PHS Honors Essay Project: The True Nature of Man
Across the world, many debates, arguments, and discussions have taken place regarding the true nature of man. This question has created two sides of the argument; mankind is inherently good, or mankind is inherently bad. By reflecting on various fictional literary works and by considering multiple studies, experiments, and research projects completed which relate to this topic, it has been proven that the true nature of man is inherently good and altruistic. By coming to this verdict, it is demonstrated that bad behaviors, such as corrupt, heinous, and unethical traits, are not instinctive, but rather they have been learned or acquired through certain situations.
Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding, is a fictional literary work that correlates with the topic of the true nature of man. Within this novel, many young boys become stranded on a remote island, leading them to use their underdeveloped survival skills in order to live. Originally, the boys on the island agreed to work together and to stay focused on their main goal of getting rescued. To accomplish this they established a government-like system and elected a young boy named Ralph as their leader. As leader, Ralph set rules and appointed other boys to specific tasks. His purpose in doing this was to keep a sense of peace, civility, and overall control on the island (Golding). The establishment of a governing body on the island, achieved by working together and staying focused on their purpose, demonstrates the boys as altruistic. The children collaborated and worked devotedly to their survival and rescue. Altruistic human nature is present within Lord of the Flies since the boys cooperated and demonstrated benevolent traits that benefited the group as a whole. Though as the book continues, the sense of civility is lost; the boys eventually break away from the government-like system originally set up on the island. This occurs as many of them lose hope of being rescued. Many begin to believe they will not be rescued, causing them to demonstrate inhumane qualities. The situation provokes the boys to act out in heinous ways (Golding). This information, however, does not change the fact that human nature is inherently good. As the situation the boys were in gained intensity, they had no idea how to respond. The boys’ perception was changed by the belief they were not going to be saved. They had to learn and discover different ways to act in order to alter their situation. They were desperate for change. Lord of the Flies therefore represents how negative characterization is acquired through situations. This demonstrates how altruistic behaviors are inherent.
Proving that mankind is inherently altruistic not only can be connected to literary works but also different branches of science. This includes the branches of neuroscience and evolutionary science. When asking this question regarding the nature of humanity, scientists look to experimenting by conducting multiple studies and research projects. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley states that,
“evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Indeed, Darwin himself argued that altruism, which he called ‘sympathy’ or ‘benevolence,’ is ‘an essential part of the social instincts.’ Darwin’s claim is supported by recent neuroscience studies, which have shown that when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward” (“Altruism Definition: What Is Altruism.”).
By evaluating the findings of neurologists and evolutionary scientists, it is shown that humans exhibit aspects of altruism because it leads to greater survival among a group. When people act altruistically, they benefit others since they are cooperatively working with them to complete a task. Working in groups is oftentimes more efficient than working alone. These scientific findings can tie to the fact that altruistic behaviors are a main factor involving mankind because they are a part of human nature.
As previously mentioned by evolutionary scientists, working cooperatively to help others can be categorized as an aspect of altruistic behavior. Another article published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley elaborates on this idea by explaining how an experiment demonstrates that humans are inherently good through instinct. The experiment consists of having participants “contribute any amount of [their] money to a common pool. Once everyone has contributed, the game doubles the amount in the pool, then gives each player an equal portion of that doubled amount” (Simon-Thomas). The variable in this experiment is the amount of time given to the subjects to decide how much money they should contribute. Through multiple tests of this experiment, Harvard researchers David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene, and Martin A. Nowak found that people typically have an initial impulse to act cooperatively (Simon-Thomas). The data shows that participants who had less time to decide how much money to contribute often provided more money than those who had plenty of time to decide. The instinct to cooperate with others demonstrates that humans are inherently altruistic. Within the experiment, those with limited time instinctively decided to cooperate and help to benefit everyone in the group by donating and contributing large amounts of money into the pot. The inherent choice to cooperate shows that without other factors, humans display altruistic behaviors.
To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, is another literary work, alongside Lord of the Flies, that demonstrates how human nature is inherently good. Scout Finch, the narrator of the story, displays aspects of altruism when finding out an African American man, Tom Robinson, had just been killed for a crime he did not commit. Scout is a young girl, around the age of eight at this point in the novel. She understands that Tom Robinson was falsely accused for the trivial reason of race. Scout was taken aback upon hearing of his death by being shot. She knew this tragedy should not have taken place (Lee). Scout’s reaction to the killing of Tom Robinson displays that altruism is the true nature of man. Scout, being so young, had not been influenced by society like the older generations who were taught to discriminate. Scout did not support racism because she was not taught the prejudice the older town residents learned. She sees through the ideology of racism and discrimination and goes with her intuition that people of other ethnicities should be treated as equals. Scout demonstrates how mankind is inherently altruistic because she sympathizes over Tom Robinson’s death and refuses the ideology of racism.
Contributing to scientific research involving the nature of mankind, altruistic behaviors have also been found in studies involving young children. In the article, Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?, this idea is elaborated upon. “Studies of 18-month-old toddlers show that they will almost always try to help an adult who is visibly struggling with a task, without being asked to do so: if the adult is reaching for something, the toddler will try to hand it to them...” (Szalavitz). The study on young children reflects their intuitive action decided upon by themselves to assist adults in need. This shows that children as young as 18 months, who do not have a substantial amount of experience based on how to act, demonstrate traits of altruism. They do not hesitate to go out of their way to help others. These young children also do all of these actions without being asked or told to do so. The research involving young children acting altruistically at their own will connects to the fact that being inherently altruistic and good is human nature.
By reflection on various fictional literary works, including Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird, and by considering multiple studies, experiments, and research projects completed which relate to this topic, it has been proven that the true nature of man is inherently good and altruistic. By coming to this verdict, it is demonstrated that bad behaviors, such as corrupt, heinous, and unethical traits, are not instinctive, but rather learned or acquired through certain situations. All of these factors display how the true definition for the nature of mankind is defined as inherently good and altruistic.
“Altruism Definition: What Is Altruism.” Greater Good,
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Penguin Books, 1999.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1982.
Simon-Thomas, Emiliana R. “The Cooperative Instinct.” Greater Good,
Szalavitz, Maia. “Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?” Time,
Time, 8 Oct. 2012, healthland.time.com/2012/10/08/is-human-nature
This is the second of 24 essays that will be written by PHS Honors English students in collaboration with The Portland Beacon over the next six months. Ms. Chandra Polasek, PHS Honors English and Drama teacher, will provide the essays on a regular basis to The Beacon. All essays are original work of the students.