Did we forget human nature?

Biologist Frans De Waal has written an interesting article called  How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy. I won’t summarise the whole text, but I will highlight a couple of interesting points. 

First of all, the author says that it is perhaps odd that a biologist should take part in such a debate, but he justifies this by saying that since arguments in his field seem to be used when talking about the economy, he has to say something. De Waal shows how empathy and solidarity are part of our evolution (and therefore part of our nature). There is no way that economists, enamoured of the theory of the selfish gene, can justify the world of genes being transferred as such to our social reality. In reality, even a chimpanzee is better attracted to a show of sadness than to a banana. 

What was said above reminds me of another thing in which there is an attempt, without much evidence, to tie human nature to a particular view.  Indeed, I am forever reminded of a statement by G. K. Chesterton. He wrote that when we speak, for example, of the repressed instincts of the caveman, we often refer to some violent impulse, but rarely, for example, to the need of that same caveman to paint. (Chesterton 2021, 21, 24.) Human beings are complex creatures, certainly plagued by both selfishness and the capacity for violence, but we should never see these more fundamental than the desire to comfort or paint. Still less should we draw any conclusions from this as to how production and exchange should be organised according to one limited aspect of humanity and forget everything else.

Often I forget, in the midst of all the gloom and doom, that while we humans do indeed do bad things, we also have a great capacity for good. This always reminds me of the concept of original sin. I think the concept is perhaps best explained by Terry Eagleton. He says that the idea of original sin is not that you are born good or bad. It is about birth itself, about which no one has been consulted beforehand. With this birth we are immediately plunged into a world of numerous preexisting needs, interests and desires. Our identity begins to be formed entirely by these forces that are foreign to us at birth. Indeed, Eagleton has written that this idea is the reason why children are baptised almost immediately after birth in many Christian communities. This can be compared to psychoanalytic theory, which sees the human being as already being under the influence of various drives (Eagleton 2010, 35). So we are never completely free. We are ruled by many forces over which we have very little say.  Whether these forces are social factors or deep-rooted drives. However, one has to live with them, and I believe that many of the greatest ideas of humanity in philosophy are the result of this self-examination, which seeks to take control of one’s own humanity. 

Let’s continue. Frans De Waal quotes a column by David Brooks in the New York Times mocking social programmes. Brooks argues how our genes, neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology show that nature is full of competition and conflict. De Waal points out that conservatives love this kind of going behind evolution’s back, but the perfect irony of this love affair is that they seem to care very little about evolution. Humans are not reduced to conflict and competition. I think that this alone is a shining example of how political statements are disguised as neutral statements that are merely extracted from the world around them. This desecration of complexities is particularly visible during election periods, when various parties try to prove that they are not blinded by ideology, that they are only on the side of pure truth and science. 

De Waal also writes how few people in politics, who consider themselves Darwinian, are actually not. They are actually social Darwinists. They think it’s all right for the poor to die of starvation or disease. They say it’s a sign of evolution. The friends of unrestricted free trade do not seem to notice the social nature of us humans, which can also be observed in other mammals. Empathy and solidarity are part of us. We are not islands, pure individuals ruled by greed and self-interest. The author therefore urges economists in particular to re-read the writings of their great-grandfather, Adam Smith. For Smith, society is like a great machine. Its wheels are kept turning by virtues while vices wreak havoc. The machine simply does not work well if citizens do not have a strong sense of belonging. For Smith, the author emphasises, what mattered were honesty, morality, sympathy and justice, which he regarded as essential companions of the invisible hand. 

So what lessons should be learned from this article? When someone justifies his/hers political views with biology (or other similar things), one should always ask where his/hers views can be proven in concrete terms. Invoking the authority of any given science should always lead to an explanation of how this or that phenomenon can be verified. In this case, we have seen that shitty behaviour on economic issues cannot be justified by the fundamental characteristics of human nature. Once again, we may find that there is a great deal of politics surrounding the issues of economics. It is the scene of various tricks that can sink in with an uninformed public.


Chesterton G.K. 2012. The Everlasting Man. Numen Books.

Eagleton Terry 2010. On Evil. Yale University Press. New Haven/London.