What is our nature? Are we naturally greedy and competitive, or empathic and collaborative? Many philosophical, religious, political and economic writings and systems have been crafted according to the prevailing thinking at the time regarding the human condition, with profound implications for educational approach and overall societal structure.
So when deciphering the best approaches to use in structuring educational and social policy, it seems that having a valid, evidence based understanding of this issue is essential before deciding on the best course of action.
Nature vs Nurture
Understanding the human condition has very often been cast in the light of an ‘either, or’ approach. We are either driven by a prescribed nature set at birth, or we are blank slates to be shaped by the surrounding culture and environment.
So which is it, nature or nurture? Perhaps the most pertinent question is: why does it have to be one or the other and what exactly does the most up to date evidence on the subject have to say on the matter?
Perhaps a short way to sum up the general scientific consensus on this long standing debate between nature and nurture is that it is in fact nature via nurture, rather than vs.
Recent developments in the neurological, behavioural and social sciences now show that nurture plays a major role in the factors which shape human behaviour. This is not to say that ones environment is the only factor, but rather that a complex interaction of our unique environmental/cultural experience interacting with and influencing our genes is what makes up the person we are.
Any study carried out on human behaviour must take into account all possible aspects and ramifications of environmental influences, which can often be subtle, profound, wide reaching and complex. This is however very often not the case, with the emphasis instead revolving around individual responsibility alone, rather than taking a proper account of the conditions in which said individual was raised.
The general outline of this issue is covered in greater detail in the first forty minutes of the documentary ‘Zeitgeist: Moving Forward’, which should help to give a far clearer picture regarding the human condition, as well as a more in depth understanding of the NLRBE if viewed in its entirety:
For a more detailed exploration of the subject of human behaviour, the following lecture series from Robert Sopolsky is highly recommended:
And expanded upon in greater detail by Dr Gabor Mate in the following joint event between himself and The Zeitgeist Movement:
For more information on the nature vs. nurture discussion please see the following lecture by Dr Gregory Forbes:
The following lecture by Robert Sopolsky sums up some other interesting points regarding the uniqueness of human behaviour:
Unfortunately the results of these fairly recent findings do not appear to be common knowledge in the current zeitgeist.
The erroneous assumptions based around the now thoroughly debunked notion of social Darwinism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism) still lie at the heart of much of our indifference, and subsequent inaction towards the necessary changes that need to be made to our social system in order to start to address issues such as poverty, inequality, environmental degradation and war.
This continuation of punitive coercion based on these outdated notions should be understandable in a sense, as it is far easier psychologically to use these socially Darwinistic assumptions to put the current dramatic state of these issues down to part of our unalterable ‘human nature’, rather than our collective responsibility in addressing the overall structure of our social system, for at least three reasons.
These can be described by using the phrase ‘culture meme’. That being an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.
Culture meme one:
We are alpha dominant and competitive by nature, so why bother changing society to anything other than this general arrangement as it will only revert to hierarchy anyway.
This assumption often contains another fallacious argument within it being that,
Alpha male dominance is universal across primates and by extension an unavoidable trait of human society
As well as employing an outright fallacy in the shape of an ‘appeal to nature’ as an argument, this assumption seems to be baseless in terms of viable evidence to back it up as well.
In the case of one of our fellow primates the Banobo for example, such aggressive alpha male behaviour is virtually non-existent. As is outlined in the following documentary:
Moreover, the aggressive, alpha dominant behaviour common place in chimp troops can be shown to be overcome, given the right environmental stimulus.
Along with outlining this point, the following documentary also shows the important effects that stress has on the overall physiological and psychological health of primates in general:
Further evidence of environmentally driven links to abhorrent behaviour can be found in the Merva Fowles study, which found a strong link between a rise in unemployment and crime across a wide and diverse range of populations around the world. Showing a strong correlation between scarcity, stress and the related abhorrent behaviour that comes with it:
(Please go to 10:18 to see the information on this study, or for a concise understanding of the reasoning behind the avocation of the NLRBE, please watch this orientation guide in full)
Further evidence outlining the negative effects of living in a highly stratified social environment can be found in the work of the equality trust:
These studies clearly show that if you live in a developed, but more financially unequal society, then whether rich or poor, your health is more likely to be negatively impacted compared with other developed, but more financially equal ones.
This is outlined by Richard Wilkinson in the following TED talk:
Given this volume of evidence, it seems hard then to claim that such dominance based behaviours are part of our unalterable ‘human nature’. Instead it appears that such tendencies are displayed more prominently when these behaviours are rewarded and reinforced in the surrounding environment.
These points noted, lets entertain the notion that this assumption about alpha male dominance being an inert and unalterable trait in human beings is true for a moment. What then would be the most appropriate response in the orientation of our social structure given such inbuilt behavioural tendencies? Should it be to accept and support a system that actively rewards and encourages this obviously detrimental behaviour? Or should we instead attempt to make sure we have a socio-economic system which actively seeks to mitigate for this condition as much as possible by eradicating the means by which to excerpt such dominance?
Our identities are woven into the fabric of our cultural behaviour and social nuances in the most subtle, profound and often unappreciated ways. To go against the grain will very often ostracize you from the group, something that can be a highly detrimental act in evolutionary terms, as it will very likely decrease your chances of survival.
Our susceptibility and conformity to group behaviour as well as our potential obedience to authority is well displayed in the Asch and Stanley Milgram experiments, detailed in the following links:
Perhaps these examples could be shown to older students in schools to highlight the need to assert one’s personal integrity in the face of the peer pressure present in most school environments.
They may also help to highlight the importance that should be given to questioning illegitimate authority and the elevation of critical thinking as a subject in its own right.
This of course runs contrary to what is promoted in most state run educational facilities today, which could well have something to do with why we are particularly susceptible to submitting to illegitimate authority.
This is something discussed by Noam Chomsky in the following talk:
Once again, however, if this tendency to obey orders whether legitimate or not from a supposed authority figure is inbuilt in us, then it seems extremely foolish to actively reinforce this tendency.
Some may say that a certain level of automatic obedience to authority is a good thing, with a child crossing the road with a parent for example, but it is quite another to administer electric shocks to someone to the point of that person losing consciousness (as was demonstrated in the Milgrim experiment for example) because a man in a white lab coat told you to do so.
For example, it could be very easily argued by an astutely observant child that, having taken a brief account of the environmental destruction that the adult world is engaging in, they hardly seem like an authority on the subject of sustainability. Granted, this is a sweeping generalization, but a worthwhile objection to raise as it would at least help to show a recognition of the general climate of hypocrisy present in the general narrative coming from the adult world.
Free will and choice
Issues pertaining to human behaviour by extension bring up the interesting issue of free will and individualism by default. For if we are so susceptible to environmental influence, then how much of our own lives do we have a choice over?
The answer the evidence seems to indicate is both a little and a lot. It is no good thinking that the environment is to blame for the way you are, the actions you take, or the circumstance in which you find yourself, or else we will never likely rise above your past to overcome adversity.
That being said, it is no use thinking that we would be the person we are without previous environmental influence. The choice to take no action is as much of a choice to take action. ‘Free’ or not, it does nothing to alter the reality which unfolds from the action you either do or do not take.
This issue is well explained in the reading of the following essay “Monism and Christianity” by Chapman Cohen:
(The essay starts at 29:57)
This paradox is further expressed by Jacque Fresco in the following clip:
The issue of free will is further expanded upon in the following talk by Sam Harris:
As well as in the following documentary ‘The secret you’:
Culture meme two:
We fear change!
There is often a good deal of fear involved with sweeping social change and with good reason. Radical shifts in societal structure have often led to despotism and hardship on a massive scale (North Korea, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia could all be cited as examples of this) so we should of course proceed with caution.
However, such negative connotations are often not met with an equal appreciation of the positive social change that has taken place over the course of human history. Examples of this improvement range from no longer dying of poor dental hygiene by the age of twenty-five, to the elevation of intellectual freedom in the enlightenment and the renaissance, to the abolishment of slavery, women’s rights, etc.
Given such changes, it can hardly be said that this knee jerk, fear based reaction to social change of any sort is a rational justification for not making the changes which are clearly necessary in our current epoch. Whether it is environmental degradation, inequality, global destabilization tendencies or the ever increasing rate of technological unemployment, it is easy to see why social change on the sort of the scale that the NLRBE outlines, surely makes it an idea worthy of serious and sober consideration?
Indeed fearing change for the sake of it is to fear the only certainty in life, being that things always have, and always will change. What they change to is up to us and contingent upon the actions we take as individuals and collectively in our everyday lives.
Culture meme three:
Projection, assumption and culture lag
The general outline and description of the concept of culture lag and how it has worked over the course of history is laid out in the following talk by Ben McLeish:
When considering the idea that all we have ever known as a context by which to evaluate social change is the use of a political framework and a monetary system, the idea that all of our needs could be met without a price tag in an NLRBE, should be expected to be ridiculed or rejected out of hand by most who encounter it. Subsequent assumptions can often be made from this limited perspective regarding the idea unfortunately.
This reaction can be understandably frustrating for advocates of an NLRBE as it stifles any meaningful and constructive dialogue surrounding the topic of wide spread socio-economic change. None the less, it is up to those who promote this idea to come to expect such reactions and be prepared to deal with them as maturely and appropriately as possible. This issue is one of effective communication and is dealt with at greater length in the article ‘An effective communicative approach’.
One point worth noting regarding this type of reaction briefly however, may be to ask the person in question what they believe to be the most optimal methods to meet human needs, technically and sustainably.
The answer invariably never comes back with the optimal solution in any area, so given the opportunity to point out some of the available technological solutions in each area of concern this then leaves the most important question hanging in the air. That being:
So why are we not using these technologies?
After all, the monetary market system claims that through the incentive competition provides, the best ideas will rise to the surface, overcoming less efficient ones, thus meeting human need more effectively. If this is the case, then how is it possible for better solutions to exist and not be adopted by the market system?
In addition to this point you may wish to add that if our current system were adequate at meeting human need, then we would surely not need charity either, would we?
It is an art to judge where, when and with whom to bring up such points, but the more responses we have available, the better equipped we will be at communicating the concept of an NLRBE to a wider variety of people and situations.
This particular variety of culture lag is most prominently found in older generations in my personal experience. This is one of the reasons why focusing on delivering this message to a younger audience is a far more effective strategy to adopt in the opinion of TZM Education.
Children do not yet think they know everything yet and do not have many of the mental blockages detailed in this article concerning changing the world for the better. Were they made aware of the tools humanity has developed up to this point to solve these issues, along with an appreciation of the scientific method as a school of thought for everyday life, then as they grow older they will hopefully be far more likely to find the alternatives proposed via the political and monetary economic system to be insufficient in addressing social and environmental issues.
What might an education system of shared goals look like?
With the need for competition removed by technically alleviating the underlying scarcity and inefficiency inherent to the price system, adults and children alike could be encouraged to flourish in whatever interests them.
Whereas today we often erroneously attribute ideas as originating in the individual with concepts such as ‘intellectual property’, in an NLRBE we would be more inclined to promote the more humble and factually correct perspective that without the surrounding culture in which we were reared, our ideas would most likely never have come to pass.
With such a social condition there would likely be a greater emphasis on collaboration and humility, with us being pleased when our ideas are surpassed as we would know that our personal and collective well being just took another positive step forward into the future.
The conclusion of such observations, and indeed of this entire article could be summed up as follows:
Our personal interest must become social interest, if we expect to survive and prosper as a species in the long run.
Excellently portrayed by Carl Sagan in the following clip:
So with this point and the others made in this article, please be sure to visit the ‘Action in Education’ section to see how to go about enacting this much needed change in your local educational institutions.