The Good News About Human Nature: Most People Aren’t Jerks

A broad breakdown in societal trust has undermined the idea of a common good that can be served by the collective disposition of resources. Voters trust neither government nor most individuals in society to fairly pursue the common good. Instead, they see both government and individuals as fundamentally selfish and out for themselves, not others.

This view of human nature has been a consensus until recently. That consensus can be traced back to the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a 1,200 novel that, in essence, advocated the unfettered pursuit of self-interest as the organizing principle for society. Despite the fact that the book became a best-seller, not many critics and intellectuals took it or its thesis seriously at the time. Who could possibly believe that a society based strictly on selfishness could work?

That skepticism was obliterated in the next several decades. One of the key blows was struck by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of natural selection and has only one imperative: successfully reproducing itself in competition with other genes. We (and other animals), as bearers of these “selfish” genes, will therefore carry those traits — and only those traits — that help these genes reproduce. Dawkins implied that was all you needed to know to understand human nature, an idea that quickly led to an explosion of selfish gene-based explanations for every aspect of human behavior.

Then, in 1980, Milton Friedman, with his wife, Rose, published Free to Choose, a no-holds-barred polemic in favor of self-interested individuals making “rational”, unregulated decisions and against anything that interfered with this process, especially government action. So, in a powerful conjunction of economics and evolutionary biology, Ayn Rand’s glorification of selfishness gained the imprimatur of serious science. Being selfish was just human nature and should not be fought. Indeed, any attempt to do so was bound to do more harm than good. Thus was the original reaction to Atlas Shrugged turned on its head. Who could possibly believe that a society based on anything other than selfishness could work?


No doubt Ayn Rand would have been delighted with the progress of her big idea in the subsequent decade. Ronald Reagan was elected US president and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK, both practicing a politics best summarized as “government is the problem, not the solution” and both preaching an economic gospel that glorified the individual pursuit of wealth above all else. And her disciple, Alan Greenspan, was appointed head of the Federal Reserve in 1987 and remained there for 19 years, treated reverentially by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Also in the 1980s, the breakdown of the postwar welfare states became undeniable and, by, the end of the decade, the Soviet Union and other “socialist” countries had ignominiously collapsed. Conservatives argued that all this was real world confirmation of Rand’s core idea: those who interfered with human selfishness would reap the whirlwind.

But right at its moment of greatest success, the conservative case on human nature was being fatally undermined. New thinking and research in evolutionary science showed that the “selfishness is all” camp was completely missing the mark on what makes humanity distinctive. It is not competition for individual reproductive success but rather cooperation for group reproductive success, facilitated by our capacities for symbolic thought (language) and transmission of learned information (culture), that has led to our success as a species.

In short, the key to understanding human nature is not the selfish gene, bur rather the “selfless gene”. The selfless gene allowed our ancestors to think and act as a group, thereby outcompeting other chimp-like species — literally leaving them in the dust. Moreover, our cooperative nature allowed us to build ever more complex ways of interacting with one another, which led to further evolution in the traits that facilitate cooperation (referred to as “gene-culture coevolution”). The end result of this dynamic was civilization and, eventually, the global interconnected society we live in today.

This is who we are. We are defined by our sense of fairness, adherence to group norms, willingness to punish those who violate such norms, willingness to share, and willingness to work for the good of the group, along with the high-level cognitive and cultural traits that enable us to be that way. We are not a species of seven billion selfish individuals, uninterested in anything save our own welfare and willing to cheerfully break any rule and hurt any other individual to secure it. Indeed, we think of such people as sociopaths and if their tendencies actually dominated humanity we would still be back on the savannah with the rest of the chimp-like species.


So the former consensus view on human nature is just plain wrong. It’s not the case that societies must rely exclusively on self-interest or die. In fact, societies have only prospered by transcending self-interest and harnessing the group-oriented instincts that make us human. As E.O. Wilson puts it in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, “At the higher level of….biological organization, groups compete with groups, favoring cooperative social traits among members of the same group. At the lower level, members of the same group compete with one another in a manner that leads to self-serving behavior. The opposition between the two levels of natural selection has resulted in a chimeric genotype in each person. It renders each of us part saint and part sinner.” (p. 289)

This makes clear that the center-left can only be successful if it sells its program as one that binds people together as a group, with attendant benefits and responsibilities. Otherwise, the “sinner” side of people will dominate over the “saint” side, reinforcing current levels of distrust and encouraging people to simply look out for themselves. Therefore, instead of shying away from appeals to cooperative instincts and the common good as somehow soft-headed, progressives should think of such appeals as the most realistic, theoretically sound way of building support for their initiatives. This is the profound implication of the new theory of human nature.