Now we know that science does not support the essentialization of human behavior. Our actions are not built into our DNA, but are a result of our upbringing, education and socialization, on the one hand, and the efforts that each of us make to align our conduct with the principles that we have chosen for our lives, on the other. Our genetic makeup only provides us with the biological means to learn, decide and act.
Neither is it suitable to essentialize man in terms of absolute evil or unqualified goodness. If we are to remain consistent with reality, we cannot incur in either of these two extremes. Human beings are capable of and responsible for deciding whether to behave greedily or generously, aggressively or gently, competitively or cooperatively in any given situation. This freedom to decide makes it possible for us to create the kind of world we want for ourselves and others.
Despite this, certain mental models remain as remnants of past centuries, which have not been entirely overcome by contemporary society. This is due in part to the fact that essentialization enables us to justify our behavior, and gives us an excuse not to change. If we act violently, we say it is just human nature; if we lie, cheat and steal, we blame our genes. If a supposedly advanced civilization commits acts of unthinkable barbarity, it is due to our animal inheritance, over which we have no control. Such arguments have enabled us to justify not only violent, adversarial attitudes, but all kinds of blunders, abuses and misdeeds, from daily conflicts among neighbors, to unfair competition among business enterprises and struggles for power among political parties, to international warfare and genocide against racial and ethnic groups.
‘De-essentializing’ human behavior requires that we change this mental model and recognize that we are capable of choosing our response to the world around us. Making an alleged ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ responsible for our misdeeds is an elaborate excuse designed to circumvent feelings of guilt and the imperative to change. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá says:
Some things are subject to the free will of man, such as justice, equity, tyranny and injustice, in other words, good and evil actions… He can be an enkindled light through the fire of the love of God, and a philanthropist loving the world, or he can be a hater of mankind, and engrossed with material things. He can be just or cruel. These actions and these deeds are subject to the control of the will of man himself; consequently, he is responsible for them.1
1. 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Some Answered Questions. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990. p. 248.