the time of our violent, impulsive, and rigid hunter-gatherer ancestors.

We have created institutions, written (and therefore consistent and enduring) laws, methods of trading goods and services, practices that encourage innovation, creativity, co-operation, and trust, behaviors (manners) that express respect and benevolence, ways of encouraging and persuading that eliminate the need for physical violence in most cases, and our understanding of human relationships, child rearing, and empathy that make possible a richer, more pleasurable, and more productive life.

This is the path of human evolution. It is a never ending path, as far as I can tell. The world will hopefully continue moving toward democracy and away from dictatorships, but even in a world filled with free democratic republics, there will still be conflict, and the need for us to solve those conflicts. There will be new problems that will arise that we will have to deal with, that we may not be able to even imagine now.

The more effective our common human culture continues to become, the better able we will be to face and solve those problems. Improving our culture is an ongoing and messy process. But it does nobody any good to deny the clear evidence that we see of what actually works, and what does not.


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