Human nature is called inherently selfish and greedy, aggressive and competitive, hungry for power and domination, ready to fight in order to meet basic needs and survive. As for the nature of society, there is speech of unavoidable power relations based on structures of domination and submission, of inescapably divergent interests that necessarily lead to conflicts, of the inevitability and even desirability of war, etc. It is also said that diversity is the cause of social division, while unity would require imposing uniformity.
When delving into the causes of these characteristics, most attribute them either to supposed animal instincts, genetically programmed over millions of years of biological evolution as means of survival, or else to the notion that we are beings that have ‘fallen from divine grace’ due to an ‘original sin’ committed by our common ancestors some 13 thousand years ago. It is noteworthy that both approaches––one scientific and the other religious––refer to uncontrollable and unalterable factors, while very few mention the impacts of what we can change, such as cultural codes, upbringing, education, and experience. Problems inhering in society as a whole are often just blamed on human nature: society is what it is because its individual members are how they are.
When asking what theories the scientific approaches are based on, one hears of the ‘law of the jungle’, ‘natural selection’, competition for limited resources, and ‘survival of the fittest’. Authors are cited according to which man is the wolf of man, there have always been wars and always will be. Reference is made to economic theories by which human beings are motivated solely by selfish interests, that they would do anything to get ahead of others, and that competition is good for both the individual and society. Biological theories are put forward regarding genetic programming in favor of instinctive aggression and territoriality, and the existence of a ‘violent brain’. Sociological theories are brought up regarding ‘social entropy’, as well as the inevitable and even crucial role of conflict in the good functioning of any society.
In a statement titled “The Promise of World Peace” and addressed to “the people of the world” on the occasion of the International Year of Peace (1986), the Universal House of Justice described the results these notions in terms of a ‘paralyzing contradiction in human affairs’:
…so much have aggression and conflict come to characterize our social, economic and religious systems, that many have succumbed to the view that such behavior is intrinsic to human nature and therefore ineradicable. With the entrenchment of this view, a paralyzing contradiction has developed in human affairs. On the one hand, people of all nations proclaim not only their readiness but their longing for peace and harmony, for an end to the harrowing apprehensions tormenting their daily lives. On the other, uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a social system at once progressive and peaceful, dynamic and harmonious, a system giving free play to individual creativity and initiative but based on co-operation and reciprocity. As the need for peace becomes more urgent, this fundamental contradiction, which hinders its realization, demands a reassessment of the assumptions upon which the commonly held view of mankind's historical predicament is based.1
One important way to address this paralysis of will is through critical review of the theories and philosophies on which it is grounded. Fortunately, new discoveries in various scientific disciplines are inviting the world to question deeply the popular version of human nature. Ecology has declared that the true ‘law of the jungle’ is mutualism, since each species supports and is supported by all other participants in an ecosystem. This is obvious in the harm suffered by an ecosystem when any of its species are lost. Genetics has not found anything in our DNA that might force us to behave in one way or another, but rather that it provides us with the means needed to choose how to conduct ourselves. The same brain that enables us to choose hatred and aggression also makes us capable of love and compassion, and even to a greater extent. Psychological studies have found that human beings are motivated much more by relationships and mutual appreciation than by immediate material gain.
Sociologists and others have been emphasizing the possibility of preventing conflicts and not just solving them as they arise. In political science, power is being redefined in terms of empowerment, as something that is exercised for and with––not just over and against––others. Historians are finding that war has not always been as pervasive as history textbooks would have it, but have arisen primarily at critical times in the socio–political development of a society, between which have prevailed long periods of peace and prosperity. There are anthropologists who state that even if social behavior were shaped by ‘natural selection’, it would not have tended toward competition but cooperation, which has been essential throughout human evolution for survival under adverse conditions. Marc Ross concludes that:
…cultural forces are particularly powerful in generating conflicts. Although as human beings we are capable of aggression and violence, the existence of non-violent communities demonstrates that violence in no way constitutes an essential aspect of human nature.2
It is important to be able to deconstruct the social theories that have traditionally supported the culture of adversarialism. This will also make it possible to answer to certain social, political and economic proposals that are built upon such theories and that perpetuate those very adversarial tendencies. The purpose of this study is to contribute to this task, in order to clear and level the terrain in preparation for building a culture of peace.
A. The Role of Mental Models
It is essential to review and question our mental models, in order to keep them from blinding us to the emerging paradigms that are a sign of our time. The mental models that most need questioning include those that support the notion that human beings are aggressive and selfish by nature, which have been widely refuted by scientific developments over the past few decades. These are complemented by mental models of society that accept aggression, egocentrism and competition as normal and ignore the abundant evidence showing that the advancement of civilization throughout history has been based on cooperation.
These archaic mental models regarding the nature of man and society have given rise to attitudes and behaviors that are no longer useful in today’s interdependent global community. Therefore, we would be well advised to reflect on the power of these mental models, in order to underscore the importance of questioning them deeply and working to transform them.
The work of Douglas McGregor in the field of management shows the power of our mental models and how they tend to create the very reality that they predict.3 McGregor  states that managers’ assumptions (or mental models) about human nature tend to influence their approach to human resource management in the workplace. He maintains that all managers have such assumptions, even if they are not aware of them. He identifies two groups of assumptions, which he calls Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X, the conventional managerial approach, states that “workers need to be motivated and controlled through direct pressure from management because they are lazy, lack ambition, dislike responsibility, prefer to be told what to do, and passively resist achieving the goals of the organization. Money is the only way to motivate them.”
Theory Y advocates another set of managerial assumptions regarding workers. It proposes that “when given a chance, people are self-motivated to meet the organization’s goals while working towards personal growth and development.” Theory Y further sustains that if people appear to behave according to the characteristics posed by Theory X, it is only because the organization in which they work requires them to do so. According to this viewpoint, a manager’s task is to arrange matters in such a way that people can fulfill their hierarchically superior needs for self-realization and achievement in the process of meeting the goals of the organization.
McGregor’s point that we want to highlight here is that our assumptions about human nature greatly affect the way we see and treat others. Furthermore, these suppositions tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies. In the case of workers, they respond to their managers’ assumptions by exhibiting the characteristics that are expected of them.
That is why there is no point in recurring to actual behaviors to ‘prove’ the validity of a mental model about human nature, because each model tends to engender the very outcomes that would seem to validate it. Instead, we can: 1) reflect on the consequences of each model and its positive or negative impacts on society. This will help us understand how certain mental models of human nature have been generating the culture around us; and 2) examine scientific evidence to determine to what extent the model coincides with reality. Then we can consciously change our faulty mental models and replace them with a new conceptual framework that will produce the kind of society we want.
In this section, we will conduct a critical analysis of some of the mental models about human nature that have influenced our way of thinking and acting and have created the society in which we live. This will include two parallel approaches: human as rational animals and as spiritual beings. The first is a mental model that is prevalent in Western societies, with variants ranging from emphasizing what we share in common with other animals to highlighting rationality and culture as distinctive human traits that make us qualitatively different. The second approach is that of humans as spiritual beings, which in turn includes three general viewpoints: innate evil or sinfulness, inherent goodness, and a double nature.
Before starting this review, however, it would be useful to consider some of the major scientific mistakes that have been made and that have made it possible to sustain the main adversarial theories.
B. Epistemological Borrowing
Many of the ‘proofs’ used to support the adversarial conclusions of social science are actually no more than analogies based on theories that are borrowed from other disciplines and applied to human society. This gives us such pseudo-scientific aberrations as ‘Social Physics’, ‘Social Darwinism’, etc. Although quite frequent, this practice is deemed unsound and bad science according to epistemological principles.
The source of this problem seems to be the fact that it is hard to find a referent or ‘datum’ that is common to all societies, on which to ground a comprehensive yet solid social theory. Therefore, social scientists have borrowed referents or data from other disciplines as a starting point of what in many cases are mere speculations regarding the ways in which they might apply to the functioning of society. This often happened while those sciences were still working under philosophical implications derived from Newtonian or classical physics: determinism, reductionism, mechanicism, materialism, etc.
The practice of borrowing principles from physics as the foundations upon which to build social and human theory could be considered a 'physicalism'. Its roots include the proposal of a ‘social physics’ proposed by Thomas Hobbes in his classic “Leviathan”. By applying this method, he concluded that the best social system was absolute monarchy, a theory with which he doubtless gained the approval of the king. Subsequent authors developed a broad range of social and human concepts that––knowingly or not––were rooted in the theories of Isaac Newton’s classical physics.
A 'biologism' is a particular kind of epistemological borrowing that takes theories from the ‘life sciences’ and turns them into theories regarding human behavior and the dynamics of human society. The life sciences are often grouped under the generic name of ‘biology’, but actually include such diverse fields as zoology, molecular biology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, cellular biology, physiology, anatomy, histology, developmental biology, ethology, population genetics, systematic genetics, ecology, evolutionary biology, and others.
Biologisms also include several currents, notably Social Darwinism, Genetic Determinism and Sociobiology. Geneticism could be considered one of the sub-divisions of biologism, i.e., the application of the theories of genetics to society by extension, which is also an epistemological fallacy.
'Sociologisms', for the purposes of this study, will be defined as social theories on which naturalizations and/or essentializations of man and/or society are based, as we will see below. An 'economicism' is not epistemological borrowing per se, although it may be based on theories taken from this practice. Rather, it is a basic assumption regarding the nature of man and society, which is needed as a basis for its more positivistic theories that enable economists to call their science ‘exact’. One essential aspect that makes economics more of an inexact science is the bankruptcy of its ideas about what motivates human beings to act, what their needs really are, how to satisfy them, etc.
One could even speak of ‘theologisms', i.e., the social implications of certain conclusions from that branch of philosophy that approaches the question of God's nature and relationship to the human world. These theological essentializations of human nature relate primarily to a fatalistic relationship to God and man's relative good or evil.
Since the establishment of the lending sciences, many of their original theories have been abandoned following deep paradigmatic transformations, manifested in what have come to be called the ‘new physics’, the ‘new biology’, ‘systems theory’, etc. In order to be consistent, the social theories derived from those outdated notions would need also to have changed along with these paradigm switches. This, sadly, has not been the case. The outcome seen today is a collection of false analogies based on erroneous theories from other fields that have already left the point they were at when those analogies were borrowed, leaving in their wake an assortment of deterministic, reductionistic, mechanistic, materialistic social theories at a time when such world views are no longer deemed tenable.
C. A New Social Science?
The flaws in its traditional meta-paradigm have made social science incapable of solving today’s problems. In response, authors such as Foucault have seriously questioned the inherent capacity of such sciences to adequately address the human and social problematique. The sterility of the old meta-paradigm has been broadly acknowledged, but lacking another to take its place has left us suspended in a sort of “paradigmatic limbo” called postmodernism.
Instead of embarking on the search for a new paradigm that can answer today’s pressing questions, postmodernist authors seem to have given in to the assumption that contemporary problems are intractable. We are like the child whose feet have grown and whose shoes are squeezing and hurting them, but since he cannot find a larger pair, he decides to just go barefoot in the meantime. Social science seems to have reached a point similar to the US Patent Office, which by mid-19th Century was contemplating closing its doors to the public, having concluded that everything worth patenting had already been invented!
So we need a new variety of social scientist – one who knows how other sciences have evolved since their theories were borrowed, can suggest analogies that better reflect their new findings, and can work under a new world view that replaces the old deterministic, reductionistic, mechanistic, materialistic one. The purpose for this exercise is not to produce scientific ‘proof’s, but rather further the deconstruction of old social theories and open the minds towards new possibilities.
The next step in this process is to develop new social theories to replace the old ones. This is not as easy as it may seem, since theories are not established by way of deduction, for which there are widely-accepted procedures, but through induction, for which there are no set rules. In fact, throughout the history of science, most theories were initially suggested through intuitive processes (the “Eureka Principle”) and only developed methodically afterwards. The type of theory that finally gets established has more to do with the theoretician's filters and prejudices than with the type of objectivity that is usually associated with science. This means that in order to contribute to the renewal of social science, we will need to develop the ability to see society through new filters, very different from the ones that we learned to use when studying traditional social sciences.
One aspect of this work is that of de-essentializing human beings and their society. Traditionally, there are two opposite tendencies: essentialism and existentialism. Basically, essentialism states that certain characteristics apply to all members of a set, regardless of context. These features are deemed permanent, immutable and eternal, even if they have not yet become manifest due to a lack of development or opportunity to express themselves. The essentialization of man means ascribing to him a certain set of characteristics or properties that all human beings must necessarily possess. It explains human behavior by referring to a human ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ and its biological, psychological, social, or historical makeup. This could be seen as the case of humanism, environmentalism or culturalism, genetic determinism, and sociobiology, for example.
Existentialism, on the other hand, sustains that all human beings are capable of choice, that we are responsible for our own actions, and that placing the blame for our errors on a human ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ is an elaborate excuse used merely to avoid feelings of guilt and the need to change. Modern existentialist thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Sartre criticize essentialism saying that it limits our potential to decide and change. They propose de-essentializing man and acknowledging that we are capable of choosing between different behavioral responses. This freedom to decide how to act also opens up the possibility of creating the world we want.
Traditionally, the culture of adversarialism was based on some form of essentialism, as it defined human nature in terms of a lack of control over our own lives, decisions and behavior, which were determined either by supernatural forces or a supposed animal inheritance. Carl Schmitt even goes to the extreme of stating that all true political theory assumes evil in man.4 Nevertheless, when any author has suggested that there exist peoples for among these assumptions do not prevail, they have been accused of essentializing that group. In order to be consistent, we must not essentialize either of the two in man, but rather accept the fact that both tendencies coexist within us.
Neither could a mutualistic paradigm essentialize man in terms of absolute control over his life or destiny and unadulterated goodness. Rather, it demands that we see human beings as capable of and responsible for deciding whether to behave with greed or generosity, aggressiveness or tenderness, conflict or cooperation in each situation. This will free humanity from the chains of determinism.
Simone de Beauvoir thought that a human was “l’etre dont l’etre est de n’etre pas,” roughly, a being whose essence lies in having no essence. Another alternative is that posed by Bahá’u’lláh [1817-1892], according to whom human beings have a two-fold nature: both material and spiritual, capable of greed and also generosity, of hatred but also love, etc. We can decide at each step whether to respond with and develop the one or the other, and in this the education that we receive has a powerful influence.
We hope that our readers will come away from this study with an understanding of the ways in which the theories and beliefs studied here detract from the work towards socio-cultural change that the world needs so desperately, and that they will be ready to explore new conceptual frameworks that can overcome the debilitating effects of the old ones. To quote Elisabet Sahtouris,
Many of us believe that today's human problems will never be solved, that they have simply gotten too big for solutions of any kind or that, even if we solved them temporarily, human nature cannot itself change and therefore we would just get into the same mess again. This pessimistic view of ourselves as a species reflects the way we feel as individuals whenever we are depressed and our problems seem insoluble.
Hopeless pessimism often comes from lack of perspective. If we look at things narrowly--from within a difficult situation-- they may well seem hopeless, but if we manage to step out of our dark hole, so to speak, to gain some perspective on ourselves within it, we may begin to see a way out.
What could be more interesting, more exciting, than to be alive in the very age when we as a species have the opportunity to mature, to solve the adolescent problems we have caused ourselves and others?5
After reading the text, answer the following questions in your own words:
• How are mental models formed?
• How do they affect us?
• How can they be changed?
• What is epistemological borrowing, and why is is a problem?
• What does ‘essentialization’ mean and why is it a problem?
1. Universal House of Justice, “The Promise of World Peace,” October 1985. Statement addressed to “the peoples of the world” on the occasion of the International Year of Peace (1986).
2. Ross, Marc Howard. Personal communication with the author, January 25, 2009.
3. Douglas McGregor, quoted by Fred Luthans in Organizational Behavior. New York: McGraw Hill, 1977, p. 20.
4. Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996, p. 61.
5. Elisabet Sahtouris, Gaia: The Human Journey From Chaos to Cosmos. New York: Pocket Books, 1989, pp. 207-208.