Essential Human Goodness

April 11, 2007

Normal humans are neither born ethical blank slates, nor brutes at heart. As the fine book, Primates and Philosophers, and others by the noted primatologist, Frans de Waal, details, antecedents of a sense of fairness and morality are present in pre-human ancestors. These ethical senses are something we have inherited from our deep, biological past. The author also explains how the operation of such senses is associated with our ability to empathize … to be able to sense what other individuals with whom we are interacting are probably feeling. Studies of sociopaths—individuals lacking empathy—reveal that their actions are not guided by senses of fairness or morality but by self-interest and utility.

It was this “innate sense of goodness and morality” to which Gandhi referred when he developed the use of satyagraha. Satyagraha is a nonviolent means to draw out the best in others premised on Gandhi’s conviction that people are basically good.

Other recent research in how the human mind works, and how the brains of humans who show empathy or who lack it work, has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons.” In essence, when a normal human sees another human do something, their own brain neurons fire similarly … apparently allowing the seer to experience, at least in part, what the doer is feeling. We can truly share the joy and pain of others in some degree because of these “mirror neurons.” And by living joyfully and lovingly, we foster these feelings in others around us. These neurophysiological discoveries bolster our understanding of the physical basis upon which human goodness is built.

A recent theoretical article in the prestigious journal “Science” is enlightening and heartening in its reference to the universal importance of cooperation as opposed to cut-throat competition. It is entitled “Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation.” The author, Martin Nowak, works in the Departments of Mathematics and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Cooperation, he explains, is needed for evolution to construct new, more complex, level of organizations. “Genomes, cells, multicellular organisms, social insects, and human society are all based on cooperation … Cooperation is the secret behind the open-endedness of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world.”

To many, this view of cooperation as the general pattern in nature rather than violence might come as a surprise. “Isn’t evolution supposed to be all about a struggle for survival? Nature, red in tooth and claw?” But Darwin himself sensed, and wrote, that the altruism and cooperation we see in humans may well have developed because tribes of humans in which individuals cooperated with their tribe mates might have been more successful in the struggle for survival than tribes in which the human members were NOT good cooperators. Traits such as the ability to be empathetic, to have a sense of fairness and justice, are genetically based, and if tribes having members with these traits were better at cooperating and hence better at survival, these traits and the trait of cooperation would be passed on.

In his book, Beyond War, anthropologist Douglas Fry looks across time and across many cultures and thoroughly debunks the myth that humans are essentially violent and aggressive. He provides concrete examples of the human propensity to find nonviolent solutions to our conflicts and to work together to maintain social harmony when possible. In Michael Shermer’s book The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and Scientific American columnist makes a case that human morality evolved as first an individual and then a species-wide mechanism for survival.

On this reality of essentially cooperative and empathetic human good nature—something once explored by philosophers and mystics and now being explored by primatologists, evolutionary biologists, and mathematicians—we can hang our hopes to create a future without war. Inventing these essentials or even teaching them from scratch to children or adults is not required to create a warless future.

What will be required of us, though, is to nurture these traits and create social conditions in which they flourish so the selfish drives that are also a part of our complex nature are subordinated. My books and website, written from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist—Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace, and A Future Without War—outline key social conditions we inadvertently created several millennia ago, roughly at the time of the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer life to settled communities. I discuss how these changes resulted in our present state of seemingly endless cycles of war, and what conditions must be changed to move us rapidly beyond war, to create what can be called a warfare transition.

Making this change is possible because the overwhelming majority of humanity shares a fundamental sense of goodness, and longs to live by it.


DeWaal, Frans. 2006. Primates and Philosophers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fry, Douglas P. 2007. Beyond War. NY:Oxford University Press.

Hand, J. L. 2003. Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace. San Diego, CA: Questpath Publishing
2006. A Future Without War. San Diego, CA: Questpath Publishing.

Nowak, Martin A. 2006. “Five rules for the evolution of cooperation.” Science 314:1560-1563)

Shermer, Michael. 2004. The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule. Times Books

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