The “Human Nature” Excuse

How often, when some injustice has been done, have you heard someone say “It’s only human nature?”

It’s one of the many excuses people rushed to after two world wars ravaged Europe and a third threatened to break out, all before the 20th century was over.  It’s an utterance that has become almost a reflex. We say it without ever thinking. Whenever someone does something cruel or selfish or underhanded, we just shrug and say “human nature,” and walk away with our view of humanity diminished slightly more.

But what’s the truth? What does the archaeological record say about “human nature?”

Consider violence. Now, a lot of us are familiar with the Biblical narrative of Cain and Abel, said for many generations to be an authoritative account of the first murder. For hundreds of years, the Western world has lived with the presumption that it only took one generation for murder to enter the repertoire of human behavior. When one considers it that way, a deterministic outlook on violence is pretty hard to avoid.

However, the archaeological record stands in sharp contradiction to this. While the human species itself dates to 195,000 years ago, according to the fossil record, we don’t really see a whole lot of evidence of violence between human beings until the Upper Paleolithic (about 30-40k years ago).

Now, if a species goes more than 70% of its history without a behavior, then suddenly starts doing it in one short period of prehistory, you can sort of guess that this is not something that just “comes naturally.” In that context, the story Cain and Abel seems like a fairly cruel lie to normalize violence than a parable against it.

So how did early humans and hominids actually treat each other before the Upper Paleolithic? Were they just heavy-browed, heartless brutes walking around in leopard skin tunics carrying heavy wooden clubs as the popular masculine fantasy of “cave men” would have us believe?

While there’s not a lot of material left from that time period, what we do have are a few clues to how the ancestors of today’s human population related to each other and the world, and it’s rather astonishing.

Homo Erectus cared for their injured, young, and sick. We see skeletons with evidence of healed fractures, something that is indicative of a highly social species willing to go the extra mile to save a family member.

Neanderthal made music with reed instruments of bone, and buried their dead in careful, deliberate ceremonies, even laying flowers on the corpse before burial.

Tens of thousands of years before their descendants went to war, a human being on the coast of what is now South Africa drilled holes in seashells and made themselves a lovely necklace out of what would have been just garbage from the previous nights meal.  As we would say in Portland, they were upcycling way before it went mainstream.

Over 30,000 years of sedentary settlements and around 6,000 years of civilization, the true narrative was nearly replaced with a narrative of control, conquest, and subjugation. These things became normalized and enculturated… but they’re not true to the broader spirit of what it means to be human.

In fact, the whole body of evidence for human evolution discovered thus far hints at a gentle creature for whom violence and unchecked egoism is the exception, not the rule. Art, love, and family were with the species long before violence and jealousy.

That, friends, is the truth about human nature.

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