Social Evolution Forum
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Elites Don’t Understand Human Nature, But It’s Time They Learned
A bleak future awaits us — if we stay the course set to serve financial elites.

Here’s an amazing fact: It’s 2016 and humanity is collectively moving toward a future that nobody wants. We are literally going somewhere that will hurt every single one of us.

Mass extinctions are terrible things. Impoverished societies create the conditions for radical extremism and violence. Depleting top soils create food insecurity and mass starvation. Debt-bloated economies become unstable and easily collapse. Extreme shifts in climate cause millions to become refugees. These kinds of things — all of which are becoming more likely with each passing day on our present course — are bad for business, harmful for parents raising their children, damaging to the psyches of people rich and poor, and downright devastating to non-human life.

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Billionaires don’t fair well in a world where starving billions could storm the barricades to get food and shelter. Sick people create conditions for the spread of disease. You see what I’m painting here? It is all connected and the global crisis is arising because we have yet to realize this deep truth about the world we live in.

Then WHY IS IT that humanity is going in this very direction right now? Simply put, it is because the “powers that be” are disconnected so profoundly from reality that they have no idea what they are doing.

Elected officials in high office? These days they are bought and sold by the highest bidders. They only care about staying in power.

Corporate CEO’s at multinational companies? All they care about is playing financial incest on each others’ boards, enriching each other with golden parachutes and year-end bonuses.

Everyday people? They are just going about their lives, doing what their cultures tell them will lead to a good life. They just want to live and be free.

And yet, here we are. In late May of 2016 there are more greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere each year than ever before. The human population continues to grow at an exponential pace. And we are literally consuming the trees, rivers, and grassland meadows of the Earth.

What if it didn’t have to be this way?

The future isn’t written yet. We still have time to change it, but only if we know what we want.

Now imagine what kind of future most people do want. We would like to be healthy and happy, have time to pursue our passions, become skilled at doing things we love, and — of course — give abundance to our children who will inhabit the earth after we are long dead and gone.

It’s so simple in so many ways. Human beings enjoy leisure and human contact. We find pleasure in being seen and loved by others we care about. It is in our nature to be social, to make music and art, to make love and seek pleasure. Nowhere in our genetic code are we wired for destruction of all-things-sacred in the world.

And it is in this gap — between that which currently is and that which could possibly be — that I find deep hope for the future of humanity. My friends have written about the singular ideology that currently dictates core logics of the global economy. They describe how we are taught to believe in therugged individual, a human island in the vast sea of self-reliant possibilities.

Yet no man (or woman) is an island. Each of us is born precariously fragile from a mother’s womb. We would quickly die in those first few years if caregivers were not ever-present to feed us, wipe away our excrement, and protect us from harm. Human beings are deeply social creatures. We arise from the natural world and are profoundly immersed in webs of dependency from the first drawn breathe to the last wavering exhale.

The sciences of human nature tell us much more than this. Not only are we social beings, we are also deeply moral in nature. A sure-fire way to piss us off is to be unfair, dominate or oppress us, or take more than your share. Which begs the question: Why is it that wealth and power inequality are the norm today? The answer can be found in the annals of research on hunter-gatherer societies. Our ancestors — once upon a time in the distant past — were strong males who ruled by physical domination (just as silverback gorillas do today).

But there came a time, several million years ago, when hunting technology combined with a good eye and agile shoulders. Some of our ancestors got together and ganged up on the dominator males. Throw rocks from multiple angles in an ambush attack and even the largest silverback can be taken down. Herein lies the great secret of democracies the world over. We use our ability to form collectives (and act as teams) to out-compete the lone bullies who would otherwise take more than their share.

Of course, a key difference between those ancestral times and today is that societies were much smaller then. Everyone knew everyone else. If someone was abusive or prone to cheating, word would get around quick. All of this changed with the advent of complex societies some 8,000 years ago. Empires were born around the settlements of agriculture. Strong men could organize wannabe strong men to form elite cabals and wreak havoc on the newly forming masses. They ganged up on the rest of us and have been dominating the game ever since.

Fast forward to today and you’ll see how our amazing ability to learn from each other and build upon what came before (called “cumulative” culture by the experts) made it possible for empire-builders to refine their craft. They invented things like corporations, accounting and bookkeeping, and the government control of property rights granted to those with existing wealth. This is what we all capitalism today.

For more on how capitalism actually works, see here…

And so it became possible to weave systems of dominance, wealth extraction and hoarding. Those who sought to have the most were able to invest in media institutions, marketing and advertising and make the greedy aspiration of the super-rich a run-of-the-mill aspiration for everyday working folk.

This is how it came to pass that we collectively began to serve power structures in the present that create the conditions for that future world no one wants. If we are to change course, we will need to understand how we got here. It will be necessary for us to pull back the veil and see how systems of wealth hoarding hide in our minds. We will have to understand how thestories that organize our lives are broken and begin to replace them with better alternatives.

And all of this is about healing. Capitalism is dying (can you feel it?) and it is our collective choice whether we die with it.

Now is the time to consciously introspect about what kind of future youwant. If no one wants the one we are creating now, it might just be a good idea to start seeking common ground, explore shared intentions, and discover ways forward that the majority of us can agree on. We can cooperate together around these themes and overtake the would-be dominators at the helm today. Change the rules of politics and economies to serve all of humanity and life on Earth.

That will require a credible knowledge of human nature. And it will take some serious visionary thinking about how to get from here to there. I am up for the challenge!

How about you?

Onward, fellow humans.


Join the discussion


  1. Ralph Haygood says:

    On one hand, “Human beings enjoy leisure and human contact. We find pleasure in being seen and loved by others we care about. It is in our nature to be social, to make music and art, to make love and seek pleasure.” On the other hand, “And so it became possible to weave systems of dominance, wealth extraction and hoarding. Those who sought to have the most were able to invest in media institutions, marketing and advertising and make the greedy aspiration of the super-rich a run-of-the-mill aspiration for everyday working folk.” Evidently, “we” isn’t all of us. If predatory elites mainly wanted what “we” want, they could have it, super-abundantly, and stop preying on the rest of us. That they continue preying indicates they mainly want different things. One reason why they don’t understand “human nature” may be that theirs differs considerably from most.

    However, the super-rich are no less human than everyday working folk. At this point, it’s unclear whether they’re even anomalous in any innate sense. Although it’s implausible that (as often asserted, typically by malefactors) everyone “at the right time and the right place [is] capable of ANYTHING” (“Chinatown”, 1974), neurophysiological propensities toward sociopathic behavior may be widely prevalent, and their uneven expression may be largely a reflection of uneven opportunities. Then again, it may be that such propensities are largely confined to a minority and rooted in a modest number of developmental abnormalities or environmental insults, in which case humanity might eventually rid itself of most sociopathic behavior by medical means. I don’t know whether either of these possibilities holds, and I doubt anyone knows at present. The neural mechanisms underlying human behavior are poorly understood, and the relevant traits are so poorly delineated that even crude estimates of their heritability are probably, at best, barely feasible. We do know there are substantial, albeit murky, genetic predispositions for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia that were formerly presumed to be almost entirely due to environmental factors (see, for example, link to Accordingly, it’s reasonable to investigate whether there are substantial genetic predispositions or other biological causes for patterns of behavior that aren’t currently considered symptoms of mental illness but that wreak havoc on human societies. (From a merely subjective viewpoint, it seems to me the greed of some rich people – the continual grasping for more, more, more long after they have enough to enable themselves, their families, and even their close friends, if any, to live comfortably for the rest of their lives – has an obsessive-compulsive quality.)

    Anyhow, whether tendencies toward socially destructive behavior are widely prevalent or largely confined to a minority, and whether they’re substantially biological or mostly social, cultural, and learned, there had better be major progress toward understanding and reducing or at least containing them, and soon, or humanity is destined for a future in which little progress of any kind is possible.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Ralph,

      We definitely have our work cut out for us here. One area of research that is quite advanced at this point in time (though there is still plenty of learning to do… science is always a process of continual refinement and occasional upheaval) is about how social norms shape behaviors of people in groups.

      Since roughly 1980 there has been a concerted effort to make greedy, self-interested, individualistic values as normative as possible. Groups like the Mont Pelerin Society (and the famous Powell Memo) have employed a strategy of building think tanks, creating media empires, funding endowed faculty chair positions at universities, training legions of policy assistants, etc. to promote selfish values that have given rise to the economic narratives that dominate policy arenas today (and have done so for nearly 40 years). This was not always the case. It was done very intentionally. And it can be undone very intentionally.

      So I remain hopeful for the human condition. It is not in our nature to be selfish, greedy, or power hungry. Evolution selections for relative position in competitions (I don’t need to be the fastest possible runner, merely faster than one person, if being chased by a predator). We are deeply social and moral beings. Our innate sense of fairness is quite strong — for all but those few true psychopaths estimated to be roughly 1% of any population.

      So we can shift large-scale behavior toward life-affirming values by working with social norms. And the changes can come about quickly — the early successes of Mont Pelerin Society efforts arose within a decade of the Powell Memo’s release in 1971. By 1980, they had elected their own ideologues to high office in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

      We have our work cut out for us, to be sure. But it can be done! 😉

  2. Ted Howard NZ says:

    It is clear that there are many levels of influence on how humans behave.
    Broadly speaking there are two basic modalities, with infinite possible gradations between.
    If we have enough resources, humans have many genetic and cultural incentives to be highly cooperative in large groups.
    If there are insufficient resources, any human being can be cooperative with smaller groups, and very competitive out of group. Under extreme duress group size can be 1.
    Which modality tends to express is very context sensitive, and varies considerably with all individuals over time and context.

    Axelrod showed long ago that to be stable, cooperation require attendant strategies to prevent over-run by “cheating strategies”. We have many levels of those, genetic, cultural, recursively logical.

    Our biggest issue is the very concept of money, and market exchange. It was entirely appropriate and useful when most things were genuinely scarce, but with exponential advances in automation and systems complexity, we can now deliver universal abundance of all the essentials of life, and the greatest impediment to that is the incentive set present resulting from accepting exchanges values (money) as having worth. You need to go deeper than any of the links provided, to see that exchange values (market values) are founded in scarcity. Anything universally abundant has no exchange value. Therefore market systems cannot ever, of their own internal incentive structures, deliver universal abundance of anything (they are strongly incentivised to remove any universal abundance that does exist – to provide a marketable scarcity).

    Elites are playing their games, and many of them are as much pawns in those games as the rest of us.

    I agree, that we have the technical capacity to deliver freedom to everyone, in a way that has never previously been possible. And all freedom comes with responsibility.

    Enjoyed your writing, as always, Joe.