Are Humans Naturally Selfish? Are Humans Naturally Compassionate?
Humans are born both selfish and compassionate; we are hardwired to show compassion to our group and fear to those outside it. It’s genetic self-interest. In other words, it’s a myth that humans are only naturally selfish (or vice-versa that we are only naturally compassionate.)
FACT: Everyone is hardwired with bias, and the way our brains process information only creates more bias as we grow. Luckily humans are social creatures and we have a natural desire to cooperate. We can be taught compassion and taught to understand and correct bias.
Babies are born both naturally selfish and compassionate, the rest is nurture
A baby doesn’t have to be taught to empathize with those who are in charge of caring for it (their in-group), and it doesn’t have to be taught to fear strangers (their out-group). Most babies seem to react negatively to people who are strangers and positively to a known person or group of people.
Both compassion and fear are genetically hardwired to ensure the survival of the baby and it’s “in-group”. Beyond this, humans learn by nurture, not nature, how to extend their compassion to those outside their group, or likewise how to extend their “hate” to strangers outside their group.
Paul Bloom: The Psychology of Everything from bigThink. Skip ahead to about 2 1/2 minutes to get to the part that discusses the concepts on this page, or watch 50 minutes of mind-blowing smartness and nurturing.
FACT: Disgust is one of the most fundamental naturally hardwired emotions. It’s universal to all languages. Whether it’s different out-groups, yucky foods, or icky potential mates, disgust is an effective tool for survival (and an uncomfortable truth behind prejudice).
Is the Selfish Gene Theory True?
The selfish gene theory has truth to it, but it is ultimately misleading.
We are born selfish in some ways, but ultimately it is selfishness on behalf of the species (not the individual). This could just as easily be described as being genetically “selfless” (the selfless gene). The fact is, humans are cooperative by nature, just like all life, and sometimes cooperation manifests as competition.
It’s probably more accurate to simply say, humans are complex and have both selfish and selfless traits. We are hardwired for cooperation and competition, we are hardwired to be selfish and compassionate, but all of this is simply in the interest of our genes. Beyond this, it’s simply a matter of nurture.
Do we teach others to have a small in-group, or do we teach them to extend compassion? There has historically been, unsurprisingly, two schools of thought. With that in mind, here is Richard Dawkins explaining his take on “the selfish gene”.
Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene explained. Dawkins is awesome, but it has some undertones which are ultimately misleading (similar to the “lone genius myth“).