There has long been a general assumption that human beings are essentially selfish. We’re apparently ruthless, with strong impulses to compete against each other for resources and to accumulate power and possessions.
If we are kind to one another, it’s usually because we have ulterior motives. If we are good, it’s only because we have managed to control and transcend our innate selfishness and brutality.
This bleak view of human nature is closely associated with the science writer Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene became popular because it fitted so well with (and helped to justify) the competitive and individualistic ethos of late 20th-century societies.
Like many others, Dawkins justifies his views with reference to the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology theorizes that present-day human traits developed in prehistoric times, during what is termed the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.”
This is usually seen as a period of intense competition when life was a kind of Roman gladiatorial battle in which only the traits that gave people a survival advantage were selected and all others fell by the wayside. And because people’s survival depended on access to resources – think rivers, forests, and animals – there was bound to be competition and conflict between rival groups, which led to the development of traits like racism and warfare.
This seems logical. But in fact the assumption it’s based on — that prehistoric life was a desperate struggle for survival — is false.
It’s important to remember that in the prehistoric era, the world was very sparsely populated. So it’s likely there was an abundance of resources for hunter-gatherer groups.
According to some estimates, around 15,000 years ago, the population of Europe was only 29,000, and the population of the whole world was less than half a million. With such a small population densities, it seems unlikely that prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups had to compete against each other or had any need to develop ruthlessness and competitiveness or to go to war.
There’s also significant evidence from contemporary hunter-gatherer groups who live in the same way as prehistoric humans. One of the striking things about such groups is their egalitarianism.
As the anthropologist Bruce Knauft has remarked, hunter-gatherers are characterized by “extreme political and sexual egalitarianism”. Individuals in such groups don’t accumulate their own property and possessions. They have a moral obligation to share everything. They also have methods of preserving egalitarianism by ensuring that status differences don’t arise.
The !Kung of southern Africa, for example, swap arrows before going hunting and when an animal is killed, the credit does not go to the person who fired the arrow, but to the person who the arrow belongs to. And if a person becomes too domineering or arrogant, the other members of the group ostracise them.