Part Four of the EcoMind series tackles the notion: Humans are greedy, selfish, competitive materialists. We have to overcome these aspects of ourselves if we hope to survive.
By Frances Moore Lappé
(Part four of the EcoMind series)
Wow, if I believed this, I’d be really depressed. Fortunately, breakthroughs in a range of disciplines confirm that humans are soft-wired to cooperate as well as compete.
In fact, any notion that our species is basically brutal defies the evidence: “There is a very tiny handful of incidences of conflict and possible warfare before 10,000 years ago,” says archaeologist Jonathan Haas. Our species evolved in close-knit communities, shaping at least six traits we can now count on as we work to turn our planet toward life.
1) Humans Are Wired For Cooperation
Neuroscientists using MRI scans discovered that when human beings cooperate, our brains’ pleasure centers are as stimulated as when we eat chocolate! And what were the evolutionary pressures that turned us into cooperators?
In her 2009 book Mothers and Others, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy challenged the accepted belief that our penchant for cooperation emerged through bonding to fight our neighbors. No, she says. Over most of the 200,000 years we’ve been around, there were simply too few of us to warrant fighting over territory. Instead, our capacity for cooperation evolved in response to our unique breeding culture.
Humans have long turned to aunties, grandmas, and friends to help care for their babies from birth, allowing us the “luxury of growing up slowly, building stronger bodies, better immune systems, and in some cases bigger brains,” Hrdy surmises. It’s capacity for cooperation that most distinguishes Homo sapiens, Hrdy posits.
2) Humans Are Wired For Empathy
In the 1990s, Italian scientists first discovered what many now see as a cellular foundation of empathy: “mirror neurons” in our brains. When we are only observing another’s actions, it turns out, these neurons fire as if we were actually performing the observed actions ourselves. And a study reported in Science in 2008 suggests we actually get greater pleasure from giving than receiving.
3) Humans Are Wired For Fairness
Fairness lives within most of us, for we learned long ago that injustice destroys community, the bonds of trust on which our individual survival depends.
Plus, fairness seems to make us feel good, Nature reported in 2010: Pairs of young men were given $30 apiece, while at random one in each pair got a $50 bonus. The brain’s reward center responded in those who got the bonus — no surprise. But these lucky men were then asked to imagine how they’d feel if they got another bonus or if instead the bonus went to their partners. The second scenario — reducing inequality — was what stimulated the brain’s pleasure center.
4) Humans Are Wired For Efficacy
Could our species have made it this far if we were essentially couch potatoes, shoppers, and whiners? I don’t think so. We are doers, and it shows up even in tiny babies. Three-month-olds respond with pleasure to a moving mobile. But a study shows that they “prefer to look at a mobile they can influence themselves,” writes Professor Alison Gopnik in The Philosophical Baby. Plus, “they smile and coo at it more too.” For Gopnik, the finding suggests that even the youngest among us enjoy making things happen and seeing the consequences.
In the 1970s, Harvard psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin divided nursing home residents into two groups. In one, residents had choices as to where to receive visitors and when to watch movies; they were also given houseplants to care for. Residents in the second group did not have these choices. For me, the longer lives of those responsible for themselves and their plants affirm that we thrive when we feel effective.
5) Humans Are Wired For Meaning
Human beings are creatures of meaning, seeking ways to give our days value beyond ensuring our own survival. The prominence of religion, and so much more, certainly attests to this need.
6) Humans Are Wired For Imagination, Creativity and Attraction to Change
In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik writes:
“The key to human nature at every level from brains to minds to societies” is what neuroscientists call plasticity — “our ability to change in light of experience.”
The great evolutionary advantage of human beings is our ability to escape the constraints of instinct, Gopnik reminds us. Both “using tools and making plans...depend on anticipating future possibilities,” and we can see these “abilities emerging even in babies who can’t talk yet.”
Finally, psychologists estimate that, on average, more than 80 percent of happiness comes from relationships, health, spiritual life, friends, and work fulfillment. Only 7 percent is about money.
How To Shift the Balance Toward The Best In Us
But if we’re so great, why in the world do we mindlessly participate every day in a social ecology that generates so much destruction and misery for so many?
Because these six magnificent traits are only part of being human: history, as well as laboratory experiments, reveals that not a few, but most of us, have every bit as much capacity to be horribly cruel. So, given both potentials, what will it take to bring out our six strong traits?
Seeing with an eco-mind means fully appreciating the power of context to determine the qualities we express. So the question for humanity seems relatively straightforward:
Which social rules and norms have proven to bring out the worst in humans, and which have shown to bring forth the best while protecting us from the worst?
Here’s my take. At least three conditions seem proven to elicit the worst:
- Extreme power inequalities, from historical oppression to today’s unprecedented economic disparity.
- Secrecy, as occurred when the financial industry, operating without transparency and public oversight, brought the global economy to its knees.
- Scapegoating, whether it’s kids crying “he did it” on a playground or citizens shouting at a town meeting.
All three negatives seem to arise with ferocity in cultures premised on lack, where continuous rivalry is presumed. So it’s no surprise, then, that scholars uncover a “strong relationship” between the extent of economic inequality and mental illness across countries; nor that depression has become a global pandemic.
Knowing all this, our challenge seems clear: We can create a culture of alignment with nature as we reverse those three dangerous trends and, instead, disperse power, enhance transparency, and foster mutual accountability. The key is what I call “Living Democracy.” It is not only accountable forms of governance but also a culture of inclusion, fairness and mutual accountability infusing daily life.
If we’re all connected, we’re all implicated, so we can look bravely at our nature and realize we don’t have to be “better.” Whew! Instead we can get on with creating social rules and norms proven to elicit the best in us — which is plenty. Then we get on with making this century’s planetary turnaround an epic struggle for life so satisfying that it meets our deep needs for connection, fairness and meaning.
Thought Trap 3: We’ve Hit the Limits of a Finite Earth
Thought Trap 2: "Consumer Society" Is the Problem
Thought Trap/Leap 1: Growth vs. No Growth?
Introduction: Our Challenge – Developing an Eco-Mind
Ready, Set, Re-Frame! A Conversation with Frances Moore Lappé about EcoMind