Darwin, Gandhi, Obama, and Berkeley University’s Greater Good Science Center all Agree – Humans are Basically Good

December 14, 2009

The fact of human essential goodness is our greatest hope—the foundation we rely on—for ultimately abolishing the despicable habit of war

by Judith Hand

A few years ago I wrote an essay for A Future Without War.org called “Essential Human Goodness.” The subtitle was “Our hope for abolishing war and ushering in the next great shift in human history-the Egalitarian Revolution.” In it I stressed three things:
  • First, Mohandas Gandhi, the master student of social transformation, built his program for nonviolent social transformation on a fundamental belief about us: that humans are essentially good. Actually, I believe Gandhi would have said we are all part of the divine, and he would probably have included our rare sociopaths, which I would not. His technique, called satyagraha, relies on using love and understanding to bring out the best in others, to win them over to a better, less violent way, to empathize with them and in return gain their empathy.
  • Second, to transform warrior, dominator cultures into more egalitarian, just, and less violent ones free from war we’ll have to use nonviolent means. We can’t build a peaceful future using violence, most certainly not the violence of war. And so our ending-war campaign, like Gandhi’s campaign to win India’s independence, will also be built on the foundation that people are at heart empathetic, altruistic, and caring…in short, that they are at heart “good.”
  • And third, the essay stressed then current research available about human nature…whether it is in fact selfish or altruistic, mean or caring.

That essay is still available on the AFWW website.

In the intervening two years, support for this positive view of our nature has begun to pour in. The news is GOOD indeed.

Allomother Sarah Hrdy & Shanika Jayasuriya - Photo by Dr. Anula Jayasuriya

The retired Harvard-trained anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, in her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, makes a totally compelling argument that human beings come by our altruism from our very very deep past. That in fact, pre-human ancestors, probably Homo erectus, were what biologists call “cooperative breeders,” and they were so cooperative because no one individual can raise our extremely helpless and long-dependent young. It takes not only mothers, but OTHERS as well to raise a human child to maturity. And all of that cooperation in raising our young selected for the traits we call empathy and altruism. (see a review on the AFWW website)


Frans de Waal

Not long after, out came another book, by anthropologist, Frans de Waal, (director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta). In The Age of Empathy. Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, De Waal approaches this question of our nature from his studies of primates: monkeys and apes.His work was among the very first, if not the first, to point out that even primates such as chimpanzees can empathize with other chimpanzees, and that they in fact have social mechanisms designed to repair relationships between individuals that become damaged because of social conflicts.

While some students of human behavior still argue for the provocative and violence-as-a-way-of-life “man-the-warrior” model of human ancestry, in an essay about the discovery of our very oldest ancestor known so far, Ardipithecus ramidus, I propose a “humans-as-cooperators” model. As noted by the specialists who did the arduous work of reconstructing what we know about Ardi, Ardipithecus ramidus has physical traits, especially their un-chimp-like teeth, that suggest they were socially very different from violence-prone chimpanzees. The males of Ardi’s kind were more likely to have been cooperators in the hunt for food to provision females and developing young and quite incapable of using their teeth to kill others in battles, as chimps do.

Douglas Fry

Another anthropologist who in the past few years is challenging the notion that we’re incurably violent and warlike and our ancestors always have been is Douglas Fry. His first book on this subject, The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, strongly influenced my thinking, and the AFWW website provides a review of his second book, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry takes a critical look at artifacts that have been used to suggest that war goes into our deep past. He also presents careful analysis of nonviolent cultures studied by anthropologists, some of them entirely without war, to see how they resolve their conflicts.

Datcher Keltner - photo by Wendy Edelstein

Now on 8 December 2009 on the PhysOrg.com website comes a posting describing the work of researchers at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. They call it “survival of the kindest.”

The door to a very different way of looking at what kind of creature we are is now open and new views are flooding in.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin firmly believed that competition was a critical component of natural selection, but it was his followers who invented the phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” and applied it to our species. Darwin himself was convinced that our defining traits were cooperation and sympathy.

Which brings us to the current President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He, too, believes we are essentially good, each of us possessing an innate morality. I quote from his speech:

“The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached—their fundamental faith in human progress—that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith—if we dismiss it as silly or naïve, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace—then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.”

Barack Obama

Will Obama live up to his promise? Will he fully earn that Nobel Peace Prize? The entire world waits expectantly to see, and many pray that history has delivered to us the right man for our troubled time.

While the daily news seems dire, and many of us suffer from a sense of hopelessness and now and then feel that maybe we’re just too stupid and violent and selfish to survive….it seems that may not be at all true of us. We may simply have got stuck for a time, out of ignorance of how to prevent it, in the destructive habit of war. With better understanding of our nature and of the causes of war, (www.afww.org), perhaps we can break the habit. For humanity, greater and better days may actually BE our destiny.


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