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Man's Social Nature

It is often said, that everyone is just trying to rake in for himself. Humans are born selfish and care only about their own interests.

Conversely, one can hear from supporters of the political left, that it is natural for individuals to feel solidarity with people from far away regions of the globe, whom they have never met and do not know at all.

Neither of the two statements is true. We are genetically designed to operate inside the framework of a manageable group of familiar faces. Man is a social specie just like other social animals like apes, baboons and wolves. And it does not mean, that individuals automatically love others, they don't know, just because they are humans.

The genetic aptitude for social behaviour is an integral part of man, which we have acquired in the course of our biological development. We are social, whether we like it or not. Just in the same way as we are born with two legs and two arms, we are also born with a predisposition for social skills. Should there somewhere exist a human individual, who are decidedly non-social, it must rely on a kind of deformity.

Survival of the Fittest - The Natural Development of Social Behaviour

Charles Darwin 1809 - 1882 Charles Darwin 1809 - 1882.

Darwin's "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859. Darwin's theory is based on two factors, which have always guided livestock breeding. Namely, that the offspring usually inherit their parents' characteristics, and that there are nevertheless considerable variations within each specie, which are randomly combined in different ways.

In livestock breeding the development of the species takes place because the farmers select the individuals with advantageous combinations of properties for further breeding.

In nature it is the "struggle for life", which identifies the most appropriate individuals for "re-breeding." Only the best survive and have offspring, which mainly inherit their parents' properties and hence the ability to survive.

In a later work, "Man's descent", Darwin explicitly used his theory on man. The message of the book is, that the specie humans through several million years has evolved from the same original type as the monkeys, and ultimately all animals, including humans, have developed from the same organism, the first living organism on our planet.

Some animals are social, some are not. If two tigers meet in the jungle of India, they will probably start a fight. Tigers are not-social animals, and in general they cannot stand each other.

Humans - a social specie
Humans - a social specie.

The development of the inborn non-social behaviour has been an advantage for these species. The individual's natural disgust for each other has helped them to spread out over large areas and thereby enabled them to exploit the food resources better. Therefore, their genetic predisposition to incompatibility with each other has been passed on to their descendants.

But gorillas, wolves, baboons, elephants, dolphins, geese, dogs, and also humans are social beings. If two humans meet in the jungle, they will try to come to a kind of understanding. They will present themselves, and seek to unite their forces in a common effort to survive in the hostile environment. Unconsciously, they will naturally also seek to determine the ranking in their small group, who is number one and who is number two. Without a kind of organisation the new small group will not work.

The cooperation in groups has been an advantage for the development of the social species. The community in the hunt and in the upbringing of children made them able to survive better, and for this reason their advantageous aptitude for social skills and feelings were passed on to their descendants.

Konrad Lorenz 1903 - 1989
Konrad Lorenz 1903 -1989 - he is followed by goose chicks who think he is their mother.

Dogs can recognize each other by the smell; they are able to distinguish between hundreds of different individuals simply by sniffing. Humans have a unique ability to remember and recognize facial features. We can meet somebody on the street, which we have not seen for decades, and suddenly remember, that he is this and that person, who has been our classmate in the tenth grade in basic school.

Konrad Lorenz had a tame badger, about which we know, it belongs to the group of non-social species. Often it woke up its owner in the middle of the night by poking around in his books and notes. When he told it off, it stopped for a moment looking at him, then it continued messing around. It had no specific social emotions, and therefore it could not understand, that the owner of the books was angry. Moreover, probably it would not have cared very much, even if it had understood.

A social animal, for example a dog, would have reacted quite differently to that its owner had scolded it. It would have understood the emotional message and pulled back whining to its corner.

Dogs and humans can be very close to each other, because both species are social. We understand each other, so to speak.

Irenaus Eibl Eibesfeldt 1928 -
Irenaus Eibl Eibesfeldt 1928 - .

Between humans, everywhere on Earth, from New Guinea to Funen, a smile is a message of joy and friendly feelings. A dog would interpret a smile as we show teeth, and we would like to have a fight. But for humans it is quite the opposite.

A German etolog, I. Eibl Eibesfeldt, has found, that people of all races laugh when they are happy and cry when they feel sorrow. Babies smile after a few months by contact with the mother. Eibersfeldt showed, that even deaf-blind thalidomid children, who never have seen a smile or heard a laughter, laugh and smile when somebody play with them. He also showed, that among all races and cultures kisses were exchanged between loving couples. Laughter and crying are our inborn emotional communication software. This is evidence that man belongs to the group of social species. From the hands of nature, we are designed to operate inside the framework of a manageable group of familiar faces.

Social Skills at Work

The concentration camp Buchenwald The concentration camp Buchenwald.

All the great stories tell about friendship and unity among men. Just think of "The Lord of the Rings" by Tolkien or "Im Westen Nichts Neues" by Remarque just to name a few. The big stories are of course also about love for women, but we must return to this some other time.

There exist a lot of reports about military units, ships' crews, polar expeditions and similar groups, who in spite of countless difficulties have survived thanks to their unity and ability to work together. Numerous soldiers and sailors have sacrificed themselves for their comrades for the group to survive. We all know, that this is true, and therefore we cannot with any fairness claim, that man is selfish by nature.

Once I spoke with a survivor from the concentration camp, Buchenwald. He had been sent there, because he had distributed illegal magazines during the war. I asked him, what he remembered most from the camp. He said, that what has been most important for him, was the unity and friendship between the prisoners. The horrible things, which happened in the camp, did not affect him so much as time in the camp passed by. He always cried, when he talked about the camp.

Royal Irish Riffles at Somme July 1916
Royal Irish Riffles at Somme July 1916.

After in twenty-eight years having studied the Great War the American general medical service put forward a thorough analysis of the experience from the Second World War. The section on neuro-physical damages concluded: "The most valuable experience in military psychiatry was perhaps the understanding of the small battle group or some of its members' impact on the individual soldier. What is alternately described as the "friendship" system, "group identification" or "leadership". This also worked in non-combat situations. Time and again it appeared, that the absence of its support, its inadequacy or its dissolution during the fighting was the prime cause of mental breakdowns during combat. These groups and community events were the explanation for the significant difference in numbers of psychiatric collapse in different combat units that had been exposed to the same intensive stress during battle."

Being in prison in a solitary confinement is considered as a particularly cruel punishment. It is hard for a man to endure the loneliness year after year.

German soldiers in France with cigars and champagne
German soldiers in France with cigars and champagne.

If we humans deep in our hearts had been such fierce asocial egoists, then a stay in a solitary confinement would not have been any particular problem. But we are not. We are social by nature, and we need daily interaction with other people.

It is often said, that elderly people can become strange and difficult to get around with. But the fact is, that elderly people often becomes lonesome and isolated for one reason or another. Then they will miss the daily social interaction with other humans, and this lack of daily emotional exercise can make anybody strange and a little out of tune. So the point is, that they don't become strange because they are old, but because they are lonesome.

I think, that the popular statement, that man is selfish and egoistic, has emerged in history as a response to the creation of the modern national states and their demands for taxes and military service from their citizens.

The American and the French revolution created the first two national states
The American and the French revolution created the first two national states.

The first modern national states were created by the American and French revolutions in the eighteenth century. The rest of Europe followed in a few years. In two monstrous wars against other nations they demanded great sacrifices from their citizens.

The tax collection was increased to an unprecedented level, and the state became everywhere present.

Some must have been thinking, that it was better to mind ones own business than to be part of all this idealistic turbulence. Perhaps they thought, it was not wise to discuss politics, instead they just uttered, that "man was selfish by nature".

Basically the socialist ideas are a rather logical continuation of the two revolutions. Only that under socialism the role of the state in society will be even more penetrating, and the citizens must sacrifice even more for the good cause. Even more people may have shook their heads and said, "man is selfish and egoistic."

Trench warfare in the first world war - the state asked for very much from the citizens
Trench warfare in the first world war - the state asked for very much from the citizens.

Adam Smith theory of the "invisible hand" may also have contributed to the widespread idea, that man is selfish by nature.

The Scotsman Adam Smith developed the sixteenth century an economic theory about price creation. The price of a product was determined by supply and demand, he wrote. Businessmen and customers will automatically make choices in their own best interest. "The Invisible Hand" will regulate unfair prices down to a realistic level, and it was not necessary, that the government engaged in price controls.

It is certainly true, that we prefer to buy our groceries and other things, affordable and of good quality. But for this reason we need not to be named natural inborn egoists.

Some political left wings seem to think, that all humans in the whole world should be equal in front of us. The welfare of a black Namibian schoolboy or a Bolivian coffee farmer should be just as important for us as the welfare of our Danish neighbours. Real solidarity and community must include all manhood, they say.

But the human nature is not like that. It is not natural to love somebody; we don't know and have never met.

The idea, that we should have an unconditional moral obligation to sacrifice our interest in our own close community and in the people of our own nation for the sake of unknown strangers, this is a kind of unnatural modern religion with no foundation in natural human feelings.

We don't have to be egoists or racists just because we love our own family, colleagues, friends and neighbours and people of our own kind more than total strangers. This is the very basic human nature.

Literature:

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, (1975) - "Det PrŠprogrammerede Menneske"

Lorenz, Konrad, (1963) - "Das Sogenannte B÷se"

Leslie Stevenson, (1975) -"Seven Theories of Human Nature"

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