The question of, “Are humans good or evil?” has been asked for centuries, with philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau debating over the truth about human nature. Like some others, I first came across this argument when my English teacher posed this question in class when we were reading the book, “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, where Golding argues that humans are inherently evil by illustrating the boys’ descent into savagery.
However, despite reading the book and writing dozens of analysis papers about Golding’s view on human nature, I disagree with Golding’s belief that humans are inherently evil, and this is why, solved by biology and evolution.
What is good vs. evil?
To understand whether or not humans are good or evil, we first need to define what good and evil is.
While the terms, good and evil, are largely abstract, Steve Taylor, an author and researcher in psychology, defines good as, “‘Good’ means a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause,” while evil is defined as, “‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathize with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance. They are selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. In fact, other people only have value for them to the extent that they can help them satisfy their own desires or be exploited.”
“‘Good’ means a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause…‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathize with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance. They are selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. In fact, other people only have value for them to the extent that they can help them satisfy their own desires or be exploited.”Steve Taylor, author and researcher in psychology
Evolution by natural selection plays a role in human nature
A famous concept in biology is the theory of evolution by natural selection by Charles Darwin, which states that organisms more fit to survive in their environment will produce more offspring, and this has commonly been associated with fit and strong.
However, that’s not always the case. Natural selection occurs when random mutations cause an organism to be more suited for their environment and survive to reproduce, which passes down its genes and increases the population of its species.
While it may seem that “selfish” organisms with the main goal of providing for itself would have the highest chance of survival and thus passing down its “selfish” genes, it may actually work the opposite way. For example, if a family of birds were met by a predator, the mother bird would be more likely to pass down her genes and allow her children to survive if she gives up herself in order to defend her family, rather than defending herself only and allowing her children, who carry her genes, to be eaten. This is called altruism in biology, which is commonly seen in kin relationships but can also be seen in societal relationships.
Altruism is frequently seen in societal relationships
Altruistic behavior is commonly seen in animals which have complex societies, such as meerkats, which live in underground communities and alert other meerkats of danger even if it means putting themselves in danger, bees, which have sterile drones that forage and build nests for the queen bee, and humans.
According to research, altruism, compassion, and cooperation contributes to the competitive success of humans. To illustrate, in 1975, a biologist at Harvard University named E. O. Wilson published his book titled “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” which was a controversial theory that discussed evolutionary biology. His theory of kin selection suggested that “…certain types of social behaviors— including altruism—are often genetically programmed into a species to help them survive,” as communities that cooperate are far more successful than communities that don’t, making altruistic and collaborative behavior a necessity for the survival of a community.
This concept applies to most societies, contributing to a sense of belonging for many people. The importance of community comes from the efficiency of sharing resources, and as you may have heard, safety in numbers. Biological organisms constantly strive to become more efficient, so having communities provides safety and resources for the organisms, which is why communities are common in nature, from bacteria to mammals.
The theory of altruistic behavior being genetically selected for and developed in a society is further proven in a paper by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, as it states, “Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame.”
To summarize, altruistic behavior is typical of complex societies, including human societies, as cooperation and altruism is necessary for the survival of a community, which maximizes the effectiveness of a group of individuals by sharing resources.
“…certain types of social behaviors— including altruism—are often genetically programmed into a species to help them survive,”E. O. Wilson
What are the two arguments about human nature?
In Thomas Hobbes’ argument, he states that human nature is naturally selfish and humans are only concerned with their own self-conservation at the cost of others, and the conflict caused by this selfishness eventually descending into a state of war.
In Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s argument which directly contrasts Hobbes’ argument, humans are naturally peaceful, but the corruption of society gives rise to the selfishness described by Hobbes.
However, neither of these arguments are accurate descriptions of biological phenomenons. In Rousseau’s argument, animals that have not been subjected to the cultural and government influences faced by humans should theoretically be peaceful, but many animals can be extremely territorial and exhibit aggressive behavior despite being mostly solitary and not subject to the behavior required of complex societies. In addition, Hobbes’ argument states that humans only care about their own self-preservation at the cost of others, but this is clearly not the case in biological altruism, where animals help the survival of other animals at the expense of their own reproductive success.
This altruism not only applies to kin relationships, but societal relationships as well. While it’s true that empathy has been deeply ingrained in our culture due to societal expectations, human nature is genetically programmed to have altruistic behaviors, as shown by Wilson’s theory of sociobiology, and this behavior was continuously developed through centuries of civilization which required collaborative behavior to survive and sustain.
Both Hobbes and Rousseau have interesting philosophical ideas about the human nature, but these theories don’t take into account the scientific evidence and observed biological behavior of humans and animals, which shows that while competition and some selfishness is necessary for survival, altruistic behavior is equally essential in ensuring the survival of future generations and societies, thus improving reproductive success.
“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war is of every man against every man . . . In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher
Modern studies have shown that human nature is naturally good
In addition, modern scientific evidence further proves the idea of human nature being naturally good. To illustrate, in 2007, Yale University published a study in Nature showing that 6 to 10 month old babies clearly preferred good over evil. Babies are a good example of human nature at its core, as babies haven’t been exposed to the cultural and social influences of society, so babies can tell us the true nature humans are born with, rather than human nature shaped by life experience.
In this study and many others, babies seemed to understand good from bad, and typically acted altruistically to help those in distress even if it meant putting themselves at a disadvantage. An experiment conducted by Kiley Hamlin used shapes to show a climber, who tried to climb up a hill, a helper, who helped the climber, and a hinderer, who knocked down the climber.
By analyzing the amount of time babies spent looking at each of the characters, scientists were able to conclude that most babies preferred the helper over the hinderer. These experiments have been replicated using puppets and other scenarios, and the results were definitive. Babies that haven’t been subject to society’s rules or taught to become altruistic still preferred good over bad.
In conclusion, humans are inherently good
In the end, philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have been fascinated with the question of “are humans good or bad?” for centuries, but now, with modern scientific studies and evidence of altruism through biological and evolutionary concepts, we finally have a likely answer to this question.
Humans are inherently good, and this altruism is genetically programmed as altruism and collaboration is incredibly important in maintaining the survival of a society. However, there’s no doubt that culture and society itself plays an important role in the development of altruism, as people often act in hopes of a greater reward. Nevertheless, studies using babies show that babies that haven’t been subject to cultural and societal influences almost always choose good over bad.
So William Golding, even though I enjoyed reading your perspective on the evil in human nature but enjoyed writing analysis papers a little bit less, biology proves human nature otherwise.
What do you think? Do you think humans are inherently good or bad?
Taylor, S. (2013, August 26). The Real Meaning of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-darkness/201308/the-real-meaning-good-and-evil
Tucker, A. (2013, January 01). Are Babies Born Good? Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-babies-born-good-165443013/
Gendler, A. (Director). (2013, July 8). Myths and misconceptions about evolution – Alex Gendler [Video file]. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://youtu.be/mZt1Gn0R22Q
Bergland, C. (2012, December 25). The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201212/the-evolutionary-biology-altruism
Hobbes vs. Rousseau. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.angelfire.com/tv/jarbury/essay/rousseau.html
Taylor, K. (n.d.). Psychological vs. Biological Altruism. Retrieved November 19, 2020, from https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/psychological-vs-biological-altruism
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2009). Culture and the evolution of human cooperation. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1533), 3281–3288. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0134