PHS Honors Essay Project: The Nature of Man
It has been hotly debated for centuries what the true nature of man is. Is he a being of good or evil; selflessness or greed? For, if we are evil, how can we learn from that; and if we are good, how can we continue to do good? But after much deliberation and research, it is clear to see that at the root of our nature, man is altruistic and good.
Man’s innate desire to do good traces as far back to our earliest human ancestors in Africa, through a trait termed Cooperative Breeding (CB). This trait is an occurrence in nature where instead of only the mother and/or father raising a child, other family members- and even unrelated members of the community help in the youth’s upbringing. Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy proposed the Cooperative Breeding hypothesis in the 1990s. She said that “humans added cooperative breeding behaviors to their already existing advanced ape cognition, leading to a powerful combination of smarts and sociality that fueled even bigger brains, the evolution of language, and unprecedented levels of cooperation” (qtd. In scimag.org). Although other species also exhibit Cooperative Breeding, man’s direct ancestors- the great apes- are not among them. Cooperative Breeding played a big part in advancing human altruism.
Researchers at Nature Publishing scientific journal constructed an experiment to test the link between cooperative breeders and acts of altruism. The researchers built an apparatus that contains a lever that when pulled, gives a treat to an animal on the opposite side. They tested this device with 15 different primate species. There was found to be a strong correlation between the species that were cooperative breeders and pulling the lever to reward their fellow animal on the other side. The non-cooperative breeders were much less likely to pull the lever- showing selfishness. This experiment is direct evidence that cooperative breeders (like humans) are selfless and are willing to help each other out. Over the years, humans evolved to instinctively help each other out in raising kids to power through conditions that may have been adverse. This set them apart from their primate ancestors and allowed them to flourish as beings of selflessness.
Even though it is clear to see how cooperative breeding demonstrates the human nature of altruism, it is easy to become skeptical for a few reasons. Lord of the Flies published by William Golding in 1954 is a literary classic. It expresses Golding’s take on what would happen if a group of boys were stranded on an uninhabited island. Left with no one to tend to them but themselves, the boys’ idyllic paradise gradually falls to a chaotic warzone. In the beginning, the boys were able to cooperate under the chosen leadership of Ralph, but as a happy ending became questionable, some of the boys begin to doubt Ralph’s leadership. There was also paranoia of a beast living on the island that many a boy claimed to see at different points. Their fixation on this “beast” causes them to turn on each other as they gradually revert to a primal and selfish nature. Soft-spoken Simon puts it best when he says “maybe there is a beast… maybe it’s only us” (89). Simon is suggesting that true evil is no physical beast or monster, but rather the innate nature of the boys manifesting itself due to the situation they are in. It only goes downhill from there, with some of the boys eventually losing their humanity and even killing Simon.
Golding’s story draws frequent parallels to the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are presented by God with everything they could ever want, with one specific restriction- to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, promising death if they do. Adam and Eve abide by that restriction for a long time, showing themselves to be good and cooperative. It is not until they are tempted by the evil Serpent who tells Eve “you will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4), that they disobey the instruction and induce the downfall of man. Adam and Eve are not evil or selfish, they were simply not wise enough to disregard what the Serpent’s trickery. The same logic applies to Lord of The Flies, wherein the boys are not evil, they just simply lack the wisdom to stay true to themselves and their nature when confronted with the hellish reality of being stranded on an island wasteland. In both stories, their initial instinct is to act with goodness before being corrupted by evil.
This is furthered by the fact that once the boys are finally rescued by the naval officer, they snap out of their primal forms and back into their true nature. “A little boy… who carried the remains of spectacles on his waist, started forward, then changed his mind and stood still” (Golding 201). Even the littlest boys realize what they did wrong and are now ashamed of it. Now that they are back in the situation they are used to and have the mental capacity to reflect, their true selves start to come back.
Even in real life, it is shown that people will exhibit altruism in spite of being in a situation that would initially seem to bring out selfishness in man. An article by Time Magazine, “Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic”, explores this idea. Author Maia Szalavitz explains that “(d)uring the terrorist attacks of 9/11… there were no accounts of people being trampled rushing out of the World Trade Center towers; rather, those who needed assistance descending were cared for, and calm mainly prevailed” (Szalavitz). The people caught in this terrible situation could’ve easily run for their lives and only focus on their needs, but no. They didn’t. Their instinct instead told them to take as much time as they could to help their fellow man. They helped them to stand up, to escape, and most importantly, those innocent people risked their own lives to help others to live.
Although man may exhibit selfishness at certain times, it does not represent his nature; moreover, it shows how man acts when pressured by exterior evils. More prominently; however, man’s nature is altruistic because we had to be to flourish as a species and to expand our civilization to what it is today. Our selflessness is also shown through how we act when not tempted by evil, as well as in dire situations that cause us to help those around us.
Balter,, Michael, et al. “Human Altruism Traces Back to the Origins of Humanity.” Science, 10 Dec. 2017, www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/08/human-altruism-traces-back-origins-humanity.
“BibleGateway.” Genesis 2:4-3:24 NIV - - Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2:4-3:24&version=NIV.
Burkart, J. M., et al. “The Evolutionary Origin of Human Hyper-Cooperation.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 27 Aug. 2014, www.nature.com/articles/ncomms5747.
Eiadmin. “Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?” The Evolution Institute, 4 Jan. 2015, evolution-institute.org/is-human-nature-fundamentally-selfish-or-altruistic/.
William Golding “Lord of the Flies: William Golding.” Lord of the Flies: William Golding, by Alastair Niven, York Press, 1996, pp. 89–201.
“Nature.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nature.
This is one 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.