PHS Honors Essay Project: The Nature of Mankind
Man is an extremely complex being. With age and different exposure to experiences, it is hard to make a general assumption about such a diverse species. However, an individual’s behavior in different circumstances can be traced back to his inherited nature. This can then be used for the generalization as a whole. A generalized claim can then be concluded with man’s inherited nature to be altruistic, bringing a concern for others before himself.
First, in the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the characters are placed in a completely new environment-- an uninhabited island. One boy, Simon, in particular shows altruism throughout his time in the book. He displays selflessness while taking care of the children of the island. Even after expressing his own hunger, he proceeds to feed them. Simon “found for them the fruit they could not reach, pulled off the choicest from up in the foliage, passed them back down to the endless, outstretched hands” (138). When placed in a survival situation dealing with the unknown of his new island, he exhibits concern for those around him, especially those who are set at a disadvantage due to age. His true nature is untouched by unfavorable conditions when his selflessness put the children before his own well-being and needs.
True nature can be traced to the behavior of children where there has been less time for alteration of these natural instincts. For instance, in a study performed by Michael Tomasello at Stanford University, the claim that altruism is instinctive is brought to light through the study of toddlers.
...kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged. They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform, and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward…. And they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally (For Kids, Altruism Comes, Gorlick).
The best way to study a natural instinct can be through studying children. They have had less exposure to nurturement by parents/society. A general showing of altruistic behavior such as compassion and sharing in toddlers is probable evidence that the nature of humankind is altruism, especially when there is no reward involved with their actions.
Another area of human behavior that can be studied for this claim is in situations of crisis. For example, when the 9/11 crisis occurred in Manhattan, “there were no accounts of people being trampled rushing out of the World Trade Centers; rather, those who needed more assistance descending were cared for, and calm mainly prevailed” (Is Human Nature Fundamentally, Szalavitz). This is the outcome of other crisis situations, such as natural disasters and climate change. When evaluating ‘true nature,’ situations of survival can be used to make a conclusion about man. Survival puts man in a situation with quick thinking and instinct, or an inherited characteristic. This allows the natural state of man to show. To conclude, when placed in a situation where potential death is being faced, man does not show signs of selfish survival instincts, but rather a concern for the safety and well-being of others: altruism.
An important document in the Roman Catholic Church is Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which “proclaimed that all people were born broken and selfish, saved only through the power of divine intervention” (Scientists Probe to Human, Ward). However, in the sonnet by Francis Duggan, the author describes how people are born with a sense of selflessness and a concept of morality.
Those born to altruism in any way not small/The gifts of love, kindness and compassion are the greatest gifts of all/To help those in need of helping they go out of their way/They are the unsung heroes of the Human World of today/They never make the news headlines nor they never seek publicity/They were born not to seek self glory but to serve humanity…
The lines of poetry support the idea that those who have the natural sense to be altruistic are not pursuing earthly desires, which would be considered a sin stated in the Ten Commandments in the Bible. They are not doing deeds through God, but through an altruistic inheritance, seeking a well-being for humanity and those who need good. This discredits the claim by Augustine’s Doctrine that man needs divinity to perform good.
When concluding on the perplex being that man is, it is clear that his true nature is to ‘do good’. As displayed in everyday desires, crisis situations, children’s behavior, and good deeds, selfless concern for others prevails in human character. This is not to say that there are not evil things in this world, but that man will always be rooted from the same altruistic nature.
Duggan, Francis. “Those Born To Altruism.” PoemHunter.com, 13 Feb. 2016,
Golding, William, et al. William Goldings Lord of the Flies: Text, Notes, & Criticism.
Penguin Books, 2016.
Gorlick, Adam, and Adam Gorlick. “For Kids, Altruism Comes Naturally,
Psychologist Says.” Stanford University, 5 Nov. 2008, https://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/november5/tanner-110508.html.
Szalavitz, Maia. “Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?” Time,
Time, 8 Oct. 2012, http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/08/is-human-nature-fundamentally-selfish-or-altruistic/.
Ward, Adrian F. “Scientists Probe Human Nature--and Discover We Are Good,
After All.” Scientific American, 20 Nov. 2012, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-probe-human-nature-and-discover-we-are-good-after-all/.
This is the fourth 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.