February 18, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist

Human Nature Redux

February 21, 2007

The Bright Side of Human Nature (5 Letters)

To the Editor:

I have long believed humanity to be anything but good by nature and, as such, find myself agreeing with the basic premise of “Human Nature Redux,” by David Brooks (column, Feb. 18). But unlike Mr. Brooks, this is precisely why I am a liberal.

I can think of no better bulwark against man’s dark nature than a big government with checks and balances and accountability to the people. This is the brilliant scaffolding the founders of our democracy put in place.

It is the conservative dismantling of checks and balances, accountability, regulation and discourse built on truthfulness — a dismantling that is a specialty of this administration — that has unleashed or enabled catastrophes in which our darker nature runs rampant.

Matthew Brookoff
Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 18, 2007

To the Editor:

David Brooks is half right in asserting that evolutionary biology shows human beings to be selfish, nasty and competitive by nature.

In the process, he conveniently doesn’t mention the other half, which is far less conducive to conservative political ideology: the adaptive outcome in question through the machinations of our selfish genes is often achieved by organisms behaving altruistically toward one another, contributing to genetic success by enhancing the success of other bodies like relatives, reciprocating friends and even, on occasion, unrelated individuals within the social group.

It appears that today’s conservatives do not limit their cherry-picking to matters of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

David P. Barash
Redmond, Wash., Feb. 18, 2007
The writer, an evolutionary biologist, is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

To the Editor:

David Brooks is reading the wrong evolutionary psychologists.

It’s true, as he says, that “status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations.” But recent studies have argued very persuasively that humans are different, and that E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker are needlessly pessimistic.

We compete for status, true, but paradoxically the way we display status is by showing that we can afford to be generous to one another.

As all consumers of fiction know, heroes help people, and those who help others are those we all acknowledge as heroes.

It would be a shame if the pessimism that is itself one badge of generous feeling distorted our views of the altruism and helpfulness that are embedded so deeply in human nature.

William Flesch
Waltham, Mass., Feb. 18, 2007
The writer, a professor of English at Brandeis, is the author of a forthcoming book about contemporary biological theories of human altruism.

To the Editor:

Anthropological research shows that of all human groups, hunter-gatherer societies are the least likely to be deadly warriors.

Their members live in small, loosely organized bands related by bilateral kinship. They practice reciprocity with little trade, and their leadership is informal and situational, largely functioning as arbitration in group decision-making.

Hunter-gatherers, as the name suggests, have little domestication but follow animal and plant life for subsistence. With limited group or personal ownership, egalitarian social structure, and no formal laws or religious priesthood, there is little impetus to become deadly warriors.

The right to use force within the band is communal. Only after the introduction of agriculture did tribes and chiefdoms further evolve into landowning states. Then classes like rulers and the ruled, private and state ownership, formal laws and full-time priesthoods produce those deadly warriors.

Bushmen and Pygmies are among the few remaining hunter-gatherers.

Harriet Koenig
Stamford, Conn., Feb. 19, 2007
The writer is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut.

To the Editor:

David Brooks describes human nature in terms of stock binaries like Hobbes versus Rousseau, or self- esteem versus self-discipline. Such categories represent diverse tendencies of our nature.

It is not a matter of one or the other or making a choice as to which is more basic. To put who we are in terms of one tendency versus another is to maintain an all-too-prevalent dissociative attitude that has played havoc with our sense of self for a good part of our history.

I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.

Michael Eigen
New York, Feb. 18, 2007
The writer is the editor of The Psychoanalytic Review.